Help Shape the Future: Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Releases Draft Management Plan

By Shauna Fry

December 2021

Just off the coast of California lies one of the most bountiful, biodiverse areas of our ocean—the Channel Islands, also known as the “Galapagos of North America.” Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary exists to protect the varied habitats, species, and cultural resources of this ocean wonder. This month, NOAA is releasing a draft management plan to update priorities, strategies, and activities to guide sanctuary management, and is asking for public input.

"We are excited to reach this important milestone in the management plan review process when we ask the public for feedback,” says Chris Mobley, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary superintendent. "Staff, with input from the Sanctuary Advisory Council, have worked hard to develop a focused and strategic set of actions to improve the protection and understanding of this national marine treasure. We invite the public to weigh in on how this sanctuary is managed for years to come."

Galapagos of North America

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary protects 1,470 square miles of ocean waters around five of the Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara islands. A special place for endangered species, sensitive habitats, historic shipwrecks, and Chumash cultural connections, the sanctuary provides protection through research, education, conservation, and stewardship.

The sanctuary is home to numerous species of mammals, seabirds, fishes, invertebrates, and algae that thrive in a remarkably productive coastal environment. Within its boundary is a rich array of habitats, from rugged rocky shores and lush kelp forests to deep canyons and seagrass beds. These habitats abound with life, from tiny microscopic plants to enormous blue whales. The islands and surrounding sanctuary waters have been, and remain, sacred to Indigenous Chumash people. In addition, although the sanctuary is located offshore, the area is significant for a variety of human uses, such as recreation, tourism, commercial and sport fishing, research, and education.

a fish swimming through a kelp forest
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is home to one-third of Southern California's kelp forests. A host of invertebrates, fish, marine mammals, and birds exist in kelp forests. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

The sanctuary was federally designated in recognition of its national significance as an area of exceptional natural beauty and resources, and due to heightened concerns following the 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel. In March 1980, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara islands, and the waters within one nautical mile of each island, were designated as Channel Islands National Park, the nation’s 40th national park. That same year, on Oct. 2, 1980, NOAA designated the ocean waters extending from mean high tide to six nautical miles offshore from those five islands, as well as the waters surrounding Richardson Rock and Castle Rock, as Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

In 2003, the state of California implemented a network of marine reserves and conservation areas within a portion of the sanctuary’s state waters. In 2006 and 2007, the network was augmented and complemented by NOAA, extending the network into federal waters and resulting in a total of 11 marine reserves and two marine conservation areas established to provide greater resource protection within the sanctuary. The sanctuary ensures that the habitats and animals of the Channel Islands will be conserved for current and future generations, while also supporting compatible public uses, like recreation and fishing.

Sanctuary management plans are periodically reviewed and updated to ensure responsiveness to current and emerging issues, technologies, and management needs. A public process is currently underway to revise the sanctuary’s 2009 management plan.

Adapting to a Changing Ocean

Over the last decade, sanctuary resources and environmental conditions have changed, creating new challenges and requirements for protecting resources and facilitating compatible use. At the same time, new tools for effective management have emerged, driven by scientific advances, technological innovation, and new partnerships. A re-evaluation of requirements and approaches, both current and future, will ensure that we and our partners are making the most effective use of programmatic resources.

Our ocean is undergoing significant changes. In recent decades, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary has faced increasing pressures from climate change, marine debris, vessel traffic, introduced species, and more. While the 2009 management plan enabled the sanctuary to respond to many of these threats, evolving changes will require ongoing adaptation. That's where the new proposed plan comes in.

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary was formed because of community support and action, and the proposed plan carries on this tradition. Over the past several years the sanctuary has held public meetings and accepted comments online and by mail, and has worked with its Sanctuary Advisory Council, user groups, agencies, and enforcement groups to shape the proposal.

people observing a whale from a vessel
Channel Islands Naturalists Corps volunteer naturalists help promote responsible recreation and wildlife watching in sanctuary waters. Photo: Bob Perry
a person fishing from a boat
The rich and productive waters of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary present both seasonal and year-round sport fishing opportunities "from the pier or by boat." Photo: Shauna Fry/NOAA

The draft management plan updates the 2009 management plan, and focuses on how best over the next five to 10 years to understand and protect the sanctuary’s resources by addressing critical and emerging threats, and effectively implementing and sustaining core programs that support the sanctuary’s vision and mission. In preparing this management plan, staff spent considerable time reviewing past actions, looking closely at the condition of and threats to the sanctuary’s resources, learning from Chumash community members, listening to and reviewing public input, and engaging in thoughtful discussions with the Sanctuary Advisory Council. This process helped staff identify the top priorities to be addressed in the action plans, each presenting future-oriented strategies and activities.

The management plan includes 10 action plans covering issue- and program-based themes that are intended to guide sanctuary staff over the coming five to 10 years. Across these action plans, sanctuary staff also emphasize four important cross-cutting themes and approaches: addressing climate change, fostering diversity and inclusion, relying on partnerships and collaborations, and supporting community-based engagement. Action plans focus on climate change, marine debris, vessel traffic, zone management, introduced species, education and outreach, research and monitoring, resource protection, cultural resources and maritime heritage, and operations and administration. At this time, no changes are proposed to sanctuary boundaries or regulations.

A Sanctuary for the Community

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is a community hub. The health of these ocean ecosystems is a driver for the local economy, and the region is a treasured resource for science, education, recreation, and more. It is a sanctuary for the community, and we want to hear from you.

A cave with beautiful blue water
Visitors to the sanctuary get a close up look at Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island. At 1227 feet long it is one of the largest sea caves in the world. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

Members of the public can provide input on any aspect of the proposal during the public comment period that ends Feb. 24, 2022. Comments may be submitted online, by mail, or during virtual meetings scheduled for Jan. 18 and Jan. 27, 2022. Click here for more information about the virtual public comment meetings.

"Public input is vital to improving policies for dealing with important issues" in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the surrounding communities, says Kristen Hislop, Sanctuary Advisory Council chair. "Impacts from climate change, shipping traffic, and marine debris are among the issues that my neighbors have shared. Now is the time for you to participate by sharing your ideas. Public participation is empowering and a vital part of our democratic governance.”

Comment now to help decide the future of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

Shauna Fry is the outreach coordinator for NOAA's Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.