Over the years, we've been lucky to share America’s aquatic treasures with millions of visitors. Chief among those treasures is our nation’s network of marine sanctuaries!
Earlier this week, our Chief Conservation Officer Eric Schwaab sat on a panel on Capitol Hill to discuss the successes and importance of our Marine Sanctuary Program. His role was to highlight the shared goals of aquariums and the program – including to help people appreciate the economic and environmental importance of healthy ocean resources and to emphasize the wonder, diversity and importance of our National Marine Sanctuaries.
Just like their terrestrial counterparts, the National Parks, National Marine Sanctuaries are protected areas of our oceans and Great Lakes that preserve the natural and cultural heritage of our country. They are places of recreation, research, conservation, protection and managed use. Since 1972 when the Marine Protection, Research and Protection Act was passed, 14 Marine Protected Areas (13 Sanctuaries and 1 Marine National Monument) have been designated. In total, more than 170,000 square miles of aquatic habitats are under the protection of the National Marine Sanctuary Program.
Map of National Marine Sanctuaries (via NOAA).
Why are these areas singled out for protection? The answer is different for each sanctuary. Some, like the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary were created to protect significant cultural sites. Sixteen miles off the coast of North Carolina, the final resting place of the USS Monitor became the first sanctuary in 1975. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was created to protect humpback whales and their habitat in Hawaii. It is considered one of the world's most important humpback whale habitats, providing protected breeding, calving and nursing areas.
Many sanctuaries were designated because of their combined habitat and economic value. Managed, sustainable use of resources within sanctuary borders is allowed and strictly regulated. Recreational diving, ecotourism and fishing are all activities that are supported to varying degrees within the sanctuaries.
With all of the threats our oceans are facing, it is critically important that we continue to support underwater protected areas like these sanctuaries. It's in these special places that we can study oceanographic processes and man's effect on them. We can protect endangered species and habitats. We can learn how to manage for the sustainable use of our ocean's resources. We can explore our underwater world in its natural state!
Finally, there are things we can all do to make sure these sanctuaries and our oceans are protected and healthy. You can volunteer (many sanctuaries need help with education, outreach, data collection and monitoring), sit on an advisory council or change one thing in your daily routine that will make a difference for our oceans and these special places.
Have you ever had the opportunity to visit a National Marine Sanctuary? Tell us about it in the comments section!