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Photograph by MBARI/MBNMS
Nice Digs : An octopus and a crinoid hang out on Davidson Seamount, now officially part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Flow Chart

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary gets tougher federal protections, and a nationwide system of ocean reserves becomes official.

By Curtis Cartier

California's Central Coast is a paradise thanks in part to the laws and regulations that keep the human environmental toll to a minimum. Rules against drilling for oil, disturbing sea life and kelp forests and discharging wastewater combine to create a legal fortification that protects the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). Last week, those laws took a step toward being strengthened, and were also patented to be replicated in waters around the country.

For seven years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) worked with state and local agencies in forming a bevy of new regulations and expansions to the Sanctuary. Town meetings were held, revisions were submitted, and on Nov. 20, NOAA announced they were finished.

A total of 10 new enhanced guidelines and an expansion of 775 square miles are included in legislation that now only needs congressional approval before it becomes law in early spring.

Stuffed at the top of this conservationists' Christmas stocking is the addition to the MBNMS of the Davidson Seamount. A 26-square-mile expanse of sea that includes a 2,400-foot-tall underwater mountain, the Davidson Seamount hosts a massive quantity of marine life. This area has been fiercely fought over by conservationists. Dawn Hayes, education and outreach coordinator for the Sanctuary, says champagne is in order after finally winning the protection it deserves.

"It's been a long time coming," Hayes says. "We've had tremendous amount of public input. We've had over 215 people working on the action plan alongside our staff. It's a big week for oceans."

The regulations will also affect Motorized Personal Water Craft, which will be allowed only in designated areas once the NOAA regulations are ratified. This rule has caused controversy among some local "tow-in" surfers, who use jet skis to get to massive breakers at places like Ghost Tree and Mavericks.

Big-wave surfer Aaron Bierman says the law is overkill.

"I can guarantee opening day of salmon season has a larger environmental impact than a whole year of use by the tiny MPWC contingent," Bierman says. "I know probably every tow team on the bay and there are maybe about 25 of them.

"As a package I concur with the new regulations, but on this I don't."

Boaters will face two new strict rules outlawing the dumping of ballast water and sewage into MPA waters. Aquatic invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels are often spread in the ballast water of international cargo ships, and cruise ships have been known to dump thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the ocean.

Anti-dredging rules will also take hold, forbidding damage to the ocean floor that ruins marine habitats. A new boating management plan will work to strengthen anti-pollution standards.

Kaitlin Gaffney of Ocean Conservancy says NOAA's new regulations represent the acceptance of ideals she has held her entire life.

"We've been expecting these laws to be finalized for the last three years," Gaffney says. "It's so incredible to finally see a lot of what we've been working toward come to be."

A Long Haul
President Bill Clinton created the National Marine Protected Areas Center in 2001. Operating under NOAA in the Department of the Interior, it was charged with creating a nationwide system offering protections such as those already in effect here and in the Florida Keys. That work is now bearing fruit.

A myriad of local, state and tribal laws affect thousands of bodies of water, and the president's orders were to establish a common set of standards that define Marine Protected Areas. After that definition was found, the center established a nomination process that allows new MPAs to be created, and provides ways for established MPAs to be maintained. (The federal MPAs are not to be confused with the state of California's MPAs, which limit fishing in discrete areas inside state waters.)

As director of the NMPAC, Joseph Uravitch led the center's efforts in sifting through more than 1,800 bodies of water that claim to be some form of MPA and weeding out the wannabes.

"This is the only authority that brings together state, federal, local and tribal governments under one uniform plan," Uravitch says. "There are around 200 different laws affecting MPAs. This plan puts order to these laws, makes it easier to account for all the existing MPAs and provides the framework for other MPAs to be formed."

At a conference last week in Monterey, Uravitch joined a host of professors, biologists and lawmakers from around the country who were gathered to discuss how to implement the new system. Mark Hixon, chairman of the MPA Federal Advisory Committee, sat in on the meeting.

While Hixon points out that the new MPA system creates no new areas for protection, and does not enhance protections, the organizational structure of the program is itself significant, because it will serve as the backbone for new marine reserves.

"Just writing down all the bodies of water that are actually MPAs is a huge accomplishment," Hixon says. "Once we can look at an MPA map and determine gaps in protection we'll really start seeing the results."

At the center of the national MPA plan is a list of goals and conservation objectives that will be applied to every body of water that is in line to become an MPA. That plan sets near-term goals, as well as mid- and long-term goals concerning natural, cultural and sustainable resources. It also sets specific standards for drawing physical boundaries, determining uses and defining types of protection.

Hixon says the benefits of the national MPA system extend to nearly all areas of marine conservation and maintenance.

"Let's say there is a school of cod that migrates up from Florida to Massachusetts," says Hixon. "With the national system, people in Massachusetts can call the people in Florida and get info on these fish because they are monitored through the MPA system."

As the conference ended and people stepped out of the seaside hotel's meeting room to gaze at Monterey Bay, an excited tourist could be heard talking on his cell phone about a humpback whale he saw earlier. From behind the man, a conference attendee overheard the story. "That's what this is all about," she said.

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