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Management 101

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) is responsible for identifying, designating, and managing ocean and Great Lake areas of special national significance as national marine sanctuaries. Sanctuaries are managed to protect and conserve their resources and to allow uses that are compatible with resource protection. Management of sanctuaries is composed of a number of components:

~ authorizing legislation (National Marine Sanctuaries Act - NMSA);

~ regulations;

~ management plans;

~ management effectiveness programs;

~ policies; and

~ permitting.

Management Plans
Management Effectiveness
Policy Development


The NMSA authorizes the existence of the ONMS, describes the purposes and policies of the ONMS, and provides authorization for appropriations. The NMSA is reauthorized every four to five years, allowing for updating and adaptation as necessary. While the NMSA provides the basis for everything else that follows, the ONMS must also develop regulations, management plans, policies, and operational procedures.

Find additional information, publications, and links related to the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, including current reauthorization efforts here.

Link to legislation documents including the HIHWNMS Act and more.


Regulations represent the detailed implementation of the NMSA in the protection and conservation of sanctuary resources. Upon designation of a sanctuary or during a management plan review, site-specific regulations are issued that restrict a narrow range of activities, because an activity has already been found to be incompatible with the primary mandate of resource protection or is a proactive step necessary for the protection of a specific resource. The ONMS can also revise existing regulations or issue new regulations after the designation of a site. This may occur after a sanctuary has been in operation for several years and either a new activity is identified that did not exist prior to the sanctuary's designation, or new information about an existing activity reveals it is incompatible with resource protection or is resulting in user conflict. Under certain circumstances, the ONMS can also issue emergency regulations. Although the ONMS would generally seek non-regulatory means to address an issue, circumstances may warrant the issuance of a new regulation.

Find additional information, publications, and links related to the ONMS regulations here.


Management Plans

Management plans are site-specific documents that the ONMS uses to manage individual sanctuaries. Management plans:

~ summarize existing programs and regulations;

~ guide preparation of annual operating plans;

~ articulate visions, goals, objectives, and priorities;

~ guide management decision-making;

~ guide future project planning;

~ ensure public involvement in management processes; and

~ contribute to the attainment of system goals and objectives.

In 1998, the ONMS began a comprehensive process that lead to the review and revision of management plans at all 13 sanctuaries. Reviews of management plans have been undertaken because:

~ most existing management plans are 10 years old or older and evolving issues may not be adequately addressed;

~ most existing management plans do not incorporate state-of-the-art concepts and practices associated with management of marine protected areas; and

~ the NMSA has a statutory requirement that management plans should be reviewed on a periodic basis.

Management Effectiveness

Assessing management effectiveness (the achievement of a planned effort or action) is a critical element of the management of sanctuaries. This process is implemented as an integral part of both national program assessments and management plan reviews and contributes to the overall management process by:

~ promoting effectiveness assessments as a regular part of sanctuary management;

~ fostering the development of clear, concise problem statements and measurable outcomes;

~ providing a tool that allows managers to comprehensively evaluate their sites in both the short and long term;

~ fostering the growth of a feedback loop that encourages an internal approach to problem solving and improved performance;

~ allowing site staff to make decisions based on more accurate and relevant information;

~ promoting accountability;

~ supporting sanctuary efforts with an informed resource-allocation process; and

~ motivating staff with clear policies and a focused direction.



The ONMS has the authority to issue permits to allow some types of activities that are otherwise prohibited by sanctuary regulations, but which generally present a public benefit by furthering the management and protection of sanctuary resources. Permits usually include conditions that are designed to minimize or eliminate impacts to sanctuary resources. Permit conditions may also be included to minimize user conflict.

Find additional information, publications, and links related to permits and the permitting process here.

Policy Development

The ONMS conducts strategic and policy planning to provide a framework for the development of plans and policies at both the sanctuary and system level. While this proactive approach to resource management is best, in reality most policies are developed in response to something that has already become a problem. The simple scale of some issues may seem prohibitive (e.g., fishing impacts), while in other cases the newness of an issue makes response difficult since little information may be available about its impacts (e.g., acoustic research, fiber-optic cable installation). Policies are used not only to address issues by themselves, but to provide guidance regarding the use of other management tools, such as marine zoning, permits, and regulations. Sites should, for complex issues or those with broad national implications, work within the guidelines of national policies that have been or are being developed.


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