Mia Tegner, who spoke for the sea

This month’s Diversity in Science Carnival coincides with Women’s History Month, so the theme is Women Achievers in STEM: Past and Present. I’m going to write about a woman who I really, really wish I could have met: Mia J. Tegner.

Mia Tegner received her PhD from Scripps in 1974. Though she came to Scripps as a sea urchin microbiologist, she soon started to wonder about the ecological role of sea urchins in the kelp forest. At the time, overfishing of large coastal fish that prey on urchins had led to massive starving urchins fronts which had eaten the entire kelp forest. Correction: Actually, she was interested in the ecological effects of the urchin and abalone fisheries. Urchin barrens were not an issue at the time. 

Alongside her longtime collaborator Paul Dayton, she teased apart the biological and physical factors controlling kelp forest dynamics. Their monograph on kelp forest patch dynamics is a classic in the field. Dr. Tegner also showed that harvesting different urchin species had different ecological effects, and studied the decline of local abalone species due to overfishing and disease.

Later, Dr. Tegner got more involved in marine policy. She found that the outfall of San Diego’s sewage treatment plant had no impact on local ecosystems, and wasn’t afraid to say so. But she also found that overfishing had devastated her beloved Point Loma kelp forest and spoke out against overfishing and shifting baselines syndrome. She said, “People deserve scientists’ time and efforts to provide data on which to base decisions regarding the environment.”

The current mandate to create marine protected areas in southern California in part stems from Dr. Tegner’s work, but she did not live to see them. She died in a diving accident in 2001, when she was 53. My office is two doors down from where hers used to be (though I never met her; she died five years before I came to Scripps). Not only did her premature death deprive the world of  her deep understanding of marine ecology and love of the ocean, but I bet she would have been quite a mentor as well.

5 Responses to Mia Tegner, who spoke for the sea

  1. eric says:

    Great scientist, and a great post about her! Thanks.

  2. blattrell says:

    Nice write up. It seems as though she deserves this credit. I am curious if the sewage treatment plant actually provided nutrients and was beneficial the marine ecosystem. I am sure there is some sort of balance with this type of activity. Anyways, great post. Thanks.


  3. Brendan, I don’t think anyone found any effects, positive or negative. The CA coast is naturally a very high-nutrient environment (due to upwelling) so the sewage input is insignificant. Adding nutrients to low-nutrient marine environments (like coral reefs) is DEFINITELY damaging, though.

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