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Underwater Parks

Protected areas in the oceans are as spectacular --
and important -- as national parks on land

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Photo of a leopard shark

Leopard sharks are a common sight in the kelp forests.

Photo of a southern sea otter

Southern sea otters dine on their backs, using their chests as tables. Fur hunters nearly wiped out sea otters in the 1800s. Now, roughly 2000 live off the central California coast.

Photo of a blue shark

Blue sharks cruise to Monterey in the late summer and early fall, as sea temperatures rise.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which spans 350 miles along the central California coast, is home to one of the largest expanses of kelp forests in the world. These wondrous forests need a unique set of conditions to thrive, including hard, rocky seafloors, high concentrations of nutrients, moderate waves and clear, clean ocean water.

Often called the redwoods of the sea, giant kelp can soar 100 feet or more from the ocean floor, providing habitats that range from tiny, seafloor caves to dense golden-green canopies just below the water’s surface. At each level, creatures big and small find their own niche.

Brittle stars and secretive sculpins hide within the kelp’s holdfast, a root-like structure that anchors the towering plant to rocks and boulders. In the filtered sunlight of the mid-water region, turban snails and crabs graze on the kelp’s thick stipe while they, in turn, are grazed upon by lingcod and schools of rockfish. Sea otters swim amid the kelp’s upper fronds, while giant kelpfish seek camouflage from larger predators and protection from waves.

Despite being a protected area, the sanctuary faces a number of persistent challenges. Sanctuary officials are supposed to protect the ecosystem while facilitating multiple uses of the area. It’s a delicate balance.

Commercial fishing is allowed in most of the sanctuary, and often the biggest, most productive fish are taken. Undersea noise from military and commercial operations and even small motorized craft like Jet Skis can disrupt marine mammal communication. Pollution from sewage leaks, spills, rain runoff and the dredging of nearby harbors threaten the purity of the sanctuary’s waters.

Although some human threats have been tempered, keeping the sanctuary truly safe is a constant battle.

Help arrived in April 2007, when a new network of protected areas along California’s Central Coast was created under the Marine Life Protection Act. Nine new “no-take” State Marine Reserves are now located within the sanctuary.

These areas, designed according to scientific guidelines and with extensive public input, will provide true havens for marine life and help shore up the benefits the sanctuary provides. California aims to have a network of protected areas along its entire coastline by 2011.

last revised 7/29/2013

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