UCSC Review Fall 1992
Monterey Bay: A Sanctuary For Life by Robert Irion
From many vantage points on the UC Santa Cruz campus, one can look down upon the gentle curve of the Monterey Bay coastline and appreciate the beauty of this notch in the continent. The expanse of blue and gray, 23 miles from Santa Cruz to Monterey, is small enough to behold with one gaze but large enough to impress. Sailboats freckle the water in the summer while fog advances and recedes, draping the shoulders of distant hills. Even from afar, the bay is an alluring and serene place. Nearer to shore, more details emerge as first surf and then animals appear. Patient viewers can watch countless seabirds, some of them diving beneath the surface to snare their prey. Sea otters hunt amid the kelp forest, plucking urchins from the rocks below. Voyagers onto the bay may encounter migrating gray whales or cliques of Pacific whitesided dolphins, leaping into the air and slapping the water sideways in displays that look positively joyous.
This is the Monterey Bay with which most area residents are familiar. But those visible layers are simply a well-lighted veneer masking the real Monterey Bay: a richly varied undersea realm of earthquake faults, vast canyons, sinking bits of biological debris called "marine snow," and stunning creatures that easily might have risen from the imagination of Jules Verne. Even experienced marine scientists marvel at the new faces of the bay they have only recently begun to unveil.
"I never had a picture in my mind of this underwater world," says UCSC marine biologist Mary Silver, who conducts research with a powerful unmanned subsmersible owned by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). "But now every time we go out, there's the potential we will see something we've never seen before. It's like a moonwalk--it's the same sense of adventure as exploring space."
The main feature of the bay that makes such high adventure possible is the Monterey Canyon, a chasm rivaling the Grand Canyon in size. Starting close to shore and drop-ping precipitously to depths of thousands of feet, the canyon bisects the bay and meanders to the abyss of the open ocean. "The Monterey Bay is one of the only places in the world where you can go out on a boat, finish your morning coffee, and in one hour be in water that is over a kilometer deep," says Peter Brewer, director of MBARI.
The canyon allows nutrient-rich water from the deep sea to suffuse the bay and support a teeming web of life. "There is a tremendous diversity of organisms here that is second to none," states Dennis Powers, director of Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. Most obvious are the seals, sea lions, dolphins, and whales that gather in and around the bay to feast on its productivity. Deeper in the water, fishes and jellies create their own light in a fantastic dark world that biologists once believed was barren of life. Along the canyon's walls and bottom live a host of sponges and other animals, many of which may harbor cures for human diseases within their tissues.
The relatively low population of the central coast has helped protect these creatures by sparing the bay much pollution. "There have been a few sewer outfalls and some agricultural input," says Gary Griggs, acting director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at UCSC. "But compared to the New York Bight, San Francisco Bay, or the waters off southern California, the bay is still pretty pristine."
Furthermore, the bay is an ideal place for earth scientists to study geophysics in action, thanks to the nearby San Andreas Fault and a network of faults cutting across the canyon. Because of the way the planet's crustal plates squeeze together, earthquakes along those faults are pushing the coastal region higher. This has created a striking series of "marine terraces"--plateaus separated by cliffs that mark ancient shorelines.
Taking advantage of this smorgasbord are 450 marine scientists at nearly a dozen institutions around the bay, institutions that are joining together on major research ventures with increasing frequency. With a combined annual budget of some $45 million and a spectacular natural laboratory spread before them, these scientists are part of an emerging world-class center for marine research-- one that may, with time, surpass the more famous Woods Hole of Massachusetts and the Scripps Institution of La Jolla, California.
Some of the key players already in place are the 100-year-old Hopkins Marine Station; California State University's Moss Landing Marine Laboratories; the Naval Postgraduate School of Monterey, with nearly 300 researchers; the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the popular Monterey Bay Aquarium and its affiliated high-tech research institute, MBARI, both funded by tens of millions of dollars from the Hewlett-Packard Co.'s cofounder David Packard; and, anchoring the bay's northern end, UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences, one of the most rapidly developing units on campus.
"None of these groups really have any overlap," says Griggs. "We have never competed with each other. And the potential for interaction is growing as we all realize that we probably have the densest concentration of marine scientists in the nation, maybe in the world."
Those scientists have helped federal and state officials recognize the importance of the region and have urged them to commit more resources to its preservation and study. Now, the efforts are paying off. Foremost among many events is the dedication of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in September when President Bush is scheduled to visit Monterey.
The sanctuary, which took years to realize, will be the country's largest oceanic version of a national park. It will encompass 5,312 square miles of ocean, a broad swath centered on Monterey Bay that stretches north near San Francisco and south past Big Sur. As its name implies, the sanctuary will grant refuge and protection to nature from its omnipresent threat, the activities of humans.
The most prominent such menace, offshore oil drilling, loomed over the central coast for years but is now vanishing beneath the waves. "We fought year-to-year battles to get moratoriums to prevent the administration from proceeding with offshore drilling plans," says U.S. representative Leon Panetta, the sanctuary's catalyst in Congress. "The concern was that we needed more permanent protection, and the sanctuary does that."
Another noteworthy initiative is the search for new uses for Fort Ord, a 28,000-acre seaside military base near Monterey scheduled to close by 1994. UCSC and the California State University system have proposed an education and research center focused on environmental and marine sciences for part of the land. Federal agencies, including a possible new National Institutes for the Environment, may also move to Fort Ord or nearby.
"I think marine research is the economic future for Monterey Bay," says state assemblyman Sam Farr, who is reviewing ideas for uses of Fort Ord with Panetta and state senator Henry Mello. "If Silicon Valley is the symbol for electronics and Hollywood is the symbol for entertainment, then why can't Monterey Bay be the symbol for marine research?"
More locally, UCSC is riding its own wave of new programs related to the marine sciences and Monterey Bay. Not since 1978, when UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory first opened, has the Institute of Marine Sciences seen such activity.
Among the highlights:
--The U.S. Geological Survey plans to move its Branch of Pacific Marine Geology from Menlo Park to a new building at the Long Marine Lab by 1995. About 40 researchers and 100 support staff, with a current yearly budget of $20 million, will make the change to save on lease costs. They will also expand on a 20-year history of collaboration with UCSC faculty and students who share the same research interests, such as the tectonic processes that occur at the edges of continents.
--The California Department of Fish and Game will construct its marine-mammal rescue center at the Long Marine Lab, also by 1995. The $3.5 million facility, funded by the state's Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, will treat sea otters and other marine mammals and seabirds in the event of an oil spill. UCSC and the Department of Fish and Game will jointly manage the rescue center's full-time research on marine mammals and toxicology.
--An "Educational and Visitors' Center," yet another new building, is planned for Long Marine Lab to expand the lab's already substantial public programs. The center will feature a 200-seat auditorium, a classroom for volunteer instructors, an aquarium and exhibit area, offices, and a bookstore. Private gifts will pay for the center, while the state will finance a new teaching lab with running seawater for university classes in the same structure. The earth and marine sciences building--at $35 million the most expensive building in UCSC's history--izs under construction on campus. By fall 1993, it will house new offices and advanced lab space for researchers in earth sciences, marine sciences, and related areas of biology, as well as lecture halls and teaching labs.
Finally, in a new project not under the auspices of the Institute of Marine Sciences, researchers at UCSC's Baskin Center for Computer Engineering and Information Sciences have received a large grant to build a unique computer network. When completed, the network will use powerful graphics to display dynamic pictures of marine and weather phenomena in the Monterey Bay Area as they happen.
The grant, from the federal Office of Naval Research, provides about $3.1 million for three years, with an option for two more years of funding. Its main theme is helping researchers cope with the flood of data they get from satellites and instruments that measure winds, temperatures, currents, and other facets of the complex interplay among air, land, and sea.
Meteorologists and oceanographers at three other institutions- -the Naval Postgraduate School, MBARI, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--will help design the system and use it to study a specific problem: how and why sea breezes develop. Accurate weather forecasts must consider sea breezes. However, other crucial tasks such as charting ocean currents and responding quickly to oil spills also hinge upon a solid grasp of how sea breezes work, because winds and currents are closely linked.
This and the other developments around the bay make for an incredible whirl of buildings and programs, the ultimate goal of which is to understand as much as possible about this slice of the world. "But we are not just measuring ingredient X in Monterey Bay," says MBARI's Peter Brewer. "Much of the research here has worldwide significance on many levels."
A good example is the work of UCSC's Mary Silver, who as an adjunct senior scientist at MBARI has frequent access to its submersible vessel Ventana. With its exquisite sensors, superb optics, and delicate maneuverability, Ventana is unmatched in the world as an undersea explorer, Silver says.
Silver explores the realm of marine snow, tiny particles of decaying plant and animal material that drift from the ocean's surface to the seafloor below. Colonized by a wide variety of organisms, this snow--especially heavy in Monterey Bay--is an important conveyor of food and other material through the water. Ventana allows Silver to census the snow accurately and collect samples without smashing them in a net.
If the work sounds esoteric, consider that carbon is a major component of marine snow--carbon that once took the form of carbon dioxide, a gas largely responsible for earth's greenhouse effect. The ocean's role in absorbing carbon is highly mysterious. Some researchers speculate that chemical and biological interactions between sea and air may scour enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to lessen the serious effects of global warming. But until researchers like Silver fathom the paths followed by carbon in the ocean, including marine snow, such speculation will remain mere wishful thinking.
Julie Packard, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and an alumna of UCSC's biology program (B.A., '74; M.A., '78), had similar studies in mind when she discussed the reasons her father David Packard has devoted his resources to the bay: "There are so many questions that remain unanswered about the ocean that we have to get answered--and soon--in order to understand some of the global environmental issues facing us. But as it is now, we know more about the moon than we do about the deep sea on our own planet. It is the largest habitat on earth, and we know virtually nothing about it."
The Persistent Threat of Oil
At first glance, a permanent ban against oil drilling in the new Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary appears to safeguard the central coast against the threat of an oil spill. Regrettably, that isn't true. Thousands of tankers laden with oil will continue to ply the waters near shore each year; the Bush administration's proposed regulations for the sanctuary do nothing to force that traffic outside its boundaries. Environmentalists are working to change that, but most believe a tragedy on the scale of 1989's eleven-million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska is inevitable in California. Depending on waves and weather, such a spill could foul hundreds of miles of coastline, regardless of any imaginary sanctuary borders. ¶ How can one prepare for such an event? Two of the state's answers involve heavy input from UCSC researchers: finding ways to treat oil spills without further damaging the environment, and saving sea otters and other wildlife if a spill does happen.
The Cleanup Dilemma
Workers who must deal with large oil spills face a brutal decision. If they try to contain the slick, an approach that invariably fails, oil will probably kill animals and wash ashore. But if they try to break up the oil with a detergent, they may trigger an invisible and potentially more devastating cascade of death.
"Spraying an oil slick adds another chemical and dissolves the oil into the water column," says UCSC toxicologist Ron Tjeerdema. "In effect, that enhances toxicity. It may get the slick off the surface and make it look clean for PR value, but then you impact a whole new set of organisms."
Tjeerdema, a dynamic young assistant professor in UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences, receives about $300,000 each year from the California Department of Fish and Game to analyze the hidden toxic effects of the chemicals used to treat oil spills. His subjects are not otters, birds, or other well-known victims, but tiny marine creatures that reporters usually don't talk about.
Two species serve as Tjeerdema's primary models: abalone, a mollusk that forms a sizable part of the state's marine economy; and mysids, small crustaceans that live in kelp forests near shore. His tests use these animals in their larval stages, when they are most susceptible to poisons in the water.
Tjeerdema's assistants run the tests in an elaborate apparatus at Granite Canyon, a field station wedged between the coastal highway and the ocean south of Carmel. Twenty-one glass flasks, each containing seawater and a small number of larvae, are "spiked" with an oil dispersant. Over the next two to four days, water flows slowly through each flask, diluting the chemical as would occur naturally at sea. The percentage of larvae that die or suffer defects by the end of the test provides a measure of each agent's toxicity.
Thorough tests on a dispersant take several months. To date, Tjeerdema's group has tested four of the dozen or so chemicals licensed by the state for use on oil spills. Each is harmful to some degree.
"If you spray with a dispersant, you might not see dead fish or sea otters, but you may kill off a whole age class of larvae," Tjeerdema says. "Then, one or two years down the line, the population of adults will decrease dramatically. If you kill the larval stage off, you're killing the population just as effectively as if you killed the adults."
This past summer, the group began to develop a second battery of tests to gauge how well each agent breaks up oil. Ultimately, the state will use Tjeerdema's data to create a table that ranks each agent by both effectiveness and toxicity, allowing a cleanup crew to make an informed choice depending on the conditions of the spill and the wildlife it endangers.
None of the current dispersants are terribly effective, Tjeerdema says. More promising, but years away from practical use, are bacteria that decompose oil or "polymerizing" agents that congeal it into a solid mass. However, Tjeerdema warns, no technology will solve the real dilemma of an oil spill.
"After a spill, you can never truly clean up the environment," he says. "Bacteria can break down oil, but they might break it down into intermediate products that are more toxic. If you lift the oil off the water somehow, what do you do with it? You can put it in a landfill or burn it, releasing it into the atmosphere, but you never really get rid of it."
Sea Otters at Risk
For weeks after the Exxon Valdez disaster on March 24, 1989, images of sea otters bathed in oil came to symbolize the death of innocent animals, killed by the fuel that drives our society of convenience.
Bankrolled by a deep well of Exxon cash, researchers and volunteers spent $18.3 million to save as many sea otters as they could. The task was chaotic and frustrating. At best, workers rescued and cleaned up a tiny fraction of the affected otters. Some believe the otters would have fared better if left alone.
Despite these concerns, the California Department of Fish and Game plans to construct a marine-mammal rescue center at UCSC's Long Marine Lab by 1995. Although the center could serve many kinds of wildlife after an oil spill, the clear focus is on sea otters, a threatened subspecies in California. About 2,100 otters dot the state's waters; Monterey Bay is near the northern end of their 220- mile range. Because that range is small compared to the vast extent of the Exxon Valdez slick, a major spill here could wipe out the sea otters entirely.
Jim Estes and Glenn VanBlaricom of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, veteran sea-otter researchers who hold adjunct faculty positions at UCSC, have vivid memories of their roles in the Alaskan rescue effort. Their divergent views on the wisdom of the planned facility reflect a split in the scientific community.
"I don't think we've given that approach a fair chance," says VanBlaricom, who helped set up a rescue station in Seward, Alaska. "The centers in Alaska were assembled after the fact. It couldn't have been done in a less efficient way. But through trial and error, we got onto a system for running a facility that has the potential to work." VanBlaricom believes that if such a system were in place, with a trained staff ready to clean otters right away, the odds of success would rise.
Another convincing argument, says VanBlaricom, is the tenuous size of California's otter population. "Saving 100 animals in Prince William Sound didn't matter much," he says, because about 10,000 sea otters lived there before the spill. "But here, saving 100 animals would be significant. We know we can get a new population of sea otters out of a very small number of animals. For that reason, I think it is worth it."
Estes, however, has grave reservations. "I don't think anyone can provide compelling evidence that we learned enough in 1989 to make a fundamental difference in the number of animals we could save," he says. The bottleneck in Alaska, Estes maintains, was not the lack of a preexisting facility but the challenge workers faced in capturing otters or even determining which ones needed help. Those problems may worsen along the rugged and wave-swept California coast, he says.
Even if some otters are rescued, he adds, there may be nowhere to put them if the spill blackens their entire range. Transplanted otters tend to swim back home--and no one knows how long an oiled habitat remains toxic to them.
More insidious, says Estes, is the "false sense of readiness" that rescue plans instill in policymakers and the public. "If people think they are prepared to deal with a catastrophe, they might be less worried about ensuring that oil tankers are double hulled or requiring they be further offshore," he says. "I think we're copping out by saying that we're going to live with a continued high probability of a risk, instead of doing something about reducing the risk itself."
Indeed, both Estes and VanBlaricom are cynical about the oil industry's apparent disregard of the lessons it should have learned from the Exxon Valdez. "We had our wake-up call," VanBlaricom says. "But we've leaned over, smacked the snooze button, and gone back to sleep."