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

It’s no secret that California’s marine protected area (MPA) process was rooted in collaboration among ocean lovers of all walks of life; it was one of the key hallmarks of its success. On the North Coast, locals took it to another level, where fishermen, conservationists, tribal representatives, educators and divers created a single, unified MPA proposal to protect the marine life that is central to the local culture and the economy. These “underwater parks” provide safe havens where fish and other marine life can breed, feed and thrive.

Now, almost one year since the North Coast MPAs were implemented in December 2012, an ongoing research project once again highlights the area’s cooperative spirit. The Collaborative Fisheries Research Project is a venture between the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, Humboldt State University and local fishermen that looks at the age and abundance of nearshore fishes dwelling in rocky habits along historic Northern California fishing spots.

North Coast project designers were inspired by the success of Rick Starr’s Collaborative Fisheries Research Project on the Central Coast, where participants noted the clear benefits of combining local fishermen’s on-the-water expertise with scientifically sound sampling protocols. In addition to the immediate knowledge the HSU-Humboldt Harbor District project has provided so far, the future possibilities of partnerships between scientists and fishermen have been increased.

The overall goal of the North Coast Project is to fill data gaps by gathering information about existing fish populations living among offshore rocky substrate. As that baseline is determined, follow up research will continue to look at what changes the Reading Rock State Marine Reserve, implemented in December, 2012, has on area fish populations. Due to the region’s often-rough seas, limited access and remote coastline, baseline information has been lacking. By joining those who are experts at navigating the ocean with those who are experts at studying what’s in it, acquiring new data is becoming possible and lays the groundwork for further studies.

Given the rough waters and weather, North Coast most fishermen stay relatively close to the few ports due to safety concerns and fuel costs. Therefore, the project used proximity to port as a representation for historic fishing pressure: locations far from a port were assumed to have experienced lighter historic fishing pressure than fishing locations relatively close to a port

Stations in Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties served as starting points for teams of four fishermen to float a 500-meter by 500-meter square for 45 minutes at a time. Using a variety of gear type, the length, gender, maturity, stomach contents and age of captured fish were recorded. Ultimately, data collected reflected a catch of 7,151 fish made up of rockfish, including black, blue, canary, china, copper, gopher, rosy and yellowtail, plus kelp greenling and lingcod.

While sample sizes for most of the species studied proved too sparse to confirm how distance from port affects length, data for black rockfish (which accounted for over 60 percent of total fish sampled),
Illustrated that historic fishing effort have impacted fish size along North Coast ports. Continuing research will examine the relationship between distance from port and age structure and growth for these same populations.

These results matter because, as we know, age and size matter. Of course, marine protected areas are designed to protect the size and age of fish populations, so the hope is, on the North Coast as elsewhere, that they will serve to increase the reproductive potential of previously exploited fish stocks.

This new knowledge is the first step in providing a baseline of information about the health of fisheries within and near the North Coast MPAs, and will inform future fisheries management. In the meantime, the benefits of community collaboration are clear: local knowledge plus scientific rigor makes for a great partnership.

Photo credit for all images: Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District