California’s Marine Life Protection Act

Late last summer I went backpacking with three other Sea Grant fellows through 20 miles of Desolation Wilderness just south west of Lake Tahoe in California.  Desolation Wilderness is a federally protected wilderness area full of beautiful alpine lakes, towering trees, and desolate expanses of granite.  We started on the Pacific Crest Trail from Echo Lake, meandered past Aloha Lake, and camped between La Conte and Aloha our first night.  Despite the massive blisters on my feet, the next day we headed out past Heather Lake and up to Gilmore Lake where we gladly ditched our packs and hiked up to Mt Tallac (elev 9,700’) for an incredibly picturesque view of Lake Tahoe and surrounding smaller lakes.



Photos from our backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness. All photos taken by Johanna Weston

To me, the ability to walk out into the woods and get a little lost in federally protected areas is an incredible privilege and something I might consider a right that every citizen of the US has to these pristine areas.  I’m incredibly grateful for the Wilderness Act of 1964 that established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which allows Congress to designate areas to be “administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness” by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service.  Though I may never be able to afford beautiful lakeside property, in a way, through the Wilderness Act I’ll always be a sort of co-owner of an amazing expanse of wilderness areas.  And I’m perfectly happy to hike many miles into these areas and carry what I need on my back to experience a little peace and quiet.


While reflecting on my “co-ownership” of national forests, I started to think about the oceans and whether we have a parallel system in the marine environment.  Of course there is the National Marine Sanctuary System, and I was fortunate to grow up near Monterey Bay next to the beautiful Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary established in 1992 and expanded in 2009.  The National Marine Sanctuaries Act in 1972 was a great step forward to protect coastal areas by allowing the Secretary of Commerce “to designate and protect areas of the marine environment with special national significance due to their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational, or esthetic qualities as national marine sanctuaries”.  Some states have begun to establish networks of Marine Reserves along their coasts, which goes a step or two further in protecting marine resources.


Photo of kayakers enjoying the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (taken from bluewaterventures)

In 1999, California passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA)  to design and manage an improved network of marine protected areas off California’s coast through a process that involved stakeholder engagement and the best available science. California was divided into four regions: south coast, central coast, north central coast, and north coast.  Just a few months ago in December, the north coast reserves went in to effect and the California Marine Life Protection Act process ended its planning phase and moved into implementation.  Approving the final series of marine reserves may seem like a small thing, but to those who have been through the process from the beginning over a decade ago this is a momumentous moment in California’s own mini Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) process to establish a network of marine reserves along the entire CA coast. 


Map of the marine reserves established along the central coast of California through the MLPA process


Preservation of these terrestrial and marine ecosystems through marine santuaries, marine reserves, national forests, and national wilderness areas sets aside large swaths of land and ocean to be enjoyed by many generations into the future. The goals and objectives of the two types of protected areas are slightly different, but knowing there are places in the world  set aside for the protection of species and wildlife is reassuring.  I think the folks who created Desolation Wilderness in 1899 would be pleased that a group of three girls could venture into the wilderness over a century later with nothing but the packs on their backs to explore and enjoy this national wilderness.  Marine reserves  and National Sanctuaries similarly preserve a wealth of ecosystem services as well as areas for people to enjoy for years to come.  So, I encourage you to go out and explore these areas be it carefully walking through the intertidal to see the animals and algae living in tidepools, kayaking across the surface, SCUBA diving through the kelp forest, or just lazing on the beach.

California Ocean Protection Council Meeting

On August 11, I had a chance to attend the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) meeting in Sacramento.  The OPC was created, pursuant to the California Ocean Protection Act (COPA), to coordinate among agencies to solve issues facing coastal oceans. Basically, the OPC helps to break down the silos of government and to use innovative tools to tackle some of California’s toughest ocean and coastal problems.

OPC meetings, which are open to the public and webcast, are held quarterly and include a spotlight on science; this meeting focused on renewable energy.  I was especially interested to see how members of the OPC, the California Ocean Science Trust (OST), and the public interact to approach issues facing our coast and ocean.  Though my background is based more in science than policy, I worked with fishermen in Mexico and often presented my scientific findings in a similar forum.  The fishing cooperatives that I worked with in Southern Baja California Sur are all part of a larger cooperative system called FEDECOOP and each cooperative has regular meetings called assembleas where scientific information is presented, fishing policies are discussed, and decisions are made much like the OPC meetings.

This meeting’s spotlight on science focused on renewable energy and featured Dr. William O’Reilly, Senior Development Engineer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Margaret Caldwell, Executive Director for Center for Ocean Solutions, who talked about the scientific and logistical needs for coastal and marine spatial planning in order to reduce conflicts surrounding existing and emerging ocean uses such as renewable offshore energy.

Dr. O’Reilly started off with a good nuts and bolts overview of different types of energy available: tidal, wave, current and wind.  I was really interested to hear there are many areas in California that are suitable for renewable energy development and it should be possible to balance the spatial needs of recreational and other ocean uses with the those of renewable energy.  Did you know that because the mass of water is about 750 times greater than that of air, the tidal energy moving through San Francisco Bay on an average day is equivalent to wind energy generated by a hurricane?  Dr. O’Reilly noted that, though it is complex to determine the potential of renewable energy sources, there is likely a lot of unharnessed energy off our shore and most importantly much of that energy is located in state rather than federal waters.  I found his report to be very optimistic about the potential for renewable offshore energy production in California.

An example of a tidal energy turbine

Meg Caldwell then gave insight into the types of data and information necessary for planning for multiple ocean uses such as renewable offshore energy.  I was pleased to hear her highlight the utility of well organized, visualized, and layered geospatial data not only to inform decision making about renewable energy, but for all ocean uses and potential projects.  Caldwell explained that a system to organize these data would: provide tools to more easily implement laws and regulations, identify user conflicts, plan and permit in an efficient manner, and improve governance and transparency.  Caldwell wrapped up by pointing out the OPC can contribute by coordinating and implementing a geospatial information system by capitalizing on California OST and other scientists and experts.  This called to mind the Regional Data Network project spearheaded by the West Coast Governors’ Agreement to establish a data sharing network to improve cross boundary access to geospatial data across the west coast. This network could help connect science to stakeholders much like OPC meetings and the assembleas share science with the public and help inform decision making, as well as sharing information and lessons learned from others’ experiences.

Here is an example of geospatial data associated with a renewable energy site taken from the OR marine map website

It’s great to think we can build on ongoing efforts in other states including Rhode Island and Massachusetts when it comes to how and where to plan for renewable energy projects and other ocean uses.  I hope that meetings like these can help to solidify the thinking process and the types of information needed to move implementation of renewable energy into the forefront not just in California, but across the entire west coast in a manner that is efficient, reduces ecosystem and user conflicts, and offsets substantial portion of our current energy use.  This effort in California can especially learn from and build upon significant efforts already in progress in Oregon and Washington.