The waters outside the Golden Gate host an abundance of marine life, and a diversity of marine protection from our State MPAs to the rocks of the California Coastal National Monument to our National Marine Sanctuaries. Just outside the Golden Gate, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary reaches around the San Francisco Bay from Muir Beach on the Marin shoreline, stretching south past Pacifica, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay to Big Sur and out the continental shelf. To the north and west is the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS). Reaching up to Mendocino’s Manchester Beach just past Point Arena and surrounding the deep Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the GFNMS expanded in 2015 to encompass 3295 square miles. The Cordell Bank extends west and slightly north of its former boundary to protect 1286 square miles of important features such as Bodega Canyon. Administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( NOAA), the Sanctuaries protect historical and cultural resources and areas that encompass unique or significant natural features. The amendment in the expansion specifically restricts exploring, developing, or producing oil and gas in the Sanctuary. A variety of state and federal laws protect fish in the Sanctuary, but commercial fishing is allowed in most of the area.
Embedded within these Federal Sanctuaries, and standing alone in State waters are the marine protected areas established under the California Marine Life Protection Act of 1999. This network of ecosystem managed, no take marine reserves, marine conservation areas which allow some fishing and marine parks extend from the Oregon Border to the Mexican Border and encompass 16% of our State waters. In a few unique circumstances state and federal habitat and species protection overlap. In our Golden Gate region, this occurs at the Duxbury Reef of Bolinas, at Point Reyes and along several rocks and spires off the coast important for nesting seabirds and haul outs for seals, and the Farallon Islands, all areas in the Golden Gate MPA Collaborative network.
The Golden Gate MPA Collaborative has successfully brought together environmental NGOs, agencies, fishermen, scientists, aquaria and vessel captains interested in raising awareness of marine protected areas in Marin and San Francisco counties, including the Farallon Islands. Collaborative members are engaging boat captains and docents in an ambassador program targeting visitors to Point Reyes and the Farallones. Our new program includes expanding the existing shoreside MPA Watch to the Scuba and dive community. The oceanographic conditions creating the California Coastal Upwelling ecosystem are responsible for the abundant wildlife of our coastline. The marine conservation and management is the reason they are returning and will endure if we let them. This is why I routinely foray into the Gulf of the Farallones, diving, surfing, filming and leading wildlife expeditions. The Farralon Islands in particular draw me. The history, the raw wildness and the biology are mysterious and magnetic.
Thirty miles offshore, the jewel of the GFNMS and a focus of marine conservation are the Farallon Islands. On a clear day one can catch a glimpse of these mysterious, rocky Islands. The coastal Miwok Indians called them the Islands of the Dead, where the souls went to rest. Spanish mariners called them the Devil’s Teeth for the unseen rocks and fog shrouded spires that sunk many a ship. Named by the Friar Ascension as part of the explorer Sebastian Vizcaino’s mapping expedition in 1603, los Farallones means sea stacks or rocks that jut from the sea. These rocks have been the source of shipwrecks for centuries, from tall ships to yachts. The islands are also the hub of much of our local marine life, from plankton to seabirds to whales.
Besides being nested within National Marine Sanctuary waters, the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge are part of our Federal Fish and Wildlife Refuge system. Included protections for seabirds and pinnipeds that nest and haul out are special closures of 1000 feet from shore, or 1000 feet for aircraft so as not to disturb the wildlife. The waters around the North Farallon Islands, a cluster of rocks and small islets from 80-120 feet tall are protected as no-take marine reserves (SMR) under the California Marine Life Protection Act 1999, (MLPA} and no fishing is allowed in the no-take zone. The waters around the largest island in the group, Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI), are a mix of fully protected No Take Marine Reserve and a Marine Conservation Area where some fishing is allowed. Each year Shark Stewards leads trips into the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the marine protected areas of the Golden Gate region observing, collecting data on wildlife and human behavior as part of an offshore MPA Watch program, a derivation of the existing coastal MPA Watch. Each voyage provides unique and memorable experiences seeking sharks and watching wildlife during the months we term Sharktober, as well as discussing marine protection.
These field trips introduce students and the general public to marine ecosystems, marine life and management challenges for both. Starting with estuarine ecosystems and marine geology we move out into the open ocean or the pelagic ecosystem. Using the App Spotter Pro, we record the vessel’s track in real time and add observations of marine mammals, providing data for resource managers and scientists. This year we are seeing Humpback Whales feeding on anchovies in between the two towers beneath the Golden Gate in the line of ships. These whales are vulnerable to getting struck and killed by ships, such as occurred to the 79 foot Blue Whale that washed up at Bolinas Beach this summer.
Near the historic lighthouse at Point Bonita, we view harbor porpoises feeding and nesting cormorants, as we discuss plate tectonics and the unique geology of this juncture between the Pacific, North American and the former Farallon Plate that thrust up the Francisco Terrane that makes up the Marin Headlands. While seeing harbor seals soaking up the sun and pelagic cormorants nesting on the steep rocks, we prepare for the open ocean. Heading up the coast we observe Bottlenose dolphins and Humpback whales, surrounded by shearwaters and murres all feasting on the schools of anchovy. Occasionally we see a Minke whale, Fin whale , Bryde’s, California Grey whale and even Orcas.
Being on the water in the National Marine Sanctuary, and in our local North Central Regional California Marine Protected Areas helps our studnets and guests appreciate and understand the importance of marine ecosystems as well as management issues. Scores of salmon boats fish among the feeding whales with several close encounters observed. It takes 3 hours to cross the Gulf and as one travels farther west the water transforms from the green chop of near shore to the rolling swells of the open sea. Land falls away and the view opens onto a limitless horizon.
Black albatross spread their 7 foot wingspans, veering and dipping fish from the waves. Hailing from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands – now part of the Papahanaumokuakea- a Marine National Monument protected but currently under threat by the administration, these birds only come ashore once a year to mate and lay their single eggs on the ground. Sooty Shearwaters shoot past, migrants from New Zealand to feed in the rich waters of our Sanctuary.
Several species of sea lions (California and the larger golden Stellar’s) as well as Northern Fur Seals all recovering from near extinction by protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Five species of pinniped come to shore on the islands, and in some cases breed. Others haul out to give birth and mate including harbor seals and the white shark’s favorite food, northern elephant seals. The water is rich with plankton including the krill so important to many forms of marine life from the tiny Cassin’s Auklet to the mighty Blue Whale. Cruising by a shark cage-diving boat we were informed that two predation events (not shark attacks!) had been reported by observers on the Island last week. Biologists with Point Blue (formerly Point Reyes Bird Observatory) keep watch from the old lighthouse, recording the bird and pinniped population, doing species census, as well as recording people who enter the Sanctuary waters near the island. They also observe and identify if possible the white sharks, recording predations, and less exotic creatures (but unique and important) like the endemic Farallon Salamander.
The Sanctuary regulations require mariners to stay 100 yards away from the islands and outlying rocks to avoid disturbing nesting and breeding seabirds. State regulations ban fishing south of SE Farallon Island, middle rock and North Farallon Islands. We headed uphill in the light wind and visited Point Reyes and Drakes Bay where another haul out of elephant seals exists. The exterior edge of Point Reyes is also a state marine protected areas with a 1000 foot exclusion. The protected Drakes Bay, part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, waters swarmed with cormorants, pelicans and shearwaters. Combined with federal protections are state marine protected areas established under the California Marine Life Protection Act.
On a federal scale, rocks and islets near shore critical for seabirds, marine mammals and other wildlife off the California coastline are protected under the California Coastal National Monument. Established in 2000, expanded in 2017 and administered under the Bureau of Land Management, these areas protect unique coastal habitat for marine-dependent wildlife and vegetation on more than 20,000 rocks, islands, exposed reefs and pinnacles along the California coastline.
It is always an adventure out at the islands, and these trips leave our guests amazed at the diversity and abundance of marine life so close to the city of San Francisco, and gives us a better appreciation of the continued challenges to restore and protect wildlife and ecosystems. All of this wildlife is currently at risk as the Administration considers opening the Sanctuary to oil and gas development, and reducing or eliminating the Marine National Sanctuaries of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Remote Islands. We call the return of the sharks to the Sanctuary Sharktober, and instead of maligning the white sharks that return to our waters following a two thousand mile migration, we are celebrating the shark with a series of education, talks and film events. Join Shark Stewards on a Farallon Island Expedition during Sharktober, discussing sharks and conservation, collecting data as well as watching for whales and other marine life.
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