A new monitoring framework to assess ocean conditions and MPA performance:
The planning of California's open coast statewide marine protected area (MPA) network is now complete. Yet establishing the network was just the first chapter in the story of MPAs in California: the same law that required a new system of protected zones off the coast also calls for scientific monitoring to track their effectiveness, enhance our understanding of ocean ecosystems, and inform future management decisions. Working alongside stakeholders, scientists, state managers, tribes and tribal communities and others, a new framework for monitoring has been developed – one that assesses the changing condition of ocean ecosystems and the performance of MPA networks by measuring ‘the pulse points’ of ecosystems and answering key strategically selected management questions.
The statewide monitoring program that has emerged is the most comprehensive study of the state's ocean ever undertaken, and will inform not only adaptive management of MPAs, but also fisheries management, water quality monitoring, climate change adaptation and other ocean policy. The monitoring program is a two-phase approach: a baseline program and ongoing monitoring.
Over time, we hope to improve our understanding of how MPAs work.
This requires not only taking the pulse of marine life and human activities, but also measuring the effect of different management decisions. During the MPA planning process, numerous choices were made about the size and shape of MPAs, how far apart they should be, the activities allowed within their boundaries, and more. By considering how these decisions affect marine life and human activities, we can increase our understanding of how MPAs work and improve how they are managed.
The first step is to establish baseline conditions, or a “benchmark” that future changes can be measured against.
The baseline program has two purposes: to establish an ecological and socioeconomic benchmark that future changes can be measured against; and to assess whether there have been any initial changes resulting from MPA implementation. Projects measure ecological and socioeconomic conditions in the first few years following MPA implementation. Teams of academic researchers, state agency scientists, fishermen and citizen scientists collect data on ecologically and economically important marine life living inside an outside the MPAs, and study human-use activities such as fishing, kayaking and SCUBA diving.
- North Central and South Coast regional monitoring plans were formally adopted as part of state policy in 2011. Baseline data collection is underway.
- In the far North Coast, a regional MPA network was adopted in early 2012, and planning for monitoring is underway.
- In the Central Coast region, baseline data collection is complete and analyses are underway. Data is now available to download on OceanSpaces. Results will be shared with the public and policymakers in early 2013.
Once a benchmark is established, ongoing monitoring can begin to track changes over time.
Ongoing monitoring is designed to “take the pulse” of marine ecosystems and ocean-based human activities so that we can learn how they are changing through time, and how MPAs are affecting them. Building from the baseline results, data collection focuses on particular species, populations, habitats and human activities, such as kelp forests, shorebirds and fishing. When considered together, the health of all of these ecosystem features provides a snapshot of overall ocean conditions, both regionally and statewide. It is not practical to track the status of every human use, plant or fish. Key to the approach will be monitoring just enough to detect changes, monitoring at scales that will be useful to managers, and investing modest resources for future indications of performance of the network as a whole. This will enable scientists, ocean users and state officials to keep a finger on the pulse of marine systems and make the best possible decisions to maintain the health of our ocean.