Citizen scientists

CITIZEN SCIENTISTS Karsa Parker and his mom Amanda check out organic material like urchins.

As marine life and the ocean are being threatened by outside forces, work is being done to help protect and preserve the ocean and its inhabitants.

“Anybody who’s paying attention knows this is one of the wonders of the world,” said Richard Charter, senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation, gesturing behind him in the direction of the coast. “There are two reasons — one is that it was always one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the other reason is because people have always protected it. It’s not here by accident, it had a lot of close calls.”

A love for the ocean and coast, coupled with a desire to protect it, is a driving force behind many of the people who are working to preserve and maintain

Francesca Koe, a board member for the Greater Farallones Association, shares Charter’s sentiment. When she moved to northern California 25 years ago, she discovered scuba diving, working up the ranks and eventually became a scuba diver and teacher. In 2007 Koe was chosen to help create and design marine protected areas along the coast as part of the Marine Life Protection Act as a result of her in-water expertise. From there, she continued to advocate and work to better the health of the northern California coast.

“It just really spoke to me to continue advocating in whatever way I could,” she said.

Tackling the kelp decline

For the Greater Farallones Association, Koe co-chaired a kelp recovery work group, which produced a Bull Kelp Recovery Plan in April. The plan covers a range of topics relating to the disappearance of bull kelp, as well as strategies for kelp recovery.

The recovery plan includes both tier 1 activities that should be addressed immediately, and tier 2 activities that are suggested for future consideration. Activities in the tier 1 category primarily revolve around harvesting purple urchins and focusing on an action plan to address Sea Star Wasting Disease.

“We’ve had these series of unfortunate events,” Koe said. “We’ve had the warm water blob sitting off the coast, heating things up ... and then you couple that with sea star wasting disease, which killed the sunflower sea star.”

All of these different factors contributed to the cultivation of an environment that’s detrimental to bull kelp. Because of the increased water temperature, kelp was receiving less nutrients and the sunflower sea stars aren’t there to feed on urchins, Koe said. As a result, the urchin population is flourishing, decimating bull kelp in its wake.

In her own time, Koe volunteers for group restoration efforts that focus on harvesting purple urchins. About once a quarter, if the weather allows, groups of volunteers will come out to a specified location and help remove the urchins.

“When we do these removals, the volunteers will come — the fish and game commissioners and the department increased the number of urchins that an individual could take so that we can have these events — they are usually there at these events signing people in, giving out bags and then they will take them out, they will measure them,” Koe said.

Most recently, a group met in Fort Bragg on July 27. According to Koe, the group of 50 divers collected more than 250 gallons of urchin. Those who  collect do so for a variety of reasons.

“Some people will take them for compost, some people will do other things, some people will use them for christmas ornaments,” Koe said.

On a more scientific level, Koe said that work is being done to see if there’s a possibility for purple urchins to become a commercial item. Oftentimes, red sea urchins are harvested for food. However, if marine scientists can figure out how to “fatten up” the purple urchin, “humans can potentially be the predator,” Koe said.

Doing so would ideally lead to the commercialization of the purple sea urchin, reducing the need for groups of volunteers to go out and harvest them.

“If we can remove what keeps eating the kelp … then we think we can give the kelp a fighting chance,” she said.

While addressing this part of kelp forest decline is important, there are other factors about the state of the ocean that need to be addressed, Koe said. Namely, the impact of climate change.

“I’m not trying to be the purveyor of doom, but all of these things are related,” she said. “The kelp forest is such an important shelter and forage for all kinds of fish. It’s a neighborhood building block.”

Over the past five years, California’s kelp forest population has declined by 93%.

“This is climate change, this is what it looks like,” she said. “The oceans are warming, and this is an impact. If 95% of the redwood forest disappeared, it would be alarming. This is the same thing.”

At the government level

Charter spends a lot of his time traveling to meetings and speaking in support of and against issues pertaining to the coast. Most recently, he spent time speaking against a proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that seeks to conduct a helicopter dispersal of rodenticide poison onto the Southeast Farallon Island in an attempt to eradicate mice that attract burrowing owls that prey on the eggs of the ashy storm petrel.

On July 10, the California Coastal Commission reviewed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal.

According to the project report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March, the eradication of the mice will benefit species that are native to the island.

“The benefit of this conservation action is significant from a national perspective because of the importance of the South Farallon Islands for breeding seabirds and for their endemic species,” reads the report. “The islands hold the largest seabird breeding colony in the lower 48 United States, including the world’s largest colony of ashy storm-petrels. Mouse removal would help satisfy the Service’s goal of invasive species control in the United States.

“Additionally, the eradication of house mice at the South Farallon Islands supports the Service’s priority to facilitate ecological adaptation in the face of accelerated global climate change by removing a non-climate change stressor from the Farallones ecosystem. Mouse removal will also benefit wilderness character since mice significantly impact the natural character of the Farallon wilderness.”

However, the method of mice removal is being called into question due to the possible impacts that it will have on the local environment. Namely, the impact of Western Gulls that may ingest the poison and show up on beaches.

A report from the EPA also recommended that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arrange for a review of the project, specifically if the poison drop is unsuccessful, “since house mouse eradications historically have had relatively high failure rates compared to rats and the possibility exists that, should the effort fail, resources may have to withstand impacts from rodenticide along with the continued impacts from mice.”

In a July letter to the California Coastal Commission, Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins stated that she is concerned that the suggested strategy of removal will “pose significant risks to the sanctuary and adjacent fragile coastal ecosystems and non-target species.”

Charter was at the commission meeting on July 10, encouraging the California Coastal Commission to weigh using poison to eradicate the mice against the possibility of non-targeted species being harmed or dying as a result of the poison drop.

Prior to the commissioners voicing their opinion, the agency withdrew its application.

Another issue coming down the pipeline is the continued preservation of offshore land from drilling.

At the coast, the state controls the first three miles, Charter said. Beyond that, the water is controlled by the federal government

“Over the course of the last 40 years, there has been only one mechanism to gain permanent protection from federal offshore drilling — that is a national marine sanctuary,” he said.

The first part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary was protected in 1981, with the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary becoming protected in 1989.

“That has been our iconic milestone for protecting this coast, but it only protected the Sonoma coast as far as Bodega Head,” Charter said. “When Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey was first elected, she spent the whole time trying to expand that sanctuary farther north. That was one of the several things she tried to do.”

Prior to Woolsey leaving office, the rest of the coast up to just passed Point Arena was granted permanent protection. This part of the protection has recently been called into question, Charter said.

In April 2017, an executive order signed by President Donald Trump called into question some of the federal waters that had been protected from offshore drilling.

“He decided that this part here, from Bodega Head to Point Arena should be reviewed. That’s still going on,” Charter said.

The review is being performed by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and doesn’t have an anticipated release date.

“He’s deciding still whether this part is protected or not,” he said. “He may take it away, which would mean that Bodega Head to Point Arena could suddenly be opened to offshore drilling.”

One of the most important aspects of protecting land, Charter said, is using local government.

“As you get down to the local heart of democracy, it’s still working,” he said. “People are accountable to their constituents because they’re right there. It’s important that local government be populated with smart, environmentally conscious people — especially now.

“In Sonoma County we need to protect the things we have protected before, or those that have gone before us have protected — because they’re all threatened right now.”

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