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45 Years
of America's Underwater Parks

Forty-five years ago, Congress passed legislation establishing the National Marine Sanctuary Program. Today, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters. The sanctuary system works collaboratively with diverse partners and stakeholders to promote responsible, sustainable ocean uses that ensure the health of our most valued marine ecosystems and drive coastal economies.

1972

PAVING THE WAY

On October 23, 1972, Congress passes the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act which, among other things, establishes the National Marine Sanctuary Program. Title III will later be renamed the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

capitol building

"We really need to have people understand and connect to the ocean if we're going to help save it."

Carol Bernthal, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent

1975 – Our First Sanctuary

The National Marine Sanctuary System is born with the designation of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. Since then, the system has grown from less than a single square mile to more than 600,000 square miles.

monitor crew on deck
diver examining the wreck of the monitor

1981 – Managing Multiple Uses

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary installs mooring buoys that allow recreationists to fish and dive in the Keys without damaging the reef. This is just the first of many innovations piloted in the National Marine Sanctuary System.

two snorkelers checking the status of a buoy in the florida keys national marine sanctuary
girl holding a fish man examining a buoy on deck
girls wearing merito t-shirts

1987

MULTICULTURAL PROGRAMS

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary launches the system's first multicultural engagement program, "Los Marineros." Multicultural programs become a thread throughout the system, with MERITO (Multicultural Education for Resources Issues Threatening Oceans) launched in 2002 and site-level programs continuing to this day.

"Why do I care? Because we want clean water here and we want vibrant life."

Bruce Popham, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council Member

1995

MANAGING RISKS

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary establishes the system's first "Area to Be Avoided," creating a buffer zone from risks inherent in maritime industry. "Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas," and associated Areas to be Avoided, are established in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 2002 and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2007.

surfer walking onto the beach from the water in olympic coast national marine sanctuary

1997
WIDE SCALE ZONING

The National Marine Sanctuary System recognizes the need for varying levels of multiple use management and protection in different ecosystems with the introduction of wide-scale zoning in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Zoning is established in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in 2007 and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2008.

2002

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

The National Marine Sanctuary System becomes a leader in whale disentanglement with the establishment of a whale disentanglement program in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Today, the sanctuary serves as the lead agency for the Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network and has saved dozens of whales.

aerial view of an entagled right whale with a boat next to it trying to remove the marine debris

"You really feel like you're making a contribution to something much bigger than yourself."

Anne Kelley, Beach Watch volunteer

people sitting in a room looking at a presentation

2005

Monitor National Marine Sanctuary launches its sanctuary advisory council, completing the list of sanctuary advisory councils throughout the system. These councils ensure communities can weigh in on sanctuary management actions and decisions. These 14 sanctuary advisory councils are joined by the Marine Protected Areas Center’s federal advisory council and the National Marine Sanctuary System’s business advisory council in 2013.

whales swimming together

2006

ESTABLISHING PARTNERSHIPS

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary establishes the world’s first sister sanctuary network, connecting the sanctuary with the Dominican Republic’s Sanctuario de Mamiferos Marinos. Today, eight sites in the National Marine Sanctuary System have sister parks.

sharks swimming

2011 – RECOGNIZING OUR SHARED HERITAGE

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is designated as a cultural and natural World Heritage Site. Today, four sites – American Samoa, Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones, and Monterey Bay – are on the Tentative List of areas for future nomination to the World Heritage List.

black sea devil anglerfish
trio of white-sided dolphins leaping out of the water waves crashing on farallon island
kelp forest two elephant seals face to face

Today – Looking Forward

By acting as responsible stewards of these special places, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and our partners work together to build a stronger, more resilient future for America's communities now and for future generations.

women standing on a rock taking a photo of the beach