CALIFORNIA, 10/10/22 — Ahead of Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year, leaders from five indigenous tribes gathered to launch the Tribal Marine Stewards Network (TMSN). The four founding tribes are the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians of the Stewarts Point Rancheria, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, the Resighini Rancheria, and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation; The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians will soon join as the fifth tribe, and tribes that are interested in future partnership can get in touch.
“The network provides opportunities to share knowledge and build tribal capacity to monitor and manage ocean resources,” said Abreanna Gomes, environmental specialist with the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians. Kashia ancestral land stretches along the Pacific Ocean from the Gualala River Watershed to Salmon Creek watershed south of the Russian River, and inland along the Russian River watershed to Guerneville. “Seeing how other tribes within the network have built their programs has been a truly rewarding experience and is allowing us to expand our own program.”
All told, the TMSN’s current work includes 12 tribe-led initiatives covering 220 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline. They’re supported by state agencies, NGOs, and other partners; on Thursday, the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) voted to commit $3.61 million to the TMSN and its five participating tribes over three years.
“We are reclaiming our right to manage and steward our ocean and coastal territories,” TMSN writes in a description of the network. “We seek to establish long-term, consistent engagement with state and federal agencies while implementing Indigenous Traditional Knowledge (ITK) and Tribal Science into management practices. By restoring our ecological resilience, we are building economic, community, and cultural resilience for today and future generations.”
Of the funds from OPC, $700,000 will support the Kashia Band of Pomo in projects which include marine biotoxin monitoring in phytoplankton and mussels. Environmental Director Nina Hapner said the TMSN will collect baseline data on these creatures in a coastal reserve and track that data over time. The tribe will also conduct drone flyovers of underwater kelp forests, 3D intertidal monitoring, and a beach watch program for data on ecosystem health and wildlife distribution.
The goal of the TMSN is in part to address former active exclusion of tribes; the TMSN website specifically names 1999’s California Marine Life Protection Act, which created a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) but did not recognize the unceded tribal gathering rights and customary uses in those waters.
“This lack of acknowledgement catalyzed inter-Tribal advocacy on the North Coast,” the website reads.
According to California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot, OPC hopes supporting TMSN’s work will help right these wrongs.
“For too long, the state has forcefully separated tribes from their ancestral territories and cultural practices, which has harmed both people and nature,” he said in a news release. “The Ocean Protection Council is proud to support the Tribal Marine Stewards Network as an inspiring example of how we can work in partnership to enhance the capacity of tribes to steward their ancestral lands and waters, and move closer to co-management.”
Megan Rocha, executive director of the Resighini Rancheria (a tribe of Yurok people) said enhancing the capacity of each tribe within the network is critical.
“The power of the TMSN is to leverage intertribal collaboration in a way that builds the capacity of each tribe as a sovereign nation,” she said. “Working together, this effort is focused on tribal stewardship, but with the intention of supporting cultural lifeways, tribal workforce development, and community healing.”
Resighini Rancheria tribal members are monitoring traditional marine wildlife within the rocky intertidal zone while also conducting interviews with community members, especially elders, to learn traditional knowledge that can inform stewardship of species that are culturally, spiritually, and ecologically important. The effort is intertribal and also intergenerational, as knowledge is passed to tribal youth as part of camp programs that get young people out on the beach, learning traditional conservation and marine biology practices.
The Amah Mutsun are restoring rivers to ensure spawning beds that will nourish migrating salmon, according to Tribal Chair Valentin Lopez. Tribal experts are examining not only food and habitat for migrating salmon but also analyzing water temperature, pollution, dams, and other factors that impact their likelihood of success. Through DNA testing, the tribe is able to search for proof of the return of salmon that thrived in places like the Pajaro River and the San Lorenzo River prior to colonization.
Members of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation plan to catch surf smelt (or lhvmsr) in traditional A-frame fishing devices and dry them on driftwood, in an approach using invasive beach grass first devised by the great-grandfather of Tribal Council Member Jaytuk Steinruck. This both mitigates the grasses’ overgrowth and keeps sand off fish while they dry. Their work was informed by trips to Canada and Australia to learn about similar Indigenous-led conservation programs— and they have partnered with California game wardens to provide less punitive enforcement of fishing restrictions in MPAs.