Another National Marine Sanctuary Off California?

Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary
Area proposed for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Image via NOAA.

On Wednesday, Nov. 19, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published in the Federal Register a Notice of Intent to Conduct Scoping and to Prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. The comment period closes  Jan. 10, 2022.

As of the time of this writing, there are 15 National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS). If designated, the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary (CHNMS) would be the fifth NMS off the California coast and would fill the gap between the Monterey Bay NMS and the Channel Islands NMS.

At roughly 7,000 square miles, the CHNMS would be the largest NMS off the California Coast, taking that title away from the Monterey Bay NMS, which covers 4,601 square miles.

PCFFA opposed the nomination when it was submitted in 2015, and in 2020 we were “opposed to CHNMS remaining in inventory.” We were not alone in our opposition, as many non-fishing local community interests expressed opposition as well. Despite this, it appears the CHNMS is now headed toward designation.

What is a National Marine Sanctuary?

In 1975, President Gerald Ford designated the first NMS—the USS Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of North Carolina. It was established to protect the wreck of the famed Civil War ship USS Monitor. The sanctuary comprises a column of water one nautical mile (1.9 km) in diameter; and is considered a boundary expansion to protect additional shipwrecks.

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to designate and protect areas of the marine environment that are of special national significance due to their recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational or aesthetic qualities. The primary objective of the Marine Sanctuaries Act is to protect marine resources, such as coral reefs, sunken historical vessels or unique habitats.

A detailed overview of the statutory framework and nuances of the act is beyond the scope of this article. But in brief, it identifies designation standards, describes the procedures of designation and implementation which necessitate preparation of  a draft environmental impact statement, a resource assessment, a draft management plan and a map depicting the proposed boundaries, amongst other documents.

Important from a fishing perspective is the language of 16 U.S.C. §1434(a)(5):

“The Secretary (of Commerce) shall provide the appropriate Regional Fishery Management Council with the opportunity to prepare draft regulations for fishing within the Exclusive Economic Zone as the Council may deem necessary to implement the proposed designation. Draft regulations prepared by the Council, or a Council determination that regulations are not necessary pursuant to this paragraph, shall be accepted and issued as proposed regulations by the Secretary unless the Secretary finds that the Council’s action fails to fulfill the purposes and policies of this chapter and the goals and objectives of the proposed designation. In preparing the draft regulations, a Regional Fishery Management Council shall use as guidance the national standards of section 301(a) of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (16 U.S.C. 1851) to the extent that the standards are consistent and compatible with the goals and objectives of the proposed designation. The Secretary shall prepare the fishing regulations, if the Council declines to make a determination with respect to the need for regulations, makes a determination which is rejected by the Secretary, or fails to prepare the draft regulations in a timely manner. Any amendments to the fishing regulations shall be drafted, approved, and issued in the same manner as the original regulations. The Secretary shall also cooperate with other appropriate fishery management authorities with rights or responsibilities within a proposed sanctuary at the earliest practicable stage in drafting any sanctuary fishing regulations.”

The language makes clear that the designation doesn’t automatically negatively impact fisheries within sanctuary boundaries. It will be imperative that the fishing community remain engaged and that the Secretary actively seek input from that community throughout the designation process.

CHNMS Specifics

The current boundaries of the proposed CHNMS differ from those presented in 2015 by the Northern Chumash Tribal Council. A portion of the area which is now the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area has been removed from the proposed sanctuary boundary. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management does not have authority to lease within any NMS. Changing the boundary of the CHNMS lessens potential roadblocks for development of an offshore wind farm off Morro Bay.

In the Notice of Intent, NOAA seeks comments on 13 topics, including the identification of potential alternatives, information and analyses relevant to the proposed action. Of these, the following should be of interest to the West Coast fishing community: (a) the management plan and regulatory framework most appropriate to the resources in the area, including compatible and incompatible uses; (b) the potential socioeconomic, cultural, and biological impacts of designation; (c) opportunities to benefit the “blue economy” of the region, including promoting sustainable tourism and recreation; and (d) the potential to advance multiple, complementary priorities of the federal administration, the Department of Commerce and NOAA, including conserving and restoring ocean and coastal habitats, supporting tribally and locally led stewardship, and advancing offshore wind and other clean energy projects.

We address each of these below.

The Management Plan:

16 U.S.C. §1434(a)(1)(C) identifies what must be included in the draft management plan for the proposed national marine sanctuary: (1) the terms of the proposed designation; (2) proposed mechanisms to coordinate existing regulatory and management authorities within the area; (3) the proposed goals and objectives, management responsibilities, resource studies, and appropriate strategies for managing sanctuary resources of the proposed sanctuary, including interpretation and education, innovative management strategies, research, monitoring and assessment, resource protection, restoration, enforcement, and surveillance activities; (4) an evaluation of the advantages of cooperative state and federal management if all or part of the proposed sanctuary is within the territorial limits of any state or is superjacent to the subsoil and seabed within the seaward boundary of a state, as that boundary is established under the Submerged Lands Act; (5) an estimate of the annual cost to the federal government of the proposed designation, including costs of personnel, equipment and facilities, enforcement, research, and public education; and (6) any proposed regulations that may be necessary and reasonable to implement the proposal.

Potential Impacts of Designation:

15 CFR Part 922 specifies National Marine Sanctuary Program regulations. In addressing the Sanctuary Nomination Process, §922.10(b) identifies national significance criteria that will be considered in determining if a nominated area is of special national significance. Subsection (c) reads, “The area supports present and potential economic uses, such as: Tourism; commercial and recreational fishing; subsistence and traditional uses; diving; and other recreational uses that depend on conservation and management of the area’s resources.”

According to California Department of Fish and Wildlife datasets, between 2010 and 2017, each year Morro Bay and Port San Luis Commercial fishermen and women landed, on average, 5,068,806 pounds of seafood with an ex-vessel value of $8,750,108.

Note: ex-vessel revenues do not reflect the true economic impact of our fishermen’s actions.  Some economists conservatively estimate a multiplier of at least four times measures the true economic impact to the local economy. This seafood is harvested in compliance with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Marine Life Management Act and comes with a much lower carbon footprint (per pound of seafood) than seafood harvested overseas and imported into the area.

Morro Bay Harbor
Morro Bay Harbor, above, has a strong heritage of commercial fishing. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA.

Benefits to the Region:

Both Morro Bay and Avila/Port San Luis are quaint coastal communities with a strong heritage of fishing. According to the Historical Society of Morro Bay, “The ancestors of the Chumash and Salinan people who live here now created complex village societies based on fishing and gathering.”

In 1977, at a public hearing held by the South Central Regional Coastal Commission, the “amenities” offered tourists by the city were as follows: boat builders, sport fishing accommodations, marinas, piers, commercial fishing operations, an aquarium, a museum of natural history and 38 motels with 745 rooms to accommodate about 2,600 guests.

The allure of the area’s fishing heritage continues to be a draw for tourists to the area to watch local fishermen ply their trade and to sample their catch in the restaurants on the waterfront. The Rise and Fall of Commercial Fishing in Morro Bay (published by the Historical Society of Morro Bay), includes the following quote: “Not only is the fishing industry of Morro Bay a powerful link to the past, but it is also an integral part of the city’s identity and provides a great sense of pride for its local residents.”

Potential to Advance Federal Priorities:

On Jan. 27, 2021 the Biden Administration announced its goal to conserve 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030. Given the goals of the sanctuary program, we believe it beyond dispute that should the CHNMS be designated, the waters covered would be deemed conserved for purposes of the 30 x 30 initiative.

As noted above, the fishing industry is one of the original contributors to the local blue economy.  Every effort must be made to promote, support and protect this industry as an important historic and current use of this NMS if it is designated.

Mike Conroy is the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), and its sister organization, Institute for Fisheries Resources. He can be reached at his email address: or by cell phone to: (415) 638-9730.