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America's Underwater Treasures Celebrate 40 Years
updated: Oct 23, 2012, 7:54 PM

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

America's Underwater Treasures Celebrate 40 Years By Jean-Michel Cousteau

More than half of America's borders are water, stretching over 12,000 miles of coastline. But a country doesn't end at the shore. It extends far into the ocean, lakes and into the deep. Within these waters are found some of America's most important natural resources, places of incomparable beauty, and irreplaceable artifacts of history -- all underwater treasures that, on the whole for the American people, are unknown, unseen, and sometimes at risk.

Forty years ago this week, Congress passed the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, later named the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and established National Marine Sanctuary System. NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries manages and protects 14 marine areas, which extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and include some of the most remote island groups in the world.

These sanctuaries represent a microcosm of the entire ocean and reflect the best and the worst of human activity. There are areas that remain so rich, they remind us what a healthy ocean is like, while other places have been devastated and are being restored. America's five national marine sanctuaries off the West Coast are very special to me and my Ocean Futures Society Team. Our headquarters is located in Santa Barbara, in the heart of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. We have had the great pleasure of exploring the sanctuary's many natural underwater wonders.

The Channel Islands, also a national park, are considered the Galapagos of America.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the country's largest and most spectacular marine protected areas, covering one quarter of California's coastline. Diverse habitats range from shore to an underwater sea mount, home to the ocean's smallest and largest inhabitants.

Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries are off the coast near San Francisco. More remote and difficult to reach, they are exceptional examples of the undersea world that is not easily accessible from land.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is the farthest northern sanctuary, situated on the dramatic West Coast of Washington State, where lives and traditions are linked to the ocean through centuries of time.

Our national marine sanctuaries work cooperatively with federal, state and local officials to promote conservation while allowing compatible commercial and recreational activities. Increasing public awareness of our marine heritage, scientific research, monitoring, exploration, educational programs, and outreach are just a few of the ways the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries fulfills its mission to the American people.

The primary objective of a sanctuary is to protect natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the ocean in a sustainable way. Sanctuary waters provide a secure habitat for species close to extinction and protect historically significant shipwrecks and artifacts. Sanctuaries serve as natural classrooms and laboratories for school children and researchers alike, to promote stewardship of our ocean. They are often cherished recreational spots for sport fishing and diving, and support commercial industries like tourism, fishing and kelp harvesting.

The National Marine Sanctuary System is 40 years old this week, and it is cause to celebrate. Sanctuaries are your "America's Underwater Treasures", representing biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy, paid for through your tax dollars to ensure future generations have the same opportunity as we do to explore our underwater treasures. We are privileged to have five sanctuaries off our West Coast. Discover them for yourself, by visiting sanctuaries in person or online, through visitor centers, books and films. America's Underwater Treasures belong to all of us.

Jean-Michel Cousteau is Chairman of the Board and President of Ocean Futures Society (oceanfutures.org). He is author of "America's Underwater Treasures" and "Explore the West Coast National Marine Sanctuaries with Jean-Michel Cousteau" one of a series of books about national marine sanctuaries.


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