On a hot August morning, more than a dozen volunteer anglers and researchers boarded the Sea Star in Oceanside as a deckhand sliced squid for bait in preparation for an all-day fishing trip where very few get to dip their hooks — inside Swami’s State Marine Conservation Area.
The underwater park off Encinitas is one of 11 of San Diego County’s marine protected areas, which were established about 10 years ago in an effort to restore waters depleted from overfishing and to preserve marine ecosystems.
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A decade later, California Fish and Wildlife is examining whether that effort is working. The results of a 10-year review released in January indicated it was, with findings that include larger and more abundant fish inside local marine protected areas, or MPAs.
The review is also exploring if more must be done to preserve these marine protected areas — steps that could include changing boundaries if requests from local conservation groups are met.
Excursions like the one to Swami’s are crucial in helping make those determinations.
“What we’re doing today is … one of the ways that perhaps you can measure the effectiveness of those marine protected areas,” Joe Cacciola, the ship’s captain, told the passengers aboard the charter boat.
“You’re actually scientists today,” Cacciola said.
Controversy over the implementation of MPAs has pitted recreational and commercial users against scientists and conservationists since the beginning. Fishers worried about the loss of their livelihoods and their favorite fishing spots, and they say they were misled by the government during the creation process. Voices of Indigenous people were left out of the conversation altogether. And scientists thought they were doing what was best to try to improve life in the marine ecosystems.
The natural tension still exists, but the groups seem to be rebuilding relationships and working together to find compromises. Such as the unlikely group of skeptics and supporters cruising together toward Swami’s MPA.
The idea behind an MPA is to leave it untouched so it can replenish naturally. The size of both the individual fish and the population as a whole should grow and eventually result in spillover, meaning marine life exceed the capacity of that area and move out to adjacent populations. There is also an opportunity for growth in habitat that will help combat the effects of climate change.
“We’re out there today to test that theory,” said Jack Elstner, a Ph.D. student at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and lead field technician for the San Diego sector, who was overseeing the day’s catch and recorded data.
California has 1,100 miles of coastline, with 16 percent of the state’s ocean water designated as MPAs — 124 total, including four off La Jolla and three lagoons in North County.
Regulations differ among various marine protected areas, depending on the needs of the specific habitat. For example, an MPA designated as a state marine conservation area — such as Swami’s — allows certain take such as finfish by hook-and-line from shore or pelagic fish by spearfishing. A state marine reserve and “no take” state marine conservation areas are more restrictive and don’t allow any fishing, and absolutely nothing natural can be taken out — not even a shell. Recreating such as swimming, diving and kayaking are still allowed in most areas other than lagoons, and boating is allowed in certain areas.
At Swami’s, anglers fished multiple 500-by-500-meter grid cells for 15-minute drifts at a time inside and outside of the marine protected area so Scripps scientists could measure, tag and identify the fish caught to put into a database shared in a statewide monitoring effort. A collection permit was required to fish in the area.
Early on in the excursion, a brown rockfish was captured with a tag from a previous trip. Elstner became enthusiastic and smiled as he tried to see the age of the tag.
“We’re really excited because when we get that information back, we can remeasure the fish. We can look at things such as growth rates, we can see how far it’s moved throughout the course of its life since we last caught it,” he said.
The California Legislature approved the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999, prompted by an over-developed fishing fleet and overfishing of 10 species that feed from or near the bottom. But the effort came with little funding. A couple of attempts to create marine protected areas were unsuccessful until 2004.
“That effort essentially resulted in the largest ecologically connected network in the world,” said Stephen Wertz, senior environmental scientist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marine Protected Areas Management Program, who led in drafting the 10-year review.
The areas were designed to have a variety of ecosystems — such as kelp forests, sandy flats and rocky reefs — and to be distanced far enough apart to allow for less restricted activities outside of the MPAs but close enough to benefit one another.
These protected systems are considered young, and studies show that it takes 10 to 20 years to start seeing real change. One of the reasons is the lifespan of some of the species that live in these habitats — species of rockfish live between 20 to 50 years, for example, and take years to reach reproductive maturity.
“But the early information is showing that it is working,” he said. “It just kind of takes time to be definitive.”
The first decadal review for the state’s MPAs includes information from collaboratives, universities, several Indigenous groups, and other independent groups from 14 coastal counties.
The state Fish and Wildlife agency, which is tasked with managing and enforcing the network of MPAs, took more than a year to evaluate the findings. But it is up to California Fish and Game Commission members to make decisions on how the protected areas are ultimately managed.
In July, California Fish and Game Commission’s Marine Resources Committee met with stakeholders — such as fishers, conservationists, law enforcement and tribes — to go over recommendations about how to further manage the network and to prioritize which ones to take on first.
There are 28 recommendations with 82 action items for the commission to consider.
“A lot of areas that we’ve monitored, we can see that fish are larger and more abundant inside marine protected areas and that in some cases habitats are more resilient inside marine protected areas,” said Samantha Murray, a commissioner and executive director of a master’s program at Scripps. “And also the MPAs are giving us a baseline for researching our ocean, especially in the face of changing ocean conditions.”
In considering the recommendations, one of the commission’s priorities will be looking at what has been effective so far and what needs to be changed in the MPA system to be more successful for the future, said Murray.
“Looking at the boundaries, looking at the kinds of activities that are allowed or prohibited inside MPA boundaries and seeing if there are any changes we want to make to those,” she said.
The public has until November to petition for what else should be included in these recommendations or suggest changes.
Another priority is making sure that everyone has a voice, including bird watchers, the fishing community, surfers and especially tribes, whose stewardship rights were overlooked in the past.
The commission will then look at the requests and decide which are warranted by mid-December. Changes likely wouldn’t start taking place until 2025.
The review comes more than a year after the United States signed on to the 30×30 Initiative, an ambition of protecting 30 percent of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. Some have raised concerns that the initiative will create pressure to expand current MPAs — especially in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in 2020 to combat the biodiversity and climate crisis with the state’s own 30×30 goal. Officials say none of the management recommendations are linked to the 30×30, but it is among several tools in getting to the goal.
Murray said she can’t predict what petitions will be submitted.
“But as a commission, (expansion) is not our goal,” she said.
One group, the San Diego MPA Collaborative, has discussed recommending changes in boundaries to the Batiquitos Lagoon, the Swami’s State Marine Conservation Area, San Elijo Lagoon and San Dieguito Lagoon, according to notes from a June 26 meeting reviewed by the Union-Tribune. There wasn’t a consensus on expanding the boundaries but there was more of an agreement to possibly align names to give clarity. Each had various justifications, such as confusion with boundaries or the difficulty in enforcement. The group has yet to submit their petition.
WILDCOAST, a binational nonprofit and partner of the San Diego MPA Collaborative that helps monitor the marine protected areas, said it is also proposing changing names of some of the areas to make the rules less confusing to recreational users.
The nonprofit would also like to add a restriction of no-surf fishing from shore within the San Diego-Scripps Coastal MPA.
“You will never catch anybody saying (expansion) is the plan, only because I think people have PTSD from the creation of MPAs and knowing that it led to such bad blood and lots of fighting between these different user groups,” said Lisa Gilfillan, ocean conservation manager for WILDCOAST. “… All they’re saying right now is that they’re considering turning maybe some of the state marine conservation areas into more like state marine reserves.’’
While fishers and conservationists share many of the same goals — sustainable seas, biodiversity, clean water — that doesn’t mean there is agreement on how to do it, or even what the emerging research means when considering the effects of climate change and human-caused pollution.
“It’s hard to measure because the ocean is such a dynamic place,” Cacciola said, helm in hand aboard the Sea Star during the recent research voyage.
Survey methods can be limiting — for instance, using a hook and line confines what type of fish are caught based on size, species and whether they are carnivorous. For the Swami’s excursion, baited shrimp flies with squid, dropper loops and swim bait were used to mimic what the typical angler would use in San Diego.
To record information on a greater variety of fish that may be more difficult to capture, scientists also collected water samples at various depths to test for fish DNA.
Similar research excursions have resulted in nearly 4,000 fish, across 42 species, caught in San Diego marine protected area sampling sites from 2017 to 2022.
A boat captain for 50 years, Cacciola said he’s neutral on whether there should be MPAs, despite it impacting business. But he recognizes with marine protected areas come other side effects.
“When you close that much ocean, especially to sportfishing either with passengers or recreational fishermen on their own boat, that forces them to concentrate their area, their efforts, in other more limited areas,” he said.
And that can lead to overfishing in other parts of the sea, he concluded.
For El Cajon fisherman David Blackston, participating in scientific fishing expeditions such as the Swami’s trip has changed his mind about marine protected areas.
He, like many anglers, saw it as government overstep restricting prime fishing locations.
“But as I started learning more and then getting the opportunity to come out and see these guys … I kind of changed my tune a little bit,” said Blackston, a member of the Coastal Conservation Association. He caught 14 fish during one expedition alone.
However, he acknowledged that his mind could change again if more resources were taken away.
Jeffrey Gunther, 78, who has been on three of the trips thus far, remains far more dubious. He said fishing has not been better in the protected areas compared to elsewhere.
“I can see the theory behind it, but I haven’t seen the science or the proof behind it,” Gunther said.
“I felt that a lot of it was influenced by some of the neighborhoods where the (MPA) boundaries were,” he said, noting La Jolla and Laguna Beach in particular. “The neighbors just did not want fishing boats within a couple of hundred yards or a hundred yards of their backyards.”
Volker Hoehne, who has been involved with policy work since the late 1980s, usually representing the recreational spearfishing community, said the way in which the state went about initially designating marine protected areas more than a decade ago has left lasting damage. He and other fishers say they didn’t feel like their voices were represented and that they were promised science-based data to justify the areas. Some say they were told the closures wouldn’t be permanent.
“They haven’t forgotten, and it’s because of that the fishing community and the diving community doesn’t trust the state, doesn’t trust these groups that make a living and get rich by banning our dive spots,” Hoehne said.
Still, Hoehne said he generally supports marine reserves as a conservation tool. “Without the MPAs, I don’t think we’d have the political will or foresight to protect the entire system,” he said. “It would be piecemealing it by focusing on species.”
But at the same time, he and The Watermen’s Alliance, an advocacy group for California spearfishing clubs that he founded, will oppose any boundary changes, specifically mentioning Batiquitos Lagoon, saying that it’s a longtime family fishing spot that’s part of the region’s outdoor heritage.
Wayne Kotow, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of California, a fishing advocacy group, took the long haul up north to Petaluma in July for the commission’s public meeting and left frustrated, calling the recommendations vague.
“If we’re talking about protection of water, ecosystems, habitat, biodiversity, biomass. Those are science-based. They’re logical. They’re measurable. And that’s what we’re trying to understand,” said Kotow. “It should be a science-based thing of why are we doing what we’re doing.”
But he acknowledged that at least the two opposing groups are now listening to each other and trying to work together.
Back in Oceanside, once the Sea Star had docked, one of the scientists shared the data of the day. The group cheered when he announced the largest fish caught was a barred sand bass at 34 centimeters. And they laughed and teased the fisherman who had caught the smallest, a 15-centimeter long-fin sanddab.
Both fish had been thrown back to sea. Maybe to be reeled in again, even bigger.
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