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Published: March 2, 2023

New Times: We need bold action

This should be the year the Chumash people create a new national marine sanctuary


In February, Indigenous peoples from throughout the Pacific and around the globe joined voices at a major international ocean conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, that gathered 3,000 participants from 123 countries and hundreds of Native nations.

Hosted by the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, the province of British Columbia and the federal government of Canada, representatives at the fifth International Marine Conservation Congress (IMPAC5) came together from areas far and wide across the sea. We gathered, shared stories and song, and discussed stewardship of our lands and waters, as we have always done. And the takeaway was clear: Urgent action is needed for our oceans, and Indigenous peoples must lead the way.

At the United Nations Biodiversity Summit in Montreal last November, global leaders agreed to protect 30 percent of the planet by the end of the decade. The Biden administration set a target of protecting 30 percent of U.S. waters by 2030 under its America the Beautiful campaign. Globally, and here in the U.S., there is finally agreement that we need to better protect our lands and waters and we have no time to waste.

As chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, I represent a California tribal people that in 2015 nominated the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary to be added to the national marine sanctuary program after more than 40 years of advocacy to protect our homelands and waters from growing impacts. We were pleased last year when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its intent to designate the Chumash Heritage Sanctuary, resulting in an unprecedented more than 20,000 public comments in support of the sanctuary.

The Chumash are ocean people. We have always lived on the coast and with the sea. We have experienced the massive changes wrought by colonization, industrialization, and more recently by climate change. We have seen our whale, otter, and sea lion relations hunted to near extinction and our fish relations depleted by those who came to our lands from afar. We have seen oil spills foul our beaches and off-road vehicles desecrate our sacred places. And we know that climate change is making the ocean warmer and more acidic—changes that I've seen firsthand. Abalone mollusks have been a part of Chumash culture for millennia, but as the ocean becomes more acidic, abalone are unable to form hard shells as they grow, leaving them more susceptible to disease and to predation, putting an important part of our culture at risk.

The proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would protect 156 miles of spectacular marine and cultural diversity from offshore oil extraction, acoustic testing, and other human harms while promoting traditional cultural practices. My homelands contain estuaries, kelp forests, deep water submarine canyons, undersea mountains, rocky reefs, and sandy beaches—as well as migratory paths frequented by marine mammals such as dolphins and whales. Within the proposed sanctuary boundaries, Chumash sacred sites would also be protected.

A sanctuary designation would provide recognition from the federal government of the many generations of stewardship by our ancestors, whose tomols (canoes) dotted the coastline for thousands of years before colonization. Our people, our stories, and our songs are intertwined with the ocean, and they are vital to its healthy future.

It was an incredible honor to sit in ceremony, share our successes, laugh together with our stories, and feel the shared struggles with other Indigenous communities around the world in Vancouver. It is tremendously inspiring to learn how many paddles are in the water moving us forward toward improved ocean conservation, with stewardship led by Indigenous peoples, as it has been since time immemorial.

It is now time for action. The Biden administration must move forward with all due speed to adopt the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary as one important step toward safeguarding ocean biodiversity and uplifting Indigenous knowledge and leadership. There can be no healthy planet without healthy oceans, and Indigenous people are a vital part of the solutions to our very real existential crisis. We must take bold action now because there is more work to be done.

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Northern Chumash Tribal Council: 
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