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California’s Marine Protected Area Network is Working!

Over a decade ago, California led the nation to become the first network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the United States. When the program was put in place, many were skeptical, others hopeful, some celebrated and few understood what to expect. About 852 square miles of ocean– a little over 16 percent of the State’s waters – were protected, with about 9% in strict no-take areas. Rockfish, sea otters, sea stars, sea birds and many other amazing ocean critters now had places of refuge, in 124 MPAs dotting the coast from the borders of Oregon to Baja.

An artistic rendering of the state of California with dots marking the location of the MPAs

Since 2007, CMSF has played a critical role in advancing MPA education and outreach efforts, becoming the first NGO to work statewide, developing standardized educational products, facilitating monitoring and technological advances, and increasing stewardship through a variety of novel approaches.

But how are these MPAs faring, and are they contributing to a healthier California ocean? In January 2023, California Department of Fish and Wildlife released the first Decadal Management Review. So far, things are looking positive, with signs that protections are working. Given the long lifespans of many of the primary species, it will likely take decades to realize the full benefits, but many MPAs show signs of recovery.

Sea anemones aggregated in a tide pool at Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve.
Sea anemones aggregated in a tide pool at Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve. © Katelyn Sprofera

Long-term monitoring shows that, at least for highly fished species in certain areas, MPAs are supporting larger and more abundant fish compared to unprotected sites. Also, signs of connectivity and spillover are being detected in various locations. Although our MPAs are young, initial results are incredibly promising, and we expect positive trends to increase over time. This first glimpse of our MPAs success is incredibly exciting, and CMSF looks forward to the next 10 years of MPA management.


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