No Refuge Strictly speaking, our National Marine Sanctuaries aren't truly "sanctuaries" at all

When Congress passed legislation creating National Marine Sanctuaries in 1972, it recognized that oceans are ecosystems, but lack the same kind of protection as special areas on land. "This Nation historically has recognized the importance of protecting special areas of its public domain, but these efforts have been directed almost exclusively to land areas above the high-water mark," the legislation said.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter venerated the first group of National Marine Sanctuaries as "the marine equivalents of Yosemite, Big Bend, the Great Smokies, and the Everglades."

But Congress never delivered any true national underwater wilderness, and Carter was exaggerating -- more than a little. No National Park allows clearcutting and wholesale extraction of predator species. Most National Marine Sanctuaries are not truly sanctuaries from all human activities, but are managed for "multiple use" which allows natural resource harvesting, including including bottom trawls that scrape up every living thing from the sea floor. Generally activities allowed before designation as "grandfathered" into the site designation, like commercial fishing.

"I would like to see what Jimmy Carter said become a reality," says Elliott Norse, a marine conservation biologist in Redmond, Wash. "He said (the marine sanctuaries) are the underwater equivalent of national parks. But in reality they are not. They are more like national forests; they are multiple use areas; they are not enough to protect the resources we want to save."

Norse should know. He was a staff ecologist for the Council of Environmental Quality under Carter, working directly on marine issues. He says he pressed for more protection of marine reserves then, without success.. Part of the problem rests with Congress, which provides National Parks with more than 100 times more money than the sanctuaries, for the sanctuaries’ woes. As the National Geographic Society recently observed, this level of funding "reduces these sanctuaries to a level of poverty." The society is taking a lead role in promoting and exploring the sanctuaries. Its "Sustainable Seas" expeditions are taking researchers to most sanctuaries this year.

There are 12 National Marine Sanctuaries in the U.S. waters, including 10 off the mainland and others off Hawaii and American Samoa. A thirteenth, in the Great Lakes, will be announced in October. A fourteenth, the proposed Northwest Straits National Marine Sanctuary in Puget Sound, has been dropped from active consideration. They range from the historic shipwreck of the USS Monitor, to the 5,300 square miles encompassing the submerged Monterey Canyon. In all, more than 18,000 square miles of important marine habitats, including coral reefs, kelp forests, rocky shores, sandy beach and open ocean, are managed and, to a degree, protected by the sanctuaries.

By and large, the sanctuaries ban a number of destructive activities like oil and gas development. But outside a few tiny areas, they do not ban commercial fishing. Congress in 1972 declared that all historic fishing would be allowed to continue as always. Fishing groups have vigorously defended their rights to fish in marine sanctuaries ever since.

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to designate and manage areas of the marine environment with nationally significant aesthetic, ecological, historical, or recreational values as National Marine Sanctuaries. The primary objective of this law is to protect marine resources, such as coral reefs, sunken historical vessels or unique habitats, while banning few if any compatible public and private uses of those resources.

The current authorization of appropriations expires on September 30, 1999. A new bill puts a moratorium on new sanctuary designations until the existing sanctuaries can meet the goals of their management plans or statutory mandates.

Sanctuaries can be established by the Secretary according to standards established in the Act. Sanctuary designations must consider the site's aesthetic, conservation, ecological, recreational, educational, historical, and research values. Congress has the authority to review a sanctuary designation before it becomes final. In the case of a sanctuary which is located partially or wholly within the seaward boundary of any state, the governor of that state was given the authority to block designation in state waters. Congress has legislatively designated the Florida Keys, Hawaiian Islands and Monterey Bay sanctuaries.

Efforts to achieve greater protection for special areas of the nation’s marine sanctuaries have been difficult. For example:

In the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a management plan to create no-fishing reserves of nearly 500 square miles was met with stiff criticism from the fishing community. After several extremely contentious public hearings, the size of the no-fishing reserves was reduced to less than 15 square miles.

In the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Massachusetts, all commercial fishing activities are allowed. In 1995, a group of scientists proposed an "experimental management area" to allow research on the effects of bottom trawling and other fishing gear. No systematic research on these effects had ever been conducted on the chronic effects of gear on a wide range of habitats, and scientists saw the sanctuary as the best site on the northeast coast for doing this research. However, complaints from the fishing community to local congressmen killed the project until 1998, when emergency measures to protect the nearly depleted Atlantic cod led to the creation of a 884-square mile no-fishing zone in the Gulf of Maine that included part of Stellwagen Bank.

Perhaps none of this should be surprising. After all, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act takes pain to protect historic fishing rights, but makes no mention at all of the world "wilderness."

Scroll to Top