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Frequently Asked Questions

Marine Protected Areas, MPA Planning, and the Marine Life Protection Act


Marine Protected Areas

What are marine protected areas (MPAs)?

MPAs are named, discrete geographic marine or estuarine areas designed to protect or conserve marine life and habitat. There are different marine managed areas classifications used in California's MPA network. This includes three MPA designations (State Marine Reserve, State Marine Conservation Area, State Marine Park), a marine recreational management area (State Marine Recreational Management Area), and special closures:

  • In a state marine reserve (SMR), it is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living geological, or cultural marine resource, except under a permit or specific authorization from the managing agency for research, restoration, or monitoring purposes. While, to the extent feasible, the area shall be open to the public for managed enjoyment and study, the area shall be maintained to the extent practicable in an undisturbed and unpolluted state. Access and use for activities including, but not limited to, walking, swimming, boating, and diving may be restricted to protect marine resources. Research, restoration, and monitoring may be permitted by the managing agency. Educational activities and other forms of non-consumptive human use may be permitted by the designating entity or managing agency in a manner consistent with the protection of all marine resources. (PRC Section 36710(a))
  • In a state marine park (SMP), it is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living or nonliving marine resource for commercial exploitation purposes. Any human use that would compromise protection of the species of interest, natural community or habitat, or geological, cultural, or recreational features, may be restricted by the designating entity or managing agency. All other uses are allowed, including scientific collection with a permit, research, monitoring, and public recreation, including recreational harvest, unless otherwise restricted. Public use, enjoyment, and education are encouraged, in a manner consistent with protecting resource values. (PRC Section 36710(b))
  • In a state marine conservation area (SMCA), it is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource for commercial or recreational purposes, or a combination of commercial and recreational purposes, that the designating entity or managing agency determines would compromise protection of the species of interest, natural community, habitat, or geological features. The designating entity or managing agency may permit research, education, and recreational activities, and certain commercial and recreational harvest of marine resources. (PRC Section 36710(c))
  • In a state marine recreational management area (SMRMA), it is unlawful to perform any activity that, as determined by the designating entity or managing agency, would compromise the recreational values for which the area may be designated. Recreational opportunities may be protected, enhanced, or restricted, while preserving basic resource values of the area. No other use is restricted. (PRC Section 36710(e)). The Fish and Game Commission may designate, delete, or modify state marine recreational management areas for hunting purposes. (PRC Section 36725(a))
  • A special closure is an area designated by the Fish and Game Commission that prohibits access or restricts boating activities in waters adjacent to sea bird rookeries or marine mammal haul-out sites.

California Marine Protected Areas Network Overview (PDF) (Updated May 7, 2013)

Additional Resources:

What can I do in an MPA?

Unless specifically prohibited, all non-extractive uses such as swimming, wading, boating, diving and surfing are allowed in MPAs. The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) relies upon the Marine Managed Area Improvement Act (MMAIA) to define the types of MPAs and uses that are allowed within those MPAs. The MMAIA indicates that, to the extent possible, MPAs should be open to the public for managed enjoyment and study. One of the goals of the MLPA is to improve the recreational, educational and study opportunities within MPAs subject to minimal human disturbance. It is not the intent of the MLPA to prevent access to MPAs for non-extractive activities.

The three main types of MPAs – state marine reserve (SMR), state marine park (SMP), and state marine conservation area (SMCA) – each have different rules about the activities that may or may not be undertaken within the MPA. In general, SMRs do not allow any type of extractive activities (including fishing or kelp harvesting) with the exception of scientific collecting under a permit, SMPs do not allow any commercial extraction, and SMCAs restrict some types of commercial and/or recreational extraction. You can view individual MPA regulations on this website.

Is it legal to travel through or anchor in an MPA with catch on-board?

How do I know where an MPA is? Are they all marked with buoys?

Most MPA boundaries are designed to use major onshore landmarks and simple due north/south or east/west lines for easy recognition. However, it is ultimately up to the user to determine if they are in an MPA. Regulations and site specific MPA maps are available on this website. In some cases, boundaries that are complex or hard to determine may be marked with buoys, though this is not realistic in many areas due to depths and ocean conditions.

If an area is closed as an MPA, will it always be closed?

Not necessarily. The MLPA allows CDFW to re-examine MPAs and the MPA network for effectiveness. This means that as MPAs are re-assessed for effectiveness, changes may be necessary, either to individual MPAs or the network as a whole. This may mean changing allowances for extractive activities depending on how well MPAs are meeting their goals, and could also mean that other previously closed sites may be proposed for re-opening. Just because an area is closed to one type of use or another does not mean that it will always be that way. The adaptive management approach recommends that the MPAs be re-assessed regularly, and during that assessment the MPA designation can change.

How do MPAs affect existing fisheries management measures and closures?

MPAs and the Marine Life Protection Act are intended to complement existing fishery regulations and are not intended to replace existing regulations. MPAs address a broad array of ecosystem concerns and, in particular, allow for interactions between both fished and unfished species to occur in a more natural setting. If any changes to fisheries regulations were required in response to MPAs, this would occur through existing systems established in fisheries management plans and other regulatory frameworks.

Where can I find more information?

This website contains information about MPAs, including printable MPA specific maps, regulations, boundaries, and uses. In addition, a mobile MPA website can be viewed on any portable Internet-enabled device.


Marine Life Protection Act and the MPA Planning Process

What is the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA)?

The Marine Life Protection Act of 1999 directs the state to redesign California's system of marine protected areas (MPAs) to function as a network in order to: increase coherence and effectiveness in protecting the state's marine life and habitats, marine ecosystems, and marine natural heritage, as well as to improve recreational, educational and study opportunities provided by marine ecosystems subject to minimal human disturbance. Six goals guided the development of MPAs in the MLPA planning process:

  1. Protect the natural diversity and abundance of marine life, and the structure, function and integrity of marine ecosystems.
  2. Help sustain, conserve and protect marine life populations, including those of economic value, and rebuild those that are depleted.
  3. Improve recreational, educational and study opportunities provided by marine ecosystems that are subject to minimal human disturbance, and to manage these uses in a manner consistent with protecting biodiversity.
  4. Protect marine natural heritage, including protection of representative and unique marine life habitats in CA waters for their intrinsic values.
  5. Ensure California's MPAs have clearly defined objectives, effective management measures and adequate enforcement and are based on sound scientific guidelines.
  6. Ensure the State's MPAs are designed and managed, to the extent possible, as a network.

To help achieve these goals, three MPA designations (state marine reserves, state marine parks and state marine conservation areas), one marine managed area (state marine recreational management area) and special closures were used in the MPA planning process. For the purposes of MPA planning, a public-private partnership commonly referred to as the MLPA Initiative was established, and the state was split into five distinct regions (four coastal and the San Francisco Bay) each of which had its own MPA planning process. All four coastal regions have completed these individual planning processes. As a result, the coastal portion of California’s MPA network is now in effect statewide. Options for a planning process in the fifth and final region, the San Francisco Bay, have been developed for consideration at a future date.

Did the MLPA affect California all at once?

No. A regional approach was used to redesign MPAs along California's 1,100-mile coast. The state was divided into five study regions:

  • Central Coast Study Region (Pigeon Point to Point Conception)
  • North Central Coast Study Region (Alder Creek near Point Arena to Pigeon Point, including the Farallon Islands)
  • South Coast Study Region (Point Conception to the California/Mexico border)
  • North Coast Study Region (California/Oregon border to Alder Creek near Point Arena)
  • San Francisco Bay Study Region (waters within San Francisco Bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge northeast to Carquinez Bridge)

These five regions were implemented in a step-wise fashion:

  • September 2007: Regulations implemented for Central Coast Study Region
  • May 2010: Regulations implemented for North Central Coast Study Region
  • January 2012: Regulations implemented for South Coast Study Region
  • December 2012: Regulations implemented for North Coast Study Region
  • The San Francisco Bay Study Region is the fifth and final study region that will be considered under the MLPA

What was the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative (MLPA Initiative)?

The MLPA Initiative was established to help the State of California implement the MLPA. From 2004 to 2012, the MLPA Initiative (a public-private partnership between CDFW, the California Natural Resources Agency, and Resources Legacy Fund Foundation) directed and informed four regional, science-guided and stakeholder-driven MPA design and siting processes. This was accomplished by using the best readily-available science and the advice and assistance of scientists, resource managers, experts, stakeholders and members of the public.

When and where did the MLPA Initiative start?

Redesigning the system of MPAs along California's 1,100 mile coastline was such a large task that the California coast was divided up into smaller regions to make the process easier. The MLPA Initiative directed and informed the four regional MPA design and siting processes from 2004 to 2012, beginning with the Central Coast Region. In the first phase of the MLPA Initiative, a master plan framework was created to help guide the planning process within individual geographic areas, called study (or planning) regions. After the framework was created, regional MPA planning processes began.

What were the basic steps in the MLPA Initiative planning process?

In each study region, an appointed regional stakeholder group developed MPA proposals that were reviewed and evaluated by a science advisory team, the California Department of Fish and Game, MLPA Initiative staff, and a policy-level blue ribbon task force. Based on these evaluations and public input, MPA proposals were then refined by the regional stakeholder group and presented to a blue ribbon task force, which made recommendations to the California Fish and Game Commission, the sole authority empowered to adopt and implement MPAs.

How were MPAs designed in the MLPA Initiative planning process?

MPAs were designed through a collaborative public process. Regional stakeholder groups were formed that included people who were knowledgeable in the uses and/or resources of the planning region. Members included commercial and recreational anglers, tribal and government representatives, educators, researchers, and conservationists. Each group worked together to design MPA proposals for each region. Once the MPA proposals were completed, they underwent scientific and policy review and were then forwarded to the California Fish and Game Commission for adoption and implementation.

Overview of Alternative Marine Protected Area Proposals (PDF)
The Marine Life Protection Act Initiative (2004 – 2012)

What were the planning regions?

The individual MPA planning/study regions, in the order of completion, were as follows: the Central Coast (Pigeon Point to Point Conception), the North Central Coast (Alder Creek near Point Arena to Pigeon Point), the South Coast (Point Conception to the California/Mexico border), and the North Coast (California/Oregon border to Alder Creek near Point Arena).

How was the public involved in the planning process?

The success of the MLPA Initiative depended largely on the active involvement of stakeholders and the general public, who were involved in a variety of ways including: direct communication with RSG members, attendance at workshops and public meetings, and providing input on public documents and MPA proposals as they were developed.

Where can I review products and documents for each of the study regions?

A searchable document archive can be accessed through this site. It contains all regional planning documents and presentations.

How does the MLPA affect existing fisheries management measures and closures?

MPAs and the MLPA are intended to complement existing fishery regulations and are not intended to replace existing regulations. MPAs address a broad array of ecosystem concerns and, in particular, allow for interactions between both fished and unfished species to occur in a more natural setting. If any changes to fisheries regulations were required in response to MPAs, this would occur through existing systems established in fisheries management plans and other regulatory frameworks.

Where can I find more information?

Additional information about MPAs, including printable MPA specific maps, regulations, boundaries and uses can be found on this website. In addition, a mobile MPA website can be viewed on any portable Internet-enabled device.



Marine Region (Region 7)
Regional Manager: Dr. Craig Shuman
Main Office: 20 Lower Ragsdale Drive, Suite 100, Monterey, CA  93940
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