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.


PCC, WCGA, WGA oh my!

Navigating the world of regional ocean management along the West Coast is complicated and one often becomes lost in a bit of acronym riddled alphabet soup. Regional efforts to protect and sustain vital ocean and coastal resources have resulted in the formation of several groups, each tasked with different yet somewhat overlapping priorities and issues. After all, it’s a big ocean, it’s a big geography to deal with, and it’s a tangle of geopolitical boundaries and jurisdictions.

This post is something like the “yellow-brick road” of the West Coast Land of Acronyms. I’m interested in three Governor level groups: the Pacific Coast Collaborative, the West Coast Governors Alliance, and the Western Governors‘ Association. What are these groups? What are they working on, and how do they connect?




Western Governors’ Association:

Established in 1984, the Western Governors’ Association is an independent, non-partisan organization of Governors from 19 Western states, two Pacific-flag territories and one commonwealth. The Association was formed to provide strong multi-state leadership in an era of critical change in the economy and demography of the West. The Western Governors recognize that many vital issues and opportunities shaping our future cross state lines and are shared throughout the West.




The Pacific Coast Collaborative:

On June 30, 2008, the leaders of the five jurisdictions signed the Pacific Coast Collaborative Agreement, the first agreement that brings together the Pacific leaders as a common front to set a cooperative direction into the Pacific Century.  Out of this agreement was born the Pacific Coast Collaborative — a formal basis for cooperative action, a forum for leadership and information sharing, and a common voice on issues facing Pacific North America. The Collaborative includes the three west coast states, Alaska, and British Columbia.




West Coast Governors Alliance:

On September 18, 2006 the Governors of California, Oregon and Washington, signed the West Coast GovernorsAgreement on Ocean Health. The Agreement, now called an Alliance, launched a new, proactive regional collaboration to protect and manage the ocean and coastal resources along the entire West Coast, as called for in the recommendations of the U.S. Commissionon on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission.

I’ll start with what I know best. I work for the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA). The WCGA completed an Action Plan in 2008 that consists of 26 action items achieve a vision for the health of West Coast  coastal and ocean resources, including clean coastal waters and economically and environmentally sustainable coastal communities.

The WCGA isn’t the only group working on ocean health initiatives in the region, however, and with a changing reality for funding and capacity, distinguishing these groups and their efforts has become a priority for those involved to ensure that priorities are met without redundancies and with appropriate coordination.

I asked Keith Phillips from Governor Gregoire’s office in Washington to help explain the differences.

State and provincial leaders have a strong interest in doing things jointly, to leverage their resources, strengthen their messages, and get better results. Groups like the PCC and WGA allow States (and BC) to come together on priority issues because the interests they have in common – and the many issues that don’t just change at the border. These groups deal with a diversity of issues – often the most important issues of the time.”

The WGA represents a much broader geography than the PCC and WCGA, which makes it more difficult to find topics that all 22 states agree on. Generally, the WGA’s mission is to address important policy and governance issues in the West, advance the role of the Western states in the federal system, and serve as a center for shared solutions to regional problems. It has brought attention to issues like regional consistency with the Endangered Species Act, and wildfire suppression and forest health.  In reality, the WGA currently deals very little with ocean health issues, and more with the terrestrial landscape that aligns with the majority of its membership.

When we look at the highlights of the PCC, it is clear the organization addresses a wide range of topics. Because the PCC is meant to serve as a platform for the States rather than for a particular issue, there is little connection between priorities, which range from low carbon energy, to research and innovation, to emergency management. Ocean conservation and climate change are listed as ongoing priorities as well. Under these ocean and climate topic areas the PCC lists actions like the WCGA’s commissioning of the National Academy of Sciences Sea Level Rise study and several state-specific pieces of legislation that reduce emissions, promote green jobs, and encourage development of adaptation strategies for sea level rise. The “work” of the PCC is done by and through the implementing agencies and their partners, using existing groups where possible.

It’s a little easier to find common ground with the PCC which represents four states and BC. This smaller group shares what some call the “Cascadia perspective”; where economies and environmental issues are more closely aligned than in other western states and provinces.

With both groups however, any issue surfacing regionally can be brought to the table. Broader issues that impact more than just the west coast may be brought through the WGA, whereas issues specific to coastal states (i.e. tsunami debris or ocean acidification) would be introduced through groups like the PCC or the WCGA.

Governors get together on issues of interest. Sometimes the entire Collaborative or Association agree – sometimes not, which leads to smaller groups breaking off to adopt a resolution or agreement.

“It doesn’t matter what box they go in – each group serves as a forum for discussion and support” Phillips says.

So where does the WCGA fit in?

Structurally, the WGA and PCC are more “political” than the WCGA, and can adapt and move on hot issues as they arise more easily than the WCGA. Dealing with Japanese tsunami debris is a good example. This sudden event created an immediate need for response, and the higher level structure of the PCC versus the on-the-ground work plan based structure of the WCGA makes the PCC more nimble, albeit less “tangible” in ways. The WCGA is structured with an Executive Committee and actions are carried out by Action Coordination Teams. Work plans are developed and executed on around a four year timeline (there has not been an update to the Action plan since 2008). The PCC works more towards adopting resolutions, promoting issues through state-specific actions, and elevating conversations to a larger regional scale than the WCGA. The WCGA works towards more tangible outcomes, like the eradication of Spartina along the West coast, which is a long term initiative requiring on-the-ground actions to complete the goal.

Additionally, only a section of the PCC’s highlighted priorities deal with ocean issues, while the WCGA focuses exclusively on ocean health. The depth and detail of issues related to ocean health is articulated in the WCGA Action plan – a much “higher level” vision is provided by the PCC.

It’s important to note that no group supersedes the other: they work together to ensure that important issues for western states get the attention they deserve. Both groups highlight the power of partnerships and the commitment to healthy oceans and coastal communities by the region’s governments.

“Just because two different leadership groups raise the same issue, that doesn’t mean there is some problem with overlapping jurisdictions, rather it means the issue is getting broader attention.  This works well as long as the work is done efficiently, and we don’t duplicate efforts.” Keith explains.

One thing is clear: there is no shortage of good work being done on the west coast to protect and sustain our oceans and coastal resources.





Video: Beyond River Mile Five

For nearly 100 years wild salmon populations along the Elwha River, located at the heart of Olympic National Park, have been limited to a five-mile stretch of the 45 mile-long river below the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. In September 2011 engineers began the Nation’s second largest ecological restoration project; a three-year dam removal process, allowing wild salmon and other anadromous fish populations to return to the upper channels and tributaries of the river. But how effective will these restoration efforts be, and how do we measure success? Kinsey Frick, George Pess, and John McMillan, scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington, in partnership with other federal, state and tribal organizations in the region are working together to find answers to these important questions. Their research will not only help us understand the impacts of dam removal on wild salmon populations and ecosystems in the Elwha and allow managers to manage the recovering system adaptively, but also help inform future river restoration projects throughout the country.

Back to School: The U.S Ocean Policy Report Card and UNCLOS

A recent U.S Ocean Policy Report Card gave the U.S low marks in its efforts to support and implement national and international policies to strengthen our ability to manage ocean resources effectively. The assessment covered how well the Nation did with respect to

  • National Support and Leadership: C
  • Regional, State, and Local Leadership and Implementation: A-
  • Research, Science, and Education: C
  • Funding: D-
  • Law of the Sea Treaty: F

The report card reads like that of a struggling student, meaning well and trying hard, but ultimately failing to make the changes necessary to succeed. In particular, the Joint Ocean Commission, who conducted the assessment, highlights the lack of congressional support for the President’s National Ocean Policy (NOP) and for the ascension to the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite shortcomings in many areas, the Commission does give credit to increased Federal agency coordination since the roll-out of the NOP and praises the work of regional ocean partnerships, like the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA), in taking leadership roles, engaging stakeholders and achieving on-the-ground success — giving us an A-, not too shabby!

The lowest grade given, an ‘F’, was for the inability of the Senate to vote on ascension to UNCLOS. This international treaty defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. Despite broad support from the business leaders, conservation groups, and security interests, the US has never signed onto UNCLOS, and it is now being debated (again) in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
UNCLOS came into force in 1994 and to-date 162 countries and the European Community have joined in the Convention. The Treaty protects National security interests, secures sovereign rights to vast areas of the ocean and seabed (each countries 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone), furthers maritime commerce, and promotes ocean resource conservation. UNCLOS provides the framework for International ocean conservation efforts to address the decline of species and habitats, prevent, reduce, and control pollution, and deal with the growing complexity of managing marine debris. As a party to  UNCLOS, the US would serve in a leadership role to help prevent the further decline of ocean ecosystems.

This is an important international treaty that has positive implications for nearly every aspect of maritime activity. In my opinion, it’s a win-win for the U.S; simultaneously asserting it’s sovereign rights while acknowledging the importance of international cooperation in dealing with global issues. I think the US has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and commitment to ocean health by signing on to UNCLOS as soon as possible.

The Oyster in the Shellfish Farm

This is the second part in our three-part investigation of how Ocean Acidification is affecting the West Coast. Please see the Jan. 10th article “A Huge Experiment” for excellent discussion of what Ocean Acidification is and what causes it.

We’ve all heard of the canary in the coal mine, the idea that certain animals can act as alarms of changing conditions. Well, say “hello” to the oyster in the shellfish farm! Just as canaries warned miners of dangerous gasses in mine shafts, oysters are now warning shellfish growers about increasing acidity in the oceans. Shellfish growers are paying attention and working with scientists to develop monitoring approaches to understand how changing ocean conditions are impacting west coast ecosystems, and their bottom line.

The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, located on Netart’s Bay, Oregon, is the second largest producer of shellfish larvae for the West Coast. Using nutrient rich water from the bay, their operation spawns, grows and ships billions of baby shellfish to aquaculturists from Canada to South America. In 2008, they had a sudden and mysterious decline in the production of their larvae that nearly crippled their business and their ability to supply larvae to a $100 million industry that depended on them. At this same time, water saturated with high CO2 was hitting the Pacific coast, and it became clear that this corrosive water was severely impacting the ability of shellfish in their vulnerable developing early stages.

I got a chance to visit Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in late 2011 to tour their facility and learn about a collaboration between the co-owner, Mark Weigart, and a team of scientists from Oregon State University, led by George Waldbusser. The collaboration was focused on understanding the physiological processes that the corrosive water was having on larval organisms and developing adaptation strategies to prevent hatchery die-offs. Among the large plastic tanks containing billions of larvae, a small laptop with sensors is hooked up to the piping system that delivers bay water to the hatchery. The team of scientists developed this homemade monitoring system to measure water chemistry and inform hatchery owners if the water will harm shellfish larvae. This helps a lot, and the system also takes advantage of information from offshore Integrated Ocean Observing Systems (IOOS) to send a warning to the hatchery when cold highly acidified water is on its way to Whiskey Creek. The operators can then reduce the amount of water they pull from the bay or supplement the water to reduce its impact on the larvae.

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On the West Coast, there are three IOOS regional associations (CeNCOOS, SCCOOS, NANOOS) who work together to provide comprehensive data and forecasts for the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem. Recently, the West Coast IOOS’ have explored partnerships with the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA) on tackling issues of regional significance, like ocean acidification.

These monitoring approaches and adaptation strategies are helping Whiskey Creek and other hatcheries on the coast deal with the effects of ocean acidification and highlight the importance of regional ocean observing data in improving our understanding of changing ocean conditions. Have you seen effects of ocean acidification on your part of the coast?