A series of public hearings on the North Coast last week unsurprisingly revealed overwhelming support for extending national marine sanctuary protections to the Sonoma and southern Mendocino coasts, federal officials said.
But with long-sought, permanent bans that would forbid oil drilling and other potentially harmful human activity in coastal waters within reach, many conservationists are looking to the details. They are seeking refinements in federal plans that would optimize conditions for wildlife in newly protected waters.
Reservations expressed during public hearings in Point Arena, Gualala and Bodega Bay are not enough to dampen enthusiasm for a proposal to more than double the combined size of the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones marine sanctuaries. The plan would extend sanctuary designation to 2,771square miles of ocean, creating a band of protected waters along about 350 miles of California coastline. Protections would extend from Cambria to Manchester Beach, when combined with the Monterey Bay sanctuary.
But several concerns have come to light in recent weeks that advocates hope can be ironed out to the advantage of marine wildlife.
"We really need to be sure that whatever rules and regulations are created actually work, not just for us but for the future," Stewards of the Coast and Redwood volunteer Sukey Robb-Wilder told representatives for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday.
A key concern is the exclusion of three river estuaries from the sanctuaries — the Russian, Gualala and Garcia — that are integral parts of the ocean habitat for many flora and fauna, advocates say.
"You don't need to be John Muir to get the connections," Bodega Bay resident Norma Jellison said during a public hearing Wednesday night. "Whatever ends up in the Russian River ends up in the estuary ends up in the ocean — in other words, marine sanctuary waters."
Also controversial is a provision in the current proposal to designate four special zones for the use of Jet Skis and other motorized personal watercraft that would otherwise be prohibited within sanctuary boundaries.
Thirdly, an allowance for the superintendent of either sanctuary to authorize otherwise banned activity under certain conditions has drawn much criticism, many suggesting it leaves room for those with wealth and influence to circumvent specified prohibitions.
"Authorization allowing someone to do something that you're saying is no good reduces protection to all," said former Gulf of the Farallones Superintendent Ed Ueber. "We know that. Let's not allow it."
Championed by former Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, for a decade before her retirement, legislation to expand the sanctuaries never got enough traction to get through both houses of the legislature in the same session.
But it had enough public and political support, as well as a scientific justification, for the Obama administration and NOAA to move forward on the expansion through a public hearing process.
NOAA representatives said the expansion is driven by the critical role of an intense and productive ocean upwelling offshore from Point Arena. The upwelling brings nutrient-rich waters from ocean depths to the surface, providing destination feeding grounds for seabirds, marine mammals, fish and other wildlife from near and far.
Nutrients from the upwelling are driven south by the wind, so that expanding the boundaries actually safeguards wildlife populations within existing sanctuaries, Gulf of the Farallones Sanctuary Superintendent Maria Brown said.