What Environmental Conservation Looks Like at America’s Biggest Port

Industry and Wildlife Battle for Their Share of the Southern California Coastline

We often think of natural areas as protected idylls separate from society. But that's not how things work in California, where conservation and growth have long worked hand-in-hand, author Christina Dunbar-Hester explains. Courtesy of joey zanotti/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

In spring 2021, unauthorized operators crashed two drones in a patch of protected estuarial wetlands near Southern California’s port complex where elegant terns were nesting on sandy soil. Thousands of spooked terns abandoned their nests and scattered. Some resettled on a barge carting rocks off shore. When the terns began to hatch on the barge later that summer, many chicks taking exploratory steps tumbled off its steep sides into the water. Unable to fly or clamber back onto the barge deck, the chicks drowned and washed ashore, prompting local outcry and a rescue effort. A California Department of Fish and Wildlife officer said that the event represented “a full generation of birds not established.”

Elegant terns are designated as “near threatened” by U.S. environmental regulations that date back to the 1970s. Meanwhile, the Southern California port complex, the largest in the U.S., is an emblem of oil-driven growth and globalization. But while these two forces—environmental protection and petro-capitalism—seem to be at odds with one another, the tern catastrophe is an example of how measures to protect wildlife are carefully calibrated to exist alongside commercial shipping, petroleum, and military uses of the coastline. Rather than a brake on economic growth, environmental conservation in coastal California has come to play a key role in making it possible.

Elegant terns are black-hooded, slim white birds with scythe-like wings that give them agile flying capabilities. Like many other birds, these terns depend on stopover points in Southern California as they traverse the Pacific Flyway, a migratory route extending from Alaska to Patagonia. Terns favor sandy nesting areas in close proximity to ocean, estuary, and brackish waters where they can dive for small fish to feed young.

Historical ecologists estimate that the estuaries of the Los Angeles coastline once totaled between 15,000 and 18,000 acres. But by the 1980s, 90% of California’s wetlands had been sacrificed to oil development, military uses, agriculture—and the ports. Even the ecological reserve where the terns were nesting, Bolsa Chica, is far from an unspoiled idyll. It was formerly used as a gun club, for oil drilling, and for army installations; it is surrounded by active and idle wells and has a pipeline running through it; and adjacent wetlands were oiled in fall of 2021, when a cargo ship’s anchor struck and dragged a pipeline on the seabed.

The Southern California port complex—two contiguous but separately administered ports about 20 miles south of downtown L.A., one belonging to the city of Los Angeles and the other Long Beach—is one of the ten largest container ports in the world. Far from L.A.’s image of palm trees, Hollywood, and recreational beaches and boardwalks, the port’s shoreline is an industrial mega-site, where the same estuarial ecology in which the terns nest has been subjected to an intense modernization project. The marshland was hardened into cement docks that flow into intermodal infrastructure, connecting ships to the rail and freeways that move goods to distribution centers; the shore was also filled with petroleum infrastructure that connects ships and offshore drilling to inland refineries.

With limited coastline, especially in and around San Pedro Bay, there is intense competition for space between industrial operations and wildlife habitat.

Oil fueled this growth. Los Angeles and Long Beach tapped rich coastal oil fields near the harbor after 1920, and over time, port and municipal managers decided to invest their revenues into expanding the complex, dredging deep channels in the harbor silt to allow the passage of large ships. Cargo movement reached stratospheric heights in the 1990s, when a high volume of Chinese imports began to come ashore. U.S. consumers who recognize that many of their goods are made in China may not realize that these items traveled to their homes via the Port of Los Angeles.

Concurrent with this rise of offshored manufacturing and development of logistics techniques to manage a skyrocketing volume of goods movement, the U.S.’ environmental regulatory apparatus came into being. After environmental outcry starting in the 1960s, the government began to require wildlife surveys for infrastructural projects that might impact air and water quality or endangered species. As mitigation measures for such projects, wetlands areas are sometimes created or restored in exchange for permits for new industrial activity, including oil drilling.

The requirements for biological surveys and air and water quality monitoring have meant that since the 1970s, environmental management is incentivized to sign off on the continued operation—and even expansion—of the logistics industry and petroleum development. Funding and logistical support for conservation occurs alongside the ports’ unquestioned pursuit of year-over-year growth. Some habitat management and wildlife rescue here is even funded by forces like the petroleum industry that inevitably cause harm to landscapes and wildlife.

Conservation’s entanglement with industry means that “disaster” scenarios are part of normal operations, rather than anomalies. The terns’ 2021 nesting catastrophe was not an isolated event. Similar incidents also occurred in 2006 and in 2007: nesting terns had taken up residence on barges in the Long Beach harbor, and many chicks drowned in 2006 when harbor operations spooked the birds. This prompted discussion over building an artificial sandy island to provide expanded habitat for the terns to nest in. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected the proposal, saying it was too pricey. A Bolsa Chica Reserve manager said, “The reason we want to [restore more habitat] is these terns keep wanting to nest in the port.” With limited coastline, especially in and around San Pedro Bay, there is intense competition for space between industrial operations and wildlife habitat.

The climate crisis and its associated mass extinction event are intensifying choices between habitat and industrial land use. But the situation is more than a simple competition for space. Fossil fuel-driven heating stresses wildlife, leaving species with even less capacity to absorb habitat loss. The terns are a perfect example: where they can nest is sensitive to movements of fish; warming oceans make access to the southern California coast even more important to their reproduction than it once was.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has committed to a plan to conserve 30% of land and marine areas by 2030. But what will happen to the remaining 70% of California? It’s important to think about how to regulate non-conservation areas, too. Ideally, the 30×30 plan would be accompanied by a commitment to not relegate any land or marine space to being a “sacrifice zone” privileging industrial activity. Animals and people are adaptable—and do not necessarily need “pristine” conditions for living. But they do need enforced standards that allow them to perch comfortably and breathe easily.

To protect human and animal life alike, we have to confront the zero-sum logic where goods movement crowds out space for flourishing life. The first step should be rethinking the very concepts of “wild” and “developed” spaces alike, with the aim of finding a path to an economic future less dependent on both unsustainable “growth” and sacrifice.


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