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Chumash leader concerned about "industrialization of the ocean" ahead of offshore wind lease sale

Morro Bay Rock and Estuary
Thomas Wilmer

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is holding a lease sale for offshore wind projects off the coast of California today. Three of the five areas of ocean are off the coast of Morro Bay, the ancestral land of the indigenous Northern Chumash and Salinan tribes.

One local Chumash leader involved in the project is generally supportive of offshore wind, but also has major concerns about how it will be done here.

Marine life as a cultural resource

The state’s coastline is sometimes called the “Blue Serengeti” for its biodiverse ecosystem filled with species like elephant seals, sea otters and whales. The animals living here have been culturally significant resources to local indigenous communities for thousands of years.

Chad Jackson is a California State Parks Archaeologist based in Morro Bay. He said marine life is deeply significant to the culture of local indigenous tribes.

“It's the symbolism and the teachings that are passed down, all based off of this natural world," he said.

Jackson works with local tribal communities to manage the cultural resources of Morro Bay and educate the public about their importance.

Jackson and California State Parks as an agency do not have an official position or comment on Morro Bay’s offshore wind development. He said his job is to collaborate with the tribes to help explain the cultural significance of Morro Bay.

“The indigenous people of California really depended upon a balanced environment to provide them with obviously food, but also just their reverence for their homeland, how they carry about their traditions and stories and really just the beauty and abundance of the California coastline," he said.

Data of whale activity in the Santa Barbara Channel is mapped by Whale Safe, a project of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at UCSB
Data of whale activity on the Central Coast is mapped by Whale Safe, a project of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at UCSB.

Staying vigilant as offshore wind comes to fruition

Violet Sage Walker is the chairwoman for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council. She said marine species like whales are a critically important cultural resources for the various Chumash tribes who have lived in this area for thousands of years.

"That's what is spectacular about the ocean is all of our amazing whales,” Sage Walker said.

Sage Walker said she supports wind energy projects generally, but has concerns about how they will be implemented locally. She has been working closely with BOEM to make sure the wind farms don’t disrupt the beauty and resources of the central coast’s waters.

“We want to make sure that the offshore wind is done in a way that is compatible with our lifestyle and our values, which is really important to us,” Sage Walker said.

The Morro Bay Wind Energy area alone is projected to eventually produce more energy than the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, which accounts for about 9% of the state’s energy portfolio. It’s also estimated to bring about 600 jobs to both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties in the near-term.

The Northern Chumash Tribal Council has been instrumental in developing the proposed Central Coast Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, adjacent to the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area.

Sage Walker acknowledges the benefits of what offshore wind can bring to California, but she’s also concerned the Central Coast could lose much of its diverse, culturally-significant marine life from the construction of these projects.

“My main concern is how the wildlife is going to be affected by the industrialization of the ocean, which means seismic, acoustic and any type of blasting that will be [used],” Sage Walker said.

Local marine researchers agree that there will be impacts on the ocean ecosystem, but there isn’t enough research confirming that it would be a major threat to marine species. Right now, one of their biggest concerns is whale-ship collisions around the construction sites.

Sage Walker said with these concerns in mind, she wants to have this conversation now, before construction begins.

“I'm hoping we didn't go from the foe of offshore oil spills and all these things that we've been dealing with for the past 40 years to another one,” Sage Walker said.

The Morro Bay Wind Energy Area also encompasses the local Salinan tribe's ancestral land. The tribe did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The lease sale starts at 7a.m. this morning, and you can follow along here.

Gabriela Fernandez came to KCBX in May of 2022 as a general assignment reporter, and became news director in December of 2023. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an associate producer on the TahoeLand podcast. When she's not writing or editing news stories, she loves to travel, play tennis and take her 140-lbs dog, Atlas, on long walks by the coast.
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