Marine Protected Areas in San Diego

Standing on the coast overlooking La Jolla Cove, one can’t help but feel this place is special. Waves draw back and forth over sandstone cliffs, sea lions bark from below and in the distance, out in the water, the silicone-clad heads of open water swimmers glide sleekly through the swells. People everywhere thoroughly enjoy this space. They sit on benches and look at the horizon, play in the waves, peer into the tiny aquarium-like tidepools in pockets of stone near the shore and watch long, south-la-jolla-mpaorderly lines of giant pelicans soar above.

This space, like many other beach segments of the coastline in San Diego, is one of the most easily accessed wild spaces that San Diegans have. Here, nature is preserved for everyone to enjoy. In fact, if you are standing at La Jolla Cove looking out, you gaze upon the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve, one of eleven marine protected areas (MPAs) that grace the coast of San Diego County.

Marine Protected Areas


MPAs range in degrees of protection and represent a holistic approach to marine and coastal resource management. The Matlahuayl MPA prohibits fishing so that the local marine life can use this space to grow to maturity and reproduce, thus increasing the health of marine populations with the MPA itself and the surrounding waters, where people can fish. Other human activities however are encouraged – folks can observe the abundant wildlife from their kayaks, wetsuits and dive masks.

We often refer to MPAs as “underwater state parks.” They are small areas where laws restrict or prohibit extractive use (such as fishing or kelp harvest). MPAs increase fish populations by providing a safe haven where fish can live and grow larger, increasing the likelihood of successful reproduction.

San Diego’s MPAs, which range from the Batiquitos Lagoon No-Take State Marine Conservation Area in the north to the Tijuana River Mouth State/Federal Marine Conservation area in the south, provide important protection to wildlife along the coast of Southern California, and they also preserve our heritage as surfers, swimmers, kayakers, and beachgoers. As such, it’s sometimes hard to imagine a time when these areas were not protected. (Return to top)

Marine Protected Areas in San Diego

South La Jolla and Swamis Reef are two of San Diego’s most dynamic and spectacular coastal gems. Home to thriving underwater ecosystems, both are now protected through the Marine Life Protection Act.

In the Fish & Game Commission decision in December 2010, South La Jolla received the highest level of protection of any MPA in San Diego. It includes 4.7 miles of fully protected reserve, in addition to a larger area that allows for limited kelp harvest and recreational fishing for certain species. All of north La Jolla, from Windansea northward to the base of the cove, remains open to fishing.

With implementation, Swamis Reef became the largest MPA in San Diego County. The MPA protects roughly 12 square miles of vibrant rocky reef and kelp forest habitat. Shore fishing continues at Swamis, as well as spearfishing for certain species. No commercial fishing can occur within the MPA.

The MPAs allow all non-extractive uses including boating, kayaking, diving, surfing, snorkeling, tidepooling and swimming. All coastal access remains unrestricted, and boat launches and beach access points are unaffected. (Return to top)

History of Marine Protected Areas

San-diego-marine-protected-areas-mapThis network of MPAs was first proposed in 1999, and it took many years of hard work to see their actual adoption in 2012, a process in which San Diego Coastkeeper played an active and critical role.

In 1999, California passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). Designed to protect California’s coastal ecosystems, the act called for the creation of a statewide network of MPAs. The state was subsequently divided into sub regions with the area between Point Conception and the Mexican border comprising the “South Coast Study Region.”

On December 15, 2010, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to create a comprehensive network of marine protected areas (MPAs) along the Southern California coast between Point Conception and the Mexican border. Its historic decision is a hard fought victory for conservation efforts and a marquee moment in California’s legacy of environmental protection.

The plan established the size, location and level of protection for MPAs along the South Coast. This compromise plan incorporated the input of numerous regional stakeholders including divers, fishermen, conservationists and scientists.

Through years of collaborative design, the stakeholders created an MPA network that maximizes conservation benefits while minimizing the economic impact on the fishing industry. It protects iconic hotbeds of biodiversity, creating healthy fish stocks that improve productivity at popular spots that remain open to fishing. (Return to top)

Marine Protected Areas and San Diego Coastkeeper

Jessie_Altstatt_Adams_CoveSan Diego Coastkeeper firmly believes in the importance of MPAs. We heavily participated in the MLPA process and dedicated staff to fight for conservation interests on the Regional Stakeholder Group, whose input ultimately led to the creation of MPA maps for the Fish & Game Commission to consider. Following the completion of the design phase, we continued to advocate for the strongest possible protections for San Diego’s coast.  Our education and outreach drew widespread community support including the endorsement of numerous elected officials and business leaders.  Over 700 MPA supporters attended a Fish and Game Commission hearing on the issue held in San Diego in 2010.

Finally adopted in 2012, MPAs are a welcome part of San Diego’s marine conservation and recreation legacy that benefit both local wildlife and the San Diego community. Coastkeeper played a key role in the creation of these important “underwater parks.”

Along with your help and that of our community partners, San Diego Coastkeeper will continue to protect and enjoy all our MPAs have to offer.
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