REGION — The three-mile span of beach and ocean between Moonlight State Beach and Cardiff State Beach in Encinitas looks like almost every beach along the California coastline.
But since January 2012, it and 10 other stretches of San Diego’s coastline and wetlands have become special areas of refuge for schools of fish and other marine wildlife, with very little or no fishing or other harvesting activities allowed.
To that end, marine conservation groups like the Imperial Beach-based WildCoast are attempting to educate the region’s beach goers about the “marine protected areas,” which they said are critical to the rebounding of the state’s depleted fisheries and marine ecosystems.
“It’s the biggest news to affect the state’s marine life in years, and no one knows about it,” said Zachary Plopper, WildCoast’s coastal and marine director. “They are effectively underwater state parks, and it’s our duty to inform visitors of the parks of the types of activities allowed at these parks.”
The state passed the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999 to redesign its network of protection areas to make them function more like a statewide network.
The South Coast Region, which runs from Pt. Concepcion in Santa Barbara County to the Mexico border, began planning its protected areas in 2008, adopting the creation of 36 new areas in 2010. Implementation of these areas began on Jan. 1, 2012.
San Diego has 11 of the 36 protected areas, which are divided into three categories based on their level of protection: State marine reserves, which prohibit all harvesting and fishing; “no take” state marine conservation areas, which operate much like reserves, and state marine conservation areas, which permit some recreational fishing and harvesting.
The Swami’s State Marine Conservation area, which spans the three-mile stretch of coast between Moonlight and Cardiff, and extends three miles into the ocean, is the largest of San Diego’s protected areas.
Commercial fishing is prohibited in all of the areas. Violations, which are enforced by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, are a misdemeanor punishable by fines and potentially jail time.
The state tasked each of the regions to perform the outreach and engagement, signage and other aspects of the act.
Across the state, conservancy groups, nonprofit organizations, research laboratories, cities and states have taken up the mantle through various public/private partnerships.
Two groups have funded much of the activity: the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, a private foundation which funds various conservation efforts; and the California State Coastal Conservancy, a state agency charged with protecting the state coastline through various projects with public agencies, nonprofit groups and private landowners.
Gradually, Plopper said, the groups are spreading the word to target groups as well as placing signage in high-traffic areas that explain the activities that are prohibited in the zones.
This year, Wild Coast has partnered with several organizations to increase outreach and educational efforts.
Over the summer, it teamed up with San Diego-based Outdoor Outreach to take groups of underprivileged kids from several inner-city schools to local protected areas and educate them on how to be responsible stewards. The groups visited protected areas in La Jolla, the Tijuana River and Swami’s.
The students also got to participate in marine recreation activities, such as kayaking and surfing.
Their activities culminated this week as they wrote letters to State Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) asking for her continued support of the marine protected areas.
“Some of these kids live in San Diego and have never been to the beach, let alone know anything about the protected areas,” Plopper said. “Through the program, now not only are they aware of their existence, they can help in protecting them.”