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The solstice on June 21st is a fickle power.

It offers the most bounty of the solar year, to start snatching it back minute by minute. It deals out gifts and tithes. On the sea, and the coast, this is magnified. The gyre of season turns with gyres of tide and migration.

The spring winds and lengthening days spin the sea and effects into the sea. Wind-driven upwelling pulls up cold bottom water with nutrients that feed plankton primed and waiting for just such events. Currents and eddies whirl these conditions along the coast into mouths of critters that take notice of little things growing.

The Wharf offers a special point of purchase in this venue. It not only affords a fine view reaching half a mile into Monterey Bay, it lends your hands into it. If you want to kayak, motorboat, snorkel, or fish, this is the best of times.

The singlemost element that sets the action is the slow, or sudden, appearance of baitfish: schools of them, masses of them. Depending on year, or even day, they will be anchovies, or sardines, krill or topsmelt, or jacksmelt, or mackerel. But for the most part, expect anchovies and sardines; or don’t expect them. Some summers they are pretty light; others they form an alien invasion.

All of a sudden squadrons of pelicans wheel in on broad wings flying 10-20 abreast in total sync, not a peep between them. Sooner or later they will start diving from 20 feet or more above to plunge through the surface after the fishes, accompanied by raucous gulls trying to steal whatever prize they can. Bands of cormorants follow suit floating on the surface, to then dive and chase after the fish, running underwater to catch them. And that is not all of the creatures to take notice of the new arrivals.

Prize game fish learn of the news and appear in shallows that did not hold them a day before: halibut, stripped bass, lingcod. And in recent years, huge humpback whales have taken to lounging and foraging within a mile after a big gulp of little fish.

During these periods, the Wharf takes on a carnival energy of overlooks and walks crowded elbow to elbow with anglers of all stripe and type fishing for the gold dust of baitfish and game fish--yard-long halibut, or bass. Gold and silver dust are actually not bad metaphors when the sidewalks glitter with fish scales and jig lines hoisted up and over the rails wriggle with anchovy and sardine, mackerel and jacksmelt.

But to me another kind of wealth is on display as well: one reincarnated and renewing a centuries long understanding of human value and natural resources.

In just such events one can feel the first forging of obligation to citizens that western society has inherited and renewed over millennia. Public wharves, along with beaches and ports, have been talismans in the development of public trust doctrine through western history.

1. By the law of nature these things are common to mankind---the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea.

reads the Institutes 2.11, the first codifying of such understandings in the Roman-Greek Mediterranean. This comes from the emperor Justinian (who actually had his main scribe synthesize the sundry law babble laying around the empire around 525 AD.) This conception was likely common in Roman days up to its publishing (although Justinian had to take the western empire back from the barbarians about then from Constantinople). The resulting law book sets became prevalent in the eastern empire and only one set was given to Rome (Italy) in the west, which survived the following period of anarchy when Europe started picking up the pieces again in the 12th century and used it.

This fundamental concept became incorporated into English common law, which is the cumulative practices over time by courts, with a further evolution. Ownership of these common resources reserved to the public ultimately resided in the king, held in trust for the people. The twist here was that the king, or sovereign, could not get rid of sovereignty, could not delegate it away. The public rights to the sea and shores, water and air were inalienable and could not be sold off, nor any other power held by the sovereign.

In the thirteen American colonies this precept took root, was adopted by all colonies, and by the new American government when formed, and into each new state when formed.

In California, this precept that the sea, shore, rivers (navigable and otherwise), lands under waters, ports, wharves, even air, were held in trust by government for the public grew overarching. It advanced from doctrine to statuary law culminating, here, in the California Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. Public trust resources grew to include not only access to elemental sustenance, say through fishing, but recreation altogether, including swimming, boating, diving, aesthetic entities and pursuits like wildlife watching, and resource protection.

The Wharf itself has evolved in use from survival through shipping in 1914 to recreation today.

Back to the Chase

The action in the area, as well as the Wharf, changes into high gear with these appearances of large schools--even masses--of the herring-type fishes in summer, sometimes June, more often in July, even August. With a little practice, you can see the schools by the denser purply color of the water. It can seem like there is a cloud is overhead, but there is only bright sun above.

Around the Wharf, with the water shimmering and glinting with fish, with pelicans cart wheeling out of the sky after, with anglers elbow-to elbow, the bustle takes on a frenzy.

These massings of small schooling fishes has been going on for a long time, certainly for decades, possibly centuries. The Santa Cruz Harbor discovered this unexpectedly soon after its opening in 1964. The recurring schools foraged into the harbor like an invitation, breathed up the available oxygen, and died off en masse as if commanded. The romantic harbor became a smelly kettle of fish oil and rot. It took a lot of effort and expense to clean it up. The same thing happened again in 1974, 1980, and 1984. Several years ago then-harbormaster Steve Sheiblauer told me they had called other ports to see how they dealt with this issue only to face a stunning fact: no other harbor in the world experiences massive die offs of small -fish schools like this.

But the surprise is not the masses of anchovies and sardines; the novelty was the new harbor. And that’s just the harbor. I have come across masses of anchovies and/or sardines while boating between the harbor, Mile Buoy, and Lighthouse Point. I seemed to cross a full acre or so of them, and spread further around were other schools revealed by the telltale birds diving on them.

A great book on local natural and cultural history is “Monterey Bay Area: Natural History and Cultural Imprints” by Burton Gordon, which quotes a T.F. Cronise, in turn writing in1868, the “Natural Wealth of California,”

“in 1863, an immense school of herrings, from some unknown cause was stranded . . . along the beach, on the Santa Cruz side of the bay. They extended for nearly three miles, and were spread to the depth of from six inches to nearly two feet over the entire beach.”

So why here? For my two cents, the whole thing revolves around location, currents, and upwelling. Glancing at a map reminds us this is the northern point of Monterey Bay--the beginning of the Bay as one travels south from north down the coast, which the littoral wind-tossed currents do.

A major upwelling center of the Bay occurs just up coast of Lighthouse Point (says the MB Sanctuary EIS) and likely spins off its nutrients and oxygenated water to us (says me). Resulting planktonic conditions create fish food. So many times have I seen these big schools traveling along in sync taking big gulps by the thousands, silvery gill flaps opening, shutting, opening.

And just now seems to be the beginning of this recurring spell: the water is teeming with clouds of plankton; the days are the longest; the storms a season away. This is when it starts to happen.

But then again, sometimes it doesn’t. Some years they don’t. The schools stay offshore. Or a purse-seine fishing boat scoops them all up in a day.

Like I said, the solstice is a fickle power. And it’s hard being a beach seer predicting miracles for the week. Makes you want to take up day trading stocks.

Last updated: 7/10/2013 3:25:22 PM