Last ditch effort to pass marine sanctuary expansion

December 10, 2010 8:02:13 PM PST
Democrats in Congress are racing to pass a wide range of bills before Republicans take over the House of Representatives next month. One with heavy support in the Bay Area is a plan to expand the protected marine sanctuaries off the Northern California coast.

Life 120 feet below the ocean surface is an undersea landscape so colorful and abundant, it's almost hard to believe it's real. About 20 miles west of the Bay Area is a sanctuary of protected habitat, a sort of underwater national park -- the Cordell Bank National Marine Sancturary is one of three on the Northern California coast.

"These are our Yosemites in the sea essentially," said Jackie Dragon with Pacific Environment. She is one of many environmentalists, scientists, and Bay Area politicians hoping the lame duck Congress will act fast to extend the sanctuaries farther north.

"It's been many years that we've been working on this," said Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, who is a key supporter. "It's time has come."

Currently the Monterey, Gulf of the Farallones, and Cordell Bank Marine sanctuaries protect almost 8,000 square miles of ocean. The proposal would expand the sanctuaries up to Point Arena in Mendocino County. That's where a critical upwelling occurs. There are only four such spots in the world, but together they have a huge impact.

"It produces 20 percent of the world's fish even though it's only 1 percent of the ocean," explained Dragon.

The Point Arena upwelling happens at the edge of the Continental Shelf. Cold, nutrient rich water from the deep sea rises, then the current carries it south. It is a kind of conveyer belt of food.

"These rich waters that bring the whales and bring the krill, the small shrimp-like crustaceans that the whales feed on, that create such a thriving eco-system," said Dragon.

A bill to expand the sanctuaries passed the House several years ago, but has never made it through the Senate. Now, supporters are hoping it will be included in giant public lands bill that could protect a couple million acres of wilderness all over the country. It's a long shot.

"Because there is so much in it for so many states, one senator can dislike one project for one state and then halt the whole thing," said Woolsey.

If the area does become a sanctuary, fishing would be permitted, but carefully managed with conservation in mind. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen supports the idea.

"If we don't protect the environment from the standpoint of the fishing industry, we are out of business," said Zeke Grader with the Federation of Fishermen. "We rely on healthy and abundant fish stocks, and if those don't exist, our members frankly have no livelihoods."

Perhaps the most controversial part of extending the sanctuary boundaries is that no oil drilling would be allowed in the area. Drilling is already banned off the coast until 2017, but sanctuary status would make that permanent.

We called the American Petroleum Institute to get their position, but they had no comment on the lands bill. If the sanctuary proposal doesn't make it through Congress this session, it's not expected to pass once the Republicans take control of the House in January.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.


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