Giant Sea Bass © Randy Wilder, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Can California save the ocean?

By David Helvarg

California, its economy recovering from the Great Recession, is far from the demise conservative doomsayers predicted just a few years ago, a demise brought on by environmental regulation, graduated income taxes and its sybaritic ways.

In fact when it comes to environmental policy, particularly ocean and coastal protection, California is a national trendsetter and a role model for what kind of blue planet we leave the next generation. “This is the only state where you can get elected or lose your job based on your positions on coastal protection and offshore oil,” Monterey Rep. Sam Farr likes to point out.

One reason is Californians’ sense of entitlement to their 1,100 miles of oceanfront. This grows out of the state’s history as a maritime frontier dependent on access to the Pacific for its economic and social development. This access became enshrined as a right with passage of Proposition 20 in 1972. That initiative created the state Coastal Commission, whose mandate (written into law four years later) is to stop unwise development along the shore while guaranteeing public access to the beach for all Californians.

“The coast is never saved, the coast is always being saved,” warned the late, ever-vigilant Peter Douglas, founder and longtime executive director of the commission. What has been preserved includes some of the most spectacular beaches, sea cliffs and wilderness coves to be found anywhere, leading one World Bank delegation to declare California’s the best protected coastline on Earth. Californians have repeatedly voted to ensure that protection by passing a series of coastal bond measures. The only ocean protection funding ever voted down was in 2010, when California was feeling the worst impacts of the recession.

Kelp forests are among the offshore habitats in California's oceans, where the state fish the Garibaldi, below, and giant sea bass, at top, are found. © Charles Seaborn, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Kelp forests are among the offshore habitats in California’s oceans, where the state fish the Garibaldi, below, and giant sea bass, at top, are found. © Charles Seaborn, Monterey Bay Aquarium

More lasting has been California’s diversity of stakeholders in marine recreation, transportation, trade, energy, fishing, tourism and national defense, including America’s two largest ports and second-largest naval base. Because the state doesn’t have any single industry or special interest dominating its marine policies like oil and gas in Louisiana, fishing in New England or real estate developers in Florida, it tends to have better outcomes. This democracy of blue interests can generate long, drawn-out battles, but these fights usually end in a sound consensus.

One example is the 13-year struggle among recreational fishing interests, divers, scientists and conservationists that concluded in 2012 with 16 percent of the state’s waters designated as marine protected areas. These limited and no-take wilderness habitats have in essence moved California’s world-famous state park system into the water. Based on studies of marine parks already in existence, these new sites also will accelerate an already impressive comeback among the state’s marine wildlife, including more than 20,000 migratory gray whales and hundreds of visiting blue whales, the largest animals ever to live on Earth, plus 300,000 California sea lions and thousands more dolphins, white sharks, harbor seals, elephant seals, sea otters, brown pelicans, leatherback sea turtles and giant ocean sunfish.

This increase in wildlife reflects the resiliency of the ocean once sound policies for reducing pollution, managing small fish like herring and sardines, preserving the coastal wilderness and protecting marine mammals are adopted. As a result of both state and federal actions, one beach along the Central Coast saw its first elephant seal haul up in 1990. Its first breeding pair were sighted in 1992. Today 17,000 of these great beasts return to this beach each year to molt and breed.

On Northern California’s Klamath River, an agreement among farmers, fishermen, coastal tribes, the state and a power company to take down an old dam is expected to help boost that region’s wild salmon population. The state’s commercial fishermen also voluntarily reduced the size of their bottom-trawling fleet to keep earning their livelihoods on the constantly changing and challenging waters of the Pacific.

Not surprisingly, California’s major ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, which combined are the largest port complex in the Western Hemisphere, are also leading a global “greening ports” movement. They have reduced air pollution more than 70 percent in eight years and dramatically cleaned up their waters. The U.S. Navy decided to homeport its most energy-efficient warship, the Makin Island, in California as a sign of its commitment to reduce its fossil fuel use off America’s greenest (bluest?) state. Even the Air Force, which controls 37 miles of the coast for its space command at Vandenberg Air Force Base has an agreement with the Coastal Commission not to launch its missiles and rockets over the Channel Islands during the four months of seal pupping season.

Along with its commitment to the ocean, California is also addressing climate change as a coastal issue, combining cutting-edge science research on ocean acidification and warming with creation of high-resolution maps of state waters – supported by the state’s Ocean Protection Council – that are helping communities adjust zoning and development plans in the face of rising tides, increased storminess and coastal erosion. California is also dealing with the root cause of a projected 3- to 6-foot rise in sea level this century by developing its own climate policy, including a cap-and-trade system for fossil fuels that the federal government has failed to adopt.

California’s ocean policies are not perfect. There was the recent mystery of 1,200 stranded sea lion pups off Southern California, where surfers also are cautioned to wait 72 hours after a rainstorm before entering the water because of polluted runoff. Fierce debates also are under way about plans for desalination plants and relicensing of the state’s last nuclear power plant on the coast.

Still, California has done more to protect its ocean, coast and the communities that depend on them than any other state or most nations. And that’s not a bad example to follow from sea to shining sea.

Garibaldi (California state marine fish) © Charles Seaborn, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Garibaldi (California state marine fish) © Charles Seaborn, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Marine protected areas

The Legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999 to redesign a system to protect marine life, habitats and ecosystems. The Department of Fish and Wildlife formed five marine protected areas and had each region conduct a planning process to establish goals and new rules. The four coastal protected areas have their plans in effect. In the fifth area, San Francisco Bay, there are options for a planning process but no work has begun.

Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. His newest book is “The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea.”

This story was originally published on August 11, 2013 by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Featured image: Giant Sea Bass © Randy Wilder, Monterey Bay Aquarium

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2 Responses to Can California save the ocean?

  1. David Helvarg says:

    Peter would no doubt agree with Janet that it was the people of California that passed Prop. 20 and gave the Coastal Commission its ongoing strength. In my book, ‘The Golden Shore’ I quote Alan Sieroty explaining how he had Peter write the language of the Proposition (and later law). Peter, Sam Farr and others helped lead the campaign for Prop. 20 in 1972 that was also hugely impacted by the trauma of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill three years earlier. For more on the amazing grassroots efforts to protect California’s coast see my chapter ‘Save Our Shores’ in The Golden Shore and of course Janet’s documentary which I look forward to seeing myself.

  2. Janet Bridgers says:

    To clarify (based on my interviews for the Heroes of the Coast documentary), Peter Douglas was a legislative aide to Alan Sieroty during the Prop. 20 campaign, which established the Coastal Commission. Yes, he was always a major figure, but it is the people of California who passed Prop. 20 who deserve the credit as founders and Douglas continued to serve the interests (for the most part) of the people. For more info on the documentary, see http://www.earthalert.org.