Creating and Sustaining California’s Marine Protected Areas, the Nation’s First Statewide Network of Ocean Parks


Ten Mile State Marine ReserveTen Mile State Marine Reserve.
Photo by Jasmine Swope.

A powerful current of cold, nutrient-rich water rushes south and sweeps along the California coast. Bestowing beauty and bounty, it delivers life-giving sustenance to myriad sea life, from barnacles to blue whales. The push and pull of the tides shape rocky points, deep bays, and sandy beaches while ocean winds temper the weather. This elemental and exquisite encounter at ocean’s edge both inspires and enriches.

Yet, for all its marvel and munificence, the vast border between land and sea is a fragile ecosystem. Development, pollution, habitat loss, overfishing, and ocean acidification from climate change have placed it in dire jeopardy. Humankind is no less at risk. Four out of five Californians dwell within close proximity of the shore and they are as dependent on a healthy ocean as the tiny nudibranchs and schools of dolphins that dwell offshore.

Accepting responsibility for causing the problem as well as for solving it, Californians made history by establishing the nation’s first statewide network of ocean parks. This unique and little-known system stretches from Oregon to Mexico and covers 850 square miles. Just as parks protect wildlife and habitats on land, the 124 specially designated marine protected areas safeguard an amazing array of habitats on which ocean life depends. MPAs have been scientifically demonstrated to harbor more and bigger fish, more resilient habitat, and greater biodiversity compared to unprotected areas. They also provide people with a place to explore the ocean’s edge, learning not only about the sea, but also about themselves.

The creation of California’s ocean park system is a story of the power of the public process and stakeholder engagement. Trust and transparency are its major themes. Conservation groups, fishermen, Native American tribes, recreationalists, beach lovers, and lawmakers set aside their differences to achieve a greater good and by joining forces were able to accomplish what had long been considered impossible.

This unique collaboration proved groundbreaking for the new and innovative ways it used cutting-edge science and public involvement to protect and restore ocean habitats. Over the course of eight years, in hundreds of meetings, public workshops, and hearings held up and down the coast, Californians designed a network of MPAs intended to safeguard an array of habitats, provide a means for wildlife to move from one protected area to another, and, ultimately, to restore the state’s ocean bounty and the coastal economy it helps drive.

Stakeholders with direct interest in ocean resources proved to be the heart of the design process and volunteers contributed some 38,000 hours to make it happen. They developed alternative MPA network proposals for four study regions: North Coast, North Central Coast, Central Coast, and South Coast (design proposals for MPAs in San Francisco Bay are still in the works). Three major advisory groups were formed to develop designs and implement planning: a blue ribbon task force to guide the process, a science advisory team to develop scientific guidelines, and regional stakeholder groups to draft the designs.

The process also led to the creation of novel technologies and applications used for MPA design purposes. One innovation was MarineMap, a web-based open-source platform that permitted users to easily access and manipulate large volumes of spatial information in real time, such as the location of specific habitats and preferred fishing grounds. In the South Coast region, for example, MarineMap enabled the public to generate over 20,000 prospective MPA designs, which ultimately led to the establishment of 49 MPAs covering 355 square miles of water.

Another innovation was the MPA Monitoring Enterprise used to develop realistic ways to evaluate the performance of the statewide system. This provided a framework for beach-goers, fishermen, conservationists, divers, scientists, and others to collect and report baseline information used to measure ecological changes. A novel feature was an interactive online community used for aggregating monitoring information and building public awareness.

Already California’s MPAs are demonstrating they can increase the health, productivity, and resilience of marine ecosystems while balancing the needs for multiple use with conservation priorities. What’s more, the system and the collaborative and innovative tools used to create the network are now serving as a model for other coastal states and nations working to create similar marine parks around the world.

The work to protect the coast and ocean, however, is not finished. Securing the promise of a global MPA network will require a sustained commitment to public involvement, enforcement, monitoring, and stewardship. To learn more about how you can be part of the MPA movement to protect our blue planet, visit



Reading Rock State Marine Conservation AreaPhoto by Jasmine Swope.

Reading Rock State Marine Conservation Area

In the sound of a wave is the echo of every wave that has ever crashed on a sandy beach or rocky shore. Waves are the language of life that tell the story of the planet’s beginning when water covered all, when the molten core of the earth exploded beneath the seas and rose to the surface like an emergent insect in search of light and oxygen, when a singular continent broke apart and the pieces began to drift, when microbes stirred within a primordial soup grew into fish, when seabirds gave wing from dinosaurs and mammals first walked.



Point Lobos State Marine ReservePhoto by Jasmine Swope.

Point Lobos State Marine Reserve

Change is the only constancy on the ocean’s edge. Motion is perpetual, powered by an everlasting current tied to the spin of a distant moon. Blue sky one day, stormy the next. Winds blow scuds of clouds across a natural canvas that can be splashed in lightness one moment and in darkness the next. Sun, sea, and setting are always creating, and not just above and below the waterline. Among the wavering sea grasses, the scuttling crabs, the gawping anemones, mystery and magic can be found that provoke thoughts and moods, sometimes soothing, other times stirring, but never the same.



Point Dume State Marine Conservation AreaPhoto by Jasmine Swope.

Point Dume State Marine Conservation Area

What value here in the ocean lies, this salty blood of life, this liquid skin that binds our planet, this genesis of human culture and pathway for discovery? To consider, imagine a world without seas. No smell of salt. No sound of waves. No surface to reflect the sparkle of the sun. No fish. No whales. No gulls. No boats. No mist that blurs a distant shore and prompts a long-held dream. No islands. No sunsets. No seascapes. No hope. No life.



Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management AreaPhoto by Jasmine Swope.

Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area

Clouds born from the ocean break on mountaintops and rain washes over minerals and rocks as the waters gather and run. The rivers take their water from the sea and the sea takes its salt from the rivers. The surf tumbles everything together and the ocean decides what to keep and what to give back. A winter beach comes and goes with the tide. Dunes rise and fall, and driftwood as big and bleached as whale bones gets picked clean in the night, erased like footsteps in the wind and the call of shorebirds already flown by.



Point St. George Reef Offshore State Marine Conservation AreaPhoto by Jasmine Swope.

Point St. George Reef Offshore State Marine Conservation Area

What is it about the sea that both attracts and repels? Is it promise or is it danger? A new life on a distant shore or an old one dashed upon the rocks? Who has not walked upon the beach and considered the horizon on one side and all that has come before on the other? Some people will go close enough to touch the water with their feet, even to crouch and cup it in their hands. Still others will take the plunge, and swim to the other side, even without having to leave the shore. It is not waves and currents and tides that are the ocean’s true power. It is what the sea inspires.



Russian River State Marine Conservation AreaPhoto by Jasmine Swope.

Russian River State Marine Conservation Area

In the sands where river and sea meet, past, present, and future mingle. Boulders, logs, and shells pounded into a granular mix rest together for eternity. Yet this is no lifeless boneyard. Add water—fresh from the mountains and salty from the sea—and the beach becomes the ocean’s nursery. Sea turtles have a nest to lay their eggs. Spawn grow into fingerlings safe in the brackish waters of a slough. Where rivers breach beach, salmon return to the place of their birth to give new life, and the circle continues as regular as the orbit of the sun.



Cambria State Marine Park and Conservation AreaPhoto by Jasmine Swope.

Cambria State Marine Park and Conservation Area

Let us go then down to the sea, to search among the rocks and sand and seaweed for our origins. To gaze into a tide pool and see among the stars and mollusks and sponges our own reflection. To cast eyes upon the horizon where sea and sky form not two halves but a whole. At ocean’s edge the spray of salt against the skin feels the same as sweat or tears. The current’s ebb and flow stirs as surely as a pulse, and the pounding of the surf matches the beating of a heart. We are the ocean and it is us.



Jasmine Swope is a Serbian-born American photographer based in Santa Monica. A graduate of the Brooks Institute of Photography and former commercial advertising photographer in Los Angeles and London, Jasmine specializes in creating large format black-and-white photographs capturing the human experience with nature. Her unique style combines digital processes with traditional platinum/palladium printing. Her work includes critically-acclaimed collections on coastal parks, the Salton Sea, and the Colorado River. For more information, visit
Dwight Holing is a San Francisco-based author. His nonfiction work focuses on natural history, conservation, and marine issues. He has been published by University of California Press, Random House, and Macmillan, and his essays and articles have appeared in Audubon, Discover, Los Angeles Times, Outside, and San Francisco Chronicle. His fiction includes award-winning short stories that have been published in books and leading literary journals as well as a series of novels. For more information, visit

Header photo of Ten Mile State Marine Reserve by Jasmine Swope.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One Response

  1. Mr Bill

    Great article and outstanding photography. I actually was unaware that these areas where protected. Thanks.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons