NOAA will expand marine sanctuaries

01/03/2013

After nearly a decade of trying to gain support for a bill to protect waters off the northern California coast, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey’s conservation efforts finally are starting to take shape—just as she ends her career in politics.

Two weeks ago the White House authorized the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to begin a public review process to put a measure in place that would expand the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries to include the entire Sonoma and nearly half of the Mendocino coasts.

Ms. Woolsey, who retired this week after serving more than 20 years in Congress, had spent years pushing the Obama administration to expand federal protection for waters off Sonoma and Mendocino Counties from drilling and other exploratory

projects. “This area is a national treasure,” she said in a press conference last week. “It needs and deserves permanent protection from oil and gas exploration.”

Failing to gain support from congressional Republicans since introducing the bill in 2004, the Congresswoman in recent years urged the President to intervene by issuing an executive order. The move by the White House and NOAA was possible under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which was signed in 1972 to give certain government agencies power to protect waters without congressional approval.

Under the measure, combined federal protection of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank would increase to about 4,500 square nautical miles, from Mendocino County south to Monterey Bay, about the size of the state of Delaware, and stretch about 30 miles off the coast. The sanctuaries, which share a boundary, currently cover a total of about 1,800 square nautical miles off the Marin and Sonoma County coasts.

Ms. Woolsey’s measure is meant to protect marine areas she calls “some of the world’s most nutrient-rich and biologically abundant.” Waters off the north coast have nutrients brought by currents traced to near Point Arena, the “most intense ‘upwelling’ site” in North America, according to NOAA.

But Ms. Woolsey sees the move as more than just a “romantic notion of conservation and protecting precious natural resources.” “Jobs hang in the balance,” she said.

The coastal waters are also a source of financial support for businesses that rely on fisherman whose livelihoods are centered largely around selling catches of salmon, albacore tuna, rockfish and crab. Tourism is another crucial part of local economies along the coast, which offer a range of onshore accommodations to visitors, especially during summer months.

There are about 13 national marine sanctuaries managed by NOAA staff within U.S. territory, said William Douros, regional director for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

The Pacific coast is also home to the 3,200-square nautical mile Olympic Coast sanctuary off Washington State, the 6,000-square nautical mile Monterey Bay sanctuary on the central coast, and the Channel Islands sanctuary, nearly 1,250 square nautical miles, off the southern California coast.

Federal supervisors who enforce regulations within the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries share offices with the National Park Service, Mr. Douros said.

Since state jurisdiction of the waters stretches three miles off the coast and includes part of the Gulf of the Farallones, NOAA must obtain authorization to expand that part of that sanctuary from Governor Jerry Brown, who has publicly backed Ms. Woolsey’s measure.

The measure also gained support from more than 80 environmental groups and politicians, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Barbara Boxer, who led the White House to ban offshore drilling in a swath of ocean that previous administrations, mainly Republican, have regarded as a potential site for drilling. Former president Ronald Reagan considered proposing a bill to lease the waters for development.  

The potential for drilling was precluded in later years by another Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who issued a moratorium on oil development in the area. However, that ban expired under the Obama administration. “A meaningful amount of oil may exist off these coasts,” Mr. Douros said.

Advised by federal committees—including the House Committee of Natural Resources—NOAA has considered expanding both the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank since updating its management policies of sanctuaries off the central coast of California in the late 2000’s.  

It now is set to begin a series of public meetings as part of an approval process in which Mr. Douros said residents will have a “huge hand” in shaping policies. “We don’t have a final answer that we’re waiting for the public to seize upon,” he said. The administration has filed a notice about its plans in the Federal Register and published an announcement on its website.

Already NOAA has been working to develop policies with state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, which agreed to realigned its shipping lanes within the boundaries of the sanctuaries to protect whales. 

Restrictions on harvesting kale, brought by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which works to protect marine species along the coast, also are imposed within the sanctuary.

All regulations in the existing sanctuaries would extend to waters covered by the expansion. Fishing and other types of public use in the federal and state waters are not regulated by NOAA.

The series of public meetings begins with one scheduled for January 24 at the Bodega Bay Grange Hall. Meetings also are scheduled for February 12 at Point Arena High School and February 13 at the community center in Gualala.

After garnering public input, NOAA will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, which will be subject to a 60-day public review.

Ms. Woolsey plans to remain involved in the effort to preserve what she described as “one of the most exquisitely beautiful and pristine places on the face of the earth.”

“This is my legacy,” she said. “We owe our grandchildren and their grandchildren nothing less."