Orcas off the Farallon Islands. (photo: Chris Colombana)
The Obama Administration did what Congress refused to do and more than doubled the size of two marine sanctuaries off the coast of Northern California, in areas known collectively by scientists as the “Blue Serengeti.”
The decision, announced Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), caps more than a decade of public debate over extending the boundaries by 2,770 square miles. The area is home to more than a quarter million breeding seabirds, 25 endangered or threatened species, 36 marine mammal species and a large population of great white sharks.
The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary will grow from 1,282 square miles to 3,259 and the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary will swell from 529 square miles to 1,282. They originally received sanctuary designations in 1981 and 1989, respectively. The expansion will protect rocky inter-tidal habitats, estuarine wetlands shallow marine banks as well as the open ocean.
The plan, which extends wildlife protections and puts the area off-limits for energy and mineral extraction, was two-years in the making and had some enthusiasts nervous when it seemed to hit a snag in January. But reservations about access to the area by Coast Guard officials were resolved.
The Democratic-controlled Congress was on its way to enlarging the sanctuaries when Republicans captured the House of Representatives in the 2010 mid-term elections. Obama announced last June that his administration would move forward without them. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Washington) told the Washington Post at the time, “It's another example of this imperial presidency. If there are marine sanctuaries that should be put in place, that should go through Congress.”
There is, however, some precedent for Obama’s actions. In the final days of his administration, Republican President George W. Bush used executive action to create three new marine national monuments, preserving 195,280 square miles in the central and western Pacific Ocean. The president brushed off objections from fishermen and Vice President Dick Cheney that the restrictions would create a dangerous precedent.
Obama’s expansion will also provide protection to other nearby areas. Richard Charter, with the nonprofit Ocean Foundation, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the south will also be a beneficiary. “If one were to drop a few offshore drilling rigs off Point Arena, which has been in the works for a long time, one could easily contaminate all three sanctuaries and everything that lives in them,” he said.