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California Tribes Offer Critical Perspective on Marine Protected Areas

A member of Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation casts his net the beach. | Still from Tending Nature
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In July of 2010, a coalition of more than 20 North Coast tribes, including the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, took control of a Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) meeting. Bearing ancestral knowledge and signs with the slogan “MLPA taking tribal rights away!” the coalition called for the recognition and protection of their inherent rights to the California coast. Today, Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation has developed their capacity for marine resource management so that they can address tribal citizens’ concerns directly and work towards coastal co-management with the California Department of Fish and Game. 

“There are a lot of exciting things coming, but it all came from this heartache and pain of the MLPA,” says Megan Van Pelt, Natural Resources Director for the Tolowa Nation. Enacted in 1999, California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) appointed the California Department of Fish and Game to redesign the state’s system of marine protected areas (MPAs), with two goals in mind: to effectively protect the marine life and habitats, marine ecosystems, and marine natural heritage; and improve recreational, educational, and study opportunities provided by marine ecosystems in California with minimal human disturbance. Despite these positive intentions, the MLPA largely ignored the relationship that indigenous people have had with the California Coast for thousands of years as well as their unceded rights to use and care for coastal resources. 

By the time the MLPA stakeholder engagement activities made their way to the North Coast, word had spread that tribes were not adequately engaged in the other regions and North Coast tribes knew they needed to take action. And so, organizers developed an intertribal coalition to advocate for tribal rights and continued harvest in the ocean. 

tolowa mussel harvesting
Member of Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation harvesting mussels. | Still from "Tending Nature"

“When the state tried to put these MPAs in our area, the tribe stood up and said, ‘We’re going to continue our traditional practices of harvesting these resources,’” says Jaytuk Steinruck, Tribal Resource Specialist. North Coast tribes gained representation in both the Regional Stakeholder Group and the Blue Ribbon Task Force, who recommended where MPAs should go, yet the tribes still felt that the fundamental issues with the MLPA were still unappreciated. These sentiments led to a historic demonstration where tribal members took over a meeting, making clear their rights to practice their inherent rights to harvest and maintain their cultures through access to coastal resources. 

Meanwhile, participating tribes worked with the Fish and Game Commission for an administrative fix, which resulted in some acknowledgement of tribal rights. The tribes were able to convince the Fish and Game Commission to allow for traditional tribal harvesting in MPAs, addressing one of their primary concerns. Van Pelt credits timing as a critical factor in this success, as Governor Jerry Brown had recently issued Executive Order B-10-11, which requires all state agencies “to encourage communication and consultation with California Indian Tribes,” as well as the presence of strong leadership from California Natural Resources Agency, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and staff working on the MLPA. 

Despite this win, the Fish and Game Commission still presented hurdles to accessing traditional tribal harvesting in MPAs. They required each tribe to develop a factual record of current and historical uses so that they could tie tribal harvest to particular MPAs. While the Commission hoped to avoid the places that tribes would list as culturally significant, this methodology ignored the fact that the people use the whole coast and the risk that tribe’s face in sharing knowledge that could be exploited if it placed in the wrong hands. 

The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation stood firm that they would not offer highly detailed information requested by the commission, but they did provide a report that claimed ties to certain areas. Like others, this report had to reference published materials, effectively perpetuating the idea that paper trails created by non-Native academics are more valid than Native peoples’ word supported by generations of knowledge. 

Since the implementation of the MLPA, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Marine Program has taken part in three projects that establish benchmarks for measuring the performance of the recently established MPAs in their area. One of these projects focuses on traditional ecological knowledge of keystone marine species and ecosystems, in partnership with Trinidad Rancheria, Wiyot Tribe, and the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council. 

tolowa smelt fishing
Member of Tolowa Dee-ni' fishing for smelt in the ocean. | Still from "Tending Nature"

“Tribes throughout the MLPA process talked a lot about traditional knowledge and the fact that there is law in place to steward and manage these resources, it is just not written down,” says Van Pelt. Through the work of this traditional ecological knowledge project, the Fish and Game Commission now recognizes traditional knowledge as a form of science within the baseline monitoring program. 

Instead of answering the question of how to integrate traditional knowledge into western scientific methods, this project reframes the question to ask how traditional knowledge and science can work collaboratively. Traditional ecological knowledge can offer historical context, especially in terms of baseline monitoring which establishes the success of MPAs, whereas the current baseline is very unhealthy. Using the framework of generations of understanding of what a place used to be like for a baseline can inform the goals and benchmarks for marine restoration.  

The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation Marine Program continues to collect data to address tribal members’ needs and using traditional knowledge to develop a culturally appropriate harvest title. The tribe also continues to work with the state of California to recognize tribal rights through a co-management arrangement. Recently, the Fish and Game Commission also adopted a co-management vision. Ideally, co-management can empower tribes to collect their own data, analyze it, and then manage the resources with this information in tandem with the state. This way, data collection can center the needs and knowledge of generations of Indigenous people. 

“We need to look at what we’re really doing to mother nature and our oceans, and the rivers, and the land. I’ve been taught that we’re stewards of the land, my people, but I think that all people are stewards of the land, they just need to be a little bit more aware,” says Steinruck. The work of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and the North Coast tribes on the MLPA draws attention to the fact that tribal rights have hardly been addressed in marine environments. Their fight creates a critical space of dialogue about the health of the ocean, which impacts our collective well-being. 

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