What’s the best way to protect the Central Coast’s vital marine environment and sustain our clean-coast economic sector and our fisheries?
I had the privilege of being directly engaged in the bipartisan effort throughout the counties of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo that led to the 1980 designation of our Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Overwhelming public support from local citizens and their elected officials provided the key ingredient leading to the well-documented economic and environmental benefits that the entire region presently experiences as a clear result of the sanctuary.
Strong grassroots citizen support is once again the driving force behind the recent initiative to simply broaden the area enjoying such protections through the designation of the new Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.
During the 1970s we saw intense lobbying from the powerful petroleum industry to reopen our nearshore waters to vastly expanded offshore oil and gas leasing in the hope that the public had “forgotten” the devastating 1969 Santa Barbara blowout. The drilling targets coveted at that time included sensitive tracts now protected within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Conserving the area eventually brought permanent protection from oil impacts for fragile reefs, subsea canyons, and key fish habitat, guided by a citizen’s advisory council of local stakeholders. Backlash from Big Oil is inevitable when a community unites in support of protecting its environmental assets, but healthy public debate should be predicated on real facts.
Today, as the fishing industry and the state continue to tally up the still-mounting economic damage from the 2015 Refugio pipeline spill, oil that came from wells sunk below our ocean, we have the next generation’s opportunity to secure a similar designation of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Such a move would enable the public to gain permanent protection from offshore oil and gas drilling and related pollution for more of our sensitive coastal waters, thus benefitting our fisheries and all other sustainable uses of the region. No other mechanism can provide similar benefits.
The County of San Luis Obispo’s coastal plan says: “No permit, entitlement, lease, or other authorization of any kind within the County of San Luis Obispo which would authorize or allow the development, construction, installation, or expansion of any onshore support facility for offshore oil and gas activity shall be final unless such authorization is approved by a majority of the votes cast by a vote of the people of the County of San Luis Obispo in general or special election.” But this local ordinance applies only to land and will not and cannot preclude federal offshore leasing along the coast in the manner offered by the Chumash Sanctuary; drilling rigs could still go in and pipelines simply be routed to go ashore to connect with currently operating facilities in Santa Barbara County, thus avoiding any local control over our offshore waters. No similar local ordinance exists for Santa Barbara County’s coastal lands.
The proposed Sanctuary would extend from Gaviota Creek in Santa Barbara to Santa Rosa Creek in Cambria, west of the submerged Santa Lucia Bank along the Santa Lucia Escarpment. These pristine coastal waters lie between the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. They encompass submerged sacred Chumash sites, historic major shipwrecks, permanent and seasonal upwelling features, Arguello Canyon, the Santa Lucia Bank upthrust block, the Rodriguez Seamount, marine mammals and their haulouts, wetlands, rookeries, kelp forests, and other significant, nationally and internationally important marine life and marine ecosystems.
In addition to protecting sensitive coastal waters from offshore drilling and pollution, National Marine Sanctuaries have also been proven to help local economies. The National Marine Sanctuary System released an important report on December 29, 2015, that affirms conclusively that California’s national marine sanctuaries to our north have boosted their adjacent local economies, a lot. This peer-reviewed study documents, among many other things, that visitors in the Greater Farallones and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries spent $127 million for nonconsumptive recreation activities in 2011, and thereby supported nearly 1,700 jobs. Collectively, an estimated 4.17 million visitors engaged in recreation in the North Central California region, including 438,000 visitors in Greater Farallones and the northern portion of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries.
Sanctuaries also offer a host of other benefits to the communities they serve.
Let’s welcome a rational regional dialog about the opportunity to create a Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary and then base our decision on documented facts while weighing the proven reality of tangible, measureable benefits based on actual economic and jobs data revealed openly in a public process.
We owe the continued health of our coastal economy to the sustainable future of our region and a factual discussion of the new marine sanctuary opportunity. See chumashsanctuary.com/, where you can add your voice to those asking that the designation process proceed. Click on “Sanctuary Petition.”
Richard Charter is a senior fellow with The Ocean Foundation.