A case for ocean life: Creating California’s Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary

A crucial stretch of California’s ocean is missing protections


Written by Meghan Hurley, Protect Our Oceans campaign associate with Environment America. 

I recently moved to Sacramento, California. In less than three weeks in my new town, I somehow managed to take three day trips to the California coast — despite full work weeks. The other day, on one of those excursions, I saw my first sea otters. One was playing beneath the cliffs, it’s slippery tail flicking out of the water as it dove under. A few more otters popped up around it, and I was reminded of a fun fact I learned years ago: Otters sleep holding hands to avoid drifting apart.

As a New Hampshire transplant, I’m already falling in love with the aquatic world out west. I’m buoyed by the fact that California created the first statewide network of marine protected areas (MPAs). But even with this safeguard, a patch of central California’s waters is missing permanent protections.


Photo of me, at my happiest.

That area is the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. It extends from the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in the south, up to the boundary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in the north. It also reaches 13 miles offshore to the western edge of Santa Lucia Bank, which is a krill hotspot that provides food and habitat for birds and 13 species of dolphins and whales. The area includes sites sacred to the Chumash tribe, and its MPA designation would help integrate indigenous knowledge into conservation efforts.

Currently, the Chumash Heritage area is at risk from such harmful activities as oil development, agricultural waste dumping and seismic testing. If it received MPA designation, the Chumash Sanctuary would be permanently protected against these activities. 

Within this sanctuary, sea creatures will be able find refuge in idyllic oceanographic conditions. There’s a transition zone, where currents converge and cold water, rich in nutrients, upwells from the deep ocean. There’s a range of habitat types, from coral reefs and hazy kelp forests to coastal wetlands and dunes. It’s a critical stop along the migratory paths of marine mammals. And it’s home base for 25 threatened or endangered species, including southern sea otters and humpback whales.

In particular, the proposed protected range is critical for sea otters. Thirty-two percent of the southern sea otter population is now located in the proposed Chumash Heritage site. They are a keystone species — without the otters’ appetite for kelp-eating herbivores like sea urchins, kelp gets depleted, along with other species that rely on kelp forests for food or habitat. And because otters live near the shore and are susceptible to human-induced stressors, they are in need of a sanctuary. 

Of course, otters aren’t the only ones at risk. One of the stressors every animal here faces is offshore oil development. In May 2015, a pipeline ruptured near what is now the southern boundary of the Chumash Heritage site. Compassionate beachgoers helped with the clean-up effort, which included assisting oil-covered pelicans, sea lions, seals and dolphins. Some of these animals were eventually rehabilitated and released, but many were not so lucky. The month after the spill, 195 birds, 13 dolphins and 81 sea lions were among those found dead. And that doesn’t include the (probably countless) animals who died or suffered in the years following.

These types of disasters will happen again and again if we do not act — and protecting sites like Chumash is one way to combat this peril. 

That’s why we are one of many groups and individuals joining the Chumash people to push for the creation of this sanctuary. 

Ecosystems unravel when you pull out any one piece. We need to take care of the animals we love, including those hand-holding otters drifting asleep on the waves. One essential way to do so is by protecting their underwater landscape and everything in it. As a transplant to California, I’m excited to join the effort to better protect this state’s beautiful coasts. Let’s get this done.

Top photo: A lounging otter by Doug Meek.


Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Started on staff: 1991 B.A., Wartburg College Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.

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