The boat jolts as powerful waves come rolling in off the Sonoma coast near UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab. I’m curled over the side of the boat emptying the contents of my stomach into the ocean. A few minutes later its time to start fishing. We begin to pile hundreds of fish onboard. We measure, identify, tag, and put each fish back into the ocean as efficiently as possible. In order to minimize impact on the fish populations, we practice catch and release fishing and strive for each fish to be outside of the ocean for only four minutes. I run around the boat collecting fish from anglers as they come aboard, and hurry them to the measuring board as they slip and slide inside my fingers. As soon as I loosen my grip on their body, they flop and come flying out of my hands. I frantically stumble back and forth as the boat rocks. I try not to think about how seasick I feel, and scoop up the fish from the deck of the boat. I think to myself how am I going to do this for eleven more days?
It’s my first day working on the California Collaborative Fisheries Research program (CCFRP). Our mission is to conduct scientifically rigorous monitoring of the marine protected areas (MPAs) along the California coast. We have been working hard throughout the summer to recruit volunteer anglers from the local fishing community, charter a commercial fishing boat, and gather a science crew to count, measure, and tag the fish we catch. Bringing scientists and anglers together helps to promote communication and sustainability in fisheries. We collect data on the species composition, number of fish caught, and size of fish in and outside of the MPAs. This data is paired with environmental factors such as ocean floor structure, swell, water temperature, and position. As the project continues through the years, we will to be able to detect differences between fished and unfished areas, yearly population growth or decline, and the effects of different levels of protection.
As we make it through our first rounds of fishing, I start to grow more confident with handling the fish and making sure they aren’t getting injured as we collect the data. Stunning fish of all colors and sizes are coming aboard. We captured giant red vermillion rockfish, vibrant orange Rosys, classic yellow and black Chinas, and vicious Lingcods. I never could have imagined how vibrant and charismatic these fish could be. Holding these living, breathing animals in my hands gave me such a new-found appreciation for our coastal resources. It is important to understand that these are wild animals that we depend upon for food. Many people’s livelihood stems from these resources, including commercial and recreational anglers, and scientists. One of our main goals for these cruises was to promote cooperation between these groups.
On our most phenomenal fishing days we caught and collected data for up to 964 fish of 21 different species ranging from 12-110cm in length. Based on what I observed, we caught more fish of increased size in the protected areas. The presence of larger fish is important because larger fish can produce exponentially more offspring.
Yellow-eyed rockfish are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. I am hopeful that their population is recovering based on the significant number of these fish that we caught over the 12 days of sampling. More statistical analysis will have to be done in order to further analyze the effectiveness of our marine protected areas and detect changes through space and time. I feel optimistic about the future of our coastal resources because of the respect I observed people forming for each other and our resources. It is imperative that recreational and commercial anglers use sustainable practices and that consumers buy responsible products. These magnificent resources are not limitless and need to be shared. CCFRP was unique in that it fostered mutual understandings between groups. Despite a history of conflict, individuals were able to bond with each other through their shared love for the California coast. A little seasickness was a small price to pay for a life long appreciation for the stunning biodiversity that every person has the right to enjoy.
If you're interested, here is a video I created about CCFRP:
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