U.S. Commerce Secretary William M. Daley presented the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Environmental Hero Awards to four volunteers who have worked to protect the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Daley was in the Florida Keys as part of an Earth Day celebration in which he watched eighth-graders in the Coral Reef Classroom collect data from the third largest barrier reef system in the world. The data collection is part of ongoing projects designed to highlight the International Year of the Ocean.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of 12 sanctuaries in the country.

"More than 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by water. And, in many key areas, this key source of food, recreation, energy, medicine and commerce has been badly damaged by pollution and overfishing," Daley said. "The Marine Sanctuary Program has been one response. But, as successful as this program is, it is a limited solution. That is why 1998 has been designated the Year of the Ocean by President Clinton and by the United Nations."

This year there are a total of 25 honorees with the majority of the Environmental Heroes having worked extensively with NOAA's 12 national marine sanctuaries. The honorees include:

David Holtz, director of the Center for Marine Conservation in the Florida Keys, who has been instrumental in gaining support for marine zoning.

Captain Ed Davidson, chairman of the board of the Florida Audubon Society, who helped develop the Marine Sanctuary Plan and who has promoted conservation issues and clean water initiatives in the region.

Chuck Hayes, a retired Air Force Pilot who is an authority on shipwreck sites and special natural resource sites.

David Whall, co-director of the Submerged Cultural Resources Assessment Program, who helped develop the shipwreck trail.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, head of the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute, who served as host at NOAA's kickoff of the International Year of the Ocean and has spent his life exploring the world's oceans aboard the research vessels Calypso and Alcyone.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, explorer in residence at the National Geographic, who has spent more than 6,000 hours doing underwater diving and research.

Ted Danson, president of the American Oceans Campaign, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the vitality of coastal waters, estuaries, bays, wetlands and deep oceans. Danson narrated the public service announcement for the kickoff of International Year of the Ocean.

Vice President Al Gore sent each one of the Environmental Heroes a personal letter congratulating them on receiving the award from NOAA. Gore said, "I am struck by your passionate commitment to the protection of our nation's environment. "Americans have a strong tradition of meeting challenges by working together as members of a community. Nowhere is this more true than with the health of our nation's coastal areas and marine sanctuaries," he added. Gore said the oceans play a pivotal role in our lives and their well-being directly affects the communities around them.

The vice president praised the work of the honorees saying, "Through the efforts of citizens like you, we are able to help educate the public and take the necessary steps to protect these critical resources."

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