Marin Independent Journal: NOAA proposes major expansion of marine sanctuaries off Marin coast

By Mark Prado
Marin Independent Journal
POSTED: 04/18/2014 03:47:46 PM PDT

Federal officials are once again floating a plan to protect additional waters off Marin and Sonoma counties with a large-scale expansion of marine sanctuary boundaries.

This week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries released a proposal to expand the boundaries of Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries, with the agency accepting comments on the proposal through June 30.

“These are some of the areas that are most strategically and biologically sensitive,” said Mary Jane Schramm, spokeswoman for Gulf of the Farallones.

The proposal would expand Gulf of the Farallones from 1,279 square miles to 3,293 square miles. Cordell Bank would increase from 529 square miles to 1,286 square miles. The plan extends the boundaries of those sanctuaries north up to Sonoma and Mendocino counties and westward off Marin’s coast.

The United States has 14 national marine sanctuaries in a system designated by Congress and run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to protect and preserve “biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy.”

The sanctuaries are destination feeding areas for endangered blue whales and humpback whales, sharks, salmon, and seabirds like albatrosses that travel tens of thousands of miles. Food in the area supports the largest assemblage of breeding seabirds in the contiguous United States on the Farallon Islands, according to NOAA.

“The waters off the Northern California coast are nutrient-rich and drive a thriving marine ecosystem,” said Daniel Basta, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “These two sanctuaries provide great recreational and educational opportunities for thousands of visitors each year. Public comments are an important part of the process as we look at this proposal to expand the boundaries.”

Zeke Grader, executive director at Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, voiced some concern over the expansion, saying it gave NOAA officials too much discretion to allow for non-native aquaculture, dumping and the possibility of energy development in the waters.

“We want to see these fishing grounds protected and are not opposed to the expansion in general,” Grader said. “But I think there are going to have to be some changes made in the proposal.”

Under the plan there is no explicit proposed prohibition of offshore alternative, renewable energy development including wind, wave, solar or tidal. But a permit would be required.

NOAA officials say oil and gas exploration and development – already prohibited in the existing sanctuaries – would also be outlawed under expanded sanctuary boundaries under the proposal.

The proposed expansion does not include any fishing regulations under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, according to NOAA. A final plan could be adopted in the fall and go into place next year.

Gulf of the Farallones is made up of tidal flats, rocky intertidal areas, wetlands, subtidal reefs and coastal beaches. The sanctuary is home to thousands of seals and sea lions, and hosts of great white sharks and the largest concentration of breeding seabirds in the continental U.S.

The Cordell Bank Sanctuary sits beyond the Gulf of the Farallones, 52 miles northwest of Marin’s coast, at the edge of the continental shelf. Endangered humpback whales, porpoises, albatross and marine species flourish in the marine environment.

Since 2004 there have been attempts to get Congress to expand the sanctuaries’ boundaries, pushed primarily by former congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, but with no success.

But in December 2012 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said they would look at the issue. Moving the process to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration effectively bypasses Congress and greatly boosts the chance for expansion.

Contact reporter Mark Prado via email at


The first hearing on the expansion will be at 6 p.m. May 22 at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model Visitor Center, 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito.

Special thanks to Richard Charter

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