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The Point Arena lighthouse watches over the northern part of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Greater Farallones expanded in 2015 to encompass more than 3,000 square miles off the coast of California, including the rich upwelling zone that originates off of Point Arena and flows south.

How does NOAA designate a national marine sanctuary?

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What is a sanctuary?
What is a sanctuary?
Our national marine sanctuaries embrace part of our collective riches as a nation
How is a sanctuary nominated?
The sanctuary nomination process was developed with input from more than 18,000 public comments.
How is a marine sanctuary is designated?
Designating areas of special national significance
The four steps to designation of a National Marine Sanctuary
The process for designating a National Marine Sanctuary has four steps
How to get involved in your national marine sanctuary
Volunteers help ensure marine sanctuaries remain America's underwater treasures for future generations

Marine sanctuaries include beautiful rocky reefs, lush kelp forests, whale migration corridors, spectacular deep-sea canyons and underwater archaeological sites.

Our nation's marine sanctuaries provide a safe habitat for species close to extinction and protect historically significant shipwrecks. Ranging in size from less than one square mile to 582,578 square miles, each sanctuary site is a unique place requiring special protections.

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary protects a vibrant hard-bottom area off the Georgia coast. Within its waters, scattered rocky outcroppings and ledges as tall as six feet provide homes for a variety of invertebrates. These sea stars, fan corals, sponges, barnacles, crabs, lobsters, snails, shrimp and other organisms form a dense carpet of living creatures that hide in nooks and crannies and give the Gray's Reef's habitat its name – “live bottom."
Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary protects a vibrant hard-bottom area off the Georgia coast. Within its waters, scattered rocky outcroppings and ledges as tall as six feet provide homes for a variety of invertebrates. These sea stars, fan corals, sponges, barnacles, crabs, lobsters, snails, shrimp and other organisms form a dense carpet of living creatures that hide in nooks and crannies and give the Gray's Reef's habitat its name – “live bottom." (NOAA/Greg McFall)

More than 600,000

—Square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters NOAA manages as national marine sanctuaries and monuments

NOAA invites communities across the nation to nominate their most treasured places in our marine and Great Lakes waters for consideration as national marine sanctuaries.

In 2014, NOAA launched a new, locally driven sanctuary nomination process, developed with input from more than 18,000 public comments. When local communities nominate an area to be a sanctuary, NOAA is available throughout the process to answer questions and provide guidance to communities and other interested parties. NOAA also updates nominators on the progress of the agency’s review of their nomination. The process is described in detail at http://www.nominate.noaa.gov/.

Kelp forests, like the ones found in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, are tiered like a terrestrial rainforest with a canopy and several layers below. These fast-growing forests provide food and shelter for large numbers of marine animals, from sea otters and sea lions to fish and shellfish, and protect coastlines from damaging wave action.
Kelp forests, like the ones found in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, are tiered like a terrestrial rainforest with a canopy and several layers below. These fast-growing forests provide food and shelter for large numbers of marine animals, from sea otters and sea lions to fish and shellfish, and protect coastlines from damaging wave action. (NOAA/Chad King)

Nomination is the first step toward designating a sanctuary. After a potential sanctuary is nominated, it enters into the designation process, which includes a high level of public input and often takes several years to complete. Learn more about sanctuary designations at http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/management/designations.html.

Under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Secretary of the Department of Commerce, NOAA, and the U.S. Congress are authorized to designate marine areas as national marine sanctuaries. The act requires extensive public process, local community engagement, stakeholder involvement and citizen participation, both prior to and following designation. 

Once NOAA accepts a sanctuary nomination, designating a new national marine sanctuary has four further steps: scoping, sanctuary proposal, public review and, finally, sanctuary designation.

Within Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary lie the remains of nearly 100 shipwrecks that represent a microcosm of maritime commerce and travel on the Great Lakes. The D.M. Wilson, a wooden bulk freighter, sank in 1894 after springing a leak. Most of the Wilson's hull remains intact today in the sanctuary, including a large windlass that rests on the bow.
Within Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary lie the remains of nearly 100 shipwrecks that represent a microcosm of maritime commerce and travel on the Great Lakes. The D.M. Wilson, a wooden bulk freighter, sank in 1894 after springing a leak. Most of the Wilson's hull remains intact today in the sanctuary, including a large windlass that rests on the bow. (NOAA)

Public input is key. Before a sanctuary is designated, the public, agency partners, tribes and other stakeholders provide input on the sanctuary proposal. NOAA considers all input and determines appropriate changes to the proposal.

NOAA identifies areas to consider for national marine sanctuary designation through the community-based sanctuary nomination process. Nominations that successfully complete the process are added to an inventory of areas NOAA could consider for designation. 

The process for designating a new national marine sanctuary has four steps:

The shallow warm waters of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary constitute one of the world's most important humpback whale habitats and the only place in U.S. coastal waters where humpbacks reproduce.
The shallow warm waters of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary constitute one of the world's most important humpback whale habitats and the only place in U.S. coastal waters where humpbacks reproduce. (NOAA/NOAA Fisheries Permit #782-1438)

Scoping: NOAA announces its intent to designate a new national marine sanctuary and asks the public for input on potential boundaries, resources that could be protected, issues NOAA should consider and any information that should be included in the resource analysis.

Proposal: NOAA prepares a draft designation, including a draft management plan, draft environmental impact statement that analyzes a range of alternatives, proposed regulations and proposed boundaries. NOAA may also form an advisory council to help guide the proposal and focus stakeholder participation.

Public review: The public, agency partners, tribes and other stakeholders provide input on the draft documents. NOAA considers all input and determines appropriate changes.

Sanctuary designation: NOAA makes a final decision. Before the designation becomes effective, the governor of the state hosting the new sanctuary and the U.S. Congress review the decision.

Two areas in Maryland and Wisconsin rich in history are under consideration to become national marine sanctuaries. These areas contain a combined collection of 239 known shipwrecks spanning from the Revolutionary War through the present, and one site contains the remains of the largest "Ghost Fleet" of World War I.

National marine sanctuary volunteers have the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of activities including diving, whale identification, beach cleanups and water quality monitoring. 

They conduct field observations and surveys, monitor wildlife, and act as visitor center docents. Sound interesting? Learn more about volunteering opportunities around the nation and in your backyard.

National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa is home to the only true tropical reef in the National Marine Sanctuary System. It provides shelter and habitat for tropical fish of all shapes, sizes and colors, as well as other sea life such as crustaceans, squid, sharks and sea turtles.
National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa is home to the only true tropical reef in the National Marine Sanctuary System. It provides shelter and habitat for tropical fish of all shapes, sizes and colors, as well as other sea life such as crustaceans, squid, sharks and sea turtles. (NOAA)

In 2014, sanctuary volunteers contributed over 140,000 hours to the sanctuary system, equal to $3.15 million (using the non-profit organization Independent Sector’s 2014 estimated value of volunteer hours). In addition, 5,886 of these volunteers specifically supported citizen science efforts helping to answer real-world scientific questions with a total of 63,084 hours.

Published on
June 1, 2016