Although I am now a graduate student in marine affairs, I rarely spent time at the ocean as a child. My introduction to the ocean early in life was primarily through a museum. At the American Museum of Natural History, one of my childhood haunts, the beautiful dioramas in the Hall of Ocean Life have labels naming each organism, neatly on display for visitors. In this way, my early museum trips instilled me with a structured, organized view of marine life.
It was after college when I discovered tidepools, a window into the ocean so different from those organized museum dioramas. Venturing out to rocky beaches on the Los Angeles coast, I found that each low tide revealed pools containing otherworldly creatures. These tidepools, so full of life, gave a glimpse into an underwater world largely invisible when standing on the sandy beaches that make up much of the Santa Monica Bay.
Unlike museum displays, there are no labels in the tidepools. There is no guarantee that any particular species of interest will be present, no helpful diagram pointing out a sea slug here or a hermit crab there. In its non-linear path to discovery, tidepooling is much like scientific research itself: while I might hypothesize an outcome, often my findings are not what I expected. Like scientific research, tidepooling cannot be done exclusively on my own terms. The period of exploration is set by the low tides, the timing determined by the ocean itself. Tidepools became one of the places that inspired me to pursue a career in marine science.
Why do we tidepool?
When I go out to tidepool on a very low tide, I am rarely alone. Families, couples, groups of friends are marveling along the water’s edge just as I am. There is comradery among visitors, with a particularly cool find warranting a shout to strangers to come and see.
A 2018 paper examined the underlying reasons for tidepool visitors’ fascination. Using both image-based online tidepool simulations and in-person tidepool tanks at a public exhibition, they found that participants were most interested in tidepools for the diversity of animal types that they could find. Public interest was most strongly driven by species richness: a large number of different species was most engaging, with even a single individual of a different species increasing interest. Participants were also interested in the beauty of tidepools as a whole, with animals of varying colors, shapes, sizes, and textures creating a visually engaging experience. These findings resonate with my own experiences exploring tidepools as well as the shouts of comradery between strangers to come see a cool individual organism.
Tidepools are not only places for visitors to observe and explore. For many Indigenous people, tidepools sustain cultural practices and are a source of customary and traditional foods. For example, in a High Country News article, Hillary Renick of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians describes the importance of tidepools to her Tribe’s traditional practices. Every summer they have sustainably harvested tidepool life, from mollusks to seaweed, for both food and regalia since time immemorial.
Non-Indigenous beachgoers also collect tidepool organisms for subsistence purposes. Particularly during the pandemic, when many have lost their jobs, tidepools can provide a free dinner.
What are some barriers that lie in the way of tidepooling?
In Los Angeles, where I live, the primary tidepooling spots are on rocky points on either end of Santa Monica Bay. Those margins of the bay are particularly high-income areas and difficult to access without a car; buses to the area are infrequent. Although some tidepool sites, like Abalone Cove, have wheelchair-accessible paths leading down to the shore from the parking lot, others have small staircases or narrow trails down the steep cliffs to the water. Timing of low tides may also conflict with work schedules.
The barriers to harvest from tidepools for customary and subsistence use can be substantial. In California, eighteen treaties between the United States and Tribes were never ratified, reserving no treaty rights for tidepool harvesting. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous harvesters alike must abide by the state’s Invertebrate Fishing Regulations, which do not allow Indigenous harvesters to pursue their traditional harvest of abalone (Haliotis spp.), even if done in a sustainable manner. Harvesters must also have an active sport fishing license, which cost $52.66 annually for resident fishers, but are free to low-income Indigenous harvesters and $7.98 for low-income seniors.
Even with a license, harvest is prohibited in state marine reserves, which encompass most of the tidepool locations in Los Angeles. Many people are also unaware they need a permit to harvest in the first place. Just last year, forty-five subsistence tidepool harvesters were charged with poaching at tidepools in Palos Verdes, Los Angeles County, with maximum punishments of six months of jail time and $1000 in fines.
Gatekeeping of the Outdoors
In Palos Verdes, there are also power disparities at play between the harvesters, who are often low-income and Asian, and the protection advocates who live near the tidepools, who are often high-income and white. Palos Verdes was also in the news last summer because of the Lunada Bay Boys, a group of a dozen or so surfers accused of harassing and intimidating surfers from outside Palos Verdes. Both cases are part of a broader theme of white people policing people of color outdoors, famously illustrated by the racial profiling of Christian Cooper in Central Park last year. The “leave-no-trace” motto of many aquariums and other educational institutions can also be an excuse for policing of BIPOC bodies, even while the motto is focused on keeping beaches free of litter and full of marine life.
What are some solutions to these barriers?
Los Angeles can improve tidepool accessibility for those without cars through increasing public transit access to tidepool areas. Currently Los Angeles is focusing on increasing its rail lines, but as of yet these extensions go across the city, for key commuter thoroughfares, rather than along the coast. Better tidepool access through public transit therefore likely lies with increasing bus service to these areas. Los Angeles also plans to pilot a program of free public transit for low-income riders starting this coming January, removing the economic barrier of fares.
Re-created tidepool sites at Los Angeles aquariums already have better accessibility in terms of wheelchair access and public transit than natural tidepools, and visitors do not have to abide by the timing of low tides to see animals. Aquarium of the Pacific, the region’s foremost aquarium, also has an Aquarium on Wheels (on pause during COVID-19) which brings a tidepool habitat to festivals, fairs, and schools. In California, the State Parks have virtual learning opportunities that include tidepools for online classrooms or to reduce the cost of field trips for in-person schools. YouTube also has an incredible number of tidepooling videos from the California coast, giving a sense of the ecosystems from afar:
In terms of traditional, sustainable harvest by the Tribes, legal protection of their right to fish is key. The Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes fish in the Klamath and Trinity Rivers within their reservations; however, these rights were only secured following decades of protests that culminated in legal action, with the US Supreme Court affirming Tribal fishing rights in Mattz v. Arnett (1973). This decision was not based upon treaties, but upon the Executive Order that had created the reservations, which were a single reservation at the time of the ruling.
Thus far, the Secretarial Order that established the Sherwood Valley Rancheria in 1909 has provided no such legal victory for Pomo harvesters. Conservation regulations should be a product of collaboration between state agencies and Tribes, incorporating both western science and Indigenous knowledge, rather than regulations imposed by agencies alone. California has made some strides in this kind of collaboration, but has plenty of room for improvement.
Outside of the context of Tribal fishing rights, balancing species conservation and subsistence harvest can be addressed at both micro and macro levels. At the micro level, transparency about the reasons behind conservation of tidepool species must be an important part of outreach. For some endangered species, educational material from aquariums and reserves does make clear to visitors why certain species are being protected. For example, black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) populations have been hit from multiple fronts, including poaching for the black market and withering syndrome.
However, for edible species that are not endangered, educational material should engage readers with the concept of sustainable harvest, rather than ignoring it by promoting the “leave-no-trace” motto without further nuance. For Abalone Cove, for example, this might look like clearly explaining to visitors the findings of the long-term species monitoring study of the area. Through transparency of this kind of monitoring, educational institutions can engage with harvesters about the reasoning behind harvest closures, or conversely, realize when closures are not necessary for population health for particular species.
Openness by aquariums and reserves when it comes to harvesting is also important to make sure harvesters know what license they need to harvest and when consuming local shellfish is not safe. Although the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has this information on its website, it will not reach harvesters who do not know they need a license in the first place. Outreach by aquariums and reserves on the topic can help the information reach a wider audience.
At the macro level, I return to those forty-five harvesters charged in Palos Verdes last summer. One of the harvesters interviewed, Lisa Yan, emphasized that tidepool harvest was particularly attractive during unemployment because it provided a free dinner. This is a window into a wider problem, which is that Los Angeles County leads the country in the number of residents who are food insecure. The solution to balancing harvesting and conservation may not then lie solely at the tidepools, but also in the food system.
The causes of food insecurity can be difficult to disentangle from each other, and range from inaccessibility of healthy food to underemployment and poverty, all of which are exacerbated by ongoing racial discrimination and now the COVID-19 pandemic. The Biden Administration says it is attempting to tackle both the causes and symptoms of food insecurity, to some extent, through increased funding to financial and food assistance programs. The systemic impacts remain to be seen.
Gatekeeping of the Outdoors
Many organizations are combating gatekeeping of the beach in Los Angeles through outreach to BIPOC communities, particularly in the context of surfing. BIPOC surfers in Los Angeles have long pushed the boundaries of white gatekeeping of the beaches. Nick Gabaldón is one of the legends of this movement. When Los Angeles’ surfing beaches were strictly segregated in the 1950s, Gabaldón would paddle twelve miles from Santa Monica’s Black surf beach to Malibu, avoiding the gatekeeping of Malibu’s beaches by avoiding the beach altogether.
Today, groups like the Black Surfers Collective promote “diversity in the lineup” through outreach events such as free monthly surf lessons during the summer (on pause during COVID-19). Few organizations combat such gatekeeping for tidepools in particular, but some of the best tidepooling sites in Los Angeles are also near some of the most inaccessible surfing spots: for example, Lunada Bay, kept exclusive by the Lunada Bay Boys, and Abalone Cove, one of Los Angeles’ best tidepooling locations, are both in Palos Verdes. Combatting gatekeeping in surfing can therefore help combat gatekeeping in tidepooling.
Like tidepools themselves, tidepool accessibility is a complex space, and the complexities of both came as a surprise to me. When I glance quickly at a tidepool, often I see few species, if any: I will mostly see the browns, greens, and grays of algae and stones. But when I stay for a little longer, crouching uncomfortably on slippery rocks, I start to see more: tiny shrimp darting around, little blueband hermit crabs (Pagurus samuelis) with their bracelets of bright blue markings. Sometimes the inhabitants are not so small at all, like the California brown sea hare (Aplysia californica) which hides in plain sight with its brown markings.
Like looking at a sea hare, looking into the accessibility issues of tidepools did not require a magnifying glass, but rather a shift in my perspective: in the case of accessibility, this meant an attempt to think outside the many privileges that make tidepools so accessible for me. Yet research for this article also provided some hope that tidepool accessibility need not be a permanent problem. My cousin and her husband are also fans of tidepooling, and I suspect that their infant daughter will be too as soon as she can toddle. My hope for her is that if I ask her when she’s my age, “Who’s at the tidepools?” she can answer, “Anyone who wants to be!”