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Chumash marine sanctuary stalled at federal level, not by supervisors’ vote

Chumash Heritage Marine Sanctuary supporters lobby supervisors

Supporters of a proposed Chumash Heritage Marine Sanctuary demonstrate Tuesday before the SLO County Board of Supervisors vote on a resolution opposing the sanctuary.
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Supporters of a proposed Chumash Heritage Marine Sanctuary demonstrate Tuesday before the SLO County Board of Supervisors vote on a resolution opposing the sanctuary.

Action to designate a national marine sanctuary off the Central Coast is stalled by the federal agency that oversees the process, not by a statement of opposition passed by a split San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors this week.

Decisions to designate new sanctuaries, such as the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, are on hold as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employees await a new administrator and focus on two sanctuary sites announced by President Barack Obama before he left office.

President Donald Trump picked billionaire Wilbur Ross as secretary of the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, but Ross is awaiting his Senate confirmation. No NOAA administrator has been identified.

“We aren’t making any new decisions right now to designate new sites,” said William Douros, director of the West Coast Region of National Marine Sanctuaries, during a Board of Supervisors meeting Jan. 24. “But that decision could come at some point in time in the future. I don’t suspect it would be a decision that we would make necessarily until the new administration within the Department of Commerce, which we’re in, is in place.”

In October 2015, NOAA determined the proposed Chumash marine sanctuary met minimum program requirements and placed the plan into an inventory of potential designations. There is no guarantee, however, that a proposed sanctuary in inventory will be moved forward into a designation process that involves local stakeholders. A sanctuary proposal can sit in inventory for five years before it falls off the list.

We aren’t making any new decisions right now to designate new sites. But that decision could come at some point in time in the future.

William Douros, director of the West Coast Region of National Marine Sanctuaries

Two weeks after Douros told supervisors he had not “heard word that there is any impetus underway right now to initiate the designation process for Chumash Heritage,” three of the five county supervisors approved a resolution Tuesday to oppose the sanctuary “at this time.”

The board passed the resolution after hearing hours of comments from about 100 residents, including fishermen opposed to the sanctuary — which they fear will over-regulate their livelihoods or limit dredging in the Morro Bay harbor — and environmental groups who favor the sanctuary as a way to prevent offshore oil drilling. Supporters outnumbered opponents 2-to-1 at the meeting.

The proposed marine sanctuary would stretch along 140 miles of coastline from Gaviota Creek in Santa Barbara to Santa Rosa Creek in Cambria and between two existing marine sanctuaries. One of those sanctuaries, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, extends south to Cambria.

“We’re in a holding pattern right now,” Douros said in an interview with The Tribune on Wednesday. “That process could get attention in the future. There is no way to predict, on my end, when that might initiate.”

Earlier renditions of a Central Coast sanctuary were proposed as early as 1977. Supporters of a proposed Morro Bay sanctuary included the cities of Morro Bay, Grover Beach, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero, Pismo Beach and Paso Robles and the counties of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.

Fred Collins, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council spokesman, is named as the official nominator of the current version of the proposal.

He sees sanctuary designation as an opportunity to holistically protect a section of ocean that is rich in ecological diversity and cultural heritage from the threat of oil development. Collins said oil and gas development is fought project by project. A sanctuary would “lock oil out.”

The proposed Chumash marine sanctuary would stretch along 140 miles of coastline from Gaviota Creek in Santa Barbara to Santa Rosa Creek in Cambria and between two existing marine sanctuaries.

Douros said Wednesday that regulations within a sanctuary designation “are customized to the issues, threats and challenges that exist for a specific area.”

There is no way to predict what could happen, but those interested in the implications of a designation have the benefit of looking to other sanctuaries to the north and the south to see how they might operate.

Potentially, a sanctuary could include a prohibition on oil and gas and a prohibition on disruption to the seabed. Exceptions could be made for trolling, or harbor maintenance, Douros said. Existing offshore oil rigs within the proposed sanctuary could persist even after designation. A marine sanctuary off the shore of Texas, for example, surrounds an oil platform. There are already four or five oil rigs within the proposed Chumash marine sanctuary, depending on where the boundary is drawn.

The board resolution and some residents at Tuesday’s meeting voiced concerns that a sanctuary would favor federal, rather than local, control. But others challenged that idea, noting that local government has no jurisdiction offshore.

“It’s hard to lose control over something you don’t have control of,” Douros said.

The sanctuary provides a forum for local stakeholders “to come together and manage, in a comprehensive manner, the threats and the resources,” he said.

We see it as a small bump in the road.

Fred Collins, Northern Chumash Tribal Council spokesman

He said he doesn’t think the board’s action alone will change the decision of whether or not NOAA actively considers the proposed sanctuary. The resolution reflects the current board’s position, he said, which is counter to a prior board that strongly supported a marine sanctuary.

“If we were to get serious about designating it, we would check in with the board at that time to see what their views are,” Douros said.

Supporters of the sanctuary said they will continue to organize for sanctuary status despite the board’s oppositional statement.

“We see it as a small bump in the road,” Collins said.

Instead of blocking the sanctuary, he said, the resolution “sends a message to the oil industry that our coast is open.”

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

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