West Coast
Afternoon fog slowly covers Morro Rock, a major landmark in Morro Bay. The federal government has leased 376 square miles of ocean waters off Morro Bay for floating wind farms. (Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local)

CA - Editorial | NOAA should create unbroken national marine sanctuaries off our coast

Public comment on the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary ended this week. But the biggest question remains about this proposed sanctuary that would provide protection for coastal waters from our Monterey Bay sanctuary down to the Channel Islands.

Should Morro Bay be included, or as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposes, should waters offshore from this San Luis Obispo County area be removed from the sanctuary?

NOAA’s reasoning is that plans for a large offshore wind energy project would be derailed if the Morro Bay coastline (including Morro Rock) is included.

But, considering that this sanctuary is intended to protect sites sacred to the Chumash Tribe, exempting Morro Bay from the proposed sanctuary is unacceptable. The federal agency should uphold the original 2015 proposal by the Northern Chumash Tribal Council that would extend sanctuary protections down to southern Santa Barbara County waters. NOAA will determine the proposed sanctuary’s final boundaries in the next few months.

The Chumash say Morro Rock historically is integral to the tribal community’s stewardship of that section of coastal waters and was always intended to be part of the sanctuary. Their efforts to make the sanctuary whole have drawn support from other indigenous groups across the Pacific. At a recent rally in support of the Chumash sanctuary, one speaker was Solomon Kaho’ohalahala, who recently lost his home in the Lahaina wildfires and is co-founder of a conservation group called the Maui Nui Makai Network.

He said it was essential to lend support to the Chumash. “We all live in the same ocean,” Kaho’ohalahala said. “Those resources are fluid; to think that we can draw a line through it and protect just one part is not true.”

Here was the question posed by local environmental activists Erica Donnelly-Greenan, Dan Haifley and Tracey Weiss in their Sept. 11 Op-Ed published on this page: “Can we make the commitment to truly listen to Indigenous voices, to stand behind their requests, and give them the ownership they should have always had?”

The Chumash sanctuary has long been viewed as filling in the “doughnut hole” in coastal waters. The Channel Islands sanctuary covers waters off the Santa Barbara Channel; while the Monterey Bay sanctuary reaches down to Cambria. Adjacent to its northern border, the contiguous Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank sanctuaries stretch to Mendocino.

So that leaves San Luis Obispo County and northern Santa Barbara County as targets for new offshore drilling and even a proposed pipeline for toxic agricultural wastewater. The Chumash sanctuary would close the gap, remove these potential uses and protect approximately 7,500 square miles of ocean.

But because shipping and undersea cables that would serve a future offshore wind farm would pass through off the Morro Bay area, NOAA wants that section cut out of the Chumash sanctuary between Cambria in Northern San Luis Obispo County and Montaña de Or, reducing the boundary by almost 2,000 square miles.

One solution might be to still create the sanctuary with the undersea cables essentially grandfathered in.
However the wind energy infrastructure is permitted, the greater issue remains that the Chumash and ocean advocates are adamant about upholding the goal of having an unbroken national marine sanctuary from Mendocino to the Channel Islands,

Leaving 2,000 square miles of ocean between sanctuaries could create an unprotected zone that would prove harmful to ocean wildlife. NOAA itself notes that in a non-protected area from Cambria past Morro Bay, “New oil and gas development could occur in federal waters if the relevant federal agencies authorized such development. … Commercial fishing, recreational, homeland security, and other vessels would not be subject to the discharge prohibitions in the proposed sanctuary regulations.”

All the more reasons to close the gap.

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