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Journeying Oregon’s New Marine Reserves by Bike: Managing Marine Reserves

By Chris Rurik and Helen Helfand

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6

It is a simple diagram, and Cristen Don and Stacy Galleher laugh wryly as they show us. Four overlapping circles represent their team’s responsibilities: “Policy and Administration (1 staff),” “Ecological Monitoring (2.5 staff),” “Human Dimensions Monitoring (1 staff),” and “Outreach and Engagement (1 staff).” By this stage in our journey, we understand why they laugh — five and a half people at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) are expected to take on just about every responsibility related to Oregon’s five new marine reserves.

We meet Don and Galleher in their offices south of Newport’s Yaquina Bay Bridge, a beige building equal parts garage and low-ceilinged cubicles. A state’s worth of dreams and doubts about the marine reserves’ potential comes home to roost in this nondescript place. The team of five and a half is responsible for making something of the menagerie of expectations. Don leads the team. She is slender, sweet, and poised, hardly the harried bureaucrat we might expect, and she makes no bones about the task set out for her team. Galleher is Community Engagement Director. Young and spirited, ready with snappy analogies, she illustrates Don’s points like a color commentator at a baseball game.

We have come to hear their strategy. What must be done for these marine reserves to live up to their potential?

Photo: The video sled ODFW uses to monitor undersea ecosystems. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: The video sled ODFW uses to monitor undersea ecosystems. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

We ask first about ecological monitoring, the skepticism of the Depoe Bay fishermen still raw in our minds. Are the marine reserves situated effectively? How will anyone know in ten years if they have boosted ecosystems? Is it really all about fish?

“This is a unique opportunity,” responds Galleher, “to look at the whole ecosystem.” The marine reserves, she tells us, were mandated as habitat conservation tools, not fisheries management tools. “Pulling out one particular species that’s going to benefit would be like for the whole forest, only the deer are going to benefit.”

The species-by-species approach has been ODFW’s way of preserving the state’s wildlife for over a century; it aims to balance hunting and fishing limits with each species’ reproductive capacity. It measures the size of fish populations by doing extractive trawl surveys — which are expensive enough that ODFW collects data on only a handful of commercial groundfish species — and uses the data to set fishing limits.

The marine reserves approach preservation in another way: protect entire ecosystems rather than individual species. Naturally, ODFW’s ecological monitoring strategy reflects the difference. It is using non-extractive survey techniques.

While Don excuses herself to join a phone meeting, Galleher sweeps us into the garage to show us what that means. Equipment fills the two-story space: crates, shelves of supplies, a trailered dinghy, welded metal contraptions, life vests, coils of rope. Galleher introduces us to Keith Matteson, a compact bearded man who has the look of a diver.

He sits at a table doing surgery on a splay of wires, not seeming to mind that we have interrupted his morning of tinkering. The wires run into a contraption that looks like the skeleton of an Alaskan dogsled. A cylindrical underwater camera is mounted where the musher might stand. Orange floats adorn the corners. Matteson calls it a video sled. Dragged behind a boat, it glides a few feet above the ocean floor, recording video of marine life and sensing water conditions along straight routes known as transects. Four lengths of chain dangle from the front of its skids, “tickler chains” that flush fish and crabs buried in sand into the camera’s field of view. By carefully reviewing the footage, the team can identify and tabulate each species.

Galleher and Matteson show us other monitoring toys, like a rocket-shaped steel-caged “lander” that can be dropped into rough patches of reef and a Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle (ROV), a miniature submarine decked out with high-tech cameras, multi-directional thrusters, and a tether that allows the operator on the boat to watch the video in real time.

The goal of all this cool technology is to put eyes in the ocean. Fundamentally, it is simple, old-school observational ecology. Ecology is the study of interactions among species within an ecosystem, and the best way to begin to tell stories about these interactions is by patiently watching them happen. This can be very difficult in the ocean, Earth’s most inscrutable environment.

Video: Juvenile Dungeness Crabs at Cape Perpetua. Video courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Galleher eagerly shows us footage from a video sled survey at one of Cape Perpetua’s marine protected areas. The sled is passing over a barren expanse of sand that abruptly changes into a wriggling carpet of tiny shapes, millions of indistinct creatures roiling out in all directions. They are juvenile Dungeness crabs.

The scene is awe-inspiring and creepy. Galleher, a trained ecologist, finds it just as bizarre as we do. “We don’t know how they use that area,” she says — even though the crab is one of Oregon’s most beloved species and sustainable fisheries. “Why were they all sectioned into one place?” she asks. The lifestyle of teenage crabs: another nearshore mystery.

ODFW’s marine reserves team puts its cameras into the water with few preconceived ideas about what it will find. Built into its strategy are two ways of understanding change. First, by running transects within the marine reserves again and again, it will see how ecosystems change over time. Second, by running transects in comparable habitat outside the marine reserves, it will see which changes can be attributed to the lack of extractive pressure.

This observational style of science will not be able to answer all questions — the team wants university scientists, conservationists, and citizen scientists to step up and do targeted research on things like larval dispersal and the longevity of individual fish — but it does have its advantages.

For instance, fisherman Terry Thompson told us a story about the power of being able to see underwater. When a communications corporation hired him to help chart a safe route for its billion-dollar submarine cable, he got to watch footage from the corporation’s fancy ROV. It showed him fish he knew intimately from the end of a fishing line but had never seen going about their daily lives. The behavior of yelloweye rockfish struck him as particularly enlightening. Yelloweye are off-limits to fishermen all along the West Coast; trawl surveys show the species to be a shadow of a healthy population. The ROV footage told Thompson a different story. Whenever the ROV came near, yelloweyes flung themselves headfirst into crevices in the rocks, then stuck their fins out for protection. He and fellow fishermen had long wondered why trawlers could drag nets through an area and catch no yelloweye while hook-and-line boats were hauling in plenty of them — and why so many yelloweye had scraped-off front spines. The ROV footage offered a behavioral explanation: yelloweye are good at escaping predators, and nets, by hiding in crevices. If Thompson’s theory is correct, trawl surveys miss most of the yelloweye, meaning the population is under-counted and the fishing ban is too stringent.

Such behavioral clues are key to unraveling the life history of a species and building an understanding of the whole ecosystem. Such knowledge is useful to scientists, conservationists, and fishermen alike.

Video: Footage from ODFW’s video lander showing kelp greenling, several rockfish, Pacific halibut, and other species. Video courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

ODFW’s observational marine reserve approach allows for surprises. Another film shows a black and white monster blurring past the camera. The team slowed the video, and the monster became a common murre, a seabird that uses its wings like fins to chase fish underwater. Such chance encounters have the potential to teach unexpected lessons.

A marine algae expert catalogued over 200 types of seaweed, kelp, and other algae in Otter Rock Marine Reserve. In Depoe Bay, fisherman Loren Goddard had told us about the study with amazement: he hadn’t known there were that many species on earth, let alone in the 730-acre reserve!

When we ask Galleher about her favorite species, she redirects the question onto the whole ecosystem. Her favorite thing to see is the fascinating complexity obvious when she’s not focused on a particular species. “You could freeze a frame of the video,” she says, “and there’s just so much to look at.”

The approach is already yielding useful lessons. This year, a mysterious sea star wasting syndrome hit the Oregon Coast, melting away whole populations of sea stars. When we went tide pooling at Otter Rock, we should have found hundreds of sea stars. There were none. Because the ODFW team has been filming at Otter Rock for several years, it was able revisit old footage, pay special attention to sea stars, and watch the decline. The footage may not reveal the pathogen responsible, but it does give clues about the pattern of the outbreak.

And now the team will be able to watch how ecosystems fare without sea stars — and how their populations recover.

Video: Nearshore rocky reef invertebrate species filmed at Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. Video courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Galleher is saying how cool it would be to have a submersible like Alvin when Matteson exclaims, “Oh, got it!”

Two lasers shoot from the front of the video sled. Twin dots sizzle on the concrete floor at our feet. “I’ve been struggling with this all morning,” he says, wires and pliers still in his hands, “and the lights just came on.”

Galleher cheers. “Eureka moment!”

We watch the dots, mesmerized. “They’re ten centimeters apart, so when I look in my video and I see an object, I see Stacy’s foot, I can say, oh, that’s a size fifteen!”

“Hey!” Galleher protests. “Hey! My feet aren’t that big!”

Matteson chuckles and returns his full attention to the machine.

Galleher shifts the conversation away from animals and onto people, her forte. Her job is centered on community-driven conservation, the principle that guided the designation process. Selecting sites for the marine reserves by gathering community teams ranging from hardcore conservationists to lifelong fishermen proved every bit as contentious as expected, yet it worked. People were given the power to voice their opinions and make compromises, which personally invested them and the communities they represented in their marine reserves.

Galleher’s job is to help keep them engaged now that the designation process is over. ODFW cannot knit a marine reserve into its locality. It cannot force a community to take pride in its marine reserve. Community engagement has to come from within the community, from true locals who step up with energy, ideas, and expertise. Galleher’s job is to help these people. She does not intend to prescribe projects, she wants to empower people to create their own projects. That could mean beach cleanup groups, ecotourism businesses, university courses, nonprofit coalitions, citizen science studies, festivals — anything the community thinks will add meaning and value to their marine reserve.

It’s a long game, none too flashy, just like ecological monitoring. Empowering people through trusting relationships takes time.

Photo: Devil's Punchbowl, part of Otter Rock Marine Reserve. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: Devil’s Punchbowl, part of Otter Rock Marine Reserve. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

At the moment, more immediate needs steal some of Galleher’s time. Misinformation about the marine reserves has spread like an invasive species. Agate collectors worry that they will not be able to pick up stones. Beach-walkers are passing the rumor that the beach will be closed. Fishermen are grumbling about bigger plans to shut down the ocean.

We ask why she couldn’t just print some maps and rules and post them where people use the beach.

She grins at our innocence. Complexities abound. Marine reserve boundaries can be invisible without GPS coordinates. Some beaches are included, some are not. Each of the marine protected areas surrounding the marine reserves has its own harvest rules uniquely tailored to the local setting. Shellfish rules can be especially convoluted. Thus, clear maps are no easy feat — especially when they must be visually appealing and likely to draw attention. Just digging holes for signposts requires extra work. Thanks to federal laws and the coast’s abundant shell middens, an archaeologist must do a survey before any hole can be dug, even small ones.

“Signage has a long history of just being complicated,” says Galleher.

We had no idea.

Some signs have now been posted. One went up long before the others. It is in Port Orford, home of Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, where in a week or so we will make our journey’s final stop. Galleher tells us about Port Orford’s community team, which continues to rally around its marine reserve with all kinds of locally driven projects. We have heard similarly intriguing accounts throughout our journey. People point us toward Port Orford as a counterpoint to stories of their own dysfunctional communities. Their tone suggests that its functionality is an enigma.

We want to see this special case firsthand. It has grown in our minds into a shining town on a coastal hill.

Sensing our anticipation, Galleher warns us not to treat it as a template for success. What works there may not work for the other marine reserves. Opportunities shift depending on local conditions. So do barriers. Each place is unique, and Port Orford has its fair share of dysfunction too.

Galleher has been hosting community brainstorming sessions up and down the coast as a way of mapping the unique social terrain of each community. She sounds optimistic. How will marine reserves become a proud part of coastal culture? Her strategy is not to prescribe, but to listen: “We are really just trying to get people involved how they want to get involved.”

Photo: The overturned 'thing' found at Otter Rock Marine Reserve. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: The overturned ‘thing’ found at Otter Rock Marine Reserve. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

We are getting ready to leave the ODFW garage, still chatting, when we remember the ‘thing’ we found overturned near an Otter Rock tide pool. We try to describe it, though our vocabulary is inadequate: like the underside of a foot, maybe a mollusk, light orangish, pretty big.

Galleher has a guess. “Yes!” she exclaims when we show our picture. “Gumboot chiton! That’s one of my favorite critters!” Cryptochiton stelleri is one of the world’s largest chitons, an oddly lovable algae grazer. “It’s awesome!” she says as she gazes at the picture. She can’t help but repeat herself: “Gumboot chiton — awesome!” Her unbridled love for the ocean is contagious.

The marine reserves team needs its enthusiasm to be contagious. In ten years, ODFW must measure the marine reserves’ success by making a sweeping review of all available data.

The team knows that signs of success will not be in the places most people expect. Reefs will probably not be overflowing with fish. A decade is far too short for ecosystems hinged on ancient rockfish to regain their equilibrium, so scientific data will be premature. Likewise, economic data from coastal towns will tell only a short-term story. No, the most telling statistic in ten years will be the number of people engaged with the marine reserves. If a marine reserve has drawn the active, creative interest of locals, whatever their ideas, and the pride of towns, it will be well on its way to becoming a meaningful place.

The marine reserves are still in their infancy. But if we can judge by the passionate Oregonians we have met so far on this cycling journey, they will not suffer from a lack of attention.