Ocean Sanctuaries Are a Boon for Fish, Seabirds, and Marine Mammals
The regulations establish special closures, such as 300-foot protective ribbons to minimize disturbance to critical areas for seabirds and mammals, including the threatened Steller sea lion. Seabirds spook easily, and when they’re disturbed by boats or by humans clamoring about, they often desert their nests, leaving chicks vulnerable to predatory birds like gulls. “When we came up with the final arrays [of refuges], we ran the numbers for protection with and without the special closures,” says Jensen. The addition of seven special closures, including Castle Rock, created an “incredible dynamic leap in net protection” for seabirds, he says.
Some species, like common murres, need all the help they can get. In the 1980s the use of gillnets—drift nets used to catch a range of fish, including salmon—ravaged the bird’s populations globally and particularly on the California coast. The United States eventually adopted a gillnet ban in continental shelf waters. Now rising numbers of bald eagles pose a threat. In the past decade they’ve begun invading colonies. When eagles land, parents typically fly away, abandoning their eggs. Often it’s too late for them to lay more. “So the eagles wipe out their reproductive capacity,” says Strong. “It looks really bad for murres. The effect is spreading down the coast.”
Local fishermen who weren’t involved in the MLPA process are largely hostile toward any more regulations. “The more they restrict [fishing], the less people are gonna come,” says Bob Ginocchio, a 70-year-old charter boat owner, of commercial and sports fishermen. But those who helped craft the agreement are more hopeful that it strikes a balance between economics and conservation. Having people like Jensen at the table made a difference in the negotiation process and brought about some very practical measures, like special closures, says Larry Knowles, owner of Rising Tide Sea Vegetables, a commercial seaweed business based in Mendocino. “To me [special closures are] a very rational approach to management,” he says.
The plan also grandfathers in Native American tribes’ rights to continue, as they have for thousands of years, subsistence fishing, as well as catching chiton, sea urchins, and seaweed and using feathers in traditional ceremonies. Jacque Hostler, chief executive officer of the Trinidad Rancheria, which encompasses five tribes, says she feels that the MLPA has helped bring about a “renaissance” by giving a voice to the tribes.
James Bassler, a Fort Bragg–based commercial fisherman who depends on rock fisheries, says he initially dreaded getting involved in the process but was pleased with the end result. “I think they’re a reasonable set of reserves, and we’ll see how they work. We weren’t overly regulated. It’s going to be a little bit disruptive, but I don’t think it’s going to cause any major problems. I think it has a good chance of keeping most people happy.”
As we arrive at the southern point of our seven-hour journey, just north of the Klamath River mouth, sheer cliffs hem the coastline. Wispy fog hovers atop lush, old-growth forest dominated by epic redwoods. The thick canopy of these ancient trees provides critical habitat for marbled murrelets, seabirds that nest in forests. Murrelets prefer towering trees that are inaccessible to mammalian predators and that provide refuge from avian predators like crows. They nest on bare branches wide enough that the eggs won’t roll off. Strong has been surveying populations in the region for 20 years. The loss of old-growth trees from logging and forest fires is hastening a rapid decline of murrelets, particularly around Washington’s Puget Sound, he says. The MLPA regulations could help bolster murrelet populations by ensuring a plentiful food source. Healthy fish populations would also be a boon for birds that come here from afar to feast, such as the black-footed albatross and the sooty shearwater.
We catch sight of one of these long-distance travelers, a black-footed albatross, as it sweeps by our boat, arcing elegantly overhead before landing on the water nearby. Weinstein bolts up excitedly; we’re five miles from land, and albatrosses typically don’t come in so close to shore. “Huhhhh . . . hello.” She marvels, then points out the bird’s long, slender wings, which are uniquely designed for its 2,500-mile journeys between here and Hawaii.
A few days later Jensen surveys the coastline in Fort Bragg from a familiar cliff. The former fisherman reflects on how decades after he first became enamored of seabirds, he’s still astounded by these incredible creatures that spend nearly their entire lives at sea. Even for dedicated birders, familiar with the sight of showy warblers, cardinals, and woodpeckers, seabirds are largely unseen and unheard.
“Albatrosses do nothing except be albatrosses—totally inspirational,” says Jensen. “Same for the smaller birds. When we go out on a pelagic trip—this is one of the things that just fascinates me, that causes me to stop in my tracks and ponder—we’ll spend all day out looking at birds. There will be skuas, terns, 100, 200 black-footed albatrosses out there. Then come about 3:30 we turn the boat around and head for home. I sit out on my deck and I think, ‘I’m back in my house. They’re still out on that ocean. They spend the night there, they spend the good weather out there, the stormy weather out there. That’stheir home.’ ” He pauses mid-thought to inspect two gulls that have landed behind us, then continues. For now, he says, “we can all go home feeling that we’ve done the best we can.” The seabirds—attuned to their intimate role within the ecosystem—will have the ultimate say.