Vast, mysterious, and full of life. The ocean is one of the most important resources for our survival on Earth. I fell in love with the ocean years before I ever stood on its shores. In 2007, in the middle of my summer vacation, I discovered Shark Week on Discovery Channel. It was the first time I was ever exposed to ecology. I became fascinated by the roles of different species in the ocean ecosystem and fell in love with the idea of diving. I dreamed of being in the water with these amazing creatures, which is a difficult task when you live in rural Iowa. There was one dive shop 40 minutes from my house. This was one of two options the entire state had at the time for getting scuba certified. I was infatuated with the sport and even worked at the dive shop after becoming certified. Moving to California revitalized a lost passion for being in the water. From surfing to free diving the coves in La Jolla, the California Coast is a spectacular marine environment. With soaring cliffs overlooking crashing waves at their base and golden sandy shores,
California has more than 400 public beaches for us to enjoy. The California coastal environment is home to 34 marine mammal species, almost 200 species of sea and shore birds, and a large variety of fish, invertebrates, and primary production species (Using nature to protect California's iconic Coast).
The beauty of the coast is apparent along all 3,427 miles of coastline (NOAA Shoreline Website). Living in San Diego County, we have access to some of the last remaining kelp forests and a wildlife population that has led to a thriving tourist industry. On the water, it’s possible to encounter Orcas (Orcinus orca), humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), and
various species of dolphins. The La Jolla area has amazing rocky reefs with an abundance of Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus) the California state marine fish, many sea bass species, crabs, lobster and don’t forget the sharks! This area of southern California is popular with leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciata), who come to the sandy shallows off of La Jolla Shores beach and the cove area to mate through late summer and early autumn. It’s possible to spot the occasional sevengill shark (Notorynchus cepedianus) and of course the famous great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias).
When it comes to beach goers and interactions with wildlife, the great white shark has been the center of public attention. A creature of beauty and power, armed with a keen hunting sense, the great white is an example of evolution at its finest. On the California coast great whites call all parts of the water home. However, as the affects of climate change increase, researchers are seeing great whites create nurseries in places they never have before (Climate change impacting migration of juvenile great white sharks in Pacific). Just north of San Diego, The Torrey Pines area is seeing an uptick in their juvenile great white population. Researchers have found that after a 2015 El Niño event, juvenile white sharks that formerly stayed in the Baja California area are making their way north to the shores of California. There is a low risk of shark attack when getting in the water with great whites. They have little interest in humans, swimming past them during daylight hours.('sea of change: The new sharks of socal' examines new shark gathering spot).
The changes we see in our oceans are led by human interaction. Deep sea drilling, the transporting of fossil fuel products, and certain fishing practices being the most destructive. By continuing to step on the natural processes around us and take more resources from these places than they can handle, important species are suffering. Known as keystone species, these animals maintain balance in an ecosystem. Destabilize one and the dominoes will fall. Take the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) for example. Sea otters were hunted to near extinction in the early 1900s by fur traders (Southern Sea Otter). While the popularity of otter pelts faded into history, the affect of this trade still has visible impacts on our ocean. Sea otters predate on the Pacific purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) who in turn love grazing on kelp. As the number of sea otters dropped, hordes of sea urchins turned once booming kelp forests into barren underwater wastelands. Actions like these guarantee the future of our ocean is bleak. As is our future in the terrestrial realm. With 50% of our breathable oxygen coming from the ocean and 90% of carbon emissions being filtered by the ocean, we will be in grave danger if we cannot reconcile our behavior with the world around us.
As we look for ways to mitigate or ocean impact, one of the most important things to consider is the fishing industry. The fishing industry conducted in the ocean is very different in that of traditional farm raised animals. In a typical harvesting practice you know how much of a resource is available. However, in the ocean it is impossible to have 100% accuracy on the total number of a
resource that can be harvested. This complicates the process of sustainable action and population recovery. There is also the issue of bycatch, all the species caught in nets and hooks that are not the intended target species. Some practices, such as the rod and reel method allow for catch and release of bycatch where the unintended species is released with no harm and will survive. With bottom trawling, however, there is an almost 90% bycatch with most bycatch dead by the time the net reaches the surface.
Bottom trawling has undoubtedly caused more damage to natural environments than any other fishing practice. Bottom trawling is conducted by dragging a net along the the seafloor to collect demersal species - fish, shrimp, oysters, mussels, and prawns. This practice not only has the highest bycatch, with roughly 90% of catch being unwanted dead species, but also the highest amount of overall habitat damage. There is no possibility of species-specific targeting, only wholesale destruction of sessile plants and animals. Trawling is also conducted to target pelagic fish in the top and mid water column - resulting in similar issues with bycatch.
The good news is that organizations are trying to improve the industry as a whole. The harpoon fishery targeting swordfish by attaching buoys and tiring the target results in zero bycatch. Another emerging form of sustainable fishery is in development through the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER). To target swordfish without the use of gill nets left in the water, which catch anything that happens to swim past, PIER has developed what is known as Deep Set Buoy Gear. This gear was developed for use off the coast of California. Fishermen drop baited hooks past depths where the majority of vulnerable bycatch species reside, placing the hooks in the realm of target species at specific depths. In studies of this practice from 2011-2014 only six percent of catch was discarded and no turtles, whales or dolphins were caught (Achieving a sustainable swordfish fishery with deep-set Buoy Gear). This practice has been implemented as an experimental fishery for now, but is expected to open as a normal operating fishery off the coast of California soon.
We currently approach these issues with money being the primary concern; whether there’s money to fund projects or money that can be made from projects. These questions will undo every bit of hard work put in to make a difference. This cannot now nor ever be primarily about the economy. Without the ocean there is no planet and subsequently, no economy. However, it is possible to reconcile the issue of money and our ocean’s health by supporting fishing as a small business venture. Smaller fishing operations using less invasive gear, such as rod and reel fishing, are better for the environment as well as for the local economy. Larger corporations setting sail with decks full of destructive gear result in destruction, bycatch, and focus on short term profit instead of long term costs. Here in San Diego we have access to dock side markets where smaller fishing ventures bring their catch directly from the ocean. By shopping at these markets, not only are you guaranteed delicious fresh catch, you’re also purchasing marine products locally.
When purchasing marine products that come from outside of the United States, there is always a possibility that the fishery that harvested the product did so in a destructive way. The regulations of fisheries and the management of marine ecosystems varies across the world. Bottom trawling remains unregulated in most international waters and some countries in the European Union still support the shark fin trade. Sharks are brought aboard, their fins are harvested, and the often still-living shark is tossed into the water to its inevitable death. It is extremely important for those who consume marine products to know what is in them and where they come from. SB 1138, a bill passed in California makes it illegal to sell any seafood products without labelling the product with the common name of the species and where it came from. This is a huge step in the direction to allow the consumer to purchase sustainably harvested products from reputable fisheries.
The ocean is undoubtedly an extremely important resource. Not just for the sustainability of marine habitats, but the overall health of Earth. We are currently in the middle of a climate crisis that has had many negative effects on our lives. With sustainability at the front of our minds and policies that protect fragile, natural systems, we can start to turn the tide of climate change. We have a lot of work to do, however, there is hope. Growing concern from the public about the direction we are heading has garnered support from all over the globe. Our biggest fight in the name of conservation lies at the feet of our policy makers. This is where we can change the norm and fight to make long lasting changes to protect our planet. When voting for the people who will ultimately represent what is important to you, be sure you know what their stance on the environment is. Having the right people on our side for this fight will be the difference between climate recovery or climate destruction. So get outside, clean a beach, but most importantly, enjoy our natural world and share the beauty with someone.
Written by: Cooper Graham
Edited by: Emma Vail
“Climate Change Impacting Migration of Juvenile Great White Sharks in Pacific.” ABC7 San Francisco, 10 Sept. 2021, abc7news.com/great-white-sharks-shark-ocean-migration-climate-change-global-warming/11011148/.
“NOAA Shoreline Website.” Frequently Asked Questions - NOAA Shoreline Website, shoreline.noaa.gov/faqs.html?faq=2. Accessed 15 May 2023.
“Southern Sea Otter.” Marine Mammal Commission, 30 Jan. 2023, www.mmc.gov/priority-topics/species-of-concern/southern-sea-otter/#:~:text=Southern%20sea%20otters%2C%20also%20known,plummeted%20in%20the%20early%201900s.
“Using Nature to Protect California’s Iconic Coast.” California, 17 Oct. 2018, www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/california/stories-in-california/using-nature-to-protect-california-s-iconic-coast/.
“‘sea of Change: The New Sharks of Socal’ Examines New Shark Gathering Spot.” ABC7 Los Angeles, 29 Jan. 2023, abc7.com/sharks-in-california-great-white-southern-ca-sea-of-change/12739648/#:~:text=Lowe%20said%20as%20climate%20change,they’ve%20never%20been%20before.
Oceana USA. (n.d.). Achieving a sustainable swordfish fishery with deep-set Buoy Gear. Oceana USA. https://usa.oceana.org/responsible-fishing-achieving-sustainable-swordfish-fishery-deep-set-buoy-gear/