As little as 150 years ago, some scientists believed that there was no way that humans could significantly impact the ocean. Fish stocks appeared so healthy that they believed there would always be enough fish in the sea. However, by the time Huxley uttered his famous quote in the 1890s (“I believe...all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible"), some fisheries had already collapsed and industries were beginning to boom and pollute waterways. Advances in technology resulted in bottom trawls and dredges to catch mussels and bottom dwelling organisms. In 1993, the cod fishery in New England collapsed, one of the fisheries Huxley considered immune. In addition, as the demand for fuel and natural gas rose, so did the exploitation of the ocean, with 4,000 oil platforms currently in the Gulf of Mexico alone (see figure). The Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 had major environmental impacts and brought to the limelight to potential harmful effects of these oil platforms on the ocean and coastal environment.
However, nestled in these platforms is the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Texas. National marine sanctuaries are the crown jewel of America’s marine conservation efforts. Similar to the goal of National Forests’ to preserve wilderness for multiple uses, marine sanctuaries were created to ensure that future generations can enjoy the ecological and cultural resources our ocean provides. The first sanctuary created was Monitor off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina in 1975. Protection at each sanctuary varies and is regulated by the Sanctuary staff and the Advisory Council. At some sanctuaries, boats are prohibited from anchoring, while at others, diving and some recreational fishing may be allowed. Sanctuaries are crucial, not just for protecting marine habitat, but for our commercial fisheries as well because they serve as spawning grounds for commercially important species like tuna or swordfish; closing North Atlantic Swordfish spawning grounds was one of the keys to the population’s recovery in the late 1990s after catches had decreased by 50%.
Sanctuaries are also a great place to go diving and see relatively pristine habitat. Despite being surrounded by oil platforms, Flower Garden Banks is one of the healthiest reefs in the world and diving is very popular. Sea turtles, large grouper, sharks, and a high diversity of colorful reef fish live with a significantly diminished threat from fishermen.
You may have been to a Marine Sanctuary and not even have known it! The Florida Keys are all in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary which protects 3,000 nautical miles extending from Miami to the Tortugas.
Marine sanctuaries receive recommendations for their management by advisory councils made up of people from different backgrounds, including government agencies, fishermen, and academics. Our director at TNACI, Anna George, is currently serving on the council for Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary as a conservation representative. This is one of the largest near shore live reefs in the southeastern U.S. and is located 16 miles off the coast of Georgia. Part of the sanctuary is accessible to divers and recreational fishermen, but a portion of it is closed for research only. This ensures that scientists can monitor the health of the reef and the animals that call it home.
Do you know where your nearest marine sanctuary is? Go to www.sanctuaries.noaa.gov to find out!