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.
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.
This story ran 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.