Lines in the Water

With Redfish Rocks in the distance, Port Orford fishermen prepare for a day at sea. (Photo: Heath Korvola)

By Lee Anna Sherman

Performing surgery on a fish is tricky enough. But when the surgeon wields his scalpel while kneeling in a boat that’s bucking like a mechanical bull, the task requires a whole new level of finesse.

One high-overcast afternoon off the shores of Port Orford, that’s exactly what Oregon State University researchers Scott Heppell and Tom Calvanese are about to do. They have motored out to a rocky reef in pursuit of five species of rockfish — blacks, canaries, Chinas, coppers, quillbacks — and a species of sculpin called a cabezon, for implantation with acoustic monitoring tags. Idling their outboard motor inside a cluster of craggy outcroppings known as Redfish Rocks, the men brace themselves in the bow of a heaving Boston Whaler named OSU Fisheries & Wildlife. Each man drops a hook and line into the ocean.

The rockfish are biting like crazy. Over and over, the researchers reel them in, only to find that they’re members of non-targeted species. “Another blue,” Heppell grouses after releasing the fourth grayish-blue specimen. Then his pole arcs hard as another fish takes his bait. He draws it to the side of the boat. “It’s a black!” he announces.

He gently unhooks the steel-gray fish whose spiny head looks like a Japanese fan unfurled. “All species of rockfish are beautiful,” he observes. “Their genus name, Sebastes, is Greek for ‘magnificent’.”

After a couple of false starts when the slippery animal writhes out of his hands and flops onto the floor of the boat, he and Calvanese invert the fish onto the “surgery cradle,” a v-shaped acetate device custom-made for this procedure. The fish lies still as Calvanese bathes its gills with fresh seawater to keep them wet and oxygenated. Working fast, Heppell makes a half-inch incision in the body wall, avoiding the liver. He sterilizes a black plastic cylinder about the size of a ballpoint-pen cap and tucks it into the tiny opening. Every few minutes, the battery-powered electronic device sends out an acoustic signal uniquely coded for that individual fish. A series of underwater microphones, which Calvanese previously deployed around the reef’s perimeter, will pick up the ultrasonic pinging from the fish’s transmitter and store the data, allowing the researchers to track its movements over the coming year.

Still unfazed by the boat’s rocking motion, Heppell takes a couple of deft stitches with a nylon thread to close the wound, applies an antibiotic, and sets the fish carefully inside a pyramid-shaped wire cage attached to a 50-foot yellow rope. He and Calvanese lower the cage, which is equipped with a miniature camera, into the depths of the reef.  They watch the fish’s behavior on a small monitor mounted on the dashboard, holding their breath. Despite the trauma of surgery, 98 percent of tagged fish survive, studies have shown.

Redfish Rocks, a temperate reef just offshore at Port Orford, is under study as one of Oregon’s two pilot marine reserves (Photo: Heath Korvola)

“OK, he’s swimming,” Heppell says a few moments later.

The researchers pull a release lever, and the cage pops open. The black rockfish — one of seven fish tagged that day — returns to the reef, where it could live for 50 years or more.

The study — which Calvanese is conducting in collaboration with local fishermen for his master’s degree in Marine Resource Management — is part of a massive multi-institution research undertaking at Redfish Rocks, one of two pilot sites that were set aside as no-fishing zones called “marine reserves” in 2008 by the Legislature on the recommendation of Oregon’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC). Scientists like Calvanese and Heppell, an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, are studying the cold-water reef ecosystem for data that will form a baseline “snapshot” against which future findings can be compared.

OPAC’s overarching research question is, Can marine reserves help protect biodiversity, marine habitats and areas important to marine fisheries in Oregon’s coastal waters? If so, how big should the no-fishing zones be for optimal effectiveness? Tracking rockfish is one way to find out.

“With acoustic tracking, we can see the fish’s home-range patterns,” says Heppell. “How far does a fish move in a day? How far does it move over the course of a season? How often does it swim outside the protection of the reserve? From a management perspective, this study will let us know how often and how long the fish are vulnerable to harvest.”

These are questions that have engaged oceanographers, marine biologists and Sea Grant Extension agents at OSU for at least a decade. Despite strong scientific evidence that marine reserves, when well designed and carefully monitored, provide safe haven for fish, thus allowing dwindling populations to rebound, many Oregon fishermen perceive them as threats to their livelihood. If fishermen don’t buy in, reserves won’t work, research shows.

“The first element of marine reserve success is that people don’t fish there,” says OSU’s Selina Heppell, an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife who sits on OPAC’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee (and is married to Scott Heppell). “Biological response, economic benefits — those all come later. If you put lines on a map and people ignore them, your reserve is a failure.”

The fate of marine reserves in Oregon, it turns out, hinges not only on science, but also on buy-in from a host of stakeholders: commercial and recreational fishermen, environmentalists, business proprietors, local government, property owners and coastal communities. Port Orford, with its thriving reef at Redfish Rocks, has been at the forefront of getting that buy-in.

Diving for Data

One recent wind-lashed morning, Alix Laferriere finds herself ashore, stuck at a desk. “The seas are too high for sampling,” the biologist grumbles from her Newport office.

As the West Coast’s only dry dock, Port Orford launches fishing boats by crane (Photo: Heath Korvola)

As soon as the swells subside, she’ll be back aboard a boat overseeing deployment of scuba divers to install an underwater electronic device to record water temperature and light hourly for six months. All sorts of other high-tech scientific gear — high-def cameras, laser equipment, a remotely operated vehicle named Sea Cow — will be used throughout the winter as weather allows. Laferriere’s job at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is to coordinate scientific studies testing the effectiveness of Oregon’s marine reserves. Data and technical support from OSU-based PISCO (Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans) are contributing to the pool of findings along with OSU scientists Scott and Selina Heppell and Calvanese. Marine geologist Chris Goldfinger has mapped Redfish Rocks with underwater imaging technologies. Marine ecologist Mark Hixon has provided leadership on the national, state and local levels. Oregon Sea Grant has studied the socioeconomic impacts of marine reserves as well as serving as a neutral convener for community dialog.

When half a dozen divers — on contract to the ODFW from UC Santa Cruz — flop tanks-first off the boat and disappear, one by one, into the waters at Redfish Rocks or when the agency’s $20,000 pressurized video-cam is gentled toward the seafloor on its tether, the human researchers and their sophisticated hardware sink into a silent world of kelp forests undulating in the current, of massive, algae-mottled boulders festooned with scarlet sea stars and giant, snow-white anemones, of sand-dollar beds and colonies of Crayola-colored sea pens, of big-eyed rockfish grazing on plankton with dour mouths, of sea lions churning round and round in the murk, eyeing the divers curiously.

“We’ve collected an amazing amount of information to characterize the site,” says Laferriere. “We’re collecting data on seafloor structure, on ocean conditions — temperature, salinity, chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen — and on the abundance and distribution of algal, invertebrate and fish species.”

James “Jimbo” Jennings, owner and captain of the vessel My Girl, voices mixed feelings about reserves as a member of the Redfish Rocks Community Team (Photo: Justin Smith)

As biological research leader for Oregon’s marine reserves, Laferriere gives regular updates to the Redfish Rocks community team — about 20 people from all walks of coastal life, from business and politics to charter and commercial fishing to science and conservation.

Underwater videos are a highlight of her reports. On the first Monday in October, team members who are gathered at Port Orford City Hall for their monthly meeting watch with interest as the reef comes alive on a big screen. A rock face bristling with spiny urchins sheers off steeply to depths of 65 feet. Giant, ghostly anemones cling to the submerged cliffs. Divers swim in waters as green as tea (a “mega-bloom of mysid shrimp” lends the water its “eerie” green tinge, Laferriere remarks) as they inventory resident species, from invertebrates to fish to marine mammals. They record their observations on waterproof slates.

“The whole time we were out, a gray whale was playing around,” Laferriere tells the team. “The place is obviously alive.”

But on this particular Monday night, the serene ocean imagery soon gives way to a testy tone. James “Jimbo” Jennings, one of three fishermen on the team, is feeling frustrated. Like many fishermen up and down the Oregon Coast, Jennings worries that reserves will hamstring a commercial fishing industry already tangled in a phalanx of state and federal rules restricting catches and seasons. Wave-energy parks, wind turbines and fish farms are sure to carve up and close off even more ocean real estate in coming years.

The fear starts with dollars and cents (“How hard can you squeeze a fisherman till he can’t make a living?” he demands).  But it goes deeper. The team’s grand vision for the port — to build a research field station on the dock and a marine interpretive center for tourists — threatens to alter Port Orford’s character in ways that could marginalize the fleet, says Jennings, owner and skipper of a 34-foot vessel named My Girl. He complains about the “Disneyland effect” of tourism and the ivory tower of science, contrasting those endeavors against the practical, putting-food-on-the-table impact of fishing. Port manager Gary Anderson chimes in angrily, railing against proposals that he predicts will infect the traditional fishermen’s dock with alien interests. David Smith, president of the local chamber of commerce, sympathizes with the fishermen’s concerns, but argues for the economic opportunities and diversification that tourism and research would bring to a slumping economy. Jennings fires back, offering a paean to the fisherman’s critical role in feeding the world that ends with a plea to safeguard an ancient way of life.

“I think you’re throwing out a culture,” Jennings tells the members gathered around the table.

Political Ecology of Fishing

This core conflict — the survival of ocean ecosystems versus the survival of human economies and traditions — is at the crux of Oregon’s community team process, which the Legislature laid out in House Bill 3013 passed in 2008. The act not only established pilot marine reserves at Redfish Rocks and Otter Rock but also charged ODFW with studying the potential of three additional reserves: Cape Falcon, Cascade Head and Cape Perpetua. A fourth reserve at Cape Arago-Seven Devils was pegged for preliminary discussion.

Biology was only half the mandate. The other half was sociology. ODFW was tasked with assessing the impact of marine reserves on local livelihoods as well as on ocean ecosystems. To make sure all points of view were honored, community teams had to represent all stakeholders, from commercial and recreational fishermen to conservationists to scientists and local leaders.

Port Orford dock worker Faron Busso holds a rougheye rockfish, one of many species that live in the temperate reefs off the southern Oregon Coast. (Photo: Heath Korvola)
Port Orford dock worker Faron Busso holds a rougheye rockfish, one of many species that live in the temperate reefs off the southern Oregon Coast. (Photo: Heath Korvola)

These disparate voices are full-throated on this Monday-night meeting in Port Orford. The contentiousness catches everyone by surprise. While other coastal communities have fought bitterly against the concept of no-fishing zones, Port Orford has been the poster child of civility and open-mindedness in the state’s marine reserve debate.

OSU researcher Mark Hixon has been at the frontlines of the battle since the beginning.

“Oregon is way behind most other states in establishing marine reserves — and definitely way behind the other Pacific states of Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and California,” says Hixon, who chaired the national Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee before taking on the co-chairmanship of Oregon’s Cape Perpetua community team. “The simple reason is that there’s great resistance by the fishing community in Oregon.”

Redfish Rocks team member Dave Lacey, an organizer for the nonprofit environmental group Our Ocean, has felt the bitter resistance first-hand. A former commercial fisherman who spent a season tending gear for divers harvesting sea urchins and another catching rockfish at Port Orford and Gold Beach, Lacey saw both fisheries crash beneath him. The demand for urchins bottomed out when tottering Asian economies made the delicacy unaffordable. Then the groundfish collapse of 2000 — when the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared the fishery a disaster because populations of rockfish, lingcod, and other bottom dwellers dipped dangerously low — “woke me up to conservation,” he says. The guys he once fished with saw his epiphany as a defection. He’s been called a “sell-out” and worse on the streets of Gold Beach where he lives. But he doesn’t think the maw between them and him is impossibly wide. “I think most fishermen want to take care of the resource,” he says. “Most of them are conservationists in some shape or form.”

That’s what OSU social scientists Flaxen Conway and Bryan Tilt found last year. They, along with Port Orford resident Leesa Cobb, surveyed residents for an Oregon Sea Grant study.

“The perceptions of people (in Port Orford) have changed,” wrote Conway and graduate student Christina Package in their 2010 report, Longform Fishing Community Profile. “In the past, people wanted to catch everything, but today they want to maintain a balance as far as catching and preserving the resource.” The researchers interviewed one fisherman who had returned a 100-year-old yelloweye rockfish to the sea so that it could go on spawning. “You just can’t kill everything you catch and catch as many as you want,” he explained.

Jennings, too, voices the sustainability mindset. “We’re really all on the same page here on this planet,” he says. Even as he vents the fishermen’s skepticism about marine reserves, he gets the scientific rationale behind them. “The positive effect that we’re looking for — that we’ve been sold on — is that you’ll get a spillover effect of more fish to catch in the future by giving up territory that we fish right now. We just want to make sure we get something back for what we’re giving up.”

To make sure Redfish Rocks yields data useful to both fishermen and scientists, Jennings has lent not only his voice but also his boat. Calvanese chartered My Girl and its captain and crew to help conduct hydrophone range testing. Other members of the Port Orford fleet have aided the research effort, as well, lending their time, their vessels (such the Leesa and Darrell Cobb’s Eagle III, which Calvanese used to deploy the hydrophones around the reef’s perimeter) and their expertise.

At the meeting’s end, Jennings apologizes to the team for letting his emotions spill all over the meeting room. Hey, no problem, they tell him. Honest dialogue is, after all, the whole point of the team process.

Carnal Instinct

On the bright blue morning following the October meeting, gulls wheel and screech above the bay. Redfish Rocks shimmers just offshore. Jennings sits on the dock and tries to explain the wariness with which fishermen and scientists often regard one another. Their different modes of understanding the ocean — academic versus experiential ways of knowing — can put them at odds. Fishermen like Jennings tend to scorn insights gleaned from labs and laptops. He complains that scientists too often fail to respect the hard-won, hands-on learning that happens during many seasons at sea.

Part of the Port Orford fleet, Eagle III has participated in scientific research with scientists from OSU (Photo: Heath Korvola)

“We’re out there on a daily basis,” says the skipper, who started fishing commercially as a 9-year-old kid supplying the aquarium trade in Hawaii.  “As a fisherman, you’re readin’ the birds, you’re readin’ the depth meter, you’re seein’ the bait fish, you’re watchin’ everything, because to be a fisherman you have to kinda revert back to that carnal instinct of bein’ a hunter. And a hunter has to gather information just like a scientist does in order to quarry his prey. He has to take everything into consideration — the whole environment, the whole ecosystem. What’s going on with the upwelling? Where’s the temperature change? Where’s the action? We’re right in the middle of where there’s whales feeding and birds taking off and sea lions workin’. We get to see the active part of nature on a daily basis.”

Fisherman Blane Steinmetz, president of the Port Orford Fishing Marketing Association, puts it this way: “When we go to work out there, the scenery is a big part of it. Our ‘traffic’ is to watch the whales and the dolphins, not some stoplight on some asphalt. We see it, we live it, we breathe it. We are more concerned about overfishing than most people are. We want to keep this a sustainable fishery — fish smarter, not harder.”

The rancor rang out loud and clear in 2008 at a series of forums moderated by marine extension agent Ginny Goblirsch of Oregon Sea Grant. OSU researcher Selina Heppell was on hand to explain the science of marine reserves. Fishermen from Astoria to Brookings vented their anger and frustration at the meetings, which were convened by OPAC to engage coastal communities in discussions about a network of marine reserves proposed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Words and phrases like “suspicion,” “tough sell,” “mistrust,” “fracas,” and “overwhelming opposition” peppered the news coverage of the forums. The biggest concern expressed by fishermen was a fear that scientists and conservationists involved in the marine reserve effort were harboring “hidden agendas,” according to Goblirsch. Ultimately, the “listening and learning” forums revealed an acute need for more dialog and led to the creation of community teams like the one at Port Orford.

Port Orford fisherman Scott Hill unloads the day’s bounty of sablefish – also called black cod by local fishermen (Photo: Heath Korvola)

But Port Orford was already well ahead of the curve. Fishermen and local leaders had gotten out in front of the issue several years earlier, forming a group called the Port Orford Ocean Resources Team (POORT) to study and discuss a raft of issues, including marine reserves. Leesa Cobb — who took the helm of POORT from founding director and OSU alum Laura Anderson after Anderson opened a restaurant and fish market in Newport called Local Ocean Seafoods — says the action was a way for the community to take charge of its own destiny.

“Marine reserves have been on the radar for ocean management worldwide for years,” Cobb says. “It wasn’t something we tried to avoid. We didn’t try to run from it, we didn’t try to hide from it. We said, ‘It’s out there; let’s talk about it.’”

Fisherman and team member Aaron Longton explains it this way: “We figured marine reserves were inevitable. It was either engage with and shape this thing so it works for us or have it done to us, kicking and screaming. That didn’t make any sense.”

And so this forward-leaning band of Port Orfordians nominated Redfish Rocks just off their shores as Oregon’s first pilot reserve. Says Blane Steinmetz: “We’ve given up Redfish Rocks so, hopefully, the research will be done on it. We want to help with the research. We know these grounds. We’ve fished on ‘em. We know where the fish are.” To further engage the broader community, Calvanese has launched a website called Fishtracker where people can read about his work and even adopt a fish to help raise funds to support his rockfish tagging research. His “Adopt-A-Fish” program was created in partnership with the Redfish Rocks community team.

Struggling for Consensus

As the morning sun warms Jennings’ back, he looks toward the reef whose six basaltic pinnacles (“emergent rocks” as the scientists call them) break through the cobalt surface of the sea.

“I think it’s very easy to criminalize the fisherman,” he says. “It always comes down to ‘us and them.’” He wonders why a “warm-and-fuzzy” meeting of the minds — “you know, rainbows and everybody lovin’ each other” — is so elusive.

For her part, Leesa Cobb sees more harmony, more unity of intent, among Port Orford’s fishermen and the scientists who study their ocean. “Our community has been working with scientists for years, and we learn from each project something new about our area,” she says. “Do we need to learn about our fishing region? Absolutely, if we want sustainable fisheries.”

Still, resentments continue to simmer even as the team-crafted proposals for a network of five Oregon marine reserves move forward. Approved by OPAC in December, the plans are headed for legislative action and, ultimately, implementation and enforcement. Fishermen harbor ongoing doubts that shrinking fishing grounds now will boost their catches down the road. Scientists like Hixon, on the other hand, question the true biological value of the two pilot reserves that were whittled down in size during months of negotiations — reserves that he characterizes as “dinky.”

Still, Hixon sees hope in the Cape Perpetua process he helped lead, a process that has resulted in a proposal both sides can live with. “I was heartened by the fact that the majority of the members on our community team were open-minded, respectful, learned from each other, listened to each other, struggled to find a compromise and to reach consensus,” he says. “And we did.”


You can view the locations of marine protected areas around the globe through Google Earth and find additional information at a website managed by the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, or PISCO.

You can also download an Oregon Sea Grant report on the community listening forums conducted in 2008.

See a profile of Selina Heppell’s work on ocean fisheries policy in Oregon’s Agricultural Progress magazine.

For information about supporting research and teaching through faculty endowments, contact the Oregon State University Foundation, 1-800-354-7281 or visit


Southern Oregon Coast Mixing Nature, Tradition and Economics for a Sustainable Future

POORT also has recommended a broader 935-square-mile land & sea Port Orford Community Stewardship Area intended to protect terrestrial, freshwater, intertidal and ocean reserves which in turn would protect the fisheries viability of the Port Orford community.

Ocean Mountain Ranch – A Model for Sustainable Land Development

Located along a 1000’ ridgetop in the headwaters of the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area, Ocean Mountain Ranch (OMR) overlooks the pilot marine reserve and the largest remaining old growth forest on the southern Oregon coast. OMR is planned to be developed pursuant to a forest stewardship management plan which has been approved by the Oregon Department of Forestry. OMR will provide for long-term yield of high-quality hardwood, softwood, and wildlife habitat and is planned to provide a sustainable model for exemplary organic forestry/grazing operations incorporating residential, agricultural, educational, recreational, and industrial activities.

Thanks, Terry. Sounds very ambitious. Is this land currently in private ownership? Do the plans include carbon credits through one of the nonprofits in Oregon?

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