Dana Roeber Murray is a Marine & Coastal Scientist at Heal the Bay, where she works on science and policy issues related to coastal habitats and marine wildlife in California. Dana is committed to conserving our oceans and has worked in the environmental field for over 15 years. She also developed and manages Heal the Bay’s MPA Watch citizen science monitoring program, assessing how people use L.A.’s underwater parks. In addition to her work at Heal the Bay, since 2003 Dana has completed hundreds of underwater surveys of marine life as a volunteer scientific diver for Reef Check.
Dana earned her master’s degree in Environmental Science and Coastal Marine Resource Management from UC Santa Barbara, and her bachelor’s in Geography from UCLA. She was previously a Peace Corps Volunteer, a conservation science researcher for the World Wildlife Fund, and the Director of Education at the California Wildlife Center.
Planet Experts: You are a marine and coastal scientist at Heal the Bay, an environmental organization dedicated to ensuring the safety, health and cleanliness of California’s coastal waters and watersheds. Please describe your role with Heal the Bay, as well as the projects and initiatives on which you are currently working.
Dana Murray: I’ve worked at Heal the Bay for about four and a half years, in our Science and Policy Department on coastal resource issues. The main areas I work on are advocating for and researching marine protected areas (MPAs), citizen science research in MPAs, climate change, ocean wildlife conservation, sustainable fisheries, and coastal development.
One of the biggest issues right now is that there’s a proposal to drill for oil about six blocks from the ocean in Hermosa Beach that would require slant drilling under Santa Monica Bay. So we’ve been working with community members in Hermosa and other NGOs to review the environmental impact report on this project, and to educate community members about the risks of oil drilling along Santa Monica Bay – because this project has a 34 percent chance of oil spill. It’s a big risk to take for the environment and the local community.An oil spill doesn’t have boundaries, so it could negate a lot of the work that we’ve done at Heal the Bay.
Another big issue we work on is coastal climate change, specifically looking at adaptation solutions that are more sustainable. We’ve weighed in on California’s state sea level rise policy, beach restoration efforts, sea walls, things like that.
I also work on assessing open ocean intakes and California’s proposed desalination policy. Historically, coastal power plants in California suck in ocean water to cool themselves, and with that they suck in a ton of marine life. If the marine life doesn’t get killed on the way into the pipe, they get stuck on the outside of it. In 2009, we helped pass the Once Through Cooling Policy for California, which has all these coastal power plants moving away from once through cooling. The state passed the law, but now there’s a lot of desalination plants proposed for co-location with these coastal power plants and planning on tapping into the pipes. We’re not against desalination, but there’s better options for desal than just pulling in straight ocean water.
PE: In your position at Heal the Bay, you use your scientific background and research to help influence policy. In your experience, how receptive are governmental agencies to recommendations advanced by you and your fellow scientists? Are you encouraged by their responsiveness?
DM: A lot of times there’s pushback. But Heal the Bay’s been around for almost 30 years and I feel like we have a good relationship and pretty good reputation locally and on the state level. So when we meet with government municipalities, whether it’s at the legislative level or the local government, we hold meetings and we can talk about the science behind things. So that’s been very good. We also meet with state agencies, the decision makers at the California Coastal Commission, Ocean Protection Council, or the Fish and Game Commission. We’ve learned that building relationships with decision makers and municipalities and providing them with sound science has been the best approach.
PE: California is a leader in environmental policy initiatives. How do you grade the state’s record on coastal and ocean management issues?
DM: When you compare California to other states, and even the United States to other countries, California has really been a leader on ocean conservation- but we still have more to accomplish – especially in regards to environmental and ocean literacy and water quality protections. When we passed the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999, that’s a landmark. When we passed the California Coastal Act in 1976, that’s another important step we took in California. These are so important to protecting our coastal and marine waters in California and they’re really forward thinking.
With the Marine Life Protection Act, the state went through a very public process establishing marine protective areas throughout the state, and we have hundreds of MPAs now in the state working together like a network. Because of the very public process involving stakeholders, other places around the world are looking at California – how we did this and how successful we’ve been – to use as a model for establishing MPAs in other parts of the world.
Also our state’s really advanced in planning and thinking about sea level rise and climate change adaptation. Our state does try to weigh business interests and coastal development, but also has pretty solid laws in place to help protect the environment such as CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and the Coastal Act. So as long as we elect leaders that also share these views and uphold our state laws, I’m hopeful as our state goes forward.
PE: You volunteer with Reef Check — an international organization dedicated to conserving both California’s rocky and tropical coral reefs — and have performed hundreds of underwater scientific surveys. Over the years that you have been diving with Reef Check, have you witnessed improvement or a decline in the health of the marine ecosystems you are observing?
DM: Yes. I started doing Reef Check when I was in the Peace Corps in Jamaica, and Jamaica’s one of the most overfished countries in the world. When I did research surveys down there, you’d be hard pressed to find any fish that are bigger than your hand because it’s so overfished. Fish health and reef health are tied together, and the reef’s pretty unhealthy. That was my first foray into diving and scientific diving. When I came back to California, I started doing Reef Check here in 2006. I’ve been doing it for nine years now and I think I’ve seen our ocean health is increasing, at least in certain places.
Our pollution and stormwater runoff regulation is strong and is getting better in California. Also, I hate to sound like a broken record, but the big difference is our marine protected areas. When you dive outside an MPA versus inside, it’s a very stark difference. Inside an MPA you’re going to see bigger marine life, more abundant marine life, more diversity. After diving in California for a decade, I’ve started to see an improvement in our marine life health in MPAs.
In tropical countries the coral reefs are feeling a lot more of the effects of climate change – whether it’s water temperature increasing or ocean acidification. Right now, shallow coral reefs are facing a lot more climate challenges than our temperate reefs. Also, many other places in the world don’t have water quality laws in place to prevent or treat sewage, run-off, and pollution.
PE: President Obama recently announced his plan to create the world’s largest marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean. What is your impression of this plan, and how do you grade the President’s record on ocean conservation generally?
DM: I think it’s great if for no other reason than it’s important to get those talking points out there: marine reserves and healthy oceans, things like that. My hope is that with large MPAs that they’re also going to have enforcement and good management because if you just have a paper park – which just exists on paper but nothing else is being done – it doesn’t really matter. I just hope there’s some strong management action to go along with declarations.
I used to work for the World Wildlife Fund assessing protected areas around the world, and this is a common problem – good management doesn’t always go alongside establishing protected areas. So I think it remains to be seen how effective this is.
Obama’s record recently, in the last year or two, has gotten much better with the environment in general but especially with oceans. I feel like environmental issues took a real backseat in his first term and so it’s been great to see at the end these things come back on the horizon – talking about climate change, talking about sea level rise. He’s also taking action on sustainable fisheries lately and trying to curb seafood fraud. I’m glad ocean conservation is getting back on the national political radar.
PE: California’s record-breaking drought seems to be mostly a land-based issue, but is there a relationship between ocean health and extended drought?
DM: Well, there’s positives and negatives. There’s one immediate positive: the less rain you have, the less urban runoff you have into the ocean. In California, we’ve had a lot more days this year where our beach report card grades – grading beaches A through F based on water quality – have shown more beaches with A grades this year than in the past. One of the reasons is because we haven’t had as much pollution running into the water as in wet years. So it’s clearly good for swimmers and divers and surfers, as our coastal waters have been cleaner
Another positive is the drought is forcing people to think about their water use. We’ve been advocating for green streets, low-impact development, reusing and conserving water for a long time, and this is an opportunity for everyone to talk about water.
The big negative for our oceans is that, among the suite of ways that California is trying to get water, one way is through desalination. Like I mentioned before, there’s different ways to do desalination and one of the main ways being proposed would be pretty destructive to marine life.
PE: Are there methods of desalination that are better for marine life?
DM: Sure, there are some better choices. Most of the projects being proposed now are older technology where you have a pipe in the water that sucks up marine life and water, like they are phasing out with power plant cooling. What we would like to see more of are sub-surface intakes, where the pipe is buried in the sea floor and you have natural filters for marine life. This has been done in other parts of the world and it’s been successful- especially at protecting marine life from impingement and entrainment.
There’s no one-size-fits-all in desalination, but we can be thoughtful about where we’re placing it and what kind of technology and what kind of habitat, rather than just placing them where infrastructure from old coastal power plants is.
PE: What is the one measure that world leaders should implement immediately to improve the state of our oceans?
DM: Keep prioritizing special places as protected areas – but actually working with stakeholders and local communities to have better environmental policies and stewardship, have better practices – I think that’s the best way for us to achieve improved state of our oceans. As opposed to a top-down method. Also, planning sustainably in our communities- thinking about what the best solution is for environmental problems in the long-term.
We still have open oceans and unregulated fishing in-between nations, and environmental issues that cross state or national boundaries – that’s a whole different challenge. But instead of getting overwhelmed by the parts that we can’t control, working on the ones that are more in our control – usually locally or at the state level is a great way to implement effective environmental policy.