Final action is at hand in the long effort to create Marine Protected Areas along Santa Barbara’s coast and beyond. Local groups have struggled mightily for more than two years to advance a plan to protect local ocean hotspots to conserve biodiversity, increase and sustain wildlife, and restore our historic ocean abundance. On Dec. 15, the California Fish and Game Commission will meet in Santa Barbara for final action on a solid plan for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for the Southern California coastline.

Greg Helms

Greg Helms

Establishing MPAs along the South Coast is part of a larger process required by the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) of 1999. The MLPA was designed to bring to the ocean the clear benefits of our terrestrial parks and wilderness areas by protecting marine life and habitats; providing better opportunities for recreation, education and research; and ensuring long-term health and productivity of our ocean. California is the first state to take a comprehensive, science-based, statewide approach to restoring and protecting its ocean ecosystems.

MPAs aren’t just “the right thing to do.” Research on MPAs around the world shows that protected areas result in more and bigger fish and increased biodiversity within their boundaries. Furthermore, larger fish found in MPAs produce many more offspring than small fish do, and those larvae spill over into surrounding areas, helping keep oceans healthier. MPAs help safeguard marine resources by protecting entire ecosystems and are an essential tool in sustaining fish and wildlife in our oceans. Scientists believe these benefits are the key to reversing years of declining fish populations, falling seafood catches and weakened marine ecosystems.

To be most effective, MPAs must be placed in productive habitats containing the kelp forests and rocky reefs that support abundance and diversity. For more than a year, a group of local stakeholders — including fishermen, divers, conservationists, tribal representatives and business owners — worked together to determine the size and location of MPAs along the South Coast. Thanks to tremendous effort by activists here and along the Southern California coast, the proposal now under consideration by the Fish and Game Commission, called the “Integrated Preferred Alternative” (IPA), includes fantastic and well-loved ocean sites like the UCSB and Coal Oil Point coastline, Point Conception and Cojo Anchorage along the Gaviota coast, and the unique submerged pinnacle system at Naples Reef. (Click here for an overview map of the proposed MPA.)

The plan also integrates many of the compromises made by the stakeholders to balance the needs and interests of all ocean users in Southern California by leaving the majority of the ocean open to various forms of fishing. MPAs would remain open and enhance our experiences for activities like diving, swimming, boating, whale and bird watching, and surfing.

We’ve had parks and refuges on land for decades; it’s time to extend this protection to our ocean wilderness. We cannot afford to miss this critical opportunity to safeguard our marine resources.

Please support the creation of MPAs in Southern California by attending the final decision meeting in Santa Barbara from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 15 at Hotel Mar Monte, 1111 E. Cabrillo Blvd. Spread the word to your friends and family. The ocean needs you.

Click here for more information on MPAs, provided by CalOceans, a coalition of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy and the Otter Project.

— Greg Helms lives in Santa Barbara and manages the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy’s Southern California program. When he’s not advocating for conservation of California’s ocean wildlife or volunteering, he dives, surfs and explores. Follow the Ocean Conservancy on Twitter: @OurOcean. Become a fan of the Ocean Conservancy on Facebook.