Ocean Sanctuaries Are a Boon for Fish, Seabirds, and Marine Mammals

A chain of more than 100 Marine Protected Areas offer a safe haven for creatures from albatrosses to whales along California's 1,100-mile coastline.

This story is running in the July-August 2012 issue as "Life Insurance." The online version has been changed to reflect that on June 6, 2012, the California Fish and Game Commission approved and adopted regulations for the North Coast, putting in place a chain of more than 100 marine protected areas extending from Oregon to Mexico.

In the mid-1970s, when salmon stocks were plentiful along California’s north coast, boats packed tightly into harbors during the summer fishing season. Lights from the swaying vessels reflected off the water and lit up dark, foggy bays, transforming the sleepy coastal towns of Mendocino, Elk, and Albion into the likenesses of Saint-Tropez, recalls Dave Jensen, a commercial salmon fisherman in his twenties at the time. Fishermen slept on their boats and glided through the narrow channels of the harbors in the early morning darkness.

“You rolled out of the sleeping bag and fired up the engines in the dark, heading out with every expectation of catching a lot of fish,” says Jensen. “It was still kind of a gold rush mentality in that you got up early and you were prepared to put in a long, hard day with every promise of it being profitable. What you didn’t know was whether you were working for five cents an hour or $15. But it was an incredibly exciting lifestyle.”

Even in the heyday, an end to the prosperity lurked on the horizon. Enormous floating canneries—factory ships that could scoop up fish by the ton—made local fishermen nervous. “That was a whole different game than we were playing,” says Jensen. By the early 1980s the salmon catch was on a slow but steady decline.

When it bottomed out Jensen tried his hand as a commercial diver doing underwater construction, ran a dive shop, and caught sea urchins. But in his thirties, tired of the boom-and-bust cycle, he went to graduate school. He studied entomology and the effects of pollutants on aquatic organisms, which led to a position as a “toxi-cop” enforcement officer at the California Environmental Protection Agency. “So I was on the other side,” says Jensen, now a burly, bearded 62-year-old with an intense gaze and a deep laugh who is prone to an almost evangelical intonation in his storytelling. “Throughout my life I’ve straddled that fence repeatedly.” The conservation ethic was always a part of his mindset, even during his time as a fisherman, when his lifelong devotion to seabirds began. Though fishermen aim to get the best catch they can and sell it at the highest profit, says Jensen, “they are at heart conservationists, because there has to be a tomorrow.”

a very rational approach to management,” he says.

The plan also grandfathers in Native American tribes’ rights to continue, as they have for thousands of years, subsistence fishing, as well as catching chiton, sea urchins, and seaweed and using feathers in traditional ceremonies. Jacque Hostler, chief executive officer of the Trinidad Rancheria, which encompasses five tribes, says she feels that the MLPA has helped bring about a “renaissance” by giving a voice to the tribes.

James Bassler, a Fort Bragg–based commercial fisherman who depends on rock fisheries, says he initially dreaded getting involved in the process but was pleased with the end result. “I think they’re a reasonable set of reserves, and we’ll see how they work. We weren’t overly regulated. It’s going to be a little bit disruptive, but I don’t think it’s going to cause any major problems. I think it has a good chance of keeping most people happy.”


As we arrive at the southern point of our seven-hour journey, just north of the Klamath River mouth, sheer cliffs hem the coastline. Wispy fog hovers atop lush, old-growth forest dominated by epic redwoods. The thick canopy of these ancient trees provides critical habitat for marbled murrelets, seabirds that nest in forests. Murrelets prefer towering trees that are inaccessible to mammalian predators and that provide refuge from avian predators like crows. They nest on bare branches wide enough that the eggs won’t roll off. Strong has been surveying populations in the region for 20 years. The loss of old-growth trees from logging and forest fires is hastening a rapid decline of murrelets, particularly around Washington’s Puget Sound, he says. The MLPA regulations could help bolster murrelet populations by ensuring a plentiful food source. Healthy fish populations would also be a boon for birds that come here from afar to feast, such as the black-footed albatross and the sooty shearwater.

We catch sight of one of these long-distance travelers, a black-footed albatross, as it sweeps by our boat, arcing elegantly overhead before landing on the water nearby. Weinstein bolts up excitedly; we’re five miles from land, and albatrosses typically don’t come in so close to shore. “Huhhhh . . . hello.” She marvels, then points out the bird’s long, slender wings, which are uniquely designed for its 2,500-mile journeys between here and Hawaii.

A few days later Jensen surveys the coastline in Fort Bragg from a familiar cliff. The former fisherman reflects on how decades after he first became enamored of seabirds, he’s still astounded by these incredible creatures that spend nearly their entire lives at sea. Even for dedicated birders, familiar with the sight of showy warblers, cardinals, and woodpeckers, seabirds are largely unseen and unheard.

“Albatrosses do nothing except be albatrosses—totally inspirational,” says Jensen. “Same for the smaller birds. When we go out on a pelagic trip—this is one of the things that just fascinates me, that causes me to stop in my tracks and ponder—we’ll spend all day out looking at birds. There will be skuas, terns, 100, 200 black-footed albatrosses out there. Then come about 3:30 we turn the boat around and head for home. I sit out on my deck and I think, ‘I’m back in my house. They’re still out on that ocean. They spend the night there, they spend the good weather out there, the stormy weather out there. That’stheir home.’ ” He pauses mid-thought to inspect two gulls that have landed behind us, then continues. For now, he says, “we can all go home feeling that we’ve done the best we can.” The seabirds—attuned to their intimate role within the ecosystem—will have the ultimate say.


This story ran in the July-August 2012 issue as "Life Insurance." The online version has been changed to reflect that on June 6, 2012, the California Fish and Game Commission approved and adopted regulations for the North Coast.