February 26, 2020

Reef Check’s Role in the California Marine Life Protection Act and Engaging the Public to Monitor Reefs Statewide

By: Tristin McHugh, North Coast Regional Manager, Reef Check California

Where the Pacific Ocean meets the coast of California is one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the world. Hundreds of miles of a narrow continental shelf, deep underwater canyons and springtime winds promote exceptional productivity and rich biodiversity in the nearshore temperate rocky reefs. In 1999, the California Legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) which legally required the state of California to design, implement, and enforce a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) throughout the state. The goals of the network within state waters are to ensure ecosystem protection, sustain fisheries, and preserve cultural resources.

Following the passing of the MLPA, researchers and stakeholders spent the next 13 years working together to develop a network of MPAs that would extend throughout the state. One of the goals of the MPA Network was to create a monitoring protocol that aligned with scientific guidelines, and target areas that represented the diverse array of habitats present along the California coast such as kelp forests and rocky reefs, intertidal zones, seagrass beds, seamounts, and deep submarine canyons. In addition, effective implementation of the MLPA required that MPAs be large enough and spaced closely together to protect reproductive adults and facilitate the dispersal of their young among MPAs and into surrounding areas. Lastly, within the designated network, multiple MPAs needed to be present within coastal regions and habitat types to ensure connectivity of the network and ensure protection should one MPA experience an environmental disaster.

The first of four installments of the MPA network in California was implemented in the Central Coast, followed by the North-Central Coast, South Coast, and finally the North Coast in 2012. Statewide, there are a total of 124 MPAs within the network, and ultimately increased the protection of California waters from 2.7% in 1999 to 16.1% in 2012. Enforcement of these protected areas is overseen by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Wardens. Citizens are encouraged to notify the CDFW via the CAL-TIP hotline to report poachers and/or any illegal activity occurring within protected areas. However, education and outreach and an avenue for stakeholders to become involved in the monitoring of these areas is needed for Californians to become aware of MPA regulations.

Since 2006, Reef Check California has been dedicated to monitoring temperate rocky reefs throughout the entire state of California, including the Channel Islands. By training citizen scientists in standardized underwater monitoring protocols, we are able to study kelp forest and rocky reef ecosystems over a large geographic scale and develop a long-term data set capturing the fish, invertebrate, algae, and habitat present at each of the sites. This collaborative approach ensures high-quality data, and scientific oversight while encouraging public participation in a long-term research project. Since the development of the MPA Network, Reef Check annually monitors targeted sites inside and outside MPAs to provide critical scientific data to better understand the effectiveness of the MPA Network. To date, Reef Check divers have conducted over 1,000 surveys at over 110 sites statewide. With every year that passes, Reef Check continues to build our long-term data set and involve more Californians in the process; since the program’s beginnings in 2006, over 1,500 divers have completed the Reef Check course.

Reef Check California directly enables the MPA monitoring program to develop a local presence by educating the public through experience. MPAs in the state of California vary in their level of protection, and it is our responsibility as Californians and ocean-enthusiasts to be aware and abide by the laws present. Diving with the Reef Check program ensures that divers are aware of the regulations surrounding the location of their dives. In addition to involving the public in monitoring California’s MPAs, Reef Check divers often make rare or critical observations pertaining to our understanding of this marine ecosystem. For example, following the marine heatwaves (2013-current), many organisms underwent range shifts and were being observed in new locations (Lonhart et al., 2019). Because of the familiarity of Reef Check divers with their monitoring sites, and their ability to distinguish a rare species, they have been able to capture some of these range expansions (e.g., Freiwald et al., 2016). This included the arrival of adult lobsters, barred knifejaw and crowned urchins in the Monterey Bay as well as the largemouth blenny in Southern California and diseased urchins in Northern California.

As the ocean continues to change, these observations and the rapid dissemination of these findings by Reef Check divers on our data portal and media platforms allow this critical information to be passed along to interested researchers and resource managers in real time. The biological and oceanographic information collected by Reef Check divers during the annual monitoring of MPAs will only become more robust with time, and this will directly assist the State of California in the evaluation and adaptive management of our MPA network.