Ocean Sanctuaries Are a Boon for Fish, Seabirds, and Marine Mammals
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.
The reserves were designed to allow fish, seabirds, coral reefs, kelp forests, and other sea life to thrive with minimal disturbance in a variety of habitats. Jensen compares the protected areas to a savings account you use to create a buffer. “Basically the intent of the MLPA is to build in that cash reserve for the ocean so that you’re not living paycheck to paycheck out there, so that we don’t have groundfish stocks that are just barely sustainable,” he says. “Because they will crash. Maybe it’s great this year. But we’re two bad summers away from a total catastrophe.”
That could spell disaster for the entire food chain. Several studies show that the reproductive success of seabirds rests on the availability and abundance of food. When fish abound near shore, coastal birds’ foraging trips are shorter and more successful. Marine reserves harbor more fish and allow long-lived ones—like rockfish species that need 20 years to reach reproductive maturity and can live for more than a century—to grow larger, which leads to more robust populations. “Doubling rockfish size is probably a bigger conservation benefit than doubling the number,” says Don Croll, a University of California-Santa Cruz marine conservation biologist. And mounting evidence indicates that healthier populations within the reserves have a spillover effect, benefiting not only the species in the protected areas but also strengthening fish populations outside their borders.
On a bright, crisp September morning we set out to get a firsthand look at some of the areas that will be protected and the wildlife that will benefit, including local seabirds and long-distance voyagers that travel here from as far away as Hawaii and New Zealand to feast in these bountiful waters. The pungent smells of sea salt and raw fish fill the air in the sleepy seaside town of Crescent City, California, just 20 miles south of the Oregon border. Our boat guide, Craig Strong, a tall, soft-spoken seabird biologist who has studied these birds since he was 12 years old, is a member of the MLPA science team. Audubon’s Weinstein, a conservation biologist known for her frank manner and fierce championing of seabirds, is also aboard, her hair pulled back loosely with wispy curls framing her face.
This rugged coastline, studded with rocky domes, spires called “sea stacks,” and craggy cliffs, provides some of the world’s most important seabird nesting habitat. Early in the morning Strong guides our boat past Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge, a 14-acre island that juts steeply out of the water and is one of seven proposed “special closure” areas. Under the new regulations, boats aren’t allowed within 300 feet, providing a buffer for the skittish birds that raise their young here. Castle Rock is one of the largest nesting seabird colonies in the lower 48 states, providing critical habitat for roughly 120,000 seabirds, representing 13 species. It possesses diverse habitat niches, each perfectly suited to a particular bird’s lifestyle. Pelagic cormorants nest on steep cliff faces to minimize predation, using the incline as a runway for takeoff. Cassin’s auklets and rhinoceros auklets find safe haven for their eggs by digging burrows in the dirt, tucked far away from cliff sides, or by nesting in rock crevices.
The protective zone around Castle Rock is particularly important for species like common murres and Brandt’s cormorants. They’re closely tied to their breeding colonies and rely heavily on juvenile rockfish, sardines, anchovies, and krill in these near-shore waters throughout the year. As we pass by, penguin-like common murres glide down from their perches, likely embarking on foraging trips during which they’ll dive tens to hundreds of feet deep for a meal. Weinstein is closely involved in designating Castle Rock and nearby False Klamath Rock as “global” Important Bird Areas, which will take effect this year. Global IBAs either host species that are considered significant because they’re rare or in decline or are home to an unusual multitude and diversity of birds. “The north coast IBAs are precedent-setting and among the first,” says Weinstein.
As we reach the northernmost point of our boat trip, eight miles from our launch, we’re greeted by a raucous cacophony of barks, belches, growls, and harps emanating from the congregation of seals and sea lions on the rocks surrounding the St. George Reef Lighthouse, some seven miles offshore. At least 30 humpback whales swirl around us, their mighty bodies generating waves that rock our cozy, 21-foot boat, making it feel downright inadequate. Strong cuts the engine, and for nearly an hour we take in the heaves and blows and the lunges and crashes of breaching whales, some close enough to our boat that we can see barnacles clinging to their flippers. Upwelling from the California Current, a cold-water conveyor belt that extends from southern British Columbia down to Baja California, draws decaying organic matter and nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate from deep water and delivers them to these shallow, near-shore waters. This, in turn, drives the bounty of phytoplankton, krill, and fish on which the whales beneath us are feeding.
Amid the bustle, the seabirds busy themselves around us. A handful of potato-sized Cassin’s auklets skid across the surface, bouncing and surfing on the calm sea. Two marbled murrelets, federally listed as a threatened species, bob on the water and then dive for a meal of bite-sized krill, sardines, or Pacific herring. A lively conversation of throaty caws and shrill chirps ensues between a common murre father and his nearly fledged chick. This chatter is “a vital lifeline before the chick can feed itself,” says Strong.
During the spring breeding season, Brandt’s cormorants and common murres pack tightly together, forming salt-and-pepper-hued blankets of nesting colonies, tens of thousands of birds thick. “It’s spectacular, especially on islands like [Castle Rock], where full hillsides are completely covered,” says Strong. From a distance, he says, “you feel like you’re looking at a busy street, or a concert of people. You forget, looking through a scope, how small the birds are.”
For the rest of the year, seabirds are less visible to us, with islands like Castle Rock quieting down like resort towns in the off-season. The birds spend the majority of their lives at sea, linked to land only long enough to raise their young. “If they could hatch eggs on the water surface, they’d never touch land,” says Jensen. “The choke point in their survival is their ability to come onto land and be undisturbed, have their young, and then get back out onto the ocean.”
Seabirds are inextricably linked to the marine ecosystem; they’re near the top of the food chain, consuming 20 percent to 30 percent of pelagic fish production. Although they don’t provide direct services to humans, their role as ecological sentinels is clear. “They’re like a smoke detector,” says Jensen.
Periodically fish populations will falter or crash for reasons that aren’t well understood, and seabirds mirror these changes. In 2009, on Southeast Farallon Island near San Francisco, Brandt’s cormorants had the lowest breeding population ever recorded there, according to a 2010 report by nonprofit PRBO Conservation Science. It concluded that depleted numbers of anchovies and other forage-fish species led to the low breeding success of Brandt’s cormorants and common murres. A 2006 study by University of California-Berkeley researchers attributed the declining populations of marbled murrelets to the collapse of Pacific sardine fisheries in the late 1940s and the depletion of other central California fisheries. That, in turn, led murrelets to fish lower on the food web and hindered their reproductive success.
The northern fisheries I’m visiting are considered relatively healthy compared with those on the Southern California coast, where development and fishing pressures are much higher. Some fishermen argue that fish stocks are flourishing in Northern California waters and that the MLPA regulations are unnecessary. Long-term data are limited, but the area is home to several National Marine Fisheries Service “species of concern”—species whose numbers are reduced but for which there’s too little information to list as threatened or endangered—such as bocaccio, yelloweye, and canary rockfish.
On the north coast, fishing for some species is already restricted to May through mid-September. Foul, unpredictable weather further limits the number of viable fishing days. So it’s natural that additional restrictions would cause friction, especially given that the process required people with competing interests—commercial and recreational fishermen, Native Americans, scientists, and conservationists—to agree on which areas should be protected.
After months of discussion and compromise, they came to an agreement. In late 2010 all 31 stakeholders, as well as the team of 21 scientists, supported the plan. In the final scheme, 5 percent of the north coast region has complete protection and 12 percent has partial protection, with limited fishing, including in some key rockfish habitat. The proposal was adopted, unchanged, by the state, and the regulations will take effect in early 2013.
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.
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.