Ocean Currents » George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Tue, 21 Feb 2017 16:25:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 We Will Stand Up for the Ocean–and That Means Standing Up for Science http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/11/29/we-will-stand-up-for-the-ocean-and-that-means-standing-up-for-science/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/11/29/we-will-stand-up-for-the-ocean-and-that-means-standing-up-for-science/#comments Tue, 29 Nov 2016 14:00:33 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=13416

This post originally appeared on National Geographic’s Ocean Views blog.

During this bruising presidential campaign, there was an eerie sense that we had moved into a post-truth world, with fake news circulating on Facebook and the veracity of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump continually called into question. In fact, Oxford Dictionaries just declared “post-truth” its 2016 international Word of the Year.

But for me personally, facts really matter.  It’s why I’m a scientist. 

It’s my job to ensure that an objective assessment of facts and data underpin Ocean Conservancy’s work. For over 40 years, we have worked on your behalf to advance science-based solutions to the many threats that plague our ocean, from pollution to overfishing to ocean acidification. These threats have real impacts on real people from cod fishermen in the Gulf of Maine to oyster farmers in the Pacific Northwest, from coastal property owners in the Gulf of Mexico to indigenous peoples in the Arctic, and from sailors on the high seas in the Pacific Ocean to families enjoying a relaxing day at the beach in the Mediterranean.

At Ocean Conservancy, we believe that science must underpin durable ocean solutions, so that facts and data can be brought to bear to identify cost-effective ways that improve people’s lives.

While it is not yet clear whether the next Administration will be committed to evidence-based decision-making, Ocean Conservancy will stand up for robust, independent science as the foundation upon which the federal government makes public policy. We believe we can best stand up for you by holding the new Administration accountable if it willingly ignores what science identifies to be patently true.

Let me clarify: Ocean Conservancy is decidedly nonpartisan. We work with Democrats and Republicans alike who recognize the importance of healthy oceans to a livable planet. Over the course of four decades, this has resulted in tremendous gains for our ocean and for the people that most depend on it.

  • We helped secure an 1100-mile network of marine protected areas in California guided by insights from the scientific community that is expanding recreational and commercial opportunities throughout the state.
  • We crafted a vision for restoration in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster using science to identify the damage done and steer recovery efforts in ways that can best improve the coastal communities that were so dramatically impacted.

At the core of all of our work is respect for the scientific process, appreciation for the independence of scientists and a relentless pursuit of action based on what the weight of the science demonstrates.

And this brings me to climate change. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump called climate change a hoax and pledged to back out of the Paris Climate agreement. His action plan for the first 100 days in office commits to massively expanding fossil fuel production. He has already appointed a climate denier to head up the EPA transition team. This sends a dangerous message to the global community fighting to tackle the greatest challenge to a livable future.

Climate change is real. It is happening now.

It is impacting people. And a global community of scientists is documenting the many ways that carbon emissions are impacting our planet, our ocean and our people. 2016 is on track to be the hottest year on record. Oceans are massively heating up, right alongside the atmosphere. The ocean’s chemistry is also fundamentally changing, impacting fishermen and shellfish growers’ livelihoods. Oxygen levels are declining. Global currents are slowing. Fish are moving toward the poles. Entire ecosystems are beginning to shift as a result.

Why does it matter? Our ocean is quite literally the life support system for the planet whether you live on the coast or in the heartland. Climate change impacts in our ocean will ripple out to touch all life on the planet. This is what science is telling us. The good news is that we can do something about it.

Last month, 192 countries met in Marrakesh to begin to implement the historic Paris Accord on climate change. They were buffeted by the news of the election back in the United States. U.S. leadership under President Obama was critical to securing the Paris deal last December and U.S. withdrawal could seriously undermine progress going forward. At present, the rest of the world is doggedly committed to moving forward with the Accord, with or without US engagement but the future is far from certain.

We don’t have a minute to waste. Science tells us that we only have a decade to get the world’s economies—including the United States—on a trajectory to a low carbon future to avoid massive climate disruption. We must muster every ounce of our strength to stay the course if we are to avoid that scenario.

Ocean Conservancy is working hard to ensure that the election does not mark the beginning of a new, post-truth world. We remain deeply committed to seeking solutions that benefit our ocean and all who depend on it, informed by robust, independent science.

By standing up for science, we can stand up for you.

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4 Reasons the California Bag Ban Makes Us Smile http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/11/16/4-reasons-the-california-bag-ban-makes-us-smile/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/11/16/4-reasons-the-california-bag-ban-makes-us-smile/#comments Wed, 16 Nov 2016 15:17:37 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=13348

Last week was a tough one for many around the nation. The 2016 election season reached a stressful conclusion last Tuesday night and considerable uncertainty remains about where our nation is headed and what the future holds. Last week my home state of sunny California gave me something to celebrate: voters approved Proposition 67, the statewide ban on carry-out plastic bags, 52 percent to 48 percent. Here are four reasons I’m smiling over this news!

  1. California voters are setting a ‘blue’ example for the rest of the nation by speaking up for the ocean and voting for a future where the ocean is free of trash. Californians strongly said NO to effort by out-of-state plastic manufacturers to undermine the ban that had already been approved by California legislators.
  2. Environmental groups led a very successful grassroots organizing effort statewide. Amazing groups like, Californians Against Waste, the California Coastkeeper Alliance, and my local Save Our Shores paved the way to this victory and showed that people really can make a difference!
  3. Proposition 67 will help eliminate the 25 million plastic bags polluting our beaches and waterways. Plastic and marine debris—makes its way from the land to our shores and eventually the ocean—choking and entangling dolphins, endangering sea turtles, spoiling our beaches and depressing our local economies. In fact, my colleagues and I published a study earlier this year that showed that plastic bags were the most impactful consumer goods plastic item polluting the ocean.
  4. And, finally… the ban takes effect immediately—stores will no longer provide single-use plastic carry-out bags to customers across the state. If customers forget to bring their own bag to the store, they will end up paying around 10 cents for a recycled paper bag or reusable alternative. This fee structure has been shown to be extremely effective in reducing plastic pollution.

My home state continues to be a leader on a range of environmental policy, from climate change to marine protected areas. The voter’s collective decision this week to ban disposable plastic bags will go a long way to ensuring a healthy California ocean well into the future.



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Eelgrass and Ocean Acidification: California Takes Action http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/10/03/eelgrass-and-ocean-acidification-california-takes-action/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/10/03/eelgrass-and-ocean-acidification-california-takes-action/#comments Mon, 03 Oct 2016 15:26:23 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=12961

What do eelgrass, the California state legislature, crabbers, and Ocean Conservancy have in common? They are all part of the solution in California’s remarkable actions this past week to address the threats that ocean acidification presents to California’s healthy fisheries, marine habitat and coastal jobs.

Governor Jerry Brown just signed into law a pair of bills that will address the concerns over ocean acidification raised by oyster growers, crabbers and others who make a living off of the ocean.

The two pieces of state legislation were crafted by Assemblymember Das Williams and Senator Bill Monning, as tailored place-based solutions to what amounts to a global problem. SB 1363 will protect and restore eelgrass habitats, increasing carbon sequestration amongst the roots of this coastal vegetation. AB 2139 will establish an ongoing task force to ensure that state decision making is informed by the latest science, identify areas of our coast that are vulnerable to ocean acidification and hypoxia, develop water quality standards to protect coastal water health, and address gaps in ocean acidification monitoring and management needs.

The elected officials and their colleagues heard from scientists’ predictions of the ever-increasing impact of ocean acidification and that species like Dungeness crab, squid and other fish upon which fishermen and seafood lovers alike depend will be harmed if it goes unchecked. At the request of the Ocean Protection Council, the California Ocean Science Trust convened the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel in 2013 to synthesize the science behind ocean acidification (and the related issue of hypoxia) and to recommend concrete policies that can address the problem in both the short and long term. This novel collaboration between OPC and OST led to a first-of-its-kind report by this multidisciplinary science panel. Released this past spring, the OAH panel puts forth a vision for how California can address ocean acidification and hypoxia, including 14 major recommendations.

Senator Monning and Assemblymember Williams authored complementary pieces of legislation, informed heavily by the panel’s recommendations. Ocean Conservancy is proud to have supported the scientific panel and the resultant legislation by Assemblymember Williams and Senator Monning, together with a large coalition of ocean champions to ensure these bills got to the Governor’s desk for his signature.

Governor Brown continues to be a global role model for tackling ocean change head-on. His approval of AB 2139 and SB 1363 this session is an important first step to ensure the state has the tools necessary to fight back against climate impacts in its coastal ocean. Ocean Conservancy looks forward to working with Governor Brown and other leaders throughout the state to ensure our future ocean continues to provide the vital services upon which all Californians depend.

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Entangled, Eaten, Contaminated http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/01/12/entangled-eaten-contaminated/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/01/12/entangled-eaten-contaminated/#comments Tue, 12 Jan 2016 20:00:22 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=11230

A comprehensive assessment of trash on marine wildlife 

There is a vast sea of trash in our oceans. For the first time, we now have a comprehensive picture of the toll it is taking on seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals.

A new study in Marine Policy by scientists at Ocean Conservancy and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) mapped impacts ranging from entanglement, ingestion and chemical contamination of the 20 most commonly found ocean debris like fishing gear, balloons, plastic bottles and bags and a range of other plastic garbage found regularly in the ocean. Our research was based on elicitation, a widely-used technique to rigorously quantify the professional judgement of a community of experts, representing 19 fields of study.

The Results

  • Lost or abandoned fishing gear like nets, lines, traps and buoys pose the greatest overall threat to all types of marine wildlife, primarily through entanglement.
  • Consumer plastics were not far behind. Plastic bags emerged as the second most impactful item for marine wildlife. Plastic cutlery also was highly impactful. Experts highlighted the tendency of animals like sea turtles to mistake these items for food and eat them.
  • Paper bags and glass bottles were assessed to be the most benign marine debris.

Seeking Solutions

This study underscores the need to go beyond a product-by-product approach to reducing plastics impacts in the ocean. Consider the sheer volume of it—upwards of 8 million tons each year flow into the ocean according to a report from earlier this year.

The biggest takeaway from our report is that our strategies must encompass regional improvement in waste management systems and global changes in policy as well as local actions like changing consumer behavior and eliminating particularly problematic products. And much like the findings from our study, no single entity alone can solve our ocean plastics problem. It requires collective action from individuals and NGOs, to governments and the private sector to stem the tide of plastics from entering the ocean in the first place.

What We’re Doing

For the past three decades, Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup has documented the most persistent and proliferating forms of ocean trash on beaches and in waterways around the world. Without fail, the most common items encountered year after year are those disposable plastics we use in our everyday lives—like plastic bags, beverage bottles and food wrappers.

We are working hard to solve this problem. We are a proud and active member of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, an innovative approach to confronting the threat of derelict fishing gear on marine species.

And Ocean Conservancy is also leading a powerful alliance to unite industry, science and conservation leaders under a common goal for a healthy ocean free of trash. Members of the Trash Free Seas Alliance® are working together to confront plastic inputs from the regions that matter most while they seek to reduce and reinvent products and services that damage ocean wildlife or ecosystems.

We also work with people like you—ocean lovers who recognize the importance of keeping our oceans trash free. Your choices really do matter to the future of our ocean.

Want to take a deeper dive? Read more here.

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Concerns About Genetically Engineered Salmon http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/12/01/concerns-about-genetically-engineered-salmon/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/12/01/concerns-about-genetically-engineered-salmon/#comments Tue, 01 Dec 2015 22:13:13 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=11145

Genetically engineered salmon: a turning point for the future of seafood?

If you care about your food and its environmental sustainability, you should be concerned about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval, on Nov. 19, of a faster growing, farmed Atlantic salmon—the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption. This new “GE” salmon presents significant environmental, policy, and consumer rights concerns, and the FDA’s action has potentially profound implications for the future of fish and sustainability of our oceans.The FDA approved an application by U.S.-based AquaBounty Technologies to commercialize its genetically modified salmon, a fish touted as growing twice as fast as regular farmed Atlantic salmon. This approval allows the company to produce genetically engineered salmon eggs in Canada, fly them to a land-based facility in Panama to grow the fish to market size, and then transport the resulting processed fish back to the United States for sale to consumers. This circuitous process is not the company’s long-term business model, however, as AquaBounty has signaled it would like to farm its GE salmon close to population centers in the U.S. and indeed throughout the world.

This post originally appeared on Vox Populi, the opinion department of Dartmouth Now. To read the rest of this article, please click here.

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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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