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How California is saving its sea life

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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.

Positive trends

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.

Reef dwellers like the California Sheepshead fish and California Spiny Lobster have been heavily harvested in coastal waters for decades. Those two species are also the main predators of urchins, which graze on native kelp. When over-fishing critically depleted the predators, the urchins ran wild and stripped away the native algae, leaving the door open for invasive species to move in.

Then, researchers found, something happened inside the protected area, which was established in 1978. As the Sheepshead and lobster recovered in numbers, urchin populations fell and healthy kelp forest returned, pushing out the invader.

While monitoring some MPAs, marine biologists have also found what they call a spillover effect. A 2019 study of kelp rockfish in Carmel and Monterey bays, for example, found populations in protected MPA zones were linked to nearby populations being fished. In other words, the fish populations were being replenished by those reproducing inside the reserves. “If the goal is healthy fisheries,” Murray noted, “then you need to protect habitat.”

The MPAs have also been rallying points to legally challenge sewage outfalls, desalination plant discharges, seismic testing and other impacts that might affect the health of these critical ecosystems.

“By protecting functioning ecosystems and limiting human disturbance, it’s possible to improve their resilience against threatening factors like acidification, warming water and reduction in species diversity,” she said.

Local participation

Back in 2012, in Southern California, as the MPA network was taking shape, Calla Allison saw a challenge. As a participant on the Orange County Marine Protected Area Council, she’d had personal experience with the wide-ranging planning process. At the time, MPAs were being hammered out with inputs from interests as diverse as commercial fishermen, tribal elders, eco-activists and recreational surfers and divers.

What was clear, she noted, is that the ocean affects the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of communities up and down the California coast. So how could the state ensure locals would have a voice in the management of their own MPAs?

The answer, Allison decided, was to create a network of local MPA Collaborative groups in each region.

“The idea was to bring together anyone who had something to do with the oceans,” she said. “We thought the MPAs would be better managed if they had a local focus, a bottom-up, localized and participatory approach to resource management, in addition to top-down guidance from the state.”

Today, the statewide network she founded has 14 member groups, or collaboratives. Participants who come to the MPA collaborative meetings still represent very different interests, Allison said. But that’s the point, she explained: getting people who don’t agree to sit across from each other at a table and talk.

“It’s the first network of its kind that’s this size,” she said. And, Allison said, she’s been pleasantly surprised.

“Each area is different, of course. And members who turn up — they’re all volunteers — can be at odds. But there’s a sense of community. People see the value of working together, finding what we have in common. We’re all very connected to the ocean. It’s people coming together to put time and energy and effort to make something better.”

Connecting people

Up at Fort Ross, Hunter is a member of the Sonoma MPA Collaborative, which is co-chaired by Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Redwoods, and Suzanne Olyarnik, director of the Bodega Marine Reserve.

The Sonoma Collaborative represents the county’s MPAs: the whale passage at Bodega Head, salmon and harbor seal populations at Jenner and the kelp beds and tidepools at Salt Point and Point Arena.

The Sonoma group received two Trident mini-ROVs, Luna said. Hunter is leading on training time on theirs. The other is at the Bodega Marine Laboratory. Among other activities, the Sonoma Collaborative is helping monitor whales, to prevent entanglements in crabbing and fishing gear. Dick Ogg, a local commercial fisherman and active member of the collaborative, was aboard a recent survey flight over the MPA. After spotting the giant mammals offshore, he recommended delaying the crab season.

A large part of the collaborative’s activity is connecting people, providing information, doing citizen science and public education, Olyarnik said.

“A lot of our coastal visitors come from inland,” she explained, “and while people are more aware now, we provide a lot of outreach.”

With small grant funding, they’ve been able to produce a series of beautiful short videos.

Guide to future

While Murray and other MPA experts say it will take years, if not decades, to clearly understand the effect these protections will have on the diverse California marine environment, having them in place is critical for another reason. They provide a unique and perhaps last chance to investigate these living systems and track how they rebound and adapt as the oceans increasingly change. That may guide future intervention.

Considering the alternative — going into a future without MPAs — most now agree they’re an important reserve, a shelter for life that may be essential to all interests along California’s coast.

“Having the MPAs is like having savings in the bank,” Allison said. “Or, actually 124 banks.”

Given the uncertain changes in the oceans, future generations may need to increasingly rely on them.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based certified California naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com.

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