Humboldt teems with recreation-friendly MPAs

By Delia Bense-Kang
Special to the Eureka Humboldt Visitors Bureau   Overwhelmed by the plethora of California coastal destinations to explore? Narrow down your options by visiting the state’s 124 marine protected areas! In 2012, California completed the United State’s first network of marine protected areas (MPAs), becoming an international leader in ocean conservation.  These MPAs conserve and restore wildlife and habitats in our ocean, just as national and state parks do on land. And just as you visit parks on land, MPAs are open to public enjoyment.
Here in Humboldt we have ten MPAs, providing a range of coastal habitats from kelp forests to coastal wetlands, and rocky reefs to sandy ocean floors. It is not only allowed, but encouraged to get out and enjoy these areas. Whether it be swimming, diving, surfing, kayaking, bird watching, or simply relaxing in nature, there is the MPA for you. Just make sure you take proper precautions and know the rules before you go! Here’s a quick guide to five of our Humboldt County MPAs.   1. Reading Rock State Marine Conservation Area and State Marine Reserve
Why go? This hidden gem of a beach will have you marveling at mountains of driftwood, gurgling Redwood Creek, rocky reef tidepools, and a backdrop of redwood trees. You might be all alone except for some local seals sunning themselves on the sand spit.  On a clear day, if you look offshore to the North you might be able to see Reading Rock itself in all its glory which actually lies just outside of the MPA as it is a favored fishing ground and historically important to the Yurok Tribe. Access: Take U.S. Hwy. 101 to the town of Orick, then head west on Hufford Road, adjacent to Red-wood Creek. Follow the twists and turns for about 2 miles, past the horses, cows, and one lane bridge, until you reach the gravel parking lot at the end. About the MPA: Reading rock State Marine Conservation Area and State Marine Reserve protect both rock reefs and sandy bottom habitats. These habitats are essential for species including halibut, harbor seals, sea lions, murres, guillemots, cormorants, auklets,kelp, ling cod, cabezon and kelp greenling. A rare Sixgill Shark was even spotted here during an underwater research survey by the Marine Applied Research and Exploration Group in 2016!   Know before you go: Check the tide, you want to be sure you’re strolling the beach at a low tide for your safety and enjoyment. Never turn your back on the ocean! Bring snacks and plenty of water.  Permitted/Prohibited Uses for SMR: This MPA designation prohibits damage or take of all marine resources (living, geologic, or cultural) including recreational and commercial take.  Permitted/Prohibited Uses for SMCA: This MPA designation may allow some recreational and/or commercial take of marine resources (restrictions vary)    2. Samoa SMCA Why go? If miles of pristine sandy beaches and rolling dunes is your cup of tea, this MPA is for you.  For water-going enthusiasts, the Mad River County Park access point provides the opportunity to take your favorite floatation vessel (kayak, SUP, boat) for a paddle on the Mad River.  Or maybe you're the more studious type and want to know more about the area. Visit the Humboldt Coastal Nature Center in Manila, just south of the Ma-le’l Dunes entrance. Local non-profit, Friends of the Dunes offers guided walks in this area on a regular basis. Pack a picnic with your kids or significant other and spend the day on the sand.  Access: Ma-le’l Dunes (South End): Take highway 255 to Manila. Turn on Young Lane heading west. Don't fret at the fork, you can go right or left! If you go left you will follow the gravel road around the bend and end up at the Ma-le’l South parking lot. If you go right, you will follow the gravel road straight, pass the gun club, and end up at the Ma-le’l north parking lot. Interpretive signs from Friends of the Dunes are present in each location and will guide you on your journey through the dune forest and out to the open beach. Mad River County Park (North End): From Highway 101 take the Guintoli Lane exit heading West. Follow the signs winding through the Arcata bottoms to the Mad River County Park. The boat ramp will be on the right just before the sandy parking lot at the end of the road. About the MPA: The Samoa SMCA is 13 square miles of sandy beach habitat. This habitat is key for large inter-tidal invertebrates, including sand crabs tailored amphipods (sandhoppers) and birds that forage along beaches such as seabirds, shorebirds, and terrestrial birds. A baseline study of surf smelt and surf perch is currently being done as they are important to recreational and commercial beach fisheries and tribal activities.  Know before you go: Check the tides and buoys, waves can be BIG here especially in the winter. Never turn your back on the ocean, dress in layers, and bring plenty of snacks and water. Permitted/Prohibited Uses for SMCA: This MPA designation may allow some recreational and/or commercial take of marine resources (restrictions vary)    3. South Humboldt Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area
Why go? The birds-eye view of Humboldt Bay from Table Bluff may be the best part of visiting this MPA.    On a clear day you can see Arcata and maybe even Trinidad in the background. You will get the best of both worlds as the calm estuarine environment is on one side of the South spit and the ocean is on the other.  Nearby Hookton Slough offers boat launch access for kayaking and paddle   boarding. Gaze at the meadows of mud-covered eelgrass and maybe catch a glimpse of a fish or crab that calls this area home.  About the MPA: Characterized by intertidal mudflats and eelgrass (Zostera marina) beds, the South Humboldt Bay SMRMA is perhaps one of the most unique of Humboldt’s MPAs. Humboldt Bay is California’s second largest estuary and holds about 40 percent of the state’s eelgrass. Eelgrass is beneficial to humans and wildlife - it not only cushions shorelines from wave energy, breaks down pollutants, and is highly effective in carbon sequestration, but provides critical habitat for sea-birds, waterfowl, fish, and and many marine mammals. The SMRMA is an important nursery for marine and estuary fishes, including halibut, salmon, stag horn sculpin, surf perch, leopard sharks and rays, as they use this habitat for foraging, breeding, or transit between freshwater spawning grounds and the sea. Millions of migratory birds rely on this area along the Pacific Flyway and more than 200 bird species, including 80 kinds of water birds and four endangered species, regularly feed, rest, or nest on the refuge or other areas around the bay. Access: Take highway 101 about 20 minutes south from Eureka,  to the Hookton Rd exit. This country road will switch back and forth through the trees until letting you out at the top of Table Bluff where you will have the best view of the MPA and the greater Humboldt Bay. Here Hookton Rd. turns into Table Bluff rd. At the edge of the cliff Table Bluff Rd then turns into the South Jetty Rd. Follow this down the hill to the South Spit.  Know before you go: Check the tides! Low tide is the best time to view the eel grass. If you are kayaking or SUPing make sure you go at a higher tide or you will be stuck up to your waist in mud! Dress in layers, bring plenty of snacks and water. Permitted/Prohibited Uses: This MPA designation limits recreational and commercial take of marine resources while allowing for legal waterfowl hunting to occur; provides subtidal protection equivalent to an MPA (restrictions vary)   4. South Cape Mendocino State Marine Reserve
Why go? Gaze out at the western most point of the lower 48 states! In addition to being the westernmost point, Cape Mendocino also marks the northern gateway to the Lost Coast, the largest undeveloped and rugged stretch of coast in California. You can certainly loose yourself in awe of the sheer cliffs meeting black sand beaches and tide pools galore. This area is also known for being rather windy and you might be treated to a show by some local windsurfers and kiteboarders.  About the MPA: The South Cape Mendocino SMR  protects rocky reefs, outcroppings, and the wide variety of wildlife that depends on it. This area is essential habitat, breeding ground, and resting place for birds such as the Western gull, double-crested cormorant, Brandt's cormorant, pelagic cormorant, black oystercatcher, pigeon guillemot and tufted puffin, and marine mammals such as the Steller sea lion and California sea lions.  Access: From Ferndale take the “Wildcat” road about 20 miles south towards Petrolia. This road is no highway, it’s miles of steep hairpin turns, several shear drops, and some of the most beautiful views of the North Coast. The South Cape Mendocino SMR lies between two unmistakable rocks, Sugarloaf Rock to the North and Steamboat Rock to the South. These two rocks also happen to be “special closures,” areas designated by the Fish and Game Commission that prohibits access or restricts boating activities in waters adjacent to sea bird rookeries or marine mammal haul-out sites. Know before you go: Permitted/Prohibited Uses for the SMR: This MPA designation prohibits damage or take of all marine resources (living, geologic, or cultural) including recreational and commercial take.   5. Sea Lion Gulch SMR
Why go? A trip to Sea Lion Gulch is the perfect introduction to the Lost Coast. Pack a lunch and depart on a day hike along this wild and pristine terrain. As a bonus, you will be able to visit the Punta Gorda lighthouse. You might event be lucky enough to witness the creation of a new elephant seal colony! These impressive 1,500 to 4,500 lb creatures just took up residence on the Lost Coast this past winter. You are also guaranteed to see harbor seals, Stellar sea lions, a variety of sea birds, many intertidal species, and maybe even a Gray Whale or two! Access: From the Mattole river mouth walk several miles south along the Lost Coast trail.   About the MPA: Located in the remote Lost Coast, the reserve protects about 10 square miles of sandy beach and rocky shores. Its range of biodiversity habitats protect seabird colonies, rockfish, Stellar sea lions, ling cod, and abalone, to name a few. Being remote and limited to human usage makes this reserve ideal for research opportunities. One such research project is using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to capture video and still images of never-before-seen sea floor communities from 200 to 500 meters depth.  Know before you go: Although this hike is doable in one day, make sure to bring plenty of food, water, and an emergency preparedness kit. Check the tides and buoys as waves can be BIG especially during the winter.  Permitted/Prohibited Uses: This MPA designation prohibits damage or take of all marine re-sources (living, geologic, or cultural) including recreational and commercial take  Delia Bense-Kang is Marine Protected Areas outreach coordinator and Surfrider Humboldt chair.
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