The week of Oct. 5 began a new chapter in the history of national marine sanctuaries.
At the beginning of the week, President Barack Obama directed the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to initiate the designation process for two nominated areas located in Mallows Bay in Maryland and Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, the first areas to be considered for national marine sanctuary status in 15 years.
Then at the end of the week, NOAA completed its review of a third nomination, the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, and placed it on the list of sanctuary proposals awaiting future designation.
Acceptance of the CHNMS nomination means that NOAA has acknowledged the waters off the Central Coast of California as a unique place, encompassing significant natural and cultural resources deserving special protections.
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If we achieve sanctuary designation, a national marine sanctuary will mean our region will be permanently protected from proposals to dump toxic agricultural runoff from the San Joaquin Valley into Estero Bay or to engage in seismic acoustic blasting. A sanctuary allows for multiple uses of offshore waters, while managing marine habitat via a balanced, collaborative and adaptive ecosystem-based approach that takes into account the interconnectedness of air, land and sea.
Above all, a marine sanctuary will halt the exploration and leasing of new offshore areas for oil drilling. For years, Big Oil has routinely shot down efforts by the California Legislature to close loopholes that leave our coast vulnerable to oil drilling. Most recently, oil-company lobbying killed a Senate bill that would have protected state — but not federal — waters from drilling. The only current measure with clout in state and federal waters is a temporary offshore moratorium imposed by the Obama administration. It expires in 2017. After that happens, the only protections our coastal communities will have are local ordinances. And after the next spike in gas prices, those “Measure A” ordinances can be overturned in the following electoral cycle with a ballot initiative and a multimillion-dollar “drill, baby, drill!” ad campaign — couch-cushion money for Big Oil. But nothing has ever overturned a ban on oil drilling in a national marine sanctuary.
Should NOAA decide to initiate a designation process for the Central Coast, there will be many local hearings conducted and public comments taken on the draft plans, a range of alternatives, proposed regulations and boundaries. NOAA will consider all input from the public, agencies, tribes and other stakeholders. The governor and Congress will review the final documents.
It would be similar to the process used earlier this year for the expansion of the Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries off the coast of Northern California, with a decision based on full input from a broad spectrum of community interests and stakeholders.
In short, it will be a lengthy and in-depth conversation. Everyone will be heard. Concerns will be addressed and questions answered. A lot of people have a lot of different notions about just what national marine sanctuaries do and don’t do. Let’s have that conversation.
2017 is just around the corner. Now is the time for concerned citizens to urge NOAA to commence the designation process for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.
Enrique Sanchez-Rivera is a San Luis Obispo resident and business owner who has supported many ocean related non-profits, including Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society and The Surfrider Foundation. Kara Woodruff is a financial planner in San Luis Obispo.