USGS Western Ecological Research Center

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WERC From the Field - Santa Cruz Sunset --Photographer: Ben Young Landis, USGS

For Further Information Contact:
Santa Cruz Field Station
100 Shaffer Road /
400 Natural Bridges Drive
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Santa Cruz Field Station

The USGS Western Ecological Research Center has two research missions based in the Santa Cruz region:

Tinker Lab - Sea Otter Studies and Coastal Ecology
Principal Investigator: M. Tim Tinker
Long Marine Laboratory, UCSC
100 Shaffer Road
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Office: (831) 459-2357
Fax: (831) 459-2249
     Adams Lab - Seabird Studies and Ocean Ecology
Principal Investigator: Josh Adams
USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center
400 Natural Bridges Drive
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Office: (831) 460-7566
Fax: (831) 427-4709

Sea Otter Research

Sea otter capture near Big Sur. --Photographer: A.K. Miles

WERC research focuses on this smallest marine mammal’s population biology and its role as a keystone species in the nearshore marine community.

WERC scientists conducting long-term research in California and Alaska seek to answer complex ecological questions, and they work with partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Coastal Conservancy, Monterey Bay Aquarium, University of California-Santa Cruz, University of California-Davis, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Santa Barbara Zoo, other scientists, and various conservation organizations (most notably Defenders of Wildlife). The sea otter program also coordinates closely with the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.

Research on sea otters is mandated by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the U.S. Endangered Species Act, due to the listing of several populations of sea otters as threatened. And with the attention given to the poor health of earth’s ocean ecosystems, the threats of overfishing, climate change, pollution, emergent diseases, invasive species, and loss of bio-diversity -- the sea otter is increasingly recognized as a bellwether for the health of near-shore marine ecosystems of western North America. Sea otters are useful as a sentinel species because they are relatively easy to observe, their sensitivity to many of the same factors that threaten other marine species as well as human health, and their important role as “keystone predators” in these systems.

Current research areas include:

  • Studying the health and ecology of southern sea otters and their nearshore habitat off central California, including comparative studies in Monterey Bay and Big Sur, and baseline studies in the San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara regions. Demographic, behavioral, dietary and life history data are collected from these animals using state-of-the-art telemetric methods, and are integrated with information collected by collaborators (data on pollutants, disease pathogens, and invertebrate abundance) to evaluate key risk factors influencing population recovery.
  • Long-term, annual monitoring of sea otter numbers (through range-wide population surveys) and strandings (through beached-carcass collection), in collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
  • Research on sea otter abundance, health, behavior, and habitat status in southwest Alaska, in conjunction with collaborators at the USGS Alaska Science Center, Alaska SeaLife Center, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • In a collaborative effort with Alaska SeaLife Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Russian colleagues, scientists at the Santa Cruz Field Station are studying a sea otter population at the Commander Islands, Russia. This population is being compared to the rapidly declining sea otter population in the Aleutian Archipelago, to better understand the causes and consequences of this decline.

Seabirds Research

WERC research focuses a variety of seabird species which utilize the California coastline for foraging and breeding. As seabirds follow and gather around nutrient hotspots to forage and as they return to the North American coast after long, transoceanic migrations, they offer critical clues to the interconnectivity and trends of marine ecosystems not just locally but globally.

WERC seabird research is conducted with partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), California Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Navy, Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, Humboldt State University, University of California-Davis, City of Santa Cruz, other scientists, and various conservation organizations such as Oikonos. WERC seabird research spans the Channel Islands, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and westward to New Zealand.

Current research areas include:

  • Conducting the Pacific Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment (PaCSEA), working with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) initiated new multi-year, seasonal surveys to describe the distribution and abundances for all marine birds and mammals encountered along survey transects that extend from Fort Bragg, CA through Grays Harbor, WA, and from the shore to the continental slope (2000-m isobath). Low-elevation aerial surveys focusing on offshore areas recently identified as potential sites for alternative ocean energy development (e.g., hydrokinetics).
  • Creating a comprehensive Seabird, Marine Mammal, and Fisheries Spatial Database providing federal and state resource managers with updated information on distribution and abundance patterns and compared these to information from the early 1980s.
  • Re-establish a diverse, native floral community on Scorpion Rock, a small Islet off Santa Cruz Island in the California Channel Islands National Park. Invasive plants (primarily crystalline iceplant Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) now have the upper hand on Scorpion. The ultimate goal is to return the island to a native-dominated flora, improve soil quality, and thereby ultimately benefit burrowing seabirds such as Cassin’s Auklet. 
  • Tracking the movements and trans-Pacific migration of Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus), the most abundant seabird in the California Current System (and the North Pacific) during the boreal summer. Each spring millions of individuals arrive from southern hemisphere colonies in New Zealand and Chile. Off California, annual consumption of certain prey fishes such as anchovy, sardine, and juvenile rockfishes is approximately equivalent to the total amount of fish landed by commercial fishers. We have used satellite tracking techniques to quantify shearwater habitat use off the west coast of North America since 2004. During 2008-10, we will be integrating tracking data with new oceanographic measures to better understand how this dominant marine predator of key forage fishes interacts with the dynamic California Current System.
  • Studying black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) in the north Pacific, as part of a collective effort to better understand important ‘over-wintering’ areas at sea and to better assess threats to albatrosses imposed by industrialized fishing and plastic pollution, by combining satellite tracking, geographic information system (GIS) analyses, and satellite oceanography.
  • Continued research involving the ecology of Cassin’s Auklet off southern California, examining the diving behavior of chick-provisioning adults in order to gain a better understanding of the species’ foraging habitat and potential impacts to prey availability that are mediated by oceanographic climate variability.
  • Assisting New Zealand research on the Grey-faced Petrel (Pterodroma macroptera gouldi) an ecologically and culturally important species.
  • Satellite tracking of the endangered Hawaiian Petrel (´Ua´u, Pterodroma sandwichensis), as little is known about this species’ overall at-sea distribution, foraging range, and high-use areas, and data needs include (1) obtaining precise locations of remote, montane nesting areas, (2) refining techniques for population assessment, and (3) identifying at-sea habitat using satellite telemetry to track the movements of medium-sized (~400-g) ´Ua´u.



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