This shared devotion was clear from the opening keynote, when John Podesta—Counselor to President Obama—joyfully announced that nominations will again be accepted for new National Marine Sanctuaries to protect treasured marine resources. Less than 3% of the world’s oceans are protected in any form, and new nominations to the U.S. system have been closed since 1995. Clearly, an expansion of the National Marine Sanctuaries program is vital. This new rule was crafted to solicit nominations from local communities of much-needed additions to the existing network of 14 U.S. sanctuaries. Each of us was asked to identify the ocean and Great Lakes sites we love enough to support saving forever.
Later at the conference, California Congresswoman Lois Capps spoke of her experiences in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and Michigan Congressman Dan Benishek reflected on his attachment to the wilderness around the Great Lakes sanctuary at Thunder Bay, Their talks and others recognized the diverse values protected in these special places, not simply conservation, scientific, or ecological but also historical, cultural, and aesthetic, as well as personal history, family memory, community identity, and meaningful connections with the future.
The existing sanctuary system of 150,000 square miles honors sites ranging from the Stellwagen Bank off Maine, to California’s Channel Islands, to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Protected areas have been chosen to preserve the wreck of the USS Monitor, coral reefs around American Samoa, and underwater archaeological sites around the Florida Keys.
Yet as profound as were the values discussed on stage, no one addressed the need for honoring Creation itself or places of spiritual significance in the sanctuaries. The secular view of sanctuary is of a safe haven, of resources specially protected from human exploitation, but shouldn’t there also be room to protect sacred places in the ocean? Perhaps it’s time for communities of faith to reflect on the ocean sites that mean the most to their history and teachings, and nominate their candidates to NOAA. In identifying ocean places fundamental to our faiths, we would as communities and individuals strengthen our own understanding of the bounty of the sea, our profound responsibilities to protect it – and the Creator’s place in every part of our world.
Details about sanctuary nomination process can be obtained from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.