National Marine Sanctuary Frequently Asked Questions

photo of an elephant seal

Our national marine sanctuaries embrace part of our collective riches as a nation. Within their protected waters, giant humpback whales breed and calve their young, temperate reefs flourish and shipwrecks tell stories of our maritime history. Sanctuary habitats include beautiful rocky reefs, lush kelp forests, whale migrations corridors, spectacular deep-sea canyons and underwater archaeological sites. Our nation's sanctuaries can provide a safe habitat for species close to extinction or protect historically significant shipwrecks. Ranging in size from less than one square mile to 137,792 square miles, each sanctuary site is a unique place requiring special protections. Natural classrooms, cherished recreational spots and valuable commercial industries — marine sanctuaries represent many things to many people.

The National Marine Sanctuary System consists of 15 marine protected areas that encompass more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington State to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. The system includes 15 national marine sanctuaries and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, manages a national system of 17 underwater-protected areas. Since 1972, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked cooperatively with the public and federal, state and local officials to promote conservation while allowing compatible commercial and recreational activities. Increasing public awareness of our marine heritage, scientific research, monitoring, exploration, educational programs and outreach are just a few of the ways the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries fulfills its mission to the American people.

Under the 1972 Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, the Secretary of the Department of Commerce is authorized to designate discrete areas of the marine environment as national marine sanctuaries to promote comprehensive management of their special conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, research, educational or aesthetic resources. The U.S. Congress can also designate national marine sanctuaries. The president can also use the authority of the Antiquities Act to establish marine national monuments to be managed as part of the National Marine Sanctuary System.

The primary objective of a sanctuary is to protect its natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the ocean a sustainable way. Sanctuary waters provide a secure habitat for species close to extinction and protect historically significant shipwrecks and artifacts. Sanctuaries serve as natural classrooms and laboratories for schoolchildren and researchers alike to promote understanding and stewardship of our oceans. They often are cherished recreational spots for sport fishing and diving and support commercial industries such as tourism, fishing and kelp harvesting.

An ecosystem is the community of animals and plants and the environment with which it is interrelated. Within a sanctuary, the ecosystem includes all the living organisms, the ocean and its currents, the sea floor and shoreline, and the air and wind above. It may also include the freshwater watersheds that flow into the sanctuary and that are the spawning grounds for salmon and other fish species.

Sanctuary managers rely on a variety of mechanisms to understand and protect the sanctuary's living and historical resources. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act, along with site-specific legislation and regulations, provides the legal framework outlining the activities that are allowed or prohibited. The sanctuaries implement a permit system to regulate and oversee potentially harmful activities sanctuaries. This framework may be enhanced by the adoption of state and other federal laws and regulations.

Another important tool is "interpretive enforcement," emphasizing education about responsible behavior as a proactive method to prevent harmful resource impacts from occurring in the first place.

The term "marine resources" broadly defines the living marine resources (plants and animals), the water and currents, and the ocean floor and shoreline with a sanctuary. It also includes the historical and cultural resources within a sanctuary, from shipwrecks and lighthouses to archaeological sites and the cultural history of native communities. Sanctuaries are established to protect areas that encompass unique or significant natural and cultural features.

Local, state and federal agencies may have overlapping regulations or other management authorities aimed at protecting specific marine resources. However, no other federal agency is directly mandated to comprehensively conserve and manage special areas of the marine environment like the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Each agency may focus on different aspects or different resources, but generally their goals are consistent with protection and sustainable development of these marine areas. Coordination and cooperation among the responsible government agencies is key to successful sanctuary management.

NOAA's sanctuary nomination process is a public, community-based process by which a collection of interested individuals or groups can identify and recommend special areas of the marine or Great Lakes environment for possible designation as a national marine sanctuary. For more information on the sanctuary nomination process visit: