May 3, 2010

Biology Professor to Study Sandy Beaches, Surf Zones in North Central Coast Marine Protected Areas

karina_nielsen.jpgSandy beaches and surf zones ecosystems on the north central coast of California will be the focus of important research by Sonoma State University biology professor Karina Nielsen in the years ahead.

She is part of a team of scientists who will conduct a survey as part the Ocean Protection Council's $4 million award to support initial monitoring of the recently designated marine protected areas (MPAs).

Nielsen's team has been awarded $288,677 to lead a study to help establish an integrated picture of marine ecosystems and human activities in the North Central Coast from Alder Creek in Mendocino County to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County.

Sandy beaches and surf zones are important foraging areas for shore birds and fishes that feed on intertidal invertebrates, and are also used extensively by people for recreational activities, including shore-based fishing, bait collection, beach combing, ATVs, surfing, birding, dog-walking, and picnicking.

Beach wrack (mostly detached seaweeds and other marine plants) and carrion (dead animals) that wash-up on the shore from other ocean habitats form the base of one critical food web that birds and fish rely on for food. Another important food web is based on the microscopic phytoplankton of the surf zone itself that provide food for sand or mole crabs that live in the sand and are in turn fed upon by surf zone fishes such as surfperch.

"The amount of wrack and plankton cast onto beaches is also strongly linked to ocean conditions. These things make sandy beaches an important target for monitoring ecosystem health in this region," Nielsen says.

For up to three years, Nielsen, her colleagues (Steven Morgan, University of California, Davis, and Jenifer Dugan, University of California, Santa Barbara) and SSU students will collaborate to:
1) provide the first comprehensive, baseline description of the biodiversity of sandy beaches of the NCC region,
2) develop a plan for long-term monitoring of the network of MPAs involving citizen scientists (e.g., students, recreational fishers, members of conservation clubs) and collaborations with similar established volunteer groups in the region (e.g., Gulf of the Farallones Beach Watch program), and
3) interpret the important ecological links among the components of the ecosystem, including humans, for use in evaluating the ecological functioning of the newly formed network of MPAs in the NCC.

Through the baseline program, teams of researchers and citizen-scientists will survey shallow and deep rocky habitats, kelp forests, rocky shores, estuaries, beaches and other key ecosystems.

They will also monitor ecologically and economically important species of fishes and invertebrates, as well as range of human activities, including commercial and sport fishing, and also "non-consumptive" recreation such as tide-pooling, bird watching and scuba diving.

Researchers will combine new and historical data, collected inside and outside the MPAs, to document key aspects of the region's ecological and socioeconomic characteristics before and around the time of their establishment. From this, they will be able to document initial changes in marine habitats, species, fisheries and recreation that may be associated with new protections.

The results of the projects will lay a foundation for future assessments of the effectiveness of the MPAs in meeting the state's policy goals. Broader ecological, social and economic trends in the region will also be evaluated to distinguish possible effects of the MPAs from other influences on the region's ecology and coastal use patterns.

Further information on each of the projects are now available on the California Sea Grant website at

The North Central Coast MPA Baseline Program is a collaboration of California Sea Grant, Ocean Protection Council, Department of Fish and Game, Ocean Science Trust and MPA Monitoring Enterprise.

The set of projects funded through the program were solicited by California Sea Grant through a public call for proposals and selected through a competitive peer-review process.

The California Fish and Game Commission adopted the North Central Coast MPAs in August of 2009, as a step toward establishing a statewide network of MPAs, as required under the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act. The MPAs will take effect on April 1, 2010. MPAs for another region, the Central Coast, were established in 2007; baseline data collection in that region has been completed.

The commission is currently considering MPAs for the South Coast, and planning for the North Coast is under way. The act requires that MPAs be monitored to assess their effectiveness and facilitate adaptive management. The Ocean Protection Council has authorized $16 million to support MPA baseline monitoring in the Central, North Central, South and North Coast regions; it requires at least 25 percent matching funds or in-kind contributions for each baseline project.

NOAA's California Sea Grant College Program ( is a statewide, multi-university program of marine research, extension services and education activities administered by the University of California. It is the largest of 32 Sea Grant programs and is headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.

Jean Wasp
Media Relations Coordinator
University Affairs
(707) 664-2057