By Melissae Fellet | KUSP News
It’s been five years since a network of 29 marine protected areas were established along the Central Coast. During that time, volunteer anglers, divers and hikers have been collecting data that will help scientists and fisheries managers determine how the protections affect ocean ecosystems.
The goal of protecting parts of the ocean centers around fish known as BOFFFs.
“Those are big old, fat fecund females,” explains Cheryl Barnes , a graduate student studying fish biology at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory. “Those the ones you want around to feed into the population.”
For rockfishes, anyway, the older females produce more eggs than the younger fish. It’s thought that those extra baby fish will eventually spill out into the unprotected areas of the ocean and restock the fisheries. Barnes says monitoring the size, species and numbers of fish inside the marine protected areas (MPAs) helps ensure the protections are working.
Proving MPAs are More Than a Feel-Good Policy
“Without monitoring, we could be under this false sense of security and thinking that we’re protecting our fish stocks and not actually doing it because of the design of the MPA itself, the size, the placement,” she says. “MPAs are a tool for conservation, and we’re trying to make sure that’s actually happening.”
Together with Rick Starr, Barnes leads a group of volunteer anglers who fish for rockfish, lingcod and cabezon in the protected areas in Point Lobos and Año Nuevo. “They know how to fish,” Barnes says. “You get a lot of what Rick would call “dorky scientists” out there trying to fish, we wouldn’t probably be doing as good of a job.”
The volunteers also fish in unprotected areas so the scientists can compare the catch there to that from the protected areas. Volunteer divers with the nonprofit group Reef Check California monitor the fish, algae and invertebrates living in the reefs and kelp forests in Monterey Bay and Carmel Bay.
Longer Lived Fish Need Longer Study
Scientists have enough data to determine the current status of the protected area ecosystems. But it’s still too early to say how the protections affect fish populations. That’s because some of the fish species, particularly rockfish, are so long-lived and slow growing that five years is too short a period for changes to appear. Based on the results Barnes and her colleagues have so far she says, “We’re pretty positive we will be able to see it when it happens, if it does or not.”
Another part of determining the effect of an MPA involves knowing how people use the protected areas. In a hypothetical circumstance after an area has been protected for a certain period of time, if the numbers of BOFFFs in and outside the MPA were similar, that could mean that the MPA had failed.
“Another interpretation would be, if you had the data, because of poaching, or lack of enforcement or mindless people, the use inside the MPA and out was actually the same because the MPA didn’t mean anything,” says Steve Shimek of the nonprofit Otter Project.
People Seem to Follow the Rules
Shimek’s group is one of several that organize volunteers(pdf) to monitor how people use the MPAs. The Otter Project’s volunteers note anglers, swimmers, divers and others using the MPAs between Half Moon Bay and Point Bouchon. They also visit a few unprotected areas too. Even in the areas, “from what we can tell are largely unenforced, people are still following the rules,” Shimek says. “People want to do the right thing.”
But still, he says the volunteers have witnessed fishing, and commercial fishing, in even in the most protected areas, like Point Lobos. “We have seen purse seiners in Point Lobos,” Shimek says. “So there is take happening everywhere. But the level of take is much less in protected areas.”
Even with a small amount of fishing, there are more BOFFFs, those big, old, fat fecund female fish, in that long-protected area of Point Lobos. With continued monitoring, researchers should be able to assess if those fish are thriving in the new marine protected areas too.