In one of his acts as president, Jimmy Cartr signed an executive order that environmentalists are hailing as the first step toward a system of "underwater national parks."
The order, penned Jan. 16, designates as marine sanctuaries three offshore tracts. The new preserves are located near Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco, Calif., at Grays Reef near Sapelo Island, Ga., and off the Florida Keys.
Before the bill's signing, the Marine Sanctuaries Program, first set up in 1972, had previously engendered only three areas: a site near Key Largo, Fla., and a tract off Cape Hatteras, N.C., both created in 1975; and an area near Santa Barbara, Calif., established in September 1980.
Each sanctuary is established to protect a specific form of marine life, or in one case, a marine artifact. The Point Reyes site will guard the migration route of the California gray whale. The two Florida sanctuaries prevent misuse of fragile coral reefs. The Cape Hatteras plot was established to prevent treasure hunters from ravaging or attempting to raise the USS Monitor, the Civil War ironclad discovered there in 1975.
Though no official connection with the National Park System exists (the Park System is administered by the Department of the Interior while the Department of Commerce oversees the sanctuaries), groups favoring the plan see it as the forerunner of a series of underwater parks stretching along both US coasts.
Says Michael Weber of the Center for Environmental Education, the group that spearheaded the drive of 23 environmental groups seeking the sanctuaries, "Like Yellow- stone National Park before it, the sanctuaries are an idea before their time."
Opposition to the sanctuaries arose among some oil companies and several groups representing water sports enthusiasts. After a long-running battle over the Point Reyes sanctuary, exploratory drilling was banned. Though none of the other existing sanctuaries are located near potential offshore drilling sites, a spirited battle between oil firms and environmental groups is likely for any proposed sanctuary overlapping a known oil deposit.
Unlike national parks, created to serve the recreational needs of the general public, marine sanctuaries may become isolated havens for sea life closed off from the public. Sport fishermen are up in arms over the possibility of losing popular fishing grounds. although Mr. Weber claims "only activity that poses a threat to the marine environment will be disallowed," he concedes that this may mean future limitations on scuba diving and sport fishing.
The commercial and recreational activities subject to regulations differ for each sanctuary. Crabbing, for instance, will be allowed to continue at the Sapelo Island sanctuary, but lobster pots most likely will be banned at the Florida sanctuary because of their tendency to snare other marine life in addition to lobsters.
The new sanctuaries vary greatly in size. The two East Coast sites cover an area of roughly 5 to 10 square miles. The California sanctuary is considerably larger, stretching from Point Reyes to the Farallon Islands and covering 950 square miles.