New Life for the National Marine Sanctuary System

NOAA’s proposal for a new framework for future expansion of the National Marine Sanctuary System represents real progress for marine-natural-resource management.

Spencer Slate, right, costumed as a scuba-diving Easter bunny, hands a hard-boiled egg to Quinn Vanischak, Sunday, March 31, 2013, during an Underwater Easter Egg Hunt in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo, Florida. (AP/Florida Keys News Bureau/Bob Care)
Spencer Slate, right, costumed as a scuba-diving Easter bunny, hands a hard-boiled egg to Quinn Vanischak, Sunday, March 31, 2013, during an Underwater Easter Egg Hunt in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo, Florida. (AP/Florida Keys News Bureau/Bob Care)

Public ownership and federal protection of America’s natural and historical treasures are essential elements of our nation’s identity and its heritage. Recent polling shows that protecting public spaces for future generations enjoys significant bipartisan support, and special designation and public ownership of these areas have been called one of America’s “best ideas.” Yet even though America’s ocean waters span a larger area than the combined total of all 50 U.S. states, protection of our natural and historical treasures has largely been confined to spaces on land.

Fortunately, in an action linked to President Barack Obama’s 2010 National Ocean Policy, his administration is seeking to reactivate a long-dormant process for identifying and designating new National Marine Sanctuaries—federally protected areas within U.S. ocean waters and Great Lakes waters that harbor special natural, historical, or cultural resources. A new proposed rule would allow public nominations for sites to be designated as “Sanctuaries,” thereby putting the federal government to work for coastal communities and conferring better protection upon our nation’s most-special offshore places.

As the aforementioned polling suggests, the concept of setting aside and protecting special places has great appeal. The tough battles start when the time comes to draw specific lines in the sand—or the water.

Clashes of conflicting interests have characterized many of our country’s coast and ocean spaces. California’s Northern Channel Islands, for example—known as the Galapagos of North America for their rich marine biodiversity and home to an offshore national park and 13,000 years of Native American history and culture—faced an onslaught of offshore oil drilling in the 1960s. Tragically, this unrestrained oil rush resulted in a devastating blowout of a poorly constructed well in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969, blackening the coastline and killing wildlife for hundreds of square miles.

The Santa Barbara blowout galvanized public opinion in favor of better stewardship of the environment and helped motivate legislative action in Washington. In 1972—almost exactly 100 years after President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the legislation establishing Yellowstone as the world’s first National Park on March 1, 1872—the 92nd Congress took a significant step toward extending the benefits of land-use planning beyond our country’s shoreline by passing the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law on October 23, 1972.

The legislation authorized the secretary of commerce to:

… designate as marine sanctuaries those areas of the ocean … of other coastal waters … or of the Great Lakes … which he determines necessary for the purpose of preserving or restoring such areas for their conservation, recreational, ecological, or esthetic values.

Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s, or NOAA’s, National Ocean Service houses the National Marine Sanctuary System, which carries out this mandate for the 13 existing National Marine Sanctuaries—including one surrounding the Northern Channel Islands.

The Sanctuary System has advanced its mission in the face of criticism from both flanks—Sanctuary supporters argue that its conservation efforts are too weak, while those in industry complain that its policies represent “overreach.” But perhaps its most significant obstacle has been congressional ambivalence for providing the program with adequate funding or jurisdictional authority.

The reality is, however, that Sanctuaries provide an important layer of federal protection for ecologically and culturally special places, as well as tangible benefits for local communities. Consider a few examples:

Numerous other coastal communities are also seeking Sanctuary designations to protect and highlight their underwater treasures:

  • Organized citizens in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, continue to campaign for a second Great Lakes Sanctuary. As one local leader put it, Sanctuary designation “could be an amazing educational and economic boon to the city and state.”
  • Charles County in Southern Maryland seeks federal protection under the Sanctuary System for the extraordinary fleet of 150 sunken “ghost ships” in Mallows Bay, near the mouth of the Potomac River.
  • Ocean advocates on California’s Central Coast continue to beat the drum for a Sanctuary to encompass the Santa Lucia Bank and the Arguello Canyon, areas offshore of San Luis Obispo County with unique, persistent upwelling and tremendous marine biodiversity.

Unfortunately, these latter communities have had little recourse for their efforts. In 1983, NOAA compiled a “Site Evaluation List” as the agency’s primary tool for identifying coastal and offshore areas with the highest need for protection. NOAA then deactivated its list through rulemaking in 1995 to focus scarce program resources on managing the first 12 established sites. Since then, only the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, designated in 2000, has been added to the Sanctuary System. Over the same period of time, the National Park Service has designated five new national parks, bringing the total number of national parks to 59.

But now the tide may be turning. In April of this year, the Obama administration released an Implementation Plan for the president’s 2010 executive order on “Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes,” commonly known as the National Ocean Policy. The order recognized the major challenges facing America’s coasts and oceans, prioritized streamlining federal marine-natural-resource management among the array of agencies with ocean jurisdiction to better meet these challenges, and called for coordination of federal efforts to better respond to the natural-resource-management needs of coastal states and tribes. The Implementation Plan, developed with extensive public input, established concrete goals and action items for fulfillment of the National Ocean Policy.

One explicit objective of the Implementation Plan is “recovering and sustaining ocean health,” and it identifies Sanctuaries as an important means to this end, explaining that “identifying ecologically important and culturally significant areas for focused protection or management supports the long-term sustainability of ocean resources.” More specifically, the plan calls for federal agencies to “support reactivation of the National Marine Sanctuary Site Evaluation List” as a tool for “evaluating marine areas that may be considered for national marine sanctuaries in a transparent and public way.”

In June, NOAA published a draft rule to reactivate its list, but with a crucial change that aligns with the principles and intent of the National Ocean Policy—the new process would make the Sanctuary-nomination system entirely driven by public submissions for prospective Sanctuaries. NOAA also proposed new criteria for evaluating candidate sites, which would require them to be judged not only on the quality of the natural or cultural resources within their boundaries but also by the breadth of local support for federal protection. As NOAA puts it in the rulemaking, the agency’s goal is to make the Sanctuary-designation process “more grassroots … more community driven, [and] open to public input and analysis,” so that “any sites ultimately designated as national marine sanctuaries have widespread community support.”

In other words, NOAA is aiming to put the Sanctuary System to work for the citizens and local leaders in the counties of Manitowoc, Charles, and San Luis Obispo, as well as any other coastal communities that see value in protecting their local coast and ocean area. When this rule is promulgated, communities will still have a long bureaucratic road to walk to achieve Sanctuary designation for their cherished places, but they will actually have a road map for the first time.

Of course, this system is not perfect. There are areas, such as the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, where the marine resources clearly warrant federal protection but the local communities either don’t exist or are inadequately organized to wade into a long-term bureaucratic process. Fortunately, existing law fills this gap. When President George W. Bush exercised the authority granted to him under the American Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument—later renamed Papahānaumokuākea—in 2006, as well as three other major marine national monuments in the West Pacific in 2009, he affirmed that the office of the president retains the power to decisively designate such areas when appropriate.

As a result, NOAA’s proposal for a new system for future expansion of the National Marine Sanctuary System represents real progress on several fronts: for America’s most special offshore ecosystems and historical sites, which have renewed opportunity to be protected for future generations; for the local communities that serve as the principal stewards of these resources and have the opportunity for a sustainable economic boost from Sanctuary designation; and for bringing better coordination to the management of our nation’s vast offshore spaces.

Shiva Polefka is a Research Associate for the Ocean Program at the Center for American Progress.

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Shiva Polefka

Associate Director, Ocean Policy