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.

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Coming Full-Circle with the West Coast Ocean Observing Systems

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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.

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(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.

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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 people 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 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 who dips a handheld thermometer or their hand into the water 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 an automated temperature-measuring system can.

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 the ocean off California is being consistently measured, giving us 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 example is larger-scale, longer-cycle ocean phenomena, such as El Niño/La Niña events. While those anxious about California’s multi-year drought (which should be everyone) are attuned to the buzz about a much-hoped-for El Niño 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).

Warmer 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 warmer 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 and future predictions, while endlessly entertaining to speculate on, are still uncertain (even SCCOOS, for all its wizardry with ocean measurements, cannot make definite long-term predictions). 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 al the monitoring we can get.

 

Video: Beyond River Mile Five

For nearly 100 years wild salmon populations along the Elwha River, located at the heart of Olympic National Park, have been limited to a five-mile stretch of the 45 mile-long river below the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. In September 2011 engineers began the Nation’s second largest ecological restoration project; a three-year dam removal process, allowing wild salmon and other anadromous fish populations to return to the upper channels and tributaries of the river. But how effective will these restoration efforts be, and how do we measure success? Kinsey Frick, George Pess, and John McMillan, scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington, in partnership with other federal, state and tribal organizations in the region are working together to find answers to these important questions. Their research will not only help us understand the impacts of dam removal on wild salmon populations and ecosystems in the Elwha and allow managers to manage the recovering system adaptively, but also help inform future river restoration projects throughout the country.

The Oyster in the Shellfish Farm

This is the second part in our three-part investigation of how Ocean Acidification is affecting the West Coast. Please see the Jan. 10th article “A Huge Experiment” for excellent discussion of what Ocean Acidification is and what causes it.

We’ve all heard of the canary in the coal mine, the idea that certain animals can act as alarms of changing conditions. Well, say “hello” to the oyster in the shellfish farm! Just as canaries warned miners of dangerous gasses in mine shafts, oysters are now warning shellfish growers about increasing acidity in the oceans. Shellfish growers are paying attention and working with scientists to develop monitoring approaches to understand how changing ocean conditions are impacting west coast ecosystems, and their bottom line.

The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, located on Netart’s Bay, Oregon, is the second largest producer of shellfish larvae for the West Coast. Using nutrient rich water from the bay, their operation spawns, grows and ships billions of baby shellfish to aquaculturists from Canada to South America. In 2008, they had a sudden and mysterious decline in the production of their larvae that nearly crippled their business and their ability to supply larvae to a $100 million industry that depended on them. At this same time, water saturated with high CO2 was hitting the Pacific coast, and it became clear that this corrosive water was severely impacting the ability of shellfish in their vulnerable developing early stages.

I got a chance to visit Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in late 2011 to tour their facility and learn about a collaboration between the co-owner, Mark Weigart, and a team of scientists from Oregon State University, led by George Waldbusser. The collaboration was focused on understanding the physiological processes that the corrosive water was having on larval organisms and developing adaptation strategies to prevent hatchery die-offs. Among the large plastic tanks containing billions of larvae, a small laptop with sensors is hooked up to the piping system that delivers bay water to the hatchery. The team of scientists developed this homemade monitoring system to measure water chemistry and inform hatchery owners if the water will harm shellfish larvae. This helps a lot, and the system also takes advantage of information from offshore Integrated Ocean Observing Systems (IOOS) to send a warning to the hatchery when cold highly acidified water is on its way to Whiskey Creek. The operators can then reduce the amount of water they pull from the bay or supplement the water to reduce its impact on the larvae.

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On the West Coast, there are three IOOS regional associations (CeNCOOS, SCCOOS, NANOOS) who work together to provide comprehensive data and forecasts for the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem. Recently, the West Coast IOOS’ have explored partnerships with the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA) on tackling issues of regional significance, like ocean acidification.

These monitoring approaches and adaptation strategies are helping Whiskey Creek and other hatcheries on the coast deal with the effects of ocean acidification and highlight the importance of regional ocean observing data in improving our understanding of changing ocean conditions. Have you seen effects of ocean acidification on your part of the coast?