Conservation & Science

California shows the world: We can save the ocean

Through September 2, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary are hosting Big Blue Live – an unprecedented series of live natural history broadcasts from PBS and the BBC. Big Blue Live highlights the remarkable marine life that gathers in Monterey Bay each summer, and celebrates an ocean conservation success story of global significance. We’re publishing guest commentaries about conservation efforts that contribute to the health of the bay and our ocean planet. This comes from four ocean conservation leaders: California Resources Secretary John Laird, former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard and former Defense Secretary and Congressman Leon Panetta.

The health of our vast global ocean holds the key to our survival. Today, we’re at a critical moment when our decisions to address the threats of climate change and illegal fishing will shape the future of the ocean. We must act boldly so the ocean can continue to play the critical roles that enable life on Earth to exist.

Crabs are a favorite prey item for sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. By eating the crabs, otters help restore the health of coastal ecosystems. (Photo by Ron Eby)
Crabs are a favorite prey item for sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. By eating the crabs, otters help restore the health of coastal ecosystems. (Photo by Ron Eby)

The ocean is our playground and a massive driver of global commerce. It makes the oxygen we breathe and buffers us from the impacts of climate change. It serves up protein for millions of families and children. Our ocean is a source of inspiration and innovation for technologies that will sustain us into the future.

We have not always been good stewards of the ocean and its marine life. However, the ocean can be incredibly resilient. When we do the right thing, it has an extraordinary capacity to recover from the insults we hurl its way.

Celebrating a success story

This week we’re celebrating an amazing California ocean success story, in an extraordinary way, through Big Blue Live. These live television programs put the spotlight on the incredible rebound of ecosystems and ocean animals that were, within our lifetimes, on the brink of extinction.

Lunge-feeding humpback whales in Monterey Bay. (Photo by Tyson Rininger)
Lunge-feeding humpback whales in Monterey Bay. (Photo by Tyson Rininger)

Humpback and blue whales were decimated by commercial whaling. California sea otters, prized for their lush fur, were thought to be extinct. Only 100 or so Northern elephant seals survived the onslaught. Populations of sea lions (hunting) and brown pelicans (pollution) had plummeted. And once-vibrant commercial fisheries were in sharp decline.

But people took action – and our actions made a difference.

We enacted treaties in the early 20th century that ended commercial hunting for sea otters and elephant seals. We adopted moratoriums on commercial whaling in the 1960s and 1970s. The massive Santa Barbara offshore oil disaster in 1969 catalyzed the biggest environmental movement our country has ever seen. Lawmakers were inspired to enact scores of landmark environmental laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

The 1969 oil rig blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel was the catalyst for a wave of environmental protection legislation.
The 1969 oil rig blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel was the catalyst for a wave of environmental protection legislation.

We created the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the first body to recognize the interconnected nature of ocean and atmosphere on this blue planet that is our home.

California enacted additional protections from the Coastal Act and later the Marine Life Protection Act and Marine Life Management Act, broadening our focus to not just managing for the sustainability of a single species but instead for the health of entire ecosystems.

Today, these laws and agencies form the foundation of our system of environmental protection. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without them.

A foundation for recovery

Monterey Bay’s rejuvenation is the product of these and other far-sighted actions. In the 1930s, ocean scientist Julia Platt fought, as mayor of Pacific Grove, to create the state’s first marine protected area along her city’s shoreline. In the 1990s, a bipartisan effort established Monterey Bay as the largest national marine sanctuary in the continental United States.

Hopkins Marine Reserve was created in the 1930s in Pacific Grove. Photo courtesy Stanford University
Hopkins Marine Reserve was created in the 1930s in Pacific Grove. (Photo courtesy Stanford University)

In the past decade, California used a science-based and stakeholder driven process to design the largest network of marine protected areas in the country, and federal fisheries rules were rewritten to put a priority of safeguarding the health of ecosystems that fish need to thrive. One result? Once-depleted populations of popular West Coast groundfish are again staples on seafood menus, 15 years after fishermen faced economic disaster.

The groundfish recovery mirrors similar improvements in other U.S fisheries under the ecosystem-based management approach enacted in 2006 – an approach that’s offers a positive example for nations around the world to embrace.

New challenges await 

The recovery of whales and dolphins, sharks and sea otters in Monterey Bay is cause for celebration. Big Blue Live is showing us how much we stand to gain when we’re good stewards of the ocean.

Many other ocean challenges need the same attention. We must end overfishing on the high seas, in waters beyond all national borders. The climate crisis threatens the health of the global ocean in ways we cannot fathom – with consequences we must avert.

Success will take concerted action, with involvement of citizens and government leaders, philanthropy and the business community. We’ve seen how collaborative leadership like this has made an enduring difference in the United States. We’re confident that, by engaging together, we can secure the health of the global ocean.

The story of Monterey Bay shows us a path to a successful, sustainable future. We have the inspiration we need – and the obligation to make a difference.

Learn more about how the Aquarium is working to promote a future with healthy oceans.

California kelp forest photo © Douglas K. Klug


3 thoughts on “California shows the world: We can save the ocean”

  1. Hi, I love the Monterey Bay Aquarium and have visited multiple times! I wanted to bring up a concern though, after visiting and looking on the website, I have found almost no mention of the sand and erosion problems with sand replacement strategies. While of course it’s a global problem, and not just the problem of the aquarium or bay area, I am disappointed to see the lack of information made for awareness or projects to help with parrot fish or alternatives to pumping sand with endangered ocean life. Could you please look into either adding some information into the aquarium/ on the website or starting a local project to help protect ocean life from this problem? I know as an influential aquarium and a popular one it might help to get the word out to tourist and other aquariums.


    1. That’s actually a really good idea. The main issue is that erosion problems are not that interesting and will not stick with tourists as well as animal extinctions would. Still it would be great to include information on all of the issues instead of only the most popular.


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