Public to Help Select Marine Sanctuaries

     WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has returned to its policy of allowing the public to nominate potential new national marine sanctuaries, it announced.
     The NOAA has authority to designate certain areas in the ocean that hold special significance, and the agency has announced that it will solicit suggestions from the public to nominate certain marine areas for protection.
     The agency's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries oversees 14 marine protected areas in the oceans and Great Lakes, which include more than 170,000 square miles of water.
     Marine sanctuaries include a humpback whale habitat in Hawaii, the Florida Keys, and Thunder Bay in Lake Huron, which is known for its collection of shipwrecks.
     The NOAA deactivated the process for nominating new marine sanctuaries in 1995 to focus on managing existing sanctuaries.
     Last year, following years of vocal public interest in new sanctuaries, the agency proposed re-establishing the nomination process. It then finalized the rule last week.
     With the renewed process, members of the public can submit nominations to the NOAA, and nominations that pass the agency's review process will be added to an inventory of sites that may be designated as national marine sanctuaries.
     "Our national marine sanctuaries not only protect special places in America's oceans and Great Lakes, but they promote responsible and sustainable ocean uses to protect the health of our oceans for future generations," NOAA administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan said in a statement. "This new process increases the public's involvement in the stewardship of our oceans, which is central to NOAA's overall mission."
     The agency developed four criteria for evaluating the national significance of a nomination, including whether the proposed area has ecological, historical, or economic importance, and whether those factors depend on conservation and resource management.
     If the NOAA finds that a proposed area meets those criteria, it will consider opportunities for research, potential threats to marine resources, community support, and existing regulations that could aid conservation.
     The agency will accept the nomination, decline it, or request more information. Once a nomination is accepted, it will be added to an inventory of potential designated areas, according to the NOAA's nomination website.
     If a new site is added to the inventory, a separate legislative process will determine if it should be designated as a federally protected sanctuary.
     "I challenge everyone who cares about our nation's oceans and coasts to make your voice heard," actor Edward James Olmos said in a video on the NOAA's nomination site.
     "This isn't just about the environment. It's about taking a stand for the special places you hold dear." The rule became effective June 13.