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Protecting Our National Marine Sanctuaries

National Academy of Public Administration (January 2000)

A Report by the Center for the Economy and the Environment, 118pp.


The National Marine Sanctuary Program is fundamentally well conceived and is beginning to demonstrate notable successes in protecting valuable parts of the ocean. However, many close observers of, and some participants in, the program feel that it is uncertain, ineffective, and pitifully small. This judgment over-looks what the program has accomplished in the 10 years since it began placing permanent federal managers at the sites. Perhaps unavoidably, the program has spent a great deal of energy in the past 10 years on planning and building its institutional capacity. Some sanctuaries are still without "defenses"--that is, without enough resources, authority, or community support to protect their valuable resources. Most sanctuary managers and staff have also drifted into an unnecessary and unproductive posture of fearing a strong sanctuary advisory council.

It is time for the sanctuary program to focus attention on results rather than on process and to build more confident and trusting relationships with communities. Specifically, the program could:

  • Take steps to protect marine resources in the sanctuaries more effectively:
    • make sanctuaries more visible to the public by erecting informative signs, building visitor centers, and working with museums, whale-watching companies, nonprofits with volunteers, and other groups to create a more prominent presence in the community and on the water
    • use sanctuary advisory councils and working groups as vehicles to engage the local community in designing marine reserves where fishing or other activities is prohibited, where appropriate
    • clarify sanctuaries' strategies for public education by setting priorities for particular audiences and approaches that hold the most promise for protecting sanctuary resources
    • use the mystique that comes with the designation "sanctuary" to educate the public, shape agency policies, and mobilize resources to address problems that affect conditions within the sanctuary
  • Work more confidently with communities:
    • make public involvement part of the mission of the sanctuaries
    • clarify the roles and responsibilities of sanctuary council
      • welcome councils as active partners rather than holding them at arm's length
      • train sanctuary managers to work with strong-minded boards of advisers
    • help build stronger nonprofit "friends of the sanctuary" organizations
  • Manage for results:
    • focus on protecting resources in the existing 12 (and soon to be 13) sanctuaries
    • emphasize results rather than planning, capacity-building, or other processes
      • publish a "state of the sanctuaries" report at least every three years that analyzes threats and agency actions
      • clearly state to Congress and the public whether the program has adequate resources to protect each sanctuary from important threats
      • work with sanctuary councils to establish annual work plans that set priorities and make strategic choices
    • invest in building staff and capacity at the sites
      • place more senior staff at the sites, rather than at headquarters
      • fill more top jobs at headquarters with staff who have worked at the sites
      • create career tracks for sanctuary managers, assisting their promotion to more responsible positions after a number of years as successful managers
    • clarify the roles, responsibilities, and skills of sanctuary staff

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Congress can help build a stronger sanctuary program. Doing so will provide many benefits to NOAA.

  • NOAA could direct all of its agencies and programs to provide stronger support to the sanctuaries by taking the following steps:
    • creating marine reserves that prohibit fishing or other activities in the sanctuaries where possible and appropriate
    • providing information for "state of the sanctuaries" reports
    • providing support to sanctuary activities
  • NOAA should designate a senior official in the front office to encourage and give incentives to agencies to work closely with sanctuaries.
  • Congress and NOAA should provide additional resources to the program and demand more competent performance.

Each of the 12 national marine sanctuaries has taken some significant steps to protect marine resources at their sites. The future for the program is promising. It has the potential to begin to establish in parts of the ocean the civic culture and public support that is the foundation of governance.

Reviewed: April 11, 2024
Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service

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