CDFW and University Researchers Use Forensic Genomics to Track Down a Killer

Media Contacts:
Laura Rogers-Bennett, CDFW Marine Region, (707) 875-2035
Andrew Hughan, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8944

Similar to the “CSI” television series, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and university researchers have used a multidisciplinary approach they call “forensic genomics” to investigate a mysterious die-off of red abalone and other species along the Sonoma Coast in northern California. A paper describing this new approach was published in the April 16 issue of the scientific journal Nature Communications.

Research divers survey the area affected by the algae bloom from the CDFW Patrol Boat Marlin

Research divers survey the area affected by the algae bloom from the CDFW Patrol Boat Marlin.

In 2011, large numbers of red abalone, sea stars, sea urchins and other marine invertebrates were found dead along 62 miles of Sonoma County coastline. The die-off, which occurred in relatively shallow water, did not affect fish.

Like CSI detectives, environmental scientists Laura Rogers-Bennett of CDFW and Pierre De Wit of Stanford University collaborated with others to determine exactly what caused the die-off. CDFW wildlife officers collected samples of the first dead abalone that washed ashore, and CDFW biologists, who had just completed abalone monitoring dives for the year, gathered forces to complete a new set of reconnaissance dives to assess the damage and collect water samples from the area.

CDFW Environmental Scientist Kristin Hubbard nets a plankton sample.

CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Laura Rogers-Bennett prepares a plankton sample for testing.

An unprecedented red tide, or algae bloom, that coincided with the die-off was suspected of playing a role in the event. At the time, Rogers-Bennett noted that “If the cause of the die-off is linked to a harmful algae bloom, it would be the first scientifically confirmed report of such an occurrence off the Sonoma Coast.”

Samples from the dead abalone tested negative for the usual algae bloom-related suspects that occur along the California coast, including domoic acid and paralytic shellfish toxin. Researchers did notice that Gonyaulax algae, which can sometimes produce toxins, was abundant in water samples. However, the single time Gonyaulax toxin had been previously detected in California waters, it did not cause a die-off.

De Wit had joined Rogers-Bennett only a few months before the die-off to gather red abalone samples at Fort Ross. The two planned to use the samples to sequence the red abalone’s whole transcriptome, genetic material that tells where genes are turned on or off at the time of sampling. Neither researcher could have realized at the time that the transcriptome would play a key role in identifying the culprit behind the die-off.

Because scientists know which genes turn on or off when exposed to various natural toxins, they can identify the toxins that cause an animal’s illness or death through genetic examination. After the die-off, the two researchers took samples from surviving abalone at Fort Ross, and De Wit compared the transcriptomes of abalone sampled before and after the event. His genetic comparison showed that the surviving abalone had all been exposed to Gonyaulax toxin.

De Wit found that the genes known to be affected by the toxin were “turned on” in those abalone, said Rogers-Bennett. No other toxic fingerprints were found. The new genetic testing provided a powerful method to finally establish the cause of the die-off, supported by other findings such as the traces of Gonyaulax toxin found in the gut tracts of dead abalone and the abundance of the algae in the water.

“Looking forward, the key to using forensic genomics successfully is to gather baseline genetic information from wildlife populations before the next mass mortality event,” said Rogers-Bennett.

Being able to identify the cause will help CDFW marine fishery managers respond to die-offs with the most appropriate regulatory adjustments. Forensic genomics holds promise as a method for tracking not only other natural toxin events caused by algal blooms, but also tracking the effects of low-oxygen and acidification events and ocean warming.

Due Date Rapidly Approaching for 2013-2014 Full Season Spiny Lobster Report Card

Media Contacts:
Kai Lampson, CDFW Marine Region Lobster, (805) 965-7216
Travis Buck, CDFW Marine Region Lobster, (858) 467-4214
Jordan Traverso, CDFW Communications, (916) 654-9937

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) reminds 2013-2014 Full Season Spiny Lobster Report Card holders to return their cards by April 30, 2014 as required by law. Only 34 percent of the 2013-2014 Full Season Spiny Lobster Report Cards have been reported online or returned to CDFW, to date.

Please Note: 2013-2014 Full Season Spiny Lobster Report Card holders who fail to return their cards by April 30, 2014 will be charged a non-return fee of $20 upon issuance of a Spiny Lobster Report Card in the subsequent fishing season, or they may choose to skip one fishing season to be able to purchase a lobster card the following season at no extra cost.

The Automated License Data System (ALDS) has greatly increased the ability of CDFW to remind card holders of the need to return report cards with the ability to send out reminder notices through the mail. A reminder notice was mailed to all cardholders to return their report cards to CDFW or submit their harvest data online. If you receive a reminder notice and have already submitted your card or reported online, CDFW thanks you!

Cardholders should review their cards carefully and check that the information recorded is complete and accurate. Information collected from the cards provides CDFW with data necessary to monitor and manage California’s spiny lobster fishery.

The cards need to be returned, even if no lobsters were taken or no attempts were made to take lobster. Spiny Lobster Report Card data can be submitted online at www.dfg.ca.gov/licensing/harvestreporting.  Report cards also can be submitted by mail to:

CDFW – Lobster Report Card
3883 Ruffin Rd.
San Diego, CA 92123

Additional information and a list of frequently asked questions about this program can be found on CDFW’s Ocean Sport Fishing webpage, www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/invertebrate/lobster.asp .

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Department of Fish and Wildlife Releases White Shark Status Review under the California Endangered Species Act

Media Contacts:
Michelle Horeczko, CDFW Marine Region, (562) 342-7198
Jordan Traverso, CDFW Communications, (916) 654-9937

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has released a full status review of the Northeast Pacific population of white shark under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

The review document is available at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/pubnotice.

In completing the review, CDFW determined that the best scientific information available indicates the petitioned action is not warranted and recommends the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission) not list the Northeast Pacific population of white shark as threatened or endangered under CESA.

At a future meeting, the Commission will make a final decision on whether or not to list the Northeast Pacific population of white shark as a threatened or endangered species under CESA.

Please check the Commission website at http://www.fgc.ca.gov for more information.

Anglers Urged to Return Fish Tags in Timely Manner

North coast steelhead and salmon anglers are reminded to return fish tags to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in a timely manner. Tag return information is a vital tool for biologists as they calculate harvest and estimate population size of Chinook, coho and steelhead runs.

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“We’ve had people send us huge envelopes with several years’ worth of tags, but the information is only useful in the same season the fish are caught, ” said Mary Claire Kier, CDFW Trinity River Project Environmental Scientist. “We need anglers to send in their tags right away, before they get lost or forgotten in tackle boxes or pockets of fishing vests.”

Please return all Trinity River fish tags, by mail or in person, to:

California Department of Fish and Wildlife
5341 Ericson Way
Arcata, CA  95521

A tag return form can be found online at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/fish/Fishing/Monitoring/FTag/.  Anglers can also simply send the tags wrapped in or taped to a piece of paper with their name, address, date and location that the fish was caught or the tag was found. Please specify if the fish was caught live or found dead, or if the tag was found loose. If the tag was found on a caught fish, please note whether the fish was kept or released.

If the tag is being returned by mail, please cut the knot off of the tag as the knot can cause the envelope to catch in the postal sorting equipment.

Media Contacts:
Mary Claire Kier, CDFW Trinity River Project, (707) 822-5876  
Harry Morse, CDFW Communications, (916) 323-1478

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Wildlife Officers Cite San Francisco Man for Shark Fin Possession

Media Contacts: Lt. Patrick Foy, CDFW Law Enforcement, (916) 508-7095

Wildlife officers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recently cited a San Francisco man for possession of shark fins for sale.

On Jan. 29, wildlife officers conducted a fish business inspection on Kwong Yip, Inc. out of San Francisco, and found what appeared to be shark fins for sale on the premises. It is unlawful to possess shark fin for sale in California. They cited the owner, Michael Kwong, age 42, of San Francisco for the violation. As part of the investigation, wildlife officers seized 2,138 lbs. of product believed to be shark fin. Ongoing analysis is required to verify that all of the seized product is actually shark fin.

Fish and Game Code (FGC) 2021, the law that prohibits possession of shark fin for sale, went into effect in 2011, but included a phase in period to allow restaurants and other businesses to sell off remaining stock. As of Jul. 1, 2013, no person may possess shark fin for sale.

CDFW to Host Public Meeting on Ocean Salmon Fisheries

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) invites the public to attend its upcoming annual ocean salmon information meeting. A review of last year’s ocean salmon fisheries and spawning escapement will be presented, in addition to the outlook for this year’s sport and commercial ocean salmon fisheries.

The meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, February 26 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Sonoma County Water Agency, 404 Aviation Blvd. in Santa Rosa.

The public is encouraged to provide input on potential fishing seasons to a panel of California salmon scientists, managers and representatives who will be directly involved in the upcoming Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) meetings in March and April.

Salmon fishing seasons are developed through a collaborative process involving the PFMC, the California Fish and Game Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Public input will help California representatives negotiate a broad range of season alternatives during the PFMC March 8-13 meeting in Sacramento, California.

The 2014 ocean salmon information meeting marks the beginning of a two-month long public process used to establish annual sport and commercial ocean salmon seasons. A list of additional meetings and other opportunities for public comment is available on the ocean salmon webpage at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/salmonpreseason.asp.

The meeting agenda and handouts will be posted online as soon as they become available.

Media Contacts:
Erick Anderson, CDFW Marine Region, (707) 576-2879
Andrew Hughan, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8944

Chinook salmon taken by an ocean sport angler near Trinidad, CA. Photo by Mark Scatchard (CDFW).

Chinook salmon taken by an ocean sport angler near Trinidad, CA. Photo by Mark Scatchard (CDFW).

CDFW Officers Snag Diver off Catalina Island

California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) officers cited a 46-year-old Ventura County man for using rubbing alcohol to force fish out of rocks and capturing them to sell. The diver was cited for two Fish and Game Code violations: use of chemical while collecting marine aquaria and unlawful take of marine aquaria at Catalina Island, which is prohibited by law.

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On the afternoon of Nov. 13, officers from the patrol boat Thresher observed a large recreational sailboat with commercial fishing license numbers painted on the stern anchored in Emerald Bay on the northeast coast of Catalina Island. Officers boarded the boat and found a man sport fishing. The angler told the officers that his partner was SCUBA diving.

Officers entered the 62-degree water and observed a diver squirting a liquid (later determined to be rubbing alcohol) from a bottle into cracks of rocks. The liquid was forcing small fish, Blue Banded Goby (Lythrypnus dalli), into the open water where the man then caught them with a small aquarium fish net and immediately put them in a small plastic receptacle attached to his SCUBA gear. The warden used a mask and snorkel from just below the water’s surface to watch the diver squirt the bottle twice. The warden then dove down, showed the diver his warden identification, and directed the diver to come to the surface. Before ascending, the diver left one of his squirt bottles on the rocks and attempted to drop a small, mesh bag containing another squirt bottle. A warden retrieved both squirt bottles and the mesh bag.

Once on the sailboat, the suspect told the officers he was a licensed marine aquaria collector and his buyers were paying him $10 per fish.  He stated that he did not know it is illegal to use rubbing alcohol to catch the small fish, or that it is illegal to partake in marine aquaria collection operations off Santa Catalina Island.

The diver had 63 goby fish in the plastic receptacle attached to his gear. During the interview, officers saw another plastic sealed container underneath the boat. The second container was holding an additional 109 goby fish.  The fish were counted, photographed and returned to the sea.

The man’s dive gear was seized and charges will be filed with the Los Angeles County District Attorney.

The marine aquaria laws that protect Catalina Island prevent collectors from depleting local species around the island. Collecting marine aquaria from the ocean is legal with the proper permits.

Media Contact:
Lt. Eric Kord, CDFW Law Enforcement (858) 538-6017
Andrew Hughan, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8944

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Southern California Man Charged in Commercial Fishing Violations

California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) law enforcement officials filed dozens of misdemeanor charges in October against a Southern California man, accusing him of violating a series of commercial fishing regulations.

Adam Crawford James, 32, of Winnetka is accused of multiple violations of the Fish and Game Code, including commercial take of lobster without a permit, commercial take of sea urchin without a permit, illegal take of nearshore fish without a permit, failure to complete and submit records of fish taken under a commercial license, the illegal take of several varieties of fish during the closed commercial season and several other serious charges.

During their investigation CDFW wildlife officers received information from the CalTIP hotline that James was attempting to sell commercially caught fish to restaurants without a Receiver’s License. In California, commercial fishermen are permitted to sell their catch directly to restaurants, provided they have a Receiver’s License and complete required documentation of the marine life that is taken.  This management tool helps to protect the resource, and ensure sustainable fisheries for years to come.

The investigation revealed that James appeared to be in violation of far more, when evidence of fishing during closed seasons, and taking species that required special permits began to surface.

“Most commercial fishermen are ethical and diligently follow the laws and regulations,” said CDFW Assistant Chief Dan Sforza. “Thanks to the information received from the CalTIP hotline and good, solid police work we were able to file charges.”

The charges were filed with the Santa Monica City Attorney’s office in Oct.

If convicted of these violations in court James could face jail time, fines, loss of his commercial fishing license, community service and other penalties. No court dates have been set.

CalTIP (Californians Turn In Poachers and Polluters) is a confidential secret witness program that encourages the public to provide Fish and Wildlife with factual information leading to the arrest of poachers and polluters.

CalTIP was introduced in California in 1981 in order to give Californians an opportunity to help protect the state’s fish and wildlife resources. The toll free telephone number, (888) 334-2258 operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You do not have to give your name.

Media Contact:
Capt. Rebecca Hartman, CDFW Law Enforcement, (310) 678-4864
Andrew Hughan, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8944

California Designates Oct. 15 as Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day

Media Contact:
Janice Mackey, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8908

Inaugural Observance Aims to Protect California’s New Official Marine Reptile

In an effort to bring awareness and protect the population for generations to come, California has designated Oct. 15 as Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day.

As one of largest migratory sea turtles, the Pacific leatherback sea turtle (leatherback) mark an incredible journey each year, traveling more than 6,000 miles from nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed on California jellyfish during summer and fall months. Listed as threatened on both federal and state lists, the species faces threats from capture in fishing gear, harvesting of eggs on nesting beaches, plastic pollution and climate change.

“Despite being listed as an endangered or threatened species since 1970, the leatherback population has decreased by approximately 90 percent over the last 20 years,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “Our hope with this celebration is to bring awareness to the plight of the leatherback to preserve it for years to come.”

Passed by the Assembly and signed into law by Governor Brown in September 2012, Assembly Bill 1776 established leatherbacks as the official state marine reptile. The bill encourages public schools to include leatherbacks in their curriculum and urges state and federal agencies to take proactive conservation measures to prevent further threats.

Scientists and government representatives from California and Indonesia will also convene in Monterey, California Oct. 14-16, 2013 for an historic summit on leatherbacks. The conference will host more than a dozen Indonesian delegates, providing the opportunity to reaffirm each country’s commitments and forge new partnerships to prevent the extinction of this magnificent species that call both regions home.

About the Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle
Leatherbacks are the deepest-diving, longest-living and largest sea turtle. An adult can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and measure more than 6.5 feet in length and can easily be differentiated from other turtle species by its lack of a bony shell. According to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scientists, there are less than 5,000 leatherback breeding females left in the world today.

CDFW Offshore Enforcement Active at Southern California Lobster Opener

California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) marine officers contacted more than 400 anglers while patrolling Catalina, San Nicholas and the Santa Barbara islands during the recreational lobster season opener that started Sept. 28. During the opening weekend, CDFW wildlife officers issued 35 citations and 26 warnings.

Violations included undersize lobster, overlimit of lobster, lobster report card violations, fishing in a Marine Protected Area (MPA), violations of sheephead, lingcod and commercial sea cucumber regulations, no commercial fishing license and commercial lobster traps wired shut.

Due to the large amount of activity around the offshore islands in past years, CDFW officers deployed three department vessels, the Thresher, Coho and Swordfish, to enforce laws and regulations as well as public safety in the ocean miles off the California coast. Several significant cases were made during the opening weekend, including:

  • After receiving a CalTIP report officers inspected a commercial fishing site and found 14 of 16 lobster traps wired shut rather than open as regulations require. A formal complaint is pending with the District Attorney.
  • A wildlife officer rescued a diver in distress complaining of severe cramping in both legs. After the diver was towed back to his boat, he was found to be in possession of 10 lobsters, four of which were undersized. He was cited for an overlimit and released.
  • Officers observed a boat anchored on the border of the Blue Caverns MPA with one man aboard and a diver with a light swimming in the MPA. When an officer jumped into the water, the diver turned off his light and attempted to outswim the warden to the boat, where another officer was waiting for him to surface. The suspect said he was “only looking” and did not have any lobsters. A second warden entered the water and found the fleeing diver’s game bag with lobster in it. After a search of the boat and gear, the men were found to have 21 lobsters. They were cited for an overlimit, failure to show on demand and diving in a protected reserve.
  • A commercial lobster vessel was setting unbaited, open traps along the Palos Verdes coastline. One of the crew members was found to not have a commercial fishing license and was cited.
  • Officers boarded a 50-foot sport fishing vessel and found the captain operating an unlicensed charter boat operation and charging passengers $900 for the trip. The boat did not have a commercial registration or ocean enhancement stamps. A formal complaint is pending with the District Attorney.
  • At Santa Barbara Island, a diver attempted to distract officers with the classic “what’s that over there?” while trying to drop his dive bag. The warden put on his SCUBA equipment and retrieved the bag 60-feet below the surface. It was filled with nine lobsters, and the diver was cited for an overlimit.
  • While on patrol, the crew of the Swordfish heard a mayday distress call from a 45-foot sport boat less than a mile from their location. The boat was grounding on the rocks of Anacapa Island. They rushed to the scene and pulled the boat off the rocks. A man and his three teenage children were aboard and the boat had a dead battery.

California spiny lobsters are crustaceans that are common from Point Conception to Baja California. Lobster season is generally open from the first Saturday in October through about March 15 and is carefully monitored and regulated. California spiny lobsters are slow-growing animals that biologists estimate take as long as seven years to grow to legal size. Fishermen must have a valid California fishing license with an ocean stamp, a lobster report card and a lobster gauge to measure for proper size.

Media Contacts:
Andrew Hughan, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8944
Capt. Rebecca Hartman, CDFW Law Enforcement, rebecca.hartman@wildlife.ca.gov

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