NRDC Petitions NOAA to Strengthen Sanctuaries

America’s ocean heritage is at risk, and new regulations are needed to modernize our National Marine Sanctuary System.

Surfers at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo credit: Meg McWhinney, https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/earthisblue/sanctuary-recreation-2020.html

Fifty years ago, Congress established the National Marine Sanctuary System to designate and safeguard marine areas with special ecological, cultural, and historical significance as national marine sanctuaries.

This bold and necessary action has fallen short of its vision. Our sanctuary system is struggling to achieve its fundamental mission to protect the health of our iconic underwater parks:

  • Sanctuary condition reports reveal many resources – including wildlife, habitat, and water quality – are in poor or declining condition. Recent analysis of available condition reports for 14 national marine sanctuaries found that 37 percent of the sanctuaries’ resource conditions were classified as fair, fair/poor, or poor, indicating they were experiencing “either measurable, widespread, persistent, and/or severe impacts” and that 41 percent of sanctuary condition report trends were “declining.”
  • A recent study found seven of the ten largest national marine sanctuaries were minimally protected, one was lightly protected, and only two were fully or highly protected – the highest designation of protection that the science community says is needed to avoid “points of no return” for multiple ecosystems and species.

Today, NRDC and nine conservation and faith-based organizations petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for rulemaking to strengthen National Marine Sanctuaries Act program regulations.

The request is stunningly basic. We want:

  • Requirements for regular sanctuary condition reports to monitor sanctuary health;
  • Sanctuary management plans to meaningfully address the threats identified by the condition reports; 
  • Sanctuary managers to have the authority to manage all activities within sanctuaries that jeopardize sanctuary health; and,
  • A whole-of-government approach to sanctuary management so that all of parts of NOAA, as well as other agencies that impact sanctuaries, support, protect, and restore these vital marine areas.

These asks were echoed in a letter more than two dozen environmental organizations sent President Biden last month, urging action to revive our national marine sanctuaries’ failing health and adopt improvements to dismantle discriminatory boundaries that have prevented under-represented communities and Tribes from meaningfully engaging in national marine sanctuaries.

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has itself recognized the need to do more. Its new visioning document to guide the program’s next 20 years states: “Transformational change is required for the National Marine Sanctuary System to meet the challenges ahead, preserve the places our nation entrusted to us and leave the generations that follow a model for marine conservation.”

If sanctuaries are to be “vigilant guardians of the special resources they contain” they must identify and address harmful human impacts and protect ecosystem structure and function. The rulemaking NRDC has requested reinforces the sanctuary system’s strategy.

A long-spined sea urchin in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo credit: Stan Schone, https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/earthisblue/sanctuary-life-2020.html

Rulemaking changes can also help NOAA deliver a national network of marine conservation areas that furthers the administration’s America the Beautiful goals of tackling biodiversity loss, mitigating impacts of climate change, and increasing equitable access to nature. Additionally, strong public support exists for sanctuary protections. Recent polling shows 80% of Americans favor protecting marine areas with environmental, educational, or cultural importance.

We need our special marine areas to truly be sanctuaries for wildlife and habitat, and to continue providing opportunities for recreation, education, and research far into the future. The Biden Administration should meet the challenges of the moment by taking steps to build a stronger, more resilient National Marine Sanctuaries program that protects these areas for generations.

About the Authors

Alison Chase

Senior Policy Analyst, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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