CBRC Logo by Tim Manolis

California Counties

The CBRC has adopted the following standard abbreviations for counties:

ALA - Alameda
- Alpine
- Amador
- Butte
- Contra Costa
- Calaveras
- Colusa
- Del Norte
- El Dorado
- Fresno
- Glenn
- Humboldt
- Imperial
- Inyo
- Kern
- Kings
- Los Angeles
- Lake
- Lassen
- Madera
- Mendocino
- Merced
- Mono
- Modoc
- Marin
- Mariposa
- Monterey
- Napa
- Nevada
ORA - Orange
- Placer
- Plumas
- Riverside
- Sacramento
- Santa Barbara
- San Bernardino
- San Benito
- Santa Clara
- Santa Cruz
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- Shasta
- Sierra
- Siskiyou
- San Joaquin
- San Luis Obispo
- San Mateo
- Solano
- Sonoma
- Stanislaus
- Sutter
- Tehama
- Trinity
- Tulare
- Tuolumne
- Ventura
- Yolo
- Yuba

The following discussion about offshore jurisdiction and boundaries is provided solely for educational purposes. The California Bird Records Committee recognizes that there are many different methods to determine at-sea boundaries of a political unit such as a state or county. The detailed discussion that follows includes several such methods, including the one followed by the CBRC for data recording purposes. Please note that the CBRC reviews records only at the state level, such that any records outside of the CBRC designated state boundaries are not considered. By contrast, the CBRC makes no formal decisions regarding the county in which a particular bird at sea may have occurred, beyond listing the nearest point of land in published reports and in its database.

Discussion of County Lines Offshore

by Don Roberson, former CBRC Secretary

Regarding county lines offshore, there seems to be much misinformation in general circulation. This subject was debated and decided, with specific reference to California, by both the CBRC and the American Birding Association (ABA) Rules Committee in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
In the 1980s, the CBRC adopted a 200 nautical mile limit for offshore records in California. This was consistent with a similar position taken by the British Bird Rarities Committee (see British Birds 78: 472, 1985). In January 1990, the CBRC unanimously passed the following resolution (item 13 on the agenda): “Authors of CBRC reports should assign bird records offshore, generally, to the nearest point of land (mainland or significant islands).” While not specifically setting county lines offshore, the practical effect of this decision is that birds offshore were assigned to the county with the nearest point of land, be it mainland or island.
In summer 1992, Lee Jones published an article in the “Western Tanager” (newsletter of Los Angeles Audubon Society) entitled “But what county am I in?” which, unfortunately, compared a number of differing ideas about pelagic boundaries offshore without any indication that formal decisions had already been adopted by a number of records committees. This article left many readers with a lot of erroneous ideas.
Accordingly, the ABA Rules Committee considered the question at length in 1993 and made a decision that was also adopted by the ABA’s Checklist Committee. I authored a paper explaining the ABA’s decisions in the November 1993 issue of “Winging It” (Vol. 5, No. 11) entitled “Offshore Boundaries: a clarification from the ABA Listing Rules Committee and the ABA Checklist Committee” (at pp. 8-9). This article used the California situation as a specific case to show the application of the “nearest point of land” approach. The ABA area, for example, drops down into waters directly west of Mexico far offshore (because the U.S. islands of San Clemente and San Nicolas are the closest point of land) while, closer to shore, a small wedge of Mexican water occurs directly west of San Diego (because the Los Coronados, Mexico, are the nearest point of land at that point). These decisions are in uniformity with international law. The lines appear on all good oceanic maps.
While all these decisions relate specifically to country and state boundaries, the same principles apply to county boundaries. They are the rules of international law.
Simply put, it has been generally agreed that pelagic species are assigned to the county with jurisdiction over the nearest point of land. Islands are land, so often the “nearest land” is an island (see next paragraph). This is the universally established rule of international law: Geneva Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, Article 12, para. 1 (in force since 1964; adopted in the U.S. in 15 UST 1606). A similar rule was adopted in the Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf (15 UST 471). [Some minor exceptions are discussed at the end of this tome.]
In California, the California Government Code sections 23000 et seq. defines all the counties, and each island is assigned to a county. The Farallones are in San Francisco County. Santa Catalina and San Clemente are in Los Angeles County. Anacapa and San Nicholas [sic per Gov’t Code] are in Ventura County. San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa & Santa Cruz islands are in Santa Barbara County. Thus, when at sea, you ask the captain or navigator to find the nearest point of land (either on a chart, or his radar, or via GPS) and whatever that is (perhaps an island, perhaps a mainland headlands) is the pelagic county you are in for birding purposes. On Shearwater Journeys trips, for example, skipper Richard Ternullo has a chart that shows the county lines drawn by this rule of international law and can announce when the boat changes counties [I drew this chart for Richard years ago.] Some have asked about the waters around the Farallones. You are in S.F. Co. when around the Farallones until you get closer to Pt. Reyes (which is Marin Co.). The dividing line is the halfway point from the tip of Pt. Reyes to the nearest Farallone Island. It is just that simple.
The following dissertation is for those who want more details, but it may be helpful as a background to any discussion on this topic. Just because we, as birders or field ornithologists, have chosen to use international law for our purposes should not be confused with true “sovereignty” or “jurisdiction.” Offshore, there are four “zones” to which jurisdiction (in a formal legal sense) applies.
The FIRST ZONE is for formal county jurisdiction (e.g., the county sheriff can arrest you) and is limited to three miles offshore. Official California Government Code jurisdiction for each county goes ONLY three miles offshore. So if you wanted to follow “official” governmental jurisdiction, few pelagics are within formal county jurisdiction. You can read the Government Code yourself — it is in local libraries — but for some counties the line goes directly three miles west of land (e.g., MEN/SON line, SF/SM line, MTY/SLO line) and for others it goes three miles due south (SBA/VEN line) or for others three miles southwest (SM/SCZ line). THESE LINES GO OUT ONLY THREE MILES and have almost nothing to do with the chosen boundaries much farther offshore.
The SECOND ZONE is official California state jurisdiction (e.g., state agencies can arrest you). It is also limited to three miles offshore except across a “closed bay” in which case the state can have much more extensive jurisdiction. For example, the Supreme Court found in “U.S. v. California” 381 US 139, 14 L.Ed.2d 296 (1965) that Monterey Bay was a “closed bay” and thus the State of California had jurisdiction well beyond the usual 3-mile limit (goes about 12 miles offshore at mid-Bay).
The THIRD ZONE is a zone of official United States sovereignty (the FBI can arrest you). Under international law this is now 12 nautical miles from the nearest point of land (including islands; sometimes farther when “closed bay” lines are involved).
The FOURTH ZONE is the zone of internationally recognized jurisdiction over seabed and fisheries resources. Although any nation’s ship can transit the waters under the doctrine of “freedom of the seas,” the nation with the jurisdiction may regulate fishing, seabed mining, oil drilling, etc. This jurisdiction is 200 nautical miles from the nearest point of land, including islands.
You will recognize that the CBRC and others have chosen the 200 nmi limit for “California” although the State itself has no jurisdiction out that far. We have also chosen the 200 nmile limit for counties although no county has jurisdiction beyond three miles. Since we adopted the 200 nmile limit, the CBRC and ABA also adopted the international law “nearest point of land” definition.
There are a few exceptions in international law, none of which applies to our county situation. But for completeness, you should be aware that sometimes treaties between nations will change an offshore boundary to a different spot than “nearest point of land.” Further, there have been cases when equitable analysis has moved an offshore line under rules of international law (e.g., North Sea Continental Shelf cases before the Hague International Court or the Anglo-French arbitration of 1977). These cases are rare but have been applied to determine the division of monies for exploitation of seabed resources off the Atlantic states (see Charney, 1981, “The delimitation of lateral seaward boundaries between states in a domestic context,” Am. Journal Intern. Law 75: 28-68, a very useful paper to which Paul Buckley recently drew my attention).
Finally, it should be understood that occasional interdepartmental decisions at the state or local level will “divide” their area of interest for administrative convenience. One such case relates to Calif. Dept. of Fish & Game fisheries permits: the San Luis Obispo office issues the take permits for fisherman over the Davidson Seamount (whose nearest point of land is in Monterey County). Likewise, the permits for certain usages of the Los Padres Nat’l Forest are issued in the San Luis Obispo Co. office, even for uses within the Monterey County portions of the National Forest. These administrative and bureaucratic decisions, which change from time to time with new administrations, have nothing at all to do with official boundaries. Accordingly, Cone Peak is still within Monterey Co. even though your permit comes from the SLO office. Likewise, the Davidson seamount is within Monterey County for purposes of formal avifaunal surveys even though a fisherman may get his permit in Morro Bay or Sacramento...
The “nearest point of land” rule has proven to be the easiest, most convenient, and most logical rule to apply for birding purposes on the West Coast. [East Coast issues are more complicated and there may be interest in the rare variant using “equity” in certain extreme cases under principles of international law; that issue is currently before the ABA Rules Committee about certain problems with Louisiana and around Maryland/Delaware. It does not apply to California where issues are more straight-forward.]
I realize this has been too detailed for some readers. Alas, as in politics and government, the devil is often in the details and a superficial understanding (or misunderstanding) can be, at times, a dangerous thing.

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