Breaking Waves: Ocean News

04/22/2014 - 05:29
Technology company claims 94% of its corporate facilities are now powered by renewable energy Continue reading...
04/22/2014 - 04:09
44th anniversary of Earth Day celebrated with animated illustrations of puffer fish, dung beetle and moon jellyfish The most inventive Google Doodles - in pictures Japanese macaques chill out in hot springs in pictures Continue reading...
04/22/2014 - 02:34
Crown-of-thorns starfish dying faster with new single-injection method Continue reading...
04/22/2014 - 01:00
Those who reduce nature to a column of figures play to an agenda that ignores its inherent value and seeks to destroy it Continue reading...
04/22/2014 - 00:04
Claims by Attorney-General that climate sceptics are being sidelined is a view from an alternative universe Continue reading...
04/21/2014 - 20:14
Denmark's largest marine research vessel has spent three weeks exploring and gathering samples in the spawning grounds of the European eel in the Sargasso Sea, between Bermuda and the West Indies. The first phase of the Danish Eel Expedition 2014 has been successfully completed. The expedition is in the Sargasso Sea to investigate whether climate-related changes to the eel spawning grounds or the ocean currents that carry the eel larvae to Europe have caused the dramatic decline in eel numbers.
04/21/2014 - 16:11
(Click to enlarge) Oil floats on the surface of Gulf waters in June 2010. Is it still there today? (Credit: NOAA/Flickr) In the months and years following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, telling fact from fiction regarding seafood safety and ecosystem health was supremely difficult. (From Smithsonian Magazine / by Hannah Waters) — Is Gulf seafood safe to eat or not? Are there really deformed shrimp and black lesion-covered red snapper? Will the Gulf ever be clean again? A large part of the confusion was due to the connected, yet distinct, seafood issues surrounding the spill. Whether the seafood was safe for humans to eat was mixed with stories of the future of Gulf fisheries; harm done to wild fish was conflated with health of the seafood supply. To clear up some of the confusion, here are seven topics of concern, some still unresolved, about the Gulf Oil Spill, brought to you by the Smithsonian Ocean Portal and the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). These should help you better understand the spill’s effects on seafood and wildlife. #1: Once oil enters the Gulf, it will stay there indefinitely. The fate of oil is difficult to assess because it isn’t any single chemical; it’s instead a complex mixture of different-but-related chemicals that started out as dead plants and animals. Buried deep in the earth and placed under heat and pressure for millions of years, their bodies break down and the hydrogen and carbon rearrange into the components of oil. First they bond together to form long chains. Over time, some of those chains loop into strings of two to seven rings. Crude oil contains the whole spectrum of these chemicals, from large to small; they degrade at different rates, and some can damage wildlife while others are harmless. The main question then is how long the dangerous chemicals in oil will persist in the Gulf. When the spill began, many people immediately assumed that oil entering the ecosystem would never break down. That’s because we are so familiar with environmental contaminants that stick around for a very long time, such as DDT, CFCs, or mercury. These take a long time to degrade naturally (or don’t at all in the case of mercury), and hence persevere in the environment for a very long time. In contrast, oil “can be readily degraded,” said Ed Overton, who studies the fate of oil after spills at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and is a lead researcher with GoMRI. “We’re talking about a completely different type of chemical.” Oil that dissolves into or mixes with water can be broken down by bacteria—and, fortunately, the Gulf of Mexico is loaded with oil-eating bacteria. Between 560,000 and 1,400,000 barrels of oil leak into the Gulf every year from natural oil seeps, and where there’s a source of energy, you can generally find bacteria. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the spill originated in the deep sea where the oil-degrading bacteria are also found, which helped them to start breaking down the oil quickly. But for those bacteria to do their job, they need oxygen, and lots of it. As such, the most dangerous place for oil to end up is in marshes. There, oil can easily get buried in the low-oxygen soil and bind with the sediment, where it cannot be broken down and remains until it is flooded out by a storm. And if it sticks around there, being slowly released by flooding events over the course of decades, it can do harm to the 98 percent of commercially-important Gulf species that are dependent on saltwater marshlands during their lifecycle. It’s also possible that some oil sank as it was colonized by bacteria, sticking to and clumping with other floating particles on its way to the deep sea. In some cases, it was buried under the seafloor, where bacteria couldn’t access it as well. So if there is oil that stuck around in the Gulf, marshes and buried seafloor sediments are the places you’d find it. #2: If a fish or other animal eats oil, it will remain in its body forever and get passed up the food chain. Some of the oil got in the way of marine life before bacteria had time to break it down. Animals and plants that were physically coated with oil often died. But many animals that ingested smaller amounts of oil in the water have ways to get rid of the dangerous oil molecules, which are known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. When we eat or inhale PAHs, our bodies recognize them as impurities and send them to the liver—our clearinghouse for contaminants—to be broken down. During that process, enzymes break up oil chemicals into mostly less dangerous forms that typically are dissolved in urine and disposed of through normal body processes. However, some of the compounds that result from this breakdown can pose cancer risk. (More on this in the next section.) Similar to exposed people, exposed fish will clear PAHs out of their muscles and organs within a few days to weeks. After that short window, the PAHs are not passed up the food chain because they aren’t being stored in the fish’s tissues. If that fish is then caught and sold at market, there should be no additional risk to people. Oysters, mussels and other bivalves don’t have this enzyme system, so they hold onto oil contaminants for longer and in the short term can pass them onto people and other predators. But over time they release these contaminants across their gills back into the environment. Because of these factors (along with the need to be absolutely certain that the fish were safe), NOAA and the FDA closed Gulf fisheries during and after the spill to do extensive testing of seafood to make sure it was safe for human consumption. In the months after the spill, federal and state agencies tested seafood for carcinogenic PAHs, heavy metals, and dispersants, going through some 10,000 samples. They rarely found any levels of concern; where they did detect measurable PAHs, it was hundreds or thousands of times below the limits that would raise health worries. The fisheries remained closed for a period of time after the initial spill as a precautionary measure and were slowly reopened after testing. “Given the low levels of PAHs we found, when we found them at all, someone could eat 63 lbs of peeled shrimp (that’s 1,575 jumbo shrimp); or 5 lbs. of oyster meat (that’s 130 individual oysters); or 9 lbs. of fish (that’s 18 8-ounce fish filets) every day for five years and still not reach the levels of concern,” wrote Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, in a blog post. #3: All oil is poison. No person in her right mind would eat a spoonful of crude oil, or eat a fish that was obviously contaminated. Oil in large amounts is not safe to ingest, inhale, or even handle. But when the body breaks it down to its small parts—the individual molecules and compounds that compose oil— there is much less risk to people or animals. The portion of oil that poses the greatest risk to animals, including humans are the ringed molecules—the PAHs—because they can damage DNA. A newly developing organism with damaged DNA will often die, while DNA damage in older organisms can cause cancer. In particular, it’s the moderate-sized molecules that are considered the most harmful, like two-ringed naphthalenes (which are also found in mothballs) and three-ringed phenanthrenes (used to make dyes and plastics), because they can both damage DNA and dissolve in water, which gives them a route into an organism’s tissues and cells. These are broken down into smaller, harmless molecules through bacterial decomposition over time and some are readily lost to evaporation. Luckily, the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill happened to be a light crude oil, rather than the heavier crude oil released during the Exxon Valdez incident. As such it mainly contained small and moderately-sized molecules—the ones that can dissolve in water and be degraded. “While some compounds evaporated at the surface, we think that most of them dissolved in the water column at 1,100-meter depth and dispersed in the deep water,” said Overton. There they would be broken down by oil-eating bacteria already present in the environment. All of which is to say—yes, oil can be dangerous and it’s best to prevent large amounts from entering the environment. But not all of it is poison, and the oil that spilled in the Gulf was less toxic than many forms of crude oil. #4: The mixture of oil and dispersant is more toxic than either one alone. During the spill, BP and various federal agencies applied 1.84 million gallons of dispersants to help break up the spill. Dispersants are similar to strong dishwashing soap and help to break oil down into smaller particles. The jury is still out on whether dispersants make oil more toxic. You can imagine that it would take a long time for bacteria to degrade a massive oil slick if it had to start at the outside and work its way in. Broken up into small particles, bacteria can access the oil molecules more easily and have more time to degrade them before they wash ashore and get stuck in marshes. While theoretically that sounds like a good idea, the decision to use dispersants was widely criticized. Part of this was very legitimate criticism and concern: While dispersants aren’t known to hurt people in small doses (and all but one of the ingredients that make up the dispersants used in the Gulf are licensed by the FDA for use in food), we don’t know much about how their presence in the environment affects wildlife, especially in such large amounts. The general feeling was: “do we need to dump more chemicals into the Gulf on top of all this oil?” So when a paper came out claiming that the combination of dispersant and oil was three to 52 times more toxic than either one alone, observers of the spill were ready and waiting. Primed to expect the worst, fears were confirmed: we have made an already-toxic spill even more toxic. But that sweeping statement obscures the real interaction between oil and dispersants. Dispersants don’t change any inherent properties of oil molecules to make them more toxic; what they do is make the toxic PAHs more available to animals in the water column. Fish and other large animals aren’t going to intentionally eat globs of oil floating on the surface of the water. But animals have a harder time recognizing and avoiding smaller particles or ones dissolved in water, so they are more likely to be harmed by the dispersant-oil combination. Similarly, breaking the oil up into smaller particles and droplets makes them available to larval organisms and other small animals. In exchange for making the toxic parts of oil more available to wildlife, those same parts were also available to bacteria. It was definitely a gamble; one couldn’t be sure that the oil-eating bacteria would be as effective as they were. “Dispersants are a bad option to have to use, but it’s a worse option to not use them,” said Overton. #5: The oil is mutating fish, destroying their populations, and putting our country’s seafood at risk. In the years following the spill, there were reports of misshapen or mutated fish. Eyeless shrimp. Tiny, clawless crabs. Fish covered in black lesions. Fish filled with a “black substance.” And often these observations led to widespread statements about the health of the country’s seafood supply. One widely-read article in Al Jazeera read: “Given that the Gulf of Mexico provides more than 40 per cent of all the seafood caught in the continental US, this phenomenon does not bode well for the region, or the country.” It’s crucial to remember that hurt to the Gulf fisheries will not threaten the country’s seafood supply. While the Gulf is an important and significant source of certain types of seafood—70 percent of U.S. oysters, 69 percent of U.S. shrimp—it only supplied 18 percent of all U.S. seafood the year before the spill. There weren’t very good records kept of the mutations, but even if all of those reported were true, it’s not as big a concern as you might think. Sure, they are ugly and scary. But the mutations and deformities that would hurt the Gulf fisheries most would happen to young fish—and would kill them before fishermen could catch and report them. How do these deformities happen? It comes back to PAHs again. If PAHs cause DNA damage to an adult fish, it can cause cancer. DNA damage to a young fish can cause developmental problems that kill it, or it could survive with deformities. The more important question, and one that’s still poorly understood, is whether DNA damage will be passed on to future generations. That depends on whether a fish’s eggs or sperm were damaged, changes which could be passed on to offspring. The lesions are scary because sometimes they look like black, oily open sores. But they aren’t caused by direct contact with oil. “They develop because the fish is under a lot of stress—whether it’s from toxins in the water, not having enough food, or not being able to move out of the area,” said Deb Murie, a fisheries ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and lead investigator with GoMRI. “It’s just like us: when we get stressed out it really impacts our immune systems.” #6: If fisheries were going to crash, we would have seen it by now. We still don’t know the long-term effects of the spill on fish populations. But we do know that the immediate danger to fisheries is damage to larvae that kills them before they grow up. Without an oil spill, most larvae—around 99 percent— end up dying before they grow up. Larvae that aren’t in good condition, like those damaged by oil, are weeded out of the population quickly by predators. This is why fish lay so many millions of eggs; only a few will survive. If oil damaged fish larvae, those would be weeded out with the other 99 percent of larvae that do not grow to adulthood and things will be fine, right? That is a possibility, depending on how much larvae of a given species interacted with oil. But “relatively small changes in mortality rates in early life stages can have big ramifications,” said Frank Hernandez, who studies early life stages in fisheries oceanography at the University of Southern Mississippi in Ocean Springs and is a lead investigator with GoMRI. “Let’s say that for that one percent that survive, the food they need isn’t there for them, or they have some reduced heart capacity or some other critical body function. That’s not an effect you’re going to see right off the bat—not until they finally mature and enter the fishery.” So when do they mature? Amberjack, for example, are caught at ages three or four, as are flatfish; any effects to fisheries due to the spill four years ago would be revealed in the coming season. Some fish species, like menhaden, are caught at younger ages, so we would have seen a fishery crash already. Meanwhile, others, like bluefin tuna, get caught at older ages so it will take more time. “We’re just starting to get to the time period where we’ll be able to say something about it,” Murie said. “In the next 3-5 years, I think we’ll feel a lot better if we see no effect.” Many of the effects will also depend on when the fish released their eggs during the oil spill and where. Fish species, like red snapper, that spawn throughout the summer and throughout the Gulf will probably be fine, since there was a wide window of time and space for some eggs to be in unaffected water. But species like the bluefin tuna, whose spawning range and timing coincided with the spill, could potentially be in more trouble, as studies have found that tuna embryos develop heart problems when exposed to oil. Another crucial confounding factor is that, shortly after the spill began, Gulf fisheries in the area were closed. There was essentially a whole season where fish were allowed to grow and reproduce without human interference by harvest. The adult females that produce the most eggs were able to spawn for an extra year before being caught, which means there was more larvae around to start with. This might mask some of the harm caused by the oil itself. Without good data, researchers are hesitant to speculate on exactly how the spill affected fisheries. “It’s inconceivable to me that there was no damage to fish populations from that much oil,” said Overton. But whether that damage will change adult populations is not yet known, he added. Hernandez noted that people always want to compare the Gulf spill with the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where the herring fishery crashed four years later. “There’s a cautionary tale there so we’re on guard. But this is a very different system,” he said. The Gulf of Mexico is very large and open, giving mobile organisms plenty of space free from oil. The spill occurred 50 miles offshore, limiting the amount of oil that reached the estuaries and marshes that so many fish species rely upon. The frequency of natural oil seeps ensured that plenty of oil-degrading bacteria were around and ready to clean up. And the Gulf’s waters are much warmer than those of Alaska, especially during the summer, speeding up oil breakdown by bacteria. “I’m optimistic,” Hernandez said. “I think the nature of the Gulf is going to be somewhat resilient.” #7: Anything bad that happens in the Gulf can be attributed to the spill. Since the spill, whenever anything “bad” happens in the Gulf, people automatically connect it to the spill. This isn’t a bad impulse; the spill potentially did a lot of damage and left a huge emotional impact on the country. But the Gulf as an ecosystem was far from pristine before the spill. Some 41 percent of the continental U.S.— mainly fertilized farmland—drains down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. This carries 1.7 million tons of nutrients (pdf) into the Gulf each year, causing massive growth of phytoplankton and plankton that consume all the oxygen out of the water. The massive growth forms a “dead zone” of low-oxygen water with little life near the bottom, averaging around 6,000 square miles in the Gulf. In the waters above the bottom, dead zones can cause reproductive problems in fish or, more frequently, just kill larvae and eggs outright. There are also other sources of pollution, such as oil leaks from vessels and toxins in runoff from land. In addition to all these human influences, the Gulf has a lot of natural variability. Saltiness and temperature change through the year and big storms or hurricanes can shift coastlines and damage infrastructure. These all will affect the survival and health of animals, making it hard to separate man-made from natural influences. This doesn’t mean the spill did no harm, or that we should stop looking for effects of the spill because it would just be too difficult to identify direct causes. However, we need to be careful about where we lay our blame. We shouldn’t assume that all negative events in the Gulf since April 2010 were the fault of the spill. This not only obscures other potential problems, but also keeps us from fully understanding the impacts of oil spills. Without this understanding, we’ll be ill prepared for the next big spill.
04/21/2014 - 15:43
Parts of ancient Antarctica were as warm as today's California coast, and polar regions of the southern Pacific Ocean registered 21st-century Florida heat, according to scientists using a new way to measure past temperatures.
04/21/2014 - 15:43
(Click to enlarge) Doctoral student Chris Marks braving the ocean in February to collect samples for the Marine Science Center in Nahant. (Credit: Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe) Steven Vollmer studies coral. One of the species on his radar is staghorn coral, which has long branches resembling male deer antlers. Found mostly off the Florida Keys and in the Caribbean, the coral is on the endangered species list because of white band disease, a condition involving a deadly ring of peeling that starts at its base. (From The Boston Globe / by David Rattigan) – Vollmer said researchers hope to identify the genetic variance that makes some species resistant and others susceptible, and use the knowledge to bring coral back in greater numbers. That’s the kind of opportunity that has had researchers buzzing since the Ocean Genome Legacy project moved into Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant over the winter. The legacy project has the lofty goal of collecting the genomes — the DNA blueprint — of all creatures in the sea, which could someday be used to cure human diseases, protect the environment, and improve the sustainability of global food and energy supplies. “Life started in the ocean,” said Dan Distel, director of the legacy project. “It’s been only in about the last 15 percent of the history of life that things crawled up on the land. That means almost all of the important evolutionary pathways — our biochemistry, our physiology — evolved in the ocean. The fact that our blood is salty, that’s a remnant of the fact that our ancestors came from the ocean. So all that diversity of life that’s in the ocean is a massive library of information that we can use to understand how things live today, and how land organisms live. “That’s why scientists can look at model organisms like sea urchins and zebra fish and can learn something about humans.” Imagine the possibilities for a library containing the DNA of the rarest creatures in the ocean, which makes up approximately 70 percent of the world’s surface and has a wide range of habitats, some miles under the surface. That’s what Donald Comb, founder of New England Biolabs in Ipswich, had in mind when he began the Ocean Genome Legacy project in 2001. The work has continued since the initiative moved to the Northeastern center in January. Since 2003, the Human Genome Project has provided grants to studies aimed at certain health problems, such as the risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute, based in Bethesda, Md. In Boston, researchers at the Mother Infant Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center recently published a study on how genetic testing of fetuses can help identify chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome. “If you want to know about’’ common genome models, such as for mice or humans, “everything’s been done for you,” said Vollmer, a Northeastern professor. “If you’re a guy like me who wants to know something about coral in general or a specific coral, you develop it on your own. The repository makes it so that if I sequence the genome of coral, I can deposit the DNA in the repository, and my colleagues can go back to that and interrogate the DNA.” The ocean genome project began collecting samples in earnest around 2006, and has catalogued a total of 20,000 tissue samples and an equal number of DNA samples from approximately 4,000 species, said Distel. With about 250,000 named species in the ocean, and perhaps many more that are still unknown, researchers have just tapped the surface, he said. “In molecular biology, usually the advances filter slowly to the other sciences,” said Distel, as he sifted through samples of rare shellfish and other species that have been donated from scientific projects around the world. “But we’re starting to adopt molecular methods really strongly, and everyone realizes that that’s the future. “We know how they will be used today, but don’t know how they will be used in 20 years,” he added. “And that’s really part of our goal. Not just to think about next year, but also think of 20 years and 50 years and 100 years, when these samples continue to increase in value.” A multimillion-dollar gift from New England Biolabs and other private donors is allowing the project to thrive at the Northeastern facility in Nahant. The university has developed connections with research centers in China, Hong Kong, and Iraq, and has announced its intent to expand its studies in marine science, according to Murray Gibson, dean of Northeastern’s College of Science. Professor Geoffrey Trussell, director of the Marine Science Center, said that because the focus of so many researchers there is coastal ecology, the legacy project’s DNA samples will be used in ways that they wouldn’t be otherwise. “There’s greater connectivity and a more creative environment in an academic sense, in terms of how the collection can benefit our understanding and knowledge of marine species,” Trussell said. Besides the core value of providing advances in sustainability and ecology conservation, Gibson said, the university has been trying to find more opportunities for its co-op students abroad. Collecting species for the legacy project could provide international research experiences for them. “Having a home in a university makes incredible sense, because obviously we’re used to the concept of keeping a collection and supporting it and making it available to others, which is what we all want to do,” he said. “They will use and take advantage of the collection, and help further develop it.”
04/21/2014 - 15:14
(Click to enlarge) Divers work outside the Aquarius underwater laboratory located off the coast of Florida. (Credit: Mark Hay) A monthlong underwater research mission led by the grandson of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau will begin on June 1. (From LiveScience / by Denise Chow) – The so-called aquanauts will spend 31 days living and working in an underwater laboratory off the coast of Florida. Documentary filmmaker Fabien Cousteau will be joined by a team of scientists on the monthlong expedition, named Mission 31. The researchers will live aboard Aquarius Reef Base, a seafloor habitat located roughly 63 feet (19 meters) underwater in the Florida Keys. Cousteau and his team will test new technologies and conduct research on the effects of climate change on corals, sponges and other sea life. Scientists with the privately funded excursion will also examine the physiological and psychological impacts of long-term saturation diving and the effects of living in prolonged confinement, Cousteau has said. The aquanauts will spend roughly six to nine hours each day diving and performing experiments, according to Mission 31 planners. Live footage will be broadcast to the public throughout the expedition, and film crews will be compiling materials for a future Mission 31 documentary. “The overarching theme for Mission 31 is the human-ocean connection within the lens of exploration and discovery,” Cousteau said in a statement. “Mission 31 pays homage to my grandfather’s work and all aquanauts who have since followed his lead in the name of ocean exploration.” The expedition will also honor the 50th anniversary of Jacques Cousteau’s famous stay aboard the Continental Ice Shelf Station Two (Conshelf Two) in 1963. During that historic underwater mission, the oceanographer lived in a habitat located 30 feet (9 m) beneath the Red Sea, off the coast of Sudan, for 30 days. If successful, Mission 31 will surpass the 1963 Conshelf Two mission by one full day. The impending expedition will also be the longest that researchers have lived aboard the Aquarius laboratory, Mission 31 planners said. Aquarius Reef Base is the only underwater marine habitat in the world. The unique facility is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and is managed by Florida International University. Mission 31 was originally scheduled to splash down in November, but the trip was delayed after some of the required science and film permits were held up due to the shutdown of the federal government last October.