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Putting the Sacred Back in Marine Sanctuaries

In waters not far off the U.S. coast, there are 15 Marine Sanctuaries, stunning marine environments where one might encounter the beauty and diversity of God’s creation. Indeed, if they were to live up to their name, one might even encounter God. The word “sanctuary” comes from the Latin word sanctus, meaning holy. In many faith traditions, the sanctuary is the place where God came to dwell. It is the holy place where believers can come to know and experience the presence of the divine. Unfortunately, many of our National Marine Sanctuaries are not being treated as a sacred place. They are not living up to the name “sanctuary.”

The National Marine Sanctuary Program was established by Congress fifty years ago. It gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the responsibility to protect marine areas with special ecological, cultural, and historical significance. Today, U.S. waters are home to 15 national marine sanctuaries, covering more than 620,000 square miles. These are places where people go to play and to pray. They hold a diversity of creatures that vibrantly express the beauty of God. They are sacred places. Unfortunately, the sacred places in our ocean are not being treated as such. 

Many of our sanctuaries are showing signs of disrepair. Pressures caused by climate change, commercial fishing, and other stressors are drastically affecting the sanctuaries’ ecological balance. Recent condition reports have shown declining trends in the fish population, coral health, water quality, to name a few. It is as if the roof is collapsing in our church and we are sitting by and watching. It is time to step in and make repairs.

The good news is we know how to repair the sanctuaries. We have the tools and the blueprint; all we need is the pastor to say yes. Last year, Creation Justice Ministries joined more than two dozen other organizations asking President Biden to better care for the Sanctuary System. A few of our requests include asking President Biden to:

  • Provide a clear mission statement for the Sanctuary System: Just like the National Park Service, the National Marine Sanctuary System should have a mission statement that clearly defines its role as a national system of protected waters.

  • Implement science-based protections: NOAA should require that fair and poor conditions are fully addressed in management plans.

  • Support meaningful community engagement in sanctuary management: NOAA should find ways to improve the public comment process to incorporate engagement from historically-underrepresented communities

  • Provide increased funding for the Sanctuary System: Without a reasonable budget, the sanctuaries cannot function. More funding should be appropriated for our Marine Sanctuaries

As Christians, we know what it means to care for our sanctuaries, the places we go to pray, to build community, and to find refuge. It is time for NOAA to do all they can to protect these important places. It’s time to put the sacred back into our National Marine Sanctuaries.

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

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