The National Marine Sanctuaries Act

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) was enacted in 1972 in order to protect significant marine habitats and special ocean areas like Florida Keys and Monterey Bay. Under the NMSA, the Secretary of Commerce is authorized to designate and manage certain areas of the marine and Great Lakes environment that he or she considers to be nationally significant and that merit federal management.

While some people who hear the word “sanctuary” think that these areas are fully protected from all extractive uses, the reality is quite different. Under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, sanctuaries are managed for multiple uses provided the uses are deemed compatible with resource protection by the Secretary of Commerce. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act does not prohibit any type of use, but leaves it up to the Secretary to determine through a public process which activities will be allowed and what regulations will apply to various uses.  Under this process a secretary may exempt extractive uses from regulation, such as bottom trawl fishing.

Legislative History of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act

Marine Conservation Institute examined the legislative history of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA). The National Marine Sanctuaries Act is up for reauthorization by Congress. It is hoped that our review of the Act will help catalyze positive change within the National Marine Sanctuaries Program and lead to greater protection within existing and future sanctuaries.

The journal Environmental Law Reporter News & Analysis published our  review of the NMSA- The History and Evolution of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

Download the full version [PDF] of this study.

Download a condensed version [PDF] of this study, titled The Makings of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act: A Legislative History and Analysis.

The Future of the National Marine Sanctuary Act in the 21st Century

Marine Conservation Institute’s Vice President of Government Affairs, William Chandler, has conducted extensive research into how well National Marine Sanctuaries Act in achieving its purpose of preserving marine biodiversity. His research was based on extensive legal research, review of congressional hearings and government reports, analysis of journal articles, personal interviews with stakeholders and policymakers, and presentation of unpublished information on the Sanctuary Program. He concludes that the National Marine Sanctuary Program, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the Department of Commerce, is hampered by an ambiguous legislative mandate, lacks flexibility to keep up with scientific advances, is insufficiently coordinated with other marine biological management laws, and has been stymied by ocean user groups, especially commercial and recreational fishing interests.

In 33 years, the Sanctuaries Act has produced 13 sanctuaries, which encompass less than 0.5 percent of the nation’s oceans. The sanctuaries are managed by NOAA for multiple use, and only a few of them contain fully protected marine reserves. In order to preserve the full array of America’s living marine resources and ecosystems, the author concludes that the Sanctuaries Act needs substantial amendment to focus its purpose on the singular goal of preservation, to align it with current scientific thinking about the desirability of marine reserves, to clarify its relationship to other marine management laws, and to attract broader public support. These reforms, however, are unlikely to occur until marine conservation organizations are far better organized and powerful enough to get Congress interested in the Act’s reformation.

If you would like to learn more, read the full report, The Future of the National Marine Sanctuary Act in the 21st Century.