Breaking Waves: Ocean News

07/25/2014 - 03:57
Over 40 staff write internal letter saying Pascal Husting's 'flying scandal' has damaged the group's reputation Continue reading...
07/25/2014 - 03:24
As much as 92% of all chicken is contaminated with faecal matter, while intensive livestock production crams 30,000 birds living in their own excrement into a single shed Continue reading...
07/24/2014 - 17:12
Professor Naomi Oreskes says actions of climate denialists are laying the foundations for the government interventions they fear the most Continue reading...
07/24/2014 - 15:00
South Uist: Spotting prey at last, the short-eared owl drops, thick feather-clad legs outstretched, into the deep grass Continue reading...
07/24/2014 - 14:44
(Click to enlarge) The Army Corps of Engineers vessel Hayward unloads a dead female finback whale measuring 45-50 feet at the engineers’ pier in Jersey City, N.J., Thursday, Feb. 1, 2001. The whale was retrieved in the waters off nearby Port Elizabeth and is the third whale to be found dead in the area since Dec. 11, 2000. (Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky) A central question in the debate over a Rutgers University-led study of the ocean floor off the coast of Long Beach Island is whether the loud sound waves used to map the sediment will harm dolphins, whales, and other animals. (From The Philadelphia Inquirer / from Sandy Bauers) – It is an area of scientific research that has been getting more attention since the mid-1990s, when researchers generated loud sounds in the Pacific Ocean to study the effect of water temperature on sound. People began to wonder whether marine mammals could hear the sound and, if so, if that was bad. Since then, scientists have trained some of the more intelligent species, such as dolphins, to tap a paddle when they hear a sound. They have attached electrodes to marine mammals to measure how their brain waves responded to sound, similar to the way that the hearing of newborn humans is tested. They have tracked whales by helicopter and, more recently, attached electrodes that will give complex information about what the animals are doing – with the ultimate goal of helping scientists understand why. Still, “it’s definitely a new science,” said Amy Scholik-Schlomer, a fisheries scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We’ve learned a lot. We need to learn a lot more.” NOAA is updating its acoustic-guidance document for marine mammals, setting threshold levels and including other information to help scientists and agencies better predict a marine mammal’s response to sound that humans generate in the water. Scholik-Schlomer said officials hoped to have it done by the fall. The ocean has always been filled with sound, from the rumble of earthquakes to the whoosh of waves, the sizzle of rain, the crack of lightning, and the song of whales. “Today, in much of the Northern Hemisphere, commercial shipping clouds the marine acoustic environment with fog banks of noise, and the near-continuous pounding of seismic air guns in search of fossil fuels beneath the surface of the seafloor thunders throughout the waters,” wrote Brandon Southall and a colleague in a 2012 editorial. Southall, president of Southall Environmental Associates, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., is one of the nation’s foremost researchers on sound and its effects on marine mammals. As part of the Rutgers study, scientists will use air guns to release compressed bubbles of air that expand rapidly and release a burst of sound. Hydrophones will record the returning sound waves, and computers will turn the information into 3-D images, revealing the course of ancient rivers, the shift of coastlines, and the buildup of sandbars as sea level rose and fell as long as 50 million years ago. The scientists say this will help them better predict what will happen with sea level rise today. The study was to have begun in early June, but New Jersey fought to stop it. The case is focused on procedural issues – whether the state has the right to review a federal activity that could affect its coastal waters – but state officials have said they feared that the loud sounds could harm marine life and disrupt recreational and commercial fishing, harming the state’s lucrative tourist industry. Two judges have denied New Jersey’s request to stop the study. Asked whether work had begun, a Rutgers spokesman said he could not discuss the study while it was in litigation. Scientists now have arrays of underwater listening devices to follow animals fitted with acoustic tags. They find that some animals experience a temporary “threshold shift” – the same way a human’s hearing might be impaired for a short time after a loud rock concert. Otherwise, Southall said, “we’re seeing that for at least some species, the ears appear to be pretty tough.” At least some species, including bottlenose dolphins and some seals, “look like they can take quite a loud sound before their hearing starts to change,” he said. Harbor porpoises stick out as being more sensitive than researchers thought. The pitch of the sound matters. Large whales are tuned to hear sounds at the lower end – akin to the keys of a piano left of middle C. Seismic sounds are in this range, Southall said. Seals hear more in the mid-range; porpoises hear the higher sounds. Now, researchers are turning their attention to behavior. Maybe the sound won’t hurt the animal’s ear, but will it interfere with the ability to hear something else that’s important? And most crucially, if an animal’s behavior changes due to sound, is that bad? Does it cost the animal energy or send it to a place that’s not as safe? NOAA’s guidance document covers only hearing impacts, Scholik-Schlomer said. Officials are “working on trying to develop guidance for behavior,” she said, although that’s “more challenging.” The National Marine Fisheries Service, a NOAA division, has given the Rutgers project a permit to “harass” nearly three dozen marine-mammal species of dolphins, whales, and seals. Harassment could mean that the animals stopped feeding or changed course if they were traveling. Officials do not expect any animals to be killed or permanently injured. The permit includes procedures for monitoring marine mammals in the area and specifies when the air guns must be stopped to avoid harming the animals. But critics contend that animals will be harmed. Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey’s first responder to animals that become beached, said he didn’t see how observers could possibly know every species in the area. “Our perspective is that after 135 dolphin deaths last summer in 31/2 months” from a virus, “now we’re looking at another problem.” He wants NOAA to set up a fund so that if animals start coming ashore, officials can look for seismic-related injuries, such as inner-ear damage. He also said that if an animal became disoriented, swam away, and died, no one would ever know. “If they lose an animal, it’s going to be shark bait.”
07/24/2014 - 14:37
(Click to enlarge)The rip current research team includes, from left, Rob Brander from Australia, Spencer Rogers from North Carolina Sea Grant and Cobi Christiansen from UNC Wilmington. Brander, known online as Dr. Rip, is on sabbatical from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. (Credit: Kurt Christiansen – North Carolina Sea Grant) For much of Wednesday, a small group of volunteers and researchers walked in and out of the surf testing a new form of surveillance on the biggest killer of beach swimmers – rip currents. (From The Charlotte Observer / by Jay Price) – Again and again the researchers toted 3-foot yellow and green contraptions fashioned from foam, plastic sewer pipe, gym weights and cheap GPS units into the surf, then walked along the beach to wherever the odd devices washed up and retrieved them under the gaze of puzzled sunbathers. Rip currents are blamed for killing 62 beachgoers in North Carolina since 1999. They are thought to be responsible for 80 percent of all U.S. surf rescues and are by far the most common reason that coastal swimmers drown. “It’s really frightening for swimmers, because it’s like an endless treadmill for them,” said Simon Sanders, the ocean rescue supervisor for Carolina Beach, who was part of the research team Wednesday. The vast majority of his lifeguards’ rescues, he said, were because of rip currents, though the lifeguards, who know how to deal with the currents, often use them to zip out more quickly to swimmers in trouble. The nature of perilous currents seems straightforward: Water piles up between the beach and an offshore sandbar, then finds a low point in the bar and rushes back out to sea, sometimes carrying hapless swimmers with it. But scientists have only recently begun figuring out the life-and-death nuances of the currents. The 22 “data-logging drifters” that the team on the beach deployed Wednesday up the center of a weak rip current are thought to be the first ever used on the East Coast. The team hopes the research will lead to more accurate ways of predicting rip currents and also, perhaps, better methods of escaping them. The gadgets float along more or less as swimmers would and let researchers precisely and repeatedly track where the rip currents take them. They also gather other data on the currents’ behavior, said Spencer Rogers, the coastal erosion and construction specialist from North Carolina Sea Grant who led the construction of the drifters. Sea Grant, which sponsors research, education and outreach on coastal issues, paid for the drifters and is partnering on the project with the National Weather Service, The Center for Marine Science at UNC Wilmington and several local lifeguard programs. On Wednesday, the surf was relatively calm and the likelihood of dangerous rip currents was at the lowest of three risk levels that the National Weather Service uses for predictions. The group had set up right in front of a rip current that had been seen in the same location for weeks. Currents unpredictable The rip current clearly was happening, with a dark patch of more or less calm water showing where the current split the surf on its way out to sea. The current was weak, though, and several swimmers and surfers bobbed cheerfully right in the middle of it. The lack of danger actually underlined one reason why the research that could improve forecasting rip currents is important: They are unpredictable. The currents develop constantly, but a given stretch of beach in North Carolina may develop the right combination of conditions – such as wave size and frequency, tides and sandbar shape – to create lethally strong ones only five to 10 days a year, said Rogers. “They’re almost never dangerous, but when they are, Michael Phelps couldn’t keep up with one,” he said. The research also could lead to different advice about how to behave when caught in a rip current. One of the volunteers Wednesday was something of a celebrity in the world of coastal research – Rob Brander, who was visiting from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, as part of a multinational research trip. The formal recommendation for escaping rip currents has long been to swim parallel to the beach until you’re out of the relatively narrow band of flowing water. That has been the theme of a national rip current awareness campaign that for more than a decade has been an international model. But Brander, an expert on surf behavior, said that in recent years researchers using drifters in Australia, the West Coast of the United States and elsewhere had found that in many cases the currents form eddies that will return you to the beach if you simply float along with the flow. The chances of that working in the currents studied were perhaps 80 percent to 90 percent. That, Brander said, started a debate among experts about whether to continue telling people to swim parallel to shore or to float and wait. Of course, the handful of cases that would shoot swimmers straight out and not return them could be fatal for weak swimmers. Complicating things further, conditions can vary greatly on different kinds of coastline, and no one had really studied rip currents here the same way. “A lot of people on the East Coast said, ‘Ours don’t behave that way,’ ” Brander said. The new research project aims to find out. The event Wednesday was partly to practice one last time before beginning the research in earnest. Instead of picking a random day to gather data, researchers will wait for lifeguards and the National Weather Service to alert them when rip current conditions are ripe. The researchers will mostly gather data near Wilmington this summer, but in August they will make a foray north to the Outer Banks. They want to expand the program to other Atlantic states in the next couple of years, Rogers said. Advice for swimmers Meanwhile, Brander said, the advice for beachgoers is pretty simple: If you know how to spot the tell-tale darker water and flatter surf of a rip current and are a good enough swimmer to get out of one, fine. If not, find a spot on a beach near a lifeguard or don’t go in the water past your knees. It’s not so much the rip current that kills many of those who drown as it is the panic that getting caught in one triggers, Brander said. His latest research includes investigating the human side of the danger by polling people who have been caught in rip currents to learn more about the experience and what that might tell researchers about how to improve beach safety. Rip currents, he said, deserve a higher profile. “There is this complacency, because they might only kill one or two people at a time,” he said. “In Australia, they don’t get much attention, but they kill more people than cyclones, bush fires, floods and sharks combined.”
07/24/2014 - 14:33
(Click to enlarge) Researchers examine a dead blue whale killed from a collision by a ship.(Credit: Craig Hayslip, Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute) A comprehensive 15-year analysis of the movements of satellite-tagged blue whales off the West Coast of the United States found that their favored feeding areas are bisected by heavily used shipping lanes, increasing the threat of injury and mortality. (From ScienceDaily) – The researchers note that moving the shipping lanes off Los Angeles and San Francisco to slightly different areas — at least, during summer and fall when blue whales are most abundant — could significantly decrease the probability of ships striking the whales. A similar relocation of shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy off eastern Canada lowered the likelihood of vessels striking endangered right whales an estimated 80 percent. Results of the study — which was supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, private gifts to the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute and others — are being published this week in the journal PLOS ONE. The analysis is the most comprehensive study of blue whales movements ever conducted. It was led by researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, who tracked the movement of blue whales off the West Coast to identify important habitat areas and environmental correlates, and subsequently to understand the timing of their presence near major ports and shipping traffic. “The main areas that attract blue whales are highly productive, strong upwelling zones that produce large amounts of krill — which is pretty much all that they eat,” said Ladd Irvine, a researcher with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute and lead author on the PLOS ONE study. “The whales have to maximize their food intake during the summer before they migrate south for the winter, typically starting in mid-October to mid-November.” “It appears that two of their main foraging areas are coincidentally crossed by shipping lanes,” Irvine added. In their study, the researchers attached transmitters to 171 blue whales off California at different times between 1993 and 2008 and tracked their movements via satellite. Their study looked at seasonal as well as individual differences in whale distribution, documenting a high degree of variability — but also a strong fidelity to the upwelling zones that coincide with ship traffic to and from the major ports of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Blue whales can grow to the length of a basketball court, weigh as much as 25 large elephants combined, and their mouths could hold 100 people, though their diet is primarily krill — tiny shrimp-like creatures less than two inches in length. The blue whale is the largest creature to ever inhabit Earth, yet little was known about their range or where they went to breed until Oregon State’s Bruce Mate led a series of tracking studies featured in the popular 2009 National Geographic documentary, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale.” An estimated 2,500 of the world’s 10,000 blue whales spend time in the waters off the West Coast of the Americas and are known as the eastern North Pacific population. The huge whales can travel from the Gulf of Alaska all the way down to an area near the equator known as the Costa Rica Dome. The majority of the population spends the summer and fall in the waters off the U.S. West Coast, with the areas most heavily used by the tagged whales occurring off California’s Santa Barbara and San Francisco, which puts them in constant peril from ship strikes. “During one year, while we were filming the documentary, five blue whales were hit off of southern California during a seven-week period,” said Mate, who directs the Marine Mammal Institute at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “Blue whales may not be as acoustically aware as species that rely on echolocation to find prey and there is some evidence that the location of the engines in the rear of the ship creates something of an acoustic shadow in front of them, making it hard for whales to hear the ship coming. “Putting some kind of noise deterrent on the ships isn’t really an option, however,” Mate added. “You don’t really want to drive endangered whales out of their prime habitat and best feeding locations.” Moving the shipping lanes would not be unprecedented, the researchers note. Scientists brought concerns about right whale ship strikes in the Bay of Fundy to the International Maritime Organization, and the industry led the effort to modify shipping lanes in the North Atlantic more than a decade ago. Daniel Palacios, also a co-author on the paper and a principal investigator with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, said vessel traffic between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles moved south of its current location in the past to comply with the California Clear Air Act, but shifted back to its current location after getting an exemption to the legislation. “It is not often that research results are so applicable to a policy decision.” Palacios said, “It’s not really our place to make management decisions, but we can inform policy-makers and in this case it is pretty straightforward. You will eliminate many of the ship strikes on blue whales by moving the shipping lanes south of the northern Channel Islands.” The solution for the San Francisco area is similar, the researchers note, though not quite as simple. Three separate shipping lanes are used in the region and all cross through the home range and core areas of blue whales tagged in this study. “We did find that the northernmost shipping lanes crossed the area that was most heavily used by tagged whales,” Irvine noted. “Restricting use of the northern lane during the summer and fall when more whales are present is one option; another would be to extend one lane further offshore before separating it into different trajectories, minimizing the overlap of the shipping lanes with the areas used by blue whales.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is planning a review of shipping lanes in the southern California area, which will be informed by this study. A variety of stakeholders must be consulted, however, before any changes are implemented.
07/24/2014 - 14:26
(Click to enlarge) Antarctic fur seal female and its pup with a male that is holding a breeding territory. (Credit: Dr. Jaume Forcada) Genetic analysis of Antarctic fur seals, alongside decades of in-depth monitoring, has provided unique insights into the effect of climate change on a population of top-predators. (From ScienceDaily) – Published in Nature this week, the findings show that the seals have significantly altered in accordance with changes in food availability that are associated with climate conditions. Despite a shift in the population towards ‘fitter’ individuals, this fitness is not passing down through generations, leaving the population in decline. Environmental change is expected to affect many species and biological systems throughout the world. To understand these changes long-term monitoring is required. The British Antarctic Survey’s unique Long Term Monitoring and Survey programme has given researchers a rare opportunity to explore how fur seal life histories have changed over time in relation to the climate and food availability. Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and Bielefeld University in Germany analysed data gathered from as far back as 1981 to assess changes over generations of female fur seals on South Georgia, in the South Atlantic Ocean. Lead author, Dr Jaume Forcada from the British Antarctic Survey explains: “Compared with 20 years ago, we can see that female fur seals are now born with a lower weight, those that survive and return to breed tend to be the bigger ones and they have their first pup later in life than they used to. Such changes are typically associated with food stress. “An important food source for the seals is Antarctic krill. Decades of data collected at South Georgia show how changes in the seal population have occurred over time with changes in krill availability. Even if krill is very abundant, environmental variation determines its availability in the seals’ feeding grounds. This environmental variation is driven by the climate which impacts local atmospheric, sea ice and oceanographic conditions. Adverse climatic conditions are typically associated with low krill availability, and reduce the survival and breeding success of fur seals.” The researchers found that females who did survive to motherhood were likely to be more ‘heterozygous’. This is where an individual possesses a higher level of genetic variation and is associated with higher fitness in many species. Whilst these females are more likely to survive and breed, their pups will only have the same advantage if they too are heterozygous. However, the heterozygous characteristic is not inherited; it depends on which male the female mates with and so arises mostly through chance. This means that many seals are born who are not heterozygous and are therefore less able to cope with the changing environment. Co-author, Dr Joe Hoffman from Bielefeld University explains: “We found that, over the last two decades, the proportion of breeding females that are highly heterozygous has increased, as these individuals are more likely to survive the changing conditions. Strong selection by the environment can drive rapid evolution. However, in this case the seals do not appear to be evolving because surviving females do not pass their high heterozygosity on to their offspring. “Therefore, with each new generation, the process of selection has to start all over again, with only those individuals that happen to be born more heterozygous having a good chance of survival. As the climate continues to change, many fur seal pups are not surviving to adulthood and the population is declining.” Climate change is already altering environmental pressures on many species, and scientists do not yet know how populations will cope with these new environments. This study shows that natural selection on a fur seal population has altered as a result of climate change and that the seals have been unable to evolve in response. Impacts on one species can affect a whole ecosystem. The world continues to change and, if we are to adapt, it is essential to anticipate future changes in natural systems. Long-term data sets are a valuable resource for biologists who must forecast how species will respond to future environmental change. Video:
07/24/2014 - 14:22
(Click to enlarge) Homes in Tuckerton, New Jersey, were flooded after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012. A new report says the U.S. is not ready for future storms. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images) The U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are not ready for the increased flooding and stronger storms that are expected from climate change, scientists say. (From National Geographic / by Brian Clark Howard) – The National Research Council report, released today, warns that the past few years have seen “a dramatic rise in coastal-storm-related losses” along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, thanks to an increase in population and a rise in the number of homes and other structures built in at-risk areas. “There’s a huge sense of urgency here,” says Greg Baecher, one of the report’s co-authors and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. (Read “Rising Seas” in National Geographic magazine.) “Storms are getting more powerful, and the current scientific thinking is that’s going to continue,” he says. “We are not coordinated at different levels of government, and time is running out.” According to Richard A. Luettich, Jr., a professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and chair of the committee that wrote the report, it’s time for the federal and state governments to work together more closely to reduce risk. “There is a crucial need for collaboration among federal agencies and between the federal government and the states, as well as policy changes that will help us evolve from a nation that is primarily reactive to coastal disasters into one that invests wisely in risk reduction and resilience,” he said in a statement. Current planning for risks along the coasts is inadequate and has “no central leadership or unified vision,” says the report, which had been commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Feds Paying Too Much Today the federal government tends to bear the brunt of the costs after big disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, but it wasn’t always that way. “The share of money paid by the federal taxpayer has increased substantially,” says Baecher, noting that the federal government paid roughly 10 percent of reconstruction costs after hurricanes in the mid-20th century. But after Sandy, the feds ponied up about 75 percent of the costs. Federal taxpayers are not always getting a good return on their investment, says the report. There has been too much spent on rebuilding and too little spent on planning, preparedness, and mitigation of risk along the coasts, leaving communities vulnerable. “Every dollar spent before an event saves four to five dollars in reconstruction costs after,” says Baecher. Limiting Development? In their report, the National Research Council advisers write that “in the past, most risk reduction projects have focused on fortification, with few efforts to limit redevelopment in high-risk areas and steer development toward safer, lower-risk areas.” Luettich calls this “a misalignment of risk, reward, resources, and responsibility” that has led to “inefficiencies and inappropriate incentives that ultimately increase coastal risk.” Specifically, developers build in hazardous areas because they can pass the risk on to homeowners and the federal government, through the flood insurance program, says Baecher. And state and local officials often look the other way because they benefit from the expanded tax base. The committee “doesn’t know what the magic bullet is” to fix the problem, says Baecher, but he hopes the report will stimulate discussion that leads to smarter coastal policy. One possible solution would be to adjust the financing of coastal protection efforts like beach nourishment and seawalls. Currently, the federal government asks local governments to contribute a certain percentage to these projects. In the future, local governments that have taken steps to mitigate risk, such as restoring wetlands or raising structures, might receive credits that would reduce what they are asked to contribute. The federal government could also develop a national plan for addressing risk along coasts, instead of relying on today’s “piecemeal, project-by-project approaches,” argues the report. The plan would integrate multiple federal agencies and would work closely with states and local authorities, recognizing that different areas have different needs. “You’re not going to be able to do a huge beach nourishment project in Manhattan—there isn’t the real estate—but in Virginia that might be the most cost-effective solution,” says Baecher.
07/24/2014 - 14:18
(Click to enlarge) Bryozoan Iodictyum yaldwyni.(Credit: Abigail M. Smith, University of Otago) What do mollusks, starfish, and corals have in common? (From ScienceDaily) – Aside from their shared marine habitat, they are all calcifiers — organisms that use calcium from their environment to create hard carbonate skeletons and shells for stability and protection. The June issue of the Biological Bulletin, published by the Marine Biological Laboratory, addresses the challenges faced by these species as ocean composition changes worldwide. As atmospheric carbon dioxide rises, the world’s oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic. This impact of global climate change threatens the survival of calcifying species because of the reduced saturation of the carbonate minerals required for calcification. The ability to calcify arose independently in many species during the Cambrian era, when calcium levels in seawater increased. This use of calcium carbonate promoted biodiversity, including the vast array of calcifiers seen today. “Today, modern calcifiers face a new and rapidly escalating crisis caused by warming and acidification of the oceans with a reduction in availability of carbonate minerals, a change driven by the increase in atmospheric CO2due to anthropogenic emissions and industrialization. The CO2 itself can also directly cause metabolic stress,” write the issue’s co-editors, Maria Byrne of the University of Sydney; and Gretchen Hofmann of the University of California-Santa Barbara. Contributors to the journal address this timely issue across many taxa and from a variety of perspectives, from genomic to ecosystem-wide. Janice Lough and Neal Cantin of the Australian Institute of Marine Science review historical data on coral reefs to look at potential environmental stressors, while Philippe Dubois (Université Libre de Bruxelles) discusses sea urchin skeletons. Other researchers address lesser-known organisms that are nevertheless critical to marine ecosystems. Abigail Smith of the University of Otago examines how bryozoans, a group of aquatic invertebrate filter-feeders, increase biodiversity by creating niche habitats, and what features make them particularly sensitive to calcium fluctuations. Evans and Watson-Wynn (California State University-East Bay) take a molecular approach in a meta-analysis showing that ocean acidification is effecting genetic changes in sea urchin larvae. Several papers take a broader population-based view by studying the effect of ocean acidification on predator-prey interactions in mollusks (Kroeker and colleagues of the University of California-Davis) and oysters (Wright and colleagues of the University of Western Sydney). “The contributors have identified key knowledge gaps in the fast evolving field of marine global change biology and have provided many important insights,” the co-editors write. By sharing research on this topic from researchers around the world, the Biological Bulletin is raising awareness of some of the greatest threats to the oceans today and emphasizing the global nature of the problem.