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 170,000 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 co-manages two marine national monuments.
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.
NOAA scientists and resource managers closely monitor water quality, living resources, and habitats within sanctuaries to better understand ecosystem health and detect trends over time. Each sanctuary conducts research and monitoring activities tailored to that site. Research expeditions are frequently launched to gather more data to help protect these fragile areas.
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.
Volunteers help to ensure marine sanctuaries remain America's underwater treasures for future generations. A volunteer opportunity at our sanctuaries can include anything from diving to whale identification, beach cleanups, water quality monitoring, collecting field observations and surveys, acting as visitor center docents, or wildlife monitoring.