Why Saving Trestles Still Matters

I still remember the first time I walked down the trail to Upper Trestles, on the western edge of San Onofre State Beach in Southern California, to compete in a NSSA high school contest. While the memories of the waves I caught that day 42 years ago in 1979 as a 15-year old have faded, I still vividly recall the green canopy of San Mateo Creek and our first glimpse of the dunes and breaking waves beyond the train tracks. It was magical.

The over 2,000 acres of San Onofre State Beach as well as the watershed of San Mateo Creek provides habitat for 11 endangered species. Photo: Jeremiah Klein

I’m not the only surfer who feels that way. Greg Long, who grew up riding the cobblestone A-frames of Trestles prior to embarking on his career as a professional big wave surfer, calls San Onofre State Beach a “real treasure.”

“San Mateo Creek is one of but a few remaining unadulterated and channelized watersheds in Southern California,” says Long. “When I walk down to the beach it’s like entering a time capsule, home to multiple endangered species and the cultural history of the Acjachemen people, offering a glimpse into what coastal Southern California may have been like once upon a time before all the development.”

Trestles is on the village site known as Panhe, which is known to archeologists to be at least 9,600 years old. Photo: Danny Hardesty

Greg’s sentiment is echoed by Dan Silver, CEO of the Endangered Habitats League who has worked tirelessly to protect the park and the San Mateo Creek watershed. “San Onofre State Beach and Trestles remain important for a rare confluence of values – cultural, biological, and recreational,” says Silver. “It is rich in Native American history. An estuary, stream, and uplands shelter an astonishing 11 endangered species.”

But, before it was ever a state park or a world famous surf spot, San Mateo Creek, was an Acjachemen village known as Pahne, or “place at the water.” According to Callie Shanafelt Wong, “Today the Acjachemen consider what is left of Panhe to be their most sacred site. Pre-contact, the village spanned the entire valley now occupied by the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, San Onofre State Beach and much of the town of San Clemente. To this day the tribe conducts ceremony and an Ancestor Walk on a small designated area within San Mateo campground, which is also a burial site.” To learn more about the cultural significance of Panhe and San Onofre State Beach through the lens of the Acjachemen, see The Indigenous Coastal Stewards Who Helped Save Trestles.

Greg Long at the California Coastal Commission Hearing on the proposed TCA Toll Road at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, February 7, 2008 with groms from Imperial Beach. With thousands in attendance, it was the largest public gathering at a Coastal Commission meeting in California history.

For the Acjachemen Nation and the more than 2.5 million annual visitors who enjoy the beaches, waves, trails, and campgrounds of San Onofre State Beach, making it one of the top five visited state parks in California, clearly, this iconic landscape is irreplaceable.

It is amazing to think that even with all the love for San Onofre State Beach, and especially Trestles, by the public and especially surfers, that the Transportation Corridor Agency or TCA had the audacity to propose building a toll road through the middle of the park. But that is exactly what happened. Starting in 2005, thousands of surfers came out to protest the TCA’s proposed highway project that would have torn apart one of California’s most beloved state parks.

Video of Lower Trestles by Danny Hardesty 

“‘Save Trestles’ became a rallying cry for surfers and environmentalists in Southern California,” says WILDCOAST Associate Director Zach Plopper. “It was really inspiring.”

A foundational element in the campaign, was, according to Shanaeflt Wong, the development of the “United Coalition to Protect Panhe (UPCC) to assert the importance of the area to the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians/Acjachemen Nation.” The UPCC involvement played a major role in the California Coastal Commission’s decision to deny the TCA a permit for the highway project.

At a February 7, 2008 Commission hearing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on the toll road project, Rebecca Robles, an Ajcachemem tribal member from San Clemente told the Coastal Commission, “I encourage you, I implore you to uphold the California Coastal Act. Panhe is one of the remaining sites where we can enjoy our spiritual individuality. I ask you to protect this sacred site.”

The fact that the first-ever winner-take-all Rip Curl WSL Finals is being held at Lower Trestles, highlights the importance of what the World Surf League calls one of the most high performance waves in the world. – Photo: Jeremiah Klein

As a conservationist who has been involved in multiple environmental campaigns in the U.S. and internationally, I was continually blown away by the ingenuity, creativity, diversity, and energy of one of the most groundbreaking and comprehensive movements to protect the coast in California history.

“The decades-long Save Trestle campaign has provided a treasure trove of lessons on how to save our beloved coastal places for everyone and forever,” says Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation.

“First lesson, perseverance pays off. We refused to give up for decades and we won. Second, people power matters. We were outspent one hundred to one, but we had thousands of people on our side who showed up when it mattered and that worked. Third, it takes a village. We had a strong, well-led coalition where everyone could focus on their strengths, whether that was grassroots organizing of surfers or political and legal strategy. We needed it all to win,” adds Nelsen.

The campaign, that included a lawsuit by the California Native Heritage Commission on behalf of the Acjachemen and another one by the Save San Onofre Coalition (disclosure- WILDCOAST, the organization I am the Executive Director of is a member of the coalition), ultimately culminated last year in the signing by California Governor Gavin Newsom of Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath’s Assembly Bill 1426.

Surfers, indigenous peoples, youth, businesses, and ocean lovers in Southern California teamed up to save Trestles and protect San Onofre State Beach from the building of road projects through the middle of the park. Photo: Jeremiah Klein

“AB 1426 permanently protects San Onofre State Beach,” explains Boerner Horvath, “which is home to the last remaining undeveloped watershed in Southern California – the San Mateo Creek – from road projects that would have cut through the creek bed, ruined the popular campground, and disturbed habitats of rare and endangered species. As a third-generation North San Diego County resident, I’m proud to say we saved Trestles for the generations to come and will continue to protect this coastal gem.”

Currently, efforts are underway to renew the San Onofre State Beach lease which is crucial for its long-term conservation and management. The park was created back in 1971 through an agreement between Governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon that established a 50-year lease with the U.S. Navy. That lease is up this year.

“After six years of working with Steve Long and the San Onofre Parks Foundation on the San Onofre State Beach lease renewal, on August 31, 2021 a three-year extension to the 50-year lease that was set to expire at midnight that same day was signed by the Navy and California State Parks,” says longtime Trestles surfer and San Onofre Parks Foundation Founding President Bob Mignogna. “The San Onofre Parks Foundation is committed to working with the Navy and the State of California on an affordable 50-year lease renewal, so that the pristine surf breaks in the park, including Lower Trestles, will continue to be open to the public for generations to come. The three-year extension gives all parties the opportunity to prepare that contract thoughtfully.”

As a uniquely intact coastal ecosystem, Trestles is a constant reminder of why protecting and conserving our coast and ocean is so imperative to our sport. Photo: Jeremiah Klein

“If we learned anything from COVID, it’s that we love to recreate outdoors,” says Nelsen. “Our surf spots and coastal state parks in California are recreational gems that are more popular today than ever. We must protect these amazing resources for today, tomorrow and future generations.”

As a reminder, WILDCOAST, the World Surf League, and a coalition of over 90 NGOs and businesses are calling on world leaders to adopt a target at the 2021 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to protect and conserve at least 30 percent of the global ocean, including international waters, by 2030. We urge world leaders to be driven by science, and led by an inclusive process that embraces all stakeholder communities and considers the ocean’s value to the peoples of every nation.

For more details and to sign and share the petition, visit weareoneocean.org

A version of this article was originally posted on World Surf League.

Five Reasons Why Protecting Coastal Oaxaca Matters

Diane Castaneda with a leatherback sea turtle in Oaxaca. Photo: WILDCOAST

(Originally published in The Inertia) With the endless barrage of swell raining down on Oaxaca this time of year, the eyes of surfers around the world are always fixated on the elevator drops and deep barrels at Puerto Escondido. But right now with the World Surf League’s Corona Open Mexico running, the tranquil village of Barra de la Cruz has both the world’s best surfers visiting and a global gaze on the surreal sand bottom tropical cylinders of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is more than just a destination for waves, though. It also contains globally important coastal ecosystems, a myriad of unique wildlife species, and vibrant indigenous communities. The undeveloped state of this wave-rich zone (with the exception of Puerto Escondido) and its unaltered watersheds and coastline contribute to the exceptional quality and diversity of point waves. That, in turn, fuels the rare ecological conditions that result in wildlife and rich ecosystems seen in few other locations in coastal Mexico.

Coastal Oaxaca is influenced by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec whose Tejuano winds and other biogeographic features have produced rare coastal dunes next to patches of tropical forest as well as upwelling in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, which in turn results in an amazing abundance and diversity of ocean life. It is these contrasts that make its protection vital, not just for surfing, but for the health of the oceans worldwide.

This also includes the continued well-being of Oaxaca’s residents, especially indigenous communities that depend on natural resources, many of whom still deeply feel the stinging loss of their villages from the development of the coastal resort city of Huatulco.

With all that in mind, here are five resources we must continue to protect to preserve the miraculous and stunning coastal resources of one of North America’s most unique regions:

The coastline of Oaxaca includes some of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches, vibrant coral reefs, pristine beaches, carbon storing mangroves, tropical forests and abundant wildlife. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob.

1. Connected and Undeveloped Coastlines and Watersheds

The coast of Oaxaca offers up what is increasingly rare in a tropical Pacific Mexico that has been hammered by urbanization, coastal tourism development, pollution, and deforestation (especially in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero): undeveloped coastal ecosystems connecting mangrove wetlands to watersheds and tropical forests.

Looking southeastward from Barra de la Cruz, endless green mountain vistas of the Sierra Madre del Sur fill the view and culminate in the 12,200-foot Cerro Nube at its southerly edge. Just down the beach from Huatulco is the mouth of the Copalita River that offers up whitewater rafting and hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical forests, home to some of Mexico’s most important watersheds, now referred to as “water reserves.”

While Huatulco is obviously a tourist resort, its development included the formation of the 29,400-acre Huatulco National Park and the preservation of local coral reefs and coastal wetlands and forests. That forward-thinking conservation is unique among Mexico’s heavily developed coastal resort cities.

The coral reefs of nearby Huatulco National Park are among the most well preserved in southern Mexico. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob.

2. Coral Reefs

Coral bleaching is a threat to coral reefs worldwide. But somehow the corals of Mexico’s Pacific have not seen the type of damage faced by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The coral ecosystems of Huatulco National Park are the southernmost in Pacific Mexico and home to a wide variety of wildlife species. Unfortunately, they have been impacted by overuse from tourists. Currently, the organization WILDCOAST is working with Mexico’s National Protected Area Commission to train outfitters in best management practices and place mooring buoys around the most fragile reefs to prevent damage from anchor drops.

During the nesting season, 100,000 olive ridley sea turtles can arrive at Playa Morro Ayuta in Oaxaca to lay their eggs in a single day. Photo: WILDCOAST.

3. Sea Turtle Nesting Beaches

Starting in the summer months, especially Escobilla and Morro Ayuta, tens of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs on Oaxaca’s beaches. In Barra de la Cruz, the protected beach and RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance play host to the most important remaining population of nesting leatherback sea turtles in Mexico. These marine reptile leviathans that face extinction due to threats caused by industrial and commercial fishing, only leave the ocean to lay their eggs (and only the females).

The sea turtle activity in Oaxaca is remarkable given that the now hipster tourist village of Mazunte down the coast from Puerto Escondido was once the site of Mexico’s notorious legal sea turtle slaughterhouse. Sea turtles have come back thanks to government protection, the cooperation of local communities who benefit from sea turtle conservation, and the preservation programs of the Mexican Sea Turtle Center at Mazunte.

The watersheds and tropical forests in the mountains above Barra de la Cruz and Huatulco, Oaxaca help to store water and atmospheric carbon and are critical in the fight against climate change.  Photo: Miguel Angel de la Cueva.

4. Blue and Green Carbon Ecosystems

The mangrove wetland and tropical forest ecosystems found widely in Oaxaca help to store vast amounts of carbon to mitigate climate change.

“By preserving natural ecosystems, the carbon they have already sequestered remains stored in the ground. When these blue and green carbon ecosystems are destroyed, they end up releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis,” affirms WILDCOAST Associate Director Zach Plopper. “So we need to not only protect every inch of Oaxaca’s treasured natural ecosystems for the sake of the people and wildlife that thrive there but for the sake of preserving our planet.”

These ecosystems are also home to humpback whales off the coast, along with jaguarundi, jaguars, anteaters, resident and migratory birds, deer, iguanas, and rare and other threatened marine species.

The sand-bottom breaks and raw beauty of Oaxaca make this area an unparalleled site for surfing. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob.

5. Globally Unique Surf Spots

There is increasing recognition of the need to safeguard globally unique surfing sites as protected areas and World Surfing Reserves. The sand-bottom breaks of Oaxaca, which include Punta Conejo, now threatened by the proposed expansion of the port in Salina Cruz, are more than worthy of permanent protection. They are rare and treasured ecological features, coastal and marine ecosystems, wildlife habitats, and recreational, cultural, and economic resources that help to drive an important part of the local economy in Oaxaca.

Without more formal conservation protections, Oaxaca will fall prey to the same forces that have ravaged coastlines and natural ecosystems around the world. There is still time to make sure that this magical coastline retains its extraordinary resources and raw beauty so local communities and surfers continue to benefit from and enjoy Oaxaca’s natural wonders.

A set at Barra.

Coastal Conservation in Barra de la Cruz, Oaxaca

(Originally published by the World Surf League) From the lineup at Barra de la Cruz, located in Oaxaca, Mexico, the next stop on the World Surf League’s professional surf tour (August 10-20), you would be forgiven for thinking you are in Hawaii. After the rainy season starts, the mountains shimmer endlessly under the green wave of tropical forest.

Barra de la Cruz. Photo: Miguel Angel de la Cueva

The pristine beaches that extend for miles southeastward from the point at “Barra,” like much of this part of Oaxaca’s coastline, include some of the world’s most important nesting sites for sea turtles, including the globally endangered leatherback, ancient behemoths that only come ashore to lay their eggs and travels thousands of miles of ocean to arrive there.

Barra is the most important leatherback nesting beach in Mexico, a species that faces extinction due to industrial and commercial fishing gear entanglements, poaching, coastal development, and other threats.WILDCOAST GranteeDuring the nesting season, 100,000 olive ridley sea turtles can arrive at Playa Morro Ayuta in Oaxaca to lay their eggs in a single day. – CLAUDIO CONTRERAS KOOB

“There are few places in the world that are home to such unique wildlife and pristine coastline as Oaxaca. Barra de la Cruz is no exception,” explains Luis Angel Rojas Cruz, WILDCOAST’s Oaxaca Program Manager. WILDCOAST is working with communities and Mexico’s National Protected Area Commission along this coastline to protect its nesting beaches, mangroves, and coral reefs.

“It is really extraordinary to witness the miracle of Oaxaca’s protected and gorgeous coastline,” adds Rojas Cruz. “The fact that this globally important coastal zone is still relatively pristine is due to the conservation focus and commitment of the coastal indigenous communities of Oaxaca. The indigenous residents of Barra de la Cruz deserve global recognition for their heroic and successful initiatives to protect the world-class wildlife and ecosystems within their community.”WILDCOAST GranteeBirds of a feather taking advantage of their natural feeding grounds. – CLAUDIO CONTRERAS KOOB

Over the past 15 years Barra de la Cruz has become a model for how communities can proactively protect natural resources they depend on for their livelihoods. “The combination of the importance of our beaches for surfing, leatherback sea turtles, and as a hot spot for migratory and resident birds is what makes Barra so special,” says Pablo Narvaez, a Barra resident, eco-guide, and environmental activist.

“In the case of Barra,” according to Zach Plopper, Associate Director of WILDCOAST, “we have a great example of a proactive community that recognizes the importance of protecting their most important and vulnerable ecosystems and wildlife as well as a world-class wave.”https://www.worldsurfleague.com/socialembed?embedId=HNt2D6g_yFI&embedType=youtube

“By not developing the coastal zone and using surfing to provide collective economic benefits for the locals, the community of Barra has set a sustainable example of effective ecosystem conservation,” continues Plopper.

In Barra de la Cruz the community decided to prohibit coastal development, with the exception of a collectively managed restaurant.

“What also makes Barra so unique is that we can promote ecotourism activities that benefit local residents, without ruining the natural resources that make Barra de la Cruz such a world-class surf spot and wildlife habitat,” adds Narvaez.WILD COASTThe coral reefs of nearby Huatulco National Park are among the most well preserved in southern Mexico. – CLAUDIO CONTRERAS KOOB

“What now also makes conservation efforts like these so globally important is that the tropical forest and wetland and mangrove ecosystems that are being conserved along the Oaxacan coast, and especially in Barra de la Cruz, sequester carbon and helps in the fight against climate change,” echoes Rojas Cruz.

Down the coast in Playa Morro Ayuta, a globally important olive ridley sea turtle nesting beach and world-class surf spot, indigenous Chontal community leaders have also committed to protecting their 16-kilometer-long coastline, as well as safeguarding nesting sea turtles and the hatchlings that emerge by the millions. In contrast, further south in Punta Conejo, a major development proposal by the government has once again threatened a surf spot and an important coastal ecosystem.The watersheds and tropical forests in the mountains above Barra de la Cruz and Huatulco, Oaxaca help to store water and atmospheric carbon and are critical in the fight against climate change.  Photo: MIguel Angel de la CuevaThe watersheds and tropical forests in the mountains above Barra de la Cruz and Huatulco, Oaxaca help to store water and atmospheric carbon and are critical in the fight against climate change. – MIGUEL ANGEL DE LA CUEVA

Places like Barra, that are trying to protect their resources including waves, and benefit the local economy, “just need some help with a sustainability model that can benefit everyone in the community and continue to respect the natural environment. That’s really our challenge,” says Narvaez.

In the case of Oaxaca and Barra de la Cruz, these extraordinarily successful locally driven coastal conservation initiatives provide a hopeful template for how we can protect world-class waves and wildlife while saving the planet.

The Wetlands, Dunes and Oysters of Baja’s San Quintin Bay

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to tour San Quintin Bay with my WILDCOAST colleagues through the invitation by Terra Peninsular, a conservation organization who has helped to conserve much of the bay. We had a great time and were also able to sample the delicious sustainably harvested oysters of Francisco Aguirre and his family. San Quintin is a center for the oyster harvest in Baja (along with Laguna San Ignacio). Congratulations to Terra Peninsular for their effort in preserving such a unique and delicate area that is in such great shape.

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The wetlands of San Quintin are the most important and largest remaining in the Southern California-Baja California Eco-Region.

The beach at San Quintin. These dunes have been preserved by Terra Peninsular.

The beach at San Quintin. These dunes have been preserved by Terra Peninsular.

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Of course the surf was firing the day we visited and we were without boards. Generally the wind howls here.

Our group in San Quintin. Thanks to Terra Peninsular, much of this amazing and world class wetland has been preserved.

Our group in San Quintin. Thanks to Terra Peninsular, much of this amazing and world class wetland has been preserved.Photo courtesy of Alan Harper/Terra Peninsula. 

Oysterman Francisco Aguirre explains the oyster harvest.

Oysterman Francisco Aguirre explains the oyster harvest.

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Francisco’s oyster farm at San Quintin Bay.

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Oyster workers-this activity sustains more than 70 families in San Quintin.

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This sustainable activity both helps create local jobs and helps improve water quality in the bay.

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Part of the oyster facility at San Quintin.

Our feast served with Baja wine.

Our feast served with Baja wine.

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WILDCOAST IMPACT 2013

WILDCOAST impact

Thanks to my great staff, board members and our partners, WILDCOAST had a banner year. You can make a difference and preserve the coast and ocean by donating to WILDCOAST here.

Living Coastal

I was honored to have been asked to write the foreward to coastal lifestyle guru Jolee Pink’s new book, Living Coastal. It is a great tome with lots of great ideas for keeping it beachy at home and everywhere you go. You can purchase Living Coastal here:

 

livingcoastal

 

 

Why Enforcing the Coastal Act Matters

That me on the right with my brother Nicky, my mother, and my Uncle Emile in San Felipe either in 1972 or 1973.

Beachtime when I was a kid. My mother and little brother Nicky are on the left.

In 1971 when I was seven, I accompanied my mother and little brother Nicky to the sand dunes on the southern edge of the Silver Strand’s bayside in Coronado.

I can still remember the shock and fear I felt when a security guard with a gun approached us.

“This is private property and you are trespassing,” he said as we bathed along the shore (the area was later developed as the Coronado Cays).

My English mother, who had first encountered the very public beaches of England after surviving the Battle of Britain while a child in war torn London, was outraged.

“How dare that man scare us with his gun while we enjoy the beach.”

That incident occurred just before the California voters approved the passage of the Coastal Act in 1972, which authorized the formation of the Coastal Commission.

The boys and I sharing a wave.

The boys and I sharing a wave.

“Without the Coastal Act and the Commission, the coast would be inaccessible to ordinary people,” said Patricia McCoy a former member of the Coastal Commission who lives in Imperial Beach.

My oldest son Israel spent the summer working as a California State Lifeguard at the Silver Strand State Beach in Coronado. “I really noticed how truly happy people are at the beach and how many different types of people use the beach,” he said.

“I never take for granted the California’s stunning coast, or the foresight of those who passed the Coastal Act four decades ago to keep it accessible to people all over the state,” said Karen Garrison of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The problem with the Coastal Commission is that the agency, “Can set the rules, but it can’t enforce them,” said Chad Nelsen of the Surfrider Foundation. “Imagine what the roads would be like if the police couldn’t issue traffic tickets. That is essentially the plight of the Coastal Commission with regard to beach access.”

Wallace J. Nichols

Wallace J. Nichols

Ten years ago, Wallace “J.” Nichols (who worked with me at WILDCOAST at the time) trekked the 1,200 miles from Oregon to Mexico along the coastal trail.  “I witnessed first hand the diversity of people who love the ocean and I saw how some people, particularly around LA, were fighting to keep it for themselves, despite clear laws protecting the coast and providing public access for all.”

For Warner Chabot, “The Coastal Act initiative was the result of public outrage over landowners blocking access to the coast. Now there are more than 1,944 Coast Act violations of which 690 are in Los Angeles County and of those 533 are in Malibu, and 123 are in San Diego.”

Malibu beach access signs designed to mislead the public.

Malibu beach access signs designed to mislead the public.

To remedy this situation, Assemblymember Toni Atkins from San Diego has introduced AB 976, which would give the California Coastal Commission the ability to levy limited fines for Coastal Act violations. A similar enforcement tool is already in place for 21 other state regulatory agencies, including the State Water Board, Air Board and the State Lands Commission.

“Free and open coastal access is critical to the health and well-being of our communities,” said Ben McCue of Outdoor Outreach, an organization that takes kids from low-income communities on outings to the beach.

Making sure everyone can use the beach will require agencies to enforce the laws that voters passed. We should ensure that private property owners cannot continue to obstruct the natural and legal rights of the public to enjoy resources that belong to us all.

After all, “A day at the beach is a right all Californians are entitled to enjoy,” said Marce Gutierrez of Azul.

With my sons israel and Daniel.

Everyone has the right to use and enjoy our coast. it is a public trust for all!

Around Harvard Business School

Around Harvard Business School.

J Nichols on Why We Should Save Sea Turtles and Why Our Brains Need the Ocean

 

Marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols has worked tirelessly to preserve the world’s endangered sea turtles and raise awareness about our need to conserve our oceans. He just returned from a trip to Baja California’s Magdalena Bay, where he spent time in the field with fishermen who help preserve endangered sea turtles.

Through his BLUEMIND annual conferences he is helping us understand the role the ocean can play in our health and cognitive function. J. and I co-founded WiLDCOAST together in 1999. Today he is one of the the world’s most passionate and innovative ocean conservationists.

Dedina: In the past few years you’ve helped shed light on looking at connections between neuroscience and the ocean, which will be the subject of a new book you are writing. What are some of the insights you’ve gained into the new emerging field of neuroconservation?

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Nichols: Our successes in Baja with sea turtles, apart from the mountain of scientific ecological research, depends heavily on the emotional commitment to saving the animals among the many people working so hard along the coast.

It’s said that conservation is really about managing people and changing behaviors. If we don’t understand what’s happening in the human brain, we’re really in the dark. So the idea of studying neuroscience has been on my mind for a long time. In recent years we’ve connected the best neuroscientists in the world with the best ocean advocates and explorers to ask some very interesting questions about “our brains on ocean.”

If Coca-Cola can use neuroscience to sell sugar water, we can use neuroscience for the ocean.

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Dedina: You have your third BLUEMIND conference coming up. What is the purpose of the conference and why is it being held on the East Coast this year?

Nichols: Each year we hold BLUEMIND at a different location, with a slightly different general theme. This year the theme is “Last Child in the Water” and we’ll explore the role of water in healthy cognitive function. Holding the summit on Block Island makes it easy for our colleagues in New England to attend. We may jump the pond and take the conference to the UK in 2014.

Dedina: Why is the ocean so vital to human health and well being?

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Nichols: The list of biological, ecological and economic services that the ocean provides is long, and fairly well known. Oxygen, our climate, food, transportation and so on. But the “cognitive services” the ocean provides are just as important. For many of us the ocean, and other bodies of water, literally pulls the stress from us.

It’s a form of daily therapy. People go there to relax, re-create and vacation. Artists, musicians and writers go there to be inspired. I’ve met countless people who’ve told me that they do their best thinking when they are in, on or near water. Neuroscientists have shown that even the color blue doubles creativity and being seaside provokes an enhanced felling of well-being.

If we were to lose all of that, the world and our lives would be vastly diminished. I hope that when people learn about how healthy water makes them better at being themselves it gives them another reason to join the fight to protect our blue planet.

Serge Dedina: How did you get involved in carrying out research on sea turtles?

Wallace J. Nichols: I was into turtles as a kid. We used to catch snapping turtles in Chesapeake Bay, paint numbers on their shells and throw them back. Sometimes we’d recapture them and doing some simple algebra we’d estmate the number of turtles in the bay. Little did I know that 10 years later I’d be doing essentially the same thing with sea turtles for my doctoral thesis. My first sea turtle job was in Tortuguero, Costa Rica.

From there I worked with Jeff Seminoff to survey all of the sea turtle nesting beaches along Mexico’s vast coastline, driving a 1975 Toyota Land Cruiser. We then started to focus on northwest Mexico, especially the Baja Peninsula.

Dedina: You moved from studying sea turtles to advocating for their conservation? What happened that caused you to initiate your conservation
efforts?

Nichols: We’ve published a mountain of sea turtle science, literally hundreds of papers and reports in some of the best journals. But science doesn’t turn into action on its own. And back then there were no government agencies or NGOs to take our science and act on it.

Sea turtles were being killed by the thousands and it was clear that if we just continued to produce research papers, nothing would happen. Given the lack of official capacity to respond, we started by creating a grassroots network of fishermen interested in the plight of sea turtles. We called ourselves the Grupo Tortuguero. This year we celebrated the 15th anniversary of Grupo Tortuguero, which is now a robust network of thousands of people in 50 coastal communities and involving dozens of NGOs, managed by a strong team of Mexican scientists and advocates.

Dedina: Back in the early 1990s you tracked a loggerhead sea turtle from Baja to Japan? How did that come about and what eventually happened to the sea turtle?

Nichols: Fellow scientists were somewhat baffled by the presence of loggerheads along the Baja coast, since the closest nesting beach was all the way over in Japan. The status quo was that Japan was just too far away to be the source of the animals. In 1996, working with biologists Antonio and Bety Resendiz, we had the opportunity to put a satellite transmitter on a mature loggerhead. We named the turtle after the daughter of the fisherman who helped us and released her off the Pacific coast outside Santa Rosaliita, BC.

That turtle was ready to swim home, and home was due west, 7,000 miles away in Japan. We tracked Adelita for 365 days until she reached the Japanese coast. We did something that was radical at the time by sharing our data in real time, allowing millions of kids, teachers and researchers around the world to join the project. I guess you could say that built our own social network before there was such a thing.

When Adelita reached the Japanese coast, her track did several strange things. There are several viable ways to interpret the data from her final days, but it appears likely that she was caught in a squid net near Isohama, Japan and broght back to the dock, before the signal went dead.

Dedina: What are the primary threats to sea turtles and what can people do in their everyday lives to help in sea turtle conservation efforts?

Nichols: Sea turtles interact with our activities in more ways than people realize. They get hung up in our fishing gear, their beaches get developed for hotels, they swim through oil spills and they eat our plastic. Climate change is impacting the sex of sea turtles, their food sources and the dynamics of their nesting beaches. Virtually any move you make towards living more sustainably is good for sea turtles.
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Dedina: How can people help preserve the ocean?

Nichols: The first way is to touch it. Connect. Get wet often. Bring your family and those you love with you to the water. Consider your brain on ocean for a moment. If you enjoy and value the way your brain responds to a healthy ocean and you think it’s worth protecting, look around and ask questions and the next steps to becoming an ocean protector will become clear–and consider becoming one of the 100BlueAngels.org.

Sea Otters May Return to Southern California

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A couple of weeks ago  the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service eliminated the “no-otter zone” in Southern California south of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to allow the return of sea otters to the region.

Biologists will continue to monitor the population to see if sea otters migrate to Southern California.

I sat down with Jim Curland from the Friends of the Sea Otter to talk more about the type of environment needed to support sea otter populations and the the history of the animal in California.

Serge Dedina: Why should we care about sea otters?

Jim Curland: Sea otters are both keystone and sentinel species. Their keystone role is that they have a profound effect on the health of nearshore kelp forests.  When sea otters were nearly exterminated, there wasn’t a top predator to keep the kelp forests in check and sea urchins proliferate, denuding the vibrant, biodiversity-rich kelp forest system. Their sentinel, or indicator species role is one where the health of sea otters is a gauge of the health of the nearshore ecosystem.

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Dedina: It appears that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will no longer restrict the sea otter population north of Point Conception. Can we expect sea otters to inhabit the kelp beds of San Diego County anytime soon?

Curland: As of December 18, 2012, and officially on Jan. 17, the “no-otter zone” in southern California has been eliminated so that sea otters are now legally allowed to occupy historic habitat south of Point Conception.  It is hard to predict when sea otters might expand their range into kelp beds off of San Diego County.  That is something to look forward to and welcome.

Dedina: What do sea otters feed on?

Curland: Sea otters feed on over 60 different invertebrate species including abalone, crabs, sea urchins, turban snails, and much more.

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Dedina: What is the current range of sea otters?

Curland: Worldwide, sea otters are found in California, Washington state, Alaska, British Columbia, and Russia. There are a handful of animals found in Japan.

Dedina: Where are they found in California?

Curland: From Half Moon Bay in the north to Point Conception in the South.  Sea otters are sometimes spotted up above Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco, but this is not a common place for them to be found.

Dedina: What are the current threats to sea otters in California. How is the population doing?

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Curland: Disease, most of which are associated with land based origins; food limitations; shark attacks are some of the key ones. Historically in California, sea otters were caught in gill nets. Currently, there is some uncertainty as to if negative interactions with fishing gear are an impact. These are just some of the threats, but we are still somewhat puzzled with what all contributes to the stagnant growth patterns of sea otters in California and the increased mortality. The current population survey from spring 2012 showed a very slight uptick in the three-year average, but what continues to concern scientists and conservationists is that we don’t see sustained growth over years.

Dedina: There used to be thousands and thousands of sea otters along the Pacific Coast of North America. What happened to the population? Did sea otters die off naturally?

Curland: The estimate for the number of sea otters that existed in California before the 18th and 19th century fur trade is believed to be between 15,000 and 17,000 sea otters. It was this expansive fur trade that decimated the population of sea otters worldwide. In fact, until a small population of between 50-100 were found off the Big Sur Coast in 1938, it was believed that sea otters were extinct in California.

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Dedina: What is the role of sea otters in ecosystem management?

Curland: The presence of sea otters in the kelp forest ecosystem has a profound effect on the health of that system. When sea otters were nearly hunted to extinction, sea urchins and other invertebrate grazers proliferated, denuding the kelp forest and turning them into urchin barrens. When sea otters returned, the system became more balanced and rich in biodiversity.

Dedina: What is the best way that we can continue to conserve our sea otter populations and help to increase the population in California?

Curland: We first need to understand better what is killing sea otters and then we can begin to mitigate these impacts with proper advocacy and changes in policy. Improving water quality will certainly benefit the habitat sea otters occupy and has the potential to reduce direct problems that sea otters face, like certain diseases. Contributing to the California Sea Otter Fund, which is line 410 on the California State 540 Income Tax Forms is a way that Californians can help in the recovery and conservation of sea otters.

Dedina: What are some of the current things that Friends of the Sea Otter is doing to conserve the population?

Curland: This year Friends of the Sea Otter celebrates its 45th Anniversary. We are the oldest sea otter conservation group in the world working on policy and education efforts that will help sea otters. Over the years, we’ve worked on ending the no-otter zone, Alaska sea otter issues, negative interactions between sea otters and fishing gear, educating the public on sea otter natural history and conservation, water quality issues, recovery planning, and many other issues.

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