Ocean Sanctuaries Are a Boon for Fish, Seabirds, and Marine Mammals
A chain of more than 100 Marine Protected Areas offer a safe haven for creatures from albatrosses to whales along California's 1,100-mile coastline.
This story is running in the July-August 2012 issue as "Life Insurance." The online version has been changed to reflect that on June 6, 2012, the California Fish and Game Commission approved and adopted regulations for the North Coast, putting in place a chain of more than 100 marine protected areas extending from Oregon to Mexico.
In the mid-1970s, when salmon stocks were plentiful along California's north coast, boats packed tightly into harbors during the summer fishing season. Lights from the swaying vessels reflected off the water and lit up dark, foggy bays, transforming the sleepy coastal towns of Mendocino, Elk, and Albion into the likenesses of Saint-Tropez, recalls Dave Jensen, a commercial salmon fisherman in his twenties at the time. Fishermen slept on their boats and glided through the narrow channels of the harbors in the early morning darkness.
"You rolled out of the sleeping bag and fired up the engines in the dark, heading out with every expectation of catching a lot of fish," says Jensen. "It was still kind of a gold rush mentality in that you got up early and you were prepared to put in a long, hard day with every promise of it being profitable. What you didn't know was whether you were working for five cents an hour or $15. But it was an incredibly exciting lifestyle."
Even in the heyday, an end to the prosperity lurked on the horizon. Enormous floating canneries--factory ships that could scoop up fish by the ton--made local fishermen nervous. "That was a whole different game than we were playing," says Jensen. By the early 1980s the salmon catch was on a slow but steady decline.
When it bottomed out Jensen tried his hand as a commercial diver doing underwater construction, ran a dive shop, and caught sea urchins. But in his thirties, tired of the boom-and-bust cycle, he went to graduate school. He studied entomology and the effects of pollutants on aquatic organisms, which led to a position as a "toxi-cop" enforcement officer at the California Environmental Protection Agency. "So I was on the other side," says Jensen, now a burly, bearded 62-year-old with an intense gaze and a deep laugh who is prone to an almost evangelical intonation in his storytelling. "Throughout my life I've straddled that fence repeatedly." The conservation ethic was always a part of his mindset, even during his time as a fisherman, when his lifelong devotion to seabirds began. Though fishermen aim to get the best catch they can and sell it at the highest profit, says Jensen, "they are at heart conservationists, because there has to be a tomorrow."
The MLPA, passed in 1999, requires the state to redesign its marine protected areas--much like national parks in the sea--along California's 1,100-mile coastline. The marine reserves established since the 1950s were too small and too isolated to support biodiversity. The new science-based refuges are now in place in four coastal regions, with the fourth, the north coast where Jensen has been hard at work, approved in June. Before the redesign, 80 marine protected areas covered 172 square miles; now there are 124 spread over approximately 845 square miles. The fifth and final region, San Francisco Bay, is on hold pending further planning efforts.