Hopkins director’s new book dives into the reasons Monterey Bay is among the rarest of water bodies: a healthy one.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Marine ecologist Stephen Palumbi strides through red-tinged iceplant toward the tidelands at Hopkins Marine Station, where he has a good view of the characters in his new book, The Death and Life of Monterey Bay.
Before him a crew of cormorants roosts on guano-coated Bird Rock. Thick forests of kelp texture the blue-gray bay waters, camoflaging two otters floating nonchalantly on their backs. The health of each species is a testament to Monterey Bay’s resurrection: DDT nearly wiped out the cormorant population in the 1960s and ’70s, as Death and Life explains, and hunters exterminated all but a tiny raft of Central Coast otters for their luxurious pelts at the turn of the 19th century.
As a whalewatching boat cruises by, Palumbi quips, “The business of whalewatching is now much bigger than whale hunting ever was.” It’s an impressive statement, coming from a man who chronicled the lurid and lucrative peak of Monterey Bay’s whaling industry in the late 1800s.
Turning another 90 degrees, he watches several dozen harbor seals lolling on West Beach, which he describes as the species’ favorite haul-out spot on the West Coast. A typical spring day brings 300-400 of the sausage-shaped pinnapeds – another population that’s regenerated since the area’s dirtier days.
In the relentless tides of bad environmental news these days, the renewed presence of these characters make Palumbi’s new book a refreshingly happy story. But it also sheds light on a dark, industrial past, when Monterey’s abundant wildlife was seen as a commodity to be plundered for profit.
And while otters, whales and kelp are the subjects of copious research at Hopkins, where Palumbi is now director, he and his co-author soon discovered that the most fascinating character in Monterey Bay’s recovery is not a sea mammal or a seaweed. It’s a renegade scientist who became Pacific Grove’s mayor barely a decade after American women got the right to vote – and she didn’t mind resorting to pistols and axes to make her point.
~ ~ ~
Julia Platt’s entree into politics came on a set of chicken feet. Several sets, actually: Marauding fowl were tearing up the carefully tended garden at her Victorian home near P.G.’s Lovers of Jesus Point.
Now, Dr. Platt was no hater of chickens. She had a zoology degree, and some of her most notable work involved classifying the stages of chicken embryo development, a system that’s still used today. But the chickens in her garden were piquing her anger, not her scientific curiosity. So she dispatched the trespassing birds with a second-hand pistol, sealing her reputation in Methodist P.G. as a strange and possibly dangerous woman.
But she was powerful, too, in a time when women were expected to be demure. After circulating a petition and becoming a fixture at City Council meetings, Platt prevailed with an October 1902 ordinance prohibiting “the running at large of chickens and other domestic fowl in the city of Pacific Grove.”
Death and Life fast-forwards to almost 30 years later, when Platt locked horns with a landowner who’d installed a gate by the Bath House, blocking public access to the beach. When neither reason nor rage would rectify what Platt saw as a blatant violation of state law, she hacked down the gate herself in full light of day, tacking a placard to the wreckage:
“Opened by Julia B. Platt. This entrance to the beach must be left open at all hours when the public might reasonably wish to pass through. I act in this manner because the Council and Police Department of Pacific Grove are men and possibly somewhat timid.”
Three months later, she was elected mayor by a landslide.
Death and Life co-author Carolyn Sotka unearthed these and other anecdotes about the celebrated Dr. Platt, who stars in Chapters 5 and 6, with help from then-archivist Esther Trosow at the P.G. Museum of Natural History.
Sotka had originally set out to learn more about the former P.G. mayor who’d created the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge, one of the nation’s first marine reserves. But the eccentric stories about Platt weren’t the only surprise; she also found unexpected parallels to her own life.
Both globetrotting zoologists were University of Vermont alums who’d moved from Burlington to P.G. to pursue their science careers at Stanford University’s Hopkins outpost.
Platt was rebuffed in her efforts to secure a teaching position at Hopkins – Palumbi says Stanford didn’t have any women on its faculty when Platt moved to P.G. in 1899. But in 2002 Palumbi hired Sotka, who has a master’s degree in ocean policy, to research the 70-year history of the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge. As the project became more complex and interesting, they hatched the idea of turning their findings on the Hopkins reserve into a book.
“The book picked up the most steam once we stumbled upon the Julia Platt angle,” says Sotka, now the outreach manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Oceans and Human Health Initiative.
“Steve and I were discovering the bay through the [research] process, and we were falling in love with it. Every story led to another story.”
~ ~ ~
While Platt’s shenanigans made her something of a town legend, it was an underappreciated act she accomplished as mayor that would become the backbone of Palumbi and Sotka’s book.
“It was digging through the archives of the Pacific Grove museum that she really came alive for us,” Sotka says. “We didn’t discover her, but what we did is elevate her significance. She was seen as a real player in P.G. politics, but her role in conservation is incredible.”
Just a few years after Platt moved to P.G., as Death and Life recounts, the Hovden cannery opened where the Monterey Bay Aquarium now stands. By World War I, that stretch of shoreline had transformed from a mellow seaside tourist retreat into the stinky, greasy capitol of a booming sardine industry. The money the fishery made soon corrupted the system intended to regulate it, and by the late 1930s, there were virtually no limits on the catch.
Platt complained to the state about the nauseating smell, but she was particularly upset by the stream of pollution flowing daily from the canneries into the bay. Where there once were otters, whales and thick kelp forests, anemones and seagulls feasted on fish entrails and globs of floating fat.
The scientist knew she couldn’t take down the entire industry, so she targeted 5 miles of shoreline in and around P.G. Making the tidal zone off-limits to fishing, she reasoned, could give marine life some of the breathing room it needed to reproduce, and perhaps seed the surrounding seas.
“This rationale,” Palumbi and Sotka write, “is stunningly similar to modern reasons for protecting marine areas: the replenishment of sets of marine species that interact together. In today’s scientific world, such sets of species are called ecosystems, a term that wasn’t popularized in the academic world until 40 years later. It seems that Julia’s subtle appreciation for the biology of the sea and her scientific acuity had not diminished during her three decades of intense devotion to civic affairs.”
With backing from some of Hopkins’ fishery biologists and the P.G. City Council, Platt proposed a new state law: “An Act granting to the city of Pacific Grove the title to the waterfront of said city, together with certain submerged lands in the Bay of Monterey contiguous thereto.”
The lady was not to be dissuaded. The state Legislature passed her act and the governor signed it into law, “for the first (and last) time,” the authors write, “granting a city the right to manage its own coastline.”
~ ~ ~
The history of Monterey Bay is well chronicled in books about the area’s ethnic populations, its canneries, railroads and fisheries. But that literature tends to focus on the bay’s splendor and gloss over the ecological crash that resulted from the relentless exploitation of one marine creature after the next – first otters, then whales, urchins, abalone and sardines.
“We didn’t see anything that put it all together, especially from a marine and ocean lens,” Sotka says. “We saw a real need to tell the story for people who are interested in the ocean, and how we as humans use the ocean, and how over time, with knowledge and science, we can better manage our uses toward a more sustainable future.”
Sotka’s research formed the backbone of a technical draft, finished in 2005. Then Palumbi fleshed out the chapters, reworking that fact-driven draft into a narrative peppered with colorful folks, lively anecdotes and digestible bites of marine science.
“I did it in a very chronological, stepwise pace,” Sotka says. “Steve’s talent was to mix that up a little bit. He has a great ability to weave together environmental concepts with social concepts and fly back and forth on timescales.”
Still, writing an ecological history focused on humans was an interesting challenge for academics trained to write in the most technical terms.
“These characters are vastly more interesting than the fish,” Palumbi says. “But as scientists, writing a book about people is really different.”
Students and colleagues talk about Palumbi in measures of respect for both his work and his coolness. Maybe it’s the short gray ponytail, jeans and sneakers that buck the dorky-scientist stereotype. Or the ocean-themed ditties he sings with his band, Sustainable Sole. Or the fact that he’s often jetting off to tropical islands like American Samoa and Hawaii to research corals and whales – and make 3-minute “microdocumentaries” called Short Attention Span Science Theater (http://microdocs.org).
Pointing to an orange starfish surrounded by a clearing on an otherwise mussel-coated rock, Palumbi offers an impromptu example of how he translates scientific jargon. “That is a pisaster ochraceus, and it’s playing up its role as a keystone predator by consuming the dominant spatial competitor in the lower intertidal zone,” he says.
Then the translation: “Starfish looooove to eat mussels, but they can’t climb out of the ocean high enough to get many of them. Where they can, they do. Where they can’t, mussels do well.”
But Palumbi – whose expertise ranges from sea urchin evolution to coral bleaching to whale DNA – felt that those translations were getting increasingly painful to relay. Much of his interaction with the public was focused on disturbing marine problems like ocean acidification, coral bleaching and pollution. That message didn’t mesh with what he sees on his 1-mile bike commute from P.G. to Hopkins, when he has a clear view of the shoreline.
“I’m in this amazingly, stunningly beautiful place, and yet I found myself talking about how the ocean is in trouble,” he says.
He soon found the heart of that contradiction. Monterey Bay didn’t escape the destruction that human industry so often inflicts on water bodies. What set it apart: It got better.
~ ~ ~
Palumbi and Sotka’s story flows like the sea: at times smooth, at times choppy, with characters like buoys in the water, appearing and disappearing from view.
The paperback, as a result, is more of a paced breakfast read than a page-turner. Its 200-plus pages are easily digestible in its 12 chapters of less than 20 pages each. These are broken into subtitled sections that usually span only a few pages.
The result is a book that jumps from anecdotes to science lessons and back again. It recounts an ill-fated séance at Ed Ricketts’ place in the wild cannery days, but also discusses the complex ocean cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. It describes the frustration of a reeking cannery worker whose girlfriend wouldn’t let his stink into her house, and explains how the pesticide DDT nearly crashed the cormorant population on the Farallon Islands.
Yet even the parts that don’t seem directly related, at closer inspection, fit into a larger picture that comes into focus as the reader zooms out. Death and Life connects the international thirst for otter pelts in the late 1700s with the absence of kelp in Monterey Bay during the sardine boom. It explains how the extirpation of otters allowed the proliferation of abalone, which drew the Chinese to China Point (now Hopkins land) in the mid-1800s. After the villagers had depleted the abalone and diversified their harvest, hostile competitors from European fishing communities drove them to focus on squid. Which, of course, had ripple effects of its own.
This is systems theory: the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that everything is interrelated. And it’s a central theme of the book.
Ed Ricketts, who collected and sold scientific specimens, saw that truth in Monterey Bay tidepools, as Palumbi and Sotka describe in the section devoted to John Steinbeck’s scrappy muse:
“Species did not form a simple food chain where snail eats algae, fish eats snail, and heron eats fish. Instead they told a thousand stories of the way animals and plants live and die. Life was affected by the environment: when and where the waves rolled in. It was affected by other species present. And it was affected by chance events and unlikely contingencies. Ed’s peculiar gift was to be able to see these connections.
“… [T]he complex interactions between specimens also fertilized his philosophical roots and anchored him forever to the two friends who saw the world of human affairs in the same way: not as a simple food chain of ideas but as a skein of interacting desires, ambitions and circumstances.”
For Steinbeck, the idea translated to a pervasive theme in his novels that individual behavior changes when people are in groups. Celebrated mythologist Joseph Campbell, another rabble-rousing friend of Ricketts’, was also profoundly affected by the idea.
The complexity of nature seems to be on Palumbi’s mind, too, as he squats in a tidepool on Hopkins’ shore and squints at several different species of algae.
“[Ricketts] spent his whole life looking very closely at these things, and he knew them like friends,” he says. “His mind was obsessed with these direct and indirect complications and linkages, and that’s what he taught John Steinbeck.”
Perhaps, then, the parts of the book that come across as somewhat disjointed are actually a deliberate imitation of nature’s organized chaos.
Sotka laughs at the theory. “That was perhaps not the goal but certainly the style,” she says. “There were so many stories that it would have been flat to tell them in order.”
She gamely offers a simpler takeaway: “This book is the product of everything I wanted to know about the bay. I hope it increases awareness that individual acts can make huge changes.”
~ ~ ~
Today, Julia Platt’s reserve represents the strictest class of marine protected areas: a “no-take” zone dedicated wholly to conservation and science. And it’s helped Monterey Bay heal from a century of exploitation to become a shining example of ocean health. Today, Platt’s protected area has been expanded and re-named Lovers Point State Marine Reseve.
“Her protected shore accumulated abalone; the otters took up residence there, ate the herbivores, and gave the kelp a chance to grow; the fish community diversified and rebounded; and the seals moved in,” Palumbi and Sotka write.
And that paved the way for an economic rebirth, one that allowed the community to profit from conservation rather than exploitation, fostering a growing environmental awareness rather than a collapsing ocean ecosystem.
The book’s second-to-last chapter is devoted to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The idea was seeded in the late 1970s over margaritas among four friends: Nancy and Robin Burnett, Chuck Baxter and Steve Webster. Death and Life recounts how they would sneak into the abandoned Hovden cannery, the site of the future Aquarium, for Friday night parties; the wave machine Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard engineered to keep the kelp in the central tank happy; the intimidating way the tycoon spun his eyeglasses in his hand when he was displeased.
From his perch on the Hopkins bluff, Palumbi watches a group of harbor seals flop into the waves and considers how far Monterey Bay has come. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was 80 years ago,” he says. “That is very much the exception.”
The bay still suffers from beach erosion, litter and water pollution, he adds. But most comparable water bodies – San Francisco Bay, Tampa Bay, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound – are in much worse shape.
“We as humans make mistakes, many times unknowingly, but we’re also learning tools to correct our mistakes,” Sotka says. “I see this book as a celebration of how we as humans interact with, use and appreciate vibrant places – and enable them to stay that way.”