A Dive Like No Other, Thanks to New MPAs

Harbor Seal Marine Protected Area Channel Islands MPA preserve Malibu Palos Verd

Thousands of tiny golden fish dart out of the way as I kick through the kelp forest — it’s amazing that they’re already learning to swim from predators at an early age. As I round the edge of a large rocky reef fringing Santa Cruz Island, I am enveloped yet again in a cloud of tiny marine animals and larvae — these ones looking more like itsy-bitsy lobster babies. Up above me, I see dozens of juvenile blue rockfish, only a few inches in length, floating amidst the strands of giant kelp. I’ve never experienced a dive like this before. It must be baby season in the kelp forest, and I’ve dove into their nursery.

Although the sheer amount of baby fish and crustaceans is impressive enough, one of my favorite animals zooms into view. With long whiskers, big black eyes, and a spotted coat, a curious harbor seal begins to play a little peek-a-boo with me in the kelp. Seeing large predators, like harbor seals, is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem. A large school of mackerel divides and darts away from the deft predator. I’m always excited (and a bit nervous) when I see large schools of fish suddenly change direction, and a dark shadow passes over me. It usually means a predator such as a shark or marine mammal is in pursuit of its prey. I float coolly in the giant kelp forest, watching the harbor seal hunt, weaving its way around and through the school of fish.

What I experienced underwater is in a marine reserve at our local Channel Islands — a marine protected area (MPA) where all marine life can thrive, free from fishing or harvest. The marine reserves at the Channel Islands have been in place for fewer than 10 years, but the ecosystems are already so much healthier! Along the Los Angeles shoreline, we also have brand-new MPAs in Malibu and Palos Verdes, which were established on Jan. 1, 2012. Given a little time, perhaps our local MPAs could flourish like those at the nearby Channel Islands. These areas have been designated along key stretches of coast to help marine life recover and restore our fisheries. Yet, the majority of the Southern California coast is still open to fishing.

To support our local MPAs, USC Sea Grant and Resources Legacy Fund Foundation have generously funded Heal the Bay’s MPA Watch citizen science monitoring program, which allows volunteers to survey human uses within and outside of MPAs in Los Angeles. This summer, Heal the Bay’s interns, volunteers, and staff worked together to analyze and write our first MPA Watch Data Analysis & Results Report. Our 27-page report includes data from 554 surveys in Malibu and Palos Verdes spanning 17 months in 2011 and 2012. We found that the most common coastal uses in the study areas are non-consumptive activities — 99% of the coastal uses surveyed to date are non-consumptive recreational activities. Unfortunately, in both Malibu’s and Palos Verdes’ MPAs, some active consumptive activities are present in 2012, the majority of which is shore-based rod/reel fishing (80+ individuals). Although this is a small percentage of the overall ocean uses in these areas, these findings highlight the importance of education and outreach about the new MPAs to the shore-angling community.

Tracking human uses in these new MPAs is important as the data can be used with ecological surveys to help give a more complete picture of ecosystem health, as well as inform education and enforcement actions. Like the Channel Islands MPAs, I look forward to the marine life and ecosystems in our local coastal MPAs in Malibu and in Palos Verdes will also begin to thrive and to seed areas outside of the MPAs.

--Dana Roeber Murray

Heal the Bay Marine & Coastal Scientist

Want to help survey new Marine Protected Areas? Join MPA Watch.

Contact Dana Murray for more information.