Marine Reserves: Ocean Wilderness In Our Own Backyard - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Marine Reserves: Ocean Wilderness In Our Own Backyard

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On any given day, the waters off the coast of La Jolla are a busy place. Surfers, swimmers and kayakers are venturing out into the marine reserve to get up close and personal with nature.

Just off the coast of La Jolla, there's a place where scuba divers gather, kayakers explore and nearly any ocean animal can find some refuge.

The San Diego Underwater Ecological Reserve is just one of a rapidly growing number of marine parks being created in Southern California. It's 533 acres of marine wilderness right in our own backyard.

Doctor Paul Dayton from Scripps Institution of Oceanography studies the plants and animals that call the reserve home, and he's looking for better ways to protect the habitat.

"Over the years the fish and the ecosystem that I study have been changed so much that it's so far from natural that we don't have any idea what's going on," Dr. Dayton said.

One of the biggest challenges facing conservationists is finding a balance with San Diego's fishing industry.

"There's never ever going to be a completely natural habitat, but we can make it a lot more natural than it is right now. That would be my dream, to have a healthy ecosystem with parks for people to enjoy," Dr. Dayton said.

When marine reserves do their job, species that seek refuge there are usually able to flourish.

"It protects the water above the ground and in the ground and it's along the shore. It's a small but very nice reserve," Dr. Dayton said.

When the state passed the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999, the La Jolla Ecological Reserve became part of a controversial plan to create a network of coastal reserves that span California.

The fish aren't the only ones enjoying the protected area. On a typical day paddling through the open water, you can catch a glimpse of the birds, dolphins, fish and of course the seals and sea lions that call the coast home.

It's a unique opportunity to kayak in a marine reserve area that's virtually unspoiled. This area is roughly 500 acres, and it's not only great for scuba diving and kayaking, but for sea lions and seals. Maybe if you're lucky, you'll see a gray whale passing by.

Sea lions aren't the only animals that are protected in this area. The fish are too, and that means sea lions and seals always have a stable source of food.

The whole food chain thrives within the protected boundaries of the park. An underwater canyon that reaches depths of up to 600 feet provides nutrient-rich water that feeds the kelp and algae, which feed the fish, which are snapped up by larger animals.

Even though fishing isn't allowed, fishermen benefit from the reserve by taking advantage of the growing populations of fish that spill over into surrounding waters.

Doctor Dayton would like to see more of California's coastal waters turned into protected reserves, but it's a controversial issue for the state, which is trying to balance environmental protection with the interests of the fishing industry.

"But it's a societal decision, the public has to make a decision of what they want for their future," Dr. Dayton said.

One of the best ways to get up close and personal with this ecosystem is to head out onto the water. A day of kayaking brings you face to face with sea birds, sea lions, dolphins and everything the marine reserve has to offer.

La Jolla is full of resources for anyone who wants to explore the marine reserve and learn more about our local waters. You can pay a visit to a dive or kayak shop, or take a trip to the Birch Aquarium and Scripps.

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