The Chumash people viewed the Pacific Ocean as their first home. Their territory once spanned 7,000 sq miles, from the rolling hills of Paso Robles to the white sand beaches of Malibu. Now, the region is one of the most expensive in the US, home to resort hotels, vineyards and multimillion-dollar mansions.
The average house price in Avila Beach, California, where Violet Sage Walker grew up hunting for grunion in the midnight hours, is $1.9m (£1.5m).
“My father would walk across the creek on the backs of steelhead and salmon,” says Walker, the Chumash tribal chair. “They were that abundant. Now the water’s contaminated, from sewage, runoff and overpopulation. In one generation we’ve lost the ability to feed ourselves off the land.”
As stewards of that land, however, the Chumash remain an active presence. Today, Walker, her long black skirt rippling in the breeze, is conducting a ceremony for a local surf club that helps veterans connect with the ocean. Along with three other Chumash elders, she blesses a circle of veterans – all standing on their surfboards – with ceremonial sage, and sings an ancestral song used to call to whales.
Blue whales, along with southern sea otters, black abalone, snowy plovers and leatherback sea turtles, are just some of the species at risk here. The California coast is experiencing climate breakdown at twice the rate of other parts of the ocean, and acidification, caused by pollution, is the main threat to marine life.
Indeed, new development has plagued the area with pollution: pipeline spills dumping thousands of gallons of crude oil into the ocean; leaks from old petrol tanks seeping into groundwater; urban stormwater and agricultural runoffs polluting the streams. The threat of offshore oil drilling looms in the near future.
That’s why Walker’s father, Fred Collins, the chief of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, spent decades advocating to turn 156 miles of coastline here in central California into a national marine sanctuary, which would grant it federal protection. Not only would marine life, from sea otters to kelp forests, be preserved, but the proposed sanctuary would safeguard Chumash traditions.
Two days before he died unexpectedly in 2021, he passed to his daughter the legacy of realising his dream.
“He told me it was the most important thing he’d ever worked on in his life,” Walker says, as she walks through the early morning ocean fog on Avila Beach. “The sanctuary is a reflection of who we are, our people, and this land.”
If successful, it would be the first tribally nominated, tribally led sanctuary on the US mainland. The proposed site will be a co-management initiative between the Chumash, other local tribal groups and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(Noaa). Noaa manages 14 national marine sanctuaries – as well as the Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments – but this would be the first in partnership with an Indigenous group.
The sanctuary would stretch from near the coastal village of Cambria, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, to just south of Santa Barbara County, encompassing 7,670 sq miles of ocean.
“It’s big – it’ll be six times the size of Yosemite,” says Stephen Palumbi, a professor of marine sciences at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “The question is – how do you monitor that big an area? How do you understand the dynamics, and relate climate change to what is going to happen in the future?”
Palumbi has been working with Walker using technology called environmental DNA, which identifies organisms from minute flecks of cellular material, to survey the proposed area. Monitoring will be key to understanding the impact of offshore development on marine life.
“Sanctuaries aren’t national parks,” says Palumbi. “They have a limited role in managing something like fishing. But they do three major things: they’re a great nexus for combining interests by different parties – such as fishing, local landowners, and state fish and wildlife departments. They’re also a structure within the federal government, which means they have access to budget and research resources. And they can take local knowledge and graft it with administration abilities, which is a powerful combination.”
Most pressingly, a sanctuary would help safeguard the region against major industrial development, such as oil drilling, a battle that has dragged on for decades. Sanctuaries prohibit the discharging of waste material, altering the seabed, disturbing cultural resources and, crucially, developing oil, gas or mineral mining.
Having formally submitted the proposal in July 2015, the Chumash are now painfully close to succeeding. Noaa’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is reviewing all public feedback and drafting a management plan to be released as early as this month. Fifteen senators and members of Congress have written a letter urging the designation of the sanctuary, which could happen in early 2024.
“It’s got a very good chance of being approved,” says Palumbi. “All the elements are there.”
As well as recognising Chumash history, the sanctuary would mark out the area as an internationally significant “ecological transition zone”, where temperatures from the cold north meet the subtropics, creating unique conditions for marine life. It would allow the Chumash to work with scientists to monitor marine life, helping create a new framework for collaboration between western science and traditional ecological knowledge.
The Chumash are looking to Mai Ka Pō Mai – a Hawaiian initiative that brings together federal agencies and Indigenous people to manage the land in the north-western Hawaiian islands – for inspiration. Such a collaboration has yet to translate to the US mainland , where for centuries government agencies have been at odds with Indigenous stewardship.
“When land is conserved, native people are also eliminated from it,” Palumbi says. “That’s happened in pretty much every national park. There’s a strong movement to reverse that change but the damage has already been done.”
The way Walker sees it, the Chumash have been stewards of the land for 15,000 years. “We welcome every culture on Chumash land,” she says. “My dad wanted people to know the Chumash like you know Hawaiians. Just as many people go to Hawaii as come here, and they don’t know about the Chumash. He wanted the sanctuary to be a way to share our stories, our culture, the beauty of our people and the magic of our homeland.”