Marine Protected Areas: Research & Monitoring

measuring sea star

Are marine protected areas working?

In order to understand whether marine protected areas (MPAs) are doing their job protecting our oceans, we have to monitor them. Just as a doctor may measure your heartbeat or blood pressure, researchers measure ocean chemistry, temperatures and the abundance and locations of different species to determine whether ocean ecosystems are healthy, how they are changing, and how MPAs are working to protect the health of the ocean.

After California established the statewide MPA network in 2012, California Sea Grant partnered with the California Ocean Protection Council and California Department of Fish and Wildlife to administer monitoring project funding for the MPA Monitoring Program. The MPA Monitoring Program includes a two-phased approach to monitoring: Phase 1 – Baseline Monitoring and Phase 2 – Long-term Monitoring.

Phase 1 of the MPA Monitoring Program focused on funding regional baseline monitoring of MPAs. These projects established a benchmark, or characterization of ecological conditions and human activities both inside and outside of MPAs, at or near the time of MPA implementation.  This information will help evaluate the effectiveness of the MPAs and the network as a whole meet the goals of the Marine Life Protection Act.

Using Phase 1 baseline monitoring information, as well as novel, quantitative, and expert-informed approaches from baseline monitoring, CDFW and OPC developed the MPA Monitoring Action Plan, which guides next steps for Phase 2 – Long-term Monitoring.  The action plan lists key evaluation questions and prioritizes metrics, habitats, sites, and species to target for long-term monitoring in order to inform the evaluation of California’s MPA network. MPA Monitoring Action Plan (CDFW 2018)

The state has now launched long-term monitoring projects that will run from 2019 to 2021. Long-term monitoring will help California evaluate the performance of the network in meeting the goals of MLPA and inform adaptive management. These projects will support up to three years of research across the statewide network. The awards, administered by California Sea Grant, were selected by a panel of experts and guided by the monitoring priorities outlined in the Action Plan.

Baseline monitoring projects 

Long-term monitoring projects

Project Updates: Long-term Monitoring Projects


Previous and related research

The design of California’s network of marine protected areas was informed by years of scientific research, including science funded and conducted by California Sea Grant.  This research was incorporated in the 2008 and 2016 Master Plan for Marine Protected Areas.  The 2008 Plan provides the science guidelines for the design process. That information is also found in Appendix A of the 2016 Master Planrick starr doing fishy research
Click to read more about the history of California MPAs in this interview with former California Sea Grant Extension Director Rick Starr.

The program continues to invest in research that augments the monitoring funded by the state, allowing California to gain a better understanding of how our MPAs are working, as well as how outside influences like climate change are affecting ecosystems both inside and outside of MPAs.

Since 2003, California Sea Grant has also invested over $2 million of federal funding in research that has informed and supported California’s network of MPAs. Below are links to recent key research projects.​

California Sea Grant's team of extension specialists - scientists based in coastal communities from San Diego to Eureka - have also contributed to important research. Read more about the history of California Sea Grant's research and the development of the California MPA system in this interview with former California Sea Grant Extension Director Rick Starr.