Performing surgery on a fish is tricky enough. But when the surgeon wields his scalpel while kneeling in a boat that’s bucking like a mechanical bull, the task requires a whole new level of finesse.
One high-overcast afternoon off the shores of Port Orford, that’s exactly what Oregon State University researchers Scott Heppell and Tom Calvanese are about to do. They have motored out to a rocky reef in pursuit of five species of rockfish — blacks, canaries, Chinas, coppers, quillbacks — and a species of sculpin called a cabezon, for implantation with acoustic monitoring tags. Idling their outboard motor inside a cluster of craggy outcroppings known as Redfish Rocks, the men brace themselves in the bow of a heaving Boston Whaler named OSU Fisheries & Wildlife. Each man drops a hook and line into the ocean.
The rockfish are biting like crazy. Over and over, the researchers reel them in, only to find that they’re members of non-targeted species. “Another blue,” Heppell grouses after releasing the fourth grayish-blue specimen. Then his pole arcs hard as another fish takes his bait. He draws it to the side of the boat. “It’s a black!” he announces.
He gently unhooks the steel-gray fish whose spiny head looks like a Japanese fan unfurled. “All species of rockfish are beautiful,” he observes. “Their genus name, Sebastes, is Greek for ‘magnificent’.”
After a couple of false starts when the slippery animal writhes out of his hands and flops onto the floor of the boat, he and Calvanese invert the fish onto the “surgery cradle,” a v-shaped acetate device custom-made for this procedure. The fish lies still as Calvanese bathes its gills with fresh seawater to keep them wet and oxygenated. Working fast, Heppell makes a half-inch incision in the body wall, avoiding the liver. He sterilizes a black plastic cylinder about the size of a ballpoint-pen cap and tucks it into the tiny opening. Every few minutes, the battery-powered electronic device sends out an acoustic signal uniquely coded for that individual fish. A series of underwater microphones, which Calvanese previously deployed around the reef’s perimeter, will pick up the ultrasonic pinging from the fish’s transmitter and store the data, allowing the researchers to track its movements over the coming year.
Still unfazed by the boat’s rocking motion, Heppell takes a couple of deft stitches with a nylon thread to close the wound, applies an antibiotic, and sets the fish carefully inside a pyramid-shaped wire cage attached to a 50-foot yellow rope. He and Calvanese lower the cage, which is equipped with a miniature camera, into the depths of the reef. They watch the fish’s behavior on a small monitor mounted on the dashboard, holding their breath. Despite the trauma of surgery, 98 percent of tagged fish survive, studies have shown.
“OK, he’s swimming,” Heppell says a few moments later.
The researchers pull a release lever, and the cage pops open. The black rockfish — one of seven fish tagged that day
— returns to the reef, where it could live for 50 years or more.
The study — which Calvanese is conducting in collaboration with local fishermen for his master’s degree in Marine Resource Management — is part of a massive multi-institution research undertaking at Redfish Rocks, one of two pilot sites that were set aside as no-fishing zones called “marine reserves” in 2008 by the Legislature on the recommendation of Oregon’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC). Scientists like Calvanese and Heppell, an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, are studying the cold-water reef ecosystem for data that will form a baseline “snapshot” against which future findings can be compared.
OPAC’s overarching research question is, Can marine reserves help protect biodiversity, marine habitats and areas important to marine fisheries in Oregon’s coastal waters? If so, how big should the no-fishing zones be for optimal effectiveness? Tracking rockfish is one way to find out.
“With acoustic tracking, we can see the fish’s home-range patterns,” says Heppell. “How far does a fish move in a day? How far does it move over the course of a season? How often does it swim outside the protection of the reserve? From a management perspective, this study will let us know how often and how long the fish are vulnerable to harvest.”
These are questions that have engaged oceanographers, marine biologists and Sea Grant Extension agents at OSU for at least a decade. Despite strong scientific evidence that marine reserves, when well designed and carefully monitored, provide safe haven for fish, thus allowing dwindling populations to rebound, many Oregon fishermen perceive them as threats to their livelihood. If fishermen don’t buy in, reserves won’t work, research shows.
“The first element of marine reserve success is that people don’t fish there,” says OSU’s Selina Heppell, an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife who sits on OPAC’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee (and is married to Scott Heppell). “Biological response, economic benefits — those all come later. If you put lines on a map and people ignore them, your reserve is a failure.”
The fate of marine reserves in Oregon, it turns out, hinges not only on science, but also on buy-in from a host of stakeholders: commercial and recreational fishermen, environmentalists, business proprietors, local government, property owners and coastal communities. Port Orford, with its thriving reef at Redfish Rocks, has been at the forefront of getting that buy-in.
(Update: Since this article was written, the Redfish Rocks Community Team has continued to collaborate with researchers and resource managers. In January 2012, fishing restrictions - developed with input from resource users - took effect for Redfish Rocks and Otter Rocks.)
Read more on this story at Terra Magazine
Banner photo: Scientists and crew of the F/V Top Gun head out to tag rockfish at Redfish Rocks. Photo by Jason Albert
Smaller photo by Heath Korvola
Video: At Port Orford's Redfish Rocks marine reserve, scientists and fishermen are equipping rockfish with transmitters (courtesy of Justin Smith, Lee Sherman, and David Golden with Golden Marine Consulting)