ENVS 17 Marine Policy Class Fieldtrip 2013
On September 30th, 2013, students in the ENVS 17: Marine Policy class journeyed to Boston for first-hand experience exploring oceans ecosystems, learning about ocean science, and understanding marine conservation efforts. The trip started at the New England Aquarium, where students were able to observe many marine species in simulated habitats. We then set sail with the SEA Semester Program on board their research and education vessel, the SSV Corwith Cramer. During the three hour sail, students got to help sample both sediments and surface waters in Boston Harbor. They also learned about oceanographic, biological, and anthropological aspects of marine systems. Upon return, the class went back to the New England Aquarium for a talk given by Heather Tausig, the Vice President for Conservation. She described the many research and conservation efforts undertaken by the aquarium to help conserve marine systems. Students' reflections on the knowledge they gained from the trip are grouped around the topics listed below. Click on the hyperlink to jump to a topic or read them all!
I thought the most interesting part of the trip was visiting the aquarium and seeing, first hand, the aquatic species that are endangered. The species that intrigued me the most was the green sea turtle. There is only one large sea turtle in the aquarium named Myrtle who is “approximately 80 years old” and “ weighs over 500 pounds” according to the information at the Aquarium. Sea turtles are an endangered species that are threatened by a number of human effects including “ accidental bycatch in fishing gear, habitat loss, water pollution and the collection of turtles and their eggs for human consumption”. Habitat loss also refers to the erosion of beaches where turtles lay their eggs. Climate change has caused a rise in sea levels that has eroded much of the coastal area that is crucial to young sea turtles. Coastal development has also contributed to habitat loss along the shore and has dramatically affected the survival rate of the baby sea turtles. Regulations for coastal development would greatly benefit this species. Also, due to increasing temperatures, more female young are born rather than males, since “temperature during incubation determines the sex of the egg”. This will cause an imbalance in the male to female ratio and could affect population levels in the future.
It was also interesting to learn that the aquarium is non-profit and is dedicated to funding research opportunities and projects that serve primarily to preserve ocean environments and the species living within them. This was encouraging to learn after exploring the aquarium and the various species it holds. Learning about and interacting with the species at the aquarium that are being negatively affected by human development and exploitation was an important and enlightening experience that will complement the remainder of this course.
The New England Aquarium has some amazing exhibits and takes good care of all their animals, as was seen by the sheer number of aquarium employees working in the enclosures. Seeing this got me thinking about the management of the entire aquarium. At the ray and skates touch tank I realized that there were a lot of rays in a variety of sizes. I asked an aquarium employee how large the rays can get and he said up to 6ft across, however, most of the rays were smaller than 3ft. Upon further questioning the employee explained to me that the aquarium trades the rays when they are over grown to other aquariums in exchange for sharks, fish or other rays. It seems as though there is a tight network between all the aquariums that allows for them to help each other out with the care of the animals, research and trading. I was also told that the tip of the rays' tail needs to be clipped every 6-8 weeks in order to prevent them from stinging visitors. This is done by herding all the rays to one end of the tank and clipping the top inch or two of their tails one by one with nail clippers. Each ray or shark is also scanned for their chip - which is very similar to those used for pets - in order to ensure that all information about each individual is recorded together. Sometimes the vets will also do checkups on them at the same time and draw blood or give them shots. As a ray is examined it is allowed to pass to the other side of the enclosure. Checking up all animals at the same time is the most efficient way to take care of them and ensure that the information is kept up regularly.
I learned that in a truly pristine coral reef where no fishing has taken place, the traditional trophic pyramid, in which there is a greater biomass of primary producers and a relatively small biomass of apex predators, is reversed. The reason this phenomenon is not observed in water that have been fished is due to the increase in population of smaller fish that results from the overfishing of the top tier of biomass in a coral reef. The turnover in the reef community is also accelerated when these top predators are removed from the reef, and scientists have discovered that this increase in turnover rate causes an increase in microbes in the reef community, which may cause the death of some corals, though researchers aren’t sure why.
An example of an undisturbed reef which exhibits this reverse trophic pyramid is the Kingman Reef, the “the most undisturbed coral reef in the US.” “Approximately 85% of the fish biomass at Kingman is made up of reef sharks and red snappers,” a greater proportion of top predators than has been observed in any other coral reef ecosystem. This proportion is supported by a “ rapid turnover of biomass at the lower levels,” essentially meaning the prey grows quickly and reproduces often, allowing them to support a greater number of apex predators with longer lifespans.
On the class trip to Boston, I learned a lot at the jellyfish section in the aquarium. Climate change and other human impacts on the ocean, overall, are affecting marine species negatively because they are changing the ocean environment faster than animals can adapt. However, in the special case of jellyfish, these factors are helping them survive.
Jellyfish’s natural predators are decreasing due to overfishing, by catch, and suffocation from plastic waste. Predators of jellyfish’s prey, which increase competition for jellyfish, are also being overfished. Furthermore, the amount of fertilizers entering the sea is causing an increase in plankton, which is what jellyfish feed on. Finally, jellyfish can survive and even thrive in warmer waters, so climate change is actually helping them.
When our group went out onto the research vessel, we saw jellyfish twice: once at our sampling point, and then when we returned to the harbor. Seeing so many jellyfish on such a short trip made me realize how much of an affect this problem will have on ocean ecosystems. If jellyfish populations continue to grow, they might become dangerous invasive species. (See below for pictures of the jellyfish collected during the SEA semester voyage.
During my time at the New England Aquarium I noticed lots of signs that said, “Live Blue” or “join the Live Blue Initiative”. This initiative is similar to the “Go Green” initiative that has been sweeping across the country the past few years. The New England Aquarium gives tips to people to help sustain the oceans around them. For example, they recommend that you choose to walk or bike whenever practical to cut down on car emissions.
I believe that this initiative is a very smart idea because it is trying to reach out to the younger generation to create the mindset that maintaining our oceans is something that should be important to all of us.
The Live Blue Initiative makes the public aware of ten areas or species around the world where initiative is imperative in order to save a certain species or region. Species range from the Hector Dolphin that lives off the New Zealand Coast, to the Southern Rockhopper Penguin that lives in the Tierra del Fuego.
Everything in the ocean is connected and the article on plastics proves that. With 245 million tons of plastic produced annually by humans, a majority of that will end up in the ocean. The article says that the majority of harm is done to animals by the ingestion of the plastics. The Live Blue Initiative is trying to help reduce the excessive use of plastic in America by publicizing tips that I discussed earlier in this paper. With the Live Blue Initiative and the studies like the one done by Erik Zettler, the public can be properly informed on how to live sustainably.
In the New England Aquarium’s Harborside Learning Lab, Heather Tausig from the Conservation Department of the New England Aquarium (NEA) discussed the Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) managed by the Aquarium. This fund provides grants to promote ocean biodiversity programs that are small scale, time-sensitive, and community-based programs. MCAF also funds projects such as rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles and research within Marine Protected Areas like the Phoenix Islands in Kiribati. Funds such as MCAF are important for providing NGOs and scientific organizations with the financial means to study conservation and environmental problems. According to their website, since 1999, “MCAF has funded over 100 conservation projects in 36 countries and has disbursed more than $600,000 to protect highly vulnerable species and habitats and to conserve marine biodiversity.” (MCAF)
On top of their unique conservation department and ability to fund conservation research and programs, the New England Aquarium is highly involved in the community. NEA promotes education and outreach not only through touch tanks and other activities at the Aquarium itself, but also through youth group programs and lecture series. Such programs, for both youth and adults, help ratify citizen support for marine conservation policies and creation of new protected areas. Public outreach performed by such aquariums has a very positive impact on citizenry and, inevitably, successful policy.
During our meeting with Heather Tausig, Vice President of Conservation at the New England Aquarium (NEA), we learned that the NEA has a marine animal rescue and rehabilitation program. The NEA responds to calls reporting stranded whales, dolphins, seals, and turtles (“Marine Animal Rescue Program”). Strandings of seals and sea turtles are less straightforward than those of whales and dolphins; when a seal or sea turtle is found on a beach, NEA workers must determine first if the animal is sick or injured before taking it into captivity (“Marine Animal Rescue Program”). On the other hand, when a whale or dolphin is stranded on shore, it is clearly in trouble. The NEA defines the stranding of a marine animal as “when it is out of the ocean and unable to survive without assistance” (“Marine Animal Rescue Program”).
Cetacean strandings are not a rare occurrence. Some stranding events are seasonal: in New England, dolphins and whales commonly strand in the fall, winter, and spring (“Marine Animal Rescue Program”). Sometimes dolphins are found in mass stranding events (MSE), which refers to “events in which groups of distressed cetaceans come ashore alive” in pods involving “anywhere from a few to several hundred animals” (“Marine Animal Rescue Program”). According to the NEA, often “the animals show no obvious signs of health problems other than those resulting from coming ashore” (“Marine Animal Rescue Program”). Therefore, mass strandings are a mystery.
There have been a number of studies on the potential causes of MSE. Jepson et al.’s (2013) study on the MSE of short-beaked common dolphins in 2008 at Falmouth Bay, Cornwall, UK, concluded that the most probable cause of the event was nearby naval sonar exercises. A number of dolphins’ auditory tissues had microscopic hemorrhages (Jepson et al. 2013). Intense naval sonar exercises had occurred four days prior to the MSE, and subsequent helicopter exercises occurred in the Bay on the morning of the event (Jepson et al. 2013). It is important that we identify the causes of MSE so that, if humans are culpable, we can find solutions. For now, rescue programs like those of the NEA are vital to the survival of stranded marine animals.
Today’s talk by Heather Tausig revealed the numerous efforts of New England Aquarium’s conservation department to contribute to marine conservation, marine science, and sustainable fishing. She discussed the Aquarium’s cooperation with different conservation organizations, other aquariums, and seafood industry leaders, as well as their work in conservation education events. One of the Aquarium’s most notable contributions to the field of marine conservation was their participation in developing the Ocean Health Index as a widely applicable measure of ocean health worldwide.
Working with Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, and the Pacific Life Foundation, the Aquarium revealed this comprehensive tool for quantifying ocean health in 2012, with their findings on oceans worldwide published in Nature. The index is organized into 10 different goals: food provision, artisanal fishing opportunities, natural products, carbon storage, coastal protection, coastal livelihoods and economies, tourism and recreation, sense of place, clean waters, and biodiversity. A score is assigned for each goal so that a total score out of 100 can be assigned to different countries’ oceans, as well as a global average.
Tausig discussed their findings as well as the presentation of their work at a conference, mentioning that the US was rated “middle of the pack”, which may come as a surprise to some Americans. She also recounted how the Philippines and China, upon hearing about the index, approached the Aquarium requesting help in educating their policy makers and their public in order to inform how they manage their oceans. Her enthusiasm for how quickly the index became an accessible, reliable tool for holistic evaluation of marine health was obvious as she outlined its roots and its growth.
By quantifying ocean health in an array of vivid and salient components, the scientists who worked on the OHI emphasize the different benefits the oceans bring mankind, the different ways an area can be healthy, and the importance of the anthropogenic interactions between oceans and coastal communities. Supported by pure science and made available by highlighting our role in maintaining ocean health, the OHI is an important triumph in New England Aquarium’s efforts to emphasize marine conservation while providing recreation and education at their physical plant.
While at the presentation after the aquarium visit, I learned that the aquarium operates as a non-profit. All the money made from admission tickets, the food court, and the gift shop is reinvested in many of the programs that the New England Aquarium has to offer.
The aquarium has 3 main goals: education, conservation, and research. The New England aquarium showcases many different species of marine life ranging from small organisms to others as big as sea lions. The many different exhibits provide education on marine life. They also provide education to encourage conservation of the oceans. The part that I felt was the most important was the fact that the aquarium also conducts its own research projects. Most other aquariums don’t do their own research because their main focus is on maximizing profits.
Approximately 1000 miles southwest of Hawaii lies a small association of atolls diminutive in land mass but enormously wealthy in terms both economic and ecological. Because of modern international law regarding ocean territory, each island of Kiribati is surrounded by a halo of ocean 200 miles in diameter inside of which it has exclusive rights to all marine resources.
This has made this island chain nation an important player in the Pacific in several ways. For one, large areas of ocean real estate have allowed Kiribati to account for a large portion of the nation’s (approximately one third, by the estimation of our contact at the New England Aquarium, Heather Tausig) GDP. Another major boon that was particularly emphasized by Tausig was the designation of the Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA), a 408,250 square kilometer sea and land habitat made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. One of the largest marine protected areas in the world, PIPA has proved instrumental in furthering our understanding of primitive ocean environments. The Republic of Kiribati was admitted into the United Nations in 1999.
Kiribati has also come into the international spotlight recently as one of nations most vulnerable to climate change. It is projected to be the first nation to lose the entirety of its land mass due to sea level rise. The nation has already purchased 2,200 hectares on one of the largest islands of Fiji to house its displaced population. Once the islands are submerged, however, it is difficult to say with certainty what will become of the Nation of Kiribati and its Pacific holdings. Programs like the New England Aquarium and SEA Semester will continue to monitor this area closely, as its management is likely to set an important precedent for how island nations will adapt to the changing environment.
Recently, the ENVS 17 Marine Policy class, taught by Professor Webster, took a field trip down to Boston Harbor to get a hands-on approach to the many facets of ocean management and conservation. After spending some time viewing the different exhibits at the New England Aquarium, the class had the pleasure of going out on a research vessel operated by the SEA Semester program. There we had the opportunity to spend a beautiful day out in the harbor learning about the different instruments and facts of running a research vessel. After collecting some sediment and trolling samples, the class headed back to port to listen to a talk given by Heather Tausig, Associate Vice President of Conservation for the New England Aquarium. Ms. Tausig discussed the conservation efforts of the New England Aquarium and its involvement in a number of the research programs and partnerships. One program in particular that she discussed was that of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area Management Plan (PIPA). The Phoenix Islands are a remote island chain located in the Pacific Ocean nation of Kiribati. This island chain is host to some of the most pristine ecosystems and biodiversity, providing a habitat and important breeding ground for a number of species. In March of 2006, Kiribati declared the Phoenix Islands a protected area. It has also been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for is biological importance. Programs have been set up such as the PIPA Management Plan to protect and conserve the natural habitats of the Phoenix Islands. The New England Aquarium has partnered with the Government of Kiribati and Conservation International to fund research and ensure a brighter future for the islands.
In class we have discussed the negative effects costal development has on marine ecosystems. Trade, tourism, recreation and scenic views are just some of the reasons why living in coastal regions is popular. While it may be convenient to live on or near a coastline, humans pose many threats on marine ecosystems when they are more exposed to coastal regions. While some coastal regions may be beyond repair, there are still some pristine regions such as the Phoenix Islands. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area is now one of the world’s largest marine protected areas due to the New England Aquarium’s (NEA) development of effective management and enforcement policies.
The Phoenix Islands are located in an isolated region of the Pacific Ocean, 1000 miles southwest of Hawaii. The isolated island chain is one of the Earth’s last intact coral ecosystems. Not only do the corals provide a habitat for numerous marine species, but the islands are also nesting and migratory destinations for seabirds (“Phoenix Islands” 2013). The NEA has played an active role in developing and protecting the Phoenix Islands. The NEA has lead several dives in the region, aimed to document the regions marine diversity and the ecological healthy regions (“Phoenix Islands” 2013). The expeditions were also featured in a World Water Film and in the February 2004 issue of National Geographic Magazine in order the promote public awareness (“ Phoenix Islands” 2013). The Phoenix Islands have also been declared by the United Nations as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its incredible diversity of species.
The NEA has successfully managed thus far to protect the Phoenix Islands through a series of expeditions, public awareness, and policy initiatives. Perhaps other regions should take similar steps to protect marine ecosystems already endangered by coastal development.
The Phoenix Islands Protected Area was mentioned multiple times throughout the day, both on the SEA cruise and at the New England Aquarium lecture. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area is especially unique because of the limited human impact due to extreme isolation and low human population and traffic. Because of this, scientists are able to observe the natural resiliency of such a pristine and diverse marine ecosystem. The relationship between human presence and ecosystem resiliency and health can be examined using the Phoenix Islands Protect Area as a control.
For example, researchers have observed upside down trophic pyramids in these areas that are not affected by fishing, pollution or other human pressures. In most ecosystems, primary producers and primary consumers greatly outnumber the animals at the top of the food chain. In the marine ecosystem these primary producers include algae and phytoplankton while sharks and other large marine animals make up the top of the food chain. In ecosystems that have not seen much human impact, there are high populations of sharks and other predators. This is possible because primary producers reproduce extremely fast and stay at a sustainable level despite the large amount of predators. It is an extremely unique phenomenon that highlights the effects of human impacts. The New England Aquarium is working to protect this area in order to conserve this unique ecosystem so that it may serve as a control measure of marine life resiliency in the future. It is doing this through demanding substantial fines for violating no fishing zones and other prohibited commercial actions. This has already been deemed effective and provides hope that the area will remain a unique pristine ecosystem.
Probably one of the more interesting parts of the trip was the discussion of sustainability in the Polynesian Islands. The Polynesian Islands is a chain of 118 islands and atolls known for its popular vacation spots like Bora Bora and Tahiti. We were told that pre-Columbian Exchange the indigenous island population was dependent on intensive agriculture and aquaculture practices to sustain itself, but the natives managed to do this in a way that did not deplete resources for future generations. However, once the Europeans discovered the islands and exchanged goods, economic practices and decimating diseases with the native culture, the old subsistence economy was replaced by a modern one that today is primarily focused on tourism and the non-sustainable agriculture and aquaculture practices necessary to sustain the growing, urbanizing population. As Dr. Mary Malloy of SEA Semester pointed out to us, many of the Polynesian Islands have grossly outstripped their human carrying capacity, and the urban centers sprouting up across the major islands are heavily polluting.
This discussion brings up interesting points about the solution to sustainability issues. The Polynesian islands likely cannot and will not revert to a subsistence economy, so by what other means can this nation of islands achieve a relationship with nature similar to the one they had before they encountered Europeans? I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this question, as a nation can’t easily ask it’s people to move out of the cities, quit their jobs, or suddenly revamp it’s education system. However, I do think that, with the eminence of climate change and subsequent sea level rise along with a population quickly outgrowing it’s food sources, changes of significant consequence will have to be made soon.
On our trip we were given a presentation about the research and programs that the aquarium runs. One that I found particularly interesting was the sustainable seafood program. The New England Aquarium has partnered with some of the largest seafood retailers in the world, such as Ahold USA, Gortons Inc., and Darden Restaurants, to encourage the development and growth of sustainable fishing practices. This ensures greater environmental accountability throughout these companies’ seafood chains. In order to do this the Aquarium investigates wild caught fisheries and aquaculture fisheries to ensure that they are sustainable. They look at number of criteria before they decide whether or not to endorse a fishery to their partner companies. For wild fisheries the Aquarium and its experts examine the impact the fishing has general health of the target fish along with its risk for bycatch and any other detrimental impacts that the fishing may cause. As for aquaculture the Aquarium examines different criteria. They examine the overall health of the fish, the waste and by products created by the fishery, how sustainable the practice is, and whether or not the aquaculture is having unseen impacts on the environment. Once these investigations are complete, they compile their data and score the fisheries to give their partner companies detailed purchasing recommendations.
This is beneficial for the partnering companies because it offers them a wide variety of tools, which the companies can use to make sure that their seafood branches are being more sustainable. It also provides the benefit of great publicity for the company.
I was really glad to hear that the aquarium was doing some research and was actively working with large seafood retailers to improve sustainable fishing. I was surprised that they did not advertise their work more, if we had just gone to aquarium I would have never assumed how much good work they were doing.
The division of conservation at the New England Aquarium addresses a myriad of issues facing our oceans, ranging from monitoring MPA zones in Kiribati to measuring the Ocean Health Index on a global level. One of the conservation initiatives I thought was interesting is the Conservational Alliance for Seafood Solutions. Stemming from the Sustainable Seafood campaign at the New England Aquarium, CASS works to encourage corporate responsibility with businesses that buy and sell seafood throughout North America. CASS not only targets business but also policy makers to enforce better management of fisheries.
The Conservational Alliance for Seafood Solutions provides a series of guidelines to help corporations become more responsible producers of seafood. This begins with a policy commitment to sustainability. CASS helps business construct a commitment to endorse sustainable seafood through timelines and realistic goals. This kind of transparency is the first step in making corporations accountable. CASS also offers environmental risk assessments so companies can tailor their actions to more sustainable practices. CASS also concentrates on the consumer by encouraging shoppers to buy seafood with the proper environmental certifications.
These certifications will soon become more recognizable to the public as large corporations like MacDonald’s and Walmart supply seafood with environmental sustainable certifications. Finally CASS uses these relationships with companies to incite policy reform. By highlighting the importance of sustainable seafood corporations in economic terms, the department of Conservation at the New England aquarium has been successful in beginning to encourage policy reform. For example, representatives from both CASS and Darden restaurants have partnered to challenge policy makers to better monitor our fisheries. The work of the Conservational Alliance for Seafood solutions will not only improve the health of our oceans but also encourage us to be responsible consumers.
To gain political support for environmental protection policies, such as those addressing sustainable fishing, it is often critical to quantify the environmental benefits in economic terms. Heather Tausig of the New England Aquarium has expressed how she finds it revealing that, in policy advocacy presentations, policymakers will often be put into a moment of reflection when corporate partners, such as executives of Darden Restaurants, speak about the implications of environmental policies on their stakeholders, which include consumers, shareholders, and employees. Ultimately, aligning corporate interests with environmental interests can help make a consumerist society a sustainable one too.
Darden Restaurants, according to Tausig, has been vocal in underscoring how sustainable fishing policies are essential to their bottom line. Darden’s sustainability mission statement states that the company has “a vested interest in ensuring that the supply of seafood on which [it] rel[ies] remains available” (Waage and Kraft, 2013). Towards that end, the company has been part of a growing movement of companies to improve traceability through developing real‐time fishery data to guide sourcing decisions (Waage and Kraft, 2013). Other companies, like a group of around 130 grocery stores, has taken similar measures by consulting with the New England Aquarium to ensure that suppliers use sustainable fishing methods (Reidy, 2013).
In a broader sense, efforts like those above reflect a desire to present economic interests as being dependent on sustainability. Accordingly, it should not be surprising that the Ocean Health Index, co‐developed by the New England Aquarium, considers factors like “recreation”, “tourism”, and even a “sense of place” or “culture” in evaluating ocean health. Further, the practice of quantifying ocean health on a scale of 0‐100 is appropriate for an economicallydriven society that focuses on numbers and rank. Ultimately, I believe that pitching the interconnectedness of societal wellbeing and environmental wellbeing is the best approach to take in getting sustainable policies passed.
The New England Aquarium is one of few aquariums nationwide that has renowned sustainability initiatives. One would think that such an advocate for preserving marine life would discourage any sort of seafood diet. However, after hearing Heather Tausig’s talk it is evident that a sustainable seafood diet is actually beneficial for the preservation of many aquatic species.
I learned that meat diets from chicken, cows and other terrestrial animals are much more closely linked with seafood diets than what is commonly perceived. If the United States were to implement a policy to shift to a more land-based diet in order to curtail seafood consumption, this would have an even more deleterious effect on the marine species the policy was initially intended to protect. This would happen because less seafood consumption would imply a drastic increase in meat and chicken consumption. In order to feed the increased number of chicken and cows, more fish would need to be harvested in order to create feed and byproducts. This, among other reasons, would be more detrimental for marine species than the status quo.
Because the New England Aquarium understands that a balanced seafood diet is better than a diet without seafood (for nutritional and environmental reasons), it offers a number of events promoting sustainable seafood. From endorsing local chefs to hosting events, the New England Aquarium representatives frequently try to disseminate the importance of sustainable seafood. While it is important to harvest fish responsibly, the New England Aquarium is also interested celebrating the great tasting seafood at their events!
During the final lecture, we discussed the initiatives that the New England Aquarium is taking to promote sustainable marine policy. One of the issues discussed covered the idea of sustainable seafood. I found this topic particularly interesting because I know that I have a tendency to eat more seafood than any other protein source. The fact that reducing the amount of seafood individuals eat and supplementing it with more poultry and meat protein would lead to higher degradation of marine life helps me justify my decision. However, points brought up in the lecture made me realize that I need to focus more on purchasing sustainable seafood. Coming from a family who loves to fish, I have always preferred wild seafood over farm-raised. However, I am now aware of that by-catch and over fishing of wild fishing areas has huge detrimental effects on the environment, and therefore wild-caught seafood may not be the best choice from a sustainability perspective. However, I would like to see future aquaculture fisheries embrace methods that allow for more healthy seafood to be produced. From the lecture, it appears that this is becoming the case with several different kinds of seafood, particularly those that are in higher demand. There is also an issue of insuring that these aquaculture animals do not over power wild marine life, particularly in the case of genetically modified seafood. I did not really gather from the lecture what measures are being taken to prevent this from happening but would like to spend more time investigating this issue in the future. In order for me to change my purchasing methods to include more aquaculture-generated seafood, I need to understand more about how the animals are raised and what initiatives are being taken to prevent these animals from overtaking wild populations.
I helped collect a sample of the seafloor sediment. First, we loaded a metal bucket into the spring-triggered mechanism attached to a pulley. Then, we lowered the bucket into the water until it reached the seafloor. Once it hit the floor, the impact released the spring and the mechanism clamped shut around the bucket, which trapped the sediment. Finally, we raised the bucket and observed the sample. Based on comments from the assistant scientist Julia, we expected the sample to look a lot like sludge. However, even the scientists were surprised by how clear the water was. Of course, the actual sediment was black. The sample smelled faintly of rotten eggs due to the presence of hydrogen sulphide released by anaerobic bacteria, but most of the odour was the rusty metallic smell of the bucket used to collect the sample.
The hands-on approach when collecting the sample surprised me. In the assigned paper, we read about the lengths the scientists went through to avoid contaminating the sample – to avoid introducing microbes into the samples. The paper described how the scientists cleaned the equipment with water filtered from a clean seawater system, sterilised each tool they used, and used non-metallic lines. I was surprised at how casual the process was today, especially since the sample was being analysed by the students from Boston College in order to identify organisms. They will probably observe a number of foreign organisms introduced by most of us touching the sediment. It was a great learning experience though, to actually feel the texture of the silt and to break the hollow tubes left behind by the inhabitant tube worms as they scrambled deeper into the sediment after being disturbed.
The SSV Corwith Cramer carries half a million dollars worth of scientific equipment for the purpose of data collection and analysis. Perhaps the most interesting piece of equipment displayed during the trip was the Chirp Subbottom Profiler, a powerful low frequency echosounder that has the capacity to provide detailed profiles of the upper layers of the ocean bottom. This sonar device generates pings between 2 and 7 kHz which travels from the hull to the ocean floor, where it is then echoed back to the SSV Corwith Cramer (www.sea.edu). The variation in time delay between pings relays information about slope angles, the layering history of the seafloor, and the depth and composition of the seafloor.
This instrument is crucial to the geological studies of the crew. Its ability to profile the composition of the ocean floor allows the scientists to choose an appropriate location for the collection of a seafloor sediment sample. This sample is then used to pursue questions about the organisms that reside in the sediment and about climate changes over time, among other topics. Without an appropriate sample, which can only be obtained at certain locations, these questions cannot be answered adequately.
I found the time we spent on the SSV Corwith Cramer very interesting because I was able to see in person many of the research and sample collection techniques used in published scientific research. Sometimes, when reading our assigned articles every week, it can seem like all this information they analyze just magically appears, or at least comes from obscure procedures that I am unfamiliar with. However, after reading the journal article in Science about microscopic plastics and their effect on microbial ecosystems, the SEA Semester program demonstrated exactly how they did much of the research cited in the article. I watched them deploy the same mesh net that they used to collect plastic samples from the surface of the water. I learned how the mechanisms behind the sediment trap work and saw it deployed in 50 foot waters. This was the same tool used in the article to test the hypothesis that colonization of microscopic plastics causes increases their average density and causes them to sink to the ocean floor. One of my favorite tools was the comprehensive set-up inside the lab that continuously ran sea water taken from under the boat through a series of instruments to test various properties. This too had a prominent role in the plastic research. These demonstrations on the water were thus very intriguing and educational in that they made the research we read about seem much more tangible. And conversely, the article gave what we learned on the boat relevance because I now knew a specific example of how the instruments on the boat were used in scientific research. It was also surprising to me that much of the work for the plastic study was done by students themselves.
Yesterday we learned that Zettler and his associates are currently considering the microbial communities as a solution to the question of dating in marine plastics. While it is impossible to date a piece of plastic itself, Zettler contends that dating the microbial colonies on and in these plastic particles will allow a relative dating (assuming that the plastic had been in the ocean for at least as long as the colony is old). This wasn't strictly talked about in the paper assigned for the trip but it is an extremely interesting idea. This of course is reliant on the ability of Zettler to correctly identify the microbial colonies and determine their life stage, which is discussed in the paper. Zettler discusses his use of RNA to identify the microbial colonies and also speaks of their danger to humans and animals alike. Because these communities are so small he says it is difficult to tell whether or not they are pathogenic to animal and human communities. If he were to pursue this dating technique, there would obviously need to be more careful attention paid to what these organisms actually are in order to identify life stages and age in the colonies. This could open the door to more research around possible uses for these plastic dwelling microbes. They could be used to break down the plastics in the ocean, but in order to avoid unintended consequences of that type of rehabilitation it would be necessary to do much more research. The only thing I wondered which was not addressed was how it is possible to tell if the current microbial community is the only one that had ever lived on that particular piece of plastic. If there was a previous, unsuccessful colony, that could contribute markedly to the age of the plastic particle and also show some characteristics of the current colony.
Plastic is the most common form of marine debris, and plastic pollution continues to grow every year. This poses unique problems due to the extremely long half-life of plastic; it persists in the oceans, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, for centuries (Zettler, Mincer, and Amaral-Zettler 2013). Plastic debris follows ocean gyres and currents, congregating in both in coastal areas and the open ocean. Accumulations of plastic debris exist in five subtropical gyres, but are only well-documented in two.
One of the gyres is known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, containing more than 3 million tons of waste and estimated to be twice the size of Texas. This presents a number of unique problems, from animal entanglement, toxic chemicals leaching into the marine system, and consumption of plastic debris by animals ranging from sea turtles to zooplankton. When zooplankton consume small plastic particles, the plastic can then work its way up the food web and result in bioaccumulation of toxic compounds.
A lesser-known impact of marine plastics is the spread of alien and invasive species- different organisms, from plants and algaes to vertebrate larvae, can attach themselves to marine plastic “rafts” and travel across oceans (Gregory 2009). Most commonly, sessile organisms such as barnacles and bivalves spread via plastic waste. Barnes (2002) estimated that plastic debris has doubled the number of alien species in the subtropics.
Marine plastic pollution encompasses more than just unattractive plastic waste on beaches and coastlines and entangled charismatic megafauna. There are also effects flying under the radar, from massive amounts of plastics in oceanic gyres to changes in microbial marine communities. It has massive and long-term ecological, economic, and human health impacts, and we must improve management and reduce plastic use to face this problem head-on.
As the class discussed the issue of plastics pollution after our trip on the SEA vessel, Dr. Webster spoke to us about the problems caused by Bisphenol A, a chemical found in hard plastics and in some epoxy resins. BPA is most commonly found in water bottles and food/drink cans lined with an epoxy resin. Bisphenol A is used in polycarbonate plastics, such as disposable water bottles to make the plastic soft. BPA can enter into the contents of a water bottle if exposed to extreme heat, such as in a dishwasher.
The chemical BPA poses a threat to humans because it mimics hormones. BPA causes the most trouble for humans in small amounts, because tiny amounts of BPA can enter cells, while large doses of BPA cannot.
Perhaps the most unnerving part of BPA is what we don’t know. As of today, we know very little about its effects on marine mammals, which have been found on several occasions with Bisphenol A in their stomachs. According to Medical News Today, a group called the Royal Society UK found that BPA negatively impacts reproduction of all animal groups studied and could cause genetic abnormalities in amphibians and crustaceans (Nordqvist).
Most water bottles made from plastic today, such as ones by Camelbak, are specifically labeled as BPA-free. One can also limit exposure to BPA by cutting back on canned food and drinks, which are often lined with resin containing BPA. Although I had heard of the chemical BPA before, I did not know how it affected humans. Learning about the effects of BPA on the Boston trip was a very relevant topic that concerns all of us.
On our trip to the Boston aquarium and the Boston Harbor, I learned a tremendous amount about the way in which sailboats (specially large ones) work. I've always been interested in sailing and had never sailed in a large vessel, so over the course of our trip on the Harbor, I made sure to stay close to the action on the sailboat.
The sailing terms the crew used came as a surprise to me as they had a name for each rope, beam, and sail on the boat had a different name. The sails were the jib, the staysails, the spritsail, the topsail, the and mainsails, and etcetera. The most interesting thing to me, however was the way in which sailboats work. Rather than have the sails exert a force on the boat, sails work with the Bernoulli principle: the higher air pressure on one side of the sail pushes it toward the other side of the boat. This force is called lift. This effect is the reason for which sailboats go much faster when sailing across the wind (tacking) rather than downwind (on a run).
The reason this is relevant to our class is the effect the wind had on the boat’s motion. As the crew discussed, the boat becomes fast and incredibly fuel efficient when combining the engine with the sails’ power. While this practice is not in use in the vast majority of ocean going vessels, it has the potential to highly reduce the amount of energy we waste on vessels like tankers and container ships to a minimum. Water travel is more inefficient than by road or by air because of the high amount of resistance the water posesbut because it is necessary to transport objects across oceans, mixing wind and fossil fuels may be worthwhile.
One of the greatest aspects of the field trip yesterday was acquiring firsthand experience in sailing and life at sea, how research operates on a vessel, and what different programs and opportunities are available for undergraduate and graduate students. The SEA program offers unparalleled educational programs to study environmental science, climate, change, marine policy, and animal science while traveling to some of the most beautiful and ecologically rich areas in the world. While on the SEA vessel, our class received hands-on guidance and knowledge of how to operate and survive at sea. Not only were we operating the sails and securing the ropes, we received expert talks on the programs available and how we can get involved to solve the issues of marine and environmental policy. The trip was a great supplement to the class material, as we touched upon invasive species and pollution in different areas the SEA program navigates. I highly recommend this trip for future classes, as nothing beats personal experience to the subject matter learned.
Though I loved going to the Aquarium and found it fortunate that we were able to see the fishes that we have read about in our readings, I found the trip on the SEA vessel most enjoyable. By having the opportunity to be on the ship, I was able to have firsthand experience of how the crew operates the vessel, the methods of research SEA students are capable of doing, and what life at sea on the program would consist of. Prior to this trip, I had never been out on sea before, and quickly realized how capable of getting sea sick I am. After the sickness wore off and I was able to fully pay attention to the SEA instructors, I began asking how they operate the vessel and the mechanics of how the ship worked (sails, diesel engine, a combination of the two). By also getting the opportunity to listen to Erik talk about how he did his research, I realized how arduous the task was of gathering the data was through the use of machines on the ship. I am grateful for the opportunity to have at least been on the vessel for a few hours.
Professor Webster and the students of ENVS 17 would like to thank Barbara and Bill Burgess, Bud Reese, Heather Tausig, and others from the New England Aquarium for their help in setting up our visit and accommodating such a large class. We would also like to thank professors Erik Zettler and Mary Malloy as well as the rest of the SEA Semester team for setting up the SEA sailing experience for the students. Last but not least, we greatly appreciate the help of Kim Wind, who coordinated travel to Boston and took care of many of the small details that made the trip go so smoothly. Maya Johnson put this web-page together for the class.
Last Updated: 11/22/13