Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Pyramid Point State Marine Conservation Area

California’s northernmost marine protected area (MPA), Pyramid Point State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA), is located just south of the California/Oregon border in Del Norte County. Its northern boundary runs along the state border, extending from the mean high tide line out to sea for three nautical miles. The SMCA extends south from the state border for three nautical miles to the southern SMCA border, which is located just north of Prince Island and Hunter Rock.

map of SMCA
Map of Pyramid Point State Marine Conservation Area
(click to enlarge)
CDFW Marine Region map

In all, Pyramid Point SMCA covers a total area of nine square miles. The closest MPA to the north, Redfish Rocks, is actually located in Oregon near the town of Port Orford, while the closest MPA to the south, Point St. George Reef Offshore SMCA, is located offshore of Crescent City.   

One of two MPAs in Del Norte County, Pyramid Point SMCA is within the traditional tribal land of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and was created with tribal input. Citizens of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation continue to provide tribal perspectives to MPA managers through the Del Norte MPA Collaborative, which also conducts outreach and develops materials to educate the community about local MPAs. A variety of interested parties participate in the collaborative, including local agencies, tribal members and other concerned citizens.

a-frame net
A-frame net used to capture surf smelt
CDFW photo by K. Lesyna

Each California MPA has specific regulations that were developed by a regional stakeholder group during an extensive public planning process, and adopted by the California Fish and Game Commission. Pyramid Point SMCA prohibits the removal of all living marine resources except the recreational take of surf smelt by dip net or Hawaiian type throw net, with a current fishing license. These regulations reflect the importance of the marine environment in and around Pyramid Point SMCA to the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, which continues to use the area for cultural and subsistence practices.

Surf smelt, also known as day smelt, are a traditional, sustainable winter food source for the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and are mainly caught during summer fish camps that have been a way of life for countless generations. During the summer fish camps, surf smelt are caught using an A-frame type dip net. They are then dried on the sand in the salt-rich sea air for up to three weeks. Images and first-hand accounts of summer fish camp traditions and the ancient relationship with surf smelt are explored in a short video, Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, Marine Protected Area, developed by the Del Norte MPA Collaborative:

A more in-depth look at Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation resource management and their involvement with developing MPAs is the subject of the PBS documentary Protecting the Coast with the Tolowa Dee-ni’:

Surf smelt are a culturally important species not only to the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation but to the recreational fishing community as well. Surf smelt are one of seven smelt species in California. They are a relatively small and slender silver bait fish with a purplish hue and a light green back. These little guys live for about five years and eat mostly crustaceans and plankton. They are considered excellent eating by many, and a lot of fun to fish for. Surf smelt fishing is especially popular with those who do not have access to a boat, since it’s done from the beach with minimal gear. In addition to the surf smelt fishing area at Pyramid Point SMCA, Del Norte County is home to several other well-known surf smelt fishing spots, including Smith River Beach which is just south of the SMCA. Visitors and fishermen can camp close by at Clifford Kamph Memorial Park, which is managed by Del Norte County.

tufted puffin in ocean
Tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) in Del Norte County waters
photo by A. Lui

Bird watchers will find bountiful flocks of feathered inhabitants within and around Pyramid Point SMCA. Just outside the southern boundary of the SMCA is Hunter Rock, which marks the edge of the SMCA and is a great place to look for birds such as tufted puffins, fork-tailed storm petrels, and a variety of herons.

Pyramid Point SMCA serves as the northern gateway to the California MPA network. The rugged beauty of the MPA can be taken in whether you are out on foot, enjoying surf smelt fishing, or are brave enough to go for a swim in the cold waters of northern California. Before heading out on your adventure, don’t forget to check for local COVID-19 conditions and restrictions.

Pyramid Point State Marine Conservation Area is one 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 logo

post by Elizabeth Pope, CDFW Environmental Scientist


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