Establishing the National Marine Sanctuary System

Public and Governmental Concern for Oceans

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is the largest of the northern islands in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The coastline has steep cliffs, gigantic sea caves, coves, and sandy beaches. Click image for larger view.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were years of intense concern, outcries, and political activism on behalf of the environment. The public perceived that offshore waste dumping, large areas of oxygen depletion known as “dead zones,” oil spills, and human development were major threats to the health of oceans and coastal areas. One event in particular, the 1969 Santa Barbara offshore oil well blowout that spewed 3.3 million gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, appalled the nation. The site of California beaches blackened with oil galvanized the public to demand greater protection for the marine environment.

During this same period, sectors of the U.S. government recognized the need for action to protect ocean and coastal resources. The U.S. Congress first introduced the notion of a system of marine sanctuaries in 1967 in an effort to protect special marine areas from oil and gas development, patterning the idea after the wilderness preservation system. A year earlier, President Johnson’s Science Advisory Panel had advanced the concept of marine preserves, also patterned after terrestrial wilderness. Late in the decade, the Commission on Marine Sciences, Engineering, and Resources, popularly known after its chairman as the Stratton Commission, recognized the urgent need for managing the nation’s oceans and coastal areas to confront threats brought on by various types of development.


Birth of the National Marine Sanctuary Program


A seagrass meadow in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Click image for larger view.

This rising tide of public concern and official government attention to the problems and issues besetting the marine environment culminated in 1972 with several pieces of historic conservation legislation. Among them was the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. The major objective of this law was to control ocean dumping. However, Title III of this landmark statute empowered NOAA, through the Secretary of Commerce, with the ability to identify, designate, and manage marine and Great Lakes waters based on their conservation, ecological, recreational, historical, aesthetic, scientific or educational value. Thanks to vigorous public prodding and congressional perserverance in the preceding years, this groundbreaking legislation gave birth to the National Marine Sanctuary Program in 1972, exactly 100 years after Yellowstone became our first national park.


Beginnings of the National Marine Sanctuary System

Wreck Site of the USS Monitor

The wreck site of the USS Monitor, a Civil War ironclad, became the nation's first national marine sanctuary in 1975. Duke University scientists discovered the ship just two years earlier, resting in 235 feet of water 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Click image for larger view.

NOAA soon began examining nationally significant ocean and coastal areas to designate as marine sanctuaries. In 1975, President Ford designated the nation's first marine sanctuary, the USS Monitor, to preserve the wreck of this Civil War ironclad vessel, resting off the North Carolina coast and discovered only two years earlier. In the next six years, NOAA designated five more sanctuaries–Key Largo and Looe Key in Florida that would later become part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; Channel Islands and Gulf of the Farallones, both in California; and Gray’s Reef, Georgia. This brought the total area under sanctuary protection to slighly over three thousand square miles.


Period of Significant Growth


The nation's national marine sanctuary system includes 14 sites and over 150,000 square miles, an area larger than all units in our national park system combined. Click image for larger view.

Between 1986 and 1994, the sanctuary system grew to 12 sites covering more than 18,000 square miles. Sanctuaries added during this period included Fagatele Bay in American Somoa; Cordell Bank and Monterey Bay, both in California; Florida Keys; Flower Garden Banks, Texas; Stellwagen Bank, Massachusetts; Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale; and, Olympic Coast, Washington.

The year 2000 was especially noteworthy for national marine sanctuaries. First, Thunder Bay in Lake Huron became the thirteenth sanctuary. Establishing this site was significant because it was the first sanctuary in the Great Lakes, and it was only the second site created to solely protect historical resources. Also in 2000, the 130,000 square mile Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve became part of the National Marine Sanctuary System. President Bush designated this site as a marine national monument in 2006. With the addition of this, the fourteenth site in the sanctuary system, NOAA exercises stewardship over an area larger than all units in the national park system combined, but with only one percent of the budget. Finally in 2000, public and elected officials both recognized that preserving our ocean and Great Lakes treasures was essential to Americans’ way of life, and the sanctuary program budget increased significantly.


Special Management Challenges

Throughout sanctuaries’ early years and even today, NOAA has grappled with the challenge of preserving resources that sancturies are created to protect and simultaneously permitting other uses. NOAA has consistently met the challenge of protecting these special areas while still allowing compatible commercial and recreational activities.  


Sunset along the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Click image for larger view.

Managing sanctuaries is truly a team effort with assistance from across NOAA, other federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations and thousands of volunteers who contribute more than 100,000 hours each year to support sanctuary education and science efforts. All of these partners have been important in supporting NOAA’s stewardship responsibility in sanctuaries–from raising the USS Monitor turret, to exploring unknown deep-water coral reefs, to protecting the breeding and calving areas of North Pacific humpback whales, and, finally, to establishing zones where all marine life is fully protected. The key to the success of sanctuaries is the innovation shown by NOAA to finding solutions to managing and preserving special areas in the last unexplored wilderness on the planet–our oceans.