The following comments by Richard Charter (Vice-Chair of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and Senior Fellow with the Ocean Foundation) address development of the current proposal to expand the boundaries of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in the US, as well as how various industry sectors could respond to the proposal:
By Richard Charter
Building upon a decade-long bipartisan legislative effort, northerly expansion of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries ultimately passed the House of Representatives during Representative Nancy Pelosi's term as Speaker and then saw a successful Committee markup in the U.S. Senate in a subsequent session of Congress. Following on those precedents, many in the California congressional delegation, with the support of Governor Jerry Brown and all affected local governments, worked throughout the past year with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, with Director Dan Basta of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and directly with the White House to secure formal Administration action during December of 2012. This accomplishment includes a permanent ban on offshore drilling and marks the beginning of an open public comment process concluding with a Final Rulemaking at the end of 18-24 months. The resulting historic outcome is broadly viewed as the Obama Administration's permanent ocean legacy honoring Lynn Woolsey after her 19 years of service in the House of Representatives. An appropriate Sanctuary Management Plan for the newly added waters will now be developed, incorporating the results of public hearings and the initial recommendations of the two Sanctuary Superintendents, while considering the formal input provided by their respective multi-stakeholder Sanctuary Advisory Councils. Since the largest portion of the new area is being added to the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, whose present Management Plan was developed through a six-year public process conducted during the past decade, it seems likely that this site's existing regulatory structure will at first be simply temporarily expanded to extend throughout the new boundaries of the larger Farallones site, at least until the new area's site-specific Management Plan can be formulated with appropriate local public input.
Steps in the process
The existing Farallones National Marine Sanctuary regulations and designation document, now in place, reinforce the site's permanent offshore drilling prohibitions with a concurrent ban on seafloor modification or disturbance, presenting a point of focus that may offer the first glimpse of opportunistic efforts by certain industrial interests to attempt to undermine present Sanctuary protections. While the isolated rural shoreline adjoining the newly protected waters includes no major electrical demand load centers, and offers no sizable power substations anywhere near the affected coast to tie into, particular utility interests appear to be already trying to undermine any geographic expansion of this longstanding seabed alteration prohibition and to curtail its application within the newly-protected Sanctuary waters. Utility lobbyists, or some as-yet-unidentified third parties, appear to be seeking to enact some carve-outs, or "sacrifice areas". These gaps in full protection would be categorically exempt from regulatory prohibitions on seabed disturbance, so they would be available for hypothetical future offshore windfarms and for eventual hydrokinetic wave energy arrays that may someday be proposed. This kind of arbitrary adoption of substantially weakened regulations anywhere within the newly-added areas raises serious concerns about such measures opening the door for "reverse contagion" that could dangerously erode the existing well-proven regulatory structure in the present Sanctuaries. Facilitating this kind of regulatory erosion would thus present an eventual management dilemma for future Sanctuary Advisory Councils and for NOAA site and system staff going forward.
While these kinds of alternative energy installations are not now considered specifically subject to a de facto prohibition within the present Sanctuary waters, the one or two proposals for similar industrial installations that have been forthcoming for the Gulf of the Farallones in recent years have presented obvious and irresolvable space-use conflicts and vessel safety hazards. One unusually high-risk proposal called for the siting of massive permanent structures right on the margin of heavily-utilized shipping lanes transited by oil tankers and other vessels moving in and out of San Francisco Bay. If proposed in the future, individual wave energy devices would each require various configurations of multiple heavy-gauge steel cables leading down to seafloor anchors, posing major policy questions regarding the resulting inevitability of benthic habitat alteration and marine mammal cable entanglement hazards in the midst of a well-known whale migratory pathway. Each large wave energy array would require hundreds, if not thousands, of these cables and associated seafloor anchor points, a configuration that some scientists have characterized as "a chainlink fence for whales". Industrial alteration of our natural seafloor habitats in this manner raises concerns about the attraction of new predatory fish species that could find haven among the resulting maze of anchoring systems - the kind of predators that could be reasonably expected to decimate outbound salmonid smolts exiting our rivers. Many fishermen also have justifiable concerns about the obvious hazards to navigation and related space-use conflicts that expansive wave arrays would present to their industry.
While proposals for wind energy installations are not currently anticipated to proliferate within the present Sanctuaries or in the expansion region due to seasonal variations in wind energy potential, if there were to be future applications for offshore windfarms here, seabed pilings or similar structures would also need to be constructed on the seafloor. A Sanctuary with built-in sacrifice zones would not seem to present a strong foundation on which to base future stewardship.
On another front, the mainstream leaders of the fishing industry have commonly enjoyed positive working relationships with the managers of the existing National Marine Sanctuaries at Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones. In spite of more than a quarter-century of this cooperative context with fishermen, the current Sanctuary expansion may still be haunted by the remnants of recent disinformation campaigns developed by public relations advisors serving the local chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). In recent years, the RFA has tried unsuccessfully to scuttle the separate and unrelated prior efforts by the State of California to create limited networks of more-protective marine reserves as part of the state's Marine Life Protection Act law. Similar unfounded scare tactics by special interests may once again resurface amidst the vulnerable early gestation period of the Sanctuary expansion process. It is unlikely that the kinds of obfuscating techniques that have been previously applied by the RFA lobbyists and the petroleum industry will manage to find a serious toehold in this region, but a proactive mainstream public interest involvement campaign is going to be needed to debunk the misinformation already being disseminated by these groups.
Hypothetical future proposals for other varieties of large scale offshore industrialization, including offshore finfish netpen aquaculture, may currently seem to lie far in the distant future. But because planning for a new Sanctuary area requires careful consideration of the concept of "permanent protection", it is probable that applying a precautionary approach, while avoiding weakening existing site regulations, is the best course of action at this time. While appropriate adaptive management in the future is always a possibility during the inevitable periodic Management Plan Reviews, the prospect of major regulatory revisions emerging now that could fundamentally weaken Sanctuary protections in the midst of such an important upwelling zone seem ill-advised. The next two years will necessarily involve some tough policy decisions with long-lasting implications for protecting the area. As in the medical profession, the first principle of collectively designing a new Management Plan for these waters of recognized global significance should clearly be to "do no harm."
The frontier of a sustainable ocean
Public dialog and debate is to be anticipated, even welcomed, when finalizing a history-making outcome such as this one, and minor procedural glitches will no doubt arise and be overcome as the planning process goes forward. With this Sanctuary expansion enjoying such positive forward momentum among the region's past and present Housemembers, both of the state's U.S. Senators, the Governor, the state legislature, local governments, and the White House, any belated outright derailment of the popular boundary adjustment process appears highly improbable. Coastal communities in the affected region have been successfully fighting federal offshore oil and gas leases near their shores for over a quarter of a century, winning congressional renewal of an annual nonpartisan drilling moratorium each and every year from 1982 until President George W. Bush left office in 2009. With so much of this particular region's coastal economy based on clean and healthy nearshore waters, it seems unlikely that the orchestrated paranoia of a few well-rehearsed but wildly inaccurate naysayers will be able to convince the White House to belatedly throw the baby out with the bathwater. This historic and hard-won expansion of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank Sanctuaries adds over 2700 square miles to the existing National Marine Sanctuary System, completing a truly majestic string of acknowledged national treasures on this part of the California coast. For a map and further details, and information on the important ongoing opportunities to submit supportive public comments, please visit: