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Meghan Hurley works on ocean conservation for Environment California, a nonprofit organization that promotes core environmental values.

The ocean matters to Californians, whether we live on its shores or reside farther inland. To the west of towering palms onshore lie tangles of underwater forests. Here, kelp feeds families of otters, and prey hides from predators behind these swaying aquatic trees. Farther south, submerged gardens of coral grow colors and shapes unlike anything we see on land.

California’s diverse underwater places nourish the ocean’s wildest life. Now, there’s an opportunity to build on that legacy of wildness. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently moving toward designating the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. These federal-level protections would prohibit destructive activities such as oil drilling, provide for new research opportunities, and protect the area’s beauty and natural resources.The sanctuary area will protect Chumash Sacred sites on and offshore, including villages that the Chumash people have occupied for 20,000 years.

In addition, it’ll safeguard this biodiversity hotspot, a transition zone where currents converge and nutrient-rich cold water rises up from the deep ocean. In this area, nurseries replenish a vast array of species. A lot of life begins here. Beyond that, the proposed sanctuary is home to about one-third of the southern sea otter population, a threatened species that relies on intact ecosystems for its recovery. What’s more, there’s a lot we don’t know about it yet. It encompasses deep sea regions that we haven’t fully studied or explored — there might be forms of life in the deepest corners of its underwater canyons that we’ve never seen before.

Protecting this place helps us preserve the mystery of the ocean so we can keep discovering its uncharted depths. While NOAA has stated its intent to designate this marine sanctuary, there is still work to do. The designation process for a marine sanctuary involves community input, and a comment period so NOAA can take public input into account to determine the parameters of the sanctuary’s protections. We’re thrilled our federal leaders have gotten started.

If the area isn’t protected, there are sites at risk of oil and gas development. This would heighten the threat of catastrophic oil spills that are all too common along California’s coast. In October, there was an oil spill south of the proposed sanctuary’s boundaries. Blackened waves washed heavy, oil-covered wildlife to shore. Victims of the spill included a dolphin that had to be euthanized, and at least seven threatened snowy plovers, round shorebirds that can sometimes be seen scurrying across the beach. The spill encroached on protected wetlands including Talbert Marsh, a nursery for many types of fish and home to migratory birds. The oil may persist here for years or decades to come, tarnishing beaches and harming wildlife.

This glaring image of destruction should be enough to put California’s coast and waters off limits to oil drilling permanently. Along with the fear of that type of environmental disaster, NOAA needs to get the Chumash Sanctuary across the finish line because underwater spaces like this one have the ability to heal the Earth at a time when it needs help. The ocean stores 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere, and much of that is held in such places as the wetlands and seagrass beds found in the Chumash area. If disturbed, these locations can release carbon back into the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change.

In our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to put the underwater world out of our mind. We don’t live beneath the sea and most of us interact with it only on occasion. But those waters bring us fresh air and solace. They hold a submerged landscape that is full of stories and is firmly linked to our survival.

The first step of the designation of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary brings us closer to preserving the aquatic world that is not so far removed from our land-based one. Californians should feel proud that we're continuing to chart new courses for ocean protection. The vast, sometimes unknown Pacific deserves this sanctuary, as do the sea otters, dolphins and others that call the ocean home. NOAA needs to move forward with the designation and protect our state’s awe-inspiring world beneath the waves.

Meghan Hurley works on ocean conservation for Environment California, a nonprofit organization that promotes core environmental values.