Two Years In: What's Happening with North Coast Marine Protected Areas?

November, 2014

Picture your favorite North Coast beach. Breathtaking, right? The seastacks, tidepools, reefs and kelp forests that make up much of the stunning view also serve as homes to fish, marine mammals, seabirds and other wildlife locals and tourists alike have grown to love. Some of these—rockfish and crab, for example—also provide sustenance and form the foundation of our fishing industry. 

Better protection

It was this appreciation of the ocean and what it provides that motivated a bipartisan California legislature to pass an ambitious and visionary law known as the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) back in 1999. Based on land conservation successes using informed and proactive planning, the MLPA called for well-designed marine protected areas to preserve fish breeding grounds and habitats necessary for wildlife to thrive.

Conservationists, fishermen, scientists, educators, scuba divers, bird enthusiasts and tribal representatives all worked together to plan marine protected areas based on scientific principles and local knowledge. 

In 2012, California became the first state in the nation to adopt a network of science-based marine protected areas (MPAs)—designed by the coastal stakeholders themselves—along its coast. December 19 marks the two-year anniversary of the North Coast’s 20 new or modified areas (19 MPAs and one marine recreational management area), covering approximately 137 square miles or about 13 percent of the range between the Oregon border and Alder Creek marine protected areas. The date also marks the completion of the statewide network. 

These marine protected areas safeguard underwater habitats and allow the sea life inhabiting these special places a greater chance to thrive. Species that have declined in size and number now have a chance to recover. The MPA network is a major investment in the future of both California’s ocean wildlife and the state’s coastal, tourism-based economy.

Diving deeper

Around the world, studies continually show that MPAs result in larger, more prolific fish with stronger offspring and greater biodiversity overall. MPAs also provide additional education, research and recreational opportunities for educators, scientists and the public at large. In each region, funding for baseline monitoring projects both inside and outside MPAs has been made available through California’s Ocean Protection Council. Ocean Science Trust, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Sea Grant jointly oversee the program.

Tribal expertise incorporated into studies

Eleven projects received funding on the North Coast, including one focusing on “Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Keystone Marine Species and Ecosystems”—the first time such an undertaking has occurred. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is the cumulative body of scientific knowledge, passed through cultural transmission by indigenous peoples over many generations. Project leads include Megan Rocha representing Smith River Rancheria, Hawk Rosales and Priscilla Hunter representing InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, Rachel Sundberg representing Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria, Tancy Moore representing Trinidad Rancheria, Thomas Torma representing the Wiyot Tribe and Shaunna McCovey of Point 97, an organization focusing on technology solutions and program engagement strategies that improve coastal management practices. 

How MPAs affect fishermen

Point 97 is also involved in another project analyzing socio-economic data to provide an analysis of what effect establishing MPAs has on the fishing community between the Oregon border and Alder Creek. Cheryl Chen and Charles Steinbeck are working with Humboldt State University professors Steve Hackett, Laurie Richmond and Lucia Ordóñez-Gauger to evaluate fisheries including Dungeness crab, urchin and nearshore rockfish. 

One of the tools used is “heat maps,” geographic identification of favored fishing grounds. This information was first gathered by Point 97 (then known as EcoTrust) during the MPA design phase to assist stakeholders in placing MPAs. Working with CPFV and commercial fishermen, Hackett, Richmond and colleagues are building on that initial baseline by collecting data in the field to note any initial changes since the MPAs went into effect and ultimately provide information useful for future adaptive management.

A unique component of the “North Coast: Baseline Characterization of Human Uses and the Socioeconomic Dimensions of MPAs” project is the formation of an advisory panel made up of area fishermen. “We were adamant we would do this differently,” Richmond explained. They brought key representatives from different fisheries and ports together, showed them the survey they’d prepared and asked for feedback on how to make it better. Members of the panel also review survey drafts and assist in the field, making sure Richmond’s assistants are asking the right people the right questions. “Instead of us presenting them with questions,” she said, “we asked them what they think is important.” 

Along with ensuring the fishing community is well represented, Hackett and Richmond emphasized the importance of cumulative and historical factors including perception of existing and prior fisheries management through regulation, and the varying levels of trust between fishermen and regulatory agencies.

The ultimate result will be a “data rich” report profiling the fisheries and the fishing communities built up around them that will be useful for all sorts of planning, both MPA-related and beyond. 


Rocky intertidal

The very academic title, “Baseline Characterization of Rocky Intertidal Ecosystems,” might obscure one of the aspects of the project Joe Tyburczy of California Sea Grant Extension likes best: “working in the public’s favorite area—tidepools.” In addition to Tyburczy, the rocky intertidal project is led by Sean Craig of Humboldt State University, Peter Raimondi of University of California, Santa Cruz, Andrew Kinziger of Humboldt State University, Rosa Laucci of Smith River Rancheria, Ivano Aiello of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and Brian Tissot of Humboldt State University.

Over the course of the year, researchers and students have been characterizing this exceptionally diverse habitat, noting the diversity of algae and invertebrates, such as sea stars, abalone and other species, contained within. 

The timing has been especially fortuitous, Tyburczy said, as the sampling has coincided with the sea star wasting disease that’s been affecting the West Coast. “Sea stars are a major predator of mussels, he explained, “so mussel beds may change a lot—may increase—as the sea stars die off.” 

Hopefully sea stars will rebound, Tyburczy finished, noting, “Santa Cruz is seeing that happen.” 

The study is taking place throughout the region at 10 sites. An exciting new component is ability to do high resolution 3D scans of the intertidal area, which is useful to figure out which types of habitats are most important and also in capturing seasonality, Tyburczy said. 

For a complete list of projects and more information, visit and

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