photo of rocks and surf

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) regulations are codified at 15 CFR Part 922

Regulations have the effect and enforceability of law and are written in a specific manner. ONMS regulations prohibit specific kinds of activities, describe and define the boundaries of the designated national marine sanctuaries and set up a system of permits to allow the conduct of certain types of activities (that would otherwise not be allowed).

In general, regulations are used by the ONMS to implement the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and national marine sanctuary management plans. Each sanctuary has its own set of regulations within 15 CFR Part 922 in what are called subparts. Subparts F through R each contain the sanctuary-specific regulations for all fifteen sanctuaries (in order of designation) from Monitor National Marine Sanctuary through Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve. The regulations implementing Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are codified at 50 CFR Part 404.

Subparts A through E contain regulations that apply to the entire program. Subpart A lays out the overall objectives of the ONMS, defines several terms found throughout the rest of the regulations and describes the effect of the regulations. Subpart B describes the Sanctuary Nomination Process by which communities may submit nomination to have NOAA consider areas of the marine and Great Lakes environments as national marine sanctuaries. The Subpart also describes the national significance criteria and management considerations NOAA will use to evaluate nominations and consider adding the area to an inventory of areas for the NOAA to consider for designation as a national marine sanctuary. Subpart C summarizes the procedures for designating new national marine sanctuaries. Subpart D contains information about the development of sanctuary management plans. Subpart E contains provisions for the processing of sanctuary permits, emergency regulations and appeals.

While each sanctuary has its own unique set of regulations, there are some regulatory prohibitions that are typical for many sanctuaries:

  1. Discharging material or other matter into the sanctuary;
  2. Disturbance of, construction on or alteration of the seabed;
  3. Disturbance of cultural resources; and
  4. Exploring for, developing or producing oil, gas or minerals (with a grandfather clause for preexisting operations).

In addition, some sanctuaries prohibit other activities, such as the disturbance of marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles, operation of aircraft in certain zones, use of personal watercraft, mineral mining and anchoring of vessels. 

ONMS regulations are modified with ample opportunity for the public to offer their comments. Regulatory changes are published in the Federal Register as "proposed rules" first. This publication informs the public where to send comments and when they need to send them by (regulatory changes generally allow for 30 to 90 days of public comment depending on the complexity and significance of the changes). Once all comments have been reviewed, the ONMS will make any appropriate changes to the proposed rule and publish the text of the "final rule" in the Federal Register. The Federal Register document will also include response to the comments received on the proposed rule. In some circumstances, the ONMS will also publish an "advance notice of proposed rule making" prior to publishing a proposed rule to solicit input from the public on a particular issue. From these comments, the ONMS may draft a proposed rule.

History of the ONMS Regulations

On June 27, 1974, ONMS regulations were first codified to implement the provisions of Title III of the then recently enacted Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (see 39 FR 23254). Since then, ONMS regulations have been modified for both technical and substantive reasons.  Generally, substantive changes (e.g., new prohibitions) are made when a new sanctuary is designated or during the review process of a sanctuary management plan (this review is expected to take place every five years after a site is designated).  However, changes occur at other times as well. Examples include the recent (March 2001) expansion of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to include the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, the prohibition of chumming for white sharks and the limited allowance for the collection for jade in portions of Monterey Bay and the prohibition on the use of personal watercraft in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Technical modifications to the regulations have included the consolidation of ONMS regulations into 15 CFR Part 922 (until 1995 each set of sanctuary regulations was codified in a separate part of Title 15), minor technical adjustments to boundary coordinates and name changes.