Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Reading Rock State Marine Conservation Area and Reading Rock State Marine Reserve

Imagine cruising along Highway 101, enjoying one of California’s most scenic drives north of San Francisco. As the hustle and bustle of California’s Golden Gate City falls far behind, the scenery changes from developed cityscapes and suburban neighborhoods to undeveloped coastlines and breathtaking views. After breezing through the city of Eureka, the highway eventually plunges into redwood forests, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have the scenery all to yourself.

California’s five northernmost MPAs, including Reading Rock State Marine Conservation Area and Reading Rock State Marine Reserve (click to enlarge)
CDFW map

North of Eureka you’ll also have the opportunity to explore five of California’s northernmost marine protected areas (MPAs). Two of these MPAs sit side-by-side just north of where Redwood Creek meets the Pacific Ocean, near the small town of Orick in Humboldt County.  Known as Reading Rock State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) and Reading Rock State Marine Reserve (SMR) these two MPAs collectively cover over 21 square miles and protect a range of sandy and rocky reef habitats.

The namesake for this MPA cluster, Reading Rock, lies just a fraction of a mile north of the MPAs. A rock spire that rises sharply from the sea floor, Reading Rock is the only distinct geologic feature in the area that is well-known by the local coastal community, which makes Reading Rock a logical choice for the names of the nearby MPAs.

Reading Rock SMCA shoreline on a foggy day.
CDFW photo by S. Wertz

If you stand along the shoreline and put your feet in the water below the mean high tide line, you are inside Reading Rock SMCA, the larger of the two MPAs. Looking seaward from shore, Reading Rock SMCA extends out towards the watery horizon where it meets the adjacent Reading Rock SMR. The SMR continues seaward to the three-nautical-mile state waters boundary, and its outer edge curves along this boundary.

Reading Rock SMCA protects shore-based habitats like beaches and rocky intertidal areas, as well as soft and hard bottom habitats as deep as 166 feet. Its seaward neighbor, Reading Rock SMR, is considered one of the “backbone” MPAs of the MPA Network, providing high to very high levels of ecosystem protection for the soft and hard bottom habitats found within its boundaries at 145 to 253 foot depths.

Launching the ROV Beagle. Reading Rock is visible in the distance.
CDFW photo by A. Frimodig

These characteristics, coupled with historic monitoring and fishing in the area, and connectivity of these waters to California’s coast, make the MPAs good candidates for detecting the potential effects of protection over time. Accordingly, both MPAs were given Tier I status for long-term monitoring efforts in the recently released MPA Monitoring Action Plan.

Since much of the rocky reef habitat within these MPAs is deep enough to make monitoring and research challenging, monitoring has historically involved remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs. As part of regional baseline monitoring efforts, California Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists worked with partners from Marine Applied Research and Exploration to deploy the ROV Beagle in 2014 and 2015 to visually survey Reading Rock SMR’s deep water habitats, and document its fish and invertebrate species.  The most commonly identified species included lingcod, blue rockfish, black rockfish, kelp greenling, red octopus, acorn barnacles, sea pens, and slipper sea cucumbers. Using the ROV gave researchers a unique opportunity to explore this rarely seen deepwater ecosystem.

Blue rockfish and California sea cucumber against a rocky outcropping covered in strawberry anemones.

In addition to monitoring, historical fishing activity in the area helped to ensure that both MPAs were placed on the MPA Monitoring Action Plan’s Tier I MPA list. Although fishing or other types of take are no longer allowed within Reading Rock SMR, the neighboring SMCA does allow limited recreational and commercial take of marine resources. If you are interested in fishing the area check the regulations before you head out!

So, if you ever find yourself traveling Highway 101 north of Eureka and have the chance to visit these MPAs, step onto the beach and enjoy the peace of an area often shrouded in a quiet fog. Or simply “dive” beneath the surface from the comfort of your home with this ROV Beagle footage and catch a glimpse of the vibrant marine community living along Northern California’s Pacific coast!

Reading Rock State Marine Reserve and Reading Rock 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.

logo post by Amanda Van Diggelen, CDFW Environmental Scientist


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