Ocean Health

A wide range of human activities, when not properly managed affect healthy functioning of ocean ecosystems, such as habitat modifications, point and non-point source pollution, fishing, and other resource extraction activities. Ocean ecosystems are also affected by shifts in weather and climate patterns, which can change the sensitivity of the ocean to other stresses, leading to more severe responses in ecosystem functioning. For example ocean responses to climate change can lead to changes in ocean circulation, upwelling and productivity. These effects when coupled with existing stressors can have dramatic implications for marine ecosystems who’s resilience has already been severely reduced through existing activities such as resource extraction. Local, state, regional, and national policies strive to minimize stresses caused by human activity and protect a healthy ocean. 

Maintaining ecosystem health in the ocean requires a blending of the ecology, economy, and politics of the sea. Predicting the ecological and economic effects of climate change in the nearshore environment, and planning for adaptation and mitigation, requires an integrated understanding of marine science. The PISCO program provides expert knowledge of specific ecosystem processes for informing societal choices about ocean health. 

Recent Examples

First responder to environmental disasters: The program was a first responder to the massive oil spill along the California coast. On November 7, 2007 the Cosco Busan freighter collided with the San Francisco Bay Bridge, leaking more than 50,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the surrounding water. In the aftermath of the spill, state officials called on PISCO’s expertise to assess the damage caused by the sticky oil. PISCO UCSC was able to respond quickly to the needs of state managers, devoting more than 100 trained technician days to surveying the affected intertidal communities in the weeks following the spill. Baseline data provided by the intertidal biodiversity surveys were essential. PISCO continues to monitor oiled sites at regular intervals to assess recovery of the intertidal communities.

Other spatially localized activities:  Aquaculture or desalinization facilities are often proposed and sited in ocean areas affected by marine protected area zoning, fisheries, historical or current water quality concerns, and other ocean health issues.  Because of its unique long-term monitoring and research programs, the PISCO program often provides important baseline data and interpretation. 

Ecosystem impacts of hypoxia, including on fished species:  PISCO gathers and integrates information about the spatial and temporal patterns of hypoxic and impacts to population dynamics and ecosystem productivity.  A number of partnerships are developing to ensure that the most accurate understanding about hypoxia is translated to fisheries management.  One of those collaborations is between PISCO researchers and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and aims to provide important baseline information on the distribution of marine life communities in hypoxia-sensitive areas that lie within and outside of fishery management areas. 

Impacts of marine reserves and other protected areas

Catch-shares:  Among the broad range of advances led by PISCO’s interdsicplinary approach is work by ecologist Steve Gaines (PISCO-UCSB) and economists Chris Costello (UCSB, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management) and John Lynham (University of Hawaii).  With supporting funds from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, this group of scientists explored how economic incentives influence the behavior of fishermen and mangers.  

Endangered species listing: Long-term monitoring and research on abalone culminated in PISCO data being instrumental in 2008 assessments of black abalone Haliotis cracherodii and its listing as an endangered species.

Over the past five years, PISCO’s interdisciplinary core has provided a foundation for explorations of some of these broader issues in ecosystem based management (EBM). PISCO has shown the value of interdisciplinary data at relevant spatial and temporal scales to many issues of EBM, we are now poised to include more access to the social sciences such as economics to focus on the management of ocean resources. Using our policy program PISCO is uniquely placed to communicate these issues and data to relevant decision making bodies to ensure that new management decisions are conducted using the best science.

Photo credits: Christina McConnell, Scott Gabara, Kevin Lafferty

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