Huge expansion of U.S. protection for N. Calif. waters proposed

Gulls are seen nesting near the North Landing area of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. Federal officials have proposed expanding marine sanctuaries near the islands.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

Federal officials Thursday proposed a massive expansion to federal protection of waters off Northern California from offshore oil drilling, seabed mining and ocean dumping.

The proposal would more than double the size of the national marine sanctuaries around the Cordell Bank and the Farallon Islands. When combined with the massive Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the newly expanded system would protect more than a third of California’s offshore waters from oil drilling, from Cambria in San Luis Obispo County to Point Arena in Mendocino County.

“This area is a national treasure,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma). “It needs and deserves permanent protection from oil and gas exploration.”


Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) described the expansion as a parting gift for Woolsey, who is retiring after representing the North Coast for 20 years. Woolsey and Boxer tried for eight years to get Congress to approve the expansion, but were repeatedly thwarted by Republican leadership in the House of Representatives or GOP senators who halted legislation with the threat of a filibuster.

Last month, California’s congressional delegation lobbied President Obama to use the power of his office to expand these sanctuaries’ boundaries by declaring them national monuments. The American Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president such powers. President George W. Bush, impatient with government procedures, invoked the Antiquities Act to create the nation’s largest marine protected areas, surrounding the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the Northern Marianas Islands.

Although congressional Republicans didn’t challenge Bush, they have repeatedly warned the Obama administration against such a tactic — particularly those lawmakers still fuming over President Clinton’s designation of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and others in his final days of office.

So, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that it will follow standard procedures under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act to adjust the sanctuary boundaries. Public hearings will commence in January, said David Kennedy, an assistant administrator with NOAA. He expects the process to be completed within two years. Congressional approval isn’t required.

Unlike the network of marine reserves in California state waters, the national marine sanctuaries typically place no restrictions on fishing.

If the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones sanctuaries add the 2,770 square miles as Woolsey has proposed, the new protections would include three areas with seabed oil reserves that then-Interior Secretary James Watt tried to open for drilling in 1981, said Richard Charter, a Bodega Bay-based senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation. Those undersea oil fields are off Sea Ranch and Bodega Head in Sonoma County and Point Arena in Mendocino County.


“This is the antidote to James Watt,” Charter said. “It just took a while to get here.”