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The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival

Mark Newton

2nd June, 2011

From natural paradise to environmental catastrophe and back again, the story of Monterey Bay is a compelling one. Lucky then, says Mark Newton, that marine biologists Stephen R. Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka do it justice

The Death and Life of Monterey Bay has a depressingly familiar narrative: the destruction of wonderful and valuable species in the name of industrial progress. This book could have been just another addition to the library of tomes detailing the destruction of the natural world but it’s saved by the happy ending. Instead of an epitaph for a lost paradise, Palumbi and Sotka have penned a story that begins with devastation and ends with hope. Why? Because the town made famous by John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row has had it’s wild population restored.

The scene is set with a speedy tour of the history of Monterey Bay, a stretch of shoreline that faces the Pacific Ocean along the Californian coast. Several settlements are introduced, simultaneously providing the context and bringing the area to life. The focus is on the 19th and 20th centuries, and outlines a familiar tale: businesses seeking to take as much as possible from the environment in order to turn a profit without giving anything back or even seeking to limit themselves. Unregulated industries plundered the coastal waters. Some of the first victims were the otters, killed in their thousands for their fur. Then came the whaling, described by Palumbi and Sotka in gory detail, which decimated the local whale population. Hunters in search of abalones were next. Nothing was left untouched on this stretch of coast including, at times, the people. Not content with merely plundering the seas, heavy industry formed around fish canning operations, which promptly began dumping waste on a colossal scale. Yet many of these operations spanned difficult periods in human history – the era of the Great Depression, for example, when high levels of unemployment meant that environmental considerations were put to one side and considered unimportant.

But this isn’t just the biography of a bay. No environmental story would be complete without looking at the lives of those who were affected by its destruction, or of the people helped turn things around. Characters such as Mayor Dr. Julia Platt, a woman who went out of her way to fight against the system. She fought for land rights and for ‘the land underwater.’  She excelled at direct action, including rolling up her sleeves and ripping down a fence that blocked off access a public beach and negotiating with the state to encourage policies in the town’s favour. Another pioneering Monterey Bay environmentalist was Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who developed an influential set of ideas concerning the ecology of Monterey Bay. Ricketts’ was also a friend of John Steinbeck whose novel, Cannery Row, did much to draw attention to the plight of Monterey Bay.

Though it’s clear that the wild population of Monterey Bay has suffered Palumbi and Sotka’s analysis of the region demonstrates that despite this, there is a way back. The otter and sea bird populations have recovered, while whales are once again to be found in the cool, Pacific waters of the bay. Conservation efforts, protective legislation and philanthropy, including the building of an aquarium, have all been part of the bay’s natural renaissance. Perhaps the most important message the book provides is that of what can happen when local people decide that enough is enough. Our local eco-systems are our responsibility and we have a duty to learn from the past and make amends for our mistakes. The Death and Life of Monterey Bay neatly encapsulates the depredations of the 20th century but highlights the fact that all is not lost. A gentle, considered and stirring biography of an eco-system; the book is a fitting legacy for Monterey Bay.

The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival by Stephen R. Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka (£16.99, Island Press) is available at Amazon

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