Fish? In the ocean?

January 28, 2009
MYSTERY SOLVED? Flounder in seawater (below) show concentrations of calcium carbonate much higher than in fresh water.  (Courtesy Rod W. Wilson, Exeter University)

MYSTERY SOLVED? Flounder in seawater (below) show concentrations of calcium carbonate much higher than in fresh water. (Courtesy Rod W. Wilson, Exeter University)

Scientists from the U.S., U.K., and Canada and recently discovered an entire ocean in the belly of a fish.

Rod Wilson is an animal physiologist at the University of Exeter who, with Martin Grosell (U. Miami), has spent the last several years elucidating how fish make calcium carbonate in their intestines. Fish drink seawater rich in calcium and magnesium. It concentrates in their digestive tracks and  these ions, which fish might otherwise only use for kidney stones, meet up with carbonate ions.

Coccolithopohres and foraminifera are the 800-lb. plankton of the ocean carbon cycle. Their shells drop through the water column, perhaps packaged in bulk by copepods, transporting inorganic carbon to the deep ocean. It tends to dissolve below the lysocline, where the carbonate concentration of the water dips below favorable pH and pressure conditions for keeping it in tact. The problem with this picture is that scientists have long detected aberrations in alkalinity much higher than the lysocline at which calcite shells tend to dissolve. It’s been an oceanography mystery for decades.

Fish make a different kind of carbonate crystal than the phytoplankton — aragonite, which has a marked higher amount of magnesium. As a result of this difference in composition, aragonite dissolves higher in the water column than calcite.

Wilson presented this example of good piscine renal hygiene while visiting the University of Miami. The study was met with interest by Frank Millero, the distinguished marine chemistry scientist, who pointed out that Wilson and Grosell might have stumbled on to a clue to very big problem: Why scientists observed the effects of dissolving carbonate so much higher in the water column than expected from calcite.

The three of them teamed up to see if fish might be responsible for the mystery. The trick would be to estimate how much carbonate fish leave behind and then multiply it by the number of fish in the ocean, to arrive at a sense of just how much calcium carbonate the fish are producing. Easy.

How many fish are in the ocean? The typical answer you hear these days — “Not as many as there used to be” — was too imprecise. No one had calculated how many fish might be in the ocean! “That was a big surprise,” says physiologist Grosell. The team brought on Simon Jennings (U. East Anglia) and Villy Christensen, who contributed modeling estimates, figuring a total fish biomass in the vicinity of 900 million to 2 billion tons. That yielded a conservative range of 3 to 15 percent of all surface ocean calcium carbonate — originating in fish guts.

The findings were published in Science Jan. 16. Grosell marvels at the interdisciplinary approaches it took to surmise, in essence, the power of fish in the sea: The study couldn’t have happened without a marine chemist, fish physiologists, and ecosystems modelers. Grosell: “In hindsight, it’s like how could we have missed this?”


New Arctic, New President?

January 21, 2009
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The new president will spend the day attending a prayer service at the National Cathedral and later, meeting with his Joint Chiefs and economic advisers. As Barack Obama acclimates to the presidency, we’ll dip into the recent past.

Former President George Bush on Jan. 9 issued a presidential directive that refines U.S. national interests in the Arctic. The eight-page document took two years to finalize and is the first White House statement on national security and the Arctic since Bill Clinton was president, in 1994.

The directive emphasizes U.S. national security and energy interests in the area, particularly given the changing climate and the likelihood of increased human and commercial involvement in the region. The Bush administration also commended progress within the Artic Council — the body of nine nations and indigenous peoples that the outgoing president didn’t always please. Bush gave the Senate a final prod to pass the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The week after the White House released the directive, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative (JOCI) met in Maryland, to hash out recommendations for the new administration. Climate change and Arctic policy topped the list. How will the National Security directive affect, inform, or influence the new administration’s approach to this rapidly changing area of the world? Only time will tell.

Antiquities and Antiquaries

January 12, 2009

President Bush last week designated nearly 200,000 square miles of Pacific islands, reef, waters, and floor as protected, under the century-old federal Antiquities Act. This announcement sent the mainstream press racing for their globes and atlases, and momentarily put oceans at the center of the national conversation. Outlets that cover marine issues intermittently embraced the event, for better or for worse. The New York Times editorial board took this thoughtful stance on the perceived shortcomings of Bush’s move.


Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

More interesting than the news-driven coverage was The Economist‘s Special Report on the Sea, which ran in its Jan. 3 to Jan. 9 issue (Lead story is here, with links to others on the right). It’s rare to see the mainstream press devote such resources to this small corner (okay, 70 percent) of the world. True to form, Economist editors build an arc of logic into the package, opening with exposition about the state of the seas, before sliding into, if not policy prescriptions, commentary on politicians’ ineffectiveness on the issue (From “Saline Solutions“: “Is it too late to save the sea? The solutions to some of its problems are fairly clear, even if it requires political courage to put them in place.”).

A less obvious point lay scattered over the entire 16 pages. Readers of the Economist know that editors commonly save brain space on writing headlines and subheads by ripping forgotten gems out of antiquarian literature. This practice is particularly apt in this oceans package. The articles themselves directly address major, present concerns. The sprinkling of literary references throughout stories and captions has a subtle but powerful effect: Humanity has always lived and thrived by the sea. The ocean is a part of our identity, our history, and, because we eat so much fish, our bodies, too. Here is a list of most of these references, which all in all cover about 2,500 years of cultural history — a fraction of humans history with life by the sea.

“Inestimable stones, unvalu’d jewels”
Richard III

“The mackerel-crowded seas”
Sailing to Byzantium
William Butler Yeats

“Come, friends, and Plough the Sea”
The Pirates of Penzance

“There goes that Leviathan”
Angling Sketches
Andrew Lang

“Creeping things innumerable”
The Bible (Psalm 104)

What Are the Wild Waves Saying? Song, Stephen Glover

“Unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea”
To Marguerite
Matthew Arnold

“Oh, the shark has pretty fins, dear”
Mack the Knife
The Threepenny Opera, Brecht

“A trout in the milk”
The Writings of Henry David Thoreau

“Fishing up the moon”
The Wise Men of Gotham
Thomas Love Peacock

“Is it for you to ravage seas and land”
The Aeneid

Oceans Champion Tapped to Lead CIA

January 6, 2009

When President-elect Barack Obama nominated Jane Lubchenco as NOAA administrator, the oceans community cheered. Yesterday, when he asked Leon Panetta to direct the Central Intelligence Agency, the response was more guarded – and not because the oceans community is particularly entrenched in The Company. Maybe we should be.

Leon Panetta (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Leon Panetta (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Panetta chaired the Pew Ocean Commission, whose comprehensive 2003 report on ocean governance remains an indispensible policy Bible. He continued to grind away on ocean issues as the co-chair, with Bush-41 Energy Secretary Admiral James Watkins, of the Joint Ocean Commissions Initiative. Blue-ribbon panels are a major slice of the Washington, DC, economy, yet commission chairmen who remain advocates of thick-report recommendations are few and far between. So, when the Panetta-CIA announcement came, the oceans community suddenly lost an influential advocate to a new, all-consuming full-time job.

The population of high-profile oceans champions is dwindling. Politics and scandals have removed Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), who lost his primary against a conservative Republican; Rep. Tom Allen (D-ME) who lost a Senate bid; and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), lost a Senate race that was close even though he ran under a seven-count indictment. Panetta’s enormous job of managing the CIA will leave no time or focus to work on ocean issues.

Panetta is indeed, a big loss, considering the extraordinary effort he gave to ocean issues. I nonetheless find myself very pleased about this appointment. The CIA is in desperate need of an outsider with a deft hand and a keen intellect to change its course. Panetta has proved himself a bi-partisan organizer of difficult constituencies by handling the many different voices on the Iraq Study Group. He managed a feisty – feistier? — mix of economic, social, and political interests with the Pew Ocean Commission and JOCI.

How might Panetta’s oceans advocacy inform his tenure as director of Central Intelligence? He has a vivid understanding of democracy. The U.S. is an open society, and the American public is owner and trustee of its government. Panetta has engaged the public to apply these ideals to our stewardship of the oceans. He helped create the California State University Monterey Bay at Fort Ord Army base and the Panetta Institute, a nonpartisan public policy center. Panetta is an advocate of the “Public Trust Doctrine”: the idea that American resources belong to all citizens. These resources are only held in trust by our government — with a solemn responsibility to protect and grow them.

The Public Trust Doctrine is a powerful and unifying concept for ocean conservation. What specifically does the public trust have to do with the CIA – by definition the very opposite of an “open society”? From my work on “Natural Security,” I have observed that the most successful and adaptable organisms distribute power and surveillance to many semi-autonomous problem solvers – in fact, complexity scientists call them “agents.” In nature, these problem-solvers might be as diverse as cells in the immune system, chromatophores in octopuses, or specialized individuals in a colony of tunicates. In a democratic society, these problem solvers can be the citizens themselves. Senator Gary Hart–who was thinking and working on terrorism issues long before 9/11 — has been adamant about a similar point: The more information we provide people, the safer we are. The outgoing administration has spent the last eight years pursuing the opposite track – and not only in national security policy.

I don’t know how much and in what capacity Leon Panetta can “open up” the CIA. I do believe that his devotion to serving the public trust and his long history with ocean conservation, will lead him–probably more than any previous CIA director—to ideas about security that better reflect the way nature has been doing it for 3.5 billion years.

Just in case, I’m sending him a copy of “Natural Securityto help him along.

The Public Trust Manifesto

January 6, 2009

As we move forward with a new and hopefully ocean-friendly administration, we should have a unifying foundation on which to present ocean issues. Especially inspired by the scholarship of Nicholas School Ph.D. student Mary Turnipseed, I believe that the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient legal concept with powerful, but underutilized roots in U.S. law, is an immediately accessible entry point into any ocean policy debate. Key to the Public Trust Doctrine is the idea that natural resources belong to all Americans, with the government acting as a custodian. The word “trust” allows it to be clearly tied to economic revitalization and contrasted to the extreme financial mismanagement we have experienced in recent years. It also fits perfectly with President-elect Obama’s calls to involve people more in their government. The Public Trust Doctrine can and should be applied to all federal waters. The following paragraph is a brief manifesto for public trust-based ocean conservation. I have been sharing this passage informally with colleagues and leaders — including with Ocean Champion and soon to be CIA Chief Leon Panetta:

Natural ocean and coastal resources should be considered a vital subfocus of the Obama Administration’s economic revival and long term growth plans. These resources represent a key portfolio of our Nation’s public trust, for which the Obama administration is now the trustee. The solemn duty of the trustee is to preserve the asset base of the portfolio while judiciously allowing uses of some assets and continually striving to grow the portfolio. Just as assets in our economy are inextricably linked, assets in our ocean portfolio are linked with one another and with our resources on land and our Nation’s human resources. Therefore, managing this portfolio means managing users of ocean spaces and resources in a holistic, cooperative manner. This will require a better understanding of the stocks and flows in and out of the portfolio, and the behaviors that are changing those stocks and flows. Moreover, as the recent mortgage meltdown and Ponzi schemes have made clear, assets in a trust portfolio are real and measurable—they cannot be substituted with promises of future gain predicated on entities conjured from thin air. Ocean habitats, clean water, energy potential, fishing jobs, recreation, intact ecosystems and natural beauty are real entities that belong to all Americans and held in trust by our government. The preservation of that trust is a unifying theme that should imbue all of our decisions about managing these resources.

A more thorough treatment will be published this spring in Ecology Law Quarterly. A draft manuscript is available upon request.