**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>

Let the learning begin. The planning of California’s open coast statewide marine protected area (MPA) network is now complete-the Fish and Game Commission approved plans for the final stretch of northern coastline on June 6. Yet establishing the network was just the first chapter in the story of MPAs in California: the same law that required a new system of protected zones off the coast also calls for scientific monitoring to track their effectiveness, enhance our understanding of ocean ecosystems, and inform future management decisions.

A single question lies at the heart of MPA monitoring: What is the health of California’s ocean, inside and outside the protected areas?

The first step in answering this question is to understand starting conditions, and this work is underway now. From kelp forest size to fish and bird populations, and from numbers of MPA visitors to fishing revenues, the data from California’s marine protected area baseline program will add up to the most detailed picture ever created of current ocean conditions: a “benchmark” that future changes can be measured against. The assembly of this statewide benchmark is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Volunteer divers with California Reef Check, lobster fishermen in San Diego, and students involved in the LiMPETS program are all vital members of the monitoring teams in the field.

On California’s Central Coast, where MPAs were established five years ago, baseline data collection is complete, and analysis is underway. Results will be shared with the public in February 2013. Elsewhere in the state, citizen and university scientists are in the field collecting data. In the far North Coast, where an MPA plan was adopted earlier this month, monitoring planning has just been launched.

However, this is just the beginning of the MPA monitoring story. As baseline data collection continues, we are planning the next chapter. It is not practical to track the status of every human use, plant or fish. Instead, we are working with scientists and community members to determine which data need to be collected in order to “take the pulse” of ocean ecosystems into the future. We might look at animals at the top of the food chain, such as shorebirds, to draw conclusions about the status of plants or forage fish they depend on, and the health of the waters as a whole. We will track socioeconomic information and human use patterns to determine how MPAs are affecting ocean users. Collectively, these data can help us tell the story of how the ocean – inside and outside the protected areas – is changing. It also answers key questions about MPA design, from size to location to permitted activities.

Meanwhile, California’s baseline monitoring program is the most comprehensive study of the state’s ocean ever undertaken, and will inform fisheries management, water quality monitoring, climate change adaptation and other ocean policy. Once a benchmark is established, ongoing monitoring can begin to track changes over time. This will enable scientists, ocean users, and state officials to keep a finger on the pulse of marine systems and make the best possible decisions to maintain the health of our ocean.

This post first appeared July 10, 2012 in theThe California Majority Report.