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Environment

California’s system of marine reserves gets major review

California’s system of marine-protected areas is getting some extra scrutiny this week.

State officials, researchers, ocean advocates and stakeholders are in Monterey on Wednesday to review how the marine reserves are being managed.

In 1999, California lawmakers passed the Marine Life Protection Act, which required that a system of marine protected areas (MPA) be established.

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After years of heated public debate between researchers pushing for more protected areas and the fishing industry pushing for less, the state finally decided on a map of MPAs covering 16% of the state’s coastline. Half of them are fully protected and half are partially protected.

People are allowed to take or catch some species in the partially protected regions.

There are 124 MPAs statewide, with 11 located along San Diego County’s shore, between Carlsbad and the international border.

“We’ve got proof of concept,” said Samantha Murray, a California Fish and Game Commissioner who is also a Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher. “We can show that we can be the fourth biggest economy in the world in California. Have protective strong regulations in our ocean and be successful in doing both.”

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The MPAs were designed to help rehabilitate underwater habitat so the protected areas can help feed the state’s fisheries. It is a promise that has largely been delivered over the last decade.

“MPAs allow us to have these designated areas that are able to support lots of life at every level and that includes these large fish having lots of babies to repopulate,” said Lisa Gilfillan, a ocean conservation manager with WildCoast, an Imperial Beach-based environmental advocacy group..

The California MPA review has four components up for discussion at the Monterey summit: research and monitoring, enforcement and compliance, outreach and education, and policy and permitting.

The state’s review comes in the wake of a United Nations treaty signed this month that creates reserves encompassing 30% of the ocean by 2030. It is a major international acknowledgement of the value of marine preserves and the need to consider what’s happening under the water’s surface.

California’s MPA system does not have the same contiguous reach, but ocean advocates say the individual reserves are close enough that they are biologically connected.

“They’re coinciding where these natural oceanographic conditions exist,” Gilfillan said. “So, these currents that run along the California coast, are able to, for instance, move eggs from one MPA to another.”

Officials in Monterey will discuss how the reserves are being managed, and whether there is an appetite to expand the system. However, Murray stressed that expansion is not a top priority right now.

“Some of that could be in changing boundaries or levels of take within our existing marine protected area network, but that’s what we’ll be prioritizing in this process,” Murray said.