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Published: November 9, 2021

The Hill: In a first, a California tribal marine sanctuary seeks federal recognition

By Shirin Ali

A marine sanctuary that runs 140 miles off the Central California coast is hoping to become a federally recognized sanctuary to protect marine life and preserve Indigenous sacred sites. 

The Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary is the first tribally nominated sanctuary, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) making a public announcement today that it was seeking public comment to designate Chumash as a national marine sanctuary.

The Chumash, meaning island people, are indigenous to the region surrounding the Santa Barbara Channel. They have a rich history in the area dating back more than 13,000 years and the island and marine ecosystems co-evolved over time with the Chumash and their culture. Today, there are six to 13 miles of California coastline home to submerged Chumash sacred sites.

Back in 2015, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council asked NOAA to consider the area as a sanctuary designation, “noting that it was an important way to preserve and recognize tribal history, safeguard marine resources, and open new doors for research and economic growth.”

Now, NOAA has officially taken the first steps in granting the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary’s request to be considered a national marine sanctuary.

“The designation of a Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would protect the region’s important marine ecosystem, maritime heritage resources and cultural values of Indigenous communities, while allowing NOAA to manage compatible uses within its boundaries,” the NOAA announcement said.

The Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary is home to a diverse range of fish, seals, otters, whales, dolphins and other wildlife that thrive on the coast’s upwellings.

Designating the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary as a federal marine sanctuary would adhere to President Biden’s executive order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, which tasks various federal agencies to address climate change policy in a variety of ways. 

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, said in NOAA’s announcement that, “this proposal demonstrates the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to lifting up community-led efforts to conserve our lands and waters and strengthen our economy. Local voices, indigenous knowledge, and collaborative stewardship will be integral to our efforts to bolster community resilience, protect our natural resources, and build a clean energy economy.”  

Violet Sage Walker, a Northern Chumash descendant, echoed her excitement by NOAA’s announcement in a separate statement saying, “Today’s announcement marks a major milestone after more than 40 years of tireless advocacy for ocean protection, and also represents the first tribally nominated sanctuary in the nation. Today my father would be proud. This is one of the things he wanted to see the most.”

According to NOAA, the public can comment on the proposed sanctuary designation until Jan. 10, 2022 through the Federal eRulemaking Portal, www.regulations.gov. NOAA will also host virtual public meetings on Dec. 8, Dec. 13, and Jan. 6, during which members of the public can offer oral comments.

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Northern Chumash Tribal Council: 
Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary: 
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