Erica Burton

Year finished at Moss Landing: 1999

Lab while at Moss Landing: Ichthyology

Undergraduate education:   A.A. Liberal Arts, Cañada College, 1988.  B.S. Marine Biology, California State University Long Beach, 1991.

Current job position and location: Research Specialist, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Contact information:

Some questions for Erica:

Q: Why did you decide to pursue marine science/come to Moss Landing?

A: While satisfying my general education requirements for my A.A. degree in Liberal Arts (with an emphasis in Tourism) at Cañada College, I took a Botany class.  I did very well, and the instructor encouraged me to take his Marine Biology class.  During that time I took a scuba class, and earned my PADI certification card.  I became so interested in marine science, that after earning my A.A. degree, I decided to switch majors and pursue a degree in Marine Biology.  I searched for a California school with the Marine Biology major, and found an excellent program at California State University Long Beach (CSULB).  In 1991, I received a B.S. degree in Marine Biology at CSULB.  To earn a living in marine science, I knew I needed to also earn a graduate degree.  My ichthyology professor at CSULB (Richard Bray) recommended applying to MLML and working with Greg Cailliet (Ichthyology Professor).

Q:    What did you do your thesis on and why do you find it interesting/important?

A: I determined the age, growth, and longevity of a deep-sea fish using the growth increments found in their ear bones (otoliths), and validated the periodicity of the growth increments using naturally occurring radioactive materials found in the otoliths.  My thesis was entitled, “Radiometric Age Determination of the Giant Grenadier (Albatrossia pectoralis) Using 210Pb:226Ra Disequilibria.” For more info, see

At the time, giant grenadier was being captured in large numbers in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea without a stock assessment.  The National Marine Fisheries Service was interested in knowing more about the biology of the giant grenadier to improve management of the stock.  The ichthyology lab at MLML was well set-up for age determination studies. In addition, my study, and others in collaboration with Allen Andrews (MLML), improved upon existing radiometric age determination methods.

Q:   What did you go on to after graduation?

Erica Burton

Erica in the field

A: Shortly after graduating at MLML, I collaborated with co-investigators from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (Gregor Cailliet, Lisa Kerr, Jason Cope), the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG; Robert Lea, David VenTresca, and Eric Knaggs), and San Francisco State University (Ralph Larson) on a project entitled, “Biological Characteristics of Nearshore Fishes of California.”  I surveyed and reviewed existing literature on the life history characteristics of the nearshore fishes of California included in the Marine Life Management Act, and other vulnerable species.  The literature survey (which included age information, spawning and reproductive status, recruitment information, population and stock genetics, species-habitat associations, and trophic interactions) identified major gaps in the existing knowledge of the life histories of these species, especially those necessary for fisheries managed and regulated by CDFG, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council.  During this project, we developed and completed an extensive life history spreadsheet/matrix to consolidate and summarize what is known, and to easily identify gaps for future research.  For more information see the website, While working on the Nearshore Fishes project, I applied for several jobs with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.   I accepted the job at the Sanctuary as a Research Assistant in 2000.

Q:   What do you do now (if different from above)? Please describe your job and the highlights/challenges of your work.

A: In my current position as a Research Specialist for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), I collect, interpret, and present scientific information obtained during Sanctuary research projects and from the external research community, for Sanctuary staff and the general public.  My work includes designing and participating in field research and monitoring projects, providing science information for policy decisions, evaluating and issuing research permits, preparing reports, and contributing to website design products.  I am involved with various marine research issues including marine reserves, ecological characterization, long-term monitoring, submerged cultural resources, and damage assessment (e.g., ship groundings, oil spills).  I also spend time at sea collecting scientific data and information; several projects utilizing ROVs and submersibles include biological characterization of the Davidson Seamount, monitoring of deep-water fish and invertebrate assemblages off central California, and reconnaissance of the shipwrecks Montebello and USS Macon.  The challenge is interpreting and applying the results for policy decisions.

Q:  What’s the best thing that you took away from MLML?  How did your time at MLML prepare you/influence you for what you do now?

A: Communicating your science with others in the research community (e.g., conferences), and asking for input (e.g. contacting experts in your field) to improve your work are extremely important.  My graduate advisor (Greg Cailliet) instilled this in his students, and MLML provided the opportunities for interaction.

Meeting and working with the Monterey Bay research community while a student at MLML (through volunteer work, class work, and community events) has been very helpful in working with the public and research community in my current position.

Q:   What would you do if you could do anything differently?

A:  I would shorten the time necessary to complete by thesis by developing my graduate research question(s) during my first semester (or prior to arriving at MLML), and chosen a less time/labor-intensive project.  I’m not sure if the latter could have been avoided.

Q:  What advice do you have for someone who wants to go into marine science and/or graduate school?

A:  I suggest taking a breadth of science and math classes (including oceanography, biology, ecology, geology, chemistry, physics, calculus).  These classes prepare you with a broad science foundation, and provide you with various skills to answer research questions.  I also suggest volunteering for field work (e.g., research cruises) both within an academic setting, and agency setting (e.g., National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Geological Survey, California Department of Fish and Game).  In addition, learn how to apply science to the real world.

Q:    What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career like yours?

A:  To pursue a career in the marine sciences, I suggest the following: 1) a strong foundation in the physical, biological, ecological, and perhaps social sciences; 2) learn how to apply science to the real world; 3) learn how policy is made and how science is used for decision making; 4) learn how to communicate your science to your colleagues and the general public.

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