Saturday, September 24, 2011

Let the research begin!

Well, two years after graduating from UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Marine Biodiversity and Conservation masters program, I'm back in school.

Now it's a PhD program at UCSD, in the Biological Sciences' Ecology, Behavior and Evolution (EBE) department. Over the next five years, my research will still be focused on the incredible reptiles which come and visit us in San Diego - our green sea turtles! But now, I will be studying the population of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) which reside not only here in San Diego's Bay, but throughout their entire geographic range in the Eastern Pacific from Los Angeles to Central Mexico.

My research will aim to help answer some very important questions about these animals - seemingly simple things - like how old are the turtles when they are in the open ocean? how old are they when they settle closer to the coast? can we make a more refined connection between the age of a turtle and its size? do some turtles stay in the open ocean and never move in close to the coast? is there an impact over time on the turtles living near human communities? can we tell which turtles have been affected by pollution from our cities, like San Diego? how fast do the turtles grow???

Believe it or not, we do not know a lot of the very basic information about sea turtles! This is a very common challenge for scientists studying large, long-lived, and migratory animals in the ocean. Other animals like some whales, dolphins, seals and sharks are the same way - they are all familiar animals, like sea turtles, but very basic questions about them remain unanswered since there are some many difficulties in studying them.

All of these questions driving my research are important because they will help us to better know how many of these animals are in the different parts of the Pacific ocean, and how the entire population of East Pacific green sea turtles is doing over all.  Knowing the population size of this species is key, because they are an endangered animal, protected by the Endangered Species Act.  I will continue to partner with scientists at NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center to do this research, as NOAA's branch, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is responsible for assessing and managing endangered species found in the oceans.

My research will help manage this population, so we can better understand the impact of things like fishing and pollution on the overall size of the population of turtles.

Stay tuned, as I'll continue sharing this journey!

PS - A recent article in the Voice of San Diego discussed the wetlands in the South San Diego Bay, where I help monitor the sea turtles residing there. A couple of times in the article it was said that the sea turtles will no longer be in the bay, now that the power plant has been turned off... this is not the case! The turtles are still in the bay!  The water in the South San Diego Bay is still a good temperature for the turtles, and there is still plenty of eelgrass for the turtles to eat!  Not to fear, our turtles like their home in San Diego, and won't be going anywhere any time soon!

What we may see, as discussed in previous posts, is that the time of year when turtles are visiting the bay will shift a little bit.  The turtles used to be in the south bay especially in the winter, when the power plant kept the cooler water warmer, but then they wouldn't be in the south bay as much during the summer, when the power plant made the water too hot much of the time.  Now, we may start seeing a change in these patters - we may see the turtles more in the summer when the bay is warm, and we may see them less in the winter, when the water cools a bit.  Again, NOAA researchers are working hard to continually monitor this population, so they are in good hands!  Stay tuned as our South Bay monitoring season will start in just a few weeks!