I would like to recognize the achievements and contributions of Hispanic Americans. Here is a story of two Latina marine biologists who are making a difference in our understanding of our local and worldwide marine ecosystems. They’ve also become role models for others in their field.

Let us start by telling the story of increasing numbers of great white sharks along the California coastline, especially north of Point Conception, attracted by their favorite choice of food — seals. The population of elephant seals and sea lions has dramatically increased along the California coast, primarily due to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which has allowed these pinnipeds to flourish. Not only has the number of the shark's prey risen, but they have increased the size of their range, which has expanded northward along the Central and Northern California coastline due to warmer seawater temperatures.

Over the years, warm seawater events have become more common along the California coast. "The blob," a warm-water event that started in 2013, was followed in October 2015 when seawater temperatures reached record levels along the Central Coast during a very strong El Niño event. A few years later, in 2018, the Scripps Nearshore Waverider Buoy reached 81.3 degrees in the Southern California Bright, breaking the old record of 80.4 degrees set during the El Niño event of 2015.

In other words, great white sharks seem to be benefiting from climate change. However, a study in the journal Current Biology published a paper stating that: "One-third of the world's Chondrichthyan fishes — sharks, rays and chimeras — are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature."

To better understand the population of great white sharks, I decided to ask Melissa Cristina Márquez, nicknamed the "mother of sharks." She has studied Chondrichthyan fishes, including great white sharks, for years. She told me that even though the number of great white sharks may be increasing along the California coastline and worldwide, sharks, rays and chimeras are declining.

"Chondrichthyan fishes are exceptionally susceptible to overfishing because they tend to grow slowly and produce few young, relative to other fish. Overfishing has far outpaced effective resource management for these species," Márquez stated. "They play an important part in our marine ecosystems, transferring nutrients from the open ocean to coral reefs. Not only does their extinction lead to ocean imbalance, but it "squanders opportunities for sustainable fishing, tourism and food security over the long term."

During our phone interview, I asked her why she become a marine biologist? Márquez told me she was inspired to study sharks when she first saw a great white shark on the Discovery Channel program "Shark Week."

In 2011, she entered undergraduate school at the New College of Florida in Sarasota. During one of her independent study projects to the Bimini Shark Lab in the Bahamas, she found her vocation: sharks.

"The next [independent study project] I went to was in South Africa, and I studied great white sharks,” she said. “That led to my senior thesis, which focused on tracking great whites; I'm always interested in tracking why an animal is where it is and what it's doing. That's essentially my tagline. People will say to me, 'What are you, like a shark PR manager?' And I say, 'Yeah, I can deal with that description.'"

Since then, she's earned a master's degree from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and is currently pursuing her doctorate at Curtin University, Australia.

Márquez is involved in multiple forms of public engagement and is passionate about making the scientific industry more diverse and inclusive, including making all of her educational content bilingual. Her Twitter account @mcmsharksxx has nearly 25,000 followers. She writes monthly articles for Forbes Science; her work has been featured in The Washington Post and many other publications. It was recently announced that Márquez will be named to the Fuse Media's Future Hispanic History Class of 2021.

Locally, Gaby Morales was born and raised in Santa Maria. Her parents immigrated to the United States in their 20s and started working in the fields.

"My parents only had a sixth-grade education, so they did not know about the potentials of what college can bring. Growing up, I lived 30 minutes from the beach but never visited the ocean. My parents worked Monday through Sunday and never had the chance to take my brothers and sisters to many places.

"While in high school, I had no clue what I wanted to be or what I could even dream of doing until my high school teacher took us on a field trip to the Central Coast Aquarium, and this was the day that impacted my life because I saw the ocean for the first time in my life.

"On this field trip, we had the opportunity to go on a research boat. We were getting on, and I was so excited, nervous and feeling many emotions; I even thought to myself, am I feeling seasick? (having no idea what that feels like). Out there on that boat, we saw a sea otter, and it was cleaning itself, and that's the moment I decided I needed to know everything there is to know about the ocean. I decided at that moment that I wanted to be a marine biologist," Morales said.  

She graduated from UCSB with a degree in aquatic biology and returned to the place that made the difference for her growing up: the Central Coast Aquarium. Now, she is the director of operations at the museum. 

"I have many job duties, but the one that is most important to me is to become a role model for students that look like me, minorities and underrepresented students," Morales said.

These women have overcome a great deal of adversity to make the sciences more diverse and inclusive, allowing all of us, regardless of race and sex, to reach our full human potential.

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.

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