As the opposition to an extended life for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power facility continues to reverberate around San Luis Obispo County and beyond, the uproar is also prompting a more forward-looking plan from the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, which is leading the charge for a brand new national marine sanctuary off of the Central Coast. Connecting the gap between the already protected waters of Monterey Bay and the Channel Islands, the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would preserve the many ancient coastal villages and sacred sites that now sit underwater (due to sea waters having risen by 300 feet over the past 10,000 years) by stopping future offshore drilling, fracking, acoustic, and/or seismic testing. If successful, it would be the first archaeology-minded national preserve in the United States, which is currently home to 14 such sanctuaries from Hawaii to the East Coast.
“We want to stop oil drilling and seismic testing because of Diablo Canyon, and we want to save our sacred sites that are submerged in the ocean,” said tribal councilmember Fred Collins, who has enlisted the support of Sierra Club chapters and others in the campaign. “We want to create ‘thrivability,’” said Collins. “We don’t use the word sustainability because that’s the slow death of mother earth. Thrivability is where we want to go.” That also includes working with commercial and recreational fishermen, said Collins, who wants to enhance what they do, not regulate it.
The timing of the push is strategic, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in the process of finalizing the criteria to judge sanctuary nominations, a process that was last undertaken in 1990. “There are many communities across the nation who would like to have national marine sanctuary like the one being talked about off of San Luis Obispo,” said NOAA’s Lisa Wooninck, who received more than 19,000 comments on the proposed criteria over the summer and thinks there may be 10 or more new sanctuaries eventually proposed. The nomination criteria should be finalized by March 2014, which would allow NOAA to start evaluating proposed sanctuaries before deciding which are worthy of designation. And each sanctuary functions a bit differently, said Wooninck, explaining, “The protections focus on what is of national significance at that place.”
So even if the Chumash Heritage NMS meets the initial criteria, it still must compete against marine sites across the country. “We got the momentum going again now — we’ve got a local, national, and international presence going forward,” said Collins, who said this idea first came about during the 1990 nomination process and hopes it will also result in more research, educational opportunities, and even an interactive center down the road. “This is one of the most incredible areas in the world…and this will be the first indigenous marine sanctuary in the United States.”