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

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Some research may help us manage or mitigate the effects of climate change on the oceans. Working in American Samoa, Palumbi discovered coral reefs that “can survive the hottest Pacific water we know about and still do quite well,” he says, “whereas other corals die at those temperatures.” The heat-resistant reefs are the ones that must be protected from development at all costs, he argues, because they’ll provide homes for fish even if the other reefs around them are dying.

Bay researchers have also changed the way we eat. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is among the most effective consumer-awareness programs ever devised: Since its founding in 1999, its 40 million pocket guides and 1 million downloaded smartphone apps have advised North American consumers which fish to buy and which to avoid. And the aquarium successfully pushed for California’s recent ban on the shark fin trade: “A huge victory,” says Julie Packard. “Now we’re starting to look at options on trash—legislation that sets targets for reducing marine plastic waste. I think we can have a huge impact on that.”

The biggest impact is in the heart 

Never discount the power of beauty. Monterey Bay was saved in large part because Julia Platt and her voters judged it beautiful enough to merit saving. Today the bay’s scientists and conservationists hope they can spark similar passion to save all the planet’s oceans.

Says Packard, “Growing up, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in rural California. So I had a real connection to the outdoors. Now I realize that when you’re talking about nature, you’re talking about the ocean—because most of nature is the ocean.” The trick, she continues, is to make people feel how vital the oceans are to their lives. “At first we thought the aquarium was going to be all about conveying facts to people, and they would understand them. Now we realize what’s important is the emotional impact—what you feel when you see our huge sunfish or the cathedral light of our kelp forest exhibit. The biggest impact is in the heart, not the head.”

Palumbi is heading back on the trail toward Hopkins Marine Station. It’s later in the afternoon now. The bay sparkles. He talks about the ways Monterey Bay and the research done here can affect the rest of the world. “I tend to be an optimistic person,” he says. The changes the oceans are experiencing are grave, alterations not experienced in the last 50 million years. But, Palumbi says, we still have a chance, if we can halt the things we do that are damaging the atmosphere and so damaging the oceans.

“I go all over the world and give talks about the problems the ocean faces,” he says. “And then I come back here. There are so many places where you can say, ‘Oh, this got bad, and then that got bad.’ But Monterey Bay is one of those rare and special places where the tape ran backward. Where you can see things get better. It helps to have a good example.”

Sea science: How Monterey researchers study our changing oceans

  • Long Marine Laboratory, Santa Cruz. The problem: Declining fisheries. How their research helps: Finding out if establishing marine reserves truly results in more fish.
  • U.S. Geological Survey, Santa Cruz. The problem: Tsunamis like the one that hit Japan in 2011. How their research helps: Identifying our most vulnerable coasts so we can prepare.
  • MBARI, Moss Landing. The problem: Warming oceans. How their research helps: Proving, alas, that warmer water temps affect sea life in California as well.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey. The problem: Shrinking sea otter populations. How their research helps: Pollution? Disease? Determining why otter populations are still smaller than they should be.
  • Hopkins Marine Station, Pacific Grove. The problem: Threatened coral reefs. How their research helps: Finding reefs that cope with a warmer Pacific Ocean.
 

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