4 Key Lessons Learned From The Death and Rebirth of Monterey Bay (Book Review)


Photos by Chris Patton

So often we read books on ecology that detail the downfall of a species or habitat. Finally, here is a book that does the opposite, explaining instead the incredible comeback of one of the most important locales for marine biodiversity.

The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival by Stephen R. Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka is about human potential as much as it is about ecosystem recovery. We already know our capacity to destroy habitats and fisheries -- we are witnessing that this very moment with the devastation of coral reefs, mangroves and shorelines, and the disappearance of bluefin tuna, sharks, sea turtles and countless other species used for human consumption. But we also have the potential to protect an area, and help it return to its original splendor. The exploitation of Monterey Bay, but more importantly, how it has returned to health, is detailed through entertaining lessons on species interdependence and the quirky characters who helped the recovery happen. Here are some of the clues for the survival of many ecosystems held within the pages. I grew up on the coast of California, a couple hours south of Monterey Bay. In our area, it was a very big deal to see a sea otter, and we usually only saw maybe two or three at a time. We'd spot seals every so often while fishing off the pier, and the annual arrival of the elephant seals in San Simeon was quite the event. Brown pelicans were around, sort of, but the only shore bird that had a real presence were the gulls. In other words, spotting sea life outside of the tide pools was exciting, and in no small part because it just wasn't all that common. But over the last few decades, that's changed and it's because of the work done up in Monterey Bay by unlikely yet no less avid conservationists, and a lucky break from Mother Nature. I had no idea until reading this book just how much of an influence what happened in the last 40-odd years in Monterey Bay had on my getting to see any of these amazing animals at all as a child.

After the Spaniards discovered Monterey Bay, the plentiful otters were trapped to extinction (or so we thought), then the abalone, then whales were targeted, and squid, and finally, the species most attached to Monterey, the sardines. The new communities living around the bay saw money in the waves, and they went after whichever species would yield the most return. However, eliminating species after species sent the bay into a spiraling decline. While some researchers saw the signs -- such as Ed Ricketts, the man behind Doc's character in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, and Julia Platt, the scientist-turned-mayor who created the first marine reserve while attempting to save the bay -- everyone ignored the warnings as long as money was pouring in.

The events that brought the bay back can't be easily summed up, though this book does a fantastic job at attempting it; everything from banning DDT to the collapse of the canneries, to the return of a tiny troupe of sea otters spared from trappers and appearing decades after everyone was sure the species was extinct, to the investment made by a billionaire family in building the now world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium all play a role. But the complexity of how the bay made a come-back underscores the complexity of the bay itself.

As is the case in any ecosystem with a broad range of species, the web connecting them all together is complex, and the snip of one small thread could collapse half the web. That's what happened in Monterey Bay. However, repairing that web is possible. But with a few key lessons. While this is by far not a complete list of all the important things discussed by Palumbi and Sotka, they're several key components to bringing an ecosystem back from the brink gleaned from this book.

Key Lessons from the Recovery of Monterey Bay

1) Diversify where money comes from, and quotas, quotas, quotas The primary downfall of the bay came by exploiting one species at a time until they were wiped out. It started with the sea otters who were killed for their pelts, since they were a keystone species in maintaining the health of the kelp forests. Then there were abalone and whales, and finally it was the sardines -- each species pushed to the very edge of existence until luckily it became too hard to hunt them for profit and they were finally left alone. As Monterey found balance again, the communities in the area also found that a diversity of income is as important to their survival as to the survival of wildlife. As different people rely on different threads of a web, it is more likely that the web as a whole will stay intact as people protect what puts food on their table.

And of course, setting hard and fast quotas for sustainable hunting -- something we humans have a terrible time mastering when it comes to fisheries. Perhaps it's because it's impossible for us to see what's happening to the ocean as we glance out at it from the shoreline, but we have always seemed to think that fisheries have an endless bounty. We're finding out the hard way, however, just how untrue that is. We're on track for emptying the entire ocean of major fisheries by 2050, and bluefin tuna may only be around as a species for another two or three years. Yes, two or three years. That's IT. If there's one big lesson Monterey Bay is trying to teach us, it's that nothing is endless.

2) Everyone gets a say in how conservation happens
In discussing a recent debate about deciding what fraction of the bay would face restrictions and what the restrictions would be, Palumbi and Sotka illustrate how scuba divers and fishermen argued over banning fishing off the Monterey Coast Guard jetty. The divers argued it is a safety hazard since hundreds of divers enter the water around the jetty every weekend. However, the fishermen countered that it's one of the few places they're still allowed to fish. Each side was at an impasse until another gentleman got up and stated simply, "It's the only jetty with wheelchair access in the whole country. It's the only place that disabled veteran fishermen can go to fish."

This story underscores how keeping a healthy balance in an area also relies on giving everyone a little of what they want out of the area. Yes, diving is important for the tourism industry, let alone for research. But so too is allowing people room to fish. There are myriad compromises to be made in maintaining healthy habitats and balancing them with human communities, but if everyone gets a say in the debate then most of those compromises can likely end satisfactorily. Sure, the divers didn't get the strict fishing restriction they were hoping for, but they probably didn't feel so sore about it after hearing the other side's reasons for wanting their space to cast a line. The divide closed at least a little, which creates space for the next compromise.


3) The biggest cut of the wealth goes to education about the area's ecosystem
A significant component of the restoration of the bay came from the $50 million investment the Packard family (of Hewlett-Packard fame) poured into the creation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The team behind the aquarium, including the conservation-minded family, researchers, and architects, all stayed true to a vision of showing visitors the splendor of the undersea habitat just outside the aquarium. This was unusual at the time, since most aquariums focused on showing coral reefs, tropical fish and more exotic wildlife. However, the strategy worked. Over 2 million people visited the aquarium in the first year and it continues to be one of the most important aquariums worldwide for marine research.

By educating people about the habitat off the coast and generating significant interest in tourism, the aquarium showed that the bay's flora and fauna is more valuable alive than dead. This type of education is behind many conservation efforts around the globe -- when someone sees, and appreciates an ecosystem through interaction with it, they're much more likely to want to preserve it.

For instance, photographer Bryant Austin is working this strategy by displaying life-sized photographs of whales in aquariums and galleries in countries where whaling is popular. He hopes that the awe a person sees at seeing a whale tower over them will make them think again about whaling, and the practice will end, or at least become more sustainable. Education has to be a priority within conservation.

4) Understand that we don't really understand the complexity of interdependence within ecosystems
The effects of species loss are sometimes hard to identify, especially because they can be so far reaching. Ravenous sea otters keep urchins and abalone in check, which in turn allows giant kelp to grow strong, which in turn provides habitat for hundreds of other species -- including the otters themselves who use kelp to anchor themselves while sleeping on the sea's surface. Yet even this is intensely oversimplified.

Palumbi and Sotka point to Ed Ricketts as someone who most intimately understood the intricacies of the bay's ecosystem. He recognized the changes, saw the collapse of the sardines coming, and yet he wasn't even a "real" scientist but someone who spent hours on end watching and witnessing the lives of flora and fauna living in the tide pools and relied on their health for his income. Ricketts' Between Pacific Tides is required reading for anyone interested in marine biology in no small part because it emphasizes remembering the "big picture."

When we take a moment to step back and remember that we probably don't know every detail about every connection in an ecosystem, we remember that every element of it is important -- that we have to conserve the whole thing if we want to conserve part of it.

That's the bottom line of this book -- restoring a habitat means getting in line with it, recognizing that it is bigger than us, and working within its requirements - not our own - in order to help it thrive.

"Over the years, people have come to control some of the sea's rhythms. Fishermen still bow to the will of the deep, braving storms and chasing fish. But now human industry can change the oceans themselves, driving some species to near extinction and altering those estuaries, bays and seas. The story of Monterey shows how our actions, when out of sync with the natural rhythms of ocean life, can ruin that life. But it also shows that synchronizing with nature's patterns can help restore a bay."

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This month, BookHugger is reading The Death and Life of Monterey Bay by Stephen R. Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka. Order a discounted copy today to get ready for the live chat with the authors on June 13 at 3pm Eastern. TreeHugger readers get 30% off the cover price!
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