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NOAA reevaluates Chumash marine sanctuary proposal 

After waiting five years, proponents of a Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary on the Central Coast will have to convince federal officials that their proposal is deserving of continued consideration.

Since its submittal in 2015, the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary application has not progressed out of the "nomination" phase to the "designation" phase within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Now, NOAA is evaluating whether to extend its nomination another five years, or scrap the proposal.

click to enlarge IN THE QUEUE NOAA is evaluating whether to extend the nomination period for the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. - IMAGE COURTESY OF NOAA
  • Image Courtesy Of NOAA
  • IN THE QUEUE NOAA is evaluating whether to extend the nomination period for the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

NOAA is accepting written public comments on the review until June 15, and the public can also tune in to a virtual meeting on the subject slated for May 27 at 6 p.m.

"NOAA will evaluate the nomination by October 2020 to determine if it is still relevant and responsive to the sanctuary nomination process criteria and should remain in the inventory for another five years," a May 4 NOAA press release read.

The proposed Chumash sanctuary stretches 140 miles from Cambria to Santa Barbara, filling the gap of coastline between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

Its designation would kick off a long and collaborative process to determine what protections and management plans are developed for the coastline's cultural and environmental resources.

"In the last five years, great pressure has been placed on the Chumash Nation's coastline for offshore oil exploration and mining, whereby threatening the foundation of our great habitat and resources," read a May 4 letter to NOAA from Fred Collins, chairman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council. "With a sanctuary, we the Chumash Nation and the local communities can work together to reverse the dwindling resources, by coming up with solutions for acidification of our waters, climate change planning, purification of runoff waters, sewer outfalls, industrial dumping, fracking, offshore large vessels water dumping, and much more."

Despite the lack of movement in the first five years, Northern Chumash Tribal Council leaders remain optimistic about the sanctuary's prospects. Violet Walker, the council's vice chairwoman, encouraged the public to write to NOAA in support of the sanctuary during the review.

"Basically, the criteria is increased public participation and support," Walker said. "They just want to make sure the community is excited about the sanctuary—which it is."

Bill Douros, regional director on the West Coast for NOAA's Office of Marine Sanctuaries, told New Times that the agency's review is standard for any sanctuary application that's still in the nomination phase after five years. He said that the final decision to move sanctuaries on to designation "is made at a pretty high level within NOAA."

"There have been decisions to move some sites forward, and they're often based on a compilation of factors regarding the importance of the resources that are at threat, as perceived by the administration in charge at the time," he said.

Over the past five years, three sanctuary proposals have moved forward to designation status, Douros said. Two are in the Great Lakes, and one is in Mallows Bay on the Potomac River. The common thread among the three is that they share a focus on conserving shipwrecks—which is a priority under the current administration.

"There's been an emphasis on these historical resources," Douros said. "[The Chumash sanctuary] has these historical resources as well, but it's more than just shipwrecks."

In response, Walker emphasized how marine sanctuaries can also protect the ocean environment, create jobs, aid science and research, and benefit fishing industries. Many local commercial fishermen are opposed to the sanctuary, and Walker said she and the proponents continue to try to bridge that divide.

"I'd say we've made a lot of progress," she said about the effort. "I think that like anything, the political climate and financial situation of the country is always a limiting factor for what they'll push forward. Even with all the stuff going on, sanctuaries continue to be pushed forward because they're very popular. ... We're never going to stop trying to protect the coast." Δ

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