State leaders at La Jolla conference discuss success of a decade of marine protection

People sail in the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve, a Marine Protected Area off La Jolla Cove, in 2019.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A decade after California formed a network of 124 Marine Protected Areas, state leaders gathered Nov. 1 in La Jolla to celebrate the MPAs, discuss their effectiveness and press for strengthened ocean protection.

The news conference at Ellen Browning Scripps Park near The Cove overlooked the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve, one of four MPAs in La Jolla.

The others are the San Diego-Scripps Coastal State Marine Conservation Area just north of Matlahuayl off La Jolla Shores, the South La Jolla State Marine Reserve and the South La Jolla State Marine Conservation Area off Bird Rock.

Nonprofit conservation groups Azul and Environment California presented the conference along with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ocean stress reduction

State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) speaks at a Nov. 1 news conference in La Jolla.
State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) speaks at a Nov. 1 news conference in La Jolla on the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

California, with 1,100 miles of shoreline, “is known for its global environmental leadership,” said state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). A key achievement spurring that leadership, she said, was the establishment of the first MPA network in the United States in 2012.

“MPAs effectively protect biodiversity and build resilience to ocean stressors like marine heat waves,” Atkins said. She added that such phenomena are predicted to increase in coming decades.

MPAs are “an insurance policy” to safeguard marine life against climate change, she said.

Samantha Murray, president of the California Fish and Game Commission, said “we have come a long way in 10 years, [with] community groups leading from the ground up. We have such a massive investment in monitoring. We have enforcement numbers like we’ve never seen before.”

Murray said the Matlahuayl reserve was “created to protect things like reefs and kelp forests and surf grass beds and deep water canyons that bring in cold, nutrient-rich waters”

Octavio Aburto Oropeza, a professor of marine biology at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Octavio Aburto Oropeza, a professor of marine biology at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says marine protections can be a solution to biodiversity loss.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Octavio Aburto Oropeza, a professor of marine biology at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, said robust marine protections can be a solution to biodiversity loss and climate change.

“Science has a very clear message,” he said. “Fully protected areas are recovering marine biodiversity and creating more ecosystem … benefits for local communities and people that live in the coastal areas.”

Aburto Oropeza said “the problem is we don’t have enough fully protected marine areas. The U.S. has around 1,000 Marine Protected Areas, and only 1.2 percent are fully protected. … We need to put more efforts to increase these fully protected areas.”

“Fully protected” means nothing can be extracted from the marine area. State marine reserves are fully protected. State marine conservation areas are slightly more permissive, allowing some commercial fishing, for example.


To protect biodiversity and strengthen climate resilience, “scientists believe we must conserve at least 30 percent of ... land and [coastal] waters by 2030, a global goal known as ‘30x30,’” Atkins said. The impact of MPAs on climate change is integral to that, she said.

A 30x30 conservation area is defined by the California Natural Resources Agency as “land and coastal water ... durably protected and managed to sustain functional ecosystems, both intact and restored, and the diversity of life that they support.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom committed to the 30x30 program in 2020; the state Legislature dedicated about $768 million in the budget this year to advance 30x30’s goals.

“This funding is going to enable local and regional groups … to expand environmental conservation across the state and expand practices that meet our climate, biodiversity and equitable access goals,” Atkins said.

No borders to MPA success

Murray noted that the Matlahuayl reserve is “one of the only Marine Protected Areas to be named in a local tribal language” and that “we have seen tribes demonstrating incredible, extraordinary strength and power and leadership in multiple ocean and coastal venues.”

“When all of us come together … with our knowledge bases, we’re strong … we are unbreakable,” said Stan Rodriguez of the Santa Ysabel Band of the Iipay Nation.

The success of MPAs also is due to cross-border cooperation, Aburto Oropeza said.

“Many ecosystems like the ones we have here in California, like kelp forests, don’t stop at the borders,” he said. “We need to create more efforts to bring different governments to work and tackle these issues in a collaborative way.”

Ecology and economy

Some have warned of serious economic harm from regulations and other policy measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change.

But Murray said the drive to protect against climate change is not at odds with protecting the economy.

The past 10 years of MPAs are “proof of concept that we can have a network of Marine Protected Areas and have a $43 billion ocean economy,” she said. “We can have the fifth-biggest economy in the world and have protections in our water.”

“I’m proud to see what we can do at a local level and at the international level,” Murray added.

The next wave

California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot
California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot says leaders will meet soon to review the past decade of the state’s MPAs and their influence on climate change.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said the MPA network will soon undergo a review of the past decade, during which leaders will discuss the MPAs’ progress and their influence on climate change.

The review will prompt leaders to “think about how we want to invest and focus our efforts for the next 10, 50, 100 years,” Murray said.

“Ten years isn’t a long time when you’re talking about the ocean,” she said. “We really do need to think about the future if we want to realize the full potential of our ecological, economic and social benefits of our network of Marine Protected Areas.”

The state has a delegation going to the United Nations Global Biodiversity Conference to be held in Canada in December, where governments will “try to come together and negotiate an agreement to stem this extinction crisis and protect this biodiversity,” Crowfoot said.

Sharing the models of success in conservation from California will be a crucial component of the U.N. conference, he said. ◆