Monterey Bay's recovery chronicled in new book


The stunning beauty of Monterey Bay hides a history of exploitation. One wild species after another was hunted for profit and many to near extinction. In the early 1800s it was otters. When they were gone, the target became whales, then abalone. 1915 ushered in a relentless pursuit of sardines.

"At its worst, the bay was a smelly, polluted, empty mess," Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, said.

In the decade between 1935 and 1945, the canneries were the heart of the economy, hauling in about one million pounds of sardines a day. The processed waste was thrown back into the bay and the stench permeated for miles.

Palumbi says the depth of the devastation makes the revival an amazing story.

"They recreated an economy in Monterey that is based not only on tourism, but based on the health of the marine ecosystem," Palumbi said.

Palumbi has just co-authored a book called The Death and Life of Monterey Bay.

One of the early pioneers of protecting the bay was a marine biologist who became mayor of Pacific Grove in 1931. Julia Platt couldn't fight the canneries, but she did manage to make five miles of shoreline off limits to commercial fishing. That single act foreshadowed what are now called marine reserves.

Palumbi says another turning point was the creation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Steven Webster was one of four friends who came up with the idea in 1976. It is ironic and appropriate the non-profit with a mission of inspiring ocean conservation is housed in an old cannery.

"No one had ever grown kelp in captivity and a lot of the folks in the aquarium business said, 1. You can't do it and 2. Who wants to come see a bunch of brown seaweed anyway," Webster said.

The success of the aquarium exhibits is giving rise to a new generation of action.

Cindy Walter is the daughter of a fisherman and a local restaurant owner. She is trying to raise awareness about sustainable fishing practices. That means her menu does not include items like swordfish, tuna and shark.

"Seventy-five percent of all of the fish sold in the United States is sold in restaurants such as Passionfish, and so really makes the chef, the purchaser, the owner of the restaurant, it really does make them the gatekeeper to the oceans health," Walter said.

Today, Monterey Bay has found a economic and environmental balance that allows nature and people to coexist and thrive.

"Nobody would be allowed to take over this bay and ruin it for a single economic purpose any longer because it's our bay. It's our bay, it's not their bay," Palumbi said.

Palumbi says individuals can make a difference in transforming something even as big as an ocean ecosystem. In the case of Monterey Bay, determination and patience have paid off.

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