Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) run along the coastline of California. They were created to maintain the precarious balance between keeping places wild and allowing people to interact with the landscape. In the Año Nuevo MPA, 55 miles south of San Francisco and 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, lies Cove Beach. This is a popular spot for seasoned surfers who fear the loss of this rugged coastline more than the great white sharks cruising the waters in search of fat seals. Gary Strachan, a park ranger and wildlife biologist, is often one of these surfers. He has seen firsthand how the waters have changed over the decades.
The Loss of Kelp Forests and a Killer Surf Break at Cove Beach
In the summer of 1967, large kelp harvesting boats anchored in the bay and started harvesting kelp. By the end of the summer, the surfers noticed that the waves were choppy or “blown out” on windy days and could be hard, even dangerous, to surf. It seemed that the removal of the kelp patches was affecting the surf. Who knew what implications this massive harvesting could have on the marine ecosystem? Anecdotal evidence from fishermen says that the fishing was much better before the harvest, but scientific data on kelp forests goes back only to 1984. Even recent data does little to clear up the mystery.
A 2008 baseline data collection study surveyed the species found in kelp forests at 14 central coast MPAs. Surprisingly, their data showed that the density of a kelp canopy was not related to the number of species found within the canopy. In fact, sometimes more species are found in areas of sparse kelp canopy cover than in areas with dense canopy cover.
Harvesting of kelp at Año Nuevo Bay, by hand, was allowed until early 2016, when it’s status changed from a State Marine Conservation Area to a State Marine Reserve. As a Reserve, it has the highest level of protections and the take of all living, geologic, or cultural marine resources is prohibited. Blown-out waves or not, plenty of surfers still flock to this section of coastline in addition to hundreds of elephant seals.
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This piece is part of the Santa Cruz Marine Protected Areas Beaches Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Collaborative with support from the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.