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The Ocean Comes to Sacramento

Cali activists say 'No Way Dude - We don't want your Crude!' (photo by D. Helvarg)
Cali activists say ‘No Way Dude – We don’t want your Crude!’ (photo by D. Helvarg)

Sometimes California gets it right. When it comes to protecting its coast and ocean, the state’s citizens guarantee that. March 24 will mark the 7th annual Ocean Day in Sacramento with dozens of marine conservation activists from Environment California, Heal the Bay, Surfrider, Coastkeeper Alliance and others descending on the Statehouse from up and down the golden shore.

On a per capital basis, California’s 38 million people can claim less than two inches of shoreline each, not even a thumb’s length of sand and rock overwashed by salt water. Yet what a glory these 1,100 miles of coast, coves, working waterfronts, high bluffs, bays and headlands represent.

As I recount in my book, ‘The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea’ there is the urban coast below Point Conception where the southern bight with its wide sandy beaches and low marine terraces has seen the growth of major cities, ports and naval installations but also surfing, boating and recreation. North of Point Conception by Santa Barbara the Pacific becomes one of the roughest fetches of ocean on the planet, continuing to challenge the survival skills of fishermen, sailors and mariners both along the state’s scenic central coast and spectacular, thinly settled Redwood Coast whose largest city Eureka has a population of just 28,000.

This year’s Ocean Day focus includes support for California’s newly established but still controversial ocean reserves that under the Marine Life Protection Act now include 16 percent of state waters. These reserves, hugely popular with recreational divers and less so with the recreational fishing industry have moved California’s world-class state park system into its water column. If the experience of similar reserves established around Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands ten years ago are a good indication, these newer ocean wilderness parks will soon experience impressive increases in both their biomass (more and bigger fish) and the health of their kelp forest and other habitats that may also provide greater protection against the impacts of climate change.

Ocean Day’s citizen lobby will also address ways California can deal with sea level rise, ocean acidification and other climate change impacts. Again, California is already in the lead with about half its coastal towns and counties developing adaptation plans, the state Ocean Protection Council providing high-resolution hydrographic mapping and other technical support and state law addressing the source of the problem by having established a Cap and Trade carbon reduction program.

Other issues for Ocean Day include plastic and related marine debris. When the Statehouse, under pressure from industry lobbyists, failed to ban single use plastic shopping bags several years ago more than twenty cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles did it locally under pressure from their citizens. Sam Farr, the congressman from Monterey, once explained that, “California is the only state where you can get elected or lose your job depending on your positions on offshore oil and coastal protection.”

Ocean Day activists represent millions of Californians who have a sense of entitlement to their coasts and ocean – a sense reinforced by the public access provisions of the State Coastal Act (you protect what you love) and the inspiring return of marine wildlife including once depleted whales, dolphins, elephant seals and sharks thanks to both sound policies adopted over the past generation and the natural resiliency of the ocean including the California Current (called the “Serengeti of the sea”) and nutrient-rich offshore upwelling zones.

But the most important factor may be that California has a diversity of blue interests. With its ports, the U.S. Navy, fishermen, surfers and the coastal tourism industry, marine science centers and more no single special interest can dominate ocean policy. And it is where you have single interests dictating policy in places like Louisiana with oil and gas or Florida with real-estate developers that you see coastal seas in decline.

Having so many blue interests and so much passion guarantees both raucous conflicts but also generally good outcomes along the golden shore. Californians can take pride in having evolved from a late maritime frontier whose waters were ravaged and exploited to a world-class model for marine stewardship.

But they’ll still need more and bigger Ocean Days because, in the words of the late Peter Douglas, long time Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission, “The Coast is never saved, the coast is always being saved.”