Protect California's Coast

California is home to kelp forests and an astounding array of undersea wildlife, from long-lived rockfish to migrating whales. Yet, by the close of the 20th century, decades of exploitation had left California's marine ecosystems depleted, with dwindling populations of important fish species and disrupted food webs. Otters and abalone were hunted nearly to extinction. Large-scale commercial fishing vacuumed up thousands of tons of fish each year. Industrial development and fishing gear destroyed coastal and marine habitat, lessening the ability of fish species to rebound. And as a consequence of overfishing, California's tradition of small-boat fishing was disappearing, taking jobs and income from coastal communities.

Marine life in a kelp forest on Cortes Bank, California
Brian J. Skerry/Getty Images

NRDC is committed to restoring ocean health and sustaining the diverse marine life that inhabits California waters. Thanks to groundbreaking work by us and our allies, California made an investment in its marine ecosystems that is helping turn the tide and protect marine life for generations to come. In 1999, California passed the Marine Life Protection Act—the first American ocean-protection law of its kind. To sustain and revitalize the rich, marine biodiversity off the state, this NRDC-sponsored legislation called for establishing the nation's first network of marine protected areas. Research shows that marine protected areas contribute to healthy oceans: They harbor more and bigger fish (which produce more eggs and help seed neighboring areas), more resilient habitat, and more diverse marine life than unprotected areas.

Over the next 13 years, NRDC brought to bear scientific research and a diverse coalition of allies to implement the Marine Life Protection Act. Through four regional stakeholder-driven processes, 124 marine protected areas were designated in state waters, from Northern California to the Mexican border. Today, roughly 16 percent of California state waters are protected under the act, creating a network of refuges that allow marine life to rebuild and flourish.

Since California's network of marine parks was completed in 2012, NRDC has worked to educate the public about the role of protected areas and how they add value to nearby communities. We are collaborating with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to strengthen its capacity to monitor protected areas and enforce safeguards. And we support scientific research that documents the biodiversity and productivity created by protected areas.

We are engaged in developing strong state policies that minimize harmful impacts from industries on marine life, such as power plants that suck up millions of gallons of seawater—and all the fish and other organisms that live in the water—for use in once-through cooling systems or desalination plants that pump salty brine into estuaries or other nearshore environments.

NRDC is also working to promote strong implementation of California's Marine Life Management Act, which seeks to manage state fisheries and ensure that fish stocks recover from overfishing. The law requires that officials set catch limits based on scientific findings, but often researchers don't have enough data, making it hard to determine how much fishing pressure a population can withstand. We work with scientists to support the creation of software that helps managers simulate various management approaches so that they make more informed decisions in data-limited situations.

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