Baseline Monitoring of North Coast Marine Areas is Complete

December, 2017


Underwater MPA baseline data collection by a diver. Submitted photo.

Underwater MPA data collection by a diver. Submitted photo.

In 2012, 20 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and seven special closures were implemented in the North Coast region, completing the statewide MPA network designed to protect and conserve marine wildlife, habitats, and ecosystems.  California’s MPA Monitoring Program has taken a two-phase approach to evaluate the effects of MPAs and inform ocean management: regional baseline monitoring (Phase 1) and statewide long-term monitoring (Phase 2). This year marks the completion of the North Coast MPA baseline monitoring phase.

Five snapshot reports and the State of the California North Coast report were released in late October, providing an initial synopsis of ecological, biological, oceanographic and socioeconomic conditions. Community gatherings were held in Del Norte, Humboldt,  and Mendocino counties in early November to share information about the reports and the status of California’s MPA Management Program, including next steps for Phase 2.

A collaborative effort of academic institutions, state and federal agencies, Native American Tribes, non-profit organizations, fishermen, citizen science groups, and many others participated in monitoring over the past five years.  Following implementation of the MPA network, the California Ocean Protection Council allocated $4-million to fund baseline monitoring inside and outside of MPAs in the region. Through an independent peer review process administered by California Sea Grant, 11 proposals were awarded funding.  “This funding has been essential for research on fish and fishing, as well as intertidal, kelp, and other important marine habitats that have gone understudied due to lack of funding. Hopefully funding will continue to improve the scientific information we need for better fisheries management decisions for the North Coast,” stated Humboldt Baykeeper Director Jennifer Kalt. 

Researchers observed several unique ecological events and gathered invaluable information. The North Coast Oceanographic Conditions project compiled and analyzed oceanographic and atmospheric data to depict ocean conditions along the North Coast relevant to understanding regional biological variability. The study revealed that oceanographic conditions along the North Coast were marked by unusually warm temperatures from mid 2014 through at least early 2016. These anomalous conditions contrast starkly from previous years, and resulted in an unprecedented harmful algal bloom that produced high domoic acid concentrations that directly affected Dungeness crab and bivalve fisheries. 

Baseline surveys of shallow reef habitats during the study period found kelps, such as the canopy forming bull kelp and other understory species, were nearly absent from most reefs. Also absent were sea stars, such as the sunflower star and the giant sea star, which died off in massive numbers due to “sea star wasting syndrome.” 

With the loss of sea star predators, red and purple sea urchins dominated the reefs at most sites. Black and blue rockfish were the most abundant fish species with black rockfish abundance decreasing north to south and blue rockfish exhibiting the opposite pattern. 

Rarely and never-before-studied deep habitats, outside of SCUBA diving research depths, were given a baseline by the Marine Applied Research and Exploration team, through the use of a Remotely Operated Vehicle or ROV. By using the ROV the team was able to conduct visual surveys of mid-depth rocky reefs (30-100m), soft bottom subtidal ecosystems (30-100m) and deep canyon ecosystems (deeper than 100m).

Projects also highlighted how commercial and recreational fisheries play a vital role in the North Coast economy. In-person interviews with 163 commercial fishermen revealed that 73 percent believe that MPAs have directly affected their fishing, with the most frequently cited effect of MPA implementation being that they cannot fish (or go to) traditional fishing grounds. Despite this, nearly 66 percent of respondents reported no change to recent fishing income following MPA implementation. 

The North Coast Region was the first to include Tribal or Indigenous Traditional Knowledge (T/ITK) as part of baseline monitoring throughout the State. Project leads coordinated with 13 tribal communities in the compilation of T/ITK as it pertained to five keystone species (clams, mussels, smelt, abalone, and seaweed) and their associated ecosystems. The project’s scope included the review of 120 pieces of archival materials held by individual tribal entities as well as literature held within other institutional archives. In addition, extensive interviews with 69 tribal members were conducted. 

The state is now developing quantitative and expert-informed approaches to long-term monitoring (Phase 2), and will synthesize these approaches in an Action Plan. Expected to be released in 2018, the Action Plan will identify a priority list of indicators and sites to evaluate the performance of the MPA network at meeting the goals of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). A comprehensive review of the network will also be conducted in 2022. The state of region snapshot reports and more information can be found at

According to an analysis by the Marine Conservation Institute (MCI), public comments collected at show near unanimous support for maintaining marine monuments and sanctuaries as they currently exist.  “Our analysis of a statistically valid random sample of the comments filed shows over 99 percent support for monuments and sanctuaries,” said MCI President Lance Morgan.


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