The Science-Policy Intersect: Ocean Acidification and Marine Debris

Climate change-driven shifts in ocean conditions and growing coastal populations are two of the many factors raising uncertainty in coastal and marine resource management.  Fortunately, there is a growing understanding of the opportunity to improve policies and decisions on these issues by drawing on and infusing scientific data into policy and management decisions in order to promote healthy coastal economies and ecosystems. My graduate degree research focused on this intersection between science and policy and how to imbue scientific data into the policy process. In my past few months with the Governor’s Natural Resources Office I have seen two regionally focused efforts in the eastern Pacific Ocean that speak directly to this interface.

The first of these is the establishment of a West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel (OAH Panel). The OAH Panel, consisting of 20 esteemed scientists representing California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, was tasked with advancing decision makers’ understanding of drivers and impacts of ocean acidification and hypoxia. Ocean acidification poses a particular threat to the west coastal waters of the United States and Canada, where naturally upwelling waters bring deep water with a low pH to the surface, where it mixes with low pH waters caused by atmospheric deposition of carbon dioxide.  Successive upwelling events also increase the occurrence of seasonally hypoxic (low oxygen) areas of the ocean. Acknowledging the specific threat that ocean acidification and hypoxia bring to the west coast, the OAH Panel is intended to identify the research and monitoring needed to answer practical questions faced by policy makers and managers about ocean acidification and hypoxia. While biological impacts have been seen from ocean acidification and hypoxia, there are still many questions to answer for the purpose of decision making. On my very first day on the job, I was fortunate to attend a meeting between Oregon natural resource agency managers and Oregon-based OAH Panel scientists convened to set an agenda for ways to advance science-informed decision making in Oregon waters. They agreed to work collaboratively to develop accurate and accessible outreach materials to inform policy makers and the public, establish ongoing information sharing and coordination forums on OAH, and identify ways to ensure the science products being developed by the OAH Panel are used by decision makers.

The second effort endeavoring to infuse scientific data into policy and management practices in the eastern Pacific Ocean is the West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP).  The WCODP is a project of the West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health that provides access to ocean and coastal data to inform regional resource management, policy development, and ocean planning. I was able to help at the WCODP’s annual Network meeting in early November to unveil a new feature of the Portal that creates a geographic visual of data, specifically data relating to marine debris. This new feature, the Data Viewer, provides coastal decision makers with a tool to track marine debris and help prioritize clean ups and advocate for policies to reduce the impact of trash on our beaches. As the WCODP charts its strategic plan moving forward, it seeks to continue to be a rich data resource and tool to visualize and map that information, so that ocean and coastal managers can make sound decisions to improve ocean health.

Both of these efforts have established a significant opportunity to sustain and continue to build cross-sector cooperation between decision making and scientific sectors on the west coast. The state is thus poised to more efficiently and effectively protect and preserve the ocean’s critical natural resources. Both the scientific community and decision making community are working to improve ocean health.  Combining forces is helping scientists ask the questions managers need to answer to understand how ecosystem services that people value will be affected, and what steps people might take to try to mitigate and adapt to those changes on the west coast now and in the future.


Coming Full-Circle with the West Coast Ocean Observing Systems


One of the perks of working in the offices of SCCOOS and CDIP was getting out on the water to help with CDIP wave buoy deployments.

When I was accepted to the California Sea Grant State Fellowship program last November, I couldn’t keep the names of my mentor organizations straight. I knew that I’d be working with four agencies (possibly more!) along the West Coast to analyze oceanographic data in the context of marine debris and ocean acidification. The job sounded fabulous, but I didn’t really have any idea whom I’d be working for.

Twelve months later, I can rattle off the names of my host agencies in one confident breath (try saying ‘Ocean Observing System’ three times fast, with several geographic and governmental qualifiers thrown in, and you get the idea). Because my position is based at the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (that’s SCCOOS) in beautiful La Jolla, CA, I have been able to observe many of the day-to-day workings of the oceanographic data collection that SCCOOS employs. SCCOOS is well-known for the array of real-time ocean observing platforms that it has created and maintains. My lunch break ocean views are framed by a Coastal Observing Research and Development Center (CORDC) high-frequency radar (HFR) station that measures real-time surface currents, and the door of my office is marked by a yellow Waverider buoy used by the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) to monitor wave conditions. Both the HFR surface currents and the CDIP wave and sea surface temperature datasets have formed core components of my product development. Best of all, when I have a question, I can simply walk next door to check in with the people who collect the data.

CORDC HF Radar stations (left) and CDIP wave buoys (right) are both based at SCCOOS, allowing me to fully understand the whole process of data collection and manipulation.

CORDC HF Radar stations (left) and CDIP wave buoys (right) are both based at SCCOOS, allowing me to learn about the whole process of data collection and quality control, in addition to using the data to create time-averaged oceanographic products.

A large part of my fellowship involves working with data and agencies outside of Southern California. While the West Coast OOS Regional Associations (RAs) are all housed under the national Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) network, and share data across geographic boundaries, each RA has its own focus within coastal oceanography and ocean health monitoring. My fellowship has helped me explore these nuances, giving me a better understanding of the variety of coastal environments and marine-related issues around the U.S.

One of the Fellowship side projects that I developed this summer was plotting sea surface temperature (SST) and significant wave height (Hs) along the West Coast.

One of my Fellowship side projects has been to plot sea surface temperature (SST, above) and significant wave height (Hs) along the West Coast.

This spring, I had the opportunity to visit another of my host OOSs, the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS), along with several of their partner organizations. CeNCOOS is based at the edge of the world-renowned Monterey Bay and Monterey Submarine Canyon, giving it the ideal position to work with a host of academic collaborators, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), UC Santa Cruz, the CSU Moss Landing Marine Lab, Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and the Naval Research Laboratory. During my visit, I attended a Marine Debris Symposium hosted by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), and presented a poster on my Fellowship work connecting Ocean Observing System data to marine debris. The Symposium gave me the opportunity to learn about marine debris cleanup and reduction efforts around California, and connected me with people interested in using the data products I have created. Seeing potential applications for these products motivated me to solve several tricky coding problems to improve my products.

#9 - NANOOS extra small

(Top) In August, I visited several shellfish farms in Oregon and Washington. Jen McWhorter (far left), the SCCOOS Public Relations and Government Outreach Coordinator, and Jen Rhoades (middle left), the IOOS Pacific Region Coordnator, joined me on the tours. Dave Steele (middle right), the owner of Rock Point Oyster Farms, generously organized our tours. (Bottom) I also visited Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, one of the first hatcheries to realize that low-pH waters have been causing problems in shellfish development in recent years (photos courtesy of Jen McWhorter).

In August, I had a wonderful trip to Oregon and Washington to visit my third OOS host, the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS), and its stakeholders. In recent years, NANOOS has collaborated closely with shellfish farmers in the Pacific Northwest to help monitor, understand and highlight the detrimental effects of increasing ocean acidification on shellfish growth and survival. During my visit, I toured several shellfish farms to hear how they benefit from collaborations with NANOOS. One aspect of my fellowship has involved updating the West Coast Ocean Acidification Assets Inventory (a list of West Coast OA monitoring equipment and stations), which is being incorporated into the new IOOS Pacific Region OA Portal. Learning firsthand about the impacts of OA on larval growth and shell formation added value and context to the extensive lists of monitoring assets and data that I had been working with.

I also attended several WCGA meetings throughout the year, to help me understand West Coast ocean policy and how my fellowship could contribute meaningful data to West Coast ocean partnerships. I have had the chance to help plan this year’s West Coast Ocean Data Network Meeting, which focused on unveiling the West Coast Ocean Data Portal and associated datasets and connections developed this year, including the WCGA-OOS partnerships that I have helped work on during my Fellowship.

My California Sea Grant Fellowship has been an incredible growth experience. Wrangling Pythons (coding scripts) and refining my knowledge of West Coast oceanography and ocean organization acronyms has helped me realize that integrated, policy-applicable oceanographic work is what I want to do in the future. I will miss working at the incredible Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but will be taking time to travel and pursue my land- and ocean-based interests, including horse polo, bird-watching, tall-boat sailing and SCUBA diving. I will be checking the CDIP wave forecasts religiously as I attempt to learn to surf, and will remain vigilant in my quest to pick up every scrap of beach trash and to educate fellow grocery-shoppers about the environmental benefits of reusable bags. I hope to dive back into the world of oceanography soon, via a Ph.D. program or related work. Maybe someday, I’ll find my way back to the Ocean Observing Systems.




Guest Blog: Connecting Ecosystem-Based Projects Along the West Coast

John Hansen, Program Director of the West Coast EBM Network, shares with us his experience at the 2011 West Coast EBM Network annual meeting. Photographs by Alan Lovewell.

The West Coast Ecosystem-Based Management Network (Network) recently held its 2011 Annual Meeting in Eureka, California.  The meeting brought together local project staff from 10 West Coast communities, representatives from ocean and coastal nongovernmental organizations (NGO)s, Washington, Oregon, Southern and Central California, and California Sea Grant, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health (WCGA), along with a number of local, state and federal staff from the Humboldt Bay area. The meeting took place over two days and included over 60 attendees.

John Hansen and the West Coast EBM Network taking a tour through the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

Early portions of the meeting highlighted the latest efforts taking place in coastal communities along the West Coast, including 10 sites ranging from San Diego to the outer coast of Washington State.  Project staff presented successful ecosystem-based management approaches driven by strong engagement with local stakeholders, including climate change planning, habitat restoration, and supporting local fisheries and working waterfronts, among other topics.  Discussion focused on exchanging local lessons and addressing common challenges, while revealing management experiences for the entire West Coast region.

Christina Holt discusses the National Ocean Policy and the West Coast Governors' Agreement

Following the spotlight on local efforts, presentations were then given by representatives from NOAA and WCGA to provide updates on regional and national-level activities.  NOAA staff summarized the latest activities of the National Ocean Council and the preparation for new regional coastal and marine spatial planning frameworks.  The WCGA Executive Committee updated the group on the latest regional issues along the West Coast, and efforts of WCGA related to broader national-level planning and CMSP.  Finally, the four WCGA Fellows provided a briefing on their respective work plans and ongoing activities related to integrated ecosystem assessments (IEAs), climate change and sustainable communities, regional research planning, and a West Coast regional data sharing framework.

Alison Haupt and Kate Skaggs learn about managing the Arcata marshlands

Throughout the meeting, the overlaps between the activities of the West Coast EBM Network and WCGA’s priorities were clearly apparent.  Many local communities throughout the West Coast are directly addressing pressing issues facing their local ecosystems and stakeholders, including preparing for climate change and supporting working waterfronts and local fishing fleets.  These align with the broader goals of WCGA Action Plan and the efforts of the WCGA Action Coordination Teams (ACTs) throughout the three West Coast states.  The activities and expertise housed in the WCGA ACTs were of great interest to the community-level projects at the meeting, and discussions centered on how a stronger connection could be made between the regional ACTs and staff supporting local-level efforts along the coast.

Brian Largay of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation explains the impacts of Spartina on the West Coast wetland environment

On a broader level, the other key lesson taken away from the meeting was the valuable opportunity to grow a mutually beneficial relationship between regional efforts like WCGA and coastal communities.  The WCGA is working towards successful regional approaches throughout the coast, and linking members of their ACTs, on topics that align well with EBM approaches at the local level.  Concurrently, the West Coast EBM Network is working to link coastal communities and successful on-the-ground outcomes, all of which could greatly benefit from a stronger relationship with the WCGA.  Further, local projects may serve as the ideal foundation for regional WCGA efforts, and illustrate the value of enhanced collaboration and planning along the coast through tangible benefits to local stakeholders and communities.

Todd Hallenbeck taking a moment to reflect

The West Coast EBM Network looks forward to continued collaboration with WCGA, including its Executive Committee, ACTs, and Sea Grant Fellows, to highlight the value of this innovative partnership and leverage the benefits to active coastal communities throughout the region.

For more information on the West Coast EBM Network, please visit

Tsawalk and the Salish Sea

When I crossed the border into Canada on my drive to the Salish Sea Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia this past week, I got the “Q and A” by the border guard. “Where’s home? Where do you work?” I was friendly, concise and truthful. But when asked what I would be doing in Canada, I lost my cool, and enthusiastically stated, “Saving the whales!!” I got a smile and a green light. OK, not exactly true, but it seemed a good enough reason to let me spend a week in BC.

Crossing the Granville Bridge into this land of lights made me appreciate the accomplishments of the modern world. The stark mountains in the background, equaled by the skyscrapers towering in front of me, were a subtle reminder of the power of innovation and invention. It was also a reminder why I made this trip.

Granville Street Bridge

Granville Street Bridge, Nighttime Photo by Robert D. Brooks

The waters of the Salish Sea are surrounded by a highly developed landscape. Westerners, like so many cultures around the world, find ourselves inextricably connected to the water, and here we build our villages. Or, should I say, major metropolitan areas. Here in Vancouver, the interface of the modern world with the natural one isn’t lost to the madness of the city. The sea seems to shape the traffic, the infrastructure, the economy, and the culture of the area. The Straight of Georgia winds around Vancouver Island and surrounding geography like a smooth piece of velvet, buffering the noise and the commotion of the city with stillness and calm. After a closer look by the scientific community, we get a clearer picture of the problems facing these shared waters.

The Salish Sea, showing the Strait of Georgia near center, the Strait of Juan de Fuca below, Puget Sound at the lower right, Johnstone Strait at the extreme upper left, and the Pacific Ocean at lower left. Photo from Google Earth.

I learned the Salish Sea Conference used to be a science conference; a place where academics and researchers rolled out their results for other scientists and researchers to mull over, discuss methodologies, and gain ideas for their own work. I imagine the evolution into a science, policy, and management conference came about relatively quickly. What’s happening in the Salish Sea sounds alarming at best. Polluted air and water, sick and dying fish and whales, decreased habitat and spawning areas, increased marine traffic, sound pollution, invasive species, and altered eco-webs. Then, add the global threat of climate change and a world population that just hit 7 billion, and we’ve got issues. Getting back to a healthy Salish Sea ecosystem demands action, which requires those with authority to be informed. This was a message carried by the opening plenary panelists; three mayors and a commissioner from the major metropolitan cities along the coast of the Salish Sea. They need good science, and they need it now.

Whale tail, Photo by Alan Lovewell

Echoed again in the closing plenary was the plea for scientists to carry their message of an ecosystem in crisis. “We don’t know what we don’t know” a panelist said. Simply communication of knowledge, regardless of uncertainty, brings us leaps closer to effecting positive change on a large scale. Scientists were encouraged – implored, even, to have those conversations, incite those conversations, and speak until they are heard. It seems we have no choice but to make change now. As Billy Frank Jr., Native American environmental leader and treaty rights activist from the Salish region, said at conference past, “We need to all get in this canoe together. We need to start paddling in the opposite direction. And we need to paddle hard.”

Coastal Salish Plenary Panel "Working Together for the Salish Sea", photo by Erica Olson, 2011 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference Volunteer

If nothing else, there was one message that stirred and inspired me: the idea of “tsawalk”; a Nuu-chah-nulth tribe worldview that “everything is one.” This message was threaded through several of the talks I attended.  When delivered by some of the First Nation tribes, the message became tangible and visceral: You could feel the weight of gratitude fill the room. It brought every one of us to our most basic selves. We all became simply human; fighting a battle we’ve created; fighting for our humanity with a unified understanding that without every cog and wheel, we are lost.

Ambleside Beach, by Lion’s Gate Bridge, photo by Hugh Shipman (

Rendezvous in the Emerald City: Invigorating the Agreement

It always amazes me how much can be accomplished by people that have never met face-to-face. Dedicated individuals from Oregon, Washington, and California involved with the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health have been making strides for this regional ocean partnership via conference calls and email for the better part of 5 years. This past June, for the first time in 3 years, the WCGA executive committee (Excomm) members and the leads for the WCGA’s Action Coordination Teams (ACT) all met in the flesh to take the pulse of the WCGA and discuss the future of regional ocean governance. For me, a WCGA Sea Grant fellow just 3 months into my 2 year stint, greeting attendees felt like a human game of Memory; matching faces to voices that I’d only known through phone calls.

A little background on the WCGA: The WCGA is the regional ocean partnership for the West Coast, formed on September 18, 2006 by the Governors of California, Oregon and Washington. Upon signing, then Governors Schwarzenegger, Gregoire, and Kulongoski launched a new, proactive regional collaboration to protect and manage the ocean and coastal resources along the entire West Coast, as called for in the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission. The WCGA seeks to advance the goals of:

  • Clean coastal waters and beaches
  • Healthy ocean and coastal habitats
  • Effective ecosystem-based management
  • Reduced impacts of offshore development
  • Increased ocean awareness and literacy among the region’s citizens
  • Expanded ocean and coastal scientific information, research, and monitoring
  • Sustainable economic development of coastal communities

A seascape of Mill Rocks with Humbug Mountain in the distance (Photo: Stoike)

This meeting allowed the WCGA to look ahead into FY ’12, review the 2008 Action Plan, and build a strategy for near term actions. Of particular interest to me was the WCGA’s sincere commitment to improving communication with the Action Coordination Teams; a commitment validated by this face-to-face interaction between ExComm and ACTs. From my perspective, these ten teams, designed to put the Action Plan into…well, action, serve a critical role in the success of the WCGA as a whole. Their expertise and commitment breathe life and valuable perspective into the WCGA and give it the legs to run.

A good portion of the meeting was dedicated to discussing how the WCGA would implement coastal and marine spatial planning, a significant priority of the federal government outlined in the National Ocean Policy Objective 2 (comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning and management in the United States). In order to inform this discussion, the WCGA invited Micah McCarty, a Tribal Council Member from Makah Tribal Nation, and Jacque Hostler, Chief Executive Officer of the Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria, to share their perspectives with state and federal representatives as well as ACT members. Both Micah and Jacque are highly engaged on the National level as members of the National Ocean Council’s Governance Coordinating Committee. Donald McIsaac, Executive Director, and Dorothy Lowman, Executive Specialist from the Pacific Fishery Management Council attended as guests and shared the Council’s views on the proposed CMSP regional planning bodies (RPB). As the National Ocean Council moves forward with CMSP, the WCGA agreed to take some proactive steps in developing a regional data portal for the West Coast, similar to the data portal created in the Northeast. They came up with some recommendations regarding CMSP that I believe are important to acknowledge. The WCGA will:

    • Support CMSP as a tool to protect and manage coastal and ocean resources;
    • Collaborate with all federal agencies, tribes, and affected groups and stakeholders to address West Coast ocean and coastal health issues;
    • Maintain a strong role in assisting the federal government to create and execute the West Coast Regional Planning Body (RPB)
    • Acknowledge that ACTs were formed to focus on implementing policy changes and best management practices, and that their capacity is limited to staff RPB and CMSP planning and information gathering processes.

A sustainable coastal community includes vibrant working waterfronts and access to the resource (Photo: Stoike)

The Executive Committee made a series of recommendations to share with its respective governor’s offices in California, Oregon, and Washington. These include reaffirming the current structure of the WCGA— it’s currently a governors’ partnership, with invited federal agencies, and new administrations in CA and OR make this a logical and necessary action. The WCGA committed to engaging and coordinating with interested tribal governments. Finally, the current financial climate made it clear that streamlining and prioritizing the 2008 WCGA Action Plan to better align actions with existing and potential resources will help ensure the WCGA is doing the best it can to meet its goals.

These new efforts will be part of the update to their 2008 Action Plan scheduled for release in 2013.

President Barack Obama is updated on the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, during a meeting in the tarmac field house at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, La., June 4, 2010. (Photo: Pete Souz)