POINT ARENA NATIONAL SEASHORE - The proposed expansion of adjoining national marine sanctuaries that would extend environmental and wildlife protections to the Sonoma and southern Mendocino coasts is on track for agency approval this winter, with suggested revisions that reflect public input, a sanctuary official said Wednesday.
Maria Brown, superintendent of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, said she hopes by spring to celebrate completion of a process that would more than double the combined area of the Farallones and neighboring Cordell Bank marine sanctuaries, prohibiting energy exploration and development in an additional 2,769 square miles of ocean and granting federal stewardship to environmentally rich waters that are brimming with sea life.
“This hasn’t been approved by NOAA yet,” Brown said, referring to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which administers the nation’s 13 underwater sanctuaries and has authority to adopt the expansion, “but we feel fairly confident this is the direction we’ll be headed.”
The revised proposal includes a number of changes that address concerns brought forward during four public hearings on the coast in May and June, and in more than 800 written comments submitted to NOAA, agency representatives said.
It also acknowledges plans to change the name of the expanded Gulf of the Farallones marine sanctuary to something that more fully captures the region’s geography, history and underwater features — a conversation already begun within the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.
“This is sort of a fun thing in one way, but it’s also, honestly, quite important,” said the council’s new chairman, oceanographer John Largier, a professor at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory.
Changes made to the expansion proposal itself include a decision to drop, for now, controversial plans for four specified zones in which motorized personal watercraft would be confined, pending additional public input on the matter. That means there would be no federal limitations on personal watercraft in the expansion areas unless and until some additional regulation is adopted, according to spokeswoman Mary Jane Schramm. Motorized personal watercraft are otherwise prohibited in the existing Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary, except where human life is at risk or otherwise specifically authorized by permit, she said.
Officials also have eliminated a provision permitting the superintendent of either marine sanctuary to authorize activities otherwise prohibited within sanctuary boundaries, Brown told the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.
She said, however, that once the expansion is in effect, NOAA would create a process through which certain activities could be considered and permitted, with opportunities for the public to weigh in. She also said that opinions on the issue of motorized watercraft were “so divergent” that NOAA would assemble stakeholders at a later date to consider acceptable zones.
Also to be addressed later is a process through which the sanctuary administration would certify certain pre-existing uses within the expansion area, as is required under federal marine sanctuary law, for ongoing activities such as use of boat launches in Timber Cove, Bodega Marine Lab research off the coast and trans-Pacific utility cables that terminate at Manchester Beach. Any new procedures would include a process through which NOAA could put conditions on such activities, as they’re permitted to do, Brown said.
The revised proposal additionally states more clearly now that any energy or mineral exploration or extraction will be prohibited in the sanctuary, extending protections against oil rigs and similar uses all the way to Point Arena, she said.