Monterey Bay | Seeking Sanctuary: The Politics of Saving the Gulf – Monterey Herald

Monterey Bay, the largest open bay on the California coast, is where ocean policies began. From the first Spanish explorers to discover the beauty of our coast, to the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Reserve, our waters have been controversial.

There are four parts to the story of protecting Monterey Bay and the Central Coast. The first is the discovery of, and efforts to halt, the sale of Offshore Oil Lease 53. The second is the discovery and enhancement of the marine protected status of Monterey Bay and the Middle Coast. The third is to choose the “full enchiladas” or as much as possible, to provide complete protection, and to establish its office, staff and safe haven exploration center. The fourth is the effort to enact a national ocean protection standard, as done for clean air and clean water. The latter is still a work in progress for the nation but we’re showing how to do it here in Monterey Bay.

Exploiting the Gulf

Monterey ocean law policy began with the construction of the Custom House (California Historic Estate No. 1) where all merchant ships were required to register before doing business in California waters. The sea was the only way in or out for decades before the prairie arrived; Monterey Bay was the economic gateway.

For more than 100 years, the country’s economy has been based on the exploitation of sea resources. He began by collecting sea otters and seals for their fur, using ocean lanes to ship hundreds of thousands of cow hides from mission farms and establishing major whaling operations around Monterey Bay – the whaling capital of California. From the early 1900s until the 1950s, Monterey was the sardine capital of the world. All of this taking over the economic boom has left sea otters nearly extinct, Cannery Row went bankrupt, and pressured to build oil refineries in Moss Landing with the arrival of oil tankers to service PG&E’s “Mighty Mo” power plant.

Monterey Bay, one of the largest volumes of near-shore water in the world due to the depth of the underwater valley of Monterey Bay, was rapidly descending. This decline was the result of more than 100 years of political decision-making.

To recover and move forward, we needed a new policy. One prefers protecting resources over destroying resources. On land, state parks have been created, and in the ocean state marine reserves and federal ocean reserves have been created.

marine oil catalyst

The driving force for ocean protection was the threat of offshore oil drilling. For Northern California, the urgency emerged in the late 1970s. I was Chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors when I got a call from my dear friend and late neighbor Jim Root. At the time, Root was working on marine biology policy in the state legislature. Root next took a temporary job in Washington, D.C., working with the National Marine Fisheries.

Root told me that the Department of the Interior was about to announce a call for bids from oil companies to explore for oil off the central coast of California. My response was, “That’s crazy, there’s no oil off the coast of Central California.” Jim said, “Wait until you see how the oil companies respond to the call.” This call for bids has been named Lease Sale 53 and more oil companies have shown interest in this lease opportunity than in any previous call.

crowding area

The news came and people crashed to the surface and mobilized the Central Coast. Protecting our coast was a great organizing tool; Every political leader in the region opposed the rental sale 53. Chambers of Commerce stimulated opposition from the tourism industry and agricultural farmers due to the threats of air pollution and oil spills. I think it was the first time that these diverse interests were on the same page in the face of an economic threat to our region.

During this time, Jimmy Carter was president. He was facing the worst energy crisis in modern history. California had gas rationing with standard long lines at gas stations. Everyone needs gas and diesel fuel, especially “breadbasket” farmers in the Midwest. For most of the country, the announcement of an oil drilling expansion was good news, but not for California. Our coast was the center of population and economic development. Coastal tourism and coastal agriculture were huge. Even the fishermen were on our side to stop the rental sale 53. The Central Coast was against the rest of the nation.

Local leaders stepped up. Photographer Ansel Adams posted advertisements in the New York Times opposing the high-risk, low-fuel increases that would come from drilling. The White House heard our cries and through local communications, Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrews came to Monterey to hear our concerns. I still have a copy of the shirt I gave him that says “Stop Lease Sale 53”. He saw a united front and listened. It worked and President Carter removed the Lease Sale 53. We won, but not for long.

Finding a permanent solution

Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980. The new Secretary of the Interior was James Lee Watt. Secretary Watt immediately announced that the entire California coast was for rental sale. We went to work with the already well-organized regional opposition. This time with the California Legislature and our California congressional delegation, led by then-Congressman Leon Panetta. We needed time to persuade our former governor of California, incumbent President Reagan, to stop Secretary Watt’s call for “kids training pits” off our coast.

Panetta organized a group of coastal congressmen to help. Congressman Vic Fazio, who was a member of the House’s powerful Appropriations Committee, was urged to put language in the annual appropriations bill to prevent the Home Office from spending money that fiscal year on a lease sale; This action paused the process. This approach to stopping the sale of rent had to be repeated in Congress annually without guaranteeing its success.

In the next installment: Work begins on a marine reserve, the battle against offshore oil continues, and the ocean is put at the top of the nation’s agenda.

Sam Farr is on the Board of Directors of the Monterey Bay National Marine Reserve Foundation. He served on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, the California State Assembly, and represented California’s Central Coast in the U.S. House of Representatives. He also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Columbia as a young man. He lives in Carmel with his wife Shari. For more information on the sanctuary’s 30th anniversary, go to

About this series

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall, and the National Sanctuary System is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Ahead of the anniversary, the Herald publishes columns by former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, along with Sam Farr, Dan Heffley, Fred Kelly, and shelter supervisor Dr. Lisa Wunink. All of these contributors serve on the Board of Directors of the Monterey Bay National Marine Reserve Foundation and were involved in the designation of the reserve. For information, visit

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