“Take that out of your mouth.”

October 21, 2008
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Such is the cry of parents whose young children have an appetite for learning that is sometimes too literal. Over the last year or two we have seen an increase of stories about the effects of toxic plastics on human health, from fetal to adult. The scientist Jacques Monod once commented of genetics, “What’s true for e-coli is true for an elephant.” That goes for the effects of plastics, too.

Approximately no one should be surprised that the oceans absorb much of our chemical trash. Still, it was a useful and insightful exercise for Charles James Moore, of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, to quantify just how much plastic the waters have absorbed – and by extension, the life within them. Moore finds that for two decades we have been flushing plastics out to sea faster than industry produces them for their infinite commercial use.

Bisphenol-A, singled out recently in several studies for harm to children, is just one chemical that seeps into marine ecosystems. Styrene, polycarbonates, UV stabilizers, non-stick coatings all break-down over time, but for the most part maintain their molecular integrity. When a foam coffee cup dematerializes to the four corners of the Earth, it doesn’t disappear, but soaks up other toxins before entering the food chain. Scientists have identified 267 species worldwide that ingest plastic debris, including albatross, fulmars, shearwaters, and petrels, which confuse plastic for food; 44 percent of seabird species; and sea turtles that munch on plastic bags and fishing line.

Moore identifies eight issues within the overall problem:

  • Macroscopic debris – diapers, syringes, etc – washes up on beaches, unsightly and potentially harmful.
  • Bags, lines, and other waste snares marine biota, “and kills through drowning, strangulation, dragging, and reduction of feeding efficiency.”
  • Some plastic debris looks like and weighs as much as food, but is only a toxic substitute.
  • Hydrocarbon-based synthetic compounds tend not to biodegrade. They can also provide a home to barnacles, worms, and other undesirables, and float them across the sea, where they become invasive species.
  • Many unprocessed plastics are shipped from suppliers to factories in the form of tiny resin pellets. At sea, these pellets and other plastic debris emit and absorb endocrine disrupters and other pollutants.
  • Debris falls through the water column and disrupts both benthic ecosystems and deep-sea deposition of CO2.
  • Coastal species see their nursery habitats poisoned by anthropogenic litter.
  • Plastic waste clogs ship intake ports and wraps propellers, costing time and money.

SOURCE: Moore, Charles James. “Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat.” Environmental Research 108 (2008): 131-139.

The Jellyfish that Lit the World

October 8, 2008
The edge of Aequorea victoria's umbrella contains a bioluminscent protein called aequorin.

Aequorea victoria

A scientific adventure that began with a haul of 10,000 bioluminescent jellyfish off Friday Harbor during 1961 has resulted in the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Osamu Shimomura‘s career shot forward in 1956 when he isolated a luminescent protein found in the mollusc Cypridina. This was a major feat for a young researcher, particularly since U.S. scientists had worked without success for some time on it. Princeton University snapped up Shimomura, who was awarded a PhD from Nagoya University without even being a doctoral candidate. He now works at Connecticut College.

Once in the U.S., Shimomura turned his attention to the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. Over the course of 1961, he and a colleague gathered and sliced the edges off 10,000 jellyfish — the parts that glow — and mashed them into a condensed form. Back at the lab, the scientists discovered that the material glowed brightly, when activated by the calcium ions in seawater. They named this brightening protein aequorin.

Aequorin contains a chromophore that has become a pivotal investigatory tool for biochemical researchers around the world. This “beer-can-shaped” protein absorbs blue and ultraviolet light, then re-emits it at a green wavelength.

Today, scientists use this molecular flashlight to illuminate cancer tumors as they grow, track the progression of Alzheimer’s, and map the basic function of cells. With Green Fluorescent Protein, researchers can watch a single protein move about a cell.

Shimomura shares the prize, one-third each, with colleagues Marty Chalfie of Columbia University and Roger Tsien of UC-San Diego.

(Image courtesy: The GFP Site)

Drill, baby, drill!

September 26, 2008

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday voted to lift the generation-old ban on oil drilling on the Outer Contintental Shelf, thus bringing to resolution the year-long ascension of the issue from oil-industry wish list to national policy. Democrats, ostensibly the party in control of both houses of Congress, caved in to a forceful Republican minority, and an even more forceful president, who threatened to veto any spending bills that preserved the moratorium. Offshore drilling became a mantra through the summer, when politicians strove to find a rhetorical palliative to record-high gasoline prices.

The drilling ban was never based on anything that might pass for scientific research. Through the 1970s, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, Washington kept something of an implicit, even-keeled balance between exploiting natural resources and maintaining environmental protection offshore. That changed in January 1981, when President Ronald Reagan nominated James Watt to be Secretary of the Interior. Watt has a distinguished career as secretary, which included kicking the Beach Boys out of a DC Fourth of July celebration, explaining the diversity of his staff by pointing out he employs “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple,” and also by disrupting this unspoken balance between industry and the environment.

Watt moved to open coastal waters to more exploration, breaking the implicit deal, an action met by outrage by the environmental community. The Sierra Club organized a petition campaign to push back Watt’s heavy hand. The trouble was, what did they want to push it back to? As a practical matter, it was difficult to say what the best solution to the problem was; it would take too much time, thought, and effort to try and gerrymander an equitable system of where thou shalt drill and where shalt thou not. So the Sierra Club petition, eventually signed by 1 million Americans, called for moratoria on drilling in U.S. waters off the East and West coasts. The easiest answer was taking the whole OCS off the table.

Will Rising Tides Lift All Boats?

September 25, 2008

Global climate models have difficulty resolving possible regional impacts of global warming. The Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis at Florida State University recently tried to address this shortcoming by taking a ground-up approach to predicted sea level rise and its possible economic implications.

A new report (link in .pdf) is called Climate Change in Coastal Areas of Florida: Sea Level Rise Estimation and Economic Analysis to Year 2080. Julie Harrington and Todd L. Walton Jr. look at six Florida counties located around the state, from rural to urban. The researchers estimated how high waters might rise using tide data from six stations around the state. Their model returned a range for higher sea levels of 0.23 feet to 0.29 ft in 2030 and 0.83 ft to 1.13 ft in 2080, lower than IPCC general estimates, but both low and high estimates were used to model economic costs.

Harrington and Walton used historical damage costs from hurricanes and current property values. Costs associated with sea-level rise top $1 billion under a 0.16 ft rise, but escalate past $12 billion in a 2.13 ft rise scenario. The study does not take into account likely adaptation to rising waters or rising property values. Rather it is meant to identify areas at potential risk and assign dollar estimates to possible damage in a state where 80 percent of the population lives in coastal counties and that relies on coastal tourism for 10 percent of its income.

(Aside: Scientists have predicted Florida could suffer from sea-level rise long before the physical evidence for manmade global warming was clear. Watch this clip from a 1958 educational film sponsored by Bell Labs and produced by It’s a Wonderful Life Director Frank Capra.)

“Equity in the Ecosystem”

September 22, 2008

A new report concludes that assigning individual property rights within the fishing industry staves off ecosystem collapse more frequently than other types of governance.

Management policies that assign catch rights to individuals may better stave off fishery collapse, according a report in Science. Christopher Costello, Steven D. Gaines, and John Lynham assembled a worldwide database of fisheries and catch statistics in 11,135 fisheries, from 1950 to 2003. By 2003, fisheries that have deployed “individual transferable quotas” collapse about half as frequently as fisheries that have no catch rights.

The impetus for the study came from the much-discussed 2006 study by Boris Worm et al, which predicted a collapse of all world fisheries by 2048. Costello, Gaines, and Lynham resolved that the community to date has focused on problems disproportionately to solutions. As a result, they happened upon inefficiencies in current management that might be rethought — in local ecololgical, economic, and social context. “The answer lies in the misalignment of incentives,” they write. “Even when management sets harvest quotas that could maximize profits, the incentives of the individual harvester are tyhpically inconsistent with profit maximazation for the fleet.”

Costello, Christopher, Steven D. Gaines, John Lynham. “Can Catch Shares Prevent Fisheries Collapse?” Science 321 (19 September 2008): 1678-1681.

See accompanying article, from which title of this post comes: Stokstad, Erik. “Privatization Prevents Collapse of Fish Stocks, Global Analysis Shows.” Science 321 (19 September 2008): 1619.

Fish trawl data points to global warming

July 1, 2008

Three University of Rhode Island oceanographers conclude from four decades of fishery data that rising temperatures are the primary cause for significant turnover in Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound fish populations.

Weekly trawl surveys from two stations indicate that over 46 years these communities witnessed a transformation from vertebrates to invertebrates and from bottom-feeding fish to species that make a living higher in the water column. Collie et al posit several hypotheses: the effects of fishing, the abundance of chlorophyll, temperature change, and other climate factors, including the North Atlantic Oscillation. “Mounting evidence has revealed that even small increases in water temperature over extended periods of time can directly influence the species composition, distribution, and abundances of surrounding fish communities,” the authors write, citing observations from the English and Bristol Channels and similar studies in the northwest Atlantic. Temperature increases in these previously studied areas are consistent with the changes documented off Rhode Island: increasing numbers of squids, pelagic fish, bottom dwelling invertebrates.

If temperatures and other environmental factors have indeed driven these changes, the authors predict that the population may begin to more closely resemble warmer water estuaries, such as Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay.

The research rests on the valuable set of trawl-survey data. All but one month of the 564 studied had more than two surveys, and in 91 percent of the months three or more surveys were recorded. Twenty-five species made up 96 percent of the total haul (1.8 million animals over the 46 years).

The authors looked carefully at the fishing record to limit the potential influence human commercial activity has had on the transformation. They found “no strong correlations” between the population and the fishing activity. Fishing activity was overwhelmed by the climate signal: Sea surface temperature increased by 2 degrees C since 1959; fish species caught today prefer to swim in waters about 2 degrees C warmer than the water was in 1959. “That seems to be direct evidence of global warming,” Jeremy Collie said. “It’s hard to explain any other way.

Collie, Jeremy S., Anthony D. Wood, and H. Perry Jeffries. “Long-term shifts in species composition of a coastal fish community.” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 65: 1352-1365: 2008.

Boesch and lessons learned from Louisiana and the Chesapeake

June 25, 2008

Boesch, D. F. (2006). “Scientific requirements for in the restoration of Chesapeake Bay and Coastal Louisiana.” Engineering 26(1): 6-26.

Here Donald Boesch analyzes two ostensibly ecosystem based management programs based on four broad principles that are generally considered key to an ecosystem-based approach: 1) integration of multiple ecosystem components; 2) sustainability as a goal; 3) precautionary approach; and 4) adaptive methodologies. These are all very broad concepts with potential for multiple interpretations, as the author notes. The challenge he raises is then how can scientific advancements help with the practical application of these concepts?

Boesch starts with the idea that the real challenge for EBM is how to implement it in the field, and thus his focus on case studies in Louisiana and the Chesapeake. He then discusses how the four broad principles can be better applied to these cases through increased scientific input. For integration he points out that simulation models (run forward or backward) can be used to capture some key elements (e.g., the relationship between land use practices, runoff and nutrient loading in a bay), but that they still fail to provide a complete quantitative picture (e.g., we still can’t quantitatively connect nutrient loading in a bay to human health outcomes). Boesch notes that a major challenge here, from both the science and management sides, is that work (academic departments, journals, technical panels) tends to be fairly narrowly focused on one issue (e.g., toxic metals) rather than integrative from the start.

On the issue of sustainability, Boesch turns to “resilience” as a goal with perhaps a better chance of practical implementation. Invariably, this discussion raises the question of whether ecosystems have steady states that ecosystem properties (water quality, diversity, turnover, etc.) gravitate towards. My worry here is that it may be possible to note where an ecosystem has lost resilience (e.g., Louisiana in the 2005 hurricane season) or has declined to an undesirable state, but is it possible to design restoration with a particular resilient goal in mind?

Boesch notes that both in Louisiana and the Chesapeake the precautionary principle is mostly being applied in hindsight, focusing on the consequences of not reducing existing impacts rather than strictly on preventing future impacts.

On adaptive management Boesch importantly notes the difference between true adaptive management and “trial and error” management. In particular, a true adaptive management program must set explicit expectations and periodically monitoring how closely those expectations are being met, and make adjustments as necessary to bring expectations and reality closer. In responding to the recent blueprint for ocean research priorities in the US, several members of the Duke Nicholas School faculty and I pointed out the failure to explicitly differentiate adaptive management and “trial and error” as a weakness of the plan (available here). Boesch also points out the risk of being too reliant on predictive models in lieu of actual field data and monitoring in assessing the results of adaptive management.

Boesch offers five broad solutions for the scientific community, two of which are focused on institutions and norms in science and three focused on actual research areas. First, he argues that scientists should be more “solutions based”. This is always a tricky argument, given the institutional impediments (in funding, tenure granting and job candidate selection, for examples), but there are clearly both individual examples of people who have made this transition (e.g., Jane Lubchenco, Stuart Pimm) and institutional examples (Boesch points to the field of human health research). Second, Boesch calls for better bridging between science and management. I think many of the same institutional barriers apply here, especially with regard to training in most academic departments (if I may make a shameless plug here, the Nicholas School at Duke, to which I am a newcomer, seems to turn out a large number of well-trained scientists who end up in key marine management positions). Third, Boesch makes a plea for more predictive analyses, particularly with regard to thresholds of resilience in ecosystems. This seems like a particularly large (though important) task considering our current fairly basic understanding of resilience in ecosystems. Fourth, he argues for better scientific clarity on the issue of uncertainty and how to get beyond uncertainty as an impediment to progress. This is at the core of the science-politics interface with regard to the issue of climate change, as Stephen Schneider has often addressed. Finally, he calls for a more integrative approach to adaptive management including the direct comparison of different predictive models. This seems especially important in light of the ascendancy of Ecopath/Ecosim type models despite varying degrees of discomfort about the many assumptions that must be made in using them (sounds like a good topic for a debate here).