David Helvarg’s book, The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea has received critical acclaim from marine enthusiasts including Dr. Sylvia Earle who calls it “a thrilling read.” In Chapter 3 titled “Ghost Forests,” he reports on the creation of a network of Marine Protected Areas (or Hope Spots) and other reserves that now cover 16 percent of California’s waters. These include some of the seas off Catalina Island described in the excerpt below.
By: David Helvarg
We’re diving along open sandy bottom when suddenly a six-hundred-pound sea lion streaks past us on the hunt like some sleek, flexible torpedo. Sometimes they’ll check you out and want to play with the slow, awkward bubble breathers but not this one. He’s working. So I examine some turban snails and limpets and an old algae-encrusted dinner plate sized abalone shell that reminds me of what’s been lost. I get distracted and don’t watch where I’m going and then have to untangle my tank and BCD from the clutches of several rubber-hose-like kelp strands. Giant Kelp and bull kelp are the dominant marine plant species along the California coast and can grow a foot a day which sounds awesome till they’re yanking on your regulator hose.
After clearing my gear I check out some rocky crops covered in tangled white mats of vascular mesh like holdfasts that secure the brown kelp’s stems, serrated leafs and bubble floats. While I’m playing botanist with this mass of algal spaghetti Scott spots an abandoned hoop net used for catching lobsters and frees a 3-foot leopard shark trapped inside.
While leopard sharks are thriving along the California coast, up to 73 million other sharks are slaughtered each year for their fins used in shark fin soup, a tasteless but expensive vanity item popular in China. California passed a law banning the sale and possession of shark fins in late 2011. This was more than a symbolic gesture as until then California had the largest market for shark fin soup outside of Asia. Polling showed that over 70 percent of Californians of Chinese descent supported the ban. Many worry that due to their continued global slaughter sharks may be going the way of the American buffalo. Buffalo, I’m glad to report, are doing okay on Catalina.
We spot one of the shaggy celebrities on a cliff top the next day, along with a few bald eagles, while working our way down the coast from the Avalon pier to the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies (marine lab) near Two Harbors. We’re aboard an open nineteen-foot boat driven by Trevor Oudin, the lab’s sun-reddened, clean-shaven twenty-nine-year-old boat handler. It’s turned cold and foggy overnight, though with his black watch cap and jacket Trevor doesn’t seem to notice. He was raised in Two Harbors and went to its one-room schoolhouse before being bused cross-island to the high school in Avalon. He left for a few years to go to college at USC but is back now. “I can still get my fix of city life. It’s just a boat ride to LA and we can get Korean food or Thai or whatever but without all that big city hustle,” he explains. He’s engaged to the lab’s young manager Lauren Czarnecki. We pass a harbor seal on a rock waiting for the sun that’s not coming out today and a frenzy of seabirds feeding on squid. “Everyone’s feeding now.” Trevor smiles. It’s been a good year for squid. “Here with my fiancé we all eat well,” he notes. “People, my generation of friends, we’ll do dinner parties and we all cook. I’ll serve venison I hunted or fish I caught. Good, healthy food.”
Trevor also used to hunt goats and pigs, but the Catalina Conservancy, which owns 88 percent of the island, has eliminated them as invasive species that threaten the native Catalina foxes’ habitat. The goats gathered on the highest crags at night to bed down and were relatively easy to eliminate, but the pigs (introduced several times, most recently in the 1930s to eliminate the island’s native rattlesnakes at a Boy Scout Camp) were wily, and it required professional hunters using helicopters, camouflage and night vision goggles to finally kill them off. There are still some 2000 introduced deer on the island whose elimination is more controversial with local hunters and admirers. The Buffalo that once numbered as many as six hundred are descendents from an original fourteen who arrived by barge as extras for the 1925 silent film about Indian life, Vanishing Americans based on a Zane Grey novel. Gray also spent summers fishing in Avalon whose Tuna Club is the birthplace of modern big-game sportfishing. Catalina was the backdrop for numerous other movies, including Ben Hur, Treasure Island and parts of the original Mutiny on the Bounty. It was already a shooting locale for L.A.’s emerging film industry in 1919 when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. bought the island from the sons of Phineas Banning, founder of the Port of San Pedro. The island conservancy that the Wrigley family later established, despite its ruthless approach to invasive species control, has decided that a herd of 150 Bison is a cultural legacy that is also ecologically compatible with the island’s native flora and fauna. For a time they’d been shipping the younger animals to an Indian reservation in South Dakota, but since 2009 they’ve instead put the herd on birth control.
The Wrigley Lab dock area at Fisherman’s Cove has been a marine reserve since 1988, where fishermen and divers aren’t allowed to remove the wildlife. Under the new MLPA guidelines, the half-a-square-mile protected zone is being expanded to three square miles.
“It’s been here over twenty years as a reserve so there are big kelp bass and sheephead under our dock,” Trevor tells us as we tie off at the pier and I can look down and see some big fish right there. “We’ve got sand sharks, bat rays, morey eels, Garabaldis, lobster…” He points to where fifty to seventy leopard sharks filled in a narrow arm of the cove the previous summer till a big bull sea lion found them and started trapping them against the shore, pulling them out one by one and tearing them apart. “After that the sharks moved to the other side of the dock” – he points – “near that open pebble beach, so they can’t get trapped in a narrow inlet again.”
Six months later I return to Catalina aboard my friend Jon Christensen’s thirty-foot sailboat. It’s mid-July and Two Harbors now looks like a maritime tailgate party with over 250 boats moored at its anchorages and overflowing into 4th of July Cove and Cherry Cove. Remembering the lab tour I talk Jon and Charlie Landon into taking our eight-foot rubber inflatable into the cove in front of the lab, where we go snorkeling. The kelp is thick and swarming with big calico and kelp bass, large orange Garabaldis and lots of shoaling small fry. We spot five-foot bat rays flying through the water column. Closer to the beach we find rocky nooks and caves full of lobster and more big bat rays laying next to each other on the sandy bottom. We make our way to the pier and underneath find a large school of white sea bass about 20 pounds each.
Along the cliffs on the far side of the pier the water is crystal clear, like the Caribbean, only with kelp and the sun bright overhead. Resting on the surface amid the giant brown algae, I can look up at a steep slope covered in prickly pear cactus and Catalina live-forever, a succulent native only to this island. Below the surface I can free dive through open channels in the seaweed to play with small opaleyes, apple green fish with yellow spots, big caramel-spotted calico bass and hunky orange Garabaldis and suspicious antennae-waving lobsters in crevices and it feels good to be in a wilderness again. I suspect ten or fifteen years from now Californians, who today vehemently oppose Marine Protected Areas, will shrug and reluctantly acknowledge that something useful and important really did happen when our state park system moved underwater.
David Helvarg is Executive Director of Blue Frontier and the author of six books: Blue Frontier, The War Against the Greens, 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, Rescue Warriors, Saved by the Sea and The Golden Shore.
Join David at the Blue Vision Summit in Washington, D.C. on May 9-11, 2017!