For Kurt Lieber, it all started with the kelp. Now the director of Ocean
Defenders Alliance, an organization he founded a decade ago, he became
somewhat famous early this year for leading a dangerous dive to retrieve
gear off the sunken fishing boat Infidel near Santa Catalina
Island. Among environmentalists and divers in southern California, that feat
made him something of a local hero. But his activism in behalf of the sea
began many years ago, when as a young scuba diver he began to see alarming
changes in the marine life around him.
In 1979, at age 25, Lieber had come to Laguna Beach from his native
Cleveland, Ohio, to pursue a passion for diving. Too broke to afford many
boat dives, he dove mostly off the coast, which meant contending with lots
of kelp. "It was so thick," he remembers, "that you couldn’t swim on top of
the surface. You had to dive down deep."
Just a few years later, he began to notice the marine forest diminishing
along the Orange County coast. By the early 1980s the kelp was almost gone,
along with the giant abalone that fed on it. In their place were urchin
barrens, large areas where sea urchins had proliferated and devastated the
"I started asking, 'What’s going on?’" he says, "Then I found out. And the
story was one of man’s intentions gone terribly awry."
Sea urchins, like abalone, are food to sea otters, and as long as there were
otters along the California coast, they had kept urchin populations in
check. Then the otter populations were decimated, first by fur hunters and
later by commercial fishermen who viewed them as competitors for abalone and
routinely killed them. After the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in
1972, that was no longer a legal option. In 1986, in support of the fishing
industry, Congress declared California waters south of Point Conception an
"otter-free zone" and attempted to move the remaining population to San
Nicolas Island. (Most swam back.)
The populations of the five abalone species found along southern
California’s coast soon plummeted anyway, undone by overfishing and coastal
development that contributed to degradation and loss of nearshore habitat.
"Without otters, the urchin population just exploded," Lieber says,
"devouring all the kelp." The urchins are voracious eaters, rasping away at
the kelp plant till eventually it weakens and can be ripped out by a strong
storm surge. So the kelp went the way of the abalone.
Among his diver friends in Laguna Beach, Lieber had heard talk about
Rudolphe Streichenberger, who was trying to restore kelp beds off Newport
Beach in a controversial manner, defying objections from the Coastal
Commission and the Department of Fish and Game. "He was transplanting kelp
and trying to get it to reattach to different substrates," Lieber says. "He
was putting rubber tires down there, and different bottles, and garbage,
basically, to try to get things to attach to it. It was amazing how fast
that kelp came and attached itself." In 1981, Lieber began devoting some of
his dive time to Streichenberger’s experiment. It soon ended, however, as
the regulatory agencies had warned it would: When massive Pacific storms
rolled in, "the tires and everything else washed back up on the beach, and
it was a disaster."
Temporarily disillusioned, Lieber volunteered with Friends of the Sea Lion
and Pacific Wildlife Project for a while, rehabilitating sick and injured
pinnipeds. Then he heard about Captain Paul Watson and his direct-action
tactics to confront illegal fishing and whaling, and joined the volunteer
crew of Watson’s Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is devoted to
protecting wildlife and preventing habitat destruction in the world’s
oceans. He took part in two campaigns, one in Alaska, the other in
Washington State, where the Makah Tribe was trying to resume traditional
whaling and Sea Shepherd tried to stop them. Watson became a mentor and
close friend, and Lieber now sits on Sea Shepherd’s board of directors.