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Reversing the tide of ocean species pillage

It’s hard to fathom that I became a certified scuba diver 32 years ago, but then who remembers details at 5 years old? Seriously though, I’ve seen changes to the ocean environment over the decades, and they frighten me.
Where are the fish? Not in the recent images of the kelp “ghost” forest off La Jolla Cove. It’s not just the diminished numbers of fish but also the dearth of larger-sized adults. © 2000 JUDITH GARFIELD
When I started diving in the late 1970s, I remember the strands of giant kelp being thicker and somehow stronger. Now, when I dive La Jolla (or Point Loma or the Channel Islands, for that matter), the kelp looks spindly and sparse. I remember seeing cabazon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus) fish on most dives in La Jolla’s submarine canyon. My log books and image archives validate that cabazon were a regular part of the scenery, and they were 2 to 3 feet long. I would fin over the upper terrace of the canyon and see males sitting atop their fertilized egg mass, guarding them against hungry intruders.
Twenty-five years ago, I photographed this male cabazon guarding his brood of fluorescent green eggs in the La Jolla submarine canyon. © 1984 JUDITH GARFIELDI have pages of cabazon pictures to prove it. In fact, I took so many good photos of them, I stopped capturing their portraits because I decided I had enough. Recently, I realized that I hadn’t seen a cabazon in some years. When I finally spied one about a month ago, I didn’t recognize what kind of fish it was. After my dive, I studied the image: a mottled, green fish distinguished by a bulbous head and mouth rimmed with fleshy lips. It was indeed a cabazon, though a scant 6 inches long.I shared my sorry story with Diving Locker owner Jake Shelton, a diver for 24 years who has been based in San Diego for the last 5 years.

“I’ve never seen a cabazon in the canyon,”Jake said. Jake sees them elsewhere in San Diego waters but even so, they measure no more than 12 to 18 inches long. Skeptical of my recollection from decades ago, he said, “Cabazon don’t get 3 feet long. You must be thinking of lingcod.” After consulting two fish identification books (published in the 1980s), he said, “Wow, you’re right. Actually, it says they grow to 39 inches.” Space limitations prevent me from sharing more anecdotes but know that diminished marine life populations are pervasive across marine vertebrate and invertebrate species. And it’s not just numbers because overfishing has also resulted in below-average fish sizes (compared with historical data) of mature adults.

© 2009 JUDITH GARFIELD It’s hard for me to wrap my head around, but a half-century ago, divers could look skyward for a half-hour off Point La Jolla as a school comprising millions of fish passed by. Today’s schools more closely resemble this image taken off La Jolla.Reminiscing with diving pioneers who hark back 50 to 60 years highlights that despite my extensive local dive experiences, it’s not only Jake who has missed the extravaganza of underwater life that once existed. I have, too. One long-timer told me it used to take 30 minutes for a school of silversides to pass by overhead off Point La Jolla. I’m jazzed if I count 30 seconds for an occasional school of sardines or mackerel to cruise by. I’m ecstatic to meet up with a rare 100-pound giant sea bass (Stereolepis gigas), but these are minnows compared with decades past when these fish were not only abundant but routinely weighed in excess of 300 or 400 pounds.

It used to be that many places in the sea were too remote or too deep for people to access. These regions balanced out the negative impacts of human fishing and polluting activities occurring elsewhere. Our technology and consumption have all but eliminated most of these refuges, while our dependence on the ocean for clean air, clean water, food and recreation escalates along with our population.

Designated Marine Protected Areas are a proven way to re-create the critical natural buffer zones of yore that act to rebuild and invigorate stocks for the near and distant future. The no-take La Jolla Ecological Reserve, implemented almost 40 years ago, is only a baby step in this process because the reserve is not big enough. We need a larger buffer zone to promote critical recovery of vertebrate and invertebrate populations that have suffered from decades of overfishing and inadequate fisheries management. Reasonable policies have too often not been implemented because of pressure from powerful special interest groups. The result is historically low populations of many species, collapsed populations and, at least in regards to fish, populations dominated by small-sized adults.

Thankfully, it’s not to late to change course. By supporting the Marine Life Protection Act’s “conservation proposal,” we can extend no-take protection to the southern La Jolla reef system (encompassing south Windansea to Pacific Beach's Crystal Pier). The area includes a year-round kelp forest, rocky reefs, sandy flats and submarine canyon. While some species range across more than one of these habitats, many species are restricted to only one, making this tract of ocean the only reasonable choice to revitalize the widest number of species. Further, it is the only proposal that meets the guidelines promoted by the science advisory team that includes internationally respected researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Our support is particularly important because La Jolla boasts the most extensive and biodiverse rocky reef habitat in Southern California.

I’ve frequently wished I could take my dive gear, board a time machine, dial in 200 years ago, and return to La Jolla. There I could thrill to dive in an unspoiled underwater world boiling with life. I’m realistic enough to know this could only happen in my dreams, but I’m idealistic enough to hope that the Blue Ribbon Task Force does right by Californians —those now living and those yet to be born. Heed the spirit as well as the rules laid out in the Marine Life Protection Act and accept the conservation proposal. Incorporating protection of the diverse marine habitats found off southern La Jolla will widely benefit all ocean life (and us!) elsewhere up and down the coast.

The many species of marine life may now be small in size and diminished in population but they are there. We just need to get out of the way and let them flourish.

Want to help? Voice your support with an e-mail to this paper’s letters section. Find out about the key upcoming meeting in Long Beach ( where the Blue Ribbon Task Force will finalize its decision and forward suggestions to the California Fish & Game Commission. Join me and others who will add our two cents during the public comments session.


— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to