National marine sanctuaries off Northern California are due to double in size early in the new year in order to protect a massive underwater nutrient flow that biologists say makes the coast's salmon and seabirds thrive and sea lions fat and yappy.
Barring objections from the incoming U.S. Congress, new federal rules will expand existing marine sanctuaries along the Northern California coast as far up as Mendocino Country. With the expansion on the north coast, a 350-mile stretch of coast running south to Monterey Bay will be under increased federal protection.
Starting Jan. 20, the incoming Republican-led Congress will have 45 working days to raise any objections to the expansion before it would go into effect.
The designation would bar oil and gas production off Northern California's Marin and Sonoma counties. While that stretch of coast is not known to hold significant petroleum reserves, opposition in previous U.S. Congresses to restrictions on drilling helped kill an earlier effort to expand the sanctuaries through legislation, rather than the current federal rule changes.
Northern California lawmakers largely have supported expansion of the marine sanctuaries, contending that it would ruin the coast's tourism business to have oil and gas rigs appear offshore.
Another provision of the designation would bar larger vessels from discharging into the extended marine sanctuaries, said Mary Jane Schramm, a spokeswoman for San Francisco Bay area's Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
Public hearings on the sanctuary expansion drew largely positive comment, much of it from people whose livelihoods derive from fishing and tourism, Schramm said Wednesday.
Statewide, coastal recreation and tourism brings $12 billion annually to the economy. The California fishing industry contributes more than another $1 billion annually.
The sanctuary designation does not limit fishing or most recreational uses, including swimming and diving.
The protection is aimed at safeguarding a cold underwater flow off southern Mendocino County that represents one of the West Coast's most important nutrient streams. The flow pumps food south to existing San Francisco Bay area marine sanctuaries hosting the West Coast's largest population of breeding seabirds, as well as other sea life ranging from salmon to whales to sea lions.