Southern California Dives into Ocean Stewardship

Market squid is California’s largest and most valuable commercial fishery.January 11, 2011

Standing on the edge of a boat peering into the vast blue deep of the ocean is a thrilling – and sometimes intimidating—experience.

My father “helped” me get over my nervousness by simply throwing me overboard at the age of seven with the newly invented SCUBA tank on my back, but for folks without such assistance, you have to simply take a deep breath and make the plunge.

On December 15, 2010, southern California dove enthusiastically into ocean conservation when the Fish and Game Commission voted to adopt a network of underwater parks along the coast between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border; a perfect ending for year where we witnessed the largest marine catastrophe in US history. It is encouraging to have these new marine protected areas that will join others in the statewide system of protected ocean waters called for in California’s Marine Life Protection Act.

LobsterThis is truly an historic moment for all those who cherish southern California’s iconic coastal waters. The ocean belongs to all of us, and I hope you will join me in applauding this important step toward using smart, science-based management of our blue backyard.

We can all be proud of this legacy of ocean conservation. I founded the Ocean Futures Society to carry on the philosophy of my late father Jacques Cousteau and to continue to serve as a “Voice for the Ocean.” Last month that voice was heard loud and clear.

I’m encouraged to see our leaders being more proactive in ensuring our priceless wild places remain healthy. The wild ocean is a place of wonder and discovery, where people young and old can go for inspiration. We Cousteau’s are famous for many “firsts,” including donning the first SCUBA equipment and producing documentaries about the rich undersea world and our vital connection to a healthy, thriving marine ecosystem. As the first state with a coast-wide network of science-based protections, California should be proud of its own famous first. California’s new underwater parks will protect biodiversity hot spots so future generations can experience their beauty and richness. As Commissioner Rogers said at the meeting of the Fish and Game Commission, the ocean has changed significantly from 50 years ago. And this is our opportunity to turn the tide and set things right.

Fabien Cousteau with sea urchinsAs for southern California, the future is bright. The new marine parks plan will be good for people and for sea life. To those who worry about lost fishing grounds, I say: there can be no fishing without fish. Marine protected areas protect the future of your business. I am on your side; I enjoy the bounty of the sea when it is properly managed sustainably for future generations.

It is ironic that the depletion of our ocean resources has accelerated at the same time we were personally donning dive masks and witnessing the richness of the ocean first hand. Just as we started to dignify and appreciate the ecological role of individual marine species and how they contribute to the sustainability of the marine ecosystem they call home, we were improving our fishing technology to remove them faster than they were replenishing their populations. From an ecological standpoint, we now understand how everything is connected. We now appreciate the need to set aside protected areas in the ocean just as we have done on land. But we are over a hundred years behind terrestrial conservation measures when it comes to protecting our marine assets. We protect over 14% of our land and less than 1% of the ocean. It is time to demonstrate the same stewardship for the ocean and recognize the importance of marine protected areas as a way to increase abundance, improve biodiversity and provide a nursery for species that will spill over into areas open to fishing. It is a win-win situation for us all.

The more I learn about the ocean, the more I realize how little I truly understand it. Even after all these years, a sense of exploration and wonder still fills me each time I dive into the ocean’s depths.

We owe it to ourselves--we owe it to our water planet--to set aside these crown jewels for us all to benefit from and to enjoy today and for all future generations.

I have come to appreciate these crown jewels around the world including personal dives in Marine World Heritage sites and MPA’s. One of my favorite site is found in my own backyard of the Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. It is where I went diving for the first time after the death of my father in 1997. I was fortunate to experience an area off of Anacapa Island which has been protected as a marine protected area since 1980. I was on a dive boat from Santa Barbara with 40 other divers, taking part in NOAA’s Great American Fish Count. Because the death of my father was international news; most of the divers knew I had just returned from one of the more difficult times of my life; having to lay my father to rest. I politely asked my fellow divers if I could have a moment in peace underwater before others followed me in to the water. What I was so fortunate to experience was not only the sun’s rays penetrating through kelp forest; but the thrill of diving through this three-dimensional forest that is full of life, including many large, desirable harvested animals such as lobsters, abalone and kelp bass. These species including many others have become increasingly rare in other places along the California coast.

From my recently published book: “My Father the Captain: My Life with Jacques Cousteau”; I recall this memorable dive:

Garibaldi, California's state marine fish, glides through the kelp forest"I notice an unusual opening in the kelp. All around, there is this dense and marvelous kelp forest, which appears to collect around a silky, sandy bottom. The way it appears before me, at just that moment, is almost otherworldly. The sun's rays are shining brightly through the kelp, lighting up this little, inexplicable patch of sand-like a spotlight on an empty stage. All around me there are tiny garibaldi, brightly colored damsel- fish native to the area. In normal light, they're a fantastic, shimmering orange, but here in this bright sunlight, they are like festive candles, a string of party decorations announcing some underwater fiesta. What can I do but follow these playful, carrot-colored fish to the sandy bottom? What can I do but give myself over to their sweet allure? I drop to my knees and fall on the spot and I am overcome with emotion. It is almost mystical. I have been thinking of my father, of course, and now it feels as if he is here with me, on this sun-splashed ocean floor. For the first time since his death, he is near."

Congratulations to California, my father would be proud for this impressive step forward in ensuring a healthy, productive ocean to study and explore far into the future.

Warm regards,


First Photo: Market squid is California’s largest and most valuable commercial fishery. Marine protected areas will assure there are areas where these animals can spawn and lay their eggs in mass for the sustainability of the fishery and the longevity of the species. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Second Photo: The American lobster industry has played a key role in the success of the industry through a strong conservation and stewardship ethic. Lobster fisheries from both the West and East coast of the United States provide a lucrative harvest for state economies. Populations of lobsters are most abundant along continental shelf edges in the vicinity of submarine canyons. Many of these habitats are now protected in the newly established MPA’s in S. CA for the spiny lobster. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Third Photo: Sea urchins, a close cousin of the sea star, looks like a simple ball ofspines, with some variation in size and color among different species. But the inside is a delicacy in Japanese sushi bars. The roe, called "uni," is eaten raw, often on a small pad of seaweed-wrapped rice. MPA’s will ensure there will always been areas where urchins can replenish the surrounding reefs through spill over and broadcast spawning. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Fourth Photo: The kelp forest in Southern California is some of the healthiest, intact ecosystems in the world. Not only providing a destination for divers to explore and enjoy, the kelp forest is home to one of the richest, diverse marine ecosystems with close to 1000 different species who call it home. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society