Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: The Farallon Islands

Beyond California’s coast and surrounded by the tumultuous Pacific Ocean, endlessly battered by wind and waves and commonly shrouded in fog, lies the archipelago known as the Farallon Islands.

map of Farallon Islands
map by CDFW Marine Region GIS Lab (click to enlarge)

Unbeknownst to many, the Farallon Islands are part of the city of San Francisco and are located less than 30 miles offshore. Some may not even know the islands exist unless they look offshore on a clear day and see the jagged silhouettes on the horizon. Remote and isolated, few have seen up close the incredible richness of marine life residing in the waters of this special place. Located in the highly productive California Current and Eastern Pacific Upwelling System, the waters around the Farallones burst with life each spring following seasonal upwelling, when nutrient-rich waters surface from great depths. This upwelling of nutrients feeds microscopic algae known as phytoplankton, resulting in “blooms” that are eaten by zooplankton (equally microscopic animals). This cycle forms the base for a food web that includes fish (especially sharks), birds, and marine mammals. Massive creatures such as baleen whales, including blue, gray, and humpback whales, visit the Farallones to feed on the smallest of creatures (including zooplankton). Other marine mammals—such as harbor porpoise, Dall’s porpoise, and Pacific white-sided dolphin—abound and frequently hunt for fish near the Farallones. Seals and sea lions return annually to breed and rest on the undisturbed shorelines, followed closely by one of the most significant populations of white sharks on the planet.

Southeast Farallon Island
Southeast Farallon Island
photo by A. Maguire

To protect the Farallones, the islands were given varying degrees of state and federal protections, and are strictly off limits to visitors; even the handful of scientists who live and work on Southeast Farallon Island can only access a small portion of the area. Theodore Roosevelt established the first protection there in 1909 when he declared Noon Day Rock and the North and Middle Farallones a wildlife refuge. Southeast Farallon Island was added to the bill in 1969, officially protecting all 211 acres as a National Wildlife Refuge. Protections expanded into the surrounding waters when the federal government established the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in 1981. In 2010, the California Fish and Game Commission adopted three marine protected areas (MPAs) and two special closures around the North and Southeast Farallon Islands. Finally, in 2015 the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary doubled in size and was renamed the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. All of these protections provide a safe haven for birds, fish, and marine mammals to rest, breed, hunt, and give birth in an area where food resources abound.

Brandt’s cormorant mating display  
photo by by Maps for Good/Point Blue Conservation Science

Special Closures and Marine Protected Areas
According to the research group Point Blue, there are over 300,000 seabirds and shorebirds on the Farallones composed mainly of 12 different species that come to breed, making the Farallones the largest colony of seabirds in the contiguous United States. Additionally, five different species of seals and sea lions haul out on the islands. In order to protect these animals from human disturbance, the Commission adopted two special closures around the North and Southeast Farallon Islands in 2010: the North Farallon Islands Special Closure and the Southeast Farallon Island Special Closure. These special closures differ from adjacent MPAs in that they minimize disturbance to the islands’ land-based seabird rookeries and marine mammal haul-out sites by prohibiting or restricting boating activities and human access either seasonally or year-round. Surrounding the North and Southeast Farallon Islands are two state marine reserves (SMRs): North Farallon Islands SMR and Southeast Farallon Island SMR. Akin to other SMRs along the California coast, marine resources may not be extracted, harmed, or disturbed within their boundaries. These SMRs help to protect concentrations of prey and foraging predators (such as fish, seabirds, and marine mammals) within highly productive and unique habitats at depths that can exceed 200 feet. Both SMRs protect rocky shores, and hard and soft bottom habitats, but Southeast Farallon Island SMR also protects sandy beaches and surfgrass.

whale tail
Humpback whale dives beneath the surface
CDFW photo by P. Serpa

Conversely, the Southeast Farallon Island State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) only protects soft bottom habitats in 130- to 380-foot depths. Unlike the SMRs, this SMCA allows the commercial and recreational take of salmon by trolling; there is no other take of marine resources permitted in the SMCA. Although the islands themselves are strictly off-limits to visitors, there are plenty of ways to explore these MPAs:

  • Hitch a ride on one of the whale watching tours departing regularly from San Francisco for the Farallones. Peak whale activity occurs between July and October.
  • The California Academy of Sciences is working with Point Blue Conservation Science and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to install a replacement webcam on Southeast Farallon Island, which will allow birders to identify numerous species of seabirds and shore birds from the comfort of their homes.
  • To gain an inside perspective of life on Southeast Farallon Island, read these stories from the island’s resident scientists.
  • For those who seek a little more adventure, companies offer the opportunity to cage dive with white sharks out at the islands!
  • Check to see if the recreational salmon fishery is open. If it’s open, grab your fishing license and go trolling for salmon in the Southeast Farallon Island SMCA!

California residents and visitors do not need to travel far to observe the state’s amazing, incomparable biological diversity. Thousands of animals regularly converge at these craggy islands mere miles from the mainland coast at San Francisco. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife encourages you to explore the MPAs at the Farallon Islands, and any of the other MPAs throughout California!

The three MPAs and two special closures at the Farallon Islands are just a handful of the protected areas that make up California’s statewide MPA Network. Please visit CDFW’s MPA website for more information, and sign up to receive updates about the MPA Management Program.

MPA logo

post by Amanda Van Diggelen, CDFW Environmental Scientist


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

One thought on “Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: The Farallon Islands

Comments are closed.