Monterey Bay's ecological renaissance

Monterey Bay has gone from toxic soup to pristine waters supporting sea otters, whales, and a thriving kelp forest. What we’re learning here might just save our oceans

Monterey Bay Aquarium octopus
Photo: Corey Arnold

How did it get better?

We’ve now stopped at a bend in the coastal trail, and Stephen Palumbi tells a story. It was 1947, and a college student named Merilyn Derby had just arrived at Hopkins to study marine biology. The day was sunny, the bay was inviting, and Derby grabbed a swimsuit and jumped in the water. It was cold, recounts Palumbi, but Merilyn expected that. What she didn’t expect came next. “Fish heads,” Palumbi says. “And fish tails. And guts. She jumped out of the water.”

That was what Monterey Bay was like for decades: a befouled nightmare. But it wasn’t the bay he saw when he moved here from Harvard in 2002. “It was so beautiful,” he says. “I found myself asking, ‘How did such a big place get ruined? Then how did it get better?’ ”

Palumbi began interviewing people like Derby for what became The Death & Life of Monterey Bay, his book (coauthored with Carolyn Sotka) published in 2012. He learned just how bad Monterey Bay had been. Start with 19th-century fur hunters, who decimated the bay’s sea otter population. Without the otters, sea urchins (the otters’ favorite food) multiplied wildly, devouring the bay’s kelp forests—which led to the demise of the fish and other life that depended on kelp to survive.

Next went the bay’s gray and humpback whales, hunted to near extinction, then the abalone. “A collapse of wildlife,” says Palumbi. Just one fish remained in abundance: sardines. When entrepreneurs realized the shiny silver fish could be caught and processed and sold to grocery stores, canneries sprang up along the bay shore. These supplied jobs and inspired one of local boy John Steinbeck’s most famous books, Cannery Row. But as Derby discovered, their industrial waste turned the bay into toxic soup: “They were dumping 100,000 pounds of fish guts and tails and heads into the bay every day,” says Palumbi.

The bay’s decline was rapid and seemingly irrevocable. Yet, improbably, it did recover. In part, it healed itself. Once the sardines had been fished out, the canneries closed. Without the canneries, the water became cleaner. That allowed sea urchins and abalone to return; these, in turn, lured the few remaining sea otters up from Big Sur to feed on their favorite foods in Monterey Bay. With fewer sea urchins, the kelp forest sprang back.

The need for human help

Yet that wasn’t the entire story. Palumbi found that at crucial moments the bay has received human help. One heroine stands out: Julia Platt, a marine scientist (the first American woman to earn a doctorate in marine biology) who became mayor of Pacific Grove, California, in 1931. Her training made her understand just how badly the bay had declined. She fought the canneries, and when she lost that battle, turned her energy to establishing the first community-sponsored marine preserve in the country, just offshore from Pacific Grove. It was in this protected zone that, decades later, abalone first reappeared. “Instead of giving up,” says Palumbi, “she said, ‘What else can I do to leave the ocean better than it was before?’ ”

Today, generations after Platt turned Pacific Grove City Council meetings into marine biology seminars to get her preserve established, research institutions dot the Monterey Bay coastline the way wineries dot Napa Valley. Each facility tends to focus on specific kinds of scientific questions. Palumbi’s Hopkins Marine Station studies how marine organisms react to their environment. Long Marine Laboratory zeroes in on marine mammals. Some of the most cutting-edge research occurs at MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute), command center for a fleet of robotic vehicles that delve as far as 2 miles down into Monterey Canyon, “past cliffs and to the deep sea floor, the abyssal plain that goes all the way across the Pacific,” says MBARI researcher Jim Barry. The vehicles, he explains, give access to part of the planet that would otherwise be as hard to explore as the surface of Mars.

Much of the current research is tied to the crises the Pacific faces. Because Monterey has been studied so thoroughly for so long, it’s an ideal place to determine how quickly climate change is affecting the ocean, by comparing what’s living here now with what lived here, say, 50 years ago. (The answer: more warm-water species now.)

 

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