Sanctuary boundary study raises new overflight concerns

January 10, 2013

The possible expansion of boundaries of two national marine sanctuaries in California could result in new restrictions on overflights of the affected areas, AOPA said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has published a notice of intent to study the environmental impact of expanding the boundaries of the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries. It also scheduled a series of informational “scoping” meetings to begin Jan. 24. Public comments will be accepted through March 1 as provided below. Members are encouraged to attend the sessions and submit comments.

In its notice, NOAA said that it is considering whether to expand the sanctuaries’ boundaries located along and offshore of California’s north-central coast to “an area north of the existing sanctuaries that extends from Bodega Bay in Sonoma County, to Alder Creek in Mendocino County, and west to the edge of the continental shelf.”

“NOAA anticipates that the review and potential expansion of existing sanctuary boundaries will be completed within 18 to 24 months,” it said.

In its filing, NOAA did not address the possible expansion of marine sanctuary overflight restrictions. But the boundary expansion under consideration would be a necessary first step toward that action.

AOPA has taken strong exception to the past enactment of overflight restrictions by NOAA, and considers the practice a usurpation of the FAA’s authority to regulate airspace that places all pilots flying in the vicinity of the sanctuaries at risk.

Restrictions that took effect Feb. 27, 2012, at three sanctuaries in California and one in the state of Washington created a presumption that pilots flying below 1,000 feet agl in the vicinity of protected sanctuaries (or below 2,000 feet agl in some areas) have disturbed wildlife there. Penalties were to be imposed based on ground observation by personnel who may lack any aviation knowledge or equipment to make accurate altitude determinations, AOPA said.

“AOPA remains concerned that the FAA did not oppose NOAA’s move to extend its authority to the regulation of aviation operations over certain marine sanctuaries. AOPA is requesting that NOAA state its intentions regarding overflight restrictions,” said Tom Kramer, AOPA manager of airspace and modernization. “Any possibility of future overflight restrictions should include an evaluation and mitigation of the economic and operational impacts on general aviation.”

Kramer urged members to attend the informational meetings and submit comments.

The scoping meetings will be held Jan.24 at 6 p.m. at the Bodega Bay Grange Hall, 1370 Bodega Ave., Bodega Bay, CA 94923; Feb. 12 at 6 p.m. at Point Arena High School, 185 Lake Street, Point, Arena, CA 95468, and Feb. 13 at 6 p.m., at the Gualala Community Center, 47950 Center Street, Gualala, CA 95445.

Comments may be submitted online by March 1, citing docket No. NOAA-NOS-2012-0228, or by mail to Maria Brown, Sanctuary Superintendent, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, 991 Marine Drive, The Presidio, San Francisco, CA 94129. Members are encouraged to share a copy of their comments with AOPA.