Creating a marine reserve snapshot; collaborative project sets baseline for protected areas

A team of academics, citizen scientists, fishermen and tribal governments will begin a collaborative baseline monitoring program today for California's newest marine protected areas along the North Coast -- part of the nation's most expansive network of marine reserves.

In the program, researchers from more than 30 organizations will begin an assortment of projects to gather data on the baseline ecological and socioeconomic conditions of the North Coast's marine protected areas, according to California Ocean Science Trust associate scientist Erin Meyer.

"With 32 organizations participating, it's an amazingly comprehensive program," Meyer said. "It is a very collaborative and interdisciplinary program."

The 20 North Coast protected areas -- consisting of 19 marine protected areas and one marine recreational management area -- took effect on Dec. 19, 2012, and cover 137 square miles along the North Coast, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The baseline program is led by the MPA Monitoring Enterprise, a partnership between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Sea Grant, the California Ocean Protection Council and the California Ocean Science Trust.

Over the three-year span of the program, 11 projects will examine ocean conditions and human uses in eight natural ecosystems along the North Coast. While baseline programs have been conducted in three other regions of the state, the North Coast program will be the first to incorporate the traditional ecological knowledge of Native American tribes.

In a project led by the Smith River Rancheria, several North Coast tribes will draw upon the knowledge of their members to assess the ecological and cultural importance of several species across four different ecosystems.

Smith River Rancheria Self-Governance Director Briannon Fraley explained the importance of their collaborative project with the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, the Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria and the Wiyot Tribe.

"The Tribe is taking this opportunity (to) find ways our project can enhance Federal, State and Tribal ocean governance for the shared benefit of the resource and preservation of Tribal rights," Fraley wrote in an email. "Tribes are the first stewards of their traditional lands and have been prescribed the responsibility to act accordingly."

Over the first two years of the project, Fraley said each participating tribe will conduct a series of interviews of select members who actively harvest marine resources and have adept knowledge of ocean ecosystems. Fraley said tribe members will be asked about their perceptions and knowledge of ecosystems, and the six keystone species that "are most likely to benefit from Marine Protected Areas."

"The Smith River Rancheria will integrate the information into their governance structure and laws to further their inherent stewardship responsibility and work towards a co-management agreement with the State," Fraley said.

Tribal knowledge will also be integrated into several other projects, including Sonoma State University biology professor Karina Neilsen's project on sandy beaches and surf-zone ecosystems.

"This will be the first time I'll be working with tribe members and getting their perspective," Neilsen said. "It's going to be a very informative and rewarding experience."

Neilsen and her research team -- which will include Humboldt State University biology professor Tim Mulligan -- will work to provide a "baseline picture" of shorebirds, invertebrates, and fish who call North Coast beaches habitats home.

Neilsen will conduct her surveys along six beaches that are in marine protected areas and six similar beaches that are not. She said that this is to allow future researchers to have a point of reference during future monitoring studies.

"Somebody could come back after the baseline program is completed and re-survey the same beaches," Neilsen said. "If the management and protection was having any impact, you'd be able to see the changes."

While Neilsen and other researchers will examine how the protected areas affect marine life, Humboldt State University economics department chair Steven Hackett will look into how they impact humans.

Collaborating with environmental consultant group Point 97 and the local fishing community, Hackett will investigate how major commercial fisheries and commercial passenger fishing vessel fisheries have been affected by the new regulated areas. Part of the project will include the creation of a Fisheries Advisory Council, made up of members of the North Coast fishing community, which will work to organize interviews and focus groups.

"It represents a connection between us as researchers and the working folks who are out there fishing," Hackett said.

The three-year project will map out regions of economic importance that have been altered by the protected areas, review commercial catch landings from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and gather information on the community's perception of the protected areas.

"What happens over time is an open question," Hackett said. "I think it's going to be really interesting how we're going to connect everything at the end."

Citizen scientists will also play a role in the baseline program project on rocky reefs and kelp forest habitats.

Led by Reef Check California Director Jan Freiwald, who has worked on the other three baseline programs throughout the state, the project uses members of the public to survey the species composition and abundance in reef and kelp environments.

"The public has been really involved in designating these MPAs," Freiwald said. "Now that they're in place, we want to know how they are working and how they are affecting the environment."

Freiwald is collaborating with Humboldt State University to train the citizen scuba divers how to count and identify the species along the different marine habitats.

"We have training for the public, where people can come and we train them in the scientific method and species identification," he said. "We train them to count 70 species of fish, invertebrates and seaweed."

Freiwald said the first public training session is set to take place on May 3 and 4 in Fort Bragg. A sign-up form and more information on the project can be found at

With the Central Coast, North Central Coast and South Coast baseline programs already completed or in the process of completion, Meyer said the North Coast will complete the state's baseline picture.

"It's really exciting to be launching this final program so that three years from now, we'll be in a place where we have baseline monitoring data for the entire state," Meyer said.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or Follow him on Twitter.