One of the World's Richest Ecosystems, the California Current Carries 10 Times ss Much Water as the Amazon

By Paul Koberstein

The California Current spins clockwise along the West Coast, a cog in the enormous North Pacific Gyre.  The California Current is said to be as rich if not richer with marine life than any other ocean ecosystem on earth, sup­ porting large populations of whales, seabirds and valuable fisheries. But many of its fisheries and wildlife populations are badly depleted.  Scientists say the California Current ranges from 50 to several hundred kilometers in width as it moves generally southward at about one-tenth of a knot, carrying some 10 trillion gallons of water per hour, or about 10 times the size of the Amazon River. It extends from the bottom of Vancouver Island to the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico.

The current runs strongest in spring and summer, when northwest winds drive upwellings southward and towards the coast, according to the National Ocean Service, which managers five National Marine Sanctuaries off California and Washington. Cold, nutrient-rich water rises toward the sur­ face, where phytoplankton nourishes ocean food webs and undersea forests of kelp.

The science of managing seas as large marine ecosystems dates to the mid- 1980s, when scientists said managers should no longer focus just on single species, but rather on a long-term perspective that considers humans as part of the ecosystem.

The California Current is among 11 large marine ecosystems in the United States and 64 around the world. These ecosystems pro­ duce 95 percent of the world's fish catch, making them the focal point of global efforts for sustained productivity. Large marine ecosystems are expansive ocean areas, generally greater than 77,220 square miles. They encircle nearly every continent, large islands and island chains.

Others in U.S. waters include the East Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, the Chuckchi Sea, the Beaufort Sea and Hawaii. The Gulf of Alaska ecosystem includes waters off British Columbia. In 2006, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington signed an agreement to work together for ecosystem management of the California Current, a cause that has also enlisted the support of British Columbia.

The state of California has been most active in protecting its marine waters. It is creating a network of marine reserves in which commercial exploitation is banned or sharply limited for the sake of allowing the ecosystem a chance to thrive. This summer the state designated 29 marine protected areas in the central coast region and has begun the process of designating reserves on the north coast. The California Coastal Commission this summer took steps to block commercial fishing in a sea turtle conservation area along the central and north coast, where it is challenging the Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA to back down on plans to reduce protection for the endangered leatherback sea turtle.

In Washington's Puget Sound, the state Department of Aquatic Resources manages a network of marine reserves and this summer issued a call to create more.

Meanwhile, the state of Oregon is developing plans for designating marine reserves on ~ its coast, but after eight years of meetings, its Ocean Policy Advisory Council has yet to designate its first reserve. But a citizen's group in Port Orford on the south coast, not willing to -- wait for state action, is moving ahead with its -- own plans to manage an area off its shore in an 8 ecologically sensitive way.

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