NRDC Advocate Named "Hero of the Seas" for Creating Underwater Parks

Imagine if you had a chance to hold the pen when the boundaries of Yosemite National Park were drawn. Or imagine if you were able to protect mountain goats and big horn sheep by establishing Glacier National Park. In a sense, that is what NRDC’s Karen Garrison has done for California’s iconic coastline, marine life and diverse aquatic habitats. In the creation and passage of the  Marine Life Protection Act, Karen has been instrumental in establishing of a network of underwater parks stretching along the state’s 1,100 mile coastline. The final segment was established in Northern California last December, and the now network covers 16 percent of California’s ocean waters.

Now, thanks to Karen’s work and the effort of thousands of Californians, people will be able to visit these parks and have unforgettable encounters with whales, seals, fish, and sea stars for generations to come. And California can continue to honor a cornerstone of its culture: enjoying clean, healthy oceans. 

Today Karen will be honored for her extraordinary accomplishments. She will be named a “Hero of the Seas” as part of the prestigious Peter Benchley Ocean Awards celebrating outstanding leaders who not only help preserve our but also support the coastal communities that rely on these marine resources. Karen has exemplified this kind of leadership.

I personally have worked with Karen for more than two decades and always admired her passion and determination. She is a persistent advocate who bases her positions on the best scientific research. She is also a dedicated community builder, ever eager to invite to the table the myriad residents, divers, fishermen, surfers, businesspeople, and anyone else who has a stake in the oceans. 

Like me, Karen grew up in New Jersey. She loved exploring the tidal rivers, marshlands and beaches, but it wasn’t until she moved to California that she had the opportunity to discover the underwater world. She started diving off the coast in the mid-1990s, but she was often dismayed by what she found under the surface strengthened her resolve to revive our seas.

Around the globe, fishing, pollution and habitat degradation were taking a big toll.  By the 1990s, up to 90 percent of the world’s large fish had been taken by industrial fishing.  On the high seas, fleets of bottom trawlers were dragging giant weighted nets along the ocean floor, felling ancient coral forests and gardens of anemones and sea sponges.  

Karen and her colleagues documented the declines in U.S. fish populations—and the solutions to those problems—in a groundbreaking NRDC report.  She worked to strengthen fishery management on the Pacific Coast and began advocating for marine protected areas to safeguard ocean ecosystems. Similar to national parks in the oceans, these areas act like an insurance policy allowing habitats to replenish and flourish while removing pressure from commercial fishing, drilling, or mining.

Studies showed they harbor bigger fish, more resilient habitat, and more diverse life than unprotected areas. Productivity in these areas also increased compared to fished areas; studies show they can actually help seed surrounding waters with more larvae and fish.

When a California legislator showed interest in marine protected areas, Garrison jumped at the chance. She worked with fishermen and others to draft the Marine Life Protection bill, and helped pass the law with bipartisan support in 1999. But in many ways, that’s when Garrison’s work began. She has spent the ensuing years learning all she can about California’s remarkable underwater world and its coastal communities and working with diverse interests to help determine where to establish protected areas.

The power of this work is already evident in the seas. From the black abalone grounds in the Central Coast to the rocky tide pools from San Diego to Eureka, people are seeing more vibrant ocean life.

The Channel Islands marine reserves, now a decade old, have become one of the best scuba diving destinations in the nation. When Karen submerges herself in the water there, she swims past big sheephead, enormous lobsters and mature giant sea bass. The urchins are held in check by the large predators, and a beautiful kelp forest dances in the current, catching sunlight from above and sheltering schools of shimmering fish.

“These parks in the sea are beautiful, and they’re an inspiration,” Karen says. “They show us that oceans can recover.” Karen has shown us how to begin that process of revitalization. She truly is a Hero of the Seas.

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