California Ocean Protection Council

On Thursday morning, after a quick beer with Dan Abbott from ReefCheck in Monterey the night before to chat SMR monitoring), I was at Natural Bridges State Park (another SMR too - think that makes at least four in person visits?) to meet with Cyndi Dawson from the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC). I owe a lot of this fellowship to Cyndi, who put me in touch with a bunch of the people I've ended up meeting and learning from. Thank you, Cyndi!

Natural Bridges State Park with the intertidal SMR in the background

Natural Bridges State Park with the intertidal SMR in the background

After learning about the MPA collaboratives' role in bringing stakeholders together at the local level, the OPC is another part of that puzzle working at the higher governance and policy level. Created and backed by California's Ocean Protection Act in 2004, the OPC acts to bring together the various state agencies involved in ocean conservation, including importantly at the political level of these agencies. It also sets science-based policies at a distance from the politicians, and coordinates the MPA monitoring programme for California's MPA network, with the help of a science advisory panel.

I'm guessing the OPC was set up for a reason, perhaps that these agencies weren't being seen to work together all that well (in public at least) or to ensure that MPAs received the high-level support and resources in their implementation phase, not just in their redesign process. For whatever reason though, despite limited capacity, they clearly perform an important role in pursuing and promoting a coherent and integrated approach to MPA management.

The actual Council in the name is made up of a very high level delegation of state officials, chaired by John Laird, the Secretary for Natural Resources, a direct appointment from the Governor of California. It also includes the Secretary for Environmental protection and members of the State Senate and Assembly. From these key figures, support and financial resources flows. I think this is a particularly great idea, to have a council of such high level leaders with a legal mandate to promote ocean conservation.

Cyndi Dawson from the OPC

Cyndi Dawson from the OPC

Cyndi raised a number of themes that have come up in previous conversations, such as the important role of private foundations and private sector funding for MPAs, as well as the vital role of volunteers and third sector organisations that the OPC and other state agencies fund or give grants to. It sounds like the OPC has the money to spend (including from the Once Through Cooling initiative I've mentioned before, providing $5.3million per year for the next few years) but couldn't do a fraction of the actual monitoring of the SMRs needed to answer the vital question "Are the SMRs working?".

That question is the subject of a major state-wide MPA monitoring plan for completion later this year. This move to a longer-term, state wide approach to monitoring is also something mentioned by Becky Ota at the Department of Fish and Wildlife and reflects the need to prioritise monitoring on a systematic and robust basis. This is particularly true as in 2022 the first major review of the network as a whole will be finalised and presented to the bigwigs at the Fish and Game Commission, who are responsible for setting the legal regulations behind the SMRs. This will be a major process and it's great that the OPC, CDFW and others have a plan in place and the budget to properly monitor their MPAs to inform that review.

By that time, also, California's MPAs may have been given the official IUCN Green List seal of approval that their MPA network is well-managed (a process that's just kicked off and may take 1-2 years) so things are looking pretty good for 2022 to be a major year.

One final thing Cyndi mentioned which is often overlooked is to educate the local litigators and judges hearing cases involving MPA enforcement. They may only see a case towards the end of a process that has taken many months of work, and if they see the health of oceans as a serious issue and are minded to set fines or penalties that are serious enough to act as a warning to others, that is a major success. Too many times in our own experience in Europe, judgements have been handed by officials with other understandably serious issues on their plate, who may just think that MPAs are a minor issue.

It's just one more piece in the puzzle towards good SMR management, especially in no-take zones where the rules are clear.