Valérie Chamberland swims like a dolphin, quickly and fluidly, and for most of the past hour she has been darting through the warm, shallow water off the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Now, she is dangling upside down, hovering above a pillow-sized brain coral. Her rubber fins twitch steadily overhead, and as she sips air from the aluminum tank on her back, a stream of bubbles rises from her regulator’s mouthpiece.
The reef spread below Chamberland isn’t one of those flashy, fluorescent gardens seen in calendar photos and nature documentaries. Only a few dozen yards from shore, it lies almost literally in the shadows of a stone jetty, a busy casino, and a Denny’s restaurant. The waters that surround it are murky, and most of its corals are brown and lumpy, sparsely accessorized with bright-purple vase sponges and waving, rusty-red sea fans. Continue reading
Thanks to Christina Caron for this story that raises important questions about an awesome-sounding technology. Best to first read from The Ocean Cleanup website, and if you have been following the stories we pay attention to you will understand how we might get hooked on the idea:
Ocean garbage patches are vast and dispersed
Ocean currents concentrate plastic in five areas in the world: the subtropical gyres, also known as the world’s “ocean garbage patches”. Once in these patches, the plastic will not go away by itself. The challenge of cleaning up the gyres is the plastic pollution spreads across millions of square kilometers and travels in all directions. Covering this area using vessels and nets would take thousands of years and cost billions of dollars to complete. How can we use these ocean currents to our advantage?
THE IMPACT OF CLEANUP
Our models indicate that a full-scale system roll-out could clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years.
Research shows the majority of plastic by mass is currently in the larger debris. By removing the plastic while most of it is still large, we prevent it from breaking down into dangerous microplastics.
Combining the cleanup with source reduction on land paves the road towards a plastic free ocean by 2050.
The story in the New York Times raises important questions, not least of which is that Peter Thiel is involved:
…But the ocean can be unpredictable, and simulation models are no guarantee of future performance.
“There’s worry that you can’t remove the plastic without removing marine life at the same time,” said George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy. “We know from the fishing industry if you put any sort of structure in the open ocean, it acts as a fish-aggregating device.” Continue reading
Thanks to Veronique Greenwood for this:
Diminutive bonnethead sharks are the first omnivorous sharks known to science, which could change our understanding of what some sharks eat.
Sharks are not known for their taste for greenery. But at least one species of shark enjoys a salad of sea grass as well as the prey it hunts.
The bonnethead shark, a diminutive species that reaches up to 3 feet in length, lives in the shallow sea grass meadows off both coasts of the Americas. It eats small squid and crustaceans ferreted from the swaying underwater fronds. But, researchers who have carefully monitored everything going in and out of captive bonnetheads say in a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that they also eat large quantities of seagrass. The grass isn’t just passing inertly through the sharks’ guts. They extract nutrition from it just as they do from the meaty portion of their diet. These sharks must, therefore, be reclassified as omnivores — the first omnivorous sharks known to science. Continue reading
This National Public Radio (USA) story led us to the video above, and then the source website, where we discovered several initiatives that are worth a closer look:
Ocean action: In 2017, Carmel-by-the-Sea’s City Council voted to require that restaurants stop using single-use plastic straws and utensils and instead provide only compostable to-go serviceware—and only upon request. The law took effect in the spring of 2018. The impetus came from a group of fifth-grade students from Carmel River Elementary School. They spoke at community forums and Carmel City Council meetings to advance the idea. Mayor Steve Dallas later credited them with playing a pivotal role in getting the ordinance enacted. “When it finally passed, the students were ecstatic,” says teacher, Niccole Tiffany, of her students. “It was a big lesson on the power of kids’ voices in actively creating change.” (Read more of her story here)
Thanks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for programs that inspire local citizens, especially youth, to environmental activism like this:
Ocean action: Shelby O’Neil, a high school student from San Juan Bautista, created a successful campaign called “No Straw November,” asking people to pledge not to use plastic straws for one month. She’s earned national exposure through the Martha Stewart Living magazine and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. She convinced Alaska Airlines to ditch plastic straws and toothpicks on all its flights (a story picked up by Fortune magazine). Shelby was even flown to the headquarters of Delta Airlines to promote her campaign; spoke at Dreamforce, the annual user conference hosted by Salesforce.com in San Francisco; and won unanimous California Coastal Commission support for “No Straw November.” But she didn’t stop there. “For a Girl Scout Gold Award, I created a nonprofit called Jr Ocean Guardians,” says Shelby, “teaching younger schoolchildren the importance of the oceans and how they can help.” Continue reading
Thanks to Damian Carrington, Environment editor at the Guardian, for bringing this to our attention:
Global fish production is at record levels thanks to fish farming, says the UN FAO, but much is wasted and many species are worryingly overfished
One in three fish caught around the world never makes it to the plate, either being thrown back overboard or rotting before it can be eaten, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Continue reading
Low light imaging data being used to expose unregulated and unreported fishing on the high seas
New data is being used to expose fleets of previously unmonitored fishing vessels on the high seas, in what campaigners hope will lead to the eradication of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.
Global Fishing Watch (GFW) has turned low light imaging data collected by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into the first publicly available real-time map showing the location and identity of thousands of vessels operating at night in waters that lie beyond national jurisdiction. Continue reading
Ford does what it thinks to be in the best interest of its shareholders, and other companies follow suit as they sense the opportunity to do so, reducing their environmental responsibilities. Meanwhile and nonetheless, thanks to the work of organizations like WWF and Greenpeace, we have the opportunity to witness, if from afar, the rebirth of a population that signals some intact corners of the earth’s environment:
In a rare piece of good news for whales, humpbacks who live and breed in the southern oceans near Antarctica appear to be making a comeback, with females in recent years having a high pregnancy rate and giving birth to more calves.
Humpback whales were nearly hunted out of existence in the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries until treaties were signed to stop killing them and protections were put in place for the world’s coldest, least accessible continent.
The end of hunting has fostered the recovery of the school-bus-sized animals whose life spans are roughly comparable to ours, according to Ari Friedlaender, an associate researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz, who led the new study.
The population was believed to have been reduced to less than 10 percent of it pre-whaling levels. Continue reading
One foggy morning last April, a dead humpback whale washed up on New York’s Rockaway Beach. It was a young male, thirty-one feet long, and had extensive bruising—the result of contact with “something very large,” according to Kimberly Durham, of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, who performed the necropsy. The Rockaway whale was one of sixty-eight humpbacks that have died between North Carolina and Maine since 2016, casualties in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling an “unusual mortality event.” And humpbacks, it turns out, are not the only species suffering. Continue reading
Thanks to for this story about how a Robotic Fish Moves Like The Real Thing — So It Can Observe The Real Thing:
Scientific advancement: It’s all in the wiggle.
OK, it’s a lot more complicated than that. But when a team of researchers at MIT unveiled their robotic fish Wednesday, one of the keys they emphasized was the graceful undulation of the prototype’s tail — which, besides being rather eye-catching, serves a crucial role in the robot’s ultimate mission: giving scientists the ability to unobtrusively observe marine wildlife remotely.
“Because the fish moves through undulating movement rather than thrusters, the impact it has on how the water moves around it is much more like what is expected of physical fish,” Daniela Rus, director of the school’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, tells NPR. Continue reading
Our favorite stories on conservation challenges–whether marine or terrestrial–are those that highlight entrepreneurial approaches. Those stories, though, have multiple counterparts related to government approaches to conservation. In our many celebrations of various forms of ocean conservation, we have probably tended to favor quantity and scale more than emphasizing the value of science. Guilty as charged, but ready to remedy:
SAN FRANCISCO — I have spent my entire life pushing for new protected areas in the world’s oceans. But a disturbing trend has convinced me that we’re protecting very little of real importance with our current approach.
From Hawaii to Brazil to Britain, the establishment of large marine protected areas, thousands of square miles in size, is on the rise. These areas are set aside by governments to protect fisheries and ecosystems; human activities within them generally are managed or restricted. While these vast expanses of open ocean are important, their protection should not come before coastal waters are secured. But in some cases, that’s what is happening.
“What does your husband do while you’re working on the seaweed lines?”, we ask. She laughs and says in Bahasa, “He does the cooking and the cleaning.”
It’s day 6 of our field visit to Indonesia and we’re in Takalar visiting our fifth island and third seaweed farm of the trip. On the brink of the ‘extreme season,’ stifling hot is an understatement, but the light breeze from the Flores Sea provides a welcome break from the three flights and 2-hour van trip that brought us here. Continue reading
Helen Sullivan, founding editor of the South African literary magazine Prufrock, shares a short essay for the environmentally-minded:
On a recent trip to Heron Island, a speck of sand and foliage on the southern end of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I found myself on a walking tour of the local birdlife. My group’s guide was young, determinedly friendly, and seemed to feel not a little trapped. She looked as though she might, at any moment, reconsider everything and run as far as she could—which is to say, not very far: Heron is just half a mile long. We began with the egrets, which inspired the island’s not altogether accurate name, and which are born either black or white; our guide pointed out monochrome pairs roosting together in the trees. Then it was on to the buff-banded rails, which reminded me of thin, shifty, omnivorous quails. Beneath a Pisonia tree, also known as a grand devil’s-claws, we encountered a rowdy group of white-capped noddies. (The caps, our guide told us cheerfully, were to stop the birds’ brains from overheating in the sun.) Noddies, which feed on fish and make their nests by glueing together fallen Pisonia leaves, lead perilous lives. The trees’ seeds are sticky, often adhering to the birds’ charcoal-feathered bodies. Sometimes, a noddie will get covered in so many seeds that it can no longer fly, and so it falls to the ground and starves to death, its carcass fertilizing the nutrient-poor sand in which the Pisonia grows. “The noddies have a really special relationship with the devil’s-claws,” our guide said.
Heron Island is also home to the Barrier Reef’s oldest research station, where Sophie Dove, a biology professor at the University of Queensland, has lately been studying the effects of climate change on corals. Though she was off on the mainland when I visited, we caught up a few days later. Continue reading
Practitioner exchange as a form of capacity building represents a departure from more traditional approaches such as technical assistance or deployment of expert advisors. In the latter case, external experts are relied on to share successful solutions with which they are familiar only through research, and may therefore lack a complete understanding of the full range of factors and potential pitfalls that could influence the successful implementation of an approach elsewhere.
Blue Ventures has been very active in practitioner exchanges for some time, focused on sharing its pioneering work on the use of periodic, short-term fishery closures as an effective solution to balancing species conservation and livelihoods. Continue reading
Thanks to Joanna Klein:
You’ll never go to dinner in the deep sea. It’s dark, vast and weird down there. If the pressure alone didn’t destroy your land-bound body, some hungry sea creature would probably try to eat you.
Fortunately for you, something else has spent a lot of time down there, helping to prepare this guide to deep sea dining.
For nearly three decades, robots with cameras deployed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have glided through the ocean off the coast of central California at depths as deep as two and half miles below. Continue reading
Kelp forest commentary is not new to our pages, but much more frequently the generic category seaweed has been highlighted for its farming potential. We have apparently not give sufficient attention to the specific value of natural kelp forests. Thanks to Yale 360 and science writer Alastair Bland for this story:
Kelp forests — luxuriant coastal ecosystems that are home to a wide variety of marine biodiversity — are being wiped out from Tasmania to California, replaced by sea urchin barrens that are nearly devoid of life.
A steady increase in ocean temperatures — nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit in recent decades — was all it took to doom the once-luxuriant giant kelp forests of eastern Australia and Tasmania: Thick canopies that once covered much of the region’s coastal sea surface have wilted in intolerably warm and nutrient-poor water.
Then, a warm-water sea urchin species moved in. Voracious grazers, the invaders have mowed down much of the remaining vegetation and, over vast areas, have formed what scientists call urchin barrens, bleak marine environments largely devoid of life.
Today, more than 95 percent of eastern Tasmania’s kelp forests — luxuriant marine environments that provide food and shelter for species at all levels of the food web — are gone. With the water still warming rapidly and the long-spine urchin spreading southward in the favorable conditions, researchers see little hope of saving the vanishing ecosystem.
COURTESY OF SCOTT LING Continue reading
Thanks to Jim Robbins at Yale 360 for this:
In a development that has important implications for conservation, scientists are increasingly focusing not just on what species are present in an ecosystem, but on the roles that certain key species play in shaping their environment. Continue reading
Families in small town, coastal Maine have been fisherfolk for generations, but waters warm and fish patterns change, many are looking at alternative livelihoods. Joe Young, pictured above, is diversifying into oyster and kelp farming in addition to his dockside cafe that where he sells lobster rolls, lobster dinners and, now, his homegrown oysters.
COREA, Me. — The boats start up around 3:30 in the morning, stirring the village with the babble of engines before they motor out to sea. They will return hours later, loaded with lobster.
Joe Young’s boat has not gone out lately. Instead, he puts on waders and sloshes into the salt pond behind his house, an inlet where water rushes in and out with the tides. After a lifetime with most of his income tied to what he finds in the sea, this lobsterman — and sixth-generation fisherman — is trying his hand at something new. He is farming oysters. Continue reading
This feature story suggests that even as we stress nature on a global scale, there are creative scientists working on fixes for particular challenges:
As reefs die off, researchers want to breed the world’s hardiest corals in labs and return them to the sea to multiply. The effort raises scientific and ethical questions. Continue reading