Morro Bay opts not to host second Marine Sanctuary forum

Sunset off Pismo Beach. A proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary has been proposed offshore from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
Sunset off Pismo Beach. A proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary has been proposed offshore from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

After a packed audience filled the Morro Bay Veterans Memorial Building in January to learn about the possibility of designating a controversial National Marine Sanctuary off the Central Coast, calls have been made for more meetings with a wider range of perspectives.

But the Morro Bay City Council voted unanimously Tuesday not to sponsor a second meeting with a new panel of presenters on the issue, saying that a regional forum would make more sense and that the city has other priorities that are within its jurisdiction.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which administers the federal process of creating national marine sanctuaries, hosted a Morro Bay educational forum Jan. 6 at the request of the City Council.

The proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would stretch 140 miles along the coast from Cambria to Santa Barbara. The proposal has been nominated, meaning it’s in the queue for consideration, but no formal designation process has begun yet.

The proposal’s concept is to protect a diverse ecosystem from oil drilling, seismic surveys and other potential impacts, while encouraging scientific research. Coastal wildlife includes dolphins, whales, white sea bass, sardines, mackerel, kelp and elephant seals.

Fishing industry leaders, however, are concerned that a sanctuary would lead to more fishing restrictions and believe existing governmental protections — such as trawl closure areas, rockfish conservation areas and marine-protected areas — are sufficient. They also believe that adding a new federal regulating agency would reduce local influence over offshore policy.

The city’s Harbor Advisory Board recommended the city follow up with more forums “featuring representatives from entities and groups on the California coast” who “have lived with a sanctuary for a period of time.”

The Harbor Advisory Board suggested speakers such as the harbormaster of Monterey Harbor and the port director at Santa Cruz Harbor, agricultural organizations in Monterey County, the Ventura Chamber of Commerce and the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, commercial and recreational fishermen, and a big-wave jet ski surfer.

Sanctuaries currently exist off the coastlines of Monterey, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

“I just think we need to hear from more people on this,” said Jeremiah O’Brien, a director of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, on Tuesday. “In January, you heard a sales pitch from NOAA, who is the salesman.”

However, the council remains open to jointly facilitating a meeting with other governmental entities, possibly a regional forum.

“Should another agency or entity present themselves and offer to organize an educational, not advocacy, event in Morro Bay, the city is quite open to facilitating further dialogue,” Morro Bay City Manager Dave Buckingham said. “In that case, facilitating would include the city providing space.”

The cost for Morro Bay to host and moderate a forum would have been about $2,500, not including travel costs, if required, for presenters, said Eric Endersby, Morro Bay’s harbor director.

“The sanctuary would cover a large stretch of the coast,” Morro Bay Councilwoman Christine Johnson said. “I don’t think the city of Morro Bay has to be the (single agency) putting something like this on.”

Councilman Noah Smukler added that, because of the wide range of perspectives, he believes that organizing a fair representation of speakers for a balanced informational perspective, would be “difficult” for the city to accomplish.

Council members also noted that a federal sanctuary designation process, if formally advanced, would hold a public information component to allow stakeholders to learn about the effects of a sanctuary and formally weigh in.