Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
California’s coastal waters are home to seven species of abalone, and all but one are endangered or listed as species of special concern. The white abalone in particular has been nearly decimated by overfishing and disease, and scientists can find no evidence that the remaining population is reproducing in the wild. In order to avoid loss of the entire species, CDFW and partner agencies have formed the White Abalone Recovery Consortium, which will employ captive rearing and restoration stocking efforts and extensive public outreach in order to save these animals from extinction. It will be an ongoing, long-term project, but all signs point to future success – already there are more white abalone thriving in the captive breeding program than the entire population living in the wild.
Read more about the efforts to restore California’s white abalone – and learn what you can do to help! – on the CDFW Marine Management News Blog.
Arborimus albipes, a CA Critically Imperiled Species of Special Concern
The white-footed vole is one of the least-studied (and most difficult to catch!) mammals in North America. CDFW Environmental Scientist Dr. Scott Osborn, his collaborator Dr. Tim Bean of Humboldt State University’s Wildlife Department, and a small team of field biologists know that better than anyone – they spent the summer of 2014 setting traps for them in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Designated a Species of Special Concern by CDFW, only nine records of the species were known in California prior to their study, which was aimed at determining how environmental conditions, such as climate (and future climate change), might affect their distribution.
Habitat modeling by Bean (based on the previous records) identified areas with high habitat suitability for the white-footed vole. Ten study sites were chosen along the North Coast for the field study, including three where voles had been successfully trapped in the 1990s. Using live traps (both pitfall traps made of two coffee cans taped together and Sherman live traps baited with oats and peanut butter), the team successfully trapped three voles. Notably, one of these was the first recorded capture of a white-footed vole in Del Norte County. All three voles were returned unharmed to their capture site after basic measurements and assessments of food plant preferences were made.
Although three voles might not seem like a large return on the investment of many hours of field work, the team actually had one of the highest capture rates of white-footed voles of any small mammal study in its geographic range, which includes coastal Oregon and the North Coast of California. Vegetation plots suggest that white-footed voles are tightly associated with stands of red alder trees – so now the biologists know that’s a likely place to find them. The habitat modeling work indicates that suitable habitat may currently exist as far south as Mendocino County, which is outside the known geographic range of the vole. On the other hand, it is possible that this species’ range may contract northward in a warmer and drier future. Open the Full Report (PDF)
California’s recreational fishery resource provides a huge benefit to the state’s economy. In the latest issue (102-3) of the scientific journal California Fish and Game, Reid et. al tackles the difficult task of quantifying the economic value of California’s recreational red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) fishery.
Using data for the 2013 season at more than 50 sites in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, the authors used the travel-cost estimation method to determine a value. According to their findings, the 31,000 people who fish for red abalone provide an economic benefit to California of between $24M and $44M annually.
The lower figure was derived solely by determining the costs involved in driving to the fishing locations, while the higher figure considers the time spent on the fishing activity. The data reveal three dominant criteria used to select fishing sites: 1) the presence of a harmful algal bloom — and the resulting stricter fishing regulations — in Sonoma County; 2) protection from ocean swells; and 3) the presence of recreational conveniences such as restrooms and boat launches.
Determining the economic value of the red abalone fishery puts into perspective the importance of managing it for sustainability.
Other articles in this issue focus on management implications for California halibut (Paralichthys californicus) and Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida).
Lesyna and Barnes report that California halibut reach physical maturity at different sizes and ages, depending upon location. Macroscopic examination of specimens revealed that, although all halibut were mature before reaching the commercial and recreational minimum legal size limit, central California halibut are larger and older by the time they reach physical maturity than their southern California counterparts.
Moore et. al studied the sexual development and symbionts of Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida) that settled naturally on artificial clutches placed in San Francisco Bay. The results of the study suggest that Olympia oysters have the capacity to flourish when suitable habitat is available.
Collectively, these articles demonstrate the importance of studying natural resources for their consumptive and non-consumptive value.
According to California Fish and Game Editor-in-Chief Armand Gonzales, the articles provide critical direction for resource management. “It is therefore incumbent upon us as scientists, to keep working, keep studying and keep reporting what we see and find.
Beneath the waters off the California coast are vast forests that are home to an astounding variety of animals. Their sunlit canopies can soar 150 feet from the ocean’s floor. But instead of trees, these forests are made of kelp.
Worldwide, kelp is used in a host of everyday products like toothpaste, pudding, ice cream and even pharmaceuticals. Although kelp is valuable to humans, it is critical to sustaining life for many ocean-dwelling wildlife species ranging from microscopic plankton to sea otters, pelagic birds and predatory fishes. When a kelp forest is depleted, the entire underwater ecosystem can be thrown out of balance. This is why CDFW scientists are tracking and studying the amount of kelp growing in coastal waters.
In 1989, CDFW marine biologists began using aerial surveys to monitor the size of the kelp forests off of California’s coast. A second survey was conducted a decade later, and since 2002, CDFW has made an effort to conduct these surveys annually (although budget issues sometimes require skipping a year).
The surveys are conducted along the entire coastline and offshore of the Channel Islands. CDFW conducted the earliest surveys on its own, but now contracts out for this work. The contractor uses an aircraft with a specialized camera system that picks up the infrared image of the kelp. Those images become Geographic Information System (GIS) shapefiles that capture a snapshot of what the kelp canopy looks like on a given day. The images enable the viewer to see and compare the spatial area of a specific kelp forest over time.
A graph depicting CDFW’s historic aerial kelp survey data is located on the Kelp and Other Marine Algae webpage.
CDFW’s most recent (2016) kelp survey includes the following findings:
Rebecca Flores Miller, a marine environmental scientist with CDFW’s Marine Region office in Monterey, was the coordinator for the 2016 kelp survey.
“Kelp does fluctuate normally, anyway … there is a seasonality with it,” she explains. “However, during El Nino and warm water conditions as we’ve had in the recent past, the canopy doesn’t grow as well.”
Coastal development can also negatively affect the kelp canopy, as it sometimes leads to pollution, increased turbidity (which reduces the light needed for photosynthesis) and siltation (which can hinder growth or bury young kelp). An increase in urchin populations can also have a dramatic impact on kelp, and recently, a wasting disease decreased the numbers of sea stars (a predator of urchins) statewide.
“All of these things are connected within the ecosystem,” Flores Miller says.
Kelp survey data is available to anyone who is interested – members of the general public, other governmental agencies, universities and researchers.
The dataset has many uses, both within and outside of CDFW. It is used during the review process for commercial kelp bed lease requests. It has been a critical piece of the Marine Protected Area planning process. It has been used to help predict the abundance of many kelp forest-dependent species valued by humans, such as abalone. And it has helped scientists understand issues such as the recent abalone die-off in northern California.
CDFW Photos: giant kelp and bull kelp (by Rebecca Flores Miller), and image of kelp forest near Cambria taken during the 2016 aerial kelp survey.
Fate has not been kind to the San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica).
Shrinking habitat caused by urbanization and agricultural expansion landed this Central Valley native on the federal Endangered Species List decades ago. California’s total population of San Joaquin kit foxes may now be down to a few thousand animals. To make matters worse, its favorite food, the kangaroo rat, is likewise endangered as the desert habitat it prefers continues to disappear.
Wildlife biologists took heart, however, in a population that seemed to be thriving within the city limits of Bakersfield. Unlike San Joaquin kit fox populations in other parts of the Central Valley range, the Bakersfield foxes adapted quite nicely to urban life. Their number – estimated between 200 and 400 animals – has evidently seemed to be holding steady and possibly increasing.
Their cute and cuddly appearance make them popular with city residents. Earlier research showed the population was healthy and genetically robust. Wildlife biologists were counting on those urban foxes to ensure the species’ survival should kit fox populations completely collapse elsewhere.
Today, those Bakersfield kit foxes are under siege, suffering from an outbreak of highly infectious sarcoptic mange. Mange – a skin condition caused by parasitic mites -- leads to hair loss, open wounds from scratching and, ultimately, death. The first case was detected among the kit fox population in March 2013, and since then, more than 200 cases have been documented. The epidemic has grown worse every year.
Given the importance of the Bakersfield population, CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California State University, Stanislaus, the University of California, Davis (UCD), and various nonprofit wildlife groups have all joined forces to combat the mange.
Jaime Rudd, an environmental scientist in CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Lab in Sacramento, is leading CDFW’s efforts while simultaneously writing her UCD Ph.D. dissertation on the outbreak. Rudd is researching ways to prevent mange from spreading to healthy animals, and assisting Stanislaus State’s Endangered Species Recovery Program with trapping and treating diseased foxes.
Severely diseased kit foxes are trapped and transported to the California Living Museum, a Bakersfield wildlife rehabilitation facility and zoo. There, the kit foxes are hospitalized, given life-saving antibiotics and fluids and treated with a topical pet product that kills the mites. The foxes often need months of treatment before they are healthy enough to release. And although the intervention saves individual lives, the process is costly and time-consuming – and doesn’t prevent the treated fox from getting mange a second or third time.
Rudd is making good use of her undergraduate degree in molecular biology, analyzing the DNA of the mites to see if they might be related to those in dogs and coyotes, which could be spreading the mange to the foxes.
“Essentially, we want to look at their molecular signature to see if these mites are related,” Rudd said.
Rudd is studying a group of wild kit foxes living on the CSU Bakersfield campus, which no doubt are supplementing their diet with burger bits and pizza crusts discarded by college students. Rudd is monitoring the group with trail cameras, outfitting some foxes with radio tracking collars and others with the type of preventative flea and tick collar you might use on a pet dog or cat.
“We want to evaluate the efficacy of these collars,” she said. “If they’re only going to work for two months, the collars won’t help us slow down the spread of mange, so is it really worth the effort of putting them on? But if they’re going to work for five months or more, then it might be worth the effort.”
If there is any hope sustaining Rudd and her colleagues in this important, though often disheartening, work, it’s this: “The fact we are not seeing mange in the outlying populations is cause for optimism,” she said. “If nothing else, we can at least try to keep it from leaving the city.”
For generations, anglers in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada mountains fished for one of the most cherished fish in the west, the Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT). These native beauties are prized for their size, with some growing as large as 40 pounds in the Tahoe Basin.
Sightings of these brown and red native fish have been documented as far back as 1853. But as the population of the state grew, especially during the Gold Rush, the fish were nearly wiped out by mining, development, dams, water diversion and other human factors.
Today, LCT are listed under both the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts, and CDFW has increased its commitment to angling enthusiasts by providing more opportunity to catch this historic fish. This effort includes greatly expanding the number of waters and fish planted in recent years.
Every spring, staff from the American River Hatchery in Gold River make the 100-mile journey from the hatchery to the tiny spawning buildings on the shore of Heenan Lake. This pristine body of water is surrounded by granite peaks in remote Alpine County. It is usually not accessible in the winter, cut off by the snowpack, and is only open to catch and release fishing for six weeks a year. It is also the state’s only source of LCT broodstock (groups of mature fish used as the source for eggs and reproduction). Ultimately, the 800,000 eggs spawned at Heenan Lake each year support recreational angling opportunities at multiple locations in the eastern Sierras.
The staff will make the journey up and down the mountain several times over several weeks to spawn the eggs on site. The process involves carefully bathing the eggs in iodine and suspending them in cheesecloth in aluminum jars about two feet tall, before making the journey back to Sacramento or to other state hatcheries. Some of the eggs head to destinations as far away as Filmore Hatchery in Ventura County.
Once at the hatcheries, the eggs are placed in “hatching jars,” where chilled, UV-filtered river water circulates over them continuously. After two to three weeks, the eyes of the baby fish are visible inside the eggs. These “eyed” eggs will be addled—a process in which the eggs are siphoned through a tube in order to shake them up. This causes the infertile, diseased or dead eggs to turn white, allowing hatchery technicians to easily identify, pick out and discard them. After the fry hatch, they are moved to deep tanks in the hatchery building, where they will spend approximately five months growing before being moved outdoors to large round tanks.
The fish will be planted as fingerlings or sub-catchables (fish that weigh 1/16th-1/6th of a pound) into various high-mountain waterways on the east side of the Sierras. At the time of release, they are still too small to be caught, but they will quickly grow to be trophy-sized fish for the state’s anglers who want to make the journey into the high altitudes.
The latest issue of California Fish and Game, CDFW’s scientific journal, is now available online. This century-old quarterly journal contains peer-reviewed scientific literature that explores and advances the conservation and understanding of California’s flora and fauna.
A photo of the world’s first radio tagged tricolored blackbird (Agelaius tricolor) graces the cover of this issue of California Fish and Game. The bird was tagged as part of a study, the results of which are published as “Breeding chronology, movements, and life history observations of tricolored blackbirds in the California Central Coast” by Wilson et al. The tricolored blackbird is currently under review for listing under both the California and Federal endangered species acts.
Also in this issue, Overton et al. offers a fascinating observation of predation by Peregrine falcons on an endangered California Ridgway’s rail (Rallus obsoletus obsoletus), the result of environmental extremes and a series of species interactions.
Other papers published in this issue look at a predictive model for commercial catch of white seabass (Atractoscion nobilis); fecundity and reproductive potential of wild female Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus); and updated information on the length-weight relationships (LWR) and length-length relationships (LLR) and condition factors for pelican barracuda (Sphyraena idiastes) in the Gulf of California.
New in this issue is a section called “From the Archives,” which reprints articles from past issues to provide historical perspective on topics still relevant today. The first article in this series comes from Volume I, Issue I, dated 1914. It asserts that natural resources must be conserved for the use and enjoyment of the public.
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