Underway: The Coming of Age of the Sanctuary Program in the 1980s and 1990s

By Elizabeth Moore

October 2017

I entered the 1980s as a teenager, and yes, I owned blouses with shoulder pads, leg warmers, and big permed hair. I crushed on the members of Duran Duran and celebrated with my friends when MTV came on the air with Video Killed the Radio Star. I enjoyed the beach and since it was right across the street from my high school, spent a fair amount of time there. I was just starting to think about marine conservation as a career choice. In those years, the sanctuary program was going through its own teenage growth spurt.

juvenile green heron
Like this juvenile green heron in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, in the 1980s the sanctuary program went through a growth spurt. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

In 1980 and 1981, with the designation of four new sanctuaries, the sanctuary program started from scratch in looking at its future, abandoning 1979’s unwieldy and loosey-goosey List of Recommended Areas and its 68 areas. NOAA staff created the the Program Development Plan in 1982, identifying the program’s mission as “the establishment of a system of national marine sanctuaries based on the identification, designation, and comprehensive management of special marine areas for the long-term benefit and enjoyment of the public.” The Program Development Plan described the Site Evaluation List that would serve as the program’s pool for areas of possible sanctuary status. The list was a rigorous effort marked by external review teams, extensive public involvement, and thorough review criteria, and resulted in a list of 29 areas, including a number of sites that would eventually become sanctuaries. The Site Evaluation List would drive the development of the system for the next decade.

In 1984 and 1988, reauthorizations continued to systematize, clarify, and strengthen Title III of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act. A requirement to facilitate human uses that were compatible with the program’s primary mission of resource protection was added. A new type of permit, the special use permit, was added that allowed the program to capture the fair market value of sanctuary resource use by commercial entities (for example, by laying a commercial telecommunications cable across the seabed of a sanctuary). The program was also give the authority to pursue damages for injured resources and reimbursement for costs related to emergency response and clean-up, such as during a boat grounding or oil spill.

calm waters and a buoy at the site where m/v maitland ran aground in 1989
This photo, taken in 2015, shows the successful restoration of where the M/V Maitland ran aground in the Florida Keys in 1989. Groundings such as this one helped prompt the creation of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990. Photo: Nancy Diersing/NOAA

The 1980s in general saw a growth in the size of the network, a general increase in the size of sanctuaries, and increasing sophistication in operations. Embedded mooring buoys, international cooperation with other park managers, and increasing partnerships with the nonprofit community were some of the innovative hallmarks of the decade. But it was in the 1990s that this little program lurching along for 20-odd years finally emerged as a fully fledged “Program.”

I joined the sanctuary program in 1991. I was still in graduate school, still very wet behind the ears, but had won a year-long Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship to NOAA. Something involved with international ocean conservation was where I’d set my eye but I instead fell in love with this little gem called the sanctuary program. It was so small then, even with the growth in the 1980s, just seven sites, a budget of about $3 million, and with a staff so small I knew everyone from coast to coast personally. When I moved to DC from a small town in Florida, I felt like I was at the start of a new and grand adventure; so, it seemed, was the sanctuary program.

In 1993, a three-year review of the program by an external review team called for an increased budget, designation of news sites, and establishment of cooperative relationships and partnerships. The vision in this report was that “[b]y the year 2000, the National Marine Sanctuaries Program will manage a comprehensive and integrated system of the nation’s most significant marine areas.” The same attitude in the 1993 report was reflected in society. Overall public support for the program was high, demanding that Congress designate more sites (to circumvent the slow administrative process). During the 1990s, of the six sites established, four were by congressional designation. A revised Site Evaluation List was considered and started, though never adopted, since Congress had designated so many new sanctuaries. This growth reflected a greater presence in the community as the program began to place its own staff in on-site offices and rely less on federal and state partners to manage sanctuaries. This also reflected, in part, a greater public realization that Earth’s ocean was starting to show signs of stress and overuse.

a diver encircled by fish
A diver is surrounded by a ring of fish at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. 1992 was a banner year for sanctuary designation with four sanctuaries designated, including Flower Garden Banks, Monterey Bay, Stellwagen Bank, and Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale; all four sites celebrate their 25th anniversary this year as the system marks its 45th. Photo: Emma Hickerson/NOAA

Many of what we consider today to be the strongest aspects of our conservation efforts were well under development by the late 1990s: core education and outreach, research and monitoring, resource protection, and public participation programs. During this era, the sanctuary program also began to refine its conservation focus. Sanctuary regulations are tailored to the needs and issues of each specific site; the regulations of sites designated in this era reflect a conscious effort to focus on priority resource management concerns from a variety of sources (seabed disturbance, non-point pollution, harassment of wildlife, etc.). “Areas to be Avoided,” in association with “Particularly Sensitive Sea Area” designations, were put in place for Florida Keys and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries in 1990 and 1991 respectively (followed by Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2008).

As with the growth of sites and support, the 1992 reauthorization also reflected this new era and was a major turning point for the program: its significance was recognized when Title III of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act was reauthorized separately as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. A host of major amendments made it easier to establish sanctuary advisory councils, protect sites based on cultural resources, enforce regulations, and prioritize education and research. Three sanctuaries were also congressionally designated.

a group of people pose together for a picture
The leadership and senior staff of the sanctuary program were photographed with the Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley in 1999. Many of these staff members continue to work with the sanctuary system today. Photo courtesy of the Department of Commerce

Another external review in 1999 by the National Academy of Public Administration indicated that the program was on the right path and called for even greater public participation, establishment of marine reserves where appropriate, strengthened education and research, an increase in resources to implement programs, and a more systematic approach to managing the system for results.

The program had emerged and had consolidated its conservation identity and culture after more than 25 years of life. With the new millennium came a new challenge and a new opportunity: becoming a system. Join us next week for Full and By: The Emergence of the Sanctuary System 2000s and 2010s.

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