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Ocean Leaders You Know

“Leveraging omics for seagrass biology, management and restoration” – By Prof. Jeanine Olsen 2016

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 “Leveraging omics for seagrass biology, management and restoration”
– By Prof. Jeanine Olsen 2016

     Author: Kelcie L. Chiquillo

 

Seagrasses are a unique group of species that have returned to the sea from a freshwater ancestor. This is a rare event to be able to reinvade the salty seawater conditions from a terrestrial environment. Sequencing the genome of Zostera marina gives Olsen et al. a picture of how these organisms have evolved, since most plants cannot survive in a fully submerged, salty environments.

So how did they do it?

First they underwent a genome duplication around 65 – 70 million years ago. Genome duplications provide advantages to organisms where one set of genes will continue with cellular function and the other set can be used for adaptation and speciation. Olsen found 2 events where the “copia” genes—young, dominant genes associated with gaining new genes and gene modification– invaded the genome, possibly allowing for the adaptation of seagrasses to the marine environment.

Seagrasses have also gained genes called sulfotranferases, which facilitate the retention of water and ion homeostasis in the cell wall. They have increased the number of metallothiones (MTs) to resist stress and use late embryogenesis abundant (LEA) proteins to tolerate high salinities.

Contrastingly, seagrasses have lost the ability to protect themselves from UV light, and have lost phytochrome genes which are associated with red light sensing. This is not surprising since most seagrasses are subtidal and intertidal species and red light gets lost very quickly in very shallow water.

However, they did gain a light harvesting complex A (LHCA) and light harvesting complex B (LHCB) genes, which allows them to photosynthesize more efficiently.

Interestingly, all fresh water plants and seagrasses lack a stomata, but unlike fresh water plants– which contain stomata genes but are not expressed– seagrasses have completely lost the genes to build stomata, and in essence can never reinvade the terrestrial realm. For many terrestrial plants the stomata is a site for gas exchange, yet these pores can be vulnerable to pathogens, however terrestrial plants use volatile points of signaling as a defense mechanism. Yet, seagrasses have lost the volatile defense mechanism genes, for example the R genes– defense associated nucleotide binding type gene family—and turpinoids are highly reduced. Even parts of the ethylene pathway are gone, since the synthesis of EIN2 protein has disappeared. However, its interesting because seagrasses have retained the EIN3 protein which indicates that there may be an alternative signaling pathway for seagrasses to defend themselves.

As many of us are aware, seagrasses are in decline, yet are one of the most important ecosystems in the marine realm providing many functions and services to both marine organisms and humans. For example, seagrasses use sucrose synthase genes to sequester high amounts of carbon dioxide and store 90% of fixed carbon in the form of sucrose. Understanding Omics, or genomics, has given scientists a key insight into how genes play in certain traits. And we can use omics as a tool to jump start and restore seagrass beds, as well as identify warning indicators of threatened seagrass beds before the loss of shoots, counts and densities.

 

 

The Importance of Non-Partisan Science

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On Wednesday, NPR reported that research studies put out by the EPA may be subject to political review by the new administration on a “case by case basis.” This comes on the heels of a media blackout for federal agencies that deal with scientific information pertaining to our environment, including the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior. The administration also ordered the EPA to remove pages on its website dealing with climate change data and climate education. Which itself followed a (temporary) freeze by the administration on all EPA grants and contracts. And just yesterday, the administration declared that it will likely withdraw from the Paris Climate agreement as early as this week. With just over a week into his new job, the president has sent a clear, unnerving message to the scientific community: Politics will inform scientific research.

While the president’s handling of the EPA seems extreme, the EPA is a government agency and, unfortunately, is subject to partisan politics. But the more troubling aspect of the new Administration isn’t necessarily the restrictions it imposed on the EPA, but rather its seeming skepticism or complete disregard for the value of scientific research. Its refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of man-made climate change, its desire to subject EPA data and research to political review prior to release, and, yes, its Counselor’s use of the phrase “alternative facts” appear to reflect a fundamental mistrust of accepted truths. And while I acknowledge that, for better or worse, presidents mold government agencies to reflect their specific agendas, I cannot remember a president in recent memory who has tried so hard to discredit data shown to be accurate.

The potential case-by-case political review of EPA research is particularly unnerving, since a nonpartisan, peer-review of scientific literature prior to publication is critical to the advancement of science and technology. Any manuscript that has been published in a scientific journal goes through some form of peer-review, where the submission is distributed to a handful of subject matter experts throughout the world. These experts thoroughly examine the purpose, methods, results, conclusions, and cited literature within the manuscript to ensure that incomplete or inaccurate research does not make it to publication. If you know anyone who has gone through this process, they will tell you it can be tedious, frustrating, and even infuriating at times. However, research that successfully makes it through a peer-reviewed process is considered within the scientific community to be legitimate; it has withstood questioning and criticism, and can now be distributed to the scientists and inform future research. This practice of peer-review is a pillar of the global scientific community, including government agencies like the EPA. While it’s by no means flawless, peer-review adds a stamp of credibility to scientific research that is necessary for it to advance human understanding and improve our quality of life.

Inserting a separate, political, review process for research conducted by governmental agencies will chip away at that credibility. One can very easily imagine a scenario where scientifically-sound research is withheld or altered because it contradicts the current Administration’s policies. In fact, the EPA put forth a Scientific Integrity Policy in 2012 to protect the agency from such a scenario. What our president does not understand, though, is that the scientific process is not political. Science has no partisan affiliations, it is not Republican nor Democrat, left-wing or right-wing. Science has no agenda, and does not alter its outcomes to fit the ever-changing agendas of our government. The validity of rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific research is not dependent on a president’s endorsement. The consent of the governed, however, is a necessary prerequisite to implementing any scientifically-informed policy. If we as a country do not stand up for scientific research, we will find our nation’s laws and policies as equally misinformed as our president.

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Show Notes

The Plastics Problem Part 2

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Plastic consumption, for the most part, is a decision that the vast majority of people make in the span of about two seconds. The consumption of some SUPs, like plastic bags and straws, isn’t even really based pollution-1603644_1920on an actual decision. You’re just sort of given them, and retailers pretty much correctly assume that you don’t care strongly enough to refuse. They’re like pieces of swag from a professional conference, except shitty, awful for our planet, and just overall unlike pieces of swag. Now, it’s safe to assume that in order to make any long-term reductions in the amount of plastic we encounter, we’ll have to work from the consumer’s side of things. The plastics industry will be sure to address any sort of demand for plastic, but by eliminating that demand we can drastically reduce the amount of plastic in the supply chain. The question is: how do we eliminate that demand?

 

shopping-874974_1920Some folks, including the plastic industry itself, think the solution to the plastic pollution problem is more recycling. They argue that these items are 100% recyclable, and that by increasing the number of recycling locations and better educating the public we can negate any environmental impacts originating from large amounts of consumption. But saying that things like plastic bags are “100% recyclable” is a little misleading. According to cleanair.org, the cost of recycling one ton of plastic bags is about $4,000 while the product made from this recycled material brings in about a whopping $32. And this is a trend we see with other “recyclable” items as well, like your Starbucks cup. Calling plastic bags “100% recyclable” is like saying a koala is 100% capable of hammering out a dissenting opinion on United States v. Stevens. Sure it’s technically possible, but the chances of that ever happening are unfortunately negligible.

 

A few places across the globe have turned to the “angry parent” strategy, and placed plastic bags on top of the metaphorical refrigerator where consumers just can’t get to them. In many of these instances, though, city or state governments tend to see a rise in paper bag consumption coincide with plastic bag bans. We’ve seen this in Austin in 2013 and in Rwanda just five years prior. It may seem obvious in retrospect that restricting the availability of plastic bags will just force consumers to use more paper bags, but remember that the whole spirit of these laws is to encourage more responsible consumption regardless of bag material. And here’s where we get at the real heart of the issue, because as environmentally-damaging as plastics bags are, paper bags, under the right circumstances, aren’t much better. They require more energy to produce, after all, so trading 100 billion plastic bags for 100 billion paper ones actually increases rather than decreases our carbon footprint. In order to actually become more socially and environmentally-conscious consumers, we have to find more effective ways to reduce the number of bags we throw away. One strategy that appears to have worked so far is charging a fee at retail locations for bag usage. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when you realize that humans are what economists call “loss averse,” meaning we seek to prevent perceived losses more than we seek to acquire perceived gains. In practical terms, this is why a $0.05 bonus for re-using plastic bags in Washington D.C. had virtually no impact on consumer behavior while a $0.05 tax on plastic bags reduced demand for these items by over 50%. Plastic bag fees have reduced consumption by 78% in the U.K., 66% in China, and 94% in Ireland. And this drop isn’t necessarily related to significant financial losses. After all, we’re talking about a five – twenty-five cent fee in most cases. What the bag fees do, though, is disrupt the automatic behavior most shoppers experience when bagging their items.

 

Grabbing plastic bags at the grocery store is, after all, basically a habit for most people. Few of us carefully consider the pros and cons of using plastic bags vs. reusable bags, we just end up bag-less at the checkout line and grab the items that are freely available to us. And that’s an important distinction to make, because our brains handle habit reinforcement differently than it handles calculated, complex decision-making. Now, I’m not a behavioral psychologist or a neurologist. I am, however, a concerned stakeholder seeing as how I have a brain and I occasionally use it to make decisions. I subsequently decided to use my brain to examine how brains make decisions in order to empower you to train your brain and decide which decisions your brain will actually decide upon. Our minds are extremely complex, so it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific region of the brain that is solely responsible for a given behavior. Often times, you have multiple lobes or cortexes all providing input on a single action. However, research into habits and addictions indicate that the basal ganglia plays a greater role in these types of “automatic” behaviors than it does in more calculated, thought-out decisions. In instances requiring careful thought, the prefrontal cortex takes center stage as it carefully weighs the costs and benefits. But habitual decisions? Your wrinkly gray matter delegates that shit to the deep-brain basal ganglia, a region that spends most of its time influencing voluntary motor skills, motivation, and emotions. On the surface it makes sense, transferring habitual decisions to a different part of your brain frees up the prefrontal cortex to do other tasks while you’re going about your routine. This organizational structure is the reason I can confidently rap my way through the entire Hamilton soundtrack while driving to work, a behavior that I am very grateful for. It does become a problem, though, when you’re trying to break bad habits or snap out of routine behaviors (like grabbing plastic bags at the checkout line). You can’t always rationalize or think your way out of them, because the region of your brain responsible for executive functioning no longer governs these actions.

 

So, what can you do then? Well, a good first step is simply understanding the mechanics behind this decision-making process. Once you understand that habitual behaviors like plastic bagging are just a cue-action-reward process that your brain automates so you can think about the best way to keep your beer from crushing your fruit, it becomes a lot easier to alter that behavior. After all, though your brain lets the basal ganglia handle most of these automatic decisions, it doesn’t take the prefrontal cortex completely out of the loop. But let’s admit that, for some folks out there, just understanding this process won’t result in a new behavior. Maybe they want to move away from single-use plastic bags, but not today. After all, Game of Thrones comes on soon and if you miss the first five minutes you’ve probably missed the introduction of 73 new characters that will become vital to the story. To these people, I say get the hell out of here. Literally. Go on a vacation. Or start shopping at a different grocery store. Studies have shown that changing up your physical environment makes it much easier to change up your habits as well. Cues or triggers for these habits can be something as simple as the layout of your regular grocer’s checkout line, or the nervous clicking sound the cashier’s nails make as they try and find the product code for your hakurei turnips. By physically changing your environment, you can disrupt or eliminate these triggers and develop different habits. Notice how I didn’t say “break bad habits;” research has also suggested that the best way to remove negative habitual behaviors is to substitute one habit for another. So, instead of simply trying to cut out plastic bags from your trip to the grocery store, how about you try and double check before you leave the house that you have a couple reusable bags in your trunk. Or, every time you get to the checkout counter, say out loud “I’ve got my own bags for these.” These practices can, in turn, become new habits to replace your old one. You could also develop what behavioral psychologists call “implementation intentions.” These specific, “if-then” statements can help change habits by verbalizing a straightforward method for changing certain behaviors. To make these even more effective, tell your friends and family about exactly how you plan on reducing your plastic consumption so they can help keep you honest. I’ve listed some ideas below for some great implementation intentions that your loved ones can help out with:

  • Every time you bring new plastic bags home, your Mom gets to ask you how your ex is doing
  • Each plastic bag you bring home means another $5 from your checking account goes to Donald Trump’s Campaign Fund
  • Each time you forget your reusable bags at home, your friend posts another one of your high school photos on social media
  • If you send us a photo of you using your reusable bags at the store, we’ll put you on our leaderboard for our monthly SUFB swag giveaway

 

Now, as helpful as friends and family can be at helping you work towards a goal, they are no substitute for individual diligence.  Research on behavioral change through implementation intentions have shown that, when all is said and done, the individual is responsible for their own long-term behavioral changes.  So yes, it is hard work to alter these habits and significantly cut down on your plastic consumption. That being said, addressing the consumer side of things is the only guaranteed way to ensure that less plastic ends up making its way into our oceans. Now, there’s really no reason this needs to be a one-sided campaign; a society that can spend $814 million making the Fast and the Furious franchise can also afford to finance consumer-savvy recycling public awareness campaigns, better waste management systems, innovative market-based solutions to incentivize greater recycling capabilities in both low-income and developed nations, and socially-responsible product design. But those things probably won’t happen until we as consumers change our behaviors and use less plastic. And by reducing our plastic consumption, advocating for more responsible product designs, and financing responsible market systems, we can begin to develop a global consumer culture capable of restoring and protecting the 75% of our planet that we so often neglect. Addressing plastic pollution is not the end goal, it’s just one piece of a larger mission. Cutting out single-use plastics from our societies will do nothing to expand habitat protection in the high seas, combat overfishing, or inject politicians and world leaders with a healthy dose of scientific literacy. Even our current solutions to the plastic pollution problem are imperfect; they largely speak from the perspective of a developed western economy, and suggest remedies that may not be applicable for low-income or developing nations across the globe. What this is, then, is the beginning of a longer journey towards a healthier planet. Drastically reducing our reliance on plastics is just the start, but it is a good start. After all, there are few things humans use more of than plastics.

 

 

  • As many policies as can be developed, it’s going to come down to individual consumer behavior
  • http://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/pft/2015/11/23/do-bag-fees-affect-consumer-behavior
    • Certainly can use better product design, better communication and awareness campaigns, better market incentives to recycle and capture all forms of plastic as well for both consumers and manufacturers
    • http://www.5gyres.org/blog/8460
  • As marine scientists, all we can do is work on ways to better encourage this behavior, clean up what is currently in our oceans using new technologies, advocate for prevention, and do more research to better equip us with knowledge to combat it
  • It’s as much a behavioral psychology issue and corporate social responsibility as it is a political, economic, or scientific issue.

 

Most of our single-use plastic (SUP) consumption doesn’t stem from carefully budgeted and thought-out purchasing decisions. After all, when was the last time you took some a few minutes to decide that a three dollar bottle of liquid, which is free at practically every legitimate establishment, was a smart way to spend your money? No, they’re usually the result of a split-second “sure why not” decision. This is especially true for SUPs that are typically just given to consumers, like plastic straws and plastic shopping bags. Acquiring these items doesn’t even necessitate a decision on your part; you literally just have to stand/sit there and accept what the nice person gives you.

The Plastics Problem

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There are few things humans use more of than plastics. These days, it’s practically impossible to go a whole day without using something made of plastic. In fact, I’m writing this article about plastic on a laptop with a plastic keyboard cover at a coffee shop that I drove to in a car (partially) made of plastic in front of a Christmas tree that I bet is made of a combination of plastic and fake joy. Plastic is everywhere, and for good reason: it’s an incredible material. It’s cheaper to manufacture than wood or metal-based products, it’s extremely light, and can be manipulated into practically any shape. Much like T-Swift or a well caffeinated Nate, there are few things it can’t do.

The problem though isn’t what plastic can’t do; it’s what plastic won’t do. And in this article I’m going to discuss just how devastating plastic can be when it’s not managed properly. Though many plastics are recyclable, the national plastic recycling rate is 31%. I’ll come back to this figure, but that means we actually reuse only one out of every four plastic items that could be reused. The other 69% usually ends up in landfills and oceans, but more on that later. The large majority of discarded plastic items are “single-use plastics” (SUPs). These materials, though capable of being recycled, are created and sold with the assumption that they’ll be discarded after just one or two uses. Straws, grocery bags, and bottles are three of the most common SUPs, and it is practically impossible to go a single day without seeing someone use one of them. Now, I’m not necessarily advocating for multi-use straws. After all, what would you do if you had to use a straw that had been previously dipped in something disgusting, like Moxie? There’s no amount of Listerine and good environmental karma that could get rid of that taste. Good luck trying to put your life back together after that experience with rock bottom. It is worth noting, however, that recycling centers began accepting many commonly used plastic items for either recycling or downcycling in the late 1980s, and after more than 25 years the U.S. has a plastic recycling rate of 31%. Rarely is that score indicative of any type of success.

When you apply that recycling rate to the quantity of single-use plastics manufactured and sold throughout the country, you get some staggering figures. Americans use approximately 500 million straws per day. If every single person in the U.S. used one of these straws in a hypothetical “national straw day”, you would have more than 150 million straws left over. The United States uses almost 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year, I assume to carry all of the extra straws to the closest dumpster. You may think that we’d do a little better with plastic bottles, the poster-children of the recycling movement. Or maybe you’re an astute reader and would guess, based on the overall direction this article is taking, that the news isn’t quite that good. I can’t be sure. The fact is, the United States purchases 50 billion plastic bottles each year. I would say that’s about 155 bottles per person, but that statistic would be misleading because there is no way children under the age of four use plastic bottles at all. There’s a reason you don’t see Dasani water bottles making appearances on Yo Gabba Gabba, there’s no target audience for that type of marketing strategy.

This amount of consumption can easily become routine when the associated costs are hidden to the general public. The fact remains though that these SUPs aren’t free. A single straw costs anywhere between 0.3 to 1.5 cents; Plastic bottles, around 2.7 cents. At some point from production to consumption, Americans are paying $1.5 million and $1.3 billion each year to use straws and plastic bottles, respectively. That’s a lot of money for items that are discarded after one or two uses. Still, if SUPs were just another item that we wastefully spend money on, that would be one thing. The problem is they aren’t just an expensive habit; SUPs are a very real threat to our ocean’s health.

When you combine how much plastic this country uses each year with our average recycling rate, you could get a pretty good estimate of the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills. As I mentioned earlier though, landfills aren’t always the final stop for these plastics. A lot of these actually end up running off into our oceans, where they spend the next few decades or centuries wreaking havoc on our marine ecosystems and coastal economies.

That phrase is not hyperbole; ocean plastic is incredibly common and harmful for the marine community. Though it’s difficult to put an exact number on it, researchers estimate that there are approximately 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans. These fragments contain many additives that are toxic when ingested, including Bisphenol- A, (a monomer found in plastic bottles that can disrupt hormonal functioning in large doses), polychlorinated biphenyls (widely used in electrical manufacturing) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (found in fossil fuel byproducts). Now, this wouldn’t be much of an issue if plastic looked like a pile of unappetizing garbage to everything in the ocean. Unfortunately that’s not the case, as plastic resembles the primary prey item for many marine animals. Zooplankton mistake microplastics and nurdles, which are small, transparent plastics, for phytoplankton. Fish mistake plastic fragments for zooplankton. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. In an environment where chemical and sound recognition are often more important than good eyesight, it’s no wonder so many marine organisms die with plastic in their stomachs.

But it’s not just animals with poor eyesight that suffer death by plastic. Many shorebirds mistake floating plastic for fish, and risk suffocation or poison as a consequence. It’s estimated that plastic pollution contributes to the death of one million sea birds and at least 100,000 marine mammals each year. That is a staggering number, one that is upsetting from both an ethical and an economic perspective. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re more concerned with the sanctity of each animal life or with the supply of our billion dollar fishing industry and our growing ecotourism industry; plastic pollution is a crippling problem that is only going to get worse unless we do something about it.

So where do we go from here? Well, the first step is to inspire people to take action, and people are only going to take action for a cause they care about. This is why you see so many nonprofits and environmental organizations distributing literature on the harmful impacts of plastic in our oceans and ways to reduce your individual impact. One way to rally support for a cause like this is to overwhelm people with hard, uncompromising statistics. You could say that it would take about $5 billion to address a problem that is costing us $13 billion each year in the United States alone. You could also show folks how plastic pollution is costing coastal communities millions of dollars each year in lost tourism revenue and clean up efforts. With this knowledge, combined with the figures I mentioned earlier on the cost of plastic consumption, addressing plastic pollution just seems like a good investment. Still, there are those who won’t change their behavior unless they are emotionally invested in a cause. Well, here’s a powerful video of some researchers removing a plastic straw from an injured sea turtle’s nostril. Here’s another video of the same team removing a plastic fork from another sea turtle. There are plenty of images showing plastic-filled stomachs of shore birds and articles detailing whales dying with plastic in their stomachs. You would think that with all of the biological and economic data we have on this problem, combined with the images and videos out there that tug at the heartstrings, we would start to see a dip in the number of plastics in our oceans. Unfortunately, we’re seeing the exact opposite. So why is this? Why, despite all of the information that is out there advocating for more responsible plastic usage, do people still consume and discard these items at such an extremely high rate in the U.S.? It all has to do with how we make impulse decisions and build habitats.

  • The numbers above give you and idea of how much plastic we use, and how much we actually recycle. The rest goes into landfills, and a lot of those in landfills ends up in the ocean
  • Plastic in the ocean is bad for a number of reasons
    • First, breaks down very slowly. This means there’s a bunch of it in the ocean and it will only ever accumulate
    • Second, physically bad since it can get lodged in throats, tangle mammals
    • Third, chemically toxic if ingested (and looks like food)
    • Fourth, traps more heat so contributes to warming
    • Fifth, collects on beaches
  • How can we address ithalm-1633744_1920
    • Emotionally, I could show videos of sea turtles with plastic forks and straws, images of sea turtles eating plastic, images of seals trapped in debris, birds stomachs with plastic
    • Logically, I could tell you that it would take $5 billion to clean up plastic in the ocean which conservatively costs about $13 million in damages, SUPs in general are a huge waste of money, significant way of cutting down on rising sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, and way of incentivizing better recycling technology or methods for using old plastic
    • Cutting down on plastic pollution long term is always going to come down to one key point: how do we get people to stop buying so much of it
    • Recycling is a problem, but will be difficult to address right away
      • It’s not economically feasible to recycle many plastic materials
    • We could educate people better to recycle, what can be recycled and what can’t
    • It’s more about reuse though than recycling
      • Plastic bans don’t work, people will just consume something else at the same rate
      • Taxes could work as negative reinforcement to not use so many plastic bags
      • Individual behaviors could change
        • lots of psychology on how to attack habits and get a change in behavior
        • habits are born from and encouraged by the basal ganglia, the part of your brain responsible for processing emotions and memories and pattern recognition
          • sends your prefrontal cortex (logical thinking) into autopilot
        • what we know that can be applied to plastic consumption
          • just understanding this process has been shown to help people break habits
          • mostly individual with outside support, incentives and outside assistance can only help so much: it comes down to discipline
          • good news is there are ways to trick yourselves into being more disciplined
          • starting new routines on vacation or in new settings can help break habits
          • it’s never too late to change behaviors
          • specific if-then plans can help goal attainments
        • As many policies as can be developed, it’s going to come down to individual consumer behavior
        • As marine scientists, all we can do is work on ways to better encourage this behavior, clean up what is currently in our oceans, and do more research to better equip us with knowledge to combat it
        • It’s as much a behavioral psychology issue as it is a political, economic, or scientific issue.

 

Plastic is a very common and very dangerous item for marine predators. Researchers estimate that there are approximately 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, a number made possible by the fact that plastic doesn’t break down. The very reason plastic is such a great material economically is one of the reasons it’s so harmful to our natural ecosystems. It’s not the only reason though. Ocean plastics contain many additives that are toxic when ingested, including Bisphenol- A, (a monomer found in plastic bottles that can disrupt hormonal functioning in large doses), polychlorinated biphenyls (widely used in electrical manufacturing) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (found in fossil fuel byproducts). Now, this wouldn’t be much of an issue if plastic looked like a pile of unappetizing garbage to everything in the ocean. Unfortunately that’s not the case, as plastic resembles the primary prey item for many marine animals. Zooplankton mistake microplastics and nurdles, which are small, transparent plastics, for phytoplankton. Fish mistake plastic fragments for zooplankton. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. In an environment chemical and sound recognition are often more important than good eyesight, it’s no wonder so many marine organisms die with plastic in their stomachs.

But the cost doesn’t stop at consumption. Just a couple years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council put our a report claiming that in California alone, $428 million per year is being spent to prevent plastic litter from becoming pollution. Without efforts like California’s, plastic trash will ultimately empty out into our oceans. Once there, it creates a whole new suite of problems that are much trickier to address. A second report headed up by the Ocean Conservancy and put out just a few months ago determined that it would cost around $5 billion to clean up all of the plastic in the ocean.

So why would we even bother? Why spend billions of dollars to clean up something that you probably see only a couple times a year, if you’re lucky? After all, how bad can plastic be for the ocean?

Pretty damn bad.

Sea Turtles: Experts Meet To Discuss Saving Iconic Species

By | Ocean Leaders You Know | 3 Comments

 

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This past week sea turtle researchers and conservationists from around the globe flocked to Baltimore, Maryland for the 33rd Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation hosted every year by the International Sea Turtle Society (ISTS). This event combines different disciplines and cultures with a common goal of protecting sea turtles.

The theme of this year’s symposium was “Connections” which seems appropriate as sea turtles unknowingly connect us all. They connect the ocean to the land, they connect people to the ocean they call their home, they rally people to protect beaches they lay their eggs on, and most importantly they connect scientists and sea turtle fanatics from around the globe. The symposium not only included research talks, discussions and debates but focused on community outreach, opening the doors to the public to share information about sea turtles found in the Chesapeake Bay and environmental issues effecting the watershed.

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We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Wallace J Nichols, AKA J,(left) a passionate scientist, activist, community organizer, author and dad, about the event. His achievements include a myriad of published scientific papers, founding/codirecting Ocean Revolution, SEE the WILD,  and LIVBlue among many other things. With an interest in the innovative and emerging field of neroconservation, he hopes to change the way scientists communicate with the public to more effectively protect our planet for the future!

SUFB:What was your role in the 33rd Annual International Sea Turtle Symposium?

J: I’m a past President and board member of the ISTS, but still play lots of small roles with the society and at the symposium. But this is the kind of conference where the majority of people attending take up some volunteer effort or other to make it all work. That one quality of our society that gives our symposia a bit of a family reunion feeling. Everybody pulls together.

This year, our president, Dr. Ray Carthy, chose “Connections” as the theme. It was brilliant as throughout the week all the ways sea turtles connect ocean and terrestrial ecosystems, connect people to nature and connect us to each other were repeatedly highlighted.

SUFB:Favorite exhibitor?

J: I had the pleasure to meet with and speak at length with the people supporting the sea turtle project in Tecolutla, Veracruz, Mexico. A group of volunteers from Philadelphia who have fallen in love with sea turtles and the people who protect them in Mexico and do everything they can to support this particular project. You can find out more about them and see a short film about Fernando “Papa Tortuga” Manzano.

The truth is that these days there are literally thousands of projects around the world working quietly and tirelessly, day and night, over the span of decades to make sure our future includes plenty of sea turtles. Every time I stop and think on that a bit I get deeply inspired.

SUFB:Favorite part of event?

J: Hugging my fellow turtle geeks.

And saying “see you in New Orleans next year”, knowing I will.

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SUFB:Did you learn anything new?

J: This year the symposium invited Dr. Elena Mustakova Possardt to speak and lead a workshop on emotional resilience. It was a tremendous addition to the ISTS and quite overdue. Conservation work can be heavy, stressful and thankless for long stretches. That causes stress and burnout. If we who work on the front lines as a voice for the ocean burn out, that’s bad. We need to stay strong, be resilient. Neuropsychology offers some insights into how to do that. I think ALL conservation meetings should include this neuroconservation theme at some level.

269239_10151466470301672_1952291347_nSUFB:With your research on neuroconservation, I would like to know your take on the Ray Lewis ad for Visa and corresponding article in Sports illustrated.

J: My plan is to get Ray Lewis out on the beach with his family and put some baby turtles in their hands, snorkel with sea turtles, walk the beach at night and show them some nesting female turtles and add a tribal turtle tattoo to his collection. I’ll let you know how that goes!

SUFB: What can you tell our readers about the take home message of the symposium?

J: Our President, Ray Carthy, did a fantastic job this year. He chose a great theme that resonated for scientists, conservationists and volunteers. This year there were more hugs than usual, and as a result more oxytocin. The neurochemical that promotes connections in humans (and egg laying in turtles). So, for me the take home message was the reminder that we should be sure oxytocin is in our conservation toolbox.

SUFB:What is your best advice for a young scientist looking to get into the field of Sea Turtle Conservation?

J: We did a “speed chatting” session again this year where scientists with a few years under their belts get to chat with students and others with questions or ideas to share. The overwhelming sense I got from those few dozen short conversations is that young scientists are looking to do work that matters.

The advice I gave all revolved around connecting with the people, not just the sea turtles, that you work near. Whether they are shrimpers in Louisiana or coastal residents in Costa Rica. Also the importance of staying, committing and working for a decade in a place and with specific people if you hope to experience the fruits of your work. The academic/esearch system isn’t really designed to do that, with the normal cycles of grants and degree-getting, so it takes some assertive effort.

SUFB:What can the average person do to help save the Sea Turtles?

J: There are no average people. And everyone is connected to the ocean, wherever they are. The ocean is downstream of our entire economy. Other than that, I really don’t like to answer this question. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know what you can do for sea turtles. Do it.

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Overall it seems the symposium was a great reunion for the turtle geeks of the world, filled with hugs, sharing of information, strategy and even emotional hardships. After reading an article about the previous years symposium (written by a first timer) it seems turtle conservationists are a tight knit global community with one mission, save the sea turtles! Surely a symposium that should not be passed up in the future if you conduct sea turtle research, volunteer work, activism, conservationism or just plain love sea turtles!

You can watch Dr. Wallace J Nichols TEDx talk on Exploring our Blue Mind here!

Do you have any questions about Sea Turtles and their protection/what you can do to help? Feel free to share them in our comments section and we will do our best to answer them! Chances are you aren’t the only one with that question!

 

Paul Watson: love him or hate him?

By | Ocean Leaders You Know | 13 Comments

Sea Shepherd Society Anti-WhalingPaul Watson is one of those people that you either love or totally hate. This Canadian born activist (Toronto, 1950) worked with Greenpeace, but he didn’t fit in their nonviolence ambiance, so he was expelled in 1977. That year, he founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society under the name Earth Force Society. This is one of the most popular environmental organizations, due to their aggressive and direct attitude against anyone who are causing damage to our oceans. They have four ships and several smaller vessels, and their actions can go from throwing objects against other ships to directly boarding them. Sometimes, they intercept whaling vessels, which means that they crash their own vessels against them. Because of this behavior, they are often called eco-terrorists.

 Paul Watson Sea Shepherd Society

Let’s get back to Paul Watson, shall we. This man has a life that looks like a movie. One of the most important actions of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is against whaling, so they have a lot of enemies among the authorities of the countries with benefits in this industry, like U.S.A, Japan, Norway,… Whaling is illegal all over the world, but it is legal if it’s for “scientific purposes“. So, you know, they can sell the whales after their supposed scientific experiments. To confront whaling vessels, they disabled some of them at harbor, or throw bottles with butyric acid to their decks, for example. They were confronting illegal actions by destroying millions in marine equipment, by doing more illegal actions.Sea Shepherd Rams boat Owning to those actions, Paul Watson has been arrested and convicted more than once, for assaulting a police officer in Canada, for attempting to sink a whaling vessel in Norway… but the worst came recently.

Japan has always had Paul on their bullseye because of his damage not only to their vessels but to their industry (for example, in 2006 Watson pursued a Japanese whaling fleet over 4,000 miles along the Antarctic coastline, so in 2010 Japan obtained an arrest warrant against him, and the Interpol listed him as wanted.

Last May he was finally arrested in Germany after arriving in Frankfurt for a layover. But he wasn’t arrested because of Japan. He was arrested because he was also being pursued by the government of Costa Rica. They blamed him for an altercation in 2002 during the filming of the documentary “Sharkwater” involving a vessel, which was illegally shark finning in Guatemala. The crew in the vessel told the authorities that the members of the Sea Shepherd tried to kill them. At first, Watson’s charges were dismissed because of their films, but shortly afterwards, another prosecutor rescued the investigation and charged Watson with attempted murder. So Paul was arrested by the German authorities and being held for extradition to Costa Rica on attempted murder charges. He was released on bail for $250,000, but he had to report to police in Frankfurt everyday. And so he did…Until July 2012.

In June, Costa Rica officially asked for his extradition from Germany, so he ran away. It needs to be said that Watson’s charges will expire in June 2013, so they are in a hurry to catch him. The reason of his escape? Sea Shepherd thinks that once in Costa Rica, it would be easier for the Japanese government to catch him and judge him in Japan. Later, it was published that Japan submitted an extradition request to Germany three days before Watson’s escape, so it made it clear that his enemy were the Japanese authorities.

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Watson it’s still missing, although he is still speaking through the press and the social media via other Sea Shepherd members. He has over him two “red notices” from the Interpol, as a request of Costa Rica and Japan (this one since last September). This means that every country member of the Interpol is requested to look for him and arrest him if possible. This January, a fleet of Sea Shepherds ships visited New Zealand on their way to the Southern Ocean, and among them was the Steve Irwin, which Paul Watson captains, but he wasn’t on board. It is said that he switched to another boat (the Brigitte Bardot) in international waters, before they arrived to port. But he wasn’t listed as a crew member on any boat. Later, Watson himself said that he was shocked about the New Zealand’s cooperation with Japan.

Do you think Paul Watson and the Sea Sheppard Conservation Society are doing the right thing to protect the Ocean? Speak your mind!

Baby Sea Turtle Saved from a Fishing Net

Looking into the eyes of a sea turtle

By | Ocean Leaders You Know | One Comment

“How do you stay positive when so many turtles are dying on a daily basis”? asked one of the Earthwatch volunteers. I paused for a second and contemplated a contrived answer. But then I told her the truth: “I cry myself to sleep most nights”, I said softly.

I’ll never forget the last field season of my masters research at Laguna San Ignacio, a small, magical bay located off the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. I went there to track the fine scale movements of sea turtles, my dream job, but quickly found myself marking and counting hundreds of dead turtles in the span of a few weeks. The turtles were drowning after becoming entangled in gillnets. They eventually drown when the tide rises above the buoys at the top of the net, which is anchored to the bottom. Fishing was particularly good that summer, which meant lots of dead turtles.

Sea Turtle Tagging At Night in MexicoI remember vividly the first night it really hit me. We were out tracking turtles and came across a fisher’s gillnet. We checked the length of the net for turtles but didn’t find any. Even though I was exhausted, I didn’t sleep that night. I listened to the waves as they gently and ceaselessly hit the shore. The time that elapsed between each successive wave seemed like an eternity. Eventually, I could hear the waves right up against our cottage. It was high tide. The net was underwater. I wish I had a switch that would have allowed me to deactivate my imagination, but I didn’t. The following morning we retuned to the area where we found the net, and there were two floating turtles nearby – dead. “What a shame,” my dad muttered to himself. I was silent. I couldn’t find the words to express my sadness. Perhaps they didn’t exist.

I had counted and marked dead turtles before – my first time in Baja – but this was different. These weren’t shells or fragments of bone and shell. These were turtles that were alive 24 hours earlier. I could look into their eyes.

They were trapped as I slept.

You would think that eventually one would get used to seeing dead turtles on a daily basis. The brain has a coping mechanism for dealing with sadness. Take the daily news for example. But I never got used to it.

Baby Sea Turtle Saved from a Fishing Net One morning a fisherman unexpectedly brought me a small turtle he had found alive in his net. We named her “Bujia Bebe” (baby spark-plug). She was the smallest and most beautiful turtle I had ever seen. Her bright white bottom shell (plastron) and flippers indicated that she had recently arrived at the lagoon from years of drifting with the currents in Sargassum seaweed mats somewhere far offshore in the Pacific Ocean. I tracked Bujia Bebe for five days – she covered the entire lagoon – moving farther and faster than any other turtle I had tracked. Then, in an instant, she disappeared. But she left me with something far more valuable than any amount of data: hope.

I asked my close friend and colleague Dr. Wallace J. Nichols about this hope/despair dichotomy, as he’s counted thousands of dead turtles in Baja over the decades and, like me, has tracked some live turtles to their death. A decade earlier Nichols tracked the first sea turtle across the Pacific Ocean from Baja to Japan. Her name was Adelita and just before completing her transpacific journey she was captured by a fishing boat. Her last GPS reading came from a fishing dock in Japan.

“Pour yourself into finding solutions,” he said. “And pay special attention to the joyful moments.” I never forgot that.

Fast-forward three years to the present. This past March, my collaborators from Grupo Tortuguero, NOAA, and I received a grant from the Walton Family Foundation and NOAA for me to return to Baja California to conduct my PhD research on developing and testing modified fishing gear that aims to greatly reduce the incidental capture (termed “bycatch”) of sea turtles while maintaining catch rates of fish species that fishers are trying to catch.

Specifically, I will be testing the effects of illuminating gillnets by placing LED lights along the net. The idea is simple – turtles can pick up certain wavelengths that some fish cannot, allowing them to see the net and hopefully avoid it while fishers still catch fish. My research will take place at Bahia Magdalena – coincidently – the very place along the Baja California peninsula where I started my sea turtle research 8 years ago. I’ll be working with a gillnet fishing fleet that has one of the highest documented sea turtle bycatch rates on the planet.

Over the years I’ve become fairly proficient at calming a live sea turtle. I grew up keeping and breeding turtles as a kid, and have found that what usually works for a box turtle also usually works for a sea turtle. I place both my hands gently in a small area between their neck and jaw and hold it there ever so slightly for a few seconds, and then slowly rub the top of their head in a circular motion. I always make sure to look into their eyes. There is something magical about looking into a sea turtle’s eyes that can’t be sufficiently described by words. It needs to be experienced.

Hopefully, this time around all eyes will be looking back at me.