Trust Magazine

Tribal Nations Announce First Ocean and Coastal Protections in U.S.

The Yurok-Tolowa-Dee-ni’ Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area sits off the California coast

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  • Americans Say Officials Should Avoid Heated or Aggressive Speech
  • Return on Investment
  • The Digital Divide
  • The High Cost of Putting a Roof Over Your Head
  • The Pantanal in South America
  • Tribal Nations First Ocean and Coastal Protections in U.S.
  • What Does Being Spiritual Mean?
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Tribal Nations Announce First Ocean and Coastal Protections in U.S.
The newly designated Yurok-Tolowa-Dee-ni’ Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area, which runs from the California-Oregon border to south of Trinidad, California, is home to rich wildlife and plant biodiversity—and stunning coastal vistas.
L. Toshio Kishiyama Getty Images

Three Tribal Nations on the West Coast achieved a major milestone in conservation in September when they designated the Yurok-Tolowa-Dee-ni’ Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area (IMSA), the first such protection enacted by Tribal governments in the United States.

The Yurok-Tolowa-Dee-ni’ IMSA—which spans coastal forests and dunes from the California-Oregon border to just south of Trinidad, California, and extends three miles offshore into the Pacific Ocean—is home to species of high cultural value to the Tribal Nations, including mussels, kelp, abalone, salmon, shorebirds, and eels.

The nations—the Resighini Tribe of Yurok People, Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, and Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria—aim to safeguard the area from environmental threats, including sea level rise and coastal erosion, by enhancing Tribal stewardship and applying their Indigenous knowledge. Working together, they seek to improve water quality, reverse ocean acidification and species and habitat loss, manage offshore development, and mitigate other climate impacts affecting their communities.

The Pew Charitable Trusts has provided funding and technical assistance to the nations’ efforts on the IMSA since late 2022. At the time, several area Tribal governments had just launched the Tribal Marine Stewards Network, an organization built from years of groundwork and collaboration. The network coordinates marine monitoring projects and Tribal community engagement activities, including ethnographic interviews, youth camps, beach surveys, and workshops.

One example is the Tribal Intertidal Digital Ecological Surveys (TIDES) project. In concert with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, several Tribes are using a relatively low-cost and easily replicable method of engaging communities directly in research on and management of their coastal areas.

By suspending high-resolution cameras above rocky intertidal habitat, teams capture thousands of images, which are then stitched together using software to create 3D habitat maps. These large-area imaging surveys are repeated biannually to create a long-term monitoring database that captures seasonal variation in biological conditions, aiding Tribes in documenting often-dramatic changes in their ancestral waters.

In identical proclamations of the Indigenous Marine Stewardship Area on Sept. 22, each of the Tribes stated, “[W]e … can no longer wait to act to preserve and protect this culturally and ecologically important place.” In their resolutions, the Tribes invite “other federally recognized Tribal governments with ancestral connections to this area, as well as the government of the United States and the government of the state of California, to work with us in achieving our vision for reclaiming Tribal stewardship.”

The announcement of the IMSA aligns with efforts within each Tribe to bolster natural and cultural resource management capacity. These efforts have included learning from similar Indigenous-led programs around the globe, including the Indigenous Ranger and Protected Area program in Australia and the Coastal Guardian Watchmen program of Coastal First Nations along Canada’s Pacific coast.

In recent years, the Tolowa-Dee-ni’ Nation started a program called Netlh-‘ii~-ne, roughly translated as “the ones who care for or look after.” This program seeks to build capacity among Tribal members as active managers of natural resources within their ancestral territory and specifically to enforce harvest policies enacted by the Tribe, with a focus on six keystone species: lhvmsr (surf smelt), ch’uy-xee-ni (night smelt), met-’e (razor clam), dee-lhat (mussels), lat (seaweed), and chii-la’-lhsrik (surfperch).

For millennia, these and other Indigenous communities in the U.S. have stewarded their lands and waters—for food, medicine, ceremony, and other customary uses—and many continue to do so today.

"We all share a common culture and way of life that needs protecting."

The California government has not yet formally responded to the IMSA announcement, but there are indications that state leaders will back the Tribes. In a 2019 executive order, Governor Gavin Newsom (D) apologized to the state’s Native American peoples for a legacy of “violence, exploitation, dispossession, and the attempted destruction of tribal communities” and noted that California now recognizes many of those communities as sovereign governments.

And in April 2022, the California Natural Resources Agency released its “Pathways to 30x30 California” report, which commits the state to strengthening partnerships with Tribes and specifically prioritizes IMSAs as a collaborative approach for furthering California’s objective to protect at least 30% of its lands and waters by 2030.

In February, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the Resighini Tribe of Yurok People signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on public land and water management, including a commitment to incorporate Indigenous traditional knowledge to better protect and preserve state parks and cultural resources. Later this year, the California Legislature will consider Assembly Bill 1284 to better define and implement co-management of natural resources between Tribal Nations and the state. The Pew-supported legislation was written by Assembly Member James Ramos (D) and sponsored by the Resighini Tribe of Yurok People and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation.

“Our Tribes have a responsibility to steward, protect, and restore the ocean and coastal resources within our ancestral territories,” says Jeri Lynn Thompson, chairperson of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation. “We seek to establish long-term, consistent engagement with state and federal agencies while implementing Indigenous traditional knowledge and Tribal science into management practices within the IMSA.”

Coordinators of the Tribal Marine Stewards Network are seeking to create an endowment to sustain its work into the future. “We all share a common culture and way of life that needs protecting,” says Fawn C. Murphy, chairperson of the Resighini Tribe of Yurok People, “and we share the same desire to leave something for future generations to be proud of.”

John Briley is a Trust staff writer.

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