Six investigators win CA Sea Grant Focus Awards

January 30, 2013
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An ecologist at San Diego State University who wants to help restore salt marshes and a biologist at UC Santa Cruz who studies harmful algal blooms are among this year's recipients of California Sea Grant Focus Awards.

Others receiving the one-year grants include a fish biologist at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories who thinks more acidic ocean waters could make young rockfishes more vulnerable to predation and a resource economist at UC Davis who wants to know whether consumers will really pay more for "green" labelled seafood.

"These awards give California Sea Grant an opportunity to promote the research of some excellent young scientists who are new to the faculties of California universities and whose research will prove significant to the state of California and the nation," said California Sea Grant Director James Eckman.

In total, California Sea Grant awarded funding to seven new projects, all of which were reviewed by outside researchers for their scientific merit and relevance to current marine topics.

Six of the new projects will be led by early-career investigators, who started their first faculty-level position after mid-2009. The seventh project addresses a programmatic strategic focus area – that of fostering "resilient coastal communities" through socioeconomic studies related to coastal resources.

"I am super excited about this award," said SDSU assistant professor Jeremy Long. "Funding has become more competitive. The award will help us do good science and help us support our students, which is hands down the most critical."

Long has identified a scale insect parasite that is literally draining the life out of cordgrasses at the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Chula Vista. Other marshes in the region don't have the parasite problem. With the Sea Grant award, he and students will try to explain what is going on and whether some cordgrasses may be immune to the scales.

Another new project will examine what is causing toxic algal blooms in Monterrey Bay. "We can predict algal blooms pretty well," said grant recipient Clarissa Anderson, an assistant researcher in ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz. "But what is harder to explain is why algae produce toxins in the first place."

"We think that nutrients in river flows trigger some physiological switch that makes the algae produce more toxins," she said. "The goal is to delve into these fundamental science questions."

Yet another award recipient is Scott Hamilton, an assistant professor at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, who has had prior Sea Grant and California Ocean Protection Council support to study sheephead, an important kelp forest fish. His new award explores ocean acidification and its potential to disrupt olfactory sensory perception in young rockfishes.

"We think that ocean acidification affects the way odor molecules bind to receptors in the brain," Hamilton said. This may, in turn, impair young fishes' ability to smell and evade predators. "In one year, we will have good preliminary information about whether we can see these ocean acidification effects."

For the socioeconomic study, UC Berkeley resource economist Sofia Berto Villas-Boas and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center economist James Hilger will be studying seafood sales at San Francisco Bay Area grocery stores with a FishWise sustainable seafood labeling program.

They will be testing the theory that consumers will choose "green" products over "red" ones when presented with information on sustainability. "If we don't see this happening in the San Francisco area, I am very skeptical we will see it in other markets," Villas-Boas said.

The lead investigators of the other three projects and their topics are:

  • Christine Cass, assistant professor in oceanography at Humboldt State University, studying seasonal changes in the fat and protein content of zooplankton in northern California and southern Oregon.
  • Kristin Hardy, assistant professor of biology at California Polytechnic State University, examining consequences of a common industrial compound in household products on Pacific oysters' immune function.
  • Sindy Tang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, advancing microfluidic approaches for monitoring very low concentrations of water-borne pathogens.

Written by Christina Johnson

About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Our headquarters is at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego; we are one of 33 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.