Biden Administration Should Strengthen National Marine Sanctuary Protections, Conservation and Faith Groups Say – NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)


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Kari Birdseye
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WASHINGTON – Ten conservation and faith-based organizations, consisting of millions of members, are petitioning the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to strengthen the National Marine Sanctuary System, which America’s iconic underwater parks and the species that live in our special coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes areas.

“On the 50th anniversary of this important program, the Biden Administration needs to modernize the National Marine Sanctuaries program for today’s challenges and deliver results for conservation,” said Alison Chase, a senior policy analyst for NRDC’s ocean program. “These nationally significant areas face mounting pressures from fishing, ship traffic, water pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, and other threats.”   

The petition requests regulatory changes, including requiring that sanctuary condition reports be updated every five years, based on best available data, and assessed by external scientific reviewers.  It also calls for revising the rating system for condition reports to use terms that more accurately describe the condition of sanctuary resources. 

The groups also request that management plan revisions be proposed within a year of the final condition report so that solutions are quickly provided to turn declining or poor systems around. The revised management plans should also respond to the threats identified in the condition reports through new management actions (not simply studies or assessments) and through revisions to sanctuary-specific regulations. Sanctuary designation documents should be amended when necessary to address threats to sanctuary resources.   

The petition asks NOAA to collaborate with other agencies to address activities outside of a sanctuary that impact the sanctuary’s health.  

“The National Marine Sanctuary system encompasses some of the nation’s most biologically diverse, ecologically valuable, and culturally rich places in the ocean,” said Dr. Priscilla Brooks, Vice President and Director of Ocean Conservation at Conservation Law Foundation. “Updated regulations are needed to ensure that these national treasures are healthy and thriving for generations to come.”   

Amy Kenney, Executive Director of the National Ocean Protection Coalition, said “NOAA’s new strategic plan for the Sanctuary Program outlines a vision for addressing the challenges of today while protecting special underwater places along our coasts, ocean, and Great Lakes into the future. The regulations requested in this petition provide a pathway to make the vision a reality. We have the shared goal of meeting the challenges of today while ensuring future generations can enjoy and benefit from thriving and healthy sanctuary resources.”

Fifty years ago, Congress passed the National Marine Sanctuaries Act to designate and safeguard marine areas with special ecological, cultural, and historical significance as national marine sanctuaries. Since then, President Biden established the first-ever national conservation goal to protect at least 30 percent of America’s land and water by 2030.

“We know how to care for our sanctuaries because it is how we worship God,” said Helen Smith, Ocean Climate Action Associate at Creation Justice Ministries. “Our National Marine Sanctuaries ought to be places of refuge where creatures are protected and where we can experience God’s creation. We urge the Biden Administration to take action to better protect and restore our National Marine Sanctuaries. It’s time to put the sacred back in sanctuaries.”

Designation as a national marine sanctuary does not guarantee strong habitat and wildlife protections. A recent study[CS1]  found seven of the ten largest national marine sanctuaries were minimally protected, one was lightly protected, and only two were fully or highly protected – meaning that only 20 percent of these areas are off limits to destructive activities that endanger ocean life and habitat.

“Not only do benefits accrue to biodiversity from fully or highly protected areas, but research now demonstrates that they enhance carbon sequestration, coastal protection, and the reproductive capacity of marine organisms as well as fishers’ catch and income,” says Dr. Lance Morgan, President of Marine Conservation Institute.

Another recent analysis of available condition reports for 14 national marine sanctuaries found that 37 percent of their wildlife, habitat, and water quality conditions are experiencing “either measurable, widespread, persistent, and/or severe impacts” and that 41 percent of their condition report trends are “declining.” 

Americans overwhelmingly favor protecting marine areas with environmental, educational, or cultural importance, according to recent polling.

“From whales breaching over the surf to colorful reef fish darting between coral, the sanctuary program stewards some of our most iconic–and vulnerable–ocean life. Robust marine sanctuary protections are imperative to keep these rich ocean habitats safe and healthy,” said Kelsey Lamp, Protect our Oceans campaign director with Environment America. “As sanctuary managers across the country finalize new plans for at-risk ocean habitats, new regulations will give them the tools and guidance they need to ensure future generations can appreciate our underwater wonders for decades to come.”

The ten groups involved in the NOAA petition are Azul, Conservation Law Foundation, Creation Justice Ministries, Earthjustice, Environment America, Marine Conservation Institute, the National Ocean Protection Coalition, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association, and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).
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