The Politics of Protecting Marine Life: Your Voice Matters

By Sierra Morgan

Politics are in no way a simple subject to understand. For the first 20 years of my life I was convinced that I would never want to get involved in the political realm. There were several factors that contributed to this: I always felt as though policies, bills and laws were constantly changing so I never knew what the current standings were or what was the most current, I felt as though I, as an individual, could not make a difference, politics seemed to be a very intangible subject, people were being paid to do this for me, what good could I do? Lastly, a lot of political subjects I did not really understand so figured it was wisest to not put in my vote or opinion on subjects I felt uneducated about. Due to an opportunity I would not pass up, my involvement was soon to change.


Although there is so much I still feel a lack of confidence in when it comes to politics, entering my fourth year of college changed how I felt about politics and made me realize how important it is to be present and be involved in order to make the changes you wish to see.


My first year as an Environmental Studies major at San Francisco State University, we were taught the environmental issues that were occurring, but not so much on how to approach changes and protection to the environment. My fourth year changed all of that. The courses I began taking taught us how complex the political systems are, but not to be discouraged, and to instead come together and voice your opinion. In that way, I began to learn that by getting involved and aware of what local, federal and state governments were currently up to, you did not need to know every little word or every little change and bill that had ever been in place, but to focus on voicing your opinions and using scientific evidence to back them up for the future is what is important especially in environmental issues.


My first experience in voicing my opinion in local government was on March 19, 2015 at the San Francisco Board Of Directors Room in the Ferry Building at the Port of San Francisco for the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission Public Hearing. This hearing was for four private companies looking to gain permits which would allow them to increase their sand mining and dredging in the San Francisco Bay.


Typically, I would not have been aware of such a political event taking place right in my own city, but an email I had received the previous week, put me in a position I would not turn down. As the intern for Ocean Research Foundation, I received a forwarded email from the Deputy Director of ORF, Vicky Vasquez, originally from Bill McLaughlin from the San Francisco Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, subjected “Public Comment Needed at BCDC Hearing”.  I quickly confirmed that I would love to be of assistance to speak in opposition of the proposed permits.  The following 6 days I had to prepare was filled with research, outlining, and educating myself on the topic of sand mining. I was not about to go to my first public hearing to put in my public comment unprepared, I really wanted my voice to be heard.


What Is Sand Mining and Dredging?

Sand mining is a destructive and unsustainable practice that takes tons of cubic meters of sand from an area and is then taken to be used as aggregate in concrete fill. When the sand is being mined from coastal areas, it leads to erosion and alters sediment transport which is destructive to coastal ecosystems and communities. (Coastal Care Staff, 2015)

But it doesn’t stop there, federal, state and local government, as well as private companies also take sand and other sediment from the bottom of the oceans and other bodies of water, which is called dredging. (NOAA, 2014) This sediment is also used as material in public and private construction activities, but robbing the seafloor of its natural consistency which is relied upon many sea creatures, and eventually begins to show consequences along the coasts.

How could I not have known that this was being done in my own backyard? And not just in my own backyard, but as a worldwide practice occurring at undocumented and unsustainable rates?


What Are The Effects of Sand Mining and Dredging?

My community has been and will continue to experience the environmental consequences that has been documented as evidence caused by sand mining and dredging. It has been reported by the U.S. Geological Survey that according to the analysis and review of dredging and mining records within the 20th century, over 200 million cubic meters of sediment was removed from the San Francisco Bay Coastal System through these activities. Consequentially, within the last century this has lead to rates of coastal erosion along the outer coast south of the Golden Gate, reported to be the highest in all of California and has accelerated 50% between Ocean Beach and Pt. San Pedro since the 1980’s. (Dallas & Barnard,  2011.) This will not stop at 50% acceleration of erosion, it is only expected to continue and there seems to be no end in sight. This is obvious when you take into account the increase in yearly droughts. As the droughts continue, this decreases the flow of sand from upstream as there is less water to do the transporting.


This erosion of the San Francisco Bar has caused a migration of sediment towards the northern end of Ocean Beach, and less at the south end. This in turn is leading to significant infrastructure damage, altering coastlines, receding beaches, and posing harmful threats to ocean and coastal organisms. (Barnard, 2013)

Erosion effects stability of infrastructure, as seen here along the Great Highway at Ocean Beach off the San Francisco Coast. (Image via SPUR)

Erosion effects stability of infrastructure, as seen here along the Great Highway at Ocean Beach off the San Francisco Coast. (Image via SPUR)

March 19, 2015: The Hearing

I arrived to the building with my organized speech in hand, very eager but also very nervous. I turned in my public comment sign up sheet listing my name and affiliated organization, Sierra Morgan, Intern for Ocean Research Foundation. The Port of San Francisco Board Room was much larger than I was expecting but still managed to find a seat next to Bill McLaughlin from Surfrider Foundation and other individuals there for the same reason we were, from The Sierra Club, BayKeeper, and South End Rowing Club. It was a great feeling to have allies come together to speak out for the same cause and it felt great to be a part of it.


As the hearing began, and continued for over 3 hours, we began to realize certain aspects that troubled us deeply as environmentalists. The findings of the USGS were not mentioned once on either side, from the commission (which was surprising) nor from the companies (which was to be expected), as it proves that sand mining is causing environmental harm in the SF Bay. Even more more troubling was the fact that only 5-15% of the sand that is being mined out is being replenished.


They also seemed to be very proud of the fish screen they had implemented which would now prevent fish and other organisms, along with their sandy habitats, from being sucked into the tube. The problem with this is that there are  multiple ways dredging effects these sea creatures.


Turbidity is a huge aspect to consider when referring to dredging. Turbidity, as defined by the EPA, is a measure of water clarity, which then affects how much light is passing through the surface of the water to the sea floor. (EPA, 2012) This natural maintained turbidity is very important to underwater plant life and other organisms– especially those needing to hide from predators or find prey. Yet with dredging mechanisms, sand and other sediment is being dispersed around increasing the turbidity, and is often referred to as “water smoke”


Being in this environment, you begin to realize that as these private companies are requesting permits to increase their activities, they must send lawyers to their hearings that know how to use their words for their benefit.


For example, Hanson Marine Operations, whom was demanding the most increase in their activities, kept reiterating that they use their sediment locally within the 9 counties of the Bay Area and is a good investment for the public and the community. Yet all that was running through my head was that this is not a public resource that they are using. They are a privatized company that is making profits from this and whose goal is to supply the demand in hopes of continuing to raise their profits. Yet they were trying to reach the public in this way, offering a comfort to them with their words.


What added to this dishonest suspicion that I was feeling was when a representative from the City of San Francisco went up to put in his public comment. He reported that the City of San Francisco was in support of these proposed permits as the sand is critical to The Bay’s economy. As said by the companies as well, this increased sand mining and dredging will be supportive to communities and public and private construction projects, and even lowers the cost since the sediment is being mined locally. It troubled me that there was not one mention of being precautious of rising sea levels and droughts, as San Francisco Bay Area is going to be harshly affected by these events. It seemed to me that both the city and these companies are more concerned about the economic benefits, rather than the consequential environmental degradation. In my head I was thinking, “The City of San Francisco is supportive of this?” I thought we were supposed to be progressive thinkers that put the well being of the environment and the community first, how could this be?


What seemed to be a common misunderstanding during the hearing as well was that many of the commission members were often confused as to how much sand is available and how limited of a resource it really is. There were times when it was said no one knows how much sand there is, but that “there is enough.” On the other hand, there were times where it was said no one knows how much sand there is but it is depleting. AND THATS JUST IT… NOBODY KNOWS! For the most part it is impossible to accurately represent this idea, so why take the chance to mess with it even more and increase the effects that have already been documented.


When it was time for me to put in my public comment, there were guidelines that the public had to follow. We had a maximum speaking time of 3 minutes and we were not allowed to repeat anything that had already been mentioned throughout the hearing or other public comments. There was a good chunk of my previously prepared speech that I had to cut out in order to stay within the rules of the public hearing. One comment I was able to put in on a whim, and was something I was not really expecting, was that I was the youngest person in the room. It allowed me to transition into my comment about how supplying their demands and making their profits is a monetarily temporary goal, whereas the long term consequences of increasing these activities could be a huge burden on my generation, especially with drastic increasing sea level rise that will occur within the next 100 years. I think it made a very good impression within the commission, that I was present and was representing Ocean Research Foundation as well as a concerned community member of my generation.


My Reflection

What amazes me about all of this, is that I would have had no idea about any of this unless I decided to take this opportunity to speak out and learn about sand mining and dredging. What is so tragic about this is that it is being approved and done right under people’s noses even though it is having a worldwide disastrous effect on coral and coastal ecosystems.

Not only is it an environmental issue in my community, but at a worldwide level, there seems to be an even bigger call to action as areas, especially in India and other third world countries, where illegal and undocumented sand mining and dredging are fueling deadly wars as ecosystems and communities are being threatened and being run by “Sand Mafias”.(Delestrac, 2014) The power of these Sand Mafias come from the fact that, as corrupt as it is, they are receiving political support from the government to continue their activities, and are often able to pay off police with the profits they make. As reported by the Wall Street Journal India, Mr. Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust says, “The trick is to find an environmentally-friendly substitute for sand.” (Sugden, 2013) Which, unfortunately, is apparently more easier said than done. Which is why desert sand cannot be used as a substitute, as this mined sand from the bottom of the oceans and the coasts provides the appropriate texture and mineral makeup for concrete fill.


But what about for those who do not have a voice? An example of this is how dredging affects the bones of the ocean, coral reefs. It has been approved in Australia that dumping of dredged sediment and sand into coral reef territory, such as The Great Barrier Reef, in order to restore pressures it has been facing due to other anthropogenic activities, seeming like a good idea. But in reality, it is the opposite. The dumping of this sand in coral reef habitat can actually lead to covering and choking of these ecosystems, resulting in even more suffering. But why approve of this without adequate testing as to how it will affect the reefs beforehand? It seemed as though this would be a “quick fix” in order to maintain the beauty of the coral reefs in order to increase Australia’s tourist attractions, which is very important to their economy. Once again, seeming to prove, that money and economic stability, is the motive. (Handwerk, 2014)


I will continue to follow up on the standings of these permits in my community and will do so with other subjects of environmental politics worldwide as well. I encourage you to do the same. Not only does it feel comforting to have your voice heard, but it empowers you to know and be aware of this information that will affect the future of our generation. It gives you a feeling of purpose that for other species or habitats that do not have a voice– you can be their voice.

Sierra Morgan, intern at Ocean Research Foundation, speaking out against increased sand mining in the San Francisco Bay at BCDC Public Hearing at The Port of San Francisco Boardroom on May 19, 2015.

Sierra Morgan, intern at Ocean Research Foundation, speaking out against increased sand mining in the San Francisco Bay at BCDC Public Hearing at The Port of San Francisco Boardroom on May 19, 2015.






  1. Coastal Care Staff. Sand Mining. 2015. Accessed on March 16, 2015.
  2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). What is Dredging? National Ocean Service. January 2014. Accessed on March 16, 2015.
  3. Dallas, K. L. & Barnard, P. L., 2011. Anthropogenic influences on shoreline and nearshore evolution in the San Francisco Bay coastal system. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, Volume 92, pp. 195-204.
  4. Barnard, P. L. et al., 2013. Integration of bed characteristics, geochemical tracers, current measurement, and numerical modeling for assessing the provenance of beach sand in the San Francisco Bay Coastal System. Marine Geology, Issue in press, available online.
  5. Environmental Protection Agency. Water: Monitoring and Assessment: 5.5 Turbidity. United States Environmental Protection Agency. March 6, 2012. Accessed on March 16, 2015.
  6. Sand Wars. Directed by Denis Delestrac. ARTE France. 2014. Documentary.
  7. Sugden, Joanna. Why India Has a ‘Sand Mafia’. Wall Street Journal. August 6, 2013. Accessed on March 21, 2015.
  8. Handwerk, Brian. Australia to Dump Dredged Sand in Great Barrier Reef Waters, Adding to Site’s Mounting Woes. National Geographic. January 31, 2014. Accessed on March 17, 2015.