Otters and Online Lessons: The San Luis Obispo Marine Protected Area Collaborative

Sea Life volunteers in kayaks
SeaLife Stewards are docents that work on the water along with State Parks in the Morro Bay MPAs
photo by C. O’Brien

Diverse marine habitats are a hallmark of California’s central coast region, from sandy beaches and dune landscapes, to expansive estuaries and dense kelp forests. Many are safeguarded by state marine protected areas (MPAs), which aim to protect the abundance of marine life, the habitats on which they depend, and the integrity of marine ecosystems. California is home to a statewide network of 124 ecologically-connected MPAs, managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). CDFW works with many partners, including a grassroots organization called the MPA Collaborative Network to effectively manage this expansive Network. The Collaborative Network engages diverse stakeholders and empowers coastal communities to advance ocean stewardship on a local level.

Collaborative members Gena Bentall of Sea Otter Savvy and State Parks Interpreter Robin Hazar disguised as a sea otter.
Collaborative members Gena Bentall of Sea Otter Savvy and State Parks Interpreter Robin Hazard (in disguise), attend an outreach event to educate people about sea otters
photo by C. O’Brien

The San Luis Obispo MPA Collaborative stewards eight MPAs from Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve at the northern end of the county down to Point Buchon State Marine Conservation Area just south of the small coastside town of Morro Bay. The Collaborative is co-led by Cara O’Brien (California State Parks), Gordan Hensley (San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper), Haylee Bautista (yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash Tribe), and Rachel Pass (Morro Bay National Estuary Program). Other Collaborative members include local fishermen, academic researchers, citizen scientists, and local non-profit organizations.

The Collaborative interacts with county residents through programs such as SeaLife Stewards that paddle the waters of the Morro Bay MPAs on kayaks to teach visitors about the unique estuary ecosystem. And, although it is unlawful to approach a sea otter in its natural habitat, you can get up close and personal with a human in an otter disguise at many of the local community events. Partners Sea Otter Savvy and State Parks teach community members about this furry marine mammal and their importance as a hungry predator in coastal habitats.

MPAs Spanish activity guidebook
The newly released Spanish version of the San Luis Obispo Collaborative’s popular Discover MPAs activity guidebook

“The most exciting thing right now for the San Luis Obispo Collaborative and our partners,” says co-chair Cara O’Brien, “is that State Parks MPA Interpreter Robin Hazard is presenting PORTS home learning programs to students unable to attend school right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place orders.” PORTS (Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students) is a state-sponsored program that offers interactive, live video conferencing and tours of California’s State Parks to classrooms around the state. Participating K-12 students can tune in from their homes every week on “MPA Mondays” to watch Hazard’s MPA-themed lessons. Through social media campaigns and virtual learning, Collaboratives continue to carry out their mission and connect their local communities with the ocean, even during this unprecedented pandemic.

The San Luis Obispo Collaborative is also excited to announce the release of a Spanish version of their popular “Discover MPAs” activity guidebook. Both the Spanish and English guidebooks are available on the Collaborative’s website. Students can follow Alby the abalone to complete the activity book and take the quiz to get anMPA Stewardship certificate. Other Collaborative outreach materials include videos co-produced with Visitor TV that highlight MPAs at Point Buchon, Morro Bay, Cambria, and Piedras Blancas. Videos air throughout the Visitor TV network at local hotels multiple times a day.SLO Collaborative Logo

Anyone is welcome to join an MPA Collaborative, attend meetings, and help with projects. MPA Collaboratives are always looking to expand their membership and increase stakeholder representation. If you’d like to get involved, please find an MPA Collaborative near you and reach out to the co-chairs to join the mailing list and ask about their next meeting.


Post by CDFW Environmental Scientist, Sara Worden

MPACN logoThis article is part of a series featuring California MPA Collaboratives. Read archived MPA News articles and the series Exploring California’s MPAs for more stories and information about California’s marine protected areas!