Ecological Monitoring in Sanctuaries

National Marine Sanctuaries are designated in areas with interesting ecological interactions that need to be understood to be well managed. PISCO ecological monitoring covers two primary habitats, the rocky intertidal zone and the shallow subtidal (kelp forest) zone. Rocky intertidal monitoring takes place along the western seaboard in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS), Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS). These survey designs are standardized across all PISCO institutions and have been adopted by other agencies such as the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) and the SWAT Coastal Biodiversity Survey. Kelp forest monitoring occurs at sites throughout the MBNMS and CINMS and has recently been significantly expanded due to Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) funds. Currently in the west coast region there is limited rocky intertidal work and virtually no kelp forest work that is conducted independently of PISCO.

Ship time is provided by MBNMS and CINMS to facilitate the kelp forest monitoring efforts and ONMS staff time is also provided during diver training and data collection. Minimal support is provided for the intertidal work. These datasets are available to the ONMS.

PISCO researcher diving
Photo credit: Scott Gabara, PISCO-UCSC

Kelp Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Datasets

Currently there are 78 kelp forest monitoring sites in the MBNMS and 41 sites situated in CINMS. In 2007, the PISCO monitoring program was expanded to monitor and evaluate MPA’s recently established by California’s Marine Life Protection Act. PISCO kelp forest monitoring datasets have been combined with oceanographic data to provide useful products such as characterization of larval dispersal, effects of swell on nearshore communities, effects of recruitment. They are available to ONMS and PISCO often provides analysis of specific projects using these data.
These data have been used:
  • To monitor the recently established network of MPAs within the MLPA Central California Study Region (CCSR). (Many sites are situated in MBNMS)
  • To monitor and evaluate MPA sites for federal MPA’s in CINMS.
    • This effort has been expanded as a result of the MLPA central coast monitoring program.
    • Most of the resultant expansion of monitoring took place within MBNMS.
  •  During 2007, a UC Marine Council’s California Environmental Quality Initiative (CEQI) funded a series of special field surveys to determine how PISCO’s existing research can further aid with MPA monitoring and evaluation efforts.
  • Peer review publications
  • To conduct a 5 year review of CINMS MPA’s (2007)
    • PISCO in collaboration with CINMS and the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) convened a scientific working group to evaluate the effectiveness of MPAs in the Channel Islands.
    • The information generated during the working group process was presented at a special symposium in February 2008 and is the basis for the five-year evaluation of the Channel Islands MPAs, conducted by California Fish and Game Commission in December 2008.
      • The Commission is currently reviewing these results to determine next steps


Rocky Shore Ecosystem Monitoring Datasets

PISCO rocky intertidal monitoring combines studies of variability in ocean climate with simultaneous multi-species experimental studies of larval and adult populations over most of the U.S. West Coast including in OCNMS, GFNMS, MBNMS and CINMS. This research is providing the first examination of the causes and consequences of variation in marine populations on spatial scales that are relevant to marine populations and conservation. Monitoring has been expanded due to MLPA funding, adding 11 new sites to MBNMS in 2007/08.
These data have been used:
  • To document the decline of black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) due to a fatal disease called withering syndrome (Raimondi et al. 2002).
    • PISCO currently monitors populations at 55 sites within NMS boundaries and more than 80 sites between Oregon and Baja California for H. cracherodii abundance and health
    • These data assisted in listing H. cracherodii under the Endangered Species Act (2009). 
  • To inform the partnership to develop a Big Sur Coast Highway Management Plan (CHMP) that involves the MBNMS, California Coastal Commission, California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) and, other local, state, and federal agencies. (click here for more information)
  • Peer review publications


Future Goals

PISCO will continue work in these areas developing our understanding of the complex ecology on the west coast.

One product is a continuous dataset of baseline data from which it’s possible for managers to determine the impacts of new programs or the effectiveness of past management. Regular monitoring increases ‘eyes on the ecosystem’ to assess change not specifically monitored (e.g., spread of invasive species).


  • PISCO is currently soliciting for increased MBNMS support to establish a new study to determine the larval transport and recruitment patterns within Carmel Bay and the ground-truthing of swell models to determine the impact of swell on nearshore communities.
  • The geographic patterns of coastal ecosystems characterized by ONMS and PISCO’s large scale, long-term monitoring effort provides the ecological foundation informs spatial zoning efforts in West Coast Region NMS. 
  • Climate change will affect much of the coastal environment and ocean circulations that are monitored by PISCO.
    • Potential solutions to fresh water availability, carbon neutral energy and impacts of sea level rise are known about and carry a large environmental risk within designated NMS.
    • PISCO ecological datasets can provide valuable baseline environmental information to determine potential impacts and strategies to mitigate these future impacts.
    • Reduced funding for these monitoring projects drastically reduce the scope and scale of their effectiveness by reduced sample sites and limited resources to process and manage collected data.  ONMS resources are critical to provide both financial ONMS and logistical support to ensure these unmatched datasets are preserved and expanded.


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