Fishing for Science By Alastair Bland Merit McCrea began fishing local waters as a teenager in the 1970s, and, since ’79, has made his living as a fisherman. His charter-boat operation was one of the only opportunities for anglers to fish the Channel Islands; for 22 years McCrea connected his clients with kelp bass, halibut, and rockfish. But in 2001 McCrea sold his boat and returned to school, acquiring a degree from UCSB in aquatic biology. He now collects and dissects fish at the university’s Marine Science Institute.
But McCrea has always been a scientist. He kept logs and journals throughout his years as a deckhand and skipper, recording water temperature, clarity, and color, weather conditions, location, fishermen’s skill level, and each day’s total catch; these notes offer perspective on the dynamics of a changing ecosystem. “It takes a long time watching oscillations in fish populations to figure out what’s going on,” said McCrea. “It can be hard to tell if changing numbers are caused by temperature variations or overfishing.” For example, McCrea and others have observed white sea bass making a remarkable comeback beginning in the mid 1990s. McCrea believes this may be due to tightened regulations on gillnets, but he’s not certain. Thresher sharks, too, seem to have multiplied in Santa Barbara waters. McCrea speculates that the sharks breed elsewhere and the Santa Barbara Channel merely serves as a nursery — but he’s not certain.
But not all fish stories are mysteries. McCrea’s fishing diaries show that rockfish populations nearer to shore have declined over the years, while far out at sea the fish have remained in relative abundance and large sizes. “The lack of rockfish in waters close to port is certainly caused by overfishing,” he concludes with conviction. The story of the giant black sea bass, too, is easily traced. Heavily overfished last century, the species diminished in size and number, but is now rebounding. McCrea recalls catching and releasing little 8- and 9-pounders in the Channel in the 1970s. “Now they’re all huge. Hundreds of pounds. Scuba divers see them a lot.”
The El Niño phenomenon is a source of great interest for sea-watchers like McCrea. While the abnormally high water temperatures may represent trouble for some local species, they usher in subtropical delights like striped marlin and mahi-mahi. “It’s an exciting time for recreational fishing. We had an El Niño in 1983 and ’84 when there were yellowfin tuna right off Naples Reef [one mile from the Gaviota shoreline].”
But it’s the year-round residents of the Channel that capture the attention of McCrea and his UCSB associates, currently working on a long-term data-gathering project involving the analysis of the annual growth rings on fish’s ear bones. But McCrea’s work is not confined to the laboratory. His experience makes him the ideal candidate to ply the familiar waters of the Santa Barbara Channel, gathering specimens. “I’m the guy who goes out there to get the fish,” said McCrea, “but I just fish for science now.”
In a way, McCrea always did.