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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The following Capstone Projects are the result of the innovative, creative and interdisciplinary graduate work done by students in the Master of Advanced Studies Program in Marine Biodiversity & Conservation (MAS MBC) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. MAS MBC Capstone Projects tackle the most timely and relevant ocean and coastal challenges we face today. Students integrate the knowledge and experiential learning gained over their year of graduate coursework to design a collaborative project that builds marketable skills and has a real-world application.

Students partner with university faculty, external organizations and state and federal agencies to execute focused and compelling self-directed research that culminates in a written paper, film, educational curriculum, business plan, economic analysis, management plan, or other substantial deliverable. This work further equips students with the tools they need to succeed in their professional careers in ocean and coastal conservation.

We welcome you to this library of past MAS MBC Capstone Projects and encourage you to explore the diversity of topics and solutions presented.

If you have any questions, please contact:

An Ocean Use Survey Strategy for the Maldives


The Republic of Maldives, a remote tropical nation situated in the Arabian Sea south of India, has long held a reputation as a luxury travel destination. World-class diving, overwater bungalows, and liveaboard tours are just a few of the experiences that entice travelers from all over the world to visit the Maldives. With tourism accounting for the majority of the Maldives GDP and fishing as the second leading sector, it is economically imperative that the Maldives protect their marine resources. According to the Maldives’ Minister of Fisheries, the ocean is also “an integral part of the Maldivian is the bloodline.” Most of the 194 inhabited islands extend only 1-2 meters above sea level, putting the Maldives and its 530,000 citizens at constant risk of coastal erosion and sea level rise. As the world’s lowest-lying country, the Maldives is often likened to a global “canary in the coalmine,” with scientists predicting that it could be entirely underwater by 2100.

Through the creation of the Noo Raajje program and with support from a network of organizations belonging to the Blue Prosperity Coalition, the Maldivian government has agreed to preserve at least 20% of their waters as fully protected areas. In order to gain a well-rounded understanding of how a potential zoning plan might impact Maldivians and their livelihoods, especially in a country where 71% of people rely on the ocean for their primary source of income, the marine spatial planning process will involve a high degree of stakeholder and community engagement. This is primarily accomplished through the deployment of ocean use surveys, which aim to establish a multistakeholder baseline of ocean use and relative value. Not only does this provide the modeling team drafting the proposed plans with valuable insights on how to minimize negative impacts while maximizing benefits for both people and nature, it enables the community to play an active role in an important decision making process and ideally leads to long-term success because of the level of community buy-in. 

In order to understand the populations of stakeholders that need to be surveyed and how best to engage with them, a strategy for the ocean use survey is needed. Through collaboration with and support from the Noo Raajje program, the Waitt Institute, the Blue Prosperity Coalition, and the McClintock lab, I have designed an operational strategy for the ocean use survey in the Maldives that will be implemented as an integral part of the marine spatial planning (MSP) process. The MSP process will be most successful with input from all communities and stakeholders who are dependent on the ocean for their well-being, so the value of this project lies in successfully engaging the Maldivian community in the development of a plan for how their ocean will be used in the future.

Cover page of Risk Perception and Community Action: Assessing Risk Perception of Climate Change Impacts in Trinidad and Tobago Through Time

Risk Perception and Community Action: Assessing Risk Perception of Climate Change Impacts in Trinidad and Tobago Through Time


Trinidad and Tobago, as a small island nation in the Caribbean is experiencing climate change impacts. A qualitative survey was created and administered to environmental organizations, government entities, and an academic institution in the island of Trinidad. The results were compiled visually into an ArcGIS Story Map and is available through the Human Ecology Laboratory at UC San Diego’s website. The purpose of this study is to hear directly from community members who are experiencing climate impacts on the island of Trinidad to understand the level of risk associated with those impacts. There is a need for more community organized environmental groups to lead others towards proactive behaviors following a climate event. This is essential in protecting livelihood. This document provides the complete process leading up to the creation of the Story Map.

Chasing Catch:Climate-driven distribution and abundance of Pacific bluefin tuna and Japanese anchovy


Climate change impacts are projected to shift the distribution and abundance of global fisheries, affecting revenues and livelihoods worldwide (Barange et al., 2018; Lam et al., 2016). The creation of climate-resilient fisheries requires knowledge of how culturally and economically valuable species will be impacted by rising sea surface temperatures, ocean deoxygenation, and climatic variability. Two Western Pacific fisheries, the Pacific bluefin tuna (PBF; Thunnus orientalis) and Japanese anchovy (JA; Engraulis japonicus), may be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to overfishing, sub-tropical spawning grounds, and declining prey availability (FAO, 2020; ISC, 2020). Chasing catch may become the new reality for commercial fleets around the world as PBF and JA inhabit new waters away from historic fishing grounds. In order to promote sustainable management of major global fisheries, policymakers must have the best tools and information available for how climate change will affect fisheries distribution and abundance through the 21st century.

This study is aimed at improving the scientific basis for creating fisheries that are resilient to climate change by using climate change projections, species-specific life history traits, and ecological information to project potential fish stock distribution in response to changing coastal and oceanic conditions. Current projections focus on the use of suitable thermal habitat as a proxy for future species distribution and abundance (Morley et al., 2018). The aim of this study is to improve on these projections by evaluating the potential effects of changes in ocean mixing, nutrients, and other factors in addition to temperature as well as by incorporating information on how the target species (PBF and JA) are likely to respond to these changes using life history characteristics. 

Based on a decision tree provided by the Environmental Defense Fund, climate change is expected to impact every life stage of PBF and JA and centered around changes in sea surface temperature, ocean deoxygenation, and climatic variability. Future abundance of both species’ hinges on the survival of larval stages, recruitment success, and conservation measures to prevent the depletion of young age classes. Northward shifts in distribution are anticipated for both species into the next century, raising concerns about future international management. The entrance of new players into the PBF and JA fisheries may require international agreements based on the shift in distribution of each stock. International cooperation and adaptive management measures must be adopted by fisheries management entities to maintain productive fisheries that continue to generate social and economic benefits associated with PBF and JA.

Commercial Sardine Fishing in Mexico: A Financial Perspective Working towards the well-being of the industry, ecosystem, and community


The pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax) and the fishery subsidies have benefited the exponential growth of the commercial sardine fishery in Mexico where most if not all the players are for-profit organizations, and money comes up tops. Yet there is an ongoing debate on responsible fishing practices and the overall management of Mexico’s ocean resources. This study focused on the profitability and financial risks associated with commercial sardine fishing practices to guide and aid in the creation of management tools that consider the industry’s financial objectives, proper use of public resources, and responsible fishing practices. The study used a financial modeling research approach to determine the profitability of the commercial sardine fishing in the Gulf of California considering fuel subsidies contribution. By creating a profit and loss statement, the gross profit margin was calculated. The study shows that the sardine fishing practices in this area were profitable for the year 2015 with a gross profit margin of 36%, and that 9% are the fuel subsidies contribution, which suggests that there is a significant monetary support from the government that allows the commercial sardine fishing activity to be profitable.

This work highlights the knowledge gaps in analyzing profitability of the commercial sardine fishery yet provides a financial perspective on the potential risks for the various stakeholders to make decisions in uncertain conditions like climate change, environmental variability, and a fishery subsidy reform while working for the well-being of the industry, ecosystem, and community

Cover page of Ecologies of Sound and Sea: An Auditory Journey through Acoustic Ecology

Ecologies of Sound and Sea: An Auditory Journey through Acoustic Ecology


Sound can be defined as an auditory impression and sensation, perceived by the sense of hearing. Sound is a mechanical radiant energy, transmitted by longitudinal waves of pressure through a material medium. A material medium is determined by the environment, which can be gas, liquid, or solid. The characteristics of this medium, such as temperature and density affect the characteristics of propagation of sound. Every sound heard is a signal within an environment.

These sound signals then become a part of a network of sound signals interacting amongst one other. Collections of sonic networks then create complete soundscapes. Each soundscape, which is defined by its environment, has a unique signature that describes the state of being of that place. Studying the relationships within these soundscapes is called acoustic ecology. Acoustic ecology is a way to quickly assess the overall ecosystem properties of a place and its health. One of the most effective ways to transmit sound to the public is through radio, which has the ability to communicate information to large audiences and in different cultures around the world.

Podcasts, online radio systems, are becoming increasingly popular, allowing listeners to tune into a specific genre or show. The Podcast created for this presentation, Ecologies of Sound and Sea is a subversive science communication project about Sound, Listening, Stewardship and Ecology. From interviews of leading researchers to composers, all focused on the significance of sound within acoustic ecology. This project works towards creating social and communal change.

Sharks in the Shallows:An Assessment of Coastal Shark Distribution Patterns in the Florida Keys Archipelago


Oceanic shark and ray populations have declined by 71% due to an 18-fold increase in fishing pressure over the past 50 years (Pacoureau et al., 2021). While a significant amount of work has been done to document oceanic shark declines worldwide, there is still a knowledge gap surrounding the conservation status of reef-associated sharks globally (MacNeil et al., 2020). Asthe world’s coastlines and nearshore environments continue to experience increased pressure from human population growth, understanding the conservation status of sharks has become even more important. This study used presence/absence data to determine physical and anthropogenic factors that influenced shark distributions in the Florida Keys. An assessment of the habitat use patterns of local species can inform site-specific and species-specific protections(Rizzari et al., 2014). By increasing our knowledge of coastal shark distributions, abundances and habitat associations along the Florida Keys, the results of this study can help assess each species' risk from exposure to fishing, habitat degradation and climate change impacts. This study found that shark occurrences in the Florida Keys were highly influenced by the percentageof reef habitat along the reef tract. Region of the keys was also an important predictor of shark occurrences. Based on the findings of this study, several management recommendations specific to shark conservation are presented to increase habitat protection and minimize of fishingpressure on sharks.

Cover page of Where the Whales Go:The Migration Routes of Humpbacks in the South West Atlantic

Where the Whales Go:The Migration Routes of Humpbacks in the South West Atlantic


The migration patterns of humpback whales in the southwestern Atlantic have not been studied in detail. Humpback whales that winter off the coast of Brazil migrate south to offshore waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. This project uses data collected from satellite tags attached to humpback whales off the coast of Brazil between 2003 and 2019 to establish what paths they take and whether they use oceanic features, in particular seamounts, during their migrations.

The results show that this population of humpbacks leave the Brazilian coast using two different paths, cross over multiple seamounts, including the Rio Grande Rise, and most of them use a direct path to their feeding grounds. The results indicate that humpback whales may use seamounts during their migration, although further research is required to understand their potential use of seamounts during their migration.

An Analysis of Global Fisheries and Factors Limiting Sustainable Practices for U.S. Seafood Imports


This paper assesses the sustainability practices of wild-caught fisheries by analyzing the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (SFW) ratings database. U.S. domestic fisheries are held to federal sustainability standards via the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act. However, since the United States imports 65-85% of its seafood, this study focuses on the foreign fisheries that export to the U.S.’s import-dependent seafood market. SFW assesses fisheries using performance-based metrics based on four criteria; Impacts on Species Under Assessment, Impacts on Other Capture Species, Management Effectiveness, and Impacts on the Habitat and Ecosystem. Over 65% of U.S. imported seafood evaluated by SFW is rated as “Avoid,” largely due to management ineffectiveness, bycatch, and the overarching issue of data deficiency. Through rating and criterion analysis, our study finds that bycatch and overall management are limiting for U.S. import fisheries. The forthcoming implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act import provisions has the potential result in improved bycatch management in foreign fisheries. However, there are risks of unwanted transfer effects if these fisheries are unsupported in their efforts to comply with the new regulations.

Cover page of Fishing for Success: A review of best practices and benefits offered by cooperatives

Fishing for Success: A review of best practices and benefits offered by cooperatives


While there has been much research on cooperatives, research focused on the benefits and services that cooperatives provide their members, and how those benefits help strengthen cooperative success, has been sparse. This research aimed to address this gap and identify common types of benefits and services utilized by cooperatives around the world. Findings were generated to inform members of a Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP+) within the Belize spiny lobster fishery. Using a mix of informal interviews and a literature review of cooperative benefits, a pattern finding analysis was conducted. It was found that benefits fell into three main categories: social, economic, and environmental. A total of 32 benefit categories were identified and described. The categories showed varying levels of complexity. Many benefits occurred across sectors, while other benefits appeared to be more common within one or two sectors. The analysis also highlighted the importance of certain enabling conditions as necessary steps to implementing a robust and successful benefits program. Cooperatives are a uniquely positioned business model to address a rapidly changing environment. The variety of benefits found in this research highlight the creativity and adaptability of cooperatives around the world. Future research on cooperative benefits could be an important step in increasing adaptability, but also resiliency in the face of a changing world.

Cover page of Proposed Guidelines on Pre-Arrival Risk Assessments ofForeign Vessels: Using Lessons Learned to Strengthen Implementation of the UN FAO Agreement on Port State Measures

Proposed Guidelines on Pre-Arrival Risk Assessments ofForeign Vessels: Using Lessons Learned to Strengthen Implementation of the UN FAO Agreement on Port State Measures


Though difficult to quantify, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing has been recognized as a global threat to marine ecosystems and fisheries resources. To combat IUU fishing, a framework of voluntary and binding international instruments has been developed over the last decades including the adoption of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA or the Agreement). The Agreement was introduced as an effective tool to combat IUU fishing by means of the implementation of a minimum level of standardized control measures by those port States that have ratified the Agreement when foreign flagged fishing vessels seek entry into their ports. Through those measures, the overarching goal of the PSMA is to prevent fish sourced from IUU fishing activities to reach national and international markets, thereby reducing the incentive for perpetrators to continue to operate.

However, there are several challenges to the PSMA’s implementation, and it appears that the best way, in part, for relevant port States to effectively implement the Agreement is through the use of a true risk analysis. Risk analysis allows port authorities to identify the level of risk of involvement in IUU fishing that a specific fishing vessel or associated refrigerated cargo vessel seeking to enter port poses. Such risk analysis can provide the basis for decisions by port authorities to grant, deny or delay port access and target their port inspections based on (i) this risk and (ii) the capacity constraints of their port inspection regime, and (iii) the States’ obligations (in terms of priority levels, especially under Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) of which is might be a Member). However, the PSMA is not prescriptive about whether such a risk assessment should take place or how to effectively perform this risk analysis.

The objective of this work is to attempt to fill this information gap and compile lessons learned from countries that have implemented a port inspection regime of which risk assessment is an integral part: Thailand and The Republic of the Marshall Islands. These lessons helped generate proposed guidelines for implementation of the pre-arrival risk assessment of foreign vessels in the context of the PSMA. The goal for these guidelines is that they will help those countries that have become Party to the Agreement or are looking into ratifying the Agreement in the future and be used as a resource by port authorities.