The morning clouds quickly broke as our crew prepared to monitor the two State Marine Conservation Areas surrounding Point Vicente. Joined by longtime volunteer Billy Arcila, and newcomer Pasadena City College Courier Reporter, Nick Saul, set out towards Palos Verdes.
Once we rounded Point Vicente, there was a surprising amount of action on the water. Within our monitoring transect we spotted passenger boats underway and several urchin fishing boats anchored outside of the MPAs, along the edge of the ever-expanding kelp paddys. Urchin fisherman play an important role in the absence of our missing kelp forest top predator, the Southern Sea Otter. The Southern Sea Otter’s range once covered U.S. coastal waters from Alaska to Baja California. This charismatic marine mammal, and voracious eater, was responsible for keeping urchin populations in check. Without the sea otter around, urchin populations explode, deplete the kelp forest, and ultimately create urchin barrens. The Southern Sea Otter were hunted to near-extinction in the 19th Century, and have since recovered on the Central Coast thanks to their federally protected status. Their absence in the Southern California Bight is in part due to the enforcement of the “No Otter Zone.” From 1987 to 1993 otters were forcibly relocated to waters off San Nicolas Island or north of Point Conception. The “No Otter Zone” still exists today, and when otters are found within it, they are no longer granted the federal protections that apply along the rest of the California Coast. Currently, the House of Representatives is considering a bill, that would keep the “No Otter Zone” in place. See the Friends of the Sea Otter website for more information.
On our return trip back through the MPAs, we sighted a pod of bottlenose dophins, a sun bathing mola mola, and a spearfishing boat (?!) that was anchored just within the northern boundary of the Point Vicente No-Take SMCA. Unable to see anyone on board, and noticing their dive flag, we kept a safe distance and observed for a few minutes hoping for the opportunity to inform them about the MPA boundary. Just as we were about to leave, two spear fisherman surfaced and boarded the vessel with spearguns and line in hand. We contacted them to let them know that they are within the MPA boundary and might get a ticket if spotted by a DFG Warden. The spearfishermen were aware of the existing marine protected areas, and were using landmarks to determine their position, which they believed was legally outside of the boundary. This confusion points to the importance of a physical demarcation of the MPA boundaries, such as a set of regularly checked buoys. No different from a “no hunting beyond this point” sign in a national park, we believe this will help to concretize the location of the MPAs and assist local fisherman in adhering to the law.