The Obama Administration Protects California Oceans


Photos courtesy of NOAA

Just in time for the holidays, the Obama administration gives the gift of blue by proposing to expand the National Marine Sanctuaries off the coast of California.

Supported by Representative Lynn Woolsey and Senator Barbara Boxer, the proposed expansion announced yesterday in a press conference will protect over 2,700 square nautical miles of ocean habitat by more than doubling the area covered two national marine sanctuaries: the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries.  Using section 304(e) of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, it will create a giant preserve that includes the entire Sonoma County coastline and part of the Mendocino County coastline. And most notably, it would permanently ban offshore oil and gas drilling.

Exploration for oil and gas using airguns creates some of the loudest man-made sounds.  These high-intensity pulses can kill, injure and disturb a wide range of marine wildlife.  That’s because marine mammals rely on sound to survive: to communicate, navigate, mate, find food and avoid predators.  But airgun noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over literally thousands of miles, destroying their capacity to communicate and breed.  It can drive whales to abandon their habitat and cease foraging over vast stretches of the ocean.  Up close, airguns can cause hearing loss and even death.

The only effective way to mitigate the large-scale environmental harm caused by seismic surveys is to keep airguns out of sensitive environmental areas, which is exactly what the Obama administration proposes to do by protecting the waters off the California coast.

These waters are one of the most biologically productive regions in the world and produce 20 percent of the world’s fish.  The coastal estuaries provide important habitat for at least 25 threatened or endangered species, including magnificent blue whales, humpback whales, northern fur seals, and leatherback turtles; at least 163 bird species; and more than 300 species of fish, including commercially valuable salmon and groundfish.

Expanding the existing marine sanctuaries will not only protect the incredible biodiversity found in this area, but also thousands of research, tourism, and commercial fishing jobs that depend on it. Currently allowed activities – such as fishing, boating, diving, and shipping – likely will still be permitted.  Unfortunately, military activities – such as the use of ear-splitting sonar – likely will be permitted in the protected areas as well.

But by protecting these waters from oil drilling, the Obama administration will leave a blue legacy on the west coast. It also realizes the vision of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, who has valiantly tried for eight years to pass legislation that would protect the coast. And it complements the new underwater parks that recently took effect along California’s north coast under the state's Marine Life Protection Act.

What a perfect gift.

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