The state of California (USA) will redesign and streamline its fragmented system of MPAs and establish no-take reserves as an essential component of the state’s marine conservation plan, according to legislation passed by the state in October.

Named the Marine Life Protection Act, the new law calls for an overhaul of California’s MPA system, which had been criticized by environmentalists and state officials as “confusing” and “falling far short of its potential.” The law requires an evaluation of the effectiveness of California’s MPAs in protecting marine life, and calls for creation of new MPA-siting guidelines.

It also suggests that the number of no-take reserves in California waters should be increased. Reportedly 0.2% of MPAs in California waters are currently designated as no-take reserves.

The Marine Life Protection Act represents one of the world’s first regulatory attempts to network an MPA system of California’s size, which features more than 100 sites.

More No-Take Reserves

Environmentalists who helped steer the law through the state legislature had two goals with the legislation: to increase the state’s number of no-take reserves and to make California’s MPA system more coherent, in terms of both science and management.

“We wanted to increase the level of protection,” said Rod Fujita of the Environmental Defense Fund, a major supporter of the bill. He sees no-take reserves — referred to in the law as “marine life reserves” — as essential to restoring populations of overfished stocks off California.

“The declines in populations of rockfish, abalone, and other species [in California waters] are well-documented,” said Fujita, “and fishing has had a significant impact on these species.” He said that new no-take reserves would serve as reference sites for the study of the effects of commercial and sport fishing.

Earlier versions of the proposed legislation had required a science team to establish goals for what percentage of the coast should be set aside as no-take reserves; such percentage-based mandates were removed in negotiations with fishing industry representatives. In its final version, the law calls for an “improved” no-take reserve component. Nonetheless, it establishes guidelines that, if followed, will almost certainly expand the area encompassed by such reserves. Fishermen who supported the law in its final form said they realized it would lead to more no-take areas in the future. “We just wanted to soften the prejudicial conclusion that there had to be a certain percentage of waters devoted to no-takes,” said Vern Goehring, a policy consultant for the Sea Urchin Harvesters Association of California (SUHAC).

Said Karen Garrison of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “To the fishermen, it was important to let science play out in terms of deciding how big to make the reserves. We’re inclined to support them on that; we want a process with broad buy-in.”

Networking Current and Future MPAs

The law requires the California Fish and Game Commission to create a master plan to steer the design of current and future MPAs. Ensuring that each of the state’s MPAs has “clearly defined objectives, effective management measures, and adequate enforcement, and [is] based on sound scientific guidelines,” the master plan will guide decisions on siting new MPAs and modifying existing ones. Under the law, some MPAs could theoretically be abolished if found to be unproductive and unnecessary.

A team composed primarily of scientists will draft the master plan for the Fish and Game Commission, with input from fisheries representatives, conservationists, regulators, and local communities. The plan will include “recommended alternative networks of MPAs”, as required by the law, to achieve protection of habitat, a species, or a group of species. The law calls for redundancy and representativeness in site selection.

While at least eight separate state agencies wield responsibilities related to California MPAs, Fish and Game will coordinate the overall MPA system, with advice from the other agencies. The new law makes the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity a clear and central responsibility of the state’s Fish and Game officials.

The law echoes in many respects the findings of a draft report released in August by the Resources Agency of California (a regulatory agency), which found that the state’s 50-year-old system of MPAs was confusing and in need of revision. With 18 classifications of MPAs created through a mix of legislation and regulations, the state’s MPA system had come under fire from regulators and environmental groups.

The agency report found that there was no overall mission or goal to guide the development of a “logical and unified organizational system” of MPAs in California. The lack of purpose was blamed on inconsistent terminology and site selection, a lack of standardized criteria for designation and evaluation, and an inability to evaluate system effectiveness. Individual sites within the same classification (e.g., “ecological reserve”) sometimes had substantially different levels of protection and management, and some existing MPAs lacked enforcement plans. Data on monitoring and research were not easily accessible and lacked consistency.

Replicable Elsewhere?

Systems of MPAs as disjointed as California’s exist elsewhere throughout the world. Garrison and Fujita said that other regions could replicate some aspects of California’s effort.

“Each area will address this challenge in a way tailored to their needs, but I think that the summary of goals and guidelines, and the provision that a science team should review these guidelines and create a master plan, could be done elsewhere,” said Garrison. Fujita suggested that California’s plan might work best in industrialized countries, where regulators rely heavily on scientific assessments.

In 20 years, they agreed, they would like to see a substantial increase in the number and size of marine life reserves as a result of the new law, as well as more fish, greater biodiversity, and sustainable fisheries.

Goehring said he hoped to see such things, too, but was skeptical. “This bill, in terms of protecting the entire marine environment, is a small step of what needs to be done,” he said, noting that on this point he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of SUHAC. “Until we get a comprehensive mandate to protect the marine ecosystem from all human disturbances — not just fishing, but upstream pollution, too — then I think this bill’s effect may be limited.”

For more information:

Karen Garrison, Natural Resources Defense Council, 71 Stevenson, Suite 1825, San Francisco, CA 94105, USA. Tel: +1 415 777 0220; E-mail:

Rod Fujita, Environmental Defense Fund, 5655 College Avenue, Oakland, CA 94618, USA. Tel: +1 510 658 8008; Fax: +1 510 658 0630; E-mail:

Vern Goehring, 1621 13th Street, Suite B, Sacramento, CA 95814, USA. Tel: +1 916 444 8194; E-mail:

For a copy of the Marine Life Protection Act

For a copy of the draft report “California’s State Classification System for Marine Protected Areas,” distributed by the Resources Agency of California, go to