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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Delving Into the Status of Our Marine Wilderness Areas

A federal appeals court ruled last week that the government acted correctly in ordering closure of the Drakes Estero oyster farm in Northern California, to clear the way for the first marine wilderness on West Coast.

So much story in a one-line news release! As a Santa Barbaran, I immediately wondered, doesn’t the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary count as wilderness? Our sanctuary contains marine conservation areas allowing limited pelagic fish and lobsters takes. But it also shelters 11 marine reserves, where absolutely no take is allowed.

I set out to investigate marine wildernesses, and found an oceanic policy expert, Bradley Barr. According to Barr, "There is no explicit definition of ocean wilderness in any law or policy in any part of the world."

He spent more than six years studying marine wilderness, using the 1964 Wilderness Act to define marine wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act delineates “an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

With this guideline, Barr found a dozen marine wilderness areas in the United States. Each has been designated a wilderness area and happens to also contain ocean or coastal waters. They comprise mainly wildlife refuges in Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts and Alaska.

Drakes Estero, the named “first marine wilderness area on the West Coast” (hmmm, what about Alaska?), is within the Phillip Burton Wilderness inside Point Reyes National Seashore. When it was created in the 1970s, the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. was grandfathered in, obtaining a 40-year federal lease in the estuary.

In 2004, the oyster company, along with its farming lease, changed hands to Kenny Lunny. As the lease’s expiration loomed, disagreement between Lunny and the interior secretary arose in a couple of key areas.

One was whether the oyster operation, providing a third of California’s oysters, harms the estuary. Another was whether, at that time Lunny purchased the lease, assurances were given that it could be extended. At this point, after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, time seems to be favoring wilderness.

marine wilderness
A dozen marine wilderness areas have been identified in the United States.

Which leads me back to the Channel Islands. What about us? Karen Garrison, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Oceans Program, considers the distinction between a wilderness and a California marine reserve this way:
 “There are differences in how they get designated, who manages them, what their purposes are and what’s allowed.” One major difference, she says, is that a California marine reserve is always no-take, while a wilderness area may allow some take of marine life, unless there’s an additional, more restrictive designation.

There seem to be two lessons here. One is that there’s no such thing as an official marine wilderness designation, so I suppose no reason for us to covet it. Furthermore, our Channel Islands Marine Reserve designation is a more protective designation for marine life than even a marine wilderness would be.

The bottom line is, go out to sea and enjoy our close-in wilderness in the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary!

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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