II. The Concerned Scientist
In which a marine scholar uses science and charm to sound the alarm about the state of the coasts
Far from the beaches of San Diego, a dozen or so young men and women in foul-weather gear and fleece scramble over a rocky Oregon headland on a low-tide scientific quest. Some collect bright orange pot scrubbers and gray squares of Plexiglas bolted amid a carpet of brown mussels. Others filter seawater through a sieve or measure the location of floppy sea palms with a transit. One student even scours the tide pools for sea urchin tube feet for something she calls the Urchin Genome Project.
Amid the blitzkrieg of data collection, a woman with short reddish brown hair, green Wellies, and gold sea star earrings hops from rock to rock, passing out organic chocolate, lending a hand or a word of advice when needed. Jane Lubchenco and her husband and colleague, Bruce Menge, both of Oregon State University, have tried to understand this salty world for the past 28 years—and with that gain a greater understanding of the fundamental ecological principles that govern all life on Earth.
"The rocky intertidal area is incredibly good for studying the interactions between land and oceans," says Lubchenco, a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Pew Oceans Commission. "We're trying to understand the linkages and how they're affected by human activity. Nutrient pollution, global warming, fishing, a whole number of things are all coming together right along the littoral zone."
Today, however, the two scientists are trying to wrap their brains around one of the knottiest problems in marine biology: recruitment, or how many young of a species come into a system each year. Unlike land animals, in which the young stay within a population, ocean species tend to spread their little guys to the currents, while receiving others from afar, making it impossible for fisheries managers to know how much of a stock fishermen can sustainably catch each year. After years of trial and error, Menge discovered that plastic pot scrubbers are the perfect media for catching baby mussels, while Plexiglas squares coated with scratchy nonslip paint are the perfect landing spots for baby barnacles. And baby mussels and barnacles act much like baby rockfish and Dungeness crabs, two species worth millions to West Coast fishermen each year.
"It looks clean, and compared with other parts of the world it is," Lubchenco says. "That doesn't mean it's not under threat. Development is rampant here, as is overfishing. One of the largest restricted fishing areas in the world is right off our coast—8,000 square miles to protect six rockfish species that were overfished."