The David and Lucile Packard Foundation has awarded a major grant to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and other institutions to study fisheries in the northern Gulf of California. The $1.3 million grant funds a collaborative project to help local Mexican fishers and government officials understand and manage marine resources using cutting-edge fisheries science.

The project is an interdisciplinary effort that will combine social science, fisheries science, and outreach programs to promote the sustainability of fisheries in the Gulf of California. Peter Raimondi, professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology, will lead UCSC's participation in the project, along with Giacomo Bernardi and Mark Carr, both associate professors of ecology and evolutionary biology. The project also involves researchers at the University of Arizona and three Mexican institutions.

Local fishers will play a pivotal role in the project by providing historical and anecdotal information, providing samples for scientific analysis, and participating in habitat surveys, Raimondi said.

The Gulf of California, between the Baja peninsula and the Mexican mainland, is a remarkably rich environment. It provides vital habitat for marine mammals, seabirds, fish, and shellfish, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. It also provides a livelihood for many of the people who live along its shores.

Local fishers, who rely on the marine resources for sustenance and income, have been hard hit by declining catches. In recent years, the Gulf of California has been plagued by overfishing and reduced freshwater flow due to diversion of the Colorado River. Many local fishers are in favor of marine reserves, restricted fishing seasons, and other measures to sustain their fisheries.

"The attitude of the local Mexican fishers in the northern Gulf of California is very different from what you see in the United States, where many fishers resist these kinds of management strategies, especially reserves," Raimondi said.

The local fishing industry in the northern Gulf of California is characterized by the "panga," a small open boat used by most small-scale fishers. In many cases, fishers from a single town or several small villages have formed cooperatives to protect their interests. These cooperatives are often territorial and discourage encroachment from nearby communities and larger commercial boats.

Although local stewardship has been effective in some situations, there is no guarantee that it will work in the Gulf of California. For each type of fish or shellfish, effective management will depend on its breeding and migration habits and on local ocean currents, Raimondi said. The "PANGAS project," as it is informally known, aims to answer questions that will help local fishers and the Mexican government manage resources effectively. For example, can the locally organized fishing cooperatives hope to regulate the fisheries they rely upon, or does management need to be regional? If cooperatives protect local breeding stocks by establishing reserves, will they reap the benefits of this protection, or will the young fish go somewhere else and enrich the fisheries of their neighbors?

"We want to be able to look at each species and tell fishers what type of management will be most effective," Raimondi said.

In order to answer these questions, UCSC researchers will collaborate with partner institutions to learn about the habits of commercially important fish and shellfish. In addition to the University of Arizona, partners include the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (CICESE), Communidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) in Bahia Kino, and Centro Intercultural para el Estudio de los Desiertos y Océanos (CEDO) in Puerto Peñasco.

For many of the questions addressed, the researchers will use techniques similar to those used by Raimondi, Carr, and their colleagues in a long-term monitoring project on the U.S. West Coast known as the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO). Ocean current data will help scientists predict where free-floating larvae will end up when they finally settle down and transition to the juvenile phase. Other techniques will provide more direct data on local fish and shellfish populations.

Population genetics, for example, uses DNA to assess the degree of similarity between individuals of the same species. If all the mussels on one part of the coast share a sequence of DNA but mussels on a nearby section of coast do not have this sequence, researchers can conclude that the two populations are separate and usually do not interbreed. Unfortunately, the results are rarely this clear.

"Even one or two migrants per generation can scramble genes to the extent that there is no detectable difference between populations," Raimondi said.

More promising for the study of local populations may be an environmental sleuthing technique known as otolith microchemistry that allows scientists to look back at the migration history of an individual fish. Fish have small ear bones known as otoliths. Every day that a fish lives, it deposits a thin layer of calcium on the otolith (like the rings of a tree). The signature of the water in which the fish is living is incorporated in the calcium deposit. This signature is made up of trace elements that are present in the water (often contaminants such as lead, selenium, and barium).

In studies along the California coast, PISCO scientists have shown that the trace elements provide a fingerprint that is unique to a small part of the coast. From otoliths, scientists can determine the age of the fish and where the fish was when each layer of calcium was laid down, Raimondi said.

In the case of the PANGAS project, scientists will use the central (oldest) part of the otoliths to determine where a fish lived as a juvenile. If most of the fish caught by fishers in the cooperative were spawned and grew up nearby, then local management will likely be effective in protecting this population. If fish caught in one area began their lives widely scattered along the coast, however, a more regional approach to management will be needed to protect the fishery.

For the PANGAS project, scientists from UCSC will primarily work with CICESE to collect the scientific data for the project and to conduct outreach programs to train Mexican participants in the use of scientific techniques for fisheries management. The University of Arizona will work in partnership with the two other Mexican groups to collect social information about the nature and organization of the cooperatives and the history of the fisheries. Both groups will involve the local fishers extensively in their research.

The grant for the PANGAS project is part of a broader effort by the Packard Foundation to conserve marine richness and productivity and to contribute to the sustainability of marine and coastal economies.

The ongoing PISCO project is a partnership of four major universities (including UCSC) dedicated to studying the nearshore ecosystems of the U.S. West Coast from southern California to Oregon (see http://www.piscoweb.org). The Packard Foundation funded the first six years of the PISCO project with $24 million in grants, and has now partnered with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to provide an additional $24.5 million over the next five years ($13.5 million from the Moore Foundation and $11 million from the Packard Foundation, of which about $7 million will go to UCSC).

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Note to reporters: You may contact Peter Raimondi at (831) 459-5674 or raimondi@biology.ucsc.edu.