Tag Archives: oceans

Solving the tragedy of the commons, at sea

Sea anemone
This week, Sarah Sikich, one of Heal the Bay’s scientists, is in France at an international conference discussing Marine Protected Areas — MPAs in the vernacular of ocean conservancy. I was aware of them from my work along the redwood coast, as Save the Redwoods League owned land adjacent to an MPA in Sonoma County. But I’ve never thought much about them. Turns out Heal the Bay has been a leader in development of these so-called Yosemites of the Sea here in Southern California. And MPAs are pretty fascinating. Trust me.

MPAs are a simple and elegant solution to a thorny problem. Over the years, society has over-fished the oceans. Along the way fish stocks have collapsed, harvests have been reduced, and the actual fish caught have become smaller. It’s been bad for the ocean, bad for the fishery industry, bad for folks who recreate on the ocean, and bad for anyone who eats fish. And that’s pretty much everyone!

It’s also a classic “tragedy of the commons” problem. Basically, each individual fisherman sees direct benefit from landing extra fish while the consequences of reduced catch are spread over everyone else. It’s the same principle as people getting into their car in a busy metropolis even though they know it contributes to gridlock and local air pollution.

Traditionally, fishery regulation has relied on a species-by-species approach. This simply pushes the problem off to another species. It’s the same model we have for endangered species on land. And many smart conservationists now agree that neither approach works well. Fortunately because the ocean is a commons, we have the chance to try new solutions.

MPAs shift the thinking from individual species to entire ocean systems. Basically you set aside areas of the ocean as no-fishing zones. Put these in the right place and with the right configuration and they become nurseries for fish. You get more fish, bigger fish, and they have more young. Not only is this good for fishermen, but it’s good for conservation of the ocean system as a whole. What’s more the science has shown this works.

Over the last few years, California has established a network of 123 MPAs that cover 16 percent of state waters. Here in Southern California, we helped establish MPAs off Palos Verdes, Point Dume and Catalina Island. Worldwide there are now 5,000 MPAs across 80 countries. It’s a great start and we’re already starting to see fish stocks recover.

But MPAs in state waters cover only a tiny fraction of the oceans. State-waters extend out three miles. Federal waters 200 miles. And then it’s a free for all. The big question I have is whether the international community can come together to forge an agreement to extend what works at a state and federal level. Ultimately, we can all do our part, but it’s going to take coordinated global action to save our oceans.

Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)
Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)

On the Watershed

40% of LA is paved
LA is 40% paved over

It’s Wednesday and that means I need to move my car from the north side of the street between the hours of 12 noon and 3 pm. If I remember, the street sweeper can work its magic.  If I forget, I risk a fine. That had me thinking of watersheds. Bear with me.

The concept of a watershed is pretty simple — it’s an area of land where all water falling within it drains to a common point. It’s also the name given to the boundary demarcating this area. Whether we know it or not, we all live within a watershed.  Healthy watersheds provide a home for countless creatures and give us clean water. Start to mess with a watershed — by building in it, damming it, logging it, mining or drilling in it — and you start to impair the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. Unfortunately many watersheds around the world are suffering today. And in turn, so does anything that lives there — including us.

It’s hard to image that a heavily urbanized area is also a watershed. Fly over LA and all you see are buildings as far as the eye can see. To me, it couldn’t get more different from northern California and its thick blanket of forest.   But both are watersheds and both suffer from degradation that affects the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. In turn, poor water quality and degraded watersheds, struggle to support life and provide us with clean, drinkable, swimable water.

In northern California, rural roads that dump sediment into creeks and a legacy of aggressive logging are obvious signs of an impaired watershed. Millions are being spent fixing these problems so salmon and other animals can once again thrive.  Down here in Los Angeles, it’s different. I now live in a highly urbanized environments where I almost never see a creek, let alone a fish swimming in it.  For 28 years, Heal the Bay has led the charge to clean up Santa Monica bay and its watersheds. At first it had to tackle the acute problems, such as the dumping of untreated wastewater in to the Bay that was killing sea life and sickening surfers. Today, the challenges are more those of a chronic malaise. We’ve triaged the worst of it, and now we have to deal with the underlying causes — foremost is how we deal with storm water that flushes directly from the street to the bay, untreated, carrying the toxic debris of urban living with it.

Because in most regions all water flows to the ocean, the health of the bay is an indicator of the health of the region and its watersheds.  When we can swim in the bay 365 days a year and know that it provides a rich environment for the countless sea life beneath the waves, we know we’re doing our job. While huge strides have been made over the past 28 years, there’s a long way to go to complete the task of healing Santa Monica bay.

And that brings me back to street sweeping.  Moving your car once a week is a simple act that helps keep the watershed just that little bit healthier.  Every bit of trash swept up is one less piece that is dumped in the bay.  And what’s true down here, is also true in your neighborhood. As all oceans are really just one body of water, so we all live in the same watershed. And to me that’s a powerful thought as I move my car and help protect the ocean along the way.

Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay
Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay