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Hook, Line, and Sinker - Sarah's Blog

Sarah Bedolfe is a California native who returns to her Dutch roots to pursue her Master’s at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

FINS Up! Attending an invasive species conference

Outside the little city of Otočac, Croatia, you can find The Croatian Centre for Indigenous Species of Fish and Crawfish in Karstic Waters. In a picturesque valley in a small, unassuming cottage next to a set of clear ponds, the Centre conducts research for the conservation of native populations of fish and crayfish. 

At the Croatian Centre for Indigenous Species of Fish and Crawfish,
water runways for raising native trout species. 

The Centre focuses on breeding and restocking vulnerable native species of trout and crayfish, which face several threats, including the introduction of invasive species. An invasion occurs when a species is introduced to a new area, and it spreads and causes harm to the native species and habitats (to learn more, see my previous blog).

One native species under threat is the noble crayfish. These crayfish, also known as European crayfish or Astacus astacus, are globally listed as vulnerable due to the effects of invasion and disease. These crayfish are economically and culturally important as a food source, and ecologically as prey for other species. Unfortunately, a 2013 study indicated a 36% decline among native noble crayfish populations. To combat population decline, the Centre is developing new techniques for captive breeding to bolster population abundance. Captive bred noble crayfish will be released into the wild to restock natural waters.  

Juvenile noble crayfish, native to Europe, grow in bins at the hatchery. Populations of this crayfish have been largely displaced by invasive North American species. 

The FINS Conference group toured the hatchery, where breeding efforts are undertaken to
combat the decline in native species.

I traveled to Croatia this past summer to attend FINS, the “Freshwater Invasives – Networking for Strategy” Conference. The field trip to the breeding center for native species was fun and fascinating, but my real purpose was to participate in conference discussions and to get input on a project for my last Masters internship. It was my job to identify opportunities for a new program to protect endangered freshwater species by eradicating the invasives that threaten them. Why freshwater invasives? Freshwaters are disproportionately biodiverse and highly threatened by invasions. Freshwater habitats are also relatively small and isolated (in contrast to continental or oceanic areas) which makes them easier to treat. 

At FINS, European experts on invasive species came together to exchange research findings and discuss how we can improve action on this major threat to biodiversity. It’s more than just talk – these meetings are productive: the first FINS Conference in 2013 led to the publication of an important article detailing the top 20 issues for managing invasive species in Europe. 

On the main square in Zagreb, Croatia: leading the charge against invasive species!​

The Opera House at sunset. 

This year, I joined the other attendees in evaluating progress on these issues and producing a new invasive species management report (in review). One of the biggest improvements in invasive species management is the plan introduced by the European Union, which mandates that all member states implement measures for prevention, early detection, rapid eradication and management of invasive species of concern. Meanwhile, in the US, President Obama added new considerations for invasive species management just last month.        

At the conference in Zagreb, I also participated in a workshop on data management. We discussed organizing and standardizing data on species and management methods. Not only is the type of data important, but also where it is located – and I have personally experienced the difficulty of conducting research when there is no centralized source of information. To this end, one group has conceived of a supernetwork called INVASIVESNET to link scattered datasets and working groups. This, in turn, will help managers around the world collaborate, learn from one another, and share successful techniques, leading to improved and integrated management. 

In Zagreb, I stumbled upon some aquatically-themed street art.

Despite improvements, many hurdles remain, such as insufficient funding, and lack of education and awareness. If people don’t know the dangers of transporting species, they may inadvertently cause invasions – and that is why it’s important for you to get informed! Learn what you can do to prevent invasions here.

Fortunately, by bringing experts and decision makers together, conferences like FINS are helping to protect biodiversity by improving prevention and control of species invasions.   

I give this conference two fins up!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Species Without Borders

A whirlwind final semester left me with little spare time for blogging, but I have now officially graduated with my Master of Science in Marine Biology! In the next few posts, I’ll share some stories about the work I’ve done over the last months. 

My research has taken me to countries like Norway and Croatia, which are just a short flight away from my home in the Netherlands. Today, our world is more accessible than ever, and with worldwide travel increasing, we are becoming an increasingly mixed global community.

With increasing globalization and ease of travel, the world is at our fingertips. But this means that plants and animals are traveling more too – and when they cross borders, it can spell trouble.

However, humans are not the only species crossing borders. Globetrotting has opened passageways for unintentional hitchhikers: alien species. An alien species is a species that is introduced outside of its native range. An alien species is not inherently bad or harmful, and many don’t even survive in an unfamiliar habitat. But sometimes an alien species becomes invasive – and that is bad. An invasive alien species is an alien species that has established itself in the new habitat, and aggressively outcompetes native species, posing a threat to biodiversity; they may also cause harm to human health or the economy.

Species are introduced for many reasons, either accidentally or purposely. Maybe you came back from a trip with a hitchhiking seed lodged in the sole of your shoe. Maybe live animals were being transported for sale as pets, but escaped, or were released into the wild by a well-intentioned owner. Ships often carry and release alien species through their ballast water. Some species are introduced to create fisheries, like the Pacific oyster that I studied in the Wadden Sea, and which you can read about in my previous posts

History can blur the line between what species are considered “alien” and “native.” Tulips are now seen as quintessentially Dutch, but they actually originate from the Ottoman Empire (which we now call Turkey). They were brought to the Netherlands in the 1500s where they became popular ornaments, and were bred into the varieties available today, now on display at the Keukenhof gardens. 

People come to the Netherlands from around the world to admire the veritable sea of tulips and other flowers (luckily these didn't become invasive). 

Although species move naturally throughout time, humans have caused the rate of introductions and invasions to rise exponentially. The consequences of these invasions can be severe.

For example, the algae Caulerpa taxifolia, a popular aquarium plant native to the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans, was accidentally released into the Mediterranean Sea in the 1980s and quickly grew out of control. Caulerpa rapidly spread and gained a reputation as the killer algae. Caulerpa has smothered thousands of hectares of other algae and plants, and contains a toxin that makes it inedible for herbivorous fish and invertebrates. As a result, Caulerpa also causes fish abundance to decrease, and ultimately reduces catches for fishermen. Eradication of small colonies is possible (as was demonstrated in California), but in the Mediterranean there is little hope that the Caulerpa invasion can be controlled. 

Pretty for your aquarium, yes, but Caulerpa the killer algae has smothered vast swaths of the Mediterranean. Photo by Richard Ling.

Another infamous marine invader is the lionfish. This striking spiky beauty may have been released into the wild by aquarium owners who grew tired of their pets. Now it is regularly seen along the southeast coast of the US and in the Caribbean. Large predators prey on lionfish in its native Indo-Pacific waters, but in the Atlantic, the voracious lionfish has no native predators. Its appetite and abundance threaten fisheries and the balance of the ecosystem. With depleted herbivorous fish, algae grow more quickly, which poses a threat to the already-pressured coral reefs of the Caribbean. Efforts to control the lionfish include a campaign to fish and eat them – a topic which Carl Safina covered here – to limit their numbers.   

A lionfish is covered in colorful venemous spines - so fishers and chefs who want to make a meal of this invader must work carefully! Photo by Michael Gäbler.

You might be wondering, what can we do to help stop the spread of invasive species? Whether you’re coastal or landlocked, there is a lot that you can do to help prevent new invasions:

  • DON’T release your pets into the wild. You would be surprised how much havoc a goldfish can wreak in your local pond.
  • DON’T catch and transport plants or animals and release them into other areas.
  • DO clean and disinfect all of your gear carefully to remove species that might become invasive. You can follow the Check, Clean, Dry technique.
  • DO garden with native species (you’ll save water and support local wildlife too!).
  • DO support efforts to protect native habitats and species – a damaged ecosystem can be more susceptible to invasion.
  • DO report unfamiliar species. Join a citizen science program to help keep track of new invasions. For example, download the What’s Invasive app, or check out iMapInvasives, TexasInvasives, the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network, or another group in your area.   
  • DO learn more about the issues and what species are problematic in your area, and spread the word!

Scientists and policymakers are also beginning to implement further action to prevent and manage invasions, both in the ocean and in other habitats. For example, the European Union has passed new measures requiring member-states to develop management plans for certain species of concern. Scientists gathered this year in Croatia to share their latest findings about invasions and how to battle them. Techniques for eradicating invasive species have slowly improved, and some countries, such as Norway, have logged impressive successes in eradicating invasives and restoring native aquatic species.

Stay tuned, because in upcoming blogs, I will discuss these topics and how my research took me deeper into the world of aquatic invasions! 

Making the most of life in the Netherlands: basking in flowers! Photo by Agnes Tonkes. 

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Plastic Soup - On the Menu?

A year ago I discussed the problem of trash in the world’s oceans - also known as the plastic soup - and I made a resolution to reduce how much waste I produce, especially plastic. While home for the holidays in California, I spent some much-needed time out in the sun, on the beach, and on the water before returning to the cold, wet Netherlands. I also got another good, hard look at the consequences of human wastefulness. After a stormy day, I headed up to Crystal Cove, north of Laguna Beach, for a walk on the beach. There, I found tide pools filled to the brim with washed-up waste.

Contemplating marine debris, once again.

Tidepools after a storm: more litter than critters. 

Large pieces of trash can entangle animals, or can be mistaken for food and choke or starve them.  And when plastic breaks down, it never disappears, it is just broken into smaller and smaller pieces. It will become as small as plankton, and eventually, it will become even smaller than plankton. As you can see in this video, scientists even captured plankton eating plastic on camera.

From the top of the food chain all the way to the bottom, animals are known to accidentally consume pieces of plastic. It gets worse: plastic is not just a physical hindrance, it is also contains toxic compounds. Not only is plastic manufactured with organic contaminants, like PCBs, but as it drifts around the ocean, other chemicals stick to the surface plastic. The longer a piece of plastic drifts around, the more it accumulates toxicity.

Plastic soup is not a tasty appetizer. This snowy egret at Crystal Cove is foraging for a real meal. 

What happens if lots of plankton that contain tiny toxic plastics are eaten by a sardine? What if some sardines are eaten by a tuna… and what if that tuna ends up on your own dinner plate? Scientists have found plastic particles in seafood sold for human consumption. In a sick twist of collective karma, the things we throw away circulate back to us one day. 

And what about cleaning up the plastic soup? It turns out that’s a tall order. It’s tempting to entrust magnificent new inventions with the task of filtering plastic out of the water. But the truth is that clean-up technology proposed so far has not adequately addressed the complexity of the problem. Any device that successfully captures plastic will almost inevitably also catch and harm marine life.

An especially magnificent day at Crystal Cove.

I briefly cast my worries aside during an impromptu sailing lesson. Out on the water, you don’t notice all the microplastic drifting about – but it’s there.

The best and most important thing we can do is to start at the source and prevent future waste from reaching the ocean at all. Ensure clean waterways and coastlines by reducing how much plastic you use and how much trash you produce, and by participating in beach and river cleanups. 

Unfortunately I’m still a long way from zero-waste, but I have been able to dramatically reduce the volume of trash I produce. That required only a few very simple and easy habits, which I believe anyone can manage.   

  • I keep a reusable canteen and mug at my desk. Smaller ones go with me during travel. I drink tapwater – and skip the straw! My daily hydration and caffeination routines are pretty much waste-free!
  • Keeping a small travel set of tableware or a pocketknife in my bag means I don’t need to resort to disposable plastic utensils. Tupperware or reusable baggies make better lunch packaging than disposable bags.
  • I have a canvas bag tucked into my purse or backpack wherever I go, always on hand so I don’t need to resort to plastic during any unexpected shopping spree.
  • I get my groceries in bulk when possible, from Groningen’s awesome package-free shop Opgeweckt Noord or from the market – you can look for similar shops in your own area. If I am at a regular grocery store, I compare products and buy the ones with the least packaging.
  • Leftovers get eaten, not tossed out. I have banished disposable napkins and paper towels from my kitchen. Instead, I use cloth and throw it in with the rest of the laundry when it’s dirty.
  • I have started experimenting with zero-waste cleaning and toiletry recipes. My best advice on that front is to refer you to Zero Waste Home and Trash is for Tossers. They are the experts and a real inspiration!

Visit the One World One Ocean Campaign Plastics Breakdown here for videos, infographics, and more, all about plastic pollution and how to reduce your impact.

I stumbled on some creative desert gardens while visiting Pioneertown, California.
Upcycling trash to treasure AND it’s drought smart – brilliant!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Dutch Quirks, Policy Works

I have dedicated the final year of my Masters degree to a program on Science, Business and Policy. The research experience I gained last year was invaluable – discovering new knowledge is awesome! Still, as Melissa so well articulated in her latest blog, not all graduate students go on to academic careers. In fact, the easiest way to describe the importance of business and policy is simply to point out that both Melissa and I have discussed these topics repeatedly on the Hook, Line, and Sinker blog column (examples linked below!). For this reason, I am looking for ways to bridge the gap between science and society.

One of the perks of studying policy is getting to tour the headquarters for the Province of Groningen.
This hall has been in use for governance meetings since the year 1602.

To help close that gap, I took two intense crash courses in business and policy theory, which were followed with assignments to address real-world challenges. We shaped advice reports for local businesses, and crafted policy recommendations. As science students, we understand the importance of basing our advice on existing knowledge. The difficult part is figuring out what to do when there is no relevant data – or when social conflicts stand in the way of a solution.

Melissa and I have noted that the primary force in business is the drive to outcompete others to win short-term profits. It’s an exciting and dynamic working environment, but can also have some downsides. The good thing is that businesses are increasingly striving to balance “people, planet, and profit,” which means an increased emphasis on behaving in a socially and environmentally responsible manner along with profit-earning.

SUPping, my favorite California beach hobby, seems to have found its way to the canals of Amsterdam.
I snapped this during a late-September warm spell; unfortunately the time for this is now long past.

This tractor brings deep-fried whitefish and salted herring to hungry beachgoers out for an autumn stroll
(definitely not the weirdest thing I’ve seen on the beach here, by the way).

In policy projects, we grappled with complicated and subjective questions. “What is the best policy in this case?” and “How should we implement it?” can never be answered simply. There are countless factors at play, and many of them are far outside of your own control.

Policy is particularly relevant for issues of marine conservation. The fishing industry is built around resources that are actually “public goods.” Wild fish belong to no one individually, which is really to say they belong to everyone – yet they can be harvested by individuals for a profit. Time and again, this story results in tragic depletion.

It’s a phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons.” Finding a solution to such problems is incredibly difficult – which is why it continues to happen, and why fishery issues continue to be a common theme in the blogs Melissa and I write. (See here, here, and here by Melissa; here, here, and here by yours truly, just for starters.)

My visit to the Northern Maritime Museum felt complete when I found my very own boat.
In Dutch, 'Saartje' is an endearing nickname for Sarah.

The Science, Business, and Policy program has been great for getting me into an interdisciplinary mindset. With an eye on the social disciplines, I’ve gotten to thinking about Dutch culture - specifically, in the kitchen.

Dutch cuisine has its share of quirks, such as pickled herring. In the Netherlands you’ll also encounter a zealous love for intense salty licorice, and may notice that dessert-ish sandwich toppings are commonplace. Some eat chocolate sprinkles every morning. All eat anise-flavored sprinkles in the event of a childbirth.

You might be surprised then that I’ve heard more than one foreign student complain about how boring Dutch food is. Meanwhile, the hilarious blog “Stuff Dutch People Like” poses the question, “Why has this far-trading colonial nation not found global culinary success?” Traditional meals in the Netherlands are actually quite modest. A typical Dutch dinner almost always includes some form of potatoes. No wonder the fries are so good here. The meal is complete when you add some meatballs and kale, preferably all mashed together in a stamppot. (Americans tend to think kale is new and hip, but this vegetable has been a staple here for ages.)

Potato has been a Dutch staple for centuries. Vincent van Gogh was Dutch and created his famous painting

The Potato Eaters in the Netherlands in 1885 (Image: Public Domain). It was intended to depict the reality
peasant life and dietJozef Israëls, a painter native to Groningen and whose work I saw on exhibit here,
similarly addressed the subject in his
Peasant Family at the Table

Looks good, tastes Gouda. A pilgrimage to the Netherlands is a must for any believer in Cheesus.
This heavenly shop in the center of Groningen, De Boergondiër, is my reliable local supplier.

A few Dutch traditions have achieved broader acclaim, nonetheless. Besides the success of lowlands beer brewers, which aforementioned students do seem to appreciate, one culinary success outshines the rest. Of course, I’m talking about cheese. Beautiful, delicious cheese. It’s probably my favorite thing about this quaint, rainy country.

From Gouda to Edam, several Dutch cities have world-famous names due to the cheeses that originated there. Cheese-making expertise has been shaped in the Netherlands over centuries and resulted in a range of lovely flavors, from young and creamy to aged and sharp. When it comes to buying cheese, I skip the grocery store and go straight to my favorite cheese shop in the center of Groningen, De Boergondiër, for fresh blocks of local cheese made with milk from cows who graze outdoors. My latest choice was a mildly-aged cheese that was ripened in a repurposed WWII bunker. Add some bread, and a perfect lunch requires little else.

My “very scientific research” on the Dutch population has revealed that the local folk are
tall and cheese-loving. Here I am posing with a particularly friendly research subject.

We were treated to a lovely, unusually long autumn. Near-freezing rainstorms were its down-fall
...see what I did there?

Dutch food may tend to be simple but when it comes to cheese, the natives have refined taste. Cheese is even attributed with shaping the population physiologically: some attest that this dairy tradition is to credit for the Netherlands’ abnormally tall people, as discussed in this amusing and enlightening BBC story. Did you know that the average Dutch man is 6 feet tall (185cm)? Meanwhile, the average Dutch woman reaches a height of 5ft 7in (170cm). Few other countries even come close, including the US (where men average 5ft 9.5in and women 5ft 4in).

This leads me to my very scientific conclusion that Dutch people, similar to Dutch cheese, stand literally head and shoulders above the rest.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Smooth Sailing

I pushed on in my academic endeavors during the summer vacation, like Melissa, and I dedicated August to writing my thesis (more on that below). This made my sailing mini-vacation stand out as especially memorable. My good friend Carolien had invited me to join her family on their beautiful boat, which is built in the traditional style of old Dutch sailing and fishing ships. The day I arrived on board, the sun had just broken through, warming us up for a lovely weekend. Our journey took us across the Wadden Sea to the island of Schiermonnikoog – Schier for short.

Approaching the island of Schier aboard the Lemsteraken Sensatie.

Fancy taking a Dutch sailing excursion? You can! Follow this link to learn more.

Schier is one of the Wadden Islands, part of the archipelago that also includes Texel (where my parasite research took place). Although I sampled on Schier for my first project, I never got to explore beyond our study site. This time, Carolien led me on a guided tour. From the yacht harbor on the Wadden Sea side, we set out on foot across the long narrow island. Within an hour, we had passed through the island’s only town, seen the lovely dune landscape, and reached the beach and the North Sea on the other side.

Schiermonnikoog is quaint from all angles, except when viewed from underwater!
Our snorkel gear gave us a clear view - of why the North Sea isn’t known for great visibility.

A sign identified this as the “Activities Beach.” The grounded boat will be cleared up if you read on,
but I can't provide an explanation for the horse-drawn carriage. 

The trip included one very unusual surprise: when we returned to the boat, we found a harbor devoid of water. All of the boats were grounded, laying flat on the mud. I shouldn’t have been so amazed. From my field work, I know all too well that the Wadden Sea falls dry at low tide – that means the harbor too! This is where the Dutch boat design is essential. The boat’s flat bottom gives it access to shallower water than other vessels its size. And when the water disappears completely, the boat stays level, rather than tipping on its keel. (A catamaran nearby had approached less strategically. Its poor residents must have been disoriented – and unable to set down any plates and glasses – until the next high tide!)

Boats must plan ahead to arrive in their mooring places while the tide is high.
Some intentionally “park”  further away, so if anyone wants to disembark
before the tide rises, they should be ready for a slog through the mud.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the sailboat and get back to the real world. My thesis addresses the issue of the aquaculture industry being dependent upon resources that come from wild fisheries. This sounds counterintuitive, but in many cases it is true.

Aquaculture is the farming of marine or freshwater species. Countless methods exist and some of these are quite environmentally friendly, but others are extremely damaging. One particular point of controversy is the farming of carnivorous species (such as salmon). While herbivorous fish (such as tilapia), can be grown using algae as feed, carnivores do not grow well on a vegetarian diet. Instead, they are fed diets containing fishmeal and fish oil; these are generally made using wild schooling forage fish caught by industrial fisheries (such as anchovies). Since food is not converted directly into meat, growers have to put in more fish than they get out – maybe three times as much (even that is a huge improvement over some years ago)! Instead of producing more fish for the global food supply, a farm like this is converting a big amount of cheap fish into a small amount of expensive fish. Is it sustainable to catch perfectly edible, entirely nutritious, delicious even (see my herring experience) wild fish, and instead feed them to farm fish?  Many say no.

With fall looming, my brother and I spent a day in Amsterdam with family before he returned stateside. 

This issue is complex, but the news isn’t all bad. Aquaculture is a very young industry, and its rate of improvement has been very fast. Because fish oil is expensive, the industry is economically motivated to reduce its reliance, and there are many potential alternate ingredients available, like soy or algae. Many are not yet accessible or affordable in large quantities today, but the situation is rapidly changing. Still, it’s best to avoid eating farmed carnivores. If you eat seafood, opt for herbivores or highly efficient filter-feeders, which need no added food at all (like mussels and oysters). You can learn more by visiting One World One Ocean’s GoFish! Campaign. For detailed advice on which seafood is the most sustainable choice for you, consult a seafood guide. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a good one; if you’re in the Netherlands, you can use VISwijzer.

With my deadline past, I dove right into my course on “Science and Business.” The arrival of autumn was heralded by a series of rainstorms on the first week of class. The days are suddenly shorter and colder, reminding me exactly why Melissa said lake trout don’t need a calendar. Another thing trout don’t need is raingear. I, however, am not a lake trout. With a busy fall upon me, I plan to rely heavily on both of these to get me through the semester.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Denmark My Words

Education in science at the postgraduate level tends to be directed at preparing you with skills for work in academia – even if the jobs we aim for are elsewhere. There seems to be an increasing understanding that working life may take us outside of academics and into for-profit, non-profit, or government work. To bridge that gap in awareness, I enrolled in a course on international scientific careers.

The class had an additional appeal: the tour this year focused on Danish businesses and culminated in a five-day road trip across Denmark. After Corsica, taking yet another opportunity to combine my education with travel feels like I am spoiling myself, but I have no regrets – my adventures only confirm that experience is the best teacher.

Our day off in Denmark was spent exploring Copenhagen on foot and by canalboat.

The companies led us on tours of the facilities and over the course of the week we saw a range of offices, laboratories, and factories, as well as the Fishery and Seafaring Museum (or rather Fiskeri- og Søfartsmuseet) where my group’s project was based. We also got to sit down with industry professionals and pick their brains for insight and advice. Fascinating conversations often ensued, on how to balance responsibility to the shareholders with responsibility to the environment, and the benefits and challenges of genetically modified food.

The trip crystallized my understanding of the division between the worlds of academia and industry. While academics is research, industry too is research-driven, and both fields are heavily propelled by competition. However, they are bound by different constraints. Academics must prove themselves through publications, but are free from the requirement of short-term profit-earning, and this, I believe, allows them to do work of longer-term import. In industry, that need to meet a demand can drive incredible useful innovation.

The massive sculpture “Men by the Sea” can be seen near the Danish city of Esbjerg.

My classmates from non-ocean science backgrounds couldn’t get over
how crazy/cool/scary the aquarium's wolffish were.

Summer officially began upon my return to the Netherlands, which for me means family time. While out with my cousins, we stopped at a herring stand for a traditional Dutch snack. The fishmonger deftly gutted and filleted each whole herring (so we could see its freshness first-hand) while he explained the process by which the herring is preserved.

Although Dutch herring is often called “raw,” it has actually been brined or pickled. Fishing vessels today have the capacity to immediately freeze the catch, but historically, these processes were needed to preserve the food. They also add real love-it or hate-it flavor! It can be eaten on bread with onions, but I prefer to savor the fish itself, so I placed my order for herring plain and “by the tail”. The fishmonger praised my choice: Zoals het hoort! “As it’s meant!”

Old-school Dutch snack: herring, pickled – and held by the tail. Mm!
The northern Europe herring fishery is considered sustainably managed, but its boom and bust has defined coastal communities for centuries.

I had learned in the museum in Esbjerg that drift nets were used to catch herring in in the Middle Ages. Herring populations are naturally very variable, and their boom and bust cycles guided the rise and fall of coastal civilizations in northern Europe. These days, North Sea herring are steadily fished, and generally regarded as sustainably managed. Herring are forage fish and their low position in the food pyramid means that they are of critical importance for supporting the large predators that feed on them. Since these small fish are actually more suited to supporting fisheries than their predators (like tuna, which grow and reproduce slowly), I allow myself the occasional indulgence.

In summer it stays light past 10pm. The town of Zutphen was stunning in the late evening light.

I am prepared to graduate by the end of this summer with an MSc in Marine Biology, with a focus on research. However, I’ve had another idea brewing for a while now, and I’ve officially concluded to go through with it. This fall, I’ll extend my study at the University of Groningen for a year to pursue a second focus on science business and policy. I’m thrilled that this will allow me to build on my eye-opening experience in Denmark learning about science in a business setting, and to delve into how policies guiding the sustainability of fisheries (such as the herring I discussed) are made, enforced, and monitored.

So, I’m joining Melissa, pushing on with summer work to prepare for a new autumn program!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Behind Anemone Lines

Melissa and I have dedicated many words to persuading you that marine biology isn’t all about jumping into warm clear water and looking at critters. However, sometimes, on very rare and special occasions, that is what we get to do.

Bonjour! The STARESO research station in Corsica.
Photo by Marion van Rijssel. 

Within three minutes of jumping into the water for the first time, I spotted this octopus!

The University of Groningen offers a course to marine biology masters students on Mediterranean rocky shore ecosystems. After some intensive study at home and in the classroom, my class packed our bags and headed off to the northwest coast of Corsica for two weeks. While there, we developed and carried out small research projects. 

My group designed a study to research the distribution and movement of sea anemones. Our overarching hypothesis was that interaction between individual anemones is a driving factor in how they are distributed in the environment.

Our target species was ideal: easy-to-spot coloration plus convenient location at the surface.
Maybe you don’t recognize these as anemones – they often keep their tentacles tucked inside.

Sea anemones are relatives of jellyfish, and just like jellies, anemones have stinging cells containing nematocysts, which they use for catching prey. But that’s not all: anemones including our research subject Actinia equina can be very aggressive and may also use their nematocysts to battle one another. (You can watch a video of anemones fighting here.) The title for this blog actually comes from published scientific research on this topic! (Ayre & Grosberg 2005)

We picked a study site and tracked the anemones’ arrangement to see if and how that changed over time. We also collected some for studies in the lab. We expected that anemones that were close together would move away from each other, possibly after displaying some competitive behavior.

Field data was collected by snorkeling, but we had the chance to go on a few recreational dives, too.
Here I am gearing up in my awesome borrowed (and oh-so-sexy) retro wetsuit.
Photo by Sandra Striegel.

Is it just me, or is this hermit crab the world’s cutest grumpy crustacean?
Photo by Nina Fieten.

When you’re investing money and effort in field work, it’s important to get as much data as possible in the time you have. Our free time was officially limited to just one day off, during which we took a road trip along the scenic mountainous coast, the perfect way to get a taste of the rest of the island. The rest of the time, we suited up twice a day and snorkeled out to our field site and daily replicated our lab experiment – or at least we tried to. As with all research there were some hiccups, from choppy water conditions to malfunctioning cameras. Troubleshooting is just part of the deal. We also kept busy with data entry and some analysis.

Of course, even strenuous days were joyful. When “work” is snorkeling, you know you’re living the good life! My worst real pain came from a (still relatively mild) encounter with a sea urchin, which I brushed with my hand. I’m glad I didn’t go in for a full high-five, because it turns out that urchin wasn’t my homie. It took a very painful hour for my brave and persistent friend to dig a number of wee 3mm spines out using a needle (tweezers don't work!). The last one festered out a week later.

Beautiful - BUT DEADLY. Dun dun dunnn...
Just kidding, this species will only do real damage if you're allergic!

I was stoked to stumble upon this minute yet vividly colored flatworm hiding in the algae
(near an almost-as-tiny nudibranch).

This being my first time in the Mediterranean Sea, I relished the clear water and unfamiliar species. Avid followers of the One World One Ocean Campaign will remember how much I love to find nudibranchs because they have cool “super powers.” Another special highlight was going out for a night snorkel and seeing a cuttlefish iridescing beautifully under the glow of our dive lights.

We successfully returned home with a truckload of data to report on. It turns out that part of our hypothesis was true: even though they look so sedentary (they are classified as sessile creatures after all), anemones do move. The distribution of the group that we tracked in the field changed a little bit each time we measured. Better yet, in the lab we could see an anemone move all the way across the tank within a day.

Schools of Chromis chromis were a common and lovely sight.
Photo by Marion van Rijssel. 

Undercover - er, underwater - blending in so I can take the anemone by surprise.

However, we were unable to confirm our hypothesis regarding interaction and competition. Anemones’ movement was not affected by whether or not they are near a neighbor anemone, and we never observed them acting aggressively by trying to sting one another.  Why? Maybe Bay of Calvi anemones are under less competitive stress than those in other locations or used in other studies. Maybe there are simply other factors that outweigh interaction, such as availability of food. As is often the case, we can speculate, but this brings up as many new questions as it answers old ones.

The view that greeted me every morning: Calvi, the city across the bay.
Photo by Marion van Rijssel.

My hopes to learn some French and challenge Melissa were, shall we say, dashed on the rocky shore (I mainly managed to say merci beaucoup repeatedly to the amazing institute chefs). Still, the course wasn't a total loss. This was an incredibly rewarding opportunity to gain experience conducting field work in an unfamiliar environment. It was also a milestone: I still have independent projects to do (so I'm not done yet!), but turning in my final report for this marked the end of my last Master course. And between the enriching research/travel experience, and the amazing classmates-turned-friends, an unforgettable final class it was!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Seal of Approval

What is a pirate’s favorite statistical program? R! Alas, I am not a pirate.

Since the last post I’ve spent a lot of my time working on statistical analyses of my parasite experiment using a program called R. The program is extremely useful (not just for corny jokes) but I’m still a relative newbie and the smallest successes in R still feel like huge accomplishments.

I’ve returned to the small student city of Groningen and feel right back at home.

Desk work is as much a part of science as field and lab work. It happened recently that the others in my lab group were out on the mudflats doing hours of heavy lifting; meanwhile I was in the office giving my brain a statistical workout. In the evening they came back completely exhausted, and apparently rather jealous of me for having been comfortably seated all day. Meanwhile, I envied them for having gotten to experience the lovely weather instead of stats! But it’s all just a part of the research cycle.

At the Netherlands Annual Ecology Meeting, presenting some of my results during the poster session.

So far, it looks like the invasive parasite Mytilicola orientalis does have some sort of negative effect on the mussels they infect but the details of those effects aren’t all clear yet. I’ll continue working on other analyses and hope to get a clearer grasp on what the data mean. Like Melissa before me, I had the chance to share early results in a poster presentation, a great chance to network and discuss.

Once again, a fence (and my knowledge that these are wild animals) 
stood between me and my urge to snuggle the seals.

One highlight of my spring was an official visit to the seal rescue and rehabilitation facility in Groningen province. The Zeehondencrèche takes in sick and stranded harbor seals and grey seals to treat their ills and then return them to the wild. The harbor seal in particular was once threatened with extinction in this region, but thanks to a ban on hunting, a reduction in pollution, and rescue efforts such as these they have seen a huge recovery. The facility furthermore provides a wonderful opportunity for research and for public education. If you’ve been following the news, you may be reminded of the unusually high numbers of California sea lion strandings recently. Scientists suspect that young sea lions are malnourished as a result of a shift in the fish they feed on. Luckily, no similar crisis has hit northern Europe (here the biggest threat is probably a disease outbreak), but the possibility of such occurrences are one reason to continue protecting seals.

I didn’t get around to visiting the tulip fields and baby farm animals outside the city,
but even in the center signs of spring are everywhere.

I’m also taking classes again this semester, starting with “Advanced Genetic Population Modeling.” I have virtually no background in this field so it was challenging right off the bat, but totally fascinating as well. Using known genetic data – for example from humpback whales – it is possible to use modeling to answer questions about the state of a population. Among other things, researchers are working on understanding how different humpback populations are connected. From learning the theory to puzzling with the modeling program, it was a whole new perspective for me. 

At the Rijksmuseum, hats worn by 17th century Dutch whalers and a painting of a whale oil refinery.

Sound like a hodgepodge of activities? It felt like it too! On top of the work keeping me busy, several of my friends in the US made the happy decision to spend spring break visiting me here. From tasting-testing gourmet cheeses and visiting craft breweries, to exploring the museums of Amsterdam, it was a great excuse to play tourist, and the perfect way to welcome spring.

What better way to catch up on the haps with old friends than while celebrating King’s Day?

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Parasite Party

Few people would let out an ecstatic cheer upon finding a mussel full of worms. So you can just leave that very special role to me.

I ended my previous post with a – dun dun dunnn – major cliffhanger. My last months on the island of Texel (along the coast of Holland) were mostly spent running around trying to gather my last bits of data. Two months before, I had exposed mussels to parasite larvae (of the invasive species Mytilicola orientalis), intending to study the parasite’s effects.

I am extremely focused (ahem... See what I did there?)

The last filtration measurements were a relief to complete, but I still had to measure, weigh, dissect, dry, and re-weigh each and every mussel in my experiment – not a small task. And I wasn’t even sure if the infection had worked! Luckily for me, I had tons of help from my advisor and lab group.

Now for the prognosis. Drumroll please …. It worked!! There were celebratory whoops coming from my lab the day I found parasites in my mussels. “Poor mussels!” you say, and I suppose you’re right. But this is important: this parasite is invasive to this area, it could have unforeseen consequences, and without this experiment we cannot determine the impact. The next step for me is to do the statistical analysis.

Parasites I found inside a mussel’s intestine, proving that the process of infecting the mussels worked!
Next up: what was the parasite’s effect?

Celebrating the parasite success in lab with a flask. You've got to live a little.

While summer on Texel was absolutely beautiful, winter is unambiguously less so. (The upside is that the short days and dreary weather could not tempt me to play hooky when I had so much to get done.) Weekend activities typically involved staying indoors as much as possible, but two outings did leave a lasting impression.

The quaint fishing town of Oudeschild has an charming museum that houses an immense collection of flotsam and jetsam gathered over the years from the Texel shore. Perusing these curiosities inspires questions about their origins, at first. But the exhibit delivered another message to my conservation-primed mind: all of these items are the waste that we, as a society, have discarded into the environment.

At this museum you can browse through all the bizarre (and bizarrely mundane)
items that have washed ashore over the years.

One particularly dramatic storm really drove this lesson home. After the skies cleared, I went out for a stroll on the beach. The storm had washed up all sorts of debris and the high tide line was littered with everything from oil bins to rubber gloves to hand sanitizer bottles.

The North Sea coast after a storm, littered with manmade trash.

What we use and dump frequently winds up in the sea. Most of it will not find its way into a museum collection of oddities with mysterious backgrounds. Most of it is simply sinking away, out of sight out of mind – or worse, being consumed by marine life.

By the time of this posting, 2015 isn’t even that new anymore. I’ve left Texel, visited California, and am getting back into the swing of things back in my university town of Groningen. There’s still a lot ahead: getting my experiment results, taking classes, attending conferences (I’m glad Melissa broke the ice on that one) – not to mention my new year’s resolution to reduce my waste and my not-too-distant graduation. Phew. I’m ready.

During winter break I went for a snorkel in Laguna Beach and contemplated 2015, from my
resolution to reduce my waste, to plans to –
gulp (cue mouthful of saltwater) – graduate.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Infectious Curiosity

The blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) filters the water around it in order to pick out tiny planktonic particles of food. Filter feeding is very common among ocean animals because there’s so much edible matter suspended in the water column. But it’s not only the way that mussels feed - it’s also how a mussel may inadvertently take in a parasite.

Armed with a microscope and pipette, I painstakingly moved parasite larvae
from their hatching dish to the tank of their host mussel. 

In the last two posts I described how an invasive species (Mytilicola orientalis) is parasitizing the native mussels of the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands though its effect is not yet known. I managed to extract the parasites and rear their eggs for research, but that’s not even the half of it. Next I had to collect uninfected mussels and get them to take up the newly hatched parasite larvae. Then I had to let them incubate for two months, all while running tests on the fitness of the mussels.

The larvae of the parasite Mytilicola orientalis go through several life stages. This one is not even a quarter of a millimeter long; the red spot is its single eye.

An aerated container with one of my experimentally infected mussels - or at least I hoped it was infected! I won’t be sure until the study is complete.

I expect that mussels that are infected will be stressed, and they will have less energy to spend on filtering.  Therefore my hypothesis is that infected mussels will feed slower and grow slower than mussels that are free of the parasite.

To measure how fast a mussel filters, I put a certain amount of food in the water (in this case microalgae) and measure how quickly the food disappears. With these measurements I can calculate the feeding rate. This became my weekly ritual: brewing algae concoctions, fiddling with the measuring devices - which have proven to be finicky instruments - and taking precisely timed samples from each of my mussels.

This is a carefully controlled scientific experiment, but it’s also an “experiment” in the sense that we had no idea if it would actually work! My main reference was done with a different species. The only way to confirm if the infection I am studying took hold is to dissect the mussel – so I have to wait months until the experiments finish before I can actually confirm that they succeeded. This gives me lots of time to be nervous about my results!!

The illusion of the Wadden Sea at low tide: the mudflat is still barely submerged, and the hikers on the horizon seem to be walking on water.

Considering that I never ran the risk of getting frostbite in lab, though, my working conditions have been downright luxurious compared to Melissa’s fishing in Canada. In fact, once the frustrating tech troubleshooting was past, the worst part was the monotony. In order to know that a certain result is a real effect and not just a coincidence, you need to run your experiment multiple times, so I had over 100 mussels that needed not only measuring but also regular feeding and cleaning.

Sometimes, I pulled my trusty waders back on and headed onto the mudflat to help with other projects and get some fresh air. This seemed like a great idea, at least until November when I realized it was past 8 AM, the sun still wasn’t up yet, and I had volunteered to brave the wind-swept expanse of mudflat at nearly freezing temperatures.

The island of Texel is reputed to be the Netherland’s sunniest but also windiest destination. A beautiful autumn afternoon was the perfect time to explore the northern point.  

I still have much left to explore on Texel so more relaxing excursions happened on weekends. On the island’s northern point, a friend and I climbed to the windy top of the lighthouse, looked across the channel to the next island in the archipelago, and sat in a beachside café while watching kite surfers zip across the waves. In stark contrast, the southern point is a broad, shifting sandbar best reached via a footpath through the dunes and then a long walk across the sandy flats.

The southern point of Texel is an undeveloped sandbar where the ceaseless wind carves seashell sculptures in the sand.

The whole time, of course, one question remained in the back of my mind: Did my experiment work? If my mussels failed to become infected by the Mytilicola orientalis larvae, then all my tedious work may have been for naught. Stay tuned because by my next post I’ll know…

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Mud and Guts

Sometimes when you want to discover something new you have to get your hands dirty. That’s how it is these days with my research in the parasite lab. I’m in the Netherlands on the island of Texel studying a parasite called Mytilicola orientalis. (Try saying that 10 times fast.) Parasites can’t survive alone so they rely on a host, who may be harmed by the parasite’s presence. Although my work can seem a bit gross, the parasite doesn’t have to be: this species infects shellfish only and it cannot hurt humans.

I know I promised galoshes but I ended up going all-out and donning a full wading suit. It’s all the rage in mudflat fashion. In my hand is a giant oyster. 
Photo by Jarco Havermans, NIOZ.

Mytilicola orientalis is a type of copepod. That means that it is a distant relative of crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. But this species doesn’t look like its cousins. Mytilicola has evolved to live in the guts of oysters and mussels. In there, it is safe and sheltered, and it has easy access to food, all provided by the mussel.

Unlike its relatives, Mytilicola is shaped like a worm, allowing it to live inside mussels’ intestines. It’s never more than a centimeter long, and it can’t infect people! Those two strands on its tail are egg sacs. Photo by Anouk Goedknegt, NIOZ.

The Pacific oyster has a long history with Mytilicola orientalis. But since the oyster’s introduction to the Wadden Sea some decades ago (as I described in the link here), the parasite hopped over to a new host. It now infects the native blue mussel as well. So now, the Dutch mussel species might be facing a challenge it never has before.

Very little is known about this tiny critter and what it actually does. Mytilicola are at most 1 centimeter long. That sounds small but to a mussel it’s very large, probably very annoying, and maybe even painful.

To the untrained eye, the inside of a mussel looks like a ball of snot, especially when you smush it between microscope slides like I did. With some practice you can learn to distinguish the various organs.

The first step is to actually get some Mytilicola to study. I get them from wild mussels that are already infected. To do that I go out onto the mudflats, armed with waders and buckets. By now I’m pretty accustomed to coming back soaked by saltwater or rain, and half-covered in mud.  

The next step is to go into lab and dissect the mussels. Sorting through the slimy organs and squeezing them between microscope slides can leave you feeling smelly for the rest of the day, but this is the only way we have to extract the Mytilicola from the host. After I’ve done all this, it’s finally time to study the parasite!

Now that I have the Mytilicola I need for the study, I can finally get started with setting up my experiment. There hasn’t been any research on the effects of the parasite on the mussel yet, so the parasite group at the NIOZ (the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, where I'm earning school credit as a Masters student intern) will be the first. It’s that - the possibility that you’ll find out something new, that nobody has ever known before - which makes all the hard work worth it.

I won’t mince words: the baby seals are so cute I just want to squish them. Fortunately they are being rehabilitated and will be released back into the wild, well away from my smothering attempts at love.

When I wasn’t in lab, I took advantage of living where I do. Texel is home to Ecomare, a rescue and rehabilitation center for sick and stranded seals. In addition to getting to “ooh” and “ahh” over the absurdly adorable baby seals, they have a number of other fun educational exhibits about the local marine wildlife.

The Danube River runs right through Budapest and along the grandiose Hungarian Parliament building.

Straying further from home, I hopped over several international borders before summer ended for a visit to Hungary. There I admired the stunning city of Budapest and marveled at the great spectacle of sights and sounds that is Sziget, one of Europe’s biggest music festivals.

At the festival Sziget I explored the Luminarium, an immersive experiential piece of art. I just wished the tent I slept in was this nice. Photo by Kat Stroehm.

Speaking of dirty, festival camping may not involve mussel guts but mud is nearly impossible to avoid. So there you have it: the grossest part of studying a parasite can be compared to a music festival on a rainy day.


Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Testing the Waters in the Netherlands

I set foot in Groningen for the first time amidst a swarm of other college-age people, all getting off the train at this northernmost outpost of the Netherlands. A true university city as well as a classic Dutch town, Groningen is full of young energy and old architecture. 

My first visit to my new home lasted for about 24 hours and led me from a denial state to the dawning realization (on my 24th birthday, no less) that I would indeed be moving across the country and Atlantic for graduate school. While there, I saw the labs, signed the papers, found a room - and with that, it suddenly became real. Happy birthday to me!

After two inspiring years working as the Coordinator of Marine Research for MacGillivray Freeman's One World One Ocean Campaign, I’m venturing back into the academic world. Soon I'll be making a bittersweet departure to start this new chapter - entering the marine biology master’s program.

The biggest reason I chose to study in Groningen was the mild weather it's so famous for... Okay, no. It's going to be cold and wet. And yet, maybe it will rain as much there as it would if I were living in a tropical rainforest.

I'm thrilled to be based in Europe because a number of critical marine conservation issues are being addressed now right here, from fisheries subsidies, sea level rise, cetacean captivity and marine debris. Living in the Netherlands at this time offers me the chance to be part of the debate - and resolution - of many of my generation's environmental challenges. Of course, another draw of studying here is that I have roots in the Netherlands allowing me to be near my extended family.

Some of the other things I'm looking forward to in this new adventure are:
• Ice skating on canals in winter (hoping they freeze over this year!), and tulip fields in spring.
• Refreshing my fluency in Dutch.
• Abandoning the car and using bicycle as my primary mode of transportation. 
• I’m also looking forward to cheese. Eating it, mainly.
• Hagelslag. Not familiar with it? It’s chocolate sprinkles eaten on buttered bread. For breakfast.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what adventures I may immerse myself in – but between conducting marine science research and traipsing through Europe during breaks, I’m sure there will be much to share!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Island Invasion

In the 1960s, aquaculturists in Europe had seen the native European oysters (scientifically known as Ostrea edulis) decline and were looking for a new species to farm. The Pacific oyster seemed perfect: it succeeded in trials and it was unable to reproduce on its own in the chilly waters of the North Sea… Or so they thought. It turns out that the species thrives here, and so it began to spread.

Sarah on an oyster reef

Repping One World One Ocean during a warm day of field work. Although tourists often stop to ask our research team if we’re gathering dinner, these samples of mussels and oysters (and parasites!) are for experiments.

The Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) in northern Europe is a classic example of an invasive species: it is found in a region that is far outside of its normal range, and it competes with native species that are accepted here, such as the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis). While the Pacific oyster was introduced to these waters intentionally, its expansion was unforeseen. As is so often the case with invasive species, by the time anyone noticed, it was too late to stop it.

Luckily, unlike some invasives, the oyster isn’t extremely destructive for the local ecosystem. In fact, in some ways it has been beneficial. As oysters grow, they create a reef structure that creates a habitat for many other species. And (so far) it has not posed a serious threat to the blue mussel.

Mixed bed of native blue mussels and invasive Pacific oysters

A mixed bed of native blue mussels and invasive Pacific oysters (also home to lots of snails and more) along the Wadden Sea shore of Texel.

However, a newer possible threat has emerged. It seems that when the Pacific oyster was introduced, it was infected with a parasite called Mytilicola orientalis. (These Latin names just roll off the tongue, don’t they?) I’ll call it Mytilicola for short.

The problem is that Mytilicola no longer infects only oysters; it now also infects the native blue mussels – and nobody knows what kind of effect it might have! My job now is to help figure out what that is. To answer this question, I recently moved to Texel, an island in North Holland that serves as home base for the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. In total, I’ll spend six months doing research in the parasite lab and earning credit towards my Masters degree in Marine Biology at the University of Groningen.

Looking across the water to the mainland

Even on stormy days Texel is beautiful. The distance from the mainland to the island is just over 2.5 miles – but it’s a whole world away.

Exploring my new home in the sunny summer months has been a beautiful adventure. It’s always hard to compare beaches here to what I’m used to in Southern California but I can never complain about living on a coastline – much less a small island where I’m surrounded by water. A three-minute stroll from home takes me within view of the Wadden Sea. The beach on the island’s opposite shore faces the North Sea and is just a scenic twenty-minute bike ride away.

Swimming in the harbor

Summer, sunshine, swims – sometimes it almost felt like I was back home in California.


A sea nettle drifting in the harbor alongside a dock overgrown with algae.

I’ve also already spent some time in the field. Just like for my previous project involving diatoms, I have to go out onto the mudflats, but instead of staying on the soft sediment, this time I’m looking for the oyster and mussel beds. These solid reefs are where we collect the shellfish (and the parasites inside them) that I will use in my studies.

One highlight from my summer was trying a Dutch-ified version of a California hobby: stand-up paddle boarding! SUPping along our Laguna Beach coast was one of my favorite things to do with my One World One Ocean colleagues – I never thought I’d be doing it on a lazy river just a stone’s throw away from a field of cows!


SUPping: a visit to the rural back-country of the Netherlands gets a California twist.

Troost, Karin. 2010. Causes and effects of a highly successful marine invasion: Case-study of the introduced Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas in continental NW European estuaries. Journal of Sea Research. Volume 64 pages 145-164. Link.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Orange and Every Other Color

May is coming to a close and I'm reflecting on a very memorable month, full of both long days at the office as well as springtime revelry. One of the highlights was a two-week stint volunteering in the Amsterdam headquarters of The Black Fish.

The Black Fish is a non-profit ocean conservation organization focused on ending illegal and destructive overfishing. I had first heard of them while I was still working at the One World One Ocean Campaign and, since they're based in the Netherlands, I had hoped my relocation would bring a chance to work with them.

Joining the fight against illegal and destructive fishing at The Black Fish headquarters.

During my time with The Black Fish, I had the opportunity to do a wide range of tasks to help prepare for the upcoming launch of a brand new program: the Citizen Inspector Network.  Through this initiative, ordinary people eager to make a tangible contribution to conservation can dedicate two weeks to receive training and then visit European ports to collect fishery data. Where Citizen Inspectors encounter illegal activities, the evidence they gather can be used to advocate for better policy and enforcement and to prosecute those violating the law, filling in a major gap in fishing industry oversight.

My little venture outside of academia, working with the inspiring team at The Black Fish, was energizing. It left me with a refreshed appreciation for innovative environmental activism, and was a perfect reminder of just why I've spent so much time working to become an effective ocean advocate.

It wouldn't be a Dutch spring without blooming tulips.

Leave it to the Dutch to build a float of flowers featuring a large cow's behind on a motorbike.

Spring in the Netherlands is full of holidays and cultural activities. Of course, the country is abloom with tulips of all colors, the flower markets are bustling, and floats decorated in blossoms parade down the streets. In the aftermath of the unusually warm winter, the tulips came very early this year and floats were filled with other flower types - but that didn't stop the season from being vividly colorful nonetheless! 

There's much more to Dutch springtime festivities than flowers, such as the celebration of the monarch's birthday. Since the Queen recently passed the crown to her son, I joined the nation in celebrating the first King's Day in living memory! I got to see the festivities in their full Amsterdam splendor. People pour into the streets, parks, and canals to set up market stalls, buy second-hand treasures from one another, play games, and engage in general merrymaking. The sea of orange, everywhere you look, completes the effect.

In Amsterdam, celebrating my first King's Day! Also, everyone else's first King's Day!

You would be forgiven for mistaking this for the world's greatest clownfish convention.

As if that isn't enough, we also had Memorial Day followed by the big Liberation Festival, to honor all the lives lost in war and to celebrate the country's release from German occupation after World War II. Free concerts are hosted in all the big cities and people head out to enjoy a day of music and sunshine. 

Somehow, in between all of these nation-wide parties, I also had to prepare for a big move. I've now officially left Groningen to spend six months conducting research on the island of Texel. I've joined a team of researchers studying parasites (yum!) and I will investigate the effects of an invasive foreign species that has infected the local mussels.

Texel is no tropical island but with a backyard view like this I think I'll manage just fine.

So, while my diatom days are now behind me, the time for mudflat walking is about to resume. That means that soon I'll be joining Melissa again in the Galoshes Club (which is totally a thing). This summer, expect new stories of me falling in the mud!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

A Visit with Neptune and Galileo

Although I finished the bulk of my lab work some months ago, I’m still toiling away at my research on the diatoms of the Wadden Sea. As Melissa and I have mentioned before, field and lab work aren’t the only things important to scientific research. It’s also important to carefully report on your experiment and results. After all, if you don’t make your findings known, other scientists can’t build on your work – much less use it to improve public policy and legislation.

The view from my desk is not a bad one, but it often is a soggy one.

However, it’s now coming to a close. I’ve finished drafting my report and am incorporating comments and feedback for the final draft and presentation. While the write-up I’m compiling right now isn’t going to be published formally, a PhD student in my lab is building on this research with a longer-term study. Eventually, my work may be cited or directly incorporated into her publications.

Lest you think I’ve been stuck behind a desk all month, let me clarify that I most certainly have not! I was able to escape the damp Netherlands for a mostly-sunny vacation in Italy. Plus, I was able to catch up with my family in the process: my younger brother happens to be enjoying a semester abroad there. I got a great taste of what Italian life is like – figuratively as well as literally. The food absolutely exceeded any and all lofty expectations!


The god of the ocean casually hangs out in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, just like my “little” brother and me.

We spent most of our time in Bologna, where Neptune happens to have prime real estate in the central square. The cityscape is dotted with teetering towers that once signified medieval families’ wealth and served as defensive lookout points. Though most have now crumbled, it’s still clear that Pisa can’t claim to have the only leaning tower. The long climb up the tallest of the towers is well worth it for the stunning view of the city.

Tall towers were once status symbols, but are now ideal tourist vantage points.

The villages of Cinque Terre are nestled into the coast, picturesque even on a stormy day.

In between generous helpings of pasta, frequent gelato outings, and glasses of delightful lambrusco, we managed to make our way to the surreal coastal destination of Cinque Terre. There, the winding mountainous coast over the Mediterranean Sea is dotted with five tiny, colorful villages built into the hills. In spite of rain, it made for some of the most stunning hiking I’ve ever experienced.

We also made a daytrip to Florence. Of all the amazing sights and activities, the one I absolutely insisted on visiting was Museo Galileo. As a student of marine biology, after all, I’d be remiss to miss out on one of the world’s top destinations for science nerds. The many artifacts in this museum offered an amazing perspective on the history of science.

Who wouldn’t want to admire some of the world’s first microscopes?

Of course I lingered longest in the biology realm, and in particular admired the collection of compound microscopes from the 1700s. Okay, perhaps I lingered second-longest at the microscopes, because something else captivated me even more (in a very morbid way): the museum houses a few of Galileo’s actual fingers! Still I’m glad that his legacy as the “father of modern science” goes far beyond some remains on display in glass jars.

Galileo Galilei’s remains (yes, those glass jars contain a few of his fingers).

Meanwhile, the looming completion of my project doesn’t mean I’m done – I have more than a year to go in my Masters program so I’m making preparations for my next project-slash-adventure. You’ll have to wait another month to read about it – I know the suspense is killing you! However, I can tell you this: I recently attended a conference on parasite ecology on a Dutch island as a warm-up for the upcoming endeavor.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Reeling in Results

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately crunching numbers, as I explained in my last post. I’m in the analysis phase of my experiment, combing through my data looking for answers to the question of how diatoms that live on mudflats are affected by heat waves. My hypothesis was that, in an extreme heat wave, the microscopic algae will be stressed and this will cause them to be less productive; I expected them to perform less photosynthesis and to produce less EPS (a slimy substance that helps the tiny organisms stick together).

The flashy local Groninger Museum is as worthy of admiration as the art on display there.

After weeks of agonizing over statistics and navigating errors and warning messages in the unfamiliar program (these trials surely sound familiar to Melissa as well!), the results are finally in!

Overall, my results suggest that a heatwave does decrease the productivity of mudflat diatoms. When I compare the diatoms in the heatwave treatment with the control, the ones in heatwave produce much less fluorescence and chlorophyll a over time. (To be scientific, I found statistically significant results – that is a way of saying that there is little chance that these results were random coincidence.) Because of this, I can say that the diatoms are photosynthesizing less in the heatwave.

You might have expected that heat would make them photosynthesize more: more exposure to sun and heat creates more plant (or algae) growth, right?  But in this case we find that this is only true up to a certain point. While they increase up to an optimum temperature, in my experiment we saw that when it gets even hotter, it inhibits the diatoms and they can’t adapt quickly enough.

On the southern coast of the Netherlands is the province of Zeeland (“sea land”) where I helped collect algae for an undergraduate lab class.

The second part of my hypothesis was that there would also be lower production of EPS in the heatwave. However, in this area my results were not conclusive. There was no trend or significant difference, which is unexpected because prior studies have shown a strong connection between chlorophyll a and EPS, which impacts sediment stability. I’m still hoping to disentangle why my results deviate from what other researchers have found.

The next step I’m working on is to compile everything into a report for that explains the details on my experiment – all the way from background on why it is relevant up to how I set up my trials and what conclusions I can draw from it.

It was easy to see how this region of central Germany inspired fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm.

I also managed to get out from behind my computer for a couple of most excellent adventures!

Locally, there is still plenty to explore as I found during a trip to the Groninger Museum, which I’d often noticed in passing but never visited before. During another daytrip, I joined my professor on a drive all the way from our city of Groningen, in the north, down to the southern coast of the Netherlands (a mere three-hour cross-country trip) to collect algae samples for an undergraduate lab practical.

Europe’s largest hillside park, Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, was an idyllic spot for an early spring hike.

I later ventured across the border to visit old friends in central Germany. Seeing a small town and its classic frame houses with their exposed wood beams, all nestled in between a river and hills brought darkly romantic fairy tales to mind. I also enjoyed exploring the mid-size city of Kassel, the highlight of which was a long walk in a lovely baroque hillside park with forested trails leading to impressive 18th century statues and ruins overlooking the town.

Lucky for me, that wasn’t the last of my adventures as spring is just arriving and I’ll have more excursions to share next time – as well as a new research project to begin!

Above Kassel, Germany, at the park’s highest point, stands the Hercules monument, which has watched over the city for about three centuries.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Lab Labor

Back in the Netherlands after the holidays, I was met with mild winter temperatures perfect for a beautiful walk in the Amsterdam Forest with my family. Later, upon returning to Groningen, I resumed work on the diatom research I had started in the fall.

A light brushing of early morning frost in the Amsterdam Forest.

In my effort to discover how mudflat diatom communities are affected by heat waves, I spent last autumn trekking out onto the mudflats of the Wadden Sea to collect samples of sediment and diatoms, as I described in a previous blog. I brought the samples back to the lab and placed them in climate chambers programmed to either heat wave or control temperatures. I now need to assess if there was a difference in how the diatoms reacted to the heatwave compared to the control. If they did differ, I need to know in what way and by how much.

There are a number of reasons that this type of research is important. Diatoms have several functions. For example, they produce oxygen, and they are a link in the mudflat foodchain. Another function they perform is helping keep the mud’s surface stable by creating mats. If my research shows that the heat wave affects the diatoms’ ability to do this, then climate change spells trouble for sediment stability. As more heat waves occur, the islands in the Wadden Sea could become more vulnerable to erosion – worsening the troubles of sea level rise for these low-lying areas.

The dark areas are mats of diatoms; they create bubbles by photosynthesizing and producing oxygen.

There are now a few ways for me to assess all of the data I collected during the experiment. Firstly, during the experiment, I used a device to measure how much fluorescence the algae were producing; this can give information on how much they are photosynthesizing. Secondly, over the course of the experiment, I removed samples and froze them for later analysis. The aim now is to measure how much chlorophyll a (another indicator of photosynthesis) and how much EPS there is in each sample. EPS stands for extracellular polymeric substance. Basically, it is a slimy secretion that helps the diatoms stick together and create a biofilm on the mud’s surface.

Measuring the chlorophyll a and EPS required many hours of processing in lab. For each sample, my lab partner and I had to separate the compound we were interested in from the sediment. First, precise amounts of sediment were scooped into test tubes. Then a complicated process involving chemicals such as acetone and ethanol, and tools such as centrifuges and fluorometers, allowed us to find out exactly how much EPS and chlorophyll a the diatoms produced.

Working under the fume hood, in the midst of endless pipetting.

Now, finally, all the data is in and I’m gearing up for the next step: statistical analysis. While sitting at a computer crunching numbers isn’t as fun as working in the field or lab, it’s important – and I’m super excited to find out what the results of my experiment exactly reveal. Does a heat wave harm diatom productivity? And might this destabilize the sediment? By the time of next month’s blog, I hope to be able to give a clearer answer to these questions!

In the meantime, I’m doing my best to enjoy the pretty winter scenery, and I’m grateful it’s not as cold here as it is for Melissa in Canada. The first snow day of the season came in late January and I had a gorgeous walk in the freshly fallen snow. However, entering the storm on a bike is another matter. Avoiding falls on the uneven soft and slick roads takes extra focus and my first day involved a few close calls. Here’s to hoping I make it to spring crash-free!

First snow day of the season in Groningen.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

No Fear in the New Year

On December 31st, 2013 I found myself feeling lucky that I have plenty to celebrate. Near the top of the list: this year, I completed my first semester of graduate school in the Netherlands! I took a leap, dove into my research and classes, explored my Dutch heritage more fully than ever before, and enjoyed having opportunities to travel and learn.

New Year's Day sunset in Laguna Beach, California

This past month, my main focus was on issues of sustainability in the polar regions. In Antarctica, human settlements are new and mainly consist of research bases; however, the Arctic region has long supported human populations, who have survived the harsh conditions in various ways. Today, Arctic communities face many challenges – such as population shifts, urbanization, and climate change – factors that increase competition for resources and change the people’s relationship to the environment.

A topic that especially interests me is the history of overfishing off of Newfoundland’s coast in Canada, and during my last course I had a chance to take a closer look. The rise of the cod fishery helped support the growth of a flourishing industry in the region. However, the centuries of fishing created the industry’s own demise as well. By 1991, the cod stocks had collapsed and, in the biggest mass layoff in the history of Canada, the government was forced to close the fishery. To this day, the stocks have not returned to their previous abundance.

Drying cod to preserve them in Burgeo, Newfoundland in 1908. 
Photo by William McFarlane Notman via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

The Newfoundland cod fishery is now one of the most extreme examples of what can occur when resources aren’t managed carefully: the cost is huge, and it is not just ecological – the cost is human. Coincidentally, it also turned out to be a beautiful chance to bring my work full circle with Melissa’s fisheries research in Canada at McGill. Melissa wants to apply her current research in freshwater recreational fisheries to a career managing commercial marine fishery policy to help avoid such collapses in the future.

Between researching, writing papers, and preparing presentations, I still found a chance to do some exploring this month as well.

Groningen lies next to the German border, and the beautiful little city of Bremen lays just a two-hour drive away. During the holiday season, many German cities light up with winter festivities, and Bremen is home to a well-known Christmas market. At this kerstmarkt, I saw the center of the city filled with stalls selling all kinds of goods: traditional handmade German crafts, baked goods and bratwurst – and especially the local seasonal favorite gluhwein, or mulled wine.

Photo by Kat Stroehm.

Photo by Kat Stroehm.

On a different trip, I made my way southwards to the Hague, on the coast of the North Sea, where I strolled through the city, visited the beach boardwalk, and admired the Peace Palace (near where the orca Morgan’s hearings took place). The city is also home to Omniversum, a dome IMAX theater where a number of MacGillivray Freeman documentaries have played, and still play including Dolphins, The Living Sea and To The Arctic.  

The highlight of our visit, though, was visiting a small theme park called Madurodam, where you can explore all of the Netherlands – in miniature! From the famous cheese market of Alkmaar, to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, to a miniature Schiphol airport with moving KLM planes, you can see virtually all of the famous sights and structures of this country in one place, meticulously recreated. Somehow, it perfectly captures Holland’s mix of quaintness and modernity.

Just three days before Christmas, I was ready to catch my flight back home for a whirlwind visit full of holiday festivities and amazing winter beach weather. Certainly, leaving beautiful, sunny California has only increased my appreciation for its beauty and warmth, but I’m also looking forward to spending 2014 continuing my studies in Groningen and further exploring the wonderful sights of Europe!

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Sinterklaas Surprise

While Melissa slogs on with her research on the lake in the bone-chilling cold, I’ve blissfully turned my attention to indoor pursuits. My degree consists of a combination of research and coursework, so while the mudflat algae I study lay dormant I am attending lectures and doing assignments with the luxury of heated interiors.

As the weather turns colder, I am focusing my attention on the chilly regions of the world academically. I just wrapped up a course on ‘Polar Ecosystems’ and began a subsequent study in ‘Sustainability of People at the Polar Regions.’ While I can’t pretend the weather here is anything like the Arctic (I have to admit it’d be a tad dramatic), I will say that late fall in Groningen puts me in an appropriately icy state of mind for these classes.

Sarah braves the icy cold as she bikes to class. 

One of the things about these courses that is fun is to relate the subject matter back to what I learned while working on MacGillivray Freeman’s To the Arctic.   It has been a great chance to dive even deeper into the science of how climate change is impacting the polar regions: In the Antarctic, researchers have found shifts where krill are found, and this may be tied to the disappearance of Adelie penguins. Meanwhile, in in the Arctic (as you can see in the film),  melting sea ice affects the whole ecosystem – including threatening the polar bears we all love. It also creates a feedback loop in which the melting only gets worse, because snow and ice reflect heat, while open water absorbs it.

You may wonder what the lesson here is – and as I worked through my first final exam as a graduate student, I pondered the same. It will be important for all of us to do what we can to lessen our impact: not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to help preserve the environment in other ways. That’s because ecosystems will be more resilient in the face of changes caused by the warming climate, if they’re not also battling other stresses – such as overfishing or pollution – at the same time.

A photo from To The Arctic.

It was to my chagrin that I missed Thanksgiving (or for some this year, Thanksgivinukkah): the Dutch don’t, as it turns out, celebrate the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World. Still, the opening of the holiday season here is not without fanfare for on December 5th, it is Sinterklaas!

As legend has it, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat in December, coming all the way from Spain, where he lives the rest of the year. He rides a white horse and is accompanied by his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten (or Black Petes, the subject of much controversy in recent years), who distribute gifts and candy to the children. On the eve of December 5th, children fill their shoes with hay and carrots and leave them out for Sint’s horse. In return, the good kids wake up to presents.

Sinterklaas. Photo by LordFerguson via Flickr, Creative Commons License

Adults, of course, don’t expect Sint and Piet to fly around the country on horseback delivering gifts at night – but they have their own ways of celebrating. This year my Dutch family celebrated ‘baby’s first Sinterklaas’ for my two-month-old nephew – and me! I learned that we all would draw a name from a hat for a Secret Santa-style gift exchange. Accompanying each present should be a poem – preferably one that cracks jokes at the recipient’s expense, and hints at the contents of the gift. With just a little help from a Dutch rhyming dictionary, I composed a rhyme for my cousin in which I poked fun at his hair care: like many Dutch males, it involves copious quantities of gel, which was also a component of his gift.

Traditional Sinterklaas treats include cinnamon-spiced kruidnoten and speculaas, and marzipan in many shapes and colors.

In many families, although not mine, it is traditional to focus less on the gift and more on crafting an elaborate arts and crafts surprise (pronounced ‘surprees’), whereas among my housemates, we will opt for an alternative type of gift exchange: dobbelen, a game that has a lot in common with a white elephant gift exchange, but involves rolling of dice.

Big letter-shaped chocolates are a favorite gift exchange item.

Photo by Quistnix, via WikiMedia Commons

In short, I’m continuing to love the education I’m getting here – both academically and culturally, since I’m finally experiencing first-hand the Dutch traditions that I grew up hearing about. Nonetheless, I’m also looking forward to heading home in a few weeks for the holidays and basking in the warmth of a California Christmas.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

Winter is Coming

What do biologists do on a day-to-day basis? Well, you might find us in the lab using equipment like test tubes and pipettes and centrifuges. We can also be spotted out in the field observing and collecting samples.

How often do you imagine biologists going on mega shopping trips to the hardware store to solve the age-old question of how to carry 10-foot-long PVC tubes by bicycle?

I am two months into my time here in Holland, and I've had ample opportunity to work on my skills, not only in field collection and lab work, but also in carpentry and plumbing. Between that and Melissa's schlepping fish heads around town by public transport, this “higher education” thing might be more than we bargained for.

My current focus is research involving diatoms – tiny single-celled algae that produce much of the earth's oxygen. While most of them are planktonic and live in the water column, I am investigating diatoms that that live on the sediment's surface. To gather the diatoms for the study, I've made several trips to a nearby island called Schiermonnikoog. (As with 'Groningen', most non-native Dutch speakers are useless at pronouncing this.)

At high tide, an intertidal mud flat looks simply like ocean. But low tide reveals a vast expanse of land... wet, soggy, soft land, populated by marine species such as worms, bivalves, and algae. You can walk on it, and in fact, a traditional Dutch hobby is wadlopen, or “mudflat-walking.” Participants travel from island to island in the Wadden Sea on foot – after pulling on knee-high rubber boots and carefully taking the tides into account.

I got quite a taste for wadlopen myself over the course of my field excursions, putting my new galoshes to the test. More than once I nearly sank away or fell over into the muck. When collecting, my lab group descends into the mud armed with rainboots, buckets, shovels, sieves, and coolers full of ice to collect our samples. Once our samples are in the lab we place them into climate chambers programmed to different temperatures. By conducting these experiments, I am hoping to find out how heat waves affect sediment diatom communities.

As the temperature outside begins to drop, it will be too cold for the diatoms and we’ll take a break from outdoor research; for me that's probably a good thing. While I've loved spending beautiful sunny days on Schier (for short), the increasingly high wind speeds and decrease in temperature has already made it hard for me to drag my sunshine-spoiled Californian self outdoors.

In addition to research, I've had some more culinary experiences, the most fun of which has been bischuit met muisjes. In Dutch, this translates directly to “biscuit with little mice.” Like hagelslag, it consists of sugary sprinkles on a butter and bread base, but unlike hagelslag it's not eaten for just any old day willy nilly. It is a treat reserved for one special occasion in particular: the colored sprinkles are served to celebrate the birth of a baby – blue and white for a boy, or pink and white for a girl. Since my Dutch family has recently welcomed a new member, I had my first chance to indulge in the sugary delight, which is flavored with anise (according to tradition, the licorice-flavored herb helps with breastfeeding).

I also had the chance to try some foreign foods with my international friends. After reading about Melissa's poutine experience, I was thrilled when my French-Canadian friend prepared some for me to try. While fries with mayo (a popular side here) are delicious, the cheese and gravy of poutine really amps up the comfort food rating.

Now I'm off to cower from some rain. Hopefully, the next time you hear from me, I will be an expert in important skills such as how to keep a scarf and hood on while I tack into the wind on my bike, and how to balance the cold outdoor temperature with the physically strenuous and sweat-inducing activity of cycling to class in a hurry.

Tune back in twice a month to see what new adventures Melissa and Sarah are up to! You can bookmark this page for easy access: Hook, Line, & Sinker

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