Are marine reserves in Southern California working? Updates on MPA research

Caitlin Coomber

Along Southern California and around the Channel Islands, some 50 marine protected areas have been established, encompassing about 350 square miles of state waters.

Most of these marine protected areas (MPAs) – 37 of them to be exact – were established under the state’s Marine Life Protection Act and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2012.  In case you don’t know, MPAs are like underwater parks, created to help protect and restore marine life and habitats.

To help managers assess the efficacy of these spatial closures, California Sea Grant administers a set of 10 baseline monitoring projects for the South Coast, which stretches from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the U.S.-Mexico border and includes the waters surrounding the Channel Islands.

These projects – the bulk of which are surveys of either habitats or species, or both – seek to characterize marine ecosystems and human activities around the time of the MPAs’ implementation. When possible, researchers are also trying to document initial changes in marine ecosystems and human activities, associated with the new regulations.

The  South Coast MPA Baseline Program is a collaboration with the State Coastal Conservancy, Ocean Protection Council, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Ocean Science Trust and MPA Monitoring Enterprise.

Brief summaries of these baseline projects and their progress to date are listed below.

Citizen-Scientist Monitoring of Rocky Reefs and Kelp Forests: Creating a Baseline for the South Coast MPAs

R/MPA-21 Sep. 2011–Jun. 2014
Jan Freiwald, Reef Check Foundation, 831.345.8167,
Gregor Hodgson, Reef Check Foundation, 310.230.2371,

Volunteers are core to this project, but these are not just any volunteers. All are skilled divers who have been trained and certified through the non-profit Reef Check program to conduct scientific surveys of rocky reef and kelp forest ecosystems. This unusual citizen-science monitoring program has been collecting data in California since 2006, and for the baseline monitoring project is being tailored to document and compare ecosystems inside and outside the new MPAs. In the project’s first two years, divers completed 105 surveys in the study region and are on track to complete all proposed surveys. Each survey consists of eighteen 30-meter transects, along which divers count and estimate lengths of key fishes (35 species), invertebrates (32 species) and algae (9 species). Reef Check scientists have also trained or re-certified more than 250 divers each year state-wide, creating invaluable human capital for continued MPA monitoring and support for marine conservation. In August of 2013, Reef Check released a report documenting dramatic declines in fish populations along the California coast since the 1970s. The report indicates that “several species have started to recover in California’s marine reserves such as Lover’s Point State Marine Reserve in Monterey Bay.  At other sites, the recovery is still in progress.” (Click here to download a complete copy of the “Status of Rocky Reef Ecosystems in California 2006-2011.”) Reef Check’s monitoring data for the South Coast study region is available online through Reef Check’s public Nearshore Ecosystem Database and is also being converted into a format consist with other monitoring data collected through the MPA Baseline Monitoring Program.

Baseline Characterization and Monitoring of the South Coast’s Rocky Intertidal Ecosystems

R/MPA-22 Sep. 2011–Jun. 2014
Carol Blanchette, UCSB, 805.893.5144,
Peter Raimondi, UCSC, 831.459.5674,
Jennifer Burnaford, Cal State University, Fullerton, 657.278.2382,
Jayson Smith, Cal State University, Fullerton, 657.278.4233, jasmith@fullerton@edu
Julie Bursek, NOAA/Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, 805.382.6141,

Tide pools and other rocky-intertidal habitats are the focus of this project. These habitats are being described and compared inside and outside the South Coast MPAs based on invertebrate and algal biodiversity surveys and counts of target species. The survey methods replicate those developed for the West Coast by scientists with the Multi-agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe).  In the project’s first year, scientists completed baseline biodiversity surveys and target-species sampling at 22 sites. Target-species sampling was continued at these sites during the project’s second year. In the project’s final year, researchers will analyze, document and describe the patterns, statuses and trends of rocky intertidal ecosystems and species along the South Coast. Additionally, researchers will co-host a workshop with staff from the LiMPETS program to train teachers on the baseline research and revised protocols for characterizing abundances of key species over time. Details on the protocols for the biodiversity and target-species surveys are available at the Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring: Trends and Synthesis website at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Integrative Assessment of Baseline Ecological and Socioeconomic Conditions and Initial Changes within the South Coast
R/MPA-23 Sep. 2011–Jun. 2014
Jennifer Caselle, UCSB, 805.893.5144,
Carol Blanchette, UCSB, 805.893.5144,

The purpose of this project is to coordinate the compilation of data from the nine other South Coast baseline projects into a standardized format that can be easily shared with other researchers for integrated ecosystem studies. The researchers are also administering the other monitoring projects to help coordinate field activities (for example, by co-locating field sites) and encourage collaborations when practical. Administrative duties have included organizing and hosting two data analysis workshops for the other investigators. Since many of the baseline monitoring projects are still in the data-collection phase, the researchers won’t likely begin their data compilation and analyses until 2014.

Sandy Beach Ecosystems: Baseline Characterization and Evaluation of Monitoring Metrics for the South Coast
R/MPA-24 Sep. 2011–Jun. 2014
Jenifer Dugan, UCSB, 805.893.2675,
Henry Page, UCSB, 805.893.2675,
Karina Nielsen, Sonoma State University, 707.664.2962,
Julie Bursek, NOAA/CINMS, 805.382.6141,

Sandy beach ecosystems are the focus of this baseline monitoring study. Metrics for assessing beach ecosystem function and health include: 1) kelp-wrack coverage and composition; 2) marine bird, pinniped and macroinvertebrate abundances and 3) population abundances, biomasses and sizes of target species, including sand crabs, Pismo clams, talitrid amphipods and wrack-associated invertebrates. Human activities at the beach are being documented, and scientists are partnering with citizen-science nonprofits to develop and test protocols for training volunteers to help collect long-term beach monitoring information. In addition to the survey work, researchers are studying the ecological importance of beaches to other coastal and nearshore ecosystems, and in 2013 published findings suggesting that two tiny burrowing crustaceans closely related to the roly poly have, in the last century, vanished from most beaches in the South Coast study region. Scientists said the trend is alarming because these animals are considered indicators of beach ecosystem health. In the project’s final year, researchers will complete monthly surveys of South Coast study beaches,  analyze their data and conduct a joint workshop for teachers on refining LiMPETS protocols for sandy beaches.

Spiny Lobsters and South Coast MPAs: A Partnership to Quantify Baseline Abundances, Size Structures, Habitat Uses and Movements 
R/MPA-25 Sep. 2011–Jun. 2014
Kevin Hovel, SDSU, 619.594.6322,
Ed Parnell, UCSD/SIO, 858.822.2701,
Samantha Harrod, San Diego Oceans Foundation, 619.523.1903,

In this project, researchers are estimating spiny lobster densities within six South Coast MPAs and adjacent reference sites and will relate these estimates to bottom features, such as rocky crevices and understory algae. Commercial lobster fishermen tagged and recaptured lobsters to study “spillover” from closed to open areas, lobster movements and home ranges. Spatially explicit landings data (catch records by location) are also being compiled to calculate catch-per-unit effort inside and outside the MPAs before and after they went into effect. The six MPAs and adjacent reference sites are: (1) Point Vicente State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA); (2) Laguna Beach State Marine Reserve (SMR); (3) Swami’s Beach SMCA; (4) Matlahuayl SMR; (5) South La Jolla SMR; and (6) Cabrillo SMR. Spiny lobsters support a popular recreational and valuable commercial fishery, are a key part of the southern California kelp forest ecosystem, and are a priority species for state managers. Results from this project will help assess the fishery’s stability to current harvesting practices and may be included in the spiny lobster fishery management plan now under development.

Baseline Characterization and Monitoring: ROV Surveys of the South Coast’s Subtidal (20–500 m)
R/MPA-26 Sep. 2011–Jun. 2014
James Lindholm, Cal State University, Monterey Bay, 831.582.4662,
Dirk Rosen, Marine Applied Research & Exploration, 510.232.1541,

Researchers are using a remotely operated vehicle to capture video and still images of life in deep-water habitats, including submarine canyons. From the images, they are documenting the numbers and kinds of fishes and larger invertebrates and their association with bottom features. In the project’s first year, the following sites were surveyed: (1) Point Vicente SMCA and Abalone Cove State Marine Reserve (SMR) off Palos Verdes; (2) the two Farnsworth Bank SMCAs off Catalina Island; and (3) San Diego-Scripps Coastal SMCA and Matlahuayl SMR. With additional support from private donors, the ROV was also “flown” about a half-meter above the seabed through four other marine protected areas near Laguna Beach and Newport Beach in Orange County. In the project’s second year, the original three sites were resurveyed along with three new sites off San Clemente Island, with support from the US Navy. The final baseline characterization to be prepared in the project’s final year will include summary descriptions of benthic ecosystems, habitat characteristics and species assemblages in the South Coast MPAs and reference sites.

Kelp and Shallow-Reef Ecosystems: Baseline Data and Long-Term Trends Using Historical Data for the South Coast
R/MPA-27 Sep. 2011–Jun. 2014
Daniel Pondella, Occidental College, 323.259.2955,
Jennifer Caselle, UCSB, 805.893.5144,

The goal of this project is to produce a baseline characterization of kelp and shallow (less than 30-meters depth) ecosystems inside and outside the South Coast MPAs through a series of standardized diver surveys of kelp forests and reference sites. The data is being used to estimate fish, kelp and benthic invertebrate densities, fish-size distributions and percent cover of smaller invertebrates and algae. Divers are also documenting substrate type (e.g., sand, cobble, bedrock and boulder) and vertical relief to establish species-habitat relationships. From these, a variety of population level (e.g., density, percent cover and biomass) and community-level (e.g., species composition and trophic-guild biomass) metrics will be calculated and compared across the MPAs and reference sites. The sampling design and protocols are based on the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) survey program, used for baseline monitoring of the Central Coast and North Central Coast MPAs.  Researchers surveyed 119 sites in 2011 and 117 sites in 2012, and are currently processing and analyzing these data.

Estuarine, Intertidal and Subtidal Habitat Use by Seabirds within the South Coast 
R/MPA-28 Jun. 2011–Sep. 2014
Dan Robinette, Point Blue Conservation Science, 805.735.7300,
Jaime Jahncke, Point Blue Conservation Science, 707.781.2555, ext. 335,

In this project, ornithologists are evaluating whether the new MPAs are adequately protecting seabirds, specifically pelagic cormorants, Brandt’s cormorants, Western gulls, black oyster-catchers, pigeon guillemots, California least terns and California brown pelicans. They are compiling and analyzing existing records of seabird populations prior to the establishment of the South Coast MPAs and conducting new bird surveys at key sites. In the project’s first two years, scientists monitored seabird breeding colonies, rooting sites and foraging rates on Santa Cruz Island, in La Jolla (where there is also a Brandt’s cormorant colony), at Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma in San Diego and along the Palos Verdes peninsula in Los Angeles. The MPAs and special closures were established, in part, to protect roosting and breeding seabirds from passing ships, fishing lines and other human activities. As a result, scientists will be looking for evidence that the new regulations are reducing seabird behaviors like nest abandonment that indicate disturbance. During the 2012 field surveys, researchers observed high mortalities of least tern chicks. Fecal samples suggest the reproductive failure was caused by a lack of 1-year-old Northern anchovy and young rockfishes near the bird’s breeding colonies. The scientists report that 2013 appears to be a mixed year for least tern chicks, with some colonies doing better than others.  Analyses of least tern fecal pellets and other seabird monitoring data will be conducted this fall and next year. Findings from this project are being used to enhance and encourage science-based approaches to seabird conservation.

Establishing Consumptive and Nonconsumptive Human-use Baseline Indicators for the South Coast MPAs
R/MPA-29 May 2012–Jun. 2014
Cheryl Chen, Ecotrust, 503.467.0812,
Kristen Sheeran, Ecotrust , 503.467.0811,
Charles S. Steinback, Ecotrust, 503.467.0758,

People are the focus of this baseline monitoring project. In particular, social scientists leading this project are documenting human behavior at the coast. They will observe what, where and how often, and how much people spend for three sectors of the ocean economy: (1) private recreation, which includes activities such clamming, beach walking, diving, photography, surfing and birding; (2) commercial fishing, and (3) commercial passenger fishing vessels (aka “party boats”) that may take people out fishing or whale watching. The core outcome of the project will be a series of standardized, fully documented, and quantitative socioeconomic data sets and maps. These will be used to establish an initial snapshot of human-use “indicators” for the South Coast MPAs and to assess initial changes in how people enjoy the water and commercially fish along the coast. Scientists will also attempt to identify key socioeconomic metrics and a modeling framework for understanding cause-and-effect relationships between ecosystem features, human-use patterns and MPAs.

Nearshore Substrate Mapping and Change Analysis Using Multi-Spectral Aerial Imagery
R/MPA-30 Sep. 2011–Jun. 2014
Jan Svejkovsky, Ocean Imaging, 858.792.8529,

Scientists with San Diego-based Ocean Imaging Corp. are mapping intertidal and, to a lesser extent, subtidal habitats in the South Coast study region, using multi-spectral images collected in the red, green, blue and near infrared bands.  These imaging data are being combined with bathymetric maps, produced using LiDAR data collected by Fugro EarthData for a California Coastal Conservancy-funded project. The result is the ability to map sandy beaches, surf-grass meadows, kelp canopies, algae-covered rocks and bare-rock habitats at 1-meter resolutions. In the project’s final year, raw image data files (calibrated and mosaicked) and GIS-compatible substrate classification files, among other metadata packages, will be made publicly available the MPA Monitoring Enterprise’s data server and on DVD.