The Blog Aquatic

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The Blog Aquatic

News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy

About George Leonard

George Leonard is Director of Strategic Initiatives at Ocean Conservancy. A long-time scuba diver, George knew he wanted to be a marine biologist at the age of 12 when he first watched Jacques Cousteau's TV special on the sleeping sharks of Yucatan in 1975. During his graduate work, he logged over 400 dives in 3 years, studying California's kelp forests, the undersea equivalent of a tropical rain forest. You can follow George on Twitter at @GeorgeHLeonard.

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Ocean Acidification Anxiety at 36,000 Feet

Posted On September 5, 2012 by

Credit: swamibu flickr stream

As the jumbo jet lifts off over the San Francisco Bay, I am nervous. I am on my way to the 12th Seafood Summit in Hong Kong but I usually don’t have concerns about flying. It is a very long flight – 14 hours and 6 minutes to be exact – with plenty of time for last-minute preparations for the panel I am leading on ocean acidification. I should be relaxed; I have attended this event yearly, and I’ll see many old friends and colleagues during three days of important discussions about the future of the ocean and the seafood it provides to us all. But I’m not. I’m anxious. As we reach 36,000 feet, I realize that the pit in my stomach isn’t the result of a new-found fear of flying but the result of what I’ve learned about how ocean acidification is impacting our ocean.

For the last several months, I have worked with three leading ocean experts to craft our panel. While I have spoken at many conferences over the last two decades, this recent process has been one of personal discovery. When I began my graduate studies in the early 1990s, climate change and global warming were not yet household names. Since that time, ocean acidification has emerged as an existential threat to the future of a living sea. Carbon emissions in the atmosphere are increasing the acidity of the ocean, with implications for much of the ocean’s food web.

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What’s in a Number? Insights and Opportunities for Ocean Health

Posted On August 29, 2012 by

Credit: Mario Chow

What if you could take the pulse of the ocean? What if that measure could integrate all the threats and impacts to the ocean, rather than evaluating each one separately?  And instead of dwelling on these negatives, the metric could express the health of the ocean by quantifying and adding up the most important ways the ocean benefits humans.  Most importantly, the measure wouldn’t portray humans as separate from nature, but rather embed us deeply in this “seascape” and empower us – all of us – to chart a course for the future of the ocean.

The newly released Ocean Health Index (OHI) may very well get us there.  The OHI takes on the big issues – pollution, habitat destruction, invasive species, fishing and climate change – and its findings should cause us all to think hard about what we want the ocean to provide.  The short story is that the global ocean scores 60 out of a possible 100 points, with large variation among the 171 countries and territories evaluated.  Whether you view the glass as half empty or half full, there is clearly considerable room for improvement.  Continue reading »

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Fish and chips: wild, farmed or hybrid?

Posted On August 13, 2012 by

Do you know where the fish in your fish and chips came from? Credit: David Ascher

Next time you go to your local fish market, ask them for a hybrid fillet. My guess is they will stare at you with a confused look on their face or direct you to the local Toyota dealership. Most consumers and seafood retailers typically think of seafood as either farmed or wild. But if a new proposal on seafood labeling gains traction, you may soon see the term “hybrid” American lobster alongside wild Pacific Halibut and farmed Atlantic salmon.

Fishing is different than farming. Fishermen ply the seas and interact with the fish only once, when they capture it. Fish farmers, by contrast, tend their crop, generally from egg to juvenile fish to harvest as adults. Fishing is thus analogous to hunting, while aquaculture is more akin to farming.  Fishermen also tend to think of themselves as fundamentally different from fish farmers and there can be animosity among the two groups because their products compete in the marketplace. But deep down, most seafood experts have long known that this simple distinction isn’t really based on reality. Continue reading »

Genetically engineered organisms are in “hot water”

Posted On July 31, 2012 by

I’m pretty much a classic rock guy.  I grew up on the Stones, Springsteen, and Skynyrd.  But a new song caught my attention, as much for its message as its foot stomping beat.  The punk rock band “Hot Water Music” recently released a new single, “State ofGrace,” to bring attention to their concerns about the growing presence of genetically modified foods on our dinner plates. Give it a listen. It is a solid tune, but it’s also accompanied by a pretty edgy video that pushes the boundary of where science ends and art begins.  When I first watched it, my science side cringed but my artistic side was moved by the graphic images.

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Of Fear, Hope, and the Future of Our Ocean

Posted On July 17, 2012 by

Credit: Wyant Lauterman

As an ocean scientist I am personally familiar with the struggle between dread and hope. This duality is deeply entwined in all of our work here at Ocean Conservancy. Understanding the seriousness of what ails the ocean and what it will take to address these problems often keeps me up at night. But it is the knowledge that much can be done to turn the tide – that there is hope for our oceans – that gets me out of bed each morning.

Anxiety can be paralyzing. But if we let fear over the extent of the ocean’s problems overwhelm us, the future will undoubtedly be bleak. Yet, so too can false hope also prevent timely or adequate action or send us in search of solutions not based on scientific fact. We must face this scientific reality if we are to address the seriousness of the challenges before us.

Last week, The New York Times published a powerful opinion piece starkly laying out an ocean future devoid of coral reefs. Corals are under assault from a “perfect storm” of overfishing, ocean acidification, and pollution and their future is very much at risk. But the piece’s author Roger Bradbury went further, concluding that “there is no hope of saving the global coral reef ecosystem” and accusing conservationists of “persisting in the false belief that corals have a future.” He calls for a radical reallocation of funding from trying to save coral reefs to coping with the fallout from their inevitable collapse.

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The Value of Little Fish

Posted On June 29, 2012 by

George Leonard finds an ocean ecosystem in downtown Santa Cruz.

Standing on the sidewalk in downtown Santa Cruz, I gaze upon a fish. Actually several fish.  An entire ocean ecosystem really.  Captured artistically in bronze.  The dramatic sculpture depicts a spiral of sharks, tuna, salmon, and marine mammals, connected to and supported by a swirling mass of smaller fish – sardines or maybe anchovies. Commonly known as ‘bait fish’ or ‘forage fish’, these small fish are the base of the food chain, the vital foundation that supports all the larger fish in the ocean.  Scientists warn that they need better protection around the globe.

This week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council took a bold and important step towards protecting forage fish and in turn the ocean ecosystem itself.  Charged with setting catch limits, seasons and gear restrictions designed to ensure the long-term catch of a dizzying array of fisheries, this week’s action was somewhat unusual.  Instead of deciding how – and how many – fish should be caught, the Pacific Council basically decided that some fish shouldn’t be caught at all. At least not yet. Continue reading »

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Ocean Acidification This Way Comes: A Wake-Up Call for California

Posted On June 22, 2012 by

As I stand along the Santa Cruz shore gazing at the vast Pacific Ocean, all looks well.  But a silent, unseen threat looms.  We knew ocean acidification was a problem in the Pacific Northwest, where highly corrosive seawater threatens oysters and other species whose survival depends on being able to form shells.  Acidified waters remove carbonate, a critical building block for many shelled animals like oysters, corals, and a host of other shell-building organisms. But when a new study published in the prestigious journal Science came across my desk last week, it caused my jaw to drop. Continue reading »