**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>

When the picture of a black rockfish appeared onscreen, a large number of ears in the room perked up. Then a few eyebrows raised and you could almost see the mental cogs turning. Accompanying the picture was a chart depicting the sizes of the black rockfish members of the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program caught this season – and it showed many were juvenile-sized. What could be going on? Program participants, nibbling on snacks, settled in to review program results and give feedback on the data that they themselves had produced. And they had many ideas as to why they caught a high proportion of juveniles.

‘Is it maybe because the adults move north?’ one angler suggested. Another questioned if the high proportion of juveniles in the area was true throughout history or just a recent phenomenon. Yet another wondered if the underwater robots that also monitor the areas they fish could help test some of their theories.

Sometimes the process of brainstorming produces some great new ideas for future research questions. But meetings like this also demonstrate the power of making science a more inclusive process. Being a part of the scientific process makes the word ‘science’ less scary for many members of the fishing community. These anglers can see that these scientists “are not just trying to take all the fun away”.

The Basics

717 anglers and boat captains have volunteered for the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program (CCFRP) in the 7 years of its existence, with a fairly high rate of return. Volunteers of any experience level participate in research cruises under the oversight of scientists. The CCFRP is the work of Rick Starr (California Sea Grant) and Dean Wendt (California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo) and a team of their graduate students. Although this is a “scientist-driven” program, every step of the research process, including experimental design, has included volunteers.

The CCFRP was designed to help monitor the 29 marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Central Coast to evaluate their effectiveness as a management tool for marine conservation. The sampling methodology focuses on comparing paired areas inside and outside of MPAs and hopes to observe changes in the MPAs since implementation. Initially, these methods were developed during a workshop with scientists, managers, and anglers to make sure that the data would be scientifically relevant, needed for management decisions, and feasible in the field.

The program applies a tag, and tracks basic characteristics for each fish caught. When anglers later catch a fish with a tag in the course of their own recreational fishing activities they are encouraged to report it to help scientists learn about growth and movement of recaptured fish.

Program Participation

CCFRP volunteers must have experience fishing in the marine environment, preferably in the region and in rough waters. There is a volunteer handbook and a briefing at the dock. Most training happens through interactions on the boat, learning hands-on techniques in collaboration with scientists on board for measuring and returning fish to the water safely.

Most volunteers only want to collect data – that is, take a boat trip to go catch fish and tag them – but the CCFRP also offers opportunities for those who want to go above and beyond. In a fairly unusual process for citizen science, anglers were involved in decision making about the program from the very beginning. These days, annual meetings offer the opportunity for anglers to help with interpreting their data – a time that program coordinators say is very helpful. The perspectives from people who spend a lot of time on the water often lead to interesting insights and new ways of looking at the data. The conversation doesn’t stop at the annual meeting, however; anglers also help distribute results and spread the conversation through the angling community throughout the year.

At the annual meeting, volunteers expressed a variety of reasons for participating year after year. In summary, the two biggest drivers are a love of fishing and to in some way take responsibility for a resource that has great personal meaning. Volunteers also appreciate supporting science-based decision-making about the future management of their fishery, to “provide in some small way [a] contribution to conservation and fish for years to come.”

Meeting the Mission by Balancing Goals

The CCFRP, like many citizen science programs, balances several goals, scientific and otherwise. According to their website,the CCFRP aims to:

  • “conduct scientifically sound research to better inform managers

  • collaboratively work with local fishing communities to collect fisheries data

  • provide rigorous baseline/monitoring data for the evaluation of MPA performance

  • better understand nearshore fish stocks and the ecosystems on which they rely

  • educate the public about marine conservation, stewardship, and research”

The main balancing act CCFRP faces is to collect rigorous data to inform MPA management while involving and educating fishermen about fisheries and the science involved in managing fisheries. Logistically speaking, this balance requires direct interactions between scientists and volunteers at all stages of the project. For instance, on the boat, specific instructions are given to each angler and enough scientists are on hand to help with measurements and maintain direct oversight of all research activities.

After the field season is over, meeting the goals of education and outreach requires some extra effort. Outreach and communication about how important robust data are to fisheries management helps recruit volunteers and keeps them striving to do the best work possible. In addition, there is a constant call from volunteers and their broader fishing community to “show me the science” to justify management decisions that sometimes limit access to the fishery. The CCFRP provides an opportunity for fishermen to not only see the science, but to take part in its creation.

While the CCFRP directly focuses on MPAs, it also serves as a good example of how monitoring MPAs can help inform broader ocean science needs, like fisheries management. These spillovers help simultaneously meet goals of science and informing management. For example, the program’s data on size structure of the fish stock help inform minimum size limit regulations. It shows that research on two parallel management issues can be performed simultaneously.

Data Types Good for a Citizen Science Approach

CCFRP leverages two types of expertise, starting with protocol development during the early days of the program. The academic, traditional scientific expertise of the scientists mingles with experiential knowledge of the boat captains and anglers. The kinds of questions best answered with the combination of expertises can be somewhat limited by the setting and capabilities of the group – for example, what a team of anglers can and want to do on a fishing trip.

Program coordinators stress the need to recognize the limitations of citizen science and design the protocols to accommodate those limitations. For example, don’t ask anglers to distinguish between yellowtail and olive rockfish (two species that even rockfish experts have a hard time telling apart). Have an expert on hand who can reliably make that differentiation. In this same conversation, one scientist stressed “there should be an asterisk and caution given to citizen science. Let’s not forget that Bigfoot and the Lochness monster were born out of citizen science. There needs to be people like us looking over the shoulders to make sure protocols and followed and scientific rigor is maintained.”

Data Uses

The CCFRP uses their data for educational, management, and scientific applications, largely in accordance with their stated program goals.

Educational Uses

The work of the CCFRP educates the angler community about a number of issues – most notably, about the age and life history of the fish they catch, what those fish eat, and resource management of their fishery. Evidence that this sort of community education is taking hold is apparent on angler blogs, where participants post project results. Blog comments reflect an understanding of both the science and state management processes. In addition, the broader discussion around CCFRP data demonstrates through existing social networks that MPAs are complex – and adds good, personal stories to demonstrate that point.

Management Uses

Trustworthy data is clearly a major motivation for many CCFRP participants. With trustworthy data, discussions over management decisions can focus on the options for management strategy instead of questioning the quality of the data to inform that decision. The data from CCFRP does inform fisheries models that the Department of Fish and Wildlife uses to evaluate different management options and evaluate the strategies already implemented. For example, when the CCFRP found increases in lingcod stocks, that information made DFW more comfortable in relaxing fishing restrictions so that more were available to the fishery. CCFRP staff are working with DFW to formalize this kind of relationship for data-poor fisheries in the future.

DFW has also used CCFRP data for stock assessments at the fine scale and for data-poor fisheries, both of which allow for more accurate predictions and increased permitting than the standard statistical model. DFW might also use these data in the future to evaluate angler perceptions of stock size with reality by asking the volunteers before and after their participation in the project. Finally, the CCFRP data directly informed the five-year management review of the Central Coast MPAs, as part of a baseline for the ecology and abundance of fish when the MPAs were first implemented. Data from this baseline period can serve as a reference for later measurements to track the effects of the MPAs on fish populations.

Scientific Uses

In addition to direct application of the data from the CCFRP, researchers make good use of the data to generally advance fishery science. Most directly, the CCFRP supports graduate research and education. The methodology improves our general understanding of fish stocks and movement through tagging and recaptures. Documenting changes over time also improves our general understanding of the world’s changing oceans in accordance with climate change, ocean acidification, and other large-scale dynamics. CCFRP scientists have published in the scientific literature on a wide range of topics, including how to perform collaborative fisheries research (Yochum et al 2011), the movements of black rockfish (Green and Starr 2011), methods for ecosystem-based management (Starr et al 2010), and utilizing collaborative fisheries research for management applications (Wendt and Starr 2009).

Scientific Credibility

The CCFRP model for research has quickly established itself in the scientific and fishing communities. The buy-in received through transparent, collaborative development of methods drives this establishment. Researchers in other regions of California and Oregon have adopted the CCFRP model and adapted it to their region and fishery. In addition to this vote of confidence, the CCFRP maintains some practices to verify data quality and communicate these efforts.

verification of data quality

Following the entirely collaborative nature of this project, much of the data is verified through teamwork while in the field. One of the most important points of verification is to ensure that no one is guessing at the species that they’ve caught. Scientists keep an eye on operations to make sure the protocol is followed and people can ask questions. For the truly challenging species – like rare species, they are photographed and evaluated by experts.

The protocol development process also tested different options to create the most rigorous data set. For example, protocol developers tested to determine the ideal number of sample days, standardized across sites. In other words, they calculated that one day on the water at site A equaled one day of effort at site B. At the end of the field season, the data then undergoes scientific review by professionals before it is summarized and put to use an a variety of contexts.

raw data transparency and access

After 5 years of the program, the CCFRP staff analyzed the data based on the priority research questions that motivate the program, and summarized their findings. These are available on the CCFRP website. The raw data was also part of the baseline monitoring program for the Central Coast MPAs, and is available along with all the other baseline data on Ocean Spaces [link].

clarity of communications

Since verification of data quality is a long-term and collaborative process, from protocol development to data analysis, strong communications are key. In this case, these communications not only inform potential data users of the steps taken for data verification but also invite interested people to join the conversation. Because the process is so open, the steps taken for data verification are also demonstrated to data users in person. So in a way, the more collaboration and more interactions between anglers, scientists, and managers, the stronger the verification of data. When people with multiple perspectives can all agree on the quality of data, the verification of that data is stronger than if only one kind of person gives the thumbs up.

willingness and capability to adapt methods

The CCFRP included state managers in the initial protocol development and over the last seven years, the program has adapted to remain relevant to manager needs. However, the CCFRP leaders would love to see the Department of Fish and Wildlife staff even more involved, especially as similar programs are implemented elsewhere, to be able to address statewide concerns.

Program Sustainability

At the CCFRP annual meeting, staff presented the benefits of collaborative research that they’ve observed over the course of the program:

  • It involves stakeholders in both science and management.

  • It utilizes different areas of expertise to develop protocols and collect data

  • A shared understanding of the resource facilitates communication

  • Data collection can occur at reduced costs

Participants also expressed that the program increased both personal and community motivation to show that the fishing and hunting communities can productively contribute to sustainability efforts. A handful of participants took that motivation and got involved in sustainability efforts elsewhere, like teaching in the local community (at community colleges and community groups) or participating in the Regional Stakeholder Group for implementation of the Marine Life Protection Act.

A number of participants expressed that the CCFRP is just now reaching its full value, as 7 years of data is the very minimum to be able to detect changes over time – which is important for judging the effects of MPA implementation. Staff stressed that early commitment of resources is critical, invested in the program before the full fruits of their labor emerge. Especially in those early years and to support day-to-day activities, the CCFRP relies  on support in the following ways:

  • energetic and dedicated leaders and staff

  • compensation for fishermen’s time (especially if commercial)

  • funding for or in-kind donations of boats and gear

  • a volunteer coordinator and student interns to coordinate logistics and data analysis

  • manager staff time for collaboration

Looking Toward the Future

Staff and participants in the CCFRP are a strong, unified voice that advocates for the program to continue, both for its scientific and community potential. Anglers want to see their data pointed to as the basis of decisions, stating “show us the raw data that shows this MPA is working”. Program coordinators would also like to see more data-savvy user groups take the data for their own analysis and planning, for example, local nonprofits. Finally, they’d all like to see the program continue continue to expand to other regions or grow in the Central Coast. The current participants are only a small fraction of the angling community, and participants pointed out that there’s no reason all angling trips can’t take some data too.