Being a tiny fish isn’t easy! Throughout the course of their lives, many fishes move from the open ocean to coastal nursery habitats, and then back to deep off-shore areas. All that traveling leaves them vulnerable to lots of predators and variable food resources. Fish mortality is especially high when they’re very young, so ending up in a nursery habitat with plenty of food and places to hide from predators is critical to allow them to grow up to be successful adults. The goal of my research is to determine the pros and cons of the coastal nurseries available to juvenile California halibut in San Diego. I conduct experiments in San Diego Bay to learn about juvenile halibut habitat preference, and about their ability to find prey and avoid predators in different habitat types.
Unlike most fishes, halibut are flat and have both eyes on the same side of their head. This body plan allows them to sit on the bottom, where their dappled-brown color helps them to blend into the sediment. Because halibut are so well camouflaged in sandy habitat, benefits of highly-structured habitat like eelgrass has been largely overlooked, despite its well-documented benefits to other juvenile marine organisms. Eelgrass provides rich prey resources and lots of hiding places. My research shows that access to eelgrass and to sandy habitat may be important to halibut. Juvenile halibut show a strong preference for eelgrass in habitat choice experiments, but their survival is significantly higher in sandy habitat where they can bury themselves easily. Interactions between juvenile fishes and their habitats affect their growth and survival. Learning about these interactions is important for understanding how nursery habitat quality and availability allow juvenile fishes to grow into healthy, successful adults.
I grew up on the Maine coast, where I spent lots of time in and around the ocean. I always wanted to be a marine biologist, and my undergraduate career at the University of California, Santa Cruz solidified my interests in the scientific process and in marine science. One of the best things about pursuing marine biology is the opportunity for travel and for conducting research in a variety of ecosystems. As an undergrad, I participated in and conducted my own field research throughout California and in French Polynesia. Since I graduated I’ve been involved in research with organisms as diverse as American lobsters in Maine, endangered North Atlantic right whales in Cape Cod, and tropical corals and algae in Belize. My current adventure is pursing my Master’s degree in ecology at SDSU in Dr. Kevin Hovel’s lab.
I’m interested in the ecology of commercially important marine species, especially the behaviors and processes that affect juveniles. Growing up on the Maine coast, I was exposed the cultural and economic importance of fishing, and as I learned more about marine science I quickly learned about the effects fishing has on marine populations and ecosystems. Fisheries biologists and managers pay close attention to fluctuations in populations of adult fishes. These fluctuations are the combined result of fishing pressure and population resilience – the ability of adults to reproduce enough to replace losses due to fishing and natural deaths. Robust adult populations depend on healthy juveniles. The goal of my research is to better understand the interactions between juvenile halibut and the potential coastal nursery habitats they are delivered to as larvae.
I think jumping in the ocean is the best possible way to start the day. I usually get to the CMIL early and head straight to my field site in San Diego Bay with a dive buddy. All my experiments are done underwater, so we put on our SCUBA gear and descend! After setting up experiments or collecting data, we head back to the beach and pull a large net called a seine through the water to collect halibut to use in later experiments. Back at the CMIL, I spend the rest of my day taking care of the fish I keep there, building and repairing field equipment, sorting and identifying samples of halibut prey under the microscope, and working on other Hovel Lab projects.
I love being a marine biologist because it’s such a fun challenge. In the course of a day, I need to be able to think critically and creatively to design effective experiments, design and build specialized equipment, do physically challenging field work, and be detail-oriented as I enter and analyze data and identify tiny organisms under the microscope. Biology is a truly collaborative field, and I love meeting and working with other scientists. CMIL students and faculty work together closely, and I value having the opportunity to help out with and learn about other researchers’ projects. We all come from different backgrounds and have experience in different aspects of marine science; it’s awesome to have access to so many great minds!