MPA Watch Reflections: Jasmine Islas spent her Spring 2022 MPA Watch Internship with Heal the Bay exploring the rabbit hole of factors impacting skewed representation at Los Angeles beaches. The dead end she arrived at points to important action items for the science community.
LIVING IN CALIFORNIA, I have been spoiled with the beauty and nature that it has. I was lucky that my family wanted to make sure that I relished the different experiences Southern California had to offer. Some of my earliest and fondest memories come from spending my day at the beach. The distance from where we lived to the beach that we frequented was about an hour, so we’d dedicate the entire day to staying there, ending the night with a bonfire. As I grew older, we went to the beach less and less because I was made aware of how far away it was and how much was spent to have a beach day. I felt guilty about how oblivious I was about how much my working-class family was spending so that my sister and I could have fun in the sun.
My visits to the beach led to a passion for marine science, which prompted me to pursue a degree in Biology. Coming from a working-class Hispanic household, I was spoiled and sheltered from what working in marine science would look like. I just assumed that when I would start networking and meeting people in the field I would see more people that looked like me, people with a brown complexion. What I have now come to realize is that the marine science community is dominated by my white counterparts, which caught me off guard. I was perplexed and wondered why that was.
This led me to question my choices in pursuing this field of study. I felt like I wouldn’t fit in or flourish as a scientist. I went down a rabbit hole of questions and research to try and see what the cause of this disconnect was. I ask myself what the root of this issue is.
To determine the reason for the lack of diversity in marine science, I thought it would be helpful to figure out the demographic of people coming to beaches in LA County. I believe that those who have easy access to beaches are more likely to care about coastal issues enough to pursue careers in them. At first glance, this seemed like it would be an easy question to answer with the help of a little research.
To my surprise, there is very little research conducted that focuses on beach access specific to LA County. The exception is a UCLA study called “Access for All; A New Generation’s Challenges on the California Coast” by Jon Christensen and Philip King. In the study, they surveyed 1,146 people that came to SoCal beaches over the summer of 2016. The beaches they focused on were located in Ventura County, Los Angeles County, and Orange County. While the study wasn’t centralized around LA county beaches, their findings were intriguing.
The scientists in this study collected demographic data including the average annual income of beachgoers and how frequently people visited the beach. The beaches with more affordable accommodations had a greater diversity of visitors in comparison to other neighboring beaches in Southern California. Those with a median household incomes greater than $60,000 are likely to come to the beach more frequently than households with an income of less than $40,000 a year.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined that an annual household income of $47,850 for 1 person living in Los Angeles County is considered low income. While these low income figures were published in 2011, it’s worth mentioning because that would mean that the people who come to the beach more often are outside that margin. This disproportionately impacts both Latino and African American communities in Los Angeles County.
Going to the beach isn’t affordable for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities. The Access for All study found that they face barriers of cost, lack of parking, and lack of public transportation. This is in addition to the intangible barriers that they face such as fear of judgment and discrimination when coming to the beach.
So, what now?
After seeing the absolute lack of published research into beach access, beach equity, and the barriers therein, I want everyone to know about this serious knowledge gap that needs to be filled to make change. Research into these topics IS science and the following questions CAN be sufficiently answered through rigorous, trustworthy, and peer-reviewed scientific investigation:
- What science-based methods remove barriers to beach inclusivity and access?
- What societal changes are needed to facilitate BIPOC individual interactions with our coastal ecosystems?
- How can marine and ocean work be more accessible to BIPOC communities?
Without tangible evidence from a strong investment in rigorous scientific studies into beach equity, it makes it difficult for better policies to be put in place. It makes it harder for change to occur.
Our oceans face very challenging and complicated global threats that will need diverse minds to mitigate, and diverse support to fund and manage. Our oceans depend on us, and I for one, am eager to see more change makers that look like me, who feel a very real belonging in this role. After all, Dr. Jon Christensen and Dr. Philip King astutely observed during that study, that despite our demographic differences, everyone surveyed essentially had the same basic set of desires.
By Jasmine Islas. As a Spring 2022 MPA Watch Intern, Jasmine supported Heal the Bay’s Science, Outreach, and Policy teams in the research and observation of marine protected areas (MPAs) through coastal conservation advocacy and fieldwork.