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Channel Islands Natl. Marine Sanctuary

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Matthew Griffis, Joshua Kweller, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, Univ. of Mich.


The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1980 to protect the region from oil and gas drilling. The sanctuary surrounds the five northern Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.

A wide array of community and government stakeholders are involved in sanctuary management decisions through the Sanctuary Advisory Council. A large Marine Protected Area network has been established in sanctuary waters through a stakeholder-based process. Most of the protected areas are off-limits to fishing. The motivation came from observed declines in marine species and the resilience of fish populations within a nearby state-initiated marine reserve.

Sanctuary management also uses regulations, and educational and outreach strategies to accomplish conservation goals.

The 2009 sanctuary management plan emphasizes an ecosystem-based approach to management using the best available natural and social science information.


MEBM Attributes

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


Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary is to conserve, protect and enhance the biodiversity, ecological integrity, and cultural legacy of marine resources surrounding the Channel Islands for current and future generations.


The 2009 management plan established the following nine goals:

  • Protect natural habitats, ecological services and biological communities of all living resources inhabiting the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and the sanctuary’s cultural and archaeological resources for future generations.
  • Enhance public awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the marine environment and the natural, historical, cultural and archaeological resources of the sanctuary.
  • Support, promote, and coordinate scientific research and long-term monitoring related to the sanctuary.
  • Where appropriate, restore and enhance natural habitats, populations and ecological processes within the sanctuary.
  • Provide comprehensive and coordinated conservation and management of the sanctuary, as well as the activities affecting the sanctuary, in a manner complementing existing regulatory authorities.
  • Create models and incentives to conserve and manage sanctuaries, including the application of innovative management techniques.
  • Facilitate public and private uses of sanctuary resources that are compatible with the primary objective of resource protection, and enhance such uses where they are wise and sustainable.
  • Cooperate with national and international programs encouraging conservation of marine resources.
  • Develop and implement coordinated plans for the protection and management of the sanctuary with appropriate federal agencies, state and local governments, Native American tribes and organizations, international organizations, and other public and private interests concerned with the sanctuary’s health and resilience.


Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (lead agency)
  • National Park Service
  • National Marine Fisheries Service


  • California Department of Fish and Game

Key Parties


  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Pacific Fisheries Management Council
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • Minerals Management Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey


  • California Historic Resources Commission
  • California Environmental Protection Agency
  • State Water Resources Control Board
  • California Air Resources Board


  • County of Santa Barbara
  • County of Ventura
  • Local Municipalities


The Sanctuary Advisory Council includes the following stakeholders:

  • Tourism
  • Business
  • Fishing
  • Recreation
  • Conservation
  • Chumash Community
  • Interested Community Members


Program Structure

Sanctuary Superintendent

A sanctuary superintendent oversees day-to-day operations of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which had 12 full-time federal employees and eight to 10 contractors in 2010. Other duties of the sanctuary superintendent include:

  • Reporting to the National Marine Sanctuary Program.
  • Monitoring research and management programs.
  • Evaluating the overall progress toward the sanctuary’s resource protection objectives.

Sanctuary Advisory Council

A Sanctuary Advisory Council was formed in 1998 as a volunteer body to provide advice to the sanctuary superintendent. The council provides for a two-way flow of information between the sanctuary and its constituent groups, and acts as a forum for developing a consensus on management-related issues.

The council also includes six working groups that focus on topics such as research, conservation, education, fishing and the Chumash community. Working groups include members of the council and community members with an interest in the topic.

The council meets bi-monthly. The 21 voting members of the council include representatives of federal and state agencies, and the following constituent groups:

  • Tourism
  • Business
  • Fishing
  • Recreation
  • Conservation
  • Chumash Community
  • Interested Community Members

Motivations for Initiating Effort

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1980 to protect the area from off-shore oil exploration. Federal protection of the Channel Islands dates to 1938, when Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands were declared Channel Islands National Monument. The National Park Service was given jurisdiction over the management of the monument.

In 1968, declining sea life led the park service to restrict fishing and kelp cutting in portions of the monument, creating the first Marine Protected Area in the region.

In 1978, the state of California successfully sued for the right to regulate the taking of living marine resources within the area of the monument. California established a series of state ecological reserves. Fishing and kelp cutting was allowed, except in one 13-hectare marine reserve.

Federal protections over the resource were extended when Channel Islands National Monument was expanded to become Channel Islands National Park, which included the five northern Channel Islands. When Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary was created, it was the country’s third marine sanctuary.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Noted for its productive waters and diverse habitats and marine life, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary lies within the northern Southern California Bight. It contains three bioregions: the cold water Oregonian Province, the warm water California Province, and a transition zone between the two. The sanctuary contains diverse habitats, including kelp forest, surfgrass and eelgrass, intertidal zone, nearshore subtidal, deep water benthic and water column habitats.

The varied habitats in the sanctuary support 496 species of algae and seagrass, benthic and pelagic invertebrates, more than 480 species of fish, four species of sea turtles, nearly 200 species of birds, and marine mammals that include whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions and sea otters.


The primary stressors to the ecosystem are overfishing, kelp harvesting, and the impacts of vessel traffic, which diminish water quality and may harm marine mammals. Storms and other effects of climate change pose threats to the ecosystem. Ocean acidification has become a key concern.

Ship collisions with endangered blue whales also have become an issue. In fall 2007, four blue whales were killed in Santa Barbara Chanel because of collisions with ships.


Major Strategies

In implementing ecosystem-based management in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, managers use a variety of strategies and tools, including regulations, Marine Protected Areas, community involvement through the Sanctuary Advisory Council, education and outreach, research and monitoring,  and coordination of resources and expertise of multiple agencies and academic researchers.

  • Regulations: Sanctuary regulations prohibit certain activities that would destroy or impair marine resources. Hydrocarbon exploration and drilling are prohibited. Discharges from vessels, with limited exceptions, are prohibited. Dredging of the seabed is prohibited, although certain exceptions can be permitted. Other regulations govern vessel traffic, requiring cargo vessels to operate more than one nautical mile from the islands in the sanctuary. Aircraft are prohibited from flying less than 1000 feet from the waters of the sanctuary. And, removing or damaging any cultural or historical resource is prohibited.
  • Marine Protected Area Network: The network protects representative habitats to reduce the pressure on fish populations, allow for the natural restoration of overharvested species, and provide for the general improvement of biodiversity and ecosystem health. The California Fish and Game Commission established Marine Protected Areas within the nearshore waters of the sanctuary in 2002. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expanded the network into the deeper waters of the sanctuary in 2006 and 2007. Eleven of the MPAs are marine reserves that prohibit fishing. Two are marine conservation areas that permit limited harvesting of lobster and pelagic fish. The Sanctuary Advisory Council participates in educating the public about the network. Rangers from the National Park Service help inform fishermen of the network’s purpose and regulations.
  • Sanctuary Advisory Council: The council is the primary method for involving the community in the management decisions of the sanctuary. The 21 voting members represent a variety of community and government organizations and interests. The council is well coordinated and is an effective medium for disseminating information, encouraging shared learning and developing consensus on issues related to resource protection and management. Although the council is advisory and does not have decision-making authority, sanctuary management typically follows the recommendation of the council.
  • Enforcement: Enforcement is mostly conducted by the National Park Service, along with the California Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Coast Guard. The park service conducts on-water education efforts as part of its enforcement activities. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducts investigations through its law enforcement division.
  • Agency Coordination and Partnerships: With a limited budget and staff, the sanctuary reaches out to other agencies and partners for assistance in implementing ecosystem-based management. The sanctuary tries to coordinate the activities of the multiple agencies with jurisdiction in the area. The sanctuary also partners with academic researchers to encourage research that might lead to improved management.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

The National Park Service and academic researchers conduct the greatest amount of research and monitoring in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration manages the sanctuary, its budget and staff are limited.

Biological and physical oceanographic research occurs throughout the sanctuary. The park service has monitored the rocky intertidal zones and kelp forests for more than 25 years.

Monitoring also is conducted in the intertidal, subtidal and deep-water habitats.

Much of the monitoring is focused on the Marine Protected Area network. A report on the effectiveness of the network has been published using the findings of the monitoring effort.

Fishermen are incorporated into one component of monitoring, working with researchers from the University of California-Santa Barbara. Despite this effort, many other fishermen hesitate to give data to scientists because of a lack of trust and fears the data will be used to close or regulate additional areas of the fishery.



Since the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary began explicit efforts to use an ecosystem-based approach to management in the late 1990s, changes in the ecosystem and public understanding have been observed. Species diversity and density has increased within the Marine Protected Area network.

By prohibiting fishing, the marine reserves have allowed researchers to better understand the broader ecosystem.

The process of establishing the marine reserves led to greater public involvement with the sanctuary and raised public awareness of ecosystem-level issues. Ecosystem impacts are now a key consideration in Sanctuary Advisory Council decisions.


Factors Facilitating Progress

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary has been facilitated by three key factors:

  • Explicit Authority: The authority given the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by the National Marine Sanctuaries Act was important because it required management to use an ecosystem perspective, giving the sanctuary a broad focus.
  • Leadership: Ed Cassano, the sanctuary manager who established the Sanctuary Advisory Council and began the process to create the Marine Protected Area network, recognized the potential and strength of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. He showed personal leadership and vision.
  • Sanctuary Advisory Council: The council has enabled the implementation of ecosystem-based management. The council effectively coordinates scientists, government agencies, the community at-large and interests representing business, conservation, fishing, and tourism sectors. It is a forum for communicating scientific information. Council members may have opposing viewpoints, but have developed mutual respect and can discuss issues in a constructive manner. 



Despite the success of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, it faces the following challenges in implementing an ecosystem-based approach to management:

  • Jurisdictional Overlap: The multiple regulatory jurisdictions within the resource result in challenges for management. For instance, the Marine Protection Area (MPA) network designation process was slowed by the lack of clarity on the regulatory authorities of the agencies with jurisdiction in the resource.
  • Resource Constraints: Constrained resources available to the sanctuary have limited the ability of managers to implement ecosystem-based management. State-of-the-art monitoring plans, for instance, have been created, but the sanctuary lacks the funds to carry them out.
  • Roles, Representatives and Decision Rules: Creation of the MPA network also illustrated the challenge in managing consensus-based processes. A recommendation for reserve design needed to be reached by consensus within the working group reporting to the Sanctuary Advisory Council. A small number of working group members kept the group from reaching consensus. Eventually, the majority position to create the reserves was reported to the council.


Lessons Learned

People involved with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary have learned:

  • The Sanctuary Advisory Council process is important. It brings diverse views and information to the table that otherwise might be marginalized, and helps avoid an adversarial process.
  • Involve as many different groups as possible. Broad-based engagement is important. Do not exclude any user group.
  • Set realistic goals. No one person, agency or group can do it all.
  • Build science into the process. An advisory group of scientists can provide guidance for policy-makers.
  • Share the pain. When implementing marine reserves, the affected parties should share the pain. One fishery should not bear the entire burden.


Website Links

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary: