In June 2012, the California Fish and Game Commission approved a plan for a systematic network of 19 MPAs and additional management areas along the north coast of the US state of California. The approval marked the completion of the open-coast portion of the state’s Marine Life Protection Act Initiative: a multi-year, region-by-region process to re-examine and redesign California’s MPA system (

The California MPA network – which stretches northward from the Mexico border to the state line of Oregon and now includes 119 MPAs, 5 recreational management areas and 15 special closures – is the first in the US to be designed from scratch as a science-based network, rather than a patchwork of independent protected areas. It covers 16% of state marine waters. Roughly half of the new or modified MPAs are multiple-use areas; the rest are no-take.

The planning process was far from easy. The state’s first two attempts to implement the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) failed due to political and budgetary reasons, respectively (MPA News 9:1 and 8:11). The third, successful attempt involved dozens of regional meetings with scientists, stakeholders, and managers. Throughout, there was consistent opposition to the MPA planning from some recreational fishing associations, including lawsuits that attempted to stop the process.

Evan Fox worked for the MLPA Initiative from 2005-2010; this included three years as principal planner, when he led a team of consultants who assisted stakeholder groups in developing MPA network proposals. With other central actors in the MLPA Initiative, Fox has co-published a paper in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management on the conditions that allowed the planning process to be successful ( According to Fox and his co-authors, these six conditions were:

  1. A strong legal mandate that provided guidance and flexibility;
  2. Political support and leadership that enabled the process to overcome political challenges and opposition;
  3. Adequate funding that ensured sufficient staff support and facilitated innovative approaches to a public MPA network planning process;
  4. An aggressive timeline with firm deadlines that propelled the process forward;
  5. Willingness of civil society to engage in the process, which provided for better informed and broadly supported outcomes; and
  6. An effective and transparent process design, which optimized contributions from stakeholders, scientists, and policy makers.

Below, MPA News speaks with Fox about these conditions and about lessons for MPA planning processes elsewhere.

In your opinion, are these six conditions universally necessary to enable successful MPA network planning, including outside the US?

Evan Fox: The conditions outlined in our paper are universally important for successful MPA network planning through a public process. Although it is possible to complete MPA network planning without one or more of these conditions, their absence will create difficulties for adequately achieving process objectives. Furthermore, these six conditions do not represent a comprehensive list. Unique characteristics of a given planning region may present additional conditions that must be met in order to successfully design the MPA network, beyond those in the paper.

Opposition to MPA planning from the recreational fishing sector was consistent throughout the MLPA process. In retrospect, could the process have been designed or implemented differently to achieve greater buy-in from the recreational fishing sector?

Fox: The MLPA Initiative went to great lengths to engage the recreational fishing sector. While there are certainly improvements that could have been made to the design process (as indicated in our commissioned reports on lessons learned; reports for the Central and North Central regions, for example, are at, it is my opinion that it would have been difficult to achieve greater buy-in from the recreational fishing community.

It is important to clarify that the MLPA Initiative process did effectively engage individual recreational fishermen who provided important input into MPA designs. Recreational fishing representatives participated in each of the regional MLPA Initiative processes, and collaborated across interest groups to not only comment on MPA designs designed by others, but to create alternative MPA designs that their constituencies could support. Recreational fishermen were among the most adept at using our technical decision support tools and thoroughly scrutinized our datasets. Ultimately, this participation allowed the knowledge and concerns of recreational fishermen to inform the MPA network adopted in California. The MLPA Initiative facilitated this participation with extensive outreach, a collaborative process design, and de novo data collection efforts to identify areas of importance for recreational fishermen.

In my opinion, opposition to implementation of the MLPA Initiative by recreational fishing groups was fundamentally driven by general disagreement over use of MPAs as a management tool. This concern may have arisen from a number of factors: beliefs about the health of marine ecosystems; non-fishing impacts to marine ecosystems (e.g., land-based marine pollution); effectiveness of fisheries management; and concerns over potential socioeconomic impacts. This general opposition to the use of MPAs was difficult to mitigate with modifications to process design (although education efforts and joint fact-finding were used and may have helped).

Additional opposition from recreational fishing groups may have been generated by disappointment with process outcomes and the MPAs that were ultimately implemented by decision-makers. Although the final designs reflected input from the recreational fishing community, they necessarily represented a compromise among a variety of interest groups, causing dismay for some groups. This also would be unlikely to change with a different process design. In a few cases, recreational fishing groups did raise concerns relating to the process itself, specifically relating to transparency and funding of the process. In both cases, the MLPA Initiative made great efforts to help assuage concerns of process participants. Thus, primary sources of opposition to the MLPA Initiative process from recreational fishing interests were either addressed by the process already, or outside the scope of what could be effectively addressed with changes to process design.

In the initial attempt to implement the MLPA (2000-2001), MPA network designs were created by a panel of scientists and agency staff. But public reaction was strongly negative due to a lack of stakeholder input in those designs, and the designs were scrapped. Has anyone compared those original network designs to what emerged from the final attempt to implement the MLPA? In other words, did the heavy stakeholder input make a difference in the actual designs?

Fox: I am helping to lead an effort to conduct this analysis. Preliminary results seem to indicate broad similarities in geographic areas addressed in designs generated during the 2000-2001 process and those generated as a result of the recently completed MLPA Initiative. However, the detailed boundaries and regulations of these designs vary significantly. Thus, process participants in both efforts seem to have identified similar areas along the California coastline with a high degree of ecological importance, but differed in the specific MPA design utilized to protect those resources.

Integration of a wide range of stakeholder input during the MLPA Initiative process may have contributed to these design differences, as well as differences in public perceptions of the processes. My team’s current analysis will help to assess whether these design differences resulted in MPAs that are more likely or less likely to achieve the goals of the MLPA.

For more information:

Evan Fox, independent environmental consultant, MLPA Initiative, Sacramento, California, US. Email: