Stanford author recounts how a beleaguered Monterey Bay was brought back to health

How Monterey Bay was transformed from its "era of ill health" portrayed in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row – when the bay was a cesspool of cannery waste – to the vibrantly healthy ecosystem of today is the story told in Stanford Professor Steve Palumbi's new book, "The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival."

Cover of 'The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival'

Stanford Professor Steve Palumbi said the book kept getting hijacked by "one amazing character after another who swept into the narrative and demanded that their story be told."

"I go all over the world giving talks about how much trouble the ocean is in," said Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. "Then I find myself back here, going along the shore of Monterey Bay to my office, and the contrast between how stunningly beautiful this bay is and what I see going on in the rest of the world is stark," he said.

Palumbi knew that the bay was once "an industrial hellhole" and had suffered the same problems as other shorelines around the world. So how was this region able to recover? He began digging into the past and found the story so fascinating he ended up writing his new book, The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival. But the story he tells is not the one he expected to write.

The original plan was to write about the ecology of the bay, the fish and other marine life. But as Palumbi and coauthor Carolyn Sotka worked on the book, the story kept getting hijacked by "one amazing character after another who swept into the narrative and demanded that their story be told," Palumbi said.

One of the pivotal players was Julia Platt, who arrived in the area in 1899, freshly armed with a PhD in marine zoology, earned from a German university because no American university in the late 1800s would admit a woman to pursue such a degree.

Platt witnessed the growth of the canneries and got so frustrated with her inability to stop them from polluting the bay that in 1931 she ran for mayor of Pacific Grove, the little seaside town adjacent to – and often downwind from – the canneries in Monterey.

Once in office, she went after the canneries from a different angle. "She almost singlehandedly conceived of the marine protected areas that we have here today," Palumbi said. Platt persuaded the California legislature to pass a law granting Pacific Grove the right to manage not only the town's waterfront but also "certain submerged lands in the Bay of Monterey contiguous thereto."

With that legal power, Platt created two marine refuges along the coast. The marine life protected by those havens would eventually reseed the bay in the wake of the sardine population crash in the 1940s that finally closed the canneries.

To this day, Pacific Grove is the only city in California with the legal right to manage its own coastline.

L.A. Cicero Steve Palumbi collects samples along the Monterey Bay

Professor Steve Palumbi collects samples along the Monterey Bay shore near Hopkins Marine Station.

No story about Monterey Bay in the era of the canneries would be complete without Ed "Doc" Ricketts, the eccentric, pioneering biologist immortalized in John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row.

"Ed Ricketts taught John Steinbeck enough ecology so that he could write the first great ecological novels, such as The Grapes of Wrath," Palumbi said. But while Steinbeck went on to write about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Ricketts ended up living through what Palumbi called "the dust bowl of the sea" in Monterey Bay.

"Ricketts knew exactly what was going on decades before anybody else, but he could never really get anybody to pay attention to him," Palumbi said.

Along with Steinbeck, Ricketts became friends with Joseph Campell, who would later become a well-known scholar of legend and storytelling, writing books such as The Power of Myth.

Although Ricketts, Steinbeck and Campbell often engaged in philosophical discussions, Palumbi said their get-togethers generally weren't too dry. "They had some pretty amazing parties in the late 1920s in Pacific Grove," he said.

Another prominent player in the recovery of Monterey Bay was the sea otter, which Palumbi described as "cute, fuzzy little things that are voracious carnivores."

By the 1830s, sea otters had been hunted out of the area by pelt hunters and were thought extinct.

The absence of the otters led to a population explosion of creatures that had been its dietary staples, including the sea urchin, which feeds heavily on kelp. Without otters, the kelp forests collapsed.

But as otters began slipping back into the ecosystem in the 1960s, via the marine sanctuaries Platt had helped create, the kelp forests grew back and are now flourishing, along with many species that call the forests home.

The last major character in the story is the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the idea that the bay could be used to entertain and educate the public, rather than just return to "eating the ecosystem," as Palumbi puts it.

"The aquarium has revolutionized the economy of Monterey and made a healthy ecosystem actually more valuable than an 'eaten' ecosystem," he said.

Palumbi is a senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment. Sotka manages science and policy outreach activities for the Oceans and Human Health Initiative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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