Marine Protected Areas

What are Marine Protected Areas?

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are special places designated to help protect and restore marine life and habitats in the ocean, much like state and national parks protect wildlife and habitats on land. MPAs are among the most useful tools for helping protect the ocean, complementing other conservation efforts by providing a place for marine life to recover and thrive. Some of California’s MPAs are fully protected “no-take” areas while others may allow limited fishing. MPAs typically provide excellent opportunities for a wide range of recreational activities like bird watching, boating, SCUBA diving, and kayaking.

Why are Marine Protected Areas Important?

The waters off the coast of California are some of the biologically richest in the world, but the ocean is showing significant signs of overuse and declining health due to habitat destruction, climate change, and depleted fisheries. By protecting ocean ecosystems rather than focusing on individual species, MPAs are powerful tools for conserving and restoring ocean biodiversity. These special ocean areas also provide benefits to cultural and geological resources and can help sustain local economies. In addition, MPAs contribute to healthier, more resilient ocean ecosystems that can better withstand a wide range of impacts.


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Scientists have studied more than 124 no-take marine reserves worldwide and have monitored biological changes inside the reserves. A global review of these studies has revealed that fishes, invertebrates and seaweeds in marine reserves usually had increases in:

  • Biomass, or the mass of animals and seaweeds, which increased an average of 446%
  • Density, or the number of animals and seaweeds in a given area, which increased by 166%
  • Body size of animals, which increased on average 28%; and
  • Species diversity, or the number of species, which increased an average of 21% (PISCO, 2007)

How Can You Get Involved?

What is the State of California Doing?

California has engaged in an historic effort to design a science-based, statewide network of MPAs through a collaborative effort that includes the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and California State Parks. Known as the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), this initiative works in concert with the Marine Managed Areas Improvement Act (enacted in 2000), to protect and restore ocean habitats and increase the health, productivity, and resiliency of ocean ecosystems. State and federal agencies, universities, non-profits, and community members are all contributing to the successful design and implementation of California’s MPAs. California is taking a regional approach to redesigning its MPAs. The state was divided into five study regions: the North Coast, North Central Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, and San Francisco Bay. For each of the four coastal regions, the state assembled stakeholder groups of ocean users to collaboratively develop a plan for their local region’s MPAs. The regional stakeholder groups included fishermen, conservationists, local businesses, educators, tribal representatives, local government, and recreational interests. The MPA proposals developed by the stakeholder groups were then evaluated by a science advisory team, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a policy-level blue ribbon task force (BRTF). Accepted proposals were then recommended to the California Fish and Game Commission, who has the ultimate authority for establishing MPAs. For more information about the MLPA planning process, please visit the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

Different types of MPAs are identified in the Marine Managed Areas Improvement Act, each with varying levels of protection and restrictions. State marine reserves (SMR) are the most protective type of MPA, where all fishing and take of marine life is strictly prohibited. These marine reserves are also called “no-take” areas. State marine parks (SMP) allow opportunities for recreational fishing, but not commercial activities. State marine conservation areas (SMCA) have differing regulations, including allowances for some recreational and commercial fishing opportunities, depending upon the goals and objectives the SMCA is designed to achieve. State marine recreational management areas (SMRMAs) are another type of marine managed area (MMA) that allow for recreational activities such as waterfowl hunting while protecting marine life. In any case, all of these marine managed areas offer opportunities for research, education, spiritualism and recreation.

Central Coast

Central Coast MPAs map
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In September 2007, a Fish and Game Commission-approved network of 29 MPAs went into effect in the central coast between Pigeon Point in the north and Point Conception in the south. MPAs in this study region include 15 SMCAs, 13 SMRs, and one SMRMA. The MPAs cover approximately 18% (204 square miles) of state waters of the region, with about 7% being no-take state marine reserves. The Monterey Bay Sanctuary Foundation, along with other partners, is working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and State Parks to inform the public about the purpose and benefits of these newly designed MPAs. For more information, please visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

North Central Coast

North Central Coast MPAs map
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A network of 25 MPAs between Alder Creek near Point Arena in the north and Pigeon Point in the south went into effect in May 2010. MPAs in this study region include 12 SMCAs, 10 SMRs, and three SMRMAs. The MPAs cover approximately 20% (152 square miles) of state waters of the region, with 11% being no-take state marine reserves. In addition, seven special closures were designated, which are small areas around offshore rocks that protect birds and mammals from human disturbance. For more information, please visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

South Coast

South Coast MPAs map
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On January 1, 2012 a network of 37 MPAs went into effect in the south coast. The network stretches from Point Conception in the north to the California/Mexico border in the south (including offshore islands). The new MPAs in this study region include 29 SMCAs and eight SMRs, and cover 8% of state waters of the region, with 5% being no-take state marine reserves or limited take state marine conservation areas.  The 13 existing MPAs in the northern Channel Islands, encompassing approximately another 7% of state waters in the region, were retained unmodified, for a total of 50 MPAs (covering 355 square miles) in the south coast region (see Northern Channel Islands section below for more details). For more information, please visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

North Coast

North Coast MPAs map
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A network of 20 MPAs went into effect on December 19, 2012 in the north coast, from the California/Oregon border in the north to Alder Creek near Point Arena in the south. These MPAs include thirteen SMCAs, six SMRs and one SMRMA, and cover about 13% (134 square miles) of state waters in the region, with approximately 5% in no-take SMRs. Additionally, there are seven special closures put in place to protect important seabird nesting sites and marine mammal haul outs. For more information, please visit the Department of Fish and Wildlife website

San Francisco Bay

Due to the distinct political and biogeographic nature of the San Francisco Bay, the state is in the process of developing a plan for how to include the San Francisco Bay in the MPA network. When established, this portion of the network will cover the waters of San Francisco Bay from the Golden Gate Bridge to Carquinez Bridge. For more information, please visit the MLPA website.

Northern Channel Islands MPAs

In 2003, 13 MPAs were designated by the state at the Northern Channel Islands and were expanded in 2007 to include federal waters further offshore. These MPAs include 11 SMRs and two SMCAs that cover approximately 7% (168 square miles) of state waters in the south coast study region. The Channel Islands are also under the protection of the Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which further protect the waters surrounding the islands out to six nautical miles. A review of the first five years of monitoring at the Northern Channel Islands MPAs showed early signs that the system is working as intended. Many commercially and recreationally targeted species of fish and invertebrates were found to be bigger and more abundant inside the no-take reserves. The value of some fisheries (such as spiny lobster) increased, in part as a result of the MPAs. To learn more about this report evaluating the effectiveness of the Northern Channel Islands MPAs five years after their establishment,  please visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

State MPA Management

California is working to effectively manage the network of state MPAs now that many are in place. California is utilizing an adaptive management strategy whereby future management plans are informed by monitoring results. Monitoring provides essential information to support MPA management decisions; monitoring tracks the condition or ‘health’ of ocean ecosystems and evaluates the effectiveness of management actions. Through a collaborative partnership with the state, university and agency researchers, citizen scientists, and fishermen are conducting research such as mapping kelp canopy, diving to count fish and invertebrates using SCUBA and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and tracking fish landings and human use patterns to establish a baseline for the health of our coastal ocean. This information will provide a benchmark against which to measure the long-term performance of the regional marine protected area networks. The first five-year regional snapshot, based on data collected in the Central Coast region between 2007 and 2012 was presented at the State of theCalifornia Central Coast Symposium in February 2013. Monitoring results from the North Central Coast, South Coast and North Coast will follow in subsequent years. To learn more about MPA monitoring efforts, please visit the MPA Monitoring Enterprise website.

Public education and outreach are vital to managing and enforcing MPAs by helping to inform the public about MPA regulations and why MPAs are important to California’s marine environment. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and California State Parks are working with a variety of organizations, such as the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Foundation, to develop education and outreach resources.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife is also responsible for enforcement of California’s MPAs.

What is the Federal Government Doing?

In the United States, there are a variety of areas identified as federal MPAs that were established with different purposes, such as to protect the environment, preserve a cultural or historic site, or ensure sustainable production of a resource. Most federal MPAs are managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) System, or the National Estuary Program. National parks, estuarine research reserves, marine sanctuaries, wildlife refuges, and marine fishery reserves, are all examples of federal MPAs.

The National Marine Protected Areas Center, created by Executive Order 13158 in 2000, is charged with establishing a registry of protected marine areas in the nation, and facilitating the effective use of science, technology, training and information in the planning, management and evaluation of the nation’s system of marine protected areas. There are currently 297 federal, state and territorial sites that are recognized as part of the national system.

In California alone, four national marine sanctuaries, three National Estuarine Research Reserve sites, three National Estuary Program sites, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and the California Coastal National Monument are all federal designations included in the list of national system marine protected areas; these areas encompass over 9,000 square nautical miles of ocean and estuarine waters, or lands adjacent to them. California’s state MPAs in the  North Central Coast, Central Coast, South Coast and Channel Islands are also registered as part of the national system, and the North Coast MPAs will soon be proposed for registry as well.

California’s national marine sanctuaries are unique places deserving of special protections in order to protect ecosystems or historically significant sites, such as shipwrecks. There are four national marine sanctuaries off the coast of California which make up part of the nation’s 14 marine protected areas within the National Marine Sanctuary System. Channel Islands, Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones, and Monterey Bay encompass beautiful rocky reefs, lush kelp forests, whale migration corridors, spectacular deep-sea canyons, and underwater archaeological sites. Natural classrooms, cherished recreational spots, and valuable commercial industries—national marine sanctuaries represent many things to many people.

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