Last Remnants of ‘Wild’ in the Wild West

Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary Protects Ecosystems

The world of the early Chumash living along the central California coast was one in which the wildness of our state flowed unbroken from our coastal mountains into the sea. This was an era when grizzly bears were top predators in Californian ecosystems, instead of just ghostly motifs on our state flag. Condors rode thermals up and down our coastline, waiting impatiently for some of the wildness below them to expire, hoping they got to it before California’s wolves did. Blue whales, the planet’s largest animals that have ever lived, mingled alongside vast pods of dolphins, gorging on seasonal explosions of productivity surrounding deep-sea banks.

Fast forward a thousand years to 2016, and half of this scene is no longer recognizable. The terrestrial ecosystems of the central California coast have been vastly altered. We have cultivated, developed, and reengineered coastal lands to meet the needs of California’s seemingly ever-growing population. Many of the large and majestic fauna that once powerfully shaped chaparral, grassland, and forest communities in central California have been driven completely extinct in our state or have been confined to ecologically marginal relic populations. While we enjoy many facets of this more domesticated California landscape, it is hard not to lament the loss of what it once was ecologically.

Marine life off the central coast has fared much better. California’s oceans, by and large, remain much healthier than California’s landscapes. This is not to say that we have not altered California marine habitats and affected marine wildlife — we have. Early commercial hunting, for example, pushed some of our state’s most iconic marine species, like sea otters and elephant seals, to within an inch of extinction. However, once they were offered a modicum of protection, many of these populations rebounded with impressive resilience. Today all of the same marine vertebrates that swam off the central coast during the days of the early Chumash are still extant — alive — out there, chasing around the rich productivity of California’s coastal waters in much the same way they always have.

Masks and snorkels consequently become $10 time machines, taking those who dare to endure a little cold water back into ecosystems that still feel and look a lot like they did before the first Spanish ships ever pulled into a California harbor.

However, central coast marine ecosystems will not passively sustain themselves; they need our help and protection. We have lost much of the biocultural integrity of California’s terrestrial ecosystems, and without intervention a similar fate may follow for underwater California.

To keep California’s great white sharks from going the way of California’s grizzlies, and giant sea bass from going the way of the California wolf, we have to guard the health of our coastal marine ecosystems proactively. An opportunity to do this for perpetuity lies before us in the form of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

Marine sanctuaries are powerful tools for safeguarding the health of coastal ecosystems and livelihoods that depend upon these marine resources. They impose no regulations whatsoever on fishing or harvest but focus on restricting industrial marine activities like marine mining and offshore oil/gas development — industries that when managed thoughtlessly, could cause irreparable damage to marine ecosystems.

Establishment of the Chumash heritage sanctuary would act as a global statement that Californians cherish the health of the coastal ocean we live next to, that we work on, and that we play in. Support for the Chumash heritage sanctuary proposal is in effect an endorsement of the importance of handing forward to our children access to the same wildness in the oceans that gave life and inspiration to the very earliest coastal Californians.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has accepted the nomination submitted by the Northern Chumash Tribal Council to create the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Now NOAA needs to begin the extensive public process that will determine the decision to designate the sanctuary. We can all help encourage them to take this forward here:

Douglas McCauley, PhD, serves as an assistant professor at UCSB and is a Sloan Research Fellow in the Ocean Sciences. Robert Warner, PhD, serves as a professor of Marine Biology at UCSB; his research focuses on behavioral and evolutionary ecology, population biology, and conservation biology.


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