WHAT IS A NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY?
In the simplest words, a National Marine Sanctuary is a piece of water that is designated as a National Marine Sanctuary by Congress for special cultural, environmental, aesthetic, or recreational reasons.
There are about 14 National Marine Sanctuaries and they all have been designated for different purposes. Traditionally these sanctuaries were nominated through a national process by a government agency, the executive branch (President), or through Congress. Once there is sufficient agreement between the government branches, the NMS is designated under national law.
For example, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was created in reaction to some ship groundings in the Florida Keys where it was found that there was no real mechanism for managing the protection of the reefs in the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys is a large and complex National Marine Sanctuary since it aims to balance a wide range of needs and interests, while containing within its boundaries private, public, and government stake holders.
At the same time there are also very simple NMS such as the Monitor NMS off Cape Hatteras that contains the wreck of the USS MONITOR of Monitor/Merrimac fame. This is just a one square mile area off the coast of North Carolina, that is basically a "Don't touch because we want the wreck to degrade as little as possible" zone.
It is almost unavoidable to compare NMS to National Parks. National Parks also fulfill many different functions in many different settings. While almost all of us know what a National Park is, and know what to expect in National Parks, it is actually very difficult to describe a National Park. Meanwhile, the rough concept of what we think of as a National Park has been found to be very successful, is enjoyed by all Americans (and also by millions of visitors to the US) and is considered to be one of our country's best ideas. (Despite the fact it took the country almost 100 years to figure what that idea actually was)
In general, we as citizens, are not terribly picky about distinguishing between actual National Parks (such as Yellowstone or Everglades) and other National Park Service sites such as Statue of Liberty or Sandy Hook. In actual fact, Statue of Liberty is a National Monument and Sandy Hook is a National Recreational Area. However, as "Customers" and "Owners" of the National Park Service we enjoy them all.
With regard to National Marine Sanctuaries, there is no special designation for the different functions of an NMS, but the differences are noted in the NMS descriptions (the designation document).
NOAA administers the National Marine Sanctuaries, but the administration is a little different, since NOAA does not have a "Sanctuary Service". Instead, each NMS has a designation document and a management plan that is worked out with the local stakeholders.
A few years ago the US Government decided to modify the NMS nomination process, and instead of a top down approach, it was decided to allow a bottom up approach.This means that, today, local citizens can nominate a certain area of water as a National Marine Sanctuary. Sandy Hook Bay National Marine Sanctuary will be nominated through this bottom up approach.
A .pdf copy of the powerpoint presentation on the concept is available here: nms powerpoint printout.pdf
For discussions on the Sandy Hook Bay National Marine Sanctuary go to the Facebook page.