California Public Policy and Citizen Participation/Chapter Five

The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) was passed in 1999 and is part of the California Fish and Game Code. The MLPA requires California to reevaluate all existing marine protected areas (MPAs) and potentially design new MPAs that together function as a statewide network. The MLPA has clear guidance associated with the development of this MPA network. MPAs are developed on a regional basis with MLPA and MPA specific goals in mind, and are evaluated over time to assess their effectiveness for meeting these goals.



Unlike terrestrial conservation, marine conservation often lacks a systematic approach to conserving biodiversity.[1] Little gap analysis has been performed on the marine environment, and there is a lack of knowledge into what is protected, what needs to be protected, and where the protection needs to occur.[1] Over the last century there has been a rapid increase in the loss of marine biodiversity and habitat degradation. About 70% of California's population lives within one hour of the coast and the ocean provides resources to local, state, and national interests. As a result, species and habitat loss has become a major issue. Over 90% of California's coastal wetlands have been lost, coastal waters have become contaminated with a variety of urban and agricultural toxins, and a large number of targeted species have declined in the last 10–20 years.[1] Over the last two decades, California fish catches have decreased by over 50%.[2] These impacts have decreased the health and value of the California's coastal ocean and imply a need for a more systematic approach to marine conservation.[1][2] Although there is no single solution to conserving the marine environment, MPAs are a potentially valuable tool for marine conservation when designed and managed effectively. A well designed and managed network of MPAs helps to prevent degradation, fosters marine biodiversity, and may maintain a more sustainable fishing industry.[2] The MLPA helps to promote a shift from single-species management to an ecosystem based management and is a more systematic approach to marine conservation.

A Brief History of California MPAs


California’s first six MPAs were created between 1909 and 1913; by 1950 all had been removed. After 1950 more than 50 other MPAs were created along the California coast. But these MPAs were established in a random manner and without regard to regional conservation goals.[3] Most have been thought to be too small and ineffective in protecting against habitat and species loss.[1][2][3] With these existing MPAs less than 1% of coastal waters were protected, and none extended to deeper waters.[1] In 1999 the MLPA was created in order to re-evaluate the current MPA system and to establish a better network of MPAs that would be more effective in protecting against habitat and species loss.

The Marine Life Protection Act


The Marine Life Protection Act language as amended to July 2004

MLPA Findings


The MLPA found that existing MPAs were not created under a coherent plan or scientific guidelines, and that there is a need to redesign the MPA system. Coastal development, water pollution, and other human activities are a threat to California’s diverse coastal waters. These coastal waters, along with the ecosystems and species which thrive within them are vital assets to the state and nation. An improved MPA system would help protect against habitat and ecosystem loss, conserve biological diversity, provide safe breeding grounds for fish and other marine species, improve research opportunities, create a reference point from which the rest of the ocean can be compared against, and may help to re-grow depleted fisheries.[3]

MPA Network


The MLPA appointed the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) with the task of developing and managing a network of MPAs. The CDFG determines the final location and size of each MPA. The goal is to establish a network of MPAs that work together. This network takes into account the movement of adult and larval fish and also focuses on deepwater habitats for the first time.[2] A proportion of the MPA network is to be designated as no-take zones. No-take zones allow for a large area of safe breeding grounds and a sanctuary for large, female fish. Large female fish produce more viable offspring and are vital in a population.[4] With this idea, the MPA network has the potential to boost fish populations in areas out side of MPAs. Fishery growth has been successful along the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary after reserves were established in these areas.[2] The final decision of the size and location of the MPAs depends on the species and habitats effected, stakeholder and conservation goals, and how each individual MPA will function on its own and as part of the network.

MLPA Implementation


After its passage in 1999, the CDFG began to implement the MLPA. The first attempt involved a Master Plan Team which included primarily scientific experts and governmental agencies, with little input from local stakeholders.[5] This plan failed once it was brought to the public for approval, mostly because stakeholders and other members of the public were excluded from the process. Commercial and recreational fishers showed the most resistance, stating that MPAs produce no benefits for fisheries and objecting to the size and location of the proposed MPAs.[2][5] In 2002, the CDFG implemented the MLPA for a second time. This plan involved members from the Master Plan Team, as well as seven Working Stakeholder Groups, which included governmental agency officials, recreational and commercial fishing interests, recreational divers, ocean vessel representatives, environmental interests, charter boat operators, harbormasters, and scientists/educators.[5] This attempt was more successful and gained public support, but the project lost funding in 2003 due to a poor fiscal year.

In 2004 the CDFG gained new funding from several organizations to initiate the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative. The Initiative divided the coast into sequential regions and assembled a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Marine Protected Areas, Science Advisory Team, and Regional Stakeholder Group to develop and evaluate the first set of MPAs in the Central Coast region.[2] On April 13, 2007, after nearly three years of public meetings and proposal reviews, the Fish and Game Commission evaluated and voted on a final MPA proposal for the Central California coast. The commission voted on a plan to establish 29 MPAs covering approximately 204 square miles (18%) of state waters with 85 square miles (8%) designated as no-take state marine reserves.[6] The network ranges from Pigeon Point in San Mateo County south to Point Conception in Santa Barbara County, and contains several types of MPAs with varying degrees of protection. Central coast MPA regulations will be effective starting summer 2007.[6]

The Central Coast plan has received high marks for scientific effectiveness. Local stakeholders developed a balanced network that protects the region’s best habitat, including parts of the Big Sur Coast and Monterey Bay, while allowing continued access to most recreational and commercial fishing grounds. California’s new Central Coast MPAs went into effect in September 2007 and scientific baseline data has been collected over the last two years.

The North Central Coast plan, adopted by the Fish and Game Commission on August 5, 2009, also represented a compromise between different interest groups, and protected iconic sites like the Farallon Islands, Point Reyes Headlands, and Bodega Head while leaving nearly 90 percent of coastal waters open for fishing. Regulations for the North Central Coast MPAs, which extend from Alder Creek, near Pt. Arena in Mendocino County, to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County, went into effect on May 1, 2010. The regulations established 21 marine protected areas (MPAs), three State Marine Recreational Management Areas, and six special closures, in total covering approximately 153 square miles (20.1%) of state waters in the north central coast study region. Approximately 86 square miles (11%) of the 153 square miles are designated as "no take" state marine reserves, while different take allowances providing varying levels of protection are designated for the rest.

In 2008, South Coast Regional Stakeholders began a public planning process to design the part of the statewide MPA network that spans from Pt. Conception in Santa Barbara county to the U.S. border with Mexico. On Dec. 15, 2010 the CA Fish and Game Commission adopted regulations to create 36 new MPAs encompassing approximately 187 square miles (8 percent) of state waters in the study region. Approximately 116 square miles (4.9 percent) have been designated as no-take state marine reserves (82.5 square miles/3.5 percent) and no-take state marine conservation areas (33.5 square miles/1.4 percent), with the remainder designated as state marine conservation areas with different take allowances and varying levels of protection. Implementation of the new South Coast MPAs will take place in mid 2011.

The North Coast region, which stretches from Point Arena to the Oregon border, concluded the stakeholder planning process in August 2010. Stakeholders developed a unified proposal for their regional MPA network supported by fishermen, conservationists, and tribal representatives. The unified plan will be considered by the Fish and Game Commission beginning in 2011.

The Science


An extensive body of peer-reviewed studies on marine protected areas have concluded that well-designed networks of protected waters are effective in improving ocean health and making ocean waters more resilient.[7] Most recently, the February 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) included several new studies that showed that scientifically-based MPA networks have a net positive impact on both ecosystem productivity and associated fisheries. One of the studies found that such well-designed networks can simultaneously improve the quality of ocean habitat, increase the size and abundance of sea life, and increase fishing yields and profits.[8] Several studies have stressed the importance of location: The location of protected areas is important. In order to be effective, marine reserves must be placed in the areas where fish and shellfish feed and breed.[7]

MLPA Controversy / Conflict of Interest Investigation


The MLPA Initiative recently began to receive negative press from fishing rights groups and individual fishermen due to the apparent conflict of interest of some MPA officials and unfair practices in the MLPA process.[9] On May 14, 2009, Fish and Game Commission Member Jim Kellogg called for the Commission to put the MLPA process on hold due to the state budget crisis. Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez and North Coast Assemblyman Wes Chesbro requested investigation into conflicts of interest among Blue Ribbon Task Force members as well as sources of funding for the MLPA.[10]

On May 19, 2009, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (CFPPC) disclosed that the Enforcement Division of the Fair Political Practices Commission has started a formal investigation into Fish and Game Commissioner George Michael Sutton, under charge of having violated the Political Reform Act (PRA) of 1974 due his conflicts of interest on votes on the MLPA while serving on the Fish and Game Commission.[11]

On June 24, after investigating the matter, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) declared that Commissioner Sutton can participate in any and all public processes and deliberations surrounding the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) without conflict.[citation needed]

MPLA process winds up


Despite staunch opposition from fishermen whose livelihood might be impacted, the final brushstrokes were put on the MPLA process at the Santa Barbara meeting in late 2010. Despite significant input from the industry, many of the provisions would apparently impact economically viable fisheries. Representatives indicated that they intend to file litigation with respect to one or more possible improprieties in the process. On the other hand, many contended that there was an unprecedented level of public involvement which provides a solid foundation of legitimation of the process.

Much of the criticism centered on putative irregularities with respect to the Blue Ribbon committee of experts. Specifically, it is alleged by many that the commission did not conform to the Brown Act and conducted some of its activities via informal meetings which nevertheless did cover public policy matters which the Act would require to have been public. The other side contends that there were never substantive disposition of issues at any such contacts and that they never met in quorum.

It remains to be seen to what extent the industry will shrug off lingering resentment of the imperfections in the process and the outcome and to what extent there may be continuing litigation, non-compliance, or attempts to repeal or modify the MPLA as enacted. There are some who argue that the management of fisheries will benefit the industry long term, and possibly that viewpoint will gain traction going forward. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is significant dissatisfaction within the fishing towns and it is unclear whether those views will taper or increase as the 2011 election season approaches.

Much was said of the putative involvement of "Hewlett Packard money" and there is a perception that environmental interests are well funded by endowments of various kinds which are insensitive to the needs or working people. Sentiment against environmentalism runs high even in communities which pride themselves on maintaining high standards with respect to environmental stewardship. A similar dynamic occurs with respect to Coastal Commission regulation, in which agricultural interest bitterly contest permitting requirements which constrain crop rotation.

If environmental successes provoke significant backlash, they may find many of their gains being reversed if the State Legislature switches to Republican, or if Democratic party leaders mitigate their environmental policies. It will be interesting to note to what extent political campaigns in 2011 bring out dissatisfaction with environmental controls such as the MLPA. Some business interests, such as residential realtors and tourism, are solidly in support of environmentalism. When the campaign dollars flow, perhaps those kinds of businesses will support candidates with strong Sierra Club endorsements, offsetting loss of votes and financial support such candidates may receive from fishing, agriculture and developers.


  1. a b c d e f Gleason, Mary G. et al. 2006. Assessing gaps in marine conservation in California. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 4: 249-258.
  2. a b c d e f g h Avasthi, Amitabh. 2005. California tries to connect its scattered marine reserves. Science. 305: 487-489.
  3. a b c CDFG. 2004. Marine Life Protection Act: sections 2850-2863. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Fish and Game, Marine Region.
  4. Palumbi, S.R. 2004. Why Mothers Matter. Nature 430: 621-622.
  5. a b c Weible, Christopher. et al. 2004. A comparison of a collaborative and top-down approach to the use of science in policy: establishing marine protected areas in California. The Policies Study Journal. 32: 187-207.
  6. a b CDFG. 2007. Marine Life Protection Act initiative: commission gives final approval for Central Coast marine protected areas. [1]. Viewed 22 May 2007.
  7. a b Halpern, Benjamin S. et al. 2010. Placing marine protected areas onto the ecosystem-based management seascape. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
  8. Gaines, Steven. et al. 2010. Designing marine reserve networks for both conservation and fisheries management. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
  9. Richard Holland. 2009. Rules Disregarded, Changed. [2]. Viewed 29 May 2009.
  10. Indy Bay. 2009. Jim Kellogg Asks Commission to Put MLPA Process on Hold. [3]. Viewed 29 May 2009.
  11. Earth Times. 2009. CCFCC Applauds Fair Political Practices Commission Opening Investigation of Fish and Game Commissioner Mike Sutton. [4]. Viewed 29 May 2009.