Despite opposition from the American Petroleum Institute, fishermen and county governments along the Atlantic coast of Maryland and Virginia, the Commerce Department appears likely to take the next step toward designating a National Marine Sanctuary near Assateague Island.

Edward Lindelof, senior program analyst for the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resources Management, said if Virginia state officials support the so-called Virginia/Assateague Island sanctuary, federal officials probably will keep it on a list of sites designated for intensive study. Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes already has supported the move.

There are 29 sanctuary nominations receiving public comments, but only two to four will be designated as sanctuaries each year in the long review. Virginia/Assateague is the only pending nomination on the Atlantic Coast between North Carolina and New York. "The local folks out there are misinformed about the impact of a sanctuary," Lindelof said. "It is not going to halt fishing and it is not going to halt recreational activities. It could, but with all of the local opposition, it is unlikely."

The petroleum institute opposed the sanctuary because it could block an undersea oil and gas pipeline from offshore drilling rigs that may soon be in place because of an Interior Department lease sale. Lindelof said the pipeline probably would be incompatible with the sanctuary.