Sanctuaries are home to millions of marine species.
From iconic endangered whales, frolicking sea lions, and graceful sea turtles to recreationally- and commercially-important fishes, ghostly deep sea octopus, and majestic seabirds, these creatures capture our imagination, inspire us, and are essential for a healthy ocean. When we protect wildlife and promote biodiversity, we also protect the ecosystems that underlie our economies and well-being.
Sanctuaries are hotspots of biodiversity, teeming with wildlife, and serve as living laboratories for exploration and discovery, conservation, research and education. By protecting these underwater parks, sanctuaries protecting valuable habitats that give food and shelter to marine wildlife and a network of resting stopovers for migrating species on a long journey across the ocean. Sanctuaries and its partners are finding win-win solutions to protect marine wildlife balancing human uses and economic benefits.
Whale Disentanglement Response Network
Specially-trained rescue experts, led by sanctuary staff, save whales’ lives by risking their own. More than 250 participants from state and federal agencies, private organizations, the tourism industry, fishermen and researchers work with sanctuary staff to safely free endangered humpbacks and other marine mammals, gather knowledge to help mitigate future entanglements and educate the public on the damage caused by ocean debris.
Freeing a 45-foot, 40-ton whale is dangerous for both rescuers and the animal. The teams use a boat-based technique with large buoys to make the whale more approachable, safely assess the entanglement and attempt to free it. Their work is the subject of award-winning documentary films. The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is a longtime supporter of the disentanglement project, including its current initiative to increase awareness and entanglement reporting among residents and tourists.
Preventing Whale Ship Strikes
Each year, thousands of large ships travel up and down the coast going in and out of ports. These vessels travel through a seasonal feeding ground and migration zone for endangered whales species including blues, fins and humpbacks.
In Stellwagen Bank, analysis revealed that the current transportation pattern for ships routed them through the sanctuary and waters with a high density of whales. Based on the information, the sanctuary was able to shift the vessel traffic slightly north into low density areas and reduce the risk of vessel collision to North Atlantic right whales by as much as 58 percent and to all baleen whales by as much as 81 percent.
In California, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District and Environmental Defense Center launched a trial incentive program in 2014 to limit vessel speeds through the Channel to 12 knots in order to reduce vessel-generated pollution and prevent fatal ship strikes of whales. During the trial period, seven global shipping companies participated slowing 27 cargo transits through the Channel. The result was a 50 percent reduction from baseline emissions for participating vessels. Additionally, a ship strike on a whale is 50 percent less likely to be fatal at speeds below 12 knots.
The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is funding an expansion of the program for 2016.
Tagging White Sharks and Tracking Migration
Greater Farallones Sanctuary includes some of the most important known sites for seasonal aggregations of adult and sub-adult northeastern Pacific White Sharks. These sites provide critical feeding areas during their annual migration. Tagging and photo identification provide information about their life history and ecology, such as migration and movement patterns, genetic isolation, environmental factors affecting abundance and success; population structure, such as sex-ratios, local population estimates, and trends; and potentially reveal the location of a still unknown Farallon White Sharks’ pupping nursery.
Supporting West Coast Seal Lion Emergency Response Tagging and Tracking
Seal lions and seals frequently come ashore to rest at haul out sites or to breed and give birth at rookeries. These sites became places of increasing concern with the stranding and deaths of alarming numbers of malnourished and dehydrated sea lion and endangered seal pups in recent years. Scientists are citing declines in high quality food sources these creatures rely on, like sardines, due to their spawning grounds moving further offshore, possibly influenced by warming ocean temperatures from El Niño.
The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is working with researchers in this study to investigate food shortage. Using telemetry, scientists are studying rehabilitated pinnipeds to understand where pups forage from Santa Barbara to San Diego and provide real time response to prey and environmental conditions. Efforts to rescue and rehabilitate pups proved to be successful with a high rate of survival once pups were released from stranding network member rehabilitation facilities.
Exploring the Depths and Discovering New Life
Exploration and mapping expeditions in sanctuaries hold enormous potential for the discovery of new species, including some found nowhere else on earth. Sanctuaries are ideal places for science professionals, students and the public to study and explore marine habitats in never-before-possible ways through such innovations as Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), underwater imaging, mapping and data collection. These technologies are leading to better understanding of the ocean, making virtual visits a reality, and exploring more effective tactics to ensure its sustainability.
In 2016, the cartoon-like “googly eyed, stubby squid” that captured the public’s hearts and went viral on social media was observed at a depth of 900 meters (2,950 feet) by the Nautilus Live team as part of a four-month Ocean Exploration Trust mapping expedition in partnership with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.