9 March 2023 — The National Marine Sanctuary System—Protection, Study, Education and Outreach


The United States is considering a new national marine sanctuary, and you can be a part of the process. Until 20 March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is accepting public comment on the proposed Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary, nominated in 2017 by the city of Oswego, NY, and the counties of Oswego, Jefferson, Wayne, and Cayuga with the support of the governor, “to protect and increase awareness of a nationally significant collection of shipwrecks; to foster partnerships with education and research groups, and to increase opportunities for tourism and recreation as part of the regional Blue Economy.” As part of the public-input process, NOAA has conducted in-person and virtual meetings for the public and stakeholders to communicate their “comments on the boundary, the proposed regulations, the proposed Special Use Permit category for operating tethered underwater mobile systems at shipwreck sites, the proposed terms of designation, and potential names for the sanctuary.” More detailed information on the proposed boundary, regulations etc. can be found here. Members of the public may still share their comments, either by mail (be sure to put the docket number, NOAA–NOS–2021–0050, at the top of your comment) submitted to:

Ellen Brody

Great Lakes Regional Coordinator

4840 South State Road

Ann Arbor, MI 48108–9719 

or via the Federal eRulemaking Portal. All comments are public record, including the information such as name and address submitted in the comment form, but NOAA will also accept anonymous comments. Commenters who choose to omit personal identifying information should enter “N/A” in the required fields.

scuba diver swimming to the right of a submerged ship hull

Stakeholders of the proposed Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary talk about the significance of the site.

This comment period is the latest in the long, deliberate process of designating national marine sanctuaries; the initial community nomination back in 2017 was just the first step in the selection process, a conversation of sorts that draws on the input of the community and stakeholders, environmental experts, and potential governmental and tribal partners. The proposed sanctuary is a 1,724 square-mile area that contains 43 known shipwrecks, including the historic schooner St. Peter, and an aircraft. Historical records suggest that more than 20 additional archaeological sites may be located within these boundaries. The site contains portions of the original homelands of the Onondaga Nation, Cayuga Nation, Seneca Nation, and Oneida Nation. If the site is designated as a national marine sanctuary, NOAA would manage the sanctuary as part of the National Marine Sanctuary System, and be involved in the documentation, interpretation, and protection of its resources, as well as being involved in promoting heritage tourism and recreation.

map of proposed Lake Ontario sanctuary

The proposed new national marine sanctuary encompasses 1,724 square miles and contains 43 known shipwreck sites. Map: NOAA

"We know that when we protect our oceans we're protecting our future."

—President Bill Clinton

The National Marine Sanctuary System originated with the 1972 passage of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA). The text of the law first addressed the issue of ocean pollution; the headings for Title I and Title II, respectively, are “Ocean Dumping” and “Comprehensive Research on Ocean Dumping,” intended to limit ocean pollution. Title III, “Marine Sanctuaries,” authorized the secretary of commerce, in consultation with other heads of relevant agencies as well as the US president, to designate as marine sanctuaries areas in US-controlled ocean waters and the Great Lakes and connecting waters, “which he deems necessary for the purpose of preserving or restoring such areas for their conservation, recreational, ecological, or esthetic values.” 

The first site to benefit from the protections of this new law was the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. When the location of the iconic ironclad Monitor, lost on 31 December 1862, was discovered sixteen miles off the coast of North Carolina in 1973, there was a concern that the site would be vulnerable to damage from looters. Although the MPRSA initially didn’t spell out the protection of maritime heritage resources as grounds for creating a new sanctuary, North Carolina nominated the site for sanctuary status so that activity near the wreck site would be regulated. NOAA’s management of the site included regular monitoring; when it became evident that parts of the wreck were deteriorating significantly, portions of the ship, including the rotating gun turret, were recovered and relocated to The Mariners’ Museum, which established the Batten Conservation Complex to preserve and interpret those key pieces. We're looking forward to a guided tour of this impressive facility as part of our NMHS Annual Meeting weekend and hearing from Will Hoffman, director of conservation of the USS Monitor Center; to take part, register here.

map of national sanctuary system

The system of National Marine Sanctuaries and monuments, as well as four proposed sites. Map: NOAA.

Today's National Maritime Sanctuary System comprises fifteen national marine sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments (Rose Atoll has been made part of the American Samoa sanctuary). While they are similar in the protections they enjoy, monuments differ from sanctuaries in that they are designated by the president under the Antiquities Act, and they are typically managed by multiple government agencies.

American Samoa and Rose Atoll

Channel Islands

Cordell Bank

Florida Keys

Flower Garden Banks

Gray’s Reef

Greater Farallones

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale

Mallows Bay-Potomac River


Monterey Bay

Olympic Coast

Stellwagen Bank

Thunder Bay


Wisconsin-Shipwreck Coast

3 scuba divers over a submerged ship hull

Longtime readers of Sea History and Sea History Today will remember the story of the schooner Rouse Simmons, the "Christmas tree ship," which sank in late November of 1912, fully loaded with Christmas trees intended for sale in Chicago. The wreck site of Rouse Simmons is one of many in the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, the most recent sanctuary added to the program. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

One of the important components of today's National Marine Sanctuary System is involvement. Just as the nomination process begins with community study and support, community connections remain important once sites become part of the program. Sanctuaries serve as the foundations for programs like the Bay Watershed Education and Training Program (BWET), supporting environmental education to K-12 students, and inspired the Ocean Guardian School Program. And there are plenty of ways for community members to stay involved, through advisory councils, citizen science and volunteer opportunities. The sanctuary program not only protects important sites for us, it does so in partnership with us.

Of course, there is a whole lot more to discover about these wonderful resources, and I encourage you to explore further, to learn more about each of these sites, visit them if you have a chance, and possibly become more involved. We want to make sure the sanctuary system protects our environmental and cultural treasures for generations to come.

Extra Credit

Sea History 179: National Marine Sanctuaries at 50!

Time and Tide: A History of the National Marine Sanctuary System

Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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