West Coast

CA - The Secrets Stored Within Seaweed

New tools are helping scientists restore healthy ocean ecosystems

It is low tide at Half Moon Bay. The tide pools are emerging. Soon, sea stars, hermit crabs, octopuses, limpets, and mussels become visible in the rocky intertidal habitat. And everywhere, there is seaweed. Emily Miller remembers tidepooling here with her mother when she was little and loving it. She never knew just how much information she was going to unlock from the seaweed when she got older.  

Now a research technician at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Miller is the primary author of a study published in June that shows how mining information from the sometimes centuries-old tissues of pressed seaweed or macroalgae can sharpen scientists’ understanding of historical oceanic conditions, dating as far back as the 1870s. “Seaweed has always appealed to me as a study system because it is so accessible,” Miller told Sierra. “You don’t have to go out on a boat or dive to collect it; it's right there at the ocean's shore. You just need to wait for a low tide and everything is revealed to you.” After MBARI’s Ocean Memory Lab partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2017,  Miller and her colleagues started viewing their herbarium collections of pressed, dried seaweed and algae as “snapshots through time going back in history.”

That’s because the objective of the partnership was to extend marine biologists’ baselines—that’s an initial measurement of a condition that scientists use for points of comparison to gauge changes. And baselines that go back further in time better equip marine conservationists to understand long-term changes in ocean health, and thus can better inform ocean management practices.

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