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Environmentalists, fishermen clash over proposed Chumash marine sanctuary

Fred Collins, the tribal administrator for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, is advocating for a marine sanctuary off the Central Coast, from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the Channel Islands.
Fred Collins, the tribal administrator for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, is advocating for a marine sanctuary off the Central Coast, from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the Channel Islands. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A controversial underwater national park proposed off the Central Coast aims to protect and manage the area’s marine life, stop oil drilling and seismic surveys, and encourage scientific research.

In October, the nomination for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary was accepted for consideration, setting the stage for a showdown in coming months and years between environmentalists who strongly support the proposed sanctuary and the fishing community that opposes it.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will decide whether to add the local waters to a list of 14 national marine sanctuaries, including four designations in California and others in locations that include Washington state, the Florida Keys and American Samoa.

The Chumash sanctuary would cover an expansive area of the Pacific coastal waters, stretching 140 miles from Cambria to Santa Barbara, with the goal of protecting a diverse ecosystem that includes dolphins, whales, white sea bass, sardines, mackerel, kelp and elephant seals.

“Primarily, a sanctuary is about ecosystem-based management, protecting the entire area, not just single species,” said Andrew Christie, director of the local Sierra Club chapter, an advocate for the designation. “Specific regulations and protections can be proposed during the designation process, in which NOAA would basically ask the community: What do you value? What do you want to protect? And how do you want to go about doing so?”

The Chumash sanctuary would fill a gap in federally protected waters between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the north and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to the south. Extending from Gaviota Creek in Santa Barbara to Santa Rosa Creek in Cambria, the Chumash sanctuary’s western boundary would be the submerged Santa Lucia Bank along the Santa Lucia Escarpment and the eastern side would be the mean high tide line. The zone wouldn’t include harbors.

Fishing industry leaders, galvanized to oppose the concept, are worried that a sanctuary would lead to more fishing restrictions. They say they believe existing statewide protections, including trawl closure areas, rockfish conservation areas and marine protected areas, are sufficient.

They also say they believe adding a new federal regulating agency would hinder local influence over offshore policy.

The whole concept of a local government or state government is compromised when you automatically give it to NOAA or Washington, D.C. to take control.

Jesse Barrios, Morro Bay commercial fisherman

Although the Chumash nomination states no new fishing regulations will be added, Monterey Bay’s sanctuary has played a strong advocacy role in adding fish closures in California, fishing industry leaders say.

“They have been very powerful voices in creating new closures,” Monterey Bay Harbormaster Stephen Scheiblauer said. “Some of the nearshore fishermen in particular have experienced severe economic blows because of those closures.”

Jeremiah O’Brien, a director of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, said a promise not to regulate fishing doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

“Once you hand things over to the feds, they can and will do whatever they want,” O’Brien said. “It doesn’t matter what you put in the charter. They can revise and revise, and things will change in the future. ”

But Bill Douros, NOAA’s western region manager, said that national marine sanctuaries take a comprehensive approach toward seeking advice and guidance from local stakeholders on decisions, and that local decisions wouldn’t be made without collaboration, including the fishing industry.

“I’m very impressed by how much balance, effort and care help decide an issue and serve to meet everyone’s goals and objectives,” Douros said. “There is considerable weight put on local perspective with any sanctuary decision, including the fishing industry.”

What’s being proposed

The 69-page nomination submission from the Northern Chumash Tribal Council was filed with NOAA in July, and has the backing of several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The nomination seeks to preserve large areas of kelp and seagrass to enhance the habitat of a wide variety of marine species, including commercial fisheries. Other proposed measures include conserving sea otter populations.

The bid also seeks to maintain Chumash archaeological sites, where the tribe’s villages once existed 3 to 6 miles to the west of the current tidal lines, “until the ocean submerged the homes of our ancestors.”

“The Chumash Peoples have awakened to the smells, sounds and the view of this sacred western horizon for over 15,000 years,” the nomination reads.

The proposal states “the designation document should not contain sanctuary authorization to regulate fishing,” a sticking point for fishing industry leaders who say sanctuaries have contributed to fishing limitations in Monterey Bay through lobbying efforts. In the Channel Islands sanctuary, fishing regulations have been implemented, though no promise initially was made not to, according to fishing leaders.

There is considerable weight put on local perspective with any sanctuary decision.

Bill Douros, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admininstration western region director

The Chumash nomination cites recent threats to marine life that include airgun seismic testing, attempted disposals of agricultural waste and proposals for slant oil drilling from onshore facilities.

Fred Collins, the administrator for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, said, “the last thing I want to see is tar on local beaches from oil drilling,” such as the leakage in Gaviota or seismic testing he says would harm fish and marine mammals.

“There’s tremendous potential for a marine sanctuary to be a leader in gathering data and public awareness about the local ecosystem,” Collins said. “We can make a change together in how we can preserve resources.”

Economic interests

A sanctuary also could open the door for new grants and funding for research by local universities and colleges, including Cal Poly’s Center for Coastal Marine Sciences, the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara and the oceanography program at Cuesta College.

UCSB recently received a $4 million grant from the California Ocean Protection Council to study ecological systems off its coast; the project involves Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary scientists.

A study commissioned by the Sierra Club projects the Chumash sanctuary would generate $23 million and 600 new jobs — and estimates the local fishing industry claims are exaggerated.

The figures are based on projected administrative expenditures, new research funding, increased coastal tourism, and increased property values and tax revenues associated with a new sanctuary.

“In most of the 14 current National Marine Sanctuaries, tourism is one of the largest sectors of the local economy,” the study states. “Millions of visitors are drawn to these areas for their beaches, recreational fishing, diving, snorkeling, surfing, fishing, wildlife viewing, and museums and aquariums.”

Bruce Gibson, the county’s 2nd District supervisor, has endorsed the sanctuary.

“A national marine sanctuary would provide new opportunities for locals and visitors to explore, learn and recreate off our coast,” Gibson said. “Such a designation would be a win for our communities and our economy.”

The opposing response

Groups including the Morro Bay Community Quota Fund, a fishing advocacy organization, as well as the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization and the city’s Harbor Advisory Board, have opposed a sanctuary, citing possible prohibitions on wave and wind energy projects proposed off the coast of Morro Bay; suspected future restrictions on fishing and dredging; and their contention that sufficient fishing regulations are already in place.

At a Sept. 22 Morro Bay City Council meeting, fishing industry supporters were among those who spoke out against the idea of a sanctuary.

“The whole concept of a local government or state government is compromised when you automatically give it to NOAA or Washington, D.C. to take control,” said Jesse Barrios, a commercial fisherman.

Previous Morro Bay City Councils passed two resolutions opposing earlier attempts at sanctuaries, the latest in 2012. The current City Council hasn’t yet taken an official stance on the Chumash initiative.

Mayor Jamie Irons said he believes Monterey Bay’s sanctuary hasn’t served local interests well since it formed in 1992, and he won’t endorse the Chumash sanctuary proposal without significant modifications to how the program would operate.

“The Monterey fishermen embraced that sanctuary in the beginning,” Irons said, “but there was a loss of trust when the sanctuary management changed. I want to see if we can correct it. Let’s work on gaining the trust of our commercial fishermen before we move forward.”

Irons said he wants any sanctuary designation document, which sets administrative guidelines, to stipulate that it can only be changed with direct, binding local input. Irons said an advisory council should be selected through a local process, and not through appointments by the sanctuary’s administration, which occurs in Monterey Bay.

Irons said the state’s Department of Fish and Game or the National Marine Fisheries Services, housed within NOAA, should continue to regulate fishing off the Central Coast and not sanctuary administration.

In a letter to NOAA, Morro Bay’s Community Quota Fund cited permitting limitations on dredging in Monterey, imposed by that sanctuary’s administration, because of disturbances to the seabed. Dredging is needed for safe boat trafficking in Morro Bay, the letter argued.

Scheiblauer, the Monterey Bay harbormaster, said the Monterey Bay sanctuary’s administration chooses about two-thirds of the advisory council that represents business, agriculture, commercial fishing, tourism, industry and other interests. The Monterey Bay sanctuary also sets the agenda for meetings and controls communications, such as letters to Congress and media talking points, leading to criticism that the agency has hampered local input, Scheiblauer added.

Scheiblauer said he was present when NOAA officals promised, before the designation, not to affect the livelihoods of fishermen, winning the support of fishermen for the sanctuary in the early 1990s.

But he has observed the sanctuary take an active lobbying role in shaping new closure areas, including California’s marine protected areas that block large sections of fishing waters to commercial catches.

“The city of Monterey and other groups such as the Marine Interest Group don’t believe the sanctuary should be involved in fishing,” Scheiblauer said.

O’Brien said he disputes the accuracy of the Sierra Club’s estimates on economic impacts.

“I don’t see how they’re getting those numbers, especially relating to tourism,” O’Brien said. “Most people wouldn’t know a sanctuary even exists. People don’t go to Monterey Bay for the sanctuary. They go to see the (nonprofit) aquarium. But they’re two different things.”

O’Brien added that he doesn’t envision any oil drilling off the Central Coast, which would require the permission from the Bureau of Ocean Management and agencies such as the California Coastal Commission.

“I just don’t see that happening,” O’Brien said. “There’s no need for extra layers of regulation.”

NOAA perspective

Douros, representing NOAA, said a public information meeting will be held in Morro Bay on Jan. 6. Another will be organized at the request of San Luis Obispo County on a date yet to be determined.

NOAA initially denied the Chumash proposal submitted in February, citing a need for more specific information about how a sanctuary would provide unique management and conservation value. A second, more detailed submission, was successful.

Douros said sanctuaries can help prevent low-flying aircraft from colliding with birds, cruise ships from crashing into whales, and urban runoff discharges, to name a few of the benefits.

He added, “The presence of sanctuaries has not led to declines in fish catches in any way,” noting trawlers can still fish in sanctuary areas where seagrasses are protected, for example.

According to NOAA’s estimates, Monterey Bay’s national marine sanctuary yielded an average of $26 million in commercial fishing catch revenue per year over a three-year period from 2010-12, indicating the fish-related economy there is healthy.

Douros noted that research in California sanctuaries led to a ban on harvesting krill in California, implemented by the National Marine Fisheries statewide, helping to nourish whale, rockfish and seabird populations that directly benefit from krill. Douros said that policy relating to wind and wave energy would have to be assessed in the creation of a sanctuary.

Douros said he believes the study commissioned by the Sierra Club on the projected economic impacts of a Chumash sanctuary is reasonable and even “conservative.”

“UCSB just received a multimillion-dollar grant to study the long-term ecosystem of the Channel Islands sanctuary,” Douros said. “Whale watching boats are selling out, partly because of a show the BBC produced called Big Blue Live showing the marine life on California’s West Coast. And the fishermen have a marketing benefit by saying their catches come from a sanctuary. Federal staff live and pay housing and sales taxes in the community. There are many new ways money gets spent in the community because of a sanctuary.”

Public meeting

NOAA officials will answer questions about the process for considering a Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary at a public meeting set for 6 p.m. Jan. 6 at the Veterans Memorial Building, 209 Surf St., in Morro Bay.

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