Archive for January, 2015

Jan 28 2015

California sea lions in trouble

sealionsIn mid-December, when moms were raising pups down south, 700-pound males hauled out onto the Moss Landing Harbor visitor dock. One fell asleep with its face in the water. (Leslie Willoughby Contributed) right).

MOSS LANDING — When baby sea lions are healthy, the curious and bright-eyed creatures sit up on their front flippers and take in the world around them. When humans approach, they skedaddle and leave nothing behind except a fishy, musky smell.

But along the Central Coast, sea lion pups in recent years increasingly have been found stranded — and they’re down to skin and bones. “Sometimes they could barely lift their heads, and they were reluctant to move, even when approached,” said Claire Simeone, a conservation medicine veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. “I could see the outlines of their hipbones and their shoulders.”

Even in a good year, a sea lion pup has only a 70 percent chance of reaching its first birthday. But in 2013 only 30 percent survived. And by May of that year, almost 1,500 were stranded along the California coast — up to 10 per day along the Monterey Bay shoreline.

To marine biologists, the deaths were the clearest sign yet that California sea lions, whose numbers skyrocketed for decades, are now smacking up against the limits of their environment.

The stranded pups should have been with their mothers, but the mothers apparently couldn’t get enough nutrition to support them, said Sharon Melin, a researcher with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

One reason was that the California Current, which flows south along the coast, moved farther offshore, making sardines and anchovies less available. Working harder to find food, the moms ate more market squid and rockfish, Melin said, and this change in diet may have reduced the quality of their milk.

The number of pups rescued from Sausalito to San Luis Obispo by the Marine Mammal Center, which has a facility in Moss Landing, jumped from 35 in 2012 to 111 in 2013. And last year that number increased to more than 239.

“We’re seeing another year of low weight and small body size,” Melin said. “We’re telling everyone to brace for more sea lion pups on your beaches.”

Although California sea lions have never been considered endangered, they have been hunted throughout history. Early Californians killed them for food; in the mid-19th century the mammals were hunted for their oil and hides. And from the 1930s to 1950s, they were turned into pet food.

According to UC Santa Cruz scientists, the Montrose Chemical Corp. from 1949 to 1970 manufactured DDT and dumped thousands of tons of the insecticide residue through sewage outfalls near the Channel Islands, the main sea lion breeding area in the U.S. During the late 1960s, scientists found hundreds of premature sea lion pups at the islands, and one year half of all pups died. Tests showed that moms that miscarried their pups had at least eight times more DDT in their tissue than did moms that gave birth to fully developed pups.

Two key events, however, soon improved the sea lions’ fate.

Montrose stopped releasing DDT into the breeding area in 1970, and two years later Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The number of pups, which had hovered around 11,000 during the mid-1970s, doubled by 1993 and exploded to 60,000 by 2009, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But the population is now leveling off.

Anticipating more starving pups this winter, the Marine Mammal Center has been ordering medications and training rescue volunteers, Simeone said.

In addition to the pups, the center rescued 180 adult sea lions in 2013 and 420 last year. Some were afflicted by hookworm or another parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, which is carried by cats. Others had contracted diseases such as leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that affects their kidneys. And some were poisoned by a nerve toxin called domoic acid, which is found in increasingly widespread blooms of a particular type of algae, according to NOAA. Sea lions eat fish that eat the algae.

Domoic acid also sickens humans if they eat shellfish that have eaten the toxic algae. When the Marine Mammal Center finds sea lions poisoned by domoic acid, the staff works with health departments to locate the algae and ban people from collecting shellfish nearby.

Marine scientists say that sea lions are the ocean’s canaries in a coal mine. “They tell us so much about the health of the ocean,” Simeone said.

Many fishermen and harbormasters, however, aren’t as enamored with the species.

“If sea lions are around, a salmon sports fisherman doesn’t stand a chance,” said Roger Thomas, the president of the Golden Gate Fishermen’s Association. “A sea lion will tear a fish right off the line and the angler is left with just a head.”

Thomas has been involved in recreational salmon fishing since he started in Monterey Bay in the 1950s. He has observed the sea lion population boom and wonders whether that may be contributing to pup strandings, he said.

At Moss Landing Harbor, the 700-pound mammals cause roughly $100,000 damage each year, said Linda McIntyre, the harbor’s general manager.

Between 200 and 2,000 sea lions vie for dock space around Monterey Harbor, said Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer. One year they sank five vessels.

When someone tries to get to a boat, the animals usually move out of the way, but they leave vomit and excrement behind. And, he said, because there are so many of them, they are entering places they would ordinarily avoid.

“Most people love the sea lions and want to protect them,” Scheiblauer said. But when he thinks about their future, he said, “I worry that nature will take its course through disease and famine. That would be a tragedy for the animals.”

Read original post Contra Costa Times.

Jan 28 2015

Hitch in North Coast marine sanctuary plans delays unveiling

ncmsKamilah Motley of Washington, D.C., takes in the sweeping view of the Sonoma Coast, north of Bodega Bay, Monday Jan. 20, 2015. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Last-minute details related to expansion plans for two adjoining marine sanctuaries off the North Coast were still being hammered out between federal agencies Tuesday, delaying publication of a final rule, officials said.

There was no indication of a hitch significant enough to derail the expansion proposal, which was developed over the past two years under the direction of President Barack Obama.

It was unclear, however, just what was holding up the process, representatives with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

A spokesman for the National Marine Sanctuaries program said last week that the legal consultations underway between various agencies are typically privileged, though there have been reports that some of the delay, at least, relates to discussions over U.S. Coast Guard operations within sanctuary boundaries.

But most parties following developments said they doubted there was any cause for alarm.

“I’m hearing that the very top brass at the Coast Guard and the NOAA are working on this, and there will be a good solution,” said retired Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, who championed coastal protections and sanctuary expansion legislation for two decades before her 2013 retirement.

The current expansion proposal developed by the Obama administration would more than double the combined area of the two sanctuaries, putting an additional 2,769 square miles of ocean off-limits to oil, energy and mineral exploration or extraction. It would also extend wildlife protections and conservation efforts across a vast stretch of nutrient-rich habitat, from Bodega Head to Manchester Beach on the southwest Mendocino Coast.

The additions would create a 350-mile band of protected coastal waters reaching north from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary on the Central Coast.

“We’re enthusiastic about expanding the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank (National Marine Sanctuaries) so we’re just trying to make sure we check everything off the list and make sure it can happen as quickly as we can,” NOAA spokeswoman Keeley Belva said.

The final management plan was released in December, triggering its circulation among federal agencies for a 30-day period. That period has been extended by continued talks.

Richard Charter, senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation and a member of the advisory council for the Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary, said Washington sources suggested the timing “is still within the window of typical.”

“It’s a huge pile of paper,” Charter said, referring to the final environmental impact statement and associated regulations connected to the plan. “It has to go through a lot of in-baskets and out-baskets.”

The next step is for the final rule to be published in the Federal Register, initiating a 45-day period of review by Congress and California Gov. Jerry Brown before the expansion takes effect.

National Marine Sanctuaries spokesman Matt Stout said last week that solid congressional support for the project up to this point suggests there should be no problem, despite new Republican strength in Congress.

Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Maria Brown said arrangements for a celebration in late April were still being made in anticipation the expansion would take effect as expected.

“We’re actively planning on it,” she said.

Read original post: Press Democrat  |  You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@press​ On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Jan 27 2015

Atlantic, Pacific Fish Face Mixing as Arctic Warms


The gradual warming of the Arctic Ocean over the next century will weaken a natural barrier that has separated fish from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for millions of years, leading to a mixing of species that could make life difficult in fishing communities from Alaska to Norway.

A new study by scientists in Denmark combined current models of climate change, and the biological water temperature and food requirements for 520 fish species native to the two oceans. The report forecast changes in the range of these fish in five-year increments from now until 2100, when the world’s oceans are expected to heat up globally by an average 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit).

“There will be an interchange of the fish communities between those two seas,” beginning as soon as 2050, said Mary Wisz, lead author on the report in Nature Climate Change and a senior ecosystem scientist at Aarhaus University in Denmark. “We know from historical examples that this kind of interchange, when biotas have been separated over long evolutionary time scales, can have huge consequences.”

In this warmer future, fishermen based in Kodiak, Alaska, could be pulling up Atlantic cod, a prized species normally caught off New England and Northern Europe. A similar change has already started off the coast of Greenland, where fishermen in the last five years have been catching larger numbers of Atlantic mackerel, which prefers more temperate water.

Wisz and colleagues say that by 2100, up to 41 species could enter the Pacific and 44 species could enter the Atlantic, through Arctic water passages over Canada or Russia. This interchange will have ecological and economic consequences to ecosystems that at present contribute 39 percent to global marine fish landings.

While some fishermen may benefit from the new catches, scientists warn that it’s hard to predict exactly what kind of fish will take over, and which will be driven away by the newcomers. It’s also possible that several kinds of fish could compete for the same food source – smaller fish, marine shrimp or larvae, for example, leading to a big reshuffling of the existing marine food chain.

“Some species when they come together they get along,” said Peter Moller, curator of fishes at the Natural History Museum of Denmark and another author on the new report. “But of course the Atlantic cod has the potential to become extremely numerous and dominating if it has the right conditions. There is speculation if it gets to a new place, it can be a real game-changer.”

Moller said the cod is an especially voracious predator of smaller fish, and could impact commercial landings of Alaska Pollock, for example. Around 3 million tons of Alaska pollock are caught each year in the North Pacific from Alaska to northern Japan. Alaska pollock is the world’s second most important fish species in terms of total catch.

Jason Link, senior scientist for ecosystem management at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, agreed that the mixing of species will cause changes in the food web in both oceans, but it’s hard to predict exactly how it will shake out.

“Another issue not noted in this paper is what happens in the ecosystem that these fish move out of, do they remain there or do other species replace them from the south?” Link said via e-mail.

Another thorny issue is how to manage fishing boats who will likely be plying the rugged Arctic Ocean once commercial harvests become feasible.

“This work raises important ramifications for fishes in response to changes in sea ice,” Link said.

Wisz and Moller say their next task is to look at realistic scenarios of predators and prey in the new warmer Arctic ecosystem.

Read original post here.

Jan 26 2015

Dockside fish market lands Capitol ally

‘Pacific to Plate’ bill would help market grow by easing state rules – By Chris Nichols

UTI1789005_r620x349August 2nd, 2014 San Diego, CA- Allison Roach prepares to bag a 16 lb. yellow fin tuna for a customer on the first day of San Diegos Tuna Harbor Dockside Market on Saturday downtown near Seaport Village. Photo by David Brooks/ U-T San Diego MANDATORY PHOTO CREDIT DAVID BROOKS / U-T SAN DIEGO; ZUMA Press. — David Brooks

SACRAMENTO — San Diego’s newest fish market has landed an ally at the state Capitol.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, has announced a bill dubbed “Pacific to Plate,” to make it easier for the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, and others like it, to operate and flourish.

Located just north of Seaport Village on Harbor Lane, the venue offers an open-air seafood market that carries overtones of Pike’s Market in Seattle or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Officials with the county and Port of San Diego worked with local fishers to get the market legally certified. It launched in August.

“Since the market opened, thousands of San Diegans have enjoyed being able to walk down this pier and choose their next meal from the fresh catch brought ashore by our local fishermen,” Atkins said during a press conference at the market this past weekend, according to a news release from her office.

“Though the market has been successful, there are still some barriers in state law that need to be overcome to ensure its ongoing operation. ‘Pacific to Plate,’ the legislation I am introducing in the Assembly, will help keep red tape from tangling up this boon to San Diego’s Blue Economy.”

The legislation proposes to:

• Allow Fishermen’s Markets to operate as food facilities.

• Allow fresh fish to be cleaned for direct sale at Fishermen’s Markets.

• Streamline the permitting process, so commercial fishermen can organize under a single permit — just like Certified Farmers’ Markets.

Currently, Fishermen’s Markets are not defined in state law as food facilities, complicating the permit process. Also, an exemption is needed to allow vendors to clean fresh fish for customers.

“San Diego was once the tuna capital of the world,” noted San Diego County Supervisor Cox, in the news release. “This bill can help us establish more fishermen’s markets, create more jobs for local fishermen and give San Diegans more fish caught fresh off our waters.”

The bill has bipartisan support from San Diego County’s legislative delegation, including Assemblymembers Rocky Chávez, Brian Jones, Brian Maienschein, Marie Waldron and Shirley Weber and state Senators Joel Anderson, Patricia Bates, Marty Block and Ben Hueso, according to the release.

Since it opened, San Diego’s Tuna Harbor market has drawn about 350 visitors a week, who together spend about $15,000 on fresh seafood brought directly to the pier by local fishermen, the release said.

Read original post here.

Jan 26 2015

Monterey Bay Aquarium testing the waters with open source camera

Mercury News | By Samantha Clark, Santa Cruz Sentinel

20150126_090912_mrbriRockfish researchers recover a frame carrying a small SeeStar system and a larger, older camera system after a deployment in Monterey Bay. (Francois Cazanave — MBARI)

MOSS LANDING — Ocean research can be a costly voyage. Scientists often need expensive, high-tech, complex equipment, which some research institutions might lack the funds to build or buy.

So engineers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute designed a simple underwater camera and lighting system that is made mostly of hardware store materials. And all for $3,000.

Most oceanographic camera systems cost $5,000 to $20,000 and require ships and cranes to carry the heavy equipment.

Any researcher can find the directions online to build the camera system themselves. It takes stills and video and operates as deep as 1,000 feet for months at a time.

“There is a movement to have open source oceanographic equipment,” said Chad Kecy, lead designer and MBARI engineer. “Anyone could take our designs and modify them for specific needs they have. It’s just a less expensive and easier way of getting cameras in the water.”

The project began in 2012 when MBARI marine biologist Steve Haddock wanted a cheap and easily deployable camera for researchers around the world to document jellyfish blooms. He also wanted versatility. A lightweight system needed to attach to a pier, be mounted on the seafloor and carried by a robotic submarine.

The SeeStar’s relatively simple design met Haddock’s criteria. It’s a GoPro camera with longer battery life and controllable lights all housed inside standard PVC pipe with commercially available electrical cables.

“We chose materials intentionally that people would be able to purchase at a local hardware store,” Kecy said. “The mechanical parts, we tried to get them off the shelf. We were thinking about cost at every step of the way.”

Researchers have begun testing the waters with the SeeStar system. Instead of using their bulky and expensive cameras, scientists with the Nature Conservancy and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories opted for multiple SeeStar cameras to capture video in Rockfish Conservation Areas along the west coast and seafloor animals under the ice in Antarctica.

The California Wetfish Producers Association used SeeStar to photograph the eggs and larvae of market squid. While the squid make up a large and economically important fishery in California, scientists don’t know much about what they do when they’re not spawning or the best conditions for spawning.

“If you were to charter at ROV (remotely operated vehicle), I’ve heard it’s like $10,000 a day, which is outrageous and beyond our budgeting,” said Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the nonprofit. “Putting together our own SeeStar camera is going to give us a lot of opportunity to understand what’s going on within their life cycle. Just by looking at a photograph, we were able to tell which eggs were about to hatch.”

However, the designers want camera to be even more accessible. The circuit board that controls the system is still complex enough leave non-engineers scratching their heads, so Kecy is looking to replace it with the popular Arduino microcontrollers this year.

“The camera system could have uses beyond marine research and could be used for monitoring anything long term,” Kecy said. “Because it’s open source, inexpensive and really easy, it just presents an opportunity for more researchers to cameras out in the water.”

—— (c)2015 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) at

Jan 26 2015

Stanford Researchers Strap ‘Crittercam’ Onto Squid

Stanford Researchers Strap ‘Crittercam’ Onto Squid, Discover How They Speak, Hide Themselves

squid_camera_012315Camera strapped onto a Humboldt squid. (Stanford University)


STANFORD (CBS SF) – Researchers at Stanford University strapped cameras on squid off the coast of Mexico and found the sea creatures likely use visual patterns to communicate and to hide themselves from predators, according to a study released this week.

Their study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, found Humboldt squid rapidly change their body colors from red to white to red again, in what researchers called “flashing.” They believe the behavior could be a way the squid speak with each other.

“The frequency and phase relationships [synchronization] between squid during flashing can be changed and this suggests that there is some information being conveyed that makes minute control over these details important to the squid,” Stanford researcher Hannah Rosen told the journal.

The researchers made their findings with the help of so-called “Crittercams” from National Geographic that were strapped onto the squid using Lycra-like “sweaters.”

Another behavior found by researchers is called “flickering,” where the squid produce waves of red and white across their bodies, likely to camouflage themselves from predators near the surface. They also observed what could be mating behavior of the squid.

Researchers plan to outfit more squid with cameras.

View original post here.

Jan 23 2015

Thousands of fiery red crabs wash ashore in Newport Beach

la-me-ln-red-crabs-20150122-001A pelagic red crab encounters a seashell on Balboa Island on Wednesday morning after thousands of the tiny crustaceans came ashore with the high tide. (Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Drawn north by warm ocean waters, thousands of candy-red crabs rarely seen in coastal Southern California have washed ashore in Newport Beach.

The tiny red pelagic crabs came ashore with the high tide this week, scampering across the sands, bobbing in the shallow waters and adding a splash of color to the beachfront.

“They look like baby lobsters,” said Kevin Kramp, a Balboa Island resident who spotted a cluster of the crustaceans relaxing in the shade of a dock. “Someone get the butter.”

The crabs, known as Pleuroncodes planipes, are about 4 inches long, have three small legs on each side of their bodies and two pincers in front, much like a miniature lobster. Their tails are segmented, causing them to swim backward.

The crabs more often inhabit the warm waters along the lower west coast of Baja California, experts say, and are believed to spend the majority of the year hiding on sandy ocean bottoms.

However, during the spring, the crabs travel in dense schools and occasionally wash ashore, said Southern California Marine Institute director Daniel Pondella II.

But this marks the first time in years that Pondella has heard of them being seen in Southern California.

“This is the first warm year we’ve had in quite awhile,” he said. “It could just be a sign of the warm water we’re currently experiencing.”

Some experts estimate that warm southern currents may distribute the crabs into Southern California every six to 10 years.

A thick blanket of the fiery red crabs surfaced in the late ’90s, and again several years later in the Channel Islands and oceanographers at the time saw them as a possible indicator of an advancing El Nino weather pattern.

Their arrival puts them in league with other nonnative animals seen off the Southern California coast in recent years, such as blue marlin, whale sharks, wahoo, yellowfin tuna, manta rays and by-the-wind sailors – a blob-likejellyfish that skims along the surface of the ocean.

Newport Beach resident Darren Zinter initially thought the crabs were tiny frogs because of how close they were swimming to the surface of the water. Zinter grabbed one to get a closer look before setting it free.

“I’ve never seen these things before,” Zinter said. “It’s incredible.”

Original story: Hannah Fry |

Jan 23 2015

Fatty Acids in Fish May Shield Brain from Mercury Damage


New findings from research in the Seychelles provide further evidence that the benefits of fish consumption on prenatal development may offset the risks associated with mercury exposure. In fact, the new study, which appears today in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that the nutrients found in fish have properties that protect the brain from the potential toxic effects of the chemical.

Three decades of research in the Seychelles have consistently shown that high levels of fish consumption by pregnant mothers – an average of 12 meals per week – do not produce developmental problems in their children. Researchers have previously equated this phenomenon to a kind of biological horse race, with the developmental benefits of nutrients in fish outpacing the possible harmful effects of mercury also found in fish. However, the new research indicates that this relation is far more complex and that compounds present in fish – specifically polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) – may also actively counteract the damage that mercury causes in the brain.

“These findings show no overall association between prenatal exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental outcomes,” said Edwin van Wijngaarden, Ph.D., and associate professor in the University of Rochester Department of Public Health Sciences and a co-author of the study. “It is also becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of fish consumption may outweigh, or even mask, any potentially adverse effects of mercury.”

“This research provided us the opportunity to study the role of polyunsaturated fatty acids on development and their potential to augment or counteract the toxic properties of mercury,” said Sean Strain, Ph.D., a professor of Human Nutrition at the Ulster University in Northern Ireland and lead author of the study. “The findings indicate that the type of fatty acids a mother consumes before and during pregnancy may make a difference in terms of their child’s future neurological development.”

The new study comes as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and international agencies are in the process of revisiting fish consumption advisories to better reflect the health benefits of nutrients found in fish. The FDA’s current guidance – which recommends that pregnant women limit their consumption of certain fish to twice a week – was established because of the known risk of high level mercury exposure on childhood development.

Mercury is found in the environment as a result of both natural and human (e.g. coal plant emissions) activity. Much of it ends up being deposited in the world’s oceans and, as a result, fish harbor the chemical in very small amounts.

This has given rise to concerns that the cumulative impact of prenatal exposure to mercury through fish consumption may have negative health outcomes, despite the fact that that a link between low-level exposure and developmental consequences in children has never been definitively established.

At the same time, fish are rich in a host of beneficial nutrients, including fatty acids, which are essential to brain development, leading to a long-standing exchange among scientists, environmentalists, and policymakers over the risk vs. benefit of fish consumption. This debate has significant consequences for global health, as billions of people across the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein.

The Seychelles Child Development Study – a partnership between the University of Rochester Ulster University, and the Republic of Seychelles Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education – is one of the longest and largest population studies of its kind. The Seychelles, a cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean, has proven to be the ideal location to examine the potential health impact of persistent low-level mercury exposure. The nation’s 89,000 residents consume fish at a rate 10 times greater than the populations of the U.S. and Europe.

The study published today followed more than 1,500 mothers and their children. At 20 months after birth, the children underwent a battery of tests designed to measure their communication skills, behavior, and motor skills. The researchers also collected hair samples from the mothers at the time of their pregnancy to measure the levels of prenatal mercury exposure.

The researchers found that mercury exposure did not correlate with lower test scores. This finding tracked with the results of previous studies by the group – some of which have followed children in the Seychelles into their 20s – that have also shown no association between fish consumption and subsequent neurological development.

The researchers also measured the PUFA levels present in the pregnant women and found that the children of mothers with higher levels of fatty acids known as omega 3, or n3 – the kind found in fish – performed better on certain tests. Another common form of PUFA, called n6, comes from other meats and cooking oils and is found in greater abundance in the diets of residents of developed countries.

The fatty acids in fish (n3) are known to have anti-inflammatory properties, compared to n6, which can promote inflammation. One of the mechanisms by which mercury inflicts its damage is through oxidation and inflammation and this has led the researchers to speculate that not only does n3 provide more benefit in terms of brain development, but that these compounds may also counteract the negative effects of mercury.

This was reflected in the study’s findings, which showed that the children of mothers with relatively higher levels of n6 did poorer on tests designed to measure motor skills.

“It appears that relationship between fish nutrients and mercury may be far more complex than previously appreciated,” said Philip Davidson, Ph.D., the principal investigator of the Seychelles Child Development Study, a professor emeritus at the University of Rochester, and senior author of the study. “These findings indicate that there may be an optimal balance between the different inflammatory properties of fatty acids that promote fetal development and that these mechanisms warrant further study.”

Additional co-authors of the study include Sally Thurston, Gene Watson, Tanzy Love, Tristram Smith, Kelley Yost, Donald Harrington, and Gary Myers with the University of Rochester, Alison Yeates, Maria Mulhern, and Emeir McSorley with Ulster University, and Conrad Shamlaye and Juliette Henderson with the Republic of Seychelles Ministry of Health. The research was supported with funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Government of Seychelles.

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Jan 22 2015

New SeeStar camera system allows researchers to monitor the depths without sinking the budget

Note: CWPA is now planning to use this camera system in our squid research.

SeeStarSeeStar camera system mounted on a tripod beneath the Antarctic ice near McMurdo Station. Image courtesy of Stacey Kim, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

To build equipment that can operate reliably in the deep sea, MBARI engineers must often use expensive, high-tech materials and complex electronic-control systems. This makes it difficult for researchers at other institutions to build similar equipment, and thus for MBARI to fulfill its goal of sharing its technology with researchers around the world. However, MBARI engineers recently designed a new underwater camera and lighting system which they hope will be simple and inexpensive enough so that almost any researcher could build one.

The SeeStar project, as it is called, began as the brainchild of marine biologist Steve Haddock and Electrical Engineer Chad Kecy. Haddock, an expert on jellies, wanted a cheap and easily deployable camera that researchers around the world could use to document jellyfish blooms. He also wanted a system that was versatile enough to be attached to a pier, mounted on a tripod on the seafloor, or carried by a robotic submarine.

In designing SeeStar, Kecy worked closely with Mechanical Engineer François Cazenave and Software Engineer Mike Risi. They ended up with a system that costs just under $3,000 in parts, but can operate as deep as 300 meters (almost 1,000 feet) for months at a time.

3partThe three modules of the SeeStar System allow it to be mounted on many different platforms. Image: (c) 2013 MBARI

SeeStar has three parts—a camera, a battery pack, and LED lights—each contained in its own pressure housing. The pressure housings are made of relatively inexpensive PVC pipe with plastic end caps. Kecy said, “We tried to choose parts that you could buy at almost any hardware store—standard PVC tubing, stainless-steel rods and bolts… nothing too exotic.”

The three pressure housings are connected using commercially available flexible electrical cables. This modular construction makes SeeStar easy to attach to a variety of platforms. The team selected a camera made by GoPro because it was relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Kecy then designed a custom circuit board to control both the camera and the LED lights.

From the beginning, SeeStar was conceived as an open-source project. Kecy explained, “Our goal is to put enough information on the web for someone to build an entire system. There are written instructions, mechanical drawings, electrical schematics, circuit-board build files, and controller code up there on our website. It’s still a work in progress, but at least it’s up there… and we’ll be updating it as we improve the system.”

Kecy continued, “One of our biggest challenges was designing a general device that different people could use in different ways, rather than a specific device for a specific task. Doing open-source hardware required a different mindset from our normal engineering development process. We also wanted to keep costs down.”

Although SeeStar began as a system for counting jellies, it soon became apparent that the system could be used for all kinds of underwater research. By the end of 2013, other marine researchers began to hear about Kecy’s project. Soon he was being approached by a variety of organizations wanting to try out the camera.

rockfishRockfish researchers recover a frame carrying a small SeeStar system and a larger, older camera system after a deployment in Monterey Bay. Image: Francois Cazanave (c) 2014 MBARI

anemonesPhotograph taken by SeeStar of rockfish and anemones on the seafloor of Monterey Bay. By taking many such images over time, researchers hope to be able to monitor changes in fish populations. Image: (c) 2014 MBARI

One of the first outside groups to show interest in SeeStar was a group of researchers from the Nature Conservancy and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML), who were studying fish in Rockfish Conservation Areas along the US West Coast. As Kecy put it, “They had an existing camera system, but it was and bulky and expensive, and they were looking for one that was smaller and easier to use. They also wanted multiple cameras, which they could deploy in a number of locations simultaneously.”

Working with Cazenave, the researchers used SeeStar to collect short videos at 12 different locations on the seafloor of Monterey Bay, about 100 meters (330 feet) below the surface. They then used these videos to identify and count different types of fish. The group is presently evaluating SeeStar cameras as a tool for monitoring marine protected areas all along the US West Coast.

Another group, the California Wetfish Producers Association, used SeeStar to photograph the eggs and larvae of market squid. These squid support one of the most economically important fisheries on the California Coast, yet many aspects of their life cycles are still unknown.

Several MBARI researchers have also used SeeStar in their research. One group attached SeeStar to an underwater robot (an autonomous underwater vehicle or AUV) so that they could observe and count jellyfish in the open ocean.

Another MBARI group used a SeeStar-equipped AUV to follow a second robotic vehicle as it traveled across the ocean surface. Video from SeeStar confirmed that the AUV was able to track the surface vehicle closely, like a white shark stalking a sea lion. A third MBARI group is using SeeStar to document wear and tear on a buoy that generates electrical power from the ocean waves.

The most ambitious SeeStar project is currently under way in Antarctica, where researchers from MLML are using two SeeStar systems to study seafloor animals under the ice near McMurdo Station. In order to deploy the camera in this challenging environment, the researchers must first drill a 25-centimeter (10-inch) hole in the ice, then lower the camera on a folding tripod through the hole and down to the seafloor.

In December 2014, one of the Antarctic SeeStar systems successfully recorded still images of the seafloor every 20 minutes for an entire month. As of this writing, two SeeStar systems were just recovered from 200 meters (660 feet) beneath the ice. If this second deployment is successful, the team hopes to return next season to deploy SeeStar beneath the Antarctic ice for an entire year.

squidPhotograph taken by SeeStar of market-squid eggs on the seafloor of Monterey Bay. Image: (c) 2014 MBARI

Even though the current version of SeeStar is relatively inexpensive, it still uses circuit boards and controllers that may be difficult for non-engineers to build. During 2015, the team will be addressing these issues in several different ways. They will investigate alternative cameras that could provide higher resolution still images and more control of exposure, as well as commercially available underwater lighting systems.Kecy also hopes to replace his existing camera controller board with a new board that works with the popular Arduino microcontrollers. This would make the system as a whole cheaper and easier to use, as well as providing more flexibility in operating the camera. Because an Arduino camera-controller board would have many uses beyond marine research, Kecy hopes that an open-source hardware company might be willing to manufacture and sell his board on line.Once Kecy has the Arduino controller system completed, he plans to take it to “Maker Faires” and similar hobbyist gatherings to generate interest from other potential users. This way, if the project takes off, the user community will come up with improvements of their own.Looking back on the evolution of the SeeStar project, Kecy said, “The most satisfying thing has been getting the camera out there and having people use it. I love it when researchers come back from a deployment and see the videos and are happy with them. It’s great to make something that people not only can use, but also something they get useful results from.”

Even though it is still in development, SeeStar is already letting marine researchers see things underwater that they’ve never seen before. It’s also helping MBARI in its continuing efforts to share its high-tech tools with the rest of the world.

MBARI YouTube video on this research:

For more information on this article, please contact Kim Fulton-Bennett:
(831) 775-1835,

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Jan 22 2015

Barbecue sardines — recipe

430607788-1abuh8lPicture: Iain Gillespie

Kirsty Carre — January 22, 2015 — Posted in the The West Australian

Serves 4

2 lemons, zested and juiced

2 green chillies

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tbsp parsley

3 garlic cloves

1 shallot, peeled

1/2 tsp salt

16 sardines, butterflied

2 tbsp olive oil

sourdough bread


Place the lemon zest and juice, chillies, olive oil, parsley, garlic cloves, peeled shallot and salt in a food processor and blitz until it forms a thick sauce. Coat the sardines in olive oil and place them in a barbecue cage (you may need to do this in several batches). Grill on either side for 2-3 minutes. Serve on grilled slices of sourdough with the sauce drizzled over the top.