Tropical fish, microplastics and disappearing beaches: Climate change along the Central Coast

Butterfly Beach in Montecito is backed by a seawall to the east and a bluff to the west, making it particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Photo credit: Kathryn Barnes

Butterfly Beach in Montecito is popular among beachgoers. But 30 years from now, there won’t be much of it left to enjoy.

“You're going to have more hours a day where the waves are just lapping up onto the seawall,” said Monique Myers, a California Sea Grant researcher studying the vulnerability of Santa Barbara’s coast .

Sea levels are expected to rise by about a foot by 2050, according to Myers. 

California Sea Grant researcher Monique Myers studies the coastal vulnerability of Santa Barbara’s beaches. Photo credit: Kathryn Barnes

To find out if your beach is vulnerable to sea level rise,  look at what it’s backed by.

“The beaches disappear first when they're backed by sea walls,” said Myers. “The bluff-backed beaches are probably the second most vulnerable.”

Myers said wide, dune-backed beaches like Sands Beach in Goleta, East Beach in Santa Barbara and Ormond Beach in Oxnard are the least vulnerable to sea level rise.

“Dune-backed beaches are really key. We need to help them persist and perhaps restore some areas that used to have dunes,” said Myers. 

She also recommends encouraging natural sediment to get down from the watershed onto the beaches, and avoiding beach grooming, which removes important plants that help dunes form.

In a warmer ocean, different fish persist

Fishing boat. Photo credit:
David Hills of Fishy Pictures

Climate change isn’t just impacting Central Coast beaches, but Central Coast seafood, as well. 

Why? The ocean temperature is rising.

“We saw a very profound change in 2014 with the warm blob, a marine heat wave that hit California hard,” said Kim Selkoe, a marine biologist at UCSB. “That ended in 2016, but since then, we've remained at a warmer level than we were before, about one degree warmer.”

That’s good news for tropical and subtropical fish like spiny lobster and tuna, which enjoy warmer water, but bad news for coldwater species like rock crab, squid and sea urchin.

Sea Urchin. Photo credit: Kathryn Barnes

Rock crab. Photo credit:
David Hills of Fishy Pictures

“In Santa Barbara, about 50% of our fishermen are urchin divers, and they have had a declining catch,” said Selkoe. “The urchin are highly dependent on kelp as a food, and the kelp is less plentiful.”

A handful of Ogo seaweed fresh from the saltwater tank at the Cultured Abalone Farm. Photo credit: Carolina Starin

To combat this, some divers are collecting the urchin, bagging them up, hanging them in the ocean, and feeding them kelp to help them fatten up. Others are bringing the urchin to the Cultured Abalone Farm at Dos Pueblos Ranch and feeding them cultivated seaweed. 

Microplastics on the seafloor 

Seen under the microscope, varied bits of plastic began to accumulate in sediment after World War II. Photo credit: University of California, San Diego

You can also see how humans are impacting our local oceans by studying decades of layered plastic.

“Not only are we using tons of plastic, but that that plastic is getting out into the ocean, and we're leaving it behind in our sediment record,” said Jennifer Brandon, a Scripps biologist who specializes in plastic.

She and a team of UC San Diego researchers said they discovered an explosion of plastic in the seafloor off Santa Barbara. 

“There's almost no oxygen at the bottom [of the Santa Barbara Channel], so things live at the top, and as they die and sink to the bottom, they basically just fall in these perfect, yearly layers,” said Brandon. “You can think of it almost like tree rings.”

Brandon studied sediment layers from 1834 to 2010. She says plastic first appeared in the layers around 1945, and has been doubling in volume every year since.

“When we took that exponential curve and we graphed it next to the exponential curve of worldwide plastic production, the curves are almost identical slopes.”

How is the plastic reaching our ocean?

Washing machine. Photo credit: Pixabay

Brandon says microplastics get into the channel through waste and stormwater runoff, and a lot of comes from our clothes.

“Our clothes are more and more synthetic, which means they're actually more and more plastic themselves,” she said. “When you wash your clothes that are made out of plastic, those microfibers are too small to get caught at your washing machine or in the wastewater treatment plant. We're literally washing them down the drain and they end up out in the ocean.”

A study by the San Francisco Estuary Institute recently found that car tires are another major contributor to microplastics in our ocean, as tire particles get left behind on the streets and washed away.

How can you reduce your microplastics?

A clothing rack. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Buy fewer clothes, said Rachael Coccia, plastic pollution manager at the Surfrider Foundation. Specifically, buy fewer clothes made of synthetic materials like fleece, polyester and nylon.

“When you do need to buy new clothes, try and buy natural materials like cotton, hemp or wool,” she said. But keep in mind that even those materials have their own environmental impact. Cotton, for example, uses more water and grows more slowly than hemp.

Coccia said you can also install a microfiber filtration system into your washing machine, like the Filtrol 160 . If that’s too pricey, buy  a washing bag, like Guppy Friend , that captures the micro fibers from your clothes.

Also, consider taking public transportation, carpooling, and/or driving less.

“We always think about the fossil fuel impact, but the tires also create an issue,”  said Coccia.

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