Forty feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, off
California's Anacapa Island, Gary Davis searches the rocky
bottom for a rare sea creature. A strong current pushes the kelp
forest to a 45-degree angle as Davis, garbed head to toe in
Neoprene to combat the chill of the water, slithers through the
wavy thicket until he comes upon a cage.
This is an article from the June 30, 1997 issue
Davis, a senior scientist with the National Park Service, is on
the prowl for baby abalones. He pulls a knife from a sheath
attached to his dive computer--a calculator-sized device,
strapped to his air hose, that measures ascent rate, depth and
temperature, among other things--and cuts a wire holding shut a
two-foot-square cage filled with cinder blocks. Amid a swirl of
silt and sand, he pulls out the dozen or so M-shaped slabs,
which offer protection from predators, and turns them over to
see if any baby abalones have taken up residence. A year ago, in
an effort to jump-start the population, he purchased 600 adult
abalones from a wholesaler for $19,200, placed them in an
1,800-square-foot refuge area where he had set up seven
cinder-block-filled pens and waited for nature to take its course.
Alas, after checking the cages with the help of five other
biologists, Davis finds that no baby abalones have attached
themselves to the blocks. He's not surprised, though; it takes
about 18 months for the larvae to reach the size at which they
attach themselves to a surface.
The 52-year-old Davis has been assessing marine populations for
nearly 30 years, since earning a master's degree in biology from
San Diego State. But for all the enthusiasm Davis shows for his
work, each year he has found less and less to assess. The
decline in the number of abalones off Anacapa, presumably a
consequence of overharvesting, prompted his innovative breeding
experiment. A broader worry, the dwindling populations of many
forms of marine life, led him to launch a more ambitious
project: the Great American Fish Count, held the first two weeks
of July at popular dive sites in California, Florida, Texas,
Georgia and even Colorado and Iowa.
"We needed to do something to get people's attention," says
Davis, who began the program in the waters off Anacapa, near San
Diego, in 1992 with 50 volunteers who identified 27 species and
counted 4,804 fish. "What's happened to the abalone is a good
indication that the sea is not an endless bounty."
About 1,000 counters at 30 sites are expected to take part in
this year's aquatic census, which starts July 1; they'll count
thousands of fish. "There's a certain guardianship to it, which
there has to be if we're to recognize that the oceans are not
infinite," says Sarah Tamblyn, who, as president of the Marine
Conservation Network in Danville, Calif., has run the count
there for three years. "The title is pretty catchy. People
wonder, How do you count fish--they're moving?"
Good question. The answer is, you don't count every last one.
Armed with underwater slates and timers, divers estimate a
particular species' abundance. After each sighting they ask, Did
I just see one fish? Two to 10? Eleven to 100? Or more than 100?
They check off the appropriate category on their slate. They
also note the time when they first encounter a particular species.
"The idea is to go to your favorite dive spot, have a good time
and make two or three dives, but designate one of them as the
fish-count dive," Davis explains over the rumble of the diesel
engines as the research vessel, Pacific Ranger, makes its way
back to port. "Once they're trained to recognize all the fish,
recreational divers don't have any trouble with it, and they
have fun doing it."
Davis based his idea on the National Audubon Society's annual
Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900 with 28 observers
primarily in the Northeast and now involves 45,000 birders each
year in close to 1,700 locations worldwide. "Before 1900 it was
traditional to go out the weeks before Christmas and shoot all
the birds in the neighborhood and put them in pies," Davis says.
"We lost passenger pigeons and other birds to that. Then
somebody decided to get people to look at the birds, put names
on them and get to know who's in the neighborhood--then, maybe,
people would care more about them. It raised public awareness. I
thought, Let's do that for fish."
The bird count has been so successful that it has helped to
effect change. In the mid-1970s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service reviewed 25 years' worth of the Audubon Society's
bird-count data to confirm a decline in the population of the
American black duck. "It allowed them to alter hunting limits
and do studies to figure out where the problem was. As a result,
the population has stabilized," says Geoff LeBaron, Audubon's
Christmas Bird Count editor. "Citizen science is going to become
more and more important as time goes on and funding gets scarcer
and scarcer. You need some kind of baseline to recognize that
there is a problem. The more long-term monitoring programs like
the fish count, the better."
It will take quite a few more years before data from the fish
counts can point to any trends. "You need more than two points
on a graph," says Davis. "One of the reasons for doing this kind
of thing is to give people a common information base upon which
to begin the discussions of what needs to be protected and what
are reasonable measures to protect these things. Why should we
be worried, and how much should we be worried? We need to have a
better feel for that."
If Davis's anecdotal evidence is any barometer, it's safe to say
that the fish population off the California coast has taken a
plunge. "I've seen a lot of change," says Davis, who started
diving in the late '50s while growing up in San Diego. "But
without the data, without the hard information about counts and
sizes and distributions of these organisms, I can't reliably
tell you how things have changed, other than to say, I used to
be able to get 10 abalones on one breath off of Point Loma. Now,
on a whole tank of air, I can look and find only one or two."
Even if Davis can confirm the obvious, getting nondivers to care
about wildlife that they rarely, if ever, see is tough. A
rubberlip surf perch isn't nearly as cute as a baby seal. "It's
hard for people to relate to fish and harder still with abalones
or lobster," says Davis. "Perhaps you can identify with the fact
that it tastes good, but that's different from why people care
about owls, otters and bears."
Davis came to Southern California's Channel Islands (which
include Anacapa) in 1980--the same year the Channel Islands
Marine Sanctuary was founded--after research stints in the
Virgin Islands and the Florida Everglades. His early work
demonstrated that protecting marine life within parks
replenished the outlying areas, and he worked to make sure that
the congressional decree establishing the Channel Islands park
also called for a long-term, underwater monitoring program.
Though there are now 12 national marine sanctuaries, the
environmental protection afforded them isn't nearly as
comprehensive as that given the 54 national parks on land. "In
the marine environment we do not have significant wilderness
areas where we do not harvest things," Davis says. "It's O.K. to
catch and kill the fish even in places like Yellowstone Park,
but you don't cut down the trees or shoot the rabbits. It has to
do with people's awareness and their [lack of] empathy for
Counting fish might seem like a ridiculous, Sisyphean task, akin
to counting the grains of sand on a beach. Unfortunately, the
counting is becoming all too easy, given the dwindling marine
populations. "It used to be when you dived in these areas you
saw some big fish," Davis says. "You saw the big predators, like
sheepshead and sea bass. What you see now are the winners in the
competition--the herbivorous fish that have been freed from
During last year's count, however, a ghost emerged from the kelp
forest off Anacapa, signaling that perhaps one day the tide may
turn. "Out of the mists came this giant black sea bass," says
Davis, who attributes the sighting to the 1993 California ban on
gill netting. "To see this fish reappear in shallow water is
encouraging evidence that we can restore these depleted
populations if we can protect them. It was a real high point and
a very hopeful sign."
Tom Cuneff is a Los Angeles correspondent for People magazine.