How we saved Monterey Bay

A humpback whale leaps from Monterey Bay in an image released by PBS to promote a three-night special called “Big Blue Live.”
A humpback whale leaps from Monterey Bay in an image released by PBS to promote a three-night special called “Big Blue Live.” Nature Picture Library

This week, the BBC and PBS are showcasing the success story of Monterey Bay in a series of live prime-time television events called “Big Blue Live.”

Behind the TV shows stretches a long history of citizen, scientific and government efforts to protect the greater Monterey Bay area, which contains the country’s largest kelp forest, one of the continent’s largest underwater canyons and hundreds of species of fish and shorebirds.

As a member of the Santa Cruz City Council in the 1980s, I was part of a regional effort to designate the Monterey Bay as a National Marine Sanctuary. At the same time, the community mobilized to prevent oil development on this stretch of California’s coast.

When the sanctuary was designated in 1992, oil extraction was prohibited, giving additional protections to the many sea species that call Monterey Bay home.

The state joined in with broad initiatives. The Marine Life Protection Act was enacted to help bring back crashing fish populations off the coast. It resulted in the designation of 124 protected areas covering nearly 1,000 square miles through a process driven by stakeholders and based on science. The Marine Life Management Act directed resource managers to shift state efforts from conserving single species to entire ecosystems. These two laws underpin California’s commitment to manage marine resources for the health of the entire ocean.

A key part of the story of the Monterey Bay and its thriving marine environment is the diversity of groups and individuals who have come together over the years to protect this amazing area. “Big Blue Live” gives us an opportunity to view in real time the spectacular ocean life just below the waves. We can reflect on how we were able to achieve this success and focus on the future.

While “Big Blue Live” focuses on the Monterey Bay, as chairman of the Ocean Protection Council, I consider how we can replicate partnerships like these throughout California and beyond.

The council – set up a decade ago to bring together different state agencies on ocean issues – continues to develop policy and fund work that ensures we have the best information available. We coordinate with tribes, local governments, nongovernmental organizations, businesses and community members. We cross jurisdictions and mandates in our recognition that ocean health has reached a critical point.

Ocean conditions are changing in ways and at a speed we have never before seen. Sea-level rise, warmer ocean temperatures, increasingly acidic waters and low-oxygen dead zones threaten habitats and sea life. No one agency or group has the knowledge, capacity or resources to address these challenges alone, but Monterey Bay shows we can act for tomorrow if we act together. We must do so to give the next generation a healthier ocean than we inherited.

John Laird is California secretary for natural resources.