Adventures in Mexico 2018: A healthy southern kelp forest

By Ann Bishop, Phycology Lab

Ann Bishop examining seaweed (Photo: Laurel Lam)

This year the Baja field class traveled to Isla Natividad to experience a giant kelp forest at the southern end of Macrocystis pyrifera’s range. Looking from the surface, the waves of turquoise water and the tendrils of sienna scimitar blades mirror those of Monterey Bay and of Southern California. It’s only once you dive beneath the surface you can begin to understand that we are not in Monterey anymore.

The Monterey Bay kelp forest has its own structure of over story, understory, and benthic covering seaweeds. But, these layers and the species that develop them are not always so clear cut- based on a patchwork of substrate and exposure to the storms. Much like an eastern forest can be a mix of deciduous, conifers, shrubs, and meadows.

The kelp forest on Isla Natividad, is less this patchwork and more like standing at the bottom of an old growth rainforest. The kelp grows in thick stands, sometimes so dense that becoming tangled and un-tangled is a habit rather than an event. The understory Ecklonia grows in incredible abundance. Their waving blades create the impression that the bottom is right there, maybe not even a hands breadth away. But, instead it hides yet another layer. Underneath the Ecklonia, are a fascinating array of wine-red algae, feathery pink corallines, gorgonian fans, anemones, sponges, and most unlikely of all- rotoliths! These slow growing crustose coralline algae are often mistaken for rocks rolling across a sandy plane, but here they were, thriving under their towering brown cousins.

Like their terrestrial counter parts, these forests reflect the impacts of the human communities who rely on them. Isla Natividad looks the way it does today because of the careful management practices and intense love the people have for their island. The willingness of the co-operative to learn, flexibility to adapt, coupled, with their ability to exclude poachers has resulted in the rich underwater world we were permitted to visit.

Yet, even the best laid plans and managers can face new challenges in the changing oceans. Other kelp forests, faced with warming seas have been heavily impacted by an increase in invasive species. Invasive seaweeds Sargassum horneri and an aquarium variety of Bryopsis to name some of recent new arrivals. The impact of invasive that may be familiar to Californians might be the difference that can be seen in the growth of S. horneri on Santa Catalina, off the coast of Los Angles, before and after the 2015 El Nino.

On Isla Natividad, both these invasive seaweeds are present but, fortunately have not been able to dominate the island. At least not yet. My project focused on identifying and quantifying where S. horneri was present around the island. While only a few of the sites we explored contained S. horneri, I am hoping the data from my project can assist with monitoring and future management. Knowing the baseline of an invasive species gives the managers important information and tools should those species begin to take the place of the native and endemic species. With knowledge, management, and a little bit of luck the community of Isla Natividad will be able to fish, share, and protect their underwater forests for generations to come.

Invasive seaweed Sargassum horneri (Photo by Diana Steller)

Congratulations to our 2017 graduates!

By June ShresthaIchthyology Lab

Congratulations to 14 students who defended their research theses and graduated from our program this year! Student research spanned across continents, taking us from the kelp forests of California, to the deep seas of South Africa, and even Antarctica!

The following students were awarded a Masters of Science in Marine Science:

  • Angela Zepp, Phycology
  • Devona Yates, Ichthyology
  • Maureen Wise, Chemical Oceanography & Phycology
  • Melinda Wheelock, Invertebrate Zoology
  • Kristin Walovich, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Dorota Szuta, Benthic Ecology
  • Scott Miller, Ichthyology
  • Ryan Manzer, Physical Oceanography
  • James Knuckey, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Jen Keliher, Invertebrate Zoology
  • Jinchen (Martin) Guo, Invertebrate Zoology
  • Christian Denney, Fisheries and Conservation Biology
  • Paul Clerkin, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Stephan Bitterwolf, Phycology

Read below to learn more about the graduates' research. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any additional questions!

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Aquacultural Methods for the Restoration of the Olympia Oyster ( Ostrea lurida) in Elkhorn Slough

By Dan Gossard, Phycology Lab Dan

As I step into the aquaria room at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML), I always notice the abrupt sensory differences between that room and the outdoors. Numerous waterfalls pouring from valved pipe fitting and hoses replenish tanks of various sizes with the seawater that marine organisms need. The continual splashing of this water is overlaid with a mixture of sounds from pumps and bubbling air stones, designed to diffuse bubbled air so it is more easily dissolved into the water. The piped walls and troughed floors provide a strong seawater circuit that controls the temperature and smell of the air - cool and salty. This aquaria room is crucial to the work of the students at the lab. The room's newest occupants may help recover a once abundant inhabitant of the North American West Coast's bays and estuaries: the Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida; or Olys for short). Although most of the organisms I've cultured in the aquaria room have been seaweeds, I recently had the opportunity to participate in the culturing of these native invertebrates.

VIDEO CAPTION: A compound microscope shows an up close and personal view of one of the Oly larva. After some time having developed within the mantle cavity of the mother, the mature oyster will spew a cloud of larvae into the environment. This larval stage, the pediveliger, is a free-swimming stage that actively feeds on phytoplankton. Quick movement of the ring of cilia, also known as the vellum, directs tiny plankton towards the larva's mouth. This vellum also provides the pediveliger with the ability to move around in the water column. This stage also has a transparent shell protecting its delicate innards that the oyster can withdraw into after picking up environmental sensory cues. (Video Source: Daniel Gossard).


Our filled graduated buckets house these small oysters, and sit in a heated water bath in the back corner of the room. The Olys have been observed to release larvae at higher temperatures, and we've determined that conductive heat would be the easiest way to maintain these higher temperatures. Our broodstock, or adults that we are specifically using to produce larvae, are contained within three separate buckets: two containing Olys from Kirby Park and one containing Olys from Azevedo Pond. We have been hoping that some of these individuals are gravid, but there is no way to be sure without prying open the shell and killing the oyster. We instead have been sticking to daily observations using a high-powered spotlight. Every day, Peter Hain, the expert invertebrate aquaculturist, and I switch off transferring these broodstock to clean and preheated buckets. We then pipette in a highly concentrated mixture of diatoms and flagellates that quickly swirl around the bucket following the flow of our added air-stone. The end result is a brownish green diluted soup that is consumed entirely by the following day. Dr. Jillian Bible, from Bodega Marine Laboratory, has informed us that these oysters thrive under a specific density of phytoplankton per liter of seawater. Jill has had experience culturing Olys in the past, and her advice has been crucial for our setup design and maintenance scheduling.

Peter Hain, from the Monterey Abalone Company (MAC), holds up a custom designed rack made to supply clam shells for swimming Oly larvae to settle on. The tank below houses a plethora of swimming larvae - upwards of 300,000. The shells and tank need to be cleaned regularly in order to maintain a relatively sterile environment to minimize larvae mortality. Once the larvae decide to settle on these shells, they will be fed greater and greater amounts of phytoplankton until they are large enough to be transplanted into Elkhorn Slough. MAC's hatchery within Moss Landing Marine Laboratories' aquaria room was graciously provided as some of the baseline infrastructure responsible for larval-culture associated with this restoration project. (Photo Source: Daniel Gossard).

Before I switch out and feed the last oyster containing bucket in the bath, I click on my spotlight. This Azevedo bucket, which I've observed has a partially foamy sheen, seems to have less water clarity than the other buckets. By shining this spotlight through the side of the bucket, I will be able to illuminate whatever larvae are swimming around within the bucket. Much to my surprise, I spot thousands of slowly moving larvae within the beam. Using a mixture of sieves and buckets, I gently siphon the young oyster pedi-veligers (the specific free-swimming Oly larval type) to minimize the oyster waste and various other organisms that may have hitched a ride during transfer from the slough. The grayish moving mass of water contained above the 100-micron sieve contains about 150,000 larvae, based on a few samples I examine under the dissecting microscope. This is the first step toward deployment of new juvenile oysters that may help bolster the population of Olys within Elkhorn Slough.

Populations of these small oysters were plentiful until the late 19th century. Early Native American middens on the west coast contain traces of a variety of seafood, including the shells of the Olympia oyster. Olys are much smaller, and would require three or four to match the meat of the other two more popular Crassostrea, the Pacific and Eastern oyster. A mixture of human consumption and anthropogenic stressors, such as sedimentation from the Gold Rush in San Francisco Bay and pollution from industrial runoff, drastically diminished population sizes and transformed the habitat of these oysters to decrease likelihood of recovery.

UC Santa Cruz's Dr. Kerstin Wasson, along with the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, has been monitoring the Elkhorn Slough Oly population over several years. They have concluded that these Olys have experienced half of a decade of unsuccessful spawns. Although the reason behind the failure for lack of successful spawning has yet to be elucidated, an older population may be more susceptible to mortality due to age. In addition to compiling multiple reviews and conducting studies on various populations of Olys, Kerstin's expertise and familiarity with the slough has also led her to observe a size difference between oysters at two sites in the slough: Kirby Park and Azevedo Pond. These size differences have been attributed to differences in dissolved oxygen content between the two sites.

These larvae were present within our Oly broodstock (gravid adults) tank one morning. They were released into the water in a massive event from one or more individuals. They are only visible with the use of a high-powered spotlight. This is the life stage of the Olys that is the most susceptible to the dangers of the natural environment; in the wild, only a few of these hundreds of thousands of larvae would survive. Eliminating mortalities associated with predation and minimizing mortalities associated with disease and other abiotic stressors provides a much greater likelihood of these larvae successfully recruiting and growing into adults. After a careful filtering process, we isolated these larvae from their parents in order to provide them with a specific regimen of phytoplankton. (Photo Source: Daniel Gossard.)

Dr. Brent Hughes, postdoctoral researcher and fellow from Duke University and UC Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Lab is an alumnus of MLML and has conducted extensive study on another inhabitant of Elkhorn Slough that has been deleteriously impacted by humans: seagrass. Seagrass and Olys cohabitate the intertidal and shallow subtidal regions. Seagrass can be characterized as a foundation species: it provides shelter for organisms seeking refuge from predators, organisms such as small crustaceans feed on it, and it disproportionately impacts its system compared to other marine plants and algae. Photosynthesis by seagrass is a vast contributor to dissolved oxygen concentrations in the surrounding water and the root system of the seagrass stabilizes the sediment and makes the mudflats more habitable by the Olys.

Brent and Kerstin received a generous donation from the Anthropocene Institute to help restore the Oly's in the slough and approached Professor Michael Graham of the Phycology Lab to collaborate with MLML in the process. Brent and Kerstin intend to study the effects of dissolved oxygen and other abiotic (environmental) variables on the demographics of Elkhorn Slough's Oly population. Studies have shown that Oly (and other oysters) are most susceptible to succumb to stress mortality in their larval stage. Olys have evolved to produce hundreds of thousands of larvae per spawn to attempt to pass on their genetic heritage and overcome these mass larval mortalities. By taking some of the Olys from the slough and spawning them in a controlled environment, we may be able to minimize larval stress related mortalities. Peter and I are currently working to achieve this goal with the utilization of controlled and responsible aquacultural methods.

These larvae that were just released need to go through a few more steps before we can deploy them back in Elkhorn Slough. Although Oly larvae will "settle", or transition from their motile to sessile life stage, and become affixed to any number of substrates, they have a chemical preference toward settling on calcium carbonate. Although there are a number of natural calcium carbonate fixing organisms in the system, we plan on providing butter clam and gaper clam shells for the Olys to settle on. By attaching these clam shells to wooden stakes, we essentially create a multiple oyster unit that can easily be deployed into the intertidal zone in Elkhorn Slough. We can deploy a number of these units to multiple sites to aid the recovery of these small oysters. Wish these larvae luck as they spend the next few months in our aquaria room before they are reconnected with their native Oly population in Elkhorn Slough.

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Congrats to Fall 2016’s eight new Masters of Science!

By June Shrestha, Ichthyology Lab

Congratulations are in order for the eight students who successfully defended their research theses this past semester (Fall 2016)! Student research spanned from California to French Polynesia, from plankton to marine mammals. Read below to learn about the main points of their research, and if you have any questions or want to get in touch with the recent graduates, please leave a comment!

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Kelp Forest Community

By Heather Fulton-BennettPhycology Lab

While every student at Moss Landing Marine Labs designs their own thesis, sometimes one comes along that really requires the entire community.

Phycology student Steven Cunningham is looking at the effect of giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, detritus on the plankton community. Macrocystis is considered a foundation species because thousands of species that depend on it for habitat and food. Steven is constructing an artificial kelp forest to disentangle the impact of structure and nutrients on the kelp fores community. With so many plants to make, he rallied the labs this past weekend, complete with movies and BBQ to keep everyone fed and amused.

Kelp Helpers working through the weekend to get this forest built! Photo: Lindsay Cooper
Kelp Helpers working through the weekend to get this forest built! Photo: Lindsay Cooper

The artificial kelp is made from marine-grade polypropylene rope and tarp with concrete holdfasts that will be bolted to the substrate. With the artificial kelp being deployed at 25 ft depth and multiple stipes per plant, it came it thousands of feet of rope and thousands of individual tarp blades, each attached by hand. Over 30 people came to help and hang out, making the work go much faster. It was great to see so much of the MLML community come to support one thesis, and a good reminder of how we can never get through this degree by ourselves.

From the holdfast to the canopy, Steven Cunningham designed this kelp to mimic Macrocystis pyrifera
From the holdfast to the canopy, this kelp to mimic the structure of natural Macrocystis integrifolia beds. Photo: Lindsay Cooper

With all the help, Steven hopes to deploy his fake kelp in the next month!

Thousands of fake blades are attached to hundreds of polypro stipes to make up the plants. Photo: Lindsay Cooper
Thousands of fake blades are attached to hundreds of polypro stipes to make up the plants. Photo: Lindsay Cooper



Tiny Giants

By Heather Fulton-Bennett, Phycology Lab

The Monterey Bay Aquarium recently welcomed a new Giant Sea Bass (Stereolepis gigas) to their Kelp Gardens exhibit. Unlike its name, this new addition isn't so giant - barely 4 inches long!

Juvenile Giant Sea Bass

Giant sea bass are found along the west coast from Humboldt Bay to Baja California, Mexico and can reach up to 8 feet long. While rarely seen in the Monterey Bay, they are recovering from overfishing and are being seen more in southern California. The aquarium also has a sub-adult in the Kelp Forest tank, and two adults in their Monterey Bay Habitat exhibit. You can see more of this little one here or head to the aquarium yourself!

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is free for residents of Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito Counties through Dec. 13th, so go check out the new arrivals and old favorites!

Another One Dives the Deep: Fall Science Diving

By Scott Gabara

You dive into the cool blue-green seawater.  You inflate your buoyancy compensator as you near the bottom.  You check your air on your Submersible Pressure Gauge (SPG) and sign an "Ok" to your buddy.  After tying off the transect tape you place your slate out in front of you, align the lubber line of your compass, and begin swimming at 300 degrees.  You are identifying fish to species, placing them into one of three size bins, and recording that onto your data sheet.  If this sounds like a lot to do you are right!  The fall marine science diving course at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories recently celebrated the hard work they have done during the semester with a boat trip to a unique dive location.  We were able to utilize MLML's R/V John H. Martin to transport us to the Carmel Pinnacles State Marine Reserve off Pescadero and anchor on a GPS point where the granite pinnacles come close to the surface.

MLML's R/V John H. Martin.
MLML Science Diving students Catarina Pien (left) and Melinda Wheelock (right) pose for a picture at Carmel Pinnacles.
Impressive granite walls create swim-throughs for divers.

We experienced large granitic walls and a ballet of sea lions.  It was a great way to finish up the semester of diving and now mentally prepare for the final exam filled with gas laws and dive table problems.  I always find myself thinking where will these divers go and what exciting dives await them after the completion of the class.

John Douglas and Liza Schmidt operate the R/V John Martin and help us aboard using the swim step ladder.

Life After MLML: News from the tropics

By Michelle Marraffini. Invertebrate Zoology and Molecular Ecology Lab

After graduating from MLML, former students go on to do great research at their new jobs or in PhD programs.   One of these former students is Paul Tompkins of the Phycology Lab, who took a phd position at Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (ZMT) in Bremen, Germany.  Paul is conducting research the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos.  Beyond the famous finches and the oldest tortoises, the Galapagos also boasts an impressive marine system protected by their national park.   As part of a larger, ongoing project Paul is studying the role of algae in the food web and the response to climate change including El Nino events.

Spotted rose snapper (Lutjanus guttatus) and other Galapagos reef fish during a dive at Punta Nunez
Photo by: David Acuna

While collecting preliminary data of the system, using underwater transects and estimates of percent cover, a diver (David Acuna) helping Paul monitor Punta Nunez came across a fish species he did not recognize.  The possible identity of this fish is the species Lutjanus guttatus, Spotted rose snapper, which was cited for the first time in the Galapagos from catch data in Puerto Villamil in pervious years.  If the identity of this mystery fish is confirmed it would be a new record of the species and help scientists monitor populations of fish in the area.  It just goes to show that you always have to keep your eyes open for new discoveries.

A close up shot of the spotted rose snapper. Photo by: David Acuna (Charles Darwin Foundation)

It’s a Wonderful Lab

By Diane Wyse, Physical Oceanography Lab

In a day that some might describe as “the ideal lab experience,” four Moss Landing students set out to perform water sampling techniques for their chemical oceanography class, and enjoyed a day filled with surprises and adventure on the Monterey Bay.  Those students, from the phycology, physical, and biological oceanography labs, took MLML’s “Hurricane” Zodiac boat out to nine sites around the bay to collect seawater.  Along with two other groups that explored sections of Elkhorn Slough, the sampling effort was a snapshot of the concentration of silica in the surface waters of the bay and slough.

The day began with a lesson on instrumentation for determining temperature and salinity at each collection site.

Biological oceanography lab student Nicole Bobco checks the temperature and salinity measurements on the YSI field sampling sensor. (photo: D. Wyse)
Chemical oceanography professor Dr Kenneth Coale waves to the bay crew as he and students head off the explore and sample from the upper Elkhorn Slough. (photo: D. Wyse)
A handful of pinnipeds seen enjoying the beautiful weather on the bay crew’s ride to the first sampling site. (photo: D. Wyse)
Biological oceeanography lab student April Woods reaches over the side of the Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) to collect a sample of seawater. (photo: D. Wyse)

En route to one of the sampling sites, phycology lab student, experienced boat driver, and keen marine mammal spotter Mike Fox caught sight of a pod of over 50 dolphins!  As the boat slowly approached, a handful of the common dolphins gracefully whizzed along by the boat and gave the delighted marine science students quite a show. Read more

MLML’s Dr. Mike Graham on His New Book, “The Essential Naturalist”

Dr. Mike Graham

By Catherine Drake, Invertebrate Zoology Laboratory

On Tuesday November 15, 2011, Friends of MLML hosted a talk with one of MLML’s own, Dr. Mike Graham, author of “The Essential Naturalist.” An alumni of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, he then obtained his Ph.D. at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Then, Dr. Graham came back to the MLML and is the advisor for the phycology (seaweeds) lab.

Nowadays with the internet, it can be easy for researchers to overlook journal articles that are 100, 50, even just 20 years old. With marine science librarian Joan Parker and Dr. Paul Dayton, Dr. Graham compiled older scientific articles—some from over one hundred years ago—into “The Essential Naturalist.” Not only were these articles extremely significant in a scientific context, but they also told great stories for those who enjoy nature. Dr. Graham stresses that scientists before us were just as smart as we are and they thought about all that goes into scientific research—methods, data analysis, etc.—just as we do now.  So, all we need to do is dig a bit to find articles that greatly contributed to science, and are hence indispensable for anyone who considers themselves naturalists!

Below is a conversation with Dr. Graham about “The Essential Naturalist”:

Where did you get the inspiration for “The Essential Naturalist”?

Well it stemmed out of a series of conversations I had with my PhD advisor (and “Essential Naturalist” co-editor) Paul Dayton. I was looking into the old literature while studying for my PhD qualifying exam and kept uncovering old papers that seemed to say exactly what more modern papers were saying. And every time I told Paul about one of these papers, he would respond with a comment about another paper that people had forgotten as well. So after a while we just started talking about how modern ecologists were beginning to lose their roots, and how great it would be to resurrect some of these papers.

How did you decide which journal articles to place in the book?

Well, in addition to all of the search I did on my own, plus the additions from Paul and Joan (my fellow co-editors), I polled over 100 ecologists and evolutionary biologists as to what their favorite Natural History gems were. This resulted in a long list, some papers of which were easily discarded because they didn’t fit our intended format for the book. But we ended up with about 150 papers that were good. Then I simply started working through them all to see which had compelling readings that could be excerpted and of interest to a broader audience. I tested some of the materials against my own kids and students to see what was boring, as well as my father Jon who loves natural history and was a good sounding board. The rest of the choices were simply from intuition as to what would fly.

Why do you think scientists and researchers tend to disregard, even sometimes inadvertently, journal articles that were published 50+ years ago?

Out of sight, out of mind. Its harder to keep track of the literature today with 1000s of articles published per year. Everyone has deadlines. So the easiest thing is to either Google your keywords of interest, or cite a paper that just happened to be on your desk, recommended by a colleague, or in a journal you subscribe to. All of these make it harder to find the older papers.

An electric eel, which Baron Von Humboldt studied and wrote about during his journeys.

Can you tell us one of your favorite stories in “The Essential Naturalist”?

I like them all, for different reasons. But the one that I recite the most is the story from Humboldt of how the native South Americans showed him how to fish for electric eels using stampeding horses. The story is vivid. My kids love hearing me tell it. And it’s so visual that you just cant help telling the story in such an exciting voice. It’s a lot of fun.