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Why Today's Marine Sanctuary Expansion is Important

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The Farallon Islands within Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. | Photo: Courtesy NOAA

Sir Francis Drake did not know from NOAA.

The marauding, wind-powered explorer of the California coast would have been startled to learn that the world had evolved to such an extent that nation-states now contain institutions like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that regulate the bounding main and its resource-rich waters. But like the federal agency, Drake knew full well how fecund the Pacific was.

On July 24, 1579, one day after he and the crew of the Golden Hind left what Drake dubbed Nova Albion and we know as Drake's Bay, they dropped anchor at the Farallons, that small cluster of guano-encrusted islands and sea stacks off San Francisco Bay. What drew them to these stormed-tossed isles was food, "hauing on them plentifull and great store of Seales and birds...whereon we found such prouision as might competently serue our turne for a while."

However spelled, Drake's early record of the islands' teeming life is precisely why it is so important that NOAA announced today it is greatly expanding the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the adjacent Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The size of the expansion is breathtaking: the Farallones sanctuary, which currently encompasses 1,282 square miles, will swell to 3,295 square miles; the Cordell Bank sanctuary will more than double in size, from 529 to 1,286 square miles. When combined with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the south, NOAA now oversees a contiguous stretch of 350 miles of the California coast. Size matters.

Its new expansiveness is significant, too, because it means greater protection from the high-tide mark in coves, rivers, estuaries to 60 miles out to sea (see map below). Among those species and sites benefiting from these increased protections are the rock and island haul-out spots for sea lions and elephant seals, which, as Drake discovered, also double as roosting and breeding zones for pelagic seabirds, including gulls, murres, and auklets. Sharks are in this mix as well, with new and larger "Great White Shark Approach Prohibition Areas."

The expanded boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank. | Map: Courtesy NOAA
The expanded boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank. | Map: Courtesy NOAA

One key reason why all those animals -- threatened, endangered, and flourishing -- make such extensive use of this marinescape is also incorporated in the sanctuary expansions: "the nutrient rich upwelling zone originating off Point Arena and flowing south into the original sanctuaries." Those nutrients make this area a "hotspot for wildlife" because they lead "to phytoplankton growth and then zooplankton grazers (basically 'crustacean cows') that become food for fish and seabirds and marine mammals." So observed my colleague, Pomona College biologist Nina Karnovsky, who with a gaggle of students has been studying the region for years. "Warming the California current has caused a decline in zooplankton so anything that helps the area stay healthy is good news." Put another way, by absorbing these currents and such subsea features as Bodega Canyon, the sanctuaries now are more ecosystemic in design.

They are no less human-centered in their sweep. These surging, rough waters have claimed their share of shipwrecks dating back to the 19th-century (and earlier); lost airplanes are also to be found. So that scholars might locate, assess, and analyze these various prehistoric, historic, and cultural resources, and feed the "keen public interest" in these artifacts and materials, the sanctuaries' designation expressly prohibits "removing or damaging" of any such resource.

As significant is the regulatory prohibition against the dumping of ballast, fuel, waste, and other effluent that shippers once so-routinely jettisoned into the ocean. This covers commercial vessels, cruise liners, and military ships that ply these waters -- not an incidental number given that the Farallones sanctuary covers the central and northern approaches to San Francisco Bay.

With today's posting of these prohibitions and protections to the Federal Register, which gain the weight of law after a 45-day public comment period, it is worth remembering the Democratic dynamo who set these wheels in motion. Former U.S. House Representative Lynn Woolsey, whose district included the California North Coast, began working on this project nearly a decade ago with an array of fishing groups, environmental organizations, and local officials. She recognized that expanding the two sanctuaries would increase their ability to keep this portion of the white-capped Pacific resilient and vital -- qualities that describe Woolsey herself. That has led her successor, Jared Huffman, and congressional colleagues Sam Farr, Lois Capps, Mike Thompson, and Jackie Speier to cheer -- "achieving these important protections will be part of her legacy."

A legacy that is contributing to the rewilding of the ocean, a regeneration of its biological integrity that 436 years ago so captivated -- and nourished -- an English captain and his crew.

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