Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Big Creek State Marine Reserve

As you drive south on Highway 1 from Carmel (or north from San Simeon) on the central California coast, you enter a majestic stretch of coastline called Big Sur. This rugged area, known for its breathtaking views and pristine coastline, is wild yet easy to view from the highway. Although access to the water’s edge is limited, a boat trip can provide a close-up view of this remarkable marine environment.

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CDFW map by M. Fredle

One “must-see” area is the Big Creek State Marine Reserve (SMR), a marine protected area located just south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Big Creek SMR was originally established in 1994, and is one of Central California’s oldest marine protected areas (MPAs). The MPA was redesigned and expanded in 2007 pursuant to the Marine Life Protection Act, and now includes deep water habitat that exceeds 300 feet.

No fishing has occurred in parts of the SMR for over twenty years. Forests of giant kelp and bull kelp attract many diverse types of fish and invertebrates. Both southern and northern California species can be found here, attracted to the SMR’s unique geography.

kelp forest
Kelp canopy at Big Creek SMR. For a fascinating look at this MPA, check out this short underwater video.    photo by Chad King, MBNMS Research Specialist

Several research programs have conducted nearshore fish monitoring studies here since the MPA’s establishment. In 1997 and 1998, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration each conducted fish population surveys in the reserve. More recently, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) has scheduled regular scuba surveys inside and outside of Big Creek SMR and other California MPAs. These surveys measure the density and abundance of fishes, invertebrates, and the larger species of algae in kelp communities, to help inform MPA management.

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Scientific scuba diver collecting data along a transect line.    photo by Chad King, MBNMS Research Specialist

In October 2015, CDFW partnered with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and PISCO for a three-day research cruise aboard the National Marine Sanctuary Program’s 67-foot research vessel, the Fulmar. During the trip, trained scientific divers completed 48 dives and 126 different transects to gather information that will help to quantify the densities of 26 different fish species in the MPA. The information will be saved as part of PISCO’s long term dataset.

As one of the oldest MPAs in California’s statewide MPA network, Big Creek SMR has been monitored for many years to help scientists understand and protect this strikingly beautiful and remote marine environment. Whether you travel by boat or car, Big Creek SMR is definitely worth a visit.

Learn more about MPAs by diving into the Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas series!


Post, map, and video by Molly Fredle, CDFW Scientific Aid