CALIFORNIA IS UNIQUE in many ways, and when it comes to the ocean there is a natural phenomenon called upwelling that happens off our coast. This process brings oxygenated nutrient dense deeper water up to the surface. The nutrient abundance supports unique native habitats including kelp forests, rocky intertidal areas, wetlands, and the California Current. Each distinct habitat maintains immense amounts of sea life big and small. Whether they’re attached to the rocks, floating in the water, or just passing through, our coastal marine ecosystem is prolific. These native marine environments are beautiful and everyone can agree that seeing humpback whales and sea otters on the water is simply a delight.

Due to an increase in tourism, interest, and accessibility– more people are visiting our precious marine environments here along the Monterey Bay. The increased usage can have serious unintended consequences if not managed carefully. Many native habitats have already been lost entirely to habitat degradation including 90% of the wetlands in California. In 1999, the Marine Life Protection Act was passed, which mandated a statewide network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by 2011.

Natural Bridges State Beach, with its famous natural bridges, is an excellent place to view a diversity of birds or explore the colorful tide pools.

Sea otters in kelp, Enhydra lutris, Monterey Bay, CaliforniaThe Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve is just one of 29 Marine Protected Areas which cover about 18 percent of Central California state waters. You also may have heard of the Año Nuevo State Marine Conservation Area which people travel from far and wide to see with the allure of Elephant seals. The seals take a break at Año Nuevo from their long migration for 3 months just to molt, nap, breed, and wrestle. There is also the Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area which contains one of the last and largest estuaries along the central coast and is home to many endangered birds, invertebrates, and fish.

As you can see, there are many different types of Marine Protected Areas, but why can’t we just call them all MPA’s and call it a day? Let’s start by getting the facts straight. Different land and water area management types exist because the areas they protect require different levels of protection or serve important uses to the community around them. MPA’s are split into four classifications: State Marine Reserve (SMR), State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA), State Marine Park (SMP), and State Marine Recreational Management Area (SMRMA). In State Marine Reserves, there is no take of any marine resources (living, geologic, or cultural) by anyone. In State Marine Conservation Areas, some take is permitted but restrictions exist on what you can take recreationally or commercially. In State Marine Parks, commercial take is not allowed and recreational take is restricted but public use, enjoyment, and education is encouraged. In State Marine Recreational Management Areas, recreational and commercial take is restricted yet hunting of certain birds is allowed.

Some wonder why we bother with marine protected areas at all.

Coastline, Point Lobos State Reserve, Big Sur, CaliforniaNearly 40% of Americans live within a few miles of coastline along the ocean, major estuaries, or the Great Lakes. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently estimated that 1 billion people across the globe depended on fish as their primary source of animal protein. Human impacts like habitat destruction and overexploitation of fish has grown rapidly over the last 50 years. These sensitive areas are crucial habitats for many species that may only breed, feed, or reproduce in one special area where their species has been coming to for generations. When the habitat is lost, the species is likely to follow. Fishing is either not allowed or restricted in such areas, which allows fish populations to repopulate the area and prevents any further development of the area required for some portion of their life cycle. Marine Protected Areas keep rare or threatened animals that inhabit them safe which helps preserve the diversity of organisms and provides essential resources for future generations.

When new marine protected areas are implemented, it is typical to hear controversy from fisherman because it seemingly threatens their livelihood when they cannot fish where their fathers and grandfathers before them have fished. However, the fact remains that certain species are threatened in this area and need protection if we hope to have our grandchildren experience them as well. The short term economic loss for fisherman can seem like catastrophe but if fish stocks have an opportunity to replenish everyone will benefit in the long run. These protected areas provide safe harbor for stocks to recover and given time and space regularly spread into other grounds- referred to as the spillover effect.

The truth is, we share our coastal habitat with a plethora of creatures from colorful nudibranchs to charismatic humpbacks. Take some time to revel in our coastal and marine backyard, thinking about all your neighbors. Follow your neighborhood creek, walk the beaches, explore the wetlands, swim or paddle in the ocean, take a tour into the bay and witness the abounding diversity. After all, “in the end, we will only conserve what we love.”

-By Alexandra McCoy, Education and Programs Intern

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