By Molly Sharlach
Santa Cruz Sentinel
PACIFIC GROVE — On a Friday afternoon at Asilomar State Beach, the receding surf left a pool packed with life in each rocky hollow. Teenage scientists arrived in rubber boots, armed with clipboards and pencils, to inventory every creature. Their records would contribute to an invaluable archive of coastal life.
They crouched down over grids made from PVC pipe and nylon string to count the organisms in a 20-inch-square plot. One girl reeled off the names of animals and plants as her partner counted.
“Feather boa kelp?”
More than mere counting exercises, the students’ seaside surveys had a broad purpose. The eight 10th-graders in Christian Reilly’s honors marine ecology class at Santa Catalina School in Monterey are among thousands of young “citizen scientists” in California who take part in the Long-Term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students, or LiMPETS.
Middle- and high-school students in the program learn about the process of science while monitoring precious life along the coast. Among other creatures, the students look out for limpets, common sea snails that cling tenaciously to algal “farms” on intertidal rock faces.
Following the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay, state and federal scientists used data from the program to gauge the damage and track the recovery of coastal ecosystems. The California Fish and Game Commission establishes baseline conditions for marine protected areas. By recording typical variations over a period of years, LiMPETS and other monitoring groups help officials determine the impacts of major disruptions, not to mention the more incremental effects of global warming and rising sea levels.
“One of the advantages of citizen science groups like LiMPETS is that the state, and even the academic institutions, don’t have the resources to do the baseline monitoring that’s really needed,” said Sonke Mastrup, executive director of the Fish and Game Commission. “These citizen groups can multiply that capacity by their involvement.”
For an accurate inventory, the Santa Catalina students set up their grids at two-meter intervals along an 18-meter line stretching from the relatively dry, sparsely populated splash zone down to the species-rich low tide area, which was gradually submerged by the rising tide over the course of the hour.