California’s New Parks Under the Sea

In 2012 after 13 years of heated debates, name-calling, lawsuits and public hearings, California finally created the network of underwater wilderness reserves mandated by the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). These reserves, which encompass 16 percent of the waters along California’s spectacular 1,100-mile coastline, include some of the best dive sites on the planet.

The conflict over whether to establish these marine protected areas (MPAs) stemmed from California’s many competing saltwater interest groups: commercial fishers, recreational fishers, ports, conservationists, coastal tribes, the U.S. Navy and others. Thus, it isn’t surprising that it took so long to complete the process of setting up the MPAs. What is perhaps surprising is how often the state’s investment in “blue” (marine conservation) initiatives gets things right. I can attest to California’s success in marine conservation because I’ve sailed across, flown over, reported on and dived through many of these formerly contested waters.

There were times when it felt as though we would never see MPAs in California. I remember one cool evening in December 2001 when I attended a meeting of the San Diego Council of Divers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. Some 30 to 40 recreational divers gathered in the Sumner Auditorium on Scripps’ waterside campus to hear scientist Paul Dayton narrate a slide show about MPAs. The MPAs to be established that year, according to the recent MLPA legislation, were to include a network of no-take underwater parks.

During his talk, Dayton — perhaps the world’s leading authority on kelp ecology — discussed what he called “ghost forests,” or California’s kelp forests that could no longer sustain the giant black sea bass, moray eels, lobsters, billfish, little fish and abundant variety of abalone and otters that once thrived there. He showed us a slide of a juvenile abalone hiding under the spines of a big red urchin, and the crowd murmured its appreciation. “Only divers could find a baby abalone cute,” I thought.

His older photographs depicted black sea bass larger than the men who caught them, including an impressive 628-pounder captured in La Jolla Cove in the 1960s that had to be lifted off the beach by a tow truck. Other slides featured images of freedivers in the 1950s holding lobsters the size of bulldogs, and one early-20th-century photo from San Diego’s Coronado Island showed a man with a wheelbarrow standing atop four acres of spiny lobsters.

“Everything’s changed in my lifespan,” the sandy-gray-haired professor told us. “I just don’t see why there is such opposition to these reserves that enhance fishing and heritage values.”

“If we establish them, will I be able to collect abs in my lifetime?” one diver asked.

“Probably not,” Dayton admitted. “I think it will be more than 50 years before we see their recovery.”

When Dayton said this in 2001, he probably did not realize it would be more than 10 years before California would institute its MPAs.

After Dayton’s presentation, I interviewed Bob Fletcher, the tall, trim, gray-eyed president of the Sportfishing Association of California and one of the MLPA’s outspoken opponents.

“If we get reserves at the levels environmentalists want, you’ll devastate opportunities for recreational fisheries and anglers. You have to balance the interests of the environmentalists with our right to make a living,” he argued.

I brought up the fact that environmentalists, divers and scientists might sue if they weren’t satisfied with the final recommendations on the MPAs, noting that Fletcher’s group would also likely sue if they weren’t satisfied. The result either way would certainly add years of additional delay to the creation of these reserves.

“I don’t see that as such a bad thing,” Fletcher grinned. “I’m not against inaction.”

More than a decade later, as the MLPA process was finally concluding and protected areas were being delineated, Fletcher and two fishing groups filed suit, claiming that the California Fish and Game Commission that oversaw the process failed to do a proper environmental review and had no legal authority in the first place. A state judge dismissed one suit, and Fletcher and his associates withdrew from the other.

Researchers have compiled significant documentation regarding the benefits of MPAs. The Marine Applied Research and Explorations (MARE) group — a nonprofit organization based in Richmond, Calif., that uses data analysis, deepwater engineering and offshore operations expertise to assess changes in fish populations and habitats — recently examined the MPAs off California’s Channel Islands. Nearly 20 percent of the Channel Islands, consisting of some 318 square miles of water, came under protection in 2003 in a process similar to the state’s MLPA program. Dirk Rosen, MARE’s founder and executive director, was hired to use the nonprofit’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) robot submarine to survey the Channel Islands’ MPAs for seven years following their initial fishing closures. He found that in the final year of his surveys his ROV cameras recorded a greater abundance, size and variety of fish, including the threatened canary rockfish.

Rosen showed me one tape in which a large black sea bass swims past the camera and wanders off into the kelp. “There were a lot of large females this time,” he explained. “They’re more fecund, they help rebuild stocks, and their presence lets you know these reserves are going to recover.”

In fact, MPAs are often so successful that they even benefit the same fishermen who sometimes oppose such environmental protections.

A red octopus sits on top of a pink sea star
A red octopus and a bat star on a newly protected California reef.

“There has been lots of science on reserves — hundreds of papers on this — and when they’re big enough to work, fishermen love them,” Dayton explained to me recently. He was referring to the spillover effect of the MPAs, which is when larger and more numerous fish swim beyond the watery boundaries of their protected zones to places where they can be legally targeted.

For example, the waters outside of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., have been off-limits to fishers for national security reasons since 1962, and in the regions bordering these protected areas there are more world-record catches of red drum, sea trout and other sport fish than anywhere else in Florida. Similarly, just down the road from Scripps is the San Diego–La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, which was established in 1971. Past the yellow buoys that mark the edges of the 533-acre no-take zone, the sea surface is thick with marker floats for lobster traps to capture the spillover of spiny lobsters as they migrate out of the reserve.

I asked Dayton if he feels his work has helped change public awareness. “If I could, I think I’d have rather done more science and spent less time speaking out,” he confessed after recalling the many times he was shouted down at talks and public hearings.

Still, it was the outspokenness of scientists such as Dayton, along with environmentalists, whale-watching operators, some commercial fishermen and hundreds of dedicated divers who finally turned the tide for the protection of the state’s too-often exploited seas.

The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2001 calling for wilderness protection for 20 percent of America’s coastal waters. In 2014 we are only approaching 3 percent protection, but at least blue-friendly California is doing its part to help.

After a few dives, I snorkel through Fisherman’s Cove on Catalina Island, which is the Channel Island closest to Los Angeles. The cove is home to the Wrigley Marine Science Center and the site of a small marine reserve. Under new MLPA guidelines, this half-square-mile protected area is being expanded to three square miles. Its kelp forest is thick, swarming with large calico, kelp bass and orange garibaldis, and it teems with shoaling small fry. At one point I spot several 5-foot bat rays flying through the water column. Closer to the beach, my buddies and I find rocky nooks and caves full of lobsters and rays collected on the sandy bottom. Under the pier I encounter a sizable school of white sea bass of about 20 pounds each, all as indifferent to my presence as the sea lion that cruised past me during an earlier dive.

Along the cliffs on the far side of the pier the water is crystal clear, resembling the Caribbean but with kelp. Resting on the surface amid the globs of brown algae, I can look up at the steep slopes covered in prickly pear cactus and Catalina live-forever plants — succulents native only to this island. Below the surface I freedive through open channels in the seaweed to play with apple-green opaleyes, caramel-spotted calico bass and hefty orange garibaldis. I spot suspicious antennae-waving lobsters and small bottom-cruising leopard sharks, and it feels good to be in a wilderness again.

I suspect that in as few as 10 or 15 years from now, those Californians who today so vehemently oppose MPAs will have to shrug and reluctantly acknowledge that something of value really did happen when a world-class state park system moved underwater.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2014