Fostering Change Through Gratitude and Science Communication

Contributed by Staci Lewis, Stanford University

I begin my presentation with acknowledgements to the people of Palau.

I begin my presentation with acknowledgements to the people of Palau.

With one hand around the microphone and the other grasping the podium, I scanned the rows of stakeholders, decision-makers, resource managers, members of Palau’s tourism sector, and environmental groups filling the ballroom. It was Palau’s first National Environmental Symposium—a two-day event to provide an overview of the research underway in the Republic—broadcasting live over national radio. My field expedition overlapped with this event and I was grateful to present initial findings in front of people. Given the audience, I made two big changes to this presentation which I had delivered elsewhere—1) I moved my acknowledgements slide to the front and 2) I changed the slide from a list of funders to pictures of Palauans. Today was one of the several opportunities I have taken over the past month to talk with people about my results and to express my gratitude—my way of fostering change.

A high chief, Samil Beouch, gives me his perspective on my results—what happened during 2007 that caused an increase in sediment on corals?

A high chief, Samil Beouch, gives me his perspective on my results—what happened during 2007 that caused an increase in sediment on corals?

My research involves taking environmental samples—coral, water and sediment—as well as interviews and surveys of people. All of these components require access to natural resources and communities. Before I could start a comprehensive study I needed to build trust with stakeholders and decision-makers, including high chiefs like Samil Beouch. Part of creating trust was a promise I made to Palau and the people I worked with—to not be a “helicopter” scientist. Instead of dropping in, doing my work, and leaving, I made a commitment to the people of Palau to invest my time, and to communicate my work. I have kept this promise. Despite the personal sacrifices caused by long-term absence from home, I hold this promise to Palau as a top priority and I cherish the relationships I have made here.

I present my research and proposed project to a senior women in Ngaremlengui.

I present my research and proposed project to a senior women in Ngaremlengui.

During this trip, I am kick starting a study within three communities. The first step is meeting several village leaders to talk about my research and ideas for community learning exchanges. This study will organize events to encourage several villages to share ideas on ways to use traditional practices to control erosion and sediment loading on important coral reef habitats. Communicating with these important community members is both vital to ensuring my study is comprehensive and to keep my promise. As I continue to grow my work in Palau, I have had a few affirmations that my work is important for Palau. One of these moments came yesterday after the symposium.

With my symposium presentation behind me, I went to Pier 7 to talk story with the fishermen as a scoping exercise for my next research project. While my colleague and I listened to their concerns of increasing gas prices and stagnant fish prices, one of them interrupted the conversation, “Hey, wait! Were you on the radio today?” He pointed at me. Before I had a chance to answer, my colleague said, “YES! She presented on her other research project concerning sedimentation at the national symposium that was broadcasting on the radio.” I nodded my head as an acknowledgment. “Well, I was so excited to hear that someone is working on such an important project. I thought, ‘WOW! Who is person?’ And now you are here. Good job. And thank you for doing work that is so important for us.” I couldn’t believe it. This interaction affirmed my research is addressing important issues for Palau. It also can serve as a reminder to all field researchers—fostering change can happen when we conduct ourselves with respect, humility, and gratitude to the country where we operate and when we empower people through communicating our work.

Mei Er A Mesei – Come To The Taro Patch

Contributed by Staci Lewis, Stanford University

A rain storm washes over the mesei

A rain storm washes over the mesei

As rain hit the tin roof, I jumped onto the raised bamboo platform hoping to escape the groundwater rushing towards us. I was with the mechas, senior women, of Ngarechlong state at their mesei for a day of melalem (planting) and mesalo (tilling). Earlier in the week, I met them at the Ebiil Society’s office. “Mei er a mesei”—“Come to the mesei” —was all they said. From my four previous trips to Palau I knew this invitation was an honor, but I never realized how much I would learn in just a few hours.

A mechas cleans her taro with a ngark tool

A mechas cleans her taro with a ngark tool

While I watched the rain fill the canals outlining the edges of the mesei, I listened to the sound of firewood crackling and the women’s ngarks scratching taro. One of the women, Ulang, started a fire underneath a dark metal pot perched on a metal rim at the edge of our shelter. The pot was filled with water from the river and our lunch to be cooked—taro. Once the fire was strong and the smoke bellowed our way, she went back to stripping the caked-on layer of mud off recently harvested root vegetables. The mechas used their ngark, a tool traditionally made out of clam shells and now made out of anything metal and sharp—in this case refurbished hubcaps (pictured here)—to clean taro before it was ready for cooking.


I wash my taro harvest in the nearby stream

I wash my taro harvest in the nearby stream

Our retreat to the hut was in perfect time to escape the rain. We had just finished the melalem of taro plants and mesalo to add another layer of fertilizer. The mesei is an organic farm at its best. Fertilizer consists of fresh plant debris—green banana and kankum leaves. Ulang and Rose, another mechas, walked me through the knee-deep mud to the mesei plot that needed our attention. They showed me how to till the soil and get it ready for another layer of fertilizer. “First, you harvest the taro. Cut the grass from around the plant and dig under it until you feel the bulb of the taro and pull up.” I listened and watched as they showed me their technique refined over six decades of harvesting. Once they let me try, I realized I had just harvested my first taro plant. Then came the next step.

Ulang gives me instructions on how to mesalo

Ulang gives me instructions on how to mesalo

“Now you turn the soil—mesalo. You put your hands all the way into the soil until you are elbow deep and pull the soil towards you. Push it up and place the soil behind you.” I then was shown how to put a fresh layer of the green plants—fertilizer—into the soil and place the removed soil back on top. This cycle repeated—clean grass, harvest taro, mesalo, place fertilizer, replace soil. Blinded by excitement, I lost track of time. Ulang’s voice jarred me out of my focus, “Ok, Staci. You can stop. You have harvested lots of taro today.” I looked behind me at the trail of taro plants (my harvest pictured here). Before we could celebrate the end of our work, we went t o the stream and washed away the mud from the plants and our limbs. Ulang and I spent a few minutes dangling our feet in the stream’s deep pool. She recounted her time as a young woman with h er mother in the mesei. “I am too old for the mesei now, but I can see you like it just like me.” The wind picked up and the dark clouds moved in. We knew rain was on its way.

My first taro harvest

My first taro harvest

Once the rain ended, I watched as hens returned to the mesei to pluck through the grass between the taro plants, adding their own fertilizer along the way. I looked around hoping to remember the sights, smells and sounds of the mesei forever. This hut had no walls and no real foundation, but it is “the institution of women,” Ann Singeo, Executive Director of the Ebiil Society, later told me. “There are no clan titles, no seniority, no boundaries in the mesei.” Women come here to the mesei for many reasons—some come here to honor the way of their mothers; others come to escape a modern lifestyle of email and a desk job; many see this as their last purpose in life. But no matter what the reason, rain or shine, the women find shelter from the sun, the rain, and the outside world in the mesei.

Bringing It Back—Palau’s Effort to Restore Traditional Practices and Water Resources

Contributed by Staci Lewis, Stanford University

“The task is to bring it back!” Ann Singeo, Director of the Ebiil Society, gently presses her fist on the table. Her unyielding enthusiasm jolts me as I feel the jet-lag fog lift. I left San Francisco two days prior and am spending my first hours of daylight in Palau with Ann and her funding partners. We are circled around a table filled with fresh guava and tapioca in her small office in downtown Koror, Palau’s capital. Our goal is to scope out a project to restore the state of Melekeok’s coastline.

Ann Singeo

Ann and one of her staff members—Andy pictured here

While the Republic of Palau has gained international recognition for its pristine offshore marine environmentsand progressive environmental conservation strategies, near-shore habitats and coastlines are degrading. Ann and her small team at Ebiil are tackling the impacts of poor land-use and overfishing by reintroducing traditional practices used by Palauans to sustainably harvest and farm for the past 1500 years. These practices are no longer commonplace in Palau’s modern society, and the Ebiil Society has several projects underway to reverse that trend—to bring them back.   And one of those projects is why I am here.


A mesei, photo by Ann Singeo

In a couple of weeks, the Ebiil Society will begin a series of taro farming learning exchanges. Taro is a starchy root vegetable widespread throughout the Pacific, and a diet stable in Palau. Women tend taro patches, called mesei, and use specific plants and techniques to trap sediment and retain water in their fields. In the past, community members would use these same techniques to clean and clear their important water sources. However, in Palau’s modern economy, many people hold full time jobs, which has left many taro patches overgrown. Moreover, community members rely on state programs to monitor and maintain water resources. These dynamics have caused a slow dissolution of the traditional practices of community maintenance of streams and rivers.

Measuring water chemistry

Measuring water chemistry downstream of a taro patch

This learning exchange program will bring taro farmers into communities to reintroduce these traditional techniques for sediment and water management and to show them how to apply these methods to clean up their water supply. Over the next six weeks, the Ebiil Society and the taro farmers from the state of Ngarchelong will hold a series of learning exchanges in two states: Ngaremlengui and Ameliik. Through various quantitative and qualitative methods, I will research the social and environmental outcomes of these learning exchanges. I will ask: how have these exchanges improved participants’ understanding of the use of traditional practices and the drivers of sedimentation? How have the exchanges impacted trust and community cohesion among the participants? Have these practices improved water quality and quantity?

On my first day, I learned from Ann about the traditional practices to deal with another concern for Palau—coastal erosion. This is just the beginning of my long path to understanding Palau’s traditional practices to deal with sedimentation. Along with these learning exchanges, I will spend the next six weeks working on my other projects—using coral geochemical signatures to reconstruct a 30-year record of sedimentation on near-shore reefs and the role of a bridging organization, the Belau Watershed Alliance, in advancing watershed-scale governance.

As the sun sets on my first week in Palau, I reflect on the road ahead and am overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to work with Ann, her team, and the people of Palau. My dissertation research aims to help them elucidate the drivers and solutions to one of greatest threats to their vital marine ecosystems—sedimentation.   Stay tune for more updates from the taro fields and patch reefs!

Pass the Baton

Contributed by Kyle Broach, UC Santa Cruz

Orchestrate – verb. a: to compose or arrange (music) for an orchestra. b: to arrange or combine so as to achieve a desired or maximum effect. Merriam-Webster’s definition may originally derive from a musical performance, but after holding the conductor’s baton for the 2016 MARINE Oceans Colloquium, I can hardly tell the difference between an orchestra and a conference. Months of planning and practice, staging and rehearsal, result in a comparative brief performance before an engaged audience in a fabulous venue. But what would be our program? Who were our players? And, just as critically, what was for lunch?


Colloquium participants head to the seminar room for the keynote speech by Erin Meyer of the Ocean Science Trust. Photo: L. Lam.

Having been to several conferences, I clearly have taken for granted the sheer amount of time and effort planning such events, and I imagine the complexities scale with attendance. Fortunately I was one of six conductors leading one hundred, and heeding Maestro Laura’s advice to begin planning early, we met months before the colloquium to determine our musical score. Such meetings were, I think, my favorite part of organizing a research conference because each person had different past experiences and approaches that informed the thoughts of how we could pull off the performance. Caitie, Monica, Michelle, and I had and honed many ideas, and the creative license Laura and Liz conferred to us made arranging the colloquium fun and exciting. The most taxing part was keeping up with the communication and deadlines among ourselves, our presenters, and our general audience, as there were often so many emails and minute details floating around that it was easy for important items to slip between the cracks. I think this also creates challenges for a team working together because it must be crystal clear who is responsible for which tasks. To this end, the “living” timeline was perhaps the most useful tool proposed. We continually updated every detail on a shared online document, creating an ever evolving list of tasks, deadlines, and delegations for us to remember.


Katlin Bowman gives her TED-style talk on Mercury in the Ocean. Photo: L. Lam.

Building the big day’s structure made these tasks both more manageable and more demanding. Our tune would be modern communications of oceans related work to the public and peers: the Overture, a tasty breakfast and keynote address; Movement One, student presentations; Intermission, lunch; Movement Two, personal interest ensembles and exposition; Finale, Happy Hour. Each section of the conference had different needs, though, which required each conductor to take charge of separate details. The onus was now on each person to rehearse each measure. We visited Moss Landing Marine Labs for staging, printed our digital program, and prepared for the curtain to rise.

In truth this was the first Oceans Colloquium I attended, and it was music to my ears. Though I was constantly in motion preparing for the next movement, both orchestra and audience kept pace with the rhythm of the day. Presenters were on beat, break-out sessions were in tune, and lunch was on time. I have a much better appreciation for the persistent planning dedicated to such a demanding performance, and I am overjoyed that it was so well received. If the Oceans Colloquium was as fruitful for the audience as it was for this conductor, then our sentiment is likely the same: encore.

Body-Snatching Parasites Affect Ecosystem Processes at a Snail’s Pace

Contributed by Rachel Fabian, UC Santa Cruz

In Moss Landing, California, if you’ve kayaked up Elkhorn Slough’s main channel, you might associate the estuary with its most famous occupants, sea otters. If you’re familiar with its intertidal mud flats, you might think of pickleweed, sea lettuce, or comically aggressive shore crabs. However, as an ecologist, when I plod through the mud in my neoprene waders, I’m thinking about the Japanese mud snails that dominate the intertidal mud flat throughout the slough. Originally arriving on the west coast as stowaways on commercial oyster stocks from Japan in the early 20th century, these mud snails had some stowaways of their own: trematode (fluke) parasites. These nightmarish creatures are often referred to as “body-snatching” parasites because they castrate their snail hosts, and pirate their bodies in a diabolical plan to infect fish and migratory birds in later life stages. They don’t leave their pirating up to chance, however. Trematodes that infect more than one host species have evolved ways to control the shape or size of their hosts’ bodies and/or their behavior to increase their chances to be transmitted to other hosts. These changes can create important food web links, which can have cascading effects in ecosystems like Elkhorn Slough.

Trematode parasites and their molluscan hosts

Trematode life cycle

Trematode life cycle: Larval trematodes infect snails, which are first intermediate hosts. The free-swimming cercaria penetrate the second intermediate hosts. The adult trematodes live in the guts of birds, which are the definitive hosts. Snails become infected by grazing parasite eggs in bird feces, or by the free-swimming miracidia that hatch from the eggs. Modified from (2).

Once the larval trematodes infect host snails, occupying the space where snail gonads once were, they opt to upgrade their new homes. It’s in the parasite’s best interest to create a bigger parasite factory that can produce larger and more abundant parasites. As a result, trematodes often cause their snail hosts to grow larger and faster, a phenomenon known as gigantism. Snails need to eat more to support continued growth and parasite production, and since they are the dominant consumers in aquatic systems, this can ultimately alter the algal communities they graze on. For example, one study in Indiana, found that infected snails in a lake consumed 30% more algae than their uninfected counterparts, and completely changed what type of algae was growing through selective grazing (1). Those trematodes aren’t messing around.

But the trematodes’ manipulation doesn’t stop there: because the free-swimming form that emerges from infected snails must next seek out and quickly infiltrate new fish hosts, trematodes give themselves a head start by maneuvering zombie snails to lower tidal heights. This increases the time the snails are submerged, and therefore the probability of accessing fish hosts. You heard it here, folks: parasites are the original inventors of mind-control technology.

In my study focusing on the effects of parasite-induced changes to mud snails in Elkhorn Slough, I found that large, parasitized snails affected algae on the mud flat very differently than small, unparasitized snails. The parasitized snails completely eliminated the largest algal cells. This could reduce the mud flat’s resistance to erosion, since the largest cells secrete mucusy substances that glue the mud particles together. It could also decrease the efficiency of energy transfer in the slough’s food web, since the largest algal cells are important food sources for small fish and many other organisms. Moreover, the effects of parasitized snails on the amount of algae were opposite at the high and low elevations. Parasitized snails increased the level of chlorophyll, a proxy for algal biomass, by about two times relative to the unparasitized snails at the high tidal heights I studied. But at low tidal heights, parasitized snails decreased chlorophyll by about four times – parasitized snails increase algae higher up on the mud flat, but decrease it lower down.

So what does this mean for Elkhorn Slough?

These Japanese mud snails inhabit Elkhorn Slough’s mud flats in densities exceeding 10,000 snails/square meter!

To successfully manage and restore coastal systems like Elkhorn Slough, we need to understand the roles that dominant grazers like mud snails play in these highly impacted systems. Like many estuaries, Elkhorn Slough is affected by excess nutrient inputs, and snails are on the front line of cycling those nutrients within the system. My research indicates that all those snails (and their parasites!) are doing quite a bit of moving and shaking out on the mud flat. The snails affect the microscopic algal community growing there through parasite-mediated effects, which could increase the erodibility of the slough’s already-eroding mud flats. These changes should also affect the efficiency of the slough’s food web, making it less able to support higher levels, like birds and large fishes. Since parasites are so important in food webs, and parasite productivity is expected to increase along with rising global temperatures, we must take them into account, along with their hosts, in understanding and managing important habitats like Elkhorn Slough.

So if you’re out walking the trails at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve or scouting out otters foraging in the slough’s tidal creeks, look out for zombie mud snails – and reflect on the roles they play in shaping life in Elkhorn Slough.


  1. Bernot R. J. and Lamberti G. A. (2008) Indirect effects of a parasite on a benthic community: an experiment with trematodes, snails and periphyton. Freshwater Biology 53(2): 322-329.
  1. Huspeni T.C. and Lafferty K.D. (2004). Using larval trematodes that parasitize snails to evaluate a salt-marsh restoration project. Ecological Applications 14(3): 795-804.

Motion in the Ocean: How I Became a Physical Oceanographer

Contributed by Drew Burrier, Moss Landing Marine Labs


An early career Physical Oceanographer conducting experiments

I am a physical oceanographer. I am beginning to think that I have always been. As a child I remember delighting in soaking unsuspecting pool goers with my renowned cannonball, or splashing around in the bathtub. Later, as swimming abilities improved I remember diving to the bottom of my grandmother’s pond and being fascinated by the cold layer of water that always seemed to be on the bottom. Upon leaving the landlocked (no disrespect Lake Erie) confines of my youth in Ohio, I landed in California where I have finally learned what to call myself.


The R/V Enterprise and crew

Physical Oceanography is a branch of marine science that uses physics to understand the characteristics and behavior of fluid in the ocean. Countless surfing wipeouts have yet to drive this interest from me, on the contrary, surfing has instilled an attraction to waves that drives my research.  The waves I study cannot be found so easily, however. Like all surfers I am drawn to the biggest and baddest waves out there.


Some things don’t change: brothers

The catch though, it is difficult to see these waves because they don’t happen on the surface of the ocean, but rather
inside the ocean (pause for blown minds). These are internal waves; submarine giants that  can dwarf the like of Mavericks or Jaws both in terms of size and energy release. They exist because the ocean is stratified by density, and anywhere that fluids with different densities lay on top of each other, energy can propagate in the form of waves.


A choppy day aboard the R/V Pt. Sur

There are places in the world where internal waves can be 800 meters from top to bottom – that’s over 2500 feet! Imagine Mavericks breaking a half-mile high, every twelve hours (suck on that San Andreas (the movie, not the fault system (fault system, we’re cool))).

Now much to the chagrin of people like me, every beach you go to does not have a Maverick’s sized wave, the same is true for internal waves. There are “hotspots” for these breaking internal waves and they tend be places with rough underwater terrain. Submarine canyons provide just such topography, and they exist on scales similar to the Grand Canyon a lot more frequently underwater than they do on land. I study how internal waves interact with submarine canyons, and when giants collide, interesting things happen.


A simulation of internal waves breaking over the unique 2 ridges of the Luzon Strait in the South China Sea. The top box shows velocity, and the bottom show dissipation, a proxy for mixing in the ocean. This simulation shows that theses ridges greatly amplify the size and energy of the waves. Source

Monterey Bay Canyon

A visualization of Monterey Submarine Canyon produced by MBARI

I am not the first marine scientist to be drawn to these mysterious giants. In 1966, a famous oceanographer named Walter Munk wrote a foundational paper called Abyssal Recipes, in which he pointed out that energy was missing in the ocean. We knew that thermohaline circulation was happening, which is like a global ocean sized conveyor belt constantly bringing deep, cold water up to the surface. Yes, just like my grandmothers pond (shout-out to Gramma Ruthie), the ocean has a cold dense bottom layer, and it takes a whole lot of energy to mix surface water down, and bring that cold, dense bottom water up to the surface. This process may happen on time scales that are in the ballpark of 10,000 years so that we cannot measure it directly, but we know that it does indeed occur in the ocean. But here’s the problem, if you go out to just about anywhere in the ocean and you make a measurement of the potential energy, what you measure falls short of the amount of energy needed to drive this circulation, by an order of magnitude. Walter Munk wasn’t phased by this however, and just like Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, Walter Munk brilliantly suspected that internal waves held the secret to this missing energy.


Schematic of the Barkly Submarine Canyon region, and the instrumentation deployed by Ocean Networks Canada, being used for my thesis work. Source

These big picture ideas are what make science so captivating to me. Resolving the details of these large scale processes can greatly improve our understanding of important topics like climate change and ocean acidification. My graduate work stands at the crossroads of giants: internal waves and submarine canyons. Specifically, I am analyzing data from a submarine canyon off the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to determine how canyons affect internal tide energetics. I believe that canyons and underwater topographical features like them are an important piece of the puzzle that Walter Munk was trying to put together, and other researchers who study internal waves around the world are progressively painting a clearer picture of mixing in the deep ocean.


Get out there and discover something!

Bringing Ballast Water Into the (UV) Light

How are you reading this blog post – on your phone or a computer? It’s very likely that whatever device you’re using was transported to a retailer near you on a giant commercial shipping vessel. Shipping is an enormous and far-reaching industry, and although it is essential to our world economy, global shipping has a dark side.


Ballast water is a major vector of aquatic invasive species. Source:

Imagine a cargo ship that has finished unloading at the docks in Oakland and is about to depart from San Francisco Bay. Since it is relatively empty, the captain needs to rebalance the ship’s weight by drawing bay seawater into huge ballast tanks within the ship’s hull. With this additional weight, the ship’s journey across the Pacific Ocean is trim and stable. But once the vessel has reached the Port of Tokyo, she needs to load tons of cargo. In order to maintain the ship’s stability, the captain begins to discharge 3 million gallons of San Francisco Bay water into the Port of Tokyo. Unwittingly, they are releasing numerous aquatic species, some of which may thrive and become invasive.

Unfortunately, because of ballast water introduction, invasive species have made their home in all corners of the earth, from the zebra mussels of the Great Lakes to the Asian carp of the Mississippi River. These species are wreaking economic and ecological havoc. For example, they can grow uncontrollably on propellers and docks and undermine environmental diversity by overtaking the habitats of native species. Our very own San Francisco Bay is known to be one of the most invaded ecosystems in the world, with a new species appearing every 14 weeks.


Microscopists use the “poke-and-probe” method to see if zooplankton are still alive. Photo by M. McPherson

Fortunately, the International Maritime Organization now requires that all ships eradicate living organisms from their ballast water before discharging it into a foreign port. Companies are racing to develop innovative approaches to meet this mandate, as well as create efficient and reliable techniques for measuring the effectiveness of a treatment system. One of the most popular ballast treatment methods is through ultraviolet (UV) light irradiation, which damages genetic material by specifically targeting DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. This prevents reproduction and effectively halts spread without directly killing the organisms. Unfortunately, we currently base a treatment’s effectiveness by measuring cellular activity, which isn’t appropriate for UV treatment. A microscopic crab with damaged DNA will not successfully procreate, but they can still swim around! This has placed the UV industry at a major disadvantage, giving the appearance that their treatments aren’t working, even though they are successfully hindering a microorganism’s ability to spread.


The Golden Bear team strikes a pose with our sampling system, nicknamed “the six-pack”. Photo by M. McPherson

So, instead of measuring cellular activity, why not measure UV’s direct target – DNA? DNA encodes the fundamental instructions for life. Its closely related cousin RNA, ribonucleic acid, is the messenger between these instructions and the proteins that carry out those actions. DNA is relatively stable molecule that can persist even outside of a cell. RNA, however, is much more abundant than DNA in healthy, growing organisms but is easily destroyed outside of a cell. The focus of my project is to find quick, easy ways to measure RNA to DNA ratios, since this can act as a diagnostic of microorganism health.


Yesterday, I spent the afternoon on Cal Maritime’s training ship the T/S Golden Bear – one of only a handful of places in the U.S. where full-scale ballast treatment systems can be tested. The ship’s lab is tiny, the dock is loud, and we are just a small team compared to the hundreds of cadets and officers that scurry about the vessel. But having the Golden Bear as part of this team is a rare opportunity to collect and test samples from real UV systems on a real, operating vessel. Today, with fresh samples in tow, I’m ready to try out my latest technique – nucleic acid fluorescent tags with my handy-dandy handheld fluorometer. Leveraging and adapting molecular techniques for ocean work has been an ongoing and sometimes hair-pulling process. But with my latest numbers showing a five-fold drop in nucleic acids after UV treatment, I am beginning to see the possibilities. Perhaps, I can be the one to help UV vendors catch a break in the unjust commercial shipping and ballast treatment industry.


The T/S Golden Bear. Photo by L. Lam

The View From 438 Miles Above The Earth

Contributed by Meredith McPherson, UC Santa Cruz

An artistic conceptualization of the satellite Landsat 8 flying above the southern United States.  Landsat 8’s altitude is approximately 438 miles above Earth’s surface.  Photo credit: NASA

An artistic conceptualization of the satellite Landsat 8 flying above the southern United States. Landsat 8’s altitude is approximately 438 miles above Earth’s surface. Photo credit: NASA

It’s early morning, and the ship is bustling with scientists and crew, alike. The research vessel is on station! The crew work to deploy and manage large instrumentation, while graduate students and technicians shuttle samples to labs, filter water, and conduct experiments. A schedule is set for round-the-clock sampling, but thankfully as an optical oceanographer, my job takes place during daylight hours. In addition to collecting water samples for the direct measurement of dissolved compounds (often made up of tea-like compounds) and particles absorbing and scattering light, optical oceanographers deploy instruments that measure light passing through water. This is critical; understanding water column optical properties involves understanding how light influences the growth of tiny photosynthesizing organisms, called phytoplankton, which are capable of fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transporting it to the deep ocean. Understanding the global distribution of phytoplankton and their rates of photosynthesis help scientists to predict the transport of carbon through the marine food web – a topic that is particularly relevant for studying climate change.

Sampling from a ship is not always ideal. It can be logistically difficult, time/labor/resource intensive, and sometimes even dangerous. Additionally, as with most scientific questions, there is the problem of scale. The ocean is HUGE! It covers 70% of the Earth, and even on the surface alone, it’s a highly complex and variable system. Imagine investigating a tiny, tiny pinpoint in our giant ocean. That’s what a ship sampling at one station represents. Now, imagine how long it would take scientists to measure every single tiny, tiny pinpoint in the entire ocean continuously. You might

think it is an impossible problem, except that scientists and engineers have developed an amazing solution – a technique called remote sensing, which measures energy (or light) reflecting off Earth’s surface using satellites and other low altitude sensors. Remote sensing helps us to measure light in the ocean on a very large scale, while ships still do the very important job of measuring fine scale processes, including “ground truthing” our remotely sensed data.

Meredith sampling for in situ optical properties with a suite of instruments on a small boat in Steinhatchee, FL in 2012. Photo credit: Victoria Hill

Meredith sampling for in situ optical properties with a suite of instruments on a small boat in Steinhatchee, FL in 2012. Photo credit: Victoria Hill

Although great scientific advancements have been made as a result of ocean remote sensing, most of the methods developed for the optically simpler open ocean are not able to resolve the complex land-sea processes that influence the coastal ocean. The coastal ocean contributes a significant amount to total ocean productivity relative to its surface area, and understanding the impacts of climate change and altered land-sea processes along the coasts will improve our ability to predict coastal processes, productivity, and future resource availability. Being aware of these limitations, I have set out to to develop and contribute methods to accurately measure light in the coastal ocean and increase our understanding of the environmental factors controlling the biological, chemical, physical dynamics of these systems.

From hourly weather forecasts to Google Maps directions – both easily accessible on our smartphones – the daily life of an American is influenced and guided by satellite information beamed down from hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface. In truth, most people don’t realize that our day-to-day lives and globalized economy would not exist without satellite information. This same technology is enabling the continuous survey of our oceans, helping us study natural cycles, as well as the human impact on this complex, versatile, and precious resource.


Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Contributed by Jessica Williams, CSU Monterey Bay

Diversity, or lack thereof, in the sciences is often a difficult and uncomfortable topic to address. Before attending MARINE’s Diversity Workshop I knew it wouldn’t be an easy conversation. It was an issue I was aware of, but was a conversation I didn’t know how to start or how to be a part of.

diversity1The workshop’s facilitator, Tammy Johnson, began the day with the acknowledgement that racial equity is not an easy topic to address, but through the values of awareness, engagement, compassion, and progress we were all committed to making this the safest space we could to have this discussion. Tammy then asked each of us to write down one word that represented what we wanted to take away at the end of the day. I wrote ‘understanding.’ I wanted to gain a better understanding of the components of racial inequity, the experiences that people have in dealing with racial inequity, and an understanding of how to be a part of the conversation.

Throughout the morning, we watched the film, “Cracking the Code,” broken up by small discussions. The film touched on many of the important aspects of racial inequity and made me realize what a profoundly complex issue it is. I hadn’t taken the time before to reflect on how the various aspects of racism (internalized, institutional, structural) work together to perpetuate racial inequity. Hearing the stories of the various people in the film and their experiences with racism made me much more conscious of the complexity and daily struggles that come with dealing with racism. The fact that I hadn’t had to think about it that deeply and consistently before, I realized, was a privilege in itself and the film made me more aware of the experience s of those who can’t escape it.

diversity2The discussions in between the segments of the film were an excellent way to reflect and really pushed me to consider my own experiences. As a white woman, I never felt like I had a place in these discussions, like I didn’t have experiences that would augment discussions about diversity. However, through engaging in these conversations I realized that reflecting on some of my experiences in gender inequity may allow me to understand racial inequity a little better. Gender and skin color are not qualities one can turn on and off in order to be put in a different societal box; just as I can’t just turn off being a woman to be perceived differently and ignore gender issues, someone cannot change the color of their skin in order to stop thinking about and dealing with racial inequity. Being cognizant of how my gender often puts me in an underrepresented group and impacts interactions in my life may allow me to relate to and support people in other underrepresented groups. The film also made me reflect on when I have witnessed racial inequity throughout my life and why it persists, from my high school being made fun of because it was more racially and economically diverse than surrounding schools, to the segregation in the community I live in now. By being aware of and bringing attention to these inequities, I can be part of combating the issue. The film and subsequent discussions not only made me more conscious of my own experiences with inequity, racism, and privelege, but more sensitive to and mindful of the interactions surrounding me.diversity3

The day ended in more self-reflection and self-awareness than I had anticipated. I came away from the workshop feeling like I could contribute to the discussions about diversity and that there are things I can personally do to address racial inequity in science, as well as in everyday life. I can listen and use my position as a white woman to point out injustices, engage in uncomfortable but important conversations, and bring attention to the issue. It is still an intimidating conversation to start and I won’t always know what to say or exactly how to act, but I can continue to help make progress by engaging in the issue of racial inequity. Confronting our biases and understanding the complexity of the issue is an important first step in addressing it. Increasing diversity in the sciences will be an ongoing struggle in the coming years, but this workshop helped me to better understand the issue. This event was a good start to a necessary and continuing conversation, a conversation I will continue to engage in.

Casting Nets Into An Ocean In Flux

Contributed by Julia Mason, Hopkins Marine Station

I began my marine conservation biology career hoping to save the whales, but I increasingly find myself hoping to save fisheries as well. Surprising as it may seem, ecologists are realizing that we can’t truly understand an ecosystem without understanding how humans interact with that ecosystem. The oceans are a prime example, as fisheries can have a profound impact on ocean ecosystems, but people depend on fishing for food and livelihoods. Limiting or stopping fishing without understanding the broader social context can actually leave both the marine ecosystem and the dependent fishing communities worse off.

I spent last summer in Peru, conducting preliminary surveys with fishermen. Photo by Diego Pasapera.

I spent last summer in Peru, conducting preliminary surveys with fishermen. Photo by Diego Pasapera.

I study two gillnet fisheries in California and Peru. Gillnets, large nets that target large fish like swordfish, are notorious for accidentally catching (and therefore often killing) ecologically important or endangered species like sea turtles, sharks, and marine mammals. In managing these fisheries, we try to strike a balance between minimizing this accidental catch, called bycatch, while maintaining fishermen’s livelihoods. In Peru’s virtually unmanaged gillnet fishery, thousands of fishermen living in relative poverty catch whatever they can to sell in local markets, and bycatch is a huge threat to animal populations. In California’s more industrial gillnet fishery, management in the form of closing off huge areas to fishing is so restrictive that the fishery is dying out: only 20 boats remain active. While this may seem like a conservation victory, the concern is that closing the gillnet fishery not only shuts off a source of local jobs and domestic seafood, but also may transfer our demand for swordfish to unmanaged international fisheries, possibly increasing global bycatch.

Variability: an added challenge


Peruvian fishermen bring in their haul. Photo by Julia Mason.

Fisheries management in California and Peru faces the added wrinkle of extreme variability in ocean conditions. Both ocean systems experience huge fluctuations in annual temperature and food availability due to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the three- to seven-year cycle of warming and cooling waters in the Pacific. El Niño, the warm phase of ENSO that we’re currently experiencing, brings warmer waters to California and Peru, shutting down the normal circulation of nutrients to surface waters. With less food to go around, fish populations die off, or move to deeper or more distant waters. Meanwhile, bycatch may increase as tropical species like sea turtles follow warm water poleward, and open water species like sharks and whales come closer inshore. This means that fishermen may need to spend more time and burn more gas to catch fewer fish, and that animals may be more susceptible to bycatch. El Niño can be a crisis for fisheries, and the extreme variability means that our usual approaches like static closure areas may not be as effective.

Using this El Niño to inform management

This season’s extreme El Niño event provides me an opportunity to study how gillnet fisheries respond to environmental change under two different management structures. I plan to analyze data collected by onboard observers to understand how fishermen altered their fishing behavior and how diversity and abundance of catch and bycatch changed before, during, and after the 2015-2016 El Niño event in a heavily managed vs. an unmanaged fishery. I’ll use this information to make and refine predictions about how major bycatch species like sea turtles and sharks move with ocean features, and where fishermen can go to maximize their catch while avoiding these animals. Understanding the effects of this El Niño will help inform us how to manage for the next event, as well as for longer-term climate change.