IMG_5770Written By August Delforge, CSU STEM VISTA 2015-16 Monterey Bay’s Science and Environmental Policy

I’d like to start out this blog by citing an infamous anecdote used by aquarist and fisherman alike here in the Monterey Bay: the tale of the southern sea otters’ (Enhydra lutris nereis) sudden decline and subsequent rebound.  This is a tale that spans the ages… well, actual events can be quantified to as early as 1783 when Central and Northern California’s fur trade  skyrocketed after reports that Chinese Tradesmen were paying prices resulting in over a 1,500% profit for otter fur… But, I digress.

The story goes that Chinese fur traders were paying such high prices for otter furs, being the densest animal pelt on the planet (approximately 1 million individual hairs per square inch), that by 1817 otter populations in California had declined from an estimated 16,000 to near extinction. Today’s population in the Monterey Bay is derived from just 50 individual otters found off the coast of Big Sur.

The mass slaughter of otters in Monterey Bay didn’t solely impact the otter population; it also had a detrimental impact on the entirety of biodiversity within the bay. Otters in the Monterey Bay are classified as a keystone species, defined as any organism that plays a vital role in the overall health of the ecosystem that it interacts in. Thus, if you take the keystone species out of the framework, the whole system comes crumbling down with it.

In Monterey’s case without the disturbance of the otter as a natural predator, urchin and other invertebrate populations skyrocketed and started eating away at the iconic giant bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) forests which provided a integral layer of protection and shelter to the majority of marine organisms including most fish species, crabs, sea slugs, ect. The IMG_6191collapse of the local marine ecosystem inevitably lead to a decline in terrestrial species populations. Pelagic bird populations, which fed on a dwindling number of anchovies and other fish, declined collapsing further populations of other terrestrial carnivorous and detritophages critters until the whole ecological system became barren and stagnate.

Now, I tell you that to tell you this; I am a very visual learner so over-the-top metaphors are my main vehicle of communication. I see the connection between biologic diversity in any ecological system similar to that of any anthropomorphic system. In both settings there is value, both moral and practical, in increasing diversity. One of my main objectives as a CSU STEM VISTA is to implement programs and systems that help traditionally underserved students not only survive but thrive in academia. In my view, the success of Under Represented Minority (URM) students is the vital keystone to the success and longevity of the CSU system and ultimately society as a whole.  Without diversity in culture and thought process there can be little progression in any field, and this is especially true in the emerging innovations of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

IMG_6367This year, I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation by Dr. Zed Mason, Associate Vice President for Research and Sponsored Programs, who has researched the roles and impacts that URM students have played in the CSU system. In his presentation he explained that one of the main reasons URM students struggle in higher education is that a vast majority of them come from socially disadvantaged communities with higher rates of poverty as well as more-crowded, less-funded schools. The barriers that students from disadvantaged communities face are a continuum of belonging to a society which has historically put in place laws and regulations that systemically oppress any people not belonging to the “traditional majority.” Limiting opportunities for all people to succeed and be heard in a society limits the capacity to which that society can grow, and it ultimately leads to its own demise.

Remember how I said that the southern sea otter population in California had dwindled down to just 50 individuals? Well now that number is up to nearly 3,000 and is growing thanks to the changes in laws, regulations, and conservation efforts. Growing with the otter population is the world renowned biodiversity and overall health of the bay’s ecosystem. As a CSU STEM VISTA I feel like I am in a particularly unique position to help promote these changes, as it relates to creating a more reflective diversity within the CSU system.

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Sources:
http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animal-guide/marine-mammals/southern-sea-otter
http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animal-guide/plants-and-algae/bull-kelp
http://www.pgmuseum.org/seaotters/
Great little video: http://seaotters.com/2013/05/why-are-sea-otters-important-no-sea-otters-no-kelp-forests/

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