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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Hearts and Minds: the 9th California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium

On November 14, 2023, from atop the coastal dunes of Moss Landing, an impassioned group convened with the common goal of protecting the wildlife of the California coast and beyond. Nearly 70 participants at the 9th Annual California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium came to hear presentations from eleven speakers addressing topics in two sessions: user perspectives and outreach messaging as they relate to wildlife disturbance. They joined from as far away as Australia to share their knowledge and experience. They came to meet others from government agencies, non-profit organizations, and local businesses to find common ground, common goals and ways to work together to foster awareness and stewardship.

Wildlife Disturbance: Perspectives from Different User Groups

The morning session explored the different perspectives on wildlife disturbance from within coastal communities. Annie Daw, manager of the Bolsa Chica Reserve Watch program, started off the day by sharing an inspiring story of local volunteers coming together to reduce disturbance to wildlife disturbance in a busy southern California ecological reserve. The unique relationship between surfers and coastal wildlife was highlighted by two speakers: Jess Fujii, Sea Otter Program Manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, provided an insider perspective on the cautionary tale of notorious surfboard-stealing otter 841, and 18-year-old Dakota Peebler (a founding member of the amazing Heirs to Our Ocean, see video below) shared results from her summer project studying the spatial and sociological interactions between sea otters and surfers at two popular Santa Cruz surfing spots. Lessons learned: repeated and, at times, inescapable exposure to humans can have dangerous consequences for both humans and wildlife (See USFWS's 841 FAQs), action by local communities can create powerful conservation action, and that the motivations of people are highly relevant to the nature of their interactions with wildlife and the risk of disturbance. See an overview of Dakota’s results in a virtual version of her poster. Another poster was presented by Samantha Hamilton a recent master’s graduate from Johns Hopkins University, who’s study (conducted with Sea Otter Savvy) evaluated the behavior of kayakers using cameras vs. those not around sea otters at multiple California coastal locations. What’s your guess? Do camera users tend to stay closer or farther than other kayakers? Have a look at Samantha’s poster here to learn her results.

Dave Grigsby (shown in photo above), owner of the Monterey Bay area’s Kayak Connection, gave a refreshing and candid account of the challenges faced by marine recreation businesses and the strategies his shops have adopted to minimize the impact of their customers on coastal wildlife. Dave importantly emphasized the importance of a collaborative attitude among businesses, to work together to protect an ecosystem from which they derive like benefits. Kayak Connection is one of the kayak rental and tour businesses recognized and certified by Sea Otter Savvy's Community Active Wildlife Stewards program.

Wildlife law enforcement representatives are always popular speakers with attendees at this symposium, and Officer Sam Reigner, an Enforcement Officer for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, gave accounts of a few case studies from his experience ensuring compliance with federal laws enacted to protect wildlife off the coast of California. To leave us inspired by the power of collaboration, Richard “Dick” Ogg, a Northern California commercial fisherman, shared his ocean stewardship perspective and how the local fishing community work together to minimize their impact on the coastal ecosystem. From volunteers, photographers, and surfers to commercial fisherman, business owners, and law enforcement officers, the small actions of individuals synergized to create powerful community-based stewardship.

Wildlife Disturbance: Messaging Strategies

In the afternoon, speakers focused on the challenges of changing human-behavior—fostering a social norm where respecting the boundaries of wildlife are the only acceptable actions. As I often say, this is a long game. There are no simple answers, only the wisdom that comes from trying and succeeding or failing. Adam and Giancarlo from The Marine Mammal Center drove home the importance of research and evaluation—understanding the who, what, why, and where or wildlife disturbance—as critical first steps toward creating and targeting effective messaging. In some cases understanding the breadth of the human behavior hurdles is daunting—attendees were caught off guard by some results of their research, in particular, that even the knowledge of the consequences of disturbing wildlife would not deter a significant percentage of people from knowingly doing it. Even if the conclusions are disheartening, knowledge can only strengthen our strategies in the long run. For her second appearance at our symposium, Sara Melena, Communication Specialist for the National Park Service, provided an update on their iconic messaging aimed at preventing both wildlife disturbance and wildlife-related human injury in National Parks. If you are wondering what I mean by iconic, you only need follow their social media or park websites. The stuff is golden.

As a keynote to the wildlife conservation messaging theme, Sarah Bekessy from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology covered highlights from an article on which she was a co-authored: Five Lessons to Guide More Effective Biodiversity Conservation Message Framing.

“Communication and advocacy approaches that influence attitudes and behaviors are key to addressing conservation problems, and the way an issue is framed can affect how people view, judge, and respond to an issue. Responses to conservation interventions can also be influenced by subtle wording changes in statements that may appeal to different values, activate social norms, influence a person’s affect or mood, or trigger certain biases, each of which can differently influence the resulting engagement, attitudes, and behavior.” Kusmanoff et al. 2020

Have you noted the use of the term “social norm” as a goal of wildlife conservation messaging? What does that mean? Social norms are defined as the informal rules that govern behavior in groups and societies by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology. They are not rigid, but plastic, ever-changing in response to trends in human beliefs, expectations, and common knowledge. Social norms are powerful constraints on human behavior, with social sanctions providing the consequences of violating them. I’d argue a social norm of respecting the needs of wildlife exists in a portion of the population. Will we be able to use messaging and the power of active community stewardship to push that social norm passed a tipping point? The goal is to foster and support communities that demonstrate care for nature and wildlife to such an extent organizations like Sea Otter Savvy become unnecessary in all but supportive role.  I will happily accept that demotion.

Would you like to learn more from these presenters? You can review their talk summaries/abstracts HERE. The individual videos of talks from this event will be posted on Sea Otter Savvy's YouTube channel (as soon as we finish editing them). 

 

Above: Examples of messages creating a large and reduced psychological distance. The would-be campaign poster on left does nothing to reduce psychological distance between the threat to whales and the reader because it has an image of a whale in its natural state (abstract for most people) and emphasizes the threat occurs far away (Antarctica). In contrast, the poster on the right reduces psychological distance by increasing the vividness, emphasizing the threat, making the whale relatable to humans (i.e., the whale is making a plea for help, has tears), avoiding mention that the hunt occurs far away, and seeking to engender a connection to the reader by referring to “our whales. From Kusmanoff et al. 2020

The participants of the first California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium in 2015

History of this Symposium

Building on a seabird-focused Wildlife Disturbance Symposium organized by Seabird Protection Network in 2013, Sea Otter Savvy has partnered with the Respect Wildlife project to organize this wildlife disturbance symposium since 2015. Our goal from the start has been focused on maximizing the effectiveness of diverse efforts to mitigate human-caused disturbance to coastal wildlife by fostering agreement upon common strategies and messaging, creating a forum for the sharing of new ideas, and supporting collaboration.  After a full day of talks and activities, attendees were invigorated and inspired to return home with new solutions and connections. With human population steadily encroaching on wild lands, our remaining wild animals need champions more than ever. It is clear from the growing interest and participation in this symposium that the momentum of this movement to prevent human-caused wildlife disturbance is growing. Let’s keep the wave of awareness moving forward and work together to create a more peaceful world for our wild neighbors.

Attendees represented these agencies and organizations:

NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Park Service, CA State Parks, US Fish and Wildlife Service, CA Dept of Fish and Wildlife, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Bureau of Land Management, NOAA–NMFS Office of Law Enforcement, Seabird Protection Network, Sea Otter Savvy, MPA Collaborative Network, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Johns Hopkins University, Heirs to Our Oceans, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Bay Net and Team OCEAN, Friends of the Elephant Seal, The Marine Mammal Center, Kayak Connection, Monterey Bay Kayaks, Monterey Bay Eco Tours, Jeff & Wendy Photography, and others...

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Our Consumption of Wildness

By Gena Bentall

Sea otters in California are commonly found in heavily urbanized areas. Photo by Gena Bentall

I have many vivid memories of the stories of individual tagged wild sea otters from the thirteen years I spent tracking them every day...

consumption santacruz nlarocheThe process of data collection has detachment built in—we stand on shore, 100s of meters from the sea otters we’re tracking, with high-powered telescopes that can zoom our perspective right onto the sea otter’s belly. Connecting with the same individuals every day—the goal of the research was to resight every tagged sea otter in our study area daily—unavoidably cultivated respect and affection for sea otters as individuals. We were lucky. We could experience that intimate bond without proximity. We often joked that the sea otters had no idea of the extent to which they were being spied on. I suspect most others living on or visiting the California central coast have not had the privilege of such relationship with wildness. In fact, I suspect they’ve been starved of it.

consumption figureS. Hamilton 2023 unpublished dataIn the early days of human development, a connection to wildness was an immersive, unavoidable part of existence. Our very survival depended upon deep understanding of nature. As civilization progressed, significant innovation was directed and distancing and protecting ourselves from the wild—housing, agriculture, the meat industry, urbanization. In the era of AI and handheld technology we may be farther from our early bonds to the plants and animals
around us than ever before. During our current observations of humans and sea otters for Sea Otter Savvy, we often see kayakers experiencing wildlife through their smart phones. This is so frequent we have a field on our data sheet to record it (see figure form our data at right). I often describe people as having a “screen mentality” about wildlife. For many, their only experience of wild animals has been through the screen of their television, computer, or phone and, once confronted with a real world wild creature, the view through a screen offers a sense of comfort, safety and, unfortunately, detachment.

With their combination of charisma and accessibility, sea otters are frequent targets of pursuit—usually headed their way in the form of kayakers, scuba divers, and boaters—with the goal of a photo for Instagram or that yearned for personal encounter. It has been a central mission of our organization to work within communities to reduce disturbance to sea otters caused by these frequent too-close approaches. But the chronic exposure to people can lead to what might seem at first glance to be the opposite effect: habituation--the loss of a wild animal’s natural aversion to humans. A quick internet search can bring up a list of viral videos of kayakers with habituated sea otters aboard their boat—celebrating the encounter, lauded and envied by followers—with no comprehension of the harmful impact of such encounters to the sea otters. How could this innocent interaction be harmful?

consumption sea otter biteThis girl was lucky this habituated sea otter only got a mouthful of her fleece and not her arm. Photo by Gena BentallDirect interaction with sea otters can be dangerous to pets, people, and otters. Sea otters are carnivores with powerful jaws and sharp teeth that can inflict serious injury. Sea otters are dangerous animals and incidents of sea otter aggression towards people or pets are also likely to result in the otter being removed from the wild. Inevitably, it will be the sea otter that suffers the ramifications. Sea Otter Savvy is battling against a viral torrent of naivete cloaked as affection as we work to discourage these hazardous interactions.

The world witnessed a viral tsunami of another sort in the coverage or Santa Cruz’s surfboard stealing sea otter 841, whose story has ascended to legend (and even the name of a local ice cream flavor). For me, her story has not been an amusing one of nature getting revenge on encroaching humans, but rather a cautionary tale of what our inescapable presence has diminished in these animals. In her lifetime, sea otter 841 (indicating that she is the 841st sea otter released through the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s rehabilitation program) was exposed to humans from birth to present day. Rehabilitation, while designed to avoid habituating its customers to humans, unavoidably exposes them to the shapes, smells, sounds, and world of humans. From there 841 was released into the waters of Monterey Bay where humans are ubiquitous and escape from their presence impossible. Whether 841 has traits that predispose her to bold behavior we can only speculate, but the human factors—kayakers, boaters, paddleboarders, surfers—had her literally surrounded.

Once photos and videos of her hit the media, the public interest was engaged at full throttle, and the codependent relationship of information supply and demand took on a Godzilla-like stature. Like the snake ouroboros, the story consumed its own origins and induced curious 841 fans to seek out sea otters not just at her Santa Cruz home but at all our Central California coastal study sites. We observed record disturbance during the weeks of peak media coverage. Sea otters were “in” and the moral of 841s story was lost.

Below are photgraphs taken in an afternoon overlooking Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz during the "surfing sea otter" frenzy. Top: A couple in a small boat ignores the "alert" warning behavior of the sea otter raft and eventually causes them all to dive and flee. Photo By Brad Peebler. Bottom: This photographer separated a female sea otter with a pup from the raft while taking her picture. Photo by Gena Bentall.

Habituation—the diminishing of loss of a wild animal’s aversion to humans—is tricky to define scientifically. There has been little research into the cause and effect of habituation in sea otters (graduate students in search of a thesis, drop me a note) bit it seems likely that repeated, prolonged exposure to human activities is a factor. Especially damaging are exposures that offer a resource reward like feeding and providing a kayak haul out. These same interactions are perceived as enchanting to people because they fulfill the need for that precious and rare intimate bond with nature. Unfortunately, our hunger for connection with wildlife is paired in time and space with the need of wild animals (and plants too, whose voice is even harder to hear) to have distance from us. i

We have retained the ancestral longing for wildness and perhaps perceive its absence consciously or in the form of an undefined emptiness.  But we have forgotten or lost the skills needed to interact appropriately. I sometimes refer to this rare trait as “animal sense”. We as humans can learn though. And as cultures are overtaken by population growth, urban sprawl, pandemics, and addiction to technology, learning is our obligation.

My words may cast me as pessimistic, but the contrary is true. Were it not for my belief in the possibility of change, Sea Otter Savvy, and its hopeful message that the communities and neighbors of sea otters can be their heroes, could not survive. Awareness, and a willingness to adapt how we assert our place on the planet, can overtake the damage being done. I believe it must.

Let us relearn or redefine what coexistence with wildlife means in the modern world! For the sea otters of California, there is no place they can escape to be free of human proximity and the threat that inevitably imposes. Of all wild creatures, we are the ones that can make choices about how we behave. We are the ones who have the self-awareness to recognize our impacts on other species and adjust our behavior to minimize harm. Coexistence no longer has the space to be completely anthropocentric. We are not separate or above our wild neighbors, they are part of our ecology and sustainable coexistence allows all to thrive. In this ever more crowded world, we may have to find ways to feed our hunger to connect with wildness, without irretrievably consuming it.

consumption good behaviorGuided kayakers in Elkhorn Slough manage their group span and distance to view sea otters safely and responsibly. Photo by Gena Bentall

Learn to be a good neighbor to wildlife:
Be Sea Otter Savvy: https://www.seaottersavvy.org/viewing-guidelines
National Marine Sanctuaries Wildlife Viewing Guidelines: https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/wildlife-viewing/
Respect Wildlife: https://www.respect-wildlife.org/

consumption bio Gena sunsetGena Bentall is the Founder, Director, and Senior Scientist for Sea Otter Savvy. She has spent countless hours over more than 20 years observing sea otters and humans together in their ecosystem. 

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FINAL SOAW logo 2023

Throughout Sea Otter Awareness Week 2023 (September 24-30) you can meet volunteers and staff from SeaLife Stewards, Sea Otter Savvy, The Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz Museums of Natural History, the Central Coast Aquarium, and the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History to learn about and experience wild sea otters from the best viewing locations in California. Volunteers will be ready to help you be expert otter spotters with binoculars and spotting scopes, answer your sea otter questions, and share how you can help protect sea otters and be Sea Otter Savvy! Click on the Sea Otter Awareness Week icons on the map below to find the station nearest you. Each location icon has a photo of the site and hours when volunteers will be present. 

This year's theme, "Restoring Missing Links," recognizes that sea otters remain absent from large portions of their historical range while celebrating the active efforts of conservation groups to restore a continuous population of these charismatic creatures and other missing elements along the Pacific coast. Explore all the activities and events taking place during Sea Otter Awareness Week 2023 at https://defenders.org/sea-otter-awareness-week

Get Sea Otter Awareness Week 2023 official swag HERE.

7 Days of Sea Otter Awareness Quiz! 

How sea otter savvy are you?

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter throughout the week of September 24-30, 2023 for daily posts to increase your sea otter awareness and ace our SOAW quiz! 

  • The quiz will be published at 12:00 PM September 30, take he quiz by scanning the QR code below or by clicking this HERE.
  • Answer each question–our posts throughout the week will help you 
  • TAke the quiz by 5:00 pm PST, October 6, 2023
  • Winning entry will be drawn randomly from entries scoring 100%
  • Winner will receive a Sea Otter Savvy t-shirt of their size and color choice!

7 days quiz QR code SOAW23

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The Spore Solution: Helping Kelp Forests Regain Their Former Glory

Bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) canopy in Drake's Bay, California. Photo by Dan Gossard

A novel restoration technique could add to the efforts aimed to solve the kelp conundrum in northern California…

kelp urchinbarrens zackRandellA purple urchin barrens in California. Photo by Zach RandellImagine for a moment, that you are a drowsy otter, getting blissfully rocked to sleep by the gentle rise and fall of the surge, without a care in the world. You are safe because the kelp draped over your belly will anchor you and keep you from being swept away during your slumber. This is the charismatic image that comes to mind when one thinks about Monterey Bay, and what one might imagine the northern coast looking like before the otters disappeared. The dense, golden kelp forests are the foundation along the rugged Pacific Coast, providing food for the critters on the bottom, shelter for the fish swimming below the surface, and an anchor for a tired furry mammal. These beds of swaying algae are also cherished by humans, including scuba divers, artists, and beachgoing children alike. But beyond their aesthetic attributes, these bountiful forests also perform a critical ecosystem function, serving as a foundational species, a species that is abundant and can uniquely control the surrounding biodiversity.

Unfortunately, in recent years it has become no secret that the California kelp forests are in decline, with little hope for a natural rebound. It all started in 2013, when a devastating disease known as seastar wasting syndrome, wiped out many seastar populations, including the sea-urchin-devouring sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides). One year later, the ocean along the Pacific Coast experienced unusually warm temperatures for a prolonged period of time, creating non-ideal conditions for bull kelp forests. In that same year, scientists detected a reduction in annual kelp forest cover up and down the California coast. This “perfect storm” was a one-two punch to bull kelp, putting it at a severe disadvantage that caused a shift from healthy forests to urchin barrens over the course of just a few years. By 2019, an estimated 95 percent of the northern kelp forests had disappeared, causing profitable commercial fisheries for red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) and red sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) to dramatically decline. The resulting barrens, in the absence of kelp forests and characterized by bare rocky bottoms and ravenous hordes of purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), are now common off the coast of California.

Now, for most, this drastic change in the ecosystem that seemingly happened overnight was a shock and a reason for immediate action. The kelp forests are a staple along the California coast, and without this foundational species, we know that the whole ecosystem shifts. Understandably, fishers, locals, and some scientists, quickly sprang into action, formulating ways to intervene to hopefully keep the forests alive. However, some scientists urged caution, suggesting everyone take a step back and look at the full picture. Much like a pendulum that swings back and forth, the kelp forest ecosystem has two “steady states” or systems that remain stable until a large shift occurs and swings that system to the opposite state. The kelp forest is either in a healthy kelp forest state or an urchin barren state. Throughout history, humans have documented kelp forests swinging back and forth, shifting between these two stable states. This means that the kelp forest could naturally recover from an urchin-barren state, it just needs time and the right conditions. However, much of California’s coastal economy (and many people’s livelihoods) relies on the kelp forest staying in a stable and healthy state. Because of this, state officials and scientists agreed that intervening and assisting the kelp forests in their recovery was the best plan of action.

Kelp On the boat pre dispersalResearchers prepare for a spore dispersal from the boat. Photo by Elizabeth Carpenter.However, kelp restoration is no easy task. This is especially true in northern California due to the dynamic, high-wave action coast, the presence of an insatiable grazer, and the unique life history of the bull kelp species. As an annual kelp, it completes its entire life cycle within one year. This life history aligns with seasonal variability, with growth occurring in the early spring through summer, and spore production and dispersal taking place in the fall. Much like a fern, bull kelp produces reproductive spores that are packed by the millions into specialized tissues called sori, releasing and dispersing the spores when they are mature. Bull kelp completes its life cycle when its long, flowing strands are ripped from the seafloor and deposited on the beach by large winter storms. Although this live-fast-die-young life history allows the bull kelp to persist in extreme environments, its annual life cycle poses many challenges for restoration. The most successful techniques applied to kelp in California to date have focused on species that either reproduce year-round or are in low-wave action regions.

In recent years ecologists and biologists, alongside state officials, non-profit kelp experts, and passionate commercial and recreational divers, have been working around the clock to try and restore the kelp forests, including the northern California canopy forming kelp species, bull kelp (Nereocystis lutkeana). Kelp restoration techniques that are currently being tested include urchin removals, spore bags, seeded lines, and seeded gravel. However, the hungry urchins are quick to devour any new bull kelp that starts to grow, preventing kelp forests from recovering. Divers have worked tirelessly to remove purple urchins, eliminating over 50,000 lbs from 2019 to 2021, reducing the density of urchins in hopes that the kelp would come back on its own. Spore bags (mesh bags with spore-dense material collected from a nearby healthy bull kelp bed) and seeded lines (spore-seeded rope bolted to the seafloor) have also been tested alongside urchin removals. There have also been experiments with Green Gravel, or gravel seeded with kelp spores. However, regardless of the technique, researchers have found that kelp restoration methods are generally costly and limited to restoring small regions at a time. In August 2022, The Spore Solution Team, (Elizabeth Carpenter, FISHBIO and Daniel Gossard, Monterey Bay Seaweeds), joined the battle to save the kelp forests, proposing to test a novel restoration technique that may be used as a complementary tool to bolster kelp forest recovery.


kelp pilot study with microscope slidesResearcher Dan Gossard secures the custom 3D-printed microscope slide holder to a concrete block as part of a pilot experiment to test how far the spores disperse. Photo by Elizabeth Carpenter.The Spore Solution kelp restoration project, funded by Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, aims to test a technique that reduces overall costs, removes the need for physical substrates for kelp spores (like mesh bags, rope, or gravel), and may restore large swaths of kelp forests in a single deployment. The approach is meant to be a spore dispersal enhancement, providing a “helping hand” to the few natural populations of bull kelp still present in northern California. The methodology is based on three simple steps: 1) collect a small amount of spore-rich material from a local bull kelp population, 2) encourage spores to release into a container of seawater, and 3) deploy the concentrated solution of spores to the restoration site. This third step is made easy by the affectionately named “Reef Duster,” a custom-fabricated system that deposits the spore solution directly to the ocean floor. Restoration areas targeted during the experiments include regions where bull kelp forests historically flourished. The Spore Solution project team conducted the first spore dispersal trial in September 2022 in Drake’s Bay, but due to a variety of issues, including the very uncharacteristically wet winter in early 2023, the spores dispersed were likely buried by sediment. In June 2023, a pilot study was conducted in Monterey Bay, to measure the applicability of the method and the distance in which the spores traveled once they were dispersed on the sea floor. Initial findings suggest that when billions of spores are dispersed directly to the substrate, spores will recruit within meters of the dispersal point. These findings give the Spore Solution Team hope that this method could be scaled up to regional restoration efforts in the future. In September 2023, the Spore Solution Team will be dispersing spores once more in Drake’s Bay, keeping their fingers crossed that 2024 doesn't bring along more uncharacteristic winter storms.

Someday we hope the sea otters once again drowsily sleeping in northern California’s kelp beds, once again lending their predatory superpowers to efforts to restore coastal ecosystems. Until then, the future will tell if this novel technique is successful on a larger scale, and how it may become a tool in the restoration toolbox used to solve the northern California kelp conundrum.

If you would like to visualize kelp canopy loss in California over time, check out The Nature Conservancy’s interactive map at kelpwatch.org.

Sea otters rafted in a California kelp bed. Photo by Joan Tisdale.

kelp Elizabeth RamsayAbout Guest Blogger Elizabeth Carpenter

Elizabeth is an aquatic biologist and communications specialist with extensive experience in a wide variety of marine and freshwater systems. She has many years of experience working as a scientific communicator and biologist in aquatic systems. She regularly writes reports, develops communication materials for multiple websites and social media platforms, and mentors science communication interns at FISHBIO. Elizabeth holds a Master of Science Degree in Marine Biology and Ecology from California State University Monterey Bay and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, where she designed an experimental thesis testing morphological plasticity in two kelp species based on wave exposure along the Monterey Bay Peninsula.

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