California Tidepools Loved to Death?

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

Tidepools are one of the standout features of the California coast. A magical combination of geology and ocean forces, tidepools give us a window to the sea and allow us to study the workings of the marine world-without getting our feet wet. But people are getting their feet wet. In droves.

According to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, "human trampling and harvest" is one of the top challenges facing tidepools.

Human impacts are significant in all tidepool reserves, but they have become a controversial issue at the Great Tidepool in Pacific Grove, an affluent and picturesque town on the coast of Monterey Bay.

Here, where generations of marine
biologists have studied, the loss of once-common intertidal creatures such as chitons, snails, limpets, and sea stars has assumed alarming proportions. And people are a big part of the reason.

Pacific Grove's Great Tidepool is only three miles long, but it hosted over 135,000 visitors last year, including over 27,000 schoolchildren on educational field trips. Wildlife photographers, divers, policemen and other residents concur that many visitors are less than well behaved. Although the pools lie within the protected confines of the Pacific Grove Marine Gardens Refuge, rocks are turned over, habitats disturbed and animals moved from one pool to another or pulled apart. And perhaps more disturbing, poaching is epidemic. The police blotter lists the illegal take of limpets and mussels in the hundreds. One man was caught removing over 2,000 snails.

The declines have inspired Jim Willoughby, a local biology teacher, to launch the Coalition To Preserve and Restore Pt. Pinos Tidepools. According to the Coalition's petition, some 1,400 residents of Pacific Grove want to see Pt. Pinos declared a preserve under local control, like nearby Pt. Lobos, where marine life is thriving. To this end, the Coalition has drafted a five-point plan for adoption by voters. The plan would widen the use of interpretive signs and establish a corps of volunteer docents to guide tidepool excursions. Most importantly, the Coalition wants to sharply restrict collecting, establishing a temporary "no take" zone until the causes of the declines are more clearly identified. Allowances for scientific collecting would be more narrowly interpreted, in line with their original intent to provide for research.

Some of those with collection permits have opposed the plan. Chris Harrold, director of conservation research for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, explains: "We [the Aquarium] don't feel...that any changes [in the tidepools] are related to human activity."
If it isn't the humans, what is it?

Some scientists attribute the declines here and elsewhere along the coast to large-scale factors such as global warming. They say a rise in sea-surface temperature alters upwelling patterns and planktonic nutrient cycles. Another possible cause is predation. Southern sea otters are more numerous here lately, and they are known to consume a quarter of their weight in invertebrates every day.

These are valid considerations, but even if they are true, they only serve to make conservation of the pools more
urgent than ever. Restricting access is a no-brainer. It has worked wonders for nearby Pt. Lobos, which is bountiful by comparison, even though it has been exposed to the same global environmental changes.
Curiously, it seems local conservationists have found themselves opposed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Aquarium supports certain parts of the conservation plan, such as better signage and monitoring, but remains dead set against the "no take" policy, as well as permanent preserve status for Pt. Pinos. It is easy to see why. Collecting is the bread and butter of live exhibitry, and Pt. Pinos is a popular collecting site. All you need is a research permit. Yet are specimens destined for petting pools, feeding sea otters and display in other exhibits really subjects of research? Or are they, like so many dolphins and Orcas around the world, the raw materials of a commercial enterprise? However one looks at it, aquaria have a special duty to to preserve, not exploit, the ecosystems they seek to explain.

Some have claimed that collecting helps the Aquarium "inspire marine
conservation in millions of visitors." In other words, the ends justify the means. Well, I don't know who gave scientists the legal standing to decree which ecosystems may be preserved and which may be sacrificed, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the citizens and their representatives.

The coastline-any coastline-is neither exclusively a one-stop supermarket for exhibitors nor a marine laboratory. It has other uses, and other values. Aesthetic value is just as worthy. So is an intact food web capable of drawing "charismatic megafauna" such as pinnipeds and cetaceans. Local depletions at the lower ends of the food chain can alter people's quality of life as surely as an oil rig, a freeway or an airport.

At the same time, it is hard for people to protect what they have no emotional investment in, whether it is the Great Barrier Reef or a simple local tidepool. That is why visits to nature are important, especially in our more urban age. But we must recognize that something is wrong with our approach if the learning process itself destroys the classroom.

Current ordinances should protect tidepools. But they are not being sensibly enforced. The current regime needs to be replaced with real stewardship and oversight. And more than ever, all the agencies involved in protecting intertidal areas need to work together.

In 1925, Ed Ricketts saw that many of California's fragile intertidal zones had become despoiled by overzealous collecting. He hoped it wouldn't happen to his beloved Monterey Bay. But it is happening. And with California's population on the rise, and fragile sites subject to more human impacts, a unified policy needs to emerge that will serve both our desire for knowledge and the requirements of sea creatures for untrammeled habitat.