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First ever U.S. Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area declared in California

First ever U.S. Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area declared in California

  • The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, Resighini Rancheria, and Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community designated the first ever Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area (IMSA) in the U.S. along the northern California coast.
  • The tribes plan to steward nearly 700 mi2 (1,800 km2) of their ancestral ocean and coastal territories from the California-Oregon border to Little River near the town of Trinidad, California.
  • As sovereign nations, the tribes say they’re not seeking state or federal agencies’ permission to assert tribally led stewardship rights and responsibilities; rather, they want to establish cooperative relationships recognizing their inherent Indigenous governance authority.
  • The tribes aim to restore traditional ecological knowledge and management practices that sustained the area’s natural abundance before colonial disruption.

TOLOWA DEE-NI’ NATION, California — Three tribes along California’s rugged northern coast made history in late September by designating the first Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area (IMSA) in the United States.

The Resighini Tribe of the Yurok People, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, and the Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria agreed to collaboratively steward nearly 700 square miles (about 1,800 square kilometers) of ocean and coast from the California-Oregon border to Little River near the town of Trinidad, California.

“Our tribes have a responsibility to steward, protect, and restore the ocean and coastal resources within our ancestral territories,” Jeri Lynn Thompson, chair of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, said at a Dec. 6 celebration held on their ancestral land. “We can no longer wait.”

The tribes say permission from the U.S. government isn’t required to designate the IMSA because they are sovereign, and they recognize the IMSA.

“Tribes are sovereign, and this is designated under tribal authority,” said Megan Rocha, executive director of the Resighini Rancheria Tribe. This is the first declaration of its kind in U.S. history.

The IMSA encompasses habitats the tribes have managed for generations, including rocky intertidal zones, kelp forests, estuaries and marshes, along with key species like seaweeds, clams, mussels, abalone, smelt, salmon, sturgeon, shorebirds and marine mammals.

“Since time immemorial, we have honed the inherent balance and interconnectedness of ocean resources and coastal communities…This is who we are,” Robert Hemsted, vice chair of the Cher-Ae Heights Tribe, said at the Dec. 6 celebration. “A resilient marine ecosystem is essential for the wellbeing and protection of culture and traditional species.”

Looking north from Secret Beach near Trinidad, California.
Looking north from Secret Beach near Trinidad, California. Image by Amy Atkins-Kelly, of Trinidad Rancheria.

California’s coasts are typically co-managed by the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Coastal Commission. Some staff say it’s about time Indigenous people were given more support for stewarding their ancestral waters.

“As a bureaucrat with the state of California, we have obligations to co-manage with Indigenous people,” Victor Bjelajac, district superintendent for California State Parks in the North Coast Redwoods district, told Mongabay. “When three sovereign nations claim a special territory for marine areas and traditional cultural practices in marine areas, I’m going to support that.”

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Coastal Commission declined to comment on their recognition of this IMSA. A lack of recognition could spur the state to try and limit the tribes’ ability to take stewardship and conservation actions.

Rocha told Mongabay that they “look forward to working with state agencies,” but as sovereign nations, the tribes emphasize they’re not seeking state or federal agencies’ permission to assert tribally led rights and responsibilities over ancestral territories. Rather, they want to establish cooperative relationships recognizing their inherent Indigenous governance authority.

“You are only as sovereign as you act,” Hemsted said.

The tribes plan to protect cultural sites, sustain traditional harvesting practices, and increase monitoring of marine species. They’re still developing the specifics of how the IMSA will be protected and cared for, but emphasize that stewardship comes in many forms.

Tolowa Dee-ni’ Territory.
Tolowa Dee-ni’ Territory. Image Courtesy of Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation.

Stewarding the smelt

A prime example of this work is with smelt, a small, silvery fish that swims to spawn in pea-sized gravel near the shore. For generations, tribal members camped on beaches collecting smelt, then dried them to provide food through the winter.

“There are songs and stories about our fish camps going back forever,” Jaytuk Steinruck, a Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation council member and lifelong fisherman, told Mongabay. “Smelt are an important food for our people.”

In recent decades, populations of surf smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus) have crashed for reasons not yet fully understood, but likely due to habitat disruption, development and climate change, Rosa Laucci, a marine biologist and manager of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ marine program, told Mongabay.

To address this, the tribes plan to monitor smelt populations closely, which may include protecting the spawning areas.

“You know that the [smelt] fish are moving towards the shore because the birds will follow … the pelicans dive, the cormorants are in the water, and seagulls will be excited,” Steinruck said. He said he’s watched schools of smelt move toward the shore and then get scared away from spawning areas by people or dogs playing in the water. Many of these spawning grounds are state beaches open to the public.

One example of stewardship could be closing off sections of the beach during key spawning times, he said. “In Hawai‘i, for instance, they protect their turtles when they come to nest and lay their eggs on the beach. Why can’t we do that here?” Steinruck said. “Let them spawn so the resource is there for the next generation,”

“Smelt are a building block for larger coastal food webs,” Laucci said. “If they collapse, then everything else does too.”

Council Member Jaytuk Steinruck of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation demonstrates how to use a traditional surf smelt A-frame net with Tylor Jones
Council Member Jaytuk Steinruck of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation demonstrates how to use a traditional surf smelt A-frame net with Tylor Jones, a Tribal citizen and Natural Resources Coordinator for the Resighini Tribe of Yurok People at Omen Hipur/Daa-ghestlh-ts’a’-dvn. Photo courtesy of the Resighini Tribe of Yurok People.

The Tolowa Dee-ni’ marine program already has a robust marine monitoring program, that tracks several key species like sea stars, seaweed and surf perch fish.

“The IMSA is just kind of that next step in being able to protect our ancestral territory for tribal citizens … an extra layer of protection for the resources and species that call this place home,” Laucci said. “I’m extremely excited about it. It’s an incredible accomplishment.”

A source of inspiration

Tribal leaders say they were inspired to create this IMSA following models established by First Nations Indigenous communities in Canada and Aboriginal tribes in Australia.

Most recently, in 2022, the Mamalilikulla First Nation declared part of its traditional territory on British Columbia’s Central Coast an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA). This was done without seeking permission from the provincial or federal governments, as a step toward sovereignty and co-governance with Canada. In February 2023, the nation announced fisheries closures and the establishment of a marine refuge within the IPCA; both measures are supported by the Canadian government.

There are also several Indigenous-managed protected areas in Australia. Declared in 2000 by Aboriginal Traditional Owners, the Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) covers 5,500 km2 (2,100 mi2) of land and sea and sustains natural and cultural resources based on traditional Yolŋu practices. It’s been largely viewed as a success story and many Yolŋu people work as rangers on the IPA.

In establishing the IMSA, the northern California tribes say they aim to lead the way for Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship in the United States.

“We want to show it’s possible right here in our own backyard,” Laucci said.

“We hope this is the beginning of a movement,” said Steinruck.

Map depicting the Yurok – Tolowa Dee-ni Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area (IMSA).
Map depicting the Yurok – Tolowa Dee-ni Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area (IMSA). Courtesy of the IMSA designating Tribes.

Overcoming a history of exclusion

Land and resource agencies have a long history of excluding  tribes from managing the land, even in recent decades.

The creation of California’s network of marine protected areas (MPAs) under the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act, for instance, initially stirred controversy because tribal rights weren’t considered and tribes said they weren’t sufficiently consulted about designating MPAs in their unceded lands.

“In that process, there was no recognition of the unceded rights of tribes to continue to gather and be connected to these places,” Rocha, who helped design some of the MPAs, told NPR. “It started off very adversarial. Tribes were not going to stop using these areas and continuing to harvest, and the state really didn’t have the legal authority to stop that.”

Bjelajac said that exclusionary policies have damaged Indigenous communities’ ability to steward ancestral lands and waters and that the new IMSA represents an opportunity for government land managers to support tribes in restoring traditional knowledge and practices for the good of everyone.

“When people talk about the pristine wilderness that immigrants found here, these redwood forests, these open prairies associated with them, the abundance of game, the abundance and diversity of species, that was a managed environment,” Bjelajac told Mongabay. “That was all under Indigenous management … We [settlers/immigrants] came into lands that Indigenous people have stewarded for thousands of years.”

Race Naa-wet-ne Richards, Marine Program Tribal Resource Specialist for the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation samples sea water as part of the Tribe’s phytoplankton monitoring efforts. Image courtesy of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation.

‘The time for conservation is now’

“The time for conservation is now,” Rocha said. “We’re in a climate crisis, and we are seeing the die-off of really important ecological and cultural species.”

“The coast is in peril,” Sean Craig, a marine biology professor at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, told Mongabay.

In 2014, a heat wave and the resulting mass of warm water killed the sunflower stars that eat sea urchins. Without their natural predator to keep them in check, “the urchins have effectively mowed down the kelp, causing utter devastation of kelp forests along the coast,” Craig said. This is just one of many issues the coasts and marine environment face in this region.

“It’s an important move to work with the tribes to try and solve a problem, which is not of their making, and try and make things right,” he added. “We’re living in their ancestral territory. They know better than anyone what this place has been like, what has been lost, and what it could be like again.”

During his terms in office, California governor Gavin Newsom affirmed sovereign tribal authority over members and territories, issued an apology for California’s history of exploiting tribes, and set a goal to conserve 30% of lands and coastal waters by 2030.

The IMSA represents 13% of that goal, known as 30×30, protecting the tribes’ shared waters with California.

“We believe designating this IMSA will help California reach its conservation goals,” said Garth Sundberg, chair of the Trinidad Rancheria.

Looking south toward Baker Beach near Trinidad, California.
Looking south toward Baker Beach near Trinidad, California. Image by Amy Atkins-Kelly, of Trinidad Rancheria.
Anemones, taken on the beach below Houda Point in Camel Rock area near Trinidad, California.
Anemones, taken on the beach below Houda Point in Camel Rock area near Trinidad, California. Image by Amy Atkins-Kelly, of Trinidad Rancheria.

Empowering tribal stewardship

All three of the IMSA tribes are actively stewarding their territories. The Trinidad Rancheria Environmental Program monitors water quality, tracks pollution, protects Trinidad Bay, and responds to oil spills.The Resighini Rancheria Tribe monitors water quality, harmful algal blooms, and fisheries and marine species of cultural and ecological importance,while the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation’s marine program has been formally monitoring ecologically and culturally important species such as smelt, sea stars and seaweed for nearly a decade.

“California Native American tribes have been stewards of California’s coastal resources since time immemorial, and the state has much to learn from their expertise and traditional knowledge,” Kaitlyn Kalua, deputy director of the Ocean Protection Council, a California state body that works with state and federal agencies, NGOs, tribes and the public, told Mongabay in an email.

The Ocean Protection Council has contributed several years of pilot funding to the Tribal Marine Stewards Network, an organization co-led by Rocha that’s building tribal natural resource programs and developing tribally led stewardship programs.

“We are in the early stages of developing policies to support this [IMSA] concept, and look forward to working in partnership with tribes to determine what the next steps look like,” Kalua said.

All the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation’s marine program efforts are funded by grants, Laucci said, but they lack the resources to expand. For example, the program could use more funding to hire a conservation law enforcement officer; to expand monitoring to include other species such as seaweeds, otters and abalone; and to increase their coverage to offshore and subtidal areas.

“To monitor the entire IMSA, we need more funding,” Laucci said.

Traditionally dried Lhvmsr, or surf smelt, prepared by Tolowa Dee-ni’ Tribal members.
Traditionally dried Lhvmsr, or surf smelt, prepared by Tolowa Dee-ni’ Tribal members. Image courtesy of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation.

Kalua said creating and implementing IMSAs is included in the California Natural Resources Agency’s Pathways to 30×30 document as “an important strategy to support shared biodiversity priorities, including protection of culturally important habitats and species.”

“[The IMSA] is the model that we’re using so that the state of California can invest in Indigenous communities so that tribes can assume their inherent responsibility as stewards,” Rocha said.

“There are different ways of knowing and caring for the land,” she added. “We really need to look and listen to the people who’ve been taking care of this land forever.”

“Let us be, and you will see,” said Steinruck.

Banner image: Salmon being traditionally baked by Council Member Jaytuk Steinruck of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation. Image courtesy of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay and holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Tulane University, where she studied the microbiomes of trees. View more of her reporting here.

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