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To expand or not to expand?

Local groups consider extending Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary through South County

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The southernmost edge of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) ends at the coastal town of Cambria, but if local groups like the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club have their way, the sanctuary boundary will be extended to the southern edge of SLO County.

Most recently the Environmental Caucus of the California Democratic Party backed the Sierra Club's resolution, and now the group is looking for more supporters, like assemblymen Blakeslee and Maldonado. The offices of both Maldonado and Blakeslee were contacted for this story but declined to comment.

The MBNMS is one of 13 U.S. marine sanctuaries, four of which pepper the California Coast.

A San Luis Obispo coastal sanctuary isn't a new idea. When the MBNMS was first proposed in the early '90s, it included the waters off of the SLO County coast. Expanding the sanctuary boundary would prohibit future oil, gas, and mineral extraction along the SLO County coastline, a move Andrew Christie of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club strongly supports in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and amid calls from the Bush administration to limit our nation's dependence on foreign oil by drilling locally. But a sanctuary designation would also help scientists receive grant money to study the ocean, improve education and outreach, and provide comprehensive resource protection, said Bill Douros, MBNMS superintendent.

Back in 1990, the proposed California Central Coast National Marine Sanctuary had widespread support from groups including the city councils of Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, and Paso Robles; the Northern Chumash Council; and the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the agency responsible for regulating fishing off the West Coast. But it didn't pan out. Douros said the proposed MBNMS was too big for one agency to properly manage.

The proposed "Central Coast National Marine Sanctuary ... contains nationally significant and diverse populations of fish and marine mammals, critically important productive habitat which is deserving of protection from contamination and pollution, and areas of aesthetic beauty and scientific importance," wrote Richard Schwarz in 1990, then chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

In 2003 SLO County Supervisor Shirley Bianchi helped to set up the Marine Interest Group, a local advisory group with the mission to promote an understanding of the marine resources of the SLO County coast, examine ways to promote the resources, and recommend actions. Although it was not written into the mission statement, it's generally understood the Marine Interest Group was set up to facilitate the expansion of the sanctuary, which raised the hackles of many fishermen, like Tom Capen of the Port San Luis Commercial Fisherman's Association.

A sanctuary designation does not limit fishing, but that doesn't mean fishermen support the plan.

"I'm not going to say I'm against a sanctuary; that just sounds bad," said Capen. "[But] they're not going to get the fishermen's support."

And this is the logic that has frustrated other members of the Marine Interest Group, like Leslie Krinsk, who drafted the resolution to expand the MBNMS for the Sierra Club.

"It doesn't mean regulation, it means conservation," she said.

A sanctuary designation would have immediately killed recent plans to dump agricultural waste from the Central Valley off of the SLO Coast, said Krinsk. It appears that plan will not be implemented, but Krinsk uses this as an example of a sanctuary benefit that's good for everyone, including fishermen who rely on a healthy ocean. A sanctuary designation would also help secure grant money for additional research, she said.

Capen insists the ocean is healthier then he's ever seen it in his 30 years of fishing, and he's skeptical of other newly implemented state laws that create Marine Protection Areas along the California Coast. The idea of more government involvement, even though it wouldn't limit fishing, doesn't float with Capen.

There are two ways for the waters off the SLO County coast to be included into the MBNMS: A provision could be included in the MBNMS management plan, which is currently in its last stages of revision - Bill Douros said he hopes the plan will be released this summer - or, elected officials could introduce a bill expanding the boundary, which would take much less time.

Douros said this method is not unprecedented along the Central Coast. In 1992, then-Rep. Leon Panetta declared Monterey Bay a national marine sanctuary. And this summer, in an effort to block future oil and mineral extraction, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Lynn Woolsey introduced a bill that would expand the boundaries of the gulf of Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries.

Douros said these proposed expansions seem to have widespread support in those areas. And this seems to be the hitch with the proposed expansion of the MBNMS down the SLO County coast.

"The community itself needs to talk this one through," said Douros. "If there's a consensus, then we'll consider that and move it along."

To be included in the current revision of the MBNMS management plan, the Marine Interest Group and the SLO community would have to reach some agreement in time to make public comment before the plan is sent to the secretary of commerce for approval, which is probably unlikely. So Andrew Christie and the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club are working to gain the support of politicians for both the eventual introduction of a bill and to get the expansion included in the next revision of the MBNMS management plan.

"Obviously sooner would be better than later for extension of sanctuary protections to the Central Coast," Christie wrote in an e-mail. "We're willing to seek that expansion through the five-year update process for the sanctuary management plan, but if Senator Boxer and Representative Capps could see their way clear to sponsor a bill equivalent to the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary Boundary Modification Act, that would be ideal. We will continue to pursue both avenues toward that goal."

 

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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