By Holly Rindge, Communications Manager, California Ocean Science Trust
As we sail out of Moss Landing Harbor, there are no familiar sounds of sea lions or crashing waves. The early morning fog seems to have muted even the seabirds. The swells are small today, but that is little comfort to my queasy stomach. I’m onboard the F/V Donna Kathleen with scientists from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), California Sea Grant (CSG) and the Fisheries & Conservation Biology Lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML).
We’re headed out as part of a collaborative research team in pursuit of rockfish. After more than ten years of fishing area closures, the team is trying to determine how well the closures are working to rebuild depleted rockfish populations. Are there areas with lots of big fish, as you might expect after a decade of reduced fishing pressure? And are there areas that could be re-opened to fishing where healthy stocks can be caught without catching too many of the more vulnerable depleted stocks?
This is my first time out on Monterey Bay, but these waters are familiar to Tim Maricich, Captain of the F/V Donna Kathleen. Tim has made his career as a successful commercial fisherman, targeting species such as salmon and spot prawn from California to Alaska. His son, Tyler, is running deck operations today, assisted by a graduate student from MLML and a volunteer from TNC. Dr. Mary Gleason (TNC) and Dr. Rick Starr (CSG, MLML) are the principal investigators on this 3-year project. Today we are using a new deepwater video camera to collect data on fish density, fish-habitat associations and fish size.
As Tim positions the boat over our first survey site, I learn that rockfishes are among the most numerous species in California’s nearshore environment, economically important for both recreational and commercial fishing. Several of the overfished species, such as canary, cowcod and yelloweye rockfish, are slow growing, long-lived (some more than 100 years) and don’t reproduce until they are 20-30 years old. These species are vulnerable to overfishing in part because they live in the midst of other abundant and fast-growing species that are targeted by fishermen.
All of our survey sites are within a Rockfish Conservation Area (RCA) that was established a little more than a decade ago in response to critically low populations of several of these more vulnerable species. Effecting various depth ranges, RCAs cover vast stretches of continental shelf along the west coast of California and have been an important tool in minimizing the catch of depleted species. However, RCAs also reduced fishing opportunities to target healthy stocks.
Caption: Dr. Mary Gleason and Dr. Rick Starr
A variety of habitats are found in RCAs including soft bottom mud, rock structures and canyons. Rocky habitats are generally less common and Mary explains that not all habitat types contribute the same to species recovery. “Where we find rock, we often, but not always find rockfish,” Mary says. The visual surveys we are conducting today will confirm predictive maps of fish abundance and the exact locations of rock structures.
Making the connections between fish biology, fish-habitat associations, and fishing interests helps me understand why this research is important. “One of the goals of this study is to determine on a finer scale which parts of the RCA are helping rebuild these stocks,” Mary says. The results of this study will help inform management decisions and allow fishermen to better target healthy populations while avoiding depleted ones.
Gathering local knowledge from fishermen was a critical early step in the project. Fishermen have decades, in some cases multi-generational knowledge and expertise on the water. The National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are also partners in this study. This level of collaboration among federal and state resource managers, academic and NGO scientists, and fishermen makes this effort efficient and effective. “We’re stretching the boundaries,” Tim says. “We all throw everything in together and reach for the common goals.”
Caption: Video Lander in action
“Ready to deploy!” says Tyler, and the crew moves into position around the Video Lander. The Lander is a vertical drop camera system designed by Marine Applied Research & Exploration (MARE). In contrast to other deep water survey tools, such as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and submersibles that fly in transect lines above the seafloor, the Lander is dropped in a single location and its two video cameras pan in sync 360 degrees, providing a unique view of the surrounding habitat and fish.
The Lander descends 160 meters to the seafloor and we wait a few minutes for the silt to settle. Soon, the cameras begin to pan in 1-minute revolutions and video streams onto three monitors set up on the deck, inside the cabin, and inside the wheelhouse.
Cheers erupt simultaneously from the cabin and the wheelhouse as a large school of canary rockfish swim into view. “It’s exciting to see that many!” Mary says. With their contrasting patterns of white, yellow and orange, it is a beautiful scene. Tim’s enthusiasm over finding the fish is also palpable. “Killing is not the satisfaction,” he says. “It’s the quest that drives most fishermen.”
Later in the day, perched on top of a cooler with a handful of saltines stashed in my pocket, I ask Tim and Rick how long they have worked together. They share a wry smile and Rick asks, “Do you mean how long have we been working along side each other, or working with each other?” It’s taken years to build their relationship, learn from each other, and find common ground. However, “Once you build that trust,” Tim says, “projects move forward at light speed. We have to encourage collaboration.”
I’m struck by how this collaborative project, with its blending of scientific and fishing expertise, can serve as a model more broadly as we seek solutions for restoring the health and productivity of our oceans. I know many academic scientists, fishermen, and managers who are collecting scientific information that can support good decisions for fisheries and protected area management. We have to foster opportunities to bring the right partners together, find efficiencies and add value to existing research efforts. Science that incorporates diverse sources of knowledge will ultimately be accepted and used by the community to make informed decisions for our oceans.
The skies are clear as we collect video from the 13th, and final, location of today’s cruise. The synergy of this team remains with me as our day comes to a close. As we head home, I’m still fascinated by the science, the technology, the teamwork and the endless personal passion that it takes to explore the ocean.