By Shauna Potocky
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the marine wonders of the world; it is a biological hotspot—featuring an array of remarkable habitats and teeming with biodiversity. The sanctuary includes sandy beaches, rocky intertidal zones and a near-shore deep-sea canyon—all of which contribute to the unmatched concentration of marine life, world class natural resources and endless opportunities for recreation, tourism and appreciation. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is nothing short of a national treasure.
In fact, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBMNS) is just one of thirteen National Marine Sanctuaries—each of which features world class attributes, making them eligible for federal protections. Examples include Olympic Coast, Thunder Bay, Gray’s Reef, Florida Keys and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuaries. Many people are not familiar with the National Marine Sanctuary system, their various locations and the innovative programs that set them apart as learning institutions. Equally important is helping people understand the valuable work sanctuary staff conduct in order to manage and protect these remarkable places.
The National Marine Sanctuaries mission as stated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), who manages them, indicates that their role is to “conserve, protect and enhance the biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy of these underwater places.” The authority for establishing and protecting the sanctuaries comes from the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and NOAA reflects on this as, “one of the strongest pieces of ocean protection.”
Paul Michel, Superintendent of the MBNMS, has a deep passion for connecting people to the ocean and our national marine sanctuaries. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask him about the features that make the MBNMS so unique:
“The MBNMS is unique because of its land-sea connection; it includes 275 miles of California coast—this land-sea connection allows it to be directly adjacent to communities and accessible to user groups. The sanctuary also features an abundance of wildlife—it supports great migrations, charismatic mega fauna such as killer whales, blue whales and more. It is home to the California sea otter, and many of these animals and their unique habitats can be accessed or even seen from shore. For example, the deep–sea canyon is close to shore, it provides easy and accessible wildlife viewing.” He also added, “Because of the concentration of marine science institutions around the MBNMS, it serves as the West Coast’s equivalent of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (a world class facility focused on oceanographic and marine research). The MBNMS itself benefits from equally focused science monitoring and research.”
It is true, the sanctuary is home to remarkable institutions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and Long Marine Laboratory, the marine science campus for the University of California Santa Cruz.
Regarding the greatest successes of the MBNMS, Michel reflected on a few recent achievements, including the newly built state of the art visitor center located in Santa Cruz, California, as well as the development of a model water quality protection program. In addition, the sanctuary has developed SIMoN, the Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring System , a website that focuses on long term monitoring of adjoining sanctuaries focused on tracking shifts within these protected ecosystems.
Along with these highlights, the sanctuary also features some of the best subject matter experts in kelp forest ecology and deep-water benthic characterization. Field science isn’t the only area of expertise though, as one of the most recent additions to the sanctuary’s programming demonstrates— new to the suite of programs is Your Sanctuary, a television production that helps visitors to the area connect to the value and resources of the bay.
As stunning as the sanctuary is, it also faces significant challenges. When considering some of the issues facing the MBNMS currently, Michel stressed that there is a need for increased funding for operations and programming. An increase in funding could then help with addressing some of the critical issues such as the pressures and impacts from land-based pollutants, such as chemicals, plastics and other waste that end up in the water, as well as tackling the issue of marine debris, such as lost fishing gear and nets that can continue to capture marine life, damage resources or run the risk of entangling marine mammals such as seals and whales. Of course, as climate continues to shift, the sanctuary is also facing issues associated with ocean acidification and sea level rise—these challenges are significant and need to be addressed and managed.
When considering if the sanctuary is ready to tackle these challenges, it is reassuring to know that it is in expert hands and ready to address emerging issues. When asked how Michel would face these challenges, he replied, “Boldly! And with the best possible science and partnerships.”
Michel’s track record proves that he is skilled at working in partnerships and one tangible example is the completed MBNMS Exploration Center in Santa Cruz, “Partners are what made the Exploration Center in Santa Cruz happen,” he stated, “Without the donated land and fundraising that covered the cost of the exhibits—it couldn’t have happened.”
Partnerships and engagement take several forms, so if you are wondering if there is a place for citizens in the management of the sanctuary, it is exciting to note that there is a substantial role for both youth and citizens to engage in protecting their sanctuary.
Citizens have the opportunity to participate as a member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, a working group that consists of representatives from various stakeholder viewpoints including business, tourism, education, and citizens-at-large, all seated along side government and agency representatives. Together the working group provides guidance, recommendations and advises the Superintendent on sanctuary issues or management decisions such as on the establishment of Marine Protected Areas, Southern Sea Otter Translocation Program, Oil and Gas Exploration and much more. Participation on the council is an empowering and insightful opportunity—it is one not to be missed if you are inspired to make a difference.
Today, there are thirteen NMS and one monument—but why stop there? Perhaps you know of a special marine area that is worthy of sanctuary status. If so, Michel shared this exciting opportunity to get involved—currently there is a program inviting coastal communities to submit nominations for establishing new sanctuaries. With only 1 percent of marine habitats protected worldwide, and only thirteen sanctuaries set aside in the United States—it is clear that together we can do more than just be awed by our nation’s marine wonders— we can actually protect them as national treasures and legacies for the future—perhaps the one you nominate will be number fourteen.
Photo Credits: Kirk Keeler Photography