By Lee Sherman Gellatly
ON A TYPICAL, LOW-VISIBILITY DAY out among Oregon’s rocky reefs, scuba divers float in a murky, monochromatic world. Sunlight filtering through the algae-rich brine of near-shore waters casts a green patina on everything.
These days, scientific divers are regulars at four of Oregon’s reefs and headlands — Redfish Rocks, Otter Rock, Cascade Head and Cape Falcon — which have been set aside as sea-life sanctuaries, of sorts. (A fifth sanctuary site, Cape Perpetua, is too deep for dive studies.) The divers, trained and certified at Oregon State University and the Oregon Coast Aquarium, are studying resident finfishes, seaweeds and rock-clinging creatures (like urchins and sea stars), making detailed observations, measurements and census counts. Other OSU scientists are collecting physical ocean data on critical problems like acidification and hypoxia (low-oxygen “dead zones”).
Welcome to Oregon’s “marine reserves,” five no-fishing zones that have become living laboratories for a long-term experiment in ocean protection, monitored by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
Besides diving with scuba tanks, the teams capture underwater video from remotely operated cameras and stationary “landers” lowered onto the seafloor from fishing vessels. Another research method in these protected ecosystems is catch-and-release fishing. Working topside with local charter-boat skippers and volunteer anglers, marine scientists like Brittany Huntington use an old-fashioned hook-and-line rig to collect data on the size, catch rates and population trends of local species.
At first, there was a problem. The early samples at Redfish Rocks were skewed toward a single species. “We were catching 90 percent black rockfish using hook-and-line fishing,” says Huntington, an OSU courtesy professor who leads ecological monitoring for the ODFW Marine Reserve Program based in Newport. Blacks (Sebastes melanops) are only one of more than 60 species of rockfish, a type of “groundfish” (bottom dweller) and the mainstay of Oregon’s commercial fishery. So the scientists turned for help to a “stellar” local captain, Jeff Miles of Port Orford, whose lifetime of expertise quickly turned things around.
“Our hooks were catching black rockfish as they schooled in mid-water,” Huntington explains. “We’d have a fish on the line before our gear could reach the bottom.”
What was needed for accurate sampling, Captain Miles counseled, were long lines capable of catching the deep, seafloor-hugging species. After the team switched to long lines, the sampling suddenly got a lot more colorful. Along with the legions of black rockfish (which are really more of a pewter gray with black mottling), the teams were landing fish with colors usually identified with tropical reefs, colors that animate their hue-derived common names like copper, vermilion, blue, yellow-eye and canary. One species (Sebastes ruberrimus) sports a shade of orange as brilliant as a clown’s hair. Another (Sebastes diploproa) comes wrapped in red and silver, like a Christmas package. There’s a species (Sebastes nebulosus) reminiscent of a Van Gogh, midnight blue dappled with a starry blaze of yellow. Still another (Sebastes babcocki) is dipped in princess pink, like a little girl’s tutu. No wonder their genus name, Sebastes, means “magnificent” in Greek.
Just as surprising are their shapes and faces. The spiky dorsal fins jutting from their backs hint of prehistory, echoes of some long-extinct mega-reptile. Their comical, sourpuss mouths turn downward in a perpetual scowl.
That these fanciful, Technicolor fish inhabit the murky waters off Oregon is surprising enough. But there’s more: Some of them grow to be as large and lumpy as a soldier’s duffel bag. They can live 100 years or more. And unlike humans, whose fertility wanes over time, rockfish become egg-laying rock stars in old age. The increase is exponential. A 2-foot-long vermilion rockfish, for instance, can produce close to 2 million baby fish — 20 times more than its foot-long counterpart, according to the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), a four-university consortium of Oregon State, Stanford, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. Think of these supersized females as the “mother lode” of the fish world.
Nicknamed BOFFFFs — Big Old Fat Fertile Female Fish — the ancient denizens of coastal waters are one important reason the Oregon State Legislature set aside five rocky reefs as marine reserves, beginning in 2009 with pilot sites at Redfish Rocks and Otter Rock. Three more reserves — Cape Perpetua, Cascade Head and Cape Falcon — were signed into law in 2012. By banning fishing at these sites, state officials are providing “nurseries” for BOFFFFs, giving them a better chance to seed the reefs and, through a “spillover” effect, replenish the oceans — as well as the state’s multimillion-dollar groundfish fishery — as their eggs float far and wide with the currents.
“In the marine realm, most eggs and larvae drift,” notes Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, an OSU marine ecologist and expert on marine reserves. “So it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll leave the marine protected area. Setting aside a place of refuge for these large, fertile fish can really provide a grounding for our productive fisheries by seeding populations beyond the reserves.”
The gaudy, egg-brimming BOFFFFs are the beneficiaries of Oregon’s marine reserve network, a plan launched in 2008 by an executive order from then-Governor Ted Kulongoski. In subsequent years, the details were hammered out in city halls, school gyms and libraries up and down the coast by an unlikely amalgam of fishermen, local politicians, business owners, fisheries managers, surfers, conservationists, university biologists and Oregon Sea Grant Extension faculty, all scribbling on white boards and sticky notes. Often, the meetings got hot and contentious. Livelihoods were at stake. Ecosystems were threatened. Finding a mutually acceptable sweet spot seemed as elusive as the threatened marbled murrelet.
“You get beaten up by both sides,” says Loren Goddard, a charter fisherman in Depoe Bay, a bustling harbor flanked by Otter Rock to the south and Cascade Head to the north. “Some of the fishermen feel like you’re a turncoat if you participate in planning the reserves. And you never get much respect from the environmental extremists.
“Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.”
Eventually, the agonizing birth pangs in Oregon’s coastal towns brought forth the current five-reserve network. In acting to protect certain pockets from overfishing and ecological degradation, Oregon joined a global “race against time,” in Grorud-Colvert’s words, to conserve critical marine habitat. One initiative in particular has spurred nations collectively to create thousands of protected ocean sites across the planet, from Brazil to Canada, Israel to Kenya, Portugal to the Philippines. Signers to the international treaty — the Convention on Biological Diversity (similar in concept to the U.N. Climate Change Convention that met in Paris last year) — have pledged to protect and study important marine ecosystems.
Still, ocean protection is paltry overall, says Grorud-Colvert, who has reviewed dozens of case studies of marine reserves for PISCO. While the actual number of reserves is growing — taking a big surge in 2015 with the creation of important reserves in the Seychelles, New Zealand and Chile — the average size of marine reserves still is quite small. Together, they barely add up to a drop in the ocean. Today, only about 3.5 percent of ocean habitat worldwide has been designated either a “marine protected area” (some restrictions on human activity) or a “marine reserve” (an all-out ban on recreational and commercial activities), according to a recent paper by Grorud-Colvert and OSU Distinguished Professor Jane Lubchenco in the journal Science.
And then there’s the problem of enforcement, which is tough enough when enforcers work on solid ground. Policing the oceans is infinitely trickier and costlier, especially in the larger reserves; hence, many of them go unpatrolled.
Those caveats aside, scientific evidence supporting the ecological benefits of marine reserves is mounting year by year. Take the island of Lundy off the coast of England, one of the case studies PISCO examined for a recent report. Out among Lundy’s rocky reefs and sandy seafloors — a temperate ecosystem not unlike Oregon’s — European lobsters (Homarus gammarus) had dwindled in size and abundance after decades of intense harvest. But after the area was closed to fishermen, many of whom supported the restrictions in hopes of bringing back their struggling fishery, the clawed crustaceans rebounded quickly. One photo in PISCO’s European edition of The Science of Marine Reserves shows a “legal-sized” European lobster alongside a second specimen, identified in the caption as a “large” lobster. The large lobster, twice as big as its species mate, has claws the size of Paul Bunyan’s hands, antennae as long as a set of ‘50s-era TV “rabbit ears,” and looks like it could eat the legal-sized lobster for lunch.
But the full story of Lundy’s lobsters is not yet written. For instance, will the large-lobster effect spill beyond the reserve’s borders? Only long-term monitoring will tell.
The Human Species
Lobsters, rockfish and other sea creatures are only half of the marine reserve equation. Humans are the other half. That’s why the ecological monitoring (diving, hook-and-line sampling, underwater videography) is just one facet of Oregon’s two-pronged marine reserves research. The “human dimension” is the other. OSU courtesy professor Tommy Swearingen is leading a wide-scale investigation into how coastal communities and individuals are being affected, financially and personally, by the closures.
“When I first moved here from Miami, I was struck by how different Oregon’s coastal communities are from Florida’s,” says Grorud-Colvert, who collaborates with the PISCO lab of Lubchenco and Bruce Menge. “These are working waterfronts with communities who are very tied to the ocean, and incredibly knowledgeable about the ocean.”
One of those working waterfronts is Depoe Bay, where Loren Goddard and his business partner Lars Robison, co-own Dockside Charters. When they got wind of marine reserves coming to Oregon, they didn’t hesitate. They held their noses and jumped in.
“We’ve been wresting a living from the ocean for a long time,” says Goddard, his gaze drifting toward the “World’s Smallest Harbor” where his boat Affair is tethered. “We were insistent that the stakeholders, the people who actually spend their time on the ocean, had to have a place at the table. At times, we felt very underrepresented.”
Robison, skipper of the boat Samson, was born into the fishing business nearly six decades ago. Alarmed by talk of sweeping proposals to lock up huge swaths of Oregon’s coastline, he and Goddard led the formation of the Depoe Bay Near Shore Action Team to make sure their voices would be heard. Goddard also was appointed to the Ocean Policy Advisory Board. Still involved a dozen years later, Goddard as action team chair, both men express skepticism about the benefits of marine reserves. Even so, Robison has skippered his boat for scientists and volunteers doing hook-and-line surveys as part of ODFW’s ecological monitoring. He’s willing to suspend his doubts and join the research effort to help bring more data to the discussion.
Another of Oregon’s close-knit coastal communities is the town of Garibaldi on Tillamook Bay. If you drive through Garibaldi on Highway 101, you’ll see very few nods to tourism. Mostly, it has the feel of an historic fishing town, its rustic wharf home to dozens of commercial and charter boats.
In the early days of Oregon’s marine reserve debate, fishermen here were united in their opposition to the idea, according to researcher Elizabeth Marino, a cultural anthropologist at OSU-Cascades. When it came time to vote on establishing a reserve at Cape Falcon north of Garibaldi, she says, every fisherman on the local action team voted “no.” Marino, who has been conducting interviews in coastal communities as part of ODFW’s human-dimensions monitoring, suggests that the Garibaldi fishermen’s resistance may not be tied to the Cape Falcon reserve specifically, since Cape Falcon has never been a favored fishing ground. Rather, she suggests an explanation that’s more existential. Their fierce defiance may be an outward manifestation of a gnawing anxiety about losing a traditional way of life as the ocean gets carved up for things like wave-energy buoy systems, wind-energy farms, aquaculture enterprises and, perhaps, even more no-fishing zones.
“The reserves are creating uncertainty regarding the future plans of marine conservation in Oregon state waters,” Marino says. “Ultimately, fishermen are worried about coastal economies shifting away from fishing and away from the values of fishing communities.
“But it’s important to note that fishermen consider themselves conservationists as well, although they’re ideologically different from conservationists who are not part of the fishing community. All the people I interviewed in Garibaldi expressed deep concern for the health of the ocean.”
In marine reserve science, one of the biggest gaps happens to be one of the tiniest facets: baby fish. You can’t miss a big fat fertile female rockfish when you’re out on the reef. But what happens to her millions of teeny-tiny offspring? Where do the 1- to 2-inch juveniles go after drifting with the currents as eggs and larvae? Are they settling into any of Oregon’s marine reserves?
That’s what Grorud-Colvert and her colleagues are trying to find out by using an ingenious piece of gear called a SMURF (Standard Monitoring Units for the Recruitment of Fishes). Made of a fine, green mesh rolled into a 3-foot-long cylinder and attached to an anchored line in the ocean, it’s full of nooks and crannies, making it a happy landing place for small fish to shelter.
“These little guys aren’t part of standard monitoring in marine reserves,” she says. “We want to see which juvenile fish are coming in and settling in our protected areas.”
One early surprise was discovering juveniles of the boldly striped orange-and-red tiger rockfish (Sebastes nigrocinctus) at Otter Rock, the smallest of Oregon’s reserves. “The tiger rockfish is a deep-water species that can be found at depths up to 1,000 feet,” she says. “Yet we’re seeing juveniles at Otter Rock coming in to 50 feet of water and possibly even shallower — areas that are part of our marine reserves.”
Another early finding, this one at Redfish Rocks, suggests that certain rockfish hang around their home waters, while others swim farther afield. OSU master’s student Tom Calvanese is using acoustic transmitters to track movement patterns of fish through a project he calls “Fishtracker.” In a recent interview posted on National Geographic’s “Ocean Views” blog, Calvanese says that tagged China rockfish (the midnight-blue and yellow “Starry Night” species) in his study stuck close to home, while the canary rockfish came and went for a few weeks before leaving for good.
The Last Fish
All of the monitoring, both ecological and human, will be wrapped up and reported to the Legislature in 2023. While scientists acknowledge that real transformation of underwater ecosystems may take decades, they expect their studies to show enough significant benefits to justify the reserves into the future.
Many fishermen, meanwhile, watch with a jaundiced eye. Ever the skeptic, Goddard points to some of the fallout he sees from marine reserves. Boats that were once spread out are now clustered together, he says, because of “fleet shift” or “effort shift” — the flux in favored fishing grounds after the reserves became off-limits. As one Garibaldi fisherman puts it, “The reserves are putting pressure on the areas that are left.” A related phenomenon is “fishing the line,” where vessels drift just outside the protected area, taking fish that stray beyond what for them is a nonexistent barrier.
So far, anyway, Goddard isn’t seeing the spillover effect that researchers anticipate. But his partner Robison may have spotted a glimmer. “In the September fishery last year, we saw a lot of fish out there — a lot of rockfish everywhere,” he says. “I think maybe it was actually an effect of not getting fished as hard as other places — fish that weren’t being bothered.”
Goddard’s stance is strictly wait-and-see. He says he would “love to see” a spillover effect from Oregon’s marine reserves. “If the scientific evidence is compelling that reserves are beneficial,” he says, “then my attitude would change.
“We make our living doing this. We have a business that’s very viable. We want it to continue to be so. If we catch the last fish, then we haven’t done that. And none of us wants to be that person that catches the last fish.”