Volunteers to patrol marine protected areas

08/29/2013

A new program to collect data on swaths of Marin’s protected coastal waters will soon have volunteers scoping for unpermitted fishing and other human activity. 

Marin MPA Watch, billed as a broad effort to promote stewardship, educate the public and provide data for scientists to help evaluate the success of protected areas, is part of a statewide program.

Eight other watch groups are currently operating in California, including in Malibu, Los Angeles and Monterey.

In Marin, the group is a joint effort involving the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, the Point Reyes National Seashore, the California Academy of Sciences and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. It is funded by a $27,000 grant from the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation.

California’s north central coast boasts 153 square miles of marine protected areas, or MPA’s, each with various levels of protections and restrictions. 

Five are located in Marin. 

Waters in Duxbury Reef, Drakes Estero and off the Point Reyes Headlands are considered conservation areas and allow some commercial and recreational fishing. At the headlands, salmon fishing by trolling and traps for Dungeness crab are permitted recreationally and commercially. At Duxbury Reef, recreational capture of finfish and abalone is allowed.

But waters just off Drakes Bay and Estero de Limantour are state marine reserves, where the extraction of any marine resource is banned. 

The protection areas, which stem from the Marin Life Protection Act passed by the state in 1998, are meant to protect fisheries and ecosystems. The restricted waters act as a safe haven for fish populations to flourish while also—hopefully—encouraging a spillover effect into other waters, the logic goes.

But MPA’s are only effective if the regulations are followed, said Amy Trainer, the executive director of the Environmental Action Committee, at an informational meeting on Tuesday at seashore headquarters featuring Santa Cruz organic pear juice and organic chocolate and vanilla oreos. 

And although Marin MPA Watch is not an enforcement program, it “informs enforcement,” Ms. Trainer said. 

Steve Riske, a Fish and Wildlife captain in the Bay Area, said that his agency has three wardens enforcing departmental regulations in Marin, either by boat or in vehicles, including in the MPA’s. 

There are also four wardens on a large vessel that patrols Marin, Sonoma and San Mateo Counties. “Obviously we’d like as many [patrols] as we get, but we make do with what we can,” Mr. Riske said.

Mr. Riske said that ideally wardens would meet with MPA Watch groups so volunteers would know how to contact Fish and Wildlife if they saw violations. Volunteers could also call the tip line.

The data collected by MPA Watch groups has a number of applications, according to Mike Weber, a program officer for the funding foundation. 

“It can be used by agencies such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife to better understand where they may need to do more outreach with user groups regarding boundaries and rules and regulations,” Mr. Weber said. “There really isn’t any information like this that’s regularly collected about human activity along the coast.” 

The data, he went on, could have applications beyond the MPA’s. If there were an oil spill along the coast, he said, the data could be used to determine which coastal areas are most heavily used and therefore may be more significantly impacted.

Becky Ota, a marine habitat conservation program manager for Fish and Wildlife, said it was too early to draw conclusions about the efficacy of the region’s MPA’s. 

In February a symposium was held to discuss five years’ worth of data collected on the central coast’s protection areas, which went into effect in 2007. The forum discussed scientific, economic and enforcement data, as well as data from citizen science groups. 

Although five years is just a brief amount of time to assess biological processes, Ms. Ota said, “There are some good signs.” 

Ben Becker, a marine ecologist with the National Park Service, cited one meta-analysis at Tuesday’s meeting. The 2003 study analyzed 89 studies that linked marine reserves to greater biomass and density of marine life, or both the overall weight and number of such life, virtually regardless of the size of the reserve itself.  

While the program must still hammer out the details, a trained volunteer could spend roughly two hours in an assigned area once a week, both monitoring the waters for prohibited activity and tracking the number of people on the beach and how they are using the coast. It would not, necessarily, need to be the same volunteer each week. 

During these shifts, volunteers would engage coastal visitors they encounter and act as educators and ambassadors for the protected waters, organizers said.