National Marine Sanctuaries: Protecting History Underwater

By Sharee Williamson posted 10-20-2017 09:59


In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which authorized the Secretary of Commerce to designate and protect areas of the marine environment that possess special national significance. This federal law was the first to specifically call for the protection of marine areas that possess significant “conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, educational, cultural, archaeological, or esthetic qualities.” Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manages the National Marine Sanctuary System, which consists of 13 national marine sanctuaries and two of the nation’s marine national monuments. The system includes more than 600,000 square miles of waters and encompasses a range of resources from coral reefs to marine species to historic shipwrecks.

The German U-boat U-352 rests off the coast of North Carolina. Sunk in 1942 by the USCGC Icarus, today it is a vibrant habitat for multiple species of marine life.  | Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA

The very first sanctuary designated under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act was established to safeguard arguably one of the most historically significant ships in United States history—the USS Monitor. The Monitor was the first ironclad vessel commissioned by the Union Army during the Civil War. It fought the Confederate Army’s Merrimack to a draw in the famous Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. Later that year, the Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It was not until more than 100 years later, in August 1973, that the wreck of the Monitor was located by a research team from Duke University. By establishing the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary as the first protected area under the new National Marine Sanctuaries Act, a strong precedent was established of using this tool to manage the nation’s historic and cultural resources. 

The steel bulk freighter Grecian is just one of the many wrecks protected in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Grecian sank not once, but twice, finally coming to rest in what are now sanctuary waters. | Credit: NOAA

The newest sanctuary was established in large part to protect historic resources. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron includes a well-preserved collection of approximately 100 identified shipwrecks. These shipwrecks, located along an area known as “Shipwreck Alley,” enable researchers and visitors to delve into the history of maritime commerce and travel on the Great Lakes. In addition to protecting these historic resources for the future, the new sanctuary, offering a visitor center and programming, has increased public awareness of these historic shipwrecks and supported the growth of tourism-based local businesses, such as tour boat companies and dive shops.

Explorat sunken aircraft in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. | Credit: National Marine Sanctuaries

Several other areas within the National Marine Sanctuary System also include cultural resources. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument includes native Hawaiian sacred sites, historic artifacts from the Battle of Midway, and resources from 19th-century commercial whaling operations. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is home to submerged Chumash cultural artifacts as well as more than 140 shipwrecks and aircraft wrecks. In the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, there are fourteen shipwrecks and two lighthouses listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

In this image a diver explores the wreck of the City of Washington in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. | Credit: National Marine Sanctuary via Flickr Creative Commons

This month will mark the 45th anniversary of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. The act has been used to protect historic and cultural resources that tell unique and varied stories about American history. This anniversary should be celebrated by commemorating the preservation and conservation successes of the National Marine Sanctuary System, and also by a rededication to protecting our nation’s most significant marine resources.

Sharee Williamson is an associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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