Scholar Spotlight - Nerea Lezama Ochoa

November 03, 2021

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Nerea Lezama-Ochoa is a marine biologist from the Basque Country (Spain), working as a UCSC postdoc at the Environmental Research Division (ERD), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Monterey.

Her team is producing daily projections from 1980-2100 for 10 highly migratory species (leatherback turtle, blue shark, common thresher shark, shortfin mako shark, humpback whale, swordfish, northern right whale dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, and California sea lion) in the California Current System using ocean projections. 

The California current is one of the most productive systems that provide important habitat and foraging for many highly migratory species. These species are some of the most vulnerable, as they are exposed to different environmental impacts during each life stage. 

“There are some species, such as sea turtles or sharks, that are currently protected thanks to MAPs during important stages of their lives (reproduction, feeding, etc). It is possible that, in the future, due to environmental changes, these protected areas will become less useful. The boundaries then might need to change to reflect new habitats and to still protect them from anthropogenic impacts,” Lezama-Ochoa said.

UC Santa Cruz stood out as an ideal environment for Lezama-Ochoa because she knew that her skills could be refined in the field by working alongside the ERD group in Monterey, which has such an outstanding reputation in ecology, fisheries, and statistics.

"I knew this research group was really great. I also knew this was an opportunity to improve my knowledge, learn new skills, and contribute to work that really matters. Being a part of this team will benefit my research and my academic future," Lezama-Ochoa said.

Before coming to UCSC, while working as a postdoc in San Diego, at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (2017-2019), she met researchers from UCSC working with manta rays in Baja California. During this first encounter, she collaborated with them on fieldwork, created an NGO called the Mobula Conservation Project with other two female students, and created meaningful relationships that would influence the future of her work.

Lezama-Ochoa soon found that UC Santa Cruz was unique in its support and encouragement of international collaboration, bringing students from different countries together, encouraging them to develop skills, and granting them opportunities that sometimes they don’t find in their countries of origin.

"Researchers and students come together from diverse countries with different skills, resources, and backgrounds. Collaboration gives you a totally different perspective on your work, helping us to learn from each other," Lezama-Ochoa said. “This is one of the most important and beneficial things I have found here at UC Santa Cruz."

In addition to the protection of marine species, researchers are looking at the possible impact migratory shifts could have on the California Drift Gillnet fishery, focused on target species like swordfish. If it were to see a change in distribution due to migratory changes, that would have a socio-economic impact on the fishery and the region. 

Researchers are currently exploring models to predict positive and negative outcomes a shift such as this would likely have but the extent of each is unknown. The research group has been previously analyzing data from this fishery for target and bycatch species between 1990-2017 using Species Distribution Models (SDMs) to understand the environmental preferences of these species. These relationships will help to understand their future habitat distribution.

"I still have a lot of things to improve and believe I will through collaboration with other researchers and students at UCSC. I hope to one day create a group of researchers that is focused on the conservation of vulnerable species related to fisheries. International collaboration and diverse perspectives will be used to compare methods while working in interdisciplinary groups,” Lezama-Ochoa said. In the end, my goal is to feel like what I am doing matters and that I can help to improve our future, as we have a responsibility to do so.”

To learn more, see the Mobula Conservation Project or Nerea Lezama-Ochoa’s personal academic website.