Central Coast marine protected areas — once considered a flop — may now be helping fish

Ed Gomez felt a jerk on his hook and then reeled in his catch, a lively rockfish that slapped against the side of the boat as it was pulled aboard.

The angler was out on a sampling trip off Morro Bay with the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program, which pairs anglers with researchers to gather information about fish populations in marine protected areas. Gomez has been a volunteer since the program began taking local recreational fishermen on the water in 2007.

Since the research program’s start, it has forged connections with people who have a stake in the local fisheries while collecting more than a decade worth of local data on fish populations in marine protected areas.

And while it was once unclear whether local marine protected areas were giving depleted fish stocks the boost they need, researchers say they’re starting to see positive results.

Changes to state marine protected areas

The World Wildlife Foundation broadly describes marine protected areas — often abbreviated as MPAs — as locations designated and managed for “marine ecosystems, processes, habitats, and species, which can contribute to the restoration and replenishment of resources for social, economic, and cultural enrichment.”

In 1999, California passed the Marine Life Protection Act, which said marine protected areas in the state at that time lacked a “coherent plan and sound scientific guidelines,” creating “the illusion of protection while falling far short of its potential to protect and conserve living marine life and habitat.”

Science crew member Rose Dodgen prepares to release a copper rockfish into Morro Bay Harbor on Aug. 2, 2019, during a California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program trip to conduct research on the Central Coast fish population. Laura Dickinson

These earlier marine protected areas were small and often focused on a specific user group or very particular area or habitat, according to Rick Starr, a research faculty member at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and former director of the California Sea Grant Extension Program.

According to the Stanford Report, the Marine Life Protection Act directed that marine protected areas should instead “extend protection to entire ecosystems, thus preserving endangered and threatened species and habitats they need to survive,” and should be managed as a connected statewide network instead of in the previous piecemeal manner.

During this overhaul process, the boundaries of older MPAs were sometimes dissolved or expanded, and in some cases entirely new ones were created. Within the new MPA system, the share of protected California state waters went from 1% to almost 20%.

Starr said two previous failed attempts by the state to implement the act led to the decision to roll out newly restructured MPAs region by region, rather than all at once.

The first restructured MPAs were established in 2007 along the Central Coast, with 18 percent of its state waters split between 28 marine protected areas and one marine recreational management area.

Bridges to Baccalaureate scholar Juan Aviles measures a blue rockfish before releasing it into into Morro Bay Harbor on Aug. 2, 2019, during a California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program trip to conduct research on the Central Coast fish population. Laura Dickinson

Marine protected areas are further classified in ways that influence how people can interact with them.

For example, 13 Central Coast protected areas are also categorized as state marine reserves, restricting anyone from taking or harming “any living, geological, or cultural marine resource” — such as fish, petroleum or historical artifacts from shipwrecks — except for permitted activities like research and restoration.

These reserves are sometimes also called “no take” areas, which in practice means commercial and recreational fishermen can’t cross into these boundaries and fish.

Starr said one of the purposes of these reserves is “to provide safe haven for reproduction of fishes.”

The conventional thinking has been that an increase in fish production in a marine reserve might “spill over” MPA boundaries and could enhance nearby fishing opportunities.

Volunteer fishing prepare their poles early Friday morning before departing Morro Bay on Aug. 2, 2019, on a California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program trip to conduct research on the Central Coast fish population. Laura Dickinson

What is the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program?

Starr and Dean Wendt, dean of Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics and a biological sciences professor, created the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program to assess the effectiveness of these newly created marine protected areas as a fisheries management tool.

When developing the program, both recognized the fishing community was especially affected by no-take areas. They decided to bring anglers together with scientists to help decide where to fish and how to collect data.

Starr and Wendt continued to extend this partnership to sampling trips on the water by using commercial charter boats to get to study locations and by using volunteer anglers to help them collect data on fish.

If everyone’s involved in collecting and interpreting information,” Starr said, “any disagreements in future meetings are related to policy and not actual data.”

Though the program started between Cal Poly and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Wendt said an infusion of funds let them expand the program statewide in 2017 to include partners Humboldt State University, Bodega Marine Lab, UC Santa Barbara and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Each institution in the fishing program uses the same sampling methods in their respective locations, producing data that can be compared across the state.

The charter boat Rita G, owned and operated by Virg’s Landing in Morro Bay, is docked and ready for the crew to come aboard for a California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program trip to conduct research on the Central Coast fish population on Aug. 9, 2019. Laura Dickinson

What happens on the water

At 5:30 a.m. on a recent August morning, anglers and a Cal Poly science team crowded aboard the charter boat Rita G, owned and operated by Virg’s Landing out of Morro Bay. The surrounding seas were choppy and socked in by fog.

During the trip, the group worked at four different reference sites outside of Piedras Blancas marine protected areas. Grant Waltz, a research assistant who works with Wendt, oversaw the day’s operations.

The boat stopped at points within each 500-by-500-meter sampling location, where anglers continually baited and recast their rods for a total of 45 minutes. This “catch rate” of fish caught over a known period of time using the same fishing techniques can be used to compare how populated reserves are to reference locations.

Every time a fishermen landed a fish, the boat erupted into a flurry of activity. A member of the science team quickly took the fish — or sometimes two on an especially successful cast — to the sampling station they previously set up.

Fish were laid out on plastic measuring board so their length could be recorded, occasionally escaping the researchers’ hands to briefly flop around before being retrieved.

At the same time, according to Waltz, researchers collected samples for associated studies, tagging healthier specimens and noting other details such as species and condition — all before carefully releasing the fish back into the water.

The day’s activities were an example of what occurs during the program’s frequent trips to either collect samples within one of the local marine protected areas or outside reference sites. That can help researchers compare the difference in populations of fish between both places.

The research program relies on charter boats like the Rita G to shuttle the science crew along with anglers to help sample fish.

What success looks like

Both Starr and Wendt were authors on a 2015 study published in the journal Public Library of Science One that examined the first seven years of data gathered by the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program.

The study suggests there wasn’t much change in fish populations during that time frame within more recently established marine protected areas.

Student science crew member Meghan Fox measures and identifies a fish before releasing it as research technician Grant Waltz records data aboard a boat in Morro Bay Harbor on Aug. 2, 2019, during a California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program trip to conduct research on the Central Coast fish population. Laura Dickinson

One of the challenges for seeing measurable impacts of newer MPAs, Wendt said, is that it “takes a long time for these systems to respond, especially in cold temperate waters with slow-growing species.”

“For five years we would go out and present, saying so far, there’s no discernible difference between MPAs and reference sites,” he said.

It wasn’t until the past few years, Wendt added, that researchers have seen “characteristic marine MPA responses.”

Starr said grant money the researchers recently received from California Ocean Protection Council will allow them to more formally analyze their entire 14-year data set. But he said that “MPAs in the Central Coast are for the most part harboring a higher abundance of fish than nearby reference areas.”

While more definitive results are still incoming, the program does appear to have successfully fostered positive relationships within parts of the fishing community.

Bruce Harwood, Virg’s Landing general manager, said the business is happy to take out researchers and anglers to collect data as “it’s in our best interest to see healthy fish populations.”

The California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program’s vessel departs Morro Bay Harbor on Friday, August 2, 2019, to conduct research on the Central Coast fish population. Pictured are, from left, charter boat deckhand Manny and Cal Poly research technicians Grant Waltz, Alicia Ellingson, Theresa Bersin and Grace Willett. Laura Dickinson

He also appreciates the exchange of information the program fosters.

“Every year they invite everyone who’s been involved with those trips to a review meeting that lasts for a couple hours after they produce their graphs and data, so can see how fish populations have remained the same, gone up a little or down a little,” Harwood said.

Wendt said anglers are recruited to the program mostly through occasional announcements and by word of mouth. It appears that there’s no shortage of extra hands; the volunteer database across the state contains the names of more than 1,000 people.

When asked what he gains from volunteering with the program since its inception, Gomez said it gives him the “opportunity to get back to a sport I enjoy, and I learn something while doing it.“ He’s gained a better understanding of fisheries and his impact on them, he said.

Gomez, who’s fished since he was 5 years old, said he wants the fisheries to be there for future generations.

Want to become a volunteer angler with the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program? Email your name, contact information and preferred sampling region to or find more information at

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