Blue Peter: The Slow Setting Out of the Sanctuary Program in the 1960s and 1970s

By Elizabeth Moore

September 2017

In traditional nautical terminology, a blue peter is the signal flag for the letter P. Flown alone, it means a ship is preparing to sail and everyone needs to hustle on board. In 1972, the United States began to fly the blue peter of ocean conservation. With the passage of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, the nation signaled it was becoming more serious about its commitment to marine conservation and ocean parks. But the buildup to that event was slow, as would be the progress following it.

sunrise in the florida keys
The sun rises over Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Nancy Diersing/NOAA

My life brackets and runs parallel to what we now call the National Marine Sanctuary System. I was born in 1965, my mother delivering me while my father was in his first tour of Vietnam. Suffice to say, neither of their minds were on marine conservation. But it was on the minds of more and more Americans.

In the 1960s, growing environmental concern from the public brought the issue of marine and coastal protection to the attention of U.S. policy-makers. President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee authored a report entitled Effective Use of the Sea in 1966, which recommended a system of marine preserves similar to that established by the Wilderness Act for special areas on lands. Bills to create an underwater park program were proposed by several House and Senate members as early as 1967. In 1969, the Stratton Commission published a report highlighting the need for centralization of the federal government’s effort to protect the oceans and for better planning and managing of the nation’s coastal zones. Still, progress was slow until 1969, when catastrophe struck.

black-and-white aerial view of an oil spill around an oil platform
Oil spreads out from Union Oil’s Platform A offshore of Santa Barbara in 1969, a spill that spurred major marine conservation legislation in the early 1970s. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

On the morning of January 28, 1969, a blowout on Union Oil's Platform A started a spew of oil that lasted for ten days and spilled an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil into the Santa Barbara Channel, blackening beaches and killing thousands of seabirds and marine mammals. It was the largest oil spill to date and the most reported-on one as well. In response to public outrage over the spill, and after five government reports, Congress acknowledged the need to protect special areas of the nation’s ocean and Great Lakes in a manner similar to the system of terrestrial parks, refuges, forests, and recreation areas that had been part of our national heritage for decades.The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (MPRSA) was signed by President Nixon and became one of several landmark conservation programs born from the grassroots environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

There was little hype when the MPRSA was signed; there are no photos of the president signing it and his signing remarks for the act are lumped with 37 others in a statement issued a few days later. He calls out the ocean dumping portion of the MPRSA but makes no mention of Title III, which would eventually become the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

There was also little fanfare as the sanctuary system began its life. For its first year, the sanctuary program was an unfunded, unstaffed, and unknown program within NOAA. In late 1973, NOAA hosted a national workshop to obtain advice on how to implement both the National Marine Sanctuary Program and the National Estuarine Sanctuary Program (created in 1972 under the Coastal Zone Management Act and now called the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS)). Regulations eventually issued for the National Marine Sanctuary Program were based on this workshop.

In 1975, three years after the passage of the MPRSA, the first national marine sanctuary was designated, to protect the recently discovered wreck of the Civil War-era USS Monitor. Monitor would eventually be named as a National Historic Landmark and would pave the way for an extensive NOAA Maritime Heritage Program. Later that year, Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary (now part of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary) would join its older sibling. These sites were small in size and had a narrow range of regulations to minimize potential harmful impacts.

two young girls in front of the ocean
The author (in the red and white striped life vest) undertakes one of her earliest marine adventures. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Moore

In 1977, my greatest feat was standing on line all by myself, with no grownup, to see a new movie called Star Wars (back then it was just plain old Star Wars, not Episode IV: A New Hope). The sanctuary program, too, was having some grown-up moments in 1977. First, NOAA asked the Center for Natural Areas to assess the progress of the sanctuary program. The Center’s report concluded that efforts to develop a national system of sanctuaries had been slow in evolving and cited as one cause the low level of administrative and financial support given to the program. It also concluded that the sanctuary system “offers a unique, positive, and comprehensive program to protect highly valuable marine resources.” Bolstered by these findings, NOAA requested additional staff positions and funding to increase the level of effort associated with those programs. Secondly, President Carter declared in his environmental message to Congress that the marine sanctuaries needed special attention. As a result of both NOAA’s efforts and the president’s request, Congress authorized appropriations of $10 million per fiscal year for the program. However, these appropriations were neither requested nor appropriated by the Secretary of Commerce. After seven years of minimal funding from other NOAA sources, the program finally received a line-item appropriation of half a million dollars in 1979.

This little program had spent most of its first decade humbly struggling for attention and resources, and trying to figure out its own future. The foundation had been laid though, for a program that was about to find its bearings. Join us next week for Underway: The Coming of Age of the Sanctuary Program in the 1980s and 1990s.

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