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Cordell Bank Natl. Marine Sanctuary

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1989 after a request from Cordell Expeditions, a nonprofit organization. Cordell Expeditions had studied Cordell Bank, an undersea granite bank located entirely in federal waters on the edge of the continental shelf.

Designation of Cordell Bank as a National Marine Sanctuary resulted in regulations that banned a range of activities, including removing historical resources, removing or injuring benthic invertebrates or algae, discharging any substance unrelated to fishing and anchoring on the bank. Oil and gas development were also prohibited.

During its early years, the sanctuary was managed within the administrative framework of an adjacent sanctuary, but today it has its own budget and staff members. The sanctuary produces educational materials to encourage environmental stewardship, facilitates scientific studies and works with partner agencies to identify new management and regulatory strategies.

In 2008, a revised management plan with a focus on ecosystem-based management was published which called for the creation of a new regulation to prohibit releases of invasive species, development of an oil spill contingency plan, monitoring of sanctuary waters and habitats, and actions to track human use activities and impacts.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Recognition of an interconnected ecosystem and development of a management plan that considers an area wider than the political boundary of the marine sanctuary.
  • Adaptive Management: Stated commitment to adjust the management plan in light of experience gained in actual management.
  • Collaboration: Emphasis on partnerships with other agencies.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary was published in the Federal Register in 1989. The mission is to protect and conserve Cordell Bank and its surrounding area to ensure the continued availability of the ecological, research, educational, aesthetic, and recreational resources contained within the sanctuary. Resource protection is the highest priority.


The revised management plan issued in 2008 builds on that mission to outline the following primary objectives:

  • Improve the conservation, understanding, management, and sustainable use of the marine resources.
  • Enhance public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the marine environment.
  • Maintain for future generations the habitat and ecological integrity of the natural assemblage of living resources that inhabit these areas.
  • Maintain the natural biological communities, protecting and where appropriate restoring and enhancing natural habitats, populations, and ecological processes.
  • Provide authority for comprehensive and coordinated conservation and management of these marine areas and activities affecting them, in a manner that complements existing regulatory authorities.
  • Create models of, and incentives for, ways to conserve and manage these areas, including the application of innovative management techniques.
  • Cooperate with global programs encouraging conservation of marine resources.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • Cordell Expeditions


  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Key Parties

The Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary partners with and/or represents the interests of the Cordell Bank ecosystem to government agencies of various levels, including:

  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • Pacific Fishery Management Council
  • California Department of Fish and Game
  • The adjacent marine sanctuaries


The Sanctuary Advisory Council includes the following stakeholders:

  • Conservation
  • Education
  • Maritime activities
  • Fishing
  • Research
  • Members of the community

Academic Institutions

Numerous members of academic institutions are involved in studies of aspects of the Cordell Bank ecosystem.


Program Structure

At its inception in 1989, the operation and management of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary (CBNMS) was contained within the administrative framework of the adjacent Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS). Its first full-time staff member was hired in 1995, funded by GFNMS.

Sanctuary Superintendent

In 1998, CBNMS received its own budget and now has six staff members, including the sanctuary superintendent, who:

  • Reports to the National Marine Sanctuary Program.
  • Monitors research and management programs.
  • Oversees staffing.
  • Evaluates the overall progress toward the sanctuary’s resource protection objectives.

Sanctuary Advisory Council

In 2001, a Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) was formed, consisting of seven members, to inject greater stakeholder participation into the management plan review process and increase public support for the sanctuary. Members hold seats representing different stakeholders, including:

  • Conservation
  • Education
  • Maritime activities
  • Fishing
  • Research
  • Two members of the community

Non-voting members represent the adjacent marine sanctuaries, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The SAC continues to provide advice to the superintendent on resource management issues and provide a forum for community involvement.

Motivations for Initiating Effort

In 1853, Cordell Bank was discovered by George Davidson, a hydrographer for the U.S. Coastal Survey. About 16 years later it was surveyed more extensively by Edward Cordell, a surveyor with the agency.

From 1977 through 1987, Cordell Expeditions, a nonprofit organization, conducted the first comprehensive study of the area. Cordell Expeditions’ scuba divers took more than 3,000 photographs, shot significant amounts of film and video footage, and collected specimens. Its efforts brought the area’s biological diversity to the attention of the public for the first time. Newspapers would describe Cordell Bank as a lost island under the sea.

In July 1981, Cordell Expeditions initiated the process to designate the area around Cordell Bank as a National Marine Sanctuary with a request to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA agreed that Cordell Bank was not adequately protected and was eligible for inclusion on the List of Recommended Areas.

In 1984, a public scoping meeting to gather information and determine the range and significance of the issues related to its designation and management was held. In 1987, public hearings on the sanctuary’s first management plan were held and a final rule creating the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary took effect in 1989.

In 2001, the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary management plan was reviewed along with two adjacent sanctuaries, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The review process included a four-month public scoping period to identify priority issues for the next five to ten years and more than 1,000 people participated in the 20 public forums held across the northern California coast. Cross-cutting issues were identified across a larger area to consider ecosystem-wide management issues, rather than focusing on activities within individual political boundaries.

The revised management plan was published in 2008.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Cordell Bank is a well-defined underwater granite bank, consisting of a series of steep-sided ridges and narrow pinnacles resting on a plateau. It is about 7.2 kilometers wide and 15.2 kilometers long and rises from the soft sediments of the continental shelf. The tops of its upper pinnacles reach to within 35 meters of the ocean’s surface. Only a few kilometers to the west, the ocean floor drops away dramatically to depths of more than 1,800 meters.

One of the world’s four major upwelling systems provides nutrient-rich bottom waters. The prevailing California current, which flows southward along the coast, moves nutrients to the upper levels of the bank.

A vigorous biological community is supported within the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The vertical relief of the bank and its hard substrate provides a benthic habitat with near-shore characteristics in an open environment about 32 kilometers from shore. Scientists have identified more than 180 species of fish, 59 species of marine birds, numerous types of invertebrates and 26 species of marine mammals, including gray whales, blue whales, and humpback whales.


Because the marine sanctuary is located entirely offshore, direct human impacts are rather limited, but include:

  • Commercial shipping: About 2,000 commercial vessels pass through the sanctuary each year creating noise issues. The effect of noise on marine mammals, seabirds, fish and turtles is not known, though active sonar has been linked to the deaths of whales in other areas.
  • Commercial and recreational fishing: A great amount of derelict fishing gear has been found within the sanctuary, potentially impacting the physical structure of the bank. Bottom trawls and long lines have altered benthic habitats. Commercial and recreational fishing opportunities currently are limited; In the mid-2000s, the Pacific Fishery Management Council established several areas within the marine sanctuary that are closed to types of commercial fishing to improve the status of depleted stocks, such as rockfish. The closures were implemented under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
  • Wildlife sightseeing excursions: Wildlife sightseeing excursions are increasingly becoming a popular activity within the sanctuary.


Major Strategies

  • Improve communication between the bodies that regulate fishing within the marine sanctuary, the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the California Fish and Game Commission, through the establishment of consistent and coordinated region-wide sanctuary representation at their meetings.
  • Track human activities and their impacts on the sanctuary, and develop policy recommendations to address those impacts.
  • Establish cooperative agreements to enforce regulations within the marine sanctuary.
  • Work with the Sanctuary Advisory Council, scientists, users and others to develop sanctuary communication strategies and encourage greater environmental awareness and stewardship through yearly lecture series, outreach events, staff appearances on a monthly radio show, programs at local schools, and training events for local teachers to conduct lessons on the sanctuary and its ecosystem.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Increasing scientific understanding of the Cordell Bank ecosystem is a priority of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, which has a stated commitment to adapting its management strategies based on the results of scientific studies and communicating the information to the public through outreach efforts and interpretive displays.

Sanctuary staff monitor fish and invertebrate numbers and habitat to evaluate regulatory actions and identify areas in which new regulations may be needed. In one example, sanctuary staff are working with the U.S. Coast Guard to study potential impacts from vessel traffic. In addition, the role of Cordell Bank in the broader coastal ecosystem is being investigated.

Since 1997, ocean conditions have been monitored and investigated to discern a relationship with the abundance of whales, seabirds and other marine life, such as krill, a small invertebrate that is an important building block in the food chain in the area. Benthic habitats on Cordell Bank also were characterized from 2001 to 2005.

Other research is conducted in partnership with other state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations in support of the sanctuary’s overall mission.



Legal Protections

Until the designation of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary (CBNMS), the area lacked legal protections to guard the relatively shallow pinnacles of the granite bank and their surroundings from injury due to human contact, or by the exploration for gas and oil. Exploration activities have been suggested for the area since the designation, but have not survived the legislative process.

Sense of Place

While Cordell Bank remains a relatively remote area as it is entirely offshore, it has a sense of place in the public mind, facilitated through the designation of the CBNMS and its associated outreach efforts. One example is the increase in traffic of wildlife sightseeing vessels within the sanctuary.

Ecosystem Improvements

Although the CBNMS does not have regulatory authority over fishing, staff work closely with federal and state regulators and provide scientific data to understand the health of the fishery and discern the impacts of regulatory actions. After the closure of certain areas to fishing and the imposition of gear restrictions in the 2000s, some overfished populations have increased. Others are stable. Some marine mammal populations have increased within the sanctuary, including populations of humpback whales, according to the Cordell Bank 2009 Condition Report.


Website Links

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary:

Cordell Bank 2009 Condition Report:

Cordell Expeditions: