U.S. Congress Protects Coasts and Marine Sanctuaries

With the Coastal Zone Management Act and the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, the U.S. Congress first became involved in environmental protection issues that had previously been considered local land-use problems.

Summary of Event

In response to the increasing environmental awareness of the 1960’s, the U.S. Congress began to consider land-use issues that earlier would have been local decisions. In 1972, Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act to protect the nation’s valuable but threatened coastal areas, and it was signed into law on October 27, 1972. The act covered the coasts along the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa; the three-mile territorial waters also fall under the jurisdiction of the act, as well as parts of the continental shelf, which in some areas extends more than two hundred miles into the ocean. Coastal zones were broadly defined to include shoreland in areas where the land may have a direct impact on the coastal waters; the individual states were authorized to determine how much area to include in this category. In addition, the act allowed estuarine sanctuaries to be developed for research in areas where the rivers flow into the ocean. Marine life, protection
Coastal Zone Management Act (1972)
Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (1972)
Environmental policy, U.S.
[kw]U.S. Congress Protects Coasts and Marine Sanctuaries (Oct. 27, 1972)
[kw]Congress Protects Coasts and Marine Sanctuaries, U.S. (Oct. 27, 1972)
[kw]Coasts and Marine Sanctuaries, U.S. Congress Protects (Oct. 27, 1972)
[kw]Marine Sanctuaries, U.S. Congress Protects Coasts and (Oct. 27, 1972)
[kw]Sanctuaries, U.S. Congress Protects Coasts and Marine (Oct. 27, 1972)
Marine life, protection
Coastal Zone Management Act (1972)
Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (1972)
Environmental policy, U.S.
[g]North America;Oct. 27, 1972: U.S. Congress Protects Coasts and Marine Sanctuaries[00920]
[g]United States;Oct. 27, 1972: U.S. Congress Protects Coasts and Marine Sanctuaries[00920]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 27, 1972: U.S. Congress Protects Coasts and Marine Sanctuaries[00920]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 27, 1972: U.S. Congress Protects Coasts and Marine Sanctuaries[00920]
Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy
Ruckelshaus, William D.

The act established restrictive zoning—extremely intensive land uses, such as industrial uses, were, for example, generally prohibited—and it allocated federal grants to establish and administer programs in the individual states. States were made responsible for developing plans for the effective use of their coastal land.

Congress cited several reasons for its decision to implement federal management, protection, and development of the coastal zones, including that the continued survival of the coastal areas was in the national interest; that the areas’ rich resources would be valuable to future generations for natural, recreational, aesthetic, commercial, and industrial purposes; and that population growth and economic expansion had caused the disappearance of natural habitats for fish, wildlife, and plants, as well as permanent and adverse ecological changes. Coastal zone ecosystems are fragile and extremely vulnerable to human activities, and poorly planned developments and land-use regulations then in place had been inadequate to protect the coastal ecological systems from competing demands. Congress mandated that the states were to implement conservation laws with unified policies and defined standards and methods, and that they were to work together with federal, local, and private interests in the protection of coastal lands and water.

Federal grants to states for establishing coastal management programs had a three-year limit; annual grant renewal required that the state identify the boundaries of the coastal zone in question; define the land and water uses permitted in the zone; develop an inventory and zone the critical areas; control the land and water use through relevant laws; indicate land uses in order of priority; and describe the interrelationships among local, regional, and state agencies responsible for the coastal zone.

A second federal grant to cover operating costs was to become available once a state’s coastal management program was approved by the secretary of commerce. Both grants had certain rules about when and how much money could be spent in the state programs. States were required to hold public hearings, to be announced thirty days in advance; at the time of the announcement, all information on the coastal zone management program had to be made available to the public. The secretary of commerce was made responsible for reviewing the individual state programs, and he was empowered to terminate the grant of a noncompliant state.

The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act was passed by Congress in the same year as the Coastal Zone Management Act in response to the routine and continuous dumping of sewage sludge and industrial waste in offshore waters near major U.S. cities. To combat dumping and control pollution in waters within the United States, Congress had in 1899 enacted the Rivers and Harbors Act, and in 1948 the Water Pollution Control Act. These laws did not, however, directly address the problems resulting from dumping into the oceans, which was harmful to both human health and the marine ecosystems.

The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act specifically protected the ocean and some of the coastline areas, and it limited ocean dumping of any materials transported from the United States or transported in an American ship or plane. The act defined “ocean” as the area beyond the three-mile territorial water surrounding the United States, Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal, and the U.S. Pacific Islands held in trust. Proscribed material included oil taken on by a ship or plane for the sole purpose of dumping and included, but was not limited to, garbage, sewage, industrial waste, military ammunition (including biological and chemical warfare agents), discarded equipment, chemicals, and excavation debris. Oil and sewage that ships or planes normally carry were excluded, as were radioactive materials regulated by the Atomic Energy Act and fish wastes resulting from commercial fishing.

The act required that anyone transporting materials for the purpose of dumping them in the ocean apply to the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit; the two agencies were authorized to issue permits only for materials that do not harm the environment and only after holding public hearings on the application. The act made provisions for different categories of permits, and for different times and places for allowing dumping. The agencies were given a list of criteria to observe, including consideration of the possible effects on human health, marine life, and various ecosystems. If the secretary of the Corps of Engineers should disagree with the EPA administrator on the effects of proposed dumping, the EPA decision would go into effect. Individual permits were required to include precise information as to the nature and amount of the material to be dumped, and the dumping site. Violation of any of the specified guidelines carried stiff criminal and civil fines and penalties, including prison sentences.

The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act revoked all previous permits, unless the permit was under the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act. The act also made provisions for research of the short- and long-term effects of ocean dumping, pollution, overfishing, and changes to the ocean’s ecosystems. In the last section of the act, the secretary of commerce was empowered to preserve parts of the marine environment as sanctuaries so as to conserve or restore them for their recreational, ecological, or aesthetic values.


The resources of the U.S. coastline have long been used for transportation, water supplies, and food, and its beauties have drawn people to build homes and recreation areas there. By the close of the twentieth century, more than 75 percent of the U.S. population lived within one hour’s drive of a coast. Over time, development had destroyed various aspects of the coastal environment through toxic contamination and an intrusion of salt water into bodies of fresh water.

The Coastal Zone Management Act had an enormous impact in protecting U.S. coastlines. Although participation in the state programs was entirely voluntary, all states to which the act applied, except Illinois, developed coastal zone management plans and restrictions on coastal development. In some cases the federal legislation prompted state legislation with similar environmental protection. In 1972, for example, California established a coastal commission with the authority to make land-use decisions in the state’s coastal areas even when local governments oppose the decisions.

The funds provided by the Marine Protection, Sanctuaries, and Research Act for the establishment of sanctuaries led to the designation of new sanctuaries. The act also established centers for marine conservation; every year, center volunteers spent one day clearing tons of debris from the coastlines. Marine life, protection
Coastal Zone Management Act (1972)
Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (1972)
Environmental policy, U.S.

Further Reading

  • Bureau of National Affairs. U.S. Environmental Laws. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1988. A compilation of the laws passed by Congress that affect the environment.
  • Fulton, William. Guide to California Planning. Rev. ed. Point Arena, Calif.: Solano Press Books, 1999. An overall guide to planning, with emphasis on the methods used in California.
  • Gray, Oscar S. Cases and Materials on Environmental Law. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs, 1973. Covers early environmental laws and court cases.
  • Kay, Robert. Coastal Planning and Management. New York: Routledge, 1999. Uses case examples to illustrate the complex issues of coastal management on a global scale.
  • Mandelker, Daniel R., and John M. Payne. Planning and Control of Land Development: Cases and Materials. 5th ed. New York: Lexis, 2001. A casebook on land-use and regulation.
  • Tabb, William Murray, and Linda A. Malone. Environmental Law: Cases and Materials. 2d ed. Charlottesville, Va.: Lexis Law, 1997. An environmental law casebook focusing on the mainstream approach to environmental protection.
  • Weinberg, Philip. Environmental Law: Cases and Materials. 3d rev. ed. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2005. Summaries of major environmental court cases, followed by questions and discussions.

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