Hoping to maintain a balance between lobsters on plates and lobsters in the ocean, local fishermen and UCSB researchers are working together to preserve both the fisheries and habitats of the spiny crustacean just off the shores of the Channel Islands.

The program – known as the California Collaborative Lobster and Fishery Research Project, or CALobster for short – is a collaboration between the UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and local trap fishermen. CALobster seeks to make the Channel Islands lobster fisheries more efficient while also protecting the spiny lobster population. The program also measures the effectiveness of the Channel Islands State Marine Reserves, which were put into place in 2003 to monitor and preserve species in the surrounding waters. In addition to the work conducted by UCSB researchers and trap fishermen, the state Department of Fish & Game also contributes.

Under the Sea

In a press release, Matt Kay, a UCSB graduate student and co-founding biologist of CALobster, stated that the program began in 2005 and attempts to gather information about the lobsters that was previously unavailable.

“This lack of ‘before’ data undermines our ability to identify reserve effects unequivocally,” Kay said. “CALobster provides a starting point for monitoring reserve impacts on spiny lobsters.”

So far, the data has found an increased amount of large spiny lobsters within the reserve, Kay said in an interview.

“Lobster populations inside reserves tend to have greater proportions of individuals of large sizes,” Kay said.

In 2006, a lobster-tagging project was put into place to track lobsters as they move between the fishery and the reserves, Kay said. According the CALobster Web site, if one catches a tagged lobster, he or she is asked to report the finding. In exchange for the information, people receive rewards such as T-shirts and hats. Additionally, lobster fishers can still eat their catch if it is obtained legally.

That’s a Good Catch

Kay also said that the goals of CALobster include keeping harbors functional and developing organization techniques.

“What we are committed to is the sustainability of lobster resources, protecting working harbors and improving research and management through collaboration,” he said.

Hunter Lenihan, a professor at the Bren School and a researcher for CALobster, said the collaboration also seeks to find the impact of the reserves on the fishermen around the Channel Islands. He said fishermen might tend to fish near the coast since the reserves are near the islands.

Chris Miller, a trap fisherman and a co-founder of CALobster, said that the data so far shows little change in the fishermen’s lifestyle from the reserves. In 2003, 30 percent of the lobster habitats were closed for the reserves, yet fishermen were still able to catch the same amount of lobsters as before, he said. Miller said PhD candidate Carla Guenther is currently surveying fishermen around the Channel Islands to find how the reserves are affecting them.

Keeping Worries at Bay

According to Kay, the CALobster project is important to the Channel Islands because it will attempt to find ways to maintain the existing ecosystem and structure future kelp forest communities. Additionally, Kay said the project will study the economic impact of the reserves locally.

The commercial fishery provides lobster resources to the general public and provides jobs for local fishermen, Kay said.

“The spiny lobster fishery [at the Channel Islands] was the second largest-grossing fishery in 2006,” Kay said.

CALobster also focuses on the impact of the reserves on the local culture, Kay said.

“People enjoy diving, fishing and eating [the lobsters],” Kay said. “There is cultural value to having a working harbor that contributes to the community.

The collaboration between the fishermen and the scientists at Bren is critical for the purposes of CALobster, Kay said. Since the fishermen have extensive experience with the area around the Channel Islands and with the tools used to catch lobsters and other fish, they train the researchers and help them with their surveys, Kay said. In addition, the fishermen provide data from commercial catches for the Bren scientists to interpret, he said.

The Future: Rock On, Rock Lobster

Miller said he would like to form a committee with other fishermen to open new reserves on the coast to collect even more information about its effects on lobsters and the communities surrounding the reserves.

“We would like to work with CALobster to do surveys before the reserves open [on the coast], so we can have both before and after data,” Miller said.

The collaborative has been in effect since 2005 and is set to continue functioning until 2009. However, Kay says that the project will continue however long it must.

“The horizon is indefinite,” Kay said.