A decadal management review of marine protected areas currently underway in California will compile a set of long-term monitoring data that is the first of its kind. This month, the Department of Fish and Wildlife will receive reports from marine and academic institutions, government agencies and community science groups, including the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. By the end of next year, the department will present data on the health of the areas and make recommendations to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which can decide whether to implement them. 

The review is “pulling together all these pieces to give us a good snapshot of the health of the M.P.A.s,” said Morgan Patton, executive director of the E.A.C. “Is this grand experiment of these M.P.A.s working?”

The statewide network of M.P.A.s was created 10 years ago in response to the Marine Life Protection Act of 1999. A handful of the areas are located off Marin’s coast, including the Point Reyes and Estero de Limantour State Marine Reserves and the Point Reyes, Drakes Estero and Duxbury Reef State Marine Conservation Areas. Statewide, 124 M.P.A.s cover 16 percent of the state’s waters, and basically act like underwater state or national parks, Ms. Patton said. 

The areas have varying regulations; some prohibit any take, while others allow some recreational activities and fishing. The network, created with a goal of protecting ocean species and their ecosystems and habitats, has allowed scientists to look at species and how they move and interact with their
environment. 

According to Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Sara Worden, the decadal management review is a big milestone, but it’s just the beginning. “We will see what we know and what we don’t know, how we need to improve, be it outreach or enforcement and compliance,” she said. 

Ms. Patton explained how the network could benefit fisheries. “The larger you let fish grow, the more eggs they create,” she said. “In these reserves you’ll have positive spillover impacts, which will be great. The review will show if we’re seeing increases in these populations.”

The last decade has seen some significant disturbances in North Coast marine ecosystems, Ms. Worden said. There was a toxic algae bloom off the Sonoma coast, and a widespread sea star disease. Warm water conditions offshore since 2014 have led to a sharp reduction of kelp forests, leaving behind little cover for fishery habitats in new “urchin barrens” resulting from an explosion of sea urchins linked to the die-off of sea stars, their predators.

In addition to compiling habitat and fishery data, the decadal management review will also look at human uses of the marine protected areas—of which the state has seen a sharp increase over the last two years. 

“We saw a huge uptick of general visitation along the entire coast, specifically rocky coast,” Ms. Worden said. “A lot of it was pandemic-related, people looking to get outside and try new things. [There was also] some subsistence harvesting from loss of jobs, needing food.”

The largest increase in human use occurred during the summer and winter months of 2020, but uses continued into 2021, she said. Data was mostly anecdotal, based on observations from wildlife officers, local stakeholders, researchers and other people out on the coast. 

Though most citations for violating M.P.A. rules occurred in Southern California, Duxbury Reef in Bolinas saw an increase in visitation over the last two years, mirroring the statewide trend.

In the last two years, there was a doubling of onshore take at Duxbury Reef compared to the previous five years, according to reports from Marin MPA Watch—a coalition managed by the E.A.C. made up of staff and volunteers from the nonprofit, the Point Reyes National Seashore and the California Academy of Sciences.

Regulations at the protected area allow hook-and-line fishing from the shore, but the reef is a sensitive intertidal habitat where trampling or disturbing the tide pools may have long-term negative impacts, Ms. Patton said. 

Last July, someone showed up at the reef with a pry bar and buckets, illegally collecting purple urchins and snails from the tide pools, according to a Marin MPA Watch report. It was one of dozens of potential violations recorded by volunteers at the reef. 

Ms. Patton said social media reports have promoted the collection of purple sea urchins as a form of ecological restoration, though it’s illegal to collect them and other invertebrates from protected areas such as Duxbury Reef. (In Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, the state has allowed the take of up to 40 gallons a day of purple urchins with a valid fishing license, but not in M.P.A.s.)

The surge in coastal visitors has been a wake-up call, Ms. Worden said. In 2020, Fish and Wildlife officers and environmental scientists would go out with Marin MPA Watch and E.A.C. volunteers during low tides to inform beachgoers of the restrictions. Now, due to limited capacity, she said the local groups lead up the outreach at Duxbury Reef.

A dozen or more volunteers visit beaches across Marin once or twice a month with survey sheets, to count how many people are there and what they are doing. They don’t enforce any rules, but if they do see a potential violation, they report it to either Fish and Wildlife or the Point Reyes National Seashore, depending on the area, Ms. Patton said. 

At Duxbury Reef, sometimes volunteers set up an informational table. “Most people showing up with buckets to collect say they didn’t know it was a protected area,” Ms. Patton said. “So we stopped a lot just through the education table.”

Ms. Worden said that if the M.P.A.s serve the function they are meant to, “we should see ecosystems stabilizing or improving” in the management review. Still, it could take longer than 10 years to see the effects in some places, so changes to the network are unlikely at this time. 

For more information on the Fish and Wildlife Decadal MPA Management Review, email mpamanagementreview@wildlife.ca.gov. For more information about Marin MPA Watch and upcoming public docent trainings for Duxbury Reef, email info@eacmarin.org.