Fourteen students defend thesis research in 2021!

By Emily Montgomery, MLML Phycology Lab

2021 was a complex year to be a graduate student, with global societal issues demanding our attention and energy alongside our usual scientific workload. The emergence of the COVID-19 vaccines brought with it the hope of being able to safely socialize in-person with our friends and loved ones again. The resilient Moss community was able to return to some in-person activities in the Fall of 2021, including hosting the first lab Halloween party since 2019!

During this rollercoaster of a year, 14 students successfully defended their MLML theses virtually via Zoom. Please join me in congratulating the following students:

  • Ann Bishop, Phycology Lab
  • Taylor Eddy, Invertebrate Zoology Lab
  • Bonnie Brown, Fisheries and Conservation Biology Lab
  • Matthew Jew, Ichthyology Lab
  • Justin Cordova, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Gregory Bongey, Geological Oceanography Lab
  • Jennifer Tackaberry, Vertebrate Ecology Lab
  • Sophie Bernstein, Ichthyology Lab
  • Rachel Brooks, Ichthyology Lab
  • Holly Doerr, Ichthyology Lab
  • Melissa Naugle, Invertebrate Ecology Lab
  • Kristen Saksa, Ichthyology Lab
  • Jacquie Chisholm, Physical Oceanography Lab
  • Amanda Camarato, Physical Oceanography Lab

Read below for pictures of the graduates, and explore the links to their thesis announcement posts with more info about their projects and the YouTube recordings of their defenses.

Check out posts commemorating past defenders written by MLML alumna June Shrestha: 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017.

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The other pandemic: linking COVID-19 and climate change

By Grace Teranishi, MLML Ichthyology Lab

Salinas, CA (Summer 2020)

By now we’ve grown somewhat accustomed to the haze and the smell of smoke, the ash that dusts our cars, our patios, our coats. It’s August, night. My friends have invited me over to drink beer and observe the glare of the River Fire ebb and flow over the hills across the highway. Within the week they’ll receive an evacuation order.

With both COVID-19 and environmental crises to convulse the world, this past year has witnessed its fair share of fires—literal and figurative—disrupting homes, livelihoods, social norms, and mental stabilities. Unsurprisingly, we find increasing evidence of how one pandemic (COVID) interacts with and bears resemblance to another, even deadlier one: climate change.

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Recognizing individuals through repeated field encounters

By Kameron Strickland, MLML Ichthyology Lab & CSUMB Image Analysis Lab

Our pursuit for statistical power involves repeated trials and non-trivial sample sizes.  After hundreds of fish dissections or thousands of water samples, big data can become a big chore.  Once exciting field observations are converted to numbers, I find myself occasionally forgetting the amazing individuals we are fortunate enough to study.

I’ve enjoyed photographing both fish and birds for a few years.  Through repeat encounters, I’ve come to recognize specific individuals both on land and on sea.  If you have had the same experience, you will understand the excitement in recognizing these individuals time and time again.  Sexual dimorphism, unique behaviors, and physical markings are all indicators that can be used for identifications.  Here, I provide small anecdotes about some of the individuals I’ve met through my photography.


Scarred Kelp rockfish

I just logged my 400th dive in my SCUBA career.  A majority were around the Monterey Peninsula, most being in the Carmel Bay.  While studying microhabitat associations of Kelp rockfish in Carmel, I recorded more than 1,000 observations of the species.  Kelp rockfish display a wide range of color morphs and patchiness patterns, from a ghostly white to earthy greens and browns.  I recognized this specific individual across a few dives due to the distinct white scar its left side.  After an hour of deep depths and freezing temperatures, it was exciting to find this fish hanging around the same patches of kelp.  I’m not sure if the feeling was mutual!


Two Vermilion rockfish in Carmel, CA

Just across the bay live two large Vermilion rockfish.  The smaller of the two is much more orange, while the larger one has more complicated silver patches on its body.  These large, vibrant rockfish stand out from the other species on the reef.  When I dove nearly every day during the summer of 2018, I would see these individuals in almost the exact same places.  Because of their large size, I believe these two individuals could have easily outcompeted other rockfish for the best crevices along the rocky reef.  Since 2018, this kelp forest has turned into an urchin barren with only a few opportunistic Macrocystis and Nereocystis fronds remaining.  Yet the Vermilions remain – I just saw one of them last week!  It still feels as if these two fish purposefully come out to greet me on dives.


White-tailed kite

During runs, I’ve passed this White-tailed numerous times while it was perched on the same tree.  I’ve made it a mission to return with camera gear and try to photograph it, but have only succeeded twice.  Their bright red eyes have always fascinated me.  If my presence doesn’t scare it off, turkey vultures and crows seem to always chase it away.


Anna’s hummingbird in Moss Landing

I discovered this Anna’s hummingbird at a location I frequent weekly for shorebirds.  This individual favors flying back and forth between three perches.  It was shy when I first discovered it, not letting me approach very closely.  I began using my camera’s electronic shutter to shoot silently and minimize disturbance on its natural behavior.  After many weeks of returning to this individual, it has become more comfortable with my camera gear.  It now lets me move closer and will even return to me after flying away.  Over a the past few months, this bird has become a part of my weekly photographic routine; I like to think that I am a part of its week as well!


Pair of Eurasian collared doves in Moss Landing

Not far from the hummingbird I visit, two Eurasian collared doves that have claimed a tree as their own.  These two are inseparable.  Although I am no dove expert, I suspect they may be a breeding pair.  Since their tree is near the busy Moss Landing harbor, they sometimes have to other flying fauna.  In my opinion, these goofy doves have one of the most hilarious calls.  Unfortunately they are hesitant to drop down at eye level, which makes it difficult to capture photos.


Photographing wildlife is an enjoyable break from the hard science I feel is prioritized during grad school.  These small encounters have highlighted some of the interesting routines and personality traits of my subjects.  I hope you are able to recognize individuals across your scientific endeavors.  Happy research!

Where have all the abalone gone? The impacts of ocean acidification on abalone populations

By Kayla Roy, MLML Ichthyology Lab


When you think of sea food what do you think of? Do you picture a fish fillet, lobster bisque, or maybe fish and chips? These are some of the common seafood dishes you can find on the menu at your favorite seafood stop, but have you ever seen abalone steak on the menu? It used to be a common staple eaten up and down the California coast. Now abalone are almost impossible to find not only on the menu, but in the ocean. So why have these animals begun to vanish from our diet and seas? This is due to the many changing oceanic conditions including ocean acidification.

Abalone have disappeared from our diet because the oceans have become too acidic, which has greatly reduced their population size. Climate change, driven by human emissions of carbon dioxide mainly from fossil fuels, is changing Earth’s climate and altering ocean chemistry. One of these changes is ocean acidification, which is a process that makes the ocean more acidic because of an increase in carbon dioxide. Change in acidity impacts marine life like abalone by reducing population sizes through developmental deformities, shell dissolution, lowered reproductive success, and reduced survival. So why do we care about the impact of ocean acidification on abalone and their continued existence in our ocean? Besides their previous inclusion in our diets, abalone contribute to the ocean and to people in many ways.

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Nine students defend thesis research in 2020!

By June ShresthaMLML Ichthyology Lab

2020 was a big year. We saw a global pandemic, protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and wildfires raging across the state. Despite all of this, we had nine students pull through to defend their thesis research in 2020! Please join me in congratulating the following students:

  • Lindsay Cooper, Phycology Lab
  • Kenji Soto, Geological Oceanography Lab
  • Amber Reichert, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Mason Cole, Vertebrate Ecology Lab
  • June Shrestha, Ichthyology Lab
  • Dan Gossard, Phycology Lab
  • Jacoby Baker, Ichthyology Lab
  • Emily Pierce, Invertebrate Zoology Lab
  • Miya Pavlock-McAuliffe, Physical Oceanography Lab

Please read below to learn a little more about each student's research. As always, please also check out the posts highlighting student research from previous years as well at the following links: 2019, 2018, and 2017.

Special author note: As I am one of the students that defended and graduated this year, this will be my last post for The Drop-In. From writing about classes to conferences and student research, it's been a pleasure writing for this blog. Hopefully someone else will carry the torch forward in the new year to highlight and celebrate the research of graduating students!

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Thesis Defense by June Shrestha – December 9th


"Fish pee in the sea: a surprising source of limiting nutrients in California kelp forests"
A Thesis Defense by June Shrestha

The Ichthyology Lab

MLML Live-Stream | December 9, 2020 at 12 pm

Growing up, June always loved being underwater. Long summer days were spent at the local pool in Virginia, where she swam along the bottom pretending to be a SCUBA diver and scouring the “seafloor” looking for treasure: forgotten toys, hair ties, and even a coin or two. Then on a fateful snorkel trip to the ocean with her family, 10-year-old June loved swimming with the fish so much, that she decided that she wanted to be an “Oceanographer Scientist” when she grew up! Mind you, she did not know exactly what an oceanographer did, but she liked that it had the word “ocean” in it, and “scientist” sounded impressive. 

From then on, all of her academic pursuits were focused on reaching her goal of becoming an “Oceanographer Scientist”. In high school, she crashed “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” events at NOAA, conducted extra science fair projects, and even studied Latin for four years in hopes that it would help her learn scientific nomenclature. In college, June majored in Biological Sciences for her B.S. degree at Virginia Tech and learned that she was actually more interested in ecology, not oceanography! She participated on any research project she could involving the words “water”, “fish”, or “snorkel”, and spent many days surveying streams for fishes in the mountains of Virginia.

Now, as June graduates with her M.S. in Marine Science from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and CSU Monterey Bay, she can finally say that she accomplished her childhood dream. When not conducting research, you can find June SCUBA diving - for real now - within the kelp beds of California.

Thesis Abstract:

In marine systems, fishes excrete dissolved nutrients rich in nitrogen, a biolimiting nutrient essential for regulating primary production and macroalgal growth in the ocean. Often overlooked in attempts to explain the variability in kelp forest productivity, relatively little is known about the magnitude and patterns that drive nutrient excretion from fishes, especially in temperate kelp forests. I investigated the supply of nutrients excreted by the dominant fishes (30 species representing ~85% of total fish biomass) on nearshore rocky reefs in California. Using rapid field incubations, I measured the amount of dissolved ammonium (NH4+) released per individual (n = 460) as a function of body size and developed predictive models relating mass to excretion rates at the family-level. I then combined the family-specific predictive equations with data on fish density and size structure around the northern Channel Islands characterized from visual SCUBA surveys conducted from 2005-2018. Mass-specific excretion rates ranged from 0.01 – 3.45 µmol g-1 hr-1, and per capita ammonium excretion ranged from 5.9 – 2765 µmol per individual per hr. Ammonium excretion rates scaled with fish size; mass-specific excretion rates were greater in smaller fishes, but larger fishes contributed more ammonium per individual. When controlling for body size, ammonium excretion rates differed significantly among fish families with the highest excretion by surfperches (Embiotocidae). On an areal scale, the fish community in the northern Channel Islands excreted a substantial amount of ammonium to the kelp forest (mean: 131.3 µmol · m-2 · hr-1), and spatiotemporal variability (range: 59.84 – 247.9 µmol · m-2 · hr-1) was driven by the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs), geographic and temporal shifts in the overarching fish community structure, and environmental and habitat characteristics. Results suggest that fish-derived nutrients may provide an important and underrepresented nutrient source to kelp beds, particularly during low-nutrient periods (e.g. seasonal or climatic events), and that fishing may interfere with these nutrient cycling pathways. Areal rates of ammonium excretion – consistent with those reported for tropical reefs, but among the first measured in temperate systems – reveal that fishes may play a critical role in supporting the resiliency of kelp forest ecosystems.

June Shrestha Presents: Fish pee in the sea: a surprising source of limiting nutrients in California kelp forests

Thesis Defense by Jacoby Baker – December 4th


"Maternal environment drives larval rockfish gene expression (Sebastes spp.)"
A Thesis Defense by Jacoby Baker

The Ichthyology Lab

MLML Live-Stream | December 4, 2020 at 4 pm

Jacoby has always had an affinity for the water. Even so, he tried to escape the calling of the water and started his undergrad career first in mathematics then moved into biochemistry. Eventually, he couldn't fight it anymore and received his B.S in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Marine Biology from San Jose State University. In his final year of undergrad he found himself interning at NOAA NMFS in Santa Cruz working on a large collaborative ocean acidification and hypoxia project that Dr. Scott Hamilton and Dr. Cheryl Logan were PIs on. Here, he cultivated his interest in researching the effects of climate change stressors on marine organisms, which led to his thesis project. Jacoby is now a Research Assistant at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and is applying his molecular background on a project using environmental DNA (eDNA) to help identify organisms residing within Monterey Bay.

Thesis Abstract:

Global climate change is driving shifts in ocean chemistry, which combined with intensification of coastal upwelling, reduces ocean pH and dissolved oxygen (DO) content in the nearshore habitats of the California Current System. Physiological plasticity, within and across generations, might be especially important for long-lived, late-to-mature species, like rockfishes (genus Sebastes), that may be unable to keep pace with climate change via genetic adaptation. Rockfishes exhibit matrotrophic viviparity and may be able to buffer their offspring from environmental stress through early developmental exposure or transgenerational plasticity (non-genetic inheritance of phenotypes). I pre-exposed mother gopher (S. carnatus) and blue (S. mystinus) rockfish to one of four treatments; 1) ambient conditions, 2) low pH, 3) low DO, or 4) combined low pH/DO stressor during fertilization and gestation, followed by a 5-day larval exposure after birth in either the same or different treatment. I used RNA sequencing to determine how the maternal environment affected larval rockfish gene expression (GE). I found that the maternal exposure drove larval GE patterns regardless of sampling time point or treatment. Furthermore, the maternal environment continued to strongly influence larval GE for at least the first five days after birth. These data suggest that rockfish may not be able to buffer their offspring from environmental stressors, highlighting the important role of the maternal environment during gestation.

Jacoby Baker Presents: Maternal environment drives larval rockfish gene expression (Sebastes spp.)

The case of the sea lion: stranding events linked to domoic acid outbreaks

By Sophie BernsteinMLML Ichthyology Lab

When I moved to the Monterey Bay area for graduate school, I found myself most excited to be immersed in a new ecosystem. I couldn’t wait to learn about what the Monterey Bay was known for: the kelp forest. But I never considered the marine life I could see from shore until my scientific diving course, when we would spend several hours a day loading and unloading boats near Moss Landing Harbor. I felt like a little kid in an ice cream store, excited by all the resident sea lions perched on the dock and nearby boats! Needless to say, as an East-coaster, I was in awe. Meanwhile, the Californians who surrounded me did not look twice. Whereas I thought these sea lions were outrageously cute, and had never seen something like this in the wild, my peers simply rolled their eyes at the barking and obnoxious smell coming from the large animals.

Soon enough, I came to realize that California sea lions are a commonly observed, charismatic marine mammal found along the entire California coast. They are top predators in the local ecosystem, and spend extensive amounts of time at sea foraging on a variety of prey items. Common food for these sea lions include anchovies, sardines, squid, and salmon. When not actively feeding, sea lions may be found on shore breeding in groups called rookeries. A single breeding site can be home to several hundred breeding individuals, with one large male dominating the pack! Because they are such large predators who spend time on coastal shores, they are highly visible to the public.

Rookeries are not the only location where sea lions are seen in large numbers onshore. Every few years, sea lions strand in high numbers along the coast. This is particularly noticeable to the public, because when stranded, they displaying incredibly abnormal behavior, such as excessive head weaving, seizures, or even unusually large mortality events. Unfortunately, mass sea lion strandings usually indicate a larger problem occurring in the marine system: harmful algal blooms.

Red tide events, which cause coastal waters to appear red and make the headlines in California newspapers, are one type of harmful algal bloom visible by the naked eye. Another type of bloom that is not necessarily visible in the water itself causes mass sea lion stranding events along the California coast. These blooms are caused by a different type of algae known as Pseudo-nitzschia, and are capable of producing a harmful neurotoxin called domoic acid (DA).  Similar to a canary in a coal mine, California sea lion stranding events are often the first indicator of a domoic acid outbreak.

The most recent DA events were in 2015-2016 and 1998 and both coincided with unusually warm oceanographic conditions. These warm oceanographic conditions are characterized by a decreased supply of cold, nutrient rich water (scientifically known as ‘upwelling’), resulting in water that is comparatively warmer and depleted in nutrients. The changes in upwelling alter how the larger ecosystem functions, by changing the distribution and amount of prey available. Major DA events occur rather infrequently because they require a specific combination of environmental conditions, but when they occur, they are visible to the public. Similar to other threats to marine ecosystems, these stranding events are tied to climate change. The frequency of DA events and marine mortality events may increase as climate change pressures alter upwelling patterns, creating environments prone to toxic outbreaks.

But if sea lions are top predators in California waters, how and why would a tiny algae cell impact them? While we don’t know yet for sure, scientists think sea lions are impacted by domoic acid through the food web. The Monterey Bay ecosystem is amazingly rich. It is home to thousands of fish and invertebrate species, all of which are connected to each other through predator-prey dynamics. For example, a sea lion may eat a squid, which eats smaller invertebrates and phytoplankton. Through this chain, sea lions and the phytoplankton come in contact.

Scientists recognize that sea lions are exposed to DA through these food chain connections. Sea lions are opportunistic feeders who consume a variety of prey items, including anchovies. Anchovies feed directly on algae and other phytoplankton. Since anchovies are important prey items for predators throughout California, the sea lions who consume them might be directly exposed to DA.

Yes, we’re talking about the same anchovy that may be sitting on your pizza! Anchovies are one of the largest fisheries in central California that contribute > 13 million pounds to commercial fisheries. This creates another question: Does DA threaten seafood consumers? Indeed, humans can be exposed to DA through the same food web connections that make sea lions vulnerable.

An important remaining question is: where are sea lions foraging when they’re exposed to DA? Scientists at The Marine Mammal Center have been researching related topics based on the stranded animals they respond to. Researchers have found that DA toxicity in sea lions can result from ingesting prey items which have accumulated DA, but where were these prey items consumed? And what is the relationship between ocean warming events, climate change, and DA outbreaks? With a better understanding of where prey items accumulate DA, monitoring agencies can more adequately test high risk regions, and increase the chances of detecting a toxic event early on rather than waiting for another biological indicator, such as mass sea lion stranding and mortality events.

To learn more about how The Marine Mammal Center is researching and helping during DA stranding events, check out this article.

Science is creative, creativity is science

By Hannah Bruzzio, MLML Ichthyology Lab

Growing up we often feel like we have to put ourselves in boxes. Being asked: “what’s your favorite subject?” and not being expected to have more than one. I liked science, knew I would be a scientist one day and never put much thought into what else I could be good at. I was always told I was a creative person, that I was a right-brained creative, but I liked science so that was what I was going to stick with.

Stereotypes exist on both sides to help recognize what a child might be good at throughout their schooling and maybe set them on a career path early in life. These ‘standard’ traits are often on opposite sides of the spectrum, with a right-brained, free-thinking creative sending you on a path to be an artist, and a left-brained, rigid, plan-oriented book worm on the other leading you to science. However, these basic human traits don’t hold up in either field in the real world and should never restrict someone to one path in life. Some of the most creative people I have met have been peers in the lab and some friends who are artists are some of the more methods-orientated people I know. There is no such thing as boxes, and it is the blending of these traits that can really make someone excel in their field.

Over the past 6 years or so, breaking out of high school biology and into the world of scientific research, is when I realized that creativity and science are not mutually exclusive. They are in fact very closely linked and it might be my creative side that has made me into the scientist that I am today. Like scientists, artists conceptualize and put together ideas in a new way. But instead of observation, facts and data, they use color, shapes, texture, etc.

The scientific method is inherently built on creativity. Scientists are pushed to think outside the box to ask new questions and to design unique projects from beginning to end and produce a novel result. Of course, there is an aspect of sticking to a protocol and precision that all good science must incorporate, but you often cannot get to that point without a creative mindset. This was a lesson that, once learned, was extremely exciting to me. I could now have a career that nurtures both sides of my brain, the logical and the creative.

MLML Open House 2020 t-shirt design

In recent years, I have read about artists being included on scientific cruises and exploration projects as well as seeing people go from hard scientist, to scientific illustrator, then to a tattoo artist specializing in scientifically accurate representations of animals and plants. It is this blending that catches the eye of the public. A good artistic visual representation of science can easily become a trending topic because it has become palatable and stimulating for people outside of either field of science or art. Photography and documentary making has made coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef a globally recognized issue that we are facing and has in turn allowed more interest and need for increased knowledge in the scientific community on the subject as well. Another great visual representation of science, the ocean specifically, is aquariums. These attractions are seen by millions of people each year and are carefully curated as a sensory exploration of life in the ocean. This allows people to see and understand the ocean in new ways, being told a story written by both artists and scientists alike.

This personal realization that I didn’t have to choose one side or the other, led very quickly into having more creative hobbies. I received an iPad as a Christmas present in 2017, and the rest was history. The development of my own personal artistic style has been a slower journey, reaching the present where a huge source of my inspiration is taken directly from marine science and marine life as a whole. I will spend hours at the aquarium taking pictures and videos of fish to incorporate into my drawings. I will spend even more hours staring at pictures of kelp to figure out how to take the beautiful underwater landscape and give it new life with my own personal flare. I have also gotten the chance to design for Moss Landing Marine Labs (mostly in relation to out Open House event) as well as be a go-to graphic illustrator for my peers because I understand the importance of stylized yet realistic designs in bridging the gaps between science, creativity and communication.

So, for me I choose to acknowledge the links between my career path and my hobbies and not have separate organized little boxes of my life where science and creativity live separately. I have been given the unique opportunity to be both academically passionate and creatively inspired by a career in science and I am sure you have not seen the last fish drawing out of me.

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.