This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

10 questions: ocean protector Richard Ambrose

Richard Ambrose at Paradise Cove in Malibu. Photo by Steve Lee.
Richard Ambrose at Paradise Cove in Malibu. Photo by Steve Lee.
Whether he's scuba diving in the Channel Islands, inspecting coastal Californian wetlands for signs of recovery or poking around in tide pools, Professor Richard Ambrose's research is almost literally a day at the beach. Ambrose is the director of the Environmental Science and Engineering Program and a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA's School of Public Health. He specializes in protecting the coast and managing coastal resources, and has spent decades lending his expertise to projects such as wetland restoration.
UCLA Today's Alison Hewitt talked with Professor Ambrose about what motivates him, his love of scuba diving and the troubles he sees ahead for the California coast.
You spend all your time thinking about the ocean and the coast. Can you still enjoy a day at the beach, or does your work-brain switch on in the middle of vacation?
Actually, if I just go to a sandy beach, that's a habitat I don't do much work in. I can just enjoy the waves and the sand. But really, thinking about all these things — wetlands, kelp beds, rocky intertidal zones — that is recreation for me. In fact, if I travel to new places, I often try to see my usual habitats in new places, like the East Coast and Gulf Coast. Their wetlands, especially, are very different compared to California.
I really enjoy the science and the research, but another part of what keeps me motivated is recognizing that I can have a meaningful impact on how natural resources are managed and protected. My research has a practical application.
At the UCs (he earned a B.S. at UC Irvine in 1975, and his Ph.D. at UCLA in 1982), you did your undergraduate and graduate work in field ecology and octopus ecology. What made you switch to the preservation of tide pools, wetlands, kelp beds and the like?
I had a lot of different things I was interested in, but especially the ocean. Back then, there weren't many people concerned with conservation, but the issue was beginning to grow. When I started my post-doc at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, my department head was involved in managing fisheries, and I became more involved in marine conservation issues. Now my research is mostly focused on developing the science that resource managers need so they can decide the best ways to preserve resources, and on working with coastal agencies on preservation.
You've worked with the California Coastal Commission, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, the state Water Resources Control Board, the U.S. EPA, and lots of other local, state and federal agencies. Now you're working on the state's Ocean Protection Council (OPC) as a co-chair of its Science Advisory Team. What's your role there?
The OPC is trying to deal with coastal problems in a comprehensive way. For many agencies, they just look at their own little piece. OPC looks at the big picture. The science team is bringing attention to problems that scientists think are really important right now, and also looking ahead to the important problems.
What are some of the water problems scientists foresee?
We already know about problems that have to do with pollution, especially from runoff. Runoff is mostly water that runs off our streets and lawns, and contains pesticides and metals. But now there's a whole new class of contaminants that people haven't paid much attention to: endocrine disruptors, which act like hormones, and can affect marine life very differently from other pollutants.
Another problem is climate change. It will cause ocean acidification, and as the pH changes, it can have profound effects across the whole food web in ways we don't fully understand yet. Sea level rise is another obvious result of climate change, and that would impact not just people living near the coast, but habitats near the coast — tide pools, wetlands and coastal bluffs. In some places, tide pools will disappear, and wetlands can't migrate inland they way they would once upon a time, because people have built condos and offices there.
At Medea Creek in Simi Valley. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.
At Medea Creek in Simi Valley. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.
What are the benefits of wetlands, anyway?
In many places, wetlands serve as a filter to reduce pollutants before they reached the ocean, and they used to do so more effectively for California, but we've destroyed so many wetlands. They're also very productive habitats. They capture a lot of energy from the sun, which they then pass on to the animals living there and to animals in other habitats. Wetlands also serve as nurseries for many fish, and they're habitats for a lot of animals we care about. The wetlands are very important stopovers for some migrating shore birds or water fowl, and they're important habitats for many endangered species.
What are some of the local wetlands you've worked on, and how do you help restore them?
I co-chaired the scientific committee planning restoration for the Ballona Wetlands. I've done a lot of work at Malibu Lagoon, and a restoration project at Ormond Beach, just up the coast from Point Mugu. I've worked at the Carpenteria Salt Marsh, a very nice wetland system, and I've also done a lot of work at Mugu Lagoon up near Oxnard, including a lot of restoration and reviewing its success.
At places like Mugu Lagoon, a 25-acre salt marsh, I helped design the restoration project. It was getting contaminated by sewage. UCLA Professor Rick Vance and I figured out how the sewage could be safely integrated into the salt marsh at low concentrations, with certain soils and certain plants, without damage. Then we designed it, deciding on things like elevations. At high tide, the water has to come in and cover the right parts and still be able to sweep back out. We worked on the elevations, the locations of tidal creeks and the sediment mix. This was about eight years ago, and it's doing its wetland thing now. It looks like a wetland. It still needs time to develop, but it's definitely recovering. On other projects, I've also been involved in bringing in the right mix of plants.
What's the state of wetland preservation in the U.S. and California?
We've lost about half of the wetlands in the nations, but in California we've lost 91 percent of our wetlands, the highest fraction of any state. I research whether mitigation projects are working, and the answer is basically — not very well. That's why I'm working with so many agencies. I'm trying to provide them with information so they'll know how they can improve the process. One of the interesting finds I had while working on a state project was that mitigation projects assigned to companies or developers often weren't working very well, and it wasn't because they weren't following directions — they were doing exactly what these agencies told them to do. So that tells us we need to develop better instructions, which I'm helping the agencies do.
Of all the habitats you study, do you have a favorite?
It's like being asked to choose who's your favorite child! I think the rocky intertidal is my favorite because the ocean waves are right there, and the tide pool species living there are so precisely, uniquely suited for that habitat. They have to be exposed to air for hours at a time and also spend time underwater, and be strong enough to stand up to crashing waves.
Ambrose explores a kelp bed off Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura. Photo by Joe Wible.
Ambrose explores a kelp bed off Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura. Photo by Joe Wible.
I really like tropical habitats, too. I don't do much research on coral reefs, but I love to visit. That's my ideal vacation, going scuba diving. I'm identifying all the fish and spotting the interaction between the fish and the coral. Scuba's really neat. It's a completely different world. You're breathing underwater, and things don't look or feel like what you're used to. You can be neutrally buoyant and just sit in the water, calm, like a bird. It can be just beautiful. I learned to dive for my dissertation research.
Scuba was part of your dissertation? That's kind of awesome.
And I still use it sometimes for research. I do a lot of diving off Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura. My team's been looking at a place that used to be a kelp bed there but then became an urchin barrens. When sea urchins get too abundant, they eat all the giant kelp and graze away all the algae. We expected a cycle, that the kelp would come back. But the kelp has been gone since 1985. We're interested in how that happened.
We're also looking at an area on the other side of the island that used to be an eelgrass bed — that's a sea grass. Eelgrass beds are like wetlands, in a way. They're very productive. They act as nurseries and support a lot of life. Again, the urchins grazed it all away and it never came back. But there, we've transplanted some [eelgrass] from Santa Cruz Island, and that's been successful.
What's an easy thing people should know about water resource preservation that isn't widely recognized?
The biggest message is that people don't recognize the connection between what they do where they live, and how their activities affect the ocean. If you live in Westwood or Culver City, you're not thinking your actions directly impact the ocean, but they do — that’s where the trash and sediment that washes into the oceans comes from. Litter and plastic trash washes in from miles away from the coast. People need to think about how connected they are to the ocean.
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