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Local environmental group surveillance helps protect San Diego’s underwater parks

California’s marine protected reserves are helping revitalize the state’s nearshore underwater habitats, but just like a park on land, the areas require regular management. KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson says a San Diego based conservation group is helping make sure that happens.

San Diego environmental group Wildcoast representative Lillie Mulligan steadies herself as she surveys the choppy ocean water from a boat just west of the La Jolla Cove beach.

“Right now we’re in the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve,” Mulligan said. “A beautiful park, but where are the boundaries? You can’t exactly tell.”

The underwater park is located between the rocky cliffs of Point La Jolla and Scripps Pier and covers about a square mile.


There is another slightly larger underwater reserve just north of the pier making it a vastly protected area.

The California Legislature paved the way to create a system of protected ocean habitats when lawmakers passed the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999.

It took 13 years of contentious debate, but scientists and stakeholders eventually created a system of preservation that protects 16% of the state’s underwater habitat.

The system of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) is the largest ecologically connected MPA network in the world.

Fishing and other underwater impacts are limited or prohibited depending on the preserve.


California’s marine protected reserves help revitalize the state’s nearshore underwater habitats, but just like a park on land, the MPA requires regular management.

“When people see the video in a stakeholder meeting, their eyes light up and they say, 'Oh, I get it.' They see all these incredible creatures, this really complicated structure on the bottom. How fragile it is,” said superintendent of the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary Chris Mobley.

Wildcoast is helping to make sure that happens in San Diego.

Mulligan said the underwater scenery off the La Jolla coast is just as spectacular as the scenery in many of California’s iconic parks.

“You’d see a beautiful kelp forest beneath us with all the beautiful ecosystems ... replenishing within the marine protected area,” Mulligan said. “There’s our beautiful submarine canyons off of Scripps. And this creates a beautiful area for biodiversity. It's lush if you look beneath the water.”

But on the surface, those spectacular views are invisible.

The mostly opaque water keeps the park’s wonders out of view but the murky ocean can’t hide the success of California’s Marine Protected Areas.

“So far it looks great,” said Samantha Murray, a California Fish and Game commissioner and a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “What we know is that in many cases, size and abundance, diversity and biomass of the fish inside is doing better than outside protected areas.”

But maintaining and building on that success story requires diligence.

Wildcoast contracts a local boat captain to make regular surveys of the county’s marine preserves. It is not uncommon to find people fishing in restricted areas.

“There are no signs or buoys marking where these boundaries are ... we’ll just kind of drive by and let them know, 'Hey you’re fishing in a marine protected area,'” said Joe Cooper, a boat captain who used to work in the commercial fishing industry in San Diego. “Ninety percent of the time people are very friendly and they are like, 'Oh, I didn’t know. Where can I go?' And we just kind of point them in the right direction.”

Trips are mostly for monitoring, but Wildcoast representatives stay in touch with the region’s small cadre of Fish and Game department officers.

“We are doing boat-based MPA watch, so, we are traveling through MPAs and we’re looking at how folks are using them,” said Wildcoast representative Lisa Gilfillan. “And then we’re also checking on our M-2 radar units.”

The radar units constantly scan the MPA’s surface waters. The radar can provide the first clue that there is unapproved activity in the MPA.

“So we have three radar units in the area,” Gilfillan said. “And part of what we’re doing is just making sure that they’re functioning properly. We get on the boat and then we see what the radar is picking up on. And then we visually look for the same things that the radar is seeing just to confirm that they’re working properly.”

That is all aimed at making sure people take advantage of the opportunity to see the reserves, while at the same time protecting the biological riches that grow inside a preserve’s borders.

Fishing is not allowed in the marine protected area near La Jolla.

“For the most part. There are people interacting in these spaces the way they should be. Without taking resources,” Gilfillan said. “Without taking fish or invertebrates for instance. But there’s a few bad apples out there. And yes, we’re able to keep an eye on those in some ways. But some do get away with it.”

It even happens in the Channel Islands, which are a good distance away from the mainland and most of the state’s people.

While there are violations, park managers see more positives than negatives.

“By and large, people are law abiding,” said the supervisor of the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary Chris Mobley. “And once the law is on the books, even if they fought it tooth and nail as something they didn’t want, once it’s on the books we see a high level of compliance with the laws. And most of the time when laws are being violated, it’s out of ignorance. They didn’t know they were fishing in a closed area.”

Restricting fishing is key to showing how those regions would develop without human interference, and that can help researchers better understand the impact of things like climate change.

But sharing the beauty of the underwater habitats is also valuable outside the scientific world.

Deep diving remotely controlled vehicles are revealing amazing habits that are both beautiful and delicate.

“When people see the video in a stakeholder meeting, their eyes light up and they say, 'Oh, I get it,'” Mobley said. “They see all these incredible creatures, this really complicated structure on the bottom. How fragile it is.”

Making the habitat visible is the key to keeping the Marine Protected Areas vibrant.