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Seeking secrets of the sea

Sunday, February 17th, 2013 | Posted by

Gary Cherr holds a rare 10 year old white abalone at the UC Davis Marine Lab in Bodega Bay. (Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat)

By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent

Scientists have been studying the sea and shore at Bodega Bay for 50 years, but after the first 10 they decided to build a marine lab there.

“It’s one of the four areas on the globe where ocean upwelling happens,” said Gary Cherr, director of what is now the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory.

After the epic Battle of Bodega Head in the 1960s, when PG&E’s plans to build an atomic power plant failed, UC Berkeley bought the land around Horseshoe Cove on the head and erected the first lab building. UC Davis took over the lab in 1985.

Because of the remote location and the experiments strewn along the shores, the public was excluded and people wondered what was happening out there. That’s no longer true.

People now realize the relevance of research being done there, and visitors flock to Friday afternoon tours and open houses. Local businesses participate in the research, as do local high school students who have learned the joy of science and have published their finds.

Lab personnel also join in the fun during Fish Fest and other local celebrations. About 100 people work there year round, including 50 staff members, 10 permanent faculty and 25-30 graduate students. Another 50 join them in the summer. The lab serves 70 marine scientists from UC Davis, and others visit to give talks and workshops.

Current research projects include restoring the white abalone, the first invertebrate on the endangered species list; studying the effect of intrusive species in the sea; and quantifying the impact of the ocean’s rising acid level on such mollusks and crustaceans like lobsters, crabs and shrimp.

Behind the polished entrance and elegant aquariums in the public areas, concrete wet labs are filled with tanks where serious research is done.

Dan Swezey pipettes food to moss animals in a research project to show what will happen in a more acidic ocean caused by climate change.

Tessa Hill works with the acid problem caused by climate change, studying tiny critters in about 400 mini tanks. The screw tops have to be opened every other day so the creatures within can be fed and chemical levels and temperatures measured. Hog Island Oyster Company works with her, concerned about the future of the business.

“The carbon dioxide level has raised about 5 parts per million every few years,” Hill explained, “so we are raising it gradually in here to determine the future effects on shell and exo-skeleton growth.”

Susan Williams works on the invasive Chinese mitten crab that one year destroyed all the salmon that had been rescued from Sacramento River water pumps at Tracy. She also manages Coastal Atmosphere, Marine and Environmental Studies, which brings “Open Inquiry” science to teens in several high schools.

“It’s not ‘canned’ science,” Williams said. “Young kids have a natural curiosity that gets beaten out of them. We want to keep it alive.” Thus the kids design their own projects to answer questions they feel are interesting.

Cherr hopes to expand the program into primary schools. “We are not going to have a next generation of scientists if we don’t reach them early,” he said.

Scientist Ernie Chang is actively removing the invasive European green crab from Bodega Harbor. His research into what he calls the “amazing event” of molting requires thousands of crabs, so he would rather use the invasive ones than the native Dungeness.

Cherr is excited about expanding the lab’s outreach to the public.

“We had 10,000 visitors each year, including the K-12 students who come on our public tours. We held our first Open House and were overwhelmed by 2,500 showing up. Our second one we hired buses to shuttle them so there were fewer parking problems,” he said.

The Bodega Marine Lab at 2099 Westside Road, Bodega Bay, is open to the public on Fridays from 2-4 p.m., with docent led tours. Get more information at bml.ucdavis.edu or 875-2211.



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Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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