West Coast
Ellie Spink | Mustang News

CA - “It's their land”: Chumash Tribe one step closer to Central Coast marine sanctuary

On a foggy morning in Morro Bay, sea otters summersault in the harbor while fishermen heave gear onto their boats. Across the water, surfers rip across silver-blue waves. The Chumash can sometimes be seen climbing Morro Rock — one of many sacred sites along the bay.

On a foggy morning in Morro Bay, sea otters summersault in the harbor while fishermen heave gear onto their boats. Across the water, surfers rip across silver-blue waves. The Chumash can sometimes be seen climbing Morro Rock — one of many sacred sites along the bay.

This coastline may soon be protected by the federal government.

Since 2013, the Northern Chumash Tribe has been working to designate 156 miles of the California Coast as a national marine sanctuary, according to their website. This would be the first tribally-nominated sanctuary in the United States.

The Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would stretch from Cambria to the middle of Santa Barbara — filling the gap between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collaborates with local and state groups to manage the sanctuaries, which would give the tribe a say in how their ancestral land is managed. The Chumash are now one step closer to designating the sanctuary.

“The Chumash are tasked by their elders to protect the Earth and protect the ocean,” said P.J. Webb, a public interest attorney and longtime collaborator with the Chumash. “A national marine sanctuary is another tool to help them in their ongoing task of respecting the Earth.”

NOAA has a four-step process for designating national marine sanctuaries. On Jan. 31, they completed step one: the scoping process, when people could submit suggestions and concerns to NOAA about the sanctuary.

NOAA received 22,479 comments during the 83-day scoping process, according to Paul Michel, the NOAA Sanctuaries West Regional Policy Coordinator. NOAA is still organizing the comments, but so far it looks like almost 98% of comments supported the sanctuary, 1.4% opposed and 0.6% shared no opinion, Michel said.

Still, he said, “this is not a popularity contest.” The purpose of the scoping phase is to gain specific suggestions for the management of the sanctuary, Michel said.

Now, NOAA is in the middle of step two: drafting the sanctuary proposal, where they use public comments to draw the sanctuary’s boundaries, draft a management plan and an environmental impact statement. NOAA should release the drafts to the public in about a year, Michel said. Another public comment period will follow, NOAA will update the drafts and then publish final plans — which Michel said should be ready in 2023.

“The incredible outpouring of support for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary shows just how much people care about this incredible part of the world,” said Violet Sage Walker, Northern Chumash Tribal Council Chairwoman and the daughter of original nominator Fred Collins, in a news release.

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