Ocean Currents » George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Tue, 24 Nov 2015 20:06:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Inspiration at 30 Feet http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/11/20/inspiration-at-30-feet/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/11/20/inspiration-at-30-feet/#comments Fri, 20 Nov 2015 14:00:00 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=11075

I looked up just as the water above me darkened. Within an arm’s length, a massive whale shark passed over my head, its tail methodically propelling it forward. I caught its improbably small eye looking intently at me as it glided past. Directly behind came a second whale shark and then another.

But I wasn’t swimming in the ocean – I was 30 feet below the surface, at the bottom of the 6.3 million gallon Ocean Voyager exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium. As a marine scientist, I’ve logged a lot of dives in places from tropical reefs to temperate kelp forests. But I’d never been this up close and personal with the world’s biggest fish. In the wild, whale sharks can grow to 40 feet and nearly 50,000 pounds; those at the Georgia Aquarium are a relatively “small” 25 feet in length.

This jaw-dropping experience was made possible by Dr. Alistair Dove, Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium and the newest member of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance®.  Along with April Crow of The Coca-Cola Company, Dr. Al was our local host last week, when Ocean Conservancy brought together industry members, conservation organizations and scientists in Atlanta to continue our collective work to stem the tide of plastics entering the world’s ocean.  As Ocean Conservancy’s Chief Scientist, I’m working to bring the latest science to bear on the Alliance’s efforts and I had the honor of guiding the group through two days of productive deliberations.

Under Al’s lead, the Georgia Aquarium has made solving marine debris one of its core conservation initiatives. Marine debris resonates with their nearly 2 million visitors a year because plastic in the ocean is unambiguously a problem of humanity’s making and one the aquarium can play a leadership role in helping solve.

When he isn’t working on ocean trash, Dr. Dove’s primary research focuses on understanding whale shark biology, ecology and evolution. He regularly studies the annual aggregation of whale sharks off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico in search of elusive breeding behavior. An active and persuasive voice on social media (you can follow him on Twitter at @AlistairDove), Al shares his research experiences widely and he seeks to bring these findings and those of the other aquarium research and conservation initiatives to a range of audiences. With an infectious laugh and a keen sense of humor, Al shared these experiences with the members of the Trash Free Seas Alliance®, as the whale sharks and other denizens of the Ocean Voyager exhibit swam by the two-foot-thick viewing window.

My two days at the Georgia Aquarium reminded me why I decided to pursue a career in marine biology 25 years ago.  From the smallest of phytoplankton to the largest of whale sharks, ocean animals are infinitely fascinating. A healthy marine food web comprising these creatures is critical to humanity’s well being. Science shows us that we need to do more to protect the world’s ocean.  Doing so will need the support of the general public, who often get exposed to the ocean only at an aquarium, like the one in Atlanta. Bringing that experience to more people is a prerequisite for better decision-making, from personal choices on the use of disposable plastic to international leadership to reduce carbon emissions to protect the ocean from climate change.

All of us at Ocean Conservancy are looking forward to our new partnership with Dr. Al and the Georgia Aquarium. Together we can inspire the private sector, elected officials and the general public alike to work on behalf of ocean conservation so whale sharks and all the ocean’s creatures can continue to inspire us well into the future.

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Another Brick in the Wall: Plastics in the Seafood We Eat http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/24/another-brick-in-the-wall-plastics-in-the-seafood-we-eat/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/24/another-brick-in-the-wall-plastics-in-the-seafood-we-eat/#comments Thu, 24 Sep 2015 21:50:31 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10770 Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore.

Photo: Susan White / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If you have been reading my recent posts, you have noticed that I have been discussing the emerging science on plastic pollution in the ocean and exploring what we need to do to stem the tide. It started in February, when a groundbreaking study showed that 8 million tons (nearly 17 billion pounds) of plastic flows into the ocean each year, mostly from a small number of Asian nations where local waste management can’t keep up with rapidly growing plastic use. Then scientists estimated that nearly all the worlds’ seabirds will be contaminated by plastics by 2050 unless conditions don’t change.  And a study published only days later showed that half the globe’s sea turtles are likely to suffer the same fate. Today, we need to think carefully about the latest study, showing that plastics can be found in many of the fish that we eat. We don’t yet know if eating plastic-laden fish negatively impacts our health, but today’s study is another brick in the growing wall of scientific evidence that demonstrates that plastics are a major threat to the global ocean and ultimately, ourselves.

Roughly a quarter of fish sampled from fish markets in California and Indonesia contained manmade debris—plastic or fibrous material—in their guts, according to a new study by Dr. Chelsea Rochman from the University of California, Davis and colleagues from Hasanuddin University in Indonesia. The study, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, is one of the first to directly link plastic and man-made debris to the fish on consumers’ dinner plates. The researchers sampled 76 fish from markets in Makassar, Indonesia and 64 from Half Moon Bay in California. All of the manmade fragments recovered from fish in Indonesia were plastic. In contrast, 80% of the debris found in California fish was fibers while not a single strand of fiber was found in the Indonesian fish.

These patterns appear to be related to differences in waste management in the two countries. Indonesia has little in the way of landfills, waste collection or recycling, and large amounts of plastic are tossed onto the beaches and into the ocean and waterways. Meanwhile, the U.S. has relatively advanced systems for collecting and recycling plastics. Indonesia ranks second for mismanaged waste globally, producing ten times more mismanaged waste than the twentieth ranked United States. In contrast, most Californians wash their clothing in washing machines, the concentrated wastewater from which then empties into the ocean from more than 200 wastewater treatment plants along the coast. Rochman theorizes that fibers remaining in sewage effluent from washing machines were ingested by fish swimming offshore of the state.

So now we know that plastics are in the fish that we eat, fish like anchovy, rockfish, striped bass, Chinook salmon, sanddab, lingcod and oysters. What we don’t yet know is whether this puts our health at risk. But there is growing cause for concern. Scientists have shown that plastics contain a range of hazardous chemicals that are used during their production and also adsorb toxic chemicals once they reach the ocean. There is evidence that some of these chemicals can become bioavailable to a range of species from lugworms to seabirds to fish. Rochman and her colleagues conclude that “chemicals from anthropogenic debris may be transferring to humans via diets containing fish and shellfish, raising important questions regarding the bio-accumulation and bio-magnification of chemicals and consequences for human health.” Clearly more research is needed to quantify these risks and weigh any risk against the other well-known benefits of consuming seafood.

At Ocean Conservancy, we are committed to stopping plastics from getting into the ocean in the first place. If we can keep the ocean clean, we can keep plastics out of our seafood – and ourselves.

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Ocean Plastic Pollution: Groundhog Day, But This Time with Sea Turtles http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/15/ocean-plastic-pollution-groundhog-day-but-this-time-with-sea-turtles/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/15/ocean-plastic-pollution-groundhog-day-but-this-time-with-sea-turtles/#comments Tue, 15 Sep 2015 18:08:27 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10737

Olive Ridley sea turtle. Photo by: Matthew Dolkas.

I got a kick out of Groundhog Day, the comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell that was released in 1993. With Murray waking each day to relive Groundhog Day alongside Punxsutawney Phil and his co-anchor, the movie was lighthearted and fun. But the science of ocean plastic pollution is starting to feel a lot like Groundhog Day. And the storyline is becoming much more troubling with each new publication.

This week a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Global Change Biology calculates that over half of the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic; this follows on the heels of a publication last month by some of the same scientists that predicted that nearly all of the world’s seabirds would be contaminated with plastics by 2050 unless action is taken soon. With each new publication, the case for a global strategy to stem the tide of plastics into the world’s oceans becomes ever more vital.

Qamar Schuyler is lead author on this study alongside Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty (members of an independent scientific working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis that Ocean Conservancy convened in 2011) and four other ocean experts. The team applied the same analytical approach used in Dr. Wilcox’s seabird analysis, with disturbingly similar results. By integrating global maps of plastic in the ocean and sea turtle distribution, they showed that these endangered animals are most at risk of plastic ingestion in hotspots along the coastlines of southern China and Southeast Asia, and the east coasts of Australia, the United States and southern Africa. Olive Ridleys are the species at greatest risk because of its broad diet, oceanic life style, and its tendency to selectively ingest plastics. Kemp’s Ridleys are the species least at risk because of its tendency to eat animals that live on the bottom of the ocean, rather than forage at the ocean surface.

Due to limited data, the authors couldn’t determine the population and species level impacts of their findings; but given that as little as 0.5 gm of ingested plastic can kill a juvenile turtle, there is clearly cause for concern. Just as for seabirds, contamination rates for sea turtles have increased over time and Schuyler estimates that 52% of the world’s remaining sea turtles have plastics in their gut. That number is 62% for the world’s seabirds. Groundhog Day indeed.

At Ocean Conservancy, we are responding decisively to this onslaught of new science. We are now leading an effort to stem the tide of plastics from the regions that are the greatest source of plastics to the ocean, currently rapidly industrializing countries in Asia. Schuyler’s study confirms that this region is a critical beachhead in our campaign against ocean plastic pollution. Our team is also actively planning a November 2015 meeting of our Trash Free Seas Alliance ® to confront the consequences of this emerging science head-on and to advance plans to solve this problem at scale. The Alliance brings together conservationists, industry leaders, and scientists with a common purpose of keeping marine debris out of our ocean and waterways. Long the responsibility of individual consumers and cash-starved governments, plastics in the ocean is increasingly a problem that requires private sector leadership and resources to help solve, an issue that is at the center of our work with the Alliance.

The good news is Groundhog Day came to an end and Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell lived happily ever after. In the ocean, sea turtles and seabirds can have a happy ending too, but only if we collectively commit to stemming the tide of plastics that is increasingly contaminating the ocean’s wildlife.

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Plastics in Seabirds: A Pervasive and Growing Problem That Requires Global Action http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/31/plastics-in-seabirds-a-pervasive-and-growing-problem-that-requires-global-action/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/31/plastics-in-seabirds-a-pervasive-and-growing-problem-that-requires-global-action/#comments Mon, 31 Aug 2015 22:31:55 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10696

You have likely seen the pictures of albatross chicks chocking on plastics. These images are tough to look at and the death these birds suffer from ingesting plastics is gruesome and painful. Albatross consume a whole range of plastics that float in the ocean, from cigarette lighters, to toothbrushes to shards of plastics from a huge variety of other plastic products. As a conservation organization, Ocean Conservancy is deeply troubled by the impact of plastics on these magnificent birds. But how pervasive is this problem, really? A new paper in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS gives us a disturbing answer. It turns out plastics in seabirds is a very big deal. It is global, pervasive and increasing. And it has to be stopped.

The research published today was done by Drs. Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty from CSIRO in Australia and Dr. Erik van Sebille from Imperial College in London. It is the result of an independent scientific Working Group convened by Ocean Conservancy at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This is the same group that recently demonstrated that 8 million tons (17 billion pounds) of plastics enters the ocean each year, much of it from Asia. This week’s publication shows the consequences of this plastic avalanche. Using global historical data from publications over the last few decades on the presence of plastics in the stomachs of 135 species of seabirds from all around the world, the authors show that plastic contamination is increasing and they predict that 99% of all seabird species will be eating plastic by 2050 unless something is done to stem the tide. Surprisingly, seabirds that may be most at risk of plastics are those that lived at the Southern Ocean boundary in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, far from the well-known “garbage patches at the center of the ocean’s gyres. While plastics are less abundant there compared to the gyres, this is where seabirds are most common – and thus at greatest risk of exposure to plastics. Contamination rates have increased from about 26% historically to approximately 65% today; if the trend continues, nearly all species of seabird – and almost 95% of all individuals – will be exposed to plastics by 2050. So this isn’t just about albatross; it’s about ALL seabirds including penguins, fulmars, auklets, prions, storm petrels and the many other species that spend the majority of their lives living over the ocean.

Read the entire article at National Geographic’s website.

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Take Action to Help Save Whale Sharks http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/10/take-action-to-help-save-whale-sharks/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/10/take-action-to-help-save-whale-sharks/#comments Fri, 10 Jul 2015 12:00:40 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10434

September 4, 2015 update: Thank you to the more than 73,000 people who took action to protect whale sharks. We are currently in direct conversations with the cruise ship industry and we hope to share updates with you soon. Watch this space!

The largest fish in the ocean is one of the most majestic, too: the whale shark. These gentle giants are also in danger.

Right now, there’s a very simple way to protect them, and you can help. Off the coast of Mexico, thousands of whale sharks gather to feed and mate every year. Unfortunately, there are two cruise ship companies whose cruises currently travel through this important area where whale sharks congregate in large numbers and swim slowly at the surface of the water.

The beauty of this area is bringing more and more visitors each year, and unfortunately, they are having some negative effects on the whale sharks. There is an easy step to be taken in protecting whale sharks in this region, and we hope you’ll take just a moment to let Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises know how important it is to you that they adjust their course by 7 miles to protect these magnificent animals.

Whale sharks can reach over 40 feet in length, and they swim slowly while close to the surface with their mouths open to eat their staple food source, plankton. This makes them particularly vulnerable to ship strikes, which is why it’s so important to adjust cruise ship routes to protect them.

Ships are currently required by Mexican law to go at least 3 miles east of Isla Contoy, but just 4 additional miles would keep the ships from passing through this critical whale shark area and prevent possible negative interactions with these incredible creatures.

Just 7 miles can save whale sharks. Please encourage Carnival and Royal Caribbean to help make a difference for whale sharks.

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Saving the Oceans from Plastic: A Field Report from Belize http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/20/saving-the-oceans-from-plastic-a-field-report-from-belize/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/20/saving-the-oceans-from-plastic-a-field-report-from-belize/#comments Wed, 20 May 2015 12:30:52 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10224

Some people would call Belize paradise.  Having recently returned, I can’t say I disagree, but I also saw threats to the beauty on the surface. I spent a week in Belize researching the connection between waste management, plastic pollution and ocean health in this Central American country. As Chief Scientist, I’m working closely with our Trash Free Seas® team to build on our 30-year history of protecting our ocean from the growing threat of ocean trash.

I toured much of the country with independent consultant Ted Siegler from DSM Environmental Services, gaining a firsthand perspective on how recent investments in waste management systems in Belize are improving ocean health but learning how much farther the country needs to go. A former British colony, Belize is frequented by tourists for its beautiful beaches and tropical breezes. But Ted and I visited many sights never seen by these outsiders. The upshot? Trash is a major problem in Belize, as it is in many developing countries.  And it is increasingly clear that this has big consequences for the health of the ocean.

My trip came at a key time. Just recently, a groundbreaking study was published in the prestigious journal Science which, for the first time, quantified the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean. A staggering 8 million metric tons of plastic (~ 17 billion lbs) enter the ocean each year, mostly from rapidly industrializing countries where plastic production and consumption is outpacing the ability of local entities to handle the waste. This problem is predicted to double in the next decade unless something is done to stem the tide. These research findings are the result of a working group initiated 3 years ago by Ocean Conservancy at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The findings of the Science paper were brought into sharp focus in Belize.  We learned that the country’s waste management system is similar to that of the United States back in the 1950’s.  Across the country we find open pit, burning dumps. Some are associated with towns like Belize City, Belmopan, Placencia, and Hopkins but smaller, informal dumps also mar the landscape, each a smoldering mass of burning plastics and other materials. Many of these dumps are in low-lying coastal mangroves which are flooded during the rainy season, from king tides, or from storm surge. The most striking example we saw was on the outskirts of Placencia where a vast array of plastics was literally spilling into the coastal lagoon.

The good news is change is coming.  After a massive fire at the Belize City dump in 2009, the government took notice. The fire burned out of control for months, covering the city in dense, acrid smoke and forcing a partial evacuation of the city because of severe air pollution. In response, the International Development Bank (IDB), in collaboration with the central government, co-funded a $14 million US dollar project to develop a formal collection and disposal system throughout the central corridor of the country, where some 50% of the population lives.

Our research expedition to Belize yielded a number of important insights.  It is clear that international collaboration can drive needed infrastructure improvements in developing countries, especially with a strong commitment by the host government and sufficient international financial aid. However, instituting a long-term economic model that makes the system financially self-sufficient is a major challenge. Governments have very limited resources to bring to the table and are buffeted by competing public service demands. Most plastics have limited economic value at present, further complicating the economic calculus. In Belize, as in many developing countries, an informal waste collection community (sometimes called ‘waste pickers’) has formed at the dump sites. Plastic containers for which there is a deposit fee (e.g. some plastic beverage bottles) have the most inherent value and thus are often efficiently recaptured and reused. But large volumes of other plastics, including massive amounts of film plastic (bags, sheeting, wrappers, etc) with little to no value at present is largely ignored by the waste pickers and thus lost to the landfill or disposed in the ocean.

At Ocean Conservancy, we believe we must implement a mechanism to put a larger value on plastics so these materials are recovered and not lost to the ocean. We conclude that the private sector – those that produce and profit from plastics – has a responsibility to help solve the end-of-life problems that we witnessed in Belize. A collection and recycling system that captures all the plastic and is economically sustainable in the long run needs the plastic industry’s ideas, know-how and financial resources.

Government can’t do this on its own. But it is clear that the health of the ocean depends on it.

2015-03-11 09.54.20 2015-03-10-16.24.19 2015-03-10-15.24.36 2015-03-10 16.18.40 2015-03-11-11.23.08 2015-03-13-09.12.37 ]]>
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Good News for the World’s Smallest Porpoise http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/03/09/good-news-for-the-worlds-smallest-porpoise/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/03/09/good-news-for-the-worlds-smallest-porpoise/#comments Mon, 09 Mar 2015 18:01:17 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9970

Good news for vaquitas this week! The Mexican government will ban the use of gillnets in the Gulf of California, the only place vaquitas call home, for the next two years. This is a much-needed protection for the critically endangered vaquita. In fact, there are less than 100 left in the world.

This is a vital first step in rebuilding the population of the world’s smallest porpoise. Vaquitas are often caught as bycatch in gillnets, which ensnare and kill them.

Earlier last year, we sent a petition to the United States urging them to work with the Mexican government to save this tiny marine mammal. More than 54,800 Ocean Conservancy supporters signed that petition.

Please join us in urging the U.S. to continue supporting Mexico’s efforts to save the vaquita.

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