The ocean is essential to life on Earth. It helps regulate our climate, provides oxygen and food, but the size of marine populations declined by almost half between 1970 and 2012. Unless something changes, the world's oceans could be in serious trouble.
California has a network of 124 Marine Protected Areas, which is the second-largest MPA network in the world behind Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The network covers over 16% of state waters, all meant to protect marine habitats and the variety of life they support.
"There was a need to protect our coastal resources in a more holistic way than just protecting individual species," Emily Parker, a coastal and marine scientist with Heal the Bay said.
But are they working?
We traveled with Parker and Laura Rink from Heal the Bay for a firsthand look. Within minutes of entering the roughly 15 square miles of protected ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a pod of dolphins appeared to be racing after their next meal.
"There have already been some really interesting studies done with the protected areas here in California. For example out on the Channel Islands that have shown significant improvements in all different types of biodiversity and the way we measure it," Parker said.
Next year will mark 10 years since MPAs like Point Vicente State Marine Conservation Area were established. Point Vicente is a no-take Marine Reserve, prohibiting damage or removal of any marine resource from its boundaries. Even kelp gathered for an aquarium was harvested outside of the protected waters.
"I think you have to give the ocean and these habitats an area where they are truly protected and able to thrive and support other parts of the ocean. And these fish areas too where they don't have these fishing pressures and where they have the ability to reproduce and create more diversity," Rink said.
What makes California's effort unique is the interconnected network of MPAs, each assigned one of three levels of protection designed to increase the effectiveness of protected oceans by working in concert up and down the coast.
"The management is what we call adaptive management or flexible management and it's different depending on where you are. If we were to travel just a couple of miles that way and enter into the Abalone Cove Marine Conservation Area, there is some take that is allowed there. You are allowed to spearfish there," Parker said.
Established in 2012, an upcoming 10-year management review is coming to identify what works along the California coast and that could be shared around the world.
"It is one thing to talk about anecdotally and being out here once a week and seeing it visually, but having the data and seeing the science behind it is always exciting," Rink said.
MPAs are proving to be a provider of scientific reference points while protecting marine habitats and ecosystems for their economic and intrinsic value for generations to come.