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   2005 Report

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Aerial Surveys Look at User Trends in
Sanctuary Waters

Staff Report

a near miss between a tanker ship and a whale

A container ship just missing a blue whale. (Photo: NOAA)

On a bright California morning Lt. Cmdr. Julie Helmers, a NOAA Corps pilot, boards a Lake Renegade amphibian aircraft to fly over portions of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in search of whales, dolphins and ships. Her job – to help staff make an assessment of vessel use in and around sanctuary waters and how that impacts the marine environment. Helmers, who is the executive officer for the sanctuary office, flies the plane while a scientist on board uses a laptop computer tied to the aircraft’s Global Positioning System (GPS) to record locations and activities of marine mammals and vessels visiting the sanctuary.

“One of our chief responsibilities,” says Helmers, “is to look at how the recent establishment of no-take zones within sanctuary waters affects ocean users and any potential impact on the marine environment.”

Kayakers frequenting sanctuary waters.

Kayakers frequenting sanctuary waters. (Photo: Ben Waltenberger)

Known as Sanctuary Aerial Monitoring and Spatial Analysis, or SAMSAP, researchers collect information that gives managers a clearer picture of vessel traffic in the sanctuary, marine mammal activity and how the two connect. Since the program began in 1997, researchers have seen changes in blue whale feeding locations and observed first-hand the potential threats from ship strikes that large vessels pose to whales.  They have also observed a distinct geographic delineation of areas used by recreational and commercial visitors, and significant increases in recreational use directly related to policy changes regarding island visitation.

A total of 35 flights were conducted in fiscal year 2006 to support marine reserve enforcement and vessel/marine mammal surveys. During the flights, 554 vessels were recorded.  From these surveys, researchers noted that the nearshore waters of the sanctuary experienced much greater use than deeper waters, with over 93 percent of vessels observed in shallower waters. Non-consumptive recreational activities, such as kayaking and sailing, were most frequently observed followed by commercial fishing activities. The majority of recreational vessels were located in the eastern portion of the sanctuary, near Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands that are in closer proximity to harbors, These observations indicate that these areas are popular with the sanctuary’s recreational users, but that these areas may also experience the greatest relative human impacts.

Statistics in vessel traffic collected by the aerial surveys are also important for looking at changes in human uses due to the recent establishment of the no-take marine reserves in the sanctuary.  The statistics provide information on potential displacement and congestion of consumptive activities, such as commercial and recreational fishing, and the non-consumptive value of marine reserves. 

Fig 1

Fig 1. Click here for a larger image.

The spatial patterns of vessel types in 2006 are consistent with previous years. Figure 1 shows the distribution of vessels in the sanctuary.

In the bigger picture, all the information gathered by researchers who monitor and explore the national marine sanctuaries fulfills a chief mandate which is resource protection. “We can’t effectively manage our resources if we don’t know what’s out there,” says Daniel J. Basta, sanctuary program director. “Efforts like SAMSAP form an essential part in our growing tool kit of results-oriented resource protection.”

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Revised September 12, 2023 by Sanctuaries Web Team | Contact Us | Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service
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