Bay Crossings Article

Protecting Marine Life from the Delta to the Golden Gate and Beyond

By 
Sejal Choksi
From the October 2009 edition of Bay Crossings

San Francisco Bay is part of the largest estuary on the West Coast, a merging of freshwater flows from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the salty waters of the Pacific Ocean. The Bay’s mix of fresh and salt water creates a unique habitat for a broad array of fish, clams, oysters, and marine mammals. The wildlife have become an important part of our local identity—from the familiar sight of Pier 39’s sea lions to California’s iconic Chinook Salmon fishery that provided for native people and anglers for decades.

San Francisco Baykeeper works to protect the Bay and the health of its fauna by stopping pollution and enforcing clean water laws. We are also working to implement a long-term plan to protect both Bay and coastal marine life under California’s Marine Life Protection Act (“MLPA”). California passed the MLPA in 1999 to create a network of protected marine areas along California’s 1,100-mile coastline. Marine protected areas are essentially underwater parks in which human activity is restricted so that threatened fish and other marine life have a chance to recover.

In the decade since the MLPA was passed, environmental pressures on Bay marine life have escalated, making it more important than ever to implement the law. Emergencies like the Cosco Busan oil spill, and ongoing problems like sewage spills, storm water pollution, reduced freshwater flows and a changing climate are taking their toll.

Recent years have borne witness to a swift decline in numbers of fish and other marine life in the San Francisco Bay-Delta. California’s prized Chinook (or ‘King’) Salmon has been a local food source for centuries and once contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to Northern California’s economy. But this year, after salmon numbers reached their lowest point ever—one tenth of previous years—regulators were forced to close the fishing season for the second year in a row. Even the Bay’s longtime success story and last commercial fishery, the Pacific Herring, is now in danger. Last month wildlife managers announced the closure of the Pacific Herring fishery in the Bay after monitoring results yielded dangerously low numbers of the fish.

The MLPA process breaks up California’s coastline into five study regions in which local stakeholders work with scientists and policymakers to decide how best to implement marine protected areas in their regions. In 2010, the MLPA process is scheduled to reach the interior San Francisco Bay, and we will have the opportunity to create underwater wilderness areas that will help our stressed ecosystem recover and thrive once again. Baykeeper is laying the groundwork to establish strong protections for the Bay itself, but in the meantime, we are helping to create protections along California’s coast just outside the Bay.

The Bay is intimately connected to the health and resilience of coastal waters off San Mateo, San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma Counties, which make up the MLPA’s North Central Coast Region. While the state may draw a line between the Bay and the waters outside the Golden Gate, marine life does not. California’s salmon travel from the ocean, through the Golden Gate into the Bay and up the watershed to spawn, and Dungeness crab scurry on the ocean bottom into the Bay and back out. Seals and sea lions feed on the abundance of fish around the Farallon Islands and return to the Bay to haul out on sheltered docks and beaches.

Protecting species along the coastline outside the Golden Gate is an important part of restoring the health of the Bay’s ecosystem, so Baykeeper joined allies like California Coastkeeper Alliance to advocate for strong protections within this region. In August 2009, environmental advocates secured an important victory for coastal and Bay waters: the North Central Coast Regional MLPA process created 22 underwater parks for special places including Half Moon Bay, the Farallon Islands, and Point Reyes. These marine protected areas will allow key habitat to recover and encourage healthy ecosystems to thrive both within and outside of the Bay.

The MLPA is just one tool we’re using to protect Bay and coastal waters and wildlife. San Francisco Baykeeper has been working for twenty years to restore the Bay to a thriving ecosystem that is resilient to present and future stresses. To find out more about Baykeeper’s work, visit www.baykeeper.org.