The Once and Future Promise of National Marine Sanctuaries

Nominations for new sanctuaries are now being accepted.

"People protect what they love, and they love what they understand. As divers, you understand better than anyone else how important it is to protect the special places where you explore the wonders of the ocean. And nothing protects them better than our national marine sanctuaries."

— Jean-Michel Cousteau
President and chair, Ocean Futures Society
Trustee Emeritus, NMSF

A hawksbill turtle swims by sponges and deepwater gorgonians on Breakers Reef off West Palm Beach, Fla. Palm Beach County’s reefs have gained attention as a possible site for a new sanctuary.

"With the opportunity to nominate new national marine sanctuaries, every community in the country can create its own hope spots in the ocean and Great Lakes."

— Sylvia Earle, Ph.D.
Founder, Mission Blue
Trustee Emerita, NMSF

We are at the dawn of a new era in ocean stewardship. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which manages the United States' marine resources, announced last summer that for the first time it is accepting nominations for new national marine sanctuaries from communities and coalitions of interested parties.

The national marine sanctuary (NMS) system is a powerful guardian of the United States' ocean resources. Just as national parks protect the icons of the American landscape, national marine sanctuaries protect those of its seascape. The system encompasses more than 170,000 square miles and includes 14 sites such as Monterey Bay, the Olympic Coast, the Florida Keys, Thunder Bay and the waters off the Hawaiian Islands and Cape Cod. Many of these sites feature spectacular diving (see "Our National Marine Sanctuaries," Alert Diver, Fall 2012).

National marine sanctuaries allow for a variety of recreational and commercial uses, as long as these can be conducted sustainably and are compatible with the primary purpose of resource protection. Sanctuaries anchor local economies and communities across the country, generating about $4 billion annually in local coastal and ocean-dependent economies from diverse activities such as fishing, research and recreation/tourism. They serve as living laboratories and open classrooms for research and education and are home to important ecosystems and endangered species such as whales, sea turtles, sea otters and corals.

For the first two decades of the sanctuary system — from the enactment of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act in 1972 until 1995 — the process for designating new sanctuaries was a typical stodgy, government-led, top-down process. Then in 1995 NOAA deactivated the designation process to focus on managing the existing sanctuaries.

A diver explores the wreck of the Walter B. Allen in Lake Michigan. The governor of Wisconsin has nominated an 875-square-mile area of the state’s Lake Michigan waters as a new marine sanctuary.

"Our children and the many generations to follow will look back with pride at this moment in time when one generation of Americans stepped forward to create the underwater equivalent of the National Parks of the underwater world for all future generations to enjoy as they become more accessible to all."

— Robert D. Ballard, Ph.D.
President, Ocean Exploration Trust
Director, Center for Ocean Exploration, University of Rhode Island
Trustee Emeritus, NMSF

In reopening the door this year NOAA created a new approach to identifying potential new sanctuaries by requesting nominations from local communities around the country. NOAA, which turned the old process upside down to create a grassroots, bottom-up approach to NMS designations, has received more than 18,000 (overwhelmingly favorable) comments on the proposed rule.

Politicians from both major U.S. parties have embraced marine sanctuaries because they are managed for multiple uses and seek to balance competing interests. But at the heart of each sanctuary is its local community. Each sanctuary has an advisory council comprised of stakeholders who play active roles, working with the superintendent in the management of the sanctuary. Thousands of volunteers across the nation dedicate their time and energy to these places. Now the sanctuary-designation process will mirror sanctuary management, marked by significant, meaningful community engagement.

This new nomination process is a call to action for divers. You can nominate your favorite dive site as a national marine sanctuary. If you know of a special place that's home to shipwrecks, coral reefs, kelp forests, muck, critters or marine megafauna that deserves recognition and warrants designation, now is the time to speak up.

Not surprisingly, the first nominations received are about great diving and recreation, and they have broad support from local communities all the way up to the respective governors' offices. The state of Maryland has nominated Mallows Bay on the Potomac River; it offers a fascinating story of naval history during World War I. The governor of Wisconsin has nominated the waters of Lake Michigan along the state's shoreline that include a transportation corridor that was important in the agricultural and industrial development of the nation; the area has 122 reported vessel losses, including 34 known shipwrecks, 15 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While dozens of laws concerning ocean and coastal resources remain unfunded or unauthorized by a gridlocked Congress, the NOAA announcement, with its community-driven approach to ocean stewardship, provides a source of hope for our nation's marine resources.

National parks protect the best of America's land for future generations. While national marine sanctuaries do the same for the ocean, the 14 sanctuaries stand in stark contrast to a rich tapestry of more than 2,000 designated parks, preserves, trails, seashores, rivers, monuments, battlefields and historic sites. The ocean deserves better. You can help.

To learn more about the NMS nomination process, visit

"Sanctuaries are critical to being good stewards of our national resources. In preserving the life of our oceans, we are preserving life itself."

— The Honorable Leon Panetta
Co-Chair, The Panetta Institute for Public Policy
Trustee Emeritus, NMSF

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (NMSF) is the private, nonprofit, charitable partner of the national marine sanctuaries. It supports sanctuaries and engages citizens through educational programs, scientific research, conservation and advocacy. NMSF funds deployment of mooring buoys, coral restoration activities, whale disentanglement efforts, invasive species response and more. To learn how you can support national marine sanctuaries, go to

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2015