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USC Sea Grant Funds Studies of "Urban Ocean" Issues

USC Sea Grant Funds Studies of "Urban Ocean" Issues

The University of Southern California Sea Grant Program has awarded $727,700 to support seven new research projects led by researchers at universities throughout California. The studies look at issues such fish contamination, habitat diversity, urban runoff, and the role that ocean acidification might play in increasing the toxicity of algal blooms in Southern California coastal regions as well as new ways to predict the patterns of these harmful blooms.

“I’m very pleased to announce the awards for these important projects examining different aspects of the ‘urban ocean,’” said 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.”

The USC 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 USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, based in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and 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).

The seven projects funded by USC Sea Grant were 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 USC Dornsife; 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 2012.

At USC Dornsife, David Hutchins, professor of biological sciences, and Feixue Fu, assistant professor (research) of biological sciences, 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. Their research will examine the effect of other climate change variables, such as seawater warming, on those toxic responses.

Astrid Schnetzer, assistant professor (research) of biological sciences, and David Caron, professor of biological sciences, both from USC Dornsife, will investigate the character of hazardous algal blooms within the coastal waters of Los Angeles and Orange counties using newly developed, state-of-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 and other researchers from Occidental College along with 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 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.

Marine ecologist Corey Garza of California State University, Monterey Bay, will look at the importance of the intertidal zone to spiny lobsters 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 marine protected areas 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.”

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.

For more information on USC Sea Grant research and outreach, please visit: