Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
Monitoring Project

James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve: Resource Assessment

Principal Investigator(s)

  • Scott Kimura
    Tenera Environmental


  • San Mateo County
Start Date: March 01, 2003
End Date: February 23, 2004

Executive Summary
Intertidal areas along rocky shorelines have become increasingly popular attractions for tourists, students, and the general public because they provide easy access to a wide variety of interesting marine life in tidepools and other habitats, including shoreline areas for fishing. The intertidal zone is the portion of shore that becomes covered and uncovered with water with the changing tides. However, the increased numbers of visitors to these areas can result in environmental impacts through trampling, rock turning, mishandling organisms, and collecting.

Formerly known as the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, the State Marine Park is located in San Mateo County and within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The Park is approximately 3 mi (5 km) long, and includes a complex of broad intertidal rock platforms and small pocket beaches. The San Mateo County Parks and Recreation (County Parks) and the California State Department of Fish and Game (CDF&G) share joint custodianship for the natural resources in the Park. CDF&G has regulatory authority within the Park below the mean high tide level, and County Parks has regulatory authority above the mean high tide level. County Parks has assumed the overall day-to-day protection of the Park’s natural marine resources. State Marine Park regulations prohibit the collecting of algae (seaweeds) and invertebrates (e.g., abalone), but recreational fishing is allowed.

Levels of Visitor Use
The Fitzgerald State Marine Park receives over 100,000 visitors each year, and is one of the most frequently visited rocky shorelines in California. There are several reasons for the high levels of visitation. The State Marine Park is within easy driving distance from dense metropolitan areas of San Francisco Bay. Above the mean high tide line, San Mateo County owns and maintains a parking lot with restrooms, a picnic area, and an access path that leads to the intertidal zone. The flat, rocky intertidal platforms nearby make it easy for visitors to access and explore tidepools. The most concentrated visitor use occurs along Moss Beach Reef adjacent to the main access path. Our census surveys and questionnaire poles substantiated that the main attraction of the Park is its natural resource values coupled with ease of access. Most visitors explore the richly diverse tidepools for education, relaxation, or simply out of curiosity. The Park is a particular strong attraction for school children, which can account for half of the attendance during spring.

Summary to Date

Study Purpose
This study was initiated as a result of concerns by the California State Department of Fish and Game (CDF&G) and the County of San Mateo (County) about the potential impacts from current levels of visitor use, potential increases in future visitor use, and the effectiveness of present management and regulations in protecting the health and viability of the marine life in the James V. Fitzgerald State Marine Park. The need for the study was one of the recommendations in the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Master Plan (Master Plan) (Brady/LSA 2002), and was the basis for obtaining a grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to support the project. Tenera Environmental (San Luis Obispo, CA) completed the study during the spring and summer of 2004. The study summarizes existing data on visitor use and marine life in the Park, provides new data on the distribution and abundance of marine life relative to visitor use, and offers suggestions for future monitoring and management of Park visitation to protect marine resources.

Study Approach
During spring and summer 2004, we conducted surveys with the Friends of Fitzgerald volunteer organization on visitor numbers and their activities, and obtained public input on use of the Park through a questionnaire. We also sampled the condition of the shoreline biological communities using standard biological sampling methods. The high use area of Moss Beach Reef at the main access trail was sampled and compared to areas located south in the proximity of Frenchman’s Reef where visitor levels tend to be much lower. Our study included data analysis of a unique study done by County Park rangers of intertidal areas that have been periodically roped off from visitor access since 1994. These areas were compared with unroped areas exposed to visitor access.

Our studies did not produce conclusive evidence that current levels of visitor use are negatively impacting the intertidal biota at the Fitzgerald State Marine Park, Moss Beach Reef in particular. This included algal and invertebrate assemblages, mussel beds, sea stars, and intertidal fishes. One of the most important findings was the variation in the numbers and types of plants and animals found over relatively small areas. This variation can result from a number of natural factors (e.g., substrate differences, wave exposure, biological community interactions), which can mask effects from visitor use. Therefore, in this study we could only attribute differences between areas of high and low use to the effects of visitor use if the differences involved a large number of species that were susceptible to collecting, handling, and trampling. Using these criteria, our studies did not detect any differences that could be conclusively linked to visitor use. Overall, we found the Moss Beach Reef intertidal zone to be as diverse and variable in species composition, abundance, and distribution as comparable areas with lower levels of visitor use.

However, this finding should be treated with caution, due to the short duration of the study and the absence of prior data enabling rigorous tests of impact hypotheses. Even though our studies were not able to detect statistically significant effects of visitor use, we do not conclude that there were no impacts. With over 100,000 people visiting the State Marine Park each year, there are undoubtedly impacts that likely occur on a constant basis from trampling, handling, and collecting. While our results showed that Moss Beach Reef was as diverse as areas with less visitor use, it could have been more diverse historically, and could have declined in diversity to levels similar to the areas we studied with less visitor use. There was no means to determine historical levels of species diversity, other than assuming that current conditions in low use areas represented natural conditions. Also, impacts have probably been reduced due to a bus reservation system started in 1994 to control visitor numbers, an increased number of docent-led school trips assisted by the Friends of Fitzgerald, and surveillance enforcement efforts by San Mateo County Park rangers, which has reduced the number of collectors and number of organisms collected over time. If not for these efforts, negative impacts could have been greater during our study and more apparent.

We hypothesized that the study of roped and unroped plots would yield some evidence of visitor impacts, but no strong conclusions could be drawn regarding the effectiveness of limiting visitor access as a means to increase the abundance of intertidal biota. We analyzed the data from the 1994 and 1998 study years and found that while the abundances of some species in the roped plots increased relative to the unroped plots, others decreased. The mixed results indicated that excluding visitors did not substantially alter the nature of the biological communities in the test plots. We sampled other areas of Moss Beach Reef exposed to visitor use, and found species that were actually higher in abundance in other unroped areas than in the roped test plots. This further demonstrated the presence of large spatial variation of marine life on Moss Beach Reef, which is why it was difficult to attribute any of the differences between the roped and unroped areas to different levels of visitor use.

Certain edible invertebrate species, such as black abalone and owl limpets, are at risk of depletion through illegal collecting. We found both species to be generally scarce in the Park, probably in part because of limited suitable habitat. If substantial collecting were to occur, the populations would be at risk of depletion.

According to Park rangers, black turban snails were among the species most commonly collected illegally. Of the areas that we sampled we found that black turban snails were least abundant on Moss Beach Reef (high use area), suggesting that the lower abundances may have been due to illegal collecting. However, by examining the shell size distribution among areas we found greater numbers of small individuals in the areas outside of Moss Beach Reef. Hence, the observed differences in turban snail abundance may have been related to spatial variation in recruitment within the Park and not to visitor impacts.

The recreational shore fishery at the Park remains popular even though the number of anglers per year has dropped by nearly 80% since records were first kept in the early-1970s. The Park is unique in supporting a ‘poke-pole’ fishery for monkeyface eels and rock pricklebacks. Surfperch, lingcod, cabezon, greenling, and rockfish are also caught in the Park. Records collected by Park rangers for the period 1980-2002 revealed that ‘catch per time spent fishing’ for monkeyface eels and rock pricklebacks has been variable from year to year, but has declined slightly over time, first noted in data reported up through 1992 by HLA (1993). A decline also occurred in surfperch catches. However, occasional peaks in catch per time spent fishing for these species reveal that the area still provides good fishing opportunities. Fishing success has always been low for lingcod and cabezon because of their naturally lower abundances, but recent restrictions on catch sizes of these species throughout California have also contributed to lower overall catches. All of the fish species targeted by shore fishers have populations that extend over broad areas of the near- and offshore subtidal. Therefore, there is a low likelihood that areas closely fringing the Park could become fully depleted of fish through shore fishing activities alone, as movement of fishes from unfished areas could potentially replenish local populations. However, size measurements of the fishes caught were not obtained in the fisher interviews over time, so there is no information on how the quality of fish (weight and lengths) may have changed. A decline in fish lengths could be indicative of overfishing.


Park Values and County Management Plans In recognition that much of the Park use is related to educational activities, the Parks and Recreation Division of San Mateo County has been active in developing a comprehensive management plan (Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Master Plan (Brady/LSA 2002) to increase both educational opportunities and resource stewardship at the Park. Prior to this document, there has never been a guiding management plan for the Park. A Master Plan was proposed in the 1970s, but was never adopted. The current Master Plan was developed over the period 1997-2004, which included a number of environmental reviews and 17 public workshops and meetings. The adoption of the Master Plan by the County Board of Supervisors is scheduled for December 2004. The current Master Plan approach focuses management actions on ways to foster marine science appreciation and greater awareness of the sensitivity of the marine life to visitor disturbances. Among the action items is the design and construction of a Marine Science Education Center at the Park to not only enhance visitor education but also to allow visitors to experience some of the shoreline resources without directly accessing the tidepools, thus potentially lessening negative impacts.

The following management considerations were developed with an expected change in use in mind and the same commitment to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Master Plan objectives in protecting the natural resources. Greater detail on management considerations is provided at the end of this report in Section 7. The Marine Science Education Center could change how people use the area. Currently, peak visitation occurs for 1-3 hours around low tide during daylight hours coupled with nice weather. The Education Center could result in overall visitation levels in the area becoming spread over longer periods of the day, over more days, and independent of weather and tides. A challenge in managing visitor attendance will be the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Master Plan’s goal of limiting visitor use to 500 people per day with a not-to-exceed maximum of 300 people on the shore at any given time, as past levels have frequently exceeded these limits. This ‘carrying capacity’ goal was recommended by HLA (1993), and the limits were incorporated in the Master Plan. The recommended limits were ‘targets’ for reducing visitor use, but were not expected to eliminate the concerns for visitor impacts and the need for management. In order to limit visitor levels to 500 people per day, school field trips could be limited to 300 students per day or lower, which would allow for an additional 200 non-school related visitors per day. Because the Education Center could change how people use the area, new visitor counting methods may likely be needed to distinguish the numbers of people visiting the Center from those visiting the intertidal zone. Historically, numbers of people visiting the intertidal zone were estimated by counting cars in the parking lot. However, many people may only use the Education Center. Therefore, another method will be needed to distinguish counts of those visiting the intertidal zone from those only visiting the Center. For example, a turnstile or infrared counter at the head of the main access path would provide direct counts of people using the intertidal zone.

Many other rocky intertidal zones in California that are near urban areas also experience high levels of visitation. Resource managers in these areas are confronted with similar issues of balancing resource conservation with continued access. Accordingly, we feel that the planning and implementation of additional resource conservation measures at the Park to minimize impacts, including continued biological and visitor monitoring are warranted. We suggest that San Mateo County actively collaborate with other agencies and groups with similar management goals to refine management objectives, action priorities, and monitoring methods. We include a set of management considerations in Section 7 for collaborating with others to help ensure protection of existing resource conditions with the possible changes in visitation, future management changes, and operation of the Park. Because over 99 % of the use in the State Marine Park is centered on education, an additional goal of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Master Plan is to have the area designated exclusively for this use by the CDF&G. An increased level of resource protection would exclude recreational fishing, which presently accounts for 1 % of the use in the Park. Restricting fishing would effectively change the State Marine Park to a ‘no-take’ area (i.e., State Marine Reserve). This change in status could only occur through the CDF&G Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) process, which was established to create an improved network of marine protected areas in the State. The current MLPA process is focused on central California, and may include the James V. Fitzgerald State Marine Park.

Study Parameters

  • Age & Growth
  • Habitat association
  • Habitat
  • Diversity
  • Disturbance
  • Competition
  • Abundance
  • Distribution
  • Density
  • Age structure
  • Maps
  • Substrate characterization
  • Geological characterization

Study Methods

Standard non-destructive transect/quadrat sampling methods combined with visitor count surveys