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Photograph by Noelle Luchino
MADE WITH THE SEA IN MIND Save our Shores executive director Laura Kasa, decked out for public education, pushing SOS'new Bring Your Own campaign.

The Clean Marine Machine

The ocean conservation heroes at Save Our Shores retool for a new generation of threats

By Molly Zapp

There are no shining trophies to display the proof of successful ocean conservation along the Central Coast. Indeed, the way our beaches and ocean look from the top of a cliff are the same way they've probably looked for thousands of years.

In fact, the success of our local marine conservationists can perhaps best be measured by what isn't there at all. No oil drilling rigs pump a few miles off the Boardwalk, and their massive steel beams don't serve as a backdrop to the surfers at Cowell's Beach. The seven to eight tons—yes, tons—of spent fireworks and trash left on the beach after the Fourth of July were cleaned up before most revelers were even awake to munch on leftover potato salad. But these things didn't happen magically. What Santa Cruzans don't see at the edge of the ocean—be it oil rigs, excessive garbage or pelicans covered in petroleum—is largely due to 30 years of ocean conservation efforts by Save Our Shores.

Originally formed in 1978 by local residents primarily concerned with fighting offshore oil drilling, Save Our Shores is Santa Cruz's oldest ocean organization. A handful of directors and four presidential administrations later, recent discussion of opening up the ocean to offshore oil drilling makes the organization as relevant as ever. Headlines last week pointed to a troubling new trend: with gas pushing $5 a gallon, 51 percent of Californians now say they favor offshore oil drilling. Even Barack Obama said last week he would support a "careful, well thought-out drilling strategy" for offshore fields.

There is one twist, a purposeful monkey wrench that will, with any luck, keep the oil rigs far away from Monterey Bay and other large swaths of California's coast. Any territory designated part of a national marine sanctuary is off-limits to oil exploration.

But the ban on oil exploration in the Monterey Bay, though unquestionably significant, does not mean the work of Save Our Shores is finished. Former Congressman Leon Panetta paints an ocean view in which Save Our Shores' work remains as necessary as ever.

"It's obvious that our oceans continue to face crisis," says Panetta, who chaired the Pew Oceans Commission in the run-up to its groundbreaking 2003 final report. "We are losing our fisheries. We are seeing the impact creating huge dead zones and seeing the impact of coastal development. The threat might not be offshore drilling in Monterey Bay, but it is coming from a variety of other directions that could damage our coastline and our bay."

Now, as the organization heads into its fourth decade, Save Our Shores is reinventing itself for a new group of threats, and its plate is no less full than when it started.

"There's a patch of garbage out there that's twice the size of Texas, and you don't see it, but we know it's out there," says Laura Kasa, Save Our Shores' new executive director.

Also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, this massive trash gyre is composed of photodegrading pieces of plastic, which float en masse hundreds of miles from land. Fish populations, meanwhile, are in crisis; multiple studies over the past 10 years have determined that most of the ocean's fisheries are at or above sustainable fishing levels. Global warming has contributed to rising sea levels, and oil tankers still occasionally spill into the ocean.

Save Our Shores has responded to the new set of threats with a three-pronged approach that seeks to educate and engage the public. Ever reminding us that there is no real "away" in throw away, SOS's marine debris program includes coastal and river cleanups and educational outreach. Its DockWalker program combats oil contamination from recreational boaters. And SOS is also developing a sustainable fisheries program that advocates for MPAs (marine protected areas)—ocean areas where fishing is limited or prohibited so fish stocks can rebound.

And to combat all those polluting plastic bottles and bags, SOS is about to launch a Bring Your Own campaign, which urges consumers to bring their own reusable containers instead of wasting plastic and paper or—eek!—polystyrene containers.

"We used to be about offshore oil drilling; we used to be about establishing a sanctuary," says Kasa. "Now there are new threats, and here's what we're doing."


CUTESY MONSTERS: Trash the beach and they'll tickle you to death. SOS staffers in sea anemone and jellyfish costumes created by SOS volunteer MC Johnson.

A National Movement

It was 1986, and then–Save Our Shores director Dan Haifley had $30,000. Half of this princely sum was made possible by passage of a Santa Cruz ballot initiative allowing city funds to be used for public education on offshore oil drilling. Along with a group of dedicated volunteers, Haifley used the money to put on town hall meetings and educational campaigns where he debated executives from Chevron and other oil companies about offshore drilling. The only paid person on staff, Haifley also drew his salary from that modest amount.

"It was a truly grassroots organization, says Haifley, who reminisces about the pre-Internet nonprofit days of phone trees and mailing. Now the executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey, Haifley says he took to the road with the SOS message and helped persuade 26 cities and counties to develop ordinances that addressed how they would deal with offshore drilling companies. Though waters up to three miles out are regulated by the state, cities like Santa Cruz passed resolutions that, for example, required a vote of the people to approve any zoning change to accommodate any new oil facilities.

"What began here became almost a national movement," says Panetta, who shares the honor, along with Monterey Bay Aquarium founder Julie Packard, of having a new Save Our Shores award named after him. "One of the concerns I always had was [of having] what we're facing now—energy crisis, high gas prices—and that a moratorium would not provide the permanent protection we need for the area."

That concern led Panetta, then representing the 17th Congressional district, to push for the establishment of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 1992. He had Save Our Shores' full support. This measure gave resource protection and allowed for research, education and public use within the sanctuary. It prohibited offshore oil drilling and, after some debate with the fishing community, did not further regulate fishing, which was already regulated by the state.

Presented with several options, President George H.W. Bush chose the largest possible sanctuary footprint. At 5,322 square miles, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary exceeds the size of Yosemite National Park and is the largest of the nation's 11 sanctuaries. Haifley says the presidential approval after years of pushing for it transformed the organization and signaled a change in public perception of its work.

"This changed Save Our Shores' role by giving it legitimacy and a stewardship role in protecting this resource," Haifley says.

Focus on the Fish Family

Unquestionably, the establishment of the marine sanctuary and its ban on offshore drilling was a victory for sanctuary supporters, including Save Our Shores. In the year following the sanctuary's establishment, Vicki Nichols became executive director. With one victory down, the organization worked to build up and maintain its community and donor support and was able to focus on other areas of marine protection and conservation.

As it had since its inception, Save Our Shores conducted beach cleanups. It grew and established another office in Half Moon Bay. Emphasizing its volunteer beginnings, it began a Sanctuary Steward Program in which community members volunteered for the sanctuary and conducted outreach. In 1997, SOS established the DockWalkers Clean Boating program, which provide boaters with information on safe oil and waste disposal. DockWalkers' success became the model for a statewide program.

The shift in focus from fighting offshore drilling to education and outreach cooled some of the steam that fueled the organization, according to Save Our Shores treasurer (and Santa Cruz County tax assessor) Fred Keeley, who notes that outreach and education are "less exciting than fighting offshore drilling."

Like nearly all nonprofits, the organization receives funding from a variety of sources—private donors as well as state, local and foundational grants. In a region where funding-hungry nonprofits abound, the reduced threat of offshore drilling, along with the organization's "less exciting" outreach, has slowed contributions. But Save Our Shores continued to garner community support, even from fishing groups. Mike Stiller, president of the Santa Cruz Commercial Fisherman's Marketing Association, recalls the '90s as a time when his association worked with Save Our Shores. Stiller says the Fisherman's Association donated to the organization and had a working relationship with Nichols.

The next legislative push for the area's ocean was to establish MPAs. In 1999, Keeley, then a state assemblyman, authored the Marine Life Protection Act, which sought to create and manage a network of MPAs along the California coastline.

Getting the act passed was only the first step in what became an eight-year process to establish a system of MPAs. The size and location of the boundaries were debated by a variety of groups and organizations, including SOS, commercial and recreational fishing organizations and the Department of Fish and Game. The process created a rift between commercial fishermen and environmental groups.

"Our view on MPAs is that they don't do any good," Stiller says. "It's a stop fishing mechanism—it doesn't seem to stop pollution or anything else. We're already regulated heavily, so we didn't see the need for any more regulation."

Stiller says his association stopped donating to Save Our Shores in 2002 after Vicki Nichols left and the new director gave his association a chilly reception. Though he says the groups are "not that far apart on the environmental stuff," he says MPAs and other regulations affect his bottom line in a way that environmental groups like Save Our Shores aren't.

Ultimately, though, a commission worked out a compromise plan that established the boundaries and regulations for the protected areas under the Marine Life Protection Act. Last September, 29 MPAs covering 204 square miles around the Central Coast were designated. Only about 8 percent of that area excludes fishing entirely.

Panetta credits Save Our Shores, then and now, with doing the behind-the-scenes work at building coalitions between different and sometimes opposing sections of the community.

"What you don't want to do is create splits between the agricultural community, the fishing community, the environmental community, the tourism community and so on," says Panetta. "That's been their strength. They understand what it's like to build that broad coalition."

Save Us From Ourselves

While the tedious debate on establishing the MPAs was going on, Save Our Shores was having an internal shake-up. After Nichols departed in 2002 after a 10-year tenure, the organization went through five directors in five years. The organization had to struggle with where to find its place, and the ocean wasn't getting any cleaner.

"Things kind of atrophied for a while," says Haifley. "Then Laura Kasa came along."

Originally from New York, the current executive director came to Save Our Shores in May 2006 packing a master's in public administration from Columbia University. Reflecting on her first year, Kasa says that she didn't have much of a life outside of Save Our Shores. The organization needed new direction, new staff, secure sources of funding (it was down to a single source that was running out quickly) and strong programs. Haifley says that Kasa approached him and wasn't afraid to ask questions to get the organization's goal accomplished. Keeley also joined Save Our Shores' board of directors as treasurer at that time. Haifley credits the infusion of new blood with reviving the organization.

"Many people were waiting for Save Our Shores to reestablish itself," Haifley says. "[Kasa] fit that bill very well."

After securing funding to hire additional staff, Kasa sought to redefine the organization's evolved role. One part of its new strategic direction is the Marine Debris Program, run by Save Our Shores program coordinator Aleah Lawrence-Pine. The program consists of a monthly public lecture series and community outreach, part of what Lawrence-Pine calls "the slow building of awareness." Lawrence-Pine goes into elementary and high school classrooms to educate youth about area ecosystems, help them identify their local watersheds and examine their environmental impact. Then, she takes the students on a field trip—to the dump. She wants them to see how much and what kind of garbage the community creates.

"Ultimately, what we're really striving for with the Marine Debris Program is a behavior change for society as a whole," she says. She teaches the kids to keep disposable usage journals, and many have signed a responsible coastal usage pledge.

Kasa also relaunched both the DockWalker Clean Boating Program and the Sanctuary Steward Program. This year, 29 volunteers completed the Sanctuary Stewards training. Steward Joni Macfarlane first volunteered with the program last fall. Through the program, Macfarlane did some outreach and classroom presentations about marine debris to schools in the area. She went on educational conservation cruises with schools and community groups to teach children about marine ecosystems and their impact.

Of course, Save Our Shores continues to do the dirty work for which it's well known: cleaning up trash on the beaches. But Kasa even revamped this area by forming the Clean Beaches Coalition with area organizations Surfrider, Ecology Action and Pack Your Trash. Previously, all worked separately to clean up different beaches at different times. Working now as a cleanup coalition, they now have 200 volunteers and keep track of what types of trash are collected, how much, and from which beaches. They have expanded their cleanups to inland rivers as well. 

The coalition's flagship cleanups are on the fifth of July and on Annual Coastal Clean-Up Day in September. For this year's Independence Day conservation efforts, SOS stepped up its pre-party outreach and visibility by handing out over 1,500 recycling and trash bags to beach-goers and attendees of the Aptos parade. Kasa credits this outreach with the dramatic reduction in trash left on the beaches the next morning: In 2007, volunteers cleaned up 40 tons of trash and fireworks from seven beaches. This year that figure was reduced to between seven and eight tons.


Still, 15,000 pounds of rubbish on the beaches is a massive amount of waste that would be trashing our waters if not for the volunteers who clean the beaches. Kasa and Lawrence-Pine want to change society's attitudes that lead to this accumulation of trash.

"We've become this throw-away society," Kasa says. "You can buy a bottle of bottled water. It takes two liters of water to create this bottle of water, and 40 percent of the time it's tap water anyway. That water bottle is never going to disintegrate or biodegrade. But you know what? It's quick and easy and all the soccer teams use it, and all these other teams use it, and lots of people use it. But what about the impact? Where are all these water bottles going to go?"

They go, among other places, to the massive gyre of trash in the ocean. Plastic can never biodegrade; instead, it breaks down with exposure to sunlight into smaller bits of plastic polymers that float just below the surface for hundreds of miles.

To reduce trash that could potentially join this and other gyres, SOS is poised to launch a Bring Your Own Campaign that will encourage community members to bring their own grocery bags, coffee mugs and take-out containers instead of using disposable packaging. As part of an effort to raise funds and promote awareness, the organization will be selling stainless steel coffee mugs with the SOS emblem on it. Kasa says she supports the polystyrene bans in the city and county, which will go into effect this month. She says the organization is also looking into supporting either a ban or a fee for using plastic bags.

In addition to the outreach, SOS will continue to function in its stewardship role for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the 29 MPAs. Kasa is optimistic about the MPAs, and wants to research and analyze their greater impact.

"It's too bad that it took eight years for it to get implemented," she says.

"Now what remains to be seen is what the science says." She estimates it will take 10 to 20 years to determine the effects of MPAs, and that it's better to be cautious than overly zealous when it comes to preserving marine populations. "If we're not sure what can be done, let's take a cautionary approach before we're too far gone, and we can't recover these fishing populations," she says.

Full Circle

Although Save Our Shores' struggles have changed over the past 30 years, Haifley supports the organization's going back to its community and volunteer soul. "It's going back to its roots," he says.

Kasa is conscious of the organization's continually evolving role, and says that the beauty of the ocean and the current lack of oil rigs on in the Central Coast can deceive people into thinking the ocean is in perfect health. It's the same with any social movement whose knee-jerk momentum tapers off once previously ideas become more widely accepted in the mainstream. 

"People look out at the ocean and say to me, 'Why do we need Save Our Shores? The ocean looks gorgeous,'" she says. "The problem is, people aren't seeing what's going on underneath. Our big struggle is trying to make people aware of what is going on underneath the surface of the ocean."

From his point of view, Panetta sees SOS as a pragmatic group that makes things happen, a group that is "not only ideological, but practical."

"The most important effort to protect our coastline could not have happened without Save Our Shores," he says.

TOAST THE COAST, Save Our Shores' 30th anniversary party, is Saturday, Aug. 9, at 6pm at the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. Tickets to the event, which includes sunset cocktails, buffet, auctions and the presentation of the first Packard-Panetta Ocean Protection Award, are $55 at

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