U.S. ocean waters span from New England to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, and the West Coast. They reach the frozen Arctic and sunny Pacific, include Hawaii and American Samoa and stretch across the western Pacific to Guam and the Northern Marianas.
America’s ocean is incredible in its vastness and diversity. Beautiful sandy beaches, ocean waters so clear that you can identify reef fish from 25 yards away, rafts of marbled murrelets feeding among kelp-covered rocks, polar bears stalking seals on the ice floes and the fresh shellfish that carry the clean, salty taste of the sea itself. These are just a few of the many gifts of the United States’ ocean waters – the largest ocean area of any single nation in the world. This bountiful ocean is part of every American’s national birthright and part of the public trust provided by “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them,”1 entrusted to every American citizen through the U.S. Constitution.2
Native peoples have lived on, used and stewarded these ocean waters for thousands of years, but since the advent of the United States, the benefits of our nation’s oceans have been continuously managed through investment and stewardship by America’s state and federal agencies. From the time that President Thomas Jefferson created the U.S. Coast Survey in 18073, the federal government recognized by law that scientific research and professional management were essential for productive commerce, national security and the stewardship of our marine natural resources.
Now, as when Jefferson established the Coastal Survey, the ocean remains our nation’s primary trading route. In 2016, “the U.S. maritime transportation system carried $1.5 trillion of cargo through U.S. seaports to and from our international trading partners.”4 This global economic engine is enabled by no less a mighty protector than the U.S. Navy and ably aided by the excellent work of the U.S. Coast Guard. The American investment in the right of free and uninhibited passage also involves the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Commerce, Agriculture, NASA and other administrative pillars of American governance. All have responsibilities in managing, stewarding and researching this immense salty estate. Our remarkable ocean resources, the habitat itself, the fisheries and the many other varied uses over all regions of the nation, demand a full government commitment to responsible and perpetual care and management.
The value of our ocean - including and beyond this blue economy – is immeasurable.
Many of the special places in our ocean’s varied regions are represented in the National Marine Sanctuary System. This tremendous network of underwater parks encompasses more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington State to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. The sanctuaries network includes a system of 13 National Marine Sanctuaries and the Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments.
What’s the difference between marine sanctuaries and marine monuments? National Marine Sanctuaries are designated by either administrative action by NOAA or legislative action by Congress under the legal authority of the National Marine Sanctuary Act. The sanctuaries are managed as a unit of the National Marine Sanctuary System. In contrast, Marine National Monuments are established by presidential authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorizes the president to establish national monuments on federal lands and waters that contain "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest."
Some of America’s best known and most beloved national parks were first created as monuments. The Antiquities Act has been used to protect special places by almost every American president since Theodore Roosevelt. Marine National Monuments are usually managed by either two or more federal or state agencies. Now, with an increased appreciation for the importance of habitat protection, these monuments include the oceanic treasures of the Pacific Remote Islands, Marianas Trench, and most recently, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
Both sanctuaries and monuments have advisory groups that include citizen stakeholders and representatives of local interests, but the levels of ecological protection in sanctuaries and monuments can differ. The Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, for example, allows significant levels of commercial fishing as managed by the regional fishery management council. In Marine National Monuments, establishment is often because of a need for full protection from all extractive human activities, from commercial fishing, to oil and gas drilling, sand mining, dumping and similar activities.
Beyond the progress made in habitat protection, many fisheries have become conservation success stories, with stocks rebounding to healthy, resilient levels that now promise to provide jobs and nourishment far into the future.
Overfishing of commercial fish stocks was once too common, but over the last decade, the practice of overfishing in our national waters has all but ended in most regions, thanks to science-based annual catch limits and responsible fishing industry practices. In part, this reflects an understanding that we need to manage our fisheries both for our present needs, and also for decades to come.
The Moore Foundation’s Marine Conservation Initiative focuses on the protection of important marine habitats and the sustainable management of fisheries in high-priority North American ocean geographies: the U.S. and Canadian Arctic, British Columbia and the U.S. West Coasts.
Healthy fisheries, like safeguarded ocean habitat, are valued by American society at large. Billions of tons of fish and shellfish have been extracted from the ocean for our food and other uses. Strong laws like the Magnuson-Stevens Act have guided management of commercial and recreational fisheries since 1976 and over time have continually improved the robustness and abundance of managed fish stocks. When coupled with the marine habitat protection afforded by Marine Sanctuaries and Monuments, science-based fisheries management works well. Combined, these two approaches create an effective ocean management strategy for healthier ecosystems by providing insurance for managed fisheries to be stronger and more resilient even with increasing impacts from a changing climate.
Having well managed commercial fish stocks is a societal and national need. So too is protecting large areas of ocean habitat, so that our nation’s ocean waters may continue for generations to provide for all manner of fishing, recreational use, scientific discovery, national defense and security — as well as the needs of the millions of species that call the ocean home.
Our ocean is the most diverse and spectacular ocean system owned by any country in the world. Thomas Jefferson would be proud of his marine legacy.
Sean Cosgrove is a program officer in the Environmental Conservation Program at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
- Declaration of Independence. Quote found in first paragraph. Transcript found at https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
The Constitution of the United States. Article IV. Section 3. Transcript found at https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript
History of the Coast Survey Office. Found at https://nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/about/history-of-coast-survey.html
- Economic value provided by NOAA National Ocean Service. Most recently found on June 28, 2018 at https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/oceaneconomy.html