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Visitors to Northern California marine sanctuaries pump $1.2 billion into economy

Conservationists say a new report highlights the benefits for residents in protecting the coast, bolstering their push for new preserves stretching along more of California's shoreline.|

Visitors drawn to kayaking, surfing and sightseeing along the protected waters off Northern California’s coast pumped more than $1.2 billion into the region, according to a new federal study.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looked at low-impact recreational visitors to the Greater Farallones and the northern portion of the Monterey Bay marine sanctuary in 2011 and their economic impact on coastal counties, including Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin.

Conservationists say the data, published last week, highlight the benefits marine sanctuaries can provide for residents and the importance of protecting the coast, bolstering their push to expand the sanctuaries to a greater extent of the state’s shoreline.

“These are huge numbers,” said Richard Charter, a Sonoma Coast resident and senior fellow with the Washington D.C.-based Ocean Foundation. “(They’re) telling us without any doubt that a clean coast means a healthy economy.”

Visitors to Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary alone spent $86 million, mostly on food, drinks and lodging in surrounding counties, according to the peer-reviewed study. That, in return, provided a boost to local businesses and generated more than a thousand jobs.

“These sanctuaries are providing people with opportunities to engage in recreation, which helps support local businesses. Because people are going there and spending their money, it’s creating jobs,” said Danielle Schwarzmann, an economist with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, which teamed with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Ocean Service for the study.

“It’s a good investment of American tax dollars to ensure these places stay pristine for enjoyment of future generations,” added Brian Johnson, deputy superintendent of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, which was expanded last year and now stretches from the Marin Headlands to just north of Point Arena in Mendocino County.

Those protected waters provide a breeding ground for 25 endangered and threatened species and 36 marine mammals, including harbor and elephant seals and blue, gray and humpback whales, according to NOAA. The Greater Farallones also is home to more than 250,000 breeding seabirds and boasts one of the most significant great white shark populations in the world.

Visitors who set their eyes on the marine sanctuary “immediately understand” the need to protect it, Johnson said.

“It’s a magical place,” he said. “People come here and enjoy it because it’s beautiful.”

The study focused on impacts to counties adjacent to the marine sanctuaries and those to the east - Napa, Lake, Solano, Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara - because many people who work in the coastal communities live inland, Schwarzmann said. Results were not broken down by county.

Charter said it is the first time a study has looked at the economic impact of recreation tied to the sanctuaries in such detail. In addition to which activities visitors participated in, the study looked at where they came from, how much they earn and how they spent their money while in the region. It also determined the hot spots for diving, snapping pictures and dog walking on the beach.

The study briefly touched ?on fishing and crabbing but primarily focused on “non-?consumptive” recreational activities in which visitors do not take resources from the ocean.

This past summer, NOAA reported the results of a study that identified $213 million in economic impacts from recreational fishing at California’s four national marine sanctuaries, including the Greater Farallones.

NOAA also looked at the economic impact commercial fishing in the Farallones alone had on 10 counties from Mendocino to Monterey. That report, released in 2014, found commercial fishing generated an average of $15 million in harvest revenues a year and yielded nearly 300 full- and part-time jobs, based on figures collected from 2010 to 2012. The majority of the impact was concentrated in San Francisco and Sonoma counties, accounting for 84 percent of the harvest revenues.

For the latest study, more than 5,000 people were surveyed from 13 counties stretching from Mendocino to Santa Cruz and as far east as Sacramento. The respondents ranged in age from 18 to 100, although the majority were between 55 and 64.

Most of the Greater Farallones visitors lived in the Sacramento area and came from households with incomes of more than $75,000 a year. They made an estimated 1.3 million trips to the coast to sightsee, snap pictures, kayak, surf and bike and hike along the shore.

“It’s one thing to know indubitably that we live on a world-class coastline. It’s another thing to have it documented dollar by dollar,” said Charter, who joined other local residents, environmentalists and legislators who have spent decades pushing for the expansion of the Greater Farallones and adjacent offshore Cordell Bank sanctuary to further protect the region from oil drilling and other energy development.

This past summer, NOAA more than doubled the size of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries, adding 2,769 square miles of critical habitat from Bodega Head to Point Arena. The move came more than two years after President Barack Obama announced the agency’s intention to extend the federal protections. Together, the two North Coast sanctuaries now cover 4,581 square miles of ocean, with Cordell Bank, which was not included in the study, covering a large offshore area west of Bodega Bay and Point Reyes National Seashore.

Fishermen and environmentalists have clashed over marine sanctuaries, including in the Central Coast, where the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and its allies are pushing to create a marine sanctuary that would stretch south of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the Channel Islands.

Some commercial fishermen fear sanctuaries could mean more restrictions for their industry. However, proponents argue sanctuaries protect the waters from drilling and other activity, benefiting marine wildlife and the fishermen who rely on them.

Charter voiced hope that the latest data will help advocates extend the marine sanctuary protections further north to the Oregon border.

“We’re not done protecting this coast,” he said. “This will help.”

You can reach Staff Writer ?Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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