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California Network of MPAs

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


A network of Marine Protected Areas is being developed in the state waters of California, following the passage of the Marine Life Protection Act (MPLA) in 1999. The primary goals of the MPLA are to protect marine life and habitats, protect marine ecosystems and their natural heritage and improve recreational, educational and study opportunities provided by marine ecosystems.

The MPLA is part of a series of state actions to implement ecosystem-based management initiatives in response to noted declines in the health of the coastal ecosystem. At the time of its passage, less than one percent of state waters were zoned as no-take areas that were off-limits to fishing.

This is the third attempt to implement the MPLA. The first two attempts took place between 1999 and 2004, but failed because of lack of funding and deficiencies in providing sufficient information to stakeholders. This attempt, the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, began in August 2004 with commitments for more resources and the support of a higher-level agency, the California Resources Agency.

A memorandum of agreement creating a public-private partnership was signed with the Sacramento-based non-profit, Resources Legacy Fund, which assisted in the design of the program using funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Marisla Foundation.

A master plan has been issued that serves as a framework to guide planning on a regional basis in five study regions. The goal is to implement a Marine Protected Area in each study region by 2011.

MEBM Attributes

  • Collaboration: Involvement of stakeholders and scientists in developing Marine Protected Area (MPA) networks through a collaborative process.
  • Adaptive Management: Commitment to learn from experience and adapt the process of creating regional MPA networks.
  • Adaptive Management: Establishment of scientific indicators and monitoring program to evaluate each MPA.
  • Adaptive Management: Enactment of legal provision to request periodic proposals to add, delete or modify MPAs.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The Marine Life Protection Act states that a Marine Protected Area (MPA) will achieve either or both of the following overarching objectives:

  • Protection of habitat by prohibiting potentially damaging fishing practices or other activities that upset the natural ecological functions of the area.
  • Enhancement of a particular species or group of species, by prohibiting or restricting fishing for that species or group within its boundary.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • California Department of Fish and Game
  • California Fish and Game Commission
  • California Resources Agency


  • Resources Legacy Fund

Key Parties


  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries
  • National OceanService
  • National Marine Sanctuary Program.


Through stakeholder groups, representatives of various marine interests participate including:

  • Commercial fishing
  • Recreational angling and diving
  • Ports and harbors
  • Water quality
  • Conservation
  • Business


Program Structure

The Department of Fish and Game administers the day-to-day work for the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative. Multiple committees provide public oversight, inject stakeholder opinion and ultimately recommend the establishment of regional Marine Protected Area (MPA) networks. The decision-making authority rests with the California Fish and Game Commission.

External Oversight

  • Regional Stakeholder Groups. Stakeholder groups are formed in each study region, composed of individuals nominated by the chairman of the Blue Ribbon Task Force and director of the Department of Fish and Game. The groups provide local knowledge, inform the planning process, evaluate existing MPAs, develop MPA proposals and conduct outreach to constituent groups.
  • Master Plan Science Advisory Team. The science advisory team is composed of staff from the Department of Fish and Game, Department of Parks and Recreation, State Water Resources Control Board, an appointee recommended by Sea Grant and a select group of external scientists who are experts in marine ecology, fisheries science, economics and social sciences. The body provides scientific advice and judgment to assist the Department of Fish and Game with meeting the objectives of the initiative. It also reviews MPA proposals and consults on scientific issues. A sub-team works directly with stakeholders in each study region.
  • Blue Ribbon Task Force. The task force is composed of public leaders selected by the California Resources Agency to oversee the regional projects to develop Marine Protected Area (MPA) proposals. It receives the work of the stakeholder groups and votes on a preferred alternative for the establishment of each regional MPA network. It forwards the recommendation to the Fish and Game Commission.
  • Statewide Interests Group. The Statewide Interests Group includes members of key interest groups, appointed in consultation by the chairman of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, secretary of the California Resources Agency, and director of the Department of Fish and Game. The group provides a forum to enhance communication between the Blue Ribbon Task Force and stakeholders. It does not vote or take formal positions on issues. Instead, it alerts members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force and initiative staff of issues and opportunities that could lead to improved public involvement.

Internal Oversight

  • CaliforniaFish and Game Commission. The commission is the decision-making authority for implementing the initiative, including the enactment of any regional MPA proposals.
  • Department of Fish and Game. The department is the lead agency for designing and implementing the initiative. Its director selects the members of the Science Advisory Team in consultation with the California Resources Agency. It also provides biological, enforcement and other relevant information. It reviews and evaluates proposals by the Regional Stakeholder Groups.
  • California Resources Agency. The agency secretary selects the chairman and other members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, convenes and charges the members with meeting their objectives, provides policy direction for coordinating funding and staffing, and seeks current and future funding for the initiative.
  • Resources Legacy Foundation. The non-profit obtains, coordinates and administers philanthropic investment to supplement the public funding of the initiative. It provides strategic advice to the California Resources Agency on the subject of public-private funding, and supports initiative staff in managing private contracts.
  • Steering Committee. The Steering Committee coordinates work of state agencies involved in the initiative and includes senior staff of the initiative and relevant agencies.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

In the 1990s, California began responding to the declining health of its ecosystem with several new laws that reflected a focus on ecosystem-based approaches.

The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), signed by the governor of California into law in 1999, included several key legislative findings. One called the diversity of the marine ecosystem a vital asset, important to public health and well-being, as well as ocean-dependent industry. Another faulted the state’s existing Marine Protected Area (MPA) group as being uncoordinated and enacted without sound scientific guidance, giving the illusion of protection while falling short of its potential.

At the time of the passage of the MLPA, less than one percent of state waters had been zoned as no-take areas, off-limits to fishing and extractive uses. The MLPA directed the state to re-examine and redesign the system of MPAs through a comprehensive program and master plan, stating clear goals and objectives, using the best available science as a guide.

In 2000, the state enacted the Marine Managed Areas Improvement Act to more clearly define the types of MPAs.

As the process for creating MPAs stalled, the state recommitted itself to their designation through the 2004 California Ocean Protection Act, enacted to create improved coordination and effectiveness of state agencies with coastal and marine governance responsibilities. The act’s resulting Ocean Action Plan called for the full implementation of the MLPA.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The coastal ecosystem of California is home to hundreds of species of fish, marine plants and algae, as well as thousands of marine invertebrates. Dozens of species of coastal birds and 35 species of marine mammals spend some part of their life cycle within the ecosystem.

The ocean bottom can be rocky, sandy or silty and can be composed of a great variety of geological forms, including rocky reefs, basins, troughs, peaks and cliffs. In addition, great undersea canyons exist close to shore, providing deep water, near-shore habitat for marine life that generally lives farther offshore.

The California Current, flowing southward, carries colder northern water close to the coast as far as southern California, where it moves offshore. In the gap, the Southern California Countercurrent flows into the Santa Barbara Channel. The two currents meet around Point Conception, creating a rich transition zone and serving as a dividing line for California’s fisheries.


Threats include:

  • Coastal development, which has impacted watersheds, wetlands and estuaries and altered habitat.
  • Partially treated sewage, run-off containing toxic chemicals and other pollutants entering the ecosystem.
  • Coastal power plants that use intake structures in once-through cooling processes that kill marine life.
  • Overfishing which has altered the balance of species in the ecosystem.

Major Strategies

According to the master plan, the overall strategy of designing a Marine Protected Area (MPA) or network should be to:

  • Protect a diversity of species and habitats.
  • Protect adult populations.
  • Facilitate dispersal and connectedness of important bottom-dwelling fish and invertebrate groups.
  • Replicate key marine habitats in multiple MPAs across large environmental and geographic gradients.
  • Replicate MPAs within habitat types and regions to provide analytical power for management comparisons and to buffer against catastrophic loss.
  • Consider local resource use and stakeholder activities.
  • Consider the adjacent terrestrial environment and associated human activities.
  • Facilitate adaptive management of the MPA network into the future and the use of MPAs as natural scientific laboratories.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Monitoring and Evaluation

The Marine Life Protection Act requires adaptive management of every Marine Protected Area (MPA) to ensure it meets its stated objectives, and requires the state to develop a monitoring and evaluation program. According to the initiative’s master plan, monitoring and evaluation programs should address five principles. Such programs are expected to be:

  • Useful to managers and stakeholders for improving MPA management.
  • Practical in use and cost.
  • Balanced to seek and include scientific input and public participation.
  • Flexible for use at different sites and in varying conditions.
  • Holistic through a focus on both natural and human perspectives.


The master plan requires a communications plan to be developed to inform the public of the results of the monitoring efforts and describes indicators of success that should be measured. The information is designed to prompt regular re-assessments of MPAs under the following timelines:

  • Every three years, the Fish and Game Commission is required to receive and act upon proposals to add, delete or modify MPAs.
  • Every five years, a comprehensive analysis of monitoring results should be required.


Legal Protections

Prior to the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, key elements of the coastal ecosystem had been protected in an ad-hoc, crisis-driven manner in which regulators responded to the crashing of fish stocks by closing certain areas to fishing. Other areas were protected by isolated and small Marine Protected Areas.

As a result of the initiative, new regulations establishing 29 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) took effect in September 2007 in the Central Coast Study Region, encompassing about 18 percent of the state waters in that region. About 40 percent of the MPA area is designated as no-take and off-limits to fishing. The other areas have different allowances providing varying levels of protection.

In keeping with the initiative’s intent, a report on the lessons learned from the Central Coast Study Region planning process was produced.

Effective May 2010, new regulations establishing 21 MPAs in the North Central Coast Study Region, encompassing about 20 percent of the state waters in that region. About 50 percent of the MPA area is designated as no-take.

Regional planning efforts in three other study areas are underway, or anticipated to begin soon.

Website Links

California Marine Life Protection Act Initiative:

California Department of Fish and Game:

California Fish and Game Commission:

California Resources Agency:

Resources Legacy Fund: