Restoring and Protecting the Ocean

Restoring and Protecting the Ocean

Along the California coast a life-giving current sweeps offshore, its waters delivering essential nutrients to an extraordinary diversity and abundance of marine life ranging from tiny nudibranchs to massive blue whales. The state’s productive marine and coastal ecosystems support a wealth of economic activities that are major components of California’s coastal economy, the largest of its kind in the nation.

California’s ocean health reached a critical point in the late 1990s, after 50 years of increasing fishing pressure and habitat loss had caused a serious decline in marine ecosystems. Commercial and recreational groundfisheries were failing. Salmon and steelhead runs had been listed as threatened or endangered under state and federal law. The commercial abalone fishery was closed statewide in 1997.

As state ocean health declined, scientific research continued to emerge from around the globe proving the benefits of marine protected areas (MPAs) as an effective management tool for protecting and restoring ocean ecosystems. MPAs harbored more and bigger fish, more resilient habitat, and greater biodiversity compared to unprotected areas.

In 1999, the California legislature adopted the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), calling for establishment of a statewide, science-based network of MPAs along the California coast. MLPA represented a transitional moment in California’s management of marine resources. Rather than concentrating on a single species or even groups of species, the law required a focus on managing whole ecosystems: habitats and biological communities together.

Implementing the visionary new law proved challenging, however. The first two attempts at conducting a statewide MPA planning process foundered. A budget crisis in 2003 brought MLPA implementation activities to a standstill. Working closely with state agencies, RLF applied its experience and expertise in marine policy and public decision making to developing a comprehensive strategy for implementing MLPA in a formal partnership with the State of California. Central to RLF’s design of what became known as the MLPA Initiative was the realization that strategic philanthropy could play a crucial role in enhancing the limited capacity of state agencies to undertake the ambitious mission of designing the first statewide network of MPAs in the United States. RLF drew on lessons learned from earlier attempts, as it orchestrated an MPA design effort that fully and publicly engaged fishermen, conservationists, divers, Native Americans and other citizens, and made available to them the best available scientific information.


In order to foster open exploration of ideas and MPA proposals for final decision making by the state, RLF assembled funding and developed an innovative structure for the process, including a Blue Ribbon Task Force of experienced decision makers to over see the process, a Science Advisory Team to provide expert scientific guidance on MPA design, and stakeholder groups in each of four coastal planning regions to develop a range of MPA proposals. This structure provided more freedom and support for open discussion among stakeholders than exists in formal regulatory settings, ensuring that the state would have before it MPA proposals that had been vigorously vetted.

To support this public process, RLF identified and assembled a network of expert consultants. It also secured funding to staff the Blue Ribbon Task Force, hire specialists such as meeting facilitators, and develop a sophisticated online visualization tool that enabled stakeholders and scientists to use a range of information in mapping, designing, and evaluating MPAs. At the same time, RLF provided guidance and support to stakeholders including conservation organizations, fishing groups, tribes, and local governments, to make it possible for them to invest their time and expertise in the planning process.

Over eight years, RLF’s guidance and the support it and its foundation partners—the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, Annenberg Foundation, and Marisla Foundation—provided made it possible for hundreds of fishermen, scientists, divers, Native American tribes, surfers, educators, students, mayors, and other citizens to help shape the state’s MPA network. On June 6, 2012 the state approved the fourth and final regional MPA plan, completing the first statewide network of MPAs in the United States. The California system of ocean parks stretches from Oregon to the Mexico border, comprises 124 protected areas, and covers a total of 850 square miles—approximately 16.5 percent of state waters.

Recognizing the importance of effective monitoring to the success of the statewide MPA network, RLF also invested time and resources in learning from similar efforts elsewhere, to develop a new approach to MPA monitoring in California. Working closely with state agencies, RLF provided financial and technical assistance to the creation of the MPA Monitoring Enterprise, which coordinates MPA monitoring activities and analysis among a range of state and federal agencies, universities, and “citizen science” groups.

RLF also focused on ensuring successful implementation of the new protected areas by promoting interagency coordination and partnership, and by guiding and supporting efforts to improve
enforcement and advance cost-effective MPA monitoring (including citizen science). RLF has also developed a network of community organizations working throughout the state to advance enduring ocean stewardship and help protect the MPAs from a wide range of potential threats including pollution and coastal development.

The MLPA Initiative stands as an example of RLF’s ability to tackle challenging and complex issues with a strategic, multi-faceted approach designed to overcome the constraints—functional and financial—of government, enabling a major conservation success. In the end, this effort accomplished more than providing Californians with the means for restoring and protecting their coast and ocean for generations to come. It also led to the creation of important new tools for advancing ocean conservation and established a legacy of collaboration, stakeholder engagement, and science-based decision making.

Securing California’s Ocean Legacy, a 2013 report on the MLPA Initiative, RLF’s current ocean conservation work, and future challenges, can be found here.

Maps of marine protected areas can be found here.

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