‘Citizen science’: La Jolla native uses his research vessel and nonprofit to ‘make the ocean a better place’

RV Pilar captain Jake Russell (left) and second captain Bob Woodard work to remove plastics from local waters.
RV Pilar captain Jake Russell (left) and second captain Bob Woodard work to remove Mylar balloons and other plastics from local waters.

“There’s always something you’re fighting for on the water,” Jake Russell says. And to further his passion for ocean cleanliness and sustainability, Russell designed RV Pilar, a research vessel, and started an eponymous nonprofit last spring.

The mission of the RV Pilar organization has a few different branches, said Russell, a Pacific Beach resident who grew up in La Jolla and graduated from La Jolla High School.

The first is to support sustainable fishing and the “recreational anglers that are out there, sportfishermen with their rods and reels that are regulated by the state to how many fish they can catch, the size and so forth.”

RV Pilar also supports “the small commercial fishermen that are typically family-run businesses that have been here generationally,” as well as local seafood companies that “fish sustainably” and provide seafood for area restaurants, Russell said.

“What we’re against,” he said, “is foreign governments taking fish from our ... state or federal waters. You might see that fish at a supermarket and you don’t really know how it was caught or when it was caught. We’re trying to bring the small-time commercial fishermen that are fishing sustainably and the sport angler together under one tent to have a little bit stronger voice.”

Russell’s organization also works to remove plastics from the ocean — what he calls “a feel-good thing.”

“We’re trying to get fishermen and sailors and guys on ... paddleboards, whoever’s out there, [to] pick up some trash, similar to a beach cleanup but on the water.”

Microplastics in the water tie “directly to the fish that we eat,” contributing to “the contamination of our food chain,” Russell said. “We need to do more research, find out what the problems are.”

The La Jolla Shores Association is answering a call for support from a Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher in his effort to acquire machines that measure microplastics in the air people breathe.

Russell captains the boat RV Pilar to work toward his “citizen science” goals, tagging fish like striped marlin off La Jolla’s coast and picking Mylar balloons out of the water, which he said “can’t break down” and can cause problems.

He said he hopes to spearhead a campaign to eradicate the use of Mylar balloons in California.

Russell said he wants to make his boat available to graduate students at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography or other researchers who want to “measure water quality and things like that.”

“We’re building relationships with the researchers” from several nonprofits, he said.

Jake Russell designed the 52-foot research vessel Pilar  to further his goals of sustainability and ocean cleanliness.
Jake Russell designed the 52-foot research vessel Pilar and started the nonprofit organization RV Pilar to further his goals of sustainability and ocean cleanliness.

The 52-foot-long boat is a “kind of a Maine lobster boat design,” Russell said. He designed RV Pilar himself over five years and had it built in Maine, where he learned boat building a few decades ago after graduating from La Jolla High. He later returned to San Diego to work on various projects, including the America’s Cup sailing competitions held here in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Once the boat was completed, Russell had RV Pilar shipped to Ensenada, Mexico. He sailed it to San Diego in spring 2020.

He said his dream would be “to sustain this program and maybe even expand it” to include a fleet of vessels like the Pilar “with the same mission — on the West Coast, a couple on the East Coast, a couple on the Gulf Coast — all involved in the same kinds of things. All those areas shared the same issues and lack of attention, essentially.”

Russell said he came by his activism through his parents, La Jolla natives Don and Darlene Russell.

“I learned from my father,” he said. “He was a great waterman in La Jolla. He was a surfer, a diver, a fisherman. I followed him around the Sierras on the John Muir Trail. He’s the one that taught me, ‘Take only pictures; leave only footprints.’”

“I remember my mom slapping my hand when I was just a little kid down at the beach for throwing a piece of trash down on the sand. I always had pockets on my swim trunks after that,” he said.

“I think we’ve gotten so far away from that now,” Russell added. “A lot gets overlooked on the ocean because most people stand there on shore and look out and don’t see everything that we see when we’re out there.

“I’m just kind of continuing on this path, this goal, this dream to try to make the ocean a better place.”