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Communities step up to support protection of treasured ocean areas

by Kaitilin Gaffney
This article by the Ocean Conservancy's Kaitilin Gaffney highlights several volunteer science and education programs formed to ensure the effectiveness of marine protected areas in California and Hawaii. Coastal communities depend on the ocean for jobs, food, recreation, beauty, and environmental health, and are stepping up to help the state steward ocean parks in their backyards. This kind of collaborative public private partnership is integral to the success of California's Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). The public is overwhelmingly supportive of ocean protection, and groups and individuals all over the state are involved in monitoring, education and outreach.
Two weeks ago I spent a whirlwind 46 hours in Honolulu. I didn't go surfing off Waikiki or snorkeling in Hanauma Bay. Instead I spent two days under florescent lights in the conference room of a downtown hotel talking with state and federal agency staff, conservationists and fishermen about ocean conservation. But it was time well spent. What I learned in Hawaii was the importance of community engagement to their ocean stewardship efforts - a lesson that is also being taught right here at home in California.

For more than five years, Hawaii's Makai Watch Program has proven the value of partnerships between state agencies, conservation and community groups to give local citizens a direct hand in managing ocean protection efforts. With agency staffing limited and budgets shrinking, local citizens in more than ten communities throughout Hawaii have stepped up to educate the public, perform citizen monitoring and provide eyes and ears on the water to report problems to law enforcement.

Back home in California, similar efforts are underway. Communities from San Mateo to Santa Monica are jumping on board to help ensure our state's new system of underwater parks, created through the Marine Life Protection Act, are effective with efforts by land, air and sea.

Citizen volunteers from Monterey Coastkeeper and Otter Project's MPA Watch program have been tracking uses of the Central Coast's marine protected areas for over a year, surveying popular spots like Ano Nuevo, Point Lobos, and Lover's Point to record the number of people on the beach and the water enjoying the abundant sea life. Heal the Bay has just launched a similar citizen science program, where volunteers help collect data on coastal and ocean use to help inform management of the soon-to-be-created marine protected area at Point Dume near Santa Monica.

Surveyors are also taking to the air: Monterey Coastkeeper, Santa Monica Baykeeper and Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission worked with LightHawk to do aerial surveys during the salmon season opening weekend. The Santa Monica groups have been conducting similar flights on the south coast for over a year to document use in and around the planned underwater parks.

Citizen researchers are also in and on the water conducting fish surveys in and around protected areas: This article describes a collaborative monitoring project between scientists at Moss Landing Marine Lab and Cal Poly and local fishermen in Monterey and Morro Bay. Volunteer divers trained by Reef Check swim along California's nearshore reefs to count plants and animals, gathering data that can be used to assess overall ecosystem health.

The ancient Hawaiians had a proverb: "ho'okahi ka 'ilau like ana" (wield the paddles together). Thanks to the MLPA and the work of thousands of Californians who support ocean conservation, we have secured lasting protections for the waters around iconic places like Point Reyes, the Big Sur coast, and Catalina Island. It's great to now see so many Californians getting their hands wet to help protect the ocean they love. Through continued community involvement, by paddling together, we can ensure California's new underwater parks are a long-term success.
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