Reaching out and diving deep: Foster Scholar Alexandra Avila shares what lies beneath the waves

By Yaamini Venkataraman

July 2018

You may not know it when you dive into a sanctuary, but there are baby fish everywhere. Newly-hatched fish, or larvae, are microscopic and at the whim of ocean currents. It’s possible that via these currents, larvae populations throughout different parts of the ocean could be connected. But are these currents strong enough to connect populations of fish hundreds of miles away — like those in Oregon and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington? Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar and Oregon State University Ph.D. candidate Alexandra Avila wants to find out.

avila holding a rockfish
Avila holds a rockfish. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Avila

Growing up in Ecuador, Avila was always intrigued by the ocean and the “weird” creatures that live on the seafloor. Enter rockfish. Rockfish are a group of several fish species that live near the ocean floor and on rocky outcrops along the West Coast. They boast some of the longest lifespans in fish species — the oldest recorded living rockfish was 200 years old — and some do not start reproducing until they are 25 years old. Rockfish are also important for commercial fisheries, but several species have been overfished. Now the fishery is regulated by NOAA Fisheries and state agencies, with catch limits, species restrictions, and marine reserves protecting these important species.

a yellow and black china rockfish
Avila studies the genetic diversity and dispersal of China rockfish in Oregon and Washington. Photo: Harold Everett

Avila believes that marine reserves maintain genetic diversity for China rockfish and other species. The more genetic diversity in a population, the more likely it can withstand environmental changes. She wants to know if the Davidson Current, which pushes water up from Oregon to Washington in the winter, moves China rockfish from state marine reserves in Oregon to Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington.

“I’m curious to see how far up [the Davidson Current] takes these fish, or if they stay in the same place [in the winter] because that’s when they release their young,” Avila says.

Working with Oregon and Washington’s departments of fish and wildlife and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Avila and her collaborators collect fish samples when commercial fishermen come into port. They take finclips — samples of small fins — and then Avila extracts genetic material from these samples. Using genetic information, Avila can determine how far a fish has dispersed.

Avila stands in front of a class of young students
Avila teaches students about her work. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Avila

When she’s waiting for the next fishing vessel to come into port, Avila spends a lot of her time teaching, communicating science, and conducting outreach. Science communication, education, and outreach are significant parts of the Foster Scholar program. Before she started graduate school, Avila herself interned with the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Education and Outreach Division.

“I understood education — you are teaching people about the ocean. I had no idea what outreach was,” Avila says. Through her internship, she learned both are needed to foster support for a healthy ocean. “People look at the ocean and all they see is a flat line. But not everyone goes under the surface.”

Teaching people what lies beneath the waves allows Avila to preserve key parts of her identity and reach out to others. Like a larval fish that has dispersed far from its spawning ground, Avila has traveled far from her birthplace in Ecuador. She’s incorporated bilingual English and Spanish components into elementary school presentations. She also uses videos and social media to reach a wider audience. She was a guest on a Facebook Live event for the NOAA Okeanos Explorer, and is starting a video blog about her fieldwork experiences.

In December 2017, Avila participated in a Facebook Live event with the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Watch the full video here.

Learning how to connect with different communities through various platforms helps Avila conduct research to assist the Oregon fishing community. Commercial rockfish fisheries are important for several coastal Oregon communities. However, where the animals spread to, and whether fished populations are genetically diverse, are currently not taken into account for management.

“If there is more [genetic] diversity, there is a better chance of [rockfish] being able to survive changing conditions,” Avila says. “If we better understand how ocean currents connect fisheries and marine reserves, we can design better marine reserves and better management plans.”

Armed with science communication and outreach tools, Avila can work with resource managers and fishermen to create new management plans that protect genetic diversity while keeping the fishery open.

Yaamini Venkataraman is a volunteer social media intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a graduate student at the University of Washington.