Leonie Sherman
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30 years of protecting the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

By Leonie Sherman

Four thousand feet below the ocean’s surface, 75 miles offshore, the summit of the 28-mile long Davidson Seamount, an underwater volcano, rises 7,500 feet from the seafloor. The 2018 discovery of an octopus garden near its base electrified the scientific community. “We were in the last hour of a 32-hour dive with a remotely operated vehicle, when we came across a group of around 25 octopuses,” explains National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ecologist Chad King. “At first, we didn’t know what it was; it looked like flowers or anemones. As we got closer, we recognized these octopus are in this peculiar position, essentially, upside down showing us their bellies and stomachs.”

About 10,000 of these normally solitary deep sea critters were brooding their eggs, clustered around a warm water seep, “like ants on a trail of honey,” according to King. This was the largest octopus gathering documented on the planet, and the first seafloor warm water seep identified off the California coast. When researchers returned, they became the first humans to watch baby deep sea octopuses hatch. They discovered another octopus garden harboring 3,600 pale purple expectant mothers six miles away at the base of a smaller volcanic knob. And they found a fresh whale carcass, with the heart intact; samples revealed a new kind of bone-eating worm.

Designation as A Sanctuary

None of this would have been possible without designation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), which celebrates 30 years this autumn. It extends from the shore to the bottom of a canyon over 11,800 feet below the sea, protecting an astounding range of habitats and creatures. “The Monterey Canyon rivals the Grand Canyon and Yosemite,” enthuses Ginaia Kelly, the Chapter Director of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. “It’s known as the Serengeti of the sea.”

Covering almost 300 miles of rocky shoreline, from Marin to San Luis Obispo counties, the sanctuary extends about 30 miles offshore, and includes the Davidson Seamount further offshore. Designated by an act of Congress in 1992, it protects astounding biodiversity: three dozen species of marine mammals, 94 species of seabirds, and over 500 species of fish, along with a wonderland of Dr. Seuss-worthy ten-foot tall corals and sea sponges still being categorized. Tasked with cultural preservation as well, the sanctuary protects 1,276 shipwrecks and 718 prehistoric sites.

At 6,094 square miles, the MBNMS is larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island put together, and 800 square miles bigger than the largest national park in the lower 48. Within its boundaries, offshore oil drilling and dumping are prohibited, a special permit is required for any activity that disturbs the seafloor or cultural and marine resources and artifacts, and water quality is carefully monitored.

“There could be other new things down there, things we don’t even know about yet,” explains NOAA Education and Outreach Coordinator Amity Wood. “We may not know exactly what is there, but we know we need to learn more about these biologically significant areas. Something can be worth protecting even when we don’t understand it fully.”

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Then- Monterey County Supervisor Sam Farr at a Save Our Shores rally against offshore oil at the O’Neill building, circa 1977 (Save Our Shores

Because if we don’t protect it, we trash it. “There is evidence of humans down there at 12,000 feet, in these incredible places we have never been to and don’t know anything about … we’ve already littered there!” exclaims Wood. “All of our discarded trash flows to the ocean. There is no part of the ocean untouched by humans.”

Marine sanctuaries aim to manage ocean resources. Contrary to popular misconception, commercial and recreational fishing are subject to the exact same regulations within a national marine sanctuary as outside of its borders. Recreational activities like kayaking, surfing, snorkeling and diving are permitted.


Efforts to preserve the MBNMS began locally, but gained momentum thousands of miles away. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, now Chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, was first elected to Congress in 1976, and held several government positions until his retirement in 2013. Born and raised in Monterey, he went to DC with the mission to protect his home.

“The Monterey Bay is such a treasure for those of us who live on the Central Coast. But it’s more than just a pretty stretch of coastline,” Panetta says. “Fifty percent of Americans live near the coast. Climate change is raising sea levels  and changing currents which impacts weather systems worldwide. The bottom line is oceans are so much more than recreation, or the beauty we enjoy, or the resources we rely on. Our very health, life itself, is dependent on our ability to protect our ocean.”

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Southern sea otter grooming in the calm waters of Elkhorn Slough, California (Steve Lonhart)

When then-President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, signaled his enthusiasm for offshore oil exploration, Panetta secured a moratorium on any funding that would advance offshore drilling. “It was an amendment to an appropriations bill,” explains Panetta. “We faced opposition from oil companies and states that depend on oil revenues. But we were able to pull together a delegation of coastal communities and pass that moratorium every year for almost twenty years.”

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Killer whales can be spotted in MBNMS as they make their journey north during the months of April, May and June (Kathryn Hoffman)

“But we had to pass it every year,” Panetta says with a sigh. “I worried that if oil prices spiked there would be tremendous pressure to allow offshore oil drilling. So I looked for more permanent protection. At the time most sanctuaries were put in place administratively, but I said to hell with it, I’m going to put in a bill to establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.”

Panetta attached his proposal to a Continuing Resolution, or CR, which keeps the government running when there’s a stalemate over an appropriations bill. “We knew that Bush wouldn’t veto the CR, because it would cut off funding for the federal government,” Panetta explains. Over four thousand citizens attended public meetings or wrote letters advocating for protection. Extensive ecosystem-based data secured the sanctuary.


A gray whale and her calf seek shelter in the kelp forest (Douglas Croft)


“Citizens have been fighting to protect this coastline for decades, crescendoing with opposition to a nuclear power plant at Davenport landing, a deep water port for an oil refinery at Moss Landing and repeated federal proposals for offshore oil development,” explains Dan Haifley, former director of the O’Neill Sea Odyssey and Save Our Shores. “Citizen action on all of those fronts developed a sophisticated active base of people who were concerned about the coast and our ocean.”

Some of that concern was driven by the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 which catalyzed the environmental movement; just over a year later the nation celebrated its first Earth Day. In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, (overriding then-President Nixon’s veto) and created the Marine Sanctuary Program. Three years later, in 1975, then-President Ford approved the first National Marine Sanctuary — a one-square-mile area around the shipwreck of the USS Monitor, a Civil War era Union Navy “ironclad” ship.

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A humpback whale breaching off of the Monterey Coast (Douglas Croft)

Specific regulations differ, but all marine sanctuaries share common goals. “The three parts of the sanctuary mission are resource protection, research, and education and outreach,” explains Haifley. These three branches amplify each other, creating a positive feedback loop. Resource protection allows for research, which informs outreach and education. When the public understands the diversity and importance of the sanctuary, they support and fight for more protection.

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Brown sea nettles occasionally swarm divers as currents push them in towards shore (Chad King)

And we are winning. From humble beginnings protecting a single square mile, the  federal government now manages 620,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes waters across 15 sanctuaries and two national marine monuments. The system stretches from Washington State to Florida, from Hawaii to American Samoa.

On land lodging encroaches at the edges of popular parks, traffic disturbs wildlife and demand for visitor infrastructure eats away at the center. Without these terrestrial pressures, marine sanctuaries can grow. In 2008, after a seven-year process, 775 square miles of ocean were added to MBNMS to protect “an oasis of the deep” — Davidson Seamount. In 2014 Congress expanded Thunder Bay National Marine Monument by an astounding 960%, from 448 square miles to 4,300 square miles, thanks to strong public support. And in 2015, they expanded Greater Farallones NMS by over 1,000 square miles and more than doubled Cordell Bank NMS.


“Creating the sanctuaries became the foundation upon which many critical ocean protection laws and policies were enacted,” explains Fred Keeley, Former Speaker pro Tempore of the California Assembly. “An example would be the Marine Life Management Act and the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), which I authored in legislature in the late 1990s and early 2000s.”

California made history when they passed the MLPA, changing the entire orientation of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The refrain of that era was ‘we no longer live in a world of abundance, we live in a world of scarcity,’” says Keeley. “We needed to change the regime of the Department of Fish and Wildlife from issuing hunting and fishing licenses to active management.”


A beautiful nudibranch, Hermissenda crassicornis, makes its way through a tidepool in Monterey Bay (Kameron Strickland)

The Golden State now protects 16% of its state waters in a network of 124 marine protected areas, with various levels of restrictions. Fishing is banned entirely in critical breeding grounds, which allows populations to rebound. As the fishing around those areas improves, fisherfolk who were originally opposed to conservation come to recognize the economic benefits of guarding resources for future generations.

“I doubt that any of that would have been politically possible without the hard work of thousands of organized citizens and people like Leon Panetta and Dan Haifley, from the halls of Congress to the sands of beaches up and down California,” Keeley declares.


Jack O’Neill in the middle with Dan Haifley and Pete Scrivani of Save Our Shores in front of the SOS office circa 1991 (Save Our Shores)

“We love what we know, and we protect what we love. So for me, right now, the greatest value of the sanctuary is the educational component,” he continues. “Because we know the following two statements are true: California is getting younger and browner every day. The more Latinx students I see learning about our coast and ocean the better I feel about our future. The next generation of ocean stewards will include a large segment of the Latinx community.”


The next generation of California’s ocean stewards may also include indigenous people who managed the oceans sustainably for 20,000 years before anyone considered the idea of a National Marine Sanctuary.  In 2014, NOAA invited communities across the country to nominate their most treasured places for sanctuary status. In July of 2015, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council (NCTC), with enormous community support, nominated 7,000 square miles for sanctuary status.

The proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary (CHNMS) would extend from northern San Luis Obispo County to Point Conception, connecting the MBNMS and the Channel Islands NMS. The proposed CHNMS would protect indigenous cultural values, along with marine habitat and resources. The scoping process, which concluded January 31, 2022 gathered over 30,000 public comments; analysis by the NCTC found over 98% of the comments were in favor of designating the new sanctuary. NOAA will review the public comments and come up with a draft designation document by November of 2022. Another public comment period will follow, and NOAA aims to finalize sanctuary designation by the end of 2023.

“We bring something to the table nobody else can,” explains Violet Sage Walker, NCTC Chairwoman and the nominator for the proposed CHNMS. “We talk about spirit and how the ocean is the most important thing to people’s spiritual health.  It’s not just about biodiversity, it’s about our soul, our happiness, our healing, our ancestors. That is what made our designation stand out among all the other ones.”

Walker is carrying on work begun by her father, the late Fred Collins, over 40 years ago. “This work is not something we can take a break from,” explains Walker. “We don’t clock out after 40 hours. We are obligated to do this until designation is secured, and then we are obligated to co-manage.”

Because Walker is not just working for her father, or her ancestors, she is working to preserve her people’s way of life. “Look at what is going on in Ukraine, all these people are outnumbered, outgunned, but they are protecting their homeland.” She takes a long breath and releases it slowly.  “We are protecting our homeland, we are fighting for our way of life.  So we have more skin in the game than anybody.”

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A leather star clings to a rocky pinnacle within a kelp forest, where all the rocks are covered with colorful algae or bright invertebrates, like the orange tunicate (Chad King)

Despite the challenges, Walker is hopeful about designation.  “There is no reason not to designate the marine sanctuary, there are no drawbacks,” she explains. “There are no ‘competing interests’, we all have the same interests: to prolong our quality of life on this planet. If something is harmful to fishing it’s harmful to the sanctuary as well. Nobody who uses the land or the ocean should be opposed to this designation.”

Everybody who cares about the ocean can contribute to protection efforts and the proposed CHNMS. “Aside from just supporting the sanctuary through letters to NOAA, the most important thing is to stay engaged,” explains Walker. “Elect officials who support work on climate change, conservation, water protection. During the Trump Administration we were dead in the water. The voice and support of your elected officials matters.”

MAIN IMAGE: The 2018 discovery of an octopus garden 4,000 feet below the ocean’s surface electrified the scientific community (NOAA/OET)