Sierra is a senior at Stanford studying Earth Systems, an interdisciplinary environmental science program, and will be working in environmental policy after graduation. Prior to coming to COS, she interned at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Environment and Natural Resources Division and with environmental nonprofits in Chile and the San Juan Islands in Washington state. She also worked on the California coastal adaptation and small-scale fisheries projects at COS last summer. 


Over the last year The Center for Ocean Solutions worked with incredible scientists, policy makers and innovators to address and solve some of the ocean’s most difficult challenges. The 2016 Annual Report breaks down some exciting projects we have worked on over the last year, including updates on current ongoing projects like Environmental DNA, recaps from completed projects like “Bright Spots” research and a Q&A with Cassandra Brooks, one of the main scientists who pushed forward for the establishment of the largest international Marine Protected Area, the Ross Sea. Other stories covered include our Ocean Tipping Points project and their brand new website, showcasing four years of synthesized data and knowledge based tools for ocean management. The report also expands on the MARINE program, highlighting key events that they focused on this last year to support young incoming scientists of the future.

Don’t miss the welcome video starring Science Director Larry Crowder as he recaps some of the most relevant projects of the last year and welcomes in our two new co-directors, Fiorenza Micheli and Jim Leape.

Read the Report here

Watch the welcome video here


Crossing an ecosystem tipping point creates dramatic change. From collapsed fisheries and coastal dead zones, to melting sea ice and dying coral reefs, the consequences are often devastating to both the environment and the people who depend on it. Tipping points occur when small shifts in human pressure or environmental conditions bring about large, sometimes abrupt changes in a system - whether in a human society, a physical system, an ecosystem, or our planet’s climate.  

Researchers and ocean managers working together on the Ocean Tipping Points Project have just launched a new website portal that provides concrete analytical tools, guidance and resources to help ocean managers predict and prevent the crossing of tipping points, or recover from ones already crossed, in order to keep ecosystems healthy and resilient.

Fisheries collapses are a prime example of ocean tipping points—as a result of overfishing, many ocean systems have undergone ecosystem shifts that make it difficult to recover or restore fish stocks to desired levels. Globally nearly 30% of all fisheries are collapsed or overfished, resulting in negative impacts on human communities around the world, at an estimated cost of $50 billion a year.

While the costly impacts of tipping points are well known, practical tools for coping with them have been limited. Today, global climate change and other large-scale alterations to our environment are making ecosystems even more dynamic and unpredictable. The materials housed in the Ocean Tipping Points portal are a timely and valuable addition to the management toolkit in the face of dramatic ocean change.

“Over the last five years, our collaborative research team has developed new science, tools and guidance to help ocean and coastal managers safeguard ecological and human wellbeing, even in a changing world. The purpose of the website is to make those resources easily accessible to managers, with practical recommendations and lots of examples from our work and others’ around the world,” said Carrie Kappel, Ocean Tipping Points lead principal investigator and Senior Fellow at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis .

The information in the portal links best available science, law and policy to practical management guidance, and is based on global synthesis as well as in-depth case studies on coral reef management in Hawaii and fisheries management in British Columbia. The Ocean Tipping Points Guide, featured on the website, walks users through four strategies for incorporating knowledge about ocean tipping points into existing management decision-making. The portal also provides information for specific management contexts, including water quality, fisheries, vulnerable species recovery, restoration, and ecosystem-based management.

Other sections of the portal describe how tipping points science aligns with current U.S. and Canadian environmental laws and regulations, and provide links to tools, data and publications relevant to tipping points management. A ‘community of practice’ section of the site allows scientists, managers, and others working to protect ocean resources to post questions and connect with peers and experts.

Said project researcher Ashley Erickson, Assistant Director for Law and Policy at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions: "We have worked hard to make sure the science we’ve generated isn’t just theoretical or conceptual, but is instead grounded in reality, to make it as useful and accessible to ocean managers, policy makers, and scientists as possible.”


California’s coastal bluffs may recede by as much 100 feet and extreme floods will become ever more common, according to recent studies. Communities are beginning to feel the pinch and coastal land managers are brainstorming how to address these extreme events and effects of California's dynamic coastline and sea level rise. To inform these efforts, a working group of coastal land use and public trust experts, convened by Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, has published a "Consensus Statement on the Public Trust Doctrine, Sea Level Rise, and Coastal Land Use in California."

Jointly authored by former state agency staff, professors, and local government representatives, the Consensus Statement asserts that the requirements of the public trust doctrine provide a framework for coastal adaptation through long-term planning and decision making, while ensuring that public values are not substantially impaired. The public trust doctrine is a long standing legal principle that requires governments to protect tide and submerged lands and navigable waterways for the benefit, use, and enjoyment of the public. In California, this obligation applies to all government decisionmakers, including state and local legislatures, agencies, and other government bodies. The Statement, accompanied by an in-depth white paper, provides a consensus interpretation of what the public trust doctrine requires of California coastal decisionmakers and how these decisionmakers can utilize forward-thinking strategies to protect public interests in the coastline from the threats of sea level rise.

“Representatives of a variety of state agencies have been grappling with how our public trust doctrine obligations will interact with sea level rise,” said Jennifer Lucchesi, Executive Officer of the California State Lands Commission, who briefed the authors on the agencies’ current perspectives and challenges. “The Center for Ocean Solutions working group, which included highly respected experts in this field, put this issue front and center and is providing a concise, relevant, and meaningful document that we can all use and reference in the future.”

The Consensus Statement is the product of a year of discussions focused on emerging threats to California’s public resources and how those threats will affect the state’s public trust responsibilities. Ultimately, members of the working group wanted to convey to state decisionmakers that, as our collective understanding of sea level rise grows, the public trust doctrine necessitates the inclusion of new evidence and consideration of all alternatives when confronting decisions regarding the use of public trust resources.

Ralph Faust, former Chief Counsel of the California Coastal Commission shared a key takeaway: “California's dynamic coastline has always presented a land use management challenge, but sea level rise is increasing the complexity of that challenge. We can no longer assume that our valuable coastal resources and infrastructure, that may have been safe from inundation and storm surges when built, will survive the next 20 or 30 years. Given the potential losses, the public trust doctrine’s requirement to consider the effects of foreseeable environmental change upon public resources in our long-term planning and project level decisions is a critical tool to protect our public interests and resources along the coast.”

Drawing on prior experience, the working group discussed the need to understand how public trust obligations and an increasingly constrained shoreline will affect the work of various state agencies, all with their own mandates to permit and regulate varying sectors of the California coast. Additionally, the group brainstormed and delivered concrete actions that can improve coordination among key stakeholder groups and proactive planning for the challenge ahead.

Moving forward, the working group members and Center for Ocean Solutions will share this work with a variety of audiences, including local and state coastal managers, with the intent to facilitate the coordination and cooperation required to prepare for the coastal adaptation challenges we face state wide. 


Read more about the Project here


In May of 2016, almost exactly 70 years after Operation Crossroads detonated an atom bomb over its lagoon, a film crew from Natural History New Zealand, Stanford University researchers, and a traveling electric violinist stepped onto the radioactive shores of Bikini Atoll. The team went to examine the long term fallout from the twenty three atomic bombs detonated in the remote Marshall Islands from 1946-1954.

In the just released PBS special ‘Big Pacific’, Professor Steve Palumbi spearheads the effort to examine the land and reefs of Bikini to see how life has recovered from the nuclear testing. Genetic testing by graduate student Elora Lopez is designed to see if the radiation damaged the island corals. On land, samples from coconut crabs, which eat virtually nothing but radioactive coconuts, will reveal if genetic mutation occurred.

But there was also a different voice on the expedition: singer-songwriter and electric violinist, Razz.  Her goal - to explore the deeper meaning of the nuclear tests on Bikini by bringing the classic song Cross Road Blues to the site of Operation Crossroads. The iconic Robert Johnson blues song speaks of a deal with the devil made at the crossroads for fame and fortune. Directed by Dan Griffin of GG Films, in one of the most inaccessible locations on the planet, Razz’ live performance highlights the risks of making such deals. 

Crossroads - A Deal with the Devil – watch video here 

On this expedition, Palumbi’s research goal is to understand the hidden costs that still lurk in the DNA of Bikini survivors. Razz’ music video, with haunting electric virtuosity, visualizes the planetary cost of a different deal with the devil.


Crossroads - A Deal with the Devil – https://youtu.be/Q6jE8yjE3rQ
Performed by Razz, Razz@Razzvio.com
Percussion – Kevin Proctor, Kevin@kproctor.com
Audio Produced, Mixed & Mastered – Kevin Proctor, Tassajara Studio
Director– Dan Griffin, GG Films, dan@ggfilms.com
Producer– Steve Palumbi, spalumbi@stanford.edu

Camera and Editor – Dan Griffin

Audio-for-Video Mix – Robin Garthwait, GG Films

Animal Sequence – Faith Torgeson

Drone Footage – Courtesy NHNZ Big Pacific

Cross Road Blues – Robert Johnson
A StoryCats Production




A recent paper in Science calls on marine scientists to incorporate social responsibility into sustainable seafood metrics. Consumer demand for sustainable seafood has led to certification programs and protocols for environmentally sustainable fishing, but guidelines for the treatment of humans who work in fisheries have lagged behind.

Authored by a team of 20 researchers at leading organizations, including Stanford University and Conservation International, the paper is the first integrated approach to meeting this global challenge. The authors presented the work as part of the United Nations Oceans Conference and the SeaWeb Seafood Summit, both of which took place June 5-9 in New York and Seattle, respectively. The paper identifies three key principles that together establish a global standard for social responsibility in the seafood sector: protecting human rights, dignity and respecting access to resources; ensuring equality and equitable opportunities to benefit; and improving food and livelihood security.

Fiorenza Micheli, a professor of biology at Stanford and a co-author of the paper, discusses why addressing human rights in fisheries is such a critical issue, and how the group hopes to move forward.

What brought the issue of human rights in fisheries to your attention?

The major catalyst for this paper was a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning news stories exposing the rampant slavery in seafood fishing and production internationally. Slavery is the most egregious kind of human rights issue to address, but there are also many other social issues occurring throughout the seafood supply chain. We need to think about providing sustainable livelihoods and well-being for workers that provides economic security and food security for people who are engaged in those fisheries.

Scientists and NGOs have been working on environmental aspects of seafood sustainability for over two decades now, but the aspect of social responsibility has been largely ignored. This paper represents a major shift in perspective. We think that consumers want to know not only that their seafood is harvested sustainably, but also that it is fished in a way that respects human rights.

In our own work with small-scale fisheries in Baja California, Mexico, we have seen the tight coupling of the ecological and social performance and governance of fisheries. We realized that promoting sustainability requires a focus on both ecosystems and people, while previous sustainability efforts had focused primarily on just the ecosystems.

Why publish this paper now?

This paper came out within a week of both the United Nations Ocean Conference and the SeaWeb Seafood Summit, where the issue of social responsibility was at the forefront.

Nations manage their own fisheries, but there are guidelines that have been produced by the UN, including guidelines for labor practices for environmental and social sustainability in small-scale fisheries, so the UN Ocean Conference was a really important venue at which to discuss this framework. The SeaWeb Seafood Summit is where businesses and producers and distributors of seafood get together, and we rolled out our framework to individual businesses at the meeting to see if we could secure industry support and early adoption.

What has the response been so far to your social responsibility framework?

I was thrilled to see that nine of the world’s biggest seafood businesses signed an initiative at the UN Ocean Conference pledging to help end slave labor and work toward more sustainable fisheries, and nearly a dozen businesses, including the grocery chain Albertson’s, in attendance at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit signed onto the voluntary agreement. This is a big deal. The next step is to present our recommendations to a broader group of stakeholders from various international government bodies and the seafood industry, as well as to reach out to seafood consumers to increase public awareness about this issue.

The Center for Ocean Solutions, which I co-direct, hosted a meeting in Monterey last April with representatives from about 20 different NGOs and institutions that together drafted the social responsibility framework that we present in the Science paper. Because we worked together on it, these organizations already have significant buy-in.

How do you see the framework being implemented in the future to improve seafood sustainability going forward?

A first key step is to get agreement, similar to what happened when seafood sustainability started to become an issue. In that case, it began with general agreement among scientists, NGOs and industry that we need to think about environmental sustainability, and the details of implementation were developed from there. I hope that the paper brings attention to the need for much larger investment into both research and action to promote social responsibility into fisheries and aquaculture. I also hope that fisheries’ improvement projects and certification programs begin to include the social dimensions we outline in the paper in their sustainability assessments.

How we move to implement social responsibility in specific regions will vary, but we will need the support of the scientific community – including natural scientists and social scientists – working together with stakeholders to help determine how to do so effectively. Many of the NGOs that were involved in developing this framework have already been working with seafood businesses to address social issues; we hope that we can now get some solid commitments from government and industry in light of this paper.

Fiorenza Micheli is co-director of Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions and the David and Lucile Packard Professor of Marine Science at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. The work was funded by the Nippon Foundation’s Nereus Program, the NSF IGERT Program on Ocean Change, the Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Liber Ero Fellowship Program.


Header Photo: Sri Lanka Fishing Boats (image credit: Kristen Weiss)


By Rob Jordan

The ocean might as well be Mars. Like astronomers grasping at ways to identify life on a distant planet, marine scientists have no easy method for detecting sea creatures’ presence in the vast watery realm.

Team members from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute collect water from Monterey Bay for eDNA analysis.(Image credit: Collin Closek)

An emerging technique – analyzing DNA in skin, scales and feces animals leave behind – has shown promise for revealing hidden ecosystems on land and in fresh water. But deep ocean environments have largely proven too complex for the approach. Now, Stanford scientists show progress in using this analysis to overcome complicated water movements and other obstacles to detect ocean animals in locations where the water can be more than 7,200 feet deep.

“We want to know what’s out there,” said study lead author Elizabeth A. Andruszkiewicz, a graduate student in Stanford’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Eventually, this technology may answer bigger questions, such as how communities of organisms have adapted to environmental changes over time.”

Of the few previous environmental DNA, or eDNA, studies of ocean animals, all were done in relatively shallow nearshore environments. Most were done in controlled systems such as saltwater tanks, and few looked in real environments at questions of spatial distribution of eDNA.

The Stanford-led study also marks the first time the approach has been used in the deep waters of Monterey Bay, an important ecosystem in the California Current, which flows southward along the western coast of North America. In addition to being highly productive ecosystems, these areas have been the focus of relatively intensive ongoing research by institutions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (a partner in the study). The resulting archived water samples and long-term datasets present unique opportunities for eDNA analysis of ecological change over time.

Collecting eDNA is fairly straightforward – a basic water sample does the trick – and scientists can archive these samples for long periods by freezing them. The approach promises a faster, more comprehensive and less invasive way to measure abundance and distribution of organisms. It might also be able to detect invasive species or changes in the distribution of endangered species.

“This could revolutionize the way we keep track of animals,” said study co-author Alexandria Boehm, professor of civil and environmental engineering and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Who goes there?

The eDNA survey identified 72 species of vertebrates (marine fishes, mammals such as elephant seals, humpback whales, sharks and rockfishes) at study sites across 28 miles of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Scientists found DNA of some creatures, such as sunfishes, salmon, seahorses and mackerel sharks, only in locations where the water was less than 600 feet deep. DNA of other animals, such as dolphins and marine smelts, turned up only in waters more than 600 feet deep. The shallowest waters held the greatest biodiversity. Taken as a whole, the findings provide a proof of concept for eDNA as an ocean sleuthing tool.

“It is a remarkably powerful way to answer a simple question: What species are present in space and time in our oceans?” said co-author Barbara Block, the Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences at Stanford. “It could change how we view our planet’s marine biodiversity.”

Power of DNA

DNA sequencing has driven unprecedented research and discovery in fields ranging from medical diagnosis to evolutionary biology.

Preliminary studies have shown that eDNA sequencing can identify vertebrate species missed by traditional monitoring methods and can allow sampling in places inaccessible to traditional techniques such as dive surveys and fish trawls. The approach can also be used at finer resolutions, in terms of time and space, compared to traditional biomonitoring methods. This allows scientists to document changes in biodiversity over seasonal and annual cycles, as well as over different topographies.

Questions still remain about how to properly sample water for eDNA, and how to interpret sequencing results to avoid false positives and false negatives. Solving these and other challenges will bring into focus the next frontier for eDNA: counting actual numbers of sea animals and discerning their population-level identity, rather than just detecting their presence. Working with a team of geneticists, fish physiologists, oceanographers and engineers, Boehm and Block hope to realize that goal within 10 years.

Additional authors on “Biomonitoring of marine vertebrates in Monterey Bay using eDNA metabarcoding,” published in PLOS ONE, are Lauren M. Sassoubre, a former postdoctoral scholar at Stanford; Hilary A. Starks of Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions; and Francisco P. Chavez of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

The research was supported by a gift from the Seaver Institute to the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s Environmental Venture Projects program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.


Header Image: Team members from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute collect water from Monterey Bay for eDNA analysis.(Image credit: Collin Closek)


Check out our newest episode in the Series of Solutions titled The Postdoc: using environmental DNA to solve ocean mysteries !

How do you find ocean wildlife when you can't see it? Collect a scoop of sea water! All marine organisms shed pieces of skin, scales, or other tissue that contains traces of their DNA. These small bits of DNA can be collected and analyzed to see which species were present in an area, providing important information where visual surveys may not be sufficient.

Collin Closek, an Early Career Science Fellow at Stanford University's Center for Ocean Solutions, and a team of scientists from Stanford, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research institute, University of South Florida, Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, and National Marine Sanctuaries, are using environmental DNA (eDNA) to examine the presence of different species in the ocean. The eDNA research is part of an initiative called the Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON) which is testing new technologies and developing integrated data systems to track biodiversity in our marine sanctuaries so that we can better manage and protect these species.

Watch the video on Youtube here