Community activists save the sea

Full Text:

I’M DIVING THROUGH A MARINE reserve off Catalina Island in Southern California twenty-two miles from Los Angeles. There’s a rock wall with lots of spiny urchins, where I spot four lobsters in caves and a big purple sea hare, and a couple of five-foot bat rays flying through the water column that is also teaming with kelpfish, senoritas, red and black California sheephead, and orange garibaldis, like goldfish on steroids.

My dive buddy Scott and I move into the kelp forest with its tangled brown strands, some fifteen feet thick and rising fifty feet to the surface, infused with afternoon cathedral light like an underwater redwood grove. I check out the bottom cover, where pink strawberry anemones appear as tiny flowers next to a decorator crab, covered in red seaweed and green algae. Just then a 600-pound sea lion streaks past like some sleek, flexible torpedo on the hunt. Distracted, I don’t watch where I’m going and soon have to untangle my tank and flotation device from the clutches of several rubber-hose-like kelp strands.

Giant kelp, along with bull kelp, are the dominant marine plant species along this coast and can grow a foot a day, which sounds awesome till they’re yanking on your regulator hose. While I’m clearing my gear, Scott spots an old abandoned hoop net used for catching lobsters before this patch of ocean was protected and frees a four-foot leopard shark trapped inside. Back topside, a pod of Risso’s dolphins, some twelve-feet long, cruises by feeding on squid.


Last year, California set aside 16 percent of its state waters as marine reserves like this one after a fierce thirteen-year battle pitting the recreational fishing industry against conservationists, scientists, sport divers, and others. Much of the conflict resulted from a top-down process. The Department of Fish and Game put out maps showing the locations of the reserves without local consultations. As the backlash grew, the state had to scrap its original plans and start over by holding public hearings up and down the coast. Luckily, because almost every Californian has a sense of entitlement to the ocean, this unnecessarily rowdy process led to a reasonable outcome. Today, California’s world-class state park system has moved into the water column.

In the 1990s, scientists began suggesting 20 percent of the ocean be set aside as Marine Protected Areas, extraction-free zones that could act as reserves for the threatened biodiversity of the seas, what National Geographic Explorer in Residence Sylvia Earle calls, “Hope Spots.” Yet today less than 2 percent of the ocean has been set aside for hope.

Some of the most promising areas are the result of local efforts. From western Australia to Mexico, and from the Philippines to Belize, local fishing communities and conservationists have turned the idea of ocean wilderness into community-based initiatives that restore both ecosystems and livelihoods. Two examples of this marine organizing (I call it seaweed activism) come from Puerto Rico and Oregon.

CORALATIONS is a coral protection group founded in San Juan in 1995 and now based in Culebra, a small, dry island off the Puerto Rican mainland, a onetime Navy firing range with an extensive coral reef system, a population of some 2,000 people, and many visitors, including tourists, sea turtles, and seabirds. With about 500 members and volunteers, CORALations works to conserve area reefs through restoration and research and to educate the public with a focus on local schools and villages.

In 1999, co-founder Mary Ann Lucking helped the island’s commercial fishermen, led by Luis and Lourdes Feliciano, create Puerto Rico’s first no-take Marine Protected Area, the Luis Pena Channel Natural Reserve. The 1,200-acre reserve has since seen a strong recovery of coral and sea grass meadows and an increased catch for fishermen outside the reserve.

“There’s definitely a spillover effect,” Lucking says. “We’ve seen biomass and biodiversity increase, and this has led to increased tourism. There are now two kayak operations at Tamarindo Beach, and the turtles came back–green sea turtles that now hang out and come up to people.”

Since 2003, CORALations has also been working with the University of Puerto Rico in farming and planting endangered staghorn coral. “It takes a lot of volunteer labor, and we think it changes the attitude of people towards the reserve,” Lucking says. Along with college-age volunteer divers, the group has created a Conservation Youth Corps that includes a dozen local Exploradoras Marinas, between the ages of ten and eighteen, as well as a preschool program and a course for the island’s church-run summer camp of 120.

“When I first came here, kids were taught to fear the sea,” says Lucking. “They didn’t go in the water. Now we’re working with four- and five-year-olds learning to snorkel and free dive and shouting out the names of the corals they see.”

CORALations has also been involved in various lawsuits, including a successful one that forced the EPA in 2007 to upgrade its water quality standards for Puerto Rico. Today, it is working with the Center for Biological Diversity, Earth Justice, and local fishermen to get the Marine Fisheries Service to protect parrotfish, which, in turn, protect the reef by grazing on algae and excreting sand (“they poop billion dollar white sand beaches,” says Lucking). The group is also fighting a megaresort development planned for Culebra.

“There are some things like the amount of carbon dioxide people pump into the air we can’t control as a local group,” Lucking argues. “But one thing we know that works is Marine Protected Areas, only they can’t be done top down. You have to engage local communities or they wont work.

Approximately 3,600 miles northwest of Culebra, a small coastal town in Oregon couldn’t agree more. The Port Orford Ocean Resource Team was founded in 2001 with the support of eighteen local fishermen and a specialist in marine reserves named Laura Anderson, who wondered if community-based fisheries management common in Chile, Fiji, and elsewhere might work for Oregon.

“The timing was perfect because we were heading into a West Coast groundfish disaster and had seen salmon and urchin populations crash and thought there had to be something better than the top-down management we were seeing,” explains Leesa Cobb, whose husband is a local commercial fisherman and who has been the group’s executive director since 2004. “We knew all about the ocean right outside our front door.”

Another factor that favored their initiative was what she calls the fleet’s “homogeneous nature.” Founded in 1851 in a bloody land grab from a local Indian tribe, Port Orford is the oldest coastal town in Oregon but hardly its best port. With no protective sand bar or natural harbor, the town’s fishermen depend on a “dolly dock,” a yellow crane that lifts fishing boats on and off a high pier. As a result, the fleet of about thirty boats are all under forty feet in length and share common gear. They depend on the abundance of local waters with generations of shared knowledge about the areas black cod, tuna, halibut, rockfish, crab, and urchin. They take pride in the selective nature of their fishing gear and lack of big bottom dragging nets that destroy habitat and generate bycatch (the killing of non-targeted species). With a $5 million annual catch, the small town still can make its living direct from the ocean while nearby towns that lost both logging and fishing jobs depend mainly on tourism to survive.


The group has started a marketing program for “Port Orford Sustainable Seafood” that has increased the local price per pound by selling fish to restaurants, farmers’ markets, and individual buyers across the state. This marketing is based on what Cobb calls “our triple bottom line: ecology, economics, and equity.”

The eight-square-mile Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, established in 2012, became the first of what are now five reserves along the Oregon coast. When the state decided it didn’t need boundary markers, local fishermen and the group’s small staff raised the money to float buoys along the boundary so outside fishing boats couldn’t claim ignorance if caught poaching in the reserve. Port Orford fishermen are also donating boat time to researchers.

“The reserve could be a good dive spot where we’ll be seeing the comeback of flora and fauna,” Cobb believes. “My husband and our board realize we won’t stay in business if we don’t do this work. Sitting back and doing nothing isn’t an option anymore.”

Oregon State University is collaborating with the Port Orford team and has plans in the works for a marine lab field station in a building the group has upgraded for it. Last year, the organization received the Governor’s Gold Award for contributing to “the greatness of Oregon.”

“Without community engagement, a sense of community ownership and pride, you’re missing a big piece of how to get things done,” Cobb tells me, echoing Mary Ann Lucking and other seaweed activists. Cobb then invites me to dive the chilly cold waters of Red fish Rocks, an invitation I look forward to accepting.

Illustration by Doug Chayka

David Helvang is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier (, an ocean conservation group. His latest book is “The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea.”