By Jinger Wallace
It’s hard to believe we are celebrating the first year anniversary of the Laguna Bluebelt and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). It’s exciting to watch the marine life along our shores thrive. The California gray whales are traveling south to the lagoons in the Baja to give birth to their calves, blue whales astonish us with their size, squid have arrived in record number, and there are sightings of thousands of dolphins as well as uncommon species like loggerhead turtles. Sandy Dildine, a local year round swimmer and snorkeler for over 20 years, talks about observing more baby and juvenile fish than she has ever seen before. “Many times on a calm day swimming in the kelp it felt like I was in an aquarium.”
We can also celebrate the completion of California’s Underwater Parks, the first statewide network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the entire nation of which Laguna is an important part. Covering 16% of our state waters, these new MPAs safeguard the spiritual and economic benefits we all enjoy and depend upon. It is the largest network of undersea sanctuaries in the continental United States. Michael Sutton, a California Fish and Wildlife, commissioner explains, “It’s not rocket science. If you protect wildlife habitat and you don’t kill too many, wildlife tends to do well. We’ve done that on land. Now we’ve done it in the ocean for fish.” As studies increasingly show, MPAs keep fragile habitats like kelp healthier. Kelp is the birth place and home to prolific fish, which means more fish for the future.
Much is being done to ensure the successful restoration of marine life. Citizens, fishermen and scientists are studying our new MPAs to help inform future policy and to plan for the five year review. The California Ocean Protection Council awarded $4 million to the South Coast MPA Baseline Program to provide a summary of ecological and socioeconomic conditions, inside and outside South Coast MPAs. Part of this program is the Lobster Monitoring Project, to quantify baseline levels and short term changes in the abundance, size structure, habitat use, and movement of the California spiny lobster.
More is going on than you may know. Dozens of local volunteers participate in the OC Coastkeeper MPA Watch Program in which they record the human impacts to our marine resources in order to assist state resource agencies. New signage has been installed at the entrance to our beaches and coves to alert visitors to the new regulations. The Marine Safety Department and lifeguards continue to make thousands of eco-contacts to encourage a responsible attitude toward our marine life and observance of marine rules. When necessary, Fish and Game wardens as well as Marine Safety personnel are available to write tickets. While many opponents to the new MPAs worried about the cost of enforcement, the Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say supporters and opponents alike are respecting its rules.
Many local non-profit organizations, such as the Laguna Bluebelt and Laguna Ocean Foundation, work to inspire and engage the public to support the protection of our MPAs and to bring back the historic abundance that has made Laguna and much of Southern California famous. There is a wide cross-support in town by local organizations ranging from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, Zero Trash, One World One Ocean and many more.
While visiting the Caribbean island Bonaire last month, I had the opportunity to speak with the manager of their marine park. Established in the 1970s, it is one of the oldest MPAs in the world and most successful. We have much in common with Bonaire. We both must balance the impacts of tourists on our marine resources while admittedly handsomely benefitting economically. They have met this challenge through a public-private partnership, in their case with the scuba diving industry. Most noticeable is that they fiercely protect their beloved reef, prohibiting spear guns, and speak of it with an affection and maternal pride that acknowledges the living qualities of their coral reef. I hope we will join them as a community and see not just the beautiful blue color of the ocean but the vibrant life that calls it home.
Sailor and scuba diver, Jinger Wallace has lived in Laguna since the 1970s and, as a member of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, worked successfully on the Marine Life Protection Act.