Positive Future for Ocean Health at the Santa Barbara Channel Islands

Photo by Katie Davis.

Photo by Katie Davis.

Good news has come after 10 years of monitoring the protected waters around the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. The health of the ecosystem is improving, and although there will still be challenges ahead, the long term outlook is very hopeful.

On this planet, there are some places that have the ability to bring uncommon people together; places that remind us to think beyond ourselves, beyond the present; places that reveal the connectivity among humans and the natural world. The Channel Islands and ocean that connects them to our coast is such a place. It provides vital ecosystem services, food, resources, and habitats that have supported livelihoods and inspired a rich cultural history for thousands of years. Like many other unique places around the world, it is changing. However, the community of anglers, scientists, resource managers, Chumash, and visitors have been long committed to protecting this place and its resources. Together, the community has put in a great effort to ensure that our impact does not diminish the very essence of the region, so that people can experience the beauty of the Channel Islands for generations to come.

Legacy of Fishing

“Fishermen have been uniquely seduced by this vast and brooding realm, whose contents and behavior one can never exactly predict nor fully understand” – Mick Kronman, From Hooks to Harpoons: the Story of Santa Barbara Channel Fisheries

To understand the importance of the local waters and why so many different people are involved in the management of Santa Barbara’s marine resources, we must look back on the role the ocean has played in the history of the Santa Barbara Channel.


Fishing has been an integral part of the Santa Barbara Channel region’s culture since the earliest native people came to live there, and it has been a part of every generation to follow. The Chumash way of life was, and still is, strongly connected to the sea, so much so that it is sometimes referred to as their first home [1]. In addition to having great spiritual significance, the sea provided the Chumash with vital resources of fish, abalone, clams, mussels, and countless others. The Spanish settlers, who came after, fished the waters off of Santa Barbara to sustain their long voyages. The Russians and Mexicans hunted seals and sea otters for pelts and oil. The Chinese capitalized on the abundance of abalone and established a thriving fishery for the area, and the Japanese advanced this fishery by developing diving techniques for abalone collection. In the latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s, Italian fishermen opened the first fish markets on State Street, and the industry continuously grew thereafter [2]. In the history of Santa Barbara fishing, many players took risks, made sacrifices, and overcame challenges to keep the industry living and breathing over the years.

Commercial Fishing

Photo by Katie Davis.

Photo by Katie Davis.

Today, Santa Barbara is still a working harbor with 60 – 80 boats out on the water at any given time [3], employing around 659 people in Santa Barbara and Ventura [4]. In 2014, the commercial industry brought in over 82 thousand pounds of seafood valued at $44.5 million [5]. Squid, lobster, and sea urchin are some of the most active fisheries, but you will also find various kinds of rockfish, shrimp, bass, and cod as part of the local catch [6].

Recreational Fishing

Recreational fishing plays an equally important role in the lifeblood of Santa Barbara culture. It offers a way for people to connect with the outdoors, and group trips, offered by many operations, provide ocean access to those who may not have the resources to get out on the water themselves. With good fishing grounds right off the coast and a chance to see different types of wildlife, many people travel a long way to experience this adventure. On average, there are about 53 recreational fishing excursions happening on private and charter boats every day in the Channel [7]. The industry generates roughly $11 million in income and employs about 200 people [7]. To further encourage recreational fishing on a national level, the network of National Marine Sanctuaries hosts an annual fishing and photo contest. The Sanctuary Classic contest lasts all summer long and encourages families and children to get outside and learn about sustainable practices.


Fishing and general enjoyment of the ocean is incredibly important to the spirit of Santa Barbara. Therefore, the local community has taken difficult steps to protect the places, livelihoods, resources we all depend on.

In the late 1990’s, California began to see a decline in key marine species. Various salmon and steelhead runs were listed as threatened or endangered. There were reported failings in the commercial groundfish industry, and in 1997, the commercial abalone industry was closed on a statewide level [8]. These changes prompted California to enact legislation supporting ecosystem based management practices [9]. As a result, members from different sectors and backgrounds came together in 2003 to create a network of thirteen marine protected areas (MPAs) around the Channel Islands. An MPA is a zone in the ocean that has specific rules about fishing or collecting marine organisms, like urchins or mussels. This management effort is aimed to protect marine species, preserve cultural resources, and restore ecosystem health.

The process of protection was and continues to be a challenge. The number of stakeholders involved sometimes made it difficult to address everyone’s needs in a satisfying way. Some groups felt they were losing more than they hoped to gain from the process. At the outset, many fishermen were denied access to their routine fishing grounds, and over the years, local fleets shrunk [2]. In addition, tight financial resources continue to be a challenge for ongoing monitoring, adaptive management, and outreach.

Positive Results After 10 Years of Monitoring

However, tremendous efforts by all parties has led to positive ecological results. In 2013, after ten years of monitoring, scientists at UC Santa Barbara found that MPAs are positively impacting fish and marine organisms both inside and outside of protected zones.

The Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) began monitoring around the Channel Islands in 1999. When marine protected areas were first established, PISCO, along with other marine scientists at UCSB, focused its efforts on determining whether or not the MPAs had any effect on marine resources. In other words, they intended to find out if this management strategy accomplished what it set out to accomplish. Every year, PISCO divers conducted underwater surveys both inside and outside of MPAs, identifying, counting, and measuring fish, urchins, crabs, starfish, and kelp, among other species. By comparing the same sites every year, scientists at PISCO have been able to detect changes in those areas over time.

One Fish, Two Fish, More Fish, Blue Fish

PISCO published a report summarizing the results of their 10 year monitoring efforts. Similar to those published in the 5 Year Report, the outcomes are encouraging in regards to MPA effectiveness. These results show that the size and number of fish is increasing both inside and outside of MPAs. This means that MPAs are allowing species targeted by fishermen as well as non-targeted fish species to grow both inside and outside MPAs. Additionally, bigger fish sizes and numbers outside MPAs means that closing certain areas to fishing did not put too much pressure on the areas that were left open [10].

The overall evidence of more fish and other organisms indicates that MPAs are contributing to the productivity of the Channel Islands ecosystem. However, since there are other factors that can also contribute to these findings, like particularly good environmental conditions or changes in fishing, it is important to continue monitoring to gauge the long term effects of MPAs.

Santa Barbara Channel MPA Collaborative

In response to the Marine Life Protection Act of 1999, the California Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife) implemented a network of MPAs along the California coast with the aim to protect the state’s marine heritage. In order to provide structure for addressing local ocean management needs in response to the implementation of MPAs, the MPA Collaborative Network was established. The Santa Barbara Channel MPA Collaborative has a diverse membership representing tribal, fishing, academic, agency, and non-profit groups throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. The Collaborative works together to raise awareness of MPAs through education and outreach, communicate the science behind MPA research and monitoring, and promote effective enforcement and compliance of MPA regulations. The Collaborative has also undertaken activities to encourage the community to visit the region’s MPAs and enjoy the marine resources the network aims to protect.

Your Role in Protection and Stewardship

Santa Barbara and the surrounding cities receive about 25,000 tourists that contribute $4 million to the economy every day. A survey in 2013 found that outdoor recreation ranked highest among possible experiences available to visitors [11]. There’s no doubt that the ocean plays an important role in this attraction.

Our scenic places hold such rich history, significance, and value for people all over the world. It is a hopeful message that cooperative human efforts can and do shift the direction of ecosystem change towards better outcomes. Whether you get out on the water every week, once a year, or not at all, you have a very important role in taking care of Santa Barbara’s marine resources. Every person, living on the coast or inland, has the ability to affect the connected ecosystem we all live in.

Here are ways you can be an active part of the effort:

  1. Learn about your local MPAs: find out where they are, what the guidelines are, and how you can best enjoy them.
  1. Support Local Fishermen and Choose Responsible Fishing/Diving Operations
  1. Choose Sustainable Seafood – at home or abroad


  1. Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. Chumash Culture. 2009. http://www.santaynezchumash.org/culture.html
  2. Kronman, Mick. From Hooks to Harpoons: the Story of Santa Barbara Channel Fisheries. Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, 2013. 261 pp. http://www.nationalfisherman.com/blogs/mixed-catch/137-mixed-catch-book-reviews/3130-book-review-from-hooks-to-harpoons
  3. Santa Barbara Independent. Mick Kronman Traces Fishing History. 2014. http://www.independent.com/news/2014/apr/24/mick-kronman-traces-fishing-history-hooks-harpoons/
  4. Economic Impact of the Commercial Fisheries on Local County Economies from Catch in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/science/socioeconomic/channelislands/pdfs/exec_sum.pdf
  5. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Poundage And Value Of Landings Of Commercial Fish Into California By Area. 2014. https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=105688&inline
  6. Santa Barbara Community Seafood. http://www.communityseafood.com/our-catch/
  7. Leeworthy, V.R., Schwarzmann, D. 2015. Economic Impact of the Recreational Fisheries on Local County Economies in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary 2010, 2011 and 2012. Marine Sanctuaries Conservation Series ONMS 2015-03. http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/science/socioeconomic/channelislands/pdfs/cinms-rec-report.pdf
  8. Fox, E; Miller-Henson, M; Ugoretz, J; Weber, M; Gleason, M; Kirlin, J; Caldwell, M; Mastrup, S. Enabling conditions to support marine protected area network planning: California’s Marine Life Protection Act Initiative as a case study. 2012. Ocean & Coastal Management 74 (2013) 1423. http://www.centerforoceansolutions.org/sites/default/files/publications/Fox%20et%20al%202013.pdf
  9. Marine Life Protection Act. Cal Fish & G Code §2850-2863. http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=fgc&group=02001-03000&file=2850-2863
  10. Caselle J; Rassweiler, A; Hamilton, SL; Warner, RR. 2015. Recovery trajectories of kelp forest animals are rapid yet spatially variable across a network of temperate marine protected areas. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 14102 (2015). http://www.piscoweb.org/files/CI_10-Yr_Brochure_web.pdf
  11. Destination Analysts, Inc. Santa Barbara South Coast Visitor Industry Economic Impact Model. October 2013. http://santabarbaraca.com/content/uploads/2016/02/2014-Travel-Outlook-DA-Presentation-David-Bratton.pdf.

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Christine Quigley

Christine Quigley, the guest author of this blog, was hired by the Santa Barbara MPA Collaborative through generous funding from the Resources Legacy Fund. Christine is a graduate of the Bren School of Environmental Resources at UCSB.

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