NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters. The network includes a system of 14 national marine sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments.
NOAA and partners announced a decades-long coral reef restoration effort, Mission: Iconic Reefs, to restore seven iconic reefs in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Florida Keys marine economy attracts more than five million visitors each year who support $4.7 billion in spending and income. Losing Florida Keys reefs would result in cascading effects to the region’s economy and culture. Each component of Mission: Iconic Reefs provides critical support to improve reef ecosystem function and resiliency. The groundbreaking approach aims to revitalize the Florida Keys’ highly diverse and economically valuable marine ecosystem on an unprecedented scale, and represents one of the largest ever investments in coral restoration. This effort is supported by a network of expert scientists, federal and state agencies, and local restoration partners. Mission: Iconic Reefs also complements NOAA’s ongoing Florida Keys Restoration Blueprint and management plan review. Since its release in December 2019, NOAA has led briefings for stakeholders, partners, and constituents, co-hosted a congressional briefing with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and gained national media attention for this groundbreaking effort.
Building on more than 30 years of scientific studies and extensive coordination with the sanctuary advisory council, NOAA proposed to expand Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary from 56 square miles to 160 square miles, protecting additional critical habitat in the Gulf of Mexico. The proposed rule for expansion would add 14 additional reefs and banks to the sanctuary that provide important habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish, as well as threatened or endangered species of sea turtles and corals. The proposal would extend existing sanctuary protections to these new areas to limit the destructive impact of activities related to fishing with bottom-tending gear, ship anchoring, oil and gas exploration and production, and salvage activities on sensitive biological resources. This is a major milestone in the designation of additional sanctuary habitats, increasing protection for valuable marine habitats and species and ensuring that they are available for generations to come. NOAA received more than 1,600 public comments with overwhelming support for the proposed expansion, including several organization campaign letters with 26,000 signed supporters. As of this writing, NOAA is analyzing the feedback prior to making a final decision.
This year, ONMS led innovative programs to connect the public with the National Marine Sanctuary System while travel was restricted, inspiring interest in and future visits to our nation’s public waters. In recognition of World Ocean Month, which occurs every June, ONMS launched Sanctuaries 360°, a collection of immersive underwater experiences to bring national marine sanctuaries to viewers around the world.
The virtual reality video series, filmed using industry-leading 360° underwater and land-based camera systems, can be viewed on virtual reality headsets, phones, tablets, and computer screens. Each video has an accompanying lesson plan developed for educators to further engage students with the virtual dive experience.
NOAA also collaborated with Comcast Corporation to enhance public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the marine environment. National marine sanctuary marine life and underwater images, along with NOAA’s 50th Anniversary logo, were featured on Comcast’s Xfinity X1 TV box screensaver every day during World Ocean Month. The NMS Webinar Series saw a 449% increase in interest, attracting thousands of live viewers. ONMS furthered its virtual presence through a partnership with Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, which brings science into classrooms through virtual speakers and virtual field trips with subject matter experts. In total, 43 live distance learning programs attracted 19,620 live participants.
In April 2020, NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas Center, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme North America Office and national partners in Canada and Mexico, organized national and tri-national Dialogues of the North American Marine Protected Areas Network (NAMPAN). NAMPAN is a network of agencies and marine protected area (MPA) managers with mandates to protect marine ecosystems and biodiversity and contribute to thriving coastal communities and economies. The U.S. Dialogue convened 140 MPA managers and practitioners from the National Marine Sanctuary System, National Estuarine Research Reserve System, the National Park Service, national wildlife refuges, state agencies, and indigenous representatives. The Dialogue advanced the National Ocean Service’s focus on stewardship, recreation, and tourism, and NOAA’s blue economy priority. The meetings addressed climate change impacts, ecological connectivity, jurisdiction challenges, unified messaging on marine conservation, and monitoring visitor impacts. Outputs were shared with Canadian and Mexican counterparts who also conducted national meetings at a following trilateral NAMPAN discussion.
In partnership with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and Kukui Grove Shopping Center, ONMS opened a sanctuary learning facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. This is the only admission-free, marine-oriented environmental education facility on Kauai, and is expected to increase the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s (HIHWNMS) outreach and impact on the island by supporting tourism and expanding volunteer programs and partnerships with other agencies and institutions.
The facility’s grand opening featured a proclamation from Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami, a speech from Hawaii Governor David Ige, and a message sent from Representative Ed Case. Kauai Ocean Discovery features interactive displays, maps, illustrated panels, and a children’s learning area designed to share the traditions and knowledge of our ocean connections while also inspiring stewardship. The exhibits take their inspiration from HIHWNMS and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. More than 1,000 guests visited the facility on its opening weekend. The facility will offer educational programs including school visits, summer programming, internships, and traveling exhibits.