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Marine Sanctuary leaders meet at Am. Samoa's partner sanctuary in Michigan

Alpena, MICHIGAN — Thirty leaders from National Marine Sanctuaries met this week in Alpena, Michigan to celebrate progress, discuss continuing strategies, and tour the city.

“This is an annual event,” John Armor, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries said on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, we’ve not gotten together in person for four years because of COVID. We’re just now getting back together in person. Ideally, this is an annual gathering of all the superintendents from all the sanctuaries from across the sanctuary system.”

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, oversees a network of underwater parks encompassing about 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington state to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. The network includes a system of 15 national marine sanctuaries and Papahanaumokuakea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments.

In addition to the superintendents, Armor and others from NOAA headquarters, and three regional directors from the Pacific Islands, the West Coast, and the East Coast attended the annual leadership meeting.

Armor explained that the group talked about “how we can deliver on our commitments to our communities around the country.”

Atuatasi Lelei Peau, superintendent of the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, visited Alpena for the third or fourth time this past week for the leadership meeting.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s great … Alpena is very special. We have a partnership with Alpena’s national marine sanctuary.”

Peau said prior to the pandemic, high school students from Alpena traveled to American Samoa as part of a cultural exchange through education.

“They were so inspired because of the ROV they designed and built and deployed,” Peau said. “So, that was fascinating, and what we learned is that education has to be fun.”

[A Remotely Operated Vehicle or ROV is tethered to and operated from a ship allowing humans to explore the ocean without actually being in the vehicle. Multi-joint arm with interchangeable jaws collect biological, geological, or archeological samples.]

He added that some of those students continue to stay in touch with each other.

He talked about the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, which is now the largest sanctuary in the national sanctuary system, encompassing 13,581 square miles of nearshore coral reef and offshore open ocean waters across the Samoan Archipelago. It was designated in 1986 and expanded and renamed in 2012.

He explained that community engagement and educational programs are offered to the residents and visitors to the sanctuary.

“We deal heavily with community engagement through village councils,” he said. “We have strong education programs. We really try to inspire our populations, especially the young ones, about the surroundings and the importance of our marine ecosystem to our daily lives.”

“The sanctuary was established because of special places and people,” Peau said. “We have a very unique, very diverse — the most diverse — marine ecosystem within the entire national marine system network.”

He said it is no small task, but worth the effort every day.

“It comes with a lot of responsibilities, in terms of promoting the goals and objectives of the national program, but also, most important, to make sure that it is relevant to our way of life,” Peau said. “Our culture is paramount in what we do. Everything is based on respect and humility and making sure that we are also a part of the community, and not an outsider. That, to me, is one of the most important things. At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves ‘What is the value added of having the program in our community?’ How we improve the quality of life, and how we sustain and make sure that our marine life can be sustainable for both present and future generations.”

Read more at The Alpena News