How California is saving its sea life
Twenty years ago, state legislators took the unprecedented, bipartisan step of setting off protected areas in California's coastal waters. The efforts, new studies show, appear to be paying off with promising signs of rebounding sea life and growing resilience.
From California's beaches and bluffs, the Pacific Ocean looks like a vast, flat empty sheet. But under the surface, just below the boundary between air and water, entire worlds of life crowd the rocks and vast sea floor - swimming, undulating and floating in the liquid above.
It's a realm as alien as another planet. And even though it's right next door, to most, this rich universe is both out of sight and off-limits.
On a recent chilly November morning, on the gravel beach at Fort Ross Cove, Song Hunter readied a white, rubber-edged 2-foot-long craft to go explore that life underseas. She's still getting the hang of “flying” the new Trident mini-ROV (remote operated vehicle) at the end of its 30-meter yellow tether, she says. But once it's set free in the water to roam, the images it passes in real time across her 6-inch screen on shore offer a rare moving glimpse into a part of California we rarely, if ever, see.
Hunter, who is director of programs at the nonprofit Fort Ross Conservancy, is training to pilot the underwater drone. “I've named her Eve, after the Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator in Pixar's ‘Wall-E,'” she confesses before sharing the experience with young students in the Conservancy's Marine Ecology Program.
Fourth graders to undergraduate students from around Sonoma County, and from as far away as Oakland and San Jose, come to the North Coast to learn citizen science and explore marine life in the field.
The ROV Eve is an entirely new, and exciting, tool for them to use, Hunter said.
But the story of how Eve came to Fort Ross actually starts more than two decades ago, back in 1999, when concerns about declining fisheries, ocean pollution, threatened ecosystems and the ocean's health led to bipartisan support in the state Legislature for the Marine Life Protection Act. The law called on state agencies to create a network of protected areas in state waters, where human impact would be restricted, giving ocean life an opportunity to shelter and recover with minimal disturbance.
The process to create the zones involved years of often-contentious collaboration, between commercial and sports fishermen, state wildlife agencies, scientists and marine laboratories, businesses, cities, public and community representatives, indigenous tribes and nonprofit coastal and ecology groups. While activists pushed hard for broader protections, commercial fishermen and tribal communities were genuinely concerned they'd lose access to their livelihoods, and fishery-based towns would suffer.
Remarkably, despite the varied and often conflicting interests, the stakeholder-driven process led to the creation of 124 Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, the first science-based system of protected areas in the United States. The network was finally completed on the North Coast in 2012.
That scattered chain of MPAs now protects important marine habitats and species along 1,100 ?miles of oceanfront, from Baja to Oregon. Some MPAs cover estuaries and river mouths, extending to miles offshore. In total they shelter 852 square miles, or 16% of California state waters. Roughly half of them are fully protected reserves, where the taking of marine resources is prohibited. The others, designated Conservation Areas, permit some types of commercial, recreational or tribal take.
Now, nearly eight years later, there are some positive signs the protections may be having an effect, according to Samantha Murray, executive director for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. She recently authored a science review of the evidence, showing why the MPAs are important.
Life in the ocean is incredibly complex, a dynamic, interlinked system of life in a literally fluid environment.
Because they're intimately linked, disrupting some parts of these systems can have far-reaching effects along the entire chain. It was thought that providing shelter from human disturbances might give the living systems a chance to recover.
In the recently published study, Murray notes where the MPAs appear to be producing positive trends.
At Point Lobos, for example, economically important fish like lingcod, copper rockfish and vermilion rockfish are now larger in size and found in greater numbers inside the MPA boundaries than in nearby locations open to fishing.
A 2018 study of an MPA along the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara found that a destructive, massively invasive algae from Asia had been turned back inside the protected zone, thanks to an interesting chain reaction.