Marine Conservation Biology Institute Marine Conservation Biology Institute
Marine Conservation Biology Institute

National Marine Sanctuaries

Olympic Coast coral  

Deep-sea corals and rockfish at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (Photo: OCNMS)


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 NMSA, sanctuaries are managed for multiple uses provided the uses are deemed compatible with resource protection. The NMSA 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.  

Thus far, 13 national marine sanctuaries have been designated in the U.S. and its territories. In total, they encompass approximately 18,500 square miles. The newly established Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument is not a sanctuary. It is co-managed by the Secretary of Commerce (by NOAA’s marine sanctuary program office) the Secretary of the Interior (by Fish and Wildlife Service) and the State of Hawaii.

In order to facilitate understanding of what is or isn’t protected in a sanctuary near you, MCBI has prepared fact sheets on each of the 13 sanctuaries, with information on when they were designated, how large they are, what research is conducted, what endangered and threatened species are present, and what activities are allowed. These are not meant to be comprehensive lists used to determine whether you can go fishing, for example, in a sanctuary, but to give the reader a sense of the completeness, or incompleteness, of the protections provided by individual sanctuaries.

Fact sheets [PDF]:

National Marine Sanctuaries Act and Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization

During the 109th Congress, a reauthorization bill of theMagnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was advanced by Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (H.R. 5018). This bill contained a provision that would have required that any sanctuary regulation concerning the conservation or management of fish or fish habitat within a sanctuary comply with the goals and terms of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal law that governs fishing in federal waters. In other words, the Magnuson-Stevens Act would have become the controlling legal authority in managing a large part of sanctuary ecosystems, and commercial fishing would have been elevated to a mandatory preferred use of the nation’s 13 marine sanctuaries. During the mark-up hearing held in May 2006, Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ) successfully offered an amendment to strike this provision from H.R. 5018. At the hearing Chairman Pombo indicated that this issue will be revisited, likely during the reauthorization of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) which is scheduled to occur in 2007–2008. 

Legislative History of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act

sanctuary pic
(Photo: NOAA)

MCBI's Bill Chandler and Hannah Gillelan examined the legislative history of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA). The NMSA is up for reauthorization by Congress. It is hoped that MCBI's 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.

In 2004 the journal Environmental Law Reporter News & Analysis published Bill and Hannah's 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."






Download -
"The History and Evolution of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act" is an analysis of how well the NMSA has performed its preservation mission and how it might be improved to ensure that our marine resources are protected for the future.

Download the full version of this study.

Download the condensed version of this study, titled "The Makings of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act."

Learn More – See MCBI’s past and present efforts to strengthen place-based management of marine resources in the Gulf of Maine, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and on North America’s Pacific coast.