The Story of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. A Fight for Protection.

The story of Monterey Bay is not one of an easy path to protection. What was once a vibrant fishing economy nearly turned to oil fields if not for a dedicated community, hard work, and a bit of luck. This is that story.

By Daniel Merino

Next time you look upon the beautiful coastline here in California, make sure you say thanks. It was not without a fight that you get to enjoy this beautiful piece of the earth the way it is.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary turns 25 this year, and if not for the environmental movement that fought for its creation, the coast of Central California would be a radically different place. In a world of environmental peril and greed, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a jewel in the crown of ocean conservation.

“If you mobilize people around a popular issue, an issue that makes sense, the people can prevail,” says Dan Haifley, who lead the movement against offshore drilling in California.

It took nearly 15 years and thousands of volunteers, but that group of people, so dedicated to the cause they swayed presidents, prevailed.

In 1978, Pres. Jimmy Carter announced plans to lease the offshore areas of California to oil companies. It was a tumultuous time in the world--the oil shock was looming, and increased domestic oil production was high on the agenda for the Carter presidency.

Unfortunately for interested oil companies, the environmental movement was in full swing by this time, nowhere more so than California. The people were not going to make this easy. The battle that ensued over offshore oil drilling here in California sparked a movement that 40 years later has resulted in one of the largest and most diverse protected ecosystems on the planet, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Save Our Shores (SOS), a non-profit ocean advocacy and awareness group, was founded in Santa Cruz in 1978 as a response to Pres. Carter’s plan. After successfully blocking offshore drilling with a one-year moratorium, SOS decided to continue operating as a grassroots group to protect the ocean from future threats.

In 1985, Dan Haifley joined SOS as executive director. The moratorium was working, and Haifley turned his sights on permanently banning offshore oil drilling in California. The first plan of action was to limit the onshore facilities necessary for the offshore plants to function.

First put into action by voters in Santa Cruz, Measure A barred the city from permitting the re-zoning that would allow construction of the onshore oil processing facilities necessary for an oil rig to function. State and federal regulators controlled the seas, but local governments and their communities could halt the oil companies in their tracks by controlling development in their coastal cities.

The war was on for the California coast.

Birth of a Movement

Following this success, Haifley and SOS started a campaign, targeting every California coastal city, to convince local governments to enact policies similar to Santa Cruz’s Measure A. Twenty-six counties and cities, most by vote, followed suit. While these laws did not put a legal halt to offshore drilling in theory, they made it, practically speaking, impossible.

As Haifley puts it, “[Environmentalism] is about correcting mistakes as well as preventing them.” To prevent the drilling by any means was a victory for the movement.

As to be expected, the oil companies fought back. In 1987 the Western Oil and Gas Commission filed a lawsuit attempting to challenge the re-zoning bans passed by each city. In one of the most critical ocean conservation rulings in California history, the, court ruled in favor of the activists, saving the coast from oil drilling--for the time being.

The following year, 1988, Haifley, along with the Environmental Working Group, proposed an area for conservation, and with support from U.S. Rep. Leon Panetta, received federal authorization to start planning the sanctuary. While the current laws were working, they were flimsy and did not ban drilling permanently. To do so required a federal designation, and the 1975 Marine Sanctuary Act seemed like the perfect framework to build a case upon.

Over the next four years, researchers, schools, cities, and most importantly, volunteers, gathered the necessary biological and social information, mobilized the public, and readied a case for the designation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It was a fruitful campaign, punctuated by one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Podcasting pioneer Dan Carlin, in an episode titled “American Peril,” speaks of a concept he calls the “Utility of Crises.” It proposes that individual horrific events can act as catalysts, altering the course of history when harnessed by a movement or a leader. No one wishes for these events to happen, but if they must they can be powerful tools for change.

The Exxon Valdez disaster was one such crisis, and became the symbol of the drilling ban in California. It was a crisis not wasted as Carlin would say.

The aftermath of that disaster lasted well into 1992 as cleanup continued and the total effect of the spill became apparent. The spill and the campaigning going on locally had produced a powerful movement of the people. And a vocal, mobilized public in California becomes a very powerful thing when a presidential race is on.

National electoral politics also played a role. George H. W. Bush was looking for reelection that year and he needed California if he wanted a chance. The public call for coastal protection had been growing steadily for years, and with the Exxon Valdez disaster as a rallying cry, was at a fever pitch. The ecological research justifying the sanctuary status for Monterey Bay and much of Central California coast was complete, and multiple proposals, each with varying boundaries, had been drawn up.

The pieces were set, the influence leveraged, and the presidency was on the line.

“If you are going to win California,” Haifley says, “you need to be an environmentalist.” And Pres. Bush became an environmentalist.

On Sept. 18, 1992, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, under the president’s direction, designated the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in the largest of proposed boundaries.

The legislation encompassed 276 shoreline miles, 6,094 square miles of ocean, a maximum depth of 12,713 feet. 34 species of marine mammals, 94 species of seabirds, 345 species of fish, 31 phyla of invertebrates, 4 species of turtles, and more than 450 species of marine algae. This incredible piece of the ocean was now, and forever more, protected.

The sanctuary to this day is a place of research, recreation, and industry (through commercial fishing), that is a testament to the value nature and the sea can provide to communities and the world as a whole when they are protected.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is truly a remarkable place. And that thanks to the monstrous effort of a dedicated few, and the passion of a population that cared, it is one that will continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.

When asked whether he thinks Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary would still be there in 20 years, Haifley simply replied: “The sanctuaries will stand.”

Learn more about the story of the MBNMS, what is happening on it now, and the future of ocean conservation, in the book, Ocean Odysseys: Jack O’Neill, Dan Haifley, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary” by Irene Reti.


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