Farnsworth Onshore State Marine Conservation Area/Offshore State Marine Conservation Area

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Overview

Farnsworth Onshore State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) and Farnsworth Offshore SMCA are located on the windward side of Santa Catalina Island, a little more than 20 miles south-southwest of the Southern California mainland.

Farnsworth Onshore SMCA’s nearly 2¼ miles of rugged coastline is exposed to open ocean swells that hit the ‘backside’ of the island. This marine protected area (MPA) covers nearly three square miles, extending from the rocky shoreline to depths of around 300 feet, where it abuts Farnsworth Offshore SMCA. California halibut can be found hiding in the sand and surfgrass here, while kelp bass cruise through thick forests of giant kelp. Rocky reefs, boulders and archways provide ample opportunities to spearfish for white seabass and pelagic finfish, which is permitted in the SMCA. The hidden coves and rocky intertidal areas provide critical habitat for both black abalone and white abalone.

The mostly sandy seafloor of Farnsworth Offshore SMCA is punctuated by a series of pinnacles and underwater mountains known as Farnsworth Bank. This SMCA covers nearly seven square miles at depths that vary from 135 feet to nearly 2,000 feet. The walls, valleys, and crevices of Farnsworth Bank offer divers an underwater paradise. A dive at Farnsworth Bank provides the opportunity to enjoy warm waters, amazing visibility, and the rare purple hydrocoral scattered across the bank. Rainbow scorpionfish cruise through the canyons while strawberry anemones carpet the walls, and mackerel, sardines, and yellowtail hover high above the seafloor.

Regulations

Farnsworth Onshore SMCA

It is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource, EXCEPT:
Recreational take of market squid by hand-held dip net; white seabass and pelagic finfish (northern anchovy, barracudas, billfishes, dorado (dolphinfish), Pacific herring, jack mackerel, Pacific mackerel, salmon, Pacific sardine, blue shark, salmon shark, shortfin mako shark, thresher shark, swordfish, tunas, Pacific bonito, and yellowtail) by spearfishing; and marlin, tuna and dorado by trolling is allowed.

Commercial take of coastal pelagic species (northern anchovy, Pacific sardine, Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, and market squid) by round-haul net, brail gear, and light boat; and swordfish by harpoon is allowed (no commercial take of marlin is allowed). Not more than five percent by weight of any commercial coastal pelagic species catch landed or possessed shall be other incidentally taken species.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(129)(opens in new tab)

Farnsworth Offshore SMCA

It is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource, EXCEPT:
Recreational take of market squid by hand-held dip net; white seabass by spearfishing; pelagic finfish (northern anchovy, barracudas, billfishes, dorado (dolphinfish), Pacific herring, jack mackerel, Pacific mackerel, salmon, Pacific sardine, blue shark, salmon shark, shortfin mako shark, thresher shark, swordfish, tunas, Pacific bonito, and yellowtail) by hook-and-line or spearfishing, and marlin, tuna and dorado by trolling is allowed.

Commercial take of coastal pelagic species (northern anchovy, Pacific sardine, Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, and market squid) by round-haul net, brail gear, and light boat; and swordfish by harpoon is allowed (no commercial take of marlin is allowed). Not more than five percent by weight of any commercial coastal pelagic species catch landed or possessed shall be other incidentally taken species.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(130)California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(130)California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(130)(opens in new tab)

Quick Facts

Farnsworth Onshore SMCA

MPA size: 2.59 square miles

Shoreline span: 2.2 miles

Depth range: 0 to 291 feet

Habitat composition:

  • Rock: 0.19 square miles
  • Sand/mud: 2.48 square miles

Farnsworth Offshore SMCA

MPA size: 6.67 square miles

Depth range: 135 to 1,909 feet

Habitat composition:

  • Sand/mud: 6.11 square miles
  • Rock: 0.56 square miles

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Farnsworth Offshore State Marine Conservation Area

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About Farnsworth Onshore State Marine Conservation Area/Offshore State Marine Conservation Area

Natural History

kelp forest and purple hydrocoral
Purple hydrocoral, kelp, and fish at Farnsworth Offshore SMCA. photo © C. Shaw

The two Farnsworth MPAs are exposed to open ocean swells, and experience large surf from the south in summer and fall, and strong west winds in winter. Sandy beaches, exposed at lower tides, are interspersed with rocky coves and points. Beyond shore, thick forests of giant kelp, the dominant kelp species here, branch upward from the rocky seafloor.

Farnsworth Onshore SMCA provides critical habitat for the endangered black abalone, which dwells in the intertidal zone, and the endangered white abalone, which inhabits the deeper, subtidal zone. Dense surfgrass beds create prime habitat for giant sea bass, eels, and copper rockfish. As the ocean floor deepens, large boulders form reefs where rock scallops filter the currents for food and spiny lobsters hide within the crevices. Beyond the reefs, kelp bass swim amongst the thick kelp forests. Interspersed amongst patches of kelp are swaths of sand plains where sanddabs, California halibut, and angel sharks lurk on the sandy seafloor.

Surrounded by sand, Farnsworth Bank is an extraordinary, dramatic geologic network of sheer, vertical pinnacles. The main pinnacle, about 65 feet below the surface, is shaped like a mountain plateau. Rare purple hydrocoral is found scattered across the bank, covering most of the hard surfaces. This hydrocoral prefers high current, low turbidity waters and is only found at a few California locations, making the colonies at Farnsworth Bank especially notable.

In addition to the purple hydrocoral, branches of pink hydrocoral grow from cracks in the valley walls that are interspersed with vibrant orange sponges and pink gorgonians. Stunning anemones, such as the strawberry anemone, form colorful tapestries on the vertical surfaces. California spiny lobsters, bat stars, purple sea urchins, and various crab species can also be found amongst the crevices, while moray eels peek from holes in the pinnacle walls.

This area has been protected since 1973, when the California Fish and Game Commission designated Farnsworth Bank an ecological reserve. Farnsworth Bank is a treasure trove for nudibranch lovers, as vibrant Spanish shawls and Hilton's nudibranchs abound. Those with a keen eye may also come across a rare, bright orange Engel's berthella nudibranch. Schools of squarespot rockfish, mackerel, and dwarf-red rockfish gather around the pinnacles, while the more solitary but equally abundant blackeye gobies rest on the rocky bank and sandy seafloor. Sea lions play within the canyons, while yellowtail and giant sea bass cruise overhead. Divers should also keep an eye out for Pacific electric rays, which are common in this area.

Cultural History

rockfish and gorgonians
Halfbanded rockfish and red gorgonians at Farnsworth Offshore SMCA. CDFW/MARE photo

For centuries, Native American Tribes in California have relied on marine and coastal resources. Many Native American Tribes in California continue to regularly harvest marine resources within their ancestral territories and maintain relationships with the coast for ongoing customary uses. Originally inhabited by Native Americans known as the Tongva, Catalina Island, also known as Pimugna or Pimu to these first peoples, provided abundant resources for permanent villages for thousands of years. Ancient tools hand-fashioned from stone, shell, and bone, and piles of abalone shells have been uncovered at ancient village sites.

Captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator in service to Spain, is likely the first European explorer to visit the island in 1542, anchoring two tiny caravel ships off the Bay of Avalon. In November 1602, Philip III of Spain sent an expedition under command of Sebastian Vizcaino to map the California coastline. He anchored in what is now the crescent shaped harbor of Avalon on Saint Catherine’s Day and renamed the small sunny island “Santa Catarina” or “Cathalina”.

Smuggling has a long history at Santa Catalina Island due to its proximity to the mainland and many hidden coves. Legend has it that when Chinese immigration was banned in the mid-nineteenth century, the island was used as a stop for smugglers bringing Chinese immigrants to the country illegally. China Point, on the land-side border of Farnsworth Onshore SMCA, is a hidden point whose name stems from this smuggling lore.

In 1885, the island was sold for $200,000 to George R. Shatto, who sold land parcels to buyers from all over the country. In 1919, the island again changed hands and was sold for $3 million to the multi-millionaire chewing gum mogul and owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, William Wrigley Jr., who set out to make it a tourist destination.

The early 1900s was a golden age for Santa Catalina Island. Movie stars and famous figures flocked to the island to relax and hide away from fans. Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Winston Churchill, and Errol Flynn frequented the island to fish for marlin and other game fish. In the 1970s, Wrigley deeded 88 percent of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, and today much of it remains undeveloped and wild. Santa Catalina Island’s rich history can be seen in the many historic landmarks that dot the landscape.

Recreation

Pacific blood star on purple hydrocoral
Pacific blood star on purple hydrocoral at Farnsworth Offshore SMCA. photo © C. Shaw

The unique geological features and clear water of Farnsworth Bank make it one of the more famous dive spots in Southern California. However, strong currents, deep water, and open ocean conditions make this a challenging dive site, so it is recommended that divers use local dive companies, and exercise caution. Several ocean recreation businesses cater to divers and other tourists out of Avalon on the southeastern end of Santa Catalina Island.

Farnsworth Offshore SMCA and Farnsworth Onshore SMCA are remote, located on the rough and rugged ‘backside’ of Santa Catalina Island. They are not accessible by road. The closest camping location to the Farnsworth SMCAs is the campground at Little Harbor, just north of Ben Weston point, a sandy, beachfront campground with beautiful views of western Santa Catalina Island. There are various hiking trails that can be accessed from the road out of Avalon and the trail along Bull Rush Ridge provides views of the Farnsworth SMCAs.

In Farnsworth Onshore SMCA, recreational take of white seabass and pelagic finfish by spearfishing is allowed, along with recreational take of marlin, tunas, and dorado by trolling. Take of market squid by hand-held dip net is also allowed.

In Farnsworth Offshore SMCA, recreational take of pelagic finfish by hook-and-line or by spearfishing; white seabass by spearfishing, and recreational take of marlin, tunas, and dorado by trolling is allowed. Take of market squid by hand-held dip net is also allowed.

Coordinates

Farnsworth Onshore SMCA

This area is bounded by the mean high tide line and straight lines connecting the following points in the order listed:

33o 21.000′ N. lat. 118o 29.080′ W. long.;
33o 21.000′ N. lat. 118o 30.000′ W. long.;
33o 19.000′ N. lat. 118o 29.000′ W. long.;
33o 19.000′ N. lat. 118o 27.900′ W. long.; and
33o 19.560′ N. lat. 118o 27.900′ W. long.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(129)

Farnsworth Offshore SMCA

This area is bounded by straight lines connecting the following points in the order listed except where noted:

33o 21.000′ N. lat. 118o 30.000′ W. long.;
33o 21.000′ N. lat. 118o 32.878′ W. long.; thence southward along the three nautical mile offshore boundary to
33o 19.000′ N. lat. 118o 31.978′ W. long.;
33o 19.000′ N. lat. 118o 29.000′ W. long.; and
33o 21.000′ N. lat. 118o 30.000′ W. long.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(130)

Farnsworth Onshore State Marine Conservation Area

Map

Map of SMCA - link opens in new window

Facts, Map & Regulations

MPA fact sheet

Farnsworth Offshore State Marine Conservation Area

Map

Map of Farnsworth Offshore State Marine Conservation Area - link opens in new window

Facts, Map & Regulations

MPA fact sheet