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Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

History of the National Marine Sanctuaries

Our National Marine Sanctuaries: A Legacy of Protecting America’s Oceans and Coasts, NOAA 200th Anniversary Web Site

podcastWhat is a Marine Sanctuary? Diving Deeper (audio podcast)

Our National Marine Sanctuaries:

A Legacy of Protecting America’s Oceans and Coasts

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The Office National Marine Sanctuaries manages a national network of underwater marine protected areas. Designated by Congress, these special ocean and Great Lakes areas are designed to protect natural and cultural resources, while allowing people to use and enjoy our oceans and coasts. The first sanctuary was created in 1975 and the network has since grown to include 13 national marine sanctuaries and one marine national monument.

The Birth of the Sanctuary Program

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries traces its roots back to the early 1960s and the burgeoning environmental movement. As the impact of pollution on the environment gained attention in the media, elected officials and the general public began to take notice.

Ocean waves

In 1969, the Stratton Commission released a report entitled Our Nation and the Sea: A Plan for National Action, which stressed the ocean as a frontier for resource development, emerging threats to the coastal environment, and the need to coordinate federal ocean and coastal management programs. The Commission also made recommendations to establish an independent agency to manage federal civil marine programs and a national coastal management program.

In 1970, following a large oil spill off the coast of California and recommendations by the Stratton Commission for the need for more coordinated efforts to protect our oceans, NOAA was created as the nation’s marine management agency.

The creation of NOAA was just beginning of efforts to improve federal marine management. In response to continued pressure from the public, Members of Congress began to lend their support to legislation that called for specific protection of particularly valuable areas of the nation’s oceans, coastal regions, and Great Lakes.
In 1970, just a few months after the creation of NOAA, legislators introduced a bill to create a national network of ‘marine sanctuaries’ patterned after the national park system. After two years of deliberation, President Richard Nixon signed the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act into law on October 23, 1972. Thus, our National Marine Sanctuary Program was born.

The fledgling sanctuary program was charged with identifying and designating areas of “special national significance” that would become national marine sanctuaries. The goals set for the sanctuaries included protecting and maintaining the environment and wildlife communities; educating the public about marine conservation and the ocean’s natural, cultural, and historical resources; promoting and coordinating scientific research; and facilitating compatible commercial and recreational activities within the sanctuaries.

Establishing a System of Marine Sanctuaries: Getting Started

Once Congress had granted the federal government authority to establish sanctuaries, a significant question remained: where should these sanctuaries be established?
Wreck of the USS Monitor

The wreck of the famous Civil War ship, the USS Monitor, lies 230 feet below the surface of the ocean, off the coast of North Carolina, in the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

The first answer came a year later, in 1973, when researchers discovered the wreckage of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor off the coast of North Carolina. Two years later, in 1975, the site of the Monitor wreck became the first national marine sanctuary. Later that same year, President Gerald Ford designated the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in Florida.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter began to use the Sanctuaries Act to its full potential. Under his tenure, President Carter spearheaded the designation of four more sanctuaries. Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (California) was designated in 1980 and the Gulf of the Farallones (California), Gray’s Reef (Georgia), and Looe Key (Florida) sanctuaries were designated in 1981.

President Carter also requested that NOAA create a list of recommended areas for designation as marine sanctuaries. Following this request, NOAA released a report in 1983 that evaluated a field of 67 candidate sites, which ranged in location from Alaska to the Caribbean Sea. Several places in the report would eventually be designated as sanctuaries, although most sites took 10 years or more to establish.

Two more sanctuaries were designated in the 1980s: American Samoa’s Fagatele Bay in 1986 and Cordell Bank, off the coast of California, in 1989.

The Network Continues to Grow

 Aerial view of coral reef (Carysfort Reef) off of Key Largo, FL.

Aerial view of coral reef (Carysfort Reef) off of Key Largo, Florida. The reef is located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

With the start of the new decade, the sanctuary program entered a period of new growth, beginning with the designation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary by Congress in 1990. The establishment of the Keys sanctuary, which incorporated the Key Largo and Looe Key sanctuaries, served as catalyst for Congress to take a more active role in the creation of new sanctuaries.

Three sites followed in 1992, with Congress designating Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (Massachusetts), Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (Gulf of Mexico), and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (California). Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary joined the system in 1994 and, in 2000, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary became the nation's 13th national marine sanctuary and the first in the Great Lakes.


The sun sets over Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

The sun sets over Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

Today, the National Marine Sanctuary System includes 14 underwater marine protected areas: 13 national marine sanctuaries and one marine national monument. These national marine sanctuaries embrace part of our collective riches as a nation. Within their protected waters, giant humpback whales breed, temperate reefs flourish, and shipwrecks tell stories of our maritime history. Ranging in size from less than one square mile to nearly 140,000 square miles, each sanctuary site is a unique place needing special protection.

Since its beginnings in 1972, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked to manage and protect these specially designated areas of the nation’s oceans and Great Lakes.