There was a time when the California coast was full of sea life.
In the 1950s, free-divers (divers not using oxygen tanks) collected generous amounts of huge lobsters off the state’s shores and routinely spear-fished big white sea bass in kelp forests. They also often caught less common blue water pelagic species such as deep Pacific wahoo, blue fin tunas larger than humans; broom-tail grouper weighing up to 207 pounds; hammerhead sharks; and black sea bass tipping the scales at more than 450 pounds.
There are other signs that ocean life used to be plentiful. There is a famous restaurant, The Sardine Factory, in Monterey’s Cannery Row — named after one of John Steinbeck’s novel. But times have changed, and the last cannery closed in 1973 because the number of sardines had declined to a point where it was no longer commercially feasible to fish them. In the ’70s, gourmet restaurants still occasionally served wild abalone; today, if you are able to find these mollusks on a menu you can bet they’re probably farmed.
On a recent visit to the Redondo Pier in Los Angeles, we came across an open-air fish market displaying a wide array of seafood for sale that could be prepared and eaten on-site. When we asked about the local catch, the answer was shocking: “Almost nothing.” As we sat down with our meal, we looked out onto the blue ocean and into the blue skies and saw the oil drills, which were close enough to shore to be visible with the naked eye, and we started to realize how over-population, oil drilling, pollution, global warming and plastic litter have caused the California coast to go from beautiful and bountiful to almost barren in the span of 50 years. Don’t let the seals that you might see sunbathing on the rocks along scenic Highway 1 or the waterspouts from passing whales fool you: Humans have managed to over-turn the balance of the ecosystem along the entire Pacific coast from San Francisco to San Diego.
The reason I’m writing about my personal experiences and observations about the West Coast is to remind us that a similar fate could occur in our own backyard — the waters that lap at the Georgia and North and South Carolina coasts. We take it for granted that we can harvest oysters from the May River, eat wild-caught local shrimp, spear flounders in season, hook a spotted-tailed sea bass in the marshes surrounding our homes, and eat fresh grouper. But while our ecosystem still seems to be intact, it us up to us to be good stewards of the natural surroundings that make living in the Lowcountry so special. We have to act now and take precautions if we don’t want to experience the same fate as the West Coast.
EDITOR’S NOTE: “THE LAST OF THE BLUE WATER HUNTERS” BY CARLOS EYLES WAS PUBLISHED IN THE 1980S. IT RECOUNTS TALES ABOUT THE DAYS WHEN FREE DIVERS WOULD USE SPEARS TO FISH FOR WHITE SEA BASS OFF THE COAST OF CALIFORNIA AND SIMILAR STORIES.