I’ve been blogging less, traveling more, and taking on some exciting new responsibilities which I’ll be sharing soon. But in the mean time, I’d like to point readers to the work of my brilliant friend and former colleague Michael Conathan. He’s sharp, articulate, and has tremendous experience working on U.S. oceans policy. In 2006 when I served in Senator Bill Nelson’s office, Mike was the Knauss Sea Grant Fellow on the Senate Commerce Committee. Perhaps our greatest accomplishment that year was contributing to the long-overdue reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act–the primary law governing marine fisheries management in the U.S.
Michael recently joined the Center for American Progress as the the Director of Ocean Policy and they are very lucky to have him on board. He’s also writing a terrific column called Fish on Fridays which I’ve been following over the past weeks. Here’s a sample from March 11 entitled Waking from the Gluttony:
A strong case can be made that fishing is America’s oldest profession. Europeans were using parts of what is now Atlantic Canada as seasonal fish camps as far back as the early 15th century—even before Columbus confused the Caribbean for the shores of India.
Many fisheries scientists were sure there was no way humans could make a dent in the seemingly endless abundance of fish in the ocean as late as the middle of the 20th century. But our fishing industries were already well on their way to proving them wrong. It now seems that the problems facing our fisheries are as plentiful as cod once were on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and throughout the Gulf of Maine.
We now live in a world where overfishing is far too prevalent. To stem this tide, regulators impose tighter and tighter restrictions on fishermen,* in the face of fundamental disagreements among harvesters, regulators, and conservationists about how many is too many.
Our oceans are in real trouble and we critically need experts like Michael who understand more than the biology and trophic interactions beneath the surface. He notably includes the people and policy, as well as the science and has the experience on and off the Hill to be practical toward progress. In short, I encourage everyone to make Fish on Fridays part of their weekly reading. These columns are also posted at Climate Progress where you can participate in the comment threads.
In the age of austerity measures, research programs studying biodiversity have become an object of scrutiny. Why, you may ask, should taxpayers pay to send a graduate student to the tropics to survey reef life? What could we possibly gain from this?
The classic argument is that it is important to understand as much of the world around us as possible (a common statistic passed around is that 95% of the world’s oceans remain unexplored). We are losing biodiversity as fast as we can catalogue it. Imagine every species as a book. Read More
Yesterday a student asked me if the devastation from 2010’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is “over.” The answer of course is no. Not by a long shot. When the spill happened, we could only observe the immediate effects: Birds drenched in oil, spoiled fisheries, and the hardships faced by many people living and working in the region. Longer term impacts will be more difficult to evaluate and we don’t know how resilient the system will be. Studies will likely continue for decades and despite all of the news coverage over the summer, I hope we do not grow complacent about what’s occurred–as we so often do when it comes to the marine realm. Please folks, remember the Gulf, and let’s do our best to make sure it never happens again.
The chemistry of the world’s oceans is changing at a rate not seen for 65 million years, with far-reaching implications for marine biodiversity and food security, according to a new United Nations study released Thursday.”Environmental Consequences of Ocean Acidification,” published by the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP),” warns that some sea organisms including coral and shellfish will find it increasingly difficult to survive, as acidification shrinks the minerals needed to form their skeletons.
Lead author of the report Carol Turley, from the UK’s Plymouth Marine Laboratory said in a statement: “We are seeing an overall negative impact from ocean acidification directly on organisms and on some key ecosystems that help provide food for billions. We need to start thinking about the risk to food security.”
Damn straight. Read the full article here.
The sea turtle to the left has fibropapillomatosis, a tumor-forming disease linked to a herpes virus. While these tumors can appear grotesque, not all are malignant. Fibropapillomatosis has been around since the 1980s, but the cause has been unknown. A new paper in PLoS ONE by Van Houtan, Hargrove, and Balazs analyzed clusters of the virus in locations with high nutrient runoff. And here’s where the story gets interesting…
The authors discovered a relationship between eutrophication (excess nitrogen), an invasive species of algae, sea turtles, and the disease. It goes like this:
So it turns out that the root cause of the whole chain of events–leading to the large tumors we’re observing in sea turtles–is not the result of one of the usual suspects (i.e. carcinogens such as PCBs or 3-Nitrobenzanthrone).
When I spoke to lead author Kyle Van Houtan, he explained, “To me what is really fascinating about the whole argument is how it all begins with simple nitrogen [inputs from runoff] and how that travels through the physical watershed, the ecosystem, and ends up promoting tumors.”
The paper identifies the amino acid arginine as being involved in this process and, coincidentally, clinical trials for cancer drugs for human liver cancers are specifically targeting and destroying arginine. So as Van Houten points out, “There is perhaps more to this than simply sea turtle tumors. After all, 15-20% of human cancers are viral in origin.” In other words, understanding the cause of tumors in sea turtles may help researchers understand why they form in our species too.
..okay not exactly. But anyone who reads The Intersection regularly likely knows I have an affinity for the sea cucumber–the charismatic little critter I studied in graduate school up at UMaine. What I haven’t shared previously is that because I worked on them for years, I also became extremely sensitive to the toxin they produce–as many researchers working with different echinoderms do. In fact, I am now severely allergic to cucumaria frondosa. Needless to say, you don’t want to mess with them.
So I’m not surprised to learn that unlike many species at risk from ocean acidification–already adversely affecting marine organisms like clown fish–echinoderms seem to be less vulnerable. From the BBC:
When the animals, known as echinoderms, were exposed to water high in carbon dioxide early in their lives, there were no adverse effects.
Echinoderms are a diverse group that includes sea cucumbers and starfish.
Their natural resilience could represent a competitive advantage under some climate change scenarios.
I am pleased that my post last week on ocean acidification received a good deal of attention around the web because this critical subject rarely makes news. I’d also like to point readers to the National Academies latest podcast on the very same topic and encourage everyone to listen and share the episode. Here’s a synopsis:
Ocean Acidification: The Other Carbon Dioxide Problem (Tue, 14 Sep 2010 12:06:39 -0400)
The ocean has absorbed a significant portion of all human-made carbon dioxide emissions. This benefits human society by moderating the rate of climate change, but also causes unprecedented changes to ocean chemistry. Carbon dioxide taken up by the ocean makes the water more acidic and leads to a suite of chemical changes collectively known as ocean acidification. The long term consequences of ocean acidification are not known, but are expected to result in changes to many ecosystems and the services they provide to society. This podcast gives an overview of the current state of knowledge, explores gaps in understanding, and identifies several key findings. Read the Report Online
All of the NAS Sounds of Science podcasts can be found here.
I’m doing more sci comm training, and as I prep, I’ve found another great video that teaches a great lesson.
Here it is: Marine biologist Jeremy Jackson’s TED Talk, “How We Wrecked the Oceans.” In my opinion, it’s a very effective talk…but the question is, why? What makes it work?
I have many ideas about this–and the answer is multifaceted–but I’d like to hear what others think:
As I continue to speak around the country, I frequently ask if those in the audience who have heard of ocean acidification will kindly raise their hands. Sometimes a few do. More often I get blank stares. I’ve been writing about this subject for as long as I’ve been blogging. Longer if you count Senate memos and grad school projects over much of the past decade. Acidification is a huge deal. It’s as serious as climate change, which–despite Mr. Morano’s sorry efforts at special interest propaganda–is indeed a very real threat to biodiversity. Humans included.
So time for another post on what ocean acidification is, how it affects our world, and why this matters. It needs to become prominent on the national radar and a priority in policy discussions. I intend to keep blogging about it until more hands go up in the room. With that, another edition of:
Ocean Acidification 101
Most of us are aware that we’ve been adding lots of CO2 to the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels, land-use changes, and more. But carbon dioxide is also absorbed in oceans and taken up by terrestrial plants. Initially, the marine realm served to mitigate climate change, but over time, excess accumulated CO2 has disrupted a long-established system of environmental checks and balances.
You see, in oceans, all of that dissolved carbon dioxide interacts with carbonic acid, bicarbonate, and carbonate. This leads to a decrease in overall pH making the them less basic. Readers who maintain aquariums likely know that monitoring pH is important for the well-being of the critters inside. The same goes for oceans. Read More