Environmental Hazards, oceans

Keeping Plastic Out of Our Waters

Several nations and states are taking measures to prevent plastic pollution from reaching the oceans.
Plastic pollution in the ocean. Photo: Shutterstock

This past week Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet signed a bill that will ban plastic bags in more than 100 coastal areas. Her decision, she said, was about “taking care of our marine ecosystems.”

“Our fish are dying from plastics ingestion or strangulation; [limiting plastic bags] is a task in which everyone must collaborate,” she added.

It’s a huge deal, not only for Chile’s environment, but for other countries considering their own plastic bag ban.

Chile’s World Wildlife Fund noted that the bill “marks a very important milestone for Chile and opens the door for the whole country to say goodbye to plastic bags.”

According to a 2015 study published in Science, about eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea every year, which can affect millions of marine species. And toxins ingested by fish exposed to those plastics can affect humans as well when they eat those fish.

Chile’s potential ban on plastic bags isn’t the first such ban. The U.S. in particular has already instated bans in many areas, including Massachusetts, California, and Washington. They’ve been shown to be quite effective, too: The ban in San Jose, California led to an 89 percent reduction in plastic bags ending up in storm drains. And in Seattle, Washington, the plastic bag ban has led to a 50 percent reduction of plastic bags ending up in city dumps.

In other areas it’s been trickier. State Senator Linda Stewart of Orlando recently announced she will file a bill in Tallahassee to reverse the current law that prevents governments from banning plastic bags and Styrofoam containers.

Why would a city have such a law in place to begin with? Money, it seems: Grocery heavy-hitter Publix lobbied state politicians to the tune of $1 million to get the law against banning plastic bags instated. However, Stewart may be turning the (plastic) tides with her bill, if it’s passed. At the very least, it’s inspired a similar measure in the Florida House of Representatives.

Banning plastic bags in more places—both in the U.S. and elsewhere—is likely to be a huge boon to marine wildlife. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

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Nature, oceans

New Study Says Sea Animals Eat Plastic Because of Its Taste

A new study says that sea animals may like plastic because it tastes good.
These coral polyps are feeding–and most likely ingesting lots of microplastics in the process. Photo: Shutterstock

Scientists have long known that plastic in the oceans can mimic prey, causing huge problems for sea life. But what they didn’t know is that even corals eat plastic.

Corals don’t have eyes, and they don’t move from their location, so why would they eat plastic? Apparently because it tastes good, according to a recent study from Duke University.

This taste factor may also be true for other sea life. After all, anecdotal evidence suggests that our cats and dogs eat plastic because they like the taste and/or the texture, so why wouldn’t sea life have the same reaction?

Microplastics, tiny pieces of weathered plastic less than 5 millimeters in diameter, have been accumulating in the world’s oceans for 40 years or more, and now they’re ubiquitous in the marine environment. They don’t just pose threats to corals, they also pose a threat to foraging sea animals including birds, turtles, mammals, and invertebrates.

Because plastic is largely indigestible, it can lead to intestinal blockages, create a false sense of fullness, or reduce energy reserves in animals that eat it.

“About eight percent of the plastic that coral polyps in our study ingested was still stuck in their guts after 24 hours,” said study co-lead author Austin S. Allen, a Ph.D. student at Duke.

Plastics can also leach hundreds of chemical compounds into the bodies of the creatures that eat it and into the environment as well. The biological effects of most plastic compounds are unknown, but we do know that some have already been shown to cause harm. For example, phthalates are confirmed environmental estrogens and androgens—that is, hormones that affect sex determination.

“Corals in our experiments ate all types of plastics, but preferred unfouled microplastics by a threefold difference over microplastics covered in bacteria,” Allen said.

“When plastic comes from the factory, it has hundreds of chemical additives on it. Any one of these chemicals or a combination of them could be acting as a stimulant that makes plastic appealing to corals,” said Alexander C. Seymour, a GIS analyst at Duke, who co-led the study with Allen.

The researchers hope their findings will encourage more scientists to study the role taste plays in determining why marine animals ingest microplastics.

“Ultimately, the hope is that if we can manufacture plastic so it unintentionally tastes good to these animals, we might also be able to manufacture it so it intentionally tastes bad,” Seymour said. “That could significantly help reduce the threat these microplastics pose.”

Nature, Science

The World’s Oceans Now Have A Health Record

The oceans now have a health record, thanks to a team of scientists at UC Santa Barbara

Thanks to a team of researchers at UC Santa Barbara, the world’s oceans now have a health record.

And that health record is revealing clues about what might be behind ocean improvements or declines.

Analyzing data from 220 countries, the team gathered five years’ worth of ocean “vital signs” in a variety of areas ranging from water quality to food provision to tourism potential in order to create an Ocean Health Index. Their conclusion: While ocean health appears to be stable, the oceans around many of the countries analyzed are changing for the worse.

“With five years of assessments about where oceans are healthy and not as healthy, we finally have enough information to get a clear signal of what might be causing changes,” said study lead author Ben Halpern, executive director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at UC Santa Barbara.

Countries like Indonesia, Mexico, and Samoa, that are seeing improvements in their oceans are taking action to make things better, including improving management of wild-caught fisheries and creating marine protected areas.

On the other hand, the countries that saw a decline in ocean health where in consistent political turmoil. Many Arctic and sub-Arctic countries are seeing declines as well, due to the fact that coastlines are losing sea ice, which is a natural protection from storm damage and erosion.

“The Ocean Health Index created the first opportunity any of us has had to measure the health of our oceans in a comprehensive way and track changes with a single measure,” Halpern said.

According to the researchers, the index has scored the oceans’ overall health staying steady at a 71 out of 100. This shows that while the oceans aren’t dying, they aren’t thriving, either. The team will continue to collect data on ocean health every year.

“We believe the Ocean Health Index gives reason for hope by providing a detailed diagnosis of the state of ocean health and a framework that allows countries to identify and prioritize the most necessary resilience actions to improve ocean health,” said study co-author Johanna Polsenberg, senior director of governance and policy for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. “This is where our work is most valuable. It helps to identify and highlight the necessary steps to ensure a healthy ocean into the future.”

I don’t know about you, but after seeing all the news about dying reefs, pollution, and overfishing, I’m surprised the oceans are as healthy as they are. Hopefully this new information will help governments and scientists to improve their health.

Environmental Hazards, Nature

California Sea Lions Dying Due to Poisonous Algae Blooms

California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.
California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.

In the first two weeks of April, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, recorded 14 sea lion deaths due to poisoning by domoic acid. Another nine are in various stages of recovery.

Domoic acid poisoning occurs when animals eat fish that have been feeding on toxic algae.

Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Krysta Higuchi told the Los Angeles Times that 10 years ago, the last time the problem was this severe in southern California, 79 sea lions died due to domoic acid poisoning.

“Other rescue facilities are also seeing the same animals,” Higuchi said. They’re “all over the place.”

How does domoic acid poisoning happen? Normally, blooms of single-celled algae occur for about a week in the spring. However, the heavy rains California has been receiving have intensified the blooms by flushing nutrients from fertilizers and other sources into the Pacific Ocean, and this has intensified the blooms. Small sea animals like anchovies, clams, and mussels feed on the algae, and the sea lions then feed on those animals.

“When the sea lions eat these toxic anchovies, they have serious neurological problems,” said Kathi Lefebvre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle. “The sea lions will have seizures, in some cases they’ll die, in some cases they’ll recover but have permanent brain damage.” In addition, many pregnant sea lions miscarry. The pups that do survive until birth often suffer from the effects of domoic acid poisoning.

The Marine Mammal Center in the northern California city of Sausalito has also treated two sea lions it suspects were poisoned by domoic acid.

Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Sausalito center, said that it’s possible more sea lions in northern California may be affected as the water temperatures rise in the summer and fall.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns about what triggers these blooms of algae and what triggers them to become toxic, because not all the blooms are toxic,” Johnson told SFgate. “There’s a lot of research going on to better understand [the causes] so we can better predict when these blooms will happen so that fisheries can be monitored, and for us, so we can be prepared for increased stranding [of sea lions].

California officials have warned consumers not to eat mussels, clams, or whole scallops harvested recreationally in Santa Barbara County. Commercially harvested seafood is typically tested for safety before being distributed.

Nature, Science

Rogue Waves are More Common than We Thought

Rogue waves may not be so rogue after all, according to new research.
Rogue waves may not be so “rogue” after all, according to new research. Photo: Shutterstock

Rogue waves are unexpected waves that suddenly appear and can pose serious threats to even the largest ships and offshore platforms. They’ve been known to reach as high as 49 feet above the normal water level, and can be as much as 300 feet wide and travel as quickly as 40 miles an hour.

In 2007, a rogue wave in the North Sea was recorded—perhaps the largest ever noted—and it gave us a lot of data about such waves.

Rogue waves can, and have, caused loss of life and serious damage in the past. Luckily, they aren’t that common, or so we thought.

It seems like rogue waves aren’t that rogue after all. It turns out that they can occur twice a day during storms, and tend to happen on their own once every three weeks or so. The findings also showed that the steeper the waves are, the less frequent their occurrence.

From this data, scientists will hopefully be inspired to do further research that about how rogue waves form and how to predict and avoid them. It also gives researchers and engineers more information that will allow them to construct ships and platforms that have a greater chance to survive rogue waves.

“Rogue waves are known to have caused loss of life as well as damage to ships and offshore structures,” said Mark Donelan of the University of Miami, one of the study’s authors. “Our results, while representing the worst-case rogue wave forecast, are new knowledge important for the design and safe operations for ships and platforms at sea.”

These changes could save lives and reduce costs associated with loss of property, but would also have a benefit for the environment, as the more capable a ship or platform is of surviving rogue waves, the less chance there is of potentially dangerous cargo being dumped into the ocean.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Science

Arctic Puts in Overtime When it Comes to the Nitrogen Cycle

The arctic works overtime at removing nitrogen.
Photo: Shutterstock

Nitrogen is necessary for all life on Earth, but like many things, its possible to have too much of it.

For most of the Earth’s history, there was a careful nitrogen balance maintained between land, sea, and atmosphere. This was done through a process called denitrification. However, human activity has caused high levels of nitrogen in the earth’s oceans.

When fertilizer and sewage make their way into the ocean, it produces areas where there is simply too much nitrogen. This produces fish kills, toxic algae blooms, shellfish poisoning, and loss of coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and other coastal habitats.

One of the denitrification processes is handled by microbes found on seabeds of continental shelves. Interestingly the Arctic, which only accounts for 1 percent of these shelves, is actually responsible for 5 percent of global ocean nitrogen removal.

“The role of this region is critically important to understand as humans put more nitrogen into the ocean,” says Amber Hardison of the University of Texas at Austin, one of the authors of the paper. “The Arctic is also undergoing dramatic changes linked to climate change, including a rapid decline in sea ice. As sea ice shrinks, it disrupts the natural functioning of the ecosystem, including potentially limiting the vital nitrogen removal process.”

Animals living on and in the seafloor also play a role in denitrifiation. These creatures, including worms and clams, make tubes and burrows in the seabed, which makes a space for the microbes to do their job.

This new information might help us to better understand how ocean nitrogen removal works, as well as how our on actions impact it. By studying the microbes in the Arctic seabed, scientists can get a better understanding of how this denitrification process works. Then, by comparing them to other, similar microbes, they can get an idea of why Arctic microbes are so much better at denitrification. This could help them come to a conclusion about how to assist that process, which could help us offset the extra nitrogen that we’ve been leaking into the ocean.

This also means that protecting the Arctic is even more important. Oil and gas companies have been eyeing Arctic waters as a possible place to find untapped quantities of fossil fuels. They can only do because global climate change, brought about by the use of fossil fuels, has made those waters more accessible, but numerous scientists have argued that tapping such reserves could be bad for the Arctic and the world at large.

Nature, Science

Greenland Sharks Can Live for Centuries

Greenland Shark. Photo by NOAA via Wikimedia Commons
Greenland Shark. Photo by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists have recently discovered that the Greenland shark is the oldest living vertebrate species on the planet, living up to 400 years, if not longer.

The Greenland shark lives in extremely cold water, and generally very deep in the ocean. As a result, they grow very slowly, about 1cm a year, and also move very slowly, about one mile an hour. They’re mostly scavengers, but apparently sneak up on sleeping seals from time to time, and have been found with all kinds of things in their stomach, including a moose one time.

Born about three feet long, Greenland sharks can reach lengths of around 24 feet, making them among the biggest sharks in the ocean. Luckily they live in water so cold that they rarely share it with humans, because they could easily swallow somebody whole. But there is no record of a Greenland shark ever eating a person.

Unlike many marine species, Greenland sharks aren’t threatened by fishing, which is a good thing. Since they don’t generally breed until they’re about a century and a half old, it would be really easy to accidentally overfish them.

While their meat is considered a delicacy in Iceland, it takes so much effort to make it edible that nobody else really wants to eat it. Because of the depths and temperatures of water at which they live, they create a chemical compound that, if ingested, causes effects similar to being extremely drunk. Sled dogs that have eaten the meat weren’t able to stand up. But if you cook it right, for a long enough time, or ferment it, you can actually eat it.

Most people don’t have the patience to eat these sharks, so we don’t have to worry about them vanishing any time soon, and hopefully they can teach us a great deal.