Dr. Susan Williams Inducted to the Women Divers Hall of Fame

Left to Right: Kaitlyn Williams Hansen; Sarah Driscoll, Antioch University, grad student Williams scholarship recipient for seagrass restoration; Art Cohen; Holly Williams

By Laura Rogers-Bennett

What a night it was at the Women Divers Hall of Fame (WDHOF) banquet dinner at Beneath the Sea (BTS), as part of the largest Scuba trade show in the United States, on March 30, 2019 in the Meadowlands, New Jersey. Over 200 people were present at the gala ceremony where women divers inducted into the class of 2019 included the late Dr. Susan Williams. I was proud to sponsor her application in honor of her memory as a member of the Hall of Fame. Given her accomplishments in diving, as an aquanaut, as a director of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, and as a marine conservation scientist working on coral reef and eel grass restoration, it was only fitting that Susan's name be included with the other distinguished women divers from around the world. 

WDHOF honors SLW
Left to Right: Kaitlyn Williams Hansen; Renee Setter, University of Hawaii grad student Williams scholarship recipient for coral restoration research; Holly Williams; Art Cohen

At the start of the evening, the color guard marched in and my sister and I took our places at the table sitting with Susan’s family, including her husband Bruce Nyden, sister Holly Williams, niece Kaitlin Williams Hansen, and cousin Aaron Cohen. The awards were presented to each inductee after her accomplishments were announced, Susan’s family was there to accept her award, and the celebratory banquet began. After a lovely meal followed by a double chocolate dessert it was off to the underwater film festival as only BTS can do, featuring the very best underwater photographers and videographers in the world. It was a special night as BTS recognized all the women in WDHOF this year for the coveted prize of Legend of the Sea for 2019!

The next morning WDHOF gathered for its annual Sunday Scholarship brunch to distribute a record breaking $75,000+ in scholarships to 53 recipients. Bruce Nyden, family, and friends of Susan Williams gave out three scholarships: two Graduate Scholarships in Marine Conservation: to Renee Setter for coral restoration, another to Sarah Driscoll for sea grass restoration; and a Dive Training Grant to Martha Magdelena Garcia Juarez of Baja California Sur - congratulations to these recipients.

I encourage you to contribute to the UC Davis Susan Williams endowment and Susan Williams scholarships at WDHOF so that additional scholarships may be awarded to deserving recipients in future years. While the ceremony was bittersweet for Susan’s family and friends, all were pleased to see Susan recognized and honored as part of the Hall of Fame with her “sea sisters”.


No, not because of Fukushima: An Explanation of Northern California’s Red Abalone Decline

By Malina Loeher

“The Last Nereocystis.” Artist: Malina Loeher.
“The Last Nereocystis.” Artist: Malina Loeher.

“Oh, because of Fukushima…” When beachgoers see my abalone shirt and ask about my conservation work, this is the misconception frequently returned to me in northern California. Coastal residents have been harvesting red abalone for hundreds of years, but recent population decline and closure of the last recreational fishery have brought abalone into the public’s eye.

Often I hear, “it’s because of the urchins!” or “climate change, am I right?”

The common thread between all of these statements is the amount of information they leave out. It’s not any one thing keeping abalone from reproducing, growing, and reestablishing populations. It’s the onslaught of several stressors all at once.

Red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) and purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) compete for scraps of kelp.  Photo credit: Katie Sowul
Red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) and purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) compete for scraps of kelp.  Photo credit: Katie Sowul

Red abalone, inhabiting coastline from British Columbia to Baja California, are the largest abalone species in the world, with robust shells and a strong, meaty foot. They can fast for weeks at a time, withstand competition for food, and tolerate variable ocean temperatures. But in known history, red abalone in Northern California have never simultaneously defended against prolonged lack of kelp, increased competition via urchins, and warmed waters for many consecutive seasons.

Kelp forests are both home and food for abalone. When kelp is lush, its primary production supports a plethora of marine species ranging from the tiniest of crab larvae all the way up to roving pods of orcas. Grazers like abalone and urchins joust, at a snail’s pace, for their seaweedy meals. Unfortunately for the red abalone, its purple urchin rival is fierce, and their common resource is limited. Usually, rowdy urchins are kept in check by equally gluttonous, predatory sea stars, but 2013-2015 saw a wasting disease sweep through North American sea stars, critically upsetting the balance of grazing species. Urchins are hardy, fast, and voracious, and can persist without food far longer than a soft-bodied abalone.

Then came the Blob, a phenomenon of waters in the North Pacific Ocean warmed several degrees above where temperatures have historically stood. Not unlike the amorphous monster of your imagination, the “warm blob” is unusual, unprecedented, and its consequences are incompletely understood. At the very least, its emergence is a contributing factor in disrupting climatic patterns, such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.

A north coast red abalone demonstrates unusual behavior by climbing a kelp stalk, exposing its vulnerable underside in search of food. Photo credit: Katie Sowul
A north coast red abalone demonstrates unusual behavior by climbing a kelp stalk, exposing its vulnerable underside in search of food. Photo credit: Katie Sowul

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation describes a semi-regular collection of temperature shifts, accompanying winds, and ocean currents across the Pacific Ocean, which can impact everything from weather to abalone snacks. Usually, shifts in air and water temperatures force California coastal surface waters to be displaced by cold, nutrient-rich water from the ocean depths (this is called ‘upwelling’). These water inversions fertilize giant seaweeds, like the golden Macrocystis canopies celebrated by divers, and the ropy Postelsia stalks trampled by intertidal explorers. However, in El Niño years, like 2015-2016, California waters are warmer, upwelling is weak or nonexistent, and nutrients fail to reach kelp, meaning less food for uncomfortably warm abalone.

An urchin barren: purple urchins covering bare rock. Photo credit: Katie Sowul
An urchin barren: purple urchins covering bare rock. Photo credit: Katie Sowul

This is the current status of red abalone in Northern California: unable to escape from chronically warmed waters, with little available food, no signs of kelp bed recovery, and stuck with a highly populous competitor that beats them to the snack bar every time.

It could be years before a sustainable abalone fishery returns.  But if even one of these circumstances change, perhaps they will recover for the centuries to come.

(As for the 2011 event in Fukushima, Japan, its radiation never discernibly impacted California.)

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