The Blog Aquatic » NCEAS News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Trash Lab: Because Rope, Wrappers, and Butts are Not Created Equal Wed, 03 Oct 2012 16:14:12 +0000 Nick Mallos

Ocean Conservancy scientists George Leonard and Carmen Yeung sort through trash found on Santa Cruz beaches to better understand what’s ending up in the ocean.

Not all trash is created equal. Why does it matter? For the person who tosses their water bottle or chip wrapper into a garbage can, maybe it doesn’t. But for the integrity and health of our waterways, beaches and ocean and its animals, it indisputably does.

Over the past 27 years, through our annual International Coastal Cleanup, Ocean Conservancy has compiled the world’s largest and most comprehensive database on ocean trash. During this time, the data collection methods used by Cleanup volunteers counted one cigarette butt as equal to one plastic bottle or one fishing net. On paper this quantification may make sense, but in the marine environment these items pose very different threats to animals and ecosystems. Large scale ecological impacts of marine debris in the ocean remain unknown, but Scientists at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) are currently researching this very question to determine the magnitude of impact for different types of marine debris.

Ocean Conservancy is committed to using science to better understand the trash and debris found on beaches and in waterways around the world. Our Science Team—Denny Takahashi-Kelso, Stan Senner, George Leonard, and Carmen Yeung to name a few—conducted a pilot project in Santa Cruz, CA called “Trash Lab” that tested new protocols for weighing collected marine debris so that we can better understand historical and future Cleanup data. Our research goals were to:

  • Find average masses for specific types of marine debris collected during the Cleanup; and
  • Analyze samples of unidentifiable large plastic debris and whole microplastics to determine the types of plastic found on beaches during Cleanups.

As NCEAS Scientists generate more information about the relationship between the risks/impacts and size, shape, volume and mass of debris, it will better inform our decisions to select the most appropriate measure for each type of debris. Therefore during our pilot project, our team tested different methods to weigh marine debris.  If this pilot is feasible and provides new insight into our historical database of ocean trash, we’ll expand Trash Lab to sample and measure marine debris gathered during the Cleanup at three additional sites—West Coast, East Coast, and Gulf Coast.

Trash Lab is the first of many steps Ocean Conservancy has in place to deepen our understanding of the International Coastal Cleanup data, so that we continue to keep trash off the beach and stop it at its source while simultaneously enriching our knowledge of its threat to marine animals and ocean ecosystems.

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Fish and chips: wild, farmed or hybrid? Mon, 13 Aug 2012 15:04:37 +0000 George Leonard

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.

Now a new science paper from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis published in the journal Marine Policy maps out a suite of species that are not clearly either wild or farmed – they are a hybrid of both. Hybrids are wild fisheries that use aquaculture techniques or farmed fish that use certain fisheries techniques. For example, the iconic wild salmon from Alaska actually relies heavily on hatcheries (a form of aquaculture) to increase the wild fish’ natural reproduction. The Gulf of Maine has essentially become a large lobster farm, where baited traps feed juvenile lobster until they are large enough to be caught by lobstermen. Bluefin tuna, a species in precipitous decline in the wild, is now “ranched” in the Mediterranean by stocking aquaculture cages with juvenile fish and fattening them until they are ready for market. Likewise, eel (the popular unagi at your local sushi restaurant) is produced from a hybrid system, capturing juveniles from the wild and then farming them to the perfect size for sushi rolls.

While this distinction may seem academic, it makes a difference. If we are to better manage fishing and farming and develop policies to promote ways to reduce environmental impacts, we need a more accurate way of tracking and categorizing seafood.  Those forms of aquaculture that rely on wild fish for feed inputs or wild juveniles to stock the farm, actually put additional pressure on the ocean.  If large quantities of bait are used in wild fisheries or ecosystems are altered by fishing activities, we may overestimate how many fish the oceans can actually produce.

Rethinking how we categorize seafood would help scientists, fishery managers and seafood businesses better understand the impacts of seafood production. Doing could also be an important part of ensuring fish for the future.


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We need a “Mythbusters” for Marine Debris Fri, 04 May 2012 17:46:17 +0000 Nick Mallos

Plastic doesn't just disappear; it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Scientists are just starting to understand the impacts fragmented plastics have on our ocean. Photo credit: NOAA

A “gigantic floating island of trash.” The media has been full of stories about an ocean drowning in plastic for years. It’s great that public awareness about ocean trash has skyrocketed, but awareness built on fundamental misconceptions won’t lead to durable, long term solutions—particularly with respect to plastics. What we need now is rigorous scientific analysis of both the scope of the problem and the best ways to solve it.

I’ve been to—and sailed through—the North Pacific Gyre and the reality is that there is no huge, floating island of trash twice the size of Texas – instead, large areas of the Pacific are a sort of trash soup containing lots of small bits of plastic. And I mean LOTS. Of course to most, the size or viscosity of the trash in the ocean misses the point. Trash shouldn’t be in the ocean; it’s a problem we can and should collectively solve.

But as a scientist, I know that compared to other areas of ocean research, the science of marine debris is still in its infancy and evolving quickly. There is a lot we still don’t know but some new research is troubling. Just last month, researchers published findings that show that plastics may not be just at the surface, but may be widely distributed in deeper waters. While we do not know exactly how much plastic is in our oceans, these findings indicate plastics may be more widespread than previously thought. Because global data on marine debris are fragmented, scientific synthesis is needed and predictive models will be necessary to fully quantify how much plastic is in the ocean, where it is, and what its impacts on marine ecosystems are.

At Ocean Conservancy, we want science to drive the debate. That is why we are supporting a scientific working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis to improve the state of the science of ocean trash. This work is just getting underway but is sure to help inform what we can all do about trash in our oceans.

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