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Santa Cruz Surfers Oppose Petition For Marine Protected Area at Pleasure Point

Santa Cruz Surfers Oppose Petition For Marine Protected Area at Pleasure Point


Evan Quarnstrom


Fishing is at the heart of the opposition. Photo: The Inertia archives

“Turning our kelp beds into a (Marine Protected Area) would be tragic, and the loss of accessibility to our community and kids would be heartbreaking,” Santa Cruz surfer Shawn Dollar wrote to his followers on Instagram regarding a proposal to add a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Santa Cruz.

The 42-year-old Dollar, known for his big-wave accomplishments, is one of a handful of distinguished Santa Cruz surfers who are speaking out against the petition. Kyle Thiermann has also been a vocal opponent, while other well-known Santa Cruz surfers like Jason “Ratboy” Collins and Darryl “Flea” Virostko backed Dollar in the comment section of his posts. Taylor Knox and Mark Healey also chimed in with their support.

The source of the commotion is a November 2023 petition filed with the California Fish and Game Commission to expand six Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in California, one of which is the Natural Bridges reserve on the west side/north coast of Santa Cruz. But the petition’s contentious point is a proposal to create a new 3.2-square mile MPA on the other side of the city at Pleasure Point. The proposed Pleasure Point MPA would ban recreational fishing in the kelp forest from the top of the point at Rockview eastward to Trees Beach. The groups behind the petition, Environment California and Azul, say the purpose of the MPA expansions and addition is to “enhance protections for California’s kelp forests.”

However, the petition’s progress is already hitting a wall in Santa Cruz. Aside from the opposition of prominent voices in the surf community, the Santa Cruz City Council and Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors each voted to oppose the petition in March. The reasoning, they say, is that the science behind the petition doesn’t support the measures proposed.

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley, who initially wrote a letter in support of the MPAs, has since clarified that he doesn’t support the proposal in its current form, stating, “I think it should be looked at, but what should be the basis of whether or not you establish a Marine Protected Area should be scientifically based, and I think that information is missing from this application at this point.”

Laura Deehan, the State Director of Environment California and primary contact listed on the petition, begs to differ. She emphasizes that the science supporting the petition is “very strong” and expressed disappointment that the Santa Cruz government bodies failed to open any sort of dialogue for clarification before taking a vote to oppose the proposal.

And Deehan is not alone in her views. The petition lists a slew of supporters including letters of support from NGOs, government officials, biologists, scientists, scholars, and educators, some of whom are from the Santa Cruz area.

“Scientists are telling us we have to protect the thriving kelp forests, or we risk losing even more of it,” said Deehan. “The recommendations (we received) were to expand the MPA network to encompass those beautiful kelp forests. That’s basically what we put in our petition, which many top scientists from both Santa Cruz and around the world have endorsed as well.”

Deehan specifically highlights research done by Nur Arafeh Dalmau, a marine community ecologist and postdoc at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in the Monterey Bay, as several key papers cited in the petition. Dalmau’s published research specifically recommends expanding MPAs in areas that have proven to be more resilient against climate change. Another paper by Dalmau that the petition references specifically states that “a two-fold increase in the area of kelp protected by marine reserves is needed to fully protect persistent kelp forests.”

“We have evidence from recent work – and more work is coming up – about MPAs and climate change that is showing that they can provide resilience, especially the ‘no-take’ marine reserve areas,” said Dalmau, who specifically points out the success of similar protections in places like New Zealand and Southern California, as well as the Mediterranean sea in the case of other macroalgae. “We are still learning how well or when (marine reserves function with) climate change, but we know they work. We know they rebuild life, we know they create more stable ecosystems, we know that they’re less likely to shift to undesired stable states. We know that. We need to act while we continue to learn, but we can’t stop now.”

“Given the uncertainties with how climate change will play out, it is a priority to manage the ecosystems that are today healthy to give them a better chance to cope,” added Dalmau. “That is why we stress the need to protect them ASAP.”

The push to put forth such a petition didn’t come out of the blue. According to Deehan, the California Fish and Game Commission asked environmental groups like Environment California and Azul to work with scientific and community groups to come up with such proposals to protect marine environments. The motives for the request stem from two sources: the Marine Life Protection Act, whose goals Deehan points out the state is required by law to work towards, and the “30 by 30” initiative, which is a goal by the state of California to protect 30 percent of state land and coastal water by 2030. 

Santa Cruz’s coastal waters are already part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which includes a range of protections and regulations, such as prohibitions against exploring and drilling for oil and disturbing marine mammals and birds, among others. Additionally, the California Fish and Wildlife regulations apply concerning how, when, and which fish can be taken and in what quantity. An MPA at Pleasure Point would further tighten these regulations to outright ban fishing in the zone, but would have no effect on recreational activities like surfing or kayaking.

Among the most vocal opponents to the petition is Ethan Estess, a Santa Cruz-based marine scientist with a masters in Earth Systems from Stanford. Estess, who was formerly a researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says there is no evidence or studies that show that banning recreational fishing at Pleasure Point would improve the health of the kelp forest. 

“The ocean ecosystem off of Santa Cruz is thriving under the current management regime, and our fisheries are sustainable, and carefully managed by the state,” Estess said in an email to The Inertia. “Ironically, the fact that our area is doing so well is explicitly why we’re being singled-out by the petitioners for added protections.” 

“Their argument is that we should ‘protect’ this area precisely because it’s healthy so it can serve as a source of kelp dispersal to other areas, but that is based on the false premise that banning fishing will actually protect the kelp forest,” Estess added. “The current body of research shows mixed results statewide regarding MPAs and their effects on kelp health, but in Central California specifically, it is safe to say that banning fishing will not improve kelp cover and resilience.”

According to Estess, there are too many unknowns to take such drastic action. He underlines that no one knows exactly why the kelp forests off of Central California are thriving compared to those of Northern and Southern California, and no one knows how more of certain fish species at Pleasure Point would correlate with the health of the forests. 

However, no one is denying that such measures are indeed effective in Southern California where the sheepshead fish and spiny lobsters prey on kelp-hungry urchins. However, those species are rarely found in Monterey Bay where sea otters and sunflower stars are the primary urchin predators. On the other hand, Dalmau is quick to point out that it’s not so black and white as far as which organisms predate urchins, stating, “There are a lot of unknowns (in how a kelp forest ecosystem works). There’s a lot of less understood species that eat urchins in their larval stage, in their juvenile stage, that could benefit from no fishing or other management of human impacts. We don’t know what that contribution is.”

Kyle Thiermann, who has taken to Instagram and recorded a podcast to rally support against the petition, credits his time spearfishing within the kelp forests of Santa Cruz as the path that led him to become an environmentalist and conservationist. He echoed Estess’ logic that caution should be taken with the science used to back such extreme proposals in order for MPAs to hold legitimacy in the public eye. 

“If there’s a certain species of fish that is under pressure, and we should create protection for it because sober minded biologists have said so, then I’m all for that,” said Thiermann. “But I think MPAs are a very blunt instrument, generally speaking, which cuts off a lot of recreational fishermen and spearfisherman from a real joy of connecting with a food source and knowing where their food comes from in an increasingly dissociated world where we don’t really know where our food comes from anymore.”

While the debate around the topic has started heating up in Santa Cruz, don’t expect a resolution anytime soon. According to Deehan, the California Fish and Game Commission won’t make a decision on whether they accept or deny the petition until November of 2024. If it is accepted, then a more democratic process would begin to determine the petition’s fate.

Deehan points out that the petition is not all or nothing regarding the creation of an MPA. While she says that science shows that ecosystems fare better under stronger levels of protection, the petition does not rule out the possibility of creating a “State Marine Conservation Area” instead, a lesser level of protection that can allow for certain recreational types of fishing.

“I understand that it’s not always easy and there’s always a bit of conflict when these processes begin,” said Dalmau. “I think this is a starting point and a lot of conversations are needed. More information and consultation is needed. That’s the exciting part – not so much where do you align if you’re in favor or if you’re against. I think this conversation is what matters.”

At the end of the day, the opposing sides of the issue agree on one key premise: The kelp forest of Pleasure Point is surprisingly healthy while many others around the state are distressed.  They just have differing opinions on what to do with a healthy kelp forest and the role that humans play in it. Should humans coexist with the food chain as a predator, or should humans be removed from the equation? Scientists, surfers, and concerned citizens from both sides of the coin will debate this question in the months to come.

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