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:

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.

Herbert W. Hoover Foundation stays true to mission to reduce water pollution

Jul 30, 2018

Original available at:

JACKSON TWP. The late Herbert W. Hoover Jr. wasn’t just a Hoover Co. executive. He also was an ardent environmentalist.

Elizabeth Lacey Hoover said she thinks her father would be proud that his namesake foundation is continuing his legacy.

The foundation is a partner and chief underwriter of the Ohio Ocean Foundation, a local group working to educate the public on how pollution in the state’s waterways is connected to the health of the world’s oceans.

“My father was the first industrialist environmentalist,” Hoover said. “He was very concerned with the output of emissions at the factory. Our family, our history, was taking care of the people who worked in the factories. That was important to him.”

Herbert W. Hoover Jr. was a grandson of company founder William H. Hoover. He succeeded his father as company president in 1954, then served as board chair from 1959 to 1966. He died in 1997.

Ohio Ocean Foundation has invited several scientists and oceanography experts to give presentations in Stark County, worked with schools, and has as spearheaded a number of cleanups; the most recent in Stadium Park in Canton, and along the Ralph Regula Towpath in Massillon in partnership with Ernie’s Bike Shop.

“We’re looking for other community groups and organizations to participate,” said Hoover, who chairs the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation. “There are all kinds of opportunities.”

Solutions, not problems

Hoover estimates that the recent cleanups have resulted in the removal of more than 1,000 pounds of trash that eventually would have made its way into the local water supply. Such continued efforts, she said, can assist nonprofit organizations like the Jackson Township Recycling Center.

“We’re used to corporate recycling,” she said, “But nonprofit seems to be a better fit.”

Having help is important.

“It’s a good methodology to get people engaged,” said Caiti Waks, the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation’s program and outreach director.

Waks splits her time between Stark County and Miami, Fla., where she has spearheaded several initiatives to encourage sustainability and reduce the usage and consumption of plastic, particularly single-use items such as straws, cups and plastic bags.

As part of its local educational outreach, the Ohio Ocean Foundation had an informational booth at the most recent First Friday in downtown Canton. They’re also creating an educational “tool kit” that can be used by schools.

“We do a lot of intense research,” Hoover said. “We work with scientists and researchers. We work on most levels that most foundations don’t. We work on solutions, not problems.”

Hoover said her father, who retired to Bal Harbour, Fla., funded ocean health science for 50 years.

There is about 270,000 tons of plastic debris in the world’s five ocean basins.

“It impacted him a lot,” she said. “When he created his foundation, his philosophy was to hire top-tier scientists, but also to ensure that people would understand. When they do, people will do the right thing and make the right choices and protect the environment.”

Hoover said the foundation supports the Brian Bank at the University of Miami, algae scientists, and world renowned shark researcher and conservationist Neil Hammerschlag.

The foundation also has published a paper examining a possible link between Alzheimer’s disease, the food chain, and algal blooms, which release a toxin known to cause neuro-degenerative diseases.

From linear to circular

“It’s getting people to understand the ocean’s connection to health,” Hoover said. “This is just not some environmental tree-hugging activity. There is a link to human health.”

“We’re working with Ohio scientists, who are analyzing algal blooms through satellite imagery to predict future growth,” Waks said. “We’re also trying to provide solutions to prevent blooms from growing.”

“In the world of research, we’re small,” Hoover added. “But that enables us to look at startup research that no one else will look at.”

Waks said there’s a growing interest in technology to break down plastics and using the material to re-manufacture new products, which in turn would reduce the need for oil, one of basic elements needed to make plastic.

“It’s fiction that we have infinite resources to take from,” she said. “Just like it’s fiction that we have infinite space for disposal. We have to go from a linear model of living, to a circular model in which products are extended beyond their initial use.”

Megan Pellegrino, a former associate professor at Walsh University, became the Herbert W. Hoover foundation’s new Ohio operations manager in June.

“I was familiar with the foundation,” she said. “I was teaching museum studies at Walsh, and connected with the Hoover Historical Center, which funded a digitization project for us. I find what they do meaningful.”

Pellegrino said she’s impressed with what the Ohio Ocean Foundation has done in such a short period of time.

“A lot of times, we hear about problems, but there’s not always an easy way to help,” she said. “I’ve been very happy to see the response. Once you explain how plastic on the street ends up in the ocean, they get it.”

To learn more, visit or the Ohio Ocean Foundation Facebook page at

Mussels off the coast of Seattle test positive for opioids

Originally published on CBS News on May 24, 2018 at 5:34 PM. Written by Christina Capatides. Original article available here. Photo by iStockfootage used for educational purposes.

As more and more American communities grapple with opioid addiction, the human toll of the epidemic has grown in both scope and severity. And now, scientists at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have found evidence that drug’s impact has literally flowed downstream to affect marine life, as well.

Specifically, they used mussels as a barometer of pollution in the waters off Seattle, and discovered that oxycodone is now present enough in the marine environment there for shellfish to test positive.

Since mussels are “filter feeders,” they absorb contaminants from their environment into their tissues in a concentrated way.  Scientists used cages to transplant clean mussels from an aquaculture source on Whidbey Island to 18 urbanized locations around Puget Sound. Several months later, they pulled those previously uncontaminated mussels back out of the urban waters and, together with the Puget Sound Institute, tested them again.

In three of the 18 locations, the mussels then tested positive for trace amounts of oxycodone. How, you ask?

When humans ingest opioids like oxycodone, they ultimately end up excreting traces of the drugs into the toilet. Those chemicals then end up in wastewater. And while many contaminants are filtered out of wastewater before it’s released into the oceans, wastewater management systems can’t entirely filter out drugs. Thus, opioids, antidepressants, the common chemotherapy drug Melphalan — the mussels tested positive for all of them.

“What we eat and what we excrete goes into the Puget Sound,” Jennifer Lanksbury, a biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told CBS Seattle affiliate KIRO. “It’s telling me there’s a lot of people taking oxycodone in the Puget Sound area.”

While mussels likely don’t metabolize drugs like oxycodone, and thus wouldn’t necessarily be physically harmed by the presence of it in their tissues, studies show that fish are not so lucky. In fact, scientists at the University of Utah recently discovered that, if given the opportunity, zebrafish will willingly dose themselves with opioids. Scientists say salmon and other fish might have a similar response.

The Puget Sound Institute notes that the amounts of opioids detected were thousands of times smaller than a typical human dose. And none of the mussels tested are near any commercial shellfish beds.

Still, the discovery of opioid-positive shellfish in Puget Sound is a stark new milestone in the epidemic, showing that enough humans are hooked on these life-altering drugs for the trace chemicals they excrete to register in other species in our coastal waters.

Students talk opioids with “Dreamland” author

Sam Quinones, author of the book “Dreamland,” speaks to Stark County high school students about opioids. ( / Bob Rossiter)

By: Shane Hoover from the Canton Repository. To see the original article, visit this link. Originally posted on April 2, 2018.

CANTON Author and journalist Sam Quinones spoke Monday morning with an audience of local high school and college students from who were reading his book, “Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic.”

The book chronicles how black tar heroin from Mexico and the reckless marketing and prescribing of narcotic painkillers shaped an opioid overdose epidemic that killed more than 42,000 Americans in 2016.

Quinones talked about his reporting and the growing sense of isolation that makes communities, rich and poor, more susceptible to drugs.

“We have destroyed what brought us together as Americans,” he said.

But the former Los Angeles Times reporter spent much of the morning asking his audience how the opioid epidemic impacted their lives. After a little prodding, the students opened up.

One young man said he lost a friend to an overdose months ago, and had another friend who was in a bad car accident and now took a handful of pills every morning just to get out of bed.

Other students talked about family members who used prescription pills, bullying and stress in high school and peer pressure to smoke marijuana or take drugs.

Starting a conversation

The Stark County District Library arranged Quinones’ talk with the students at the Canton Palace Theatre, and a similar event for the general public Monday evening.

With a $33,540 grant from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, the library also gave 2,000 copies of “Dreamland” to 15 area school districts, as well as Malone and Walsh universities.

Beth Kasler, an English teacher at Louisville High School, taught the book with her seniors and brought them to Monday’s event.

Along with reading and discussing the book, Kasler said she brought in guest speakers who talked about how to properly use prescriptions, how police have responded to the epidemic and how overdoses impact families.

“A lot of the discussion of the dangers and how to help,” Kasler said. “What do we do? Where do we go from here?”

Colton Hoover Chase, vice chairman of the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, said the more people read and talk about the epidemic, the more their minds might open to unique solutions.

“This is a difficult problem and we’re open to a lot of different things,” Chase said.

The speaking event was one of three recent opioid-themed programs organized by the Stark County District Library in cooperation with Stark County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery.

“The library always has been interested in the ideas, the concerns, the things happening in society,” said Jean Duncan McFarren, the library’s interim director.

Traditionally, the library played that role through books, but today it can be a forum for conversation.

“I think the library is in the perfect position to do that because everybody comes to the library,” McFarren said.

Reach Shane at 330-580-8338 or

On Twitter: @shooverREP

World’s largest collection of ocean garbage is twice the size of Texas

SOURCE:  USA Today/Doyle Rice  March 22, 2018

The world’s largest collection of ocean garbage is growing.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of plastic, floating trash halfway between Hawaii and California, has grown to more than 600,000 square miles, a study published Thursday found. That’s twice the size of Texas.

Winds and converging ocean currents funnel the garbage into a central location, said study lead author Laurent Lebreton of the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a non-profit organization that spearheaded the research.

First discovered in the early 1990s, the trash in the patch comes from around the Pacific Rim, including nations in Asia and North and South America, Lebreton said.

The patch is not a solid mass of plastic. It includes about 1.8 trillion pieces and weighs 88,000 tons — the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets. The new figures are as much as 16 times higher than previous estimates.

The research — the most complete study undertaken of the garbage patch — was published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports.

 “We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered,” said Julia Reisser of the foundation. “We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris.”

The study was based on a three-year mapping effort by an international team of scientists affiliated with the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company.

More: Our trash harms the deepest fish in the ocean

More: Humans have produced 18.2 trillion pounds of plastic since the ’50s. That’s equal in size to 1 billion elephants.

Sadly, the Pacific patch isn’t alone. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of five such trash collections in the ocean, Lebreton said.

This video shows the devastating plastic waste that is overtaking the waters near Bali. Buzz60

Scientists work with the European Space Agency to take photos of the garbage patches from space.

No governments have stepped up to clean the trash, which is in international waters, so it’s up to privately funded groups such as the Ocean Cleanup Foundation to take the lead in getting rid of the garbage.

There’s a sense of urgency, said Joost Dubois, a spokesman with the foundation.

“It’s a ticking time bomb of larger material,” Dubois said. “We’ve got to get it before it breaks down into a size that’s too small to collect and also dangerous for marine life.”

Since plastic has been around only since the 1950s, there’s no way of knowing exactly how long it will last in the ocean. If left alone, the plastic could remain there for decades, centuries or even longer.

“Unless we begin to remove it, some would say it may remain there forever,” Lebreton said.

73% of Deep-Sea Fish Have Ingested Plastic

SOURCE:  EcoWatch/Lorraine Chow   Feb 18, 2018

Microplastics can really be found everywhere, even in the stomachs of creatures living deep underwater.

Marine scientists from the National University of Ireland (NUI) in Galway found the plastic bits in 73 percent of 233 deep-sea fish collected from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean—one of the highest microplastic frequencies in fish ever recorded worldwide.

For the study, published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, the scientists inspected the stomach contents of dead deep-water fish collected from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. The sampled fish, including the Spotted Lanternfish, Glacier Lanternfish, White-spotted Lanternfish, Rakery Beaconlamp, Stout Sawpalate and Scaly Dragonfish, were taken from depths of up to 600 meters (about 2,000 feet).

Even though microplastics are usually found around the ocean’s surface, these fish were able to gobble them up anyway.

“Deep-water fish migrate to the surface at night to feed on plankton (microscope animals) and this is likely when they are exposed to the microplastics,” explained Alina Wieczorek, lead author of the study and Ph.D. candidate from the School of Natural Sciences and Ryan Institute at NUI Galway.

One fish that was examined, a Spotted Lanternfish less than 2 inches in length, had 13 microplastics extracted from its stomach, Wieczorek said.

“In total, 233 fish were examined with 73 percent of them having microplastics in their stomachs, making it one of the highest reported frequencies of microplastic occurrence in fish worldwide,” she said.

The fish were sampled from a warm core eddy, which is similar to ocean gyres that are thought to accumulate microplastics. The sampled fish may have originated from a particularly polluted patch of the Atlantic Ocean.

“This would explain why we recorded one of the highest abundances of microplastics in fishes so far, and we plan to further investigate the impacts of microplastics on organisms in the open ocean,” Wieczorek added.

The identified microplastics were mostly microfibers, with black and blue the most recorded colors. These tiny plastic threads shed from commonly used synthetic fabrics like polyester, rayon and nylon. When washed, plastic microfibers break off and a single jacket can produce up to 250,000 fibers in washing machine effluent.

Microplastics can contain additives such as colorants and flame retardants and/or pollutants adsorbed onto the particles from the sea, a press release for the study noted. Ingesting them can cause internal physical damage to the animals such as inflammation of intestines, reduced feeding and other effects. Ingested microplastics can also move up the food chain.

“While there is clearly a concern that the ingestion of microplastics with associated toxins may have harmful effects on these fishes, or even the fishes that feed on them, our study highlights that these seemingly remote fishes located thousands of kilometers from land and 600 meters down in our ocean are not isolated from our pollution,” Dr. Tom Doyle, a co-author of the study from the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, said.

“Indeed, it’s worrying to think that our daily activities, such as washing our synthetic clothes in our washing machines, results in billions of microplastics entering our oceans through our waste water stream that may eventually end up in these deep-sea fishes.”

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