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Yurok Tribe challenges California Marine Act

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FORT BRAGG, Calif. – The Yurok Tribe’s message to the state Marine Life Protection Act’s Blue Ribbon Task Force may have done some good.

“For the first time, I got a sense that the task force group was paying attention to the tribe’s concerns,” Thomas O’Rourke Sr., Yurok Tribe chairman, said after task force meetings.

“They were listening. We had their ear. Our major message is tribal rights are non-negotiable. Whether they will act or not that is something else that we’ll have to wait to see.”

Decisions must be made and regulations in place by the end of this year, he added.

The Marine Life Protection Act, which was signed into law in 1999, calls for the creation of marine reserves with varying levels of protection from one end of the state to the other. Funding for implementation wasn’t in place until 2009. The Fort Bragg meeting dealt with the North Coast Study Region reaching from Mendocino County to the California/Oregon border. Now it is the task force’s job to set the boundaries and levels of protection for northern California under the act and pass their recommendations on to the California Department of Fish and Game for enforcement.

“They just started implementation of it.” The tribes of southern California have “had their waters shut down,” O’Rourke said.

“It’s not that we’re against the MLPA. We believe it needs to be there to ensure the safety of our resources. It’s some of the measure’s components that we don’t want. One is that we don’t want the state having jurisdiction over us, or policing us or managing us. I believe in co-management. We write our own management plan and we police our own people. They write their management plan and police their California citizens.”

The Yurok Tribe will never stop sustainably gathering coastal resources as it has done for thousands of years, he said.

“Neither the Marine Life Protection Act nor any other law can take away what the Creator has bestowed on the Yurok Tribe.

“We believe that the resources do need to be managed and protected from pollution and extinction. They do need a solid management plan, based on science, for non-Indian people; how they fish, and gather at a commercial level. When dollars become involved, resources become endangered,” O’Rourke said.

The federally recognized Yurok Tribe does not believe California has any reason to infringe on the tribe’s ability to gather in its ancestral territory, he added.

“The MLPA is a misguided attempt by the state to stomp on tribal rights. We would like the Blue Ribbon Task Force to do what is morally right and remove tribes from this inappropriate process.

“It’s another attempt to break our traditions and our culture; to modernize us.”

All of the tribes along California’s north coast are involved in opposing the inclusion of Native Americans under the MLPA; nearly 50 tribes, according to O’Rourke, who personally contacted 40 tribal chair people before the Fort Bragg meeting.

“There is nothing more offensive than the lack of recognition we have received,” O’Rourke said. “We are a sovereign government within the state of California and should be treated accordingly.”

Yurok people gather mussels, seaweed and shells for sustenance and religious purposes. The tribe gathers other ocean resources as well. “We will continue to exercise our rights to fishing, gathering, harvesting, and eventually it will end up in litigation,” O’Rourke said. The Yurok Tribe is California’s largest tribe with 5,500 members.

This is not the first time indigenous Californians have voiced strong opposition to the Marine Life Protection Act. Members from several tribes interrupted the MLPA’s Science Advisory Team meeting in Eureka in June. Tribal representatives told that group there is no scientific data that says tribal gathering has any negative impact on the coastal ecosystem. “The act does nothing to stop pollution and off-shore drilling, the real threats to the ocean’s productivity,” the science panel was told.

While they were included in an earlier version, the current Marine Life Protection Act no longer includes measures to regulate water pollution, habitat destruction, oil drilling, wave energy projects and all other human uses of the ocean other than fishing and seaweed harvesting.