Aerial Monitoring Project

TBF’s Heather Burdick spotting vessels off the southern California coast.

Collecting Boating Data

The Southern California Bight is divided into two transects- a north transect (LAX to Point Conception) and a south transect (LAX to the US – Mexico border). Small aircraft pilots, who donate their time and their planes to the project through the LightHawk organization, fly our staff over the ocean to track vessel activity. The survey team consists of a spotter, a GPS technician, and the pilot. The small aircraft, which are capable of high maneuverability and low speeds, can fly directly over a vessel in the ocean to accurately mark its location. The spotter uses binoculars to locate an ocean vessel, directs the pilot to fly over the vessel, and relays the type of boat and activity the boat is engaged in. The GPS technician enters a GPS waypoint into the computer once the plane is directly overhead the vessel and records the vessel type and activity in the database.

Progress to Date:

41 flights and 5,304 boats logged pre- MPA implementation (2008- 2011)

82 flights and 15,399 boats logged post-MPA implementation (2012- 2019)

1 peer reviewed scientific publication on survey findings (Zellmer et al. 2018)


GIS Map showing number of boats with corresponding coordinates observed on northern and southern transects during aerial monitoring in October 2017.

A Bird’s Eye View of Boating

Aerial Monitoring of Ocean Vessels

The Bay Foundation and its partner LightHawk conduct aerial surveys of boating activities in state waters off of the mainland coast of Southern California, from Point Conception to the US-Mexico border. The aerial monitoring project was started to generate a spatially-explicit, objective, and fishery-independent data set showing the extent of boating activities off the coast of Southern California.

Aerial view of the Palos Verdes Peninsula during aerial monitoring.

These surveys were initiated in 2008, and contributed to the South Coast Marine Life Protection Act Initiative by providing stakeholders and decision makers with information on the type and extent of boating activities to help determine the locations for a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).


A commercial passenger fishing vessel (CPFV) off the coast.

The aerial surveys have continued since the implementation of the South Coast MPA network in 2012. Now that a network of MPAs has been established in the South Coast, these data allow in-depth descriptions and analyses of trends in fishing activities and compliance with the new regulations associated with this network. This information will be very useful in the adaptive management and enforcement of this network.


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Learn More on our Reports and Technical Documents Page