The Revitalization of Monterey Bay

sea otter

Monterey Bay is well-known for its sea otter population. (Photo credit: worldswildlifewonders/Shutterstock)

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Monterey Bay was a gloopy mess and one of the most polluted places on the Pacific Coast. Today it is considered to be one of the most productive marine ecosystems on the planet. What changed? How did a once-neglected and degraded region become one of the most revered and studied ecosystems on Earth?

The Monterey Bay ecosystem has been the site of numerous ecological tragedies. In the nineteenth century, fur hunters slaughtered the sea otter population. Without the otters, the sea urchin population exploded, which led to the complete devastation of the region’s kelp forests. Without the kelp forests, fish and other species that depended on the kelp as a major food source declined. At the same time, the region’s humpback and gray whale populations were also nearly hunted to extinction. The complete devastation of the Monterey Bay food web was a boon for sardines, which feed on plankton. Without competition for their main food source from other species, the sardine population swelled.

In 1908, the first cannery was constructed in Monterey Bay to take advantage of this huge population of fish. Within a decade, a number of cannery operations had opened up, earning the area the nickname “Cannery Row,” which was later memorialized in a book of the same name written by John Steinbeck. By the height of World War I, when the overseas demand for canned sardines was at its greatest, the canneries were producing nearly 1.5 million cases of canned sardines a year.

The canneries produced a huge amount of waste – up to 100,000 pounds of fish guts, heads, and tails, were dumped back into the ocean every day. In addition, the rate at which sardines were fished would prove to be unsustainable. By the mid-1950s, the sardine population plummeted, the fisheries collapsed, and soon after, the canneries closed.

The closure of the canneries was a key event that helped turn around the Monterey Bay ecosystem. Over time, the waters become cleaner, and populations of abalone and sea urchins returned. Populations of sea otters from Big Sur migrated to the area, and over time the kelp forests returned. Today, Monterey Bay is protected as part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The NOAA-managed sanctuary, which was established in 1992, protects 276 miles of shoreline and 6094 square miles of ocean, a size larger than Yellowstone National Park. Highlights of the marine sanctuary include the nation’s largest kelp forest and one of North America’s deepest underwater canyons (comparable to the Grand Canyon).

The region is also home to several research institutes, each of which studies a different aspect of the Monterey Bay ecosystem. After a long period of healing, today this marine ecosystem is called the “Serengeti of the Sea’ due to its great biodiversity, where it is home to 34 species of marine mammals, more than 180 species of seabirds and shorebirds, 525 species of fish, and numerous species of invertebrates and algae. Monterey Bay is a modern-day success story of ecosystem revitalization.

More to Explore
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Monterey Bay’s ecological renaissance
Monterey Bay Aquarium: Thriving Ocean Wildlife
History of the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute


Country: United States
Location: The United States is located in North America between Canada and Mexico, and is bordered by both the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Pacific Ocean.
Area: 9,833,517 square kilometers. It is more than twice the size of the European Union and about half the size of Russia.
Climate: The United States has a variety of climates. It is mostly temperate, but tropical in Hawaii and Florida, arctic in Alaska, semiarid in the Great Plains west of the Mississippi River, and arid in the Great Basin of the southwest.
Terrain: The terrain of the United States includes a vast central plain, mountains in west, hills and low mountains in east; rugged mountains and broad river valleys in Alaska; and rugged, volcanic topography in Hawaii.
Natural Resources: Arable land, bauxite, coal, copper, gold, iron, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, nickel, petroleum, phosphates, potash, rare earth elements, silver, timber, tungsten, uranium, zinc
Economics:$17.95 trillion (2015 estimate)
Environmental Issues: Air pollution resulting in acid rain in both the US and Canada; desertification; large emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels; limited natural freshwater resources in much of the western part of the country require careful management; water pollution from runoff of pesticides and fertilizers
CIA – The World Factbook

What Do You Think?