November 29, 2019
Pacific Ocean: California’s Secret Weapon Against Climate Change
News Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Author(s): Fiorenza Micheli; Samantha Murray
The ocean is a quiet workhorse for our life here in California. It’s a source of fun and relaxation, awe and beauty, but it also gets dinner on the table for many of us. As a marine scientist and an ocean policy expert, respectively, we think about the ocean all day long. More and more we are connecting the dots between ocean health and climate, as the ocean plays a crucial role in helping to regulate Earth’s climate by absorbing up to 30% of global carbon emissions.
On Monday, the annual U.N. climate talks will commence in Madrid. This year’s climate negotiations, the “Blue COP,” will include more discussions than ever before on the role of oceans in a changing climate. The relevance to our California way of life cannot be overstated.
The scientists unequivocally say the ocean is ground zero for climate change. Here in California, we are already seeing this — from ocean acidification and its growing impacts on our shellfish industry to the effects of marine heatwaves off the coast. Together these events signal that a changing ocean will also change what we get from the sea, driving growing concerns on the part of commercial and sport fishermen.
But California is far from gloom and doom. While the federal government drags its feet and protracted international negotiations resume, California’s natural resource managers and research science community are on the job. As a state, we are taking action, making significant investments to build resilience to climate change impacts, and exploring solutions to the systemic changes we see in the ocean. Case in point — we are home to the world’s largest network of marine protected areas, which could now serve as buffers against climate change.
In 2012, following an extensive public planning process and significant financial investment by the state and philanthropic partners, California completed its statewide MPA network. California’s groundbreaking, science-based statewide network of marine protected areas — now covering 16% of state waters and encompassing 852 square miles — is the first of its kind in the United States.
The management effort that has followed is comprehensive and strategic, with a focus on scientific monitoring, interagency coordination, public education and outreach, and enforcement. Indeed, this follow-through represents the second half of California’s MPA success story. Seven years later, a new study suggests that the marine protected network is already showing signs of success. But within this success might be a hidden nugget, an investment we made as Californians that now has relevance in a changing ocean.
California has long been a world leader in working to address the impacts of climate change. California agencies are working to address sea level rise and ocean acidification, to improve our understanding of the impacts of climate change on coastal communities, and to prepare California’s fisheries for the effects of climate change.
And now with a new research focus on marine protected areas from diverse groups, including academic scientists, Native American tribes, recreational fishermen, California’s Ocean Science Trust and the Ocean Protection Council, California’s network provides a beacon of hope. We just might light the way as the world grapples with how to best adapt to and build resilience and resistance against the ongoing impacts of climate change. Against the backdrop of the recent U.N. report on oceans and climate, Californians should be proud of our international climate leadership.
Overall, California’s marine protected areas are seeing more and bigger fish. Despite some early trepidation that MPAs may reduce the value of fisheries, evidence shows that both commercial and recreational fisheries remain profitable and some have even increased in commercial value. In addition, MPAs may assist scientists and natural resources managers in better understanding the impacts of climate change — including marine heatwaves like the “Blob” and the extreme El Niño of 2014-16, harmful algal blooms and associated high domoic acid levels.
We also know that intact kelp forests and seagrass beds absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and may be creating a natural refuge from future ocean acidification. It’s a Mother Nature-driven mitigation. MPAs support the natural recovery capacity of species affected by climate change stressors, and maintain resilient populations. Preserving these habitats and species in designated protected areas may now be key to protecting our coastal marine ecosystems, allowing them to resist progressive ocean change, and buying us humans time to address our CO2 emissions problem.
As we look to the future and plan for resilience in the face of the worsening realities of climate change, it’s critical that natural resource managers see the potential of properly planned and managed marine protected areas. These special places support thriving marine wildlife and coastal communities, and can buffer us from the accelerating impacts of climate change. As the international climate negotiations are under way, Californians should be proud of our cutting-edge leadership in the global fight to protect our oceans and coastal communities.
Fiorenza Micheli, Ph.D., is a marine ecologist at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University and co-director of Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. Samantha Murray, J.D., is an ocean policy expert and executive director for the Master of Advanced Studies program in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.