|Date: October 17, 2005
To: PFIC Message Board
From: Ken Jones
Subject: Milton Love article — rockfish & things
An Exotic Undersea Census — Crammed into a tiny sub off Santa Barbara, a novice counter learns to identify the menagerie of rockfish living amid the oil platforms.
By: JOHN BALZAR
LOS ANGELES TIMES , December 6, 2000
IN THE SANTA BARBARA CHANNEL—Shades of blue, streaks of pink, winks of neon green: We are descending into the wilderness beyond the beach.
Two hundred feet. . . .
What lies down here in the coastal ocean, beyond everyday reach?
Four hundred feet. . . .
Don't believe it when you hear the frontier is closed, the globe entirely revealed.
Six hundred. . . .
Softly, like touching cake flour with your palm, our vest-pocket research submarine kisses bottom.
Seven hundred and thirty-eight feet….
My forehead presses against the steel skin of the pressure chamber. The cold metal weeps condensation. I wipe the Plexiglas port-lights, the size of saucers and 2 inches thick. Spotlights pierce the darkness--for 30 feet or so around us, but no farther. Beyond, the ocean absorbs our glare and there is only blackness. And quiet.
It appears we have dropped into a snowstorm. Flecks of plankton sweep by with the current and reflect light like snowflakes in headlights, except these flakes are living creatures, animals and larvae of the food chain. Some of the more daring animals answer our arrival by flashing their own green luminescence: pint-size paparazzi.
How weird we must look to creatures of the dark. A clumsy yellow cylinder ablaze in light. Two faces inside peering through Plexiglas eyes. I used the word "submarine," but dispel the image of imposing dimensions. The Delta submersible is more like an overblown scuba tank with a turret atop. Conical ballast tanks forward and aft provide a bit of streamlining. A two-bladed prop, not much bigger than the whirligig on a child's beanie, allows us to move by battery power at something under 2 miles an hour, not counting the current.
I am stuffed into the cylinder prone, like a cartridge in a gun. Straddling me so he can sit upright and see out the multiple port-lights of the turret is pilot Chris Ijames, a partner in Delta Oceanographics, the company that charters this world-roaming sub to treasure hunters, documentary filmmakers and scientists.
In these cozy quarters, the half-inch-thick welded shell of Delta protects us from the weight of water overhead--328 pounds per square inch at this depth. We are more than twice as deep as where the Russian submarine Kursk foundered and drowned. I try to push that thought out of mind. There is work to do.
We are here to count rockfish on Southern California's continental shelf.
One at a time.
Government Studies Removal of Rigs
The question is this: Should oil companies make good on an old promise? Should they dismantle and remove the offshore rigs along the Santa Barbara coastline when, in the not-so-distant future, the last profitable barrel of oil is drawn from beneath the sea floor? Or should they save themselves money and, instead, cut off only the tops and leave the bottoms as artificial reefs for the creatures that homesteaded these platforms?
The answer will be rendered in committee rooms at the state Capitol. Opinions run hot. Millions of dollars are at stake. But more than usual, this will be a government decision rendered blind. For very few people have, or ever will have, ventured down here, near the splayed legs of these towering oil platforms, to see the unknown.
Milton Love, a fish ecologist, and his research team from UC Santa Barbara have studied this artificial undersea world for six years using the Delta submersible. They measure the abundance and size of fishes here against those found around natural rock outcroppings.
The results, perhaps predictably, throw into question some basic assumptions about the management of California's undersea resources:
* Fish, that is the local, stay-at-home rockfish species for which California is famed, are flourishing under many of the Santa Barbara-area oil derricks.
* Similar fish are not flourishing on many of the natural reefs, including some in water designated by the federal government as sanctuary.
Not because platforms are inherently good, says Love, but "because there is less fishing around them."
California's famed rockfish, it turns out, have been driven into corners.
One Rockfish Found to Be 205 Years Old
They are dopey looking, mostly sedentary. In profile, they are shaped something like little Volkswagen Beetles with overshot jaws, oversize eyes and spines that can pierce your hand. Rockfish come in amazing arrays of species, colors, sizes and names. At the supermarket, they go by red snapper or rock cod. Sportfishermen know the most common as reds, cows, barber poles and bocaccio. Some reach only a few inches in length; others more than 3 feet.
One more thing. They are generally long-lived. A recently caught rough-eye rockfish was determined to be 205 years old. That fish was alive when George Washington was president. Others live 50, 100 and 150 years or more. The lucky few, anyway.
Love has been nuts about rockfish ever since he was a boy. He was born in Glendale in 1947, but the family moved to Santa Monica two years later because the ocean air seemed easier on his asthma. He took up pier fishing for croakers and bass.
At 6, he announced to his parents that he wanted to grow up to be an ichthyologist, a fish scientist.
"I had so little imagination, that's what I became," he says.
Love decided on his specialty four years later, in October of 1957. His father took him on a half-day sportfishing boat trip. In those times of plenty, rockfish piled up around the feet of the fishermen.
"Within minutes, there were all these varieties laying on the deck. And that was it."
When ichthyologists meet at their big conventions, cliques form. It is said you can identify shark researchers by the scent of testosterone. The experts in pelagic, or open-water, fishes carry the air of world travelers. The rockfish clique, less glamorous, numbers but a few dozen, and you might peg Love for one of them right away--a Woody Allen character with thinning hair, hang-dog eyes behind thick glasses and a steady supply of jokes, many at his own expense.
"I am," he deadpans, "a stand-up comic trapped in the body of a marine biologist."
Love swears he can remember every fish he's caught since those first ones. As a youth, he was a deckhand on a party boat. He studied white croakers off the Southern California Edison coastal power plants. He got his bachelor's degree, master's and doctorate from UC Santa Barbara. He once conducted a study of coastal rockfish by dissecting fish-market catches before they arrived on your dinner plate. He wrote a guidebook to fishes of the Pacific Coast--perhaps the only one of its type to try to make light of the strange habits of fish. He coos like a father, "Aw," at the sight of certain rockfish that strike him, for reasons of his own, as adorable.
He is married for the second time, having discovered and named a parasite in rockfish after his first wife. He has two children, lives entirely as an entrepreneur on the grants he can raise as a university research scientist and has a cowcod tattooed on his arm.
Love's research stands among the most authoritative and frequently referenced in the scientific literature of rockfish.
He accepts my word that I can count. So The Times is invited on his year 2000 rockfish expedition to survey the oil platforms and natural reefs from Ventura past Point Conception.
His researchers already have surveyed the shallow waters, down to 100 feet or so, using scuba gear. Then the Delta submarine is piggybacked on the 110-foot Seattle-based research ship Velero IV, and we glide out of Ventura harbor at 5 a.m. to the slow-motion chug of a 70-year-old diesel engine.
I mean, how difficult can a fish census be?
"It will be jolly," Love says.
Outside the breakwater, swells rise up to 12 feet. They tug at the moorings of the stomach.
Cowcod Aren't Adept at Taking Cover
The Delta has few frills. One of them is a radio. When conditions are right, it is possible to speak from sub to the mother ship above. As Chris Ijames engages our propeller and we begin to advance, the receiver breaks the quiet. Squeaks, pops, crackles and whistles fill our little chamber. Dolphins, it seems, are using our frequency and doing all the talking.
Outside, a streak of pink. Not really a streak, more like a lump. Like the thigh of an out-of-shape tourist after too long in the sun.
"A cowcod," I say excitedly into the microphone that is recording every second of our fish count, along with a fixed video camera. Then I am supposed to call out its length, in centimeters. "Huge. Bet it weighs 25 pounds."
Cowcod rockfish were once plentiful and prized by sport party boats and commercial fishermen. They are Milton Love's favorite fish, but they are not among the craftiest of creatures. This specimen has burrowed its oversize head, shyly, under the base of the oil platform. It apparently feels safe, even though 20 pounds of it are wholly exposed. Ostriches do not hide their heads in the sand, but cowcod do. Perhaps for that reason, or, more likely, because of the cow's appetite for any bait resembling a smaller fish, they are no longer abundant.
In fact, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets seasons and limits on West Coast rockfish, says cowcod have been fished to only 7% of their former population.
Platforms provide shelter from fishermen. Private vessels are restricted from getting too close, and those who fish nearby must battle currents and risk losing lines and hooks on the supporting beams and feet of the rig. Galling as it may be to those who loathe the oil companies, these platforms provide de facto fish preserves. By contrast, nearby waters designated by the federal government as sanctuary still permit fishing the same as elsewhere.
We are slowly circumnavigating the base of the derrick now, its legs encrusted with sea stars, white-stalked anemones and brown snails the size of loaves of bread. I learn that counting fish from a submarine is not a simple task.
For instance, an assault by suicidal squid proves distracting. From out of the darkness, they come rocketing straight for Delta, volleys of white bullets heading for the lights. At the last instant before collision, they give a squirt of ink and dart off. A 3-foot lingcod emerges, fins splayed, to challenge our intrusion. A platter-sized spiny king crab pivots and assumes a battle stance.
This is territory worth holding, it seems. The laced steel beams of the rig and the scatter of castoff tires and other rubble that has fallen to the bottom over the years make homes that animals do not wish to relinquish.
Then there is the challenge of telling one species of rockfish from another. I have diligently studied the guidebooks, but a greenspotted rockfish and a greenblotched rockfish look much the same to me, considering that both are red. "Yoys" are even more difficult--the tiny "young of the year," which only sometimes resemble the adults. Thankfully, there are plenty of flag rockfish to count. Their unmistakable red-on-white stripes earn them the nickname barber poles. I chatter into the microphone, "Flag, 20 centimeters; another, 20 centimeters, and another . . .." Dozens, then hundreds. Bocaccio too.
Half a century ago, rock outcroppings and submarine canyons all along the coast must have looked like this. Today, bocaccio is another rarity, with as many as 98% of them fished out. The American Fisheries Society recently declared them in danger of extinction. The same withcowcod and several other of the 60 species of West Coast rockfish.
Different Kind of Darkness
Partway through our one-hour dive, Ijames brings Delta to rest on the bottom and extinguishes its radio and lights. This is darkness different from night--liquid ebony, deep, enveloping, invisible, yet three-dimensional, forever. The quiet is so absolute that I can hear blood moving through my ears.
The eyes adjust. There, through the upper port-light, the faintest far-off inky shadows suggest a world above us: nothing enough to call a glow, nothing that can be brought into focus, just a visual implication of light overhead. The rockfish's view of what we call Earth.
The doomed seamen of the Kursk had no port-lights. But they had the same understanding of place: less than a city-block away, sunshine and rainbows, hot coffee and laughter. Just a quick elevator ride in a big-city high-rise.
Down as deep as we can go, our lights come on, the submarine's little electric motor buzzes, and we advance.
Mussel beds stretch as far as we can see, wriggling with carpets of spot prawns, their eyes radiant like a glowing convention of cigarette butts. I force my thoughts away from the Kursk to the idea of Thai prawn curry, and feel a twinge of guilt about it.
Learning of a World of Fish Parasites
Everyone seems to enjoy having a newcomer along.
Yesterday, Love spent a few hours before dinner opening my eyes to the world of fish parasites.
Fog had suspended submarine launches for a few hours, so he and two researchers dangled hooks over the stern of the ship and brought up half a dozen small rockfish, which he promptly photographed for an upcoming rockfish guidebook. Then he dissected them on the bait table. Half of these fish had gill parasites, which he merrily placed in bags of preserving alcohol to help a fellow scientist. One ladybug-like creature he detached from a gill was so reprehensible that he tossed it overboard. Then he filleted the meat, pointing out lumpy cysts here and there, each teeming with parasites. The fish seem to endure these intruders, and there's nothing for us to worry about either, he smiled.
"But, oh, here's one that will really get you!" he said, delighted to tweeze a nearly invisible half-inch thread from the flank of the skinned fish. In detail, he described the lesions this worm will create in the human stomach if the fish is not cooked thoroughly, and the awful surgery necessary to remove them.
"I'm not much for raw fish," he confessed.
Finished, he delivered the remaining filets to the ship's galley, where they were breaded and fried for dinner. As many sport fishermen know, there are few things to match really fresh rockfish cooked in butter, served with lemon.
Love seldom fishes anymore except for scientific specimens. "My rule is that you shouldn't eat anything that's older than your grandmother."
Now, as we circle the bottom of this platform, Ijames regales me with the story of one inventor who built a submersible and took it to sea for its first pressure test. Daring entrepreneurs have played an important role in developing the world's tiny fleet of research submarines. This particular vessel was lowered from a ship on a tether without passengers. Then, a deep thump.
"I thought it would be cracked or something. But it imploded. It was as flat as a beer can that had been run over by a car," he says blithely.
Nothing serious has gone wrong in 5,295 dives with Delta. Mine is the 5,296th. Well, once, Ijames says, the submarine got its propeller tangled in debris and was stuck fast on the bottom. But ingeniously engineered for just such happenstance, Delta was able to jettison its propeller, freeing the sub to float to the surface. Around oil platforms, however, Ijames adds, we must be careful before giving up our propeller. Currents could push us under the crossbeams and block any chance of ascent.
This time we surface without tangles, rising a foot a second. Black becomes inky green, then a progressive rainbow of brightening blues. Dolphins jabber away on our radio. Then sun. Bobbing and sloshing, Delta aims for the mother ship. The crew latches the submarine with cables, and we are lifted out of the water by a crane. We wriggle out of the capsule. I can see the Southern California coastline and smell the coffee.
Unexpectedly, Milton Love greets me with a hug. I understand that I am being welcomed into the rockfish clan.
OK, as long as I don't have to get a cowcod tattoo.
Surveys Hint at What Once Was.
Love's surveys have opened a time capsule. They suggest what once was: coastal reefs alive with big rockfish. Reefs like today's platforms, only vastly bigger.
"All the major natural reef systems we look at, out to 50-60 miles from the coast, are essentially denuded of large numbers of rockfish," Love says.
"Some fishermen will say that they can show you big rockfish. And that's true. They find some pimple on the map that has a few big fish. But what's important is that the big reef systems, by and large, do not. Too many fishermen have caught too many fish."
Love insists I take a second dive in Delta to see for myself. We free-fall, spinning slowly 394 feet. The rock bottom appears to have been bulldozed, the likely result of fishermen dragging over it with roller nets, a process that is compared with strip-mining.
There are hundreds, halfbanded rockfish and others. But they are uniformly small. We comb the reef. Not a single large fish.
Oceanic conditions have not helped. Not only are many rockfish slow to mature, but their larvae are released into the swirl of cross-currents and eddies that wash across the California coast. Young fish have not been carried to natural reefs where they could homestead, or they have arrived lacking adequate food to prosper. Last year, for instance, was the first in 20 years in which the diminished bocaccio showed a strong survival of young.
Rockfish also bear another misfortune. Different species congregate together. So, while some rockfish mature and breed fast, fishermen cannot easily target them without also catching slow-maturing varieties that are disappearing. And when pulled up from deep water like this, both are fatally injured by the pressure change.
Fishery managers at the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have recognized the trend for years, and regulators have gradually reduced allowable harvests. But, as has been the story in American fisheries, those authorities who set the limits answer first to fishermen themselves--with their pleas of jobs, homes and boat payments and their way of life. The result has been a gradual, painful parallel decline in both fishermen and fish.
And the future of the oil platforms?
Elsewhere in California and the nation, divers and fishermen have successfully argued on behalf of artificial reefs, including such things as the deliberate sinking of abandoned ships offshore. For one thing, these reefs aggregate fish. They may also result in the production of more fish, although some scientists say the evidence of this is inconclusive.
Whatever their value to fish, however, the oil platforms off Santa Barbara carry the indelible stigma of an environmental hazard, the result of a devastating oil spill here in 1969. Many opponents of offshore oil will not be content until the last platform is uprooted, even if it means the demise of millions of fish, crabs, anemones and other invertebrates.
Other people prefer cutting the platforms off at a depth of 80 feet, where they will not be a navigational hazard, and leaving them as artificial habitat. The Legislature has considered such an allowance for the oil industry--and is likely to again.
Love, whose research has been primarily funded by the U.S. Geological Survey and the federal Minerals Management Service but also has attracted indirect support from oil companies through the California Artificial Reef Enhancement program, prefers not to be publicly dragged into the politics of the question. Although he makes his feelings clear when he says, "I don't think it should be a capital crime for an animal to live on an oil platform."
If the decision is made to leave the bottom portion of the platforms, Love says, it will be essential to declare them sanctuaries and off limits to fishing. Ideally, he adds, the tops of the platforms would be cleaned and then placed as caps on the remaining structures under water to ensure that fishermen will not be able to poach the breeding stock.
"Imagine a party boat with 40 anglers," Love says. "How long do you think it would take them to fish out all the big fish you just saw?"
Posted by Ken Jones
Platform videos — you'll like this. If you don't you probably do not belong here.
Posted by Ken Jones
Tattoo U —
Posted by kaleo
Do NOT mess with Rockfishboy!
"He is married for the second time, having discovered and named a parasite in rockfish after his first wife."
Great article Ken, thanks for posting.
Posted by mel
My gosh, what a read! One can only dream to have a job and the knowledge like he does. 36" lingcod? Anyone ever been rockfishing at 600 feet?
meluvs2fish at yahoo dot com.
Posted by dompfa ben
One of my favorite websites. During my tenure at USC, I met few professors--emeriti or otherwise--with a sense of humor, and a playful command of the English language that brings to mind an African lion pawing whimsically at a ball of yarn. The Love Lab website is rife with "Ah Hah!" moments, delivered unto even this lifelong angler with a healthy dose of scientific evidence that appeals not only to my Realist nature, but also to my notion of meaningful harvest and conservationism. The message is clear, and one is hard-pressed to avail himself of the information contained therein, and walk away with a fishing-as-usual attitude about nearshore rockfish. For what it's worth (and that's not much), I highly recommend everyone to get lost on the Love Lab website for an hour or two, and just read.
Suffice to say, my 4 year free-ride at 'SC was lengthened by three semesters, thanks to my penchant for ditching class for days at a time, and venturing northward to UCSB and nearby Isla Vista. It was not my insobrietous exploits on Del Playa, nor my often-unrealized goals of courting fellow collegiate members of the fairer sex that makes me now consider myself an honorary Gaucho. In fact, no amount of dain bramage wrought by the ubiquitous ice-luges at parties, or the complex, carcinogenic molecules permanently affixed to the lining of my lungs from breathing couch fires at the end of the school year could fully pay tribute to my love of the place.
It is, instead, the value I have found in the people of the community there--namely, the Goleta crew, Pierhead, Dr. Milton Love, and last but not least, the wait-staff at the Blue Dolphin Cafe. Lord knows it's not the price of gasoline that prompts me to continue taking the 248 mile round trip to go fishing.
Less drama...more DOMPFA!
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