Celebrating 50 Years of Landmark Conservation Legislation

We're taking a closer look at the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and several other landmark conservation laws that were established 50 years ago this month.

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Today we're applauding the 50th anniversary of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which was passed on October 23, 1972—but it's not our only reason to celebrate this month. In addition to the NMSA, October 1972 saw the passing of three other landmark laws that forever altered the course of conservation legislation in the United States.

We're highlighting the successes of these laws while also looking to the future and continuing to advocate for strong, science-based public policy to protect and manage natural resources. Now—more than ever—as we face the realities of a changing climate, it will be critical to build on the successful foundation that these laws have laid.

National Marine Sanctuaries Act

The NMSA established the National Marine Sanctuary Program and the public process by which areas of marine and Great Lakes environments with special significance are designated as national marine sanctuaries, giving them special federal protections from human activity. These areas are designated as sanctuaries due to their national significance, which can include ecological, historical and cultural importance.

From the East Coast to the Great Lakes to Hawaii, there is a network of 15 marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments throughout U.S. waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries manages this network for the benefit of the public.

One recently designated national marine sanctuary lies only 80 miles from the National Aquarium. Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary—which was designated in 2019 and was the first sanctuary to be added to the system in almost 20 years—is located on the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland. The National Aquarium participates alongside many other stakeholders in the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and works with many other partners to increase understanding of the importance of national marine sanctuaries and emphasize the need to invest in them—for the benefit of both current and future generations.

Why is it important?

National marine sanctuaries are examples of marine protected areas (MPAs), which are a critical tool in our conservation toolbox when safeguarding aquatic ecosystems, the wildlife they support and the resources they provide. Protected, healthy habitats restore the balance of marine ecosystems, which are so often thrown off balance by human activities including fossil fuel exploration, overfishing, development and pollution. Designating more MPAs in U.S. waters—and investing more in the ones we already have—is critical for a healthy ocean. Our team has advocated for increased protections at Stellwagon Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, as well as amplified recommendations of local experts at Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary and local community nominations for Chumash Heritage and Hudson Canyon to become new national marine sanctuaries.

National marine sanctuaries and other MPAs are a critical component in making progress toward the United States' national goal to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

Protecting marine areas isn't only beneficial for aquatic life; it also allows people to continue to sustainably enjoy the natural resources and cultural heritage of these spectacular places. National marine sanctuaries provide an opportunity for the public to connect with the ocean—and the more that people understand the ocean and its resilience, the more they become inspired to help protect it. For an up-close look at the underwater wonder of a marine sanctuary, visit one in person or take a virtual dive!

Clean Water Act

Although the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, passed in 1948, was the first major U.S. law to address water pollution, its scope was expanded in 1972 with amendments that became known as the Clean Water Act. Since its establishment, this landmark legislation has been critical in reversing decades of pollution to America's rivers, lakes, wetlands and waterways. The CWA also established regulations limiting discharge of pollutants into water bodies and disruption of wetlands due to land development.

To put it simply: Every one of us depends on clean water. Clean water is also essential to agriculture and our economy, as well as wildlife and ecosystems. The CWA protects waterways that millions of Americans depend on for drinking water, and allows us to enjoy recreational boating, fishing and swimming. In addition to limiting pollution, the law funds grant programs that help restore damaged wetlands and maintain or improve water infrastructure while requiring that water bodies that don't meet water quality standards have established cleanup plans.

Why is it important?

Looking back over the past 50 years, it's clear that laws like the CWA work. Bodies of water that were severely polluted half a century ago are now recovering in full force.

As a longtime member of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, we work with local, regional and national partners to advocate for strong clean water policies. This year, we're proud to partner with Waterkeepers Chesapeake for their Clean Water Act 50th Anniversary (CWA50) campaign, which provides a platform for people to demand equal access to clean water and amplifies storytelling about the importance of clean water in local communities. It's imperative that we continue to strengthen CWA regulations and ensure they are grounded in science so that we can safeguard our rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands—and the ocean that is downstream from it all.

Marine Mammal Protection Act

Marine mammals in U.S. waters—which include whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, walruses, polar bears, sea otters, manatees and dugongs—are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the harassment, hunting, capturing, collecting or killing of these animals.

NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Marine Mammal Commission are the three federal entities that are responsible for implementing the MMPA. Since 1991, National Aquarium Animal Rescue has rescued, rehabilitated and released hundreds of sick and injured animals that have stranded along Maryland's coastline. The overwhelming majority of rescued marine mammals that come into our care are seals—including gray, harp and hooded—but our team has also cared for a harbor porpoise, pygmy sperm whale and manatee over the years.

Why is it important?

The MMPA is the first legislation to establish an ecosystem-based approach to marine resource management. The main goal is to maintain stability and health of the marine ecosystems where marine mammals live, not just to manage their populations. An ecosystem approach takes into account the many interactions between different species, including humans, rather than focus on a single species. Over the past 50 years, this approach has been incorporated into other U.S. natural resource policies such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Marine mammals play a critical role in maintaining productive marine ecosystems and are important indicators of ocean health. By federally protecting these species in the context of their ocean ecosystems, we're promoting the health of the global ocean that sustains us all.

Just one success story of the MMPA in action has been the recovery of seal populations along the East Coast, which were decimated to near extinction by the 1960s due to overhunting.

Coastal Zone Management Act

The Coastal Zone Management Act helps to protect coastal environments in the U.S. by providing the framework and funding for states and territories to develop and maintain coastal management programs. The goal of these programs is to balance the conservation of coastal areas' natural resources with growing—and oftentimes competing—economic demands, such as those associated with commercial or residential uses.

The CZMA also established the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS), which encompasses 30 sites throughout 23 states and Puerto Rico, and protects over 1.4 million acres of estuaries. Like national marine sanctuaries, chances are that there is a NERR near you where interesting educational programs are happening regularly, and important research and monitoring data is being collected to help us better understand and manage for resilient coastlines.

Why is it important?

There's a clear ecological benefit to protecting coastal environments—they're critical habitat for countless aquatic animals and provide a protective buffer against storm surges—but there's an important human impact, too. Forty percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties, and healthy coastal zone management is essential so that communities can better prepare for and adapt to a changing climate and the impacts it brings, including sea level rise and more intense storms.

Vote for the Ocean

Another Election Day is around the corner. Remember to keep the ocean in mind when you cast your vote so that we can continue to implement and strengthen policies—like these four laws—that help protect our blue planet. Research candidates to see where they stand on combatting climate change, saving wildlife and habitats, and stopping plastic pollution. Then vote early, by mail or on Election Day, November 8.

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