Marine Biologists Survey the Port of Hueneme for Biological Invasions

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Scientists from Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) Marine Invasions lab conducted recent surveys to document both native and introduced species at the Port of Hueneme.

SERC has joined MAST's network of leading academic research test & evaluation and in-service engineering centers’ to further expand the nation’s ability to provide solutions to relevant challenges in the Maritime domain.

Have you ever laid on a dock and looked at all of the creatures living just beneath the water? In many parts of the world the community of organisms that live on docks and pilings can be very colorful, diverse and beautiful. In cooperation with the Port’s Maritime Advanced Systems & Technology program (or MAST), scientists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) Marine Invasions lab recently had the opportunity to study just what types of sea life lives on the docks at the Port of Hueneme, last week reviewing collection plates positioned for this purpose three months ago. Led by Dr. Gregory Ruiz, the Smithsonian lab has been studying these colorful communities since 1994. In some areas these organisms are brown, grey, and drab; more fitting of the term used to describe them - fouling. Fouling refers to unwanted material on solid surfaces that impair function; biofouling then, refers to the unwanted growth of microorganisms, plants, algae, or animals on wetted structures.

Port Executive Director and CEO Kristin Decas said,”This is exactly what the Port’s MAST lab was created for. SERC has joined our network of leading academic research test & evaluation and in-service engineering centers’ to further expand the nation’s ability to provide solutions to relevant challenges in the Maritime domain.”

According to the Port’s MAST Program Director Christina Birdsey,”It’s exciting to have the Port’s Maritime Advanced Systems & Technology (MAST) lab welcome these distinguished scientists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center for this important research. Providing the facilities to conduct this testing is important for the health of the harbor and surrounding communities.”

Though the terms fouling and biofouling denote something that is often unwanted, many species that attach to docks, pilings, and boat hulls are also found in natural areas, such as along rocky shores, and play an important role in the health of the environment. They are filter feeders that help clean particulates from the water improving water clarity. They provide nursery habitat for larval fish and crabs, and they are an important source of food for many species including humans. Mussels for example are part of the fouling community.

Important for the Port of Hueneme are the species that settle on docks and pilings that may have arrived on the hulls of ships. As ships move among ports, so too do the organisms attached to their hulls. The fouling organisms attached to the hulls can be introduced to new geographic areas when the attached adults spawn and produce larvae that settle on the docks and pilings of a port. For this reason ports and marinas are particularly susceptible to being colonized by invading species from around the world. Introduced species can displace native species and can cause problems for the port, but also for people in the aquaculture industry located nearby. Many fouling species can overgrow shell fish and equipment causing significant economic damage.

The primary goal of the research is to understand biological invasion patterns and processes in marine ecosystems. The lab seeks to characterize patterns of marine invasion across space, time, and taxonomic groups, as well as develop a mechanistic understanding of those factors that are driving observed patterns, and finally to advance the predictability of the establishment, spread, and impacts of non-native species in marine ecosystems.

Observing the retrieved plates revealed robust communities of sea life much of which was difficult to determine with the naked eye.

While the results of the study will take several months to catalog and release, there were numerous creatures such as skeleton shrimp, sea slugs, barnacles, sea squirts and more, all more or less invisible with the naked eye but observable under a microscope.

Andy Chang, a biologist who leads the SERC Marine Invasions Lab’s west coast programs, said: “Our work at the Port of Hueneme will help us gain a fuller picture of marine diversity and invasions by non-native species along the coast of California. Our goal in the next several years is to finish surveying the major bays along the Pacific coast to get a comprehensive look at invasions on this coast. Studying these communities will not only tell us which species are where, but also help us understand how nature works.”

SERC’s retrieving season will last through the summer and include stops in Marina Del Rey, San Francisco, Humboldt Bay and Alaska before returning to their west coast science labs in Tiburon on San Francisco Bay for more in depth plate study over the winter months.

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Will Berg
Port of Hueneme
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