What is an otolith? How long do rockfish live? What affects salmon populations? The number of people who can answer these questions is about to increase dramatically, thanks to a new exhibit on fisheries research at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz.

The exhibit will be officially "unveiled" on Friday, April 21, with free admission to the Seymour Center from 3 to 5 p.m., light refreshments, and remarks from local marine scientists.

The new exhibit features the work of scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Santa Cruz Laboratory. The NMFS lab is located next to UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory, home of the Seymour Center. According to the volunteer docents who lead tours and interpret exhibits at the Seymour Center, visitors began asking questions about what goes on at the NMFS lab as soon as it opened in 2000.

NMFS is an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is sometimes called "NOAA Fisheries." Scientists at the Santa Cruz lab study Pacific Coast groundfish (including rockfish and other bottom-dwellers) and Pacific salmon and steelhead. Their findings influence decisions about the management of important fisheries and protection of threatened and endangered species.

Wendelin Montciel, visitor programs manager at the Seymour Center, worked closely with a team from the NMFS lab to develop the new exhibit. The kid-friendly, interactive exhibit is designed to appeal to various age groups and includes hands-on activities and three-dimensional models, as well as text and image panels, Montciel said.

One aspect of the exhibit is a comparison of the life histories of salmon and rockfish, showing how scientific research provides the information needed to plan successful strategies for managing fisheries.

Both salmon and rockfish are popular with commercial and recreational fishers, but their life histories are dramatically different. Salmon are born in freshwater streams, migrate to the ocean, live four to six years, grow up to 48 inches, and return to the streams where they hatched to spawn. Rockfish are born in the coastal ocean, grow slowly to 18 inches, reach sexual maturity at age 20, give birth to live young each year, and can live to be more than 100 years old. Management strategies for these species must take into account these differences in their life histories.

Another part of the exhibit explains what an otolith is (it's an ear bone that plays a role in hearing and balance) and how scientists can use otoliths to learn valuable information about individual fish. A third aspect of the exhibit is called "Be a Scientist." It features images of NMFS scientists as children who grew up pursuing their interest in marine science and gives kids a fun opportunity to picture themselves as scientists.

The Seymour Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for students and seniors, and $4 for children ages 4 to 16. Admission is free the first Tuesday of each month. The center will be closed for the Easter holiday on Sunday, April 16. Additional information about the Seymour Center is available on the web at http://seymourcenter.ucsc.edu. Information about the NMFS Santa Cruz Laboratory is available on the web at http://santacruz.nmfs.noaa.gov.