Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is set to reopen to visitors May 3 after being closed for more than a year. With crowds expected to grow this summer, park rangers want residents and visitors alike to remember to follow posted rules when visiting.
The May 3 reopening allows the San Mateo County Parks Department time to hire and train enough seasonal staff to meet expected summer crowds, San Mateo County Parks spokeswoman Carla Schoof said. After an overwhelming number of people came to the Coastside and to Pillar Point beaches to collect sea life — even during shelter-in-place orders — Ranger Rob Cala said education will be the main priority.
“This time of year is very fragile,” Cala said. “Even with the closure and the fencing up, we had a fair amount of people constantly trying to get in.”
Schoof said that visitors to the reserve will be required to wear masks and adhere to social distancing requirements in addition to normal reserve rules. That includes no beach toys, food, drinks or dogs on the beach and tide pool areas.
Even after other county parks were able to reopen under state and local COVID-19 guidelines, Schoof said, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve remained closed due to staffing and safety concerns about keeping people distanced on the small stretch of beach. Initially, the park closed in mid-March of 2020 alongside most other county parks as the county instituted a hiring freeze. Group visits and scheduled tours were canceled, and the reserve remained closed through the year.
That didn’t always stop visitors from coming, buckets in hand, despite clear prohibitions against harvesting marine life, Cala said. Parks staff and volunteers will be stationed at various entrances and roving around the park to answer questions and enforce rules if necessary.
County Parks relies on volunteers from Friends of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve to help staff the area. Some weren’t willing to work in person during the pandemic’s height. Schoof said the department will have to get a waiver from the county to hire any new seasonal workers this year.
“The marine reserve is a protected area,” Schoof said. “It does require additional staff to be at the reserve helping people understand how their impact by visitation can impact the marine life.”
Although just a year of closure wasn’t long enough to see huge changes in marine life, Cala said without people on the tide pool rocks, algae has had a chance to thrive, expanding the mussel beds. He estimates that the seal population has remained about the same.
Cala knows regulating visitors this summer will not be easy. He doesn’t know whether it’s the easy parking, social media frenzy or pure boredom driving record-high crowds to the area. He just hopes that people will do their research before visiting.
“When in doubt, ask a ranger,” Cala said.