A mile offshore from Bodega Head in 120 feet of water, the captain cuts the engine. The 65-foot chartered research vessel pitches from side to side in steep swells. Ten men, one young woman, and I take our stations at the railing.

“Lines down!” a voice booms.

Not until this moment do I realize that I probably should have considered my gender, age, size, and complete lack of fishing experience before volunteering as an angler for the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program. My life goals immediately winnow down to three:  Do not fall off the lurching boat.  Do not join the miserable retchers chumming the waves with their breakfasts.  And prove to be of some scientific value by catching at least one fish.

Remarkably, I succeed at all three—snagging my first-ever fish, along with seven more. My modest catch contributed to a bigger fish story. In twelve monitoring expeditions in 2023, the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Lab’s anglers caught 8,020 fish—more than any of the other five teams along the coast. The statewide total:  a whopping 200,000.

These numbers attest to an even bigger fish story–the impact of California’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).  Established in 2012, the world’s largest science-based, ecologically connected network of 124 underwater parks protects about 900 square miles of state waters.

“The MPAs were created to support thriving populations of marine species inside and outside their boundaries,” says Sara Worden, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, the lead managing agency of the MPA network. “Our primary goals are to balance ecosystem protection and human interactions with the coast and to use sound science to make management decisions.

Are the MPAs succeeding? By catching and releasing fish in the same designated areas, over the same amounts of time, during the same season, year after year, volunteer anglers —many lifelong recreational fishers — provide answers.

“When we’re out on the boat, we see the MPAs working, really working,” says Dr. Christina Pasparakis, the principal investigator heading the Bodega team. The on-water surveys have documented more fish, bigger fish, healthier fish, more types of fish, and faster recovery after a marine heat wave  in protected areas than in the unprotected sites that are also sampled.

“We couldn’t do this research without the volunteers,” says Jordan Colby, a team leader who coordinates the “controlled chaos” on board.  “At times it feels like being in a waterfall of fish.”

During timed fifteen-minute intervals, anglers drop and pull up their lines as fast as they can. Scientists doubling as “fish-runners” rush to remove lures baited with squid, shrimp, or nothing at all (as were mine).  After measuring and tagging, the fish are safely returned to the sea.

The day-long expeditions provide a rare opportunity for marine scientists and fishers to work side by side. “The anglers bring first-hand knowledge about local fish, how they move, which habitats they like—things you can’t learn in a class or a lab,” says Pasparakis.

Also uniting researchers and volunteers is a shared love for the ocean. “These fish are sacred to us because they help us do the science that we need to do,” observes team co-leader Francine De Castro, “but they are sacred to the anglers because they’re a part of who they are as people,”

As we wobble, exhausted yet elated, off the boat, one of my fellow volunteers grins and says, “Any time on the water with a rod and a reel and a sea full of fish makes for a great day.”

And a great fish story.

My thanks to CCFRP for the photos and assistance on this post.  Click here for information on how to become a volunteer angler.

Dianne Hales, a New York Times best-selling author, serves as a docent and research volunteer at the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve; a tide pool guide for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods; and a monitor for the Seabird Protection Network.

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