Sea lions resting on a buoy and swimming in the Pacific Ocean in a marine area recommended for exclusion from the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary near Morro Bay, California, on Sept. 21, 2023. Mario Tama / Getty Images
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The Chumash people, a Tribe of Native Americans, have lived along the California coast for thousands of years. Until the arrival of Europeans in 1769, their population thrived in 150 towns and villages that encompassed 7,500 square miles, from Malibu to Paso Robles and inland to the border of the San Joaquin Valley.
After the establishment of Spanish missions, the Tribe’s population of at least 25,000 was decimated. Today, the Tribe is thriving economically and has been seeking to establish a federal marine sanctuary where the area’s marine life, ecosystems and the Chumash people’s ancestral lands could be preserved.
The Biden administration has proposed the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, which is the first national marine sanctuary nomination to be led by Indigenous peoples and, if designated, would be the country’s 16th national marine sanctuary, according to a press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The marine sanctuary would encompass an offshore area of 5,617 square miles in the counties of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo as part of the America the Beautiful Initiative, which supports the country’s goal of the conservation and restoration of 30 percent of the lands and waters in the U.S. by 2030.
The problem is, the area proposed by the Biden administration has left out the part of the coast the Tribe has been campaigning to be protected for more than 50 years because they want to use it for the development of offshore wind, The Guardian reported.
“We felt so betrayed,” said Violet Sage Walker, the chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, as reported by The Guardian. “We really thought we were going to get the marine sanctuary we had campaigned for, we thought we were going to get protection for the entire central Californian coastline.”
The proposed NOAA sanctuary would begin just to the south of Morro Bay and stretch to Gaviota, whereas the Tribe’s proposed sanctuary would stretch from Morro Bay all the way up to Cambria. NOAA told The Guardian that a marine sanctuary would not be compatible with what is slated to be the largest offshore wind development project in the U.S.
One of the main reasons the Tribe wanted to establish a sanctuary was to protect the waters off the shore of their Tribal lands from offshore wind. They have until October 25 to influence the decision of NOAA on the size and management of the sanctuary.
Morro Bay is home to an array of marine species, including one of the last remaining endangered sea otter populations in the country.
“The proposed sanctuary is rich in marine life and includes kelp forests, rocky shores, sandy beaches, a globally-significant ecological transition zone and important offshore features that have been important to Chumash and other Indigenous communities for more than 10,000 years,” said John Armor, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, in the press release. “The sanctuary would also enhance conservation of numerous rare and endangered species that depend on this area, including snowy plovers, black abalone, southern sea otters, blue whales and leatherback sea turtles.”
“Indigenous people are the traditional caretakers of these waters and these lands,” said Arlo Hemphill, who is the leader of the Greenpeace campaigns concerning deep sea mining and the marine sanctuary, as The Guardian reported. “[I]t’s important to return these waters to the stewardship of Indigenous people.”
The wind farm being proposed in the unprotected area would consist of 380 floating wind turbines on about 250,000 acres, able to provide power to 1.6 million homes. According to NOAA, the underground cables that would need to be installed have the potential to disrupt marine habitats, cause increased noise pollution, affect the migratory patterns of marine species, including whales, alter species survival rates, affect fish life cycles and release contaminants into the ocean.
The Chumash people are not against offshore wind, but want it to make sure it is done responsibly and want to take part in the decision-making process.
“People don’t realize the damage that offshore wind could cause to the marine ecosystem. There’s been so few studies done on how this will impact whales, dolphins, sea otters – we just don’t know enough,” Walker said.