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Underwater National Parks:

Exploring the National Marine Sanctuary Program

By Robert Rossier

One of the results of last year's terrorist attacks has been a sharper focus on the many marvels right here at home. Spanning the breadth of the North American continent, the stark contrasts in forests, deserts, mountains and plains seem to be reflected in the broad cultural diversity that forms the foundation of our society. And as we venture beneath the waves, east and west, north and south, we find contrasts there, too: coral reefs, kelp jungles, rocky pinnacles and vast expanses of sand. Populating the many varied ecological niches are vastly varied populations of marine life including tiny stationary coral polyps, patrolling apex predators and migratory whales. And as with our terrestrial society, the broad biological diversity of the marine world forms a stable foundation for life on our planet.

Along with the focus on our continent and its many subcultures, we recognize the importance of putting into place policies and mechanisms to protect all that we hold dear, both manmade and natural. These views, while perhaps more focused at this point in time, aren't exactly new. Back in 1872, recognizing the importance of preserving the diverse natural resource for future generations, Yellowstone National Park was created, the first of what was to be many such parks. Since that time, more than 83 million acres (33 million hectares) in some 378 areas of the United States have been set aside to protect the habitat and the wildlife that reside there.

Over the centuries, the oceans had been considered a vast and virtually inexhaustible resource, unaffected by the activities of man. But a massive 1969 oil spill that soaked the coastline with crude and killed countless marine creatures brought to the public consciousness the fact that man's activities did indeed affect the health of our oceans and their inhabitants. We've also come to recognize the important relationships between the oceans, their health, and the well-being of all who dwell on our fragile sphere.

In 1972, a hundred years after the creation of our first national park, legislation was adopted to create the first underwater national park. It was called Title III of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, and under the administration of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), would become perhaps one of the most important conservation programs of our time. More than simply protecting the diverse habitats and species, the program has evolved to encompass a broad set of objectives involving research, environmental monitoring, education, and innovative partnerships between government, academia, industry, organizations and individuals.

Parallels in Preservation

Seldom have I ventured into the wilderness alone, and never underwater, but while hiking solo in the Olympic National Park one summer I was struck not only by the breathtaking variation in habitats, but by the odd feeling of remoteness, this despite the close juxtaposition with a major population area. Just a stone's throw from Seattle, the park offers hikers the opportunity to transition from rain forest to snowcapped peaks in a single day's hike. In three days hiking through this area, I never once crossed paths with another human. It was a wonderful escape.

I suppose it's no surprise that just off the shore of this striking landscape lies an equally striking underwater national park: the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Like its terrestrial counterpart, the sanctuary offers an unusual breadth in habitat, with open ocean and submarine canyons rising to sea stacks thick with kelp forests. Along its coastal areas, visitors find both rugged rocky shores and smooth sandy beaches.

Many other parallels have become evident as I've toured our nation's national parks and dived in its many shimmering waters. The story goes that in the late 1800s, two cowboys on horseback wandered up a snow-covered narrow canyon, and stumbled upon what would be considered one of the most amazing cultural finds of their time. Carved into the face of the sandstone cliffs in the area now known as Mesa Verde was an amazing array of ancient dwellings, now believed to have been inhabited by the Anasazi

Indians roughly a thousand years ago. In September 1874, prospector John Moss led U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey photographer W. H. Jackson into that canyon, and they became the first to explore one of the dwellings. Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve this rare historical find, and is host to thousands of visitors each year.

In a similar sense, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary off the shores of Lake Huron was established to preserve more than 160 well-preserved and historically significant wrecks, as well as innumerable artifacts and materials from historic and prehistoric Native American origin.

The similarities are indeed striking. The submerged sandstone canyons of Gray's Reef off the shores of Georgia conjure up images of Canyonlands National Park in western Colorado. The depths of the magnificent submarine canyons in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary form an unlikely parallel with Grand Canyon National Park. The submerged volcano of Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary in American Samoa offers an underwater alternative to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. But the national marine sanctuary system has a history all its own.

A Brief History

When the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA) was enacted in 1972, the intent was to "designate as marine sanctuaries those areas of the oceans, coastal, and other waters, as far seaward as the Continental Shelf for the purpose of preserving or restoring such areas for their conservation, recreation, ecological or esthetic value." Civil penalties as high as $50,000 per violation were stipulated as part of the act. Over the course of the next two decades, this basic foundation would be chiseled and shaped into a powerful and balanced act.

In 1980, changes to the MPRSA included extending authority for enforcement of the regulations to the Coast Guard. Under an amendment in 1984, the secretary (of commerce) was directed to promote and coordinate the use of marine sanctuaries for research. Not only would the sanctuaries form a vehicle for protection, they would serve as a tool for research and understanding.

More extensive amendments to the act in 1988 included the establishment of special-use permits within marine sanctuaries for commercial operations such as glass-bottom boat tours and scuba diving trips, along with fees set to recover administrative costs. At the same time, another new section of the act held vessels and individuals responsible for any damage and clean-up costs that might be incurred as a result of their indiscretions. At this time, the enforcement authority of the act was strengthened.

The MPRSA was substantially overhauled in 1992. Among the changes was a renaming of the act to The National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the name by which it has come to be known. Again, the enforcement of regulations was clarified and strengthened, with explicit language defining violations. With this change, it became unlawful to "injure or destroy sanctuary resources that are managed under law or regulation for that sanctuary; to violate any provision of the NMSA or regulations issued pursuant to it; to possess any sanctuary resource taken illegally; or to interfere with the enforcement of the NMSA." Maximum penalties for violation were increased to $100,000. Monitoring and education were also added as priorities within marine sanctuaries. Finally, this amendment authorized the establishment of citizen advisory councils to assist in designating and managing marine sanctuaries.

Further changes in 1996 authorized the development of public-private partnerships between the sanctuary program and private enterprise. Among the provisions, the secretary was allowed to "enter agreements that allowed entities to create, market or sell on the secretary's behalf."

Finally in 2000, the language of the act was clarified to make it illegal to offer for sale, purchase, import, or export any sanctuary resource. In addition, enforcement of the NMSA was given sharper teeth, adding criminal penalties for resisting or interfering with enforcement, and for knowingly submitting false information to the secretary or any enforcement officer.

Over the more than a quarter century since the inception of the program, the number of designated national marine sanctuaries has grown to 13, and the protected area has increased from a single square mile to some 18,000 square miles (46,800 sq km). While each is equally protected under the act, the management of each sanctuary is unique, owing in part to the location, resources and marine life inhabiting each.

Managing the Sanctuaries

Each sanctuary has its own set of regulations designed to effectively manage and protect its resources. However, some prohibitions are common to most sanctuaries. These include:

- Discharge of material or other matter into the sanctuary.

- Disturbance of, alteration of, or construction upon the seabed.

- Disturbance of cultural resources.

- Exploring for, developing, or producing oil, gas, or minerals, except that pre-existing operations are grandfathered.

Some of the sanctuaries also prohibit activities relating to the taking of or disturbance of marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles and other inhabitants. Operation of aircraft within some areas, the use of personal watercraft, mining for minerals, and anchoring vessels is also prohibited in some marine sanctuaries. Divers should know and observe all regulations regarding the disturbance or removal of marine life when diving in marine sanctuaries.

Each marine sanctuary, while embodying the same overall goals and objectives, is faced with unique issues, problems and challenges. Therein lies the need for regulations, and alternative strategies for managing the resources.

For example, the focus of tourism within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is in boating, diving, snorkeling and fishing. It is estimated that 55 percent of all visiting boaters engage in fishing, and that 29 percent partake in scuba or snorkeling. These activities directly and indirectly damage the natural environment. The damage includes propeller scarring of eelgrass beds, anchor damage to coral reefs and tangles of monofilament line that snare and strangle sea life. To counter these problems, the management strategy had relied as much on education as on enforcement. Channels and reefs are well-marked to prevent boats from running aground and inflicting damage. More than 400 mooring buoys have been installed to accommodate fishing and dive charter boats. And some areas have restricted access to limit damage and allow various species to recover.

Although the term sanctuary might seem to imply a prohibition of taking marine life, many sanctuaries do in fact allow harvesting of certain species, privately and commercially, from their waters. For example, commercial harvesting of kelp, fish and invertebrates in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is well-recognized as important to the economy. Management strategies within the sanctuary are oriented towards balancing protection with commercial interests.

A Vacation Going Under

If you've ever enjoyed the quiet solitude or marveled at the natural beauty of our national parks, then consider the prospects offered by their underwater cousins, the national marine sanctuaries. The diversity offered by these protected areas is every bit as notable as our national parks, and the solitude every bit as real. It has been estimated that 50 percent of our population lives within 50 miles of the oceans or great lakes, and that number is expected to grow. This alone highlights the importance of protecting our underwater natural resources, but it also suggests that access to such an underwater protected area is probably not far from home.

For those who have wandered through the back country of one of our magnificent national parks and reveled in the solitude and wonder of nature, consider this: An even greater escape may lie in the protected wilderness submerged off our shores than upon our great continent.

Our 13 National Marine Sanctuaries

The Monitor

The first sanctuary, established in January 1975, was the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. The 1-square-mile (2.6-sq-km) patch of ocean 16 miles (26 km) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, is the site of the wreck of the USS Monitor, a Civil War ironclad vessel that lies in some 230 feet (70 m) of water. As a prototype for a new class of vessels in its day, this wreck has distinct historical and cultural value. Constructed in a mere 110 days, the USS Monitor embodied the latest technology of the day, and held the promise of revolutionizing sea warfare.

Over the years, prevailing natural environmental conditions have taken their toll on the wreck, and an ongoing research effort has been targeting means of stabilizing the wreck to prevent or slow the degradation. Meanwhile, exhaustive historical research and the recovery and preservation of key components of the wreck have expanded our understanding and appreciation of the time and circumstances under which the proud ship sailed. In August, U.S. Navy divers recovered the gun turret, the prized artifact of the ship. The Monitor, with its revolving armored turret, marked the end of sail-powered wooden ships and ushered in the era of steel-plated ships of today's naval forces.

The remote location and depth of the wreck preclude any significant recreational diving, although private groups have reached the site. An educational program including public presentations, posters, brochures and reports serve as an educational outreach program to expand awareness of the wreck and its significance. (For more information, see "History Underwater," Dive Training, September 2002.)

Channel Islands

One of the more popular dive destinations along the California Coast is the Channel Islands. With its large, readily accessible kelp forests populated with playful pinnipeds, and the juxtaposition of warm and cold currents that form a fertile submarine landscape, it's no surprise that a 1,658-square-mile (4,311-sq-km) swath of the region was in September 1980 designated as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

The sanctuary stretches some 25 miles (40 km) offshore along the coast, encompassing the waters of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and the Santa Barbara Islands. This region includes a variety of habitats from the popular kelp forests to sandy beaches, seagrass meadows, deep rocky reefs and pelagic, open-ocean areas. More than 27 species of whales and dolphins migrate to or through the sanctuary each year, including blue, humpback and sei whales.

The Channel Islands sanctuary is an immensely popular recreation area. In addition to diving, the area attracts boaters, kayakers and bird watchers. Kelp, as well as a broad variety of fish and invertebrates, is commercially harvested from sanctuary waters. A critical objective of the sanctuary is to balance the protection and preservation of the marine species, environments and prehistoric tribal artifacts with the increasing pressures of recreational and commercial activities. Major issues have included gas and oil development, nearby shipping lanes, nonpoint source pollution and both commercial and recreational fishing. State and federal agencies perform oceanographic, seabird, marine mammal, kelp forest and intertidal research supported by the sanctuary.

Gulf of the Farallones

This coastal habitat, along the coast of California northwest of San Francisco, serves as an important spawning ground and nursery for a significant number of commercially valuable species, including 33 species of marine mammals and 15 species of sea birds. In fact, one-fifth of California's harbor seals come to the Farallones Island within the sanctuary to breed. The area, which encompasses 1,255 square miles (3,263 sq km) of shoreline and ocean and is home to the largest concentration of breeding seabirds in the continental United States, was added to the roster of national marine sanctuaries in January 1981.

Among the research activities ongoing in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is a monitoring program that studies the rocky intertidal habitats within the protected area. Volunteers in the Beach Watch program are trained to conduct the shoreline monitoring, and sanctuary workers are working to restore key marshes and reintroduce Common Murre populations to the outer coasts of the sanctuary.

Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary

Some 20 miles (32 km) east of Sapelo Island, Georgia, in 60 feet (18 m) of water exists one of the largest near-shore sandstone reefs in the southeastern United States. Sandstone outcroppings and ledges separated by flat-bottomed troughs form an incredible underwater maze. Decorated by colorful sponges and corals, and swarming with grouper, angelfish and black sea bass, this area has become a popular destination for sport fishermen and divers alike. To protect this unique area from the increasing recreational and commercial pressures, it was designated a national marine sanctuary in January 1981.

Among the many research activities sponsored by the sanctuary are reef fish tagging and assessment, benthic and invertebrate monitoring, and geoarchaeological surveys. As part of an educational outreach program, the sanctuary has developed a marine science curriculum targeting elementary, middle and high school students, offered statewide through the Georgia Distance Learning Network.

Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Not all the national marine sanctuaries lie at the shores of the continental United States. This sanctuary, designated in April 1986, is a quarter-square-mile preserve on the southwest shore of Tutuila Island, American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the Polynesian Islands, where a fringing coral reef ecosystem lies within an eroded volcano crater. In the 1970s, crown-of-thorns starfish invaded the area, destroying more than 90 percent of the nearly 200 coral species that make up the reef. New growth has been damaged by hurricanes, tropical storms and coral bleaching, a cycle of growth common to tropical marine ecosystems.

The research in this environment focuses on surveying the habitat, monitoring water quality, and surveying the long-term recovery of the coral species.

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary

This relatively small (526-square-mile [1,368-sq-km]) region 60 miles (96 km) northwest of San Francisco contains what is considered the most productive seamount on the West Coast. The combination of sea bottom topography and prevailing currents creates an upwelling of nutrient-rich waters that support a complex web of marine life. The soft sediment of the continental shelf and slope rises up to the seamount, giving way to rocky subtidal regions. Key species in these waters include krill, pacific salmon, rockfish, humpback whales, blue whales, Dall's porpoises, albatross and Shearwater.

Designated as a national marine sanctuary in May 1989, this highly productive region is of particular scientific interest. Sanctuary researchers are conducting an integrated study to understand the complex relationships between the oceanographic elements and the broad distribution of marine life that exists there. Scientists examine the daily migration and distribution of krill, the primary food source of many predatory species. Other studies include pelagic surveys of marine species, and monitoring of marine biotoxins.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Quite probably the most well-known of the marine sanctuaries is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a 3,801-square-mile (9,883-sq-km) area surrounding the archipelago formed by the Florida Keys, designated in November 1990. Incorporating a variety of habitats such as coral reefs, mangrove-fringed shorelines and islands, sand flats and seagrass meadows, this region is considered one of the most diverse assemblages of underwater plants and animals in North America, and has been a popular destination for divers for decades. Brain and star corals, loggerhead turtles, sponges, spiny lobster, bottlenose dolphins, groupers and a variety of tropical reef fish form the key species found in the sanctuary.

Research in the sanctuary is virtually as diverse as the area itself, focusing on the cause-and-effect relationships involved in ecosystem health, reef ecology and physiology, and coral diseases. The sanctuary staff, in cooperation with the EPA and state of Florida, provide an extensive monitoring program for corals, seagrasses and water quality.

Educational programs include school programs such as the CORAL Reef Classroom, and volunteer programs such as Team OCEAN. Community education has been enhanced through various television, radio, print media and training workshops.

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

About a hundred miles off the coast of Texas and Louisiana, the barren desert bottom of the Gulf of Mexico pushed up by salt domes rises to an oasis of sea life called the Flower Garden Banks. Here lie the northernmost coral reefs in the continental United States, brimming with star and brain coral, a haven for loggerhead turtles and groupers, and visited by manta rays and hammerhead sharks. Despite its remote location, the Flower Garden Banks has long been a popular destination among divers, frequented by live-aboard dive charters from the mainland. Coral reefs, algal-sponge communities, sand flats and brine seeps form some of the more important habitats in the area, along with pelagic, open-ocean areas. Sharp increases in oil and gas development, commercial fishing, sport diving, and anchoring vessels spurred designation of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a 56-square-mile (146-sq-km) protected area, in January 1992.

The remote location of the Flower Garden Banks, some seven to eight hours by boat, provides a serious challenge in management of this area. Coast Guard aircraft, often with sanctuary staff aboard, patrol the water at low level to monitor activity in the area. Dive vessel operators and vessels servicing nearby oil platforms also help keep an eye on activities in the area.

Research at the Flower Gardens involves monitoring reef health, as well as various populations of marine life. Remote monitoring technology also is used, with deep-water surveys by ROVs, and satellite tracking of drift buoys to study the dispersal of coral larvae. Educational outreach programs sponsored by the sanctuaries include classroom and shipboard programs, teacher workshops, and both video and printed media materials.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

South of San Francisco is a much larger and more well-known national marine sanctuary. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, designated in September 1992, serves to protect a 5,328-square-mile (13,853-sq-km) region spanning from the sandy beaches and rocky shores, to the deepest underwater canyons in North America. Home to sea otters, gray whales, squid and brown pelicans, the sanctuary offers some of the most exciting and fantastic diving in the cool waters of its biologically rich giant kelp forests.

Beyond the diving, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is home to numerous research activities, which along with 20 local marine science institutions, document and monitor the coastal ecosystem, evaluate resource management issues and disseminate information through various publications and symposia.

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Sanctuary

This remarkable stretch of ocean, circumscribed by the 100-fathom isobath bordered by Maui, the north shore of Kauai, the north and south shores of Oahu, and the Kohola coastline off the north shore of the big island of Hawaii, is one of the most important humpback whale habitats in the world. It is thought that two-thirds of the entire North Pacific Humpback whale population annually migrates to Hawaiian waters for breeding, calving and nursing. This sanctuary was established in November 1992 in part to protect this endangered species, and to facilitate its recovery to more sustainable levels.

The primary thrust of research in this sanctuary is on whale population and behavior, conducted by sanctuary staff and sanctuary-supported graduate students. Combined with a volunteer water quality monitoring program on Maui, these efforts are key to preserving and protecting these giant marine mammals.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Twenty-five miles (40 km) east of Boston, 3 miles (4.8 km) southeast of Cape Ann, and 3 miles north of Provincetown, Massachusetts, is a region called Stellwagen Bank. What makes this area unique is that its position at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay forces an upwelling of nutrient-rich waters from the Gulf of Maine, resulting in a highly productive marine ecosystem. This ecosystem, with its mud-filled basins, rocky ledges, and coarse sand banks, supports myriad marine life from single-celled phytoplankton to humpback and northern right whales. In November 1992, a trapezoidal 842-square-mile (2,189-sq-km) fetch of Atlantic was designated Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Among the varied research projects in the sanctuary are a side-scan sonar survey, geological characterization of the area with the U.S. Geological Survey and a fishery habitat program. The site is also home to the Aquanaut Program of the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut, which engages in student research involving benthic communities and acoustics.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

From the rocky, rugged shoreline of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and extending 25-50 miles (40-80 km) seaward lies the 3,310-square-mile (8,606-sq-km) Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Designated as such in July 1994, this region includes a variety of habitats, including rocky headlands and sandy beaches, kelp forests, seastacks and islands, open-ocean pelagic regions, and several major submarine canyons. Beyond the key species such as the bald eagle, northern sea otter, bull kelp and California gray whale, this region holds numerous cultural resources. Within its waters lie more than 150 documented shipwrecks, and the contemporary cultures of the Makah, Quinault, Hoh and Quileute nations.

Within the sanctuary, federal, tribal, state agencies, university and private research organizations partner in physical oceanographic, geologic, marine archaeological and biological research. The sanctuary, in cooperation with the National Parks Service, has developed interpretive programs for visitors. The sanctuary helps local tribes develop educational eco-tourism programs, and helps local school districts develop marine science programs.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Designated in October 2000, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in northern Lake Huron (near Alpena, Michigan) protects a 448-square-mile (1,165-sq-km) region within which lie some 160 wrecks spanning 200 years of Great Lakes shipping. Beyond the historically significant wrecks, the sanctuary is home to historical remnants of docks and piers, and materials from historic and prehistoric Native Americans. Many of the wrecks lie within the limits of recreational scuba, and are frequented by dive charters.

As part of the research and educational outreach programs, the Institute for Exploration is conducting a side-scan sonar mapping expedition to survey a portion of the sanctuary. A joint NOAA/state/local task force has initiated the construction of a Maritime Heritage Center to serve visitors to the sanctuary.