Unsafe Sanctuaries

Protection Varies at America’s 12 Marine Reserves
Galyn C. Hammond

The wind muffles his speech as Ed Cassano, manager of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, looks out from his 56-foot research vessel Ballena. He gazes onto the broad Pacific waters that nurture the largest concentration of blue whales in the world—not to mention plentiful seals, sea lions and sharks. “Right now, we’re 80 miles from Los Angeles,” Cassano yells to the reporter on the other end of his cell phone.

“I’m looking at a container ship going by.” Container ship? In a sanctuary?

Well, yes. Just as there are oil-drilling leases in another national marine sanctuary, Flower Garden Banks (set in the Gulf of Mexico), the Channel Islands sanctuary allows both commercial and recreational boat traffic. And just as there are personal watercraft buzzing around sea lions’ homes at the Gulf of the Farallones, a 1,255-square-mile marine sanctuary 30 miles from San Francisco, there are fish enthusiasts collecting jet-black and brilliant-yellow angelfish from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (of course, there is a limit—75 angelfish per person per day).

The nation’s dozen National Marine Sanctuary sites aren’t national parks, where “leave only footprints and take only pictures” is the dogma. “Sanctuary” is something of a misnomer. “Multipurpose areas” may be more like it, with allowed uses varying considerably from sanctuary to sanctuary.

“They may or may not be what the public generally perceives them to be. That’s been the source of the problems,” says Michael Orbach, professor of marine affairs and policy at Duke University Marine Laboratory. He adds that commercial fishermen are concerned about being shut out of prime ocean waters, as they are at many, but not all, sanctuaries.

The restrictions are tightening, but many conservationists consider the added protection inadequate. As the blue waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary served as his backdrop in June, President Clinton declared a permanent ban on oil rigs in the nation’s 12 marine sanctuaries and an extended ban, until 2012, on new offshore oil drilling elsewhere. In the United Nations-proclaimed “International Year of the Ocean,” Clinton also announced other steps—among them, banning the sale or import of Atlantic swordfish weighing less than 33 pounds, as part of an effort to help rebuild declining U.S. fisheries. Already, $6 million is to go toward rebuilding 18 damaged coral reefs from Florida to Guam, Vice President Al Gore announced a day earlier.

But despite the good news for the oceans, the dozen national marine sanctuaries still face struggles—some more major and numerous (and harder to solve) than others.

The northern right whale is one of the world’s most endangered mammals, so tourists hoping to see it, or endangered humpback whales, head to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 25 miles east of Boston. Yet, ships readily cut through the 842-square-mile sanctuary. Researchers estimate that in the past 15 years, more than one-third of right whale deaths (with survivors now numbering about 350) were caused by getting entangled in fishing gear or colliding with ships. Perhaps more important than the scars seen on the bodies of some surviving whales, researchers fear the lumbering mammals may abandon the area altogether because of the many bothersome vessels.

At two sandbars in California’s Tomales Bay, female seals haul out each spring to give birth to their pups. However, “since the 1940s, sport clam diggers have been venturing to the sandbars at low tide to dig clams,” says Dan Howard, assistant manager at 526-square-mile Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 60 miles northwest of San Francisco. Studies document an elevated mortality rate, mainly because scared mother seals become separated from their pups.

To combat that, the sanctuary three years ago started posting volunteers at sandbars during the pupping season. The helpers set up surveyor flags to act as visual barriers, and provide information and spotting scopes to clammers. It worked: More pups have survived since the sanctuary began the Sanctuary Education, Awareness and Longterm Stewardship (SEALS) volunteer program, Howard notes.

And what about pollution? Back at the Channel Islands in southern California, Cassano continues yelling into his cell phone to be heard. Taking a break from his mission to map the habitats on the ocean bottom in fine detail, he looks out to the Pacific. He doesn’t worry so much, he says, about the vessels cutting through the 1,658-square-mile sanctuary on their way to one of the nation’s busiest ports, Long Beach. Still, he acknowledges the grim possibility of what could happen at the oil platforms located nearby. A spill, he says, “would be catastrophic.”

But for drama, nothing beats the Florida Keys. Locals have hung sanctuary manager Billy Causey in effigy. The birth of this 3,674-square-mile sanctuary—set along the banks of the laid-back 200-mile-long archipelago made famous by Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville”—is widely acknowledged to have been the most contentious of the sanctuaries, overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Say no to NOAA” became a bumper sticker slogan in the diving and fishing hotspot, whose ecological wonders draw more than two million visitors a year. As a result of locals’ mistrust of big government, the sanctuary now is the only one jointly managed by the federal and state governments. After all, the Keys traditionally have been a place where people who wanted to get away from regulation went to live. “You’re dealing with an island mentality,” says Gustavo Antonini, a University of Florida geography professor who studies live-aboard boaters in the Keys. Regulation? No way. It’s like “fencing the range 100 years ago,” Antonini says.

Water visibility is 30 to 40 feet on a good day at the sanctuary’s popular dive spot Looe Key, compared to an average 100 feet in 1975, says diveboat captain and Florida Audubon Society president Ed Davidson. But it’s “still a very impressive place to visit—under decent weather conditions,” Davidson adds. Pollution from urban areas and sugar farms are thought to play a role in hurting the nation’s only living barrier coastal reef.

In the end, experts say the nation’s marine sanctuaries are like pilot projects, a way to look at the ocean of the future. “If there’s a theme, it would be that we have not bought fully into the concept of ocean-use planning,” says Orbach. “We still think of the ocean as the last frontier—not an entity to be zoned. My guess is that will change rapidly over the next decade.”