Stanford University
A rocky headland extends into the blue waters off the California coast. A wave breaks in the foreground.

‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ off the California coast

A new research partnership will combine Indigenous and scientific knowledge to monitor marine life in a sacred tribal region that may be a bellwether of how native species will fare in the face of climate change.

BY Katie Jewett
ClockMarch 22, 2023

Fifty miles west of Santa Barbara, a rocky headland juts out into the churning Pacific Ocean like a hitchhiker's thumb. Here, at a landmark called Point Conception, life encounters a crossroads. Known as Humqaq by the Chumash Peoples who have inhabited the region for 20,000 years, this dynamic zone marks a sacred site of spiritual passage for Chumash ancestors as well as a place where weather, currents, and distinct marine ecosystems converge. 

A blue boat rests at anchor in a kelp forest with a coastal headland in the background.
A research boat rests at anchor in the kelp forest off Pismo Beach as divers collect samples underwater. (Image credit: Dan Griffin - GG Films)

In 2015, Humqaq and 7,000 square miles of surrounding ocean became the first area to be tribally nominated as a national marine sanctuary. To better understand biodiversity across the proposed sanctuary and assess the effect of sanctuary protections, Northern Chumash Tribal leaders and marine scientists from Stanford University and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) are now designing a collaborative approach to monitoring marine life in the area. 

“I’m the third generation to work on protecting this cherished area,” said Chairwoman Violet Sage Walker of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council in a webinar held by the Lenfest Ocean Program on March 14 to launch the project, and whose late father Chief Fred Collins led designation efforts before her. “The time is now, the urgency is now. We must combine baseline scientific data with generational knowledge to protect our shared ocean.”

Led by Walker, Stanford marine biologist Steve Palumbi, and LJMU marine ecologist Stefano Mariani, the project team plans to deploy technology that can identify organisms from bits of cellular material they shed into the sea, known as environmental DNA. 

“My hope is to support the Chumash Tribe in applying state-of-the-art technology while learning about the stewardship they’ve practiced for thousands of years of their ancestral lands and waters,” said Palumbi, who is a Professor of Oceans at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and of Biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “Ultimately, our goal is to set a new standard for how to collaboratively approach monitoring coastal zones in California and around the world.”

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Environmental DNA allows us to reveal that life is simply there, which reinforces an inspiring guiding philosophy of the Chumash Tribe wherein all life is valuable and precious because it’s part of a larger system.

Charting change

Humqaq is among the world’s busiest intersections of species. Here, boundaries of plant and animal ranges overlap, marking either the southernmost or northernmost limit for many species, like kelp forest fishes and the southern sea otter. As temperatures rise, coastal species tend to migrate into higher latitudes in search of cooler habitat. “Monitoring the position of this taxonomic break is very important, as it may well be an early signal of shifts in species ranges due to climate change,” Palumbi said during the March 14 webinar.

Extending from Cambria to Gaviota Creek, the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would link the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the north with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to the south, providing a continuous corridor for native species displaced by warming waters.

A rock pulled from the sea has organisms growing on it.
Researchers can sample DNA from organisms living on cobblestones like this one to determine what lives on the kelp forest floor. (Image credit: Dan Griffin - GG Films)

Tracking how species ranges and abundance shift across convergences like Humqaq can help sanctuary managers link broader trends to climate-driven changes in temperature and seasonal upwelling. By monitoring species within the proposed sanctuary boundaries and miles beyond, the team aims to build a dataset that can then be used to compare biodiversity in protected waters to the broader ocean.

At roughly six times the size of Yosemite National Park, the vast scale of the proposed sanctuary makes it difficult for scientists using traditional methods to gauge the impact of sanctuary protections that prohibit oil drilling, seismic testing, and seabed mining. Environmental DNA techniques offer a solution.

In collaboration with Mariani’s team in Liverpool, England, the researchers are collecting seawater samples and cobblestones from the kelp forest floor to source the DNA of organisms that live in surrounding waters. The genetic fragments are then extracted, amplified, and sequenced to create a snapshot of the species present in the area at that moment in time. 

“Environmental DNA has a democratic quality that it applies to every living being,” said Mariani. “Whether you’re looking for viruses or whales, we use the same approach.” 

A person casts a fishing rod into the surf.
To optimize DNA collection in coastal waters, the research team is experimenting with fishing rods to cast and retrieve metaprobes from the surf. (Image credit: Dan Griffin - GG Films)

To make sampling easier, Giulia Maiello, a postdoctoral scholar in Mariani’s lab, is leading the design and 3D-printing of perforated spheres called metaprobes. The probe structure, which was first prototyped using pickleballs, is packed with gauze to soak up fragments of cellular material as divers and boats tow them through the water. The team has even experimented with launching the apple-sized probes into the surf using fishing rods — repeatedly reeling, retrieving, and relaunching them to optimize DNA collection.

Last fall, the team collected preliminary data for more than 40 species, ranging from iconic animals like the California sea lion and blue rockfish to invertebrates so cryptic they have no name. “Environmental DNA allows us to reveal that life is simply there, which reinforces an inspiring guiding philosophy of the Chumash Tribe wherein all life is valuable and precious because it’s part of a larger system,” said Palumbi.

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In order to have a successful collaboration, you have to meet people where they are. Make sure all voices can participate. Sometimes something as simple as cell reception or transportation means tribal people don’t have a seat at the policy table.

Violet Sage Walker stands next to a gray horse.



Two-Eyed Seeing

The team’s collaborative inquiry embodies an approach described by Elder Albert Marshall of the Mi'kmaw as Two-Eyed Seeing, where one eye views the world through a lens of Indigenous knowledge and the other through Western ways of knowing.

“In order to have a successful collaboration, you have to meet people where they are,” said Walker, referring to the many meals, stories, and family histories the project team has already shared. “Make sure all voices can participate. Sometimes something as simple as cell reception or transportation means tribal people don’t have a seat at the policy table.”

A man standing on a boat pours a water sample back into the ocean.
Researcher Peter Shum of LJMU pours a water sample back into the ocean. (Image credit: Dan Griffin - GG Films)

The team has prioritized developing affordable, scalable techniques to make sure interested community members can help collect data and lead the scientific monitoring needed to manage the proposed sanctuary. Local students will be trained in bioinformatics to help process environmental DNA samples. 

Over the next two years, the team plans to document historical species distributions based on cultural resources like oral histories, heritage sites, ethno-botany records, and museum exhibits. In time, they will also test whether traditional Chumash canoes known as tomols could serve as sampling platforms for environmental DNA, bridging their cultural heritage with a new era of data collection.

The Northern Chumash Tribal Council anticipates that the ​​National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency that administers sanctuaries, will hold a public review period in May 2023. This offers an opportunity for tribal members and other stakeholders to provide input on draft management and environmental impact plans. Walker hopes that if the sanctuary is approved, the tribe can set up its own office to serve as an independent manager alongside NOAA, yet another illustration of Two-Eyed Seeing.

“One thing my dad taught me was to embrace new ideas so you don’t overlook opportunities,” said Walker in closing the webinar. “By not being set in our ways of thinking, we’ve brought partners into our lives that we never thought we would have. We’re excited to make this blueprint together, and we hope to share this cutting-edge work with our allies and friends around the world.”

This research received funding from the Lenfest Ocean Program, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Oceankind Labs.

Images behind quotes courtesy of Dan Griffin - GG Films.

Media Contacts

Katie Jewett

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

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