NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries: Preserving and protecting oceans’ natural treasures

October 23, 2012

Reef fish.

Pennantfish, Pyramid and Milletseed butterflyfish - school in great numbers at Rapture Reef, French Frigate Shoals in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Download here. (Credit: James Watt.)

For 40 years, NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary System has preserved and protected some of the most spectacular and treasured resources in the world’s oceans. The system, consisting of a network of underwater parks consisting of more than 150,000 square miles of America’s oceans, includes beautiful coral reefs, lush kelp forests, whale migration routes and underwater archaeological sites.

“Over the past four decades, NOAA’s sanctuaries have protected our nation’s most vital and iconic coastal marine resources so that future generations can enjoy and learn from them,” said Daniel J. Basta, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “Through active research, management and public engagement, sanctuaries sustain healthy environments that are the foundation for thriving communities and stable economies.”

Following an oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif. in 1969, Congress passed the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act in 1972, now known as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. The Act was signed into law by President Nixon and directed NOAA to lay the groundwork for the National Marine Sanctuary System, which now includes 13 sanctuaries and one marine national monument.

“The National Marine Sanctuaries Act is the strongest piece of legislation protecting ocean areas today,” Basta said.

Marine debris.

A humpback whale breaches in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Download here. (Credit: SBNMS file photo by Ari Friedlaender. Photo taken under NOAA Fisheries Permit #605-1904.)

Ranging in size from one-quarter square mile in American Samoa’s Fagatele Bay to more than 5,300 square miles in Monterey Bay, California, sanctuary waters provide secure habitats for species close to extinction and protect historically significant shipwrecks and artifacts. Sanctuaries also serve as natural classrooms for students and researchers, provide cherished recreational spots, and support local economies.

Within the sanctuary system’s protected waters, giant humpback whales breed and calve their young, temperate coral reefs and kelp forests thrive, and shipwrecks tell stories of our maritime history in underwater archaeological sites.

Since 1972, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked cooperatively with the public and federal, state, and local officials to promote conservation while allowing compatible commercial and recreational activities. The primary objective of a sanctuary is to protect its natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the ocean in a sustainable way.

NOAA’s Sanctuary System includes: Thunder Bay, Stellwagen Bank, Monitor, Gray’ Reef, Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks, Fagatele Bay, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale, Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones, Cordell Bank and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Some noteworthy accomplishments during the past 40 years include:

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Visit us at and join us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.