Safeguarding California’s Central Coast

Alumni5 MIN READ

Meghan Hurley ’20 works with Chumash tribal leaders to establish a marine sanctuary 13 miles offshore

Meghan Hurley '20 near the American River in Sacramento, Calif., where she played a key role in campaigning for the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of California.
By Dominick Leskiw '21Photography by Salgu Wissmath
July 27, 2022

Just off the Central Coast of California, otherworldly jungles of kelp sway in sea-scattered sunlight. Waves heave over shale reefs, while gulls, terns, and pelicans wheel in the salt spray above. Dolphins splash along the surface, wolf eels lurk deep in rocky dens, and a stunning miscellany of other marine life swims, slips, and scurries along this cherished stretch of shore, where the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary is taking shape.

Meghan Hurley ’20 described these oceanic wonders during a webinar she recently hosted as an oceans associate with Environment America, a national nonprofit organization working to protect at-risk natural areas through research and advocacy. The proposed Chumash Heritage Sanctuary could be established within two years and would be the first U.S. marine protected area nominated by an Indigenous tribe.

“An incredible stretch of California’s ocean is missing protection from threats such as oil drilling,” Hurley said during the webinar. “We need to protect this wild hub of ocean life.”

Championed by the Northern Chumash Tribal Council in collaboration with several NGOs and government agencies, the proposed sanctuary is “setting a precedent for Indigenous co-management” of culturally and ecologically crucial natural areas, she said.

Hurley grew up surrounded by lakes in New Hampshire and has always been drawn to water. It wasn’t until she got to Maine with its captivating rocky coastline that her fascination with the ocean developed. As an environmental policy major at Colby, Hurley focused on marine conservation. She cited the classroom of Elizabeth and Lee Ainslie Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Loren McClenachan as a particularly formative space, and she noted the importance of Assistant Professor of English Chris Walker’s environmental humanities courses in helping her hone the communications and artistic skills needed to complement her predilection for advocacy.

“It really highlighted the importance of Indigenous co-management and centering Indigenous-led projects like this. Working with the people who have been stewarding an area for thousands of years—that’s how we learn to take care of it.”

Meghan Hurley ’20 on the significance of her work with Environment America

After graduating from Colby, Hurley began working with Environment America, a nonprofit network of environmental advocacy groups, on one of the organization’s first ocean-focused campaigns. In her role as an oceans associate, she worked closely with the Chumash Tribal Council on moving the sanctuary designation forward through a federal process overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). After the idea gained traction nearly 40 years ago, the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary entered its official nomination phase in 2015. In November 2021, NOAA published its intent to designate the sanctuary and opened a public comment period.

“I worked with a lot of different constituency groups like students and community leaders and scientists within California to collect supportive comments,” Hurley said. Specifically, she coordinated a letter of support from scientists that received 150 signatures, and she helped organize an action alert at two Environment America events, which received nearly 5,000 votes of support. Hurley also organized an interdisciplinary, educational webinar, featuring short talks by tribal leaders, government officials, and a marine scientist.

Yet, the public education campaign had its challenges.

“There were some misconceptions about what marine sanctuaries do, which came up in public comment meetings,” Hurley said. “People in the fishing industry were not supportive of the sanctuary because it sounds like something that would limit fishing, but it actually doesn’t, and it would only really allow more fish to thrive in that area because there would be no oil spills happening, no drilling or seismic testing or any of that. It’s hard messaging to navigate.”

Nonetheless, the sanctuary received 30,000 public comments in support of the designation—an impressive level of support, Hurley said. NOAA will now draft management plans, accept more public comments, and try to establish the sanctuary within two years.

“Usually, marine sanctuary designations can take up to 10 years,” Hurley said. “So, wanting to do it within two years is really big—wanting to keep that momentum alive, because there’s just so much support.”

The sanctuary will reach 13 miles offshore and cover 156 miles of coastline, bridging the gap between two already-established marine protected areas in Monterey Bay and the Channel Islands. Several Chumash sacred sites will be safeguarded within its scope, some of which have been continuously occupied for more than 9,000 years.

Extraordinary deep-sea upwelling zones will gain protection as well, which provide the nutrients needed to support life in kelp forests, underwater canyons, estuaries, and seafloor communities. Thirteen cetacean migration routes are encompassed within the proposed boundaries, too, as are the gathering grounds for one-third of the population of endangered southern sea otters.  

When asked to consider the significance of this experience to her future as an aspiring ocean conservationist, Hurley said, “It really highlighted the importance of Indigenous co-management and centering Indigenous-led projects like this. Working with the people who have been stewarding an area for thousands of years—that’s how we learn to take care of it.”

One contemporary steward is Violet Sage Walker, Northern Chumash Tribal chair and daughter of the late tribal chief Fred Collins, who led the early effort to establish the sanctuary. He died in fall 2021. While reflecting on her father’s legacy, Walker described the concept of “thrivability,” which continues to guide her passion for establishing the sanctuary. “Thrivability was his response to sustainability,” she said of her father. “We cannot sustain the amount of fishing and huge losses in habitat, the climate change we’re facing and experiencing, and the ocean acidification. We need to reverse it. We need to make it thrivable so that animals and species come back and flourish.”

Meghan Hurley ’20, who said that working on this project has left her with a sense of profound collaboration and lasting camaraderie. “Being able to join that community and being welcomed into it, allowed to contribute, and learn from everyone was probably the biggest joy.”