Marine Sanctuaries Aren’t a Pilot’s Safe Haven

A new Federal regulation finalized this year places airspace over four west coast marine sanctuaries off limits for GA pilots. Three marine sanctuaries are located in Northern California. The fourth is located in northwestern Washington.

The Olympic Marine Sanctuary is located between Copalis River and Koitlah at Neah Bay. It includes several miles of Washington’s Pacific Ocean shoreline and extends several miles off shore. The new Federal Regulations prohibit disturbing wildlife in the sanctuary by operating aircraft below 2,000 feet, within one nautical mile of the coast and offshore rocks and islands. Failure to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above ground level over any such waters is presumed to disturb marine mammals or seabirds (15 CFR Part 922.152.). This “rebuttable presumption” that endangered or migratory wildlife is disturbed, and could result in a fine of up to $100,000. The Sanctuary defines “wildlife disturbance” to include “noise, physical and visual disturbances caused by human activities that can have physical and behavioral impacts on wildlife above, below and on the water surface… Sources of wildlife disturbance in the sanctuary include low-flying aircraft…” Violations of marine sanctuary airspace will be based upon observations by persons on the ground. “Rebuttable presumption” means that pilots must prove their innocence when accused. This is a startling reversal of the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” which until now has been a fundamental precept of US law.

The language of the new NOAA regulation does not address existing airports and the impact of the new restricted airspace on existing VFR patterns or IFR approaches. However, the Olympic Marine Sanctuary has a statement on their website that says “Takeoffs and landings at Copalis Beach Airstrip [Copalis State Airport] are unaffected”.

Airspace over three other marine sanctuaries located in northern California also fall under the new regulation. Three airports, located at Watsonville, Half Moon Bay and Monterey are affected by the northern California marine sanctuary airspace. The website for the northern California sanctuaries does not contain similar accommodation for landing and departing aircraft. According to Ed Rosiak, President of the California Pilots Association, VFR traffic patterns and IFR approaches are potentially affected by the new airspace restrictions.

So far NOAA has not provided charts suitable for aviation navigation. Nor has the FAA updated VFR or IFR charts to include the new airspace restrictions. Limited information on the geographic coordinates of affected airspace is available on individual websites for west coast marine sanctuaries. Maps accompanying this article were obtained from the sanctuary websites.