Sweeping up California’s plastic bags

Plastic bags are easily incorporated into natural systems, and often end up in the ocean, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California's statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing that cycle (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

Plastic bags often end up in rivers and oceans, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing this problem (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

If you’re an environmentalist, California may be the ideal place to live. Not only is the state filled with extensive and diverse natural wonders, but California has traditionally been at the forefront of environmental conservation movements. Despite this tendency, it has taken years of failed legislation, and much work-around and energy from local organizations, for California to finally pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. The bill (SB270), which was introduced earlier this year by Senator Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, was passed by the Senate on Aug. 29 and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 30.

The ban didn’t come out of the blue. California, for all its environmental leanings, uses approximately 13 billion single-use plastic bags every year. Numerous cities and counties have passed local plastic bag bans in recent years. San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban bags when it enacted a law in April 2007. Malibu, Manhattan Beach and Fairfax followed suit within the next year, and by 2014, 88 California municipalities have been covered by plastic bag bans (the most recent was Davis, which banned plastic bags last October, effective this past July). Plastic bags, along with other plastic debris, are cluttering urban areas and natural ecosystems around the world, and can cause significant damage and death to wildlife. Rather than fight an unending battle attempting to clean up plastic litter, local governments have seen the benefit of simply removing single-use plastic bags from the equation.

The bag ban bill has had to fight opposition from several angles. In fact, a previous plastic bag ban attempt was introduced by Padilla last year, but was defeated by three votes. The main opposition comes from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents U.S. plastic bag manufacturers, and claims that a bag ban will result in significant job losses. Others worry that the bag ban will unfairly affect lower-income residents by imposing a 10 cent fee for paper bags. Senator Padilla and proponents of the ban remain unperturbed, citing the overwhelming successes of the numerous local and county bag bans over the past few years, and resident support for those bans.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is  a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

Don’t expect plastic bags to become rare collector’s items anytime soon, though. The ban won’t go into effect until July 1, 2015 for grocery stores, and July 1, 2016 for smaller convenience stores. And it doesn’t cover things like produce bags and plastic dry-cleaning covers.

California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a crucial step toward reducing the production of plastics that can end up in our waterways and in the ocean, but unfortunately our ecosystems already contain multitudes of plastics. One of the upcoming features of the new WCGA West Coast Ocean Data Portal is a Marine Viewer tool where marine debris cleanup data can be overlain with other datasets, including city and county bag bans, river and stream watersheds that may carry plastics to the ocean, and coastal surface currents that may affect plastic movements and deposition along the coast. In fact, one of the main goals for the oceanographic products that I’ve created during my Sea Grant fellowship has been to provide information on oceanographic movements that can be used in conjunction with debris cleanup datasets, to determine how plastics may move along the West Coast, and where they might land.

In the end, hopefully California’s plastic bag ban won’t be just another environmental law in our state’s long history of conservation movements. We should use it as key step toward urging our society to reject our ingrained single-use, throwaway mentality, in favor of preserving and reusing the resources we have.

The iconic "plastic bag video" from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California's recent statewide plastic bag ban, although not all disposable plastic bags will be phased out by the law.

“There’s so much beauty in the world” - The iconic “plastic bag video” from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California’s recent statewide plastic bag ban.

 

And so it begins…

As a new Oregon Sea Grant Fellow, I thought an introduction to myself should start this blog. I am a recent graduate of the Masters of Environmental Management program in the Department of Environmental Management at Portland State University in Portland, OR. My graduate research focused on evidence-based decision making in coastal and marine management and policy in the Pacific Northwest. At a high level, this work tested a 2 phase methodology for bridging the gap between academic research and policy and management practice: The 1st phase included an interviewing process to gather primary qualitative data and determine scientific data needs of ocean relevant decision makers. In the 2nd phase, I conducted a workshop to bring together academic scientists and decision makers to disseminate phase 1 findings and begin to foster the development, communication, and use of policy relevant research. I have resolved to continue focusing on understanding how best to bring scientific knowledge into policy action through my career in coastal and marine policy creation and management implementation.
My graduate research was funded by the Oregon Sea Grant Robert E. Malouf Marine Studies Scholarship, and I feel very fortunate to continue to work with Oregon Sea Grant as well as other Sea Grant scholars over the next year. I anticipate gaining an incredible wealth of knowledge over the next year working in the Oregon Governor’s Natural Recourses Office. As a neophyte walking around this Office, I often find myself with eyes open wide and full of excitement. Oregon Sea Grant has provided me this incredibly rare opportunity to be placed in the heart of ocean and coastal policy in such a critical coastal state, and I intend to take advantage of every moment.
In this role, I will support Oregon’s engagement in carrying out WCGA priorities related to climate change, regional ocean data, marine debris, and ocean acidification, as well as WCGA initiatives to foster collaboration with tribes, local governments, and the federal government coordinating and improving ocean management and health in Oregon and along the West Coast. I welcome you to follow me along this journey over the next year!

Hot Summer Oceans

The always-popular La Jolla Shores beaches have been particularly packed this summer, as beachgoers enjoy notably warm waters.

The always-popular La Jolla Shores beaches have been particularly packed this summer, as beachgoers enjoy notably warm waters.

Southern California is famous for its endlessly sunny beaches and surfable waves, but this summer, even natives of the Land of Sunshine have noticed something unusual: ocean temperatures have been exceptionally warm over the past few weeks. While this means that nearly everyone is jumping in the water sans wetsuits, many are wondering how this year stacks up to previous years, and what is causing such warm oceans.

The Hunt for Red July

According to both satellite SST measurements and in situ buoys that measure the ocean at depth, the waters off California and Oregon have warmed nearly 5oC in some places since the beginning of July. Warm events have also been creeping farther north than usual, bringing comparatively warm 16oC waters almost to the northern border of California.

Sea Surface Temperature (SST) at 0 meters (top row - ocean surface) and 20 m (bottom row) off California for July 8, July 18 and Aug. 8, 2014 (left to right). Data is from the 3 km Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) produced by Dr. Yi Chao at UCLA, and available through SCCOOS. The NOAA SWFSC has noted that an especially warm SST period occurred from July 15-23, as visible by the red-orange-yellow colors moving north.

Follow the rainbow - Ocean temperature at 0 meters (top row) and 20 m (bottom row) off California for July 8, July 18 and Aug. 8, 2014 (left to right). Data are from the 3 km Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) produced by Dr. Yi Chao at UCLA, and available through SCCOOS. The NOAA SWFSC notes that an especially warm SST period occurred from July 15-23, visible by the northward movements of red-orange-yellow areas.

In terms of causes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center (NOAA SWFSC) suggests that the warm events may be related to weakening northwesterly summer winds, which usually push surface waters offshore, driving upwelling of deeper, cold waters. If the winds weaken, warm surface waters remain right offshore, even moving northward along the coast.

While beachgoers are jumping into California’s balmy surf with extra zeal, observations of this summer’s warm oceans beg an obvious follow-up question: how does 2014 compare to previous years? Fortunately, the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS), along with the other West Coast Ocean Observing System Regional Associations (CeNCOOS, NANOOS and AOOS), was created in order to track exactly these ocean phenomena. And although SCCOOS is only 10 years old, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has been tracking water temperatures for almost 100 years at locations along the California coast, providing long-term datasets that allow us to analyze temperature trends.

Long-term advantages

Water temperature is one of the most easily and frequently measured properties of the ocean, and doesn’t require a scientific degree to detect. Anyone with a handheld thermometer, or who dips their hand in at the water’s edge, can form their own opinions about “warm” and “cold”. But determining whether the water temperature is actually different from last summer’s sand-filled memories requires a rigorous and systematic record of ocean temperatures.

Manual sea surface temperature measurements exist from as far back as 1917 for the Scripps Pier, 1924 for the Newport Beach Pier, and the 1950s for several other piers along the Southern California Bight. Back then, automated temperature sensors didn’t exist, so measuring water temperature used to require a fair amount of manual labor – someone would have to go out every day, at roughly the same time, and drop a bucket off the end of the pier to capture a water sample, then haul the bucket up and stick a thermometer in. Even more impressive is the fact that, over the past 97 years (in the case of the Scripps Pier), nearly every day from every year has a temperature measurement, producing a record as robust as the monitoring from an automated temperature-measuring system (which can suffer from mechanical breakdowns and faulty measurements).

Daily surface and bottom temperature anomaly from the Scripps Pier Manual Shore Station, La Jolla, California.  Anomalies are produced by subtracting the long-term harmonic mean (1916-2001) from the daily temperature (a positive anomaly indicates that temperatures are warmer than average). Temperature data from June 1 to August 5, 2014 (shown in blue) are preliminary and unverified (graphs produced by Melissa Carter of the Shore Stations Program).

Daily surface and bottom temperature anomaly from the Scripps Pier Manual Shore Station, La Jolla, California. Anomalies are produced by subtracting the long-term harmonic mean (1916-2001) from the daily temperature (a positive anomaly indicates that temperatures are warmer than average). Temperature data from June 1 to August 5, 2014 (shown in blue) are preliminary and unverified (Data collection by the Shore Stations Program at SIO, funded by CA Dept. of Parks and Recreation, Division of Boating and Waterways; graphs produced by Melissa Carter of the SSP).

Thanks to the development of modern equipment, SCCOOS now also has several automated means of measuring ocean temperatures around the Southern California Bight, both inshore and offshore. In addition to the Manual Shore Stations program, which is still in use today, SCCOOS has also implemented a network of Automated Shore Station sensors, attached to piers at Scripps, Newport, Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. Farther offshore, the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) wave buoys provide point-source temperature data along with wave-tracking information.

Additionally, the SCCOOS/SIO Instrument Development Group (IDG) Spray Glider Program, supported by the NOAA Ocean Climate Observation Program, runs several continuous glider lines off California, providing depth profiles of water temperature along consistent geographic tracks. All of these systems mean that much of the ocean off California is being consistently measured, to provide a comprehensive picture of changing coastal ocean conditions.

Charting course - Yearly surface ocean temperature in Monterey Bay from 1990-2014. Temperatures from 2014 are shown magenta, and highlight the notably warm events of July and August 2014 (Data collection supported by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; graphs produced by Reiko Michisaki of the Biological Oceanography Group led by Francisco Chavez.).

Charting course – The Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have also observed notably warm ocean temperatures this summer. The above graph shows yearly surface ocean temperature in Monterey Bay from 1990-2014, and highlights the notably warm events of July and August 2014 (shown in magenta). Additional graphs are available through the MBARI Project Page (Data collection supported by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; graphs produced by Reiko Michisaki of the Biological Oceanography Group led by Francisco Chavez.).

 

Cause and effect?

In addition to its own relevance to marine users, ocean temperature, and especially sea surface temperature (SST), is an important indicator of a suite of current and changing ocean conditions. One indicator is of larger-scale, longer-cycle ocean phenomena, such as El Niño/La Niña events. While those anxious about California’s long-term drought (which should be everyone) are attuned to the buzz about a potential much-hoped-for El Niño event this fall, it’s too soon to say whether, and how, this summer’s warm oceans might be related to a possible El Niño. Although El Niño events do bring anomalously warm waters to the California Current System, the process involves additional factors in other regions of the Pacific (for more information on El Niño, check out these explanations from SCCOOS and NOAA).

The warm oceans appear to be influencing the biology of the region, too. Recently, beachgoers all along California have noticed thousands of by-the-wind sailors, or Velella velella, washing up at the high-tide line. These transparent-blue jellyfish-like creatures, which look like sand-wrung plastic bags, float along the ocean surface at the mercy of the currents and winds. They are usually found in the relatively warm waters off Baja California, so scientists speculate that they may be floating north along with the warm intrusions that have been washing the California coast this summer.

By-the-wind-sailor (Velella velella) is a small jellyfish-like organism whose movement is directed by the winds and ocean currents. In the past few weeks, thousands of these creatures have washed up along California's shores over the past few weeks. Although no one is sure why, scientists speculate that Velella may be moving north with California's recent warm water intrusions.

By-the-wind-sailor (Velella velella) is a small jellyfish-like organism whose movement is directed by the winds and ocean currents. In the past few weeks, thousands of these creatures have washed up along California’s shores over the past few weeks. Although no one is sure why, scientists speculate that Velella may be moving north with California’s recent warm water intrusions.

Fishermen who frequent Southern California’s piers have also been reaping the benefits of large schools of tropical fish temporarily moving north and inshore. Right now, you don’t need a boat to catch a yellowfin tuna – just drop a line in the water off the Ocean Beach Pier, and something is bound to bite. NOAA SWFSC’s annual salmon trawls off Tomales Bay have also noticed ocean sunfish (Mola mola) and sea nettles (Chrysaora fuscescens) closer to shore and farther north than they are typically found.

Thermal causes and effects, while endlessly entertaining to speculate on, are still uncertain right now. Future ocean temperatures also remain to be seen (even SCCOOS, for all its wizardry with ocean measurements, cannot make long-term predictions with certainty). But if you’re eyeing the surf and considering leaving work early to hit your board, rest assured that you’ll have a warm ride on the waves. And while you’re out there, stick a thermometer in the water and make a note of the number. When it comes to the oceans, we need any monitoring we can get.

 

Let’s See Stars Help the Ocean!

Celebrities can sell products, convey ideas, and create interest –  and in all these capacities they have the power to enact change. You may be surprised to learn that the average marine science conference is teeming with rockstars within the ocean world.  Well-known figures, respected and recognized by name if not by face, can be found across the world contributing to the body of scientific knowledge. However, science celebrities are rarely featured in the public eye,  and herein lies the problem.

Celebrities, scientists, and public figures work together on fundraising and problem-solving ocean issues.

Mission Blue Voyage – Celebrities, scientists, and public figures work together on fundraising and problem-solving ocean issues. Photo credit: Sven-Olof Lindblad

The marine science field has tried to engage some of America’s most well-known celebrities – actors and actresses – to represent ocean issues through events like the 2010 Mission Blue Voyage. Led by TEDx and marine-science celebrity Sylvia Earle, this four-day cruise raised over $15 million for projects around the Galapagos and included Hollywood stars Edward Norton, Glenn Close, Leonardo DiCaprio, and others. Foundations and other marine organizations also reach out to celebrities for their endorsement. I have been working with the Thank You Ocean Campaign, a public awareness campaign led by the state of California and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries,  which works to unite voices and amplify messages to raise ocean awareness and promote everyday actions that protect the ocean.  Thank You Ocean has garnered the endorsement of actor Edward James Olmos in a PSA about keeping our oceans free of trash, and Cat Cora has offered her voice for sustainable seafood which has helped disseminate these positive ocean messages beyond the campaign’s typical audience.

Edward James Olmos speaks on behalf of clean beaches for the Thank You Ocean campaign.

Edward James Olmos speaks on behalf of clean beaches for the Thank You Ocean campaign.

While this level of engagement can reach millions across the U.S. and educate other influential figures, the ocean is a global resource that requires coordinated international efforts to protect. In June 2014, the U.S. Department of State gave celebrity a chance when it held the Our Ocean 2014 conference, and the news coverage reflects that the audience was listening.  Leonardo DiCaprio, founder of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, gave an opening speech on the second day that touched on his personal experience with declining ocean health. He spoke about the need to act now for the sake of future generations, and the importance of “stepping up” to address challenges head-on. He also committed $7 million to meaningful ocean projects, and his foundation has created partnerships with prominent marine conservation groups working all over the world.  This type of collaboration has sparked public conversations and set an example among his peers in how to use their status as celebrities for positive environmental (and professional) purposes.

Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the Our Ocean Conference with Secretary of State John Kerry, July 2014.  Photo: NY Daily Times

Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the Our Ocean Conference with Secretary of State John Kerry, June 2014. Photo: NY Daily Times

DiCaprio focused on the conference’s priority issues – marine pollution, sustainable fisheries, and ocean acidification – through his personal experiences in diving, traveling, and fundraising over the last twenty years.  It’s always a challenge to transform bulky science words into concepts that will make people change their behavior, but his call to action was a high-profile request to world governments and other foundations to “step up” to the plate, create and enforce strong marine laws, and work with colleagues to effectively manage our oceans.

This final message is the most important: celebrities can be allies, partners, and advocates for improving the health of our oceans.  They can become our colleagues. Celebrities like DiCaprio help bring together experts, bridge international differences, and translate science; and when policies rely on the influence of the public and politicians alike, celebrities can act as mediators that enact positive change.

Cat Cora, celebrity chef and known for her featured role on Iron Chef, speaks for sustainable seafood choices for the Thank You Ocean campaign.

Cat Cora, celebrity chef and known for her featured role on Iron Chef, speaks for sustainable seafood choices for the Thank You Ocean campaign.

I hope that the next conference I attend will feature my marine science heroes as well as celebrities who are interested in lending their voice and their energy toward the important work being done to help our oceans.

Buoying coastal safety through ocean wave observations

The Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) involves a U.S.-wide network of spherical yellow buoys that monitor wave height and direction. Buoys must be collected for periodic maintenance, and are re-deployed using local boating partners (photo courtesy of CDIP).

The Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) consists of a U.S.-wide network of buoys that monitor wave height and direction. Buoys must be collected for periodic maintenance, and are re-deployed using local boating partners (photo courtesy of Coastal Data Information Program).

If you’re a surfer, one of the things that matters most is the current state of ocean waves crashing off your shores. If you’re not a surfer, the waves still matter – you probably just don’t realize how much they can affect your life.

People who pay attention to waves want to know a lot about them: where they’re coming from, how high they are, whether a watery behemoth is barreling toward the nearest coastal harbor. And real-time access to how those waves are behaving – and what they’ll do next – is some of the most important information of all. This need for wave data helped spawn the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP), funded collaboratively by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of California, and based at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Since 1975, CDIP has deployed and maintained a series of ocean wave buoys along both U.S. coasts, the Caribbean, and Hawaii and Alaska, resulting in a 40-year high-resolution collection of wave data that has helped everyone from coastal engineers and researchers to surfers, sailors and recreational beach visitors.

Wave information, both real-time and historical, helps engineers assess best options for coastal infrastructure, such as roads and popular beachfront properties. Above, the historic Highway 101 passes through a low point between the Pacific Ocean and San Elijo Lagoon at Cardiff, CA. Coastal roads such as these are vulnerable to storm surge and higher waves (photo courtesy of CDIP).

Coastal collaborations – Wave information, both real-time and historical, helps engineers assess best options for coastal infrastructure, such as roads and popular beachfront properties. Above, the historic Highway 101 passes through a low point between the Pacific Ocean and San Elijo Lagoon at Cardiff, CA. Coastal roads such as these are vulnerable to storm surge and high wave events (photo courtesy of CDIP).

Coastal engineers and planners rely on information from wave histories and past wave events to properly develop and manage coastal infrastructure and harbors. Because waves carry so much force and energy, they can have serious effects if they hit a coastal development that isn’t structurally prepared to handle them. The 2012 Hurricane Sandy event was an extreme example, producing waves up to 45 feet high at some offshore locations, but predicted increases in sea level and changes in weather patterns indicate that storm surges and higher-wave events may happen more frequently in the future.

Waves also play a major role in redistributing sand and reforming beaches, which can be compounded by human-made coastal infrastructure. Researchers use real-time CDIP data to calibrate research models and experimental details in studies of the physics of wave generation and propagation, effects on sand transport and shoreline reconfiguration, and mixing of offshore pollutants – and of course, all of this information eventually ties back into coastal planning and development. My California Sea Grant Fellowship will also be incorporating CDIP wave data into time-averaged oceanographic products to help track West Coast-wide marine debris movements and ocean acidification events.

Container ships (such as the one entering the Port of LA/Long Beach, above) rely on accurate nearshore wave data to indicate whether they will have enough draft clearance to safely enter port. Even a slight increase in waves can cause ships to pitch and roll, increasing their under-keel clearance requirements (photo courtesy of Jacobson Pilot Service).

Shipping up data – Container ships (such as this one entering the Port of Long Beach) rely on accurate nearshore wave data to indicate whether they will have enough draft clearance to safely enter port. Even a slight increase in wave height and period can increase ship under-keel clearance requirements (photo courtesy of Jacobson Pilot Service).

In addition to helping coastal builders and researchers, CDIP data supplies key real-time information to ocean users. Harbormasters and cargo ship captains rely on accurate real-time wave periods to determine whether ships can safely enter port. Large container ships can sometimes require under-keel clearance (the water depth required for vessels to move over the bottom) of 65 feet in order to enter narrow, shallow port channels. Larger, longer waves cause ships to pitch and roll, increasing their under-keel clearance requirements dramatically, so a ship that could have safely entered a port under low-wave conditions may have to wait offshore for several days if wave height and period increase. Wave forecast models can help predict when these events will occur, allowing ships to better plan port approaches and entrance times, to avoid costly offshore waits.

The annual Mavericks surf competition at Half Moon Bay, CA, is scheduled to coincide with a large winter swell. The 50-foot-plus waves that fuel the competition's extreme nature are predicted and monitored using CDIP wave data (photo courtesy of http://surfbang.com/contests/2013/01/mavericks-invitational-2013-big-wave-surfing-contest.html).

High rollers – The annual Mavericks surf competition at Half Moon Bay, CA, is scheduled each year to coincide with a large winter swell. The 50+ foot waves that fuel the competition’s extreme nature are predicted and monitored using CDIP wave data (photo courtesy of Surf Bang).

And of course, CDIP wave data helps cue surfers into when and where to find the best local breaks. In fact, the timing of the infamous annual Maverick’s surf contest off Half Moon Bay, CA – which requires a large winter storm to produce the 50-foot rollers that lead to such extreme rides – relies on wave knowledge from CDIP buoys. SCUBA divers, small-boat sailors and even everyday beach-goers also scope out wave data, to know what to expect when they hit the water.

Making a splash - CDIP wave buoys provide a comprehensive network of nearshore wave data along both US coasts, Hawaii, Alaska and the Caribbean (photo courtesy of CDIP).

Making a splash – CDIP wave buoys provide a comprehensive network of nearshore wave data along both US coasts, Hawaii, Alaska and the Caribbean (photo courtesy of CDIP).

The CDIP wave buoy network requires active hands-on care and maintenance, and working with the CDIP buoys can be a bit like being a firefighter. Things will be calm and routine around the shop for days, until a buoy suddenly sends off a distress signal – or worse, stops sending information at all – and the team must quickly collect the buoy and bring it back to the shop for repair. But the unassuming yellow spheres floating off harbors and beachfronts provide an invaluable eye into how energy moves and changes at the land-sea interface, and the impacts that those changes may have on our coastal developments.

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CDIP wave information is also freely available to numerous private, state and federal agencies, including NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center and National Weather Service programs, allowing data to reach an even broader audience.

 

 

International Debris

Cross-border challenges and protection for the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve (TRNERR)

After storm events, the Tijuana River, which flows along the US-Mexico border, carries trash downstream, depositing it along the river bed as the river dries. Although several collection basins at the bottom of the Tijuana River catch most debris and sediment, containing it from flowing into the Estuary and the ocean, the basins must be cleared periodically by TRNERR, which creates an enormous cost burden.

After storm events, the Tijuana River, which flows along the US-Mexico border, carries trash downstream. Some trash is deposited along the river bed as the river dries (above). The rest flows into several collection basins at the bottom of the Tijuana River. Although the basins catch most debris and excess sediment, containing it from entering the Reserve and the ocean, the basins must be periodically cleared, and the waste trucked off-site, which creates an enormous cost burden for TRNERR. And not all trash gets stopped.

The Tijuana River Valley, winding along the US-Mexico border south of San Diego, California, is a verdant plain scattered with fluffy swaths of willows and sprawling ranches. Past the edges of development, the plain opens onto a wide marsh – the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve (TRNERR), an unexpected spot of calm tucked amid the chaos of development and civilization encroaching from all sides. But despite the urban growth sprawling south from San Diego, and north to the border fence from Tijuana, TRNERR enjoys a protection status that keeps it open and undeveloped, as one of the last remaining intact estuarine systems in California.

The collection basins at the bottom of the Tijuana River are currently mostly clear of debris, but after major storm events they fill up with trash and sediment washing down from upstream urban areas, and must be cleared periodically by TRNERR.

The collection basins at the bottom of the Tijuana River are currently clear of debris, but after major storm events they fill with trash and sediment from upstream urban areas, and must be cleared by TRNERR.

TRNERR was founded in 1981 as part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS). This country-wide system of 28 coastal and Great Lakes estuarine reserves is a federal-state partnership, in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collaborates with state agencies to manage each reserve. TRNERR is jointly operated by the California State Department of Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the cities of San Diego and Imperial Beach, San Diego County and the U.S. Navy providing additional resources and protection. The site was also designated a “Wetland of International Importance” by the International Ramsar Convention of 2005, bringing it global recognition as a vital natural ecosystem.

The US-Mexico border zone provides a buffer to help shield the TRNERR from urban expansion on all sides, but the effects of booming development still make their way into the Reserve, in the form of increased debris, sediment and pollution run-off. Above, the border fence curves along the mesas, with Tijuana visible in the background.

The US-Mexico border zone provides a buffer to help shield TRNERR from urban expansion on all sides, but the effects of booming development still make their way into the Reserve, in the form of increased debris, sediment and pollution run-off. Above, the border fence curves along the mesas, with Tijuana visible in the background.

TRNERR’s unique position along an international border presents it with challenges beyond its own ecology and surroundings. Booming urban development in and around Tijuana has driven increasing levels of sediment and trash run-off into the Tijuana River. One of the main problems is the amount of sediment and loose debris that washes down the Tijuana River after large rain events. Although two large catchment basins near the bottom of the river capture most of this excess sediment and debris, preventing it from flooding the reserve and clogging natural habitats, TRNERR must invest in costly removal and transport measures to keep the basins from overflowing. Dr. Jeff Crooks, the TRNERR manager, notes that because most of the Tijuana River watershed is in Mexico, where skyrocketing development and paving frees sediment and increases surface run-off, the Reserve must work across borders and socio-economic barriers to deal with sewage problems and high levels of debris flowing down the river and into the estuary.

Map of San Diego, CA (upper left) and Tijuana, Mexico (lower right), with the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve outlined in red (center). The inset map shows the region's location in California.

Map of San Diego, CA (upper left) and Tijuana, Mexico (lower right), with the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve outlined in red (center). The inset map shows the region’s location in California.

TRNERR also conducts in-depth monitoring, in order to track the system’s health and study its functionality. The Reserve’s diverse habitats and long history of protection make it an important source of long-term information on marshland ecology, as well as a reference site for other local estuarine restoration projects.

And although TRNERR is the largest intact estuarine-marsh system remaining in Southern California, and enjoys coveted protection status, it still faces threats from sea level rise and climate change. Additional effects of climate change could soon make themselves felt in estuaries around the U.S., although researchers aren’t yet certain how these systems will respond to ocean-related climate effects (the South Slough Estuarine Reserve in Oregon, a NERRS sister to TRNERR, has observed increasing pH levels from 2002-2010, and no strong correlations between estuarine pH and nearshore ocean pH trends, although its estuarine-scale processes still aren’t clearly understood). Regardless, coastal and estuarine ecosystems will likely feel the effects of multiple stressors in coming years, so understanding current baseline levels and fluxes can cue us into these changes. A little extra breathing room from long-term national protection doesn’t hurt, either

Although surrounded on all sides by urban development, TRNERR still provides much open space for walking, bird-watching and research. The Reserve is a combination of mudflats, shoregrass and high marsh transition zones.

Although surrounded by urban development, TRNERR still provides much open space for walking, bird-watching and research. The Reserve is a combination of mudflats, shoregrass and high marsh transition zones.

In addition to its status as a valuable estuarine system, TRNERR is also a beautiful recreation area open to the public, and includes Border Field State Park. Although vehicle access roads can be closed after heavy rains, there are ample trails for hiking, bird-watching (we spotted a roadrunner and red-tailed hawks on our visit there!) and horseback riding, as well as access to California’s beautiful southernmost beach.

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Thank you very much to Jeff Crooks, manager of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, for an insightful, information-packed and unique tour of TRNERR! 

Tracking Ocean Acidification down the West Coast

Lines of grey, barrel-shaped buoys (left) and black, spherical buoys (right) provide flotation for underwater support structures that house growing oysters and mussels at the Carlsbad Aquafarm in North San Diego County, CA

Lines of grey, barrel-shaped buoys (left) and black, spherical buoys (right) provide flotation for underwater support structures that house growing oysters and mussels at the Carlsbad Aquafarm in North San Diego County, CA

As a Californian, I had only heard snippets about ocean acidification (OA) before I started my Sea Grant Fellowship. Unlike the Mississippi River Delta, California isn’t infamous for large hypoxic “dead zones” created by agricultural nutrient run-off. And unlike Washington and Oregon, California isn’t known worldwide for its oyster hatcheries and shellfish farms, which have been heavily impacted by OA in the last several years. In fact, I didn’t know shellfish farms existed in Southern California until I visited the Carlsbad Aquafarm, which is located just north of San Diego.

Carlsbad Aquafarm is a low-key shellfish operation tucked into the same lagoon that houses the Carlsbad Nuclear Power Plant, right across the road from North San Diego County’s beautiful beaches. But the single-story sheds, and neat rows of unassuming black and grey buoys suspending underwater growth structures stretched across the lagoon, belie the fact that the farm sustains an impressive shellfish business, with nearly 1 million oysters alone currently growing in the water.

(left) Growing tanks house green abalone, one of the numerous shellfish species produced by Carlsbad Aquafarm. (right) A fully-grown green abalone (Haliotis fulgens)

(left) Growing tanks house green abalone, one of the numerous shellfish species produced by Carlsbad Aquafarm. (right) A fully-grown green abalone (Haliotis fulgens)

Carlsbad Aquafarm, started in 1990, raises oysters, mussels, clams, abalone, scallops and seaweed to sell to Southern California farmer’s markets and wholesale seafood dealers, such as Santa Monica Seafood. Although several other shellfish aquafarms exist throughout California, including Hog Island Oyster Farm in Tomales Bay and the emerging Catalina Sea Ranch (which so far only grows mussels) off Huntington Beach, Carlsbad Aquafarm is currently Southern California’s only multi-species shellfish aquaculture farm.

One of my Fellowship mentor organizations, SCCOOS, is currently working with Professors Burke Hales (Oregon State University), and Todd Martz (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), to install a new partial/total CO2 (pCO2/TCO2) sensor at the Carlsbad Aquafarm. Monitoring the waters off Southern California will provide important ocean baseline comparisons for the low-pH, OA events that our northern neighbors are experiencing, as well as a general picture of how the southern part of the California Current Ecosystem is changing over time. It will also allow Carlsbad Aquafarm to track potential future OA events in its own waters, as the West Coast continues to be impacted by increasing global CO2 emissions and decreasing pH levels.

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Ocean acidification events, and associated shellfish hatchery larvae die-offs, have been a growing problem in Washington and Oregon for the past several years. The British Columbia-based hatchery Island Scallops, which represents about 16 percent of British Columbia’s shellfish production, recently closed its processing plant and laid off a third of its workers because it couldn’t sustain production levels in the face of the deleterious effects that  increasingly low-pH waters were having on its shellfish. Because of the immediacy and substantial, far-reaching economic impacts of OA events on these hatcheries, Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia have implemented extensive systems of pH/pCO2 monitoring sensors to detect these events in real-time, in order to proactively protect shellfish stocks.

In addition to shellfish, the Carlsbad Aquafarm grows several species of algae to sell for fish food and human consumption.

In addition to shellfish, the Carlsbad Aquafarm grows several species of algae to sell for fish food and human consumption.

So far, California, and especially Southern California, has experienced fewer noticeable low-pH events than have its northern neighbors. This is partly because Oregon and Washington have experienced stronger wind-driven upwelling of low-pH waters, and partly because California has a smaller-scale shellfish industry than do Oregon and Washington, so potential OA events haven’t been as urgent of a concern. And although Carlsbad Aquafarm has been unaffected overall by OA influences so far, the growers have noticed mussels sloughing off their byssal threads (the proteinaceous biomaterials that they produce to attach themselves to rocks, chains or other substrates) more during periodic lower-pH influxes, a phenomenon that has also been noted by recent research studies.

The West Coast is predicted to face continued decreases in ocean pH levels in coming decades. Models even estimate that by the year 2050, aragonite saturation levels will be permanently below those that can sustain healthy shellfish growth. So California must be as prepared as the rest of the west coast, and begin monitoring now in order to mitigate and avoid harmful effects in the future.

Thank you to Dennis Peterson, head aquaculturist at the Carlsbad Aquafarm, for a fascinating and informative tour!