National marine sanctuaries are where monitoring and research take place to enhance our understanding of natural and historical resources and how they are changing. They also provide an early warning capability to detect changes to ecosystem processes and conditions.
Marine sanctuaries are located across the country, and thus they offer the opportunity to monitor, observe and investigate the ocean on a local, regional and national scale. Ecosystem resources and their conditions are diverse, offering limitless research and monitoring opportunities. Sanctuaries provide a sense of place that stimulates interest, curiosity and investment about the world and its diverse inhabitants and habitats.
Marine sanctuaries are places where government, academic and citizen scientists work collectively and share information on sanctuary conditions and emerging threats. Work within sentinel sites provides early warning capabilities that give us an advantage over threats by allowing us to respond quickly and efficiently. Thus they are instrumental in helping us achieve our collective goal of protecting the nation’s most cherished ocean treasures.
We believe that identifying sanctuaries as sentinel sites, and developing a “Sentinel Site Program” not only recognizes the purposeful vigilance of our efforts, but also helps NOAA attract collaborators, improve information flow, interpret science to the public and advance conservation science through our collective assets and efforts.
On global and regional scales, the ocean is changing due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and associated changes in a number of physical and chemical processes. Physical changes include sea level rise, coastal erosion and flooding, as well as changes in precipitation and runoff, storm frequency and intensity, ocean-atmosphere circulation, and ocean water properties such as temperature. Ocean acidification is a change in the ocean’s chemistry caused by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide leading to increasingly acidic water. Ocean acidification primarily affects organisms whose structural components contain calcium carbonate.
Fishing activities affect sanctuary resources through direct take, by-catch and habitat damage from the use and/or loss of fishing gear. The removal of targeted species and coincident mortality of non-target species (by-catch) may result in complex and broad ranging ecological effects.
Maritime Heritage resources comprise physical historical and archaeological properties as well as the economic, ecological, traditional culture landmark nomenclature, traditional practices and other factors that create a region’s cultural identity. Historical and archaeological remains may be threatened by human activities as well as natural occurrences within a region.
Marine debris can include a wide variety of objects (for example, construction materials, derelict fishing gear, lost vessel cargo and plastics) and can threaten the marine environment and resources, human health and navigation. Some examples of impacts from marine debris include death to marine organisms through ingestion and entanglement as well as altered habitat structure.
Major sources of human-generated sound in marine environments include ships and other motorized vessels, military underwater communication, sonar, airguns and low flying aircraft. Noise can affect living resources, both physiologically and behaviorally, through impacts to hearing or tissue integrity, and disruption of resting, feeding, courtship, calving, nursing, navigation and communication.
Visitors, scientists, fishermen, commercial shippers, and other stakeholders of the national marine sanctuaries can access individual sanctuaries through the use of recreational and commercial vessels. These vessels are an important part of the “blue economy” and also provide a safe way for many visitors to experience some of the sanctuaries most iconic places. However, there are several impacts from vessels that can impact biological and archaeological resources within the sanctuary. These impacts include vessel impacts, ship groundings, lost containers from shipping vessels and discharge of waste water and other materials.
Water quality and the risk posed by contaminants and other potential stressors in water or in bottom formations needs to be understood and tracked if it is to be controlled. Contaminants in the form of pesticides, hydrocarbons and heavy metals can become available when released via a disturbance and can impact water quality. Excessive sedimentation can cause direct impacts, such as smothering or interfering with feeding. Elevated nutrient loads commonly enhance algae growth, gradually altering food webs or spatial distributions of wildlife, or leading to blooms that can release toxins and reduce oxygen levels.
For “key” species in marine sanctuaries (e.g., keystone species, foundation species, indicator species and other focal species) measures of condition and health can be important in determining the likelihood that these species will persist or recover and continue to provide vital ecosystem functions and services. Measures of health (condition) may include growth rates, fecundity, recruitment, age-specific survival, tissue contaminant levels, pathologies (disease incidence, tumors, deformities), injuries and the presence and abundance of critical symbionts or parasite loads. The condition of “key” species can serve as an indicator of biodiversity and ecosystem health.