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

Talking Fish Over Pizza

I slide onto the stool next to a hunched over man at Piaci Pizza, a local hang out for Fort Braggers. He’s watching a movie on his iPhone screen and without glancing up at me he says, “You’re that girl who counts fish.”

“Yea,” I laugh. “I work with a program that does survey’s on local reefs. Are you a fisherman?”

“I’ve been fishing here for years; I could have told you that there are less fish than before.” He replies, still without glancing up from his movie. “Now the government thinks the answer is those Marine Protected Areas. It’s just forcing us to fish smaller areas, now the boats are all piled up on each other.  Then the government sends in some young person like you. You do a couple surveys report back that we are overfishing and they shut us down even more.”

“I don’t work for the government,” I tell him. I can see the wheels moving in his head and he is quiet for a few minutes.

“Who do you work then?” He finally looks up from the screen and takes out his headphones.

“I work for a non-profit called Reef Check; we are working to create a long term dataset on the heath of the reefs. We can’t tell you from one or two surveys if a reef is healthy or not. I plan on taking years’ worth of data.”  I tell him.  He regards me for a few moments before launching questions at me on everything from my age to education and experience fishing on the North Coast.

It’s not the first of these conversations I’ve had and I doubt it will be the last. Most of the local fisherman I talk to understand the need for Marine Protected Areas, at the same time that they hold doubts about the new young woman in town who has moved in to monitoring them. They put me through interview-like conservations trying to determine if I am fit to make these judgments and if my biases may hurt their business. I can tell we share the same deep respect for the ocean but sit at seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum, the fisherman and the conservational scientist. I try endlessly to prove that one cannot exist without the other and that one person can be a fisherman, an environmentalist and even a scientist.

I tell them about reefs in Monterey and Southern California that have seen comebacks since the implantation of the MPA’s and the importance of surveying  outside of MPA’s as well as inside of MPA’s, to see if we are depleting one area too heavily. I tell them about the MPA Collaborative group that has just started in Mendocino county and how they can become part of the conversation on resource management.

Mostly I try to listen to what they have to say. Some of these men have been fishing on the North Coast for more years that I have been alive, they hold deep insights to the local ocean and have more stories that I can imagine. They talk of huge fish they have caught, storms they have braved and friends that have been lost at sea. I did not come into a small town with the intent to change an industry, I can here to become part of a community and part of the conversation on the best way to manage ocean resources.

 “You know kid,” he says to me standing up and laying down money to cover his bill. “I don’t agree with everything you say, but I like your ideas. You’re alright by me.”