Tiburon Center Keeps Tabs on Bay Habitats
May 17, 2004 10:46 AM
What do the Asian crab, North American Comb Jelly and Asian kelp have in common? They are all dominant, invasive species, responsible for much of the corruption of the San Francisco Bay's ecosystems.
In fact, according to Chris Brown -- marine biological technician and grad student at SF State's Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies (RTC) -- "80 and as much as 90 percent of all marine invertebraes within the San Francisco Bay are non-native, invasive species."
Because of the high number of invasive species dominating the San Francisco Bay, some of its ecosystems -- plant and animal alike -- are at high risk of extinction. Invasive species are the cause; SF State's RTC may point the way to a cure.
The RTC is the only marine field station hosted by a CSU. The 32-acre lab-centered research facility is located just outside the Tiburon peninsula. On-site professional scientists both teach upper-division biology courses and assist in conducting research and experiments to assist in dealing with the problem of the San Francisco Bay’s depleting wetlands and natural ecosystems.
“It was definitely a niche that needed to be filled,” said Adria Lassiter, RTC instructor and outreach coordinator. “There was no other academic setting covering the SF Bay. The San Francisco Bay is only about 10,000-years-old. It’s still in its developmental process; animal and plant life is still being established; niche’s are still being filled, dominant species determined.”
Regardless of how young SF Bay is, it is already undergoing some drastic changes. Invasive species, a problem facing many coastlines, has hit the bay hard in the last decade. The RTC has set out its team of research scientists and students to observe the habits of the newly introduced species into the Bay, testing for compatibility with native species.
"Ultimately, my motivation to study invasives is self-interest," said John Durand, a marine biology graduate. "I have an interest in our existence; if we don't attempt to stop the ongoing problem of invasives, or ultimately, the depletion of ecosystems, something else will eventually replace us."
There are currently 12 students taking upper-division courses at RTC. Courses range from Wetland Ecology (Biol. 395) to Molecular Approaches (Biol. 863). While these courses are offered on SF State’s main campus, students who choose to take courses at RTC have the advantage of completing their fieldwork amongst the largest estuary on the West Coast.
“We have a very small, tight-knit group of students and research scientists on site, here,” said Alissa Arp, biology professor and director of RTC. “Because of that, our students enjoy a very invigorating, inspiring experience while researching here.”
Invasive species are usually introduced into an ecosystem when excess ballast water gets dumped into the Pacific Ocean before the ship returns home.
“Ballast water from ships coming in from other parts of the world (especially Asia), bring in non-native species such as Asian crab, the North American Comb Jelly and Asian kelp,” said Keun Hyung Choi. “Most of these species are very dominant and are invading and threatening our eco system.”
Both native and non-native species depend on Phytoplankton, microscopic oceanic plants, the backbone of the marine food chain, for survival. Dominant, invasive species eating up large quantities of phytoplankton native species depend on.
The RTC, recognizing this fact has dedicated its research to publishing data of its observations of the relationship between non-native species and native species versus Phytoplankton. Recommendations to agencies, such as California's Department of Fish and Game are made, which can then produce governmental programs and initiatives to stop the ongoing problem of invasive species.
“We are facing the problem of losing large quantities of ecosystems,” said Lassiter. “When that happens, animals become endangered to the point of extinction.”
And, when a chain in the food web is broken it affects everyone. Non-native species can have a drastic effect on our weather, our rain supply, and ultimately, our well-being.
The mudflats are one example of a depleting ecosystem. An off-shore habitat for several different and diverse species of bird such as the sand piper and clapper rail, both plant and animal are facing extinction. This is mostly due to incoming non-native species.
“East Coast salt marsh species are coming to the West Coast,” said RTC oceanography scientist, Wim Kimmerer. “These species are developing a hybrid with local species, causing them to grow much taller than they would on the East Coast. Because of this, we have a lack of a true winter. This, in turn, dramatically changes our physical environment.”
Kimmerer spends the bulk of his time analyzing the impact that we as humans have on marine ecosystems and vice versa.
The RTC has been operating as a satellite SF State campus for 25 years. Tenure-track professors were introduced to the center eight years ago. While upper division and graduate study is the norm at RTC, the center will launch a G.E course, Marine Biology (Biol. 160) in fall 2004. Students concerned about commuting will be happy to know that shuttle service is available from the main SF State campus to the Tiburon facility.
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