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

Tracking the health of our oceans is a large, complicated job – but by working together, we can meet the challenge. California is investing in baseline monitoring of the statewide network of marine protected areas (MPAs) and groups and individuals are stepping up to contribute time, equipment and expertise.

MPA Monitoring Enterprise, a program of the California Ocean Science Trust, oversees a broad network of partner organizations engaged in the collection of data inside and outside MPAs. These collaborators include both academic research institutions and citizen scientist programs like Reef Check California.

Armed with measuring tapes and underwater paper, trained Reef Check volunteers carry out surveys of near-shore reefs and kelp forests, collecting data on key species such as blue rockfish and giant kelp. Divers from all walks of life – doctors, carpenters, elementary school teachers, and software engineers – train to become citizen scientists to indulge their passion for underwater exploration while gathering important scientific data that informs management of the state’s MPAs.

A Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter suited up for a dive with us recently to see what it was all about – you can read her story here. Working in collaboration with volunteer organizations like Reef Check incorporates a broad community into the monitoring effort.

The first step in monitoring MPAs is a baseline program that measures ecological and socioeconomic conditions in the first few years following the establishment of MPAs, building a benchmark against which future changes can be measured. We seek to answer questions such as, ‘Where are key fish species found and how big are these fish?’ and ‘Where are people fishing and how has it changed since the MPAs were implemented?’

Data collection to establish the benchmark for the Central Coast region – the first regional MPA network to be implemented under the Marine Life Protection Act – is complete and the raw data are now publically available on a new website called OceanSpaces that tracks the health of California’s oceans. Baseline program researchers, including Reef Check, are hard at work analyzing the data.

We will share the results from this baseline MPA monitoring broadly with policy makers, resource managers, and stakeholders so that everyone has access to the information that can inform management decisions. In collaboration with theCalifornia Department of Fish and Game and California Fish and Game Commission, we are convening a public symposium in late February 2013 to share the results of the baseline monitoring and look ahead to informing adaptive management of the Central Coast MPAs. The results will also be easily accessible on OceanSpaces, where information will range from highly synthesized assessments of ecological and socioeconomic conditions to in-depth analyses of species, habitats and human uses.

But the end of the baseline monitoring program is only the start. Afterwards we will shift gears into ongoing monitoring, through which we “take the pulse” of marine ecosystems and ocean-based human activities to see how they are changing over time and how MPAs are affecting them.

Broad community involvement in MPA monitoring, from citizen scientists to fishermen, ensures we are taking advantage of all expertise while collecting scientifically rigorous monitoring data. At the same time we can educate the public about marine environments and build a science-based ocean stewardship ethic.

Understanding the health of our oceans is critical for effective stewardship and management. Monitoring programs provide everyone with rigorous scientific information for better decisions for our oceans.

This is post first appeared October 19, 2012 in The California Majority Report.