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National Geographic: Biking Redfish Rocks

June 18, 2015

Journeying Oregon’s New Marine Reserves by Bike: Redfish Rocks
By Chris Rurik and Helen Helfand

Our journey ends at Oregon’s southernmost marine reserve: Redfish Rocks.

Leaving behind the rugged majesty of Cape Perpetua, we cycle 175 miles south, passing through sand dune country and the worn town of Coos Bay, where citizens refused a proposed marine reserve. Beyond that, the landscape we enter feels remote, more a part of the Siskiyou Mountains than the state of Oregon. Rock pillars stand in the sea. A taste of southern warmth pervades the air. When we reach the town of Port Orford, home of Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, we see why so many people have described it to us as isolated, beyond the reach of the factionalism we saw along the rest of the Oregon Coast — uniquely positioned to own and take pride in its new marine reserve, to weave it into the local scene.

If community involvement in Oregon’s new marine reserves can be compared to undersea ecosystems, where a healthy dynamic requires a diversity of species filling many niches, Port Orford has a reputation for being the most robust community ecosystem of them all. In our minds, Port Orford has grown into a shining town on a coastal hill. We have finally arrived to see if the reality meets the reputation.

On our first glide through town, it seems fairly ordinary, a compact collection of homes, restaurants, antique shops, a pub, and a market that walks the fine line between quaint and dilapidated. Its ocean vista, on the other hand, is sensational. From a highway pullout just beyond the town’s main drag, we gaze into an amphitheater of ocean coruscating in the sunlight. Iconic rocks rise from the cobalt surf. Southward, the coastline fades into the sky. A wayside display informs us that a cluster of rocks in the middle distance is Redfish Rocks Reef.

Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve’s most unique attribute is its community team. While the other four community teams went their separate ways after compromising on the reserve boundaries, the Redfish Rocks team stayed together to ask what should come next. It continues to meet, a group of commercial fishermen, conservationists, research scientists, recreational fishermen, and local government officials committed to navigating the complexities of this new feature in their landscape. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), grateful for such a self-starting community, has provided funding to support the work.

We sit down with Tyson Rasor, the community team’s project coordinator, a gentle and earnest man who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer with fishermen in Morocco before moving to Port Orford. His job, a part-time position made possible by ODFW’s funding, is to translate the marine reserve’s potential to the community.

“Marine reserves can be biologically successful,” he tells us, “but they can also be social failures.”

For now, the bulk of his work is aimed at simply increasing the community’s awareness of the marine reserve and correcting misperceptions. For all the movement around Redfish Rocks, the marine reserve remains widely misunderstood in Port Orford. He hosts events on the town dock with touch pools and model submarines, speaks in community gathering places, presents to students in school classrooms, and creates brochures. When we ask him about the target audience for his efforts, he answers, “I would say it’s everybody, because nobody really knows about what’s going on. Right now it’s almost like a shotgun approach.”

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