Summaries of the findings of the 2016 Condition Report

The below provides summaries of the findings of this condition report. In summary, much of the sanctuary appears healthy and stable, including eutrophic conditions, water quality that is safe for swimming and recreation, the general condition of shoreline and seafloor habitat, many fish species, overall native sanctuary biodiversity, and the condition of maritime archaeological resources.


pier full of docked boats at sunset

The sanctuary is adjacent to metropolitan Los Angeles — one of the largest U.S. population centers — and is therefore impacted by a large range of human activities and pressures. Due to its offshore location, human activities in the Channel Islands face different driving pressures than inshore or mainland activities. Driving forces behind these pressures can aid in predicting the direction and extent of future pressures. The majority of driving forces (resulting factors that lead to pressures) are increasing, such as population, per capita income, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of trading partners, vessel traffic, and visitor use to the Channel Islands. Additionally, gasoline prices have been stable and relatively low making boat access to the sanctuary more affordable. The direction of these drivers indicate that pressures will continue to increase within the sanctuary.

Water Quality

two graphs next to each other
(Left) Composite average sea surface temperature (°C). (Right) Composite average chlorophyll (CHL) values (mg/m3) for the northern Channel Islands region from SeaWiFS (1997–2010). Credit: Henderikx Freitas et al. 2017

While coastal nutrient runoff rarely reaches sanctuary waters, some persistent pollutants have been detected in sanctuary sediments and mussel tissues, and may be accumulating over time. Pollutants can reach the sanctuary through periodic transport by local currents, by animals, or via sediment transport. Over time, oil production has declined in the region around the sanctuary and has been fairly stable since 2012. While oil spills are rare, in 2015, a broken land pipe at Refugio Beach spilled crude oil into coastal waters, which may have reached the sanctuary. Marine debris enters the sanctuary from both water and land-based activities, and it is likely accumulating in the water column and benthic habitats. Consequences of marine debris include accidental lethal ingestion by organisms, animals becoming entangled, and/or toxic bioaccumulation up the food chain.

Fishing practices in the vicinity of the sanctuary have generally shifted over time from bottom trawls and nets to traps and hook and line, meaning overall gear interactions with seafloor habitats have been reduced; however, trap loss is an issue of concern. No-take and restricted-take marine zones established in the sanctuary in 2004 and 2007 have had measurable benefits to fished populations and habitats. Visitation to the sanctuary has increased since 2009 and in turn, pressures like anchoring damage, non-native species introductions, and vessel grounding risks are also increasing. Some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world pass through a portion of the sanctuary and produce concerning amounts of noise. Increased ambient noise levels can impair the hearing and ability of marine mammals, fishes, and invertebrates to communicate and locate prey. Both small and large vessels can strike and harm or kill large whales, and this remains an ongoing management challenge. Global climate change has affected water quality, urchins, deep-water corals, and other habitat-forming species, and it will be crucial to better understand how these changes may impact the sanctuary's living resources and habitats over time.


Giant kelp forests are characteristic of the sanctuary’s nearshore marine environment. Credit: NOAA

The physical and biological oceanographic characteristics of the CINMS region are unique. Two major currents meet at the east-west oriented northern Channel Islands, making it a transition zone where surface temperatures shift from warm in the east, to cool in the west. There is notable seasonal variation of surface temperatures, currents, nutrients, pH, and dissolved oxygen levels. These factors combine to support one of the most productive and biologically diverse marine ecosystems in the world.

Marine researchers are also drawn to the CINMS region, and therefore many long-term datasets exist, including for water quality. Compared to coastal areas, the water quality of the sanctuary is good. A disruption to normal conditions occurred with a warm water event, unprecedented in size and duration that began in 2013 and lasted through much of 2016. During this event, the Southern California Bight experienced anomalously warm surface waters, reduced mixing and surface nutrients, and low productivity. Impacts reverberated throughout regional food webs, and how the system rebounds will be a topic of continued research. Such marine heat waves are believed to be related to climate change, and this potential correlation should also be tracked over time.

Climate drivers are currently the most concerning aspect of water quality, as the 2016 status and trend has been reduced to fair and worsening. In addition to ocean warming and marine heat waves, other impacts of climate change that are the focus of ongoing study include ocean acidification, reductions in dissolved oxygen, and the intensity, frequency, and duration of harmful algal blooms (HABs). HABs are increasing in frequency and extent along the U.S. West Coast. While typical in the CINMS region, some researchers believe the onset and severity of HABs may be influenced by ocean warming and/or anomalous spikes in sea surface temperature. Continued monitoring will produce the necessary temporal and spatial data to better discern the factors that influence HABs and describe their ecosystem impacts.

The sanctuary is comprised of a highly diverse patchwork of habitats ranging from intertidal rocky habitat and sandy beaches, inshore kelp forests, soft bottom habitats and rocky reefs, and deep-sea coral gardens. Sanctuary habitats are defined both by abiotic (e.g., sediment/bottom type, depth, rugosity) and biogenic (e.g., kelp, algae, mussels, deep-sea corals) features that contribute to overall habitat quality, structure, and function. While data on change in abiotic habitat is limited, recent monitoring data shows a decline in the health or abundance in many species that create biogenic habitat from their growth (e.g., corals) or activities (e.g., burrowing). For example, critical habitat creators, such as giant kelp, mussels, deep-sea corals, and seagrass, are all experiencing declines in health, condition, or abundance. These trends appear to be the norm beyond the sanctuary's boundaries as well, suggesting that impacts are widespread across the Southern California Bight. Conversely, trends are spatially variable with temperature, top-down ecological controls, pH, conservation measures, and changes in fishing pressure; this variability also influences habitat quality among islands.

While information is limited, pollution impacts on habitat quality appear to vary by monitoring methodology. Contaminant concentrations in mussel tissue appear to be declining for most metals; however, infaunal surveys from deeper waters have found a change in community composition, which may be a result of the impacts of pollution. While habitat quality and pollution appear to be worsening by some metrics, experts agree these trends have not yet caused severe degradation of ecological integrity within the sanctuary. Future work should focus on understanding the ecological consequences of this potential habitat loss and forecasting the response of habitat to changing climate, emerging contaminants, and fishing activities.

Living Resources

humpback whales lunge feeding
Humpback whales lunge feeding in the sanctuary. Photo: L. Gordon/NOAA

The abundance and diversity of wildlife seen around the northern Channel Islands is remarkable compared to many parts of the world and was a main reason for sanctuary designation. Although the 2016 status and trends are quite variable across the range of species in the sanctuary, overall, the data indicate that many of the sanctuary's living resources are showing relative stability or improvement since 2009. For example, most kelp forest and seafloor-associated fishes are stable or increasing, especially inside no-take zones. Additionally, the number of native species in sanctuary habitats, which is one measure of biodiversity, appears to be stable with no known recent local extinctions; however, the island-wide drastic declines in sea stars, a keystone species in rocky shore and shallow reef habitats, coupled with the establishment of a few non-indigenous species at some island monitoring sites, contributed to worsening trends in the status of nearshore communities and raises concerns about future impacts to ecological integrity and biodiversity. In the pelagic habitats, unusual abundances and distributions of both forage species, such as squid and sardine, and their predators, including sea lions, were likely driven by an unusual warm water event that began in 2013 and lasted until 2016. Abundance of forage species typically rebounds with the return of favorable oceanographic conditions, but time is needed to better understand if there are any lasting impacts from these recent anomalies. Continued monitoring of living resources in sanctuary habitats will be essential to determine whether key species and community assemblages will return to past patterns or if new patterns are emerging in response to changing climate and other human pressures.

Maritime Archaeological Resources

diver swimming over the wreck of the tfb 1c avenger
TBF-1C Grumman Avenger military aircraft was lost off Anacapa Island. Photo: R. Schwemmer/NOAA

Data gathered through Channel Islands National Maritime Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park's annual Shipwreck Reconnaissance Monitoring Program indicates that since 2009, maritime archaeological resources reflect little or no unexpected disturbance or looting by divers; however, a 2011 damage assessment recorded at the Winfield Scott shipwreck site was believed to be caused by improper vessel anchoring. Damage to historic iron artifactswas recorded,butbelieved to becaused by a vessel's anchor tackle, not by divers' activities. The monitoring program has also contributed to new historic artifact discoveries, such as the Pelorus navigation instrument located at the Equator shipwreck site in 2016. Maritime archaeological resources will continue to go through various stages of degradation caused by natural forces, especially those resources located in shallow water and impacted by surge and swells. The diminished condition of an archaeological resource could reduce its historical, archaeological, scientific, or educational value, and is likely to affect its eligibility for listing to the National Register of Historic Places. There are no known maritime archaeological resources that pose environmental threats, although some threats may come from shipwrecks located beyond sanctuary boundaries. Since the location of the majority of deep-water wrecks is unknown, impacts to archaeological resources by offshore trawling is still unknown.

Ecosystem Services

The Delta Submersible, also known as "the Jeep of the Seas," has performed more than 7,000 deep-water dives, mostly off Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: C. Fackler/NOAA

Seven ecosystem services were evaluated in CINMS for this condition report: food supply, consumptive recreation, non-consumptive recreation, sense of place, heritage, education, and science.

The food supply ecosystem service is defined as the capacity to support market demands for nutrition-related commodities through various fisheries. Food supply status in CINMS was determined to be good/fair. Even though the trends in harvest from 2000 to 2012 were variable across species/species groups, the harvest had significant positive impacts on the economy of the local area in terms of sales/output, value-added (Gross Regional Product), income, and jobs for years 2010, 2011, and 2012. Overall, the ecological indicators do not indicate there is a decline in the natural resources related to this service; however, the trend is undetermined as there is not extensive fisheries data after 2012.

Consumptive recreation was also determined to be good/fair with an undetermined trend. Two primary consumptive recreational activities are conducted in CINMS: recreational fishing and diving, the latter of which can result in incidental damage to kelp. Data collected from commercial passenger fishing vessel (CPFV) operators show that although there is variation from year to year in CPFV hours, since the 1980s, the number of hours within CINMS has been increasing. Data on expenditures and economic impacts show that from 2010 to 2012, expenditures by CPFV passengers have been increasing, in addition to the resulting economic contributions of their spending. From 2006 to 2012, private/rental boat person-days of fishing show an increasing trend from 2010 to 2012. Additionally, expenditures by private/rental boat users and the economic contributions of this activity increased between 2010 and 2011.  Fish species that support recreational fisheries have been increasing or stable' however, like food supply, the trend for is undetermined due to a lack of data for economic and non-economic indicators after 2012.

Sanctuary visitors may also participate in non-consumptive recreational activities from both private boats and "for hire" operations (e.g., whale watching boats, wildlife viewing, dive charters, etc.). The only time series data on recreational uses comes from Channel Islands National Park (CINP) where from 2012 to 2016, total visitation increased. Due to the lack of time series data for non-consumptive uses, indicators for population, real per capita income, and gas and diesel prices were used for inferring trends in use. Population, real per capita incomes, and gas and diesel prices were all favorable for increases in this service. Further, surveys show whale watching operators believe that whale watching conditions have improved over the past 10 years due to increasing food supplies leading to more sightings. Based on ratings for human activities affecting water, habitat, and living resources, there is no indication that the economic and non-economic benefits derived from this ecosystem service are reducing the quality of natural resources. Consequently, the trend and status for non-consumptive recreation were determined to be good/fair and stable, respectively. 

Sense of place is the aesthetic and spiritual attraction, and level of recognition and appreciation given efforts to protect a place's iconic elements. National marine sanctuaries, CINMS included, are underwater treasures designated because of their extraordinary scenic beauty, biodiversity, historical connections, and economic productivity. In addition, CINMS has additional protections with the network of 11 marine reserves and two marine conservation areas that are within the sanctuary. Non-use or "passive economic use" value is a broad economic expression for the value people have for protecting special places, and thus are good indicators of sense of place. Studies of non-use and passive economic use values have found that real per capita income is a good predictor of people's economic values. Given the valuation numbers and trends in environmental attitudes and growth in real per capita incomes, these economic indicators suggest a status of good with an increasing trend for this service. Ecological indicators do not indicate there is a decline in the natural resources related to this service.

Maritime heritage is the recognition of historical or heritage legacy. This ecosystem service was determined to be fair with a stable trend. Studies have found that people's willingness to pay for maritime heritage increased with the expansion of the number of shipwrecks protected, the level of investments in museum exhibits, educational workshops on maritime heritage, training in maritime archaeology, and Maritime Heritage Trails, including virtual trails using video and mobile phone technology. Numerous articles have appeared in magazines, academic papers have appeared in several journals, and many papers have been presented at professional meetings about maritime heritage in CINMS. Twelve museums/visitor centers have artifacts or tell the stories of some of the shipwrecks in CINMS. In 2017, CINMS funded the RV Shearwater expedition to discover the shipwreck USCG Cutter McCulloch (located outside of CINMS), which yielded 5,200 news stories with an estimated 312 million impressions worldwide. With 30 archaeological site locations inventoried and in various stages of survey within CINMS, this ecosystem is expected to continue.

Many people of all ages study ecosystems and their importance through both formal and informal education. When people derive benefits from educational experiences or products resulting from CINMS, this is considered an ecosystem service. The education ecosystem service status was determined to be good with a stable trend. A 2017 study evaluating the Ocean Guardian School program — an ONMS education program that teaches students K-12 about ocean conservation and stewardship — determined that parents are willing to pay for their children to have hands on environmental educational experiences. Another indicator, volunteer time, increased from 2008 to 2016. During that period, the value that volunteers added to the sanctuary increased by over $200,000. Further, the number of kiosk visitors at ONMS facilities and partner exhibits increased from 2013 to 2017. Additionally, technological advances have increased access to CINMS, no longer requiring a person to be physically present in the sanctuary to experience and learn about its natural, historical, or archeological features. These indicators demonstrate the various tools used to provide educational services to CINMS visitors. 

The ecosystem service of science is defined as the capacity to acquire and contribute information and knowledge and was determined to be good with a stable trend. Currently, there is an absence of information on the economic value of science and research within CINMS, as this ecosystem service has not been extensively studied; however, many non-economic indicators may be used to measure and track science within the sanctuary. In some cases, researchers apply for permits to conduct research within the sanctuary. From 2006 to 2016, both the number of permits issued (which reflects about 25% of all research occurring within the sanctuary) and the number of open permits increased. Additional indicators include the total number of research projects conducted within the sanctuary (including those that do not require a permit by CINMS), publications featuring research in CINMS, and research vessel time in the sanctuary. From 2009–2014, there were 116 research projects in CINMS resulting in 49 publications. Another indicator is the number of days spent upon NOAA research vessels, which has decreased since 2008. In general, the data support that science is occurring within the sanctuary.

Chumash Ecosystem Services Assessment

kids posing for a photo at the shore
Native youth are empowered with conventional scientific methodology and traditional cultural knowledge to develop relationships with and protect Chumash traditional homelands. Credit: Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation

In 2018, Chumash community representatives appointed to the CINMS advisory council agreed to assist with the assessment of the sanctuary's ecosystem services by preparing an independently-authored report. The independent report focused on Chumash perspectives of ecosystem and place-based values connected to the Chumash's sacred homeland islands and surrounding ocean waters. The report reflects contributions from advisory council members Alicia Cordero and Luhui Isha Ward, the Chumash Women's Elders Council, and their consultations with a broad cross-section of individuals from the Chumash community. Their work is included within this condition report to supplement the sanctuary's ecosystem services assessment; note, this work is presented in its final form submitted to ONMS in November 2018 without any editing by NOAA or its affiliates.

Chumash perspectives about ecosystem services are often different from assessments presented elsewhere in this report. Authors of the Chumash contribution do not consider all of the ecosystem service categories used herein to be consistent with the way they perceive the relationship between humans and their surroundings. Additionally, authors of the Chumash community section help sanctuary resource managers appreciate the deep history of Chumash people in connection with the Channel Islands and surrounding marine waters, the reciprocal regenerative relationship that embodies their community-based value systems and worldview, and the effects of historical trauma on Chumash community members. Seeking to understand Chumash perspectives and experiences, sanctuary managers gain an enhanced appreciation for indigenous ways of knowing and relating to the marine environment that are built over thousands of years of history.


two people collecting a water sample on the deck of a boat
In recent years, ONMS and its partners have been deploying and retrieving hydrophones in the sanctuary, as shown here in 2018 aboard the research vessel Shearwater. Credit: L. Duncan/CINMS

The Response section describes actions that CINMS has taken, primarily since 2009, to help address the range of issues and human activities described in the Driving Forces and Pressures section of this report. Projects and programs that sanctuary staff have led, coordinated, or conducted with partners help address many issues and human activities, including:

  • Vessel traffic
  • Ocean noise
  • Non-indigenous species
  • Fishing activities
  • Energy development
  • Pollutants
  • Marine debris
  • Visitor use
  • Climate variability

Given the sanctuary's remote offshore setting and unique mix of human activities, effectively responding to a wide range of issues and threats requires a long-term commitment to marine conservation using a multidisciplinary, partnership-based approach. This involves the need for scientific research and monitoring studies, ongoing monitoring of conditions, enforcement of existing regulations, monitoring to identify emerging threats, community-based initiatives, and education and outreach to inspire others to care about and help protect and preserve CINMS. The dynamic and emerging nature of many issues requires that recurring assessments and adaptation are part of the sanctuary's management cycle.