Two UCSB researchers have figured out where babies come from and are publishing a book about it.

At a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 15 in Denver, Colo., UCSB professors Steve Gaines and Robert Warner presented their most recent findings, done in collaboration with researchers from Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz and the University of Oregon.

The group studied the ocean environment near the coastline in the Santa Barbara area. The majority of their research has been an attempt to answer the question, “Where do the babies go?” referring to the tracking of offspring of certain species of fish, invertebrates and seaweed.

“The marine environment is different from the terrestrial. The baby fish are born very small, and they become part of the plankton for weeks or months; but we need to know where the babies go from there and where they come from,” Warner said.

The researchers’ work will be published in a future edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, an academic journal published by the Ecological Society of America. The group has studied near-shore environments as part of the Partners in Interdisciplinary Study of Coastal Oceans. Gaines, also the director of the Marine Science Institute at UCSB, has been involved in this research for nine years.

The group tried to determine whether certain fish found near the Channel Islands originated there or migrated from elsewhere, and in the process they discovered a natural tracking device – the ear or balancing mechanism of the fish that has a core formed before its birth.

“The ear grows like an onion, adding layers to the core everyday,” Gaines said. “Metals in very small concentrations such as strontium, lead and barium get into the core and these layers can link the fish to certain places. Each layer tells a lot about the pattern of circulation, water chemicals and human effects [in certain areas of the ocean].”

Researchers found the ocean off Santa Barbara contains characteristics that are specific to the bend in the California coast, which is essentially a meeting of colder waters from northern latitudes and warmer currents from southern latitudes, making it a prime location for migrant animals. Ocean currents around the Channel Islands are sent into a flux of circulation and create an environment that supports a diversity of species.

“The huge overlap of species makes this area unique, and also because parts of the [Channel Islands] are in the cold areas and others are located in the warm waters,” Gaines said.

These findings are critical to the management of fisheries and reserves in the area, Gaines said.

“Managers and policymakers dealing with the coastal waters need to know how ocean life is related to other areas,” he said.

The size of marine reserves along the coast near the Channel Islands may depend on the research, as the knowledge of near-shore oceanography is necessary to the management of fisheries.

“We can’t predict how many fish there will be next year if we don’t know where the babies come from and where they go when they are born,” Warner said.

The research may also lead to the conservation of species in certain reserve areas, which will reduce mortality rates and increase the number, size and diversity of fish.

With the help of the trace metals, the quality of fishing may improve, Warner said.

“Local action can have local effects,” he said. “Fishermen need to know that reserves can make fishing better.”