Marine Sanctuaries: Nationally Significant But Locally Controversial?
Gray wolves were nearly driven to extinction, but in 1995, they were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park. The ecological benefits have had a ripple effect and continue to fascinate scientists. National parks conserve land for future generations and protect the species that live there. National marine sanctuaries are the aquatic analogue to national parks, providing “a safe habitat for species close to extinction or protect[ing] historically significant shipwrecks.”
However, many in the fishing industry feel these sanctuaries impede upon local economies without proper stakeholder consultation or do not fit the “nationally significant” requirement. At a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on Tuesday, fishing captains and policymakers hashed out their viewpoints regarding the benefits and problems associated with national marine sanctuaries.
The overarching theme throughout Tuesday’s hearing concerned the need for local consultation in the designation process. Since 1972, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act has allowed the secretary of Commerce “to designate and protect areas of the marine environment with special national significance due to their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational or esthetic qualities” as national marine sanctuaries. Chairman Dan Sullivan (AK) pointed out that the act doesn’t require stakeholder engagement be taken into consideration (although it does require the engagement occur), leading to local communities “feeling betrayed.” Captain Scott Hickman (Owner, Circle H Outfitters) echoed this sentiment, saying that for local fishers like himself, “our voice doesn’t have weight.” Captain Jeremiah O’Brien (Former President, Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Association) acknowledged their benefits but countered, “In our case, it’s a breach of trust.” Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Jr. (Former Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)) defended marine sanctuaries, noting that “a healthy ocean is the basis for thriving recreation, tourism, and many other diverse commercial activities that drive coastal and national economies.” Despite complaints from fishers about a lack of local consideration, Lautenbacher firmly stated, “The designation process is long and complex, designed to be an extensive public activity, including robust community engagement, stakeholder involvement, and citizen participation.” However, he did note that more negotiations may be necessary to find stakeholder agreement.
Witnesses also disagreed on the economic significance of these protected areas. While Captain O’Brien said that sanctuary management has harmed both commercial and recreational fishing industries, Lautenbacher lauded the role of managed protected areas in “fostering economically beneficial conservation,” calling it “a model to the world.” The designation and jurisdiction of national marine sanctuaries is clearly contentious — in April, President Trump issued Executive Order 13795, which keeps the secretary from designating new sanctuaries and institutes a review of current ones; the public comment period for said review is open until July 26.