In the largest expansion of national marine sanctuaries in California in 23 years, the Obama administration on Tuesday more than doubled the size of two Northern California marine sanctuaries, extending them by 50 miles up the rugged Sonoma and Mendocino coasts.
Under the dramatic move by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries expand from Bodega Bay to Point Arena, permanently banning offshore oil drilling along that stretch of coast.
“These waters represent an extraordinary marine ecosystem, one of the richest on our planet,” said Maria Brown, NOAA’s superintendent of the Farallones sanctuary, headquartered in San Francisco.
The announcement marks the largest expansion of national marine sanctuaries in California since President George H.W. Bush established the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 1992.
NOAA also announced Tuesday the larger sanctuary’s name has been changed to the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to reflect the broader boundaries.
“If an oil spill were to happen in this system, you could wipe out major parts of the food chain for Monterey Bay and the Northern California coast,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“This is a Serengeti of the ocean in terms of wildlife diversity and richness. If any place deserves permanent protection, it is this place. I have been working on this since 1976. Today I’m having one of the best days of my life.”
The area is famous for its steep cliffs, wind-swept bluffs and long sandy beaches. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, oil companies showed interest in sinking new rigs in the area, which includes the communities of Jenner, Sea Ranch and Gualala, along with Fort Ross, a former Russian fur-trading outpost that dates back to 1812.
The ocean waters off the San Francisco-Marin-Sonoma-Mendocino coasts are internationally famous for their large great white shark population. They are also home to 25 endangered or threatened species, 36 marine mammal species, including blue, gray and humpback whales, as well as harbor seals, elephant seals and Pacific white-sided dolphins. In addition, more than a quarter million breeding seabirds live on the Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of San Francisco.
NOAA began the process to expand the two sanctuaries in December 2012. The agency received more than 1,300 comments at public hearings and in writing, most of them in support of the expansion.
While national marine sanctuaries ban oil drilling and other extractive activities — and set rules on such practices as sewage dumping by cruise ships — they do not ban fishing or boating.
Ever since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, environmental groups have pushed to ban oil drilling over large swaths of the California coastline. As with the fight through the 1980s to establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which extends from the Golden Gate Bridge to Hearst Castle, tourism and fishing industry groups joined conservation advocates on the latest expansion push. The new boundaries were finalized Tuesday after NOAA’s administrative process ended.
Under the new boundaries, Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1989, will expand from 529 square miles to 1,286 square miles. The Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary, established in 1981, will expand from 1,282 square miles to 3,295 square miles.
Since 2004, former U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey had tried to pass bills in Congress since 2004 to expand the sanctuaries. But she was blocked by congressional Republicans who favor more offshore oil and gas production.
NOAA has the authority, without a vote of Congress, to enlarge sanctuary boundaries. The expanded boundaries were supported by Gov. Jerry Brown and many of the state’s congressional representatives.
This article was written by Paul Rogers from Mercury News and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.