PORT ORFORD, Ore. — The waters off this southern Oregon coastal town have seen a steady decline in the numbers of rockfish because of over-fishing. But soon the area will be protected and fishing will be banned. Scientists are working with fishermen to ensure the health of fish and their habitats by establishing Oregon’s first marine reserve.
Redfish Rocks Reserve will be just a few miles south of Port Orford. Often protecting part of the ocean can create a conflict between fishermen and conservationists. But at Port Orford they’re both on board with the project.
You’d think Tom Calvanese is an artist; he sports tortoise shell glasses and a soul patch. But he’s a biologist — a graduate student at Oregon State University. And he studies rockfish, which belong to the genus Sebastes, “which is Greek for magnificent. And, to me, they are pretty magnificent,” Calvanese says.
Take China rockfish. They’re jet black, mottled with yellow and topped with menacing spines. And they’re among the nearly 40 rockfish species along the Oregon coast.
Besides being stunning to look at, rockfish are big money. They’re a delicacy in markets reaching from Seattle to San Francisco. Finding these fish is essential for the fishery, so it’s important to know where these fish spend their time and how healthy their habitats are, and that’s where Calvanese comes in.
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On a rare, clear day in Port Orford, Oregon, a team of researchers motor out on the fishing vessel Top Gun. Today’s objective: catch, catalog and tag rockfish. Tom Calvanese organizes his field notes and points to what’s beneath the surface.
“There’s actually an acoustic array set up to look at fish movement patterns in relationship to reserve boundaries,” he says.
Calvanese’s array tracks fish that he’s tagged. Each tagged fish transmits a unique ID. The acoustic array then detects and records the location of the tagged fish.
“We need to understand more about how fish use space, where they go, how much time they spend there, what type of habitats they’re likely to be found in,” he says. “So we’re starting to do more place-based management, and that means we’ve got to collect spatial data. So that’s where movement studies come in.”
Calvanese wants to understand how much space a thriving rockfish population needs. And a marine reserve — where fishing is not allowed — is a good place to answer this question. It’s where we’re headed today, to the site of a future reserve called Redfish Rocks, a two-and-a-half square mile reserve off the southern coast of Oregon. The waters here are teeming with fish, but once the reserve’s established, fishing will be off limits.
Jeff Miles is a commercial fisherman and he captains the Top Gun for Calvanese.
“You know, it’s a very unique area in here because you get all the species: the Chinas, coppers, quills, lingcod, canaries, yellow eye, halibut,” Miles says. “God. You name it, we’ve caught it all here.”
Miles stations the vessel near a towering rock. He explains what it was like to be one of the folks first involved with figuring out where they would possibly put a marine reserve: “Scary.”
“Uh, it’s really difficult — the thought of a marine reserve — to have your fishing grounds taken away,” he says. “You know, and my first instinct was just to run and hide from it. The biggest thing is, people don’t want to lose their ability to make money.”
Many commercial fishermen rely on these fishing grounds. And for those that do, Miles says the eventual ban on fishing - once the reserve is established - will amount to a 10 to 15 percent loss of income.
“How many people are going to voluntarily take 10 percent out of their paycheck? Not very many,” he says.
In his 35 years on the water, Miles has seen overfishing deplete rockfish populations near Port Orford. Rockfish don’t reproduce every year, so once their numbers drop, they have a hard time coming back. So, Miles and others in the fishing community, turn to scientists like Calvanese for help.
The Top Gun’s crew sets an anchor and baits fishing lines. Their goal is to catch and tag fish. The boat dips and rolls from the Pacific swell. Crew members narrate the action.
“Oh, oh, I got one! I got one!” one crew member exclaims.
“That’s a Cabazon. Hey we got another China! Brianna, got a China, woohoo!” Miles says.
Calvanese writes down the catch by species, sex and length in his notebook: a male kelp greenling, 27 centimeters.
He creates a makeshift operating room in the boat’s stern. It’s stocked with scalpels, suturing tools, and a homemade cradle for fish surgery.
Calvanese asks an assistant for a was bottle. Then he asks for someone to start the stopwatch.
“You’ve got a good hold on him, right?” Calvanese asks.
“Yeah, I got ‘em,” the assistant responds.
A China rockfish is on its back. It’s tense and taught. A damp cloth covers its bulging eyes. Water streams over the China’s gills and flows over the back of its throat. All of this is intended to hypnotize the fish, and sure enough, the fish is limp within seconds.
The assistant notes that fish seems to be relaxing, as is evidenced by the drop of its anal fin.
Gently pressuring the belly, Calvanese makes an incision that’s just big enough for the acoustic tag. The tag is slightly smaller than a double A battery.
Calvanese weathers splashing water and sloshing fishing gear. He’s pure focus as he puts a few stitches in the fish to close up the wound. He flips the China right side up and presto – it’s dehypnotized. From there, the fish is placed in a recovery cage and eventually released. Jeff Miles, the Top Gun’s captain, watches the surgery from the sidelines.
“I like the tagging part here,” Miles says. “I’ve always wanted to know what fish do and where they live and how they move and I think it’s cool. That’s why I’m trying to donate the time and get this done. And, I realize that you just can’t keep hammering on them. They’ve gotta have some places where they can live to survive. And, that’s what really pushed me over the edge, I guess.”
Now, Miles and his crew support Calvanese’s project. Calvanese says Miles’ knowledge is priceless.
“Jeff Miles is making my research possible,” Calvanese says. “We have species we’re targeting for this research, and they’re not the most commonly encountered species. So in order to capture enough of them to do the research, I need to find them. And I don’t know where to find them - I don’t know where to go to catch China rockfish or copper rockfish or quillback rockfish. I’m in awe of someone who’s got that kind of knowledge just from having lived it.”
The next day, Calvanese is in his apartment. The Redfish Rocks reserve is visible outside his bay window. But Calvanese is focused on his data.
“So, what we’re looking at here is sort of the other side of the story,” he says. “So, yesterday we put the transmitter tags in the fish. And, at the other end of this story is this receiver that receives those signals. Actually, this is all the data for one tag - it’s a Canary rockfish. What we know about them is they actually do move around quite a bit. And, that’s what we’re seeing here.”
Calvanese says traditionally scientists have a starting point - where the fish was tagged, and an end point - where the fish was caught.
“And so, we have these two points, and we make inferences about - a fish moved from there to there - but we don’t know anything about what they did in the interim. So, here we get an opportunity to get that long time series that combines THE space and time in a way that we haven’t been able to do before.”
Calvanese plans to make his tracking data available to everyone. Scientists, of course, but also fishermen like Jeff Miles, the fishermen willing to sacrifice immediate gains for the knowledge that their way of life will be sustained, even if traditional fishing grounds, like Redfish Rocks, are permanently set aside for conservation.
(This story was produced by the COSEE NOW, with support from the National Science Foundation.)