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After decades, a tribe's vision for a new marine sanctuary could be coming true

For more than decade, members of the Chumash tribe have led a campaign to create a new marine sanctuary on the central California coast. It could include waters off Point Conception, a sacred site for the Chumash people.
Robert Schwemmer
/
NOAA
For more than decade, members of the Chumash tribe have led a campaign to create a new marine sanctuary on the central California coast. It could include waters off Point Conception, a sacred site for the Chumash people.

The central California coast, with its rugged beaches and kelp forests, draws a lot of visitors for its scenic beauty. For the Chumash people, the coastline means a lot more.

"Almost all the places people like to go to are our sacred sites," says Violet Sage Walker, chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council. "We've been going there and praying and doing ceremony there for 20,000 years."

More than 7,000 square miles of ocean there could soon become the largest national marine sanctuary in the continental U.S. It could also make history as one of the first federal sanctuaries to be spearheaded by a Native American tribe, part of a growing movement to give tribes a say over the lands and waters that were once theirs.

The campaign has spanned more than a decade, after Walker's father nominated the area with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2015. Becoming the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would mean the waters are largely protected from development, like oil rigs and wind turbines.

Walker and other tribal members are looking for more than just conservation – they want to be co-managers of the sanctuary. Under the Biden administration, tribes have been given decision-making powers over public lands in a handful of places, in an effort to repair centuries of exclusion and displacement.

"We are not wanting to be employees of NOAA," Walker says. "We are wanting to be separate and equal, so that we have autonomous decision making."

NOAA is expected to release details about how co-management might work in a few weeks, as part of a final proposal for the sanctuary, the last step before it's designated. But Walker is already getting started by helping set up an ecosystem monitoring program that involves both tribal members and scientists.

"It really is a way of showing this community is involved not just in the history of the place, but the future of the place," says Steve Palumbi, a marine biologist at Stanford University who is working on the project.

Violet Sage Walker, chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, wants to see tribal members as co-managers of the sanctuary, a reflection of those who originally lived there.
Lauren Sommer / NPR
/
NPR
Violet Sage Walker, chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, wants to see tribal members as co-managers of the sanctuary, a reflection of those who originally lived there.

Reclaiming heritage through a connection to the coast

The history of the Chumash echoes that of many other tribes. When European settlers arrived, an estimated 20,000 Chumash lived in dozens of villages around central California. They were soon forcibly moved from their lands, and their population shrank from disease and displacement.

Walker says restoring their connection to the coast is a big part of bringing back Chumash culture. In the 1970s, tribal members built the first tomol, a traditional plank canoe, in more than a century, which are used in ceremonies today. When a liquified natural gas terminal was proposed for Point Conception, an angular piece of land that juts into the Pacific, they occupied the site to protest the project.

"We believe when all people exit this world, they exit at Point Conception," Walker says. "Protecting that site is a spiritual connection for us. The same as any other religion protects their icons, their religious symbols, that's ours."

When the federal government opened the nomination process for new national marine sanctuaries in 2014, Walker's father, Fred Collins, proposed an area known for kelp forests, sea otters and migratory whales. Walker had worked with her father for decades, but when he passed away last year, she continued the campaign.

"He told me on his deathbed I had to see it happen," she says. "That was my dad's hope — was that we would walk and speak our language on our land again."

The country's network of marine sanctuaries exists today largely because of the environmental history in these same waters. In 1969, a massive oil spill covered the ocean off Santa Barbara, spurring the passage of a federal law that created the national marine sanctuary system.

Today, most marine sanctuaries are protected from oil drilling and wind power development in federal waters. Commercial fishing is generally allowed, and NOAA provides monitoring and management of the local ecosystems.

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"This area is a very special place in terms of the ecological resources that are here, the maritime heritage resources of the last 300 years, coupled with the importance of this area to Native American tribes," says William Douros, regional director of NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries for the West Coast. "And we often will have marine sanctuaries where there are threats to those resources, and there certainly are here in this area."

After almost a decade of waiting, Walker is eager to see the sanctuary become official, especially before the next election where leadership at federal agencies could change.

"We're not waiting for them to give us permission to be a marine sanctuary," she says. "We're already acting like we are."

Chumash tribal members are teaming up with scientists at Stanford University to do scientific assessments of the marine life nearby. The fishing rods capture DNA, shed by animals in the ocean.
Lauren Sommer / NPR
/
NPR
Chumash tribal members are teaming up with scientists at Stanford University to do scientific assessments of the marine life nearby. The fishing rods capture DNA, shed by animals in the ocean.

Fishing in a soup of DNA

On a foggy spring morning, Walker and other Chumash tribal members gathered on a beach north of Santa Barbara to forge an uncommon partnership — one with university scientists.

Researchers at Stanford are doing an assessment of the ecosystem, creating a survey of marine species as a baseline for the future of the sanctuary.

"A sanctuary, it's a forever thing," Palumbi says. "And so we want to know not only what's here now, but how it's changing over time."

Traditionally, marine sampling can be expensive. Teams of scientists use research boats for multi-day surveys, and divers spend hours in the water documenting what they see. But new technology is changing that.

"This is one of our samplers," Palumbi says, holding up a fishing rod.

The rod is designed to catch something invisible to the eye: DNA. "There's little bits and pieces of organisms out there," he explains. "Scales from fish and little legs from sand crabs."

The ocean is essentially a soup of marine life DNA. The end of the fishing rod has a metal mesh ball that holds a piece of gauze. The team soaks it in the ocean and then brings it back to shore, where the DNA can be sequenced in a lab. That produces a list of all the organisms captured, providing a census of the life in the area.

Marine biologist Steve Palumbi helps Chumash cultural educator Mia Lopez with her fishing rod on a scientific sampling trip.
/ Lauren Sommer/NPR
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Lauren Sommer/NPR
Marine biologist Steve Palumbi helps Chumash cultural educator Mia Lopez with her fishing rod on a scientific sampling trip.

Palumbi says this ecosystem could be a bellwether for climate change. Species that live in warmer waters, like off Southern California, are expected to move north as the ocean heats up. These waters will be a key place to spot that change and how it will affect the entire food web.

Walker and Palumbi are working to train tribal members in scientific monitoring, hoping to eventually take traditional tomols on the water to gather samples, producing more data than a traditional scientific approach would.

"Scientists or government agencies do it once a year or at a certain time. But we're here all the time, and so we can monitor always," says Mia Lopez, a cultural educator with the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, as she casts the fishing rod into the ocean.

Lopez is also helping incorporate traditional Chumash words and place names into the project (there are several languages among the different bands of Chumash). Those names often reveal features in the landscape that are longer visible, like creeks or springs that were once found near the coastline.

"You can find things you're not looking for," she says. "It tells you so much about the land, just in that name."

Palumbi says it's about marrying the knowledge of both groups - the scientific community's methods and the traditional environmental knowledge of tribes.

"We're offering each other these different universes of science and trying to put them together," Palumbi says. "It's a discovery process."

Turning the ship slowly

Later this month, NOAA is expected to release a final proposal for the sanctuary, including details about how co-management with different bands of the Chumash could work. The Biden Administration is seeking to involve Indigenous people in the places that were once theirs, both on public lands and in national parks. In 2022, President Biden restored the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and five tribes agreed to co-management.

"All the sanctuaries that exist today, even the monuments that exist today, had very little, if any, tribal management at the time of designation," NOAA's Douros says. "We're kind of excited about what that could offer in terms of a real diverse array of tribal involvement, reflecting the diversity of tribes that we have here along the Central Coast."

After decades of distrust and racism, Walker says the relationship with the federal government can still be uneasy.

"It's really tough to trust the federal government even with some of the highest seats on the federal government being Indigenous people," Walker says, referring to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. "When you turn the ship, it turns slow."

The upcoming sanctuary proposal will get feedback from the public and the industries that could be affected. A new wind project is being proposed in waters managed by the state of California, which could be affected by the federal marine sanctuary. The wind industry is seeking an exception for that, pointing out renewable energy is key to California's climate change goals. Walker says different bands of the Chumash tribe fall on different sides of the issue.

"Some people in our community — they support offshore wind or they support development," Walker says. "You cannot lump Indigenous people together."

After public comment, the sanctuary could be officially created sometime next year. Walker says she won't quit until her father's vision is realized.

"Our elder, Pilulaw, who has passed into spirit, she said that if you want to pray, you should put your feet in the water, because the water will take your prayers all over the whole world," Walker says. "And so I think about that. Basically every time we do this work, we're praying for a better world. We're praying that what we're doing is going to make a difference."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.