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Morro Bay Ecosystem-Based Management Program


Project Summary:

  Morro Bay, CA - Copyright Lindi Merrick
  Images copyright Lindi Merrick.

The recently established Morro Bay Ecosystem-Based Management Program is a concerted effort to build a robust and integrated program of scientific, stakeholder (people that live and work in the Bay), and management communities across the natural boundaries of the ecosystem. Our major goal in establishing the program is to develop high-quality, broadly-shared knowledge of the ecosystem to facilitate conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of the services provided by the Morro Bay Ecosystem. Current efforts to conduct science and manage the resources in the Morro Bay area remain fragmented within narrowly defined elements of the ecosystem (e.g. land/estuary vs. coastal habitats, conservation vs. economic concerns) and driven by isolated institutions (e.g. local governments, State Parks, Coastal Commission, Fish and Game, Regional Water Quality Control Board). A few of the over arching questions we are addressing include:

  • what are the true boundaries of the ecosystem (i.e., from land to sea)
  • which aspects of the ecosystem are the critical linking factors (i.e., nutrients, sediment, species, etc).

Orange Cup Coral
Orange Cup Coral (Balanophyllia elegans). Credit: Lisa Needles

From an institutional perspective, we are also seeking to build and maintain the relevant inter-organization networks to manage an ecosystem. That is, just as a nexus of ecological linkages exist, so too does a series of institutional linkages. With that in mind the broad objectives the Morro Bay Ecosystem Based Management Program are:

  • To develop and monitor relevant physical/chemical, biological, and socioeconomic indicators across the ecosystem and to determine how the various components are interconnected and how they affect one another;
  • To establish a clear understanding of the institutional linkages within the ecosystem and to build and reorganize the "institutional ecosystem" where needed;
  • To provide managers and stakeholders with improved ecological and sociological data for shared deliberation and decision making on an ecosystem-wide basis for maximum impact and cost effectiveness;
  • To develop a model for EBM that can be utilized in other areas of California, the nation, and the world.

To meet these objectives we have developed a conceptual framework to understand the potential linkages within the ecosystem and to provide a context in which to view the interrelatedness of the individual projects. The figure below provides a systems approach to describe how the various "compartments" of the "Morro Bay Ecosystem" (i.e., coastal ocean, bay/estuary, and watershed) are related and how changes in nutrient level, for example, might cascade through the various trophic levels and ultimately translate to an ecosystem product for users such as fisherman.

Morro Bay Ecosystem
Conceptual systems diagram of the "Morro Bay Ecosystem". "s" denotes changes in the same direction. "o" denotes changes in the opposite direction. As an example using water quality, the dark blue arrows denote water quality changes as a result of ocean water, and the light blue arrows denote water from the watershed. By following arrows, one can trace how an event such as an upwelling in the coastal ocean might affect eel grass production (primary production) in the bay/estuary.

Our program will develop appropriate indicators at each of the identified nodes (delta symbols) and simultaneously track changes across the ecosystem that are occurring at these nodes. This approach will allow us to answer fundamental questions about the Morro Bay Ecosystem that have been identified by the relevant resource agencies and stakeholders. For example,

  • What influence does the quality of water coming from the watershed have on the quality of water on the open coast and how might this influence the health of coastal populations of marine organisms?
  • How important is the health of the bay and estuary to the health of the open coast?
  • How significant is the estuary’s role as a critical site for spawning and nursery grounds for coastal populations of fish and invertebrates?

Tern - copyright Lindi Merrick
Image copyright Lindi Merrick

People Involved:

Research Funded by:

This work is funded through the Marine Conservation and Science Program of the Packard Foundation, the California Coastal and Marine Initiative of the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, the State Coastal Conservancy, and the Ocean Protection Council which was established by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2004.