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marine protected areas

Point Lobos. Photo by Jim Bahn

What is a Marine Protected Area?
Essentially MPAs are state parks underwater. The official definition is: Any area of the intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment. – International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Check out this fun, illustrated guide to MPAs!

A healthy, abundant ocean full of diverse life-forms is California’s natural heritage. In addition to providing residents with a breath-taking place to live—and the rest of the world with a breath-taking place to visit!—the Pacific Ocean contributes billions to the California economy, through direct materials, ecosystem services, and services provided for coastal activities, such as recreation and tourism.

In 1999 California passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), a law mandating the creation of a network of Marine Protected Areas along the California Coast. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are areas of the ocean set aside for preservation and protection of resources. Marine Protected Areas come in all shapes and sizes, and can range from conservation areas, which might limit certain activities while continuing to allow others, to marine reserves, which prohibit all extractive activities. Marine Reserves are like underwater Yosemities—special places that we want to preserve in perpetuity.

The effort to implement the MLPA has taken years, but it’s been worth the wait! The Central Coast, which covers from Pigeon Point (San Mateo County) south to Point Conception (Santa Barbara County), was the first region to be considered. A lengthy and thorough stakeholder process was convened, in which conservationists, fishermen, divers and scientists came together to develop a network of MPAs that met clear scientific guidelines.

MPA Watch
When the central coast MPAs were first established, one of the concerns was that they would be difficult to enforce and the public wouldn’t respect the regulations. To study how MPAs were being used, and whether regulations were being respected, the Otter Project Founded MPA Watch in 2011. Over the course of 5 years our volunteers completed over 8,500 surveys at sites ranging from Pt. Buchon in San Luis Obispo to Ano Nuevo in Santa Cruz. The results of these surveys are available to the right under the heading “Yearly and Quarterly Reports.”

Why do we Need MPAs?
Protecting habitat has long been seen as a pillar of conservation, and sea otters in particular require thriving habitats. In order to fuel their remarkably high metabolism sea otters must consume 25% – 30% of their body weight EVERY DAY! That translates into 10-20 lbs of shellfish, equaling about 1500 sea urchins or 150 clams! The Otter Project saw the MLPA as an opportunity to further the shared goals of sea otter recovery and marine conservation. We devoted a substantial amount of time to furthering the conservation values of the MLPA. The result was a strong network of reserves and conservation areas running throughout the core of the sea otter range.

MPAs are portrayed as controversial sometimes because they are seen as closing off access. In reality, most MPAs continue to allow open access. People can swim, dive, walk and boat through MPAs. Certain activities like fishing might be displaced, but only minimally. Most of the coastline remains open to fishing; MPAs simply reserve some space for the rest of us.

MPAs work—there’s no question about it. They result in healthier ecosystems and allow for a greater abundance of fish species. Protecting these special places is a long-term investment in California’s future that we can’t afford not to make.

Fisheries inside and outside MPAs

Fisheries inside and outside MPAs

Further Reading
For a more in-depth look at MPAs, visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

Want to see a short video about MPAs? Visit the Aquarium of the Bay Youtube

Science nerd?? Spend hours browsing the results of MPA baseline monitoring