Ocean Currents » science http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Jul 2016 16:57:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Meet the Scientists Studying the BP Oil Disaster in “Dispatches from the Gulf” http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/04/19/meet-the-scientists-studying-the-bp-oil-disaster-in-dispatches-from-the-gulf/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/04/19/meet-the-scientists-studying-the-bp-oil-disaster-in-dispatches-from-the-gulf/#comments Tue, 19 Apr 2016 13:00:39 +0000 Rachel Guillory http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=11930

In the new documentary “Dispatches from the Gulf,” the scientists are the heroes. The film airs for the general public for the first time via livestream on April 20 at 2pm and 7pm eastern. I got a sneak peek of the film, and trust me—you won’t want to miss it.

Since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster began in 2010, hundreds of scientists around the country have been documenting the impacts of the tragedy on the wildlife and habitats of the Gulf of Mexico. This documentary tells the stories of these scientists, from the University of Miami team that built the equivalent of a treadmill for mahi mahi to test their endurance and see how oil has affected their hearts, to Christopher Reddy, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientist who scours the beach for tar balls with a simple tote bag and pair of purple gloves.

Their stories are pretty inspiring. For me, the most memorable part was watching Dr. Mandy Joye, professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, climb into the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) “Alvin”—the same ROV that explored the wreckage of the Titanic. Dr. Joye then traveled 90 minutes in the Alvin to the bottom of the Gulf, where she found a shocking amount of oil on the seafloor.

The work these scientists are doing is important to understand how the Gulf’s wildlife and habitats are recovering—or if they’re not recovering, why. For the creatures that live in the deep, blue ecosystem of the Gulf, expanding research and monitoring is one of our only options for restoring their populations. In the case of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, the herring fishery collapsed unexpectedly after four years. The Gulf supports a giant seafood industry, and we don’t want to see a similar crisis strike here. That’s why we need science to understand how our fish and wildlife are coping with the stress of the BP oil disaster.

If there is something to be gained from this tragedy, it is knowledge. Many of the lessons we are learning about the Gulf in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster can be applied elsewhere in the world. If a researcher from the other side of the world wants to know how fish and corals in the deep sea are affected by exposure to oil, they will turn to our scientists in the Gulf. The Gulf stands on the forefront of a unique opportunity to lead in the field of marine science, but only if we make science a priority in the effort to restore the Gulf.

Don’t forget to catch the livestream of the documentary tomorrow, April 20 at 2pm and 7pm EDT, and follow the conversation on Twitter.

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What Do We Actually Know About the Ecological Impacts of Marine Debris? http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/03/31/what-do-we-actually-know-about-the-ecological-impacts-of-marine-debris/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/03/31/what-do-we-actually-know-about-the-ecological-impacts-of-marine-debris/#comments Thu, 31 Mar 2016 13:00:26 +0000 Guest Blogger http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=11795

The following is a guest blog from Dr. Chelsea Rochman, who is currently serving as a Smith Postdoctoral Fellow in Conservation Biology.

For decades, we have heard concerns regarding the entanglement of marine mammals and sea turtles in marine debris. We see images of seabirds, turtles and whales washing up with bellies full of trash. And more recently, we see constant media attention on microplastics—small pieces of plastic debris less than five millimeters in size. Marine debris is everywhere. It is reported from the poles to the equator and from the surface to the seafloor. It has been recorded in tens of thousands of individual animals encompassing nearly 600 species.

With such vast and abundant contamination, comes a perception that marine debris is a large threat to the ecology of our ocean. As part of a working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) facilitated by Ocean Conservancy and focused on marine debris, I worked with a group of scientists to ask if the weight of evidence demonstrating impacts matched the weight of this concern? The findings of our analysis have just been published.

The Weight of Evidence

 

“What do we actually know about the ecological impacts of marine debris?

To answer this question, we dove into the growing scientific literature and quantified perceptions regarding impact and evaluated whether individual studies had rigorously tested and demonstrated an effect.

Overall, we found hundreds of perceived impacts and substantial evidence of demonstrated impacts caused by marine debris. We showed that in almost every case where a perceived impact was properly tested, an impact was demonstrated. While we found most evidence at suborganismal levels, it is not a foregone conclusion that sublethal effects due to debris will result in an ecological impact. To be sure that such an ecological response exists, requires a heavier weight of evidence; i.e. more science!

Show Me the Data!

The majority of all impacts were caused by plastic items. For example, my own studies have demonstrated changes in gene expression related to endocrine disruption and stress in the livers of fish exposed to microplastic (Rochman et al., 2013 Sci Reports; Rochman et al., 2014 STOTEN). Still, evidence of demonstrated impacts above suborganismal levels remains extremely sparse, mainly demonstrating death to individual organisms. Causes of impact were mostly due to ingestion, followed by entanglement and smothering. The most common items reported to cause effects at the organism or assemblage levels were lost fishing gear and other items of plastic debris such as rope, bags, straws and degraded fragments. Interestingly, a recent study led by Ocean Conservancy and CSIRO determined that these same marine debris items are perceived to be among the most hazardous by experts in the field.

Perceived, tested and demonstrated impacts of debris. Rows in each matrix represent different levels of biological organization. Columns represent order-of-magnitude sizes of debris from smallest (left) to largest (right). Shading in the individual cells of the matrix represent the magnitude of a) perceived b) tested and c) demonstrated impacts of debris. White represents 0, light grey 1 – 5, grey 6 – 10, dark grey 11 – 20 and black > 21 impacts. Diamonds in matrix 2c correspond to cells where at least one impact has been demonstrated by correlative evidence. 

Although we conclude that the quantity and quality of research evaluating ecological impacts requires improvement for risk to ocean health to be determined with precision, scientists have generated a lot of evidence over the last several decades regarding widespread contamination and suborganismal impacts of marine debris. Thus, there is enough information for policy makers, non-governmental organizations and industry to work together, such as through the Trash Free Seas Alliance® to strategize ways to invoke positive change now while scientists continue to rigorously increase our understanding of the ecological consequences of debris on ocean health.

For more information, the entire article can be found here.

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The Future Ocean http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/10/20/future-oceans/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/10/20/future-oceans/#comments Tue, 20 Oct 2015 15:33:09 +0000 Anna Zivian http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10912

Ocean change is happening, and all of us who love and rely on the ocean are recognizing how important that is for our future. Ocean Conservancy recently participated in the Our Ocean conference in Chile, where global leaders convened to advance solutions to changes and threats to our ocean like illegal fishing, marine plastic pollution, and ocean acidification. Scientists, too, have been focusing on these challenging problems and responses to them. It is clear that if we are to confront the consequences of a changing ocean, we will need more and better science to anticipate these changes and respond proactively to protect the ocean’s future and our own.

The recently-released Nereus Program report, “Predicting Future Oceans: Climate Change, Oceans & Fisheries,” is a key tool for helping us do so. It lays out the key challenges in managing the ocean under climate change and also presents key strategies to address these challenges. Based on the latest scientific findings from innovative research on marine ecosystems and ocean governance, the Nereus report offers a short, easily-readable overview of current and future ocean phenomena and a guide on the actions needed to keep our ocean healthy and productive, especially with respect to fisheries and seafood production. The report highlights a large body of research from over 25 academic articles written or co-authored by global ocean experts affiliated with the Nereus Program.

Central to the report are seven main conclusions. The report states:

1. Due to CO2 emissions, changes in global ocean properties – particularly temperatures, acidity and oxygen levels – are occurring at a scale unprecedented in the last several thousands of years.

2. Climate change is expected to affect the oceans’ biological productivity — from phytoplankton to the top predators.

3. Climate change has already been affecting global marine ecosystems and fisheries, with further impacts expected given current trends in CO2 emissions.

4. Fishing exerts significant pressure on marine ecosystems globally – altering biodiversity and food web structures – and affects the ability of the international community to meet its sustainability goals.

5. The impacts of climate change interact with the existing problems of overfishing and habitat destruction, driven largely by excess fishing fleets, coastal development and market expansion.

6. Aquaculture is developing rapidly, with the potential to supersede marine capture fish supply. Yet, the full understanding of its impact, including its long-term ecological and social sustainability, is unclear.

7. Sustainable fisheries in the future require the further development and strengthening of international fisheries law, as well as the overarching international framework for ocean governance.

To address these challenges, the report recommends six strategies that can work in concert to improve ocean and socioeconomic health:

1. Bringing CO2 emissions under control.

2. Maintaining biodiversity, habitat and ecosystem structure.

3. Diversifying the “toolkit” for fisheries management.

4. Adopting economic systems that support sustainable practice.

5. Enhancing cooperation and coordination between international fisheries regulation and regulation of other maritime activities.

6. Ensuring equitable distribution and access for fishing in vulnerable communities.

At Ocean Conservancy, we know the ocean is critical to all life. Actionable and effective solutions require that we better understand and predict changes to our coasts and ocean. The Nereus Report is an important contribution to bringing the best, most relevant information to bear to protect, maintain, and restore healthy ocean ecosystems. It is especially relevant to our ongoing work at Ocean Conservancy; right now, for example, our fisheries and ocean planning programs are grappling with how multiple human-induced stressors affect ocean and fishery health. We are applying new tools and techniques in improved fishery management and smart ocean planning to ensure we can rely on and enjoy the ocean for years to come.

The future is coming to the ocean of today. We need to take action now to ensure we protect our future ocean. More science — like that in the Nereus Report — can help us do that.

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Inventing an “Easy Button” for Ocean Acidification Measurements http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/28/inventing-an-easy-button-for-ocean-acidification-measurements/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/28/inventing-an-easy-button-for-ocean-acidification-measurements/#comments Tue, 28 Jul 2015 15:30:10 +0000 Ryan Ono http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10554

Measuring ocean acidification is tough — we can’t see it, and we have to use specialized instruments to measure it properly. Scientists use specialized laboratories to make the most accurate chemistry measurements of deep ocean waters. Worse, even the most affordable instruments to get this data still costs tens of thousands of dollars. This makes life difficult for shellfish growers, marine resource managers, and decision-makers who are trying to monitor ocean acidification and protect businesses, fisheries and local communities.

But these measurement hurdles are shrinking. Over the past two years, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE has hosted a competition for teams to develop devices that could most accurately or affordably detect ocean acidification conditions. In these two categories, 77 very different teams comprised of surfers, teenagers, and the more predictable engineers and scientists from around the world entered the competition. This video chronicles one team’s struggle to meet the competition deadlines and pass the performance tests, as well as how excited engineers get when making complicated gizmos.

Finally on Monday, XPRIZE announced Sunburst Sensors of Missoula, Montana as the 1st place winner for their t-SAMI device in the accuracy category, and their i-SAMI device in the affordability category. Accuracy was judged by how close each device’s pH readings were to tests made with complicated lab equipment, and how consistent readings were over time. Each device was subjected to a battery of tests to measure pH in coastal waters and waters nearly two miles deep. Affordability was more straightforwardly judged: the device with the lowest manufacturing costs and all-around usability and accuracy took the prize (the i-SAMI costs less than $1,000 to make).

These advances in both accurately and affordably measuring pH may seem small, but it’s major progress. By comparison, the gold standard of ocean acidification monitoring requires a full-blown laboratory equipped with sensors that cost between $20,000 and $30,000 each. XPRIZE’s winning devices will really make it easier for scientists, managers, and businesses to better understand our ocean and what threatens it. That will directly help us make more smart decisions about how to protect the ocean and its creatures.

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Using Big Data to Restore the Gulf of Mexico http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/06/16/using-big-data-to-restore-the-gulf-of-mexico/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/06/16/using-big-data-to-restore-the-gulf-of-mexico/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 14:18:14 +0000 Libby Fetherston http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10325

If I ask you to close your eyes and picture “protection for marine species,” you might immediately think of brave rescuers disentangling whales from fishing gear.

Or maybe you would imagine the army of volunteers who seek out and protect sea turtle nests. Both are noble and worthwhile endeavors.

But 10 years of ocean conservation in the southeast United States has taught me that protecting marine species doesn’t just look like the heroic rescue of adorable species in need.

I’ve learned that it also looks like the screen of 1s and 0s from the movie The Matrix.

Let me explain.

Much of what goes on with marine life in the Gulf of Mexico—and much of the rest of the ocean—is too dark and distant to see and measure easily or directly. Whales and fish and turtles move around a lot. This makes it difficult to collect information on how many there are in the Gulf and how well those populations are doing.

In order to assess their health, you need to know where these marine species go, what they eat, why they spend time in certain areas (for food, shelter, or breeding?), and more. This information may come from a number of places—state agencies, universities, volunteer programs, you name it—and be stored in a number of different file formats.

Until recently, there was no real way to combine all of these disparate pixels of information into a coherent picture of, for instance, a day in the life of a sea turtle. DIVER, NOAA’s new website for Deepwater Horizon assessment data, gives us the tools to do just that.

Data information and integration systems like DIVER put all of that information in one place at one time, allowing you to look for causes and effects that you might not have ever known were there and then use that information to better manage species recovery. These data give us a new kind of power for protecting marine species.

Of course, this idea is far from new. For years, NOAA and ocean advocates have both been talking about a concept known as “ecosystem-based management” for marine species. Put simply, ecosystem-based management is a way to find out what happens to the larger tapestry if you pull on one of the threads woven into it.

For example, if you remove too many baitfish from the ecosystem, will the predatory fish and wildlife have enough to eat? If you have too little freshwater coming through the estuary into the Gulf, will nearby oyster and seagrass habitats survive? In order to make effective and efficient management decisions in the face of these kinds of complex questions, it helps to have all of the relevant information working together in a single place, in a common language, and in a central format.

A view of the many sets of Gulf of Mexico environmental data that the tool DIVER can bring together. (NOAA)

So is data management the key to achieving species conservation in the Gulf of Mexico? It just might be.

Systems like DIVER are set up to take advantage of quantum leaps in computing power that were not available to the field of environmental conservation 10 years ago. These advances give DIVER the ability to accept reams of diverse and seemingly unrelated pieces of information and, over time, turn them into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife.

The rising tide of restoration work and research in the Gulf of Mexico will bring unprecedented volumes of data that should—and now can—be used to design and execute conservation strategies with the most impact for ocean life in our region. Ocean Conservancy is excited about the opportunity for systems like DIVER to kick off a new era in how we examine information and solve problems.

This blog was originally published on NOAA’s Response and Restoration Blog.

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An 11-Billion Pound Plastic Gorilla is in Our Ocean http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/02/12/an-11-billion-pound-plastic-gorilla-is-in-our-ocean/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/02/12/an-11-billion-pound-plastic-gorilla-is-in-our-ocean/#comments Thu, 12 Feb 2015 19:01:16 +0000 Nick Mallos http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9827

Walk along a beach or waterway and you’re apt to see a food wrapper floating on the water or glimpse a beverage bottle made of plastic hovering near the shore. Read an article about the ocean gyres, the so-called “garbage patches,” and you’re likely to hear about the vast amounts of plastics that are polluting the seas.

Three years ago, researchers at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) set out to quantify – for the first time – the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from land-based sources.  Their research shows staggering results – with annual plastics inputs into the ocean exceeding 4.8 million tonnes and possibly as high as 12.7 million tonnes (approx. 11-26 billion pounds). Because the quantities are growing rapidly due to increases both in population and in plastics use, there may be as much as 250 million tons (550 billion pounds) of plastic in the ocean within another decade.  These findings were published today in the February issue of Science and provide more in-depth information about what is happening with plastics in the ocean.

Once plastics enter the marine environment they disperse across our global ocean. There is no one single entry point for ocean plastic pollution. In fact, the global problem is comprised of a myriad of local inputs from beaches and waterways around the world. But the recent research shows that the largest amounts of plastic in the ocean come from a relatively small number of rapidly developing economies. In fact, 83 percent of the plastic waste that is available to enter the ocean comes from just 20 countries; chief among them are China, Indonesia, and the Philippines with the United States rounding out the top 20. The economies where plastic inputs are greatest are those where population growth and plastics consumption is severely outpacing waste management capacity. In many of these geographies waste collection is simply nonexistent.

While the results of the study are daunting there is a silver lining:  the science  produced at NCEAS suggests that the tide of plastics entering the ocean can, indeed, be reversed. Solutions to the growing problem of plastic pollution are achievable, given sufficient resources and commitment.

Reduction in plastics use, especially of single-use disposable products, and recycling of plastics in developed countries can help to reduce the amount of plastic waste that enters the ocean. Catalyzing locally appropriate waste systems in rapidly growing and developing economies is also a critical strategy to turn the tide on ocean plastic pollution.

As a marine scientist working on the issue of marine debris, I have been humbled by the discovery of the scale and scope of plastic inputs to the ocean.  The time is now, however, to move from a place of problem admiration and move to a place of intervention.  And I am optimistic because these findings point to a solution.

Tackling the problem of plastic in the ocean begins on land and this research confirms that. By cutting in half mismanaged waste in the top 10 countries alone, we could reduce plastic waste by more than 30%. Ocean Conservancy and its Trash Free Seas Alliance are working with businesses to identify the most effective ways to do just this and support improved waste collection in these high priority countries.

Stopping the avalanche of plastic isn’t just good for the ocean – it’s good for the health, economics and well-being of the communities where the trash originates.

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Ocean Acidification Wrecks Sharks’ Smellovision http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/20/ocean-acidification-wrecks-sharks-smellovision/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/20/ocean-acidification-wrecks-sharks-smellovision/#comments Wed, 20 Aug 2014 21:06:23 +0000 Sarah Cooley http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9054

Scarier than any movie shark that can smell a drop of blood miles away (they can’t, by the way) is this week’s news about sharks’ sense of smell. A team of Australian and American scientists has just shown that smooth dogfishes (also called dusky smooth-hound sharks) can’t smell food as well after living in ocean acidification conditions expected for the year 2100. These “future” sharks could correctly track food smells only 15% of the time, compared to a 60% accuracy rate for unexposed sharks.  In fact, the acidification-exposed sharks even avoided food smells!

This surprising result is also pretty sobering, when you consider how important sharks’ sense of smell is to nearly everything they do. Sharks have especially large, complex “nose” organs, which help them find food, mates, and predators, as well as find their way around the oceans. Many sharks, including the smooth dogfish, are very active at night and in the deep, dark ocean, so their sense of smell provides critical information about their surroundings. The researchers note that the sharks’ damaged sense of smell is probably due to the same changes in neurotransmitters reported in coral reef clownfish (yes, Nemo) that love the smell of predators in an acidifying ocean.

Despite their mighty reputation, sharks are under threat from overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss. Sharks that also can’t find food or avoid predators will probably not survive long, causing even more trouble for shark populations. They grow and reproduce slowly, too, meaning that sharks that die young aren’t replaced quickly. Scientists still don’t know yet if the smooth dogfish can adapt over several generations to improve their odds against the ocean acidification we will see over the coming decades, but it doesn’t look good.

Smooth dogfishes live along coasts from Maine to Florida, around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and along the southeastern coast of South America. They might benefit somewhat from the actions that East Coast states like Maine and Maryland are taking against ocean acidification, but as species that migrate long distances, our best bet is to cut carbon dioxide emissions globally.

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