USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

August 9, 2012

Something’s Fishy

Filed under: California Drought — dginsbur @ 10:36 pm

By Shaun Wolfe

After logging nearly 50 hours of snorkeling and diving here on Catalina Island, never in my life have I seen the richness and abundance of creatures that I saw on my sunset snorkel yesterday. Leopard Sharks and Bat Rays that they were swimming over each other and laying on top of one another on the ocean floor because there wasn’t enough room in that space for them all. Not only was there a plethora of each species, many of the animals were quite large.  Numerous Bat Rays had wingspans of approximately three and a half feet and several Kelp Bass were about 20-22 inches long.

Rather quickly, my snorkel buddy and I both pointed to the area being a Marine Protected Area (MPA) as the reason for the high species abundance and biodiversity. I am used to diving and snorkeling on the west end of Catalina Island, where parts are Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and other parts are unprotected. However, about 25 years ago, the area from south end of Fisherman’s Cove to near Empire Landing was designated as one of two No-Take State Marine Conservation Areas (SMCA) on the island (Sur). This designation outlaws fishing or removal of any marine life and anchoring (California Department of Fish and Game).  No-Take zones are the most strictly regulated MPAs and I believe it is at the heart of Fisherman’s Cove’s large, bountiful, and diverse marine life.

Results seen in other Marine Protected Areas suggest that the No-Take designation provide fish with safe shelter and immaculate habitats, which enable them to grow in size and number (National Marine Protected Areas Center). For example, at the Tasmanian Marine Protected Areas species richness was doubled and large fish abundance increased ten-fold in just ten years after being declared a MPA (Barrett). In another instance, Cabo Pulmo National Park experienced similar results after being declared a MPA in 1995. By 2009 total fish biomass has increased 463% and biomass of top predators had increased 11 times (Aburto-Oropeza).

It should be no surprise then that after 25 years of Fisherman’s Cove being a MPA that there is a plethora of marine life in the cove. Success in other areas and the seemingly high success in Fisherman’s Cove should serve as a testament to the ability of MPAs to increase biodiversity and abundance and will hopefully provide a sound reason to expand MPAs in the future.

Works Cited:

Aburto-Oropeza, Octavio, Brad Erisman, Grantly R. Galland, Ismael Mascareñas-Osorio, Enric Sala, and Exequiel Ezcurra. “Large Recovery of Fish Biomass in a No-Take Marine Reserve.” PLOS ONE. N.p., 12 Aug. 2011. Web. 08 Aug. 2012. <>.

“California Department of Fish and Game- South Coast Marine Protected Areas.” California Department of Fish and Game. N.p., 08 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Aug. 2012. <California Department of Fish and Game- South Coast Marine Protected Areas>.

“Protecting Marine Life.” National Marine Protected Areas Center: Multimedia. N.p., 11 July 2012. Web. 09 Aug. 2012. <>.

Sur, Christine, and Laura Wang. “Catching Up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: Surfgrass Monitoring at Catalina.” Scientific American. N.p., 11 Apr. 2012. Web. 08 Aug. 2012. <>.

Barrett, N. S., G. J. Edgar, C. D. Buxton and M. Haddon. 2007. Changes in fish assemblages following 10 years of protection in Tasmanian marine protected areas. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 345:141-157.

About the Author: Shaun Wolfe is a senior majoring in Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California.

Where the Buffalo Roam

Filed under: California Drought — dginsbur @ 10:33 pm

By Rabia Kaiser

The bison on Catalina Island have come to represent the island as much as any other resident animal or plant. Those who live on the island see them as island mascots, and many people visit the island just to catch a glimpse of these legendary animals that are so deeply ingrained in American history. But what many people don’t realize is that, magnificent and popular though they are, they really have no place on this desert island. They are an invasive species.

The arrival of buffalo on the island is the result of the booming Western movie genre of the 1920s. A film crew came to Catalina in 1924 to film Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American, and when they returned to the mainland, they abandoned 14 bison to wander the arid hills. But the animals didn’t just survive—taking advantage of the native plants that were defenseless against their insatiable appetites and sharp hooves, by the end of the ‘80s, the bisons’ population had grown to 500 individuals. And it was starting to take an obvious toll on the island’s ecosystem. Not only did the bison eat everything in sight, competing with much smaller, native animals for the limited resources, but they also were responsible for disturbing great areas of land by creating depressions in the soil, called wallows, where they would roll around to get rid of parasites and insects. Their thick, shaggy coats also helped to spread around the seeds of non-native plant species, which would then also compete with native species.

In the 1970s, the Catalina Island Conservancy, a land trust responsible for overseeing most of the island and its flora and fauna, took charge of the bison and began shipping them back to the mainland to sell at auction, and to their ancestral home, the Great Plains. This method of population control was only partially effective: shipping such large animals was expensive, and puts a great deal of stress on the creatures. So in 2009, the CIC started to put the bison on birth control. Every spring, female bison are injected with PZP, which causes a membrane to form around their eggs, preventing sperm from fertilizing them. This method has been far more successful than the previous one: it allows the CIC to keep strict tabs on the number of bison (the population is kept at a steady 150 animals), and if ever they need a boost in numbers, the number of females injected with contraceptive is simply reduced.

Readers may ask, why not just do what’s been done before with many invasive animals, and just have people pay to hunt them? The answer to that is quite simple: unlike deer, pigs, or raccoons, which are all also invasive species on the island, the bison has become an icon; it has social and cultural importance to both residents of and visitors to the island. And unlike many other invasive species, in this situation we have a plan that’s actually working. The animals are doing a minimum amount of damage to the land and are providing a great opportunity for the island to raise money for causes that are more pressing and concerning. Unfortunately, environmental science is often a balancing act of priorities. Fortunately, in this case, the scales seem to be tipping in our favor.

About the author: Rabia Kaiser is an Environmental Studies major who will begin her junior year at USC this fall. She is interested in all aspects of her major, but is especially concerned with conservation and habitat protection. She enjoys hiking and photography and playing with her kitten, Max.


Tackling Environmental Issues In the Sun on Santa Catalina Island

Filed under: California Drought — dginsbur @ 10:30 pm

By Arya Harsono

Most people associate California with sun, sand, and beautiful girls. But for ecologists and scientists, California is home to a biological hotspot. Not every state in America has their own set of islands that is teeming with aquatic and terrestrial wildlife alike. There are eight California Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, and Santa Catalina Island is one of them. Located roughly 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles, Santa Catalina Island is fairly uninhabited by humans save for its small city, Avalon, and village, Two Harbors. It has become a tourist destination for those who wish to experience California to the fullest potential while also being able to witness some of the world’s greatest natural environments.

The first settlers of the island were Native Americans, which is relevant to one of Catalina’s most famous legends. In 1824, the brig known as Danube left from New York only to be wrecked upon the rocks near San Pedro. Among the survivors of the Danube was Samuel Prentiss, who with the other survivors found refuge in the San Gabriel Mission. Here Prentiss encountered an old Gabrielino Indian Chieftain by the name of Turie who told Prentiss stories of buried treasure on the island. He was given a map, which was later lost at sea. To this day, the existence of the treasure remains a mystery. Though irrelevant to environmental issues, it is important to know the history in order to gauge an understanding of maybe how the environment has become the way it is today.

In the olden days, it was treasure that may have attracted many visitors from around the nation, increasing human interaction with the wildlife. But in recent times, the environment has become more of a big deal. Due to the many fascinating species that call Catalina Island their home, environmentalists have gathered interest in the island’s biodiversity. Some species are native to the island, while other species have been introduced by commercial shipping and human interactions. The more common native species of flora on the East end of Catalina include prickly pears, Catalina cherry trees, sumac (or lemonade berry), and wild sage. Though there are plenty of invasive flora species on the island, one particular species has been causing several environmental concerns among the community. The fast-growing fennel, more native to Mediterranean shores, has somehow made its way to Catalina Island, spreading out over the entire island and dominating the soil. This has lead to a decreased amount of other flora species.

Among the terrestrial native fauna are rattlesnakes, the Island fox, California ground squirrel, Santa Catalina Island Deer Mouse and the ornate shrew. Before, sea otters used to roam the waters surrounding Catalina Island, but have gone extinct due to hunting for their fur. The Island fox has also become endangered due to human interactions. Many organizations, such as the Catalina Island Conservancy, have been ensuring that the island’s biodiversity is maintained by protecting certain areas and species. They have also been trying to restore bald eagles. But perhaps the most interesting fauna species on Catalina Island are the obviously non-native buffalos that roam the rocky landscapes of the island. Originally, there were fourteen buffalo introduced in 1924 by film director William Farnum during a film shoot of Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American. The buffalo were left to roam on the island, and by 1934, their population had increased to 19 with 30 additional being brought in from Colorado to maintain the population (Mallan, 8). This soon became another tourist attraction for Santa Catalina Island. Nowadays, they are left unharmed, except for the females that need to be sterilized in order to control their population.

The above overview of Santa Catalina Island is what I have learned in the brief time that I have spent on the island. In the past three days, I have hiked student-made trails, made with careful precision as not to create erosion. I had the opportunity to hack at invasive fennel like a man fending off the horde of extraterrestrials in an old sci-fi B-movie. Working in a laboratory, I also had the chance to sample different soils in which I measured their pH and examined them for soil texture. To perhaps the average student, this seems to be generic academic environmental science work. But to me, it says a lot about what we can do and what we have done as a community of humans dedicated to preserving the beauty that we mutually depend on. In only three days, I have encountered several new concepts and species that I would never have been able to experience without the opportunity. But sometimes, all it takes is a long gaze at a mesmerizing sea of winking lights to maybe even consider that there is much more to the natural world around us than we think.


Mallan, Chicki. Guide to Catalina and California’s Channel Islands. Chico, Calif., USA: Moon Publications, 1990. Print.

About the Author: Arya Harsono is an undergraduate of the B.S. Environmental Studies program in USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, & Sciences. He is currently residing on Santa Catalina Island, spending many nights cozying up in the grass out on the ridge, underneath a glistening night sky. Readers are welcome to join him and discuss philosophical concepts (just like in the movies).

The Bat Ray: A terrifying creature indeed

Filed under: California Drought — Tags: , — dginsbur @ 10:26 pm

By Nathan Chen

So this Monday marked my first official swim in the ocean, (and by that I mean with goggles and actually swimming; don’t worry I’ve been in the ocean before) and call it corny but it taught me some things. For starters, I’m pretty wimpy when it comes to being alone in the water. Be it too many shark week episodes where the lone man gets dragged underwater by some unseen entity, or past stigmas by my over cautious parents who themselves were never too big on water, there is just something scary about putting half my body into something that is cold, dark, and full of other creatures that have bigger teeth than I do. That said, when I finally decided to man up and start actually swimming (rather than cowering by the dock and staring at my feet in the dark) I began to explore the sea life around me.

One of the first significantly freaky things I saw was a bat ray laying half buried on the bottom of the sand. Now I know (rather I was told while frantically flailing my arms to get out of dodge) that bat rays aren’t exactly the kind of species one should necessarily be afraid of, but it was either its eerie shape or just the fact that it was laying half buried (obviously waiting to eat me whole) that made me swim back to shore with more motivation than I otherwise would have. Today, sitting at a dry desk with my feet on solid ground I decided to learn more about the bat ray, so that in the future when we go snorkeling I can at least pretend to not be such a wimp.

The bat ray is a bottom dweller, living on mud bottoms at depths up to 50m. (1) They have flattened triangular bodies that are wider than they are long, as well as a long tail studded with up to 5 poisonous spines. (2) If this doesn’t sound scary enough to an inexperienced ocean visitor as myself, the bat ray can grow to 6 feet in width and weigh over 200 pounds. (1)  Add to that its ability to live and breath underwater, and that’s already 5 distinct advantages it has on me.

Luckily however, the bat ray doesn’t feed on humans, nor does it spend its days hunting for people to torment them with its poisonous spines- instead it feeds on small bony fishes, worms, abalone, and small crabs. The bat ray also remains solitary for the most part, sticking to itself unless mating or feeding- which is lucky for me since I can just avoid one instead of five.

Perhaps the most interesting fact about the bat ray however, is its adaptive camouflage abilities. From a birds eye perspective, the bat ray blends into the dark ocean floor, but to a fish below the bat ray, all that is seen is light coming in from the surface. This camouflage ability makes it hard for the bat ray to be attacked by any potential predator, and makes it easier for them to catch unsuspecting prey. Unbeknownst to them however, the paranoid human eye can detect its presence even from distances natural predators may not be able to, though at least this body of that eye knows to keep a safe length away – I obviously just don’t want to scare it.

About the author: Nathan Chen is a second year Environmental Studies major with a minor in business. His passions are found on dry land, in physical activities where he knows where the other half of his body is.

The Value of Ecosystem Services

Filed under: California Drought — Tags: , — dginsbur @ 10:23 pm

By Scott Lindemann

I was hiking along a ridge near the Wrigley Institute here on Catalina Island when I remarked to a friend “It’s been too long since I’ve seen stars.” But it has taken nearly a day for the full implication of my comment to sink in. It has been too long since I’ve seen the stars. Seeing those stars fulfilled a need I didn’t even know I had, and in my opinion, seeing the grandeur that nature has to offer fulfills a subconscious “spiritual” need for all humans.

Others have recognized this human desire for natural beauty as well. Perhaps since the dawn of human culture, nature has been a source of inspiration for artists, philosophers, and leaders of men, offering spiritual and intellectual fulfillment for the human soul. Interestingly enough, these services are referred to as “cultural services,” and are a recognized type of service that natural areas can provide to humans. Other types of services include “provisioning services” such as providing food, “regulating services” such as purifying water as it infiltrates into aquifers.

Despite these services, it seems to me that the implicit value of wilderness is hardly recognized by American culture. Prior to studying at USC, I viewed undeveloped land as simply empty space to be built on, void of any real value. While I appreciated the beauty of the great outdoors, I had no idea of the valuable and very real services that an undisturbed ecosystem could provide for humans. For instance, the Tongva people native to Catalina were able to use the environment for food, water, and soapstone. Today, marine kelp forests sequester carbon and terrestrial Catalina Cherry trees provide food for foxes and birds as well as the occasional curious human. Riparian soil, along with the plants and microorganisms living in it, cleans water as it flows into the ocean.

In my opinion, humans should place more value on these “valueless” services that ecosystems provide, and should think twice before developing undisturbed areas of land. The human population is growing, and it is important to preserve these areas of wilderness while they are still available. I for one am thankful that the area around the Catalina Island Wrigley Institute has been set aside as a Marine Protected Area, as well as being protected by the Catalina Island Conservancy. It is amazing to have such an undisturbed area of wilderness to pause, reflect on what is truly important in life, and to rejuvenate myself among the grandeur that is freely provided by this island along with its more practical services.

About the author: Scott Lindemann is a fourth year student at the University of Southern California. He enjoys reading, cooking, and lifting weights.

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