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Journeying Oregon’s New Marine Reserves by Bike: Cascade Head

By Chris Rurik and Helen Helfand

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Photo: The Pacific Ocean just north of Cascade Head. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: The Pacific Ocean just north of Cascade Head. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

Terry Thompson finds us in a parking lot in Lincoln City. After traversing this strip of a town all morning, looking for signs of the marine reserve just offshore, we have ended up outside the uninspiring four-story city administration building with little to show for our effort.

Yesterday we struggled mightily to bike over Cascade Head, another of the coast’s magnificent headlands, a steep knuckle of the continent decked in forest and salt-spray meadows. On land, it boasts an impressive number of overlapping conservation schemes, their acronyms as tangled as second-growth forest. We pushed on, looking for a place to see the 23.1 square miles of the new Cascade Head Marine Reserve and its associated marine protected areas. We have read that it contains more than 70 emergent rocks and excellent habitat for rockfish. But Highway 101 stuck to the backside of the headland and swept us down into Lincoln City with hardly a glimpse of the ocean.

During the morning’s reconnaissance, we drifted into relic shops, motels with puns for names, and diners facing up to the highway. We crossed what is billed as the world’s shortest river. The loosely aggregated town’s two industries are recreation and retirement. The folks we talked to gave us the impression that people here are more interested in kites than marine reserves.

Photo: Cascade Head seen from sea. Photograph by Ben Nieves.
Photo: Cascade Head seen from sea. Photograph by Ben Nieves.

Thompson’s appearance relieves us of our uncertainty about where to turn for answers. He helps us throw our bikes and gear into the back of his pickup truck, then aims south, assuring us that where he is taking us, there will be no shortage of opinions about marine reserves.

Thompson is a fisherman, first and foremost, and knows this unruly stretch of ocean as well as anyone. A lifetime of fishing has filled his boat’s plotter with the coordinates of scores of undersea rock. He has a strategy for fishing each of them. He knows what different species prefer, how they move, how they interact. With a single hook and line, he can pull up 100 in a morning.

The blue noon turns a misty gray as we approach Depoe Bay. Tomorrow, he says, he will make the hour-long 17-mile run in his boat from Depoe Bay to a reef off Lincoln City, just south of the marine reserve, where he will catch the rockfish and lingcod that he sells to a local market. “I’m about the only guy that fishes fresh local fish that delivers within an hour,” he says. “Some are still flopping when they get to the restaurant.” His small boat, with its crew of one, is a dying breed in a part of the coast given over to larger commercial boats and sport fishing charter boats.

He seconds our supposition that practically speaking, Oregon’s marine reserves boil down to fish, specifically stationary fish like rockfish, and the people who fish for them. Marine reserves do very little to prevent ocean-wide phenomena like warming temperatures and acidification. Nor do they offer more than passing protection for mobile fish like salmon and tuna. The big change they create is in preventing extraction from a specific area, and since the only extraction happening in this area is fishing, the resident fish stand to benefit most.

Already, Thompson can only go fishing about four times a month before he hits the catch limit set by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to protect fish stocks. The marine reserves compound the restrictions by taking away a sizable section of his former range.

Naturally, Oregon fishermen became intensely involved in the marine reserves’ decade-long community designation process. Thompson, as a fisherman and a politician — he also serves as commissioner of Lincoln County — advocated for marine reserves that would not callously harm the livelihood of fishing-based communities. He freely offered his knowledge of fish and ocean so that the marine reserves might make scientific sense. Other fishermen showed the whole spectrum of involvement, from those vigorously opposed on principle to those willing to compromise to those who ignored the process as if it were a bad dream.

Now that Cascade Head Marine Reserve exists, fishermen are the first to be affected. We know they will have strong opinions.

Thompson pulls the truck into the parking lot at the head of tiny Depoe Bay. All of six acres, it is the world’s smallest harbor. Still, it holds the largest charter fishing fleet in Oregon, the boats slotted in like books on a shelf. Today, the calm harbor gives little sign that yesterday was the last day of the coho salmon season, a day of exuberant madness for the town.

Photo: Terry Thompson's fishing boat, the F/V Fish 'n Chips. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: Terry Thompson’s fishing boat, the F/V Fish ‘n Chips. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

Thompson leaves us to make an appearance at the dedication ceremony for a new footbridge in the harbor’s back corner. We enter the office of Dockside Charters, where co-owner Loren Goddard sits down to give us his take on the marine reserve. A man with a deliberate voice and a sense of humor, he begins by saying, “Fifteen years ago, had anyone told me that I would have to become politically active to continue to be able to drive my boat and catch a few fish, I would have thought you were out of your mind.” He smiles and shakes his head. “But here we are.”

As we talk, the office’s phone rings constantly. It is five o’clock. Around the state, people getting off work are dreaming of catching a salmon. Even in the dead of winter, says Goddard, when salmon are far out at sea and the season has been closed for months, people want to be taken to catch the iconic fish of the Northwest. The receptionist tries to sell them on trips for rockfish and lingcod instead.

Goddard tells us about serving on the Cascade Head Marine Reserve community team. Fishermen were numerically underrepresented, he says, and they had to sacrifice time on the water to attend. Whereas conservationists representing nonprofits were paid to attend monthly meetings, Goddard gave up as much as $1500 when he missed a day on his boat.

More often than not, he went to the meeting. “We were painted as the bad guys out there plundering the reefs,” he says. “They were trying to take the whole thing. They were going to give Depoe Bay nothing. Just put them right out of business.”

In an attempt to be proactive, he and other Depoe Bay fishermen proposed an alternate marine reserve at Otter Rock just to the south, an area that they knew to be biologically rich and relatively unimportant to the fishing industry. They presented it to the state unhindered by naysayers, and it was quickly adopted. But contrary to what they had hoped, it did not satisfy those who wanted to see a marine reserve at Cascade Head. There, negotiations continued.

Again, the fishermen tried to counteract the prevailing narrative of wholesale environmental degradation. Their experiential knowledge of fish distribution and abundance told them that with a few notable exceptions already addressed by strict regulations, groundfish populations are stable on the Oregon coast. Thompson is full of examples. “There’s one spot there where there’s a city block of rockfish, come up in the mornings,” he says. “A city block of nothing but one big school of rockfish!”

It took a year of redrawing boundaries, trading rocky outcroppings here for kelp beds there, before the community team’s fishermen, scientists, and conservationists could all compromise on what is now Cascade Head Marine Reserve.

Photo: Loren Goddard in the office of Dockside Charters in Depoe Bay. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: Loren Goddard in the office of Dockside Charters in Depoe Bay. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

Setting the marine reserve’s boundaries seemed to satisfy most of the conservationists as a fitting end to the story, but not the fishermen. No, they felt they had made a sacrifice. The patches of ocean in question were not abstract spaces on the map to them, they were places full of memory. Every reef that fell inside the marine reserve nibbled away at their livelihood. Having agreed to such a sacrifice, they want to see that it has meaning.

Much was made during the designation process of how marine reserves benefit fisheries by boosting fish populations. The logic centers on BOFFFFs — big old fat fecund female fish — and rockfish stand to benefit most.

Rockfish look tough and move slow. From an evolutionary perspective, they are incredibly successful: over 70 species dwell in the Northern Pacific, each with its own take on the genus Sebastes’ big-eyed, drop-lipped, spine-finned body, each adapted to a unique niche, from the surf zone to depths of 10,000 feet. They are striking shades of yellow, red-orange, blue, and black and often very large. The most iconic species are those that drift stoically around rocky outcroppings and kelp forests, the ones fishermen know well: black rockfish, copper rockfish, China rockfish, vermillion rockfish, quillback rockfish, and others.

Like bristlecone pines, rockfish grow unhurriedly and live for ages. Females might not become sexually mature for decades, and adults in some species live for well over a hundred years. They are ovoviviparous: a female incubates her eggs inside her body, then essentially gives live birth to thousands of babies so tiny and helplessly planktonic that scientists call them larvae. Unlike humans, a female rockfish’s reproductive capacity only increases as she ages. The older she gets, the larger she grows, the more larvae she produces.

From a fisheries perspective, rockfish are delicate creatures — and not just for their white, sweet, lean meat. Their slow growth to maturation means that if a population crashes, it will take many, many decades to recover. Some rockfish species have already crashed due to overfishing, and ODFW has declared two species, canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish, completely off limits.

In theory, protecting BOFFFFs ensures a population that can replenish itself. Marine reserves offer that protection by giving BOFFFFs a safe place to live and release their larvae year after year, larvae that will ideally scatter to places outside the marine reserves where they can join populations still fished. The theory also holds that marine reserves will become so crowded with adult fish that the adults will also spill over into adjacent, fishable areas.

Marine reserves in several parts of the world have shown this pattern.  But the attitude we have heard all along the coast — that Oregon is exceptional, a whole different animal — prepares us to hear a more complicated story.

We walk with Goddard across the newly dedicated footbridge and into the small park beyond, where a celebratory community barbecue has begun.

Everyone knows everyone. Clusters of men and women socialize in the long line for a potluck spread that features four types of baked beans and burgers off a huge lazy Susan grill. We meet townspeople, more fishermen, the local reporter with his camera, various old-timers. The hottest topic of conversation is a daring Coast Guard helicopter rescue that saved everyone aboard a Depoe Bay charter boat that capsized 27 miles off the coast. People talk over all the details, from body temperatures to radio alert systems, and give their respect to the rescuers.

We meet Jack Brown, a retired nuclear physicist who now serves on the state’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council. A white-haired man with thick-framed glasses, he speaks deliberately, like he is used to being listened to. He tells us that to him, marine reserves are best seen as an insurance policy for the future.

The barbecue is fun, a small town at its congenial best. Goddard introduces us to other fishermen, all old friends. “We compete,” he says, “but we’re friendly with each other.” He tells us that these are some of the most independent people on the face of the earth, then tries to describe for us what it is like out on the water.

“At no point am I any more free,” he says. “Sure, I’ve got rules that I have to abide by, but I am in control of my destiny as much as I can be at that moment in time. And I really love that.”

Photo: Jack Brown and others at the Depoe Bay barbecue. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: Jack Brown and others at the Depoe Bay barbecue. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

The fishermen we meet make it clear that they like the idea of marine reserves that boost fisheries — but they doubt that Cascade Head Marine Reserve will live up to its promise. Their experience on the water — “strictly anecdotal,” as Goddard says — shows problems not with the overall concept but with the location chosen. Their stories illustrate how the scientific understanding of local ecosystems is limited, and that the designation process filled gaps in the data with politics and economics.

Each species of rockfish has a different life history, few of which are fully known. Some migrate; some stay put. At the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, scientists studying plankton and ocean currents are learning that larvae like baby rockfish are not merely at the mercy of currents. Larvae can move up and down in the water column, allowing them to select for certain current patterns. Therefore, they evolve strategies to tackle the seemingly impossible task of ending up back in suitable habitat. There seem to be two larval strategies: stay close to home or disperse widely. Needless to say, it is very challenging to understand this better by tracking individual larvae through the ocean, and without a specific understanding of how different rockfish move and how far their larvae disperse, it is impossible to design the parameters of marine reserves that will give them the right conditions to grow into BOFFFFs.

It is almost a catch-22. In order to put the marine reserves in effective places, scientists need much more data. To get the data, they must study undisturbed ecosystems like marine reserves.

Thompson believes that they should have put Cascade Head Marine Reserve on the south end of the stretch of coast fished by Depoe Bay boats, not the north end. “The rockfish lay their larvae in January through March,” he says. “Well, the current’s coming out of the south strong in the winter time. So that means that reserve is pumping fish into an area where there’s no rocks north for fifteen miles.”

Among other doubts, he and Goddard also worry about effort shift. With Cascade Head Marine Reserve now acting as a northern boundary for Depoe Bay’s fishing territory, boats are more concentrated. The same amount of fish is coming out of the ocean — everyone still catches their limit — but from a smaller area. If the marine reserve fails to repopulate the area, the fishery could be in trouble.

Photo: The entrance to Depoe Bay. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: The entrance to Depoe Bay. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

Later, Thompson takes us to a fenced overlook at the rocky, crooked inlet to Depoe Bay. Rolling waves surge out of the fog to pour in and out of the channel. The crashes of water and rock below almost give us vertigo. To us, it is a savage scene, and it leaves us with a gut-level admiration for those who venture onto the ocean alone.

Thompson assures us that his boat could safely navigate the channel in these conditions, then wonders aloud if he will be able to go in the morning. When the swell reaches six or seven feet, it gets dangerous for a small boat like his.

“The winter time is like its own protection for the Oregon Coast,” he says, “because most of the days are six to ten, up to 25-foot swells. You can’t even think about being around that area. That’s why the stocks stay so good here.”

Photo: The catch of the day at Local Ocean Seafoods: rockfish fish and chips. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: The catch of the day at Local Ocean Seafoods: rockfish fish and chips. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

The next evening we find ourselves in Newport, eating dinner in a restaurant that has been recommended by nearly everyone we’ve met in the last 50 miles: Local Ocean Seafood. We get a table in the dining area — which strikes us as brighter and cleaner than the typical seafood restaurant — and ask the waitress what the catch of the day is.

Fresh local rockfish, she answers. We grin.

As we savor our superb rockfish tacos and grilled rockfish fish and chips, a line forms outside. The dinner rush is a convivial crowd. People come not just to eat, but for the whole experience of an establishment that buys straight from fishermen and serves the freshest seafood on the coast.

We wonder if the sea calmed enough for Thompson to go fishing in the morning and joke that we might be eating his catch.

Looking back on our time around Depoe Bay, we see that few of the arguments surrounding Oregon’s marine reserves can be definitively reduced to provable concepts. Science aims to understand enough about ecosystems to make them predictable, but on the Oregon coast unknowns still far outweigh knowns. When conservationists here use science to justify saving certain components of ecosystems, they are speculating more than modeling. The fishermen with their theories are also speculating, as they freely admit. The information to design perfect marine reserves just does not exist.

Regardless, now that the marine reserves exist, they will slowly begin to teach scientists, conservationists, and fishermen alike more about the ocean and the rockfish that inhabit it. Someday, they may prove or disprove their own value. For now, they are a collective leap of faith.

Thompson and Goddard approach science with both curiosity and skepticism. They love the answers it provides but are wary of what happens when scientific knowledge — especially incomplete scientific knowledge — pushes aside the experiential knowledge of people who have spent more hours on the ocean than anyone.

We chew on that: how much value should be given to the anecdotes of those with firsthand experience in comparison with the value usually given to empirical science? It is a question that lies at the heart of our journey.

After picking every last morsel off our plates, we vacate our table. On our way out, we look at the glass display case full of iced fillets, whole fish, crabs, clams, shrimp, and oysters. Next to each other are piles of rockfish and lingcod — and sure enough, handwritten signs tell us that they were caught by the F/V Fish ’n Chips of Depoe Bay, captained by Terry Thompson.

Photo: Rockfish and lingcod fillets for sale at Local Ocean Seafoods. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: Rockfish and lingcod fillets for sale at Local Ocean Seafoods. Photograph by Helen Helfand.