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

Peter Fish

Stephen Palumbi surfs and plays in a rock band, but mainly he’s a marine biologist. So when he takes a visitor on the trail that winds from Hopkins Marine Station along the rocky shoreline of Monterey Bay, he mostly talks about the bay. Here’s where otters gather, and farther out, that’s where humpback whales tend to feed. As gulls squawk, Palumbi, the marine station’s director, points to a tawny crescent beach crowded with seals and newborn pups. “Seals, seabirds, otters, whales—the bay is better off than at any point in the last 150 years,” he says.

A few generations ago this would have been counted a big surprise. Then, Monterey Bay was one of the most polluted places on the Pacific Coast—“an industrial hellhole,” he says. Now it’s a kind of paradise. And one with a remarkable lesson.

The dire state of the world’s oceans can make even the most environmentally minded shut down.

  • Garbage: We’re filling the oceans with trash, most famously in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the vast (twice as big as Texas, per some estimates) coagulation of plastic floating between California and Hawaii.
  • Overfishing: We’ve taken 90 percent of large fish like shark and swordfish; 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are harvested at capacity or are in decline.
  • Hot water: Because oceans are absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, marine temperatures are rising—bad news for species evolved to live in cooler waters.
  • Acid seas: Pollution and climate change can reduce the oxygen in oceans to deadly levels for marine life. They can also raise acidity, which destroys coral reefs; already 20 percent of the world’s reefs have died, with another 60 percent at grave risk.

If it’s any consolation, even people who have built careers in conservation can feel overwhelmed. “I’m as subject to bad news as the next person,” says Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium for the last 30 years. “I listen to the NPR reports on coral reefs and climate change—it’s hard. But the only thing that is going to lead to positive change is that we all get involved. Because really, what’s the alternative?”

The one place on the planet where the oceans’ problems might be solved is the place Packard and Palumbi call home: the 120-mile indentation on the central California coast called Monterey Bay. It’s a special spot, the bay. Famously beautiful, its 455 square miles nurture one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, including dozens of species of marine mammals, still more of seabirds, hundreds of species of fish, and one of the largest kelp forests in the world. The bay’s most dramatic feature is not visible from shore: Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon, a chasm that in depth and complexity is the undersea equivalent of the Grand Canyon.

Put it another way: If you were a marine scientist who wanted to study stuff that nobody had ever seen—and which might help you better understand the world’s oceans—Monterey Bay would be the place to do it.

Today, the area hosts the largest concentration of marine science research and policy institutions in the world, nearly three dozen. With them comes one of the planet’s largest gatherings of world-class marine scientists, some 200 to 300, estimates Palumbi. This assemblage of marine knowledge is akin to Silicon Valley’s cluster of high-tech expertise, says Meg Caldwell, executive director of the Monterey-based Center for Ocean Solutions. “You have all these experts just a 20-minute drive away.” It all comes back, she adds, to the bay’s wealth of marine environments from deep sea to beaches to kelp forest. “Really, the biodiversity is phenomenal. It’s like having Africa’s Serengeti in our backyard.”

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