By Reef Check California's North-Central Coast MLPA Baseline Coordinator Narineh Nazarian
This summer Reef Check California had an exciting field season along California’s North Central Coast. As some of you may know, starting in May of this year marine protected areas (MPAs) were established in Sonoma and Mendocino spanning from Salt Point to Point Arena. With the introduction of the new MPAs came the need to collect baseline data for monitoring and RCCA became a partner in a group of academic, non-profit and private organizations to perform the monitoring – a three year effort to characterize the ecosystem during the implementation of the new MPAs. In order to tackle this project, RCCA teamed up with University of California Santa Cruz’s Partnership for Interdisciplinary Study of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) Subtidal monitoring team to monitor the shallow rocky reefs in and outside of the new MPAs. In order to prepare for this collaborative effort, I joined PISCO earlier in the summer in Santa Cruz for a week of training. Not unlike Reef Check’s training, PISCO’s field training consisted of a classroom portion followed by ocean dives. PISCO and Reef Check joined forces specifically to increase the sampling effort of two important invertebrate species: red abalone and red sea urchins. This required an additional survey protocol that was developed in collaboration by both teams before heading out into the field.
Mid-August marked the start of the North Central Coast project. We knew this was going to be difficult because of the remote location of this stretch of coast. A converted dairy barn at Stillwater Cove Ranch would become our home base for the next few months. We would keep everything we needed to complete the project, from boats to tanks, compressor, and survey gear, at this wonderful home away from home. Every field day started early with the group loading up all the gear needed for the day into the truck. At this point we were normally greeted by Jerry (the owner of the ranch) with Bessie his dairy cow offering us fresh milk for coffee. Once the crew and truck were ready to go we would head down to the ocean at Stillwater Cove where we would load up the R/V Paragon and set out for the day’s sites.
When we reached our site, a team of divers would start fish surveys and the benthic team followed 10-15 minutes behind. Unlike Reef Check’s core transects which include fish, PISCO conducts the fish surveys separate from benthic surveys. A fish team of two would complete 12 fish transects; 3 transects at four depth zones: deep, mid-deep, mid-shallow, and shallow. A benthic team of three would then complete 6 transects each consisting of an algae swath, invert swath, a UPC, and abalone/urchin sizing with 2 transects at three depth zones: deep, mid, and shallow. The abalone and urchin sizing was done by Reef Check to add information on the size structure of these populations at each site inside and outside of the MPAs. This information is important in order to document the population structure at the implementation of these MPAs so that in the years to come marine resource managers can evaluate the effects of these MPAs on abalone and urchin populations against these initial data.
Over the two and half months we surveyed 32 sites. Overall, 202 benthic and abalone/urchin transects and 324 fish transects were completed. As we packed and loaded our gear to clear out of the Dairy Barn, I felt very fortunate to be a part of such an exciting endeavor and to have been able to explore such an amazing stretch of coastline to help establish the baseline data against which the effects of MPAs will be measured in the future. I am already looking forward to doing it all over again next year.