A Message from the Sea

"I need the sea because it teaches me…
I move in the university of waves…
It’s ceaseless wind, water and sand…
I became part of its pure movement."

(from Pablo Neruda's The Sea)

Written by Phil Levin, Conservancy Lead Scientist  

I first read Pablo Neruda’s poem The Sea as a graduate student while working on Appledore Island – a little island one mile long and one-half mile wide, ten miles off the coast of southern Maine. It was one of those perfect stormy, gray days that was amazing to watch, but much less fun to be out in a small boat doing research.  

Looking out at the swell rolling in across the Atlantic, Naruda’s words were etched in my mind. Neruda captures so well a feeling of motion that anyone of us who spends time around the ocean experiences. The tides ebb and flow, waves slap ashore, and currents stream by. But its more than that – the sea’s animals are in motion too. Salmon that began their life hundreds of miles inland swim past us on their thousands-of-miles journey through the Pacific. Humpback whales, which we are seeing in the Pacific in ever-increasing numbers, can travel more than 13,000 miles in a year. And Steller sea lions make phenomenal dives to depths of up to 1,500 feet to feed, staying underwater for as long as 16 minutes.    

A few years ago a 14 foot pregnant six-gill shark washed up dead in South Puget Sound. My team from NOAA took samples from the animal and found that its tissues were laced with a form of the pesticide DDT that we know was used only in California more than 40 years ago. Pesticide that a farmer had sprayed decades ago on a field 1,000 miles away had just washed up on a beach only a few miles from my Seattle home.

The ceaseless movement of water and animals connects us. It connects land and sea, sun-drenched shallows and dark ocean depths, distant continents and even time. 

But as much as the ocean is about movement, we also turn to the sea for a sense of stillness. And stillness, it turns out, characterizes the lives of many of Puget Sound’s fishes. 

Some of you may know one of my favorite fish: the lingcod.  Besides being delicious, they are an important top predator in Puget Sound; on average, only killer whales are higher on the food chain in Puget Sound. But what else do we know about them? For properly managed fisheries, it is essential to know where fish live, what habitats they use and how far they travel.

Lingcod; Photo by Anne Beaubreau

Lingcod; Photo by Anne Beaubreau

To get at this, NOAA captured fish and inserted tiny transmitters into their bodies. We could then track their movement day and night for months. We were amazed to learn that they hardly move – if they lived on a football field, their whole life would take place in the red zone of a football field between the 20 yard line and the goal line. A full-grown lingcod is half the size of a full-grown human; imagine if you spent your entire life – working, meeting friends, finding food, eating, everything – in an area the size of half a football field. 

Yelloweye Rockfish; Photo from NOAA

Yelloweye Rockfish; Photo from NOAA

This isn’t something that is unique for lingcod. The same is true for many fish, including yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio rockfish that live right here in Puget Sound – and are on now the Endangered Species list. In fact, when we look at fish overall, we see that, despite some fabulous exceptions like salmon, fish have the smallest home ranges for their size of any vertebrate animal. A raccoon in the city has a home range of about 28 football fields, or 140 times the home range of a similarly sized lingcod.

Why does this matter? In the early 1980s, rockfish were not really fished commercially in Puget Sound, and some fisheries managers thought they would be a great resource to exploit. Rockfish are a mild, tasty fish and they quickly became popular. The rockfish fishery boomed – you could even see an explosion of rockfish recipes in locally published cookbooks. But fisheries managers didn’t know that rockfish do not move much, and they did not know they grow slowly, mature late and have long lives (yelloweye rockfish can live for 200 years!). All this means that rockfish are easily overfished. About ten years after the Puget Sound fishery boomed, it was shut down. After ten more years, three Puget Sound rockfishes were on the Endangered Species list. 

So, many fish basically stay home their whole lives. These fish can’t escape the effects our activities have on their homes. 

New brain research is showing that our brains are hardwired to react positively to the ocean, and that being near it can calm and increase innovation and insight. It’s not surprising, then, nearly three billion people globally live within 60 miles of a coast, or that population growth along coasts is six times greater than inland areas.

As more and more people come to the shore to seek solitude and inspiration, we must let the sea teach us. Let it remind us that we are connected – that how we act transcends space and time. And for animals that can’t just get up and relocate, the consequences of our actions can be dire or provide solutions that make our piece of the world a better place.

Learn more about our Ocean Work

Kids & Nature: How Lingcod Pots Work

Written by Makayla Johnson, Volunteer Intern

Most commercial lingcod fishermen use trawl nets to capture lingcod along the Washington coast. The main problem with this fishing method is that trawl nets are notorious for capturing unintended species of fish while scraping the sea floor at the same time.

The unintended capture of species through fishing is called bycatch. Bycatch has impacts to the environment and to economics.  Unfortunately, most of the bycatch end up dying before they can be put back in the ocean. Also, if lingcod fishermen catch too many recovering overfished species as bycatch, their fishery can be shut down by the government.

The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with The University of Washington and lingcod fishermen in Ilwaco to invent a new fishing pot that protects habitat and sea creatures. They did this by observing the behavior of the Lingcod and designing a fishing pot that catches lingcod, with minimal if not any- bycatch. The fishing pot also has minimal impacts to the seafloor.

Every year, the Seattle Aquarium hosts a "Discover Science" weekend where federal, state and other non-governmental environmental organizations come up with fun outreach activities to educate the public on all of the cool science that they are doing. Each organization creates outreach materials to engage people of all ages from 2-100! The public is invited to walk through the aquarium and talk with the different organizations about their science research.

As an intern at The Nature Conservancy, I had the opportunity to work with the marine team and TNC volunteers at the Aquarium to present TNC’s lingcod pot project! We worked hard to get ready for the day. We created poster boards with information about the project, retrieved video footage of the pots in action from fishermen, and developed an outreach activity for the children. Working at the booth was fantastic! At the event, it was awesome to interact with the smaller children with the game we made to demonstrate how the lingcod pots work, and talk with their parents about how TNC and the University of Washington is helping to advance the technology of the fishermen for a cleaner catch. We saw a total of 5,218 visitors through our doors over the two days, 3,185 of them the first day and 2,033 the second day.

Fishing Gear Gets a Valuable Update


New fishing pot targets lingcod, leaves other fish behind

Written by Jodie Toft, Senior Marine Ecologist
Photographs by (1) Tim Calver ; (2) Eva Funderburgh / Flickr Creative Commons

This post is about fishing. Really.

First, though, imagine you have a blueberry farm (this is Washington, after all). Now imagine that you can only harvest a few of the blueberries that are ripe for the picking.

Why? Because you only have a big, heavy rake for harvesting - it breaks the branches, strips off the unripe berries, squishes the ripe berries and knocks loose beehives hidden in the bushes. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get those blueberries some other way?

Off the west coast of the United States, our fishermen are faced with a similar challenge, metaphorically. Millions of pounds of fish that have been given the green light for harvest by scientists and managers are left in the water.

The issue is complex - there are fish to catch and fish to avoid; places and habitats on the seafloor that recover quickly from certain types of fishing and those that do not; large swaths of the ocean that are closed to fishing with certain types of gear; and coastal communities and economies that are increasingly compromised by the revenue that isn’t being generated from fishing.

But complexities aside, a glance in the fishermen’s gearshed offers up what The Nature Conservancy and fishermen see as one of the simple solutions. It’s what’s not in the gearshed that stands out. What’s not there is gear that can be used in rocky habitats to catch the fish we want without catching those we don’t want.

In a collaborative approach to marine conservation, the Conservancy began working with fishermen in Washington and Oregon in 2014 to fill this empty nook in the gearshed. We see the solution in the form of a new type of fishing pot used to catch a high-value fish – lingcod – that occurs in the same rocky habitats as yelloweye and canary rockfish, whose low quotas currently constrain the fishery.

While we apply for permits to test the fish pots in rocky areas currently off limits, we are testing the gear in nearby areas replete with another high-value species – sablefish. And so far sablefish love the new pots, preferring them well over twice as much as the original pots!

And those fish that we didn’t want to catch? Of the ~2,000 fish we caught, there were only 2 canary rockfish and no yelloweye rockfish. Stay tuned as we move closer to lingcod-laden waters and see how much the new pot can be part of the solution.

In the meantime, enjoy the blueberries!