Center for American Progress

Proposed National Marine Sanctuaries Provide a Pathway Toward Indigenous-Led Ocean Conservation
Report

Proposed National Marine Sanctuaries Provide a Pathway Toward Indigenous-Led Ocean Conservation

The United States can move closer to its dual goals of increasing access to nature for all Americans and protecting 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 by approving and completing the designation of five new Indigenous-led marine sanctuaries.

In this article
Three large turtles rest above the waterline on a white-sand beach.
Turtles enjoy the beach in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument on September 1, 2016. (Getty/AFP/Saul Loeb)

This report contains a correction.

Introduction and summary

Indigenous peoples have sustained a mutually beneficial relationship with lands and waters since well before the modern-day conservation movement began. The ocean itself is important to Indigenous people as a source of livelihood, healing, and historic tradition, and the ocean conservation movement must put Indigenous knowledge and requests at its core. The Biden administration, for its part, has prioritized bringing Indigenous knowledge to the forefront of conservation for the past two years, including through historic personnel appointments—such as Secretary Deb Haaland to the U.S. Department of the Interior and Elizabeth Carr as Tribal adviser to the director at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget—and the incorporation of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in new climate legislation. National marine sanctuaries can serve as another powerful tool to engage Tribal and Indigenous communities in ocean conservation while protecting biodiverse sites from human-driven species loss.

There have been five proposed national marine sanctuaries accepted into the sanctuary inventory since 2016, and each of them involves various levels of Indigenous leadership and engagement. These sites have the potential to advance not only the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative, but also the environmental justice priorities underscored in the Inflation Reduction Act, as they are some of the first national marine sanctuaries to be led and potentially co-managed by Indigenous communities.

Background on national marine sanctuaries

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act was established as a response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that devastated California coastal ecosystems.1 Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) manages 16 sanctuaries and two marine national monuments, encompassing more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters.

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There is some flexibility in national marine sanctuary regulations, and they may differ on a case-by-case basis so that sanctuaries can better meet varying goals and objectives designed with community input. National marine sanctuaries do not necessarily ban all threats to the ocean, but universally prohibited activities include “discharging material or other matter into the sanctuary; disturbance of, construction on or alteration of the seabed; disturbance of cultural resources; and exploring for, developing or producing oil, gas, or minerals,” with a grandfather clause for preexisting operations.2 Furthermore, most sanctuaries allow commercial, recreational, or subsistence fishing, as those activities remain regulated under state and federal law.3

Despite the long and involved process to designate sanctuaries, communities still embark on the journey, because these culturally and nationally significant areas are in need of protection and recognition.

Sanctuaries can be designated by congressional legislation or through NOAA’s two-part community-led process that first requires a nomination, which is initiated by a local individual, organization, or government, followed by the designation, which is completed by the ONMS.4 The most successful nominations prove that the nominated area holds national significance and that providing sanctuary designation would improve the management of that area, such as fostering research and marine science and opportunities for education. According to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the designation of a national marine sanctuary is a highly public and participatory process to ensure it considers the voices and needs of communities. Through community engagement and public meetings, NOAA works with local residents, businesses, civil organizations, mayors, and the state to develop the sanctuary, including its size, boundaries, and protected resources.5

There are four criteria that NOAA evaluates to determine if a proposed nomination is of national significance:6

  1. The area’s natural resources and ecological qualities are of special significance and contribute to biological productivity or diversity. This means that the area is biologically significant because it contains rare or important species that, without this specific habitat, would not thrive, or that the area contains biodiversity that is culturally significant or does not exist in many other places.
  2. The area contains historical artifacts, such as shipwrecks or other resources, that are of archaeological importance or have sacred importance to Indigenous peoples in that region or in the country.
  3. The area supports current economic uses, such as tourism, fishing, traditional uses of the land, diving, and other activities that depend on that ecosystem’s well-being to continue.
  4. There are inherent benefits to conserving the area, such as aesthetics and public recreation.7

After a community submits a nomination, NOAA reviews whether the proposal meets the national significance criteria, along with the seven management considerations. If it does not meet the criteria, the nomination is either sent back to that community for additional information and then resubmitted for reconsideration, or it is declined.

Once the proposal passes this initial review process, it is added to an inventory of areas under consideration by NOAA for national marine sanctuary designation; however, a nominated area’s addition to the inventory is not a guarantee that the proposed sanctuary will be designated. If NOAA initiates the designation process, the federal agency begins a public scoping process and creates draft designation documents. The public has the opportunity to comment on these draft documents, and NOAA considers this input and makes appropriate changes. Eventually, NOAA prepares final documents and completes the designation in consultation with other Tribal, state, territorial, and local leaders.

If a nominated sanctuary does not get designated within five years of the initial nomination, NOAA gives the nominating community an opportunity to provide NOAA with updates on the continued relevance and responsiveness of the four national significance criteria and seven management considerations to the proposed sanctuary. The ONMS reviews this information and decides whether the nomination remains relevant to the guiding criteria for sanctuary designation.

Despite the long and involved process to designate sanctuaries, communities still embark on the journey, because these culturally and nationally significant areas are in need of protection and recognition.

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How marine sanctuaries protect community interest

National marine sanctuaries have varying goals and objectives designed for their respective area, ecology, and communities. Although their primary mission is to protect natural habitats that are home to diverse ecosystems and rare or endangered species, sanctuaries also serve to protect important historical or cultural sites that are significant to Indigenous populations, local communities, and historical conservation.8 Moreover, they serve an educational role, as the ONMS strives to create a more ocean-literate public that can make more informed environmental and conservation decisions.9 For example, the ONMS does this through establishing visitor centers and educational programs, such as National Marine Sanctuary Week, which hosts in-person and virtual events inspiring the community to “get in your sanctuary.”10

Benefits of national marine sanctuaries: By the numbers

$8B

Annual income generated from ocean-dependent sectors across the sanctuary system

$4.4B

Annual income that the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary contributes to Florida’s economy, in addition to 43,000 jobs each year

$155.6M

Annual spending on recreational fishing in the four national marine sanctuaries off the California coast, with 1,400 jobs generated each year

$128.2M

Annual spending on recreational activities in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, with 1,200 jobs generated each year

National marine sanctuaries also present a positive economic benefit to local communities.11 Across the sanctuary system, approximately $8 billion is generated annually from ocean-dependent sectors such as commercial fishing, research, and tourism-related recreational activities. For example, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary contributes $4.4 billion and 43,000 jobs annually to Florida’s greater economy through tourism and general recreation. Across the four national marine sanctuaries located off the California coast, $155.6 million is spent annually on recreational fishing, supporting approximately 1,400 jobs and generating $74.6 million in income for surrounding coastal communities. Even in more remote sanctuary areas such as the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, recreational activities have generated $128.2 million in sales, supporting more than 1,200 jobs and $46 million in local income.12 As demonstrated by these examples, healthy and ecologically rich oceans are necessary to support both coastal communities’ economies and local populations.

The ONMS also works with stakeholders and community leaders to guide management decisions. Each of the sanctuaries has a corresponding national marine sanctuary advisory council, which provides guidance and recommendations to each respective superintendent. The councils advise the ONMS by providing recommendations informed by their diverse perspectives and backgrounds.13

The role of Indigenous peoples in conservation

While the ONMS engages the local community through the designation process and the sanctuary advisory council, there are opportunities for the ONMS to integrate previously underrepresented voices to a greater extent.14 In particular, Indigenous groups have incredibly diverse cultures, knowledge, and practices, often sharing a holistic approach to conservation that respects the balance between people that is intrinsically tied to cultural and/or spiritual values.15

Traditional ecological knowledge represents collective knowledge that has been passed down for generations.16 Unlike Western knowledge, it recognizes that people and their natural environment are inextricably linked. Specifically, regarding ocean conservation, many Indigenous peoples’ traditions, livelihoods, and cultures are dependent on a healthy ocean environment. Indeed, many cultural practices are tied to marine species and ecosystem stewardship, and Indigenous peoples have specific and intimate traditional knowledge about environmental patterns such as currents, tides, ocean health, and species migration.

While Indigenous groups represent only 5 percent of the world’s population, they protect 80 percent of the world's biodiversity.

Indigenous peoples are acknowledged in the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity as essential to reaching the United Nations’ biodiversity goals, which urge governments to “respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities”17 in regard to global conservation. Strikingly, while Indigenous groups represent only 5 percent of the world’s population, they protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.18 Indigenous engagement in land management contributes to effective biodiversity conservation.19 For example, in a study conducted in 15,621 geographical areas in Canada, Brazil, and Australia, researchers found that the diversity of birds, mammals, and reptiles were highest on Indigenous lands or lands where Tribes share management authority with the government.20 Even in three countries with completely different climates and ecosystems, Indigenous land management still produced similar outcomes, demonstrating to researchers that Indigenous-led conservation creates a pattern of higher biodiversity.

The ONMS should include Indigenous groups not only for the tangible benefits that they would bring to conservation efforts, but also because of their inherent right to manage these sites and their cultural and spiritual connection to these spaces. Indigenous people throughout the world have been deprived of their land and rights over hundreds of years of genocide and colonialism, and it is necessary to start the process of making amends by returning their decision-making authority to them.

However, including Indigenous voices at the conservation table in the ONMS’ current advisory framework is not enough. The ONMS should equitably co-manage with Tribes, territories, and other Indigenous groups to thoughtfully create management plans that respond to the specific needs of both the natural environment and local communities.

What is co-management?

Co-management refers to the sharing of management power and responsibility between government agencies and local communities, typically through formal agreements.21 The co-management concept questions the ability of large bureaucracies to respond to highly specific, local environmental problems and instead emphasizes the importance of including local knowledge and interests in environmental decision-making.

The Biden administration’s call for more collaboration in conservation

One of the first acts of the Biden administration was the 30×30 initiative, a priority that seeks to conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030.22 Also known as America the Beautiful, this initiative sets a 10-year challenge to collaborate with federal, state, and local agencies to conserve, connect, and restore the nation’s lands, waters, and wildlife. It seeks to build on existing conservation efforts by equally and dynamically engaging “forest landowners, fishers, outdoor enthusiasts, Tribal Nations, States, territories, local officials, and other important partners and stakeholders.”23 Finally, the 30×30 initiative focuses on honoring the voluntary conservation efforts of Tribal nations.

Indigenous leaders who have labored for generations to steward the lands, waters, and heritage they treasure stand ready to join the Biden administration in this work in support of national marine sanctuaries.

In conjunction with the America the Beautiful initiative, the newly passed Inflation Reduction Act sets aside more than $369 billion for climate solutions and environmental justice projects. Importantly, this bill places an emphasis on coastal protection and conservation, with $250 million to fund coastal conservation projects with local and Tribal governments and $250 million to restore endangered species populations and their habitats. Both the Inflation Reduction Act and the 30×30 initiative seek to spotlight local collaboration as the primary tool to advance conservation efforts, with the latter specifically seeking to “honor tribal sovereignty and support the priorities of Tribal Nations.”24

President Biden’s climate and conservation-forward administration
In January 2021, President Joe Biden passed executive order 14008 to tackle the climate crisis domestically and abroad, using a whole-of-government approach to address climate change, invest in clean energy, and boost the clean economy. Furthermore, the America the Beautiful initiative supports conservation efforts and strives to center local communities and Tribal nations in protecting natural resources throughout the country. As a result of the Biden administration’s actions, the United States continues to lead by example and remains one of the global leaders in conservation.

Against the backdrop of the Biden administration’s sweeping commitment to community-led conservation and environmental justice, the ONMS should seek to collaborate more extensively through co-management with Indigenous communities and Tribal nations in order to uphold the Biden administration’s key climate priorities.

Indigenous-led sanctuaries making headway in the sanctuary inventory

Five of the proposed national marine sanctuaries in the inventory have involved engagement and leadership from Indigenous peoples whose relationship with the federal government exists in different contexts, including territorial governments to federally recognized and unrecognized Tribes.

Alaĝum Kanuux̂ National Marine Sanctuary

The proposed Alaĝum Kanuux̂—or “Heart of the Ocean”—National Marine Sanctuary is situated around the Pribilof Islands, a remote Bering Sea archipelago that is home to hundreds of Unangan—or Aleut— people, hundreds of thousands of northern fur seals, and millions of seabirds. The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island’s Tribal government nominated Alaĝum Kanuux̂ to be a sanctuary in 2021 to advance conservation led by a federally recognized Tribe, Tribal self-determination, and sustainable enterprise to support local economies in the face of climate change, all under a new approach to equitable Tribal co-management in the sanctuary system. It was listed in NOAA’s inventory of successful sanctuary nominations in June 2022.

Unangan ancestors were among some of the first to settle in North America, arriving thousands of years ago as hunter-gatherers, specifically dependent on marine ecosystems for their livelihoods. In 1788, Russian fur traders enslaved Unangans and forced them to harvest seal furs for export.25 When the United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, this legacy of slavery and indentured servitude continued, and profits from the fur seal harvest paid back the cost of “Seward’s Folly” in full within 20 years.26

The Fur Seal Act Amendments of 1983 formally ended the relegation of Pribilof Islands Unangans to second-class citizen status that rendered them “wards of the state,” and further congressional action offered the promise of a “sustainable, fishing-based economy that would provide a modern standard of living.”27 However, this promise has not been kept, and the islands’ economy has plunged into uncertainty. In 2022, the crab fisheries that recently provided the economic lifeblood of the islands were fully closed and could remain so for years.28 Meanwhile, environmental and anthropogenic impacts on fur seals have caused precipitous declines in their populations on the islands, threatening the very core of Unangan identity and culture.

Designating Alaĝum Kanuux̂ as a national marine sanctuary would help conserve and restore biodiversity in this unique and extraordinary place and facilitate an economic transition toward Tribal government-led research, ecotourism, and food sovereignty. Most importantly, it would allow federally recognized Tribal governments to take their rightful place as decision-makers for the ocean environments they have called home for millennia. Wildlife and culture are inherently tied together in this region, and if the environment is not protected, “the culture and the community of St. Paul will disappear; [as] Unangan are People of the Sea and the People of the Seal.”29

Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary

In 2013, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council launched a campaign for national marine sanctuary designation, and, two years later, the nomination was accepted and placed on the inventory list.30 This nomination is the first Tribal-led proposal that will be established and co-managed by a Tribe. It will advance collaboration between federal, state, and local governments with Tribal leadership, aligning with the Biden administration’s 30×30 initiative goals.

The proposed area stretches along 156 miles of coastline and closes the gap between the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries. Importantly, the proposed sanctuary rests on the bedrock of the “thrivability” Model—an example of how Indigenous views can change the perspective of conservation.31 Whereas a Western sustainability model assesses conservation from the viewpoint of “how to fix messes made,” the thrivability model steps away from a sacrifice mentality and toward a mindset that empowers people to approach conservation with “courage and enthusiasm.”

The Chumash people have occupied this area for more than 15,000 years, and the Pacific Ocean is “the birth of life” for the Chumash.32 Due to changing ocean tides and tectonic plate activity from the last ice age, some ancient Chumash villages are submerged under water about 3 to 6 miles west of the current tide lines at Point Conception in Santa Barbara, California. This is one of the reasons why a sanctuary is imperative for the Chumash: It would ensure that their ancestors have a quiet resting place.

Notably, the designation of the national marine sanctuary would not affect fishing rights in any way, but it would protect the site from future oil drilling or exploration, seismic surveys, and sea floor disturbance.33 Moreover, a successful designation would protect an internationally significant ecological transition zone, providing a protected haven and safe passage for marine mammals, invertebrates, seabirds, and fish. Some species that would be protected under this designation include deep-water bubblegum coral, the California king crab, and other recreational and commercially important fish species.

NOAA is still in the early stages of the designation process, having only completed the public-scoping process.34 The agency is currently reviewing public comments from this period and creating a management plan and an environmental impact statement.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument sanctuary overlay

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is the largest contiguous highly protected conservation area under the U.S. flag and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It encompasses 582,578 square miles of the Pacific Ocean—an area larger than all the country’s national parks combined. The region was established by presidential proclamation in 2006 under the authority of the Antiquities Act; however, due to the increasing impacts of climate change in recent years, Papahānaumokuākea’s ecosystems require more protection than currently afforded. Advocates in favor of overlaying the current marine national monument with a national marine sanctuary argue that a sanctuary designation would provide more legal protection and “safeguard resources in the marine portions of the monument.”35 The monument is co-managed by four trustees: the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the state of Hawaii, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

While the monument is already considered highly protected—with current restrictions on any kind of resource extraction except for Indigenous purposes and scientific research—a national marine sanctuary designation would allow for community engagement to play a more crucial role in the protected area’s governance. Monuments are, by law, not required to have an advisory council or establish public engagement; however, national marine sanctuaries are required to create advisory councils that recommend action to the ONMS.36 The overlay of Papahānaumokuākea with a national marine sanctuary would therefore allow officials to make permanent Native Hawaiian advisory roles.

Papahānaumokuākea is a sacred place to Native Hawaiian people, as they believe that all life springs from the area and returns there after death.37 It is a site for Native Hawaiians to connect to their ancestors and gods, who are said to be manifested in nature. For instance, Nihoa and Mokumanamana islands, which are included within the proposed sanctuary, are culturally and historically important areas that house ancient ceremonial, residential, and agricultural features. Mokumanamana Island, specifically, is home to more than 52 cultural sites.38

Additionally, the proposed sanctuary contains the world’s deepest and northernmost coral reefs and is one of the world’s last thriving examples of a healthy, balanced ocean ecosystem.39 The 1,350-mile stretch of proposed protected ocean contains various coral islands, seamounts, and shoals, as well as the rapidly diminishing population of Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles, sharks, and various marine mammals. Protecting such a large segment of ocean also conserves important foraging habitat for seabirds. For example, the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Sanctuary also helps protect four species of bird that are not found anywhere else in the world and nest on nearby islands, including the world’s most endangered duck, the Laysan duck.

Including Native Hawaiians as Tribal co-managers when revisiting Papahānaumokuākea’s management plan under sanctuary designation would be one way to remediate historic injustices perpetrated against Native Hawaiians. Overall, designation would reinforce the durability and permanence of protections for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Mariana Trench National Marine Sanctuary

The nomination for the proposed Mariana Trench National Marine Sanctuary was submitted by the Friends of the Mariana Trench, an Indigenous-led organization based out of Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, with support from the congressional delegate; the proposal was accepted into the inventory of successful nominations in March 2017.40 Chamorro and Refaluwasch people are the Indigenous peoples of the Mariana Islands and longtime stewards of the area’s islands and surrounding waters. These waters have some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the United States, surrounded by migrating whales and turtles, coral reefs, and hundreds of species of fish—some found nowhere else on the planet. The region is also home to the iconic Mariana Trench, the deepest ocean trench yet discovered,41 and the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, which is one of the largest protected areas on the planet.

In January 2022, NOAA requested the beginning of the five-year review process to nominate the Mariana Trench to become a national marine sanctuary. During the review, the nominators offered for consideration three changes to the original nomination:

  1. Change the name from one that affirms the history of colonialism to one that brings greater attention to the stewardship of the people of the islands and better reflects that heritage. The nominators proposed the name Ma’tingan Le’metawh, which translates to “deepest waters.”
  2. Stress the importance of co-management for the proposed sanctuary and request that the relevant territorial agencies and Indigenous representatives be included in management, advisory, and decision-making roles.
  3. Confirm that it was not their intention for the proposed sanctuary to affect any existing fishing rules; rather, their main concern was with foreign and illegal fishing possibly taking place in the U.S. exclusive economic zone around the islands.

The nominators have not proposed a border for the sanctuary, but the congressional delegate supports an overlay of the 246,000-square-kilometer Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, another federally managed protected area in the region. The nominators prefer that the borders of the proposed sanctuary emerge with extensive community engagement during the process of designation.

Both the Chamorros and Refaluwasch communities have a proud fishing tradition that mostly takes place from the shore but also includes a small fleet of vessels that fishes close to shore, between islands, and over seamounts using small boats. The nominators believe that this local fishing tradition can exist in parallel with a sanctuary designation, as such systems are common across the national marine sanctuary program.

Hudson Canyon National Marine Sanctuary

One hundred miles off the coast of New York City lies the largest submarine canyon along the East Coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean, with unique geological features, diverse sediments, and nutrient-rich areas of upwelling, making it a biodiversity hot spot. The proposed sanctuary aims to help foster partnerships for education and research in the local New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut communities through enhanced federal programming.

The case for renaming the proposed sanctuary

Tribal nations throughout the region are advocating for the canyon name to reflect Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge. Henry Hudson did not discover the waters of the canyon region; Indigenous peoples were the original ocean stewards of the region and remain so to this day. Moreover, Henry Hudson is considered one of the originators of colonization in New York and the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Designating the area as a national marine sanctuary would prevent oil, gas, and mineral extraction in the canyon to ensure that the ecosystem stays healthy. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, fishing generated $369 million in sales and added 3,000 jobs to the New York state workforce in 2011.42 This area could further become a sentinel monitoring site—an area chosen by scientists to monitor the effects of sea-level rise, climate change, ocean acidification, and oxygen depletion. These data will allow communities to learn how to develop resilient strategies to the adverse effects of climate change that they are facing.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) heads the movement to designate the sanctuary. The ONMS is engaging with Tribal nations throughout the region to build pathways for Indigenous leadership as the designation process moves forward. As noted by Dr. Kelsey Leonard, a Shinnecock scientist, “The canyons and the life they support represent ancestral oceanic connections that we as Shinnecock people have and will continue to protect.*43 The Shinnecock Nation has been living on Long Island for more than 13,000 years, and the canyon is culturally important to the Indigenous marine knowledge that is vital for the protection of a healthy ocean ecosystem.44

In February 2022, after NOAA completed the five-year review of the sanctuary’s nomination proposal, the agency determined that the proposed sanctuary would remain on the nomination inventory until at least February 2027. In June 2022, the ONMS announced that it would begin the scoping process and prepare a draft environmental impact statement to consider the designation of the area as a sanctuary. However, no other movement toward designation has occurred.

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Policy recommendations

The Biden administration should take the following steps to center Indigenous voices in the designation for new national marine sanctuaries.

Begin, advance, and complete designation for all 5 proposed sanctuaries in consultation with local communities

In consultation with the Indigenous and local communities involved in the nomination and designation of each respective site, the ONMS should begin designation of the Alaĝum Kanuux̂ and Mariana Trench national marine sanctuaries. This would serve as a critical step forward in demonstrating the administration’s commitment to conserving naturally and culturally important sites for future generations. NOAA should promptly begin the designation process for these two sanctuaries before the nominations expire in 2027. Additionally, NOAA should continue to work alongside the respective Indigenous and local communities as they review comments and prepare draft management plans for the Chumash Heritage, Hudson Canyon, and the Papahānaumokuākea sanctuaries.

President Biden has a tremendous opportunity to conserve America’s culturally and ecologically rich resources and to fulfill the vision of Indigenous leaders across the country to protect the places they love.

In addition to moving these proposals forward to final designation, the administration should actively explore other possible new sanctuaries, including by engaging with Tribal, state, territorial, and congressional leaders.

For all these sanctuaries, NOAA should ensure that the management plans adequately include Indigenous voices and uphold the agency’s commitment to Tribal co-management.

Engage with Indigenous communities and explore co-management opportunities

NOAA should request specific co-management agreements between local Indigenous communities, Tribal governments, and the United States. This is a critical step to right historic wrongs and enable Tribal government leadership on sanctuary governance and administration. Such an approach will be unique for each sanctuary. For example, in Alaĝum Kanuux̂, achieving equity in sanctuary management means assigning administrative responsibility to the Tribal government, because the Tribe and its people are present and have a long history of understanding the island. Indigenous knowledge and wisdom and Tribal government-led research will only enhance future conservation efforts.45

Adequately fund the ONMS

The ONMS requires more resources to effectively engage Tribes and Indigenous communities as full partners in the design, management, and operation of national marine sanctuaries. According to a 2021 report, the ONMS receives $55 million dollars annually, or $0.14 per acre, whereas some other comparable domestic conservation agencies receive more; the National Estuary Program, for example, receives $0.38 per acre of conserved area.46 Meanwhile, the National Park System’s budget amounts to $29.76 per acre, almost 200 times the ONMS’ annual budget. A 2021 Center for American Progress report on sanctuary conditions found that many existing sanctuaries are experiencing worsening conditions, have limited statutory authority to control damaging activities within their borders, and lack sufficient funding.47

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The Biden administration must increase ONMS funding to be commensurate with other comparable conservation agencies that participate in similar work. The WCS has supported stepwise increases through the appropriations process and encourages the Biden administration to set a high-water mark as a part of the president’s next budget request. Funding the ONMS appropriately can increase the outreach impact of the ONMS on communities to raise awareness about sanctuaries. The WCS urges that funding be provided to help raise scientific awareness about national marine sanctuaries and that expanded investment be allowed for projects such as comprehensive ecological monitoring.48

Increased funding can also allow the ONMS to start new public-private partnerships aimed at supporting STEM career workforce development programs for historically marginalized communities.

Establish a pre-designation advisory council

After a proposed sanctuary is accepted into the inventory, NOAA should establish a pre-designation Sanctuary Advisory Council that would eventually form the official sanctuary advisory council after designation. The advisory body would help NOAA to prepare the draft environmental impact statement, and the advisory council’s continuity from pre-designation to post-designation would ensure that its members understand the sanctuary’s conservation needs.

Establish protocols for Indigenous naming practices

In New York and the Northern Mariana Islands, the nominators have called attention to the problem of using non-Indigenous names. For example, Tribal nations in the New York region are advocating for the proposed sanctuary to reflect Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge, as the person the canyon is currently named for, Henry Hudson, did not discover the waters of the canyon region and is considered one of the originators of colonization in New York and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. NOAA should convene a nomenclature committee to review the names of all sites in the national marine sanctuary system, establish protocols for future naming, and ensure that all names reflect the history and cultures of the people who are the longtime stewards and owners of sanctuary resources.

Conclusion

President Biden has a tremendous opportunity to conserve America’s culturally and ecologically rich resources and to fulfill the vision of Indigenous leaders across the country to protect the places they love. National marine sanctuary designations are one powerful tool to achieve just that. The places highlighted in this report have already successfully been entered into the inventory of possible sanctuaries, but there are many other coastal communities who would benefit from national marine sanctuary designations.

Achieving the president’s ambitious conservation, climate, and environmental justice commitments will require an all-hands-on-deck effort by his administration. Fortunately, Indigenous leaders who have labored for generations to steward the lands, waters, and heritage they treasure stand ready to join the Biden administration in this work in support of national marine sanctuaries.

Acknowledgments

This report was compiled through robust conversations with Indigenous leaders and supporters affiliated with the nomination and designation of these five sanctuaries. The authors would like to give a special thank you to the following people:

Rep. Sheila Jack Babauta, former representative of the Northern Mariana Islands House of Representatives

Sol Koho’ohalahala, chair of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council

Marissa J. Merculieff, director of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska

Violet Sage Walker, chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal council

Dr. Kelsey Leonard, assistant professor and member of the Shinnecock Nation

The authors would also like to thank Laurie Peterka, executive director of the Friends of the Mariana Trench; Lauren Divine, director of the Ecosystem Conservation Office of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island; P.J. Webb; Shannon Colbert; Jenny Larsen; Noah Chesnin; and Merry Camhi for their support and contributions. Finally, the authors would like to thank their colleagues Miriam Goldstein, Steve Bonitatibus, and Samantha Zeno of the Center for American Progress and Amy Kenney, executive director of the National Ocean Protection Coalition, for their reviews and contributions.

* Correction, January 26, 2023: This report has been corrected to clarify which groups are heading and involved in the movement to designate the Hudson Canyon National Marine Sanctuary.

Endnotes

  1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Home,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/#:~:text=National%20Marine%20Sanctuary%20System&text=The%20network%20includes%20a%20system,Rose%20Atoll%20marine%20national%20monuments (last accessed October 2022).
  2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Regulations,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/protect/regulations/ (last accessed January 2023).
  3. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Recreational Fishing,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/visit/fishing/ (last accessed December 2022).
  4. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Education and Outreach,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/education/about.html#:~:text=The%20Office%20of%20National%20Marine,conservation%20through%20national%20marine%20sanctuaries (last accessed October 2022).
  5. National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, “Creating a National Marine Sanctuary,” available at: https://storymaps.arcgis.com/collections/e6b6e1a2b80343c5bb7bc50f19cc5655 (last accessed January 2023).
  6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Ocean Service, “What is a national marine sanctuary?”, available at https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/nms.html (last accessed October 2022).
  7. National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, “Creating a National Marine Sanctuary.”
  8. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Legislation,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/about/legislation/#:~:text=The%20National%20Marine%20Sanctuaries%20Act&text=The%20primary%20objective%20of%20the,historical%20vessels%20or%20unique%20habitat (last accessed October 2022).
  9. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “National Marine Sanctuary Frequently Asked Questions,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/about/faqs/#:~:text=The%20primary%20objective%20of%20a,historically%20significant%20shipwrecks%20and%20artifacts (last accessed October 2022).
  10. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Get Into Your Sanctuary!”, available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/visit/giys.html (last accessed January 2023).
  11. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “National Marine Sanctuaries and Local Economies,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/science/socioeconomic/factsheets/national-system.html (last accessed January 2023).
  12. Chiara Zuccarino-Crowe, “National Marine Sanctuaries – Value Added for Communities and the Blue Economy,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, December 2016, available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/news/dec16/sanctuaries-blue-economy.html.
  13. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Advisory Councils,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/management/ac/welcome.html (last accessed October 2022).
  14. Panel of the National Academy of Public Administration, “An External Review of the National Marine Sanctuary System” (Washington: 2021), available at https://nmssanctuaries.blob.core.windows.net/sanctuaries-prod/media/docs/2021-an-external-review-of-the-national-marine-sanctuary-system.pdf.
  15. Benji Jones, “Indigenous people are the world’s biggest conservationists, but they rarely get credit for it,” Vox, June 11, 2021, available at https://www.vox.com/22518592/indigenous-people-conserve-nature-icca.
  16. MaryJane Proulx and others, “Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Ocean Observing: A Review of Successful Partnerships,” Frontiers in Marine Science 8 (2021), available at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2021.703938/full.
  17. Convention on Biological Diversity, “Article 8(J) – Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices,” available at https://www.cbd.int/traditional/ (last accessed January 2023).
  18. Lara Domínguez and Colin Luoma, “Decolonising Conservation Policy: How Colonial Land and Conservation Ideologies Persist and Perpetuate Indigenous Injustices at the Expense of the Environment,” Land 9 (3) (2020): 1–22, available at https://www.mdpi.com/2073-445X/9/3/65.
  19. Neil M. Dawson and others, “The role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in effective and equitable conservation,” Ecology & Society 26 (3) (2021), available at https://ecologyandsociety.org/vol26/iss3/art19/.
  20. Richard Schuster and others, “Vertebrate biodiversity on indigenous-managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada equals that in protected areas,” Environmental Science & Policy 101 (1) (2019): 1–6, available at https://news.ubc.ca/2019/07/31/biodiversity-highest-on-indigenous-managed-lands/.
  21. Sibyl Diver, “Co-management as a Catalyst: Pathways to Post-colonial Forestry in the Klamath Basin, California,” Human Ecology 44 (5) (2016): 533–546, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5099361/.
  22. U.S. Department of the Interior and others, “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” (Washington: 2021), available at https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/report-conserving-and-restoring-america-the-beautiful-2021.pdf.
  23. U.S. Department of the Interior, “America the Beautiful,” available at https://www.doi.gov/priorities/america-the-beautiful (last accessed January 2023).
  24. U.S. Department of the Interior and others, “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful.”
  25. Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government, “Alaĝum Kanuux̂: Heart of the Ocean” (St. Paul, AK: 2021), available at https://nmsnominate.blob.core.windows.net/nominate-prod/media/documents/2021-alagum-kanuux-nomination.pdf.
  26. Ibid.
  27. City of St. George, “St. George Unangan Heritage National Marine Sanctuary” (St. George, AK: 2016), https://nmsnominate.blob.core.windows.net/nominate-prod/media/documents/st-george-unangan-nomination.pdf.
  28. Johnny Diaz, “Alaska Cancels Snow Crab Season Amid Population Declines,” The New York Times, October 14, 2022, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/14/us/alaska-cancels-crab-season.html.
  29. Marissa Merculieff, director, Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, personal communication with author via email, September 30, 2022, on file with authors.
  30. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Proposed Designation of Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/chumash-heritage/ (last accessed January 2023).
  31. Fred Collins, “Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary” (San Luis Obispo, CA: Northern Chumash Tribal Council) available at https://nmsnominate.blob.core.windows.net/nominate-prod/media/documents/nomination_chumash_heritage.pdf (last accessed January 2023).
  32. Ibid.
  33. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Proposed Designation of Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.”
  34. Ibid.
  35. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “National Marine Sanctuary Designation Process: FAQs,” available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/papahanaumokuakea/faqs.html#:~:text=The%20ecosystems%20are%20increasingly%20under,marine%20portions%20of%20the%20monument (last accessed January 2023).
  36. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, “Monuments and Sanctuaries: What’s the Difference?”, available at https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/about/monuments-and-sanctuaries-whats-the-difference.html (last accessed January 2023).
  37. Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument, “Papahānaumokuākea: A Sacred Name, A Sacred Place,” available at https://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov/about/name.html#:~:text=The%20name%20Papah%C4%81naumoku%C4%81kea%20(pronounced%20Pa,of%20the%20dualisms%20of%20life (last accessed January 2023).
  38. Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument, “Native Hawaiian Cultural Heritage,” available at https://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov/heritage/history.html (last accessed January 2023).
  39. National Park Service, “Papahānaumokuākea: World Heritage Site,” available at https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/papahanaumokuakea-marine-national-monument-northwestern-hawaiian-islands.htm (last accessed January 2023).
  40. Friends of the Mariana Trench, “Mariana Trench National Marine Sanctuary” (Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands: 2016), available at https://nmsnominate.blob.core.windows.net/nominate-prod/media/documents/mariana_trench_national_marine_sanctuary_nomination_120516.pdf.
  41. Elin Kelsey, “The Deepest Ocean on Earth: A Scientific Case for Establishing the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument” (Philadelphia: Global Ocean Legacy, 2008) available at https://www.pewtrusts.org/-/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/peg/publications/report/deepest20ocean20on20earth20mariana20trenchpdf.pdf.
  42. New York Aquarium, “Hudson Canyon National Marine Sanctuary Nomination” (New York: 2016), available at https://nmsnominate.blob.core.windows.net/nominate-prod/media/documents/hudson-canyon.pdf.
  43. Dr. Kelsey Leonard, assistant professor, University of Waterloo, interview with authors via email, January 25, 2023, on file with the authors.
  44. Shinnecock Indian Nation, “Who we are,” available at https://www.shinnecock-nsn.gov/who-we-are (last accessed January 2023); Theresa Braine, “Shinnecock Bring Indigenous Science to Federal Ocean Policy,” Indian Country Today, July 25, 2017, available at https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/shinnecock-indigenous-science-ocean-policy.
  45. Marissa Merculieff, director, Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, personal communication with author via email September 30, 2023, on file with authors.
  46. Panel of the National Academy of Public Administration, “An External Review of the National Marine Sanctuary System.”
  47. Zainab Mirza and others, “To Protect 30 Percent of the Ocean, the United States Must Invest in the National Marine Sanctuaries Program” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021) available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/to-protect-30-percent-of-the-ocean-the-united-states-must-invest-in-the-national-marine-sanctuaries-program/.
  48. Noah Chesnin, associate director, Wildlife Conservation Society, personal communication with author via email, November 7, 2022, on file with authors.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

Authors

Anuka Upadhye

Former Intern, Energy and Environment

Zainab Mirza

Former Research Associate, Ocean Policy

Angelo Villagomez

Senior Fellow

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