Background image of A man wearing a hoodie has his hand on a square bucket of fish. The bucket is suspended by wires. The sea, a marina, and a cityscape can be seen behind him.

California Marine Protected Areas

For more than 15 years, Ecotrust has worked with partners and fishing communities up and down the California coastline to understand the opportunities and impacts of the state’s Marine Protected Areas Initiative.

In 1999, with the passage of the Marine Life Protection Act, California led the nation in approaching a new model of marine management. With this legislation, the state was directed to design and manage a network of Marine Protected Areas throughout its 1,100 miles of coastal waters with the broad goal of protecting the natural diversity and abundance of marine life, and the structure, function, and integrity of marine ecosystems.

While working to understand how to balance human use with ecological stability, California’s state agencies found that they lacked accurate data on the marine areas that held special importance to the state’s fisheries. In 2005, Ecotrust was contracted to assess potential impacts on both commercial and recreational fishing in the event of Marine Protected Areas closures. To bridge the gap between management agencies and fishing communities, our team turned to fishers as the experts on location-specific economic and environmental information—laying a practice for place-based, community-informed, decision-making and tools development that continues to guide our work today.

A man in a blue T-shirt stands in a fishing boat, which is tied to a dock. He is looking upward at a handful of people on the dock. A city skyline is behind them.
The Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, near Seaport Village in downtown San Diego, California

A case for community involvement

While initially the process of establishing California’s 124 Marine Protected Areas revolved around ecological function, the eventual success of the effort hinged on community involvement and participation.

By conducting hundreds of interviews up and down the coast, we endeavored to learn more about the value fishermen attached to specific marine areas as well as specific fisheries, including California halibut, Dungeness crab, salmon, and more.

Using a confidential survey and interactive mapping sessions, we created detailed maps that gave planners a comprehensive look at how every proposed protected area would affect fishermen’s pocket books.

Consideration of the data provided by fishing communities to state officials resulted in an adjustment in the economic impact to fishermen. While early proposals projected up to 14 percent in economic losses to fisheries on the North Central coast, final protected areas decreased those projections to just six percent. Similarly, our maps and data helped to limit losses and win support from diverse fishing communities along California’s southern and northernmost coast.

Ecotrust and partners also created a mapping tool for California that allowed all ocean users and other stakeholders to easily design their own suggestions for protected areas for consideration by the state. All told, the state received more than 20,000 protected area designs, which were used to forge 52 final protected zones.

Two images side-by-side: Left image: A digital map showing small areas marked in red or blue along the California coast. Right image: A photo of a man, seated at a table, smiling at the camera. His left hand is on a map that is on the table. The map has four pennies on top of it. Another man sits in the background looking at his cell phone.

Custom tech for place-based projects

Our team started on California’s Central Coast by asking interview participants to place pennies on pre-printed maps, indicating ocean spaces where access was especially important. To better compile and analyze the data shared by fishers over the course of hundreds of interviews, we eventually drew on our software development capacity to create a custom tool called Open OceanMap—an open-source, Web-based ocean mapping technology. Using Open OceanMap, fishers could create GIS maps that illustrated the value of specific ocean areas that are most important to them.

“The driver for creating tools like Open OceanMap is our interest in communities having a platform to participate and have their voices heard, connecting locally and bringing that information back to resource decision-makers.” — Jon Bonkoski, Knowledge Systems Program Director

Establishing a culture of feedback

Today, more than 20 years after the passage of the Marine Life Protection Act and 10 years after the establishment of the state’s Marine Protected Areas, we continue working with partners to bring the voices of fishing communities into the feedback process.

The decade plus our team dedicated to collecting and analyzing feedback and providing recommendations for California’s MPA process was foundational to developing our methods and capacities for gathering community input on resource management. This work, however, did not come without lessons learned. While California’s progressive marine management policies set out to protect a statewide network of large ocean spaces, building trust with fishing communities required an understanding of impacts to specific locations. In addition, we learned the great responsibility that comes with being entrusted with personal information, and the importance of confidentiality. It’s important to acknowledge, too, that while this process centered impacted fishing communities, racial demographics were not considered in the makeup of the interviewed populations.

Along with Strategic Earth Consulting, Humboldt State University, and Cheryl Chen we are undertaking a performance review of established MPA’s. A cornerstone of this effort has been conducting a series of 31 focus groups with commercial fishers as well as charter boat captains and recreational anglers. Through this work, we are gathering critical qualitative and quantitative information that will be shared back with managers, and used to create a baseline for MPA monitoring into the future.

Continuing to build on the foundation of open-source, transparent, and accessible data and information, this community feedback and our corresponding assessments will be made publicly available through an online portal at

Two side-by-side photos. Left photo: woman and a man stand next to a man seated in a chair, who is holding a map at which they are all looking. Right photo: A man wearing a red Stanford sweatshirt speaks to a woman, who is holding a map. Both are sitting on the ground.


2021: Along with partners, our efforts will be focused on analyzing, summarizing, and disseminating information gathered over the course of 31 focus groups and providing updates at

2020: With Strategic Earth Consulting, Humboldt State University, and Cheryl Chen we begin the process of conducting a 10-year performance review of California’s Marine Protected Areas. Due to the challenges raised by global pandemic and an historic wildfire season impacting coastal communities, the team utilized remote meeting technology to conduct focus group meetings with commercial fishers and recreational anglers throughout the state.

2017: Ecotrust developed the California Fisheries Data Explorer — an interactive tool that allows stakeholders of all kinds to visualize data from commercial fisheries and commercial passenger fishing vessels across the state.

2014: We release a report conducted as part of the MPA monitoring program showing that coastal recreation contributes $1.2 billion annually to California’s Bay Area.

2011: Final report on regional impacts for North Coast fisheries released.

2010: Regional impact report for fisheries on California’s South Coast completed.

2008: Ecotrust and partners publish new research showing effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Conservation Letters, a journal for the Society of Conservation Biology.

2008: Ecotrust open-source marine planning and collaboration technology Open OceanMap wins Mellon Award for Innovation.

2008: Regional impact report for North Coast fisheries delivered.

2006: We deliver the first of four regional impact reports for Central California fisheries—from Pigeon Point in San Mateo County to Point Conception in Santa Barbara County.

2005: Ecotrust retained by the state to begin collecting, compiling, and analyzing fisheries data.

1999: California passes the Marine Life Protection Act.