On Wednesday Dec. 19, a statewide network of California marine parks was completed after twelve years of effort. On Thursday the 20th, President Obama announced the largest expansion of California marine sanctuaries in 20 years.
Both events reflect the state’s more than 100 years of leadership in protecting, restoring, and exploring its coastal and ocean frontiers — starting with the establishment of the Stanford University and Scripps marine labs in the late 19th and early 20th century, the creation of the first no-take marine refuges off La Jolla and Monterey in 1929 and 1931, establishment of the sprawl-preventing California Coastal Commission voted into being in a popular referendum in 1972, and other ground-breaking (and ocean-saving) laws and actions. These included state mandated fisheries and habitat regulations, creation of coastal parks, a white shark protection act passed in 1993, establishment of an Ocean Protection Council in 2004, and cutting-edge scientific research and adaptation planning for the impacts of climate change along the state’s 1,100-mile coastline.
A maritime frontier, home to the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, with the largest concentration of marine science stations (also white sharks and blue whales), and the largest port complex in the Western Hemisphere, California has always been defined by its relationship to the Pacific just as its people — surfers, sailors, fishermen, entrepreneurs — have increasingly sought ways to live well by the sea.
Of course, with most of its more than 37 million residents feeling a sense of entitlement to the beach and ocean, decision-making on marine policy can tend to be very contentious. The establishment of the final segment of the network of undersea parks off far northern California on May 19 guarantees that 848 square miles or 16 percent of state waters are now permanently protected, including 9 percent off-limits to fishing, harvesting, or any other form of extraction, gaining the level of wildlife habitat protection previously seen only in terrestrial wilderness areas. But it took twelve years, and lots of angry public hearings, lawsuits, threats of violence, and a sustained backlash from the recreational fishing industry — counter-balanced by support from divers, surfers, scientists, and environmentalists — to map out and designate these final boundaries.
For President Obama the decision to more than double the size of two of California’s four national marine sanctuaries was a lot easier. His decision to do this through the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will see the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank marine sanctuaries’ borders expanded by 2,771 square miles, assuring no oil and gas drilling along 50 miles of ocean north of San Francisco from Bodega Bay on the Marin-Sonoma County line to Point Arena in Mendocino County, a stretch of rugged coastline that includes some of the most scenic bluffs, beaches, and headlands in North America.
Obama’s decision was in support of retiring area Representative Lynn Woolsey, who has led a long campaign to expand these sanctuaries with backing from the governor, area fishermen, environmentalists, the tourist industry, and town and county officials, but had been blocked in the House by Republicans opposed to any limits on potential offshore oil drilling. Also, the president’s decision to begin the administrative process that will make the expansions permanent in about two years follows in the footsteps of President George W. Bush, who established much larger marine monuments in the Pacific starting in 2006 and his father who, as president, signed off on the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, California’s largest, created in 1992 specifically to prevent oil drilling from taking place off the central coast.
“This area is a national treasure. It needs and it deserves permanent protection,” explained Rep. Woolsey, who was speaking of the federal sanctuary decision but could just as easily have been talking about the previous day’s decision to protect state waters.
I recently got to free dive off Catalina Island in southern California where a small long-established, half-square mile marine reserve next to USC’s Wrigley marine lab has now been expanded to three square miles under the new underwater park rules. I found its near shore kelp beds swarming with big calico and kelp bass, large orange Garabaldi fish and lots of small fry. Closer to the beach were rocky nooks and caves full of lobster and big five-foot bat rays swimming over the sandy bottom. Under the lab pier was a large school of white sea bass about twenty pounds each.
Along the cliffs on the far side of the pier the water was crystal clear and cold with more kelp and the sun bright overhead. Resting on the surface amidst the giant brown algae I could look up a steep slope covered in prickly pear cactus and Catalina live-forever, a succulent plant native to the island. Below the surface I could free dive through open channels in the seaweed to play with small opaleyes, apple green fish with yellow spots, caramel spotted calico bass and more hunky orange Garabaldis, plus suspicious, antennae-waving lobsters.
It felt good to be in a marine wilderness and also to know that other Californians will get to experience this same salty frontier rush for generations to come.
David Helvarg is an author and Executive Director of the Blue Frontier Campaign (www.bluefront.org). His next book, The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea, will be released by St. Martin’s Press this February.