Explore protected areas in Oregon’s marine reserves

Garibaldi, hours. — In the docks up and down the Oregon coastIt is not uncommon to see anglers gathering in the early morning hours, discussing fishing strategies and preparing their gear for a day on the water.

That was the scene in Garibaldi on Tuesday, where a group of 10 fishermen were huddled in the cold near the Norwester, a charter fishing boat scheduled to make the eight-hour trip north of the small town.

But while the scene may have been common, the day’s destination was not. The group was headed to Cape Falcon Marine Sanctuary, a 12-square-mile piece of land off the coast of Oswald West State Park, where fishing and ocean development have been banned since 2016.

Hunters did not hunt for pleasure or for food. They were fishing for science, explained Lindsay Aylesworth, marine sanctuary program leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“These are really living laboratories off our coast,” Aylesworth said. “We’re tracking changes over time, so we’re trying to understand what this protection provides for these communities here.”

There are five marine reserves along the Oregon coast: Redfish Rocks south of Port Orford, Cape Perpetua near Yachts, Otter Rock north of Newport, Cascade Head near Lincoln City, and Cape Falcon.

Tuesday fishing The trip to Cape Falcon Sanctuary was part of the state’s ongoing survey effort to collect data on marine life and ocean conditions in the protected area.

As the Norwester prepared to launch from Garibaldi Pier, research assistant Ryan Fields laid out the plan for the day. The boat will perform 15-minute “drifts” in areas shown in a grid on the reserve map. Anglers will get instructions on exactly when to drop their rods and when to reel so the state has reliable data on how many fish are caught. The reserve’s results will then be compared with similar surveys outside the protected waters.

Credit: Callie Williams/KGW

But to get data about what kind of fish are in the reserve, you have to catch them; That proved difficult as anglers began dropping their bait Tuesday.

On the first few drifts, only a handful of fish came aboard the Norwester: several ling cod, a small cabezon, and a few black rockfish.

During the hiatus, Aylesworth took the time to expand on why reserves are important.

“We want to make sure that our fisheries here in Oregon remain healthy,” she said, noting that as the oceans change, the data collected will serve as a valuable measuring tool. “It’s good for us to be able to track these changes, and that way we can understand which ones are related to changing ocean conditions and which ones are related to placing these areas for protection.”

The reserves are also intended to answer some big questions, Aylesworth said.

“How does it compare to areas where fishing is permitted? Are we seeing the same changes that may be caused by larger oceanographic processes occurring on a larger scale than marine reserves?” she said.

While Aylesworth was speaking, the Norwester pulled into a new fishing spot, and within seconds of dropping the lines into the water, the fish began biting, and biting fast.

“All day, we were out of luck and suddenly they showed up like crazy!” shouted one of the hunters.

“It’s hot out here,” said another, as he pulled out one fish, dropped his line, and got another bite within seconds. “here we go again.”

Anglers were hooking fish, mostly black rockfish, every 30 seconds or so, sometimes with two fish per line. Fields and fellow research assistant Emma Johannes quickly got busy, measuring each fish, assessing its condition, and sometimes tagging the fish before returning them to the water.

The action will not be repeated at this specific net location as the hot fishing cools significantly when the Norwester heads elsewhere. But that gave Aylesworth an opportunity to explain how the reserves came about.

When they were first proposed, many coastal fishing communities opposed the reserves, especially since some were located in prime fishing grounds near Cannon Beach and in an area known as Three Arch Rocks.

“We heard throughout the planning process — from members of the fishing community, the recreational fishing community, the commercial fishing community — that creating a protected area at this site would be very expensive,” she said, referring to Three Arch Rocks. “Establishing a marine reserve in that area would have been very costly socially, economically and culturally.”

Among those who fought against those outposts was Lance Fletcher, the captain of the Norwester.

“They wanted to basically put it in one of the two places we fish almost all the time,” he said. “We fought hard to put it in this location where there is good reef structure and there are fish, which is the case, but it’s not where we would normally fish a lot.”

While Fletcher is happy to rent out his boat for hook-and-line surveys, he remains skeptical of the benefits of protected areas.

“I would like to see some results, some data, that support that they are actually doing what they are willing to do. Producing more larger fish will have a knock-on effect where they move out of the reserve and repopulate other areas,” Fletcher said. “But even Now no one can prove it to me.”

Cape Falcon Reserve is the newest of the five reserves, where hunting restrictions have been in place for about eight years. With such limited data, Aylesworth said it’s difficult to know what kind of changes occur in the long term.

“It’s too early to see these changes,” she said, noting that the data they are collecting now will form the basis of future research, and it’s not just about the fish inside the reserve. “A lot of what we do is to produce research that is useful in other near-shore management contexts. So, it helps us manage our oceans better and make smart decisions.”

Credit: Callie Williams/KGW

But for the fishermen on the boat in Tuesday’s survey, and even for Aylesworth herself, data and management decisions and long-term oceanic changes were less important than the feeling of the tug of the fishing line and the swell of the ocean beneath the boat.

“Being out here on the ocean, it soothes the soul,” Aylesworth said. “Feels good.”

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