Rough Seas For a Chumash Marine Area

No one said addressing climate change would be easy. In fact, it’s widely recognized that there is no silver bullet that can magically erase decades of greenhouse gas emissions or immediately restore degraded habitats. However, there are some solid solutions that if we mobilize quickly and systematically enough should be able to make substantial improvements for the health of our planet. But how should we proceed when different – but equally commendable climate goals – are at odds with one another? One example of this is occurring right now off the coast of central California.

Setting the scene

To better understand the situation, we have to go back to the start of President Biden’s administration. In 2021, he signed Executive Order 14008, announcing the “America the Beautiful” initiative. This initiative is a commitment to conserving at least 30% of American lands and waters by 2030. Biden also announced his goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. Both of these goals were widely celebrated by the conservation and climate community. One would take tangible action toward our transition to renewables; the other is legally protecting ecosystems across the country to safeguard biodiversity, support local economies, and ensure that Americans of all backgrounds have access to enjoy and recreate in natural spaces. Again – both are clearly important aspects of a well-rounded strategy to reduce and mitigate anthropogenic impacts on our planet.

Currently, only 26% of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – or the area of the ocean that the US legally controls under the UN Law of the Sea – is protected. So, to reach 30% in the next six years and achieve “30 by 30”, the US needs to designate new marine protected areas, or MPAs. As the name suggests, MPAs, are official regions that prohibit or limit certain activities – like commercial fishing, oil and gas drilling, high-speed vehicle traffic, seismic testing, and mining – within their boundaries. Given the backdrop of changing ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, rising sea-levels, and the ongoing extinction crisis – efforts to limit stress and disruption to marine systems are paramount. This is because the less anthropogenic stress these species are under, the better chance they have at coping with and adapting to climate effects.

So, designating new MPAs is an integral part of the America the Beautiful campaign. Furthermore, in line with the Biden-Harris administration’s outspoken commitment to environmental justice, this national conservation agenda also aims to support locally led conservation efforts and prioritize co-stewardship with indigenous groups. Back in 2015, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council submitted a proposal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a new marine protected area, the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. The proposed area would span 156 miles of the California coast, covering over 7,500 square miles. In 2021, NOAA started their in-depth review of the proposal’s feasibility. The area proposed by the tribal council would safeguard several sacred sites of immense cultural value to the Chumash people who have been living in this stretch of California for the last 20,000 years. Additionally, from a conservation perspective, another important feature of the proposal is that it would link two existing MPAs: the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the Monterrey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. This linkage boosts the overall effectiveness of the sanctuaries by establishing a 20,000-mile swath of protected water. The connectivity here is key because it allows organisms to move and migrate and still benefit from protection as opposed to safeguarding small, isolated pockets. The sanctuary will support a diverse array of birds, marine mammals, fish, sea turtles, corals, sponges, and other organisms as it would protect habitats ranging from rocky reefs to kelp forests to offshore canyons and seamounts.

If officially designated, the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary will be the first-ever tribally led MPA in United States history. The Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would be an important step for this administration toward expanding federal marine protected areas and in following through with their goal of co-stewardship with indigenous groups. If done well, a collaboration between NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the Northern Chumash Tribal Council could pave the way toward a future of repairing the relationship between the federal government and tribes. It would show that this administration recognizes the stewardship that the Chumash and their ancestors have been practicing for centuries and that the federal government respects their cultural values and practices.

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So, where does offshore wind come in?

While NOAA was conducting its in-depth analysis of the site’s feasibility, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had been conducting an environmental assessment on the impacts of developing offshore wind in part of Morro Bay – officially called the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area 399. BOEM published their findings, greenlighting development in October of 2022. Then, in August of 2023, after their in-depth analysis, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries released an alternative proposed plan for the sanctuary. The adjusted map now excludes a section of the sanctuary around Morro Bay in anticipation of the construction of electrical transmission cables to enable the development of the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area.

How should we interpret this change?

The late Fred Collins

For one, many are eager to see a greater deployment of renewable energy, and this does set the stage for the development of new clean energy sources which are essential for our national carbon neutrality goals. Yet, on the other hand, the new plan excludes a region that is home to Morro Rock. Morro Rock – also known as Lisamu’ to the Chumash and Le’samo to the Salinan tribe – is one of the sacred spots envisioned as an integral part of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. The late Fred Collins, who chaired the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, is pictured here standing in front of Lisamu’. Thus, the new agency-preferred alternative that leaves out Lisamu´, unsurprisingly, came as a rude awakening to those who for years had been supporting the designation of this MPA.

I consider myself an ocean advocate, so watching this scenario unfold has been thought-provoking, because I don’t see a clear right and wrong – just compromises. As I mentioned before, conserving more terrestrial and marine ecosystems and the expansion of renewable energy are both things many environmentally-minded Americans, including me, want to see. I understand the anger and sense of betrayal some feel because of this change – especially given the historical context of tribal relations in the US. But I also feel for the public servants working for NOAA, BOEM, and other federal agencies who are trying to juggle the pros and cons of different action alternatives while still pushing the needle forward on admirable climate goals.

First, it’s important to note that Morro Rock itself is already a California Historical Landmark and as such is protected. Next, offshore wind was not the only factor NOAA referenced in justifying their change. Another was that some members of the Salinan tribe – who have also called the Morro Bay area home for hundreds of years – were uncomfortable having part of their ancestral land named only honoring the Chumash tribe. An additional consideration is that this is an election year. The reason it took NOAA until 2021 to start on the designation process, when the nomination was received in 2015 is that NOAA needed a favorable administration that would support marine conservation. Even though it is not perfect for all the parties involved, perhaps it is better to have the sanctuary announced, even without the area around Morro Bay, and make good progress before a potential change to an administration that is deeply opposed to such conservation. The future of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary is still uncertain, but the official designation is rumored to happen this summer. I would venture to guess that we can expect an announcement during Capitol Hill Ocean Week in June. I do not want to dismiss the significance of the alteration of the proposed Chumash National Heritage Sanctuary, but I think that if officially designated I would still consider it a major win.

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Chloe Wetzler

Chloe Wetzler is the co-lead of the RCC Coasts and Ocean program. She is a dual Master of Environmental Management and Juris Doctor student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Law School. At Duke, she is the symposium coordinator for the Ocean Policy Working Group and a student researcher for the Nicholas Institute of Environment, Energy, and Sustainability.