A 2016 assessment of California’s Channel Islands and Big Sur marine ecosystems to help protect these unique environments
About this project
In 2015, Reef Check California launched two successful Marine Ecosystem Assessments – the Channel Islands and the Big Sur coast. These multi-day expeditions were part of a sustained effort by Reef Check California for the long-term monitoring of these unique coastal ecosystems. The data we collected is publicly available on Reef Check’s Global Reef Trackerfor scientists, marine managers and the general public to use.
This year we plan to return to these sites to measure differences in marine life, to ascertain what trends are occurring and what steps need to be taken to protect these remote ecosystems. We will lead two teams of trained volunteer citizen scientists to scuba dive and survey fish and other species using scientific protocols that are integrated with studies being done throughout the rest of California. The Channel Islands and Big Sur coast together represent 275 miles of some of the most undeveloped areas of coastline in the state. These areas are located where cool nutrient-rich waters provide an environment for a variety of endangered species, thriving kelp forests and sensitive habitats not found anywhere else along the California coast. The remoteness of these areas puts them out of reach of polluting industries and human population centers, but also makes it difficult for scientists to study and manage.
In this era of global environmental stressors like ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures and the vast reach of plastics pollution, the knowledge of what changes are occurring is key to successfully adapting management and conservation actions to protect these rich habitats. In 2015, we documented trends that were both alarming and encouraging. In Big Sur, we found evidence that populations of recovering fish stocks were doing better inside the three Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along the coast. But we also documented the decline in sea stars due to Sea Star Wasting Disease and an associated increase in purple urchins – which are voracious grazers of kelp forests. The trend was most pronounced outside of MPAs, evidence that these underwater parks are successfully protecting biodiversity.
This year, we need to go back to these sites to see if these trends of decreasing sea stars, increasing urchins and associated decrease in kelp forests that we have observed in the other parts of the state are occurring here and to what extent. On Santa Cruz Island we saw a big increase in the number of crowned urchins, a species that is normally found in greater numbers in warmer water to the south. Their spread is likely related to the recent warm water along the California coast. At Scorpion Anchorage, which has been an MPA since 2003, we found giant kelp has returned and the urchin barren that has been there since we first started monitoring in 2008 is gone. At other sites on the islands outside of MPAs, urchins have increased. These trends and more can be viewed on our Global Reef Tracker.
Our goal for this survey season is to go back and document what further changes have occurred in the past year, which has been one of the strongest El Niños in history. At each place we anchor, a team of roughly two dozen volunteer scientific divers will enter the water, and using well established scientific protocols, will count fish, invertebrates and kelp to come up with a comprehensive picture of the status of marine life in these remote areas.
Kelp forests are critical ecosystems along California’s coastlines and provide food, shelter and oxygen for hundreds of species, including humans. These ecosystems are changing due to rising ocean temperatures, invasive species, marine diseases and other environmental stressors. This project aims to address these issues by collecting data that will be added to previous years’ information so that fisheries managers, researchers and the public can have the scientific information they need to protect these precious habitats.
Risks and challenges
There are many challenges such as weather, ocean conditions and boat logistics associated with these expeditions as there is with any trip of this size and scope on the ocean. Our experience conducting trips along California’s mainland coast as well as our two successful expeditions that we completed last year, makes us uniquely qualified to address these challenges. In the event a trip is canceled due to weather or other logistical issues, it will be rescheduled for another date.