Into The Industry: Reef Check Regional Manager

Elyssa Quinton

Reef Check is a foundation with headquarters in Los Angeles and volunteer teams in more than 40 countries. They train thousands of citizen scientist divers who volunteer to survey the health of coral reefs around the world, and rocky reef ecosystems along the entire coast of California. At the start of August 2019 I assisted the Reef Check team in collecting urchin size frequency data and the swapping out of temperature sensors 4 hours north of San Francisco. Today I’ll introduce you to one of the lovely marine biologists I got to work with, Tristin. Read on to hear all about her fantastic role in Reef Check and her advice for others who wish to follow a similar path of scientific diving and ecosystem monitoring...

Hey Tristin! Tell us a bit about yourself and where you are from? 

Hey there! My name is Tristin McHugh and I am the north coast regional manager for the Reef Check California program. I am currently based in Fort Bragg, California and live with my partner Colin and our sweet pup Ed Ricketts. But, I originally hail from Clayton, California - about an hour east of San Francisco. I grew up in a tight knit Armenian-American family, and they all still live in the Bay Area.  I love everything that involves being outside, and have a tendency of sticking my face in whatever body of water I can. I also love to cook, play volleyball and enjoy a good jam-sesh on the guitar. 

Tristin in her element! As you can see, it can get pretty chilly on the Californian coast. Photo: Tristin McHugh

Tristin in her element! As you can see, it can get pretty chilly on the Californian coast. Photo: Tristin McHugh

You’ve built your life around the ocean, and now you are north coast Regional Manager for Reef Check. What drew you to working with the ocean in the first place?

Where I am today, and where I want to go tomorrow, has been in the making since I was nine years old when I went SCUBA diving for the first time. I was visiting relatives in the Dominican Republic, and don’t recall much about the experience up until my dad stuffed a banana in my pocket before we descended underwater. As soon as I got to the seafloor, the banana caused a rainbow coalition of fish to swarm and school around me. From that moment on, I knew I wanted nothing more than to know everything about the underwater world. When my parents would take my brother and I to the beach, I started to study and observe the patterns of the waves, the crackle of the shrimps in the tide pools, and the squirting anemones. They always orchestrated a performance that left me wanting an encore. After leaving the beach, I was always left in a trance; there was something about the way my hair was sandy, my face was salty, and my family was happy. At that moment, I realized there was more to marine biology than I had originally anticipated; I was undeniably captivated.

Tristin’s dad stuffed a banana in her pocket on one of her first dives, which caused a ‘rainbow coalition’ of fish to swarm around her! Photo: Pixabay

Tristin’s dad stuffed a banana in her pocket on one of her first dives, which caused a ‘rainbow coalition’ of fish to swarm around her! Photo: Pixabay

What were the steps involved in getting to where you are now regarding courses, education, and skill sets gained?

When I was in high school I absolutely loved biology. So when I started at the University of California Santa Cruz, I jumped in and began taking classes relevant to the marine biology field. These included the basic chemistry, math and physics series, as well as upper division courses focusing on specific fields of marine biology like ecology, statistics, marine mammals,  ichthyology,  marine conservation and management, evolution, and genetics. During my second year of undergraduate study, I became very interested in the political side of ocean conservation, which is why I decided to take up a minor in legal studies. In that minor I took courses such as environmental policy and management, constitutional law, international law, and marine conservation and management. 

I think one of the biggest positive experiences for me though was getting out in the field to experience science and field work firsthand. This began with getting my scientific diving certification, and later getting to go abroad and conduct my senior thesis. Following graduation I began working for California Sea Grant as an academic assistant looking at collaborative at-sea data collection programs globally. I also began working at PISCO (Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans) as a research diver. With PISCO I learned how to independently lead diving operations and how to teach scientific divers to collect high quality data.  

After spending three seasons gaining skills in the field and leading a multitude of diving operations along the eastern Pacific, I gained admission to a masters at San Diego State University. My master's thesis involved looking at the impacts of storm disturbance on sub-tidal red algae communities, and I did this in both San Diego and Monterey Bay, California. In addition to my masters work, I had the opportunity to assist my graduate school advisor, Dr. Matt Edwards, in the Aleutian Islands where we studied the productivity of Aleutian kelp forests, and urchin barrens. I also served as a boating and diving safety supervisor to a UC Santa Cruz field-quarter course in Baja California.

All these experiences directly led me to my current position at Reef Check!

Tristin participated in a large research study on the productivity of these beautiful Aleutian kelp forests when they are overtaken by urchin barrens. Photo: Tristin McHugh

Tristin participated in a large research study on the productivity of these beautiful Aleutian kelp forests when they are overtaken by urchin barrens. Photo: Tristin McHugh

What does a day in your life look like and can you describe your role within the Reef Check team?

A day in my life totally depends on ocean conditions! And by ocean conditions I mean the ability for myself and divers to safely get in the water and conduct sub-tidal surveys. Here on the north coast, the ocean can be quite variable and when conditions are good, there is an urgency to get in the water and get work done!

But to take a step back, my role as the north coast Regional Manager is to train recreational scuba divers to become scientific divers and support community/citizen science data collection. It’s their ocean, their resources, and their data - we just provide the platform to get them involved in the process. Training divers includes teaching the public about the ocean environment, as well as how to conduct underwater monitoring efforts in temperate rocky reefs (aka: Kelp Forests). After divers have been trained, my focus is getting them in the water to conduct surveys.  In addition to me, there are two other regional managers in the state of California, and collectively our divers are able to monitor over 100 sites statewide annually. Our role is to organize these efforts, and conduct quality control on the data being collected by our incredible volunteer super-humans. 

In addition to training volunteers and monitoring the state, my other role is to make the data available to the public through attending meetings, conferences, and writing reports. Reef Check collaborates with a number of partners here in California, and it is imperative that data collected ends up being used for ecosystem based marine management. 

Tristin’s main role as North Coast Regional Manager is to train recreational scuba divers into scientific divers! Photo: Tristin McHugh

Tristin’s main role as North Coast Regional Manager is to train recreational scuba divers into scientific divers! Photo: Tristin McHugh

What is your main research interest and what have you discovered about it?

My main research interest is conducting baseline monitoring efforts in the remote corners of northern California. Northern California is a challenging environment to conduct subtidal monitoring in, and what I have learned is that the public is itching to know more about it. The ocean is rapidly changing, and we have seen a transition from lush beautiful kelp forests to desolate urchin barrens. This is an indicator of ecosystem health, and unfortunately due to the loss of top predators such as otters (due to the Russian/American/British fur trade), and sea stars (due to marine disease in 2013), combined with warming waters (2013-present), the north coast has been hit quite hard. My focus now is identifying areas where kelp has remained persistent, and understanding why that is. In addition, I am hoping to continue involvement with other partners (such as KELPRR) to find a viable resolution for kelp recovery and ecosystem balance in the future. 

You participate in a lot of scientific diving, what are the main lessons you have learnt when collecting data underwater? 

I currently have ~1200 scientific dives spanning the eastern Pacific and I can honestly say that I learn something new every time I am underwater. Most importantly, safety. One of the main lessons that I have learned is to legitimately plan out your dive, and talk about backup plans with your crew - be ready for anything. Ensuring that your boat captain is also aware of the safety plan is mandatory.

Biologically, I would say I have learned to keep my eyes open and speak up when I see something out of the ordinary, like a rare species or marine diseases.

Tristin always keeps her eyes peeled and speaks up if she sees something out of the ordinary underwater (a.k.a. rare species!) Photo: Tristin McHugh

Tristin always keeps her eyes peeled and speaks up if she sees something out of the ordinary underwater (a.k.a. rare species!) Photo: Tristin McHugh

Can you give us a few exciting examples of the discoveries Reef Check has made in the past few years?

In the past calendar year, Reef Check California (RCCA) has focused on expanding our knowledge of California’s most remote stretch of coastline. These efforts were propagated by rapid changes to the ecosystem, including the formation of a large “warm water blob” – an ocean heatwave lasting two years - widespread loss of bull kelp, loss of sea stars due to disease, and the decline of the red abalone populations due to starvation. Further, purple urchin populations skyrocketed.  

With the assistance and guidance of citizen scientists, our ability to evolve as an organization and respond to the changes in the environment is at the core of RCCA. In the past calendar year, RCCA has accomplished the following: 

  • Developed a network of oceanographic sensors throughout the state to monitor ocean acidification, low oxygen zones and rising water temperatures. During our 2018 field season, we were able to deploy 75 temperature loggers and 6 oceanographic sensors (that record pH, dissolved oxygen and temperature) statewide in sites where we conduct annual surveys and where these parameters are not monitored by any other research program.  

  • In response to environmental perturbations we doubled the number of sites we monitor to a total of 15 sites in Mendocino County in 2018. Our organization has gained momentum on the north coast, as many local divers have stepped up to assist in our efforts. Specifically, we expanded our red abalone monitoring program and collected over 4500 measurements of abalone from 25 sites in Mendocino and Sonoma County. This information was given to the California Fish and Game Commission to help guide their decisions regarding the recreational abalone fishery. 

As for our tropical programs and global efforts I suggest reading this article.

Tristin and her colleague Dan swapping out an oceanographic sensor that had been at that site for a year. Photo: Elyssa Quinton

Tristin and her colleague Dan swapping out an oceanographic sensor that had been at that site for a year. Photo: Elyssa Quinton

The technique is to measure the diameter of the urchin, and record how many are found at each size (100-200 urchins are measured per dive!) Photo: Elyssa Quinton

The technique is to measure the diameter of the urchin, and record how many are found at each size (100-200 urchins are measured per dive!) Photo: Elyssa Quinton

What do you think the future of California kelp forests look like, and how can we all help?

The future of California kelp forests will be determined by our personal actions over the next few years. As we are all aware, we are experiencing rising sea water temperatures globally, as well as changes in dissolved oxygen concentrations, and pH. By acknowledging that this is a global issue we can begin to come up with the next steps forward. In addition, supporting established and emerging marine protected areas (MPAs) gives ecosystems a chance to maintain their biological balance without human interaction. This is crucial.  Ocean chemistry continues to change, and remains difficult to manage, due to the infrastructure we currently have in place. However, by physically not removing top predators from ecosystems, and allowing safe-havens to exist, we can at least minimize our impact to these systems. We must think about this from an interdisciplinary standpoint and include social and economic alternatives and options.  

I believe that California kelp forests have a chance of recovery, if we can work together to come up with a more sustainable way of living. Although the government is slow to adapt to these changes, there are things that we can do in our personal life to make a change. I firmly believe in that. On a personal note, I have taken out (most) processed food in the McHugh household, and it has greatly reduced the amount of trash/plastic/packaging we generate. It takes us a lot longer at the grocery store to find food options that are not covered in plastic! But I tell you, when we get home it’s a really gratifying feeling to see how much less garbage we have in our pantry and fridge. We cannot give up, we must continue to be the change we wish to see. 

If you had endless funding and resources, what would be your dream research project?

Oye that’s a hard one!!! If I had endless funding and resources, my dream research project would be... world peace! But seriously - I would use funds to create economic initiatives to enhance sustainable energy options globally, meanwhile utilizing vast technological advances to address climate change at a local level. Globally addressing this issue and being less greedy is the only way to find a solution. 

Specifically here on the north coast, my dream research project would be to find a way to restore ecosystem balance! Including the re-introduction of two top predators, the otter and sunflower star, with the ultimate goal of restoring kelp in this region. Obviously, I’d hire a million interns (paid y’all!) to gain experience and help with the efforts, as well as purchase a Reef Check house to accommodate all our volunteers when they come out for surveys.

The re- introduction of the sea otter all down the north coast of California would be a dream of Tristin’s. Photo: Pixabay

The re- introduction of the sea otter all down the north coast of California would be a dream of Tristin’s. Photo: Pixabay

What advice would you give to aspiring marine biologists?

For aspiring marine biologists out there, my advice is simple: honestly ask yourself “how much do I love this”. Passion is a big component of this work, and will determine how much time you will divert to it. It will pull you away from family and friends for solid chunks of time, cause long-distance relationships, and leave you in a state of confusion as you work a whole year’s worth of hours in a seasonal summer position. You will sleep on friends couches and in your car with salty hair - but I guarantee you will sleep magnificently. Take solace in the humble life you lead, and remember why you are doing it (i.e. “how much do I love this”). 

My suggestions are to let the struggle guide you and trust your instincts - take the opportunity, go on the adventure, and work the late hours. If this is your passion, let it engulf you. Don’t ask what needs to be done, look to see where there are gaps, and fill them yourself.   

And specifically… the ocean is rapidly changing, and we need to be proactive and adaptive with the way that we move forward with marine management. My suggestion to marine biologists getting in to the field is to be as interdisciplinary as possible, because that is where we need to concentrate our efforts. Actually talk with the public and don’t hide in a science hole - because we are out here trying to make some changes and could really use their help! Reach out to politicians, fisherfolk, your hairstylist, the person who offers you a plastic utensil, your friends and family. Your voice is powerful, so let it be heard in more than just your scientific community. 


Into the Industry explores the lives and vocations of professionals, academics and those working in the marine biology world

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