NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 1.55 million square kilometers (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 designated a 2,491-square-kilometer (962-square-mile) area of Lake Michigan as Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary in August 2021 with widespread support from a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals at local, state, regional, and national levels. The sanctuary will protect and celebrate the region’s maritime cultural heritage while creating unique research, educational, recreational, and tourism opportunities. The collection of shipwrecks within Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary is considered a national treasure because of the excellent preservation and archaeological condition of the shipwrecks, their diverse roles in the development of the Midwest and the rest of the nation, and their location on a historically significant transportation corridor. An estimated 60 ships may yet lay undiscovered within the boundaries of the new sanctuary, in addition to the 36 known shipwreck sites.
NOAA released for public comment a draft plan for a national marine sanctuary in eastern Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River in New York. In partnership with the state of New York, the proposed Lane Ontario National Marine Sanctuary would manage a significant collection of maritime heritage resources and provide a national stage for promoting heritage tourism and recreation. Within the proposed boundaries are 64 known shipwrecks and aircraft from events spanning more than 200 years of the nation's history. This proposed sanctuary would offer opportunities to collaborate with Indigenous nations and tribes and provide a diversity of perspectives for appreciating North America’s earliest cultures through education and outreach efforts.
Building on more than three decades of scientific exploration, public input, and coordination with the sanctuary advisory council, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary was expanded from 56 to 160 square miles (145 to 414 square kilometers) in January 2021. The expansion adds 14 additional reefs and banks in the Gulf of Mexico that provide important habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish, such as red snapper, mackerel, grouper, and wahoo, as well as threatened or endangered species of sea turtles, corals, and giant manta rays. The expansion extends existing sanctuary protections to these new areas to limit impact of activities such as fishing with bottom-tending gear, ship anchoring, oil and gas exploration and production, and salvage activities on sensitive biological resources.
In 2021, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) completed their third review of the sanctuary system as part of preparations for the 50th anniversary of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act in October 2022. NAPA’s key theme from the report is: “The system must have a long-term goal to build itself into a more balanced, focused, and better resourced actor that can take a leading role in NOAA and across the U.S. government in protecting the marine environment.” In support of that overarching goal, the report offers 15 short-, medium-, and long-range recommendations to the sanctuary system and NOAA across six functional areas of the program: strategy, finance, management/operations, organization, communication/outreach/marketing, and community engagement. Concurrently, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation convened three expert roundtable discussions on the future of the National Marine Sanctuary System. The focal areas were research; conservation and management; and outreach and engagement. The report provided a set of recommendations to both the Foundation and ONMS to guide sanctuaries into the future.
The Sanctuaries 360°: Explore the Blue video series won a People’s Voice Webby Award in the “Virtual and Remote - Science & Education” category. The Webby Awards are presented by the International Academy of the Digital Arts and Sciences and is the leading international award honoring excellence on the internet. Additionally, the National Marine Sanctuaries 360°: Explore the Blue virtual reality series and Stories from the Blue video series won Awards of Excellence for the 2021 Communicator Awards in the “Online Video” category. The Communicator Awards honor excellence in strategic, effective, and meaningful communication across digital, video, podcasts, marketing, mobile, print, and other platforms.
The Sanctuaries 360°: Explore the Blue series was launched in 2020 to bring a collection of virtual underwater experiences to people throughout the world. These videos and lesson plans proved to be extremely popular and gave homebound students, teachers, and those seeking an escape a virtual outlet to experience our national marine sanctuaries. The Stories from the Blue series, part of the Earth is Blue campaign, celebrates the people at the center of national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments.
ONMS released new Wildlife Viewing Guidelines in English and Spanish. These simple guidelines for shore and water-based activities were designed in coordination with NOAA Fisheries, the Respect Wildlife campaign, the Recreate Responsibly coalition, and multiple state and federal wildlife agencies. The goal of the guidelines is to engage and educate the public on how to have an enjoyable adventure while reducing the chance of human/wildlife conflicts. Compatible use of national marine sanctuaries, such as responsible recreation, can be a critical tool to create awareness and promote stewardship of sanctuary resources. The public is encouraged to show their support for wildlife and inspire others to do the same by taking the Wildlife Pledge.