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Catalina kelp forest

Photo Credit: Dana Roeber Murray

Cold, salty water hits my face as I begin to breathe through my regulator – tiny bubbles floating up to the surface as light filters through the amber-hued blades of kelp. A school of golden señoritas swim past me near Big Kelp Reef in Point Dume as I snugly affix the end of my transect line to a giant kelp holdfast. Data sheet and dive slate in one hand, transect line and flashlight in the other, I give a nod to my dive buddy, consult my compass and begin my survey.

We’re conducting research as volunteer divers for Reef Check, which provides data to marine managers to make decisions about Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The data divers collect is used to assess the health of rocky reefs along California’s coast, from species abundance and diversity to the sizes of individual fish. Some of the best diving is in marine reserves at our local Channel Islands — in MPAs where marine life can thrive, free from fishing or harvest. MPAs at the Channel Islands have been in place for fewer than 10 years, but the ecosystems are already much healthier! We also have local MPAs in Malibu and Palos Verdes- part of a brand-new network of MPAs that took effect on January 1, 2012. Given a little time, perhaps our local MPAs could flourish like those at the nearby Channel Islands.

Back in Point Dume, a school of shimmery purple blacksmith envelops me and I count dozens in seconds as they swim by, noting them on my datasheet. Using my flashlight, I illuminate the underside of a rock ledge – prime territory for a brightly-striped treefish or a snoozing horn shark. Instead, I find a pair of active antennae attached to a spiny lobster. After about 10 minutes of identifying, counting, and sizing, I’ve completed my first fish survey of the dive. I go on to complete two more surveys, and after signaling my dive buddy, we start to ascend, completed data sheets in hand. Breaking the surface, we chat enthusiastically: “Did you see that sevengill shark?” “You wouldn’t believe the size of that kelp bass!” “I found three abalones on my survey!”

While contributing to marine conservation, volunteers benefit through friendships forged with other like-minded divers, amazing underwater experiences, and learning first-hand about our kelp forest and rocky reef ecosystems. If you’re a diver, and want to get trained to collect underwater data on MPAs, get involved by training with Reef Check in the spring.

Non-divers can help on land as a citizen scientist with Heal the Bay’s MPA Watch program. Through MPA Watch, Heal the Bay is assessing how people use L.A.’s underwater parks. Are they kayaking, wildlife watching, and enjoying the beaches along MPAs? Do we see any evidence of non-compliance, which may indicate a need for more education, outreach, and signage?

Volunteers participating in Heal the Bay’s MPA Watch program are trained to observe and collect human use data on coastal and marine resource use in and outside MPAs in Palos Verdes and Malibu. Since 2011, MPA Watch volunteers have completed over 2,200 surveys and we put together an annual data report to share our findings.

We found that the most common coastal uses are non-consumptive recreational activities. But, in both Malibu’s and Palos Verdes’ MPAs, active consumptive activities are present, the majority of which is shore-based fishing, which appears to be declining. Perhaps this is a result of the MPA signage installed early in the year, enforcement presence, or from increased awareness and education efforts in the community. Whatever the cause, we feel heartened by this trend.

More people are wildlife watching and tidepooling in Palos Verdes’ MPAs, with participation in both activities increasing notably within MPAs, while remaining relatively flat outside of the MPAs. The average number of people engaged in viewing wildlife in Palos Verdes’ MPAs more than doubled from four to 10, while the average number of people observed tidepooling increased from two to 14 in 2013. These trends suggest that goal three of the Marine Life Protection Act, which calls for MPAs to “improve recreational, educational, and study opportunities provided by marine ecosystems,” is showing early signs of being met.

Tracking human uses in these new MPAs is important as the data can be used with Reef Check’s ecological surveys to give a more complete picture of ecosystem health, as well as inform education and enforcement actions. Like the Channel Islands MPAs, we can look forward to marine life in our coastal MPAs thriving and spilling into areas outside of the MPAs.

California residents are embracing MPAs and joining local efforts to monitor them. They are making a difference in ocean protection – and you can too! Help support Marine Protected Areas by joining Heal the Bay’s MPA Watch Program or Reef Check.

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