On August 26, 2016, President Obama signed a proclamation expanding Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Previously the largest contiguous fully-protected conservation area in the United States at 139,797 square miles (362,073 km2), the expanded boundaries make it once again the biggest protected area on the planet at 582,578 square miles (1,508,870 km2), nearly the size of the Gulf of Mexico. Papahānaumokuākea is globally recognized for its biological and cultural significance, being the only mixed UNESCO World Heritage site in the United States and only one of 35 mixed sites in the world. This expansion not only provides direct protection to this global resource, but also brings critical attention to the need for increased ocean conservation and protection worldwide. Despite its remote location in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, PMNM faces a looming threat of global climate change that will affect its land and marine ecosystems, as well as its cultural resources -- a threat that ocean resources are facing across the globe.
For more than 40 years, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary has served as a special place honoring the iconic Civil War ironclad, USS Monitor, and the memory and service of Civil War sailors. The proposed expansion, announced in January 2016, is an opportunity to honor another generation of mariners that helped defend the nation during both World Wars. An expansion of this historical site just off of North Carolina’s coast would protect a collection of historically significant shipwrecks vessels, including vessels sunk during World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic.
Building on more than 30 years of scientific studies, including numerous reports released in the last decade and in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA announced in June 2016 to expand Flower Garden Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The preferred scenario would cover an extra 383 square miles, including 15 reefs and banks that provide habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish, as well as 15 threatened or endangered species of whales, sea turtles, and corals. This scenario also calls for comprehensive management and protection of these important habitat sites and cultural resources, and would provide more opportunities for research and recovery of resources.
Less than a hundred miles south of the reefs and mangrove forests of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are the marine ecosystems of our neighboring nation, Cuba. In November 2015, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by NOAA, the National Park Service, and Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment. This new MOU includes the establishment of sister-sanctuary relationships between Guanahacabibes National Park in Cuba, including its offshore Bank of San Antonio, and Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries in the United States.
Recognizing that these protected areas are all inextricably linked by ocean currents and animal migrations, and threatened by some of the same environmental stressors (such as ocean acidification), this MOU is an opportunity for marine protected area managers and scientists in the U.S. and Cuba to learn from one another’s experiences, benefiting and improving the health of coral reef resources in both countries.
"In remembering the loss of the Conestoga, we pay tribute to her crew and their families, and remember that, even in peacetime, the sea is an unforgiving environment," said Dennis V. McGinn, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment. In March 2016, NOAA and the U.S. Navy announced the discovery of theUSS Conestoga (AT 54) in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, 95 years after the Navy tugboat disappeared with 56 officers and sailors aboard.
The process leading up to the final discovery began in 2009, when NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey documented a probable, uncharted shipwreck. In September 2014, NOAA launched a two year investigation to document historic shipwrecks in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and nearby Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Finally, in October 2015, NOAA confirmed the identification and location of Conestoga. In recognition of this historical discovery, ONMS released a short documentary, “Three Miles from Safety: The Story of theUSS Conestoga,” on Memorial Day in May 2016, honoring the memory of the naval veterans who perished on board. This discovery solves one of the top maritime mysteries in U.S. Navy history.
The U.S. has identified advancing marine protected areas (MPA) networks as a priority under its chairmanship of the Arctic Council during 2015-2017. The Arctic is experiencing rapid changes due to climate impacts, including receding sea ice which will open sensitive ecosystems to human uses. While MPAs are effective marine conservation tools, many stakeholders in Alaska are concerned about potential restrictions on access to ocean resources. To provide an opportunity for dialogue and consensus building on this issue, NOAA and the Department of the Interior asked the MPA Federal Advisory Committee to develop guidance on MPAs and MPA networks in the Arctic. The “Guiding Principles for Marine Protected Areas and MPA Networks in the Arctic” were developed by the Committee’s Arctic MPA Working Group, representing diverse U.S. Arctic stakeholders. The “Guiding Principles” note the impacts and implications of climate change already being felt, the role of MPAs as a conservation tool, and strongly emphasize the importance of engagement with Alaska Natives and local stakeholders.
The inaugural issue of Earth is Blue: Magazine of the National Marine Sanctuaries was released in June 2016. Following on the footsteps of ONMS’ social media campaign Earth is Blue, the magazine covers a broad range of topics and everything that the sanctuary system has to offer. The beauty and economic benefits of our country’s underwater parks are highlighted through mesmerizing photographs and stories. Expect to learn about our nation’s indigenous cultures, maritime heritage, conservation of vital marine areas and the wide variety of recreational activities that visitors can enjoy responsibly. The Earth is Blue: Magazine of the National Marine Sanctuaries is available in hard copy and online.