The Northern California Current Ecosystem Survey is underway! This morning, we woke up to slate grey skies and soupy brown water, which means one thing: diatoms. Diatoms are considered autotrophs, meaning they make their own food using the process of photosynthesis. These brown-green algae are encased in a silica shell called a “frustule." You may have heard of a gritty garden additive called diatomaceous earth; this substance is created from the remains of diatom shells. While dirt is cool, diatoms are responsible for a much larger role in the marine environment through the creation of essential fatty acids that we cannot make ourselves (imagine the fish oil that your doctor may suggest taking as a supplement). These essential fatty acids are transferred up the food web and are important for higher trophic levels such as tuna, salmon, and other marine animals that bring food to our table. Yum!
Diatoms contribute substantially to coastal primary production and the export of carbon to organisms further up the marine food web. The Northern California Current is an upwelling region which sustains productive fisheries along the coast. Upwelling is the physical process of bringing cool, nutrient-rich bottom water to the surface—replacing warm, nutrient deprived surface waters. These nutrients fuel diatom growth, creating a healthy base of the food web. So, let us all remember to thank a diatom next time you find yourself enjoying some seafood or just looking at the big blue ocean.
This post was written by Becky Smoak, who is a graduate student at Oregon State University and joined us on the NCC ecosystem survey.