From its gravel- and boulder-strewn shoreline, to the craggy bedrock of the intertidal that extends to an offshore reef and surrounding stands of bull kelp, Saunders Reef State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) is a location prized for its highly complex, diverse, and productive habitats. Saunders Reef SMCA and its regulations were adopted in 2010 by the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission) as part of California’s globally recognized Marine Protected Area (MPA) Network. It is one of the 124 marine protected areas (MPAs) established statewide from 2004 to 2012 during the implementation of the Marine Life Protection Act.
At just under 10 square miles, Saunders Reef SMCA has an alongshore span of 2.5 miles. This MPA encompasses waters ranging from the mean high tide line out to 276 feet deep. You can find a variety of key habitats including rocky intertidal, sand and mud, offshore reef, and bull kelp all within Saunders Reef SMCA. It is this variety of habitats and depths which make it so dynamic. Animals such as abalone, sea stars, and hermit crabs make their homes within the rocky crevices while other species like black rockfish, vermilion rockfish, yelloweye rockfish and Pacific octopus live on or near the reef itself.
The stands of bull kelp here are of particular importance given the recent significant regional decline in its abundance. Monitoring the presence and relative abundance of kelp within Saunders Reef SMCA has been underway since 2010. In addition, it became a monitoring site for the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) in 2010. Since then, regular surveys of important rocky intertidal species such as surfgrass and ochre stars have been conducted. MARINe has also conducted more intensive biodiversity surveys in 2010, 2014 and 2020. Results from these surveys are just one part of the overall monitoring efforts of the MPA Network. Extensive baseline and long-term monitoring efforts guided by the MPA Monitoring Action Plan have been undertaken across the MPA Network, and moving forward, will become a key factor in informing adaptive management of the MPA Network.
The 2016 Master Plan for MPAs established a 10-year management review cycle following implementation of the statewide MPA Network in 2012. The first of these reviews, known as the decadal management review, will be in February 2023 when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife presents the Decadal Management Review Report to the Commission. The report will include information on the four pillars of the MPA Management Program: Research and Monitoring, Outreach and Education, Policy and Permitting and Enforcement and Compliance.
With its varied habitats and rich species abundance, Saunders Reef SMCA is an extraordinary example of California’s coastal diversity. As part of California’s MPA Network, it provides researchers with the opportunity to study diverse and dynamic species and the habitats they depend upon. So, the next time you find yourself in Mendocino County just south of Schooner Gulch State Beach, take a few extra minutes and head out to see Saunders Reef SMCA firsthand. There you might discover various opportunities, whether it’s diving amongst the kelp, tide pooling along the rocky intertidal, or just simply being at the ocean.
Report poaching or polluting by calling CDFW’s anonymous tip line CalTIP at 1-888-334-CalTIP (1-888-334-2258).
Saunders Reef 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.
post by Elizabeth Pope, CDFW Environmental Scientist
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