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A fish tale that's true

The strange story of the California sheephead.

December 26, 2012
  • A small star fish attached to a piece of kelp is seen near the San Clemente pier.
A small star fish attached to a piece of kelp is seen near the San Clemente… (Los Angeles Times )

This is the strange story of the California sheephead — a strikingly colored fish that swims in the kelp forests and can grow to nearly 3 feet long — as told to me by a marine scientist when I was training to volunteer at the local tide pools. To keep the sheephead stocks healthy, the state set a minimum size for those that could be caught. But over time, experts noticed that the average size of the adults was shrinking. It was an undesirable and unintended consequence of the rules: Smaller sheephead were thrown back into the water. Their DNA was thus more likely to be passed on in the marine gene pool. Sheephead were evolving before our eyes.

This is an upbeat tale, though, of evolution, people and the sea. The completion of California's network of marine reserves — 848 square miles of protected waters that reach from the Oregon state line to the Mexican border, where sea life will be allowed to thrive without fishing or other human interference — represents a landmark in our approach to conservation. It will allow populations of fish and other marine life to reach full and healthy adulthood. It's a sea change, if you will, in our recognition that the ocean's resources are not infinite.

I've noticed a similar evolution in attitudes onshore as well, as I have policed the tide pools over the last eight years. At first, visitors would poke the sea hares to make them squirt ink and throw them onto the dry beach, pry mussels out of their beds for food and pile buckets with seashells to take home. My fellow docents and I explained that this was a protected area. I collected beach glass to trade with children for their shells; I would explain how even broken shells are precious to sea anemones, which cover themselves with the crushed bits during low tide as a sort of sunscreen.

The adults tended to be more resistant. I've always collected shells here, they would say. How much will it hurt to take just one? A million people come to this beach each year, I'd respond. If each one takes a single shell ...

Attitudes have changed; now it's rare to see anyone tormenting the sea life. And those who do are likely to be lectured by another visitor before I've even arrived on the scene. Children, especially, seem to understand that nature doesn't exist for their personal exploitation.

I recently decided my schedule was too busy to continue the tide-pool work; my last shift is Jan. 5. It feels a little sad, but my regret is eased by seeing that Californians are giving marine life a little growing and breathing room — whether it's the news that our system of marine reserves is now complete, or a child marveling at an ochre sea star among the mussel beds without feeling an urge to yank it off the rock.

— Karin Klein

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