Scientists helped shape policy in proposed plan for California marine reserves

Mark Carr's office looks out on a stretch of pounding surf, kelp beds, and tide pools that represents not only his research interest in marine coastal ecology, but also his involvement at the intersection of science and policy. Carr, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, serves on the Science Advisory Team that is helping to implement California's Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). Passed by voters in 1999, the MLPA is moving toward the establishment of an unprecedented network of marine protected areas along the entire California coast.

"The establishment of marine reserves is one of the biggest marine conservation issues not only in California, but the whole world," Carr said.

The network of 29 marine protected areas proposed for the Central Coast by the California Fish and Game Commission would include the coastal area outside Carr's office at UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory. Extending along four miles of the coastline and 200 feet out to sea, the Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve would be a "no-take" zone, a sanctuary for every fish, mussel, and barnacle within its boundaries. Created in the spirit of protected lands like Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks, the proposed network also includes protected areas with fewer restrictions where some forms of recreational or commercial fishing would be allowed.

As a member of the MLPA initiative's Science Advisory Team, Carr plays a pivotal role in ensuring decisions are made based on sound science. The 17 members of the team, experts in areas like fisheries science and marine ecology, provide guidelines on how to design a network of marine protected areas to best conserve and protect marine ecosystems. They also evaluate the various network designs proposed by interest groups, which include representatives from commercial and sport fishermen, divers, and conservationists. Finally, the science advisers are responsible for explaining the science of marine ecosystems to those stakeholders and policy makers.

The MLPA was written in response to troubling declines of fish populations. But the act has suffered its share of setbacks, including being put on hold indefinitely in 2004 when funding ran dry. A partnership between private foundations and the state later revived the initiative and has focused initially on establishing reserves along the central California coast from Pigeon Point to Point Conception.

In August of this year, with the guidance of the Science Advisory Team, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to select a preferred plan of marine protected areas that will line the Central Coast. The commission is scheduled to consider adopting the proposal and issuing regulations to implement the preferred plan in March 2007. Under the terms of the MLPA, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) plans to establish a network of marine protected areas along the entire California coast by 2011.

Now that the first phase of the MLPA is coming close to fruition, Carr said he is pleased about the role of science in the planning process.

"This is a great success story in terms of science being incorporated into policy," he said. "The policy makers and interest groups involved truly valued the scientific basis for the decision-making process, which is not always the case in policy making."

One major scientific issue relates to the size of the reserves and how far apart they should be, Carr said. The protected areas must provide enough space for animals to swim freely, yet remain within reserve boundaries. Therefore, marine protected areas are most applicable for species with limited movement. Other species--sharks, tuna, and sea lions, for example--can travel hundreds of miles, beyond the practical limits of a marine reserve.

In order to protect as many species as possible, scientists recommended that individual reserves should stretch at least three miles along the coast, but preferably six or more miles, and should extend out to three miles offshore. This would protect invertebrates with limited mobility like abalone and mussel, yet still be large enough to protect more mobile species like rockfish and halibut.

A unique characteristic of marine ecosystems is that the majority of fish have what scientists call open populations, Carr said. The offspring of rockfish, sheepshead, and other nearshore species are not restricted to the place where they hatch. After hatching, fish larvae drift away, and by the time they return to their adult habitat they may be far away from their birthplace. Because of this, marine protected areas must be sufficiently close together to allow the reserves to help populate one another, as well as the unprotected areas in between. Based on studies of how far fish larvae can travel, the advisory team recommended that the protected areas must be within 30 to 60 miles of each other.

"I'm generally happy because the political process did pay attention to the science we provided them with," Carr said.

According to Carr, the biggest challenge was in evaluating the various proposals from stakeholders with conflicting interests. The scientists drew from a wide range of studies on how species interact in the ecosystem to assess how well the different plans would protect the ecosystem. The DFG reached a compromise by combining elements of the different proposals. Now that the Science Advisory Team has devised an evaluation procedure, the next phase of the MLPA in completing the statewide network of reserves should be easier, Carr said.

Levels of marine protection have long been lagging behind land protection, he said. Marine reserves currently make up less than 0.1 percent of all U.S. waters, and less than 0.01 percent of waters in California. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary currently has largest network of marine protected areas on the West Coast--12 protected areas covering 175 square miles that were established separately from the MLPA process in 2003. The Central Coast network proposed under the MLPA would cover 204 square miles. Although the many different kinds of land reserves make it hard to pinpoint how much land is similarly protected, it is undoubtedly more than the amount of protected marine areas, Carr said.

"It's because of a fundamental difference in how we view ownership of the marine environment," he said.

Increasingly, however, people are recognizing the need to conserve the oceans, and with the MLPA, California is leading the way to a new era of marine conservation, Carr said.

For more information, visit the MLPA's web site at


Note to reporters: You may contact Carr at (831) 459-3958 or