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Marine Sanctuaries Conservation Series

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A Review of the Ecological Effectiveness of Subtidal Marine Reserves in Central California

Starr, R.M., M.H. Carr, J. Caselle, J.A. Estes, C. Pomeroy, C. Syms, D.A. VenTresca, and M.M. Yoklavich (April 2004)

Marine Sanctuaries Conservation Series MSD-04-2

  • Part 1: Synopsis of Scientific Investigations
  • Part 2: Summary of Existing Marine Reserves in Central California and their Potential Benefits


The exceedingly small size of existing marine reserves in Central California prevents them from achieving many of the goals and benefits attributed to marine reserves in the scientific literature. The number of fish and invertebrates inhabiting existing reserves is small, compared to the total population sizes of species in Central California. Existing reserves in Central California protect a variety of shallow water habitats and species, but do not provide reserve benefits for animals living in deeper water, unless they reside in existing reserves during a portion of their life. The older marine reserves in Central California show some of the primary benefits associated with protection from exploitation, including modest increases in size and abundance of fishes, but it is difficult to assess the degree to which these benefits represent pristine conditions. This is to be expected, as the primary fish species inhabiting these reserves (rockfishes) are slow growing and exhibit sporadic recruitment. Also, new scientific theories suggest that substantially altered habitats may or may not return to pre-existing states after the disturbance has been removed.

Marine reserves in other temperate and tropical oceans, and theoretical models of marine reserves, show substantial conservation and some potential fishery benefits. For these reasons, we expect marine reserves created in Central California for conservation purposes would accrue many of the benefits predicted by reserve theory. The extent to which reserves in Central California would successfully benefit fisheries, however, would depend on a large number of social and biological factors, such as social acceptance of reserves, fishery effort shifts, catch regulations, enforcement levels, the proportion of a stock protected in a reserve, rates of movement and larval production of protected species, and reserve size and location. Currently, only a small proportion of fished species are protected in reserves. To be an effective fishery management tool, more area would need to be placed in reserve status, but not so much as to preclude viable fisheries. If marine reserves are to be developed and successfully used in Central California as a tool for fisheries management, however, they will need to be integrated into existing fishery management processes. A structured and well-supported monitoring program, which clearly identifies a set of effectiveness parameters, will also need to be established to measure how well reserves achieve stated objectives.

Effective natural resource management requires public participation and buy-in to management goals, objectives, and regulations. Thus, just as it is vital to evaluate marine reserves for their ecological effectiveness, it is also critical that they be evaluated for their socio-economic values. In this respect, the use of marine reserves is a public policy decision that must be made with consideration of human activities. For marine reserves to be an effective public policy tool in Central California, human use patterns, perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs will need to be incorporated into the design process. Information about social and economic costs and benefits should also be incorporated to maximize the effectiveness of a reserve system. Ultimately, an understanding of how people interact with the biophysical environment is integral to the design and development of marine reserve goals and objectives.

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