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California Coast Guard

Find out how NRDC helped the Golden State protect its oceanfront and all the plants and animals that call it home.
Big Sur, California Robert Cicchetti/iStock

Oceans are important to all of us. They create much of the oxygen we breathe and absorb much of the carbon pollution we spew from cars and power plants. But for Californians, they also have an enormous economic impact: According to a 2011 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the coasts generate $1.5 trillion, or 80 percent, of the state's gross domestic product; 11 million of the state's 14 million jobs are found in coastal counties; and ocean-based tourism makes up 76 percent of all spending by visitors.

Despite being so crucial, the Golden State’s iconic coastline and aquatic habitats faced deep trouble at the end of the 20th century. These areas contained endless riches, but no ocean equivalent of a national park or refuge existed to preserve them. Overfishing had forced many commercial abalone fisheries to close, and a variety of rockfish species were all but depleted. The coast was in crisis.

In the late 1990s, as NRDC began to fully understand the problems associated with overfishing and its impact on marine life, it became clear that these waters needed designated safe havens to protect and revitalize fish populations. So NRDC worked closely with California legislators to pass the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999—the first-ever U.S. state law that called for an extensive network of marine protected areas. Covering nearly 700 square miles and 16 percent of total state waters, this system is the largest in the country and the second largest in the world.

Over the next decade-plus, NRDC brought together local communities, fisherfolk, divers, business leaders, scientists, surfers, and other stakeholders to find ways to collectively manage this system. Now California’s 800-mile coast features more than 100 protected areas, including such iconic spots as the kelp beds at South La Jolla, the submarine canyon near Malibu, the reefs at Point Lobos, the tide pools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, and the honeycomb rock formations at Point Arena.

Like national parks, nothing can be taken out of these special areas, and only recreational and research activities are permitted. Fishing rules vary depending on the category of marine protected area. Commercial fishing is banned across the board, but recreational fishing is allowed in marine parks. You can reel in only certain types of species. If the area is deemed a marine reserve, no fishing of any kind is permitted.

Research has shown that these protections lead to multiple benefits. Not only does marine life become more diverse, but individual fish species are also able to grow older and produce up to 200 times as many offspring as younger ones. Scientists have also found an average population increase of 166 percent in both animals and plants.

Plus there's an important spillover effect. As depleted species rebound, they migrate outside of the reserve. Creating multiple healthy, intact ecosystems will become even more crucial as our oceans continue to be stressed by climate change and ocean acidification. "Every little bit helps," explains Annie Notthoff, director of NRDC's California advocacy efforts, who worked with Karen Garrison, NRDC's former Oceans program codirector, to put the Marine Life Protection Act in place. "Having some healthy habitats helps build resiliency across the entire population."

Thanks to the act, California has become an international leader in ocean revitalization. In 2013, a five-year review of the marine-protected areas in the first of the four completed regions showed significant improvement. "We're proving that marine-habitat protection works," says Notthoff.

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