Sanctuary Nomination

The Chumash Heritage

National Marine Sanctuary Nomination

By Cameron Gurley
ECOSLO’s Vigilant Earth Advocate Intern


San Luis Obispo County may become home to the newest National Marine Sanctuary.  This would allow the community to promote and protect the coastal ecosystem with renewed cooperation from local companies, nonprofits, and impassioned individuals.

National Marine Sanctuaries started in 1972 as part of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, which states, “the Secretary of Commerce… can designate as marine sanctuaries those areas of the ocean waters, of the Great Lakes and their connecting waters, or of other coastal waters which he determines necessary for the purpose of preserving or restoring such areas for their conservation, recreational, ecological, or aesthetic values.”  The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries monitors thirteen national marine sanctuaries and two national marine monuments. Four of these sanctuaries lie along the coast of California.  These aquatic wilderness areas encompass 170,000 square miles combined.  A map of the current marine sanctuary locations can be found here.

San Luis Obispo’s History with the Marine Sanctuary System

Marine sanctuaries in the San Luis Obispo County area have been nominated.

In 1977, NOAA rejected Morro Bay’s proposal for a marine sanctuary.  In 1983, a new proposal was accepted by NOAA and added to the nomination list.  In 1991, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted to expand the area (to include an area similar to the currently accepted proposal).  This vote had widespread support from Grover Beach, Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Atascadero.

Unfortunately, in 1995 NOAA deactivated the nomination and designation process to focus on the existing marine sanctuaries.  Since then, eight national marine sanctuaries have been enlarged to encompass much greater areas.  As of June, 2014 the designation process has been restarted.

San Luis Obispo County’s Current Standing

In June of 2015, Fred Collins of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council submitted the current proposal (found under Inventory of Successful Nominations) for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary with the support of ECOSLO, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, and activists across San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties.  In October of 2015, NOAA accepted the proposal for designation.

The proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary now awaits evaluation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for designation as a sanctuary.  San Luis Obispo County now begins a process that could take up to five years, according to NOAA’s website.  If NOAA has not taken any action after five years, the nomination – for marine sanctuary designation – is removed.

The next phase of the designation process includes a survey of our community’s tribal, state, federal, and local entities.  Using this survey, NOAA seeks to determine whether a national marine sanctuary would fit the community.  These questions are part of the sanctuary nomination process and include

  1. Does the place have natural resources or habitat with special ecological significance?
  2. Does the place have important economic uses like tourism, fishing, diving, and other recreational activities?

NOAA will gauge our community’s overall support for the designation and the potential for marine research and education.  Questioning the community’s compatibility with the marine sanctuary system and meeting with so many groups makes marine sanctuary designation a potentially lengthy process.

On January 6, 2016 representatives from NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries came to Morro Bay to host an information session in response to public interest.  During this meeting NOAA representatives, accompanied by representatives from both the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary and the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, talked about the nomination process and helped clarify what a National Marine Sanctuary Designation could mean for our community.

What Does Designation as a National Marine Sanctuary Mean?

Designation as a national marine sanctuary can mean something different for every sanctuary. In the short term, designation would mean the beginning of a multi-year, public process towards creating a management plan.  In this plan, the community identifies their interests in the overall mission for the marine sanctuary. For this reason, the specific regulations, protections, and objectives differ from sanctuary to sanctuary.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), through its national marine sanctuaries, is trying to renew public engagement with local marine ecosystems in a way that can also protect and promote natural resources. According to their website, marine sanctuaries “protect natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the ocean in a sustainable way” (

Title 15 of the Code of Federal Regulations at Part 152.2 lists the overall Mission, Goals, and Special Policies for the National Marine Sanctuary System.  One of the most important aspects of this list is part (c) section (1), which states: “Particular attention will be given to the establishment and management of marine areas as National Marine Sanctuaries for the protection of the area’s natural resource and ecosystem values; particularly for ecologically or economically important or threatened species or species assemblages, and for offshore areas where there are no existing special area protection mechanisms.”

This aspect of NOAA’s mission shows this federal agency recognizes the potential importance of “economy” to members of the community who may depend on the marine sanctuary. NOAA does not wish to regulate a sanctuary in a way that would make the area economically inert.  Protection and promotion of the marine ecosystem and marine resources would all happen in a way that promotes public participation and awareness – see part (b) sections (3), (4), and (7).

What Activities Does a National Marine Sanctuary Regulate?

Each marine sanctuary has its own, unique management plan specific to the interests of that sanctuary and that community.  With that said, a few general regulations are seen across the board that prohibit

  1. Exploring for, developing, or producing oil, gas or minerals
  2. Discharge of material into the sanctuary
  3. Disturbance or alteration of the seabed
  4. Disturbance of cultural resources

The activities regulated or prohibited across all national marine sanctuaries are published and available online in Title 15 of the Code of Federal Regulations at Part 922.152. While some fishing practices are limited under “Disturbance or alteration of the seabed,” (e.g. dredging or bottom trawling) the list does not explicitly prohibit fishing.  With that said, every marine sanctuary has its own rules and regulations.  Recreational activities are generally unregulated (e.g. hook and line fishing, snorkeling, swimming) unless otherwise stated.

Most of the thirteen national marine sanctuaries currently have no fishing regulations.  Five of the thirteen national marine sanctuaries have restrictions in place for trawling.  Of those five, only the Gray’s Reef, Flower Garden Banks, and Florida Keys national marine sanctuaries explicitly prohibit fishing that is not conventional “hook and line” fishing, but not even across the entire sanctuary. The Florida Keys and the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuaries are the only marine sanctuaries to prohibit the fishing of certain species – but not all.  In essence, seven of the thirteen national marine sanctuaries have no explicit restrictions on fishing and the majority of the sanctuaries allow fishing in many capacities.

The current proposal San Luis Obispo County put forth for review has no fishing regulation plans in it.  While environmentalists wish for stricter fishing regulations, NOAA believes that healthy and well-managed ecosystems can support a healthy fishing economy, even without formal fishing regulations.


A national marine sanctuary for San Luis Obispo could preserve the coastal ecosystems and natural resources while accomplishing the following goals:

  • “Manage sanctuaries as ecosystems to maintain and enhance their natural biodiversity, historical and cultural heritage, and other unique qualities;”
  • “Support, promote, and coordinate scientific research and monitoring in sanctuaries;”
  • “Facilitate all lawful public and private sanctuary uses to the extent compatible with the primary objective of resource protection;”
  • “Support permanent preservation of sanctuaries to benefit current and future generations”

These goals, stated by the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA), reflect the values of most residents within San Luis Obispo County.  Furthermore, NMSA legislation explicitly calls for ecosystem-based planning and governance. Lastly, the national marine sanctuary process is entirely grassroots operated, which requires and employs community involvement in a way that can enhance San Luis Obispo County and its coastal environment.




-NOAA: Tortugas marine reserve yields more, larger fish:


-Economic Impact of National Marine Sanctuaries on the Northern Central Coast of California:





-Arin, Tijen; Kramer, Randall A. “Divers’ willingness to pay to visit marine sanctuaries: an exploratory study,” Ocean & Coastal Management, Volume 45, Issues 2–3, 2002, Pages 171-183, ISSN 0964-5691,



-Polefka, Shiva. “New Life for the National Marine Sanctuary System.” Center For American Progress, 28 Aug. 2013. Web.


-The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, Title 33; Chapter II; Section 320.3 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) § 302 (1972). Print.