MARINE SANCTUARIES, created by Title III of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, and amended and reauthorized every four years beginning in 1980. Congress was responding in large part to pressure from the growing environmental movement for environmental protection. Books such as The Sea Around Us (1951, rev. 1961) by Rachel Carson and television documentaries by the French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau enchanted a wide popular audience with descriptions of marine organisms. Their works carried the message that the human impact on marine ecosystems directly and adversely affects human health. The 1972 legislation not only provided the mechanism for protecting the ecosystems of the U.S. coast through ocean sanctuaries but also mandated a federal marine research program and enabled the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate industrial and municipal disposal of wastes at sea.
Thirty years later, the National Marine Sanctuary System, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, comprises thirteen designated sanctuaries, including unique and threatened areas in both coastal and offshore locations. Seven of the designated sanctuaries have been incorporated into the system since 1990, and together the sanctuaries comprise nearly 18,000 square miles of protected area—an area almost as large as Vermont and New Hampshire together. They are located from American Samoa to California to Florida, and protect a wide range of environmentally sensitive phenomena, from corridors for migrating whales to deep-sea canyons, coral reefs, and historically significant shipwrecks. Although the government regulates the use of the sanctuaries, it encourages many different uses, including recreation, shipping, and even commercial fishing.