Eyes on the Prize: CoastKeeper scouts monitor La Jolla’s Marine Protected Areas


To get a better idea of how people are using La Jolla’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), San Diego CoastKeeper is taking to the sea. For the last few months, CoastKeeper researchers and volunteers have gone out by boat to gather data for the MPA Watch program — including the number of boats in the area and what the occupants are doing. Currently in an “exploratory” phase, researchers will use their findings to determine whether a monitoring program that regularly features boat trips would be feasible.

There are 11 MPAs in San Diego County. Facilitated by Wildcoast and CoastKeeper, MPA Watch calls on volunteers to observe human activity in these areas. La Jolla has two MPAs, one that spans from the Cove to Scripps Pier and another that spans from Scripps Pier to Torrey Pines Beach — each from the mean high tide line to about a mile out to sea. During a Watch session, volunteers stand at points across (or walk along the mean high tide line) and look out toward the ocean. They then submit their findings. The information will be used in 2017 to review the effectiveness of the MPAs as a fisheries protective resource.

Kristin Kuhn, CoastKeeper community engagement coordinator, explained, “The point of the surveys on land was to get a sense for how people were using the MPAs. The boat component is a counterpoint to someone standing on the beach with binoculars.” She said while someone on land could record the number of kayaks, for example, on the ocean, it might be easier and more accurate from a boat.

Kuhn added, “the whole point of these (boat) trips is to see if this program is worth the effort and resources.”

During a trip, which researchers conduct two to four times a month, a team of three departs from the Point Loma harbor, and proceeds up to La Jolla, passing coronado and Pacific beach along the way. During a trip with La Jolla Light Sept. 29, the crew consisted of Kuhn, Water Quality Laboratory coordinator Meredith Meyers, and Waterkeeper/Law and Policy Director Matt O’Malley. O’Malley captained the small vessel on the windy afternoon, and Meyers helped navigate.

Once they arrive at the MPA, determined by latitude and longitude, Watch staff “park” the boat at the western border and face land to get a broad view of the protected area in front of them. Fishing is not allowed in the La Jolla MPA, yet Kuhn said more than half the time, they see people fishing there. Should they see a boat in the MPA, Watch

staff will get close enough to see with certainty what the occupants are doing, using binoculars. they survey the results, including latitude and longitude, type of boat, what boaters are doing, time, weather conditions and more.

“If we see someone fishing in a MPA, it does not necessarily mean they are poaching, they could just not know what the rules are, which tells us where our gaps in outreach and advocacy are,” Kuhn said. “The value of being out here is more anecdotal. It’s not about catching folks in the act right now, it’s about getting a feel for what’s going on out here ...” she paused.

“Like this guy ...” she said, as she observed a small boat sitting stationary in the water within the MPA. Next to it was an even smaller vessel, about the size of a rowboat or kayak.

O’Malley proceeded closer to the possible perpetrators, just until Kuhn could see clearly with binoculars. “Oh yeah, they’re fishing,” she said. “I just watched one of them cast a line.”

She said part of their outreach is to determine if boaters or fishermen know they are in a MPA and whether they are respecting the rules. “When we see poachers, depending on whether they seem unaware that they are in a reserve or are aware and don’t care, we call Cal-TIP (Californians Turning In Poachers) hotline.” MPA maps are found at or wherever fishing equipment is sold.

More often than not, she said, people are aware they’re in a MPA and what the rules are, but fish there anyway. The problem is that each MPA was deemed need of protecting because of its biological value and some are breeding grounds for marine species, such as fish.

The La Jolla MPA abuts a conservation area, in which line fishing of pelagic finfish — including tuna, swordfish and shark — is allowed. An additional boat was spotted fishing in this area. Due to the windy weather, conditions were choppy, and why only the three vessels were seen. When lobster season starts, Kuhn said several fishermen drop lobster traps in the area, or bring their boats out and dive.

Meyers added that most people would be surprised to know that even though these areas are protected, there is a wide variety of permissible recreation. These include children making sand castles, shoreline fishing (where permitted), surfing, kayaking, swimming and bodysurfing.

The MPA program was adopted in 2012, and will be reviewed for efficacy in 2017. In the meantime, Kuhn said at the end of the year, CoastKeeper and Wildcoast will come together to review the data collected on the boat trips and decide whether a more formal boat program could be implemented.

Volunteers are also being accepted for the on-land MPA Watch program. Find more information at