Community | ocean

Indigenous Nations have stewarded the dynamic San Diego shoreline with its tidepools and bountiful kelp forests since time immemorial. The San Diego region is home to 18 Indigenous reservations represented by 17 Tribal governments, the highest number in any county in the country. The ancestral homelands of both the Kumeyaay and Payómkawichum Nations included the coast.

Unfortunately, Indigenous communities have been forcibly displaced and disconnected from their coastal homelands. Today, not a single reservation in San Diego County is located on the coast. Additionally, an assemblage of societal, economic, and logistical barriers often preclude Indigenous students from opportunities to visit and interact with the coast that are afforded their counterparts from other communities. 

To this end, WILDCOAST launched the Coastal Leaders Internship for Indigenous Youth, a year-long innovative program that partners with Indigenous Nations to conserve the coast and ocean through hands-on conservation opportunities.

 “The Coastal Leaders program helps prepare youth to use Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in stewarding their ancestral lands, waterways, and the ocean,” said Jules Jackson, WILDCOAST’s Ocean Conservation and Outreach Coordinator and a member of the Nanticoke people. “The program develops pathways towards recreational, academic, and professional opportunities in conservation fields such as ethnobotany, ethnoecology, coastal resiliency, and natural solutions to climate change.”  

WILDCOAST recruited 14 student interns ranging from ages 13 through 16 representing the San Pasqual Ipai band of Kumeyaay, the Payómkawichum bands of Rincon, Pauma, Pala and La Jolla and the Desert Cahuilla of Torres Martinez. In addition, the program consulted with three Indigenous Advisors for program development, cultural advising, and assistance with program coordination and implementation.

Coastal Leaders interns use a Van Dorn bottle to monitor pH, salinity, and temperature at different depths in Cabrillo State Marine Reserve to help monitor the effects of climate change on water quality during a research trip aboard the Adventuress catamaran.

One of the most memorable activities the Coastal Leaders participated in was a research trip aboard the Adventuress, a  60-foot catamaran, whose owners generously donated the use of the vessel and their time. 

While sailing through San Diego Bay and out into the gleaming waters of the Pacific Ocean, teams of students and advisors collected and analyzed community science data on water quality, plankton, and biodiversity using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Data collected helps students understand how to better conserve and protect waterways for marine life.

 “I’ve never been on a boat before,” remarked 14 year old Orion Collins of the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians. “It was cool to see whales in their natural habitat and know that my actions were helping to save them.”

Senior Coastal Leaders Intern, Faith Pojas from the La Jolla Band of the Payómkawichum Nation, practices sharing her story through videography while filming a gray whale off the coast of Point Loma.

Another unique feature of the Coastal Leaders program is the commitment for youth to participate in learning experiences on their own land.

“The program provides Indigenous youth an opportunity to interact with their community in meaningful ways by providing new experiences and knowledge,” said Blaine Mazzetti, Coastal Leaders Advisor and member of the Rincon Band of the Payómkawichum Nation.

Coastal Leaders interns shared their experiences as stewards of the coast and ocean at the Inter-Tribal Earth Day celebration hosted by the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians in April.

On April 2, 2022 the Coastal Leaders spent the day at the Inter-Tribal Earth Day celebration hosted by the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians at the La Jolla Indian Campground on the south facing foothills of Palomar Mountain. 

Students participated in cultural dancing and prayer for the planet as a community for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Youth also practiced their leadership and speaking skills by welcoming and guiding various organizations onto their land and sharing their experiences as stewards of the coast and ocean.

Students matriculating from the Coastal Leaders program are excited to welcome the next cohort and have helped guide the program for next year. Upcoming scientific expeditions with Scripps Institution of Oceanography have been scheduled for the fall and the new Coastal Leaders will participate in the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) National Conference STEM Activity Day held in Palm Springs in October. 

Several interns from the first cohort plan to stay on as mentors and are especially excited to discuss expanding opportunities for hands-on conservation including Indigenous-led wetland restoration efforts at local lagoons in San Diego County.

You can help the Coastal Leaders achieve their ancestral birthrights of stewarding San Diego’s coast by donating to WILDCOAST