Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Point Buchon State Marine Reserve and Point Buchon State Marine Conservation Area

Point Buchon State Marine Reserve and Point Buchon State Marine Conservation Area as seen from the water.
photo by E. Johnston

Along the coast of San Luis Obispo County between Morro Bay and Pismo Beach lies a scenic and sparsely populated stretch of shoreline. In 2007, a portion of the undersea and tidal habitats off the coast was designated for protection from fishing as part of California’s network of 124 marine protected areas (MPAs). Point Buchon State Marine Reserve (SMR) protects all marine resources from take, starting at the mean high tide line and extending offshore. Where the SMR ends offshore, in water over 200 feet deep, it is adjoined by the slightly less restrictive Point Buchon State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA), where recreational and commercial salmon and albacore tuna fishing is allowed.  During the past 14+ years of protection, marine scientists have tracked the progress that marine ecosystems have made towards meeting the goals of the Marine Life Protection Act here, through monitoring. This effort has added a new layer of understanding to this special and remote area of California’s central coast.

Map of the MPAs
Map of Pt. Buchon SMCA and Pt. Buchon SMR (click to enlarge)
CDFW image

Long before the first Spanish explorers came to this location in the 1700s, the rocky headland and hills above the MPAs were home to the yak tityu tityu yak tiłhini tribe of Northern Chumash indigenous people, who were the earliest residents of this coastal region, and whose homeland generally covered the area that is now San Luis Obispo County. Several traditional villages in the area were overseen by a prominent leader nicknamed “El Buchon” by Spanish soldiers because he had a neck lump or goiter (buchon in 18th century Spanish). This nickname stuck amongst the first Spanish Mission colonists and began to be used as a name for the surrounding area where the revered Chumash leader’s villages were located. Over time the name was also given to the rocky coastal point which is now the iconic coastal feature of the Point Buchon SMR, with its prominent, rocky sea-stacks and dramatic shoreline.

The land onshore of the MPA is now owned by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) as part of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Access to the land around the nuclear power plant is tightly restricted for security reasons, but PG&E allows limited access via a trail system through the adjacent Montaña de Oro State Park to the north. The six-mile trail is part of PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Trail Network and is known for its panoramic views of offshore sea-stacks, kelp beds and pocket beaches within the MPA. This coastal area is a favorite spot for a hike and picnic for residents from the nearby communities of Morro Bay and Baywood-Los Osos. Most of the MPA shoreline along the trail does not provide beach access, but Coon Creek Beach is accessible near the beginning of the trail.

Scuba divers brave the chilly waters to dive the Point Buchon Pinnacles, which are rock spires that rise from over 130 feet in depth to 40 feet from the surface inside the SMR. This current-prone dive spot is for experienced divers and is only accessible by boat. Divers who visit the pinnacles or shallower kelp forests may see many species of colorful rockfish, the distinctive California sheephead, the predatory and toothy lingcod, the occasional wolf-eel, and prominent orange and purple colonies of cold-water California hydrocoral. You can learn more about these species here.

The MPAs have also drawn the interest of researchers and citizen scientists who have been trying to measure the ecological effects of MPA protection, which began in 2007. For the past 14 years, researchers from all over California have been collaboratively working to map the seafloor, characterize habitats, and track the abundance of fish and invertebrates in Point Buchon SMR and Point Buchon SMCA. One such research group, the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program, hires party boat operators and recruits volunteer anglers to catch and release fish via hook-and-line fishing as a way to monitor the MPAs. They demonstrated that since protection began, more fish were being caught inside the MPAs over time. They also found that since protection began in 2007, this positive effect was pronounced within Point Buchon SMR, where the amount of fishing near the MPA was greater than at other areas along the central California coast.

Other researchers at the SMR and SMCA crawled over slippery algae-covered rocks in the intertidal zone, dived the magnificent kelp forests, and piloted a remotely operated vehicle across the dark deep reefs. The results of these studies show that some species are increasing in abundance compared to areas outside the reserve where fishing still occurs. These modest results are consistent with modeling predictions of response to protection for slow growing species like rockfish. It takes time for fish to grow larger, reproduce, and fill in the population that has been removed by fishing.

Collectively, these research efforts will aid in determining if MPA protection is improving marine populations, biodiversity, and other ecological measures such as climate resilience. Long-term research and monitoring is a core component of the upcoming ten-year management review of California’s MPA Network. This review, referred to as the Decadal Management Review, will culminate in a report to the California Fish and Game Commission in January 2023.

Point Buchon SMR and Point Buchon SMCA are special places, so we encourage you to go and gaze out from the trail or venture across or under the waves. At these two MPAs, you are sure to experience some of California’s coastal best.

Point Buchon State Marine Reserve and Point Buchon 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.

For more information about ocean fishing and MPA restrictions, visit the recreational ocean fishing regulations online.

Report poaching or polluting by calling CDFW’s anonymous tip line CalTIP at 1-888-334-CalTIP (1-888-334-2258).

MPA logopost by Michael Prall, CDFW Environmental Scientist


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