The Obama administration has given final approval for the massive expansion of two marine sanctuaries, more than doubling the size of protected waters off the coast of California, and ensuring that the areas will not be harmed by oil and gas drilling, mining, or discharges from ships passing through the sanctuaries.

The Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, originally established in 1989, will increase in size from 529 square miles to about 1,286 square miles. The Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1981, will expand from 1,282 square miles to 3,295. The protected areas provide vital feeding and breeding grounds for threatened and endangered species including blue, gray and humpback whales, Steller sea lions, Pacific white-sided dolphins, as well as countless other species.

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary expansionThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) writes on its website, “The expansion will increase protection of the marine resources and coastal habitats that lie within the 2,770 square miles of newly incorporated waters, such as areas of major upwelling where nutrients come to the surface and support a vast array of sea life.”

Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Ocean Foundation, said about the importance of the expansion and its inclusion of the nutrient rich upwelling zone, “This protects the food source for the existing sanctuaries. This is the base of the food chain.”

The political struggle for the expanded sanctuaries started in 1998 with former Rep. Lynn Woolsey. According to the San Francisco Gate, Woolsey had plenty of local support for the effort but faced national opposition from the oil and gas industries during her 14 year-fight.

Upon retiring in 2012, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi asked Woolsey if she had any unfinished business she would like to see become a reality. Woolsey told SF Gate, “I said, 'I want this Sonoma coast national marine sanctuary to be signed into law.’”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, who fought for the expansion alongside Woolsey, said of the victory in a statement, “I am grateful to the Obama administration for this historic decision, which will more than double these magnificent national marine sanctuaries off the California coast and permanently protect one of the most productive coastal ocean regions on the planet.”

Boxer noted that this expansion will help support more than a half a million jobs, as well as more than $34 billion in economic activity that rely on ocean-related tourism in California. She also reports that it will permanently protect the habitat for 25 threatened and endangered species “including magnificent blue whales, humpback whales, northern fur seals and leatherback turtles – California’s official marine reptile; spectacular living reefs of corals and sponges; one-third of the world’s whale and dolphin species; at least 163 bird species, including the largest colony of seabirds in the continental U.S.; and more than 300 species of fish, including commercially valuable salmon and groundfish.”

In addition to the leadership role that politicians played in the expansion, the public also made their feelings known. According to Maria Brown, the Gulf of the Farallones superintendent, the public submitted more than 1,300 comments showing overwhelming support for the proposal.

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