A glimpse into the shifting community structure of a Southern California kelp forest and the benefits of long-term monitoring

By Lauren Parker, MLML Ichthyology Lab

I can’t tell you how much I miss spending the majority of my day underwater. It’s difficult to communicate the feeling it gives you; the feeling that you have somehow been given the opportunity to glimpse another world, one that most people never get to see. As a marine scientist spending a select few glorious (for the most part) hours in that world, I am tasked with collecting data. I record pages and pages of species codes and numbers, I count things and I measure them. I take copious amounts of photos.

I was a research SCUBA diver for the Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), monitoring the kelp forest around the northern Channel Islands in Southern California. Most of my days were spent waking up before the sun, loading dive gear into the boat, racing dolphins and dodging migrating whales across the Santa Barbara Channel so that we could dive all day long. We’d race the sunset back to the harbor just to do it all again the next day.

The 2017 PISCO team on board NOAA's Shearwater.

UCSB’s PISCO team has been monitoring the kelp forest in the Channel Islands since 1999. While changes over the long-term are the principle focus of organizations such as PISCO, short-term variability in ecosystem structure can provide insight into the potential effects of future ocean conditions, particularly in the context of a swiftly changing climate.

While my time with PISCO represents just a snapshot of the continually evolving story of the kelp forest ecosystem, I was witness to several distinct changes in the kelp forest community in my five seasons of diving. I watched sea star populations decline markedly and sunflower sea stars disappear completely. I watched the invasive alga, Sargassum horneri, replace the native giant kelp at Catalina Island and then quickly spread to the northern Channel Islands. More and more often we recorded species not normally seen on our surveys.


Decline in Sea Stars

I began surveying the kelp forest in 2013, just before the anomalous rise in sea surface temperatures across the North Pacific Ocean, known as the “warm blob,” appeared along the west coast. For a more in-depth explanation of the “warm blob” check out this link. 2013 was also the last year during which I saw a sunflower sea star.

Me with a sunflower sea star, Pycnopodia helianthoides, on my head in 2013.

Sunflower sea stars can grow up to meter in diameter, and can have 24+ arms as adults. They are also voracious predators, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and even other sea stars. Sunflower sea stars were seemingly the first casualty in what came to be a mass mortality event over the next few years. Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) caused the death of many types of sea stars and scientists are still studying the disease’s origins and what triggered the outbreak. Sunflower stars play an integral role in the kelp forest ecosystem. As sunflower stars became functionally extinct, purple urchin numbers increased dramatically, which in turn caused a marked decline in kelp abundance, though not as prevalent a decline as that of macroalgae populations in central and northern California. While noted as an important player in the kelp forest, research on sunflower sea stars is unfortunately minimal due to a lack of commercial importance.

A wasted ochre sea star.

A large number of other sea star species were heavily impacted by SSWD. The ochre sea star, the giant-spined sea star, and the short-spined sea star are larger and more abundant species, so their decline was particularly apparent. These and several other sea stars, totaling around twenty different species, were decimated by SSWD. Infected individuals looked like they were slowly dissolving, many of them missing limbs and they were often covered in white, fleshy lesions.


Invasion of Sargassum

Sargassum horneri, nicknamed devil weed, is an invasive seaweed native to eastern Asia and a relatively new resident in California waters. Discovered in 2003 in Long Beach harbor, it has since invaded and become established throughout Southern California, taking a particularly firm grip in the Channel Islands. S. horneri has become the subject of several studies aimed at understanding it’s invasibility, particularly its ability to outcompete native algae. In the northern Channel Islands, at Anacapa Island in particular, the level of invasion has been linked to the level of management, where marine protected area type and the length of protection strongly influence invasibility. Results indicate that marine invasions are complex but that protection does play a key role in resistance. Check out this paper for more information. Adequate marine management is imperative in a changing climate, particularly since marine invasions are forecasted to increase with changes in ocean climate.

Diving deep into a bed of S. horneri at Catalina Island, CA.

An increase in ocean temperatures is often accompanied by some odd animals showing up in strange places. This became particularly apparent during the “blob” years of 2014 through 2018 when a variety of organisms began pushing the limits of their typical temperature envelopes and causing an uproar wherever they were spotted. Thousands of pelagic red crabs began making a regular appearance each field season. Finescale triggerfish began showing up on the same transects as lingcod, a comparably much colder water fish. A goldspotted sand bass, normally a resident of the waters from Cedros Island southward off the coast of Baja California, showed up on a fishing vessel in the Channel Islands. Basking sharks began patrolling the waters of the channel and green sea turtles were glimpsed at Santa Cruz Island. These examples represent only a portion of what seemed out of the ordinary during my time with PISCO. However, an increasingly changing ocean climate is likely to foster shifts in species ranges that will cause a lot more strange animals to show up in weird places. If you happen to see any such animals, such as the sheephead and spiny lobsters that have shown up in Carmel, check out the Strange Fish in Weird Places website and let the scientists know what you saw.


A pelagic red crab, Pleuroncodes planipes, at Santa Cruz Island.

Return of top predators

Not all of the changes I witnessed were negative, although that might depend on who you ask. Recent years have shown what seems to be a recovery of top predators in the kelp forest ecosystem. Yep. You guessed it. Sharks. White shark populations have made a significant comeback, with higher numbers of both adult and juvenile populations reported along the California coast, likely the result of increased protections in the last couple of decades. While white sharks do pose a threat to crowded beaches and various other ocean pastimes, such as surfing and freediving, they are a vital component of the marine ecosystem and their increase in numbers, while making us ocean goers slightly more uneasy, should be celebrated.

These events by no means indicate a clear trend for the future of the kelp forest, however they do highlight what can happen in a drastically changing climate. Recent years, including those in which I was an active PISCO diver, were what can be termed a perfect storm of events. Periodically warmer waters caused by an El Niño event were coupled with the “warm blob”, a marine heatwave that caused unseasonably warm waters for an extended period along the west coast of the United States. Prolonged elevated temperatures caused innumerable marine impacts, and likely had a hand in the ones discussed here.

More frequent and more intense storms and heat waves, like the “blob”, higher levels of pollution, and other anthropogenic impacts that result from climate change are threatening ecologically and economically important marine systems, worldwide. Scientists in recent years have begun to confirm that kelp systems, globally, are in decline. The need for long-term monitoring of ecosystems is necessary now, more than ever, to assess and understand the changes that are happening right before our eyes.

MLML Students at the Forefront of Marine Science

Will Fennie in the field collecting data. Photo Source: Will Fennie

Whether it be out in the field or inside the lab, conducting research is often what people imagine as the highlight of science. However, once that research is completed, then what? For many scientists, it’s the impact of their research that is viewed as a true career highlight. MLML alum, Will Fennie, had his first taste of this success when research from his Master’s thesis contributed to a well-publicized paper on juvenile rockfish and ocean acidification.

Species-Specific Responses of Juvenile Rockfish to Elevated pCO2: From Behavior to Genomics

For this study, Dr. Scott Hamilton, professor of Ichthyology at MLML, served as first author and his student, Will Fennie, served as third author.

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Take a deep breath, and dive in with our new Vertebrate Ecologist!

Dr. Gitte McDonald
Dr. Gitte McDonald

Next semester, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories will welcome a new faculty member: Dr. Birgitte I. McDonald.  She is replacing Director Jim Harvey as the new head of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab.  Gitte agreed to answer a few questions about herself in advance of her much-anticipated arrival!


Q: How did you first get interested in physiology and working with "air breather" marine vertebrates?

A: My interest in marine animals started at the age of 7 on a family trip to San Diego where the highlight of the trip was a trip to Sea World. This love of the ocean continued, leading me to study at UC Santa Cruz because of the opportunities for undergraduates to get hands-on experience through field classes and volunteering. As an undergraduate I volunteered at Long Marine Lab for the Pinniped Research in Cognition and Sensory Systems project, took many field courses, and volunteered for graduate students. Some of the most exciting field work I helped out with as an undergraduate was harbor seal captures with Jim Harvey and his students. The more I worked with marine mammals the more excited I got.

My love of physiology came a little later. When talking with Dan Crocker, my master thesis supervisor, about a potential masters project he suggested that it would be good if I expanded my “took kit” by adding a physiological component to my project since most of my previous experience involved animal behavior and ecology. I thought that was a great way to look at grad school – as an opportunity to learn new techniques and subjects - so I followed his suggestion. I am glad I did, because the more physiology I learned the more I loved it. I had always been amazed by the ability of marine mammals and birds to thrive in the marine environment and by studying physiology I was starting to understand how they were able to do it.

Gitte McDonald
Dr. Gitte McDonald


Q: Where are you now and what are you working on?

A: Currently I am a NSF postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark working with Peter Madsen and Tobias Wang studying the diving physiology and energetics of harbor porpoises. I have just finished a project studying the diving heart rate in captive porpoises using modified D3tags that can measure heart rate in addition to recording sound, acceleration and pressure. This has allowed me to look at how porpoises regulate their heart rate in relation to dive duration, activity and feeding behavior. We are planning on deploying these tags on wild porpoises as soon as the field tag is ready. I plan to maintain this collaboration after I start at Moss Landing so there may be opportunities for students to use this specialized tag to studying diving physiology and energetics in wild animals.

Sea lion with data logger, San Nicholas Island
Sea lion with data logger, San Nicholas Island


Q: What new areas of knowledge do you bring to the Vertebrate Ecology Lab, and MLML as a whole?

A: I bring my expertise in physiological ecology of breath-hold divers. One of many reasons I am excited for the position at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory is because of the potential collaborations with the faculty. My research focus on energetics and diving physiology complements the research conducted by the existing faculty, while my expertise will provide new areas of concentration.

Additionally I hope to continue to conduct research in the Antarctic. I am excited about the possibility of introducing students to research in polar environments.


Q: What makes you most excited about joining MLML?

A: There are so many reasons I am excited about joining MLML it is hard to pick the top reason. I am excited to establish a research program taking advantage of the close proximity of the marine vertebrates located along the Pacific Coast. This will allow me to combine my love of field work and teaching by developing courses that provide students with a strong background in the fundamentals, while giving them opportunities to get hands-on experience.

Tagged Emperor Penguin (Photo Credit: Jerry Kooyman)
Tagged Emperor Penguin (Photo Credit: Jerry Kooyman)

Q: Do you have any special skills outside of marine science that we might like to hear about?

A: I am not sure if it is a skill, but I enjoying figuring things out. If there is a problem or something is broken I think it is fun to try to fix it. It is amazing what you can do with the help of google. I can’t promise the outcome will be the most beautiful, but it will usually be functional. I have found this skill (or stubbornness) useful in the field.

Q: When will you be moving back to the United States?

A: I fly back to San Diego on December 30 and plan to move up to Capitola the first week in January.


We can't wait to start working with you!

MPAs we’re diving today!

By Scott Gabara

One of the great things about being a student at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories is going diving with your fellow students.  You get to see what they are studying and hopefully get some good karma or pay them back for helping you out.  I was able to get back in the water after a couple months of drying up on land and dive with Devona Yates.

Devona Yates with a kelp headband that is becoming all the rage now.

She is interested in predator-prey relationships and how predatory fishes can have cascading effects on lower trophic levels as they consume invertebrate prey.  This cascading effect may differ inside and outside Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), as it appears MPAs may have different, larger, and more abundant predatory fish.  Devona is using tethering and survey methods to quantify mortality of these invertebrates and how that may vary as a function of MPA status.  It will be interesting and exciting to look at these MPA effects on the survival of these important prey sources for fishes.  We use MPAs as a way to protect and increase important ecosystem members we depend on for food and are necessary for maintaining ecosystem function.  Predator depletion and recovery may cause changes that were much more complex than we had thought.

David sampling to estimate the number of small invertebrate prey in different habitat types.

(LOOK) Here is a link to a short video clip of the dive, even harbor seals are interested in science.

Fog Blog: the June Edition

By Alex Olson & Holly Chiswell, Chemical Oceanography

Fog Tower deployed, the crew of the R/V Point Sur spotlights night waters to avoid crab pots during fog collection operations off the California Coast (Photo by Alex Olson)

On June 5th, members of the Marine Pollutions Studies and Chemical Oceanography Labs under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Coale, began a week-long journey on the R/V Point Sur to investigate the recent findings of mercury in coastal marine fog. Dubbed “The Fog Cruise”, the crew and science party aboard sampled near and offshore waters using oceanographic tools for signs of methylmercury (MeHg), from deep sea sediments to fog above the sea surface.

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The Success of Open House 2014

By Melissa Nehmens, Pacific Shark Research Center

This past weekend, Moss Landing Marine Labs opened our doors and welcomed everyone to our annual Open House event. For those of you new to Moss Landing traditions (as I am as a first year student), it is an event we hold every year in the Spring that is organized by the student body and hosted by the students, faculty, and staff.

We take Open House as an opportunity to share our research in a fun, yet educational way. Just to name a few exciting activities:  the Invertebrate Zoology and Molecular Ecology lab had an invertebrate touch tank where you could see, touch, and learn about all of our interesting local invertebrates.


Graduate students Melinda Wheelock and Emily Schmeltzer, educate visitors about the wonderful world of invertebrates! Photo Credit: Heather Kramp
Graduate students Melinda Wheelock and Emily Schmeltzer, educate visitors about the wonderful world of invertebrates! Photo Credit: Diane Wyse

The Phycology  (algae) lab allowed you to walk through a painted kelp forest and learn about the foods you eat that contain algae, such as ice cream and pudding.


The phycology lab and their painted kelp forest attracts visitors. Or was it the ice cream? Photo Credit: Heather Kramp
The phycology lab and their painted kelp forest attracts visitors. Or was it the ice cream? Photo Credit: Heather Kramp


Our diving program even offered the opportunity to get suited up like you were going on a dive and to see how some of the S.C.U.B.A gear works!


Graduate student Scott Gabara teaches visitors about dive gear. Photo Credit: Heather Kramp
Graduate student Scott Gabara teaches visitors about dive gear. Photo Credit: Heather Kramp


And there was even a chance to tour our retiring, R/V Point Sur.


R/V Point Sur ready to take aboard visitors for tours on a sunny Moss Landing day.
R/V Point Sur ready to take aboard visitors for tours on a sunny Moss Landing day. Photo Credit: Diane Wyse


Though Moss Landing Marine Labs hosts the event, it would not be what it is without all of the support we receive from those that contribute to and attend the event. We raised over $10,000 in scholarship money, made possible by the generous contributions from our donors and the ~2,500 people that attended Open House!

To everyone who worked so hard on planning and running Open House, and everyone in our Moss Landing community and beyond, thank you!

MLML goes to Baja – the trip continues

 By Jackie Lindsey, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

For the next two weeks Moss Landing Marine Labs will be a little quieter, and not just because of spring break.  A large class of graduate students has just departed for Baja California Sur for two weeks of field research, and I am lucky to be among them!   Many of us have never been to this part the world, and we are full of hopes and dreams that we can pull off the projects we designed back in the classroom.

El Pardito
El Pardito

We are spending the majority of our trip on a tiny island called El Pardito, located within the Sea of Cortez.  This island is home to a small community of fishermen who have lived on the island for generations.  Many of us are depending heavily on their expertise to set up our projects and navigate the local waters.

Our projects range from mapping benthic habitat, to monitoring Marine Protected Areas, to studies of sea turtles and damselfish. We are spending full days in and on the water around El Pardito, and the weather should be just about perfect (fingers crossed)!

When we get back there will be plenty of pictures to post, commemorating our journey and all our hard work, but for now let me leave you with this image of NOT EVEN ALL OF THE GEAR!  Food, cooking tools, boats, compressors, dive gear, camping gear, sampling gear...the list goes on and on (and on and on).

Sampling gear
Sampling gear
Dive gear explosion
Dive gear explosion

I hope we didn't forget anything because it's too late now!  See you in two weeks!

May the Flow Be With You!

By Scott Gabara, Phycology Lab

Circulating seawater systems are very important for marine laboratories as they need to keep organisms from the ocean alive and use the water to aid in conducting experiments.  We have recently had our Moss Landing Marine Laboratories offshore intake upgraded and we went on a dive to inspect its current status.  The large meshed cylinder sucks in water and supplies our lab with flowing seawater.  We routinely inspect and clean the surface of the grates and the structure. 

One of our MLML intakes rising from the sand.
One of our MLML intakes rising from the sand.

It is interesting to see what invertebrates recruit or move onto the structure.  With sand surrounding us we create a small oasis of life concentrated on the hard substrate.  One of the issues we have to deal with is that seawater contains invertebrate larvae and some species will settle on the inside the pipes and eventually constrict and clog our flow, similar to plaque buildup in an artery.  We have to force a Pigging Inspection Gauge (PIG), a tool which is usually a piece of cylindrical foam, through the inside of the pipe to clean and clear the walls.  It's great we can get routine cleanings so our seawater system continues flowing and our lab doesn't have a "heart attack"!

Diana Steller inspects our intake line.
Diana Steller, Dive Safety Officer, inspects our intake line.

Nitrox and Boat Dives – Wrapping Up MLML’s Fall Science Diving Course

By Heather Fulton-Bennett, Phycology Lab

MLML's fall AAUS Science Diving course is coming to an end, and what better way finish than with a pair of boat dives from our own R/V John Martin.

The R/V John H. Martin from a diver's view (Photo: Scott Gabara)

As part of the course, students get certified in Nitrox diving, a gas mix with a higher percentage of oxygen than normal air. This mix allows for longer bottom times and decreased surface intervals, which is a huge advantage for conducting research underwater.

Last week we were lucky enough to have our last dives of the semester in Carmel Bay, at Pescadero Wash Rock and outer Copper Roof House.

Kathryn along the Wash Rock wall (Photo: Diana Steller)
Marissa and Lindsay examine turf algae and benthic invertebrates (Photo: Scott Gabara)
Thanks to all who made it an amazing semester!

Lights Out, Dives In

By Scott Gabara

Recently the marine science diving class here at Moss Landing Marine Labs went down to Monterey's Breakwater to conduct a sunset and night dive.  The first dive was to a rocky outcrop called the Metridium field.  The Metridium are white plumose anemones that look like fluffy cauliflowers and filter particulates out of the water.  It is a stunning sight with so many anemones.

Martin and Metridium
Martin and Metridium

The second dive was conducted by nightfall.  Every diver had a glow-stick to better locate their buddy and stay in visual contact in the dark.  Each diver has a waterproof light, it takes practice to communicate underwater let alone now using a flashlight.  We saw different species like red octopus which were out foraging and rockfish that seemed to hover almost half asleep in the water column.  It is interesting to see these changes that happen as the rocky reef changes from day to night.

Sunset Diving with Martin Guo, Paul Clerkin and Scott Miller (left to right)
Sunset Diving with Martin Guo, Paul Clerkin and Scott Miller (left to right)