When volunteer anglers aboard the Huli Cat bait a hook trying to catch a rockfish, they’re not just fishing – they’re helping researchers learn more about California’s underwater parks. Recreational fishermen, SCUBA divers, PhD scientists and graduate students are working together to study California’s marine protected areas (MPAs), and results from their studies are being presented this week in Monterey.
Five years ago, California completed its network of MPAs on California’s central coast. This anniversary is being marked with the State of the California Central Coast Symposium, which brings together scientists, resource managers, policy makers, fishermen and conservationists to learn about new findings from dozens of monitoring efforts and discuss perspectives on MPA management.
Early results suggest that the reserves are on track, allowing fish like cabezon and lingcod to grow larger and more abundant inside MPAs, with habitats that are more biologically productive. This, along with steadily increasing revenues for fishermen, is good news for the Central Coast MPAs. However, researchers stress that these first five years of study are meant to create a baseline: a barometer of ecological health against which future MPA performance can be measured. So, how exactly are these reserves being studied? It turns out that monitoring is both sophisticated and wonderfully simple.
One great example of this is Dr. Rick Starr’s California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program (CCFRP), which uses local charter fishing boats to monitor four MPAs. Volunteer anglers from the local fishing community team up with graduate students by fishing for rockfish while painstakingly recording the weight and species of every fish they catch and release. They’ve caught over 40,000 fish in the past five years, and have noted how great the fishing is by the relative abundance of some species inside the MPAs.
Another monitoring project is Reef Check, which teams PhD researchers up with citizen scientists who strap on SCUBA gear to survey shallow and deep rocky habitats, kelp forests, rocky shores, estuaries, beaches and other key ecosystems along the central coast. They monitor ecologically and economically important species of fishes and invertebrates, and human activities including fishing and recreational use.
One consistent theme in these studies is that citizens of the coast are vital to the success of the marine reserves. Volunteers have been involved in scores of monitoring and outreach projects. Citizen science efforts like MPA Watch have trained hundreds of volunteers to monitor beach and coastal use in and around protected areas like Natural Bridges and Año Nuevo.
Save Our Shores’ Dockwalker program is another great example of an organization working with coastal citizens to help the MPAs. The Dockwalker program shares information with boaters and fishermen about MPAs, and conducts ocean protection workshops in local schools. In turn, schools are making visits to the underwater parks part of their outdoor education program, because in addition to enabling kids to watch wildlife in nature, many now feature full-color educational interpretive displays and instructor programs.
From school children looking to learn more about marine life to fishermen looking to catch more fish, California’s new marine protected areas are an investment in the future. By studying them with the assistance of citizen volunteers, we are learning about the full range of benefits they provide to marine ecosystems, and becoming better stewards of these places in the process.