Brightwork: The future of the sanctuary system

By Elizabeth Moore

October 2017

In nautical terms, brightwork is the upkeep of the metal and sometimes wood parts of a boat and is synonymous with demanding labor. The only certain thing about the future of the National Marine Sanctuary System is that it will require the same hard work and dedication that have built the system so far. In the next five years we’ll be engaging experts and big thinkers both inside and outside of the ocean community to help us contemplate what the sanctuary system must do and be as it approaches its blue centennial in 2072. Let’s look at where the nation and ocean are headed, and share some preliminary thoughts on what America’s ocean parks might need to look like.

waves over a reef
Waves rush over a reef in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. Photo: David J. Ruck/NOAA

Consider these trends:

The ocean is already in trouble.

Our waters are in better shape than many other nations – our coastal management system is one of the top-rated in the world and our fisheries are more sustainably managed than many other nations. But there is only one interconnected ocean on our watery planet and it is suffering from centuries of intense human activity.

The country will be warmer, more extreme in rain and drought disparity, and facing natural disasters increasing in frequency and severity.

2017 so far is the second warmest year-to-date and our average annual number of extreme events costing American taxpayers $1 billion and over is on the increase. Our coastal towns and cities face major inundations in coming years from rising seas.

America’s demographics are changing.

By 2065, there will be 440 million Americans of no racial or ethnic majority. Millennials are on their way to becoming our largest living generation. We are living longer, healthier lives and the notion of what a happy retirement looks like is changing from that of our parents and grandparents.

Our demands for food, clean water, energy, freight transport, and recreational access and facilities are and will continue to be on the rise.

With an increase in population will come an increase in the things that people need and want. Aquaculture, seagoing freight, energy demands, and seabed mining are all expected to grow significantly.

preschoolers learning about humpback whales
A classroom of preschoolers in Hawai‘i learn about the humpback whales just off their shore. One day these children will inherit the stewardship of the nation; one of them may even end up working for the sanctuary system! Photo: Paul Wong/NOAA

The blue economy will be more important than ever.

Our ability to exploit ocean resources on the same scale as our land has been limited by difficulty finding and accessing resources. Advancing technology, big data, and machine learning are erasing these difficulties and the protection they’ve provided. Developing industries like mixed species aquaculture, biopharmaceuticals, and alternative energy will add pressures to the global ocean ecosystem already impacted by human activities.

Big data and big tools will change the way we conserve and manage the ocean.

Habitats identified and classified faster than ever; real-time tracking of vessels on distant seas; our eyes, ears, and hands extended, virtually and physically, high in the sky and deep below the sea: we’ll know more, know it faster, react faster, react better.

The lines between social sectors is blurring.

Social media, advanced technology, and increasingly casual lifestyles have altered the boundaries among government, academia, and business, and between our personal and professional lives. We have benefit corporations who drive profits toward social goals, and social media is democratizing how we work in all sectors.

Ocean conservation is always going to need more.

And more of everything: smart, skilled people; innovative but affordable technology; high quality information; and funding. Government funding and foundation grants will never be enough to meet all the costs for fully effective marine conservation.

woman standing next to a large map
This map at a recent geography conference displays all the terrestrial and underwater parks of the nation. We’ll need more underwater parks in the future to protect and restore our ocean so future generations can enjoy the same use and pleasure we derive from it today. Photo: Mimi Diorio/NOAA

Ocean parks are one fundamental tool for conserving and managing our ocean, along with such others as marine spatial planning, fisheries management tools, science, and education. The sanctuary system isn’t the complete answer to protecting our nation’s waters but it is an important one, now and into the future. What can and should the sanctuary system, and the greater network of ocean parks, in our nation do?

Increase conservation impact.

Equip sanctuaries with strong, conservation-focused regulations, and implement zoning as warranted to go a long way toward addressing future detrimental impacts.

Expand outreach and engagement efforts.

Ensure that outreach, education, and interpretive programs reach all Americans – from inland to coastal, tot to retiree, and the full diverse cultural spectrum – and engage them in ocean conservation.

sanctuary sam mascot and a shark mascot
Sanctuary Sam, the system’s mascot, hangs out with a friendly shark during Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary’s annual Sharktoberfest. Photo: Sara Heintzelman/NOAA

Expand volunteer programs.

Take steps to fully harness the potential – and potent – volunteer force that exists in physical and virtual sanctuary communities.

Find new ways to forge alliances across our social spectrum.

Build on ongoing work to engage across all sectors in the ocean community, including giving consideration to creating new advisory councils and other permanent forums of advice and expertise.

Experiment with funding models.

Work with partners to investigate developing models of funding including public-private investment models, corporate activism, and ecosystem services valuation.

Experiment with management models.

Investigate innovative models for both onsite management and system coordination and development, including looking at possibilities of different kinds of sanctuaries and cooperative management models.

Invest or partner to expand technology and make information available to all.

Despite the fact we now have more information about the ocean than ever before, it’s estimated that only about 5 percent of the ocean is explored, mapped, and/or monitored on a regular basis. We have to make decisions that have long-lasting impacts on us and future generations. To make the best decisions, managers and stakeholders need both as much high quality information as they can get and better ways to access, manage, and use it.

researchers lower an rov off a ship
A remotely operated vehicle is lowered over the side of the R/V Fulmar to begin an underwater survey. Increasingly sophisticated technology, big data, machine learning, and other advances are changing how we study, teach, manage and protect the ocean. Photo: Karen Grimmer/NOAA

I don’t expect to see our blue centennial in 2072 (well, if I do, I’ll be 107, or maybe Robo-Liz will be around) but I know that the accomplishments of my career – protective regulations in force, modern management plans in implementation, a complete system of sanctuary advisory councils at work, a flourishing international program, innovative new partnerships in play – mean something today and will have mattered after I’m gone. This is one of the pleasures of government service: being part of something that is bigger and older than a human life. Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the world scouting movement, wrote in his farewell message to the scouts, Try and leave this world a little better than you found it. I hope that we, as the sanctuary system, have and will continue to do just that, through our brightwork, in all the years of this nation to come.

Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor at the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.