Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area and Morro Bay State Marine Reserve

Morro Bay
White pelicans, with Morro Rock in the background
photo by T. Heitzenrater

As you drive on Highway 1 into Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo County, a towering rock comes into view marking the edge of the Pacific Ocean. More than 575 feet tall, Morro Rock is evidence of the area’s volcanically active past. Morro Rock also marks the beginning of a safe haven for local wildlife living in two marine protected areas (MPAs) along the estuary shoreline. Many different animals, including the threatened southern sea otter, endangered Tidewater Goby, and the once-endangered American peregrine falcon call these protected waters home.

Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area and Morro Bay State Marine Reserve
(click to enlarge)
CDFW Marine Region map

In September 2007, the California Fish and Game Commission adopted the Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area (SMRMA) and Morro Bay State Marine Reserve (SMR) as part of California’s statewide network of MPAs. Combined, these two MPAs cover approximately 3.3 square miles, including a large and productive estuary important to many of central California’s coastal plants and animals.

The area serves as a resting and foraging ground for migratory birds that use the Pacific Flyway, like the black brant which comes to feed on the native eelgrass. Between February and June, double-crested cormorants, great egrets and great blue herons can be spotted roosting and nesting in trees nearby and foraging for fish and small crustaceans. MPAs provide excellent opportunities for bird watchers and photographers to catch a glimpse, or hear the call, of one of their local favorites.

Recreational hunting of waterfowl is allowed in the SMRMA, along with take of finfish in the northern portion.  When the tides are right, anglers try their luck catching Bat Rays that come into the bay to feed. Remember, any person who is 16 years of age or older must have a valid fishing license in their possession when fishing in the SMRMA. Keep in mind that the southern portion of Morro Bay is off limits to any kind of fishing.

Also remember that within the neighboring SMR all marine resources, both living and non-living, are fully protected. Make sure you know where the boundary is between the two MPAs before you go fishing!

There are many ways to enjoy the Morro Bay MPAs beyond bird watching, or waterfowl hunting and fishing in the SMRMA. Scuba diving, snorkeling, and swimming allows visitors an up-close and personal experience with the marine life, while those looking to stay a bit drier can enjoy the MPAs by boat, perhaps by joining a wildlife-viewing tour.

Pickleweed serves an important role in the estuarine ecosystem by providing habitat and protection for shoreline species, trapping sediment and reducing excess nitrogen.
photo by T. Heitzenrater

Kayaking and paddle boarding also offer unparalleled opportunities to explore the dynamic nature of the estuary and its ever-changing landscape. During low tide, the estuary is a vast expanse of mud flats and pickleweed, but during high tide, the canals and channels fill with water to form shallow pathways only accessible to those gliding across the surface. Kayakers and paddle boarders can move quickly along these short-lived pathways to get close-up views of wildlife within the estuary. These watery pathways disappear once the tide goes out, and can leave you stranded until the next incoming tide– so check a tide chart before heading out!

You may see any number of fish, birds, and invertebrates while drifting through these shallow channels, including Bat Rays and numerous birds feeding on small fish and invertebrates. If you look closely, you may see some of the invertebrates, like shore crabs, scurrying about. An opening in the mud may even reveal a gaper clam or innkeeper worm.

Not up to paddling around the bay and surrounding estuary? Not to worry, there are walking trails along the shoreline of the MPAs. The Marina Peninsula Trail, a 0.7-mile flat loop trail that starts at the end of the Morro Bay State Park parking lot, allows you to look out over the estuary and see many of the animals that live and feed there. Another walking trail and bike path travels next to the harbor and leads you out to the shore near Morro Rock. As you walk along this path, keep an eye out for southern sea otters, harbor seals and sea lions sunbathing or feeding in the nearby waters.

Whether by land or sea, on a self-guided walk or a chartered tour, the Morro Bay MPAs are a sight to behold. Come join in the adventure in Morro Bay and learn more about other MPAs in the Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas series.

Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area and Morro Bay State Marine Reserve 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.

logopost by Tamara Heitzenrater, CDFW Scientific Aid


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