A key plank: the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

In doing my research before this trip, I knew that I had to speak with the California Department ofFish and Wildlife (or as it used to be, the Department of Fish and Game). Of all the various agencies and organisations with a finger in the Californian MPA pie (pecan? cherry? what flavour would an MPA pie be?), the CDFW has lead responsiblities for managing most of the marine reserves outside those in the state parks network.

So it was a pleasure to sit down with Becky Ota, the CDFW's MPA programme manager, yesterday afternoon to talk through all things MPA, SMR and more besides. I really enjoyed talking with Becky, not least as she has so much experience and was right in the middle of the fundamental redesign process of California's MPA network over the last fifteen years. We even posed in front of a massive stuffed bear.

Becky Ota and bear (and me). Welcome to California Fish and Wildlife HQ!

Becky Ota and bear (and me). Welcome to California Fish and Wildlife HQ!

During this MPA redesign process, backed by the Marine Life Protection Act 1999 that gave effect to the creation of SMRs and set six goals for the MPA redesign process, millions were provided through a public-private partnership to establish regional MPA initiatives to come up with a new set of SMRs and other sites (almost $40million in fact over seven years). In total the number of SMRs went up to 48 sites, from 2% to almost 9% of state waters. That's 1,200km2 in no-take MPA reserves today, compared to 7km2 for all of the UK.

I won't dwell too much on this designation process (you can read a good peer-reviewed summary here) as I'm here to look at how the SMRs have been working since. But suffice to say that it bears similarities to the way that English Marine Conservation Zones were first identified by regional projects. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they were used as a model for it.

Yet the fundamental difference was clear to me when Becky stated that the SMRs (i.e. the most protected sites) were the "backbone of the network", and that any network without such sites in effect is not worth the paper it's written on. In fact, no-take marine reserves are the only designation explicitly referenced in the MLPA (others were simplified and set out in a supporting piece of legislation). Such a refreshing perspective from an official organisation in charge of MPAs! And so different from the way in which marine reserves (aka 'reference areas') were slotted in as an afterthought and quietly dropped by the UK government in the MCZ process.

Becky left me in no doubt that the MPA redesign was a painful one at times, with many of the same challenges that are common across MPA processes, particularly around building trust in an open way and bringing opposing views together. Some lessons in no particular order to take from this are:

1. Have an implementation plan from the beginning, not just once the sites have been identified. Many organisations involved went off and did their own things once the sites had been identified, and it took time to bring them all back on to a single track. There is also a full blown MPA monitoring survey planned next year.

2. Manage expectations. Be as clear as possible on what the sites mean and don't mean, and stick to an agreed set of rules. Of couse, the great benefit of no-take reserves is that they are simple in theory - you can't take anything out! And they were always a key plank of the process.

3. Find finance. I wonder if California is unique in tapping into private funding to support its MPA design process as well as its stakeholder collaborative networks, but it certainly doesn't happen in the UK. What's more, the state has around $9m to spend on MPA monitoring and enforcement this year alone thanks to state funds and funding as mitigation for using water as cooling in power plants. Some innovative ideas and sources here to consider for UK MPAs (though with some caution not to let companies get away with not doing necessary mitigation).

4. Educate the litigators. If you want your MPA to be well-enforced, you need the legal system to provide the necessary threat in terms of fines and punishment. Judges who are aware of the importance of these sites are more likely to take stiffer action against those breaking the law.

5. Build the political leadership. California is rightly proud of its MPA network, and that goes right up to the Governors past and present. From this, state resources will flow. You may need to correct them now and again though!

State Marine Reserves are the backbone of the network
— Becky Ota, California Department for Fish and Wildlife
Some of the MPA information materials available to stakeholders (including a summary for each SMR)

Some of the MPA information materials available to stakeholders (including a summary for each SMR)

This is not to say that California is a perfect example. It took 2 failed attempts to identify more SMRs before the private public partnership model provided the necessary funding to fully engage. And the clarity of the SMR regulations have occasionally come into conflict where there are existing structures that need to be maintained (this has required a new type of no-take MPA which gives more flecibility for this).

Over the last decade, there has also been a shift away from the regional level (despite the MPA collaboratives) to the MPA network being managed again at state-wide level. I wonder if the age-old tension between top-down control and bottom up authority has been resolved here (despite the MPA collaboratives providing space for local feedback).

And there still seem to be a range of state organisations with responsibility for the MPAs, which is still somewhat confusing from an outsider's perspective, plus involvement of NGOs and citizen scientists/volunteers. I'm sure this has ongoing potential for confusion.

Nevertheless, California's SMRs do seem to be working and noone seems to be arguing for their removal. I learnt a lot from Becky, and I'll be interested to find out some of the stakeholders views at the Monterey MPA collaborative meeting today. Watch this space!