Three Marine Fish in a Large Ecological Pond


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Last week, three graduate students from the Aburto-Oropeza Lab, Leticia Cavole, Alfredo Girón, and Matthew Costa, attended this year’s annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA).  The annual ESA conference is a meeting of ecologists all studying ecosystems from across the biosphere.  In contrast, most marine ecologists mainly collaborate and share their result with other marine scientists.  It was an enlightening experience for the three students who went to share their research at the conference. Read each of their experiences below!


From left to right: Matt, Leticia, and Alfredo arrive at ESA 2017 ready to exchange ideas with other ecologists.


The ESA Conference was an interesting opportunity to immerse ourselves in our own territory—earth. The many problems we face in the ocean are shared and intrinsically linked with the things that are happening on land: eutrophication, biodiversity and habitat loss, pollution, and overuse of natural resources.  The main challenges to solving these problems are also shared between ocean and land ecosystems. Ecology can be such a broad topic, and I think that the conference did a good job of combining different themes and bringing different scientists together for a common goal: to use science and communication to solve ecological problems. It was particularly nice to attend talks about ecosystem services assessment and ecoclimate teleconnections (global connectivity between ecosystems with consequences for biodiversity, material cycling and ecosystem services). More specifically, it was fruitful to attend and to give a talk in the session on “fisheries management and models.” During this session, I became familiar with new approaches to understanding climate and anthropogenic impacts on fish populations, including bioenergetics models, which are applied to detect potential effects of climate change on the growth of fishes. The conference also gave me the opportunity to talk with from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador to expand the work we have been doing with fishes, nurseries, and temperature regimes in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean. Overall, it was a fun conference and a great opportunity to understand the gaps in aquatic ecology and to seek novel ways of integrating the advances of terrestrial ecology in our own field of research.

Leticia presenting her work on fishes, nurseries, and temperature regimes in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean.


From the outset, ESA was exciting and unfamiliar territory for me. While I don’t know the exact number, I will say that about 95% of the talks were terrestrially focused, while our work is almost entirely marine. Topics ranged from theoretical seminars on evolution, symbiosis, and food webs, to applied science on the estimation of ecosystem services and the participation of scientists in policy-making. Even though the focus was mostly terrestrial, it did not take that long attending the talks to recognize the common ways that ecologists think regardless of their ecosystem of focus. One memorable session that I attended was a seminar on a new tool used to analyze ecosystems, called “multiplex.” This tool aims to build ecosystem networks that consider all sorts of interactions between species (e.g. trophic, competition, and symbiosis), which is a great advancement considering that up to today, scientists have specialized and focused on just one kind of interaction at a time. I was also able to attend a talk from one of our collaborators from University of Maine, Kara Pellowee, who talked about her work with fisheries in the Gulf of California and how broader arrays of target species provide resilience to fishing communities. Her main idea is that, if you have more resources to pick from, you will be able to adapt better to any unexpected changes in the environment. ESA also provided me the opportunity to interact with other students and researchers and to be exposed to new ideas from ecologists that study very different systems. I look forward to attending again.

Alfredo giving a talk on the Gulf of California Marine Program’s efforts on science communications, including dataMares.


This summer was my second time attending ESA’s annual meeting, and I intend to go again in the future.  In contrast to marine science-focused meetings, ESA is an opportunity to reconnect to the conceptual basis of our research in marine ecosystems, stepping back from the particular features of the environments in which we work.  Now, there is good reason for the somewhat set-apart academic community of marine scientists.  Doing research in the ocean requires a whole set of logistical approaches, technologies, and partnerships unique to this challenging realm, and as a result I have observed that marine ecologists are more likely to collaborate with physical oceanographers than terrestrial ecologists.  This trend is especially at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where this kind of partnership across disciplines to study the ocean has a strong history.  That said, there is great value in putting our marine ecological research in a broad ecological context.  I have attempted to form a research project that touches the ocean as well as ecosystems more broadly by studying mangrove forests (found at the boundary of land and sea) and their cycling and storage of organic carbon in soils, a topic of interest both to terrestrial and marine ecosystem biologists.  The session to which I contributed, with the perhaps less-than-exciting title of “Detritus and Decomposition,” was thrilling to me, as it gave me an overview of the work colleagues studying decomposition in a wide range of terrestrial ecosystems.  I am already thinking about ways to incorporate the concepts and tools being used in other areas to probe better the cycling of mangrove organic matter in peat deposits.  It is the severely slowed decomposition of this material that makes these systems so valuable for their ongoing sequestration of carbon out of the atmosphere.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity to put my work in these extraordinary, marginal coastal wetlands into the middle of all the ecological research being shared at ESA.

Matt sharing all he knows about detritus and decomposition in Baja’s mangrove ecosystems.



Leticia Cavole

PhD student, SIO

Leticia is a Ph.D. student of Marine Biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD. She has collaborated in the Gulf of California Marine Program since 2015, with her research focusing on understanding the development and life history of target fish species of artisanal fisheries in the Gulf of California.

Alfredo Girón

PhD student, SIO

Alfredo is a Ph.D. student of Biological Oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD. He has collaborated in the Gulf of California Marine Program since 2011 in the development of dataMares, an initiative that seeks to promote data sharing and science communication. His research is focused on evaluating the exploitation state of artisanal fisheries in the Gulf of California, and use this information to inform fisheries managers.

Matthew Costa

PhD student, SIO

Matthew Costa is a Regents Fellow 2013-4 and NSF Graduate Research Fellow 2014-present, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in biological oceanography as part of the Gulf of California Marine Program. He is interested in community ecology, biodiversity and functional diversity, and coastal ecosystem processes and services. His research focuses on carbon storage in sediments of the mangrove forests in the southern Gulf of California. Prior to study at SIO, he completed a B.A. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University studying mangrove species zonation in Bermuda.

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