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Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By Rachel Roenfeldt

This is the logo for the US National System of Marine Protected Areas. Image courtesy of NOAA (http://www.noaa.gov/features/resources_0109/).

This is the logo for the US National System of Marine Protected Areas. Image courtesy of NOAA (http://www.noaa.gov/features/resources_0109/).

Marine protected areas (MPAs) have been an increasingly important and effective form of conservation and management of coastal habitats and species. The strengthening and enhancement of these sites began on May 26, 2000 under President Bill Clinton. The purpose of the order is to “help protect the significant natural and cultural resources within the marine environment for the benefit of present and future generations.” It also defines MPAs as “any area of the marine environment” protected by laws and regulations – federal, state and local (Executive Order No. 13158 2000). This executive order provided the necessary foundation to properly care for marine life and habitats on a national level.

Since the United States National System of Marine Protected Areas efforts began, more than 1,600 MPAs are in effect today (Wenzel & D’lorio 2011). Each site differs on their type and purpose depending on the needs of the area. They are described in reference to five characteristics: conservation focus, level of protection, permanence of protection, constancy of protection and ecological scale of protection.

In California, there is a total of 124 MPAs which span the entire coast and include islands such as the Channel Islands and Catalina Island (California’s Marine Protected Area (MPA) Network). The United States, in particular California, has been expanding the MPA network which greatly benefits the marine environments many of us love and enjoy. These MPAs tackle issues ranging from biodiversity, climate change and fishing. Overall, MPAs have made a positive impact on the environment, locally, nationally and globally.

Under Executive Order 13158, the Department of Commerce and Department of the Interior were in charge of organizing the National System of Marine Protected Areas. To add new MPAs to the system and improve existing ones, these two departments followed guidelines which included exercises such as completing “science-based identification…of resources,” “assessment of threats” to these resources, “assessment of economic effects of the preferred management solutions” and follow Environmental Protection Agency legislation and the Clean Water Act.

In April 2009, the National System of Marine Protected Areas was officially established, recognizing 225 MPAs. Each following year, other sites are nominated and evaluated based on the requirements mentioned above. Highly science-based, this process is effective in choosing areas that are in need of protection. Once labeled as an MPA, the site is then classified as a “no-take” or a “limited-take” area, depending on the needs of the MPA. Despite the fact that all these sites are diverse — geologically, biologically, socially and culturally — the organization works towards the common goal of responsible stewardship.

These protected areas are designed to conserve, manage and enrich. MPAs main goal is to restore and maintain the health of our national marine resources, to ensure species and ecosystems continue to survive in the future. In turn, these areas provide us with biological services such as nutrient cycling, carbon storage and food sources. Because of this, there is strict legislation regarding pollution, water quality standards and limits on removing life from these areas. In some places, “no-take” policies are enforced, however less than three percent of MPAs have such regulations (Wenzel & D’lorio 2011).

By conserving the natural habitats and marine environments, MPAs also preserve cultural history and traditions found in recreation and tourism. Many Americans value and enjoy oceans and beaches and recreating there. In order to promote the health and survival of these important MPAs, enhancing awareness and support for marine conservation is another common goal. Through increased public awareness and emphasizing individual responsibility for the care of ocean ecosystems and resources, the National System of Marine Protected Areas can continue the necessary work that has been achieved since 2000.

These efforts will encourage individual and community involvement through local recycling and clean-up programs, which will hopefully go on to promote a national incentive to change our behavior and mindset about pollution, waste and conservation. By conserving marine life, maintaining the health of the ecosystems and informing the public about the importance of protecting these areas, MPAs are part of the strategy for climate education and ultimately adaptation.

Marine protected areas on Catalina Island. Information regarding location, type of MPA and specific restrictions are provided. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Waterkeeper (https://lawaterkeeper.org/marine-protected-areas/).

Marine protected areas on Catalina Island. Information regarding location, type of MPA and specific restrictions are provided. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Waterkeeper (https://lawaterkeeper.org/marine-protected-areas/).

California’s marine ecosystems include kelp forests, rocky and sandy shallows, and tidal pools. Three-fourths of the state’s population lives in coastal areas and are impacted by the marine environment directly or indirectly. Fifty-nine percent of the ocean-dependent economy in California is based on tourism and recreation (Saarman & Carr 2013). The flow of people traveling to the beaches and Channel Islands is related to the health of these marine environments.

California tends to be the national leader in environmental policies, and MPAs in California are also managed under state laws. The California Marine Life Protection Act passed in 1999 includes regulations pertaining to coastal development, invasive species and climate change (Saarman & Carr 2013).  One of the main opponents of the MLPA is the fishing industry, mainly due to the limitations on fishing in these areas that the act enforces.

However, because MPAs discourage overfishing, the fish populations have been in better health and numbers compared to previous years (Los Angeles Times Editorial Board). This information shows that California MPAs are effective in conserving and protecting marine species such as rockfish, tuna, sharks and other popular market fish. As of the beginning of this year, the entire California coast became a part of the National System of Marine Protected Areas. Broken up into five major regions, each MPA, similar to the national level, differs on classifications and regulations (California Marine Protected Areas Overview). The Southern California region includes Catalina Island.

Catalina Island has nine separate MPAs, many of which have limits on removing life (Southern California Marine Protected Areas). Six out of nine of the Catalina MPAs allow some fishing and harvesting of marine species, mainly pelagic fish. The Cat Harbor State Marine Conservation Area is the only site that allows collection of squid, lobster, sea urchin and sea cucumber, which are usually taken commercially. There are three strictly “no-take” areas located on the north side of the island. Two of these areas, Blue Cavern and Casino Point State Marine Conservation Areas, have policies prohibiting the removal of any marine resource without required permits or authorization from federal, state or local departments.

These exceptions are made in relation to artificial structure maintenance in the MPA (Southern California Marine Protected Areas). Long Point State Marine Reserve is the only MPA on the island that is completely “no-take.” It is considered one of the best scuba diving locations in Southern California due to its wide variety of marine life including octopus, rockfish, bat rays and the endangered Giant Black Sea Bass. Overfishing caused their populations to crash, and in 1982 fishing of this large fish was banned (Giant Black Sea Bass). They have been slowly making a comeback and are often seen around Catalina Island, particularly in the Long Point State Marine Reserve (Sheckler & Sheckler 2010).

MPAs have been an increasingly valuable in efforts to conserve ocean environments for future generations and promote awareness of the importance of the marine ecosystem in its entirety. Not only are oceans and beaches enjoyed by Americans on a personal and daily basis, the overall health of these areas affects us nationally and globally. MPAs and other coastal sites provide a stable income for economies relying on tourism and recreation.

Reducing pollution and eliminating the human threats to marine species and ecosystems enhances the efficiency of biological services and helps animal and plant populations to thrive. By doing this, the overall well-being of coastal environments is improved, which dramatically aids in the ongoing fight against climate change. Oceans are highly affected by pollution, causing eutrophication and death of marine life, and coupling with other consequences of carbon emission through ocean acidification (Saarman & Carr 2013). The ocean biosphere remains one of the largest storage reservoirs for carbon dioxide and is quickly reaching capacity. MPAs provide an effective starting point for marine conservation and these protected environments are and hopefully will continue to improve and thrive for generations and generations with the help of other groups, programs and national efforts and support.

About the Author: Rachel Roenfeldt is a rising junior at the University of Southern California, studying Environmental Studies and Natural Science. She is from Fayetteville, Arkansas and constantly explores the area through kayaking, hiking, and caving. Rachel is interested in conservation work and scientific research and plans on earning her PhD.

Works Cited:

“California Marine Protected Areas Overview.” California Department of Fish and Wildlife. California Department of Fish and Wildlife, 15 Feb. 2013. Web. http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/mpa/overview.asp

“California’s Marine Protected Area (MPA) Network.” California Department of Fish and Wildlife. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Web. http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/mpa/mpa_summary.asp

Exec. Order No. 13158, 3 C.F.R. 34909 (2000). Web. http://www.mpa.gov/pdf/eo/execordermpa.pdf

The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board. “Don’t Spoil This Happy Fish Story.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 25 Mar. 2013. Web. http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-ed-fish-20130318,0,2856085.story

“Giant Black Sea Bass.” National Parks Service. National Parks Service, 15 Mar. 2013. Web. http://www.nps.gov/chis/naturescience/giant-black-seabass.htm

Saarman, Emily T., and Carr, Mark H. “The California Marine Life Protection Act: A Balance of Top down and Bottom up Governance in MPA Planning.” Marine Policy (2013): 1-9. Web. http://www.sciencedirect.com.libproxy.usc.edu/science/article/pii/S0308597X13000110#

Sheckler, Dale, and Kim Sheckler. “How to Photograph Giant Black Sea Bass.” California Diving News. N.p., 14 July 2010. Web. http://www.cadivingnews.com/article/844/How-to-Photograph-Giant-Black-Sea-Bass-

“Southern California Marine Protected Areas.” California Department of Fish and Wildlife. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Web. http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/mpa/scmpas_list.asp

Wenzel, Lauren, and D’lorio, Mimi. “Definition & Classification for U.S. Marine Protected Areas.” National Marine Protected Area Center. NOAA Ocean Service, Mar. 2011. Web. http://www.mpa.gov/pdf/helpful-resources/factsheets/mpa_classification_may2011.pdf

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program.   This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins
A New Faculty Member on the Team
An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. OceanSpaces 6:12 pm 05/23/2013

    Great article! It will be really important to monitor the MPAs over time to evaluate their effects and inform ocean management. Scientific monitoring results are already available from the Central Coast network of MPAs on http://OceanSpaces.org in an interactive ebook format. You can also learn more about the groups collecting monitoring data throughout California. There are several citizen scientist groups if you want to get involved!

    Link to this

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