All posts by CalOceans

It’s up to us to help the ocean recover

The ocean is like another planet for most people, full of discoveries yet to be made. As a biodiversity researcher at the California Academy of Sciences, I’m amazed by the astonishing array of life under the waves.

Though the ocean covers 70 percent of our planet, few places are untouched by human activity. Until not so long ago, the ocean seemed so infinite and huge, we could not possibly use up its resources. Many of us have seen those old black and white photographs of fishermen proudly standing next to enormous fish, or a cascade of sardines on a boat in Monterey. But today, the story is very different.

Overfishing, pollution and climate change are ravaging entire ecosystems around the world – rocky reefs, tropical waters and kelp forests alike. We now hear about emaciated whales, seals and seabirds that can’t find enough food in the sea to survive.

That’s why we should use the scientific tools that we have to help restore our ocean ecosystems right now, so that future generations won’t look back and wonder why

we didn’t stop the trajectory of ocean degradation while we still had the chance.

Marine protected areas and reserves are one of those tools, which have been proven to have a dramatic effect on the productivity, health and diversity of marine life.

Right now, the California Fish & Game Commission has the power to install a plan for north central California that will create a network of scientifically-vetted, community-created protected areas. A compromise plan, the “Integrated Preferred Alternative” has been created. All the Commission has to do is vote yes.

Creating these protected areas is one step toward recovering what we’ve taken from the ocean. These resources have been taken too quickly, with ever-expanding nets, technologies, and appetites. Of the 600 marine fish stocks monitored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about a quarter are already depleted or overexploited. Here in California, some fish species have declined by 90 percent from historical levels.

But I’m still hopeful. The wonderful thing about nature is her resiliency. Time and time again we see that if we reduce human pressures and give nature a chance, it’s amazing how fast she can bounce back.

Scientists around the world have found that when ecosystems are at their natural, healthy state, they have more resilience to climate change, big storms, and fluctuations in nutrients – the kinds of changes we know our oceans will increasingly face.

Marine Protected Areas are critical to the sustained ecological and economic health of California’s oceans. To some people, creating areas in the ocean where fishing is limited might seem extreme. But all we are really trying to do is make sure that we don’t deplete the resource forever, to the point that it won’t come back, which has already happened more than once with fisheries we didn’t protect in time.

That’s why it’s important to integrate science into the way we manage our oceans. Scientists agree that MPAs are like preventative medicine for healthy oceans. If we act now to take care of our coast, we are building a strong immune system so the oceans can cope with change. Here in California, right now, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to support healthy oceans by supporting marine protected areas.  

Dr. Healy Hamilton heads the Center for Biodiversity Research at the California Academy of Sciences and also leads the overall science program for the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium. She studies the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, and the genetics of seahorses, octopuses and dolphins for conservation efforts.

California: Leading the nation in ocean protection

50 years ago, when I began exploring the ocean, nobody imagined that anything we might do to or take from the ocean would affect its overall health. Now we know better. We know, for example, that we’ve taken more than 90 percent of many commercially exploited species from the sea, and that nearly half of the coral reefs have disappeared. The health of the ocean, humankind’s life support system, is at a crisis point.

We’re just starting to realize the true impacts of climate change and other human activities on the ocean, where protection has lagged far behind conservation efforts on land. The frightening decreases in fish size and abundance are well documented. The state of the fishing and seafood industries supports this finding, with declines in the number of vessels and processors, and drastically reduced revenues generated from California fisheries.  Now is the time to take action and put the Pacific on the road to recovery and long-term health.

The Obama Administration has made ocean protection a national priority, launching a new ocean policy task force in June–which the President dubbed Ocean Month–to unify management of the nation’s coasts and waters. This is exactly what is needed: a coherent national policy based on science and informed by local economic interests. As has become common when it comes to forward-thinking natural resource management, California is leading the charge.

On August 5th, the north central coast of California will have a new plan for ocean health under the Marine Life Protection Act, a landmark law passed 10 years ago to preserve the state’s most iconic attractions: our coast and ocean. After two years of careful study and community input, the Fish & Game Commission is poised to adopt a system of marine protected areas that will conserve the region’s sea life and habitats.

Local stakeholders have carefully reviewed scientific and economic data to create an ocean health plan that will protect key sites, such as the Farallon Islands and Point Reyes Headlands, while leaving 90 percent of the coast open for fishing. The plan is intended to meet the needs of diverse community groups, including fishermen, hoteliers and restaurateurs, conservationists and surfers.  It represents a fair compromise that will minimize short-term economic impacts while seeking significant conservation value, and thereby, long term economic gain.

With fisheries in decline, we can’t afford to delay these essential protections. The science and economic data are clear: the Integrated Preferred Alternative plan is the best solution for the north central coast.  I urge the California Fish & Game Commission to adopt this proposal “as is” to ensure the future health and resilience of our ocean.  

Marine explorer and oceanographer Sylvia Earle is Chair of the Deep Search Foundation and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. She led the development of Google’s “Ocean in Google Earth,” which launched in February.  Dr. Earle has logged more than 6500 hours underwater, led over 70 expeditions and set a record for solo diving to a depth of 3,300 feet.  She received the 2009 TED Prize for her wish to protect Earth’s ‘blue heart’ by establishing a global network of marine protected areas.