Reclaiming Cannery Row with the Monterey Bay Aquarium evokes real-life possibilities for the Onondaga Lake shoreline
Sometimes when you get away for a minute you can see things at home a bit more clearly. Such was the case on a recent visit to California, during which I had the chance to visit the spectacular Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium attracts visitors from all over the world, and it is not hard to see why.
In one enormous tank you can see the abundant aquatic life in the kelp forest, an underwater ecosystem that provides a home, much like a coral reef, for hundreds of thousands of marine species. Kelp are the redwoods of the ocean, enormous seaweed that can grow to hundreds of feet in height. The aquarium pumps water from the bay into the tanks, and the designers even built a wall to mimic the movement of waves, essential to keeping the kelp alive. Kelp are the favored food of sea urchins, and the urchin population along with pollution nearly wiped out the kelp forest a few decades back, until resurgent sea otters, which love to eat the urchins, returned to the bay.
Sea otters live in cold ocean water with no blubber, and to stay alive they consume about 20 percent of their body weight in food every day. That’s a lot of sea urchins. Sea otters are cute and they are smart. At the aquarium and in the nearby bay you can watch the otters floating on their back, chomping on their lunch. When they dive for a sea urchin, they bring it to the surface along with a rock, roll over on their backs, and then use the rock as a tool to break open the shell. Their charm is irresistible.
Another exhibit illustrates the amazing variety and versatility of jellyfish, and yet another displays the world of the seahorse, unique for its upside-down reproductive habits. The female seahorse passes her fertilized eggs to the male, who carries them for six to eight weeks, then gives birth by disgorging the little seahorses (hundreds of them) into the sea, then swimming away. What a guy!
You could spend the whole day wandering through the aquarium, which nests at the end of Cannery Row, a lovely street of shops and restaurants beside the Pacific shore. On a sunny day it feels like paradise. But it was not always this way. For decades Monterey Bay was host to the world’s largest sardine harvesting and canning operation. Cannery Row was made infamous by the 1945 John Steinbeck novel of the same name. Steinbeck called Cannery Row “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream”—a description you might apply to Onondaga Lake.
The aquarium dramatically demonstrates the impact that the sardine trade had on the area, scooping the bay and nearby ocean waters clean of fish life, crippling the kelp forest, and dumping as much as 50 tons of rotting fish entrails into the bay every day. Not too different from our own relationship with Onondaga Lake, which we treated as a sewer and industrial garbage dump for more than a century, and only now have begun to attempt to clean up. Except that in Monterey the community response to the problem took on a whole different tint.
There were no lawsuits about cleaning up the bay. There were no tax deals made to bribe developers to clean up the shore. It was a private, not-for-profit initiative that turned the tide, and made a boomtown out of an eyesore. Turns out that one of the marine biology students who was studying the sorry state of the bay back in the 1970s is the daughter of David Packard, a former assistant secretary of defense and a founder of the Hewlett-Packard technology company.
Nancy Burnett persuaded her father and mother to take a look at the aquarium idea, her parents bought into the project and, $50 million later, the aquarium opened. Its mission was stated simply: to inspire conservation of the oceans. They anticipated a half-million visitors a year; four times that number showed up, and it’s grown every year since. Today the aquarium, operating without any government funds, provides free educational programming to 80,000 students a year and is a leading funding source for research on ocean habitat.
It has also been the lynchpin of the revival of a town no one wanted to visit. The aquarium has been the anchor of a revival of tourism. In its wake a whole host of retail shops and restaurants have opened up to cater to the visitors and year-round residents of the bay area. Retail will always follow the money; it rarely leads.
New York state is not California and our lake will never be mistaken for a Pacific paradise, but I couldn’t help but wonder how things on our lakeshore might be different today if we had that kind of vision and dedication here. o
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at email@example.com.