National marine sanctuaries are special areas that protect important marine ecosystems around the nation. Some sanctuaries are breeding and feeding grounds for endangered whales, others contain thriving coral reefs or kelp forests, and many are home to historic shipwrecks and other archaeological treasures. NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries manages a national network of such places, encompassing more than 150,000 square miles of U.S. ocean and Great Lakes waters. The goal of the sanctuary system is to protect important natural and cultural places, while still allowing people to enjoy and use the ocean. In total, NOAA manages thirteen national marine sanctuaries and one marine national monument.
Sanctuaries protect many species that are threatened or in danger of extinction. Through the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, regulations at each sanctuary specify the types of activities that are compatible with stewardship of marine life and habitats. Sanctuary staff also conduct education programs to teach responsible behavior as a way to prevent harmful impacts. Marine species in these special areas are monitored so that best management decisions for their protection can be made. For example, in 2008 the staff of Stellwagen Banks National Marine Sanctuary, in cooperation with other NOAA agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard, convinced the International Maritime Organization to shift Boston's shipping lanes to reduce the risk of collisions between vessels and endangered whales.
Sanctuaries are dynamic, constantly changing places where diverse marine ecosystems are affected by both natural and human-caused events. NOAA scientists and resource managers closely monitor water quality, living resources, and habitats within the sanctuary system to better understand ecosystem health and detect trends over time. Each sanctuary conducts research and monitoring activities tailored to the specific needs of site. Research expeditions are frequently launched to gather more data to help protect these fragile areas. For example, the 2009 Gray's Reef Expedition focused on acoustic fish tagging and tracking, monitoring marine debris, and mapping the seafloor. Most of these expeditions combine research with education by also including teachers or students.
Many of the sanctuaries harbor historic shipwrecks or artifacts from indigenous cultures. Protecting this heritage is a critical mission of NOAA's sanctuary system, but the mission doesn't end there. Sanctuary staff also work to preserve documents, oral histories and traditional knowledge encompassing our historical connection to the sea. Monitor National Marine Sanctuary is an example of a site that was specifically created to preserve maritime heritage. This sanctuary is home to the wreck of the USS Monitor, a Civil War Ironclad that lies off the coast of North Carolina. Researchers there continue to monitor the deterioration of the wreck, stabilize the hull, and restore artifacts collected from the site—all to better understand and preserve the history of this important vessel.
Through diverse education and outreach programs, sanctuary staff teach people of all ages about the importance of marine conservation and stewardship. Using hands-on field experiences like the LiMPETS program and MERITO Watershed Academy, engaging exhibits and visitor centers such as "Lost on a Reef" at the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center, and ocean science-themed classroom visits, sanctuary education efforts bring the ocean to life for students across the nation. In addition, teacher training programs like Down Under, Out Yonder at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and a wide array of volunteer programs help improve ocean education and involve citizens in ocean stewardship in communities throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System.
The National Marine Sanctuary System exists to protect and preserve natural and cultural treasures, but sanctuaries are open to many activities compatible with resource protection. Balancing public use and conservation is a challenge that requires careful planning. For example, in 2008 Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary updated its management plan, which addressed key issues specific to the region like vessel traffic and its potential threats to wildlife. The plan included a provision to expand the sanctuary by 775 square miles to include the Davidson Seamount—one of the largest known underwater mountains in U.S. coastal waters—and modified regulations for the region to better protect white sharks, prohibit discharges from cruise ships and reduce the potential for invasive species.