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.


The NMSA authorizes the existence of the ONMS, describes the purposes and policies of the ONMS, and provides authorization for appropriations. The NMSA is periodically reauthorized, 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.  


Regulations enable NOAA to carry out the intent of the NMSA to protect and conserve sanctuary resources. Upon designation of a sanctuary, national marine sanctuary regulations are issued to prohibit specific kinds of activities, describe and define the boundaries of the sanctuary, and set up a system of permits to allow certain types of activities (that woud not be allowed without a permit). NOAA can revise existing regulations or issue new regulations as part of a management plan review process. Identification of a new activity that did not exist prior to the sanctuary's designation, or new information about an existing activity, may also result in new or revised regulations, if the activity is incompatible with resource protection or is creating conflicts among user groups. Under certain circumstances, NOAA can also issue emergency sanctuary regulations. Although the ONMS would generally seek non-regulatory means to address an issue, circumstances may warrant the issuance of a new regulation. Regulations are modified with ample opportunity for the public to offer their comments.

National marine sanctuary regulations are codified in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) at Title 15, Commerce and Foreign Trade, Part 922. These may be accessed on the U.S. Government Printing Office Electronic CFR web site.

Find additional information, publications, and links related to national marine sanctuary 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
  • 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:

  • an evolving issue may not have been adequately addressed earlier
  • state-of-the-art concepts and practices associated with management of marine protected areas may have needed review
  • 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
  • motivating staff with clear policies and a focused direction

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. 


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