Our Dying Ocean
by Rex Gressett, December 21, 2016
I am occasionally tempted to crib at least bits of articles from other publications or even from local newspapers for publication in the AVA. So far I have resisted the temptation to simply cheer on (not that I wanted to actually steal) the work of other writers. I have read many things that I very much wanted to write about, fighter jets and drones the President elect, the effect of cats on local ecosystems and many other subjects that were covered in other places which I thought were interesting and pertinent locally but that seemed to lack the power of indignation and the attention to our own situation that is the trademark of the great AVA.
Up to now I have able to restrain myself.
That said, an article in the April 14 Press Democrat by Mary Callahan “Collapse of kelp forest imperils North Coat ocean ecosystem” is so damn good, so spot on and so well organized that I thought that I would at least call attention to it and possibly provide a bit of amplification.
Although she hedges a bit, her article, is an announcement that the coastal ocean is dying. Not sick, not just under duress, dying.
As we have often heard recently extinction is forever.
Kelp forests are the most complex and abundant ecosystems on earth, exceeding when they are healthy even tropical rain forests in both the diversity of species and the abundance of individuals. Enormous kelp forests once extended the length of the pacific coast to Alaska stretching out as much as three miles into the ocean. The little fish hide, the big fish lurk and the total ecosystem is extraordinarily diverse complicated and abundant. A kelp forest is a biological miracle.
When white settlers first came to Mendocino county in the mid-nineteenth century and established a fishing industry at the mouth of the Noyo river the abundance of aquatic life that they discovered was staggering.
Generations of hard working Fort Bragg fishermen made fortunes, enriched their families and raised their kids on the power of this profound gift of nature. No one imagined it would ever really end.
Systematically species by species that abundance has been ruthlessly exploited, depleted, and finally eradicated. The biological web has been unraveled.
In Fort Bragg, fishing had a crazy prosperity. The Mendocino canyon just down the road is a huge underwater trench which brings to the surface waters ocean millions of tons of very cold nutrient rich water from the deepest ocean where everything ends up after it dies. The kelp forests and the thousands of species that thrived in them were bathed in nutrients and stimulated by the extreme cold water. The kelp beds grew for millennium. The ocean immediately off the Noyo river was hugely alive.
Of course it has been hammered for a very long time. Over decades, political negotiations between CDFW (Fish and Game as it was formerly called) and fishing interests, targeted specific abundant and valuable species, allowed them to be gradually over-fished and then when the populations had demonstrably collapsed, removed them from permitted catch. It was assumed that being protected they would eventually recover.
But none of them ever did.
By the deliberate long term policy of Fish and Game, in protracted, heated and bitter negotiation with fishermen, Individual species not the web of relationships were safeguarded always after they had been disastrously reduced. The sardines were the first to go. The sharks were slaughtered for their fins and they were reduced to uncountable minimums. On and on, year after year, decade after decade it went. One species at a time we lost abundance.
I guess it was thought that losing a few species would leave us with an admittedly diminished ocean but one in which a few fish would still be hanging in there. CDFW policy did not account the living ocean a web. Somehow no one told them that all the species were interrelated. Profoundly. All species depended on many other relationships, hello. And they all depended on the sea-forest itself, the Kelp.
After a few decades of gross mismanagement things were not looking bright for the coastal fisheries but in the 80s it was gleefully discovered that when a kelp forest is in dramatic decline, Urchins appear.
When everything else living is mostly gone, little spiny balls are Sent from God to wrap things up. They eat the last of the kelp and finish the job. Apres nous le deluge.
However, to our communal relief this sudden profusion of Urchins had an extremely bright side. Urchins were valued in of all places Japan, where their reproductive organs are sold as sushi. Who knew?
The sheer mass of decline of the beds produced an equivalently great mass of urchins. A whole new boom ensued. Books were written on it. It was a “Blue Water Gold Rush.” Urchins became California biggest fishery. In Fort Bragg Bobby down at Ocean Fresh became at least one of and I think our Largest single private employer.
Then alas as Ms. Callahan has excellently written the rug was pulled from our feet by natural forces quite different from those that put it there in the first place. Starfish that had restrained the urchins from their ultimate task of eliminating the kelp forest got a disease and died in mass. The Starfish are coming back somewhat now, but it is too late.
Then warm water that kelp does not like, has come surging up from the equatorial zone in the el Nino and perhaps also from global warming. Not only the fat red urchins that the Japanese favor but little purple ones that alas have no commercial value but eat plenty of kelp appeared like the armies of the apocalypse and the rest of the kelp just went.
Now for the first time in millennium the ocean bottom is devoid of the hardy shoots of new kelp that divers have always seen this time of year and will see no more.
The details are heart rending. The abalone are climbing rocks to look for a little kelp, the urchins are reduced to a third of their conventional weight. We killed it all and this year we will see an urchin barren (so called) which is a desert where nothing lives. The blue algae will bloom and the very oxygen will be abstracted from the water. Everything that cannot get out of town will die. Seals, fishing birds, abalone.
What will the reaction be locally? For twenty years (almost) I have endured the pointed remarks and barbs of my fellow dwellers and workers in the harbor decrying the alarmist exaggeration that things in the ocean were off by even a beat. That there are plenty of fish in the sea — in Fort Bragg that is not a platitude it is a doctrine. One you can get in a fight over. But the show in the coastal ocean appears to be suddenly and definitely over.
It is not so much when the fat lady sings as when the lights go on in the auditorium that the fantasy has to end. When we see as a community that all life has ended in our coastal ocean, will even that make a difference?
When the horse is out of the barn do you deny the existence of horses? Is this mass of death and desertification the only way to some reasonable policy of sanity. Nature, not CDFW, demands rationality or rather, punishes a perverse irrationality fiercely. It is the end of a great deal. I wonder if it is the beginning of anything.