Q&A With Authors of 'The Death and Life of Monterey Bay'

Seascape of Monterey Bay in Pacific Grove, California at Sunset. Ken Wolter/Shutterstock

MNN: How did you first become interested in Monterey Bay and why did you decide to write a book about its history?

Stephen R. Palumbi: I spend a lot of time doing research and giving talks about the ocean being in trouble — but the ocean I live and work next to, Monterey Bay, is stunningly beautiful. How did Monterey Bay get to be so lucky and avoid all the troubles the rest of the oceans face? A little initial work with Carolyn Sotka showed that Monterey Bay hadn’t avoided all these troubles, but was an overfished, industrial wasteland 80 years ago. Where Monterey Bay got lucky was with the people that recognized these problems and worked hard to fix them. They worked against huge odds, but fought stubbornly for what they thought was right. And in the end, they succeeded.

Carolyn Sotka: When I moved to Monterey in 2002, I was immediately charmed by the bay. It’s hard not to be when in a single instant you can see otters sleeping intertwined in kelp fronds, dolphins cruising along shore, seabirds diving for an afternoon snack, and a humpback breaching in the distance. But I soon found out it wasn’t always as pristine, as magnificent. It certainly started that way, but deteriorated as humans began to exploit the oceans.

To track how the bay changed over time, Steve and I devoured local historical accounts, contemporary books, scientific archives and photographic journals. We saw an opportunity to describe both the bay’s cultural and natural histories. What we discovered was an environmental success story: the revival of one of the world’s most treasured coastlines.

Most people associate Monterey Bay with otters, whales and sea lions. But in "The Death and Life of Monterey Bay," you really focus on people. Why are humans so important to this story?

Palumbi: People affect the ocean every day, and have the power — through mass fishing and industry — to change the way whole ocean basins look. Most ocean conservation stories focus on the people who ruin things, but in Monterey Bay, we had a chance to look at how people helped make things better. But it’s not just about people. It is also about the relationships between marine life: When things are going badly, the ruin spreads from one species to another. Fortunately, these relationships also spread the benefit from one species to another when things in the ocean are going well.

Sotka: The book is really about the intersection of people and wildlife. The bay changed as we took from it, and we took a lot over a relatively short period of time. We took otters, whales, urchins, abalones and sardines. It was almost systematic: When one resource was exhausted, we turned to the next. This pattern is seen along coasts worldwide, particularly as populations continue to grow. But people also have the power to change the tide. Humans unknowingly damaged the bay, but they also were inspired to preserve it — and did so successfully, with much less scientific knowledge than we possess today. The citizens of Monterey promoted principles of sustainability that were truly groundbreaking at the time. Their story demanded to be told.

What are some of the most unique and surprising stories you discovered while writing "The Death and Life of Monterey Bay"?

Palumbi: The vast number of otters taken in the 18th century; the foresight of Julia Platt; the irony of Ed Ricketts being the only one to realize that sardine canning created a Dust Bowl of the Sea; the best-friends energy that started the Monterey Bay Aquarium; the powerful positive role of human economic diversity in maintaining ecological stability.

Sotka: From my perspective, the most unique person we learned about was Dr. Julia Platt. She was one of the first American women to earn a Ph.D. in zoology and went on to become the mayor of Pacific Grove. She founded the Hopkins Refuge in 1931 and played a leading role in restoring the natural beauty of Pacific Grove’s rugged and magnificent coastline. Her story is one of trailblazing — both for environmental conservation and women’s equality.

What can conservation professionals around the world learn from the success of Monterey Bay?

Palumbi: Single people can make a difference — even if it takes a while for the positive effects to be felt. No one has a monopoly on the ocean, but when people have tried to get one, ruin generally results. The sea’s powerful ecological linkages are a safety net that can resist destruction, but that needs to be built back up in order for recovery to take place.

Sotka: The story of Monterey Bay is noteworthy because it is not just a downward trajectory. It is noteworthy because the same success could happen elsewhere. And it is noteworthy because citizens of other treasured places may be inspired to develop a sustainable way of life.

This Q&A; was provided by Island Press, publisher of "The Death and Life of Monterey Bay."