Nominating New National Marine Sanctuaries – A New Era for Marine Protected Areas

June 27, 2014 by

humpback breaching
What makes a place special? Communities will answer this question for places they wish to nominate to be considered as Sanctuaries. Photo credit: Gary Davis.

Our nation's system of national marine sanctuaries protect some of America's most significant marine and Great Lakes assets – from vibrant coral reefs and kelp forests to historic shipwrecks and extraordinarily productive fishing grounds. In doing so, NOAA economists estimate that across all our sanctuaries, about $6 billion is generated each year in local coastal and ocean-dependent activities, such as diving, tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, and research. This demonstrates that sanctuaries are an essential component of our coastal economies, as well as the long-term conservation of our oceans.

Throughout the 1990s, several new national marine sanctuaries were designated either by NOAA or by Congress; so many, in fact, that NOAA decided to put a hold on the consideration of new sanctuaries so that we could focus on best managing the growing sanctuary system within our limited resources.

Now, nearly twenty years later, NOAA is re-establishing the process for the American public to once again nominate areas of the marine and Great Lakes as national marine sanctuaries. A final rule, recently published by NOAA, identifies a new pathway for interested communities to submit nominations to NOAA for nationally significant areas worthy of long-term conservation under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. NOAA's decision to create this rule was based in large part on a steadily growing number of requests for new national marine sanctuaries from a diverse mix of interests nationwide, such as political leaders, recreational groups, and local businesses. Deeming it the "Sanctuary Nomination Process," NOAA received nearly 18,000 comments on its proposed rule, the majority of which strongly supported the idea of new national marine sanctuaries.

A Different Approach

people in a workshop
Putting together a Sanctuary nomination will take community members coming together around a common goal. Photo credit: NOAA

This rule is significant for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it gives a voice to communities wanting to provide long-term protection and economic incentive for some of their most cherished places. This new Sanctuary Nomination Process, unlike its predecessor the Site Evaluation List (or "SEL"), focuses on a grassroots, bottom up approach to the consideration of national marine sanctuaries. With the SEL, which was deactivated in 1995, NOAA and appointed science panels identified areas in the ocean and Great Lakes as potential sites for national marine sanctuaries. The Sanctuary Nomination Process relies on diverse community interests coming together around a common goal. It is designed to promote the development of a shared goal for marine conservation, even if the interested parties have different backgrounds and concerns. Here's how it works:

First and foremost, every nomination starts with a community. We define this as a group of people who care about conserving a piece of our nation's marine or Great Lakes environments. To develop a successful nomination, a community must gather information about the special qualities of the place they wish to nominate, the depth and breadth of community support for the nomination, and the feasibility of managing that area as a national marine sanctuary.

Once the community has finalized its nomination, they submit it to NOAA for review. Initially, we will look at whether or not the nomination contains the basic information we need. If it doesn't, NOAA may decline the nomination or send it back to the community for additional information. If it meets those minimum requirements, we will then take a closer look at all the different factors that make the nominated place a potential candidate for sanctuary designation, such as:

  • Does the place have natural resources, habitat, or cultural resources with special significance, and if so, are they threatened?
  • Does the place drive important economic activities like tourism, fishing, diving, and other recreational activities?
  • Are there opportunities for marine research, education, or partnerships?
  • How exactly could national marine sanctuary management help with the long-term conservation of the areas?

Nomination: It's only the beginning

Finally, when a nomination successfully meets each review phase NOAA will notify the community that all the requirements have been met and the nomination has been accepted into an inventory of places we could consider for sanctuary designation. Throughout this process, NOAA will work with the community to answer any questions that arise, and may occasionally bring in external reviewers to assist.

It's important to note that including a nominated area in the inventory doesn't automatically mean it will be considered for sanctuary designation. Sanctuary designation is a complex process that, by design and by law, is highly participatory and often takes several years to complete.

The Sanctuary Nomination Process represents a new era in how communities and NOAA can work through a public process to conserve our most valued marine and Great Lakes areas. And while nomination is just one piece of many necessary to create new national marine sanctuaries, we see it as the foundation of the process. Office of National Marine Sanctuaries staff are ready to assist communities with information and advice as they develop and ultimately submit their respective nominations. This process is by the community and for the community – and we are very eager to see how it all unfolds.