The ocean and the communities that depend on it are facing unprecedented challenges. More than two-thirds of the ocean is significantly affected by human activities, and ocean wildlife from coral to whales are threatened with extinction. At the same time, the ocean is absorbing one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions.1 For the ocean to continue to buffer the world from the worst effects of climate change, as well as protect and provide for coastal communities reliant on healthy ocean habitats, it is vital that countries decrease the amount of stress placed on it.
When it comes to ocean infrastructure priorities, a majority of voters support restoring forests and coasts.2 Voter sentiments are backed up by the facts: Scientists recommend designating at least 30 percent of the world’s ocean as marine protected areas (MPAs) to ensure that the ocean can continue to sustain the global population.3 The Biden administration has cited the National Marine Sanctuaries Program as one of the more important tools for achieving its goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. ocean and lands by 2030. Indeed, the National Marine Sanctuary Program governs one of the most geographically diverse MPA systems in the country.4
The principal goal of the 16 U.S. national marine sanctuaries is to protect places with special natural, cultural, or historical significance, ranging from the coral reefs of Florida to the shipwrecks of the Chesapeake and Great Lakes to the kelp forests of California. Sanctuaries are also one of the most effective ways for the public to be directly involved in protecting national marine culture, habitats, and biodiversity, with an intensive public consultation process required before they are designated. Moreover, these sanctuaries have historically received bipartisan support; a new National Marine Sanctuary congressional caucus was established in October 2021.5
Unfortunately, marine sanctuaries are experiencing significant challenges. This Center for American Progress analysis of sanctuary condition reports finds that many of these areas are experiencing worsening conditions, have limited statutory authority to control damaging activities within their borders, and lack sufficient funding. Given the worldwide movement to protect nature and the growing threats facing ocean resources, the sanctuary system must have the authority and resources necessary to achieve its goals.6
As the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) celebrates its 50th anniversary, this report highlights opportunities for Congress and the Biden administration to strengthen the sanctuary system and protect ocean resources for the benefit of all.
Background on the national marine sanctuaries system
The national marine sanctuaries system is a group of 16 marine protected areas throughout U.S. waters; the program also includes the headquarters and management body known as the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. This system was created by Congress in 1972 with the passage of the NMSA.7 The law authorized the U.S. secretary of commerce to work with local communities and other interested members of the public to designate and protect areas of the marine environment of “special national significance.”8
Notably, sanctuaries are distinct from marine national monuments. Although these are the two primary ways for the federal government to protect ocean and Great Lakes areas, sanctuaries are designated through administrative action by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or by congressional action, while monuments are designated by the president under the Antiquities Act.9
Public engagement is a critical aspect of the process from sanctuary nomination to designation, from completing the formal nomination process to increasing public awareness to drawing media attention.10 Furthermore, sanctuaries are managed by NOAA, state governments, and local communities, whereas monuments are typically managed by different federal agencies and may be co-managed with other government entities.11
The process for creating a sanctuary includes two parts: nomination and designation, both of which involve significant opportunities for public involvement12 Nomination requires a local group to develop a proposal including data and community support, which is submitted to NOAA.13 If the proposal passes a review process conducted by NOAA, it is added to the inventory for future designation, although there is no requirement that all sanctuaries in the inventory must receive designation.14 To designate a new sanctuary, NOAA selects a proposed sanctuary from the inventory and conducts a public scoping process, from which it develops draft designation documents.15 The agency then publishes these draft documents for public review and eventually makes a final decision in consultation with the relevant governors and Congress. NOAA itself may designate a site because not all sites that are deserving of sanctuary status necessarily have local community capacity to develop a nomination.
In 2000, Congress added a new section to the NMSA that limits the designation of new sanctuaries, creating a significant backlog to the administrative designation process.16 The two sanctuaries that were designated by NOAA in the past 20 years each took nearly seven years to join the program.17 This extended process requires a constant investment of time and work from the communities proposing the sanctuary, as NOAA often requires them to provide updated information on their proposal. During this time, the proposed sanctuary area remains unprotected.
Sanctuaries are managed by the U.S. secretary of commerce through the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS), sometimes in collaboration with state agencies. Both the designation process and management of sanctuaries include a substantial focus on input from the local community and the general public.18 This allows for sanctuaries to be co-managed with government entities that experience and interact with the sanctuary waters the most. To that end, each sanctuary has a sanctuary advisory council that represents relevant stakeholders, including an optional seat for a nonvoting youth.19 The ONMS also has an official nonprofit partner, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, which works to connect the general public to the sanctuaries through citizen science, conservation, and education programs.20
Given the worldwide movement to protect nature and the growing threats facing ocean resources, the sanctuary system must have the authority and resources necessary to achieve its goals.
Sanctuaries have a multipurpose mission. While they almost always allow certain extractive activities such as commercial and recreational fishing, they are also intended to preserve the public’s ability to appreciate, enjoy, and learn about marine resources.21 The sanctuary program’s mission can be upheld in many different ways, allowing for the protection of a variety of culturally, historically, and biologically important habitats. This balancing act allows sanctuaries to enjoy a high level of political support and popularity. However, it also limits the actions the agency can take to respond to threats to the resources that they manage.
Each sanctuary has its own set of regulations based on its mandate. For example, sanctuaries meant to protect coral may prohibit anchoring within their waters, while sanctuaries protecting shipwrecks may prohibit activities that could affect or damage the site. Additionally, there are some commonly prohibited activities such as the discharge of harmful materials such as sewage and the oil and gas exploration ban, which was declared by executive order.22
At present, the ONMS manages 16 sanctuaries across the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Great Lakes. This also includes the management of two marine national monuments—Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll—in accordance with the direction provided in the monuments’ establishing proclamations.23
Since 2014, NOAA has listed eight new sanctuaries and four areas that have yet to be designated.24 If designated, these four sanctuaries would add more than 126,530 square miles to the sanctuary program from Alaska to New York—an area larger than New Mexico.25 In the fall of 2021, NOAA began the first steps in the designation process for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary and initiated the process of adding sanctuary status to the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument.26
Almost half of MPAs outside of the western Pacific are sanctuaries
MPAs are sites with long-term designations and the primary goal of conservation of natural and cultural resources.27 Approximately 26 percent of U.S. marine waters are protected,28 but 96 percent of all U.S. MPAs are located in the Pacific Islands region. Sanctuaries account for 48 percent of MPAs in the remainder of the United States, excluding the Pacific Islands region.29
Sanctuaries are in increasingly poor condition
The primary objective of the marine sanctuaries system is resource protection, and sanctuaries must publish condition reports detailing the status of their resources.30 These reports analyze conditions that explain the state of the resources, as well as trends that hypothesize future conditions based on data from the preceding five years. In order to gain a better understanding of the state of U.S. sanctuaries, CAP analyzed all available condition reports for 14 of the 16 sanctuaries and found that sanctuaries are struggling.
Additional information on condition report analysis
Condition reports are meant to serve as a tool to determine if a sanctuary is achieving its resource protection and improvement goals, as defined at the time the sanctuary is designated.31 Each report tracks resources through 17 dynamic questions covering anthropogenic forcing, water quality, habitat, living resources, and maritime heritage resources. For each, the sanctuary assigns a health measure or condition (poor, poor/fair, fair, fair/good, or good) and a trend of the condition (undetermined, declining, neutral, improving, or not applicable). CAP analyzed each sanctuary’s trends and conditions as described in their condition reports. There are a total of 18 condition reports published for the 14 sanctuaries studied. Condition reports were not yet available for the newly designated Mallows Bay-Potomac River and Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast sanctuaries, while four of the sanctuaries had produced two condition reports. In these cases, the most recent reports were evaluated to determine the conditions and trends across the system.
In the 14 sanctuaries analyzed, 37 percent of the resource conditions were classified as “fair,” “fair/poor,” or “poor.” This means that pressure on the sanctuaries is causing either measurable, widespread, persistent, and/or severe impacts. Moreover, CAP’s analysis found that throughout the sanctuary system, conditions are getting worse, with 41 percent of condition report trends classified as “declining.” This means that the protection offered by sanctuaries may not be sufficient to protect the resources and habitats for which they were designated.
For example, the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is a biodiversity hotspot that is home to many endangered and threatened species as well as a maritime cultural hub.32 Yet according to the sanctuary’s own 2008 assessment, “on an annual basis, virtually every square kilometer of the sanctuary is physically disturbed by fishing.”33 In the 13 years since the assessment was completed, damaging fishing techniques such as trawling have persisted. In a November 2021 assessment, scientists concluded that destructive fishing gear has damaged the seabed and is increasingly damaging shipwrecks.34 Research demonstrates that continued commercial fishing within the sanctuary also has negative impacts on fish size, population abundance, biodiversity, and overall ecological integrity.35 Despite existing research, the sanctuary cannot limit fishing activities within its boundaries because the original designation regulations of the sanctuary prohibit limiting fishing activities, even if those activities may affect key protected species such as Atlantic salmon, North Atlantic right whales, and loggerhead sea turtles.36
Another example is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the third-largest barrier reef in the world and the largest continental barrier reef in the United States. The latest condition report was released in 2011, and of the 17 conditions assessed, 11 were classified as “poor” or “fair/poor,” five were considered “fair” or “fair/good,” and none were reported in the healthiest category of “good.” Since that condition report was released, at least a dozen events have negatively affected the area, including ship grounds, cold and warm water events, coral disease, and bleaching events.37 Yet almost 15 years later, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has not released a revised management plan. In addition, there are no assurances that the updated management plan will reverse or enable sanctuaries to recover from declining and poor conditions. The United States is witnessing the disappearance of a national treasure.
Similarly, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was designated to preserve and protect the humpback whale population in the Hawaiian Islands region—the first and only sanctuary created for the protection of a specific species. More than half of the north Pacific humpback whale population reproduces there, so the sanctuary was created to limit whales’ interactions with vessels and aircrafts.38 However, military activities, high-speed recreation, and commercial fishing within the sanctuary as well as runoff from ongoing coastal development and marine debris—none of which can be restricted under existing sanctuary authorities—continue to limit their ability to recover to pre-whaling population levels.39 Near the island of Maui Nui, whale populations have actually decreased steadily from 2001 to 2018, and the Great Whale Count reported 64 percent fewer whales from 2015 to 2018.40
Sanctuaries are expanding, but resources are not
Sanctuaries’ budgets have not kept pace with their mandates. The entire sanctuary system receives $55 million annually, an average of $0.14 per acre.41 This is far less than comparable domestic and international networks of protected areas, which average between $0.38 and $30 per acre.42 The sanctuary program does an admirable job of making every dollar count, but with such a tight budget, it is inevitable that some critical programmatic needs go unmet—such as timely completion of condition reports and management plans—endangering the resources that the program is charged with protecting. For example, if the sanctuary system were funded at the same level as the National Estuary Program—$0.38 per acre—its budget would nearly triple to $146 million per year.43 The National Park System is funded at around $29.76 per acre, amounting to more than 200 times the sanctuaries budget.44 Internationally, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park receives $0.67 per acre; if U.S. sanctuaries were similarly funded, their budget would be nearly five times higher, at $250 million per year.45
Sanctuaries are in desperate need of funding
Current level of annual funding received by the U.S. sanctuary system
Level of annual funding proposed in Biden’s FY 2022 requested budget
Minimum level of annual funding for the existing sanctuary system to be able to perform its required functions
Minimum level of annual funding for the sanctuary system to be able to perform its required functions if the nominated sanctuaries are designated
The most recent report available on sanctuaries’ funding needs was published in 2004 and covered the funding requirements for the 14 areas that were, at that time, either designated as sanctuaries or in the process of designation for the following 10 years.46 If this funding were extrapolated to today’s dollars, the sanctuary system would require a minimum annual budget of $81 million for those sanctuaries to perform their required functions.47 And if the sanctuary program were funded at the same rate per sanctuary now as it was in 2004, $127 million would be required to fund the 22 areas that are currently designated as sanctuaries or in the process of designation. The president’s requested budget of $84 million for fiscal year 2022 still falls short of the program’s needs.48
Additional information on funding request analysis
In its 2004 funding requirement report, the ONMS calculated that the 14 sanctuaries would require $55.4 million, or almost $4 million per sanctuary over 10 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, that would be equivalent to $81 million today, or $5.8 million per sanctuary over 10 years. CAP multiplied the $5.8 million figure by 22—the number of areas currently designated as sanctuaries or in the process of designation—to reach the $127 million estimate.
The U.S. Department of Commerce and Office of Management and Budget often do not request sufficient funds for the sanctuaries program to perform required operations. The following three examples illustrate this point:
- In 2019, Mallows Bay-Potomac River in Maryland was the first sanctuary to be added to the roster in almost two decades. The 2019 management plan detailed five budget scenarios ranging from $250,000 to $750,000 annually.49 However, three of the five budget scenarios did not allow the sanctuary to conduct basic tasks, such as completing the legally mandated condition reports or fully implementing a management plan. Only through the largest budget scenario of $750,000 would the sanctuary be able to fully operate the visitor center, implement the management plan, and finalize a condition report.
- The Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, designated in 2021, provided five potential operating budgets ranging from $250,000 to $900,000 annually.50 Once again, only the highest budget option would allow for full implementation of a management plan, completion of a condition report, and execution of other required functions.
- Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, also known as Flower Garden, joined the national marine sanctuaries program in 1992. It published a condition report in 2008 and a management plan in 2012. The management plan determined that the sanctuary would require an “annual base budget ranging between $1.88 and $3.24 million in order to accomplish all of the work in the action plans.”51 At that point, Flower Garden was operating with a budget of around $1 million.52
In its last and only condition report, published in 2008, Flower Garden was performing well, with 64 percent of the conditions categorized as “fair/good” or “good.” Yet in the 13 years since the report, Flower Garden has tripled in size, and there are no public records of the funding currently available to the sanctuary. Moreover, no updated condition report has been released, rendering an assessment of conditions and trends over the past decade extremely difficult.53
The United States needs to diversify its sanctuaries
Sanctuaries are a key pathway to protecting cultural and natural resources. The two newest sanctuaries, both designated under the Trump administration, protect historic shipwrecks. While shipwreck protection is culturally significant, sanctuaries must also provide meaningful protection to address the biodiversity crisis. Under the Biden administration, sanctuaries could be particularly important in advancing two key priorities of the America the Beautiful plan: 1) creating more parks and safe outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived communities, and 2) supporting tribally led conservation and restoration priorities.54
Creating opportunities in nature-deprived communities
One proposal currently in the inventory that could advance outdoor opportunities for nature-deprived and nearby urban communities is Hudson Canyon National Marine Sanctuary, also known as Hudson Canyon. Hudson Canyon was nominated in 2016 by the Wildlife Conservation Society and is located approximately 100 miles southeast of New York City. One of the largest submarine canyons in the world, Hudson Canyon is home to rich marine biodiversity comprising sea turtles, sharks, fish, seabirds, and corals.55
The busy waters of New York require robust management to understand and avoid negative noise and pollution impacts to the species that live there. Proponents have argued that sanctuary designation is critical to securing permanent protection against oil, gas, and mineral exploration and extraction.56 Furthermore, Hudson Canyon will foster long-term commitments to education, including through the development of K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programming for the New York metropolitan area and the promotion of scientific research on canyon ecosystems.57 The Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium and four New York City zoos are also well-positioned to provide a platform to further connect and support scientific research and public knowledge.58 These natural classrooms would promote new opportunities for local communities to engage in and learn about conservation, which is crucial to advancing science and policy to address and prepare for climate change.
Supporting Indigenous-led conservation and restoration priorities
Sanctuaries are also a key pathway toward Indigenous-led conservation in the ocean. In 2021, the co-trustees of Papahānaumokuākea released “Mai Ka Po Mai,” a framework to guide productive co-management avenues and proactively include Native Hawaiian voices into the management of this MPA.59 The sanctuaries program can and should support this and similar leadership models in Hawai’i and throughout the program’s sites nationally. Three of the sanctuaries in the inventory—one in California, one in Alaska, and one in the western Pacific—are led by tribes. A grassroots effort initiated by the Northern Chumash Tribal Council has helped the California Central Coast Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, or Chumash, begin the designation process.60 As the first Indigenous-led sanctuary nomination, Chumash would designate 140 miles of coastline, protect the home of diverse species and areas of cultural significance, and bridge the physical gap of protections between the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries.61
The first proposed sanctuary in Alaska—St. George Unangan Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, or St. George Unangan—was accepted to NOAA’s inventory in January 2017 and, if designated, will be the first sanctuary in the region.62 The Unangan people have relied on the biodiversity and wealth of nature to preserve their culture and ensure their economic survival. Proceeding with the designation of a national marine sanctuary around the Pribilof Islands will center co-management and a more expansive and equitable approach.63 Furthermore, the Unangan people hope to make use of traditional knowledge, develop scientific understanding, and promote research on community and climate change.64
The Marianas Trench National Marine Sanctuary was accepted to the inventory in 2017 and aims to protect 95,000 square miles of diverse marine habitats and species and to elevate the voices of indigenous Chamorro and Carolinian people living in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. As it stands, longline fishing does not take place within the Northern Mariana Islands or Guam waters, and small-scale commercial, artisanal, and recreational boats are limited to near-shore areas and between islands. Furthermore, the potential for seabed mining in neighboring waters remains of concern for the health of the sanctuary. The sanctuary nomination proposed protections to ensure that future harmful activities do not disrupt this sacred place; this designation was submitted by local members of the Indigenous community and is an example of free, prior, and informed consent.65
The linked climate and conservation crises require a whole-of-government approach, and sanctuaries have the potential to help meet this challenge. As a geographically diverse ocean and Great Lakes protection network with deep community ties, sanctuaries are uniquely suited to face the current challenges head-on—as long as they have the tools, mandate, and resources to do so.
Sanctuaries should actively protect the resources within their borders. They are designated for specific purposes, and their nominations take years to complete. As part of these detailed and lengthy processes, nominating communities articulate the resources that need protection within individual sanctuaries, but these recommendations are often not reflected in how the area is managed or in which activities are regulated. NOAA should assess whether sanctuary management plans are structured to achieve each sanctuary’s goals and desired outcomes, with a particular focus on stressors that cause or contribute to poor conditions and declining trends, such as fishing. The sanctuary program develops condition reports that inform the development of a management plan; however, there is no requirement for management plans to reverse declining trends, address poor conditions, or improve conservation outcomes. Congress should mandate that management plans must be based in science and designed to improve conditions and trends in sanctuaries. Activities that damage the very resources that the sanctuaries were designated to protect should be limited or prohibited.
Furthermore, the Biden administration has stated that the sanctuaries can help achieve 30×30 climate goals, but the current structure of the program does not meet the standard of protections that scientists are calling for—highly to fully protected MPAs.66 In order to achieve meaningful protections of 30 percent of the ocean by 2030, Congress should expand the sanctuary program’s authorities to functionally limit external stressors—such as fishing, boat traffic, noise, and other human impacts—to achieve meaningful protections in areas within the sanctuaries where necessary.
Sanctuaries should invest in blue carbon. The climate crisis is the single greatest threat to ocean ecosystems and coastal communities. While climate mitigation has traditionally been outside of the scope of sanctuaries’ missions, they can play a critical role in mitigating climate change by protecting and restoring “blue carbon” ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes and by conserving at-risk species such as whales.67 These ecosystems are already part of many sanctuaries, including the 1,800 miles of mangroves in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary68 and the Bolinas Lagoon in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary,69 but they require investment to reach their full potential. NOAA should invest in the restoration of blue carbon ecosystems that are already within the system, and Congress should identify the protection of blue carbon spaces as a standard for sanctuary designation when it reauthorizes the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.
NOAA should promote access for all. As a core principle of the Biden administration’s “America the Beautiful” report, public access to nature must be at the forefront of the sanctuary program.70 The ONMS should conduct a systemwide analysis to improve equitable access to nature within the program and develop an action plan to ensure that national marine sanctuaries or their associated visitor centers are accessible to the public. In addition, the ONMS should prioritize the designation of new sanctuary nominations that would create more opportunities for nature-deprived communities to access nature.
NOAA should prioritize Indigenous-led sanctuary nominations and other conservation solutions. NOAA should swiftly designate the Chumash Heritage, St. George Unangan and Mariana Trench sanctuaries. It should consult with tribes and Indigenous communities on the nomination process as well as other potential conservation actions and solutions. Through meaningful partnership and collaboration with tribes and Indigenous communities, NOAA can support opportunities for them to lead the selection and co-management of marine areas under the sanctuary umbrella.
Adequately fund the sanctuary system and program. Because the sanctuary program is severely underfunded, it is unable to produce timely condition reports, introduce new sanctuaries to the program, and meet meaningful conservation goals. The Biden administration should request, and Congress should appropriate, a minimum of $90 million—the estimated necessary amount in 2020 dollars to support the program, according to the most recent budget report—to fulfill sanctuaries’ critical missions.
Establish a funding program to support locally led and Indigenous-led sanctuary nominations. The development of a sanctuary nomination requires both financial and technical resources. To support the equitable engagement of communities across America—especially nature-deprived communities—in developing nominations of special local coastal and ocean resources, the federal government should create a program to assist with financial and technical support to local communities doing this critical work.
Dedicated communities work for years, sometimes decades, to get their sanctuary designated. They should not be expected to do all the work of achieving designation only to become part of a cycle that begins with poor funding, allows for minimal program implementation, and cannot protect the resources for which the sanctuaries were designated. For the upcoming 50th anniversary of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, Congress should make appropriate investments in current and future sanctuaries, expand the program’s authority to adequately protect the areas under their jurisdiction, and contribute to the goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. ocean and lands by 2030.
The authors would like to thank Jenny Rowland-Shea, Ryan Richards, Margaret Cooney, Angelo Villagomez, Steve Bonitatibus, Irene Koo, Keenan Alexander, and Genna Cifelli at the Center for American Progress, as well as Jean Flemma, director of the Ocean Defense Initiative, and Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.