The West Coast Laboratory of the Marine Invasion Research Laboratory studies patterns and processes of marine invasions over broad spatial scales. Our laboratory is housed at San Francisco State University's marine research and teaching facility, the Romberg Tiburon Center. We are located north of San Francisco in Marin County, allowing convenient access to field sites throughout the San Francisco Estuary. Our primary focus is the detection and monitoring of marine invasions in California waters. We work closely with our counterparts in Maryland and Oregon to compare the biological diversity and impacts of invasive species in waters on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Our lab also serves as a focal point for research being conducted in Alaska, Guam and Panama.

The San Francisco Estuary is a highly altered ecosystem. During the past 160 years, environmental disturbance of the estuary and its surroundings has escalated dramatically. Some 80 to 90 percent of wetlands and riparian areas have been lost as a result of draining, filling and sedimentation, about 40 percent of the freshwater input is diverted for agricultural and urban uses, and major cities with industry, busy ports, and shipyards line the shores of the estuary. Intense human use has led to a high number of non-native species establishing in the Bay. San Francisco Bay has been called the most invaded aquatic ecosystem in North America. Over 200 introduced plants, invertebrates, fish and other vertebrates have been reported from the estuary and more are discovered every year. Although the impacts of most of these invaders are unknown, a handful of highly abundant non-natives have greatly altered the Bay ecosystem. Examples include the Asian clam Potamocorbula (Corbula) amurensis, which, through its filter-feeding, has dramatically reduced phytoplankton populations in the northern part of the Bay, and the Atlantic cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, which changes sediment dynamics, converting mudflats into meadows and hybridizes with the native cordgrass, resulting in local extirpations.

Our Research

A settling panel from San Francisco Bay covered with an introduced tunicate.

Community Ecology: Settlement panels have been deployed in San Francisco Bay on a quarterly or annual basis since 2000 as part of an international effort to understand and document patterns of invasion in marine coastal waters. Past surveys and manipulative field experiments have been used to examine species richness and diversity in fouling communities. Starting in 2010 the focus in San Francisco Bay has expanded to include establishment of a robust system for detection and monitoring of marine invasions in California waters. Specifically we are measuring the effect of sampling effort over time on detection and cumulative species assemblage. We are also using molecular genetics analysis to ground-truth consistency of identifications based on morphological analysis.

Eradication of Invasive Species: Several invasive species in California have been targeted for eradication including the European Green Crab Carcinus maenas, periwinkles Littorina littorea and L. saxatilis, the Asian Kelp Undaria pinnatifida, the Japanese Mudsnail Batillaria attramentaria, the colonial tunicate Didemnum vexillum, and the Knotted Kelp Ascophyllum nodosum. Eradication efforts include assessing the effectiveness of removal techniques such as manual removal, heat and freshwater treatments. The aim is to attempt eradication locally and inform eradication efforts elsewhere as species continue to spread.

Volunteers Gemma, Brianna, Isabel and Morgan removing Undaria from South Beach Harbor Marina in San Francisco Bay. Photo by Marianne Kavanagh.

The Asian Kelp Undaria pinnatifida from Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Japan is one of the species targeted in an ongoing erradication effort. Over the last two years over 150 volunteers have worked to remove kelp from marinas in San Francisco Bay. This effort has and continues to reduce the kelp population in local marinas. Undaria is a fast-growing kelp that fouls ship hulls, fishing gear, moorings, and other marine structures, resulting in economic and ecological damage across the introduced range. The kelp also competes for light and space with native populations of marine algae, plants and animals, altering native ecosystems. For more on this effort see our October 2011 feature story  and the Undaria website to sign up to be a volunteer. 

Citizen Science: We are establishing a citizen science network to monitor for target non-native species in Alaska and California. Target species include easily identifiable species such as the Asian Kelp Undaria pinnatifida mentioned above, the European Green Crab, Carcinus maenas and the Japanese Mudsnail, Batillaria attramentaria. Participants in the monitoring program include scientists from local state and federal agencies, concerned citizens, school groups and native Alaskan groups. When one of the targeted species or a new unknown species is found, participants submit photographs through a website (itunicate and Undaria) and/or mail preserved specimens to the lab for confirmation or identification. The program engages participants in the scientific process and provides valuable information about invasive species.

Community volunteers assist SERC researchers in the removal of the Japanese Mudsnail, Batillaria attramentaria.

Hull Fouling as an Invasion Vector: Scientific divers conduct in-water hull surveys of commercial ships and recreational vessels in West Coast ports using remotely operated vehicles and video cameras to assess the extent of fouling. The divers then collect samples for biological analyses. These data are used to determine the effects of season, vessel type, speed, vessel husbandry, and route on the degree of hull fouling.

 
Gail Ashton (SERC) conducting a hull fouling survey of a commercial ship in Ketchikan, AK. Gail Ashton records data following a dive survey in Ketchikan, AK.

Population Ecology: Key demographic characteristics, such as size, fecundity and parasite loads, of three species - a clam, Gemma gemma, a periwinkle, Littorina saxatilis, and a crab, Rhithropanopeus harrisii - were compared between native (East Coast) and invasive (West Coast) populations to investigate potential differences between the populations.

For more information regarding our west coast research and laboratory, please contact:
Gail Ashton, Lab Manager
(415) 435-7128