Florida’s Toxic Algae Crisis: Brain Toxins Produced by Blue-green Algae Concern Researchers

Dr. Larry Brand, a Professor in the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, and Dr. David Davis, a Research Assistant Professor at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, are cited in this article from Fox 13 News.  Dr. Brand and Dr. Davis are considered to be two of the leading experts on BMAA and the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation is proud to have supported their research.

Originally published by Fox 13 News.  Original article available here

Blooms of cyanobacteria, also known as toxic blue-green algae, strike lakes, rivers, canals, and ponds across Florida.

The state has polluted the water with fertilizer and leaking septic tanks, which feed these blooms that turn the water green and produce some of the most powerful natural poisons on earth.

Scientists have warned exposure to the toxins can cause liver damage, and possibly brain damage. They are finding correlations to neurodegenerative disease in marine life and people. While they cannot yet say those toxins directly cause neurodegenerative disease, they say the correlations are a cause for concern and merit additional research.

For example, the cyanobacteria emit BMAA, which is toxic to the brain and scientists now link to diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS.

“What happens is, the BMAA causes the proteins in your brain neurons to get all tangled up, and you see the slow accumulation of tangled up proteins in your neurons until they get completely clogged and the neurons die,” said University of Miami Marine Science Professor Dr. Larry Brand. “So you just slowly develop these diseases over the timescale of 10-20 years”

Dr. Brand tested fish, crabs, and shellfish in South Florida and discovered high concentrations of BMAA in the aquatic food web. His colleagues at the University of Miami had already found it at significant levels in Floridians who had ALS and Alzheimer’s disease.

Additionally, University of Miami Professor Dr. David Davis found BMAA in the brains of dolphins found floating or beached.

Then Dr. David Davis started testing dolphins that have been turning up dead. Davis’ team tested seven dolphins found floating or beached in Florida and seven others found to our north.

Of the 14 tested dolphins, 13 “had high concentrations of BMAA in ‘their’ brains.” The one that didn’t was struck and injured by a boat.

The dolphin brains containing BMAA also showed neurodegenerative changes consistent with Alzheimer’s.

“We wanted to see if these dolphins stranded may possibly have the toxin in their system. It’s very very startling to see that amount of BMAA in dolphins. It’s roughly 1.5 times the amount we see in individuals with advanced dementia,” said Dr. Davis. “What we found in the dolphin brains are pathological hallmarks of dementia. Having both the presence of BMAA and neuropathological changes like we see with the dolphins is troubling.”

The green slime produced by cyanobacteria leaves behind a dried crust, which new research revealed sends BMAA drifting into the air.

Dr. Mike Parsons at Florida Gulf Coast University confirmed BMAA was airborne in Cape Coral through air tests. His team followed up by testing other areas. The preliminary results showed the presence of BMAA in every spot they tested, and they found it in higher concentrations the closer they got to toxic blooms in the water.

“When the cyanobacteria dries, it will almost be like a crust. I haven’t done this but it would be the equivalent of like grinding it up in your fingers and it turns into a powder, and then the winds pick up that powder,” said Dr. Parsons. “You can see it in the seawalls just this green dust. The worst case scenario would be a significant amount of Microcystin and BMAA would be getting into the air and onto the smallest filters of our air samplers.”

Parsons is expanding his research – in the present and the past. For example, 11 years ago a cluster of neurodegenerative disease cropped up near Kennedy Space Center. Engineers who were fighting ALS wondered if exposure to rocket fuel may have caused it. But new information is leading scientists to go back and look at something else.  

“Were all these engineers avid sportsmen?” asked Dr. Parsons. “Were these people in the water a lot?”

Years before the rocket engineers got sick, manmade pollution fed blooms of cyanobacteria in waters around the Space Coast.

“The scary part is if the levels get elevated to a point where that exposure would overcome our natural defenses… there is justified concern by the public that the science is a little behind. We need to come up with some answers quickly,” said Parsons.

Today, Parson’s team found airborne BMAA in every spot they tested. And they found it in higher concentrations the closer they got to polluted water.

While scientists have found correlations between BMAA and neurodegenerative disease, they stress they have not established a clear cause and effect. They don’t yet know how much exposure may pose a threat to public health.

Governor DeSantis picked Dr. Parsons to serve on a new state task force to recommend changes in policy and strategy.

Potential for 100,000-Plus Jobs If We Fix Our Parks

Analysis of National Park Service data shows possible employment impact in every region

Originally published by Pew on December 6, 2018. Original article available here.

A Pew-commissioned analysis by the Cadmus Group, a consulting company, found that addressing the National Park Service’s $11.6 billion maintenance backlog would create or support nearly 110,000 infrastructure-related jobs. This number, based on fiscal year 2017 NPS data, is a reminder of the powerful economic impact of national parks.  

California has the most to gain, with the potential for more than 17,000 jobs. Rural states also stand to benefit, with a possible 6,600 jobs in Wyoming. And Virginia, which has a mix of urban and rustic settings, could benefit from 9,600 jobs.   

If NPS’ deferred maintenance was fully funded, communities could see construction workers repairing roads and trails, preservation experts restoring deteriorating historic sites, and engineers overhauling outdated sewer, water, and electrical systems that can threaten safety and the environment. 

The analysis, “Restoring Parks, Creating Jobs: How Infrastructure Restoration in the National Park System Can Create or Support Jobs,” contains a state-by-state breakdown finding that: 

  • States with higher unemployment rates could gain the most.
  • The job benefit is about equally split between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas.

This interactive map shows where potential jobs could be located as well as park visitation and visitor spending, based on fiscal 2017 NPS data. Although the maintenance backlog rose from $11.3 billion in fiscal 2016 to $11.6 billion in fiscal 2017, the job figure declined by 671 jobs, from 110,169 to 109,498. This was due to an uptick in inflation and a potential increase in the cost per job. To access a Pew-commissioned analysis and jobs interactive based on NPS fiscal 2016 data, click on this link.

Values for the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands are not shown on this map. 

TerritoryPotential jobsCurrent jobs supported by visitor spendingVisitsVisitor spending (millions)Economic output (millions)
American Samoa95169,468$4.0$5.2
Puerto Rico2638501,188,780$68.0$88.7
Virgin Islands360664444,838$50.6$71.7


Delaware and the Northern Mariana Islands do not include any National Park System units that collect visitor spending data.

All $ figures are in millions


Cadmus Group analysis of National Park Service data from fiscal 2017; National Park Service, “2017 National Park Visitor Spending Effects” (2018), https://www.nps.gov/nature/customcf/NPS_Data_Visualization/docs/NPS_2017_Visitor_Spending_Effects.pdf.

For more information on this analysis, please see the methodology or view the Cadmus Group’s report, “Restoring Parks, Creating Jobs: How Infrastructure Restoration in the National Park System Can Create or Support Jobs” (2018), https://cadmusgroup.com/papers-reports/restoring-parks-creating-jobs/.

Coral reefs save us from flooding. We must save them from destruction | Opinion

Dr. Michael Beck’s research demonstrates coral reefs provide the United States with more than $1.8 billion in flood protection benefits annually. The Herbert W. Hoover Foundation proudly supports Dr. Beck’s expansion of this research on mangroves in south Florida.

BY MICHAEL W. BECK, MAY 15, 2019, for The Miami Herald

The 2019 Atlantic hurricane season is almost upon us; the last two hurricane seasons were devastating to Florida. The race is on to recover and build resilience ahead of the next storms. And we need to invest in one of Florida’s most valuable and underrated defenses — its reefs.

Most people have no idea how valuable coral reefs are for coastal defense. Now we do. Reefs act as submerged breakwaters, they “break” waves and dissipate their energy offshore.

Working together, the U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy and the University of California Santa Cruz, have shown just how valuable reefs are using state-of-the-art flood-risk tools. Across the United States, reefs provide more than $1.8 billion in flood-protection benefits every year. In Florida alone, reefs provide more than $675 million in flood-protection benefits to people, property and jobs every year.

These look like general, ‘back of the envelope’ numbers. They are not. They are based on what are now the best flood-risk maps available for these coastlines. They predict flood risk at 10 meters by 10 meters, that is about one-hundredth the area of city block. So we can show not only that Florida receives benefits, we can identify specifically who may get those benefits. And we can sum those benefits up by municipality; in a 50-year storm (between a Category 4 and 5 hurricane) the coral reefs off of Miami-Fort. Lauderdale would provide more than $1.6 billion in flood protection benefits.

The bad news is that we are rapidly losing these benefits in Florida and elsewhere (and often around the densely populated areas where we need them the most). Many have predicted the end of reefs. We are not quite so pessimistic — at least not yet. 

The good news is that there is evidence that reefs can recover and even adapt, particularly if we identify the resources to manage and restore them.

The better news is that by rigorously valuing these benefits we can help mobilize the public and private investments that we need for this kind of reef management. Indeed there are a number of innovative pathways for action that can completely change the scale of support for reef conservation and restoration.

First, disaster recovery funding must support the recovery of national natural defenses. The United States already has appropriated more than $100 billion to recover from hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma; more of those funds should go to rebuilding reefs and other natural defenses. And it appears that it may: FEMA, for the first time, is assessing damages to reefs as flood-mitigation structures. 

Second, the insurance industry can support incentives for habitat conservation and restoration. They are starting to do just that by ensuring that habitats are included in industry risk models and with the first-ever trust to fund an insurance policy for coral reefs in Mexico.

Third, we must recognize and prioritize reefs as natural defenses as they are relevant to national security. Protecting and restoring reefs is relevant to state, territory and national budgets (e.g., FEMA). In Florida, reefs provide the state hundreds of millions in flood-protection services every year, and that is in addition to their many other income benefits such tourism. We should be paying the reefs back similarly to keep those benefits.

The Nature Conservancy and partners in federal, state and local governments, academia, and the private sector are working to protect and restore Florida’s coral reefs — from Martin County to Key West and the Dry Tortugas — based on sound science. The new Respect Our Reef campaign encourages protection of the reefs by the fishermen and divers who know and love them best. 

And it is not just coral reefs in the United Statesmarshesmangroves and oyster reefs all provide cost-effective benefits for flood reduction. And coral reefs provide benefits to people in more than 60 nations.

If we can get reef protection and restoration right in Florida, we can offer lessons learned to help protect people across the country and around the world.

Michael W. Beck is a research professor at the University of California Santa Cruz and was lead marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

Read the original article at: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article230442474.html#storylink=cpy

Photo by Getty Images.

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere: Microplastics in the Food System

Dr. Chelsea Rochman, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, is cited in this article from the website foodtank.  Dr. Rochman is considered to be one of the leading experts on plastic pollution and the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation is proud to have supported her research.

Originally published by foodtank.  Original article available here.

Scientists See South Florida as Laboratory for Saving Corals

The Herbert W. Hoover Foundation is a long-time funder of The Pew Charitable Trusts Marine Fellows Program.  Recently, the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation and Pew co-hosted a panel of scientists to discuss the future of coral reefs in Biscayne National Park.

Originally published by The Pew Charitable Trusts on February 15, 2019.  Original article available here.

Several species of Haemulidae, or grunt fish, school around a large coral head. They typically hunt for invertebrate prey at night. Corals like these have been largely wiped out in the Biscayne Bay area.
Evan K. D’Alessandro

Coral scientists and conservationists have reason to be pessimistic. Warming waters, ocean acidification, pollution, disease, and storms have killed 30 to 50 percent of the world’s shallow coral reefs in recent decades.

Yet in December, an infectious optimism could be found among the more than 500 participants at the Reef Futures Symposium in Key Largo, Florida. One possible reason: excitement over the prospect of action to help reefs, despite all the bad news.

For starters, a November report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine outlined 23 strategies to help the world’s remaining reefs survive climate change. Stephen Palumbi, a Stanford University biologist and 2000 Pew marine fellow, was lead author of that report. What’s needed now is a way to test those interventions.

To help with that, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation convened a session at Reef Futures to discuss the Biscayne marine region, which stretches from Miami south to the edge of the Florida Keys and, as 2008 Pew marine fellow Andrew Baker said in a Miami Herald op-ed, is primed to become a “a laboratory to discover how to save coral reefs worldwide.”

Researchers Michael Beck, left, Iliana Baums, Stephen Palumbi, Robert Richmond, and Andrew Baker discuss coral health at the Reef Futures Symposium.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

One of the interventions from the National Academies report that the group could test is managed relocation—moving corals into cooler environments to buy them time to adapt to warming water. Baker, a professor at the University of Miami, said the Biscayne region is a great place to try the technique because of the huge gradient in water temperature across a small area. Moving corals from south Biscayne Bay just a few miles north, to where average monthly temperatures are lower, could give the corals an extra 20 to 30 years to adjust to warming water, he said.

Another strategy noted in the report is cultivating corals that have a natural genetic tolerance for heat and planting them on dead or dying reefs. Palumbi’s research has shown that there is wide genetic variation in heat tolerance within the species of Pacific coral he studies.

“Using that variation is an opportunity to select corals that may weather future conditions,” Palumbi said.

A  Rhinesomus bicaudalis, or spotted trunkfish, forages for small prey such as worms, small crabs, and shrimp as it glides past Orbicella faveolata coral in Florida’s Biscayne marine area.
Evan K. D’Alessandro

Scientists also will need a way to measure the health of corals rather than just waiting to see if they die.

“I want to mooch molecular techniques from medicine to make sure the corals we plant are thriving in their new environment,” said Robert Richmond, director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, Manoa and a 2006 Pew marine fellow.

Les Kaufman, a Boston University professor and 1990 Pew marine fellow, is leading another monitoring effort, taking 3D images of the remaining coral colonies in the Biscayne marine region to track growth and mortality with an unprecedented level of detail.

The payoff of all this work is potentially huge, said Michael Beck, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a 2012 Pew marine fellow. His new research shows that coral reefs in the Biscayne region provide tens of millions of dollars a year in benefits by preventing flood damage during storms.

Reef Futures was sponsored by the Coral Restoration Consortium, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others. And while none of the attendees claimed that humans can restore the world’s coral reefs to their former glory, many were boisterously enthusiastic about saving what we can of these rainforests of the sea.

Author, Polita Glynn, is a project director for environmental research and science with The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Move Over Great White Shark: A New Shark Rules South African Waters

Dr. Neil Hammerschlag’s research is the focus of the following article by Forbes.  The Herbert W. Hoover Foundation has proudly funded Dr. Hammerschlag’s research in the past and continues to do so today.

Originally published by Forbes on February 16, 2019. Original article available here.

The waters surrounding Seal Island in False Bay, South Africa are eerily calm. All you can hear are waves lapping up against your boat, and you can feel a tension in the air as everyone waits for a moment made famous by Shark Week.

Suddenly, there is commotion on one side of the boat as a seal bursts from the watery realm below into the open air, a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) in hot pursuit right after it. A breach; the legendary “flying” great white sharks of South Africa have struck again. These waters are famous for it, but in 2015 the sightings of these predators began to drop.

“In 2017 and 2018, their numbers reached an all-time low, with great whites completely disappearing from our surveys for weeks and months at a time,” said study lead author Neil Hammerschlag, a research associate professor at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School and Abess Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy in a press statement. “While the reasons for their decline and disappearance remains unknown, it provided a truly unique opportunity for us to see what happens to an ocean ecosystem following the loss of an apex predator.”

A new 18-year collaborative study between shark researcher Neil Hammerschlag and wildlife naturalist Chris Fallows from Apex Shark Expeditions has documented unexpected consequences following this decline of great white sharks.  “In 18+ years of working at Seal Island, we had never seen sevengill sharks in our surveys,” said co-author Chris Fallows. “Following the disappearance of white sharks in 2017, sevengill began to show up for the first time and have been increasing in number ever since.”

The newly published study found that the disappearance of great whites has led to the emergence of sevengill sharks (Notorynchus cepedianus) and now they dominate this area off South Africa. Sevengill sharks are not uncommon in this region, but they are a top predator from the inshore kelp beds off the coast. Considered a living fossil, sevengill sharks have no equal in the local food web besides the great white shark and orcas (Orcinus orca) that reside here. They closely resemble animals from the Jurassic period, and can easily be told apart from other sharks due to having seven gill slits instead of the typical five in most other sharks.

Since the year 2000, the research team has spent over 8,000 hours observing great whites from boats. During this time, they recorded 6,333 shark sightings, and 8,076 attacks on sealsThe data showcased that numbers for great whites were relatively stable for more than a decade, until the start of a decline in 2015. During periods of great white absence in the years 2017 and 2018, the team documented 120 sevengill shark sightings. 

Historically, the only well-known aggregation site for the sevengill sharks in False Bay was located about 18 km away from Seal Island. White sharks infrequently occurred near this sevengill aggregation site off Millers Point, as the dense kelp probably made it hard to hunt prey which sought refuge in the underwater forest. The study suggested that the appearance of sevengill sharks at Seal Island was due to the disappearance of great whites, which allowed these spotted predators to venture into the territory without becoming a meal to the great whites. It also meant there would be no competition for prey! Like other sharks, sevengills feed on fish, seals and even other sharks. The team was able to record a sevengill shark attacking a live Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) in the absence of the white sharks. Interestingly enough, the sevengill shark sightings continued to increase in 2018 as the relative white shark abundance numbers continued to drop.

So just where did the sharks go and why? The reasons for the white shark population declines documented at Seal Island since 2015, combined with the prolonged periods of no great whites in the research surveys during 2017 and 2018, remain unknown. Determining why there is a decline in white shark observation here is “a priority area for future research,” says the study. Some possible theories are that this may be a population-level decline due to over-fishing or habitat loss; other possible theories include a shift in environmental conditions or prey. It could possibly even be linked to the demise of some great white sharks in 2017. Two years ago, the carcasses of five great whites washed ashore along South Africa’s Western Cape province. Ranging in size from nine to 16 feet in length, the two females and three males all had holes between their pectoral (side) fins and their livers missing. The likely culprit? Orcas.

Since 2009 there has been an increase in the frequency of killer whale sightings in False Bay. Several dead sevengill sharks found by scuba divers inside the Table Mountain National Park marine protected area had scientists coming to the conclusion that killer whales were to blame for their deaths, too. Two orcas, nicknamed ‘Port’ and ‘Starboard,’ were sighted near the sevengill aggregation site at the same time these dead sharks popped up. In 2017, it is suspected that these same two killer whales were also responsible for the death of five great white sharks further up the coast in Gansbaai.

But why did these orcas start targeting sharks? The evidence points to the arrival of a different killer whale, which has an appetite for sharks even though this behavior is usually observed offshore. They were all specifically after the sharks’ liver, which accounts for up to a third of the animal’s weight and is full of oily fat, a nutrient that orcas love. According to locals in South Africa, the shark numbers just haven’t been the same since the whales moved in.

There are substantial gaps in our understanding of these orca-shark relationships, as well as the relationship sharks have with one another and their environment. It remains unknown if and when the white sharks may return to their historical numbers in this famous part of the world. The study, which can be read here, has provided new insights into the multitude of ways that the loss of an apex predator can alter a marine ecosystem.

The waters surrounding Seal Island in False Bay, South Africa are eerily calm… there are no great white sharks flying today.

Forget Sharks…here’s why you are more likely to be injured by litter at the beach

Originally published by The Conversation, Environment + Energy Section, on January 1, 2019. Original article available here

Our beaches are our summer playgrounds, yet beach litter and marine debris injures one-fifth of beach users, particularly children and older people.

Our research, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found more than 7,800 injuries on New Zealand beaches each year – in 2016, some 595 of them were related to beach litter. The most common injuries caused by litter were punctures and cuts, but they also included fractured limbs, burns, head trauma, and even blindness.

Children under 14 suffered 31% of all beach litter injuries, and were injured by beach litter at twice the rate compared with other locations in New Zealand. Beach litter injury claims exceeded NZ$325,000 in 2016, representing a growing proportion of all beach injury claims. Beach injury claims changed from 1.2% of the total in 2007 to 2.9% in 2016.

Our study relied on reported injury insurance claims in New Zealand, and thus probably underestimates the true injury rate, particularly for minor wounds. Our 2016 survey of beachgoers in Tasmania found that 21.6% of them had been injured by beach litter at any time previously – even on the island state’s most picturesque beaches. Alarmingly, most beach users in the Tasmanian survey did not consider beach litter an injury risk, despite the high rate of self-reported injuries.


Awash with danger

As more debris washes ashore and our recreational use of our coasts increases, it is more likely than ever before that we will encounter beach litter, even on remote and “pristine” beaches.

Global studies have found up to 15 items of debris per square metre of beach, even in remote locations. On Henderson Island – a supposedly pristine South Pacific outpost miles from anywhere – some 3,570 new pieces of litter arrive every day on one beach alone.

Your local beach might not be as bad as this, but it still pays to take care. Jennifer Lavers/AAP Image


Beach litter typically includes a huge range of items, such as:

  • broken glass
  • sharp and rusted metal such as car bodies, food cans, fish hooks, and barbed wire
  • flammable or toxic materials such as cigarette lighters, flares, ammunition and explosives, and vessels containing chemicals or rotten food
  • sanitary and medical waste such as used syringes, dirty nappies, condoms, tampons and sanitary pads
  • bagged and unbagged dog faeces and dead domestic animals.

The health hazards posed by beach litter include choking or ingesting poisons (particularly for young children), exposure to toxic chemicals, tripping, punctures and cuts, burns, explosions, and exposure to disease.

Degrading plastic can also produce toxins that contaminate seafood, potentially entering human or ecological food chains.

Rubbish knowledge

Despite the potential severity of these hazards our understanding and study of human health impacts from beach litter is poor. We know more about the impacts of beach litter and marine debris on wildlife than on humans.

Two of our previous studies in Australia and New Zealand have found beach litter that can cause punctures and cuts at densities 227 items per 100 square metres of beach, and choking hazards at densities of 153 items per 100 square metres of beach. These exposures to beach litter hazards in Australia and New Zealand may be 50% higher than global averages (based on preliminary data).

Even “clean” beaches can be hazardous, and may even increase the likelihood of injury. Visitors to a recently cleaned or supposedly “pristine” beach may be less vigilant for hazards. What’s more, European studies have found that actively cleaned beaches can still have hazardous debris items.

The risk of injury will continue to increase without concerted efforts to prevent addition of new debris and the active removal of existing rubbish. Besides watching where we tread when at the beach and participating in beach cleanups, we also need to make sure we deal with rubbish thoughtfully, so litter doesn’t end up there in the first place.

Trash, Feces, Vandalism: How The Shutdown is Impacting National Parks

Photo by Lisa Mullins. Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for web. This segment aired on January 2, 2019 on Here & Now, WBUR. Original article available here

As the government shutdown stretches deeper into the new year, national parks across the country are seeing the impact.

While many parks have stayed open during the shutdown, with some emergency workers and rangers still working, much of the parks’ staff are not, meaning there is no one to clean bathrooms, empty the trash, enforce rules or collect entrance fees. At Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, campgrounds were closed Wednesday after some of the vault toilets, which do not flush, reached capacity.

Dozens of volunteers have stepped in to help clean bathrooms and get rid of trash, including John Lauretig, a retired law enforcement ranger at the park and executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Joshua Tree National Park. Lauretig has been to the park at least a dozen times in the past 10 days, and while it is in “OK” condition, he says the longer the shutdown continues, “the more the park needs its real maintenance people in there to do their jobs.”

“We are trying to stem the tide so to speak and try and [keep] the bathrooms as clean as we can keep them and the trash bins as empty as we can,” Lauretig tells Here & Now’s Lisa Mullins. “With the amount of visitation we have right now over the holidays, tens of thousands of people pour into the park, and the day-to-day maintenance in those bathrooms needs to happen.”

Concerns over long-term damages are common for national parks across the country, says John Garder, senior budget director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group aimed at protecting the national parks.

According to Garder, those impacted the worst — Shenandoah and Yosemite national parks, the Grand Canyon and others in the Southwest — are seeing similar kinds of damages as Joshua Tree: “overflowing trash bins, human waste in inappropriate places, altercations over parking spots and other impacts that … are a threat to visitor and wildlife safety as well as the protection of the natural and cultural resources.”

“The best thing would be for all parks to open entirely with decision-makers coming to an agreement,” he says. “It’s really not a situation that should have happened to begin with.”

Interview Highlights

On what volunteers at Joshua Tree National Park are doing to help, and how much of a dent volunteers at parks across the U.S. are making

John Lauretig: “Well, for folks that are not able to come up into the park and help us, they’ve been donating money and materials. We have one of the local outfitter shops, Nomad [Ventures], as a repository for people to drop off supplies — whether it’s trash bags, toilet paper, gloves, cleaning supplies. And then every morning at 10 o’clock, we meet up, we distribute those supplies and send folks out to different parts of the park to sweep up, clean up and restock the pit toilets that are all up in the park.

“I’ve been getting messages from people who are visiting the park on vacation saying they want to help out. But there’s a lot of local folks too that just love Joshua Tree National Park and the high desert itself and want to keep the park as clean and as great as it is today, tomorrow and in the future.”

John Garder: “We really commend the volunteers who’ve been helping to try to take care of parks and make sure that visitors have a safe and enjoyable time. The problem is that it’s a really unsustainable situation and unfair to ask them to use their limited resources to step in to try to serve the role of the park service.”

Lauretig, on the damage being caused to the park and how some of it may be unintentional

“I think most of the folks just don’t know the rules. The national parks run on special rules and regulations — they’re trying to preserve their areas for future generations. Most of the folks in the park, 99 percent, are doing just what they need to do, but with this volume of people we have in the park, traffic is a problem, parking is a problem, I’ve heard of some vandalism — I haven’t seen any. But the longer this shutdown goes down, the more at risk are cultural and natural resources are in the park. …

“With the holidays, the visitation in the park is just phenomenal. There’s people parking everywhere, so I’ve seen this kind of visitation before, and I’m actually surprised at the minimal amount of damage or the minimal amount of problems that are happening in the park. But it doesn’t take but one person to drive off road into the desert, and then that desert is scarred for years to come.”

“Our estimate is that the park system is losing somewhere in the order of $400,000 a day. So when you do the math, it’s over $4 million that they’ve lost so far.”

John Garder

Lauretig, on the valuable artifacts in Joshua Tree and other national parks that are unprotected right now

“We have cultural history of peoples using this land for thousands of years, so we have rock art and pottery shards and all kinds of different historic evidence of people living in the past. We also have a rich mining history, and there is plenty of mining sites with all kinds of historic features in those mining sites too, and some of those are remote, so you can’t really check them on a daily basis, but I’m just hoping that now with no or minimal law enforcement presence at those sites, [they] are remaining just the way they are. …

“There [are] other parks that have just a gold mine of artifacts and resources that are basically unprotected right now, and I would hate to see those pieces of our history and heritage disappear during this shutdown. So if folks can come to gather and volunteer for their federal lands that are in distress right now in need of help, that would be great.”

Garder, on whether it would be better for national parks to be closed outright, and how they are being impacted

“Unlike the 16-day shutdown in 2013, this administration elected to take an approach that would allow for partial closures of a number of parks.

“Our estimate is that the park system is losing somewhere in the order of $400,000 a day. So when you do the math, it’s over $4 million that they’ve lost so far, and that’s money that they really need. …

“One colleague of mine at the Grand Canyon observed that the park concessionaire was having difficulty keeping up with plowing the roads, which was creating a dangerous situation. And while he was there, there was an accident with a truck going off the road and hitting a car.”

Garder, on how park rangers are faring

“Rangers are of course very demoralized right now, because they want to be in the parks serving visitors and protecting them, but they are coming into this situation where they’re already challenged. Over the last several years, we’ve seen an 11 percent reduction in park service staff due to underfunding. But at the same time, there’s been a 19 percent increase in visitation.”

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for web.

This segment aired on January 2, 2019.

The Fight for Corals Loses Its Great Champion

Ruth Gates was a champion of corals and a longtime partner of the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation.  Her contributions to marine science will be felt for decades to come and the Foundation is proud to have supported her research.  We, along with the scientific community and her friends and family, mourn her loss.

Original article can be found at: www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/10/optimist-who-believed-saving-corals/574240/

By Ed Young

Ruth Gates, who died Thursday, October 25, 2018 at age 56, was known as much for her laugh as for her science. She laughed easily, loudly, and infectiously. When she first snorkeled around Heron Island, in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, she reportedly laughed so loudly that boat drivers could hear her from the surface. “Laughing even underwater—that’s Ruth,” says Tracy Ainsworth, a close friend and coral scientist at The University of New South Wales at Sydney. “She was so thrilled by the reef that she couldn’t contain her joy.”

Coral scientists have little to laugh about these days. Between rising temperatures, acidifying water, pollution, diseases, storms, and other threats, reefs around the world are dying, transforming from bountiful worlds of color and life into deathly realms of spectral white. Half the world’s reefs have died in the past few decades. Even the mighty Great Barrier Reef is a shadow of its former glory. Every year, the drumbeat of doom-filled news seems to pound more loudly. For the many scientists who have devoted their lives to studying these ecosystems and are now forced to watch their slow demise, it can be hard to stay afloat.But Ruth Gates was never given to doom. As one of the world’s foremost coral scientists, she was under no illusions about the perils that corals face—but she was relentlessly optimistic nonetheless. She firmly believed that reefs could be saved and was looking for ways to do so, perhaps by breeding hardier varieties of corals that could better weather the climatic upheavals of the future.
In part, Gates’s optimism was an explicit strategy meant to spur others into action. But it was also a profound part of her identity. Even colleagues who describe themselves as glass-half-full people told me that they would ask “What would Ruth do?” when they felt despair. Others spoke about her irrepressible enthusiasm and riotous sense of humor.

Gates passed away five months after she was first diagnosed with brain cancer. She is survived by her wife, Robin Burton-Gates; her brother, Tim Gates; her extended family; and a vast community of colleagues and friends. “We constantly laughed, even through her treatments,” says Burton-Gates.

To lose anyone is tragic, but to lose someone like Gates—an optimist’s optimist, a cornerstone of hope—is especially so. Her friends collectively describe her as someone who truly contained multitudes. Empath and fighter, iconoclast and team player, introvert and spokesperson—she was all these things, as well as an outspoken advocate for corals and the people who study them. “She was radiance that we were privileged to gather around, our hands toward the fire,” said Ouida Meier, one of her lab managers, in an email to her team.

Gates, who was born in England, decided she wanted to be a marine biologist in elementary school, after watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries. “She was told she wasn’t smart enough, and that she should go into athletics instead,” Burton-Gates recalls. In typical fashion, she ignored her detractors and did both. She eventually became the director of the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology and the founder of a nearby karate school, the Coconut Island Dojo. A third-degree black belt, she would do knuckle and fingertip push-ups to the sound of breaking waves. And “when she hit the practice bag, it sounded like a gun going off,” says Burton-Gates.

This path to scientist and sensei was a long one. She moved to Jamaica in 1985 as a naive graduate student who just happened to find herself studying Caribbean corals at a time when they were starting to die. The corals would expunge the colored microscopic algae that live in their tissues and provide them with nutrients, becoming wan and weak in the process. Gates showedthat these bleaching events were more common in warmer waters—a crucial connection that decades of later work would confirm. “It was a terribly important discovery,” says Peter Edmunds of California State University at Northridge, a coral scientist and close friend of 34 years.

After getting a doctorate in 1990, Gates moved to UCLA. That period, Edmunds says, was difficult. She spent 13 years stumbling through four separate stints as a postdoctoral researcher and published papers at a slow pace. Still, she learned to use the new tools of molecular biology to make important discoveries about the relationship between corals and their algae, the molecules they use to communicate, and how heat sunders their partnership.
That work really started taking off in 2003, when Gates joined the University of Hawai‘i and started her own lab. She and her team showed that coral algae come in several genetically distinct varieties. “They used to just be green balls, but Ruth showed us that, oh my God, these things are so much more diverse than we thought,” Edmunds says. “That really made her name.” Crucially, these algal varieties affect how their hosts cope with environmental stress. Because bleaching events were becoming more common, Gates started wondering whether corals could escape these catastrophes by shuffling out their old partners for sturdier ones. And perhaps, she suggested, scientists should give them a hand.That is the idea she is best known for. She and her colleague Madeleine van Oppen recently won a $4 million grant for a four-year project to breed “super corals” by fast-forwarding their evolution. Their strategy, aptly for marine science, is three-pronged. Some team members are trying to breed the corals themselves, selecting for hardier ones in the way that farmers might breed more drought-tolerant crops. Others are working out whether resilient corals can pass their endurance to their offspring, and how that might work. Still others are focusing on the algae, to see how corals can be persuaded to take up unfamiliar heat-tolerant strains. The project is now into its fourth of five years of funding. “It’s so sad,” says van Oppen. “It’s just starting to take off and now she’s gone.”It is easy to see a successful scientist and think that she emerged fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. But Gates’s oldest friends remember when she was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, 20-something wild child—an identity she walked away from when her father died from alcohol-related illness. When I interviewed Gates last year, she recalled that her therapist once told her that you can’t control what people do to you or what happens around you. You can only control your response. “That was a profound statement,” she told me, and it changed how she saw not only her own life, but the reefs’ as well.She recognized that action is necessary, and that slow, hands-off research won’t cut it in a time when corals are dying so quickly. “Twenty years ago, I don’t think we really had a sense of how urgent the problem would become,” she said. “We’ll have to do something to help reefs get through 2050. We have to act now and perhaps not wait for permission.” Hence the super-coral project.This attitude drew criticism from several other coral scientists, who argued that it wasn’t their place to intervene, or that we didn’t know enough to pull it off, or that such work would distract from the more important goal of stopping climate change. Gates held firm. “She was always a disruptor,” says Virginia Weis of Oregon State University, who knew her for 29 years. She suspects that Gates faced backlash not just because of her action-oriented views, but also because she was a woman scientist who didn’t conform to traditional views of femininity. “The Aloha-shirt-wearing guys were threatened by her, and it didn’t faze her. She wasn’t quiet or silent.”She was also a “restless academic,” Weis says. She did the conventional work of publishing papers, but only later in her career did she find a more fulfilling pursuit: public speaking. She excelled at it, holding forth about her work at the United Nations, as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, in the Emmy-winning documentary Chasing Coral, and in many public lectures. She jokingly attributed her success to her English accent.
Shayle Matsuda, one of her students, sees it differently. He first saw her speak about corals at a high-school chapel in Honolulu with both urgency and positivity. “You could have heard a pin drop in there,” he says. “It felt like she was taking everyone by the hand and talking only to them. It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had, and it convinced me that we really can change the narrative around climate change. It’s not just going to be research that saves reefs. It’s also about reaching people, and moving them out of the paralysis that comes from our situation.”He, and others I spoke with, were struck by how often Gates admitted that she could be wrong, that her approach might fail, and that there was so much she did not know. In this, too, she was iconoclastic. “She wasn’t ego-driven; she was mission-driven,” says Hollie Putnam of the University of Rhode Island, who was one of Gates’s students. “That’s so rare for people at the top of their field. She wanted what was good for corals, people, and science. She didn’t want to build a kingdom.”The kingdom sprang up around her nonetheless. Her work turned her into a rock star of coral science—a role that she publicly embraced, but that wore on her privately. Weis describes her as “a classic introvert on a stage”—someone who seemed to embody extroversion, but who secretly longed for quieter company. Such moments became rarer as her career took off. “She’d shake her head and wonder: How did this happen?” says Edmunds, who recalls freer days of sitting on a dock in a bay in Jamaica, watching passing comets. “In many ways, she still felt like just a grad student. Most people didn’t see that, but it colored so much of what Ruth did.”

For example, she always made time for people, even when it became hard to pin her down. “She’s here, there, everywhere, until she’s with you—and then she’s really with you. Her support was complete and concrete,” says Kim Cobbof the Georgia Institute of Technology. “There was an endless amount of her, and everyone felt like they had their own piece,” adds Weis.Gates especially advocated for people who, like her, faced extra challenges in science because of their gender or sexuality. When she took over the presidency of the International Society for Reef Studies, she intentionally diversified its largely white, male staff. “Ruth was the first person I had a candid conversation with about what it meant to be a woman in science,” says Beth Lenz, who was one of her students. And Matsuda, who is transgender, adds: “She helped me grow into my scientific identity wholly, and pushed me to be my authentic self unapologetically.”
Gates was like a living embodiment of the worlds she studied—a reef in human form. Reefs enrich the oceans by creating spaces in which thousands of diverse species can thrive. Gates nurtured a vast community of researchers by opening doors for them and supporting their lives.Reefs are built on cooperation between disparate creatures: corals, algae, and more. Gates prized cooperation, eschewing the competitive rat race of academia and recruiting people who would evince the same generosity of spirit. “Ruth told me that scientists can make the mistake of thinking that critically evaluating information is the same as being critical,” says Ainsworth. “She was the antithesis of this. Her work was always about building others up.”Reefs also come in various forms. Some scientists are looking for so-called bright spots that are disproportionately vibrant and resilient despite the challenges they face. “Ruth herself was our bright spot,” says Rebecca Vega Thurber of Oregon State University. “Losing her feels like a horrible metaphor.”“It’s now on us, the dozens of scientists she trained and took under her wing,” Vega Thurber adds. “We’ve put so much faith in her as our leader, our torchbearer. Now it’s time we became bright spots ourselves.”In the last interview I did with Gates, she said she was heartened by the drive she saw in the young researchers entering the field. She was, as ever, optimistic. I asked her how she stayed that way, despite the decades of ecological decline that she had witnessed. “I don’t think a lot about what’s happened in the past and whether it’s better than what it is now,” she told me. “I’m pretty much always in the present.“Maybe that’s a lucky personality trait for these crazy declines,” she added. “I try not to spend a lot of time mourning loss.”

Alarming Level of Microplastics Found in a Major U.S. River

When Andreas Fath decided to conduct a survey to see what contaminants were lurking in the Tennessee River, he wanted to do it in a way that would get attention.

“If you want to reach people, I’ve noticed that it’s better to do something crazy”, says the German professor of medical and life science from Furtwangen University.

Fath combined his two passions—”long-distance swimming and chemical research”—to swim the 1,049-kilometre Tennessee River over the course of 34 days last summer. It was inspired by a similar swim through the Rhine River in Germany he completed in 2014. Along the way he took water samples, and what he found doesn’t bode well for the ecologically rich and biodiverse Tennessee River.

After conducting a lab analysis on the samples with the University of Georgia River Basin Center and a host of other conservation and nature groups, Fath and his research team revealed Wednesday just how much human activities are impacting the river.

The most surprising find? A high abundance of microplastics.

The microscopic pieces of plastic are produced either purposefully in products like exfoliating washes (a practice banned by the Obama administration in 2015) or are the result of the breakdown of larger plastic products over time.


Microplastics have been widely documented in ocean marine environments. They are thought to last for hundreds of years, they’re hard to spot—and thus hard to clean up—and studies are increasingly showing how dangerous they are to marine life. As various fish and plankton consume microplastic, it builds up in the food chain after larger predators chomp down on smaller marine life. The pollutants may even show up on our dinner plate, in the bellies and meat of the fish we consume.

Rivers are known to contribute to the ocean plastic pollution crisis, sweeping plastic litter out to sea. But few studies in the US have looked at the presence of microplastics in rivers themselves.

Fath found that in some parts of the river, microplastics ranged from 16,000 to 18,000 particles per cubic metre.

When Fath conducted similar chemical tests on Germany’s Rhine River, there were only 200 particles per cubic metre. He blames this difference on the less developed recycling and waste infrastructure present in the US as compared to much of Europe, particularly in the southeast. The Tennessee River runs from eastern Tennessee, into Alabama, and connects to the Ohio River in Kentucky. By contrast, Germany has a goal of eliminating landfills by 2020.

In addition to microplastics, Fath found traces of pharmaceutical waste, though this was at lower levels than in the Rhine. By far, he notes, his biggest concern is the proliferation of microplastic in the ecologically unique ecosystem.


“The Tennessee River is an incredible part of the US”, says Anna George, VP of Conservation and Education at the Tennessee Aquarium. “It’s almost like an underwater rain forest”.

A biodiversity report prepared for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 2015 documented high numbers of fish, crawfish, and mussels endemic only to the Tennessee River.

Based on studies done in ocean environments, George says scientists know microplastics accumulate up through the food chain, but no one knows exactly how that works in freshwater environments.

“We don’t have similar studies for freshwater [organisms]”, she says.


Research on the abundance and impacts of microplastics has only been performed in earnest throughout the past decade, making it a relatively new field of study. While scientists are now getting a handle on how plastic breaks down into imperceptibly small pieces in the ocean, the same literature is only just beginning to understand microplastics in Americans’ own backyards.

In 2016, one study showed microplastics were present in 29 tributaries that feed into the Great Lakes. In 2017, another study showed microplastics are abundant in the lakes themselves.

Hydroecologist Jill Crossman from the University of Windsor says microplastics can enter freshwater systems through anything from large plastic discarded over the sides of boats to fibres from synthetic clothing that’s washed down drains. Many of the ways municipalities treat sewage water does filter most microplastics out, but the small percentage that leaks through still adds up.

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