Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Bolsa Chica wetlands
Venture onto the 400-ft. walkway to view the Bolsa Chica Wetlands from the south entrance.
CDFW photo by S. Hubbard

One of the last remaining wetland ecosystems in Southern California, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands form the largest saltwater marsh south of Point Conception, Santa Barbara County. Approximately 1,300 acres in size with an intricate five-mile trail system, the wetlands are home to more than 65 species of fish, birds, invertebrates, and mammals, some of which are state- and/or federally-listed endangered or threatened species.

Located in Orange County, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands are vital for supporting ecosystem biodiversity, educational and recreational opportunities, floodwater storage during heavy rains, and functioning as the “kidneys” of the ecosystem by filtering polluted water.

Bolsa Chica Wetlands (click to enlarge)
map by CDFW Marine Region GIS Lab

There are two distinct habitat zones in the wetlands: the low or intertidal marsh, and the high marsh. The low marsh is inundated daily by tidal water, while the high marsh is only inundated during higher-than-average high tides. Within these zones, salinity acts as a strong environmental filter, selecting highly specialized forms of life that are adapted to thrive under extremely salty conditions.

Pickleweed, in particular, tends to dominate the saltwater marsh. This halophyte, or salt-loving plant, absorbs and stores excess salt in the tips of its jointed segments, which turn bright scarlet in color before they ultimately fall off. Make sure to visit the wetlands in the fall, when the scarlet forest of pickleweed extends all around the shoreline!

In 1973, the California Fish and Game Commission designated the area as an ecological reserve and instituted regulations governing public use of the property, to protect the wetlands. By 2012, following the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative planning process, an additional level of protection was given to the wetlands when two marine protected areas (MPAs), the Bolsa Bay State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) and the Bolsa Chica Basin SMCA (No-Take), were established there.

A visit to the MPAs would not be complete without taking a self-guided tour of the wetland trails. The wetlands host two parking areas, a 400-foot wooden walkway over the inner bay, public facilities, trails, and interpretive signs along the paths. Convenient, free parking is also available at the north and south entrances, and includes access to restrooms for guests (including persons with disabilities).

Great blue heron catches a pipefish.
photo by S. Smith

Nature lovers who are pressed for time should use the south parking area for quick access to abundant wildlife viewing opportunities. Only a few steps away from the parking area, a wooden walkway and its adjacent 1.6-mile Inner Bay Loop Trail remain one of the best places to see the expansive wetland habitat. From the walkway, you can view stunning vistas across the saltwater marsh as scavenging birds search for their next meal. Alongside the trail, juvenile fish gather and swim about the wetland floor as they grow and mature into adults. You can occasionally see California sea lions feasting on the bountiful resources in the basin during high tide.

Bolsa Chica Basin SMCA is unique to the Southern California region due to its “No-Take” designation, which prohibits the take of marine resources except for that which occurs incidentally during any necessary and existing permitted activities. Such activities may include habitat restoration, maintenance of artificial structures, and dredging pursuant to any required federal, state, and local permits.

If you want to try your hand at fishing, connect to the Mesa Trail from the Inner Bolsa Bay Loop Trail. The Mesa Trail follows the shoreline of the scenic Bolsa Bay SMCA and leads to a designated fishing area near the north parking lot where the recreational take of finfish by hook-and-line is allowed, from shore only. However, please watch your step! This area is erosion-prone, and unnecessary disturbances can cause the frail channel to fall away, negatively impacting the surrounding habitat.

There are currently three non-governmental organizations operating at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife: Amigos de Bolsa Chica, Bolsa Chica Conservancy, and Bolsa Chica Land Trust. These organizations provide free tours every month to interested visitors. Tour guides (otherwise known as docents) offer site information and will happily point out the best locations for premier bird watching.

Nature at your fingertips.
photo by S. Hubbard

With or without a guided tour, don’t miss the chance to explore the Bolsa Chica Conservancy’s Interpretive Center located at the north parking lot. Open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Interpretive Center is wheelchair accessible and features exhibits that display both marine and terrestrial species found throughout the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. Various educational materials including maps, pocket field guides, and bird lists are also available for curious minds.

For those who can’t make it out to the wetlands, the Bolsa Chica Land Trust maintains a solar-powered Eco Camera that provides a 24/7 live video stream. The Eco Camera sits on a 10-foot pole overlooking the southernmost part of the wetlands, and can provide rare glimpses into the nests of Bolsa Chica’s most prevalent bird species. Come winter, viewers can watch snowy egrets and great blue herons soar through the sky, and double-crested cormorants bob about on the waves. If you’re lucky, you may even spot the rare Savannah sparrow hiding among the pickleweed.

Although over 90 percent of California’s wetlands have disappeared, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands are continually celebrated worldwide for the many ecosystem services they provide. The wetlands form living landscapes that give enjoyment to millions of people, and their continued protection and management by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife ensures that they will remain a place of natural beauty as time goes by.

Bolsa Bay State Marine Conservation Area and Bolsa Chica Basin State Marine Conservation Area are two of the 124 MPAs in 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 logopost by Stephanie Hubbard, CDFW Scientific Aid

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