By ED OCHS
For more than two decades, creating a Central Coast National Marine Sanctuary has been a major goal of environmentalists seeking to fill the gap between the southern end of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary at Cambria and the northern end of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary at Santa Barbara.
Now, ironically, the fate of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off the Central Coast may well be decided fishermen to fishermen—the heirs of ancient Chumash fishermen that once ruled the bays versus the working fishermen and harbors of today—and their ability to untangle crossed lines, repair burned bridges and guarantee local control.
A well-organized grassroots campaign led by the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, the San Luis Obispo Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and their other partners and participants in the Marine Sanctuary Alliance to establish a marine sanctuary between the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries has propelled their proposal toward nomination for possible future designation as a national sanctuary by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
At the same time, regulation-weary Morro Bay fishermen have decided not to support the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, even though sanctuary proponents seek no additional regulations on fishing. As a result, though, lack of support by the local fishing community, which has a long and bitter history with the Monterey Bay Sanctuary designation process, could prove to be a critical factor in determining whether the sanctuary is accepted for nomination and seriously considered for future designation.
“We don’t feel another layer of government restrictions in any form is necessary,” Tom Hafer, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization (MBCFO) told The ROCK. “The fishermen of Morro Bay and Avila do not want or need or are in favor of any new sanctuary in the area.”
There have been several unsuccessful efforts over the years to establish a marine sanctuary off the Central Coast by extending the Monterey Bay Sanctuary southward, the Channel Islands Sanctuary northward, or creating of an entirely new, separate sanctuary in the middle that basically connects the two.
Obviously it’s not as simple as it sounds or it would have happened decades ago. Why hasn’t time changed minds? Because, as appealing it may sound to some, as easy as it is for ocean sentinels to embrace, the idea of extending the sanctuaries to the Central Coast belies a host of legal and governmental complications and complexities that threaten to make the journey of the Chumash sanctuary though the NOAA nominating process a stormy passage.
When the Monterey Bay Sanctuary (MBNMS) was up for designation in 1992, talks were going on locally and nationally whether to designate it or not. At the time, there was overwhelming opposition to it by the communities of Monterey and Santa Cruz and the commercial fishermen and their organizations, along with those that relied on commercial fishing—unless the sanctuary was going to stay out of the business of fishery management.
Whenever the Monterey Bay Sanctuary designation history is mentioned, based on their years of hard experience, fishermen refer to “The Promise.”
“We were once told by [then-Congressmen] Leon Panetta that there would be no new regulations by the establishment of the MBMS,” said MBCFO director Mark Tognazinni, “but history became an agreed-upon fable and promises have and always will be broken when it comes to sanctuaries.
“So what is the real purpose of this purpose of this proposal? How does it really benefit the Chumash? It is as if there is a need to make the entire ocean some kind of MPA. Just follow the money. It always leads to the truth,” said Tognazinni. “With one exception fishing is NOT ‘unregulated,’ and at least for my 45 years on the ocean, fishing is one of the most heavily regulated businesses in the country.”
When the Monterey Bay Sanctuary was designated, a fairly unanimous consensus was sought amongst all the stakeholders. The fishermen and community where brought on board with “the promise” that the Monterey Bay Sanctuary would not get involved in fishery management or fishery regulation.
MBCFO director Tom Roff has written extensively about fishermen, “the promise” and its impact on creating a new Central Coast sanctuary, on Morro Bay news site SLO Coast Journal, in rebuttal to sanctuary proponents. Wrote Roff in his May 2012 essay, “Bait and Switch? Fishermen’s Difficult Relationship With the Monterey Sanctuary”:
“With new efforts being made by some community members to gather support for an expanded Monterey Sanctuary (MBNMS), or a new ‘central coast sanctuary,’ claims have been heard that the MBNMS has never broken the well-remembered promise made to us fishermen that it would not create regulations that affect us, or otherwise threaten our livelihoods. Central coast fishermen have always wanted a mutually trusting and respectful relationship with the MBNMS, but we have so far been disappointed.
“Has the sanctuary kept this promise over the past 20 years? Most fishermen think that it has not. In recent times high level MBNMS officials have suggested, at public meetings, that fishermen were somehow ‘confused’ by what they heard in the early ’90s. This makes us wonder if NOAA always intended to try and get around the agreement, as soon as the sanctuary was created. Sanctuary officials have also repeatedly claimed that they have never created a fishing regulation, or otherwise harmed the fishing community. Incredibly, this is said during the same time period that the MBNMS called for additional MPAs—fishing closures.
“Fishermen from the west coast and in other parts of the nation have observed what has unfolded with the Monterey Sanctuary’s relationship with the fishing community. It is safe to say that nearly 100% are extremely suspicious and resistive of sanctuary designations for their areas because of these factors. The MBNMS is widely seen as an agency that either doesn’t base its decisions on science, or cherry-picks the science, has significant issues in its public processes, and has broken its promise made to us, in the spirit it was made.”
“The bottom line,” Roff told The ROCK, “is the sanctuary director can change and so do the priorities.”
“Historically, over the years,” said Morro Bay Harbor Director Eric Endersby, “the (Monterey Bay) sanctuary superintendents, and there have been a few of them, have dabbled in fishery management as much as they can and tried to establish marine protected areas and fishery restrictions, and basically, in the words of the fishermen, break the promise.
“The big fear we have as a community and as a fishing community is the affect on commercial fishermen,” Endersby said. “The commercial fishermen are so highly regulated, we are the most regulated fishery pretty much on the planet, with marine protected areas and all the seasons and closed areas, lots of layers of protection both by the state out to three miles, and by the federal government through its regional fishery management councils.”
The other part of ‘the promise,’ according to Endersby, was that the harbors would have a “carve-out,” and wouldn’t be considered in the sanctuary because of industrial activity such as dredging and disposal going on within sanctuary waters “that’s not necessarily in tune with what the sanctuary’s protections typically are. … The sanctuary has historically been another relatively difficult hurdle to get over during the planning and permitting processes, so it’s been a rocky relationship with the sanctuary governance up there and the local fishermen and communities.
“Unfortunately, it’s kind of poisoned the sanctuary waters here on the west coast, and one of the reasons why our fishermen down here in our community have historically stood up so adamantly against sanctuary designations in our waters because we saw the sort of promise getting broken or getting stretched or ignored up north, and basically we didn’t trust the sanctuary governance to keep its promise.”
Fred Collins, tribal administrator of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council based in San Luis Obispo, met with Hafer, MDCFO director Jeremiah O’Brien and Endersby earlier this year about the Chumash Heritage Sanctuary. To gain their support, Collins proposed that the fishers and harbors protect their interests by writing their own parts in the sanctuary bylaws, but it remains unclear, said Enderby, whether that could “functionally” be done under sanctuary designation and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.
“Fred Collins and his group seem to think absolutely it can. I just don’t know. I haven’t been deep enough into it,” said Endersby. “From what I understand of it, the designation documents can’t be contrary to the National Marine Sanctuary Act. Whether you can write in ‘the sanctuary shalt not ever do fishery regulation’ or not is (unknown) and that’s the concern, and that’s where the fishermen were looking for an answer, so to speak, and us as a community as well, as a harbor.
“Can the designation documents be crafted in such a way that the harbors remain an isolated entity, that (we maintain) our normal activities like boating and everything we do in the water that may be somewhat in conflict with the national marine sanctuary goals, which is basically trying to keep certain industrial and other uses out of the ocean waters and the ecosystem, that may be in conflict with the act?
“Short of some sort of legal ruling and really exploring what it would mean and how that could be done, it’s tough to say whether Fred’s vision of a sanctuary could occur in the way he thinks it can and we would hope it would be.”
In September 2012, in a rare partnership of odd bedfellows, fishermen, environmentalists and concerned individuals joined forces to form C.O.A.S.T.—Citizens Opposed to Acoustic Seismic Testing. Fishermen and environmentalists don’t usually sit at the same table, but stopping seismic testing brought all sides together under one umbrella. The grassroots effort paid off.
In November 2012, the California Coastal Commission denied energy giant PG&E a permit to conduct high-energy seismic surveys off the Central Coast to detail earthquake fault lines around the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Facility in Avila Beach. Perhaps the most compelling argument against permitting—openly acknowledged by a majority of the Commissioners—came from Fred Collins, who eloquently educated them on Chumash heritage on and off the Central Coast and Native-American rights.
With PG&E in retreat, the essential C.O.A.S.T. Alliance of fishermen and environmentalists broke up, but the remaining members continued to oppose acoustic seismic testing, high or so-called low energy. Concerned that PG&E or some major energy entity might attempt a return to local waters, they coalesced around the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, which bans seismic testing and energy exploration including fracking.
“This whole thing started with the threat of high-intensity seismic testing by PG&E,” said MBCFO’s Hafer. “This got the Chumash Indians very involved with protecting the coastline.
“However, prior to this threat we have had several years of protections put in place including the marine protected areas of which we have 27 just on the Central Coast, as well as the rock cod conservation areas, the essential fish habitat on top of draconian quotas, trip limits and catch shares that the Chumash were minimally engaged in.”
Said Endersby: “It became pretty evident that sanctuary designation is a great tool to quickly address those bigger, sort of non-fishing threats, but there’s always the fishing in the background, and the way the Monterey Sanctuary has acted over the decades, they’ve basically burned all the bridges with the fisherman, to a degree with the communities, and the trust that they won’t get into fishery regulation, because they’ve tried and tried and tried, and it’s unfortunate that the trust bridge has been burned.”
“What happens when we try to put a boat yard in or try to get dredging in the harbor?” asked Hafer. “Anything will need permission from yet another unnecessary government entity. There is more to having a sanctuary in the area than just the worry of more fishing restrictions.”
Since the National Marine Sanctuaries Act is by definition a national act, the Chumash Heritage National Sanctuary would be federally, not locally, controlled.
“Making the leap from federal control to local control,” questioned Endersby, “I don’t know how that would functionally work.”
A Work in Progress
The nominations are now open for the federal government to consider new sanctuaries, and it’s nationwide. There are months to go in NOAA’s nominating and review process and several years to go before sanctuary designation. There are nominating criteria and considerations that have to be met, and only a very limited number of those sanctuaries nominated get designated.
The proposed Chumash Heritage Sanctuary includes submerged sacred Chumash sites between 10,000 to 20,000 years old extending from six to 13 miles offshore, as well as contiguous onshore coastal sites such as villages, religious grounds and solstice alignments. Within the sanctuary are whale and dolphin feeding and gathering areas, three major upwellings, a 10,000-foot-deep submarine canyon, prime California sea otter habitat, a plethora of pinnipeds, a rich diversity and density of fish, seabirds and mammals, and timeworn migration lanes. No seismic testing allowed. No oil or gas drilling allowed. And according to Chumash Sanctuary literature: “No regulation of harbors, or recreational or commercial fishing.”
“The way Fred terms it, the Chumash are the original commercial fishermen and, yeah, they were, looking at it in that sense—it’s an interesting way of looking at it. So they have a stake in preserving things, too, in not affecting their brothers and sisters that are out doing it for a living. Definitely the intentions with Fred and his group are good. Whether the concerns of the fishermen and the community can get alleviated or spoken to through the process, I don’t have the answer to that.”
Map by Karl Kempton