Monthly Archives: September 2013

State Wildlife Action Plan Scoping Meetings

CDFW has done a lot of preliminary work on the SWAP Update – and wants to share their findings with you to ensure a robust plan. Eleven meetings throughout the state have been scheduled. Locations include: Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, Palm Springs, Fresno, San Luis Obispo, Bishop, San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Rosa, Redding and Eureka. Dates, times, and locations. See below for times and locations.

The purpose of these meetings is to:

  • Inform the public of the SWAP 2015 Update
  • Ensure broad public participation, and
  • Solicit input on the target habitats and the preliminary conservation strategies.

The SWAP examines the health of fish and wildlife populations and prescribes conservation strategies to conserve species and habitats before they become rare and more costly to protect. The plan also promotes wildlife conservation while furthering responsible use and enjoyment by an ever increasing human population. The conservation strategies take into consideration the relationship between the biology and ecology of the natural environment, together with the social, economic, political and institutional systems that may affect the habitats being conserved.

Doors will open ½ hour before the time stated for each Scoping Meeting. Most meetings begin at 6 p.m. The two exceptions are Los Angeles (7 p.m.) and San Luis Obispo (1 p.m.)  A formal presentation will provide an overview of the SWAP Update process including purpose, background, benefits and timeline. Information on individual regional targets relevant to each meeting will then be presented. Small group discussions will follow. Participants will be asked for their opinion on six questions pertinent to the SWAP Update. An Open House will be held both before and after the presentations and group discussions. Attendees can view posters of the relevant targets and associated threats and stresses. Most importantly, your comments on the process will be sought. Comments can be submitted via email, mail or by a (soon-to-be-developed) online comment form.

Please come, learn about SWAP 2015 Update and provide your comments on the conservation strategies being developed. Your input is important!

Schedule of meetings:

October 3, 2013 (6-9 p.m.)
West Sacramento
West Sacramento Galleria
1110 West Capitol Avenue

October 15, 2013 (7-10 p.m.)
Long Beach
Aquarium of the Pacific – Ocean Theater
100 Aquarium Way

October 16, 2013 (6-9 p.m.)
San Diego
San Diego County Office of Education
6401 Linda Vista Road, Room 401

October 17, 2013 (6-9 p.m.)
Palm Desert
UC Riverside Palm Desert Center
75080 Frank Sinatra Drive, Room B-200

October 24, 2013 (6-9 p.m.)
California Dept. of General Services – Large Assembly Room
2550 Mariposa Mall

October 25, 2013 (1-4 p.m.)
San Luis Obispo
Ludwick Community Assembly Room
864 Santa Rosa Street

October 28, 2013 (6-9 p.m.)
Tri County Fairgrounds – Tallman Pavilion
Sierra Street and Fair Drive

November 5, 2013 (6-9 p.m.)
San Leandro
San Leandro Library – Karp Room
300 Estudillo Avenue

November 6, 2013 (6-9 p.m.)
Santa Rosa
Laguna Environmental Center – Heron Hall
900 Sanford Road (at the corner of Occidental Road)

November 7, 2013 (6-9 p.m.),
South Lake Tahoe
Inn By the Lake – Sierra Nevada Room
3300 Lake Tahoe Blvd.

November 12, 2013 (6-9 p.m.)
Turtle Bay Museum–Museum Classroom
840 Sundial Bridge Drive

November 13, 2013 (6-9 p.m.)
Wharfinger Building – Great Room
1 Marina Way


Project Update

By Armand Gonzales, SWAP Project Lead

It’s been an intense time since we began developing conservation strategies for individual conservation units (ecoregion, watershed, and marine study region) statewide. We have accomplished a lot and I am proud of the effort everyone involved has made. The process required many hours of preparation and even more hours on WebEx calls over a five-month period. I am sure this took its toll on participants’ personal lives, work schedules and “other duties.”

Nevertheless, we made significant progress in defining tangible and implementable strategies built upon the knowledge and experience of local experts. These strategies, when implemented, will address many high priority targets (vegetation communities, habitats and fish assemblages) which will benefit fish and wildlife resources over the next decade and beyond. The intentions of our effort were design and implement strategies that would lead to enhance ecological conditions for selected targets, or to reduce the impacts from various threats and stresses affecting them.  At the same time these conservation actions needed to be ethically and technically feasible, and financially and politically practicable.

The results are unprecedented and a tribute to the professionalism and dedication of Department staff as well as many partner agencies and organizations that contributed their staff’s time to the effort. We had over one hundred and thirty people working on developing strategies with a quarter of those being from other agencies and organizations including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S. Forest Service, U. S. National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management; San Francisco, Central Valley, and Sonoran Joint Ventures; Cal Fire, Department of Water Resources, Delta Conservancy, Point Blue Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, California Invasive Plant Council, California Native Plant Society, as well as the University of California and California State University.

We are still in the process of conducting quality control review on the individual strategies in preparation for the public scoping meetings scheduled for October and November. This QA/QC process will be iterative and continued after the scoping meetings are over, but with additional help from consultants, planned to come on early next year. In addition to fixing errors and improving consistencies, the consultants will also be adding scientific references, looking at and improving the indicators and monitoring sections, and developing strategies for some of the habitats we missed.

We have been able to prepare some summary statistics which may be of some interests:

Sixty-three (63) strategies have been developed overall for 41 of 43 identified statewide conservation units.

The top five Key Ecological Attributes (KEAs, essential ecological conservation factors) of the targets identified were:

  1. area and extent of community,
  2. community structure or composition,
  3. successional dynamics,
  4. connectivity among communities & ecosystems, and
  5. surface water flow regime.

The top five stresses, or the degraded ecological condition of the target, were:

  1. changes in annual average temperatures,
  2. changes in annual average precipitation,
  3. changes in natural fire regime,
  4. changes in water levels and hydroperiod, and
  5. habitat fragmentation.

The top five threats or drivers  that cause or aggravate stresses were:

  1. incompatible housing and urban areas,
  2. incompatible annual & perennial non-timber crops,
  3. incompatible livestock farming & ranching,
  4. incompatible fire & fire suppression, and
  5. invasive plants/animals.

Other notable threats identified by the teams were the incompatible aspect of dams and water management, roads and railroads, renewable energy, utilities, and recreational activities.

The top strategies developed to deal with these threats were:

  1. land acquisition/easements/leases,
  2. partner engagement,
  3. outreach & education,
  4. data collection, analysis and research, and
  5. invasive species management.

Other notable strategies developed included habitat restoration, incentivized conservation, reintroductions of diminishing native species, dam and barrier management, and environmental review.

As deserving as every target is, limited time and budgets have prevented us from developing strategies for all the possible targets. We did, however, thoughtfully select the highest priority habitats or species assemblages for our conservation units to develop strategies. Once implemented, these strategies will likely benefit all the species associated with the habitats, which is a big step towards managing species on an ecosystem level. There is also the opportunity to continue developing strategies over time; as we complete one strategy, we can begin another.

With each strategy we develop we increase our capacity to leverage additional funding and resources which together, may be the best way to achieve meaningful progress towards the conservation of fish and wildlife in California.  Moreover, the work we have done will help drive CDFW funding and staffing prioritization, and influence our conservation partners’ priorities as well.  There is still a lot to be done but we can be proud of our work, making a difference helping conserve our natural heritage for future generations.

California’s Marine Eco-Regions

By Terry Tillman

Macrocystis Kelp

Macrocystis Kelp, photo by Andrew Weltz

The western edge of California forms a coastal ribbon that contains some of our planet’s most productive marine ecosystems. These ecosystems host a myriad of plant and animal assemblages on a scale that exceed the world’s tropical rainforests.  Spanning the length of the State, the marine region includes over 1,100 miles of coastline that is home to many diverse habitats including giant kelp forests, rocky intertidal zones, shallow seagrass meadows, and estuarine marshes.  Though California’s marine region extends only three miles seaward, to the limit of the State’s jurisdiction, this area nonetheless boasts an incredibly rich and complex ocean environment that is ever changing.

California map showing coastal habitatsThe entire marine region can be subdivided into four smaller eco-regions, North Coast Marine Eco-Region, North Central Coast Marine Eco-Region, Central Coast Marine Eco-Region, and the South Coast Marine Eco-Region.  These smaller regions follow logical divisions in water movement or fish assemblages occurring along the coast at:  Point Arena, Pigeon Point, and Point Conception.

Further divisions within the smaller eco-regions are necessary to embrace the unique habitats and conditions within each region in order to have meaningful discussion of conservation strategies.  Thus each

Beach wrack debris at the mouth of the Eel River

Beach wrack debris at the mouth of the Eel River, photo by Andrew Weltz

eco-region is divided into broad ecosystem categories to identify and evaluate threats and stresses for each category.  These broad ecosystems are: 1) Bays, Estuaries and Lagoons; 2) Intertidal Zone; 3) Nearshore Zone (0-30m); 4) Mid Depth Zone (30-100m); and 5) Deep Zone (>100m).  Within these ecosystems, three focal conservation targets were identified in the State Wildlife Action Plan update process as most critical to the development of conservation strategies:

  • Bays, Estuaries and Lagoons: bay surface area at high tide, bay islands, estuarine habitats at the mouth of watershed tributaries, and estuarine waters, tidelands, tidal marshes, and submerged habitats.
  • Coastal Intertidal: all coastal habitats that are subject to periodic tidal inundation, including rocky and sandy intertidal communities from the splash zone to the lower intertidal, and beach wrack (“Wrack” refers to the piles of seaweed, terrestrial plants, and driftwood that wash ashore.)
  • Nearshore Marine: benthic sub-tidal habitats out to 30 meters and the top 30 meters of the water column (euphotic zone) out to 3 nautical miles, including coastal nearshore habitats around islands.
Eel grass

Eel grass, photo by Kirsten Ramey

Nutrient rich waters flow through these diverse habitats, supporting abundant marine wildlife that live both in and above the water.  Eel grass beds, kelp forests, sub-tidal reefs, sea mounts, canyons, expanses of fine grain sediments or sandy sea floor, and open water zones are home to a dazzling array of marine animals.  Between the high-tide and low-tide marks, rocky and sandy intertidal zones provide a home for organisms that spend part of their life out of the water.  Above high-tide, sandy beaches, headlands, estuaries, rocky shorelines, offshore rocks, and islands serve as vital habitat for marine plants, birds, and mammals – and provide spectacular scenery for those fortunate enough to visit these shores.

Alongside this broad array of habitat types and biological assemblages lives the heart of a pulsing state economy with coastal-dependent industries that host various human activities.  The 220,000 square miles of combined State and Federal ocean waters off California sustain some of the busiest shipping lanes and ports in the world.  The marine region is home to multi-million-dollar commercial and recreational fisheries and tourism industries, and also provides unparalleled opportunities for wildlife viewing and recreation.

California halibut

California halibut, photo by Travis Tanaka

Our diverse coastal ecology and economy offer compelling reasons to want to live in California.   So much so, that 80 percent of the State’s estimated 38 million residents live within 30 miles of the coastline.  Not surprisingly, along with the variety of features and diversity of uses, a myriad of environmental stressors to the state’s coastal region has emerged.  California’s marine ecosystems face numerous threats including pollution, habitat destruction, invasive species, fishing pressure, bioaccumulation of toxins, climate change and associated sea level rise and ocean acidification.

The pressures on our marine regions that exist at the interface between human development and the ocean are similar the world over.   However, it is this same diversity and richness of California’s marine region that present unique challenges to its conservation.  Because California’s marine region is of global importance as an area of intense productivity and biodiversity, what occurs here can affect and ripple throughout the Pacific Ocean.  Moreover, an ever- increasing population in California adds a rising level of pressure on this valuable marine resource.

Critical threats that have emerged in evaluating the three critical focal conservation targets (Bays, Estuaries, and Lagoons; Coastal Intertidal; and Nearshore Marine) include:

  • Climate change (a major contributor being anthropogenic greenhouse gases).
  • Diversions and control of freshwater inputs to estuarine systems such as suspended sediments and fluid flow kinematics.
  • Pollution and shoreline development.

Combined, these threats impair the marine environment through various stress avenues, such as: increased sea surface and tidal inundation, altered circulation patterns and tidal mixing, pattern shifts in water temperature, ocean acidification,  reduced species diversity and abundance, increased pollutants and pathogens, altered sediment deposition, loss of aquatic plant coverage,  and  reduced presence of native marine species. Future work will include developing conservation strategies, in collaboration with department partners, to address these impacts and to conserve these vibrant ecoregions.  Examples of conservation strategies for the marine ecoregions include:

  • Improve coordination and communication with State, local, and Federal agencies on shoreline protections, stormwater runoff (including urban and agricultural inputs), and modifications to estuarine flow dynamics.
  • Implement State invasive species management plans, and develop streamlined processes to control and eradicate invasive species.
  • Increase education and outreach efforts with partners to improve public awareness about the impact of threats, such as stormwater runoff, pharmacological pollutants, pathogens, and invasive organisms, on marine ecosystems.

Marine Species Spotlight: California sheephead

By Terry Tillman

Male California sheephead

Male California sheephead, CDFW photo

Curiosities abound in California’s marine environment, so much so that it’s difficult to pick just one example to showcase how peculiar and wonderfully diverse nature can be. None seems to top the list of life-style oddities quite like the California sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher).  This ocean denizen has long been a colorful actor in California’s marine landscape.  Its large size, brightly contrasting coloration and fine flavored flesh, rivaling that of lobster, make it a much sought after table-fare.  Recorded commercial harvests of Sheephead in California date back to the late 1800’s, and historically high harvests were made throughout the 1900’s.  Nowadays, commercial catches are more closely regulated, though sport harvest of Sheephead often exceed that of the commercial catch, with trophy fish taken by both shear-fishing and hook-and-line.

Female California sheephead

Female California sheephead, photo courtesy of Carl Gwinn,

So what’s so curious and odd about this popular fish?

Well, boys and girls, this fish is both a boy and a girl . . .  or, I should say, both a girl and a boy.  California sheephead are monandric protogynous hermaphrodites, which is a fancy way to say they change sex as part of their life cycle.  Beginning as females, and on reaching a certain age and size …. whoosh, they turn into a male.

Our California sheephead populate waters off Monterey, California all the way to southern Baja California and the Gulf of California, in Mexico.  They can reach a hefty 36.5 pounds (16.6 kilograms) and up to three feet (0.9 meters) in length, feeding mostly on invertebrates.  Using their protruding canine-like teeth, and crushing pharyngeal plates (crushing tooth plates in the back of the mouth), they easily feast on hard shelled invertebrates like small filters feeders (barnacles, muscles, worms) as well as larger sea urchins.

The coloration of the Sheephead varies with size, and of course, sex, though both sexes sport well defined white chin patches.  While most females have uniformly pink coloration over their bodies, males develop a distinctive black and bright red banding pattern.  As if uncomely protruding canine teeth weren’t bad enough, most males also develop a pronounced nuchal hump (enlarged forehead), furthering their comic appearance.

Kelp Forest Understory

Kelp Forest Understory, CDFW photo

Sheephead have been reported in shallow sub-tidal waters out to depths of 280 feet (85 meters), though typically they are found in and around rocky reefs and kelp forests.  Observations of Sheephead around offshore oil platforms reveal a strong tendency for the fish to make daily vertical migrations from shallow water during the day to deeper water at night.  They have a relatively small home range, and reveal a high degree of site fidelity (preference).

Because of its impressive size, adult male Sheephead have few known natural predators.  Since the late 1970s, Sheephead have been a consistent part of the recreational sport catch, although catch rates have decreased in recent decades.  The decrease in sport-caught Sheephead may be due to increased competition for fish from the commercial fishery in the 1980s, combined with a minimum size limit and reduced catch limits enacted in early 2000. Those regulations also included fishery closures in January and February.  The current year, 2013, size limit is 12 inches total length (30.5 centimeters) and a daily bag limit of five Sheephead per day per person.

An excellent synopsis of unusual life history facts for California sheephead is provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, below:

During mating season (between July and September) male sheephead become territorial and defend their spawning territory. Dominant males lead the females in a circular pattern as they broadcast sperm and eggs, respectively. If a smaller male approaches, the male interrupts spawning activity to chase away the intruder. The females spawn between 36,000 and 296,000 eggs, which hatch into larvae. The young of the year sheephead don’t resemble adults; they’re a bright reddish orange with large black spots on their dorsal and upper tail fins and a white stripe running the length of their bodies.

 All sheephead are born female. Most of them change to males following environmental clues we don’t fully understand. In 1990, Robert Cowen studied sheephead in four sites where the availability of food varied. In the area with the most food, females changed sex at about 13 years old and lived about 21 years. In the area with the least food, females changed sex at five to six years old and lived about nine years. At least in these two areas, the females changed sex about two-thirds of the way through their life spans. (1999-2013, Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940 Tel: 831.648.4800.)

Within the marine ecosystem, the Sheephead plays an important role by limiting sea urchin populations.  Sea urchins graze on marine plants like kelp, and in the absence of population controls, can denude the sea floor of plant life.  Should the kelp holdfast be gnawed away by urchin grazing, this can, in turn, disturb kelp canopy habitats.  Recent studies indicate that urchin predation by Sheephead have a significant effect in controlling urchin populations within certain habitats.

Catalina Island gorgonians, share reef area habitats with California sheephead

Catalina Island gorgonians, share reef area habitats with California sheephead, CDFW photo

Like so many marine species in California, there are various threats to the California sheephead including: habitat loss, fishing pressure, reproductive success, and larval distribution and survival.  More recent research, since 2004, shows considerable variability in Sheephead populations in response to external environmental conditions and fishing pressures.  In addition, there has likely been an overall decrease in the reproductive potential of California sheephead.  These observations, coupled with the unusual life cycle of these fishes, suggest that conservation strategies may include dividing the Sheephead management area into northern and southern zones, each with unique size limits, and possibly enforcing different size limits for males and females.  Conservation strategies and protections for important ecological actors like the California sheephead will be critical to the preservation of the nearshore ecoregion and the kelp forest landscape.