In The Golden Shore, David Helvarg takes us on a tour of the 1,100 or so miles of the California coast. He documents the many-faceted interaction – including recreation, trade, food, energy, science, wildlife, and defense – between California and the Pacific Ocean, a relationship that creates, in his words, “a powerful crosscurrent of culture, risk and reward, history economy, and mythology.” Subtitled “California’s Love Affair with the Sea,” the book is part history, part travelogue, and part memoir. Helvarg, who lives by the California coast in Richmond, is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker, as well as founding Executive Director of the Blue Frontier Campaign, which works for ocean and coastal conservation.
Helvarg starts his journey with the first humans that entered California, via the Bering land bridge and by small boats along the Aleutian Islands, some fifteen thousand years ago. Within a few thousand years, the total population might have been several hundred. By 1,500 CE and the arrival of explorers from Europe, perhaps 300,000 lived there, now divided into distinct tribes like the Chumash, Esselen, Yurok, and Shasta, and speaking some twenty different languages. The plunge in native population down to some 20,000 by 1900 is bluntly called genocide by Helvarg. Exploitation by the mission system, the gold rush, and epidemics of European diseases like malaria were major culprits.
California’s first encounter with the U.S. military was the Navy’s seizure of major ports during the Mexican-American War. Admitted to the union as a free state in 1850, California got its first naval shipyard a few years later at Mare Island, northeast of San Francisco. World War II dramatically increased U.S. military involvement along the coast. The Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, which built hundreds of ships for the war, were such an economic powerhouse that its medical clinic for workers later became the Kaiser Permanente health care system. As World War II transitioned into the Cold War, California also became the center of the aerospace industry, with fifteen of the twenty-five largest aerospace firms based in Southern California.
About ninety percent of California citizens live within fifty miles of the coast, Helvarg tells us, with some fourteen million of the state’s nineteen million jobs within the coastal zone. Forty percent of America’s seagoing trade comes through California, mostly through Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two biggest U.S. ports, and Oakland. Over a million jobs are connected to California’s ports. What they provide the U.S. is so important, says Helvarg, that “a port shutdown in Southern California could slow the national economy within twenty-four hours and cripple it in seventy-two.”
But California’s coast isn’t just about work and economic development. Recreation is a major part of the story, and Helvarg shows in this book that he is an avid participant. Surfing, for instance, is a favorite pastime: “I figure the risk/benefit calculus more than pays off just waiting in the lineup on a glassy day for those kick-in moments of well-timed transcendence when I catch a wave and am shooting across its face, having the best kinetic rush of speed and immersive low I can experience in the ocean, at least until the next one.” While there were some isolated examples of surfing in California from the nineteenth century, it was San Francisco-born Jack London, of The Call of the Wild fame, that brought surfing to nationwide consciousness when he encountered it in Hawaii in 1907 and wrote an article, “A Royal Sport,” for the Women’s Home Companion.
California’s environment is a major subject of The Golden Shore. Helvarg argues that, of all of California’s native wildlife, otters had the largest impact on the state’s human history. Otter fur was much prized, especially in China, and otters were hunted and killed by the thousands by Russian, French, British and American merchants. By the 1830s, California’s otter population was basically gone. Indicating how interrelated species are, Helvarg also tells of the “ghost forest,” California kelp forests that have lost the sea bass, lobsters, and other fish that used to live there. Abalones, for instance, thrived when their main predators, those very same otters, were decimated. But then the abalones, too, were overharvested. Now they’re rare and expensive; commercial fishing of them is illegal, and recreational fishing heavily restricted.
Helvarg makes mention of an old poster he once came across that read, “3459 Species live on the California Coast – Only one is destroying them.” Measures like the national Marine Mammal Protection Act and California’s own Marine Life Protection Act have led to fights between commercial and recreational fishers, scientists, and environmentalists. However, thanks to that legislation as well as careful research and monitoring and a generally caring attitude among Californians and their legislators, several species that have been challenged are making comebacks.
California’s coastline is also, not surprisingly, a hub of oceanographic exploration and analysis, given its “deep submarine canyons leading to a steep continental shelf, one of the world’s great upwelling zones, extensive seamounts, coastal islands, sandy beaches and rocky shores, a major south-flowing current and seasonal countercurrent, a marine layer north of Point Conception that helps define its coastal ecology, and a mind-boggling amount of biological diversity that alters north of Point Conception and again at Cape Mendocino.” California has more marine research labs than any other state, many of them in the neighborhood of Monterey Bay and its vast nearby underwater canyon, including the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, or MBARI.
California is already doing much to address global climate change, and is anticipating the changes in weather patterns and sea levels that could be on the way in coming decades. Helvarg reports that renewable non-carbon energy comprised 16% of the state’s electricity sales for 2012, and that that figure should rise to 33% by 2020. Over 90% of the state’s fossil fuel plants have been converted to, or built for, burning low-carbon natural gas, as opposed to the coal that still accounts for 40% of U.S. electricity.
Helvarg argues, “I believe it’s Californians’ sense of entitlement to the coast and ocean, their understanding that it belongs to all of them – surfers,sailors, fishermen, the maritime industry, the tourist industry, the navy, the tribes, and every single beachgoer – that makes protecting California’s seas both so contentious and so effective.” Ultimately, as he concludes in this timely and entertaining book, “finding that right balance of recreation, conservation, trade, and industry while also restoring and protecting the seas everyone depends on is what life along California’s golden shore is all about.”