SJSU in the News: Moss Landing Opens its Doors to Visitors

Fun with Fish: Marine lab holds yearly open house

Originally posted in Monterey Herald May 1, 2011

By John Sammon, Herald Correspondent

Scientists at Moss Landing Marine Labs are making new discoveries each year, perhaps none so startling as the recent revelation that people are related to common sea anemones.

“Sea anemones have DNA much more complex than once thought,” said Kristin Meagher, co-chair of the facility’s annual open house and a second-year graduate student in invertebrate zoology and molecular ecology.

Approximately 1,500 visitors came to the lab’s annual open house Saturday to see marine science on the cutting edge.

“This is a chance to showcase for the public our research,” Meagher said. “It gives adults, students and children a chance to see what it’s like to be a marine scientist.”

Meagher said recent genetic study at the marine lab is helping to better understand sea organisms and how they relate to life on Earth.

“Genetics is giving us a better understanding of how life evolved on this planet,” she said. “We’ve been looking at what we call the tree of life, and we’re finding that even with supposedly simple animals like sponges and jellies, there’s a lot more involved than was known before.”

One collaborative project between the Smithsonian Institute and the lab will study the impact of non-native invasive species of animals in San Francisco Bay.

Jahnava Duryea, involved in the study of ichthyology, or fish biology, said one reason populations of cod were overfished and their numbers reduced is that the animals have slow growing cycles.

“Some of them live to be 120 years old,” she said. “Previous management practices believed the fish could replenish itself on a much shorter cycle, so the population went down. We’re working in collaboration with recreational and commercial fishermen to restore the numbers.”

She emphasized the importance of maintaining marine protected areas to preserve fish species.

John Oliver of Prunedale, an adjunct professor at the lab, said most people are unaware of the ways Elkhorn Slough has changed over the years. Formerly dotted with myriad lakes and freshwater springs and creeks, the area has been mostly filled in because of agricultural or residential expansion.

“We used to have salmon and steelhead here, but everything was filled in and replaced with ditches, and ditches are dead, with nitrates from fertilizer in them,” Oliver said.

Oliver exhibited a map showing that part of Salinas near Constitution Boulevard, a soccer field today, was in 1900 a large body of water called Carr Lake.

“Castroville was once surrounded by lakes,” he said.

Elkhorn Slough lost much of its freshwater inflow and became a mostly saltwater arm of the sea prone to erosion, Oliver said.

“We need to put the land back. I’m working to try and restore some of this lost habitat,” he said.

Nearby, Sara Worden, a student of phycology, or macro algae, handed out ice cream made from kelp.

“It’s called carrageenan,” she said. “It’s listed right here on the ice cream carton. It helps keep ice cream sticky like jelly. It’s also used for toothpaste and in shaving cream.”

Worden said offshore kelp forests seen from Cannery Row and Lovers Point are in fairly good health.

“They’re doing OK,” she said. “This biggest threat is climate change. Warmer water can impact growth.”

Katrina McFarland of Pebble Beach visited with her son Ewan. Ewan, 7, had his own kelp-made ice cream cone.

“I’m an artist and sculptor of leather masks,” Katrina McFarland said. “We come each year to the open house because I’m an enthusiastic amateur marine biologist. I plan to get a degree in it.”

“I like learning about the seals and the sharks,” Ewan said.

The event includes guided dune walks, boat tours, a puppet show, seminars on seaweed and sea birds, food and refreshments.