What Marine Protected Areas Mean to Me

Written by Aubrie Fowler, MPA Collaborative Network South Coast Specialist


In a world where hoarders are kings, hand sanitizer and TP are the new currency, sweats are the latest ‘office’ fashion trend, the 405 is traffic-less, and California’s outdoor open spaces are closing, …

This sounds like the preview to the next blockbuster horror movie, one that’s filming before our very eyes.

Surreal. Apocalyptic. Words describing this novel situation we are all surviving. Yet there’s hope and let me tell you why.

My reflections all started with answering the seemingly simple question:

“What do marine protected areas (MPAs) mean to you?”.

The most basic definition of an MPA is a region where there are certain protections in place that restrict some type of human uses (e.g. fishing, oil drilling). The California Department of Fish and Wildlife defines MPAs as named, discrete geographic marine or estuarine areas designed to protect or conserve marine life and habitat. For me, MPAs mean so much more than that.

But first, a little about me. As the South Coast Specialist with the MPA Collaborative Network, I am still finding my niche. This role is new, only about a month old. The purpose of my position is constantly changing with news updates regarding COVID-19 (a word that leaves a bad taste in my mouth). Generally, my role is to support the South Coast collaboratives, from San Diego to the Santa Barbara Channel, and to track everything enforcement.

Aside from my new role, MPAs have been at the heart of a place I’m intensely passionate about and intimately familiar with: the Channel Islands. From my introduction to the islands while on a family camping and sea cave kayaking trip to becoming the Resource Protection Specialist at the NOAA Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, now my journey has led me to be a Channel Islands kayak and snorkel guide with Santa Barbara Adventure Company. Nothing short of a dream job, I am fortunate enough to highlight the many conservation and restoration success stories of the Channel Islands. I also discuss the geologic history of the islands and how the islands were once underwater and offshore of what is currently northern Baja and San Diego, my hometown. It feels like I’ve come full circle to work out on these islands, my other home.

Just before visitation to the island via the Island Packers ferry was stopped for safety reasons, I was lucky enough to spend three days on the island, fully immersed in natural beauty and mostly isolated. I got to experience the many layers of protection I often talk about during my tours, including feats of the California MPA implementation process and how several agencies and people have jurisdiction over the land we hike and the waters we paddle, including the Chumash Native Americans, the State, The Nature Conservancy, the National Park, and the National Marine Sanctuary. These protections serve as safeguards for Southern California’s whale feeding grounds and migratory path, healthy and diverse kelp forests, productive and commercially important fishing grounds, and endemic island species.

Guides like myself often tell stories of cultural anthropology, specifically about our oldest island stewards and the “first people,” the Chumash. Thousands of years ago, after generations of thriving off coastal resources, their population diminished after contracting Old World diseases from European settlers. These Europeans also forced the Chumash people off the islands and into missions along the mainland coast. However, the Chumash still reconnect with their coastal roots and paddle in redwood plank canoes called tomols. Each fall, this nine to 12-hour overnight Channel crossing brings Chumash from various tribes to Limuw (“in the sea”) or Santa Cruz Island in a homecoming ceremony on their ancestral land. They land in the arms of the Chumash people as they carry the tomol onshore at Scorpion Anchorage in Scorpion State Marine Reserve. Witnessing this celebration is magical.

Coming back to why there’s hope. People, animals, and nature are all resilient. We will bounce back when the time comes. We’ve seen this in our MPAs. We’ve seen this throughout human history. We’ve seen this daily all over our planet.

To answer the question What do MPAs mean to me? is not so simple. For me, MPAs are my livelihood. MPAs are my way to recreate and explore nature. MPAs are a source of excitement when a sea lion leaps next to my kayak. MPAs are the ideal setting for me to educate guests about protecting our ocean resources while immersing them in nature and snorkeling back in time. MPAs are grounding for our history. MPAs align with my value to promote marine conservation. It takes losing something to realize how much it is truly worth; I have never been more appreciative of my local MPAs.

I can’t wait for my homecoming. □

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