Why Marine Protected Areas Benefit Surfers

North County surfer, marine conservationist and author Garth Murphy discusses why the new system of marine protected areas in San Diego County help surfers and surfing spots.

Editor's Note: On Tuesday evening, Southwest Surf was awarded 3rd Place by the San Diego Press Club in the Best Column from a daily newspaper or website category.

Any North County or southern Baja vet most likely has run into Garth Murphy intensely evaluating surf conditions from shore and gracefully riding the best waves of the season. A California icon who partnered with Mike Doyle and Rusty Miller in their infamous and pioneering Surf Research company, Garth is the author of the epic novel of California, The Indian Lover, and the son of noted fisheries biologist Garth I. Murphy, who was La Jolla's Scripps Institution of Oceanography's first PhD, and a professor at the University of Hawaii.

Garth, who has lived, surfed and advocated for coastal and marine protection in Hawaii, Australia and Baja California, was a member of the California Department of Fish and Game's Marine Life Protection Act Initiative (MLPAI) Regional Stakeholder Group.

As a result of that effort a new network of marine protected areas (MPAs) was established in Southern California with reserves at Swami’s, Black’s-Scripps, South La Jolla, Cabrillo-Point Loma and the Tijuana River Mouth. These MPAs conserve key marine ecosystems such as kelp beds, reefs, sea grass beds – the ecological features that provide the foundation for some of our very best waves.

Serge Dedina: Why should surfers care about marine conservation and creating MPAs in Southern California?

Garth Murphy: Because we have 300 wave-rich surf spots to choose from and over a million Southern California surfers average 20 surfs a year – for 20 million yearly immersions in what usually happens to be our ocean's most bio-diverse coastal marine habitats. The Marine Life Protection Act recognizes traditional surfing as a compatible recreational use of the ocean resource, permitted in protected areas except at mammal haul-outs, bird roosts and estuaries. A network of Marine Protected Areas, by protecting and conserving complete coastal ecosystems and habitat, enhances the biodiversity and abundance of marine life, enriching our experience, while minimizing and controlling potential habitat-destructive human activities, which directly affect us.

Dedina: Why is preserving marine ecosystems of Southern California so important for surfers?

Murphy: Southern California surfers and marine life share natural coastal ocean habitats of every important class: estuaries and river mouths, beaches and inter-tidal zones, surf grass and eel grass beds on composite reefs like Cardiff; rare cobble reefs like Trestles, Rincon and Malibu; rocky reefs like Windansea and Laguna; submarine canyons like Blacks, and sand bars at Newport and Pacific Beach; as well as man-made habitats like the Piers at Huntington and Imperial Beach, rock jetties like the Wedge and Hollywood by the Sea, and artificial reefs.

As a boon to surfers, thick coastal kelp forest canopies, which shelter the greatest biodiversity of coastal marine species, also protect us from the afternoon winds, refining ocean surface texture and grooming the swells to extend our surfing hours and the carrying capacity of affected surf spots. Habitat-based marine protected areas preserve everything within their boundaries, including our cherished surf spots.

Dedina: What about water quality? Would marine reserves help our efforts to keep beaches free from polluted runoff?

Murphy: Coastal ocean water quality is not just a function of land pollution runoff. Over-exploitation and depletion or collapse of important food web components causes imbalances that degrade marine ecosystems and make the ocean more vulnerable to disease outbreaks and opportunistic invasive species like stinging jellyfish, algae blooms and toxic red tides, diminishing water quality and habitat suitability for marine life and surfers.

On the contrary, robust, bio-diverse marine ecosystems with intact food webs are resilient, resisting and adapting to environmental change and pollution, maintaining water and habitat quality. Estuaries are marine life nurseries, fresh/salt water interfaces that empty into many of our finest surf spots. We absorb that same water through our eyes, ears, nose and mouths on duck-dives and wipeouts. Rebuilding and maintaining bio-diverse estuaries with a full range of marine life creates healthier nurseries, and encourages upstream compliance with pollution regulations. The result is better water quality for all of us.

Dedina: So in the end, how does preserving our marine heritage in Southern California benefit surfers?

Murphy: The California surfing style evolved in a unique marine environment of glassy peeling waves. Stylish surfing and our beach lifestyle have become an important part of California history and culture –and media focus – generating an endless wave of glossy-color surf magazines, surf videos and feature films. The success of the $7-plus billion surfing industry, centered in Southern California, depends on maintaining the high cultural value of the traditional California surfing experience: as exciting, invigorating exercise, as a get-away, as a sport, a meditation, a dance, a family get-together and photo opportunity –enhanced by a vibrantly alive and healthy ocean.

The ocean is Earth's largest and most accessible enduring wilderness. Regular contact with wilderness is a human, and especially American, cultural value, manifested today in the ocean by the popularity of surfing. A full and abundant spectrum of marine species – from whales to hermit crabs to phytoplankton – is an integral part of our ocean-wilderness experience.

Marine Protected Areas enhance ecosystem awareness by exposing us to a broad diversity of marine life. They encourage monitoring of potential problems and upstream compliance with complementary air and water quality regulations. The positive water quality and life-giving effects of marine protected areas are a valuable gift to the surfers and marine species who share them.

A different version of this interview originally appeared in Surfline.

Serge Dedina is executive director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of Wild Sea and Saving the Gray Whale.

Dan Bacher October 25, 2012 at 12:43 AM
There are four “inconvenient truths” about the alleged "marine protected areas" created under the MLPA Initiative that Murphy fails to mention. First, the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Forces that oversaw the implementation of these "MPAs" included a big oil lobbyist, the CEO of the nation's largest marina operation company, a coastal real estate developer and others with numerous conflicts of interest. Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association and a relentless advocate for offshore oil drilling, hydro fracking, the Keystone XL Pipeline and the weakening of environmental laws, CHAIRED the task force that developed the MPAs that went into effect in Southern California on January 1. Second, these so-called “marine protected areas” do not protect the ocean from oil spills and drilling, military and seismic testing, corporate aquaculture, wind and wave energy projects and all other impacts other than fishing and gathering. Third, the MLPA process was privately funded by the shadowy Resources Legacy Fund Foundation. Fourth, the "science" that guided the MLPA Initiative is questionable. The Northern California Tribal Chairman’s Association, including the Chairs of the Elk Valley Rancheria, Hoopa Valley Tribe, Karuk Tribe, Smith River Rancheria, Trinidad Rancheria, and Yurok Tribe, said the science behind the MLPA Initiative developed by Schwarzenegger’s Science Advisory Team is “incomplete and terminally flawed.”
Bob Van Epps October 25, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Mr. Murphy's comments reminded me of those made by a slippery politician. He never came very close to actually answering the interviewer's questions. It appears that Mr. Murphy is completely uninformed about the real effects that come from closing huge huge parts of the California coastline to recreational fishing. While it is probably true that these closures will not hurt surfing, it is doubtful that they will help in any way either. The MLPA closures are a solution to a problem that does not exist. Supporters falsely claim that our coastal fisheries are in decline and that only the drastic act of closing these area to the public will save the resource for future generations. The corrupt commission that forced this on the citizens of California was stacked with special interest cronies. The "science" used to justify the closures was out of date, inaccurate or simply made up. Having fished off the California coast for most of my life, it is my experience that our coastal fisheries are in better shape today than at any other time that I can remember. This is due to decades of responsible management which include seasonal and size limits, no-take regulations on certain species that were in danger, the elimination of pollutants such as DDT and the banning of gill nets along with other wasteful commercial fishing techniques. Mr. Murphy should take a little time to learn the truth about the MLPA closures before agreeing to do an interview on the subject.
Zach Plopper October 25, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Mr Murphy did a terrific job of linking the benefits of our new MPAs to surf recreation. This relationship has been difficult to conceptualize among most local surfers and this at least provokes a consciousness of how our beloved pastime relates to fishery and ecosystem health.
Diane Castaneda October 25, 2012 at 04:37 PM
Great article Serge! The ocean is not only a source of fish but also provides recreational activities to thousands of people, including surfers. It is a great source of revenue to a lot of business in the County so protecting these areas not only bring ecological benefits but also economic benefits. Regarding oil spills, one of the goals of the MLPA is to protect the natural diversity of the marine life. With these MPAs established, there will be tougher regulations on water quality and oil drilling near and in these MPAs. We are excited to get the community involved in taking ownership of these areas, surfers and everybody else!
Jay Berman October 25, 2012 at 05:24 PM
I'm totally against these .. I am for responsible fisheries management .. Our food supply and fishing industries are more important than surfing ... if anything, I would think more fish in an area (do the fishies know they are protected in these areas ?) would attract more marine mammals that attract great white sharks ...
Dan Bacher October 25, 2012 at 05:24 PM
We can argue about the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative and what it does and doesn't do forever. Some like myself criticize the initiative for being bad public policy filled with conflicts of interest, while others claim the process was "open and transparent." However, one thing I hope we can all agree upon, now that the MPAs are in place, is to oppose PG&E's seismic testing plan that will kill whales dolphins, salmon, rockfish and other marine life both inside and outside of MPAs on the Central Coast off the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. PG&E's plan has spurred massive opposition by fishermen, Tribal representatives and environmentalists. Federal officials estimate a potential "take by harassment" of 2,830 whales, dolphins and seals of 25 different species. The absurdity of PG&E's plan was revealed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s latest analysis of faults near the power plant that concludes "the plant’s design would withstand earthquakes near the site." Greenpeace has gathered some 70,000 letters and signatures against seismic testing, and is directing the campaign to stop the testing toward the California Coastal Commission, who will vote on it in Santa Monica, November 14, and to Governor Jerry Brown. Please contact Governor Brown: http://gov.ca.gov/m_contact.php and the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission): Chairman@nrc. gov (Allison McFarlane) More information: http://www.facebook.com/StopTheDiabloCanyonSeismicTesting?ref=ts
J Wallace October 25, 2012 at 05:26 PM
Garth Murphy is right on about those glassy surfing waves that a healthy kelp bed creates. Kelp is also a nursery for our marine life so protecting it is a benefit for all of us. Whether surfing, scuba diving, SUP, kayaking, snorkeling, boating or on a whale watching excursion, we all enjoy an abundant healthy ocean. The network of MPAs along California's coast is a critical program to restore that eco-system. Thanks to Garth and WildCoast for all their work toward that goal.
Bennett Springridge October 25, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Bravo Garth! Despite Mr. Bacher's predictable automated tinfoil hat post, and some still arguing that their being able to catch fish somehow means we don't need MPAs, the fact remains that MPAs protect and increase the diverse ecosystems that are at the center of what surfing -- and ocean recreation -- are all about. Given that everyone supports and treasures our national park and wilderness system, it still astounds me that a comparable network of marine protected areas -- underwater parks -- only emerged so recently and with so much controversy. Thanks for breaking it down so clearly Garth and Serge.
Wildcoast October 25, 2012 at 05:55 PM
Marine Protected Areas DO WORK for surfers, to recover fisheries, and to protect entire ecosystems. For generations we have been taking fish out of the ocean at a rate faster than they can reproduce. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer fish to meet an ever-increasing demand. So I don't care who is "behind" the MPA's, but happy they exist. They will protect the beautiful blue ocean I love and enjoy. Great article!
Nicole Lambert October 25, 2012 at 06:08 PM
I don't surf, but I do love to kayak, tidepool, and watch birds and mammals from shore. I am very appreciative of the groups that worked so hard over the past few years to create these ocean parks in the places that most need protection while leaving room for fishing as well. Political processes are never perfect, but the public effort to plan California's marine protected areas was about as open and participatory as you get and Mr. Bacher's tired criticisms ring mighty hollow in light of the experience of tens of thousands of people that were involved and had a voice.
John Holder October 25, 2012 at 06:55 PM
Great article and very informative! Thank you Garth and Serge!
Dan Bacher October 25, 2012 at 07:18 PM
I applaud Serge Dedina, Wild Coast and others for their great work on water quality and other coastal issues. We can all agree that the oceans need protection. Marine protected areas, in combination with state and federal fishing regulations and other laws, can serve as valuable tools to protect the oceans. However, there are serious flaws with the MLPA Initiative - and to not acknowledge them will only perpetuate bad public policy. I ask the following questions of MLPA advocates: How can allowing Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, to chair the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force for the South Coast be good public policy? Second, how can setting up marine protected areas that don't comprehensively protect the ocean from oil drilling, military and seismic testing, wind and wave energy projects and other impacts other than fishing be good public policy? Third, shouldn't MLPA advocates heed the advice of the Northern California Tribal Chairman’s Association, who said the science behind the MLPA Initiative developed by Schwarzenegger’s Science Advisory Team is “incomplete and terminally flawed.” Attacking Initiative critics for pointing out these flaws doesn't change the fact that the process is flawed. I also hope MLPA advocates will join fishermen, Indian Tribal members and environmentalists in fighting to restore our salmon and other fisheries, stop the peripheral canal plan and halting PG&E's seismic testing plan.
Serge Dedina October 25, 2012 at 09:15 PM
Thanks for all the comments. Dan--my position is that however flawed you believe the process was, we now have critical marine ecosystems protected as MPAs and we are better off working together to enhance their conservation status. Conservationists weren't happy with a lot of the people on the Blue Ribbon Committee, but it was a multi-stakeholder effort so we worked with it. Everyone had to compromise. Although there are lots of threats to the ocean--for fin fish populations, fishing is the biggest threat--so MPAs are the best management tool for protecting key marine ecosystems and the fish populations that utilize those areas--especially for spawning and other activities. Most coastal and marine NGOs are ready to battle any effort to increase oil drilling off of our coast-and we were at the SF hearing with Ken Salazar and DOI on that issue. Finally--I am lucky to work with some of the world's best oceanographers and marine ecologists-many of whom happen to work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Their peer reviewed research and publications make it pretty clear that MPAs work. I have yet to find Tribal Chairman Associations even close to being authoritative on issues of marine conservation science. That doesn't mean that their viewpoints on marine management and conservation aren't important or that their understanding of local conditions aren't important to consider. Thanks again to everyone for your comments.
Cyrus Kamada October 26, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Garth, it was enlightening to hear your comments. I hadn't realized you had another life!
Cyrus Kamada October 26, 2012 at 04:45 PM
If I'm getting my Garth's mixed up. I apologize
Dan Bacher October 26, 2012 at 04:56 PM
Serge Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Yes, we must work together to enhance marine conservation and fish restoration. You say, "I have yet to find Tribal Chairman Associations even close to being authoritative on issues of marine conservation science." Actually, the scientific studies that the North Coast Tribal Chairman's Association's letter was based on were compiled by Tribal scientists, some of the best fishery and marine scientists in the nation. The Yurok Tribe has a stellar science team. The Tribe's Natural Resources Department, during peak fishing season, employs over 70 people, including fishery biologists, technicians and other positions. Other North Coast Tribes, including the Karuk, Hoopa Valley, Wiyot and other Tribes, also have outstanding science teams. The Yurok Tribe said it has attempted on numerous occasions to address the scientific inadequacies with the MLPA science developed under the Schwarzenegger administration by adding “more robust protocols” into the equation, but was denied every time. For example, the MLPA Science Advisory Team in August 2010 turned down a request by the Yurok Tribe to make a presentation to the panel presenting data of test results from other marine reserves regarding mussels. And in a classic case of environmental injustice, no Tribal scientists were allowed to serve on the MLPA Science Advisory Team. This dispels claims of state officials that the process was "open, transparent and inclusive."
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Mike G October 31, 2012 at 02:56 AM
Exactly what revenue do surfers generate? They don't park in pay parking spaces. They don't buy jack from local shops and vendors. My fishing license was $50+ this year. How much is a surfing license? I have been fishing this coast for more than 30 years and NEVER have I had a conflict with a surfer while doing so. And while we're at it, do you think for even one second that Mexico gives a damn about our MLPA with regard to their systematic release of effluent that inevitably runs north into your precious MPA? As a fisherman, no one wants more than I to see a sustainable recreational fishery for myself and future generations. ANYONE that paid ANY attention to the processes that led to these ill-advised MPA's, knows they are based on at best flawed or worse NO science. The MPA's are a joke that just added more useless bureaucracy!
Mike G October 31, 2012 at 03:13 AM
Oil BS aside, do you really think that rod and reel recreational and sport fishing, especially in light of the already insane bag, slot, size and seasonal limitations are contributing to over-fishing and species decline? Umm NO!
Mum November 09, 2012 at 06:38 AM
Your beloved MLPA has cut the time I get to spend fishing with my children in half. Thanks for supporting the closing of Batiquitos at the 5... I know we were just killing it there.
Mike G November 10, 2012 at 03:38 AM
@J Wallace News Flash: No one is out there catching kelp. Rod and reel fishing does not harm a kelp bed. Actually fisherman appreciate kelp beds. They hold calicos, sheepsheads and many other edible species. Why would recreational fishermen want to jeopardize that? True sportsmen care far more about a sustainable fishery and the environment that supports it than any surfer ever will.
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