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I Must Go Down to the Sea Again

by Deborah Streeter

“I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide, is a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied.” That’s the call, from John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever,” that I try to follow as a longtime ocean volunteer and an ordained minister on behalf of ocean conservation.

I already write a short weekly devotional piece, “Blue Theology Tide-ings,” linking ocean and spirituality. In this new column I will try longer ocean essays, with more detailed science as well as personal reflections.

Having achieved ocean literacy (hah!) my next series in this marine column could be called “They Had to Go Down to the Sea Again…”  I’ll look at various people through history who have loved the sea, studied it, aided it, spent lots of time in and on it – ocean people.  I’ll start with a portrait I did a few years ago, on Veterans Day, of Jacques Cousteau, ocean explorer and, surprisingly to me, war hero.



Submerged Cultural Resources

Our “Ocean People” this week lifts up those who have lost their lives at sea, and those who keep their memory alive, for helping us care about all that lives in the ocean.

It used to annoy me at the Monterey Bay Aquarium that people would walk right by the big beautiful Kelp Forest exhibit with all its amazing fish and plants, and barely stop to look, but if there was a scuba diver in there cleaning the windows or vacuuming up the poop, the visitors would linger and look at the diver forever.  “Look, a diver, what are they doing,” they would ask me, the great volunteer guide knowledgeable about flora and fauna, but not so interested in diving.

But then I learned that a basic principle of “interpretation” (the art of sharing information about a park or museum or historical site in an imaginative way) is to make a connection between the story you are trying to tell and the visitor’s own story, to connect your story and their story.   The National Park Service “father” of the art of heritage interpretation, Freeman Tilden, named 6 Principles of Interpretation, and the first is: “Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.”  So the guests are saying, I am a person, there’s a person inside that 300,000 gallon tank, that could be me, I wonder what it is like underwater.

Learning to make this connection helped me get over my similarly snide superior judgment about the value of the Maritime Heritage Program of the National Marine Sanctuaries.  Our tax dollars have funded all kinds of research into what NOAA calls the many “submerged cultural resources” in the protected waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf and Great Lakes.  Yes, that’s what they call shipwrecks, submerged cultural resources. 

I protested, “No, I am serving on the Monterey Bay National Sanctuary Advisory Council because I wanted to protect the fish and coastline, not to hawk shipwrecks.”   But, they explained, quoting Tilden, that’s how to get people interested and committed to ocean protection.  If they think, that could have been me, or you, in that ship at the bottom of the sea, they will want to protect it.   Care about the people of the ocean, those who lived by the sea, or died by the sea, and you will care about everything, human or not, that lives in the sea.

1933 Macon Flying Over ManhattanIn 1935, the airship USS Macon, a dirigible sort of like the Hindenburg, crashed off the coast of Big Sur with some survivors, some loss of life.  Dramatic eyewitness accounts and some photos appeared in the press, but the waters there are so deep and rough and dark that no one considered looking for the wreck until the 1980’s.  Underwater technology had improved, sonar and submersibles.  David Packard, founder of the Aquarium and of its research sister institution MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) as well as founder of Hewlett Packard, had also been Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Nixon Administration.  He knew that the Macon had been an important part of the pre-World War II Navy preparations for air defense (it could scout farther than planes and it carried Sparrowhawk biplanes in an internal hangar).  So he encouraged MBARI and NOAA to partner in using new technology to find the wreck. 

Their first expedition was a failure; they looked in the area where the old photos showed the Macon sinking, but found nothing, only fish and the dark.  Then they heard that the daughter of one of the Macon’s survivors had seen displayed at a fish restaurant in Moss Landing, near MBARI, a piece of metal girder that she recognized as being like airship pieces her father, the airship commander, had shown her as a girl.  Turned out the metal piece had been given to the restaurant by a local fisherman, who had found it in his net and thought it was some picturesque oddity.  Tracking him down the researchers asked where had been his favorite spot in that rich fishing ground, and he was able to help them fine tune where to search.   Next voyage – voila!  In 1500 feet of water they found the wreckage of the airship, its 5 biplanes and the enlisted men’s stove and chairs.  Another Titanic.

At the Point Sur Light Station there is now a display about the Macon, with old newsreels and recent pictures and the famous girder, a needle in a haystack ocean, the breadcrumb that helped the lost be found. 

And the Sanctuary folks were right.  Finding this historic, military, adventuresome, poignant, fisherman-found “submerged cultural resource” brought much more interest and protection to the coast than any rare coral or fish.

A skyhooks on the Sparrowhawk biplanes the Macon carriedOf course, the fact that there are dead bodies in these wrecks adds to its appeal and mystery, and reinforces the sense that the waters deserve some protection, an underwater cemetery.   MBARI and NOAA have sworn to keep the Macon’s location a secret, and the water is so deep and rough that it’s unlikely to be disturbed.

NOAA published a fascinating book about the historical contexts of all 15 National Marine Sanctuaries called Fathoming Our Past.  Describing the long history of human connections to the sea, it says, “A predictable by-product of marine travel, habitation, trade, harbors, and sea battles is the deposition of waste.  Coastal building foundations, human remains, discarded or lost items, from tools and household goods to ships, usually found repose in the water.” 

At first I liked this quote about how all these discarded and lost items find their repose in the water and can teach us about the past.  But then I thought, no, don’t call it waste. Those are precious memories. 

And I realized that my objection to calling it waste was because that I was beginning to connect these stories to my story. I have just finished moving my elderly father from independent living into a much smaller single room and we have had to go through every book and dish and hat and souvenir.  Each item has a story and it’s hard to let things go.  I imagine my kids doing the same with my things, hopefully years hence.

Helping my father move and going through all his stuff has been a poignant way to review his many years, to see what he has saved, what he brought with him here from New York 20 years ago, what he has had since he was a kid.  Much of it is precious, in value or in memories.  And much is what you could call mundane.  I cleaned out his kitchen, yesterday we went through clothes, I went through boxes and boxes of saved receipts and bills from years ago.  Much of it I threw away pretty casually.  But some I long to keep, because these items tell his story, and in some sense, my story.   I don’t want them called waste.  I don’t want my kids or archaeologists years hence to call my stuff waste.  It is evidence of my life and choices.  I know that in the long run it will all be discarded or rebought from the church rummage sale and then reused and then discarded.  

And if we have dramatic sea level rise, all our stuff will become not just waste, but submerged cultural resources! Some marine archaeologist years hence will try to describe my life based on my soggy items.

See it worked!  Their story connected to my story.  The sailors at the bottom of the sea and the fisherman finding the girder and my father and all my stuff and climate change and rising sea levels, all connect.  I will care more about the ocean not just because I love fish, but because I’m only 3 miles from the shore, and my precious stuff might get flooded and some marine archaeologist will call it waste.

Our stories are all part of a big ocean of stories, submerged or not.  Bring them to the surface!

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


The Sanctuary and The Highways

More reflections on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and how it protects two major north-south highways systems: Interstate Route One, carved precariously from the seaside granite cliffs, and the more robust and very wet “Kelp Highway.” And how, when a massive slide on the land highway killed many organisms on the kelp highway, Sanctuary staff did a dramatic highway rescue.

Highways are designed to get you there fast, so they tend to be loud and dangerous.  I lived for a year just a few blocks from busy noisy Highway 101.  I tried to block out the noise by imagining the constant traffic roar was a massive waterfall.  I knew it was dangerous because of the frequent police and ambulance sirens.

Highway 101 is not the only north-south highway on the west coast.  The older Highway One cleaves even closer to the coast, and gets me home every day here in the Big Sur area.   This  narrow windy interstate was first blasted out of steep granite cliffs as a WPA project in the 30’s.  Today millions of tourist every year move as fast as they can around the curves, while the precarious road itself is constantly in motion, shifting down the cliff or blocked by rockslides.

Last May after record rainfall, 13 acres of rock fell down onto the highway and across into the ocean, creating a new peninsula on the coastline the size of 10 football fields, 2 million cubic meters of earth.  Like the famous tree falling in the woods, no one in the remote slide area heard the avalanche, but surely it roared louder than any waterfall or speedway.  Remote it may be, but the 4 million tourists who drive that stretch between Southern and Northern California annually have noticed the blockade.  Our area’s economy has likewise been slowed down or blocked. 

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects 300 miles of coastline from San Francisco south to Cambria, including this dramatic granite cliff stretch.  Whenever, as in the past year, rockslides send large amounts of sediments onto the road, the Sanctuary Advisory Council and the local press debate whether these are “natural” phenomenon on a steep stormy west coast, or are human caused (should there really be a highway on this cliff?).  Should the road be repaired simply by bulldozing all that debris into the water, or would that constitute “discharge of dredge material into the Sanctuary,” which is outlawed in the Sanctuary’s Act, because it seriously harms the marine ecosystem?  The land highway usually wins out, but the Sanctuary has worked with CalTrans so that dumping happens in areas with fewer marine mammals and smaller animals who filter feed and would be choked by all the sediment.  It’s a balance, just as the land highway is balanced on the cliff.

Besides the several land highways along the west coast, 101 and 1, there are at least two ocean-based highways, whose many travelers are mostly non-human, and which are not built on rock but in air and under water. Millions of birds every year travel the Pacific “flyway” north and south, taking advantage of lagoons and estuaries for rest areas and refueling stations.  The so-called “kelp highway” parallels most of the US and Mexican coast, and then resumes off Peru and Chile.  This near shore forest (it grows only as deep as the sun can penetrate, 80-100 ft) provides a safe sheltered route of nutritious and hospitable algae.  Tens of thousands of grey whales swim this highway every year on their 12,000 mile round trip between Alaska to Baja to have babies in the protected Mexican lagoons. 

(Recent archeology and anthropology also suggests that early humans traveled this kelp highway from Russia and Alaska south, feeding on the rich marine organisms.  The traditional theory was that humans migrated inland, based on tools found in New Mexico from 13,000 years ago.  But recent discoveries of 18,000 year old tools on the Chilean coast, found in a campfire mixed with kelp ash suggest we humans may have sailed and beachcombed this kelp highway also. Scientists also posit that as our ancestors ate the nutrition rich marine organisms along the route - constant fish markets – it sped up the evolution of our brain power – more reasons to live by the sea!)

Bixby BridgeRock from the 2017 massive slide on Highway One (named appropriately for the nearest creek, the Mud Creek Slide) buried and killed many marine organisms, including a rare black abalone that clings to the underwater rocks of this remote stretch of coast.  Abalone were having a hard enough time as it was before the slide.  They are a protected threatened species because of several challenges – they are hemophiliacs and will bleed to death if torn from rocks.  Their diet is mostly kelp, but because of rising ocean temperatures and changing chemistry the kelp forests are shrinking, and the abalone are starving.  Abalone also plays a key role in the kelp ecosystem; they are an essential food source for the sea otters, without whom there would be no kelp (and hence no kelp highway).  Abalone and urchin are voracious kelp eaters, and without otters eating them, these invertebrates would clear cut the forest.  So abalone are protected for their own sake and for the sake of the otters and kelp. Because of their important and fragile status, the lucrative abalone industry has been shut down, and no humans are allowed to remove abalone anywhere on the California Coast.

When the massive slide seemed to have settled, the CalTrans Highway Department began a massive several year-long project to rebuild the highways.  As they prepared to bulldoze many of those 13 acres of rock and debris into the ocean, Marine Sanctuary staff went to work to rescue and relocate as many black abalone as they could.  We heard about their efforts at the January meeting of the Advisory Council.  The agenda was mostly a series of hard and depressing debates about how our current administration is rolling back all kinds of environmental protections, climate change policies, and is proposing to open up the West Coast to oil and gas drilling again.  

But then Sanctuary Superintendent Paul Michel told a small success story of a rescue mission he and a few volunteers made to the Mud Creek Slide.  For two days they gently removed (with a pie server) and relocated baby black abalone to a safer rocky section a few miles north.  400 of these rare black abalones had already died from the slide, but mid the crashing waves and continuing unstable cliffs, they moved 25 abalone to a new safe home up the coast, in the first known successful translocation of this species!

A worthy use of our tax dollars?  Well, to reopen the nine miles of closed land highway will cost $40 million.  Responding to this big abalone accident on the kelp highway with a few days of staff time and the bonus of one success story at an otherwise depressing meeting was totally worth it for this taxpayer.  Thanks, Paul. 

 Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Diving Into the Sanctuary

California citizens lobbied and petitioned for nearly 20 years before the federal government finally designated 300 miles of California coastline and ocean as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 1991.

When it came time to set up a Citizen’s Advisory Council for the new Sanctuary, there were some obvious stakeholders who sought a seat at the table – Fishing, Coastal Commission, Business and Tourism, California Fish and Wildlife, and other groups with a financial or legal “stake” in the area.  

The environmental activists also made sure that they too got seats at the table – Conservation, Recreation, Education, Research.  

There’s also a Diving representative, who brings to the table both types of concerns, finances and activism, commerce and conservation.  Tens of thousands of scuba divers come to the Monterey Bay every year for the spectacular underwater scenery and adventure.  They have a huge impact on the local economy, spending a lot on equipment, lessons, tours, and celebrations after the dive.  These are active people of some financial means, who see firsthand the ocean’s beauty and its challenges, much more than can be seen from shore.  Active people are not always activists, but in this case, divers tend to speak their mind.  This got them a seat at the table.

At my first Council meeting, as a Member at Large, I sat next to Frank Degnan, the Diving Rep,  and over the next nine years we became good friends.  Some things I learned about ocean conservation from Frank and other divers:

I thought I knew what it’s like below the surface because I’ve always been a snorkler.  As a child in warm Atlantic waters I could hold my breath and explore the soft sand and beautiful shells.  As a young adult I took an exotic trip to East Africa and got to snorkel in the Indian Ocean, which was even warmer, with shells and plant life so much more colorful and dramatic.  (Travelling with a colonial British guide I learned to call it “goggling,” not snorkeling.  Even that was more exotic.)

When I moved west I discovered that the Pacific Ocean was anything but “pacific,” at least here in Northern California.  The rough and dangerous waters making snorkeling difficult and scary and there’s more rough rock than smooth sand.  Pacific waters are also really cold.  Instead of snorkelers at the beach I started noticing people dressed all in black with heavy tanks on their backs.  They gathered in groups in the early morning, and then walked awkwardly backward, wearing big flippers, down into the water, disappearing under the waves. 

I had grown up watching Jacques Cousteau’s fabulous underwater TV shows and knew he had invented the scuba tank, and hence a whole new industry and sport.  But it wasn’t until I got to know Frank and other divers who came to testify at our public meetings that I realized, especially in the cold Pacific, and in water deeper than I could hold my breath, that there are wonders beyond imagining to be seen in the deep dark. 

Frank offered to teach any member of the Advisory Council how to dive, for free.  He was a certified dive instructor and a good teacher.  He spent lots of time with me and some other folks in the local college pool teaching us the many different skills needed to dive, from simply getting that tight black suit on, to feeling not so self conscious in it, to swimming a length of the pool underwater, how to put on the dive weight belt so you don’t just float to the surface, and then the complicated math of regulating buoyancy and pressure and being safe. 

I wish I could say I became a great diver.  Or even a diver.  I simply wasn’t a strong enough swimmer or confident enough to keep track of the numbers and relax in the waves.  Plus I didn’t want to die.  I was a volunteer at a local state park where lots of divers come to swim in the kelp forests that have been protected for decades and I saw enough ambulances coming to the cove where they entered the water to know that it is a dangerous sport.  Several divers die every year on the Central Coast, and I ultimately decided not to take the risk.

But I learned a few things from Frank despite my flunking diving:

  • The ocean is very dangerous.  Divers do die.   Probably more divers die while driving to the dive spot than in the water, just as driving to the airport is riskier than flying.  But still, divers know the dangers, and they always have a buddy, they never dive alone.  Even the 300 volunteer divers in the tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium always dive with a buddy and there are 3 dive safety officers on staff.  All that work and getting that damn suit on and you only stay in for an hour at the most, because that’s all your body can take without suffering.  You have to come up slowly or you get the bends.  Pacific Grove Fire Department has a special decompression chamber for the divers they rescue who have come up too fast.  Divers know and respect the ocean better than most folks.
  • The ocean is very quiet.  I think it’s always loud, with roars and crashes and splashes.  But down deep, say the divers, it’s quiet like nothing else.  When divers hear I have a ministry called Blue Theology encouraging a spiritual connection with the ocean, these adventuresome jocks wax poetic on the spirituality of the deep, how they have felt closer to a higher power underwater than anywhere else.
  • And of course it is very beautiful down there.  Many divers are also fabulous photographers. 
  • Some divers can be a little snooty, like they know things the rest of us don’t.  Which is actually true, but they can sometimes act like only they should decide which sections of the ocean are protected.  Some divers also like to spear fish and sometimes they would agree not with the conservation folks, but with the fishing rep and want there to be no limits on fishing. 
  • But these attitudes are far outweighed by their generosity of spirit.  Like Frank teaching us for free.  And all the divers who do volunteer work, spending hours and risking life and limb to do harbor cleanups, diving for tires and trash and old fishing gear and other crap.  Like sitting in all those meetings. 
  • At the volunteer appreciation dinners at the Aquarium, the volunteer divers all sit together at one table, like they are members of a secret society, sharing a language only they know.   It’s sort of true.  They have seen the ocean depths, danger, beauty.  Thanks, Frank.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


What’s at Stake?

In my last “Ocean People” column, before Christmas, I wrote about how I applied, along with many others, to be a “member-at-large” of the Advisory Council of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and how surprisingly I was chosen and later elected Chair.  It turned out the staff had thought (mistakenly) that I, as a minister, would somehow help this very contentious group get along better and figure out how to balance commercial and conservation interests in this huge ocean protected area.  Instead I just rolled up my sleeves and jumped into the fray, mostly on the conservation side. I’ll be spending a couple more columns on the personalities of this 25- member “stakeholder” group and the issues it confronts.  Today – some thoughts on what’s at “stake?”

  • Who owns the ocean?
  • If the ocean is “public property,” can anyone at all simply “stake” a claim to use ocean waters for some activity, be it commercial, like fishing, or recreational, like jet skis, or should there be some rules?
  • What happens when staked claims conflict, like noisy jet skis scaring away fish? Or when the conflict is that a claim staked by human beings (this is my ocean oil drilling platform) might harm the ocean and its plants and animals?
  • Can we assume that people will exercise care and caution in their staked claims?  Will the profit motive outweigh the uncertainty principle?  (The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was designated for the express purpose of prohibiting oil and gas drilling in the oil rich waters between San Francisco and Cambria, 300 miles of coastline, and for the general purpose of “resource protection.” Staff seeks community input on management decisions.)
  • Can the ocean itself, or its many life forms stake a claim?  Can nesting birds or migrating whales or microscopic plankton say, no, this is my part of the ocean?
  • If we were going to get a group together to advise staff on some of these questions, who should have a seat at the table?  Those named above: fishermen, ocean recreators, business and industry, ocean conservation groups, government agencies?  Who else?
  • How do we decide who should have a seat at the table?  Who has a “stake” in the ocean, a claim on the ocean and its management?
  • The word “stake” is used in two different phrases related to these questions, “staking a claim” and “being a stakeholder.”  Government agencies and businesses have in the recent past started using the idea of “stakeholder groups,” as important decision advisors or makers. Is there a difference between “staking” a claim, and “holding” a stake?
  • What is “at stake” for the oceans and how can marine sanctuaries and sanctuary advisory councils, made up of ocean stakeholders, impact the ocean’s “stake?”

Easier to ask these questions than answer them.  Nine years as a Member-At-Large on one such Sanctuary Advisory Council led me to ask these and lots more questions.  In this column I will suggest a couple answers, or ways I chose to answer them, and how I came up with my answers. 

First, a little word history, about “stake.”  Sometimes I find it helpful to learn the language history of a word or phrase.  Where did it come from?  Does it mean the same thing today? 

To “stake” a claim is to pound a big strong stick, a stake, in the ground and say, “This land is mine.  These stakes mark its boundaries.”  Metaphorically it has become “I stake my life on this.” “Here I stand, I can do no other!” Luther staked this claim, as he put a small stake (a nail) in the door.

“Stakeholder” is a little more complicated.  Etymology accounts suggest that in English gambling, a stick/stake was used to indicate how much someone had bet, what “stake” they had in the game.  If the bettor had to leave the gaming table, they would hand that stake to someone else, their representative, to hold for them, to keep the claim.  The rep was their “stakeholder.”  They represented/held the interests of the one who had put money into the game.

So the first thing I would do at a meeting of the Advisory Council, when confronted with an issue about conflicting claims, would be to follow the money.   “Stake” language is about money, either a staked land claim or an absent gambler.  California is the land of gold rush and tech boom because of many bold and sometimes reckless entrepreneurs.  Like John Sutter, who discovered gold on the Sacramento River, aggressively staked his claim and change history.  Likewise Steve Jobs, who brashly founded Apple, quit, came back, was fired, left others to hold his gambling stick, but ultimately returned to cash in the chips and claim his billion dollar stakeholding.

At first I found it odd that the Marine Sanctuary Program is part of the federal Commerce Department.  That’s because it’s under NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (and a pun on the Biblical mariner NOAH).  Shouldn’t ocean concerns be in an environmental agency, like the Department of the Interior, or the Environmental Protection Agency?  Why Commerce, whose job is to promote economic growth?  Well, historically, most commerce happened on the sea - it’s called shipping.  But still, following the money, there’s lots and lots of money to be made today in trade, tankers, oil and gas, commercial fishing, aquaculture, even cruise ships.  Ocean trade, ocean extraction and ocean recreation generate billions and billions of dollars.  Our local university has a Center for the Blue Economy, the business of ocean and the business oceans generate.  So it’s highly appropriate to use language about staking a claim; the ocean is like a gold mine.  It’s the wild west, the ocean is the frontier, and there are fortunes to be made.

On the Advisory Council the biggest money makers from the sea were represented by the Fishing and Agriculture Seats.  Both reps opposed most regulations of their business, from catch limits to water quality issues resulting from ag pesticide runoff. Fishing and Ag often sided with each other in votes.  (Of the 15 National Marine Sanctuaries in the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf, and one in the Great Lakes, only Monterey Bay has an Agriculture seat on its Advisory Council – the other sanctuaries are remote or off shore.)  These two often dressed casually, cowboy or sweatshirt, masking the multimillion dollar industries they represented.  Fishermen gamble more than farmers do, who have some control over their water, and like our etymological gambler, fishermen are often gone at sea for long periods.  But both are sort of individualistic loner occupations; they grumbled about meetings and the slow pace of decision making. 

The farmers seemed a little more interested in their public image and took some initiative to reduce phosphate runoff into the rivers and estuaries.  The fishermen complained more about being victims of over regulation.  They also claimed our then congressman Leon Panetta, who shared the Sicilian heritage of many of the fishermen, had made them a “promise” that the Sanctuary would have no effect on fishing.  But such a promise never appears in writing and while Leon tried to downplay the idea, he never denied it, either because he is a good politician or because he feared some kind of Godfather type retaliation. 

The Harbors rep was always in the fisherman’s corner, and would try to argue that Monterey and Santa Cruz were primarily fishing and boating communities, when the three biggest regional economies are tourism/hospitality, agriculture and education.  All three of these commercial reps would also say their vote was more important than the other members’ because people’s jobs depended on them, claiming that those conservation or recreation people (and even the government agencies it seemed) didn’t have real jobs.  Getting a salary from the Ocean Conservancy or a dive shop wasn’t as important as bringing in the catch or the crop.

You can tell I was not too sympathetic to the commercial interests, primarily because in the Sanctuaries Act it states very simply that the purpose of Sanctuaries, besides prohibiting oil and gas development, is “resource protection.”  Ideas like resource protection, conservation, preservation, ecosystem management are not about maximizing profits. (Except, as we would argue, that managing resources today improves the odds there will be fish to catch in years to come.  This argument did not seem to make sense to them.)  The commercial reps were there to represent their “stake” but I’m not sure they had read the Sanctuaries Act.  They would go on and on about the “promise” and about promoting “multiple use,” but resisted the widely accepted use of “ecosystem management.”

I favored the conservation side because of a second idea raised by the concept “stake.”  “Stake” is not just an economic term, it’s not just about ownership and profit. I too have a stake in the ocean, as does every person.  I have a stake in the ocean because I need it to live: three out of four breaths I take come from the oxygen made by ocean plants.  I have a stake in the ocean because all weather is born there.  I have a stake in the ocean because it feeds my soul.  I have a stake in the ocean because I believe in science and research.  I have a stake in the ocean because I don’t believe anyone can own it, so everyone must care for it.  Like Aldo Leopold, I believe that nature is not a commodity that belongs to us, but a community to which we belong.  That was the sermon I tried to preach as a Member at Large.

Ok, a little more sermon:  You can’t mark the ocean off with claim stakes at the corners and hog it all for yourself.  Even with international conventions about nations “owning” the waters 3 miles out or 100 miles out and economic influence zones and the Law of the Sea (ie nations have tried to put down some stakes,) it’s all connected, pole to pole.  Whales and tunas carry no passports, rogue factory ships from other nations steal “our” tuna, and when one member suffers, it all suffers, just think Exxon Oil Spill.  That’s the claim I stake and the stake I hold.

I am simplifying this a bit, for there were often more than two sides on an issue, but many times it was commercial versus conservation, and the debate would remind me of the difference between Republicans vs Democrats.  The commercial reps’ style was a combination of bragging and moaning, at the same time, the way Republicans will brag about how strong and moral they are, but at the same time how they suffer so much, and act like victims. 

Also like Republicans, these commercial reps often had a sharper killer instinct with no interest in compromise or finding common ground.  They would independently fly to Washington and lobby against the Sanctuary (the Harbor seat using city funds to do that.)  Like our current administration, they were obsessed with how votes are counted, saying their votes were more important since poor families depended on them. They would also claim that their constituency was larger than anyone else’s so should carry more weight.  They often tried to introduce new rules that would eliminate the Members at Large because they said we had no constituents.  How could our “stake” have any legitimacy?  One of my fellow Members at Large came up with a great response; since it is a National Marine Sanctuary, we represent the entire 200 million US citizens, making ours actually the largest constituency.  But I always felt depressed during the arguments about whose was biggest.

The conservation types (Conservation, Recreation, Diving, Education, Members At Large, Research) were like the Democrats.  We assumed that government had a role and that it was mostly helpful (we weren’t Libertarians).  We are aware that commercial interests, ie greed, can blind people to the need for care and caution.  We remembered well the Santa Barbara Oil Spills of the 70’s that first motivated years of citizens advocating for Sanctuary protection and many of us had been part of that effort.   We cared for those without a voice or vote, marine mammals and fish and plants.  We approached issues as systems, interrelated ecosystems and we cared about long term consequences, not the bottom line.  We compromised way too much.  When I was chair I went around and visited everyone, including the commercial types, at their workplace and asked them about their families and tried to find common ground.  I managed to get the Advisory Council to make most of its decisions by consensus, rather than voting, to reduce the divisive attitude, but that only worked until it didn’t. 

There were some folks in between.  Tourism and Business (two different seats, not sure why that was the case) went back and forth.  Tourists want healthy ecosystems, to see whales, not dead zones from ag runoff.  But the fastest growing industry in the county is the wineries. They call themselves farmers, and they really don’t like regs.  The government reps (Coastal Commission, Cal EPA, State Parks, Fish and Wildlife, local government) usually voted more on the conservation side, but if it got too hot they would abstain.

So how did we get anything done?  Some would say we didn’t.  We often voted for pretty weak protection or government-ese studies.  But we had some huge successes.  We enlarged the boundaries to include the largest undersea mountain in the Eastern Pacific. We put some limits on the huge krill fishery.  We prohibited cruise ships from dumping all their waste (including human, also film development chemicals) in Sanctuary waters. (They just wait until they pass the stake marking the claim.)   And when I went to a recent meeting I was amazed to see a unanimous vote for more general protections, because even the commercial interests oppose how the Trump administration is breathing down its back and panting to open up the ocean for oil drilling and other extraction. 

More on that and other ocean issues at “stake” here on the West Coast in my next column.  Take four breaths and thank the ocean for three of them.  Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Can We Manage the Ocean?

The US has set aside 15 ocean areas (and one Great Lake area) as “National Marine Sanctuaries,” and empowered local communities to decide what activities to allow in these areas and what to forbid.  For the next few weeks our “Ocean People” will be the staff and Advisory Council of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

I read a small notice in the local paper that the Advisory Council of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary had some open seats and the public was encouraged to apply.  At the web site I found that the Council was a “stakeholder” group, 23 seats representing various groups with personal or professional “stakes” in the management of this huge ocean protected area (300 miles of coastline, from San Francisco south to Cambria, and up to 25 miles out to sea.) 

I did a scout of one of their public meetings.  The Council sat around a big table with name tags in front of them that said “Harbors,” “CAL EPA,” “Commercial Fishing,” “Diving,” “Conservation,” “Recreation,” “Business and Tourism,” “Local Government,” “State Parks,” “Research,” “Education,” and more.

There were also three seats for “Members at Large.”  That’s what I applied for.  In my application I said I was an active ocean volunteer (Aquarium, State Parks) and a Big Sur resident (it looked like most of the council members were from Monterey or Santa Cruz and I knew the big Sur community had strong opinions pro and con management of “their” large stretch of this wild coast.) 

I was hesitant to say I was also an ordained minister and could represent the wider religious community, which I believed to be supportive of ocean protection and stewardship.  I did not want people’s various odd projections onto clergy (that we are somehow different, holy, conservative, anti-science, boring, prudish.)  And I wanted to improve the odds that I would be selected. 

But finally I decided to include my professional credentials (“don’t hide your light under a bushel, let your light so shine that others may see your good works….”) and added a section on how as a minister I was familiar with the concept “sanctuary” and might bring some additional perspectives and connections to the group. 

Of the 50 applicants for that Member at Large seat, I was surprised and delighted to be selected.   I assumed it was because at the interview I talked about how much I loved maps and already had a Sanctuary map hanging in my kitchen.  Or it might have been because I was honest; when asked how I would represent the Big Sur community, I said that I would reach out and listen, but actually no one can represent such a varied and passionate community. 

But it turned out, I learned much later, that the reason I was chosen was that Council had been having so much conflict, fighting between fishing and conservation interests, advocates of “resource protection” or “multiple use,” (two of the Sanctuary goals), bad feeling at meetings and nasty emails, that they thought bringing in a minister would help them all get along better.

Hah!  They soon learned the folly of their ways.  I attended a few meetings, observed the different parties and issues and disputes, and instead of casting calming oil on the water I rolled up my sleeves and jumped right into the fray.  Mostly I spoke and voted on the side of conservation, resource protection.  I was not much better than the others at seeking common ground, making compromise, rising above it.  Those fishing and harbor people were political and conniving, so we conservationists had also to be wise as serpents.  This was all some years ago, I served on the SAC from 2000-2009, but looking back it reminds me of the current political scene in Washington.  There was not much currency in being the nice accommodating person.

During those years we discussed and fought about specific issues, like jet skis, expanding the boundaries, wildlife disturbance, desalination plants, disposal of dredged material, water quality and agricultural run-off, shipping lanes, and much more.  We also had strategy disputes: do we tell the Sanctuary Superintendent and his staff what to do, or just “advise,” decide by vote or consensus, how much attention should be pay to public comment sessions, where to meet, should we add new seats, etc.

After five years on the Council my colleagues voted me to be Chair.  It was a very close vote and again I heard expectations that at least I was a “safe” candidate, but also fears that I would be too much on the conservation side.   Mostly my job was preparing agendas and running meetings, and I am proud that I did get them to work more on consensus than voting, and I did work to establish personal relationships with all the members, visiting them between meetings at their workplaces.  They elected me to a second term as Chair, we completed a massive new Management Plan, but then after 9 years I decided it was time for something new. 

Last week I attended my first SAC meeting in many years simply as an interested member of the public.  Much was the same, but some differences.  Trump’s greedy policies and interest in opening up Marine Sanctuaries for oil and gas drilling was a big topic.  It was community opposition to “extractive practices,” like oil and gas drilling, that originally led to the Sanctuary’s designation 25 years ago.  Last week even the harbors and fishing reps said preserving natural resources was more important that “multiple use.”

I’ll spend the next few columns describing some of the issues and personalities of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Advisory Council during my service, and what’s happening now. 

I remember a meeting about limiting the krill harvest, a lucrative fishery, but food for many other fish and marine mammals.  At one point tempers ran so high that a SAC member said, “Holy shit, can’t we figure this out?” and then quickly looked at me and apologized for swearing.  I said, “No problem, just make sure it’s holy shit, like holy mackerel, holy moley.  It’s all holy.  Let’s try to keep it that way.”

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter