California's marine protection areas: a science-based investment in conservation

A string of modestly sized but strategically important reserves on the California coast could yield big dividends, while closing off less than 20 percent of state waters to fishing.

"A network of relatively small conservation areas serving as marine life incubators and nurseries should allow critical habitats to flourish for conservation and education," said Stephen Palumbi, professor of biological sciences at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. "Moreover, if designed correctly, scientists hope this small investment will help sustain ocean ecosystems all along the coast and maintain the biological diversity on which healthy marine ecosystems depend."

More than 80 marine protected areas (MPAs) dotted the 1,100 miles of California coastline a decade ago. Mostly small, these independently fashioned sites lacked coherency of purpose and collectively offered total protection to less than 1 percent of state waters. In 1999, the state legislature took a dramatic shift in approach by passing the California Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). The new law mandated that state officials design an improved network of MPAs that would extend protection to entire ecosystems, thus preserving endangered and threatened species and habitats they need to survive.

Following two stalled attempts, implementation of the act began in earnest in 2004 as a result of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, a public-private partnership between state agencies and the Sacramento-based Resource Legacy Foundation, which helped secure critical private funding.

The initiative focused on the Central Coast, 200-plus miles of shoreline extending from Pigeon Point south to Point Conception. A state-appointed task force oversaw the process and recommended design alternatives, while an 18-member science advisory team, including Stanford's Palumbi, developed science-based design and evaluation guidelines.

First, the science advisory team identified which types of habitat MPAs should cover—such as rocky reefs, sandy beaches and estuaries—and then discussed redundancy; they decided that each type of habitat should be replicated in at least three MPAs for effective "disaster insurance."

Finally, the advisory team tackled issues of size and spacing. The size question required "some triage," Palumbi said, noting that certain migratory species, such as tuna, wouldn't benefit from small MPAs, while bottom dwellers, including rockfish, crabs and sea urchins, might benefit immensely. Fortunately, said Palumbi, "the available data showed that many of the organisms targeted for MLPA protection were long-term residents of single, small areas, sharing adult neighborhoods of three to six miles or less."

Determining the distance between the MPAs to ensure survival of the next generation was trickier. To understand what happens when marine larvae leave home, the researchers turned to current-modeling and genetic studies to help them determine a range for optimal spacing.

In previous studies of ocean populations, Palumbi and his colleagues used genetic analysis to show that, rather than drifting thousands of miles on currents, larvae of many species settle relatively close to home. This finding led the advisory team to conclude that MPAs placed 30 to 60 miles apart would offer safe haven for the next generation. "It's like spacing the bases on a baseball diamond close enough that a runner can get there," he explained.

The final design of each MPA fell to regional stakeholder groups, community leaders who represented the range of interests tied to the local marine environment.

Two years of planning and months of intensive design work yielded a final package of 29 MPAs covering nearly 20 percent of the Central California coast.

The Marine Life Protection Act is a favorite subject of Margaret "Meg" Caldwell, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Law School who served on the first MLPA blue ribbon task force and is continuing as a member of the North Central Coast Blue Ribbon Task Force. Describing the act as one of "the most progressive pieces of legislation in the nation," Caldwell noted that the law shifts marine conservation in California "away from a fisheries-management, single-species approach" toward protection of entire ecosystems, and that it mandates conservation of marine resources and ecosystems for their inherent value as well as their utility.

"California stands in the vanguard of marine conservation," said Stanford law Professor Barton H. "Buzz" Thompson Jr., director of the Woods Institute for the Environment. Clear guidelines, public participation and steadfast adherence to the goals of the marine protection act are the winning recipe for MPA design and "an innovative management toolkit that can be transported and used anywhere," he added. Thompson anticipates a more comprehensive approach to marine conservation that goes well beyond the California coast. Oceans can be zoned, he explained, "to avoid conflict while maximizing environmental protection. The Marine Life Protection Act is a huge step in the correct direction."

The California Fish and Game Commission approved the package of 29 MPAs in April, and the official adoption process is expected to conclude by early September. Design is now under way for a marine reserve network along the north-central coast, between Mendocino and San Mateo counties, and a statewide network of MPAs is slated for completion by 2011.

Diane Richards is a freelance writer in Pacific Grove, Calif.