Soquel Canyon State Marine Conservation Area

two humpback whales with their large mouths open lined with baleen feed on baitfish on the surface of the ocean

Overview

Soquel Canyon State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) lies nine miles south of Santa Cruz and ten miles west of Moss Landing in Monterey Bay. This marine protected area (MPA) covers almost 23 square miles and is located within the boundaries of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The large offshore SMCA protects depths from approximately 275 feet to more than 2,100 feet, making it one of the deepest MPAs in California. This depth is attributed to the Monterey Submarine Canyon, an underwater formation that rivals the Grand Canyon in size. The SMCA protects nearly three square miles of a small offshoot of the submarine canyon. 

The offshore location means it is only accessible by boat, but with deep, nutrient-rich canyon waters upwelled each spring, this SMCA offers many amazing opportunities for wildlife viewing. With unique geology and great depths, Soquel Canyon SMCA protects rockfish, rarely seen species of sharks, crabs, and colorful anemones, all contributing to this diverse and productive ecosystem. Each year, Monterey Bay hosts a wildlife viewing display that rivals some of the best in the world. Humpback, gray, and blue whales feast on plankton, krill, and schooling fish, and dolphins, seals, and sea lions join the feast by hunting schools of baitfish while seabirds dive into the water from great heights, adding to the chaotic scene. Other marine life thrives in the area, though not as easily visible. 

Within Soquel Canyon SMCA, the take of all living marine resources is prohibited with the exception of fishing for pelagic finfish (a list of the allowed species that are included can be found in the "Regulations" section below).

Regulations

It is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource, EXCEPT: 

Recreational and commercial take of 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) is allowed. No commercial take of marlin is allowed. Not more than five percent by weight of any commercial pelagic finfish catch landed or possessed shall be other incidentally taken species.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(73)

Quick Facts

MPA size: 22.97 square miles

Depth range: 274 to 2,113 feet

Habitat composition:

  • Sand/mud: 22.61 square miles
  • Rock: 0.37 square miles

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Soquel Canyon State Marine Conservation Area

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About Soquel Canyon State Marine Conservation Area

Natural History

in blue green water, a half dozen northern anchovies school, these fish have silver cigar shaped bodies with large eyes and green reflective scales along its back
Northern anchovies in Soquel Canyon SMCA. photo © A. Fiesta, CC BY-NC 2.0

Soquel Canyon is the northernmost branch of the Monterey Canyon, a massive underwater marine canyon that extends nearly 100 miles from shore and is almost one mile deep in some places, with the area covered by Soquel Canyon SMCA reaching depths greater than 2,100 feet. Soquel Canyon SMCA encompasses sandy seafloor and deep canyon ecosystems that are highly productive due to regular upwelling events and the California Current.

Strong upwelling caused by consistent northwest winds brings deep, cold, nutrient-rich water to the surface while the California Current brings similar waters down from the northern latitudes. The combination of nutrients supports huge numbers of small creatures called phytoplankton and zooplankton, which in turn support the many species of fish, deep ocean crustaceans, and marine mammals found in the SMCA. Swarms of baitfish, like sardines and anchovies, may appear in Monterey Bay to feast on the plankton, and with their presence Monterey Bay can explode into a feeding frenzy. Massive humpback and blue whales are easily spotted from shore or by boat, diving and resurfacing, making a meal of the tiny animals.

Smaller marine mammals like dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions maneuver amongst the giant whales and claim even more of the baitfish for their own. In the middle of the chaos, gulls, murres, pelicans, shearwaters, and auklets dive, swoop and swim in the water, grabbing fish near the surface. Thousands of feet below, the depths of the canyon are home to rarely seen deep sea animals such as bluntnose sixgill sharks, elusive rockfish, and predatory tunicates.

Cultural History

a humpback whale, defined by dark skin, and long grooves and nodules along its chin, with half its body out of the water, breaches throwing sea foam around itself
Humpback whale in Soquel Canyon SMCA. photo © J. Maughn, CC BY-NC 2.0

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. Before the Spanish arrived, much of the territory from San Francisco to Monterey belonged to the Ohlone people. The Ohlone traditionally subsisted on the abundant marine and terrestrial resources in Monterey, collecting abalone, urchins, limpets, and seaweeds in rocky intertidal areas and steelhead and salmon from the rivers and the coast.

During the 18th century, tribal communities were displaced by the Spanish, who established missions. In Monterey, the first presidio was built in 1770. Soquel Canyon and the greater Monterey Canyon were used during the rapid expansion of the whaling and fishing industries of Monterey Bay in the middle to late 19th century. Chinese immigrants launched the fishing industry and turned Monterey into a thriving fishing port, with commercial fisheries that harvested abalone, rockfish, flatfish, sardines, and squid. Between 1915 and 1950, estimates suggest that 235,000 tons of sardine were fished from the bay every year, until the fishery collapsed in the 1950s. Similar collapses of other fish stocks from overfishing resulted in more stringent regulations and the implementation of MPAs.

Today, Monterey Bay supports a thriving fishing industry and is a model of balanced management between conservation, recreation, and commercial uses. Soquel Canyon SMCA is one important part of a greater conservation network in Monterey Bay including many state MPAs as well as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The MPAs and Sanctuary not only provide protection for marine ecosystems, but also draw tourists, support fisheries, and help to conserve California’s marine resources for future generations.

Recreation

a pacific white-sided dolphin breaches out of the ocean, this dolphin has a dark back with large sections of off-white and grey along its sides
Pacific white-sided dolphin in Soquel Canyon SMCA. photo © R. G. Agarwal, CC BY-NC 2.0

Soquel Canyon SMCA is located offshore, within Monterey Bay, and is only accessible by boat. For those with access to a boat, Soquel Canyon SMCA provides excellent fishing for pelagic finfishes, such as swordfish, tuna, and bonito, but take of non-pelagic finfish is prohibited.

Monterey Bay and the canyon areas also offer some of the best whale watching in the world. Humpback, gray, and blue whales are commonly seen and orcas are occasionally observed. The harbors at Santa Cruz and Moss Landing are roughly equal distance from Soquel Canyon SMCA and have public boat launch ramps.

 

Coordinates

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

36° 51.000′ N. lat. 121° 56.000′ W. long.;
36° 51.000′ N. lat. 122° 03.652′ W. long.;
36° 48.000′ N. lat. 122° 02.767′ W. long.;
36° 48.000′ N. lat. 121° 56.000′ W. long.; and
36° 51.000′ N. lat. 121° 56.000′ W. long.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(73)

Map

Map of Soquel Canyon State Marine Conservation Area - link opens in new window

Facts, Map & Regulations

MPA fact sheet