Turtles enjoy the beach in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument on September 1, 2016. (Getty/AFP/Saul Loeb)

USA - Proposed National Marine Sanctuaries Provide a Pathway Toward Indigenous-Led Ocean Conservation

The United States can move closer to its dual goals of increasing access to nature for all Americans and protecting 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 by approving and completing the designation of five new Indigenous-led marine sanctuaries.

Introduction and summary

Indigenous peoples have sustained a mutually beneficial relationship with lands and waters since well before the modern-day conservation movement began. The ocean itself is important to Indigenous people as a source of livelihood, healing, and historic tradition, and the ocean conservation movement must put Indigenous knowledge and requests at its core. The Biden administration, for its part, has prioritized bringing Indigenous knowledge to the forefront of conservation for the past two years, including through historic personnel appointments—such as Secretary Deb Haaland to the U.S. Department of the Interior and Elizabeth Carr as Tribal adviser to the director at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget—and the incorporation of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in new climate legislation. National marine sanctuaries can serve as another powerful tool to engage Tribal and Indigenous communities in ocean conservation while protecting biodiverse sites from human-driven species loss.

There have been five proposed national marine sanctuaries accepted into the sanctuary inventory since 2016, and each of them involves various levels of Indigenous leadership and engagement. These sites have the potential to advance not only the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative, but also the environmental justice priorities underscored in the Inflation Reduction Act, as they are some of the first national marine sanctuaries to be led and potentially co-managed by Indigenous communities.

Background on national marine sanctuaries

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act was established as a response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that devastated California coastal ecosystems.1 Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) manages 16 sanctuaries and two marine national monuments, encompassing more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters.

There is some flexibility in national marine sanctuary regulations, and they may differ on a case-by-case basis so that sanctuaries can better meet varying goals and objectives designed with community input. National marine sanctuaries do not necessarily ban all threats to the ocean, but universally prohibited activities include “discharging material or other matter into the sanctuary; disturbance of, construction on or alteration of the seabed; disturbance of cultural resources; and exploring for, developing or producing oil, gas, or minerals,” with a grandfather clause for preexisting operations.2 Furthermore, most sanctuaries allow commercial, recreational, or subsistence fishing, as those activities remain regulated under state and federal law.3

Despite the long and involved process to designate sanctuaries, communities still embark on the journey, because these culturally and nationally significant areas are in need of protection and recognition.

Sanctuaries can be designated by congressional legislation or through NOAA’s two-part community-led process that first requires a nomination, which is initiated by a local individual, organization, or government, followed by the designation, which is completed by the ONMS.4 The most successful nominations prove that the nominated area holds national significance and that providing sanctuary designation would improve the management of that area, such as fostering research and marine science and opportunities for education. According to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the designation of a national marine sanctuary is a highly public and participatory process to ensure it considers the voices and needs of communities. Through community engagement and public meetings, NOAA works with local residents, businesses, civil organizations, mayors, and the state to develop the sanctuary, including its size, boundaries, and protected resources.5

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