Fading Tide Pools
Theories abound concerning the dwindling marine life in Pacific Grove's tide pools
Thursday, March 11, 1999
Observed changes in the local tide pools at Point Pinos and the Great Tide Pool in Pacific Grove are raising a tidal wave of differing opinions among residents, environmental groups, researchers and governmental bodies.
Pacific Grove resident and retired science teacher James Willoughby recently spurred a discussion on the matter when he noticed a serious decline in the size and populations of animals, like brilliant orange bat stars, mussels, ochre stars, eel grass, crabs, clams, and worms in Pacific Grove's tide pools.
"The fauna isn't there," says Willoughby. "The ocean has been stripped away and this generation doesn't know any better."
As small and insignificant as the numerous invertebrates bathing and lingering in their cold, shallow pools may seem, their decline could represent a degradation due either to human collecting or a change in the health of the Monterey Bay ecosystem.
Willoughby, along with the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club, charge that the city of Pacific Grove is not properly monitoring the area, and it is being stripped of tide pool life by tourists. They also believe that too many permits are being issued to scientists and that the Department of Fish and Game does not have the resources to carefully monitor all of these aspects of the Coastal Parks Plan.
While Pacific Grove's coast is a protected "no-take area," Willoughby and the Sierra Club raised the issue of the invertebrates' decline to the Pacific Grove City Council in a meeting on Feb. 17. Their main point: The Coastal Parks Plan of 1972, adopted in August of 1998 by the city, should be enforced. This plan spells out the responsibilities and guidelines requiring each coastal city to have a Coastal Land Use Plan for the protection of local shorelines.
Willoughby asked the city to implement a five-point plan to reduce loss of tide pool animals due to human collection. The plan calls for a comprehensive field study of invertebrate life between the Point Pinos area and intertidal life of Hopkins Marine Station; a moratorium on the taking of any animals, even by scientists; a requirement that all classes and group interpretive programs obtain a use permit to enter tide pool areas; increased surveillance, and posting of signs detailing the sensitivity of the area.
"The first step is that education is key, and signs educating the public would be beneficial and not harmful, to explain the tide pools and reserves," says Diane Alberts, coastal chair and vice chair of the Sierra Club.
"We need more education and signs to prevent the cumulative impact of people walking in and taking home things when they shouldn't," says Carrie Wilson, an associate marine biologist with the California State Fish and Game Department.
However, sight observation of the decline in the numbers and sizes of invertebrates is not enough to officially change policy. Scientists, residents and officials would like to know more. The tide pool debate deepens because of differing opinions in the scientific community over the lack of information.
Many in the local scientific community believe there's a possibility that the changes in our ocean are due to climate change and not a direct factor of human impact.
"Climatic conditions could have more effect than trampling or occasional collecting by people," says Chuck Baxter, a retired invertebrate biology and ecology professor who taught at Hopkins Marine Station. "I'm reluctant to blame people who are developing an interest in the habitat, and reluctant to bar people from the seashore. I want them to do more visiting and thinking. The more people love it, the more they protect it."
"We've seen more kinds of species around Hopkins Marine Station and the habitats have looked different for that reason [global climate change]," says Baxter. "I have noticed a lot of changes in abundance and diversity."
Yet another explanation for the decrease in invertebrates is the gradual repopulation of the California sea otter since the mid-1960s. "Each otter eats two tons [in soft tissue] of crab, abalone, sea urchins, hermit crabs, turban snails and more on a list of 70 invertebrates per year," says Steve Webster, marine science advisor of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "They take far more than any human does."
In addition to keeping up its goals of educating and practicing conservation in the community, the Aquarium, according to Webster, does very little collecting in the tide pools and reports what they take to the Department of Fish and Game. Aquarium officials say that the animals they take outside the park for the touch pool are "borrowed" and about 95 percent make it back to the ocean.
None of the species in the tide pools are endangered. However, in the 1980s, the Pacific Grove sewage outfall led to problems in the populations of invertebrates. Since then, there have been visible improvements and studies done by professors like John Pearse of UCSC.
"We compared Point Pinos with Natural Bridges and concluded that it's still a very rich and diverse area, says Dr. John Pearse, a retired professor from UCSC. "I believe it would take more than human impact to wipe out those populations."
Nevertheless, to what degree human collection does take a toll in the loss of tide pool animals is not known because the Department of Fish and Game, the agency responsible for monitoring the coastal area, lacks the manpower to sufficiently enforce "no-take" laws.
"We don't have enough people who can keep us dedicated to that area and we don't have enough patrolmen," says Wilson. "I think there is a lot of traffic and impact."
And the city of Pacific Grove lacks the jurisdiction to take the matter into its own hands. "The city should make it known that there are laws in the books to prohibit and stop devastation of tide pools," says Knight. "[But] the city doesn't have resources to stop it. They're reticent to make any aggressive moves until the review of the California Fish and Game OCalifornia Ocean Plan [a comprehensive study of the marine ecosystem].'"
Knight proposes going to state Assemblymember Fred Keeley and Senator Bruce McPherson to grant some local authority to the city of Pacific Grove. "The city has a long history of people who care," says Knight.