California Ocean Reserves Show Promising Results for Marine Life

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A groundbreaking network of marine reserves off the California coast are showing promising results, according to scientists meeting in Monterey this week. The results come five years after the state set up the first group of “marine protected areas”—zones where fishing is either limited or banned all together.

Lingcod are one of the fish species showing improvement in California's marine protected areas. (Steve Lonhart / Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary)
Lingcod are one of the fish species showing improvement in California's marine protected areas. (Photo: Steve Lonhart / Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

Several fish species seem to be rebounding in the 29 marine protected areas that stretch from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara, including black rockfish, grass rockfish, perch and lingcod. Threatened black abalone are also appearing in higher numbers.

The protected areas mark a new conservation approach for the state, moving away from traditional species-by-species fishing limits. The areas were designed to protect the ecosystem as a whole, allowing fish and marine life to reproduce and recover. Scientists believe as populations increase inside the zones, they’ll spread into surrounding areas, acting as “marine savings accounts” for the entire coast.

“It’s the largest network of ecologically-based protected areas across the globe,” says Mark Carr, professor of marine biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The areas, now covering 16 percent of state waters along the entire coast, inspired a heated battle between conservationists and fishing groups. The law that set them up, the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act, was passed just as rockfish populations crashed and the fishery was in economic crisis. Scientists made the case that the effort could eventually improve fishing outside the marine reserves.

Researchers catalog marine life in the kelp forest off Monterey in 2008. (Photo: KQED QUEST)
Researchers catalog marine life in a kelp forest off Monterey in 2008. (Photo: KQED QUEST)

The results released this week are the first step in proving that case. In a multi-year monitoring effort, researchers have catalogued marine life both inside and outside the marine reserves using scuba drivers, recreational fishermen, citizen scientists, and even deep-sea remotely operated vehicles. The surveys went from the rocky shoreline to 1,200 feet below the surface.


“We did not anticipate seeing such rapid changes for some of these species and it’s been remarkable,” says Carr. Many rockfish species live for decades and reproduce slowly, so scientists expected a larger delay. Some fish species didn’t show improvement, though and the results varied greatly between marine protected areas.

Carr says it’s still early to tease why they’re seeing the improvements. “You see the patterns in the fished species and in species that aren’t being fished,” he says. “It will take a while to get more information and see those trends and then use that information to understand the system.”

Enforcing hundreds of miles of no-fishing zones has been a challenge for wardens with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Agency director Chuck Bonham says the improving state budget situation has helped. The agency issued 47 violations in the marine protected areas in the last five years, including one poacher who took 60 black abalone in 2009.

“We’ve got our warden force as high as it’s been since 2000, which means good dialogue with our communities, good sharing of information and better compliance,” Bonham says. “We can always use more, but we’re doing as good as we can with what we have.”


Officials say the conservation network could be an example worldwide. “You can’t have a solid fishing industry without it being sustainable,” says John Laird, California’s Secretary of Natural Resources. “So if we’re successful here, then I think there’s a reason to think that other states will say ‘well, how can we be sustainable and use this as a model.'”

The commercial fishing industry has mixed feelings about the reserves. According to one survey, 83 percent of commercial fishermen reported being directly impacted by them. Spot prawn fisherman largely disappeared at the Moss Landing harbor because their main fishing grounds were closed.

Fishing revenue has been on the rise in the last five years, but state economist Terry Tillman says a relatively small group saw those gains. Overall, the number of fishermen is on the decline, which could be caused by a number of things, including the collapse of the salmon fishery in 2008.

While scientists are encouraged by the results and how they could help the fishing industry, there are concerns about how future scientific monitoring efforts will be funded. After two years of state funding, much of the investment has come from private foundations.

Scientist Mark Carr says the data they’re collecting could inform a broad range of future policy decisions. “By monitoring, you’re collecting information that addresses a large number of environmental issues like global climate change, fisheries management, impacts caused by runoff,” he says. “California has become the global leader in the development of protected areas. Now, we have the responsibility to become a leader in evaluating how effective this tool really is.”