The Woman Who Saved Monterey Bay

A new book highlights Julia Platt, a rabble-rousing pioneer in marine conservation.

Today, Monterey Bay is a tourist lure, a place to go whale-watching, to gaze at the sea otters lazing on their backs at the water's surface, or simply to drink in the scenery. It is the prototypical paradisaical destination, a riot of wildlife and natural beauty.

It was not always so.

In the 19th century, the bay was host to hunters who pursued the gray whale and sea otter with such effectiveness that by the end of the 1800s it was assumed that both species had been driven from California waters forever. The demise of the otters led to an explosion in numbers of their abalone prey, and beginning in the 1850s, there sprang up a fishery for these marine snails that expanded so rapidly, it had fished out the bay by 1866. After that came squid, which like the abalone were fished by an immigrant Chinese community that dispersed after the settlement in which it lived and worked - dubbed China Point - mysteriously burned down in 1906.

Finally, there were the canneries. The sardine canneries of Monterey dumped fish guts and waste into the bay, polluting the waters and creating a smell that drove one observer to note that "the fumes from the scum floating on the waters of the inlets of the bay were so bad that they turned lead-based paints black."

Ultimately, a combination of overfishing and changing currents led to the collapse of the sardine fishery, and with it the canneries, in the 1940s; but both were in full flow when Dr. Julia Platt arrived in nearby Pacific Grove in 1899.

Platt, then 42 years old, had sought a career in marine biology and to that end had pursued a Ph.D in zoology. However, women were not permitted to earn doctorates in the United States in the 19th century, and so she acquired hers by traveling to Germany, where she enrolled at the University of Freiburg. But upon returning to the U.S., she found that not even legitimate academic credentials were enough to shatter the glass ceiling and, conceding defeat in her academic pursuits, determined that "if I cannot obtain the work I wish, then I must take up with the next best."

The "next best," it transpired, was, in the words of Stephen Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka's new book, "The Death and Life of Monterey Bay": "Civic leader, innovative thinker, and rabble rouser in tiny, conservative Pacific Grove."

That rabble-rousing reached its zenith in 1931, when Platt decried the erection of a fence alongside beachfront property that blocked public access to the bay. She argued with the property owner that the town's charter mandated such public access, and when the owner merely shrugged, she broke the padlock and opened the gate. The owner fixed the lock; Platt broke it again; the owner fixed it again. Finally, with photographers in attendance, she took down the entire fence, affixing to the gate's remains a sign that read the following:

Opened by Julia B. Platt. This entrance to the beach must be left open at all hours when the public might wish to pass through. I act in the matter because the Council and Police Department of Pacific Grove are men and possibly somewhat timid.

Platt's actions riled the town council to the extent that one exasperated member exclaimed that if she wanted to run everything, she should stand in the next election for mayor.

So she did. And won.

Now she had the authority to protect at least one small part of the marine environment she had hoped to devote her life to studying. She persuaded the Pacific Grove City Council to support a petition to the Sacramento government to pass a law granting the city the right to manage its own coastline, a right elsewhere limited to the state. California's governor acceded, and Pacific Grove became the first (and last) city accorded that privilege.

Armed with legal backing, Platt promptly established a small marine refuge along the coast, preventing commercial fishing in that particular area and allowing only a limited amount of noncommercial extraction. In and of itself, such a small refuge would not revitalize Monterey Bay, but she hoped that it might help act as a nursery "from where the tiny larvae may swim or be carried by currents to all points along the shore and become attached, grow up and replace those taken for food and curio." As Palumbi and Sotka note, "This rationale is stunningly similar to modern reasons for protecting marine areas: the replenishment of sets of marine species that interact together."

Meanwhile, California's sea otters had not after all been driven into extinction. A population survived farther south along the coast; granted protection after its discovery, the population thrived and inched slowly northward. In 1962, they entered Monterey Bay, which was no longer befouled by sardine offal; in addition, thanks to Julia Platt's refuge, the waters just off Pacific Grove and Monterey now boasted huge numbers of abalone. That proved a veritable otter smorgasbord, and as the otters feasted on abalone and sea urchins, the kelp forests on which abalone and urchins graze rebounded. Thus, step by step, the bay began to return to its former glory, a transition that was underlined and locked in place with the establishment of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Delightfully situated in the carcass of an old cannery, the aquarium confirmed that the bay was now a place of research and conservation, not extraction and destruction.

Julia Platt's refuge did not by itself turn Monterey Bay around, Palumbi, of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station (situated on the site of the old China Point) told Discovery News. But, he said, it proved an essential component.

"It was catalytic in two fundamental ways - one of which was it changed the way people thought about the bay. Before that, the bay was always there, and nobody really thought to ask whether it could be used in a better way. After Julia, people thought of the bay more as being part of their home, part of their backyard, part of the legacy they wanted to leave for themselves and their children," Palumbi explained.

"The second thing was essentially to carve out a small fraction of the shoreline that was protected from as much of the other human-induced problems as could be managed. And because of that, it changed what was living here, particularly bringing the abalone into high abundance, and I think just by happy coincidence, provided a catalytic spark that sucked otters into the area and started that change. Julia's efforts didn't bring the otters back, they didn't clean the pollution up, they didn't bring the seabirds back. There were a lot of different things that happened, and yet the refuge was the spark that helped things happen at that time and that place."

Julia Platt died in 1935, long before the fruits of her labors took root. But in her passing, she was able to once more have her way with the long-suffering civic dignitaries who had never quite known what to make of her. Her will requested that she be buried at sea, and as tradition dictated that those same dignitaries accompany the body of a mayor on his (or her) way to burial, several council members suffered through seasickness on choppy waters as they headed 12 miles from the coast. Write Palumbi and Sotka:

Finally, they tied a 50-pound metal wheel to the canvas-covered body to sink it to the ocean floor and splashed the body feet first into the waves. Accounts say that the body bobbed to the surface once, with her head above water, as if she were taking one last look at her beloved coastline. A shaken city council sailed home.

"The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival" is published by Island Press.

Top photograph of sea otters by Dr. Mridula Srinavasan , NOAA's Ark-Animals Collection, NOAA Image Library. Bottom photograph of Dr. Julia Platt attacking the fence that blocked public access to the beach, courtesy of Monterey Public Library, California History Room Archives. Thanks to Chris Parsons and Dennis Copeland.