West Coast tribes taking lead on marine planning

Tribes are working to translate traditional knowledge to help shape marine planning.

This first appeared in National Geographic’s Ocean Views blog.

The Tolowa Dee-ni’ of the Smith River Rancheria in California have always been the caretakers of the ocean and coast. During the summer months, Tolowa families set up camps to fish for smelt on the local beaches. Caught smelt are elaborately arranged on the sand to dry while Tolowa fishermen and women watch carefully as their shiny skins turns opaque in the sun.

Like her other tribal members, Briannon Fraley is intimately connected to her place in the world. And just like the generations before her, Fraley harvests and gathers important marine resources for ceremonial and subsistence purposes – practices integral to her tribe’s way of life.  Thousands of years of traditional knowledge gives her and her tribe a distinct perspective, one they will use for the first time to inform marine planning in their ancestral territory.

Briannon Fraley, Self-Governance Director, Smith River Rancheria

“We have a responsibility to assure the health and vitality of this rich environment and its resources for future generations,” says Fraley. She is also her tribe’s Self-Governance Director.  “As a self-governance tribe, we are developing strategies that will ensure long-term, sustainable marine stewardship.”

On a crisp fall day, Briannon is hard at work on two projects that reflect this goal. She and her tribal government are actively engaged in what they refer to as proactive Ocean Governance initiatives. They are working with other West Coast tribes to create a framework for capturing tribal knowledge and data that reflects tribal values. The second project will put that framework to use as they collect tribal data related to marine protected area monitoring in California.

Traditional Knowledge to Data Standards

The Rancheria received a grant in 2012 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Regional Ocean Partnership Program to work with west coast tribes to develop a data standards framework that would inform the federal government’s regional ocean planning process. In April of 2013, Smith River Rancheria hosted a forum in Grand Ronde tribal territory, which served as an introduction to translating the importance of how traditional knowledge will help shape marine planning.  Maintaining traditional ways of living is priority number one for most tribes, and the forum created a space for collaboration, to build alliances, and to find mechanisms for better communication.

After the Forum, tribes from California, Oregon, and Washington were asked to participate in a Tribal Marine Data Standards Committee. The Committee is assessing tribal geospatial capacity and developing the tribal framework for collecting and analyzing data. The group will also look to ensure interoperability, meet federal and state standards, and perhaps most importantly, protect culturally sensitive data, a major concern for tribes.  The project is set to wrap up at the end of December.

Marine Protected Area Monitoring in California

In December of 2012, 27 Marine Protected Areas along the north coast of California went into effect, two of which are located within the ancestral territory of the Smith River Rancheria. Future co-management of the Pyramid Point and Point St. George Offshore Reef State Marine Conservation Areas (SMCA) was the impetus for the Rancheria’s organizing of a group of northern California tribes to submit a joint proposal to California’s Monitoring Enterprise. “Tribal goals for resource management are the same as state goals,” explains Fraley, “but we’ve expanded to include parallel protections for ocean ecosystems as well as marine-based cultures.”

The tribal monitoring project will use traditional ecological knowledge to create a baseline of ecological features and species observations and identify areas of tribal concern. This project is the first of its kind in California and Smith River Rancheria is joined the Trinidad Rancheria, the Wiyot Tribe and the Inter-Tribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council.


The Rancheria, along with other northern California tribes, has long advocated for recognition of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) as a science that informs sustainable management. They also point out that traditional marine uses are in fact sustainable and an inherent tribal right. “The Tolowa have never given up these rights”, says Fraley, and the MPA project will help them continue to cultivate this understanding with state agency officials and ultimately inform overall marine protected area management in California.

A West Coast Partnership

There are a number of west coast tribes who are actively involved in marine-related planning efforts, both regionally and with individual tribes. Nine tribes, including Smith River Rancheria, have agreed to participate in the formation of a marine planning partnership coordinated by Point 97, a subsidiary of Ecotrust.  Several of the tribes involved in Smith River Rancheria’s data standards project are participating in the Partnership. The goal of the Partnership is to bring tribes together in a dialogue around what tribal marine planning looks like regionally, what it means for each individual tribal nation, and to find ways to support tribes who will ultimately draft marine plans. The Partnership hopes to integrate Smith River Rancheria’s work into the process, and will employ British Columbia’s First Nations marine planning experience as an example of tribal marine planning.

Tribal collaboration and working on state and federal co-management objectives keeps Briannon Fraley very busy these days.  “Mutual understanding, shared goals, and developing future relationships are vital to protecting marine resources,” she says, “which are important to all of us.”