Marine protected areas, or MPA’s, are areas of the ocean set aside for conservation. The new California statewide network of marine protected areas was established between 2007-2012 for a total of 124 MPAs in places along 1,100 miles of California’s coastline.
The implementation of 20 MPAs and seven special closures along the Northern Coast of California in 2012 completed the statewide network. Since implementation, there has been a series of harmful events that have altered the underwater habitat and are threatening the existence of kelp beds, sea stars and red abalone.
Sean Craig is a marine biology professor at Humboldt State that studies both MPA’s and non-protected marine environments with his graduate and undergraduate students.
“Kelp beds are getting decimated, the water temperature has changed, there is a warm water blob along the coast, purple sea urchin populations have increased, sea star wasting disease has come along, harmful algae blooms hit along the Sonoma Coast and El Niño brought warm water right next to shore,” Craig said. “All of these conditions, in multiple ways, could have led to the drop in kelp forests and macroalgae (seaweed).”
Craig gave a talk on MPA’s at the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center on Friday, April 27.
“Protecting areas underwater provides a sanctuary for fishes,” Craig said, “which should enhance the number of fishes, enhancing the number of species in that area and allowing more fish to get larger and reproduce. That leads to a more functional marine web.”
The addition of MPA’s along the north coast of California has given HSU marine biology and scientific diving students incredible research opportunities. Grants funding base line data surveys are helping undergraduate students and graduate students to get field research and diving experience.
Richard Alvarez is the HSU diving safety officer who teaches scientific diving. Alvarez sees the potential in North Coast MPA habitat restoration, noting the successful restoration of some Southern California kelp beds and improvements in the Van Dame MPA in Mendocino.
“Van Dame was the most heavily-hunted abalone area, and it is now robust. Kelp is there and urchin barrens are smaller. There is a chance to get ahead of the urchins eating all of the kelp,” Alvarez said.
Craig has been a part the research along the North Coast MPA’s since their inception. The North Coast MPA surveys were a combined effort of HSU, UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State, the Moss Landing Marine Labs and the Smith River Rancheria.
HSU student scientific divers gathered underwater baseline data on the abundance of kelp and macroalgae and identified fishes, noting their abundance and sizes. Divers also collected data on aquatic macroinvertebrates, such as abalone, sea stars, sea urchins and mussels.
“The Sunflower star that feeds on purple urchins is no longer out there,” Craig said.
There are ecological processes that are occurring with the purple urchin out competing other species in the kelp forest. The disappearance of Pycnopodia that eats purple urchins is having a ripple affect. Abalone are starving because the urchins are eating all of the kelp, additionally sea temperature is also affecting the ability of kelp to grow.
“Data collected on sea stars in 2014 shows major contractions in their populations,” Craig said. “In the summer of 2014, data collected at Pyramid Point MPA shows a healthy population of the Ocher sea star, and the following survey at Pyramid Point in the winter of 2014 shows populations decimated by Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. And the following summer of 2015, there were practically none left at Pyramid Point.”
The rocky intertidal region of the North Coast MPA surveys were conducted by UC Santa Cruz, under the direction of Peter Raimondi and Sean Craig. The survey collected data on seaweed and surf grass, as well as mussels, sea stars and other intertidal organisms.
The North Coast MPA sandy beach surveys were led by San Francisco State, under the direction of Karina Nielsen. Beach surveys collected data on sand crabs that burrow into the sand, surfperch (a family of perciform fish) that eat sand crabs and the wracks of seaweed washed up on the beach containing amphipods that crabs and birds feed upon.
“The wrack of kelp that washes up on the beach ties into the microinvertebrates that live on the beach, increasing the sand crab population and shore bird population,” Craig said. “This is the sort of data that would make anyone wonder why they would want to rake up the wrack off the beaches in Southern California to make it prettier, which is totally changing the entire ecosystem.”
After Craig’s presentation, HSU alumnus Gary Bloomfield, who is a renowned wildlife artist, passed out and signed his MPA poster titled “Safeguarding an underwater wilderness.”
“I hope this poster is educational for people to learn about the ocean and MPA’s,” Bloomfield said.
“In summation, we know MPA’s aren’t saving us from everything, but we can follow Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and see its devastation,” Craig said. “In addition, we have learned a great deal about sandy beaches and the trophic links between species.”