Journalist and ocean organizer David Helvarg is attending this month’s Colorado Ocean Coalition Blue Drinks to talk about his new book, The Golden Shore. On its surface, Helvarg’s latest book offers a lengthy history of California and Californians’ relationship to the ocean and their 11,000 miles of coastline. But amid all the history and the stories about reforms that are trying to save species and water and air near a tipping point past which there would be no rescue is a much larger lesson about what it takes to enact successful change.
“The book’s really about how the Pacific defines California and has come to redefine Californians and their enterprising, adventuresome and entrepreneurial spirit, how it links to the Pacific, but I realized in the course of writing, the book is about democracy,” Helvarg says. “We have the world’s best coastal protection under a coastal act that originally was voted on by the people as an initiative. When they couldn’t get it through the state house in the early ’70s — when that means was too corrupt — they went to the initiative on the ballot.”
Proposition 20, written by the future executive director of the Coastal Commission, Peter Douglas, passed in a landslide in 1972. It had been three years since the Santa Barbara oil spill, when a blowout at an offshore oil platform released 200,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, creating an 800-square-mile slick and washing tar onto 35 miles of beaches. That proposition was followed by the California Coastal Act of 1976, which increased protections, and the World Bank, Douglas has said, now rates California’s coastline among the world’s most well protected. It’s taken political will to enact science-based solutions.
“It’s taken us a long time, but as a very late marine frontier, we’ve come through the cycle of resource exploitation and the frontier mentality of take what you can get, when you can get it,” says Helvarg, who also wrote 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, Rescue Warriors and Saved by the Sea. “We’ve evolved to really learning how to live well by the sea and both been protecting and restoring our ocean health.”
The history Helvarg charts begins with the earliest settlers of California who, arriving 12,000 years ago during the last ice age, when ocean levels were more than 300 feet below their current levels, would have walked across a river delta that has since become the San Francisco Bay. He moves through a history of otter hunts and abalone fishing that took those species to the edge of extinction, as well as through mining actions (with a hydraulic cannon that used high-powered streams of water in a method vaguely prescient to hydraulic fracturing) that dumped so much sediment into the rivers that they’re only just, 150 years later, starting to run clear. That sediment, along with the wreckage of literally hundreds of ships that were abandoned by their crews during the gold rush, don’t help with the sea level either.
The Golden Shore, like so many environmental histories, has wince-worthy moments. But it’s not ultimately a sad story.
“The book itself is the happy ending to the not always happy story of how we live by the sea here,” Helvarg says. The process of getting to that ending has meant involving all of the stakeholders in crafting ocean management policies, and Helvarg gives a chapter individually to reviewing the early developments, the ports, the Navy, the surfers, the oil and gas development and the science, among others.
“There’s no single industry or special interest that gets to dominate, and where I’ve seen coastal oceans decline, it’s where you have that domination of a special interest,” he says. “So in New England, where the politicians think the fishermen own the ocean, there’s no cod off Cape Cod. We’ve seen serial depletion and decline of fisheries. And we know that the oil and gas industry dominates in the gulf off Louisiana where I’ve seen 100 dolphins and a humpback whale trapped and dying in the oil during the BP blowout.”
David Helvarg | Photo by Liz Smith
Taking a more collaborative approach has led to choices that have benefits all around, he says. In northern California, the Yurok tribe, the state’s largest, has worked with farmers, the government and the PacifiCorp energy company to start the process of removing a dam on the Klamath River. In 2004, a dispute over the Klamath’s waters led to diverting the water to eastern Oregon farmers, despite research that showed keeping the water in the river would have 30 times the economic benefit downstream with the salmon industry than upstream irrigating the fields of potato farmers. But the political ploy meant to help President George W. Bush’s efforts to win Oregon (he’d given up California for lost) killed 70,000 of the 1.5 million salmon in the Klamath River.
“It was a shock to the system that made people realize that being divided and fighting for the water wasn’t working,” Helvarg says. “So we developed this collaborative program with the eastern Oregon farmers … And the collaboration today is now leading to a marginally productive dam’s removal that will make the river massively more productive in terms of restoring habitat for what was once the second most productive river on the West Coast.”
In southern California, Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz, the first woman and the first marine biologist to run a major port, has brought the country’s largest ports into a clean air action plan that has reduced the air pollution around the ports by 70 percent — and the surrounding communities have reported a decline in cancer and childhood asthma rates.
“The shipping industry and the trucking industry were brought kicking and screaming into the clean air agreement in the ports, but as a result, they’re now seeing expanded opportunity with new terminal construction,” Helvarg says. “It’s this collaborative process that applies across all examples of good ecosystem management, which is the understanding that it’s not just a question of clean air and cormorants. Once you establish the best practices for maintaining the ecosystem, you also see that the economy’s become more sustainable.”
Helvarg also coordinates the Blue Vision Summit, which strives to bring ocean leaders together in Washington, D.C., to discuss the issues facing ocean conservation and unite, both on the issues and as a face of constituents with Congressional representatives. This year’s summit, which is May 13-16, will focus on disaster response, addressing the climate debate in terms of ocean health and cultivating youth leadership.
Vicki Nichols Goldstein, founder of the Colorado Ocean Coalition, is one of the founding board members of the Blue Frontiers campaign and the Blue Vision Summit.
“Part of the effort of the Blue Visions Summit is that collaborative approach where we’re bringing in people from all over the country to focus on a couple of issues that we can all collaborate on so the ocean organizations aren’t moving in 15, 20 directions,” Nichols Goldstein says. They’ll share information, craft common themes and build a partnership framework. The idea of partnering with other organizations has guided Colorado Ocean Coalition to start exploring something that might look like a sister city relationship with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary’s superintendent, Paul Michel, will attend this month’s Blue Drinks, alongside Helvarg.
Of course, no one promised democracy or collaborative approaches would be a polite process.
“We had these huge fights that can last for years, but the end points tend to be good because it’s because we have so many stakeholders who feel so invested in the coast and ocean,” Helvarg says. The latest fight to come to a close is the 12-year fight to create the marine protected areas, which bring the principles of state park management into the ocean.
“Sixteen percent of state waters are now protected and this has become a global model,” Helvarg says. “It was lots of shouting at lots of public hearings with recreational fishermen arguing with scuba divers and the divers getting backing from the scientists. And I suspect, as it happened with our coastal protection, people will still carp, but most of the opponents, 10 years from now, will be saying, ‘Oh yeah, I was part of that process. I made sure that was done right,’ because people do tend to get a lot out of the ocean in different ways.”
It’s not unlike the scenarios that arise when Coloradans encounter the questions of land management, and ranchers, farmers, hunters, hikers, resort owners, backcountry skiers and scientists step in to voice how Colorado’s mountains should be man aged and what needs they should serve.
“I think it’s all those, aside from telling an interesting story about a people and their ocean. I think the other thing I thought I would try to bring to Colorado is about how when you get public engagement around a big resource, whether it’s the Pacific Ocean or the Rocky Mountains, that that public engagement tends to lead to collaborative efforts with good outcomes,” Helvarg says. “Plus, of course, we’re all living on an ocean planet, so that’s the other message. Whether you’re in Santa Barbara or Denver or Cleveland on the Great Lakes or somewhere else, you’re also dependent on the ocean as a driver of climate and weather and a source of oxygen and life on our blue marble planet.”