Conservationists celebrate new marine protected areas

Liz Crosson and Amanda Gruen of L.A. Waterkeeper unveil a new sign at Paradise Cove warning people not to fish in newly created Marine Protected Areas. 

Southern California beaches finally have received the appropriate signage advising commercial and sport fisherman of sensitive “No Take” Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), thanks to new laws implemented a year ago. 

A consortium of stakeholders—including the L.A. Waterkeeper (formerly the Santa Monica Baykeeper), Paradise Cove, Heal the Bay and L.A. County lifeguards—celebrated the installation of the first MPA signs at Paradise Cove Wednesday morning last week. The simple signage was a long time coming. 

In 2008, the California Fish and Game Commission began a public planning process to identify and designate MPAs that would close sensitive Southern California coastal regions to over-fishing. After much contentious public debate,  the commission adopted regulations designating 36 new MPAs encompassing about 187 square miles of southern coastal waters. Those regulations became law in January 2012. 

“It will still take a lot of public education,” L.A. Waterkeeper Executive Director Liz Crosson said. “But having signs up so people know they are approaching a Marine Protected Area is a first step.” 

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with local environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Ocean Conservancy, Surfrider and the Santa Barbara Channel Keepers to make sure the word gets out. Even with the new MPA laws in place for more than a year, there are plenty of coastal water enthusiasts who don’t know what an MPA is, much less where one might be located. 

As outreach coordinator for L.A. Waterkeeper, Michael Quill, monitors fishing activity off the Palos Verdes peninsula and along Malibu waterways, where MPAs have been located. In Malibu, he said he’s noticed less boat fishing, but more people fishing from shore at protected sites. But he said that most people he has approached are grateful to hear about the new restrictions. 

“I come upon families out with their mother-in-law who haven’t been fishing in a year,” Quill said. “No one knew about the MPAs and were glad that I was able to inform them. It will be an ongoing effort.” 

Efforts will continue on and off shore, as well as in the air, to identify commercial fishermen or sports anglers who have entered protected waters. L.A. Waterkeeper has even printed waterproof maps, with GPS coordinates clearly marked, so fishing enthusiasts can note what areas are off limits. The key, Quill emphasized, is proper education, so people are aware not only of the sensitivity of the area, but are assured their actions are going far to ensure the sustainability of the oceans for future generations. 

“I hit up all the bait and tackle shops with maps and posters,” Quill said. “Most people realize these MPAs are in place for a good reason and that there is plenty of ocean out there to fish.” 

The Fish and Wildlife Commission took years of data and fish counts to determine which areas were seeing alarming declines of fish populations. And there is good evidence that establishing MPAs in over-fished regions can see a surprisingly rapid return of native marine populations. In a marine reserve established at Anacapa Island, lobsters, rock scallops and sea cucumbers have become plentiful after a decimating decline. The reserve’s kelp forest and understory algae are more stable than in fished areas, as well. 

Heal the Bay’s Coastal Resource Director Sarah Sikich said that most fishing enthusiasts her monitor teams approach are nonconsumptive and compliant with the new regulations. She said the Fish and Wildlife Commission is taking the new MPA designations seriously and it could be expensive if one is found to be violating the laws. 

“There was a crab fisherman off Sonoma who was caught in a protected area with a full load,” Sikich said. “His license was suspended, he got five days in jail and a $20,000 fine.” 

Heal the Bay is banking on a strong volunteer contingent to help broaden education outreach to inland L.A. County, looking to engage as many stakeholders as possible. The idea is that working together will help the community monitor how astutely the MPA laws are being observed, as well as help insure that more coastal visitors are aware of the regulations. 

“There are already surveys underway to monitor fish populations in the MPA regions,” Sikich said. “Our MPA usage data helps them with their counts. People can see that MPAs really do help so we are working together as a community, instead of just arguing whether MPAs are good or bad.” 

The first simple signage is being installed up and down the coast and at all coastal access roads now. Future interpretive signage is being designed with images, maps and multilingual explanations of the purpose of MPAs. 

The environmentalists celebrating the new signage installation were hopeful for meaningful change. 

“Just imagine,” L.A. Waterkeeper Outreach Coordinator Amanda Gruen said. “Maybe soon we’ll see otters playing in the water here again.” 

This story originally appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.