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Diving Deeper: Episode 8 (May 6, 2009) —
What is a national marine sanctuary?

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper, where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is….What is a national marine sanctuary?

National marine sanctuaries are protected waters that include habitats such as rocky reefs, kelp forests, deep-sea canyons, and underwater archaeological sites. Similar to national parks on the land, these underwater preserves can provide a safe habitat for species close to extinction or protect historically significant shipwrecks. One of the main inhabitants of marine sanctuaries is the humpback whale who uses this resource to breed and calve their young.

To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Dan Basta on national marine sanctuaries – what they are, where they are located, and why they are important to us. Dan is the Director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Hi, Dan, welcome to our show.

DAN BASTA: Thanks Kate, it’s great to be here and to be able to tell your audience about national marine sanctuaries. I think your first question that everyone wants to have answered is well, what is a national marine sanctuary exactly? The easiest way to think about it is to think about it as a national park. You could argue that they represent our nation’s parks in the sea, but they’re a little bit different in how they operate and what they do. Unlike parks, national marine sanctuaries do allow multiple use – they’re about finding that very special spot between using our precious resources, understanding and appreciating them, and protecting them at the same time.

HOST: Dan, what is the difference between a marine protected area and a marine sanctuary, if there is any at all?

DAN BASTA: Well, the term marine protected area is a generic term – it means many, many things. There are a large number of special ocean places that have a title called marine protected area – very difficult term actually. A marine sanctuary is a specific marine protected area. It actually is our nation’s legislated, special marine places. They are the system for the United States that represents its special marine places. The Organic Act, a law, created the Sanctuary Program back in 72. It’s the most environmentally, marine conservation act in the country and one of the most in the world. It authorizes a whole set of activities from world-class science to comprehensive education to enforcement and to ensure that the public is involved in its management.

HOST: Where are some of the national marine sanctuaries located and how many are there?

DAN BASTA: Well, there are 14 areas – they start out in American Samoa in the far Pacific in Fagatele Bay precede then to the Hawaiian Islands, five hours closer by air, and they’re in the main eight Hawaiian Islands, and we manage the national marine monument in the Northwest Pacific Islands called Papahānaumokuākea, arguably the largest totally marine protected area in the world. On the West Coast of the United States, we have sanctuaries that run from the state of Washington on the Canadian border down to Santa Barbara in Southern California. In the Gulf of Mexico, we have the Flower Garden Banks about a hundred miles off of the Texas/Louisiana border and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that encompasses all of the Florida Keys extending out past the Dry Tortugas. Moving up along the East Coast, we have Gray’s Reef off of Georgia, we have the MONITOR Sanctuary which is the resting place of the USS MONITOR, and further north we have the great Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts Bay. We have a sanctuary in the Great Lakes as well and that is Thunder Bay and it is a totally maritime heritage sanctuary. And in that sanctuary rests the cumulated history of shipping on the Great Lakes – over 200 shipwrecks.

HOST: Great. It sounds like these probably cover quite a bit of area. Is there an approximation of how much area the sanctuaries covers?

DAN BASTA: Well, it’s more than a 150,000 square miles – which is a big number, but there’s a point here that I think your audience would like to know about. All of these places are underwater – you can’t see them. It’s not like going to Yosemite and walking on the road. So, they’re kind of out of sight, out of mind a little bit. What lies beneath them requires special efforts to bring to the American public, particularly when they’re far offshore or far away from a populated center. So, it’s a huge challenge for us to make them meaningful to all American citizens.

HOST: Maybe to build on that just a little bit, is it possible that some of our listeners have visited a sanctuary?

DAN BASTA: Oh, absolutely. Of course it depends upon the site if you will. They are a focal point for a large degree of marine recreation and viewing. Two simple, little statistics that I think reveal this – Monterey Bay, California is a national marine sanctuary and we have a couple of volunteer programs there. One program is an on-water kayak, docent program called Team OCEAN. And over the past 24 months, they have interacted with and interpreted the site for 45,000 people. The Florida Keys is the number one dive location on Planet Earth. There are, depending upon the year, between two and a half and three and a half million people who visit the Keys. It’s a huge effort on our part to ensure that this place is not overrun and loved to death. We maintain in the Florida Keys alone, over 700 buoys, which prevents anchoring and marks channels. So, there’s a lot of on-water operation required to ensure that American citizens get an opportunity to experience, appreciate, and resolve to protect these places but at the same time not love them to death.

HOST: What was the first sanctuary to be designated?

DAN BASTA: The first national marine sanctuary was the USS MONITOR, which is the quintessential Civil War warship. This is a one-of-a-kind in the world vessel, it is famous in American annals for its battle with the MERRIMACK – every school child in America learns about that. But it actually was a fundamental turning point in technology in the sea and it is a vessel that is important worldwide, not just in American Civil War history. It’s about 20 odd miles off the coast; it sits in 241 feet of water. And when it was finally located after many years of searching, something had to be done to ensure its protection and interpretation. That really was the first opportunity to use this newly created Act, that it was a form of law now that could be used to officially protect the place and manage it in the ocean. It has been a phenomenal site which you may now go and view in Newport News, Virginia at the Maritime Heritage Museum.

HOST: Dan, I think you’ve touched on this a little bit so far, but I was hoping to expand a little bit on the kind of work that happens at our national marine sanctuaries?

DAN BASTA: Well, it’s a multi-varied body of work that occurs in these places. As I think I said earlier, they are major research sites. Every one of our sites has a major research program and in fact there is a research program that connects all the sites. Because they’re special places that have special attributes, a good deal of the scientific community of the U.S. and elsewhere comes to our sanctuaries to do research that fit our requirements and our needs. We probably have, and it varies year to year, but on the order of eight to ten times our own efforts done by others in basic research and that is with ships, with ROVs, with divers – with all the tools and methods you use to do research in the sea.

Education is a huge part of what we do at these sites and similarly every site has an education program. Now this program, and the educators around the system, I always argue are one of the largest concentrations of marine educators in the country, if not the world. And these programs that are conducted reach tens of millions of people. We do this through innovative use of technology – webcasts, telepresence, podcasts. I think last year our programming touched about 300 million people in the print market and most of that programming is education programming.

We conduct a lot of expeditions of exploration. We do that as much for the education effort as we do it for the science. It’s about communicating. One of the biggest things that occurs at sites is its management planning and the conduct of its management activities. And every site has a Citizens Advisory Council. Actually, we have about 400 members of these councils around the system. Great citizens and they all swear an oath and they all sit in a prescribed period and they help us manage. They’re not just an advisory body to give us advice – they’re an active participant. Public participation is a lot of what happens at a national marine sanctuary.

HOST: It’s wonderful that public participation is such a huge factor and so important in how the sanctuaries are operating. Why are our national marine sanctuaries so important to the future of our ocean?

DAN BASTA: That’s a good question and that’s a question that I’ve been answering a certain way of late. They’re important to the ocean, but they’re also important to the problems of our time. All Americans are worried about a lot of things today. They’re worried about climate, they’re worried about energy, they’re worried about economy, they’re worried about the changing demographics and culture of the country. National marine sanctuaries are unique and special places and because of their uniqueness, they speak in a way that ordinary places don’t speak. For us to understand and reflect on things, we do it in a sense about place. So these special places have a role to play in how they communicate things that relate to economy, sustainable economies, that relate to changing climate impacts. They are a wonderful tool that can reflect back on the nation in how it should do what it does and what special places tell them about that. And when they’re a network of these places around the country with such large constituencies and a significant way of connecting to people through outreach – its education programs, its science programs – that touch everyone in America, they can take on a far more important role than just be a cute place to visit.

Our problem with getting the ocean to a sustainable level is that oceans are not really important to most Americans. It’s just a fact. It’s not that they shouldn’t be important, it’s out of sight, out of mind and there are other more pressing things that concern them. They don’t appreciate how directly their very survival is tied to the ocean. Because of these special places and all the iconic features they have and how they may relate to the problems affecting most Americans in their homes, it allows other Americans who don’t live on the coast to look seaward because that’s where those examples are given, that’s where those solutions are experimented with, and it ties it back together. So, if we think the ocean has a future, it’s about how we are going to make the rest of the country and others around the world and ourselves, the few that already understand this, come to that point. We understand things in context of place that’s how we are. Our neighborhood, our town, our city – we compare things in that way. The ocean is such a large, vacuous subject matter, it’s hard for people to understand, get their minds around. Discrete places, sanctuaries, sentinel sites in understanding change in our planet are key if you really want to affect that larger community that is necessary in ensuring that the ocean can do what it does for us.

HOST: Dan, how does a sanctuary protect marine life?

DAN BASTA: So, we do a lot of things. First, we do our science and that science allows us to better understand what are the touch points of things that are going to make a bigger difference than others – a simple idea. You’ve got to know how the system works. If you don’t know how it works, it’s hard for you to have a sensible way of protecting it. Secondly, is we direct our education programs to that point. It’s about an educated public in understanding how it works and what are those activities or how you conduct activities that don’t, in fact, injure any of these resources.

A third is that we have on-water enforcement – actual officers that patrol, etc. And we have what we call our Team OCEAN program, I mentioned earlier the kayak program in Monterey Bay, but we have Team OCEAN programs around the system. The Team OCEAN program is where we arm citizens to perform what we call an interpretive enforcement function. It does more to protect marine life than ten times the number of officers that you can put on the water to keep track. So it’s a multi-faceted approach and it has to come together actually to really do protection.

HOST: Dan, it’s great that sanctuaries are able to help protect marine life in so many numerous ways that you’ve just explained. What is the role of the National Ocean Service in managing or maintaining our National Marine Sanctuary System?

DAN BASTA: Well, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries sits in the National Ocean Service. Marine sanctuaries are marine bodies; these are water bodies that are in federal and state waters that have to do with marine animals, marine weather, oceanographic processes, physical characteristics of the bottom, and all those features. The National Ocean Service is the quintessential expert on all of those matters. Being in the National Ocean Service is a place that allows these special ocean places to be part of the ocean community – to have access to the information, the expertise, the knowledge that is all of what the U.S. does in oceans. So, the National Ocean Service is sort of a nurturing place that fits perfectly with what is a national marine sanctuary.

HOST: Thanks Dan, you’ve given us a lot of good explanation and background to help us understand and I think appreciate even more our national marine sanctuaries. I just wanted to ask if you had any final closing words for our listeners today?

DAN BASTA: Well, I do as a matter of fact. Your National Marine Sanctuary System, your oceans and coasts are not high on the order of importance in how our country currently does its business. These parts of our heritage and our ability to sustain ourselves are the most under-funded part of the United States government. It is amazing to me that we get done what we do with the resources we have.

It’s important for us to see on our sense of priorities that pound for pound, penny for penny, the greatest value for a nickel of investment in stewardship – today – is in these places because they’re so far behind the power curve. And only in the past 30 years or so have we come to realize that the ocean is not an exhaustible place. And now we’ve come to realize, oh by the way, a lot of what controls processes on land, in weather for example, and other things are driven by the ocean. So my pitch to viewers would be, or listeners rather, would be to learn more about this nature of the problem confronting us. That a good part of our ability to sustain a way of life that we have come to want in the next century, it really begins in the ocean.

HOST: Thanks Dan for joining us on today’s episode of Diving Deeper and exploring what marine sanctuaries are and why they are so critically important to us. To learn more about our national marine sanctuaries, please visit the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Web site at

That’s all for this week’s show. Please tune in on May 20th for our next episode on geodesy.