Science Spotlight

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  • October 22, 2020

Unarmored threespine stickleback

scientist capturing fish in a drying pool in a steep rocky area - click to enlarge in new window
CDFW staff capture UTS from a drying pool in Fish Creek. Click to enlarge

retrieving fish from a minnow trap in a shallow creek with tall trees - click to enlarge in new window
UTS removed from minnow traps in Fish Creek. Click to enlarge

scientist releasing fish in a creek next to tall weeds - click to enlarge in new window
Jennifer Pareti releases UTS into Soledad Canyon Creek. Click to enlarge

fish being released in a shallow creek - click to enlarge in new window
UTS released in Soledad Canyon Creek. Click to enlarge

Of the many large wildfires that destroyed millions of acres around California during the 2020, one blaze in particular threatened to wipe out years of fishery conservation efforts. The Lake Fire in Los Angeles County burned more 31 thousand acres and it illustrated – for the second time in four years – what lengths dedicated biologists will go to in order to preserve California’s Unarmored Three Spine Stickleback (UTS). The UTS, Gasterosteus aculeatus williamsoni, is a state and federally listed endangered species and a State of California Fully Protected Species.

The story of this rescue actually began in 2016 when a different fire – the Sand Fire – left multiple feet of sediment settling into Soledad Canyon Creek. CDFW fisheries biologists jumped into action to manually rescue about 150 UTS. The biologists transported the fish to a CDFW hatchery, where they remained for about six months while biologists planned the next move back to the wild. Fish Creek, near Castaic Lake, was selected as an appropriate spot for the relocation, and the biologists were right. The transplanted UTS have been breeding and doing well in that body of water for the last several years.

That’s until part two of this story presented itself. When the Lake Fire presented a new possibility of sediment flow into Fish Creek, the biologists again had to take action. This time, about 300 fish were collected and moved again – this time, in a sense, returning back home.

“When the Lake Fire came across, we watched in horror as the whole upper watershed burned,” said CDFW Inland Fisheries Senior Environmental Scientist John O’Brien. “We knew the situation would be dire as soon as we started getting storms this winter. Once we saw the estimations of the sediment that would come down in the system, it was clear we should take some action. We reached out to our federal partners who co-manage the species with us and we all agreed the best thing to do would be to take some of the fish – as many as we could reasonably get in one day – and bring them back to Soledad, where they came from originally. That habitat has recovered quite nicely (since 2016), so the timing was good.”

O’Brien credited the successful effort to CDFW environmental scientists Jennifer Pareti (the project lead), Russell Barabe and Matt Lucero, as well as scientific aides Marissa Groenof, Mike Stephens, Karen Boortz, Austin Sturkie and Thompson Banez.

“We used minnow traps to trap the UTS, and because we’ve had high heat over the past couple of weeks, we used nets to get them out of small, isolated pools that were drying back,” said Pareti. Like her boss, Pareti was instantly worried about the fisheries impacts when the fire began.

“Honestly, you see these fires start and you watch them take off, and we can only sit on the sidelines (while it’s happening),” she said. “Once the fire is under control, we can get in and start doing the next set of work. We have to look at what we can we do to help the resources. How can we help the fish perpetuate through this giant hurdle that’s ahead?”

Even though it was the same species of fish being moved each time into and then out of Soledad Canyon, it wasn’t literally the same fish. “They’re an annual species, which means they only live about a year,” Pareti explained. “Some of them might live into their second year, but the fish we moved are a generation or two removed from the first batch that was moved in 2016.”

Knowing they’ve helped a species that’s struggled to keep itself going brings great satisfaction to O’Brien and his staff.

“Because of the emergency situation of this fire, we weren’t able to do a really robust and thorough count, but we estimate that we took about 70 percent of the fish that were there,” O’Brien said. “They (UTS) are, along with the Southern California steelhead, the most endangered fish we have in Southern California. Those fish species are literally on the edge of being able to continue to exist. Whenever there’s a threat to a UTS population, we take it very seriously,” said O’Brien.

The team plans to continue to monitor the waters for the UTS – not just those at Soledad Canyon Creek, but also Fish Creek, which will recover from the fire damage naturally over time. “Maybe some of those fish (we didn’t capture) will survive,” said Pareti. “Ideally, that stream will provide a long-term opportunity for this species so we can help to expand the population.”

To learn more about UTS, please visit the CDFW website.

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Media Contact:
Tim Daly, CDFW Communications, (916) 201-2958

CDFW photos

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • October 15, 2020

Market Squid Reproducing. Photo credit: Mark Conlin Photography

chart showing monetary value of various commercially fished species, 2015-2019 - click to enlarge in new window
Highest value marine fisheries, 2015-2019 - click to enlarge

fishing fleet ship using a net to catch squid on the ocean - click to enlarge in new window
Squid fishing fleet near Monterey. CDFW photo by Carrie Wilson - click to enlarge

three fishing fleet ships with lights at night on the ocean - click to enlarge in new window
Squid fishing fleet at night. CDFW photo by Carrie Wilson - click to enlarge

Arriving on the heels of the farm to fork movement, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains and altered product demand, which has inspired businesses to restructure and Californians to pay particular attention to where their food comes from. Many understand that almonds, artichokes or lettuce are grown in their own backyard, mostly in the Central or Salinas Valleys. But when residents are asked about wild-caught food sources coming from the ocean, tuna, salmon or perhaps rockfish might immediately come to mind. While those are indeed popular fisheries, the largest of California’s commercial fisheries actually target invertebrates, not fish!

Invertebrates are animals without a backbone, such as the tidepool favorites, sea stars and anemones. But there are many more invertebrates around the world, both swimming and sedentary, that are highly sought after for food – and their popularity is on the rise. California’s largest marine commercial fisheries in terms of volume and value are market squid and Dungeness crab, with well over 100 million pounds landed and more than $30 million in revenue in a typical year for the squid fishery.

Market squid, the invertebrate known to diners as the popular dish calamari, use ocean currents, jet propulsion and prehistoric instincts to travel up and down the continental shelf of California. These slippery siblings of octopuses live very short lives (less than nine months) and produce heaps of eggs, somewhere on the order of 2,000 to 7,000 per female!

When conditions are right, squid show up in droves to reproduce in coastal waters. After reproducing for just a few short days, they die as a natural part of their life cycle. This means the entire population replaces itself in less than a year. These qualities lend to a high volume of squid available for fishermen, cost-effective management and a sustainable fishery. Squid are also used as bait to catch a wide variety of fish species and can be found at many coastal tackle shops or on live bait barges, mostly in Southern California.

If you see very bright lights from groups of boats on the water at night, it is likely the squid fishing fleet in action. Fishermen have used this technique for more than a century because squid are attracted to the lights, which mimic the moonlight. As described in an historic Fish Bulletin from 1965, the market squid fishery began in Monterey around 1863. The early fishing methods involved rowing a skiff with a lit torch at the bow to aggregate the squid. Then, two other skiffs would maneuver a large net around the school.

In today’s fishery, squid are typically caught using a purse seine, a large circular net which is “pursed” at the bottom to contain the school. Once the school of squid is brought closer to the vessel, a long tube is then used to suck the squid out of the net and onto the boat.

Only a limited number of vessels may fish for squid in California, and during the weekends (from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon) squid fishing is closed to allow for uninterrupted reproduction. In many fisheries, highly sophisticated mathematical models are used to estimate the available population for an upcoming season and ultimately to decide how many fish can be sustainably caught. Because market squid are short-lived, highly responsive to ever-changing environmental conditions and do not behave like most fish, traditional models are ineffective.

For this reason, the fishery is monitored using the egg escapement method, which is essentially an estimate of how many eggs are released prior to female squid being caught. By comparing the average number of eggs that a female squid will produce to squid samples collected at the docks, biologists can calculate how many eggs were produced each year. This is used to look for trends or major shifts in how the squid fishing fleet is interacting with the stock. Biologists continue to explore ways to pair egg escapement information with population estimates, environmental variables, fishing behavior and economics.

Fishing for market squid is a long-standing tradition in California and normally provides for a large export market. But a number of recent factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have inspired stronger local markets for many fisheries, such as squid. This means more restaurants, businesses and consumers are buying directly from the docks, shortening the distribution chain. Boat captains, crew, processors, distributors and diners eagerly await the arrival of squid, especially around spring and summer on the central California coast when fishing is generally the most successful. If history repeats itself, vessels will move to Southern California in the fall and winter, where the Channel Islands tend to be the hot spot for squid fishing. But in response to a changing climate, the range for this species is likely to expand northward, forcing the fishing industry and the biologists studying squid to adapt as well!

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Media Contact:
Kirsten Macintyre, CDFW Communications, (916) 804-1714.

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • October 5, 2020

The burned paw pad of a bear found in the wake of the Bear (North Complex).

veterinary team working on a burned bear in the lab
Wildlife veterinarians document the bear’s injuries prior to treatment.

veterinarian applying talapia skin on the bottom of burned bear paw
Burn treatment protocol includes the use of sterilized fish skins as a natural bandage for damaged tissue.

veterinarian team working on a mountain lion burned in fires in the lab
Wildlife veterinarians assess a mountain lion that was burned in the Bobcat Fire.

burned paw of a mountain lion
The burned paw pad of a mountain lion found in the wake of the Bobcat Fire.

In early December 2017, wildlife veterinarians from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and CDFW teamed up to try to save the life of a black bear that sustained third-degree burns in Southern California’s Thomas Fire. The innovative treatment involved the use of tilapia skins as natural bandages for the bear’s paw pads while she recovered from her injuries at CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Laboratory (WIL) in Rancho Cordova.

Before the month was out, two more victims of the Thomas Fire joined her – a second burned bear, and a young mountain lion. The fish skin treatments were successful and all three patients survived – the bears were released back to the wild, and the orphaned lion cub, which was deemed too young to survive on its own, was placed in a sanctuary. In August 2018, the Carr Fire near Redding sent a fourth burned ursine patient to the lab, which was again treated and successfully released.

The veterinary science was groundbreaking, and the opportunity so very exciting for the team involved, especially the project’s leads, UC Davis’s Dr. Jamie Peyton and CDFW’s Dr. Deana Clifford.

Unfortunately, these four cases were just the beginning, with additional wild animals being burned in the Carr and Camp fires. The 2020 fire season in California has been even more severe, with more than 7,700 individual fires consuming 3.7 million acres of wildlife habitat so far. On Sept. 11, the WIL received its first burn patient of 2020, a 370-lb. male black bear from the aptly named Bear Fire (which later became the North Complex Fire) in Butte County. On Sept. 21, the second patient, a female mountain lion from the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles County, arrived. On Sept. 30, a 520-lb. male bear was brought in from the Zogg Fire in Shasta County.

“Both bears and the lion are receiving our burn protocol, including the fish skin bandages, and we are optimistic that their burns will heal so that they can be released,” Dr. Clifford said. “But it’s likely that we will receive more wildlife with burns … we are only halfway through the regular fire season.”

As California’s wildfires grow in intensity, size and frequency, our state’s wildlife veterinarians are being forced to reexamine the big picture -- how wildlife are faring, to what extent we should intervene and what our capacity is to do so.

“While we know what a devastating effect wildfires have on our human population – and, to a lesser degree, domestic animals – our knowledge about how wildfires affect wildlife (non-domestic animals) during and immediately after the disaster has been so limited,” Dr. Peyton said. “There’s always been this prevailing mindset that ‘they’ll get out of the way,’ or that they can manage if left alone, but that needs to change. With the increase in frequency and severity of disasters, wildlife cannot escape. Without human interference, these animals will suffer and succumb, due not only to their injuries but also to the loss of food, water and habitat. It is our obligation to provide the missing link for the wildlife that share our home.”

A successful response to this developing need will require resources – time, money, and professional expertise. In an effort to build these resources quickly and efficiently, CDFW and the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine have drawn up a proposal for a wildlife search and rescue, field triage, transport and long term rehabilitation care system for injured wildlife resulting from wildfires.

The Wildlife Disaster Network, as it’s been dubbed, is modeled after the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) – a similar structure created in 1994 to mobilize volunteers and professionals to help save shorebirds and other wildlife that are injured during coastal and inland oil spills.

The new Wildlife Disaster Network will include veterinarians, wildlife biologists, ecologists, trained animal care volunteers and rehabilitation centers that follow the four core principles already set by the OWCN: readiness, response, research and reaching out. There will also be field reconnaissance in the aftermath of fires, conducted by UC Davis-affiliated staff, with the approval and oversight of Incident Command, when conditions are deemed safe to do so. In addition, they have established a hotline for first responders, utility workers, and the general public to call in for assistance with coordinating care for injured wildlife: 1 (800) 942-6459 (1-800 WHC-OIL-9).

“The idea is to create a collaborative process – which works within any existing emergency incident command structure – that brings experts together to respond to injured animals and prevent suffering,” Dr. Clifford said.

In addition to easing the suffering of animals that are trapped by wildfires in California’s changing climate, the vets hope that the Wildlife Disaster Network will allow for California’s wildlife veterinarians and disaster response professionals to add to their knowledge, and promote further collaboration with others to share this knowledge. The long-term impacts on wildlife from these massive disasters are also largely unknown and in critical need of further investigation and intervention, especially in areas with threatened species. All of the data collected by the participants of the Wildlife Disaster Network – such as necropsy reports on the animals who do not survive their injuries – will help build a framework of scientific knowledge that didn’t previously exist.

Initially, equipment used in this effort will be loaned on an as-needed basis by the OWCN and CDFW. Ongoing financial support for this effort will be through fundraising from private donors via a gift fund to be established by UC Davis.

“These animals in need of care are a visible, tangible and poignant reminder that climate-changed induced wildfires are impacting our wildlife and ecosystems,” said Dr. Clifford. “They remind us that each of us should continue efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

Donations to the Wildlife Disaster Network can be given online at the link opens in new windowCalifornia Wildlife Conservation General Support website or by calling the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Office of Advancement, at (530) 752-7024.

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Media Contact:
Kirsten Macintyre, CDFW Communications, (916) 804-1714

CDFW photos

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • September 22, 2020

Paddleboarder enjoys Upper Newport Bay

groups on people on two kayaks on the ocean in Newport Bay with mountains and blue sky
Boaters in Upper Newport Bay

ocean fish in the Newport Bay
Fish at Back Bay Science Center

blue ocean water in the Newport Bay with mountains and blue sky
Upper Newport Bay, looking upstream

When you learn there’s a popular piece of property on the Southern California coast taking up more than 750 acres, you wouldn’t be faulted for imagining a marina, a golf course, a resort – or all three.

But one piece of land and (mostly) water is important and popular for what hasn’t been built there. The Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve showcases the beautiful California coast, unspoiled and filled with wildlife, plants and fabulous scenery.

The reserve is one of 749 properties carefully managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). Located in the heart of Newport Beach, in Orange County, the reserve is completely surrounded by some of the most highly valued real estate in the country. The University of California, Irvine, isn’t far away – neither is John Wayne Airport. But that’s all forgotten when exploring the reserve on foot, by boat or paddleboard, or with binoculars.

“People don’t realize how few areas exist like this anymore in Southern California, or that we have marshes in California. It’s not what people think of about the California coast; they think of beaches,” said Reserve Manager Dr. Amanda Swanson. “People can live one city over and not know this even exists.”

The reserve was created in 1975, at a time when developers most certainly would have jumped at the chance to turn this area into a profitable commercial property of some sort. Instead, it offers peaceful and scenic experiences for people looking to hike, fish, watch birds or view tidepools. Of equal importance, the reserve plays a large role in protecting wildlife and vegetation that isn’t as plentiful today as it once was.

“The reason this is so heavily protected – and why it’s a reserve now – is because we have a lot of really sensitive wildlife and vegetation here,” Swanson said. “We’ve lost 85 to 90 percent of our coastal wetlands in Southern California, and it’s one of the few large ones we have left. For that reason, unfortunately, we have multiple endangered species.”

Specific endangered plants on the reserve include salt marsh bird’s beak, while several bird species – Ridgway’s rail, Belding’s savannah sparrow, Least bell’s vireo, coastal California gnatcatcher and cactus wren – are either endangered or threatened.

The reserve offers an outstanding educational opportunity as well, with the presence of the Back Bay Science Center. CDFW partners with the city of Newport Beach, Orange County, the Newport Bay Conservancy and UC Irvine in operating the Science Center, which serves as a teaching and research facility at the reserve. Thousands of students, middle school age through college, visit the Center each year to learn about watershed and ecological concepts, habitat restoration and marine life. There’s no shortage of available lessons for anyone who visits the science center or reserve. (Due to COVID-19, the reserve is temporarily closed. Information on at-home programs and resources at the Science Center is available at link opens in new windowbackbaysciencecenter.org.)

“Coastal wetlands like Upper Newport Bay can provide several ecosystem services such as coastal protection from storms and flood protection. Then there’s filtration – we unfortunately have trash come down the watershed, so the wetlands can prevent some of that trash from making its way into the ocean, which gives us the opportunity to remove it,” Swanson said. “Wetlands also effectively cycle nutrients through processes that purify the water and store carbon in the soil.”

Changes in the carbon cycle are of particular concern as increased atmospheric CO2 is a contributor to climate change, added Swanson. The plants in coastal wetlands contribute to the carbon cycle because they consume and transform atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis. When these plants die, they then transfer the carbon to the soil where it can be stored for long periods of time.

CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Robin Madrid emphasized the important restoration work being done at the reserve for an aquatic plant called eelgrass. That work is being done by CDFW staff along with Orange County Coast Keeper, volunteers and California State University, Fullerton.

“Eelgrass provides a number of important ecosystem functions, including foraging areas and shelter to young fish and invertebrates, food for migratory waterfowl and sea turtles, and stabilizing sediment,” said Madrid.

Other restoration projects are also in progress to establish more suitable habitat for wildlife and to provide Upper Newport Bay with some resiliency to sea level rise. Completing the Big Canyon Restoration and Adaptation Project has been a goal of the City of Newport Beach and CDFW for several years. The second phase of the project is beginning this fall and will remove several acres of invasive Brazilian peppertrees, restore the hydrology and establish a mosaic of native wetland and transitional upland habitats. The design for the final phase of the project will also begin this fall. The project’s ongoing success can be attributed to the strong collaborative efforts between the landowners, local stakeholders and nonprofits.

With so much scientific work going on at the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, Swanson and her staff are careful not to lose track of the impacts on young visitors who might be seeing the marshes, mudflats and marine habitats for the very first time.

“It’s been surprising and impressive to me, that there’s such a great interest in bringing kids, especially those from disadvantaged communities, here to learn. Many of them aren’t often able to get out to the beach, so this is a fun and unique opportunity. They see the wildlife and their lives can be changed,” said Swanson.

Swanson recalls presenting to a group of fifth graders participating in the Newport Bay Conservancy’s Fostering Interest in Nature program. “I was so impressed with the kids I met and their enthusiasm for learning about the plants and animals on the reserve. Seeing their excitement and appreciation for nature has been one of my most rewarding experiences.”

link opens in new windowVIDEO: Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve and Back Bay

Media Contact:

Tim Daly, CDFW Communications (916) 201-2958

CDFW photos

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • September 18, 2020

The summer 2020 issue of the link opens in new windowCalifornia Fish and Wildlife Journal (PDF) is now online! This issue contains a number of excellent articles, including a couple on taxonomic groups that are often under-represented in the Journal — invertebrates and raptors.

Raptors can provide a benefit to agriculture by reducing rodent populations, yet many croplands and pastures do not provide adequate perching structures needed by raptors to hunt effectively. In link opens in new windowA novel method using camera traps to record effectiveness of artificial perches for raptors (PDF), Clucas et. al report on a new method that allows for 24-hour monitoring of artificial perch utilization. The resulting high-resolution photos capture a variety of raptors landing, perching, and consuming prey. The authors report that their method can be easily used to study the effectiveness of hunting perches for raptors in agricultural areas.

In link opens in new windowNotes on reproduction of Cascades frogs from California (PDF), Dr. Stephen Goldberg tackles the challenge of studying a nearly extinct species without collecting or euthanizing individuals. Using museum samples of 36 R. cascadae collected from 1954 to 1972 in Plumas County, Goldberg is able to gather and analyze tissue samples that document the timing of events in the frogs’ reproductive cycle. This data will prove useful in subsequent attempts to reestablish the species in its former range.

Longcore et. al examines the habitats of another species in decline. link opens in new windowNearly all California monarch overwintering groves require non-native trees (PDF) provides a thoughtful analysis of a conservationist’s paradox: the critical need to preserve exotic trees—namely eucalyptus—to protect the preferred overwintering habitat of this iconic butterfly species.

Dr. David Boughton provides a literature review of the striped bass in coastal California—a non-native species introduced in California in the late 1800s for sport fishing. link opens in new windowStriped Bass on the coast of California: a review (PDF) addresses three key questions: Where do Striped Bass occur on the California coast? (2) Do they comprise locally reproducing populations, strays from the Golden Gate, or both? and (3) What is the general scale or scope of their potential impact on coastal salmonid populations?

Finally, Dr. Vernon C. Bleich (a past editor of the Journal) describes the presence of a species in an area that has not been previously reported in the scientific literature. link opens in new windowLocality records for Woodhouse’s toad: have wet washes in a dry desert led to extralimital occurrences of an adaptable anuran? (PDF) details the presence of Woodhouse’s toad in the Santa Rosa Mountains on the western edge of the Coachella Valley, and discusses the probable role of extreme weather events in expanding the geographic range of A. woodhousii in southeastern California.

As it has for the past 105 years, our scientific journal – previously known as California Fish and Game – continues to publish high-quality, peer-reviewed science that contributes to the understanding and conservation of California’s wildlife. For more information and other back issues, please visit CDFW’s website.

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Categories: Science Spotlight
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