Monterey Bay | Seeking Refuge: Oil Spills, Science, and Bipartisanship – Santa Cruz Sentinel


Pushing the potential boundaries of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary far enough north to protect the waters coveted by the oil industry between Santa Cruz and San Francisco was a priority in the late 1980s, as was tackling potential tanker spills. , even before two spills hit the United States in 1989 and 1990.

The US Coast Guard has asked the public if offshore oil rigs should co-exist with tanker lanes off California. Save Our Shores had advocated for mandatory lanes, as well as better preparedness for spills, and among those who spoke at a hearing in San Francisco included Santa Cruz City Councilman John Laird and the Monterey County Supervisor Karin Strasser-Kauffmann. Ultimately, advisory lanes were established 50 miles offshore alongside spill preparedness measures, including response equipment at the Moss Landing power station, which PG&E still owned, although it has stopped using oil in favor of the natural gas it receives from domestic pipelines.

State and federal laws approved following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and the 1990 American Trader spill off Huntington Beach, provided tools to prevent and respond to future disasters. Equally powerful were the television images of the spills, which fueled public concern.

Intertidal invertebrates and the presidential election

Support for the larger boundary alternative for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary grew and was bipartisan, and a letter promoting it was sent to President George H. W. Bush by Congressman Leon Panetta and Tom Campbell, a Republican from Silicon Valley, plus the United States from California. Senators, Republican John Seymour and Democrat Alan Cranston. Republican Governor Pete Wilson was also a supporter. But approval of this larger area depended on documented evidence that it contained a continuous and diverse ecosystem.

A case was presented using profiles of the region’s biology produced by a consortium of six Central Coast counties, coordinated by Marin County Planner Warner Chabot. Its board had one representative from each county, including Monterey County Supervisor Marc del Piero and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton, and its work was supported by offshore drilling revenue distributed to counties to mitigate its impact.

Chabot constructed a map of the biology of the region to assess what would be harmed by offshore oil development, and he completed the biotic inventories kept by resource managers. It also strengthened the case for stretching the sanctuary’s boundaries north of Santa Cruz to the southern edge of the Gulf of the Farallones (renamed Greater Farallones in 2014) National Marine Sanctuary. A key argument concerned the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, at Moss Beach, north of Half Moon Bay. It is one of the most biologically diverse intertidal regions in California, considered equal to Point Lobos in its complexity and known for its diverse population of invertebrates.

Bob Breen, Fitzgerald’s naturalist and ranger from 1969 to 2004, told me this for my Santa Cruz Sentinel Our Ocean Backyard column in 2010: “Moss Beach is the last large and complex rocky intertidal below the Golden Gate and has some number of attributes. These were the presence of six endemic species and 25 species new to science discovered here. More than 50 species have their range limits in Fitzgerald. This has of course changed due to the warming ocean, which has caused southern species to migrate to Moss Beach and species that previously had their northern limit here to move further north. Breen passed away in 2013, leaving a legacy of stewardship.

While the scientific argument was to extend the boundaries of the sanctuary northward, public concern had been heightened by the spills from the Exxon Valdez and American Trader tankers. Although oil tankers present a greater risk of spills than offshore drilling, these accidents illustrate the effect of oil on ecosystems.

Public hearings on the proposed sanctuary were held in Monterey, Half Moon Bay, Sacramento and Santa Cruz. The Center for Marine Conservation had funded, and the Environmental Working Group had designed and mailed, an “action alert” to thousands of people to engage them in the hearings and written comments on the plan, in the pre-internet era. Almost all supported the wider boundary and, as Coast Commission Director Les Strnad said in his testimony, “public opinion determines public policy.”

John Von Reis and Karl Kempton, representing San Luis Obispo County, proposed extending the boundary south to cover their waters to Point Sal, just below the Santa Barbara County line. Although area congressman Bill Thomas did not support this proposal and it did not go through, today there is a more inclusive proposal in the form of the Chumash National Marine Heritage Sanctuary. , with a better chance of being nominated.

The planned 1990 designation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was delayed, the First Gulf War heightened concerns about U.S. oil supplies – including potential off the California coast – and there There were only two NOAA staff members, Mark Murray-Brown and Ralph Lopez, working on this massive project, with little help. Jim Rote, an associate of State Assemblyman Sam Farr, described piles of letters, demands and proposed rule changes piled up in NOAA inboxes in Washington, DC. seat, indicating an overwhelming backlog.

A tanker challenges its own industry

After his inauguration in 1989, President George HW Bush – who had been in the Texas oil business – appointed a task force to study the issue of offshore oil. Running for re-election in 1992, polls of California voters showed Bush trailing his opponent, Bill Clinton. He needed the state to be re-elected, and to do that, political consultant Stuart Spencer, a veteran of Ronald Reagan’s campaigns for governor and president, proposed that Bush should concern himself with coastal protection. Republican Congressman Campbell also called to convince the Commerce Secretary to open up the discussion to include a broader sanctuary limit.

In June 1992, the White House announced a 10-year moratorium on offshore oil in California and authorized the implementation of the larger Monterey Bay Sanctuary limit. But the final shrine map had some issues, and that almost didn’t happen, as I’ll explain in my next and final episode.

Dan Haifley currently serves on the board of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. He was director of Save Our Shores from 1986 to 1993 and of O’Neill Sea Odyssey from 1999 to 2019. He can be reached at To learn more about the sanctuary’s 30th anniversary, visit

About this series

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall, and the national sanctuary system celebrates its 50th. Ahead of the anniversary, the Sentinel will feature articles by former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, as well as Sam Farr, Dan Haifley, Fred Keeley and Sanctuary Superintendent Dr. Lisa Wooninck. All of these contributors serve on the board of directors of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and participated in the designation of the sanctuary. For information, visit


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