Living Sea Images Marine Life Photography

Marine Proteced Areas Degraded as Kelp Forests Succumb to Urchin Outbreak

From 2000 to 2007 I devoted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours, mostly unpaid, to the creation of new marine protected areas (MPAs) in Central California. If you're not familiar with that history, check it out below. Now, every MPA I focused on back then, from Monterey to Big Sur, is not just threatened, they're being damaged and degraded. It's happening right now, while you read this.

While the problem had become clear to me as early as 2015, the situation is evolving so I've been using my blog to post updates. The lastest installment from May, 2020 includes:

  • Greater Insight into the issue, that has emerged in the last year.
  • Explanation of why nobody is trying to stop the urchin outbreak: they risk citation or arrest for doing so. Yes, it is illegal!
  • An action plan developed by local divers and citizen-scientists
Finally, if you're the kind of person who'd rather watch a video than read, you can learn most of the detals from the recording of a presentation I did on May 8, 2020 called Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

The Three Major Threats to the Health of Our Oceans

Marine scientists generally agree that threats to the oceans can be grouped into three categories:

  • Over-Fishing
  • Water Quality (Pollution)
  • Climate Change



Over-Fishing is the unsustainable human consumption of seafood and other marine life faster than it can reproduce. The result is depleted populations of the species we value most. In California, there have been cycles of depletion and recovery for several species. Giant Black Sea Bass were fished to extremely depleted levels before fishing for them was banned in 1983. Now they are making a comeback. One species of Rockfish, the Canary, was formerly a mainstay of the fishing industry in the northern part of the state, but is now at less than 10% of its original population. Canary Rockfish, and the related Yelloweye Rockfish, are now illegal to catch. Areas in the ocean where all life is protected, much like state and national parks on land, have been shown to protect and foster all the life within them.


Water Quality

This term refers to everything from industrial waste to sewage outfalls to drifting trash. Those of us of a certain age remember when "pollution" was the catch-all term for these degradations of aquatic habitats. Chemicals can poison the water, whereas the output of sewage treatment plants often acts as fertilizer for algae. Down current of outfalls, thick growths of algae displace sponges, anemones, barnacles and anything else that would otherwise live on the seabed. Now the oceans face a new threat to water quality. As carbon dioxide produced by the burning of coal, gas, and oil accumulates in the atmosphere, it migrates into the sea as carbonic acid. "Ocean acidification" makes coral, crabs, snails—everything with a hard shell—more fragile.


Climate Change

Ocean temperature is climbing as Earth gets warmer. As a result, sea level is rising, and warm-water species are also expanding their territories toward the poles. Species suited to the coldest water, like the polar bear, may be getting squeezed out of existence as the sheets of ice they live upon melt away. For example, in California, scientific evidence discovered in 1999 showed that animals previously restricted to Southern California had already begun to colonize the Central Coast. Marc Shargel has observed first-hand the sheephead, a large fish once restricted to Southern California, in the Carmel area and occasionally in Monterey beginning after the 1981-82 El Niño event. Every few years the El Niño pattern repeats, pushing unusually warm water against the California coast. Kellet's Whelk, a large snail formerly restricted to Southern California, is now seen frequently in Monterey Bay. In Southern California, El Niño years produce water too warm for kelp to survive and kelp forests have experienced repeating cycles of sudden decimation, followed by slow recovery. As the last major El Niño year was in 1995, SoCal's kelp beds are currently in relatively good condition. As the Earth and its oceans continue to warm, major shifts in ecosystems and the distribution of many species are inevitable. But the nature of those shifts is unpredictable. One of the few tools we have to protect life in the ocean during this process is to create marine reserves. Marine reserves are simply areas in the sea where nothing can be taken out.


A New Network of Marine Protected Areas for California

Marine Protected Areas are like National parks in the ocean: they can be enjoyed by visitors but not exploited. Marine Reserves are complete havens for marine life: nothing alive may be taken. In California, Marine Conservation Areas have also been established with "partial take" status.

1999 was a very important year for marine conservation in California. Two pieces of visionary legislation were passed: The Marine Life Management Act (MLMA) and the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). MLMA, which was sponsored by Santa Cruz’s own Fred Keeley, changed the marine conservation strategy of the Department of Fish and Game (DFG), which is responsible for managing the state's terrestrial and marine natural resources. MLMA establishes the precautionary principle as the guiding philosophy for future regulation. Since DFG was established in 1870, it spent decades managing plentiful populations of many kinds of wildlife. However, as California’s population and exploitation of living resources for profit expanded, those populations dwindled. Originally, the basic assumption had been that perpetual consumption of living resources would be just fine, because the supply seemed to be inexhaustible. Now MLMA’s precautionary principle calls for proof that any added consumption or exploitation be proven sustainable before it begins. For DFG, implementing this principle means changing the culture of a long-established bureaucracy, a slow change to be sure.

The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) mandated creation of a state-wide network of marine protected areas along California's coast. Implementation was started and stopped twice before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made MLPA an essential component of his "ocean action plan." Progress toward implementation re-started in 2004, dividing the coast into four regions, with a Regional Stakeholder Group established to map the new marine protected areas for each region. The first region was Central California, where Marc Shargel served as an alternate member of the Central California group. After many, many meeting days, caucuses, scientific reports and assessments, and days of public testimony, the Fish and Game Commission ratified a network for the central coast. This first group of protected areas went into effect on September 21, 2007. Marine protected areas were created in four regional phases:

Central Coast (Pigeon Point in San Mateo County to Point Conception in Santa Barbara County) September 21, 2007.
North Central Coast (Point Arena in Mendocino County to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County) May 10, 2010.
Southern California (Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the border with Mexico) January 1, 2012
Northern California (The border with Oregon to Point Arena in Mendocino County) December 19, 2012

The state-wide network of fully-protected marine reserves and partially protected marine conservation areas was completed in December of 2012 when the Fish and Game Commission adopted the map for the Northern California MPAs. To learn more about our Marine Protected Areas see these resources:

There is a Wonders of the Sea book by Marc Shargel on each area except the Central Coast. Marc's softcover Yesterday's Ocean is on the marine history of that area.

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