Pacific Coast

New Underwater Parks Protect the California Coast

The parks, called marine protected areas, protect some of the ocean’s most extraordinary places, allowing ocean life to thrive.

In California, fishermen, conservationists, native tribes and local businesses – not to mention divers and other ocean lovers – have put their heads together to design a series of marine areas that will receive higher levels of protection against fishing and other disruptive activities than other areas of the ocean. The parks, called marine protected areas (MPAs), protect some of the ocean’s most extraordinary places by creating refuges where ocean life can recover and thrive – in much the same way that Yellowstone and Yosemite protect plants and animals on land.

Fluid Boundaries?

You can’t hike through an underwater park or put a fence around it, so how do you know where it is or if it’s even working?

In California, the design process for the marine parks was unique. Coastal communities representing a wide range of interests – as opposed to just scientists and regulators – took the lead in creating the protected areas. The groups followed the recommendations of a team of scientists who provided valuable input and created guidelines for developing the parks:

  • Too small, and the fish swim out.
  • Too big, and there's no place left for fishing.
  • Too far apart, and the fish eggs carried by the current from one park don't reach the next.
  • For habitat, make sure to include a little bit of everything: kelp forests, sandy bottom, sub-marine canyons.

By following the scientists’ guidelines, community groups could be sure that their designs would effectively protect coastal fish and other sea life. At the same time, they could choose which areas could remain open for fishing and other important activities that the economy depends on.

Wait and See

Part of the reason for creating these protected areas is to help California’s fish populations rebound after years of overfishing. So, when will fish populations rebound?

While studies have shown that, on average, the number of plants and animals within protected areas more than triple and grow in size by 27 percent, it takes time for these effects to take hold. After all, these coastal regions are recovering from decades of degradation.

As Kaitlin Gaffney, Director of the Pacific Program says,

“This is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s taken several years to design and establish the parks. Now begins the monitoring and evaluating. It’s a long-term investment.”

The central coast MPAs – the first to be put into place in 2007 – will be up for review in 2012, and scientists will be able to see what the data looks like after five years of protection. In the cooler waters off the California coast, fish tend to grow much more slowly than they do in warm tropical waters, so it’s possible that results will be difficult to see right away.

“Some rockfish, for example, live to an incredible 80 years old,” Kaitlin explains. “They grow slowly, and it takes up to 20 years for them to reproduce for the first time. So, even in a marine protected area, the fish still has to be 20 years old to reproduce. It’s a good sign if it doesn’t get caught, because then it’s 5 years closer to being able to reproduce, but you still may not see a significant increase in fish numbers in the data.”

But there have been some early signs of hope.

A network of marine protected areas was established in the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara in 2003, and the results of the five-year science review were more positive than scientists anticipated. They saw a response sooner than expected, particularly for species like lobster that grows relatively quickly.

California is a large state with a coastline that houses 70 percent of its 37 million people. In some areas, especially along the southern coast, every square inch of coastal real estate is being used for some purpose. It makes for a more challenging – and more interesting – task to decide which areas should be open to fishing and which areas should be granted a higher level of protection when you have so many interested parties. These marine parks are a testament to the innovation and collective spirit of Californians, who will leave the legacy of a strong and productive coast for future generations.

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