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Looking Back and Looking Forward

Celebrating 50 years of landmark conservation legislation

Surfers walking at sunset on Second Beach, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: NOAA

Surfers walking at sunset on Second Beach, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: NOAA

This month, NOS celebrates the 50th anniversary of four major pieces of environmental legislation: the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Clean Water Act. These historic laws provide a foundation for the nation’s ocean and coastal conservation efforts and shape how many Americans view the environment.

Where we were 50 years ago

Prior to October 1972, public concern about the state of the environment was growing. Cities flushed untreated sewage into bodies of water, causing some rivers to catch fire. The Great Lakes were inundated with excess nutrients and pollution. Coastal development was booming, leaving little shoreline for public use and recreation. Commercial whaling was still occurring in the U.S. Since 1972, however, these laws have formed the foundation for our ocean and coastal conservation efforts.

Where we are now

The National Marine Sanctuary System has expanded into a nationwide network of 15 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments that conserve more than 620,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources. The Coastal Zone Management Act, through voluntary partnerships between the federal government and states and territories, helps communities address pressing local issues, including wetland loss, sea level rise, and development pressure. The law also established the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, promoting the conservation of critical coastal habitats. Thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, species on the brink of extinction, like Hawaiian monk seals, sea otters, and West Indian manatees, survived. Many species have successfully rebounded. Clean Water Act regulations reduced the amounts and impacts of pollutants. The law also helped fund local water-quality infrastructure projects that help address nonpoint source pollution.

Looking ahead

Climate change is a major challenge facing us, but we have a lot of reasons to be hopeful. New national marine sanctuary designations are in progress for Lake Ontario and Hudson Canyon in New York, Chumash Heritage in California, and Papahānaumokuākea in the Hawaiian Islands. The National Estuarine Research Reserve System designated its 30th reserve early this year. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act provide a transformational opportunity to contribute to habitat restoration, marine debris removal, and other strategies to address the climate crisis. The National Ocean Service is preparing for the next 50 years, creating climate-ready coasts and ensuring our support reaches previously underserved communities.