CSUCI Lecturer Brenton Spies, in blue, helps carry a cooler filled with tidewater gobies to the Malibu Lagoon.

CSUCI Lecturer Brenton Spies, in blue, helps carry a cooler filled with tidewater gobies to the Malibu Lagoon.

Students spend a year finding the best spots in Malibu Lagoon for the fish

By Karin Grennan

Gray-brown in color, rarely more than two inches long and living only about a year, tidewater gobies aren’t the most impressive of fish. But Brenton Spies fell hard for them 13 years ago.

“The more I learned about how special and important this species is to our coastal estuary and lagoon habitats throughout California, the more I fell in love with it and its unique story,” the CSUCI Environmental Science & Resource Management Lecturer said. “I’ve been focusing my research on this species and its coastal habitats ever since.”

Few species can handle the extreme changes in salinity, temperature and oxygen levels found where the fresh water from streams meets with saltwater from the ocean, Spies said. But this California native fish thrives in this brackish environment, making it critical to maintaining the food-web balance in these disappearing bodies of water.

Loss of habitat, drought and introduction of non-native predators have taken a toll on the tidewater gobies. In the 1980s, researchers noticed they were vanishing from many estuaries, and they were listed as endangered in 1994.

The tidewater goby is a native California fish that maintains the food-web balance in disappearing bodies of water.Tidewater gobies likely had swum in Malibu Lagoon for thousands of years, Spies said, but they disappeared in the 1980s. Biologists moved some gobies from the Ventura River to the lagoon, a process called translocation, in the early 1990s, but the population started to decline again in 2005.

From 2012 to 2013, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains improved the quality of Malibu Lagoon and its water, but the gobies didn’t bounce back. In 2017, Spies and representatives from state parks, the resource district, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and UCLA began strategizing how to reintroduce tidewater gobies. This time, they set their sights on moving some from Topanga Lagoon, which had many.

In Fall 2021, Spies asked Environmental Science & Resource Management majors Bryan Loya Acevedo, Adalhia Estrada, Jada Gaines and Meagan Najera to join Team Tidewater Goby for their senior capstone research projects. The students conducted in-depth ecological studies of the two lagoons to determine the best places to place the gobies after moving them. They spent the academic year assessing the water quality and surveying the types of fish, aquatic invertebrates, insects and vegetation in each lagoon.

“This required the team to conduct a full diet analysis of tidewater gobies in Topanga Lagoon and potential predators and competitor fish species in Malibu Lagoon to see what types of food tidewater gobies preferred in Topanga, where that food was found in Malibu and if any other fish species were eating that type of food,” Spies said.

Gaines and Najera loved the field days, which were spent collecting samples and data at the lagoons. Getting all the lab work done was the biggest challenge for the Camarillo natives. They learned to organize copious amounts of data and adapt when processes took longer than expected.

“We spent probably hundreds of hours in total in the lab sifting through bio push samples and dissecting fish,” Gaines said.

Jada Gaines, left, and Meagan Najera, far right, lift a net out of the water to count the tidewater gobies.Jada Gaines, left, and Meagan Najera, far right, lift a net out of the water to count the tidewater gobies.

After graduating in May 2022, Gaines and Najera started using what they learned as field scientists for Santa Rosa Valley-based Forde Biological Consultants.

When it came time for the big move, the duo jumped at the chance to help Spies and the state and federal scientists. Over about six hours on a day in September, the crew pulled seine nets, which have floats along the top and can be closed at the bottom around fish, through Topanga Lagoon. Selecting the 500 healthiest adults was the longest part of the process. They put the chosen ones in small coolers with air stones, which produce tiny oxygen-filled bubbles, and drove them to Malibu.

Adalhia Estrada takes water quality measurements while Bryan Loya Acevedo pulls a net through the Malibu Lagoon.

They acclimated the gobies to Malibu Lagoon’s water by adding small portions of it to the coolers at five-minute intervals until the water matched the oxygen and temperature levels of their home-to-be. Then the team released the gobies into the three spots the students had decided would be best.

“The day the gobies were moved was actually one of the easiest days of the entire process,” Spies said.

This summer, Spies and his state and federal partners plan to return to Malibu Lagoon to assess the success of the translocation and see whether the gobies have started reproducing.

“It was an extra special experience for me because since I was a little kid my biggest dream was to help species that were threatened with extinction,” Najera said. “I don’t know yet if we picked the correct places for the gobies or whether they survived or not, but the fact that I have completed a project that has potentially helped the gobies’ population increase made my younger self so proud and just solidified that I was on the right path doing the right thing.”

© Spring 2023 / Volume 28 / Number 1 / Biannual

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