Earth Day reading

The Death and Life of Monterey Bay by Stephen Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka

Loving nature can be exhausting. Constantly crises arise, reminding us of our ecological footprint, the impacts of what we eat and how much we drive. It can make a person crazy with guilt. This book is a refreshing perspective on environmental crises past, and the resilience of the amazing ecosystem of Monterey Bay. The authors count the impacts of the decimation of the otter population in the early 1800s, which caused a domino effect where the boom of otter prey items such as abalone and sea urchin munched the kelp forest down to nubs. They follow the impacts of harvest of whales, abalones, sardines, and bird eggs. Palumbi, one of those polymath ecology geniuses, describes how abalone larval recruitment and whale population biology are keys to these changes.

The local history is folded in to the ecology of the bay, with the fabulous story of 1930s Pacific Grove mayor and PhD marine biologist Julia Platt who shot chickens invading her garden and protected the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge. He introduces the intellectual group of Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck, and Joseph Campbell whose lives intertwined in Monterey- Ricketts, who collaborated with Steinbeck on The Sea of Cortez, was portrayed as Doc in Cannery Row. Palumbi draws a parallel between the dustbowl that is the foundation of the Grapes of Wrath and the sardine overfishing in Monterey Bay.

The book is at its best when the focus is on ecology and key historical figures. Occasionally the authors’ efforts to include personal histories are clumsy and intrusive, including a couple dating in the midst of the sardine cannery accounts. But these are short interruptions. The big picture of a region that has survived threats from so many sides and emerged as an ambassador of ocean ecosystems is an encouraging story. The book finishes with the construction of the landmark Monterey Bay Aquarium on the footprint of the defunct canneries and its overwhelming success.

It is important to remember how much things have improved over time. It always seems like things are at their worst right now, but I’m going to try to imagine Monterey Bay over the last 200 years when I’m feeling discouraged. It has overcome the abuse, going from a wasteland stripped of otters and kelp to polluted with fish guts and cannery stench to an otter and whale-watching tourist destination. Thanks to Palumbi for showing us that the glass is half full. I can use the optimism right now!


  1. The Sage Butterfly

    April 28, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    I have always loved otters–thinking they are so adorable and intelligent. This is a book that is going on my reading list. Thank you for participating in The Earth Day Reading Project.

  2. Cheryl

    May 3, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Sounds great, even the interludes. Thanks for posting!

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