Back to school: Enroll now for Natural History courses at Merritt

Merritt College in Oakland provides great natural history courses. For the Fall semester we're recommending three courses for anyone interested in California ecology and natural history. All of these classes have field trip components, so they're perfect for hands-on learners and folks who want to get out of the classroom. Click the links to view the course fliers. Enroll through the Peralta Community College system here.

A Seaweed Journey


Reams of scientific studies are showing that our oceans are warming and acidifying from the vast plumes of fossil carbon that are combusted into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by oceans which turns into carbonic acid. Calcifying organisms like molluscs (oysters, squid), crustaceans (crab, prawns) and corals depend on a more basic pH and the increased acidity interferes with their ability to calcify. In recent years California has suffered catastrophic collapses of many of its commercial fisheries, sardines, dungeness crab, urchin and salmon. Contributing factors are many, indubitably over-fishing is implicated in some cases but scientists are increasingly casting attention towards warming and acidification as key factors.

A pragmatist might beg the question: can our marine ecosystems adapt? As consumers of seafood it behooves us to chew on the insatiable appetite for carbon of one of the fastest growing plants on the planet: kelp. This macro algae an grow 2 feet per day and up to a couple hundred feet in height. Recognized as one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, kelp forests are home to, and food for, a veritable festival of marine life.

More bad news: northern California's kelp forests have been reduced by 93% in the last few years. Where vast swaths of fronds once swayed now march hordes of kelp-devouring sea urchins, areas that biologists sullenly call "urchin barrens". Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, most of the urchins predators have been wiped out. Before the California Gold Rush was the California Fur Rush and sea otters, consummate urchin eaters, were hunted to near extinction. Another prolific predator of urchins, the sea star, have suffered major die-offs since 2013 due to a mysterious disease dubbed "sea star wasting syndrome", which could be caused by warmer waters.

A fascinating footnote to this maritime drama is the story of an unemployed fisherman named Bren Smith who started a lucrative kelp farm in Connecticut. Unlike terrestrial farming his ocean farm is zero input, meaning no fertilizer and no antibiotics are used. Even more striking is that unlike most farming his kelp forest is attracting so many native species, some might even call it restoration.

With these stories in mind, a small group spent a weekend exploring the rocky inter-tidal coastline of Mendocino. Sea vegetables were foraged. Octopi and eels were encountered. Legions of half-starved urchins and abalone scavenged the inter-tidal. And despite the calamities of human industry, the sea still delivered a pulsating throb of life.

- Nik Bertulis

Heron’s Head Park: What can it tell us about the SF Bay?

Photos and text by Naomi Zimmermann, CCNH intern

Heron's Head Park, looking east

Heron's Head Park, looking east

Heron’s Head Park serves as a reminder of the ecological wonders of the Bay. A small strip of land shaped like the head of a heron, the abandoned shipping pier holds a huge variety of plants and animals - walk down the short path and you'll find all sorts of land, marine, and marsh creatures within a few yards of each other.

The San Francisco Bay is home to a plethora of species, both native and nonnative. This body of water holds the dubious distinction of being the most invaded estuary in the world, as its many docks attract ships internationally which have all brought their native species into this region.

Heron’s Head Park serves as an example of the incredible biodiversity of the Bay - flipping just one rock uncovers tens of species all sharing the same tiny habitat.

Heron’s Head Park serves as an example of the incredible biodiversity of the Bay - flipping just one rock uncovers tens of species all sharing the same tiny habitat.

The ecological wonder and the multitude of benefits that wetlands and marshes provide are often overlooked and underappreciated. These areas provide habitats for thousands of species - flip over a large rock on the beach and you’ll find crabs of all sizes along with different species of arthropods, clams, and worms. These little critters are vital for the birds that migrate through from all over the world, providing sustenance for their long journeys. Wetlands also act like filters, removing harmful substances from bay water so they don't contaminate other bodies of water (or vice versa).

Heron’s Head could benefit from further restoration with funds from Measure AA. Measure AA is a $12-per-year parcel tax on citizens of the Bay Area, passed in the summer of 2016,  which serves to provide funding for the ecological restoration of the Bayshore. The funding for the project will improve the water quality of the Bay by reducing trash, pollutants, and toxins in the Bay which in turn will restore the natural habitats for birds, fish, and other species in the Bay and the wetlands surrounding it.

Heron's Head Park... a great place to get to know the SF Bay!

Heron's Head Park... a great place to get to know the SF Bay!