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After 50 years of National Marine Sanctuaries, can we please put the real meaning of the word ‘sanctuary’ into the program

It’s been 50 years since the passage of the National Marine Sanctuary Act in 1972, and we have reason to ask, ‘How effective are US marine sanctuaries at conserving marine life in US oceans?” Are they doing the job of protecting and conserving our nation’s most valuable marine ecosystems?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is ‘Not really’. While the nation’s 15 marine sanctuaries cover 80,000 square miles, about the size of Kansas, most of that area is very lightly to minimally protected from the one activity—commercial fishing—that can be the most destructive to marine life. Yes, almost all the sanctuaries prohibit other destructive activities like offshore oil and gas drilling and seabed mining but those are often not real threats. And while the law that authorized the marine sanctuary system gives sanctuary managers a process for asking fishery managers to limit fishing inside sanctuary boundaries to achieve conservation goals and ultimately the power to better regulate fisheries if the regular managers won’t, in practice the sanctuary managers almost never do. It is no surprise then that marine sanctuaries like Stellwagen Bank in New England, the Florida Keys in Florida and Monterey Bay in California all suffer the impacts of heavy commercial and recreational fishing even though their prime purpose is to conserve healthy marine life.

Trawler in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Recreational and commercial fishing boats have easy access to the sanctuary from Cape Cod and Cape Ann. NOAA.

A recent article in Vox, authored by Benji Jones, explains these and other problems with the US sanctuary system. Read, “America’s best idea to protect its oceans has one big problem:  It’s not working” to find out more. You should also know that staff at Marine Conservation Institute and colleagues at other ocean conservation organizations have been working, especially recently, to reform the sanctuary program. In late 2022 a dozen organizations sent a request for specific reforms to the White House and Council on Environmental Quality. In early 2023, we sent an official request to reform the program by writing new regulations which didn’t require any legislative changes. That official request has not yet received an answer.

But given the deep problems with the current marine sanctuary program, we won’t be giving up any time soon. Our oceans can’t afford for us to fail. Marine sanctuaries need to be real sanctuaries for marine life, not sanctuaries in name only.

Photo: NOAA. Anchor on Coral in Florida Sanctuary