Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary – Case Study

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The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) was established in 1980 by the US Congress to protect biodiversity, uniquely productive marine ecosystems and culturally significant resources. Located 8 to 40 miles off the southern coast of California, the Sanctuary encompasses approximately 1,110 square nautical miles (nm), or 1,470 square miles. The Sanctuary contains all waters from mean high tide to six nautical miles offshore of Santa Barbara, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands. A number of state and federal agencies administer programs that provide protection to specified features or portions of the islands, inshore and offshore waters. In 1999, to address the continuing decline in habitat and fisheries, the CINMS initiated] an eight year process designed to create a network of marine reserves within the sanctuary that operate in a consistent manner [1]. This was a highly controversial process that raised many issues between the fishing community and the agencies with responsibility for fishery resources. The CINMS is a good case study of how regulatory agencies at state and federal levels with overlapping interests and jurisdictions can successfully coordinate their activities.


The Channel Islands marine area contains a globally unique and diverse assemblage of habitats and species. The Sanctuary contains over 33 species of marine mammals, over 60 species of seabirds, hundreds of fish species, thousands of invertebrate species, and dozens of marine algae and plant species It is also heavily used by commercial and recreational fishers, recreational boaters and divers, maritime shipping and researchers.

Research confirms the CINMS is a stressed marine ecosystem that has seen significant changes in its biodiversity and overall health since 1980 [1]. Most of this is due to water pollution and fishing pressure. Data shows decreases in landings for several categories of commercial and recreational fisheries [1]. In 2007 monitoring reports indicate the habitat in CINMS is improving because of a trawling ban implemented in 2005 by the state in waters within 3 nautical miles (nm) of the coast. .

Governance Framework

Figure 1 presents the agencies with responsibilities within the Sanctuary. The following have key roles in resource protection for the Channel Islands area:

  • US National Park Service (NPS) manages the terrestrial park that extends seaward one nautical mile.
  • California Fish and Game Commission regulates, manages, and enforces regulations over use of waters and marine resources from the mean high tide line to three nautical miles offshore. This is the regulatory body responsible for fisheries.
  • National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for the management and enforcement of the nation’s fisheries in federal waters from 3nm to 200nm.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shares authority with the NMFS to protect marine mammals and endangered species.
  • US Coast Guard is responsible for enforcing all other non-fishing federal laws and regulations.
Figure 1: The CINMS is a member of the the National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP) that is administered by NOAA. [2] The many agencies and programs involved in this Sanctuary are listed in this table.

Evolution of the CINMS

In 1980, public outcry over oil spills off California and the expansion of the offshore oil and gas industry were the impetus for creating the CINMS, the country’s third US sanctuary. CINMS “was established to protect significant marine resources and, in doing so, ensure that visitors would continue to appreciate and enjoy the area.”[2] Resource protection was a top management priority, accompanied by research, interpretation and visitor use. The management objectives include coordination with other agencies, promoting public awareness and strengthened enforcement. During the first management cycle, the Sanctuary banned large cargo vessels within 1 nm of the islands, and a 1000 ft. zone above the sanctuary, in which aircraft could not operate. Fishing restrictions in the sanctuary were minor, except where regulated by other state and federal agencies.

A management review process began in 1998 with advisory council and public meetings that lead to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and Draft Management Plan (DMP). These addressed the issues of gray water and sewage discharges from large vessels and the need to establish a network of no-take marine reserves to counteract fishing pressures. The process exposed the many overlaps between regulatory agencies.

Establishing a Network of Marine Reserve

Most marine areas within the US’s National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP) are open to some forms of fishing. For some time, the conservation community has attempted to create no-take marine reserves in the sanctuaries to reduce the impacts of fishing on habitat and fish stocks. that the conservation community also believes thatthe effectiveness of marine reserves depends on creating networks of reserves. In the case of the CINMS, the federal marine sanctuary management embarked on establishing such a network in its 1999. The process of developing and implementing the plan was conducted in a sequence of three phases that involved the community, state regulatory and federal regulatory agencies in turn.

The Community Phase

In 1998, a local recreational fishing group recommended to the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) that marine reserves be established to close off to fishing 20 percent of waters within 1 nm of shore. Acting on this request, the CINMS and the CDFG developed a joint Federal and State partnership to consider the benefits of establishing marine reserves out to six nm – well beyond the boundary of state jurisdiction. The CINMS Advisory Council, a Federal advisory board comprised of government agencies, industry and community members, met for two years to develop recommendations. In 2001, the Council recommended two reserve network options ranging from 12 to 29 percent of the Sanctuary [1].

The Advisory Council developed goals for the reserves:

• To protect representative and unique marine habitats, ecological processes, and populations of interest; • To maintain long-term socioeconomic viability while minimizing short-term socioeconomic losses to all users and dependent parties; • To achieve sustainable fisheries by integrating marine reserves into fisheries management; • To maintain areas for visitor, spiritual, and recreational opportunities which include cultural and ecological features and their associated values; and • To foster stewardship of the marine environment by providing educational opportunities to increase awareness and encourage responsible use of resources.

The State Regulatory Phase

CINMS and CDFG recommended to the state of California a network of reserves and conservation areas that included approximately 25% of the CINMS. In 2003, the state established 10 marine reserves and 2 conservation areas within State waters of the Sanctuary [1].

The Federal Regulatory Phase

In 2003, the NMSP initiated the process to establish reserves in federal waters to complement state reserves. Public meetings and workshops were conducted to obtain community and industry support. The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) and the NMFS strongly challenged the authority of CINMS to regulate fisheries [3]

In 2006, to provide protection to the seafloor and groundfish, the NMFS (also part of NOAA) designated the federal water portions offshore of the state marine zones as habitat areas of particular concern and prohibited bottom fishing.

In 2007, NOAA completed the marine reserve network—making it the largest marine zoning area off the continental United States. The network, which includes state and federal waters marine zones, is 240 square nautical miles encompasses 22 percent of the sanctuary waters through 11 marine reserves and 2 marine conservation areas. In the marine reserves all extractive activities and injury to sanctuary resources are prohibited. In the marine conservation areas commercial and recreational fishing for lobsters and pelagic species is allowed.

Figure 2: Network of Marine Reserves in the CINMS[1]

Joint Enforcement Program

The CINMS has designed a coordinated enforcement program with Federal and State agencies. The NMSP relies upon law enforcement officials in the NMFS to enforce sanctuary rules. Within the sanctuary, the sanctuary staff, NMFS, US National Park Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and State of California work together. The National Park Service enforces laws on land and ensures compliance with state fishing regulations. The California Department of Fish and Game provides enforcement and education. The CDFG are cross-deputized with federal enforcement authority from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA to enforce sanctuary, state, and federal fisheries regulations.


The regulatory roles and authority between the NOAA Marine Sanctuary Program and the Fisheries Service overlap, are in some cases unclear, and have resulted in protracted management planning processes. The relationship between some sanctuary and fishery officials has been characterized by “uncertainty and distrust” and a lack of understanding of agency mandates. In the case of the CINMS, the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the NMFS were reportedly concerned about the NMSP “taking on fishing regulations” to achieve sanctuary conservation goals. NMSP actions, however, prompted the other fishery regulators to recognize the need to take action or be substituted by the sanctuaries.

CINMS has succeeded in balancing limited regulatory powers with the gains to be made in partnering. US sanctuaries have limited resources and authority to achieve success without the support and coordination between state, federal and private groups.

See also

Internal Links

External Links

Further Reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 NOAA Section 304(a)(5) Letter. SUPPORTING MATERIALS Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. May 25, 2005
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lynn Sutherland. 2008. An Analysis of Habitat Conservation in National Marine Sanctuaries: A Case Study of the Channel Islands, Flower Garden Banks, and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuaries
  3. Weiss, Kenneth. Los Angeles Times. Channel Islands Fish Reserve Plan Ready

The main authors of this article are Stephen Bloye Olsen and Glenn Ricci
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Stephen Bloye Olsen; Glenn Ricci; (2020): Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary – Case Study. Available from [accessed on 13-06-2024]