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Marine Protected Areas

Sea Stars “High-Five” at Edward Ricketts SMCA By Justin Hofman


Marine Protected Area, What’s That?

There are 29 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS).* MPAs are State or National Parks that manage the resources of fragile, unique and ecologically significant coastal areas. The chances of a visitor stumbling across one in San Mateo, Santa Cruz or Monterey County is fairly high. Still, the majority of people who visit these precious “underwater parks” are unaware of their significance. It’s important to note that the MBNMS is one big Marine Protected Area that contains smaller, more regulated, MPAs within its boundaries. So where are these Marine Protected Areas?

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Marine Protected Areas

Click for an interactive map

3 Special Regions Protected on the Central Coast*

Elephant Seal and Pup by Irene Reti

Elephant Seal and Pup by Irene Reti

The Slowcoast is home to some of the most secluded MPAs like Greyhound Rock and Año Nuevo, one of the largest breeding grounds for Northern Elephant Seals in the world.

Otter Plays in Kelp by Kimberly Heinrichs

Otter Plays in Kelp by Kimberly Heinrichs

The Monterey Bay is a rich kelp forest ecosystem that hinges on the presence of Southern Sea Otters in the Elkhorn Slough and one of the deepest marine trenches in the world.

Swarm of Sea Lions by Joe Plakto

Swarm of Sea Lions by Joe Plakto

The Big Sur coastline is remote, lined with pristine rocky bluffs and coves which provide excellent sanctuary for Rockfish, Harbor Seal pups, and feeding grounds for Grey Whales.

Primary Conservation Categories

Most MPAs have legally established goals and conservation objectives. Common examples include biodiversity conservation, habitat protection for over-fishing recovery, as well as research and education support. MPA Conservation Categories are reflected by a Conservation Focus, which represent the unique characteristics of the environment that the MPA was established to conserve. The Conservation Focus influences many fundamental aspects of the site, including its design, location, size, scale, management strategies and potential contribution to surrounding ecosystems. MPAs generally address one or more of these areas of Conservation Focus:

These MPAs are established to sustain, conserve, restore and understand the area’s natural biodiversity, populations, communities, habitats and ecosystems, the ecological and physical processes upon which they depend, and the ecological services, human uses and values they provide to this and future generations.

These MPAs are established to protect and understand submerged cultural resources that reflect the nation’s maritime history or traditional cultural connections to the sea.

These MPAs are established to protect and support the continued extraction of renewable living resources (such as fish, shellfish or plants) that live within the MPA, or that are exploited elsewhere but depend upon the MPA’s habitat for essential aspects of their ecology.

Protection Levels

MPAs vary widely in the level and type of legal protections afforded to the site’s natural and cultural resources and ecological processes. MPAs can be characterized by one of the following six levels of protection, which will directly influence its effects on the environment and human uses:


MPAs with a consistent level of protection and allowable activities, including certain extractive uses, across the entire protected area.


MPAs that allow some extractive activities throughout the entire site, but that use marine zoning to allocate specific uses to compatible places or times in order to reduce user conflicts and adverse impacts.


Multiple-use MPAs that contain at least one legally established management zone in which all resource extraction is prohibited.


MPAs that allow human access and even some potentially harmful uses, but that totally prohibit the extraction or significant destruction of natural or cultural resources.


MPAs that allow human access, but that prohibit all activities that could harm the site’s resources or disrupt the ecological or cultural services they provide.


MPAs that restrict all human access to the area in order to prevent potential ecological disturbance, unless specifically permitted for designated special uses such as research, monitoring or restoration.

Dive Into California’s Underwater Parks!

Explore California’s Underwater Parks without getting your feet wet through an online tour! The California Google MPA Tour features detailed descriptions of each of the state marine protected areas, National Marine Sanctuaries, and National Estuaries, with stunning photos and videos, and links to local “things to do” for your enjoyment and ease of vacation planning. This Google MPA tour is recently completed for the entire state, featuring more than 125 underwater parks from the Oregon border to Baja, and is divided into easy to navigate regional tours.

Click on the links below for each region’s tour!


North Central



Get Your Cameras Out For #MPAmondays

2017 Save Our Shores Waves & Wildlife Photo Contest

Whether you’re bird watching at Elkhorn Slough, surfing with whales outside of Natural Bridges, diving through kelp forests at Point Lobos, hiking to Point Sur’s historical lighthouse, or dodging giant elephant seals as they compete for territory at Año Nuevo, there are so many MPAs to capture the experience with a camera. So head on over to your favorite Marine Protected Area, get inspired, then use #MPAmondays to submit/share your best photos!

Awesome prizes, features and exhibits are just a photo away…




**Note: There are technically 46 MPAs within the MBNBS, including Fishery Management and Water Quality Protection Areas under IUCN standards. For educational purposes, we focus on the 29 California State MPA network designations. There are two main types of State managed MPAs in the Sanctuary, State Marine Reserves (SMRs) and State Marine Conservation Areas (SMCAs). For more information regarding these specially designated areas, please visit: California Marine Protected Areas.

Photo credits: Sea Stars “High-Five” (Justin Hofman), Elephant Seal and Pup (Irene Reti), Otter Plays in Kelp (Kimberly Saxton), Swarm of Sea Lions (Joe Plakto) were part of our 2016 Waves & Wildlife Photo Contest.