The proposed sanctuary would encompass over 5,000 square miles of marine waters off the Central California coast. Courtesy of Flickr.

The Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary is nearing the close of its public comment phase, making it one step closer to official designation. 

The sanctuary entered the designation last year. So far, it has seen tremendous support, according to key stakeholders. Distinctively, the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary (CHNMS) is the first sanctuary designation to use a collaborative management initiative between an Indigenous group — the Northern Chumash Tribal Council — and federal agencies — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the state of California.

“The United States, for the first time, is acknowledging that indigenous people have a deep connection to our oceans as well as our lands,” Kenneth Kahn, tribal chairman for the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians and one of the collaborative managers of CHNMS, said in an email statement to the Nexus. “That’s a paradigm shift. Until now, all U.S. laws and policies have focused on land-based governance. I hope our tribe is paving the way for others across the nation to also regain their maritime culture.”

CHNMS concerns the preservation of culturally important sites for the Chumash people and an important ecological transition zone that supports a diverse array of marine life. The sanctuary would connect the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) to the Monterey Bay NMS.

In August, NOAA released its preferred boundary alternative that redacted some parts of the original boundary that the Northern Chumash Tribal Council proposed back in 2015. 

NOAA’s boundaries span 134 miles of coastline from San Luis Obispo county to Naples,  encompassing 5,600 square miles. It leaves out 22 more miles of coastline and 2,100 more square miles of water from the Chumash-preferred boundaries but expands coastal land to entirely include state parks. 

A large corridor of land was redacted due to industrial development, said NOAA West Coast Regional Policy Coordinator Paul Michel. Specifically, there are 30 cables from the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area to shore that could cause disturbances with preservation efforts. 

Map of the proposed area for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Courtesy of NOAA.

Though most of the public comments have shown support for the NOAA proposal, the biggest concern has been the removal of this land, said Michel.

Some of the concerns posed in the public comment section about Morro Bay were that wind turbines should not be in the same environment as marine life and that they contribute to pollution.

Additionally, some proponents noted frustration with the Chumash tribe getting the primary recognition and role in the sanctuary designation, which leaves out other relevant tribes.

Kahn said that it has been difficult to navigate the relationship between their tribe and other tribes. The Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians is the only federally recognized Chumash group in the nation. 

We have tried to use our status as the federally recognized group to uplift the voices of others and make sure these groups have the ability to be involved in the process,” Kahn said in an email statement to the Nexus. “But also we have been careful to protect the special government-to-government relationship we have with the U.S. as the only federally recognized tribe in the region.”

Kahn also said the collaboration process between the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and NOAA has evolved positively.

“When this process started, NOAA and the Department of Commerce as a whole did not take tribal co-management seriously. That’s changed,” Kahn said. “It took staff really spending time getting to understand the nuances of the federal trust responsibility.”

The Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians, Kahn said, have served a few key roles under the draft management plan for the CHNMS, proposed by NOAA.

The tribe serves as collaborative managers, working closely with the state of California and the sanctuary director to “set broad policy objectives and provide oversight” with the daily work of sanctuary staff. 

They also serve on the Sanctuary Advisory Council,  “which provides the sanctuary director more concrete guidance on the day-to-day operations.” This includes advising on ways to incorporate Indigenous cultural issues.

Stewards of the land, the Chumash and Salinan people seek to preserve their cultural heritage as one of the few ocean-going bands among the First Peoples of the Pacific Coast. Moreover, the designation helps preserve natural resources these tribes once lived and thrived off of.

Offshore energy development, pollution, vessel traffic, coastal development and other stressors are threats to the land. Achieving sanctuary status would mean research and education efforts could be invested into the land and certain prohibitions would prevent the former threats.

Michel said NOAA has been conducting research to build baseline data for the sanctuary.

“[Recently,] we’ve been doing soundscape monitoring. Characterizing what are the natural and man-made noises in the ocean of this coast,” Michel said.

A graduate research project for UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management worked for NOAA over the summer to gather data on assessing and controlling marine debris in the proposed designation. 

Eleri Griffiths, the project manager and second-year environmental science and management graduate student, said the research fills in the gaps on existing marine debris collection data by coding the amount of debris recorded along areas of the coast for a Geographic Information System map. They plan to finish the data collection by winter quarter.

“[The sanctuary is] part of this convergence zone of both currents coming from north to south and south to north. That creates a really dynamic ecological environment for marine life,” Griffiths said in a Nexus interview. “And this will be interesting as we start to analyze our data and look at results to just see how the  converging currents and different types of ocean dynamics may affect marine debris distribution across the region.”

Once the designation is officiated, there is potential for more research and education efforts, along with economic benefits. Research indicates that the designation could create 600 new jobs and generate an estimated $23 million in economic activity.

Furthermore, Michel said that the sanctuary may count toward the Biden-Harris 30 by 30 initiative, which aims to protect 30% of land and water by 2030. While Michel is not sure how sanctuaries fit into the initiative at the moment, he believes they will count going forward.

Anyone may submit public comment through until Oct. 26. After the public comment period closes, final designation documents will be prepared throughout 2023, and the sanctuary is slated to be officially designated in 2024.

A version of this article appeared on p. 9 of the Oct. 12, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.


Lizzy Rager
Lizzy Rager (she/her) is the Assistant News Editor for the 2024-25 school year. She can be reached at