Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
Monitoring Project

Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO): Central Coast Marine Protected Area (MPA) Baseline Data Collection

Principal Investigator(s)

  • Mark Carr
    University of California, Santa Cruz


  • David and Lucille Packard Foundation
  • Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
  • California Ocean Protection Council
  • Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Start Date: June 21, 2007

Since 1999, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), has conducted long-term, large scale monitoring of kelp forests throughout the MBNMS. The purpose of PISCO is to describe the geographic patterns and dynamics of kelp forest ecosystems and to explore the environmental and ecological processes (including human activities) that create these patterns. PISCO provides ecologists, managers and policymakers with baseline information on the state of and changes in these ecosystems.

As PISCO developed, the geographic scope of monitoring expanded throughout the sanctuary, primarily through collaborative efforts with staff from MBNMS and California Department of Fish and Game. The spatial extent of the monitoringsites as of summer 2006 can be viewed at:

PISCO Subtidal Map

In 2007, the PISCO monitoring program was expanded to monitor and evaluate MPAs recently established by California’s Marine Life Protection Act. The purpose of this new effort is to (1) assess the consequences of establishing MPAs on the populations and communities associated with kelp forest ecosystems and (2) assess effects of fishing on kelp forest ecosystems. PISCO, in collaboration with its partners, was funded by the state to collect pre-implementation data to serve as a baseline for before and after comparisons.

Summary to Date

Over the past decade, international and state-wide efforts to employ MPAs as tools for both marine conservation and fisheries conservation have escalated rapidly. Identification of conservation objectives, and the measurement of MPA effectiveness in achieving these objectives, is crucial to the adaptive management necessary for the long-term success of MPAs.

In June of 2007, the PISCO program at UC Santa Cruz initiated baseline data collection for the recently established network of MPAs within the MLPA Central California Study Region (CCSR). The MPAs, which vary in level of protection (State Marine Reserve, State Marine Conservation Area, and State Marine Park), took effect on September 21, 2007. Initial effort was focused on the spatial sampling design and the selection of MPA survey sites and their associated reference sites. We use the term reference site to describe areas outside CCSR MPAs that are used for comparison with MPAs. Our sampling approach (survey design and sampling protocols) is modeled largely after the large scale, long-term kelp forest monitoring program developed over the initial eight years of PISCO and incorporated into the Cooperative Research and Assessment of Nearshore Ecosystems (CRANE) program. All of the data used to estimate biological variables are collected visually by teams of scuba divers that survey over a period of five months (mid-June to mid-November).

Our proposed sampling design is characterized as a stratified random permanent sampling design. Three criteria were used in the selection of reference sites:

(1) comparable habitat (as much as possible) relative to sites sampled within MPAs, including reef geomorphology (substratum type and relief and reef slope) and oceanic conditions (exposure to swell, upwelling conditions),

(2) proximity to nearby MPAs, but outside of a 0.5 km buffer zone to reduce the effects of regulatory treatments (inside versus outside MPAs) on one another, and

(3) distribute fundamental sampling units (“cells”) randomly among possible sample cells met by criteria 1 and 2.

We used existing CDF&G aerial digital images of historic kelp canopy cover to identify the distribution of kelp forests within each of the MPAs and corresponding reference areas. Within each of these areas, four sampling cells were selected randomly. Fish densities and size frequencies are estimated from a total of twelve 30 m-long transects stratified across four depths (20 m, 15 m, 10 m, and 5 m) within the forest. Two 30 m-long transects to sample invertebrates and macroalgae are similarly distributed across each of three depth strata (20 m, 12.5 m, 5 m) within the forest. Species and environmental variables that we sample are based on lists identified in the Baseline Monitoring request for proposals and additional species and environmental variables we and the scientific literature have identified as indicators of ecosystem structure. These variables include population density and cover, fish and invertebrate size frequency distributions, substratum composition, physical relief and water temperature. Aspects of analysis, data management and coordinated collaborations with other monitoring programs will be based on past and ongoing efforts by PISCO.

By the beginning of November 2007, PISCO had completed invertebrate and macro-algae surveys at 91 of 100 cells and fish surveys at 73 of 100 cells within the CCSR. Our sampling protocol requires a minimum of 3 meters of visibility to perform accurate fish surveys. The number of fish surveys completed was lower than expected due to poor conditions and continually insufficient visibility throughout much of the sampling season. Additionally, many of the sample cells within the CCSR are located along very remote portions of the MBNMS coast and are difficult to access. However, we were able to complete surveys at many of these remote sites with support from the MBNMS and use of the R/V Fulmar. The RV Fulmar is capable of performing multi-day cruises with a full complement of divers and is an invaluable asset to the MPA monitoring effort.


The sampling season ended in November of 2007 and at the time of this update the raw data have not yet been processed. As such, there are no preliminary results to report. All raw data will be submitted to the CDFG and the California Coastal Conservancy by March 15, 2008. The final report for the project is due June 6, 2008. PISCO will also provide access to metadata files at that time via our web site at: PISCO Metadata

Individuals can also request raw data or data summaries (see above web site link). Until the analyses are completed, preliminary results from the long-term PISCO dataset can be viewed at the SIMoN PISCO project page at:
PISCO Subtidal on SIMoN

The general subtidal PISCO web site is at: PISCO Subtidal

Study Parameters

  • Growth
  • Habitat
  • Abundance
  • Temperature
  • Dispersal & Recruitment
  • Habitat association
  • Diversity
  • Distribution
  • Density
  • Size structure
  • Currents

Study Methods

All of the data used to estimate biological variables are collected visually by teams of scuba divers that access sample sites on small (< 10 m length) research vessels except during RV Fulmar cruises. The depth range of sampling (20 m depth) necessitates that divers use (and are trained to use) mixed gases (Nitrox). In general, fish surveys are conducted separately from benthic invertebrate and macroalgae surveys because of differences in the time required to sample a site. Fish survey teams consist of four divers (2 buddy pair) and a vessel driver. Benthic survey teams consist of two teams of three divers (swath, UPC and size frequency samplers) and a vessel driver. Because of the geographic range of the study region and the time constraints imposed by seasonal variability (and access) among sample sites, we simultaneously deploy two dive teams in different regions of the coast whenever possible. Prior to each sample season, all divers participating in surveys are required to participate in a 2-week training program. Details about sampling protocol, survey training, and datasheets are available on the following web page:

Figures and Images

Figure 1. Sites surveyed in 2007 as part of the Marine Life Protection Act's (MLPA) Central Coast Study Region (CCSR). State Marine Conservation Areas (SMCAs in light blue) and State Marine Reserves (SMRs in pink) are shown as polygons along the coast.

Figure 2. This is an example of how areas of interest are surveyed. Since not all parts of an SMCA, SMR or reference site can be sampled adequately, representative subsections are targeted. In the PG Marine Gardens SMCA there are 4 sections, each with either existing monitoring in place (red polygons) or newly established (blue polygons). Within these polygons (aka cells) replicated transects are sampled at mulitple depths from 5 to 20 m deep.

Figure 3. The sampling design used by PISCO to survey sites inside and outside of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) within the CCSR has several sources of variation. Since targeted areas are sampled each year, there is annual variation (time) that contributes to potential differences within and between sites. There is also a difference in how survey sites are regulated. Within a level of regulation, there are also spatial differences (e.g., not all SMRs are in the same place). Within one SMR (e.g., PG Marine Gardens) there are multiple sections, and within those sections are cells, each of which is sampled by replicate transects at multiple depths.