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Studies of algal blooms and other "urban ocean" issues win USC Sea Grant funding (PDF)

February 13, 2012

Media Contact: Phyllis Grifman, Grifman@usc.edu, 213.740.1963

LOS ANGELES – A team of USC investigators is assessing the role that ocean acidification might play in increasing the toxicity of algal blooms in the near shore regions of the ocean, while another team is examining new ways to predict the patterns of these harmful blooms off Southern California coasts. Both teams, along with scientists studying fish contamination, habitat diversity, and urban runoff, are recipients of new University of Southern California Sea Grant research grants.

"I'm very pleased to announce the awards for these important projects examining different aspects of the "Urban Ocean," says USC Sea Grant Director Linda Duguay. "The projects continue USC Sea Grant's long history of excellence in soliciting and funding relevant research on important coastal issues. In urban regions with large populations living adjacent to our coasts, the challenge is to understand the problems and help to create approaches to sustain and improve the health of coastal ecosystems."

In all, USC Sea Grant awarded $727,700 to support seven new projects, each reviewed by outside experts for their scientific merit and relevance to current marine issues. Most of the awards also include support for graduate students. These projects are being undertaken by scientists from several universities in Southern California and elsewhere in the state. The projects include two from USC and others from California State University, Long Beach; California State University, Monterey Bay; Stanford University; Mills College and the University of the Pacific. The two-year projects are slated to begin in February.

Two USC biologists, David Hutchins and Feixue Fu, will study the effect of ocean acidification on the toxicity of Pseudo-nitzschia, a form of marine algae that figures into harmful algal blooms along the Southern California coast. Preliminary data suggest that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the subsequent acidification of ocean water dramatically increase the toxicity of several species of Pseudo-nitzschia, and the new Sea Grant research will examine the effect of other climate change variables, such as seawater warming, on those toxic responses.

Two other USC biologists, Astrid Schnetzer and David Caron, will investigate the character of hazardous algal blooms within the coastal waters of Los Angeles and Orange counties using newly developed stateof-the-art molecular approaches to detect and analyze the presence of toxic algae, particularly two of the most potent taxa Pseudo-nitzschia and Alexandrium. Their Sea Grant project will use these new techniques to analyze the population dynamics and toxin production for these two toxic alga as well as the frequency of their blooms and the marine environments most prone to them.

Biologist Daniel Pondella of Occidental College and other researchers from Occidental College and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission will assess the impact of urchin relocation and kelp restoration on species and communities of fish, invertebrates and algae in Santa Monica Bay. They will develop evaluation tools for assessing the success of habitat restoration in terms of how ecosystems respond to these modifications.

Biologist Kevin Kelley of California State University, Long Beach and scientists from the Orange County Sanitation District and the Pacific Coast Environmental Conservancy are studying thyroid disruption in coastal populations of fish that are caused by persistent environmental chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Thyroid hormones in vertebrates affect almost every tissue, their target receptors are found in all cell types, and they are critical for normal growth and metabolism. Disruption of the thyroid endocrine system in fish and other wildlife presents a significant concern in impacted coastal environments.

The design of marine protected areas might be enhanced by including some habitats that are not always underwater. Marine ecologist Corey Garza of California State University, Monterey Bay, will look at the importance of the intertidal zone to spiny lobster and California sheephead in the design of marine protected areas. Previous studies suggest that intertidal habitat may be critical to female lobster and sheephead during spawning season. Garza will investigate the potential for integrating intertidal habitat into the design of Southern California MPAs to promote sustainable populations of these key economic species.

Small reservoirs in the watersheds around Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay might play a role in releasing a variety of pollutants—organic carbon, nutrients and metals—to coastal waters by way of small creeks that drain away from them to the ocean. Laura Rademacher from the University of the Pacific and Kristina Faul from Mills College will study the cycling of these pollutants into and out of these reservoirs and whether management strategies can affect a reservoir's ability to "filter" contaminants and reduce their flow into the coastal ocean.

In addition to the biologically-focused work, researchers from Stanford University, Oregon State University and the University of Washington will examine how coastal communities in the Pacific coast region are planning adaptations to coastal change caused by sea level rise and associated threats to coastal structures and populations. Led by Stanford researchers Pamela Matson and Susanne Moser, a geographer noted for her work on climate change communications and community adaptation, this social science project aims to identify effective processes and outcomes from adaptation planning efforts now taking place in many locales. According to Moser, "What motivated our proposal is coastal managers asking 'what does success in adaptation look like?' Without this funding from Sea Grant we wouldn't be able to answer the question in a way that is directly relevant to coastal decision-makers."

NOTE: Funding for the two-year research projects totals $591,000 and an additional $136,800 for graduate student trainees. In addition, Sea Grant projects require at least 50 percent match from the participating institutions.

Listing of project titles and investigators:

The University of Southern California Sea Grant Program supports an integrated program of research, education and public outreach to help people understand, responsibly use, and conserve ocean and coastal resources. USC Sea Grant is part of the National Sea Grant College Program, a network of more than 30 programs based at top universities in every coastal and Great Lakes state, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The National Sea Grant College Program is a partnership between universities and the federal government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

For more information on USC Sea Grant research and outreach, please visit: http://www.usc.edu/org/seagrant/research/researchandoutreach.html