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Two National Marine Sanctuaries May More Than Double in Size

Picture of Point Arena in Northern California
The northern boundary of the proposed expansion of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary ends a couple of miles north of Point Arena. (Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Stock/CBNMS/NOAA)

In response to public interest, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed the expansion of the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries this week.

The main effect of any expansion plans, if approved, would be bans on oil and gas exploration within the sanctuaries, along with increased protections for water quality. Fishing, both commercial and recreational, is allowed in the sanctuaries, says Jennifer Stock, a spokeswoman for the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

The two sanctuaries—located off the coast of Northern California—are neighbors, and the proposed expansion of their boundaries would increase their combined area by 2,775 square miles (7,187 square kilometers). Currently, the Cordell Bank sanctuary, which is entirely offshore, encompasses 529 square miles (1,370 square kilometers) and the Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary sprawls across 1,279 square miles (3,313 square kilometers).

If expansion plans pass muster, they would run from just north of San Francisco up the coast to Point Arena (map) in Mendocino County.

An Area of Plenty

“The Point Arena site is the strongest upwelling site on the coast of North America,” says Mary Jane Schramm, a spokeswoman for the Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary. That means it is nutrient and food-rich, drawing in a smorgasbord of marine life and supporting valuable fisheries, including Dungeness crab, herring, sardines, and salmon.

Picture of a pair of humpback whales lunge feeding
A pair of humpback whales feed off the coast of Northern California. (Photograph courtesy of Cornelia Oedekoven/NOAA)

Humpback whales have put in an early appearance this year, Schramm says, likely due to the presence of huge schools of bait fish—also known as bait balls—like sardines. “Fishermen coming in from salmon season are reporting seeing bait balls going from the surface to the ocean floor.”

Those life-giving waters also find their way south via the California Current, nourishing important fisheries and ecosystems all along the Golden State, says Stock.

Have Your Say

NOAA wants to keep the expansion process as transparent as possible, Stock says, which is why the public can comment on the plan between April 14 and June 30. Stakeholders can submit their thoughts online, through the mail, or at a series of public meetings in Northern California.

“NOAA has set an aggressive timeline,” says Stock. Officials want to make sure a decision is made within two years. And so after June 30, NOAA officials will comb through the comments and decide on a plan of action by December 2014 or early 2015.