USC Sea Grant Announces Five New Research Projects

ByUSC Sea Grant

USC Sea Grant Program is excited to announce five new research projects that we have recommended for funding and are just pending final approval by NOAA. The projects will have duration of two years (2024-2026). USC Sea Grant’s “Urban Ocean” research program supports projects directed at solving the particular problems associated with urbanization on and adjacent to the coastal zone. The program’s overall aims are to foster the use of sound scientific information to advance our understanding of coastal and ocean resources, to examine the ways we conserve and use these resources, and to support tools for evaluating the issues and socio-economic trade-offs that comprise coastal decision-making. USC Sea Grant works closely with funded researchers to ensure research results will have a broad reach to diverse California constituencies, with particular attention to underserved and underrepresented communities.

Read more about our five 2024-2026 projects below.

Greening the Grey:

Using Novel Coastal Armoring Methods to Support Greater Intertidal Community Productivity and Resilience Against Climate Warming Impacts

Mitigating the impacts of centuries of human coastal development and the increasing impacts of climate change will require a multitude of approaches to meet the challenge of fostering healthy coastal ecosystems. Balancing a desire for improved ecosystem function with the traditional and emerging needs of coastal economies has led to the search for methods of ‘greening gray infrastructure’ within urban ocean zones. The Port of San Diego has deployed one such project, using cast concrete coastal armoring units (‘COASTALOCK’ blocks) that serve the function of traditional rock riprap for armoring harbor shores, but also provide a more complex physical structure intended to create more favorable habitat for shoreline organisms. The pilot deployment was installed in 2021, and the two year initial monitoring period of settlement of intertidal species on the blocks came to a close in early 2023. The Port of San Diego is continuing to weigh whether a further expansion of the COASTALOCK armoring units would meet the desired goals of providing durable coastal armoring while increasing biodiversity and productivity on armored shores, and is relying in part on the evaluation of the benefits to the biological communities associated with those shores. USC Sea Grant has funded a study to formally evaluate the functionality of COASTALOCK armoring units for creating more thermally-favorable habitat that will permit occupation by a broader array of species than traditional rock riprap.

Principal Investigator:

Luke Miller, Ph.D., San Diego State University

Ousting Oil:

Southern California wetland serves as a model system for studying ecosystem recovery from an oil spill

On October 1, 2021, an oil pipeline in San Pedro Bay (P00547) ruptured. Approximately 25,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the ocean, with considerable amounts seeping into the state-protected Magnolia, Brookhurst, and Talbert saltwater marshes in the Huntington Beach Wetlands (HBW), Orange County. USC Sea Grant has funded a team who, fortuitously, had collected water and sediment samples one year prior to the spill in the Magnolia and Talbert Marshes. The team collected additional samples several days, a few weeks, and approximately one and two years after the spill to enable a detailed analysis of the ecosystem recovery at the wetlands. This project will answer questions about: the short- and long-term effects of the oil-spill on the microbial community of the Huntington Beach Wetlands/ What are the key microbial taxa that are stimulated by the recent oil-spill and could these key players be used as indicators for oil degradation? And is it possible to grow novel oil-degrading microbes that are relevant to this site?

Principal Investigators:
Roman Barco, Ph.D., University of Southern California

Propagating Problems:

Studying the combined effects of ocean acidification, hypoxia, and harmful algal blooms in the California ecosystem

The rate at which California coastal water conditions are changing is among the fastest globally due to warming and the development of co-occurring ocean acidification (OA) and hypoxia (OAH). Seasonal OAH may have major impacts on phytoplankton community structure, such as the occurrence of harmful algal blooms (HABs), that can easily propagate to upper trophic levels of the food web and could create an unprecedented challenge to the health of coastal California ecosystems, including valuable fisheries. USC Sea Grant has funded a study to experimentally alter pH and hypoxia while co-culturing key phytoplankton and zooplankton species to understand how they respond to the effect of OAH. The team aims would like to understand how co-occurring OAH and HAB events will impact zooplankton performance and bioaccumulation of toxins up the food chain. They also plan to confirm their laboratory results by comparing them against samples that were collected as part of the NOAA West Coast Ocean Acidification 2021 cruise. The team plans to communicate the results of their work to the research and resource management community concerned with OAH, hypoxia, HABs, and fisheries implications by sharing their data on the California Ocean Observing System (CalOOS) OAH portal.

Principal Investigators:
Andrew Gracey, Ph.D., University of Southern California
David Hutchins, Ph.D., University of Southern California

Seafood for All:

How studying larval fish over 50 years can improve food security in our urban ocean

Coastal nearshore ecosystems, especially those close to urban centers such as Los Angeles, are directly affected by anthropogenic impacts associated with development and human population increase. Combined with global climate change’s effects on the ocean, coastal fauna has witnessed substantial changes in abundance and composition. Many of these species are important to recreational and subsistence fishers from underrepresented, underserved, disadvantaged, and food-insecure communities that can take advantage of no-fee fishing opportunities on nearby piers, breakwaters, and jetties. USC Sea Grant has funded a study to address this issue utilizing a unique, nearly 50-year-long, nearshore ichthyoplankton (fish larva) data set. The goal is to understand the impact of anthropogenic, fisheries, and climate-driven changes on the nearshore fish communities of the region, with a specific focus on species relevant to subsistence fisheries in the region. The team will conduct outreach to regional resources managers.

Principal Investigator:
Daniel Pondella, Ph.D. Occidental College

TEK meets eDNA:

Traditional Ecological Knowledge used to advance equity in collaborative management of the newly proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary

The need to put into place true collaborative co-management is the focal point of the newly Proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of central California. USC Sea Grant has funded a study that will enhance a collaborative plan between the Chumash community, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries, Stanford University, and Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. It uses an existing eDNA research project to move towards tribal collaborative/co-management for the sanctuary by including more indigenous community involvement in biodiversity research. The project will test two different Tribal-led citizen-science delivery systems for collecting eDNA specimens and compare them to previously funded collections based on long-established scientific protocols. The study will compare results from these sets of samples, and use the results to propose building greater involvement in Tribal communities in eDNA research in the proposed sanctuary. The team will also begin the process of describing sampling locations with their Chumash names to bring the traditional ecological knowledge about location history and features into the eDNA descriptions.

Principal Investigators

Stephen Palumbi, Ph.D., Stanford University
Violet Sage Walker, Northern Chumash Tribal Council