State researchers have used volunteer fishermen, underwater cameras and scuba divers to uncover the lives of the creatures who call Cape Falcon Marine Reserve home.
Cape Falcon, located between Arch Cape and Manzanita, is the newest of the state’s five marine reserves — protected areas off the Oregon Coast that include sites like Cape Perpetua south of Newport and Redfish Rocks, a collection of five islands south of Bandon.
Monitoring work began in Cape Falcon in 2014 and restrictions on fishing and development did not go into effect until 2016.
There are still a lot of unknowns, from how different species use the rocky reefs and soft bottom habitat in the reserve to what the long-term effects of protecting the area might be.
The state is in the middle of developing a management plan, the last of Oregon’s marine reserves to get a plan.
State resources are tight, but the plan will include both state and community priorities for the protected marine site. It is hoped the plan will help attract outside research interests and resources for work the state does not have the capacity to do.
“Frankly what we want is for (the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) to have more capacity because all the things they are doing are great, but they have very limited funding and staffing for all of these big things,” said Nadia Gardner, a local volunteer with the Friends of Cape Falcon Marine Reserve. It’s one reason why the group exists, she said.
The group coordinates volunteer efforts like annual seabird surveys with the Audubon Society of Portland. Last year, the group led a small boat tour to give people a chance to see the reserve from the water.
People are used to looking at the reserve from the land, not the most informative view, Gardner said. The information state researchers have been able to gather about the diverse species, from sea cucumbers to rockfish, fascinates her — and she knows she’s not alone.
“The (state fish and wildlife) scientists are like, ‘Oh, we’ve got this barnacle species,’” Gardner said. No big deal. “But for those of us who live on the land, that’s big news. We didn’t know that was out there.”
Most people get a glimpse of the Cape Falcon Marine Reserve while hiking trails in Oswald West State Park or when visiting Short Sand Beach. But on Thursday, the community will get a chance to learn more about the management plan and dive below the surface.
Cristen Don, the marine reserves program leader, will take people on a virtual tour of all the reserves, with a heavy focus on Cape Falcon, as part of the Nature Matters lecture series in Astoria hosted by Lewis and Clark National Historical Park and the North Coast Watershed Association.
“It’s a pretty massive experiment in its own way to do this kind of comprehensive long-term research in this nearshore environment where there’s so much scientists don’t know,” said Kelsey Adkisson, communications and engagement project leader at the marine reserves program.
In Oregon’s cold waters, things grow slowly and some of the species found in the Cape Falcon reserve do not reproduce quickly. It could be more than a decade before researchers really see what protection has meant for the area.
The state partnered with researchers from Oregon State University last year to look at temperature, salinity, oxygen and chlorophyll levels in the ocean at Cape Falcon. They will track these conditions from year to year and see how they influence the distribution and abundance of marine organisms.
A challenging site to study
But Cape Falcon is a challenging site to study.
Researchers must launch from the Port of Garibaldi, down the coast past Manzanita and Rockaway Beach, and they are at the mercy of the weather. Some days, it is not safe to cross the bar to the ocean. Even on days when they do get out to the reserve, sometimes they are not able to see everything they would like to see.
“Cape Falcon is our youngest marine reserve … so we are still learning about which conditions make for the best underwater visibility to maximize data collection efforts,” said Lindsay Aylesworth, research project leader for the marine reserves program.
Though they have a sense of the many species of fish and invertebrates that live in the reserve, they are still trying to answer seemingly basic questions like: How many fish use the reserve?
“We don’t know,” Adkisson said. “They’re under the water. It’s really hard to count them. … Even at that level there’s a lot of unknowns.”
Different species vary widely in how they use the rocky reefs.
“In the reserve there will be species that are more transient and some that are more homebodies,” Adkisson said. With the fish that are only passing through, “We may not see the changes (due to protecting the area) as quickly, if at all.”
But species like China rockfish — a reserve resident researchers are particularly interested in — tend to stay on one rocky reef for most of their lives. These species will likely be able to tell researchers the most about what it means to have protected areas like the reserves.
The state hopes to have a draft management plan for Cape Falcon completed this year. An online survey to collect more public input is available through March 21 at oregonmarinereserves.com