By Chris Rurik and Helen Helfand
Our journey ends at Oregon’s southernmost marine reserve: Redfish Rocks.
Leaving behind the rugged majesty of Cape Perpetua, we cycle 175 miles south, passing through sand dune country and the worn town of Coos Bay, where citizens refused a proposed marine reserve. Beyond that, the landscape we enter feels remote, more a part of the Siskiyou Mountains than the state of Oregon. Rock pillars stand in the sea. A taste of southern warmth pervades the air. When we reach the town of Port Orford, home of Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, we see why so many people have described it to us as isolated, beyond the reach of the factionalism we saw along the rest of the Oregon Coast — uniquely positioned to own and take pride in its new marine reserve, to weave it into the local scene.
If community involvement in Oregon’s new marine reserves can be compared to undersea ecosystems, where a healthy dynamic requires a diversity of species filling many niches, Port Orford has a reputation for being the most robust community ecosystem of them all. In our minds, Port Orford has grown into a shining town on a coastal hill. We have finally arrived to see if the reality meets the reputation.
On our first glide through town, it seems fairly ordinary, a compact collection of homes, restaurants, antique shops, a pub, and a market that walks the fine line between quaint and dilapidated. Its ocean vista, on the other hand, is sensational. From a highway pullout just beyond the town’s main drag, we gaze into an amphitheater of ocean coruscating in the sunlight. Iconic rocks rise from the cobalt surf. Southward, the coastline fades into the sky. A wayside display informs us that a cluster of rocks in the middle distance is Redfish Rocks Reef.
Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve’s most unique attribute is its community team. While the other four community teams went their separate ways after compromising on the reserve boundaries, the Redfish Rocks team stayed together to ask what should come next. It continues to meet, a group of commercial fishermen, conservationists, research scientists, recreational fishermen, and local government officials committed to navigating the complexities of this new feature in their landscape. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), grateful for such a self-starting community, has provided funding to support the work.
We sit down with Tyson Rasor, the community team’s project coordinator, a gentle and earnest man who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer with fishermen in Morocco before moving to Port Orford. His job, a part-time position made possible by ODFW’s funding, is to translate the marine reserve’s potential to the community.
“Marine reserves can be biologically successful,” he tells us, “but they can also be social failures.”
For now, the bulk of his work is aimed at simply increasing the community’s awareness of the marine reserve and correcting misperceptions. For all the movement around Redfish Rocks, the marine reserve remains widely misunderstood in Port Orford. He hosts events on the town dock with touch pools and model submarines, speaks in community gathering places, presents to students in school classrooms, and creates brochures. When we ask him about the target audience for his efforts, he answers, “I would say it’s everybody, because nobody really knows about what’s going on. Right now it’s almost like a shotgun approach.”
Later, we will get a taste of the town’s deep misperceptions when we mosey into Dana’s Trading Post, a consignment shop full of nautical treasures. The proprietor, a white-haired man whose reedy windpipe sounds like it has been rubbed raw with salt, walks us outside to where we can see the reef. In between stories of catching lingcod from his kayak, he says, “You’ll see some rocks out there that they closed.” He curses offhandedly as he explains that it is “because they want to take pictures and watch what the fish are doing and all that.” He is caustic and dismissive toward the marine reserve — we probe, but the limit of his understanding is that “they” took a good place to fish and locked people out so that they could take pictures of fish. That is all he needs to know. The idea that the ocean should be free and open to anyone dies hard.
Rasor admits, “Outreach is incredibly difficult.”
He does not like the way the phrase “marine reserve implementation” has been tossed around in Oregon. “You implement a project,” he says. “You implement a plan. You implement things, but how do you implement a marine reserve?”
“It’s such a sterile word for such a deep connection that you’re trying to talk about.” His goal is not to implement, but to integrate. He wants the marine reserve to inspire Port Orford. The information he passes out does not merely lay out fishing regulations, which would lead only to dull acceptance; it shows how people can get involved, making sure to emphasize that the community team does not have all the answers, that there is plenty of room for more perspectives and ideas.
To Rasor, integrating a marine reserve means connecting it with people on land, creating a shared sense of stewardship among people who work in different ways.
Port Orford has no safe harbor, which may explain why the town has a reputation for doing things its own way. Late in the afternoon we go to the community dock to see the town’s fishing fleet. Their solution to the lack of a harbor makes for a bizarre scene: fifty-odd boats sit atop the colossal dock in neat rows, each of them beached on a homemade trailer. We walk between them like seals in a harbor, on level with the lower hulls and looking up to the gunwales. Two massive cranes protrude from the dock’s edge.
We spy a salmon boat far out at sea. As it approaches, a crane operator materializes and fishermen drift over from their boats to see the catch. The incoming boat’s captain is a young man working alone. He uncorks his hold and transfers his catch of thirty salmon into a yellow crate. It is winched up to the dock by two young men working for Hallmark Fisheries, the company that buys most of the fleet’s catch. They weigh each fish and stash them upright in a larger crate filled with ice water. Meanwhile, the captain motors to the crane and begins to attach cables to his boat.
He will never see his catch again. In Port Orford, there is no local market. Companies like Hallmark load the fleet’s catch into refrigerated trucks on the dock and drive them straight out of town for anonymous delivery into the national seafood processing industry. The companies have no face in the community other than their dockworkers. Though each of Port Orford’s boats is individually owned and fishing is at the core of the town’s identity, the fleet is just a cog in an industry much larger than the community.
We meet with a group of people who are trying to change that. Port Orford Ocean Resources Team (POORT), a non-profit determined to take local ownership of the challenges facing the town’s fishery, was formed in 2001 when a contingent of fishermen realized that national- and state-dictated management policies were failing them. They had experienced the depletion of whole salmon runs and the collapse of the urchin fishery. Their daily trips onto the water tipped them off to an impending groundfish disaster. Rather than let the consequences of distant regulatory decisions roll over them like a tidal wave again, they organized.
“The whole premise of this organization,” POORT director Leesa Cobb tells us, “is an understanding that fish are a public resource, that they’re not our fish, they’re the peoples’ fish.”
When the state mandate to consider a marine reserve came to Port Orford, POORT fought against the knee-jerk reaction of disgust by asking how a marine reserve might benefit fishermen. After looking into the logic behind marine reserves, POORT determined that a marine reserve could be just the kind of sustainable savings account it was trying to build into the fishery, a stronghold that could resist future collapses.
POORT became a crucial voice bridging the divide between fishermen and conservationists during the designation process. Because the state followed through on its promise to cede decision-making power to teams of locals, Cobb says, it became a story of Port Orford maintaining control of its own destiny. Community members were given colored markers to draw what they thought would be an ideal marine reserve onto maps that ended up covered in polygons of all shapes and sizes. The focused process forced people to always consider the goals for the marine reserve. Some criteria emerged: it had to be enforceable, it had to have diverse habitats, it had to be big enough to be meaningful — giving it at least a chance to boost fish populations — and it could not cripple the fishery. Through all the give and take, Redfish Rocks became the logical choice.
“We know our fishing grounds and where this could really benefit us,” says Cobb.
We ask POORT-involved fisherman Aaron Longton if Redfish Rocks was a good place to fish. “It was a place that had been hammered,” he says. “It was one of these places that had already been depleted, but the habitat was so good and so rich, that given a rest — like, forever — we thought it would be amazing.”
Longton tells us about one outgrowth of what he calls POORT’s “revol-ocean.” A few years ago, he and two fellow fishermen set out to see if they could sell their own catch. Could a local direct-to-consumer supply chain be created?
They found untapped demand throughout the state’s population centers, all the way to Portland. The three formed Port Orford Sustainable Seafood (POSS) to supply subscribers, restaurants, and farmers markets with fish traceable to a particular place and boat, fish caught by hook-and-line fishermen who are paid more for their catch and adhere to local fishery-management practices like the voluntarily release of spawning females. When Longton first traveled to a farmers market, he had an amazing new experience: people thanked him for his fish.
Within town, though, it is an uphill battle against the status quo. Most fishermen hear talk of generational sustainability as code speak for an impingement on their right to earn a living. Plus, the fish-buying corporations blacklist those that sell to POSS.
“Nothing we did was less than strategic,” says Cobb. “We just didn’t always understand the backlash and the personal nature of how things would get.”
Yet POSS has 350 subscribers and continues to grow. Its fish is now branded with the marine reserve’s name. “So it’s all interconnected,” says Cobb.
Of course, as soon as Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve’s boundaries were set, everyone involved in its designation wanted to know how it would affect local fish populations. They had heard enough about studies on marine reserves in New Zealand — they wanted to know how their decision would impact their own stretch of ocean.
That’s when Tom Calvanese stepped serendipitously onto the scene. A graduate student at Oregon State University (OSU) who chose Port Orford for his fieldwork on rockfish, Calvanese is an easygoing, capable man with tousled hair and a soul patch.
Unlike most outside researchers, he tells us, he did not come with a pre-formulated research agenda. He began his work by asking Port Orford fishermen what they wanted to know. The approach has paid big dividends, leading him into experiments that replicate each stage in the rockfish’s life cycle — which, taken together, have begun to reveal how the marine reserve might function as a savings account for commercial species — and gaining him the tactical support of the fishing community.
He gives us a tour of his lab as he explains his work. It is a small building that he started using a few years ago and has since persuaded OSU to purchase as a field station. He tells us, “The best way I know to get things to happen in big institutions is to just start doing it.”
The first thing Calvanese set out to learn was how different species of rockfish moved through the marine reserve. The fishermen had used their extensive knowledge of where to catch certain fish to set the marine reserve’s boundaries, but they knew that their fishing poles could only give them limited information about how the fish moved. If a fish’s home range was twice as large as the marine reserve, it would get little protection. If its home range was a fraction the size of the marine reserve, it would be free to get old and give birth to thousands of offspring.
Thus Fishtracker was born. Conceived as a scientific study, it quickly grew into a community project. Calvanese anchored a grid of forty hydrophones throughout the marine reserve, then tagged thirty fish of six species with acoustic transmitters. Fishermen helped him find and catch them, amazing him with their uncanny ability to hone in on certain species. To build support for the endeavor, he sold Fishtracker T-shirts and put the tagged fish up for symbolic adoption.
While Calvanese drummed up support on land, the fish went about their business, pinging the hydrophones as they went. Now Calvanese has three million data points to analyze. Some trends are immediately apparent. China rockfish, a beautiful species prized by the live fish markets in San Francisco, stay close to their home rocks. Canary rockfish, a schooling species, came and went for a few weeks then left the range of the hydrophones for good. So the marine reserve is more likely to protect Chinas than canaries. It is preliminary data, but it is already useful to fishermen and managers trying to understand their resource.
A simpler study sought to replicate the journey that planktonic larval rockfish undertake at the whim of ocean currents. Calvanese rigged up nine “drifters,” buoys designed to catch currents, and deployed them throughout the springtime season when most female rockfish release their larvae. The drifters sent their GPS coordinates as they went, and Calvanese posted maps of their looping paths to his blog so that people could follow along. Eight of the nine drifters eventually washed back ashore, some as far as seventy-five miles away, implying that rockfish have evolved to release their larvae when the currents will move them some distance away from the parents and ultimately deposit them back in shallow reefs. The ninth drifter is still at sea, 600 miles off the California coast at last reckoning.
A third project looks at the rockfish’s return to coastal reefs from a different angle. By then the larvae have grown into thumbnail-sized juveniles that return in waves called recruitment pulses, and Calvanese and ODFW have devised a way to capture them to see when certain species arrive.
All of it builds a picture of the life cycles of local fish. “It’s telling us a lot,” he says, “but like all good research projects, it’s revealing more questions.” How will China rockfish move when their population in the marine reserve becomes too dense? How do species segregate by depth? What can genetics tell us? The more he learns, the richer the picture becomes — and the more useful to those who depend on the fishery, especially fishermen who are eager to shore up their understanding of the ocean with scientific stories.
Rasor, from his position as coordinator, sees how the research grows out of the community and returns to it. To our surprise, he tells us that locals often complain to him that no research is happening in the marine reserve. When he describes all of the research that actually is happening, some loosen up and think it’s really cool. Others nod and say it’s nice — but that they want more. “It’s never enough,” says Rasor. “They always want more. But I think that’s great. People want to have more.”
He teaches local schoolchildren about the marine reserve, bringing classes to the beach to track trash accumulation and survey clamshells. Such research projects do not always give meaningful data. “But is that what’s important?” he asks. “No. What’s important is the kids are making this correlation behind science: you have to try something, and sometimes it doesn’t always work.” That, he explains, is what is happening with research at the marine reserve.
And he goes beyond science with the students to talk about the social dynamics at work, the challenge of conservation that works for everyone. He shows them a video Tom Calvanese filmed when he and fisherman Jeff Miles fished the reef at Redfish Rocks on the last day before it closed to extraction. Miles had fished Redfish Rocks for decades. Though he was not against the marine reserve, he could not hide his sense of sorrow as he answered Calvanese’s questions at the day’s end — he was losing a place that felt like a good friend. Seeing this video, Rasor’s young elementary schoolers pick up on Miles’ “mixed bag of feelings.” They get that meaningful places can be used in a number of ways, and that such conflicting impulses often manifest in a single person’s feelings.
Redfish Rocks has been a beloved friend to fishermen for decades. Now, it is Rasor’s and the community team’s job to ensure that it remains a friend, in a slightly different way, to fishermen, townspeople, and future generations.
Video: Port Orford fisherman Jeff Miles talks about his last day fishing Redfish Rocks. Video by Tom Calvanese.
The sunset casts the ocean deep gold. We cycle south, leaving Port Orford and the Oregon Coast behind. The road climbs seaside cliffs, giving us a view back over Redfish Rocks. The reef rocks glow like embers. Beyond them, proportion fades into the distance.
Though the vista seems infinite, the towns through which we have passed lie far beyond sight. What a journey it has been — Oregon’s coast is truly magnificent. But it was not the vistas that kept us pedaling after the state’s five new marine reserves. No, it was the diversity lying beneath the scenery’s surface that most impressed and challenged us. Each town has its own nuanced relationship with the ocean, its own cast of characters. Each marine reserve protects a unique biological setting. Each designation process was subtly unique — what worked for one would not necessarily work for another. As we journeyed between communities, we were regularly frustrated in our attempts to articulate what would make for successful marine reserves. Unforeseen local dynamics confounded any silver bullet strategy.
And so the greatest lesson we found was the power of working at a local level. The marine reserves will be as strong as the communities around them make them.
As we meander onward, often glancing back at the reef, we pass a sign that reads, “This highway adopted by Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve.” Rasor had told us of this play for publicity. Laughing, we imagine rockfish marching up the cliffs at night to sweep trash from our asphalt byways.
It is a final reminder of the connection between land and sea — well, of the many connections necessary for a strong coastline. As humans become ever more conscientious of our impact on ecosystems and dependence on their health, conservation efforts will create more nuanced networks of diverse forces. The sign gives us hope that Oregon’s marine reserves, safe havens for undersea ecosystems, will soon be seen as lynchpins of the coast’s life.