The former Director of Training for the Reef Check Foundation and the Program Manager for the UCLA Institute for the Environment, Chris Knight has worked in the field of marine conservation and public education for over 14 years. He has served on numerous boards and committees for various state, county and non-profit organizations as an expert on California’s marine resources, including the LA County Underwater Instructors Association. His accomplishments include the establishment of California’s first state-wide monitoring network to determine the health of nearshore marine life.
Planet Experts: You graduated from the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. What initially drew you to marine science and what was the focus of your research at Scripps?
Chris Knight: I kind of got into marine science in a backwards sort of way. I started out with a degree in Public Policy from UCLA, started working in the private sector for a few years, and then ended up working as a dive instructor. From there I worked up into the corporate world. I worked for PADI, which is a dive training agency, and I started doing marketing and advertising for the PADI project AWARE, which is their non-profit.
At the same time I started doing some research diving with the Catalina Island Conservancy. As time went on I started getting more and more involved, and I ended up at the Reef Check Foundation as their Director of Training for their international and California programs.
PE: You have been working in ocean conservation for over fourteen years. How has the state of our oceans changed during this time frame?
CK: My focus now is California-centric, and the changes that really happened there occurred during the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. I kind of came in at the tail end. I saw the final vestiges of certain key species that were big, like abalone, but I also saw the resilience and comeback of other species, like giant sea bass.
The changes have been subtle over my diving career. It’s been gradual, and that’s one of the real problems when looking at the health of the ocean. It’s not that we can look at it six months ago and say, ‘Wow that looks great,’ and then look at it six months later and realize, ‘Oh my god, everything’s gone.’ But, when you compare it to 40 years ago or 50 years ago, it’s entirely different.
PE: You’ve been diving in several regions of the world. What differentiates California diving from other locales?
CK: Kelp forests. I think they’re probably the most beautiful places that you can be under the ocean. Most people are just the opposite. They love the coral, the warm water.
PE: How does the health of the ecosystem compare to other locations?
CK: The health of California’s kelp forests, overall it’s good. There’s certain key subspecies that should be there that are not there in greater numbers. We have problems with pollution. Obviously the closer the kelp forests are to major population centers, the more damaged they tend to be. For example, Palos Verdes Peninsula, that’s a big restoration area now. It’s a superfund cleanup site because that’s where several companies dumped the by-products of DDT manufacturing for about 50 years.
Overfishing, the pollution and warmer water temperatures have pretty much degraded the kelp forests there. They’re trying to do kelp restoration. But it depends. It depends on where you are. If you go above San Francisco, it’s unbelievable. It’s so thick you feel like you could walk on it the canopy’s so heavy.
So to answer your question, it depends. Some places it’s very healthy. In other places it’s not, and usually when it’s not it’s our fault.
PE: You started diving in your late twenties and you’ve been diving ever since. For some it’s a hobby, but it also seems to attract the eco-minded. Do you think diving can promote conservation?
CK: I think once you get involved with it, your perspective changes. Everything looks different below the surface.
New divers go to Catalina Island every weekend. They come up out of the water and they’re really excited – you see it in their faces: ‘That’s the neatest stuff I’ve ever seen.’ ‘That’s amazing.’ They see a lot of fish, they see a lot of kelp, and they’re excited. They think that’s the baseline, they think that’s what it’s supposed to look like.
From a historical perspective, I know that’s not. The guy who was diving 50 years ago, he really knows it’s not. And so while it’s great to encourage people to get excited about it, what we don’t do a good job of is bridging that gap, saying, ‘Okay, that’s really cool, you saw all those blacksmith fish or those garibaldi – but what you’re not seeing are the giant sea bass, you’re not seeing the abalone that should be down there, or barracuda or yellowtail that used to swim in this area.’ We’re missing that.
Diving has a real potential to create ocean lovers and create people who are interested in the conservation process, but only if you involve education as well. Right now its intent is just to teach people to dive.
PE: In March 2014, you wrote a blog post on your website, California Fine Diving, in which you lament the loss of abalone in Southern California. What killed off the abalone, and what other species have disappeared?
CK: Basically what happened was a combination of things.
This is one of the problems of fishery standards overall. We manage fisheries by their maximum sustainable yield. So, that means we take as much as we think we can without harming the species, without taking them over the edge. The problem is, it doesn’t take into account natural factors and other conditions that might occur.
And that’s what happened with the abalones. We set these quotas, we set these numbers, and we started fishing our way down the population chain.
There were five species of abalone in California – red being the most desirable; pinks and greens, which primarily exist here in southern California; whites and blacks – and basically what we did was move from species to species. We fished out the red abs and we moved on to pinks and greens, and then eventually we moved on to the blacks.
During the early ’80s the catch numbers were dropping off. They were getting lower and lower over a 50 year curve, and then we had an El Nino, a warming event. The warm water brought along a disease called “withering foot.” It decimated abs in Southern California. There was no way for them to recover. It was a combination of overfishing the species coupled with a natural occurrence that pretty much wiped out the abalone populations south of San Francisco. Populations are pretty good up in northern California but not good enough to sustain a commercial fishery.
That’s in a sense what happened with salmon in the Central Valley and the Sacramento Valley. They had to shut the fishery down for two years. By diverting massive amounts of water for human use, we made it harder and harder for salmon to get to the headwaters where they spawn. And then when fish make it to the ocean, sometimes they encounter a warming event like we did in 2008 and the food that they normally eat is not available. So you’ve got this smaller population, no food, which results in epically-low returning numbers of fish essentially for two years. That led to an emergency shutdown of the fishery.
The total population of all those salmon runs was about two million fish. When they shut down that fishery, we were looking at about 70,000 fish coming back.
So we’re very efficient at it, fishing things to the edge. And when you fish so close to the edge, any little thing knocks you off.
PE: You helped establish California’s first statewide monitoring network that determines the health of our near shore marine life, the Reef Check Foundation. How does the network function and what kind of data does it produce?
CK: We’re training probably close to 200 divers per year. Since 2007, that’s 1,000 to 1,200 divers no problem. And not all of them are monitoring, obviously, but basically what we’re doing is filling the gaps.
There just aren’t enough scientists – we think of UC Santa Barbara, we think of Scripps, which are these bastions of research and science in the marine community – but with all these marine protected areas being established in California, to see if they’re going to be effective, we need a lot of eyes out there. There was a need to get data inside those protected areas and outside those areas as well – before they went in and after they went in – so you can actually judge the success of it.
That data that’s being collected is being utilized by a variety of public stakeholders – it’s available to any stakeholder that wants to see it. The California Department of Fish & Wildlife, they utilize that data to analyze how the marine protected areas are working.
PE: When it comes to environmental policy initiatives, California is considered a leader. How do you grade the state’s record in coastal and ocean management?
CK: It’s…better. It’s hard to grade good or bad per se.
You can look at the abalone fishery and say it’s a failure of management because it collapsed. And at the end of the day, it is. But I think California is more conscientious – they have an idea now. They have a plan for where they want to take marine conservation in California.
The hard part is – it’s not California, it’s not Washington, it’s not Oregon, it’s not Florida, it’s not these coastal states that are the issue. The marine conservation wars are going to be won or lost in the center of the country.
PE: How so?
CK: In California, in all these states, there’s an awareness of the ocean – it’s nurtured over time, there’s a connection with it. In the Midwest, if people want fish they just buy fish at the store. They don’t think about where the fish came from, they don’t think about whether the fishery is overtaxed or whether the fish is farmed or from the environment. And that’s because we don’t do a good job of communicating the science to those areas.
In California, you look in all the markets now and it’s all labeled: Where’s it from, is it certified, is it a safe fishery? But that hasn’t permeated the heartland of America. It’s more important to educate the people who don’t know what’s going on.
PE: I know it’s late in the interview to ask this, but how did you decide to get involved in ocean conservation?
CK: My dad was a newsman here in Los Angeles – he was a cameraman and the outdoor photographer for the LA Times for years – and so all of his friends were all media guys too. I was probably 11- or 12-years-old, and we were at the opening of – this was trout season in the Eastern Sierras and my dad was talking to one of his buddies, who was the editor of the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, which was the local paper, and he was a writer for the Western Outdoor News. And basically they were talking back and forth and the guy looks at my dad and he says, ‘I got a call today from a guy who caught a Steelhead in Santa Monica Bay.’
The Steelhead is basically a salmon. They were common here in southern California but they’ve pretty much been wiped out. But there are still a few that swim up the tributaries that are out there.
And my dad said, ‘Well what are you going to do?’ And he says, ‘I’m not going to do anything. I’m not going to put a picture of it up, I’m not going to write about it, because I don’t want everybody going out there and trying to fish out the last ones that are in there.’
And I thought to myself, okay, well that’s kind of cool. These guys are dedicated to the news and stuff, but they’re also interested in protecting the uniqueness of nature. And that’s always stuck with me.
So when I got into diving, that message and those thoughts were in the back of my mind every time I dove. And then I started getting more interested in how it works – the concept of an ecosystem. And when I was an instructor in Los Angeles there were a lot of old timers. And you would just sit there and you would talk to them, and they’d tell you what wasn’t there anymore and what should be.
And I just looked at it – it’s like playing a big game of Tetris, is the best way to describe it. Where do things fit in, how is it supposed to work? If you don’t have the right piece in the right spot it doesn’t work perfectly. Well, it’s the same way with an ecosystem. When certain animals or plants are missing, all the pieces still fall into a place, but it doesn’t quite fit right. And so my mind is always thinking, how do you want this to look?
I know it should be different and I want it to look the way it’s supposed to.