It’s 6:25am. The smell of coffee and diesel fill the air. Anglers and scientists chat on the deck of Monterey sportfishing vessel New Horizon, laughing as they greet each other like old friends, and many of them are. The sun rises, casting hues of violet and peach on faces eager for a day of world-class fishing. But today, every fish will be returned to the sea. Volunteer anglers are joining forces with a crew of fisheries researchers to collect data on fish diversity and population numbers inside a marine reserve, an area otherwise closed to all forms of harvest.
This excursion is part of the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Project. Initiated in 2007 by Moss Landing Marine Labs’ Rick Starr and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Dean Wendt, the project fulfills the requirements of the California Marine Life Protection Act, which directed the state to redesign and reevaluate California’s marine protected areas. The CCFRP monitors the effectiveness of California’s MPAs by surveying them using hook-and-line methods. (This goes counter to typical fish survey methods where researchers are in the water.) In Monterey Bay, there are four sampling stations, both inside and outside MPAs. Today’s cruise is near Point Lobos.
On the ride out, Jen Chiu, the statewide coordinator for CCFRP, buzzes between groups. Longtime angler David Kammerer discreetly passes around a card collecting thank you notes for Chiu.
An hour after shoving off, the boat arrives at the fishing ground. A row of pelicans flies in front of Monterey cypress-crested cliffs that plunge into swirling waves of golden kelp.
A voice comes over the boat’s intercom: “Go ahead and drop your lines… fish are everywhere, about 20 feet off the bottom,” says Captain Rod Stoltz. In under a minute, the first fish is hooked, reeled up and brought to the fish processor, Rachel Brooks, who within seconds, identifies and measures it, then throws it overboard, back into the water.
Within five minutes, fish are swimming in five-gallon buckets, waiting in line to be processed. The six-person science crew is quick. The line never gets long. The 12 anglers are focused; occasionally one yells “Fish on!” and a crew member retrieves their catch.
“The most important aspect is collaboration,” says Bonnie Basnett, a grad student in Starr’s lab. She sees partnerships as a way to mend the historical rift between fisherfolk and fishery scientists. CCFRP hosts an annual appreciation workshop and dinner where researchers present the data that the anglers helped them gather. “We want anglers to get excited and share what they learn from our project. Being part of the process makes them more comfortable with management of the fishery,” Basnett adds.
By 8:40am, the team is on its third sampling drift. Brooks calls out data to Chiu, who records while watching the timer. “Olive, 37, swim… vermillion, 43, pop eye, descend!” Brooks is quick to identify, measure and describe the condition of the fish. The goal is to process as many fish as possible within the standardized 15-minute sampling window.
“Time is up! Wind ’em up!” Chiu calls. The science crew replaces water in the buckets, the anglers reset their rods and the captain maneuvers to find more fish on his radar for the next 15-minute bout.
“Finally, the data is starting to make sense,” says Eddie Gomez, a fisherman who has volunteered for CCFRP since the program began.
He is referring to data from the older Point Lobos MPA, established in 1973, which shows significantly higher species diversity and abundance than the expanded portion of the MPA, established in 2007. The increases begin around 2013 for many species – 40 years after the older MPA’s establishment – suggesting MPAs are more successful in the long run.
Gomez brings his daughter and 9-year-old grandson fishing with him. “This program helps me know that my family will be able to deep-sea fish in the future,” he says. “It’s easy, as a fisherman, to take advantage of the ecosystem.”
It’s noon. The last “wind ’em up” echoes across the boat. Anglers stow their gear while a science crew member passes out Oreos. Others take guesses for the number of fish caught today, in 135 total minutes of active fishing. Gomez wins with the closest guess: 702 fish from 16 different species. (Most were blue, gopher, and vermillion rockfish. Rarer species included a mottled brown and lavender colored cabezon and two brilliantly spotted kelp greenlings.)
On the ride back to the harbor, an angler and the deckhand close their eyes and nod off inside the cabin. Back at the wharf, Kammerer presents the thank-you card to Chiu, and prizes are handed out to anglers with the biggest, most and rarest fish caught. Chiu and her crew of grad students will spend the next few months analyzing the data from this summer’s 12 cruises before presenting their findings in the spring.