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The Southern California Urban Ocean—Awash in Opportunities; Strangled by Regulations

The Southern California Urban Ocean—Awash in Opportunities; Strangled by Regulations


January 6, 2012

In this editorial, Aquarium of the Pacific President and CEO Jerry Schubel discusses the Southern California Urban Ocean and its potential for contributing to the state’s economic recovery. He also advocates for strategies to protect marine life and promote sustainability.

Jerry Schubel The ocean is rarely mentioned as a possible contributor to solving the nation’s and the state’s financial problems. That’s too bad. The World Ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, the United States has the largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of any nation—the zone out to 200 nautical miles from shore—and California has an ocean rich in resources, renewable and non-renewable, and in untapped opportunity.

Nowhere in the state are those opportunities greater than in the Southern California Bight, the region between Santa Barbara and the U.S.-Mexico border. The five coastal counties in the region are home to more than 17 million people, more than the populations of all but three states. Southern Californians make intensive and diverse uses of their coastal ocean. It is home to the nation’s two largest container ports, to all twenty-seven of the state’s offshore oil platforms, and to all six of its offshore oil islands. The Southern California Bight receives more than 1.1 billion gallons of treated municipal wastewater every day. And yet, it is here where California’s ocean culture is raised perhaps to its highest level. No other comparable area of the nation’s ocean has a greater diversity and intensity of human uses for recreation and for re-creation. Swimming, surfing, wind-surfing, kayaking, bird watching, beachcombing, SCUBA diving, boating, and fishing… if it can be done near, on, or in the water, it is done here and by huge numbers of people.

The region is intensively used not only by humans, but also by marine life. Tagging of migratory species of fish and marine mammals has demonstrated that the Southern California Bight is one of the most heavily visited areas in the entire Pacific Ocean. These animals share the ocean with humans in relative harmony.

The Southern California Bight is the nation’s prototypical “urban ocean.” The world ocean is becoming increasingly urbanized and the challenge is to protect coastal and ocean ecosystems while accommodating uses by humans for societal and economic benefit. One strategy is to allocate space to nature and to appropriate human activity to minimize conflict. California is a leader in identifying and designating places of special biological significance as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The next step is to use the best science to systematically allocate space to important human uses to minimize conflict with marine life and to contribute to local and regional economies.

This region has some of the world’s leading oceanographic institutions. The Southern California Urban Ocean could become a national laboratory for designing, developing, applying, and refining strategies for protecting marine life while accommodating important uses by humans. The two are not incompatible. Posturing and permitting often get in the way. Our permitting and regulatory frameworks often make it impossible to take advantage of the advances in scientific understanding in a timely way to benefit society. The 1992 report California’s Jobs and Future by the Council on California Competitiveness stated that California had “a permitting and regulatory quagmire that…in some cases causes projects to take longer to get started than it took the United States to win World War II.” Things have changed little since then. In natural systems often one of the best ways to enhance productivity is to relax constraints. This is also true of social and economic systems. We should not compromise our high ocean standards, but we should have a permitting process that is transparent and predictable and that encourages appropriate uses of our ocean to benefit California.

It’s time to get started. Using the best science, an offshore ocean enterprise zone should be identified. The state should take the lead in securing all the base permits. Environmental expectations should be set high. Industries in appropriate sectors should be encouraged to apply for space. Lease fees could provide funding for management and monitoring to ensure compliance. If standards are met, the venture should be eligible for an extension of its lease in time and perhaps in space. If they fail to meet the standards, they should be evicted and penalties should be assessed.

Studies have shown that in a small percentage of state waters within the Southern California Bight we could accommodate a multi-billion-dollar-a-year offshore aquaculture industry that could supply a stable supply of healthful seafood and provide well-paying jobs without interfering with commercial fisheries or compromising environmental quality. Other industries compatible with finfish aquaculture include seaweed aquaculture for bio-fuel and production of a variety of derivative products; and renewable energy from wind farms. These activities would help conserve what is left of our working waterfront.

Let’s continue to bring the best minds to the table in the search for strategies to protect marine life and to use our ocean for maximum benefit to California on a sustainable basis. Let’s translate those strategies into action before the end of 2012.

Jerry R. Schubel, Ph.D.
President and CEO
Aquarium of the Pacific