Helen Brierley

California marine protected area long term monitoring program final reports 2019-2021

After three years, Marine Protected Area Monitoring Program research teams have completed seven long-term projects to gain a better understanding of California’s marine protected areas (MPAs). Teams collected and synthesized past research and utilized a variety of novel scientific approaches for their final reports. These reports will inform the evaluation of California’s MPA network and contribute to the 2022 decadal management review of the network. 

The Ocean Protection Council (OPC) funded projects totaling $14.8 million through the Marine Protected Area Monitoring Program between 2019 and 2021. These projects were administered by California Sea Grant in partnership with OPC and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and build on more than a decade of MPA monitoring.

Read the January 2022 news release here.

MPA Long Term Monitoring Research Projects 

Use the links below to jump to specific research projects. 



Understanding the impacts and effects of MPAs on California’s coastal communities is challenging due to the complex interplay between people and coastal ecosystems. Socioeconomic monitoring can provide a comprehensive understanding of changes in fishing patterns and fisherman well-being over space and time. The collection of these data helps inform the adaptive management of MPAs so they maximize their ecological, economic, and sociocultural benefits while minimizing potentially negative socioeconomic impacts.

This project addressed three primary components: (1) engagement with stakeholders, such as fishermen, researchers, and resources managers; (2) focus groups with members of California's commercial fishing and commercial passenger fishing vessel (or charter fishing) communities; and (3) geospatial modeling to explore commercial fishing activity inside and outside MPAs. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual focus groups were held with commercial and charter fisherman to inform how California’s MPA network affects the economic and social aspects of life for fishing communities along the coast. 

The project team gathered robust data on port community well-being and attitudes and perceptions of MPA impacts. The virtual focus group technique is a viable and cost-effective data collecting methodology for long-term MPA monitoring. Data collected during this project were used to establish an understanding of stakeholder sentiments that will be used as a baseline to measure future changes and fishing effort for pre/post MPA evaluation statewide. 

The team also created a website designed to showcase the nuances of stakeholder perspectives.  A full presentation of the key project findings and the data products/deliverables can be found on the project website.

PI: Jon Bonkoski (Ecotrust)
Co-PI’s: Cheryl Chen (Independent Consultant), Laurie Richmond (Humboldt State University), Kelly Sayce (Strategic Earth Consulting)


Kelp forests and shallow rocky reefs represent some of California’s most iconic nearshore marine ecosystems. They support ecologically, economically, and culturally important native species and provide valuable ecosystem services including tourism and nearshore recreational and commercial fisheries.

This project aggregated historical biological and environmental data from previous surveys of kelp forest and shallow rocky reefs, which when combined with new data collected by the team informed integrated analyses to assess trends in kelp forest and shallow rocky reef communities at the scale of individual MPAs as well as regional scales.

The team assessed which regions of California had the strongest response to MPAs, MPA design attributes (such as size and distance to the closest port), and habitat diversity and composition, species diversity and richness, response to fisheries, and environmental conditions. California’s 24 MPAs are diverse in size, composition, protections, and use. The team found MPA effects vary across species, MPAs, biogeographic regions, and time periods. California has a huge and diverse coastline, and key findings were often regional, no statewide trends emerged. The team concluded that MPA analysis at and across regional scales will be more insightful than combined state-wide analyses. 

PI: Mark Carr (UC Santa Cruz)
Co-PI’s: Kristy Kroeker (UC Santa Cruz), Jan Freiwald (Reef Check Foundation), Brian Tissot (Humboldt State University), Dan Pondella (Occidental College), Yuichiro Takeshita (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute), Kyle Cavanaugh (UCLA), Jennifer Caselle (UC Santa Barbara)


Sandy beaches and surf zones are intensely used for recreation and are vitally important to California’s coastal economies. These dynamic ecosystems at the boundary of land and sea also support a diversity of animals, including fish, invertebrates, and birds. Harvested species of surf zone fish may benefit directly from MPAs. Beaches are also ecologically linked to nearshore kelp forests and shallow rocky reefs, that provide drift algae that fuels beach food webs. This means MPAs may help beach ecosystems through positive effects on adjacent kelp forests and reefs.
To evaluate responses of these understudied beach and surf zone ecosystems to MPAs, researchers surveyed surf zone fish, birds, stranded kelp, human use, surf zone and beach characteristics at pairs of MPA and carefully matched reference sites. Beaches and surf zones are not included in long term ecological monitoring programs, and the team's 154 surveys of surf zone fish using beach seines and video cameras were the first ever statewide comparisons. Surf zone fish overall and recreationally targeted fish species were more numerous in MPAs compared to reference beaches in video results, as was overall diversity. Combined biomass of these fish groups caught in seines was also greater in MPAs. The 252 surveys of beach birds, kelp plants and wrack found less evidence of responses to MPAs. However, peak numbers of shorebirds were found in MPAs suggesting some MPAs are hotspots with high conservation value for these ecological indicators. The project team recommends that long-term-monitoring programs are established for surf zone fish, beach birds, wrack, and beach characteristics to track the responses of surf zone and beach ecosystems to MPAs, climate, and other factors over time.

PI: Jenny Dugan (UC Santa Barbara)
Co-PI’s: Henry Page (UC Santa Barbara), Robert Miller (UC Santa Barbara), Kristin Lindquist (Greater Farallones Association), Jose Marin Jarrin (Humboldt State University), Tim Mulligan (Humboldt State University), Mark Colwell (Humboldt State University), Dan Robinette (Point Blue Conservation Science), Kristina Neuman (Point Blue Conservation Science), Scott Hamilton (Moss Landing Marine Laboratories/San Jose State University), Karina Nielsen (San Francisco State University), Seth Ricker (California Department of Fish and Wildlife), John Garza (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - Southwest Fisheries)


The California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program (CCRFP) is a diverse partnership of volunteer anglers, boat captains, scientists, nongovernmental organizations, and charter companies interested in promoting sustainable fisheries. They have been monitoring California MPAs since 2007. The research team surveyed 12 MPA and 12 reference sites in 2019 and 2020, from Northern to Southern California, and worked with 18 commercial passenger fishing vessels and over 300 volunteer anglers during that time. CCFRP uses standardized fishing gear and sampling protocols to catch, measure, tag, and release fish caught inside and outside of MPAs, thus providing information about the abundance, size, biomass, diversity, and movement patterns of fishes in nearshore waters.
The team documented significant changes in abundance, size, and biomass of fishes inside and outside of MPAs over time. Fish are more abundant, larger in size, and greater in biomass inside the MPAs across the state compared to reference areas open to fishing. The strength of the MPA response depended on the intensity of fishing outside the MPAs; in locations with light fishing pressure, biomass increased both inside and outside the MPAs, while in locations with heavy fishing pressure, biomass increased only inside the MPAs. Results also indicated that larger MPAs across the state experienced greater increases in species abundance and overall biomass than smaller MPAs. 
The team also created education and outreach materials to share with volunteer anglers, academics, resource managers, and the general public about the CCFRP program, marine reserves, and fisheries management. The team found that with education and relationship building through the CCFRP program, anglers develop a significantly more positive attitude about MPAs. 

PI: Scott Hamilton (Moss Landing Marine Laboratories/San Jose State University), Rick Starr (Moss Landing Marine Laboratories/San Jose State University)
Co-PI’s: Benjamin Ruttenberg (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), Dean Wendt (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), Lyall Bellquist (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego), Jennifer Caselle (UC Santa Barbara), Steven Morgan (UC Davis), Timothy Mulligan (Humboldt State University), Brice Semmens (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego), Joe Tyburczy (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego and Humboldt State University)


California’s rocky intertidal habitats are rare, covering around five to ten square miles statewide, but highly important to the state in terms of biodiversity, and recreational, cultural and economic value. However, their location makes them susceptible to impacts from a myriad of anthropogenic sources and climate change. The data collected through this project allow for analyses of population, community, and species distribution changes, and other potential network-level effects on intertidal habitats. One of the project’s most significant findings is that the sites inside of MPAs are showing greater resiliency to disturbance, including to marine heatwaves.

The research team conducted two different types of surveys, both of which involved standardized protocols that allow for seamless integration across research projects, maximizing the usefulness of the data. First, the team built on yearly surveys that revisited established locations. The surveys focused on keystone and foundation species, with the idea that changes in these species signal, or directly lead to, changes across the intertidal community. This long-term data was combined with detailed biodiversity surveys that occurred every 3-4 years and encapsulated the hundreds to thousands of species found in the state’s intertidal habitats. These two survey datasets complement each other and enabled researchers to understand both the size and the scope of changes in the intertidal habitats, from the geographic extent of a growing mussel bed to the percentage change in the population. The team also developed web-based tools available for free online to share data with other researchers, resource managers and the public. 

PI: Peter Raimondi (UC Santa Cruz)
Co-PI’s: Matthew Bracken (UC Irvine), Jayson Smith (CSU Polytechnic University), Jennifer Burnaford (CSU Fullerton), Erika Delemarre (LiMPETS), Cascade Sorte (UC Irvine), Jennifer Caselle (UC Santa Barbara), Rani Gaddam (UC Santa Cruz)


Marine Protected Areas face many pressures, from resource use to climate variations and long-term change, but monitoring their effectiveness is difficult for resource managers because of wide regional and time variations. The research team created a new California MPA Dashboard, which streamlines complex data and provides up-to-date information to help researchers, managers, and decision makers assess MPAs from regional to statewide scales. The team compiled existing data sets from many different sources, including the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS), the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS), and other data continues to be added.

Some environmental and biological data come from satellites and advanced remote sensing tools like moorings, buoys, radar, and sensors. Other data are sourced from researchers in the field. The team also utilized models that highlight the impacts of increased sea surface temperatures, variations in ocean acidity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, and climate-related ecological phenomena such as harmful algal blooms and marine diseases, all of which can impact the California coast and the network of 124 MPAs. The research team took a multipronged approach to process complex data to make it more accessible to those who need it. The California MPA Dashboard creates a curated and current snapshot of ocean physics, biogeochemistry, biology, and ecology, and models future scenarios.  

PI: Henry Ruhl (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)
Co-PI’s: Clarissa Anderson (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego), Christopher Edwards (UC Santa Cruz), Mati Kahru (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego), Robert Bochenek (Axiom Data Science)


Rocky habitats deeper than 30 meters represent at least 75% of all marine habitats in California state waters by area, and support a high diversity of ecologically and economically important fish and invertebrate species. Despite experiencing a much greater likelihood of habitat alteration due to fishing activities, less is known about these habitats than those in shallow waters, due to the difficulties associated with surveying species in deeper water.  

The research team analyzed existing survey data collected to evaluate changes in marine fishes and invertebrates inside and outside of California MPAs. They evaluated 2,445 Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) transects, 564 Human Occupied Vehicle (HOV) transects, 2300 tethered video lander, and 360 baited video lander surveys across 42 MPAs and their associated reference sites outside the MPA boundaries. These data allowed the team to evaluate the relative effects of MPAs by determining the differences in trends of biomass and size distribution of fishes and invertebrates inside and outside of California MPAs.

They concluded that fish densities have increased overtime, though the MPA effects varied across species, location, management regions, and years. Some species did show clear positive reserve effects. The team also created maps of high-quality rocky habitats in 96 MPAs to show how the distribution of high-quality rocky reef habitats relates to potential MPA performance. They found that structure-forming invertebrates, such as corals and sponges, were found at greater densities within MPAs than in associated reference sites outside the MPA boundaries. This synthesis of historic and newly collected data provided a comprehensive assessment of deep rocky reef ecosystem health across California’s MPA network, and provides the state with recommendations for future monitoring of rocky reef habitats. 

PI: Richard Starr (Moss Landing Marine Laboratories/San Jose State University)
Co-PI’s: Jennifer Caselle (UC Santa Barbara), Amanda Kahn (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute), Andrew Lauermann (Marine Applied Research and Exploration), James Lindholm (CSU Monterey Bay), Brian Tissot (Humboldt State University)

More information

Educational Materials

MPA Monitoring Program: These websites host information and resources related to the MPA Monitoring Program, including references and other supporting information.

MPA Monitoring Program Data: These websites host access to MPA regulation, outreach, and monitoring data resources.

MPA Management Program: