Humans Can Ease Climate Change Impacts on Oceans, Experts Say

SOURCE:  Pew Charitable Trusts/Polita Glynn  April 27, 2017

While many people view climate change as an intangible and overwhelming problem, they can address its impacts on the oceans, chiefly through continued investment in innovative strategies for managing the seas and the life within them.

That is one conclusion of a new paper titled “Avoiding a Crisis of Motivation for Ocean Management Under Global Environmental Change” from a group of Pew marine fellows and other researchers.

Led by Peter Mumby from the University of Queensland and Jane Lubchenco from Oregon State University, the group reviewed evidence that climate change poses such a crisis because of how people typically respond to long-term, incremental change. Humans are wired to learn from personal experience, and thus many individuals avoid acting on what they perceive as long-range, diffuse, anticipated threats, such as climate change. This crisis can lead to reduced investment in resource management, monitoring, and enforcement.

Insights from case studies

Counteracting that trend requires a more flexible approach to finding solutions and responding to the inevitable surprises that ongoing research will reveal.

Through a series of case studies on climate change’s impact on marine ecosystems, the paper explores which variables might encourage or discourage further investments, and considers the possible consequences of those decisions. For instance, the worldwide decline of coral reefs is often perceived as management failure, even if climate change is one of the primary drivers of that deterioration. Yet science shows that human management of reef ecosystems can improve them.

In another case study, the authors consider management of fish stocks that are shifting their range in response to temperature changes. An economically rational response to such a shift is for people in a region that is losing fish to overexploit those declining stocks, while those in places where fish have increased might mistake migration for high productivity and overfish. But by treating the stock as a shared resource, both parties could help ensure a more sustainable outcome.

Other case studies in the paper explore expanded shipping through the Arctic due to the reduction of sea ice in the region as well as climate impacts on coastal habitats and those living in vulnerable areas.

Management challenges and options

The paper, which was published in the journal Global Change Biology, considers how management strategies can account for “climate surprises”—the gaps between expectations and actual events.

Technology, for example, can enable simulations that allow people to see what would happen under different environmental scenarios. Expanded monitoring and modeling can help provide early-warning signs of impending change and assist fisheries managers and others in preventing ecosystems from crossing critical thresholds. For example, by including additional variables in computer models, managers can better understand the benefits of various actions they could take under changing climates.

Reframing the problem

“Of the many surprises that we face with climate change, I hope that a proactive and strategic human response is among the greatest,” says Mumby. “Greater investment in ecosystem management does not mean more regulation, but smarter, more flexible approaches that better anticipate and respond to unexpected changes.”

Polita Glynn directs the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Herbert W. Hoover Foundation Funds Science and Math Programs

SOURCE:  Stark County ESC  April 28, 2017

Water quality and ecological awareness are a high priority for the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation. For two years they have responded with enthusiasm to proposals to provide area science students with hands-on learning experiences through Science and Math on the Move (SAMM). The Herbert W. Hoover Foundation endorsed the project goal of ensuring the future ecological health of the community by exposing students to natural environments and the human-induced impacts upon them.
“Our collaboration with Stark Parks and Beech Creek Gardens and the purchase of new equipment and models have enabled us to conduct multiple trainings for 28 lead teachers in water quality education and watershed dynamics,”explained Dale Gallucci, SAMM Center Coordinator. “The teachers have returned to their districts to train additional teachers.” 
The need for science education is evident when a student answers “the faucet” to the question “Where does water come from?” Watershed, Drinking & Wastewater Treatment, and Waste Management Enviroscapes are the newest equipment available through the grant to teachers and classrooms. They enable students to interact with models of their environment.
Special events funded by the foundation have ramped up enthusiasm and deepened student learning. Filmmaker and lecturer, Richard Kern, presented his film Ghosts of the Western Glades and answered questions from middle and high school science lead teachers as well as students representing six districts. Dr. Austin Gallagher, from Beneath the Waves, Inc., presented to students and teachers in five areas schools his experiences as a marine researcher.
“The Herbert W. Hoover Foundation’s generous grants to SAMM Center and the community have enabled us to continue our mission of meeting district needs by providing quality educational programs, support and services,” stated Joe Chaddock, Superintendent, Stark County Educational Service Center.

Project Seahorse presents: ‘Seahorse’ an art exhibit by Xavier Cortada

SOURCE – Project Seahorse  March 24, 2017

Project Seahorse presents an exhibit by Miami-based artist Xavier Cortada, as the launch event for its “Seahorses: Magical Creatures in Our Backyard” outreach initiative.

What: “Seahorses” – an exhibit opening by Xavier Cortada –

When: Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 6:00 – 8:00pm

Where: Pinecrest Gardens, 11000 S Red Rd., Pinecrest, FL 33156

Why: Xavier Cortada opens his exhibit “Seahorses” at Pinecrest Gardens; Project Seahorse launches their “Seahorses: Magical Creatures in Our Backyard” initiative; the event will build awareness about seahorses and other syngnathids in South Florida and Biscayne National Park and inspire residents of Miami-Dade County to take action to protect the park and their oceans. Charismatic symbols of the seagrasses, mangroves, reefs and estuaries they call home, seahorses are flagship species for a wide range of marine conservation issues in Biscayne National Park.

Interview opportunities:

Xavier Cortada, artist

Dr. Amanda Vincent, Director, Project Seahorse (available by phone)

Emilie Stump, Project Seahorse MSc. student; project officer for Seahorses: Magical Creatures in Our Backyard 

For more information, or to schedule interviews, please contact Regina Bestbier at


Xavier Cortada

Xavier Cortada serves as Artist-in-Residence at FIU School of Environment, Arts and Society and the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts.  The Miami artist has created environmental installations (North Pole and South Pole), eco-art projects (Taiwan, Hawaii and Holland), and community murals addressing peace (Cyprus and Northern Ireland), child welfare (Bolivia and Panama), AIDS (Switzerland and South Africa) and juvenile justice concerns (Miami and Philadelphia). Cortada has developed multi-year participatory eco-art efforts to reforest mangrovesnative trees and wildflowers across Florida. See for more information. 

Project Seahorse

Project Seahorse is a marine conservation group based at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and at the Zoological Society of London. Project Seahorse works to protect seahorses to support ocean conservation more broadly, generating cutting-edge research and using it to inform highly effective conservation interventions.

Herbert W. Hoover Foundation
This campaign is made possible through the generous support of the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation. The Herbert W. Hoover Foundation takes a leadership role in funding unique opportunities that provide solutions to issues related to the community, education, and the environment.

Biologist Ruth Gates trying to engineer bleach resistant coral

SOURCE:  West Hawaii Today/staff report  March 17, 2017

Her driving mission is to stop talking about death and destruction. Doom and gloom sells, she realizes, but it also creates pessimism, where it can be easy to throw up your hands and just wait for the forgone conclusion.

Instead, Gates, the director of the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii, wants to talk about life. She wants to talk about creating it, about scientifically engineering it so that it’s as perfect as can be.

“We have lost 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs in the last three decades,” Ruth said, speaking about her research trying to crossbreed coral in an effort to save them at Hawaii Community College — Palamanui. “I’m going to let you absorb that.”

Yes, the hour-long President’s Series presentation led off with the alarming facts: Half are decimated and the remaining coral will be gone or heavily damaged by 2050 if things don’t turn around.

And turn around they must. Because human life without coral is limited. The structures are abundant food sources for aquatic life, provide oxygen and protect shores from erosion and the full force of storms. They’re also a backbone for tourism industries.

But what about the other half of those numbers?

“That means 50 percent didn’t die,” Gates said. “And the question is why? That’s a crucial question to understand.”

To figure that out, Ruth and her team of students are experimenting on crossbreeding different components of the surviving corals to see if they can create species that possess the attributes that make coral likely to resist rising sea temperatures — the primary cause of coral bleaching.

The science is daunting because corals are vast and complex. No two reefs anywhere in the world are the same.

And coral is different organisms living in perfect cohabitation. Coral colonies are made up of hundreds of genetically identical individual animals called polyps. These polyps partner with microalgae, tiny plant tissues that actually live inside the animal’s cells. Inside the cells, the plants use life energy to combine CO2 and water to produce oxygen.

Bleaching occurs when ocean temperatures rise enough to disturb the biochemical photosynthesis reaction. The animal, then, expels the nonfunctioning plant. Malnourished, the coral bleaches white from its normal healthy brown hue. Hawaii was an area greatly affected by the worldwide coral bleaching storm of 2014.

But with so many genotypes and partnerships among the surviving coral, the goal is to mix and match them to create breeds with traits proven to be resistant to bleaching.

“Why don’t we manipulate the system and develop corals that can survive the future?” Ruth said, adding that coral, like humans, are a product of who their parents were, who they partnered with and their environment and experiences. “Why don’t we selectively breed the strongest of the strong?”

That idea won her a $4 million grant to try and create it, which she and her team are doing.

They had a successful crossbreed last year and now they’re waiting to see if it grows, and the success continues. If it does, they can introduce the new populations to a reef where they can grow, which would create oxygen and lower the water temperatures to buy time to mitigate the bleaching problem.

But it would be just that, extra time while partnerships are formed and different groups and agencies join in an all out effort to save the coral.

“A full crush,” Gates called it.

Groups from all backgrounds should form. Biologists should partner with engineers and engineers with conservationists, philanthropists, and all of them with state and agency officials to come up with solutions.

Could an engineer create a system around a reef that would raise the temperature of the water by 2 degrees for 48 hours? If they could, the coral could pass along a trait to the next generation that enables them to survive a half-degree water temperature rise down the line.

Because a characteristic of a surviving coral is that if they survived a stressed environment once before, they are more likely to survive another. The engineering system would mimic that stressed environment but under a controlled atmosphere, giving the coral the benefits of having adjusted to it.

“Let’s try,” Gates said. “Let’s not be affected by the naysayers.”

The broad thinking caught Alan Gemen by surprise. The engineer was one of about 100 people who listened to the Thursday evening outdoor lecture to learn about the state of coral, not expecting engineering ideas.

“I never thought about it before,” he said of building such a device. “But it’s something that’s possible, probably using solar.”

Time is of the essence, Gates said. Humans, when they put their minds to it, covered a hole in the ozone for the sake of humanity. Why not fix this?

While it’s too early to tell if Gates’ tests will work, she is posting her results in real time online rather than waiting for them to be published. She hopes that other scientists will pick up on the findings and study along, which is more important than a publisher and peer reviews.

“We’ve all been fortunate to be here to see science that’s alive, so full of life,” UH Palamanui Director Kenneth Fletcher said after the presentation.

Microplastics found in supermarket fish, shellfish

SOURCE:  CBCNEWS/Brandie Weikle January 28, 2017

Tiny pieces of plastic are making their way into fish and shellfish found at the supermarket, a new study has shown.

The findings are part of a report prepared for the International Maritime Organization, the UN agency responsible for preventing marine pollution.

It’s not yet been established what effect these tiny particles of plastic will have on the humans who consume them, the report says.

Researchers do know, however, that microplastics get into aquatic habitats from many different sources, says Chelsea Rochman, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto and co-editor of the report.

These range from tiny fibres that come off the synthetic fabrics of our clothing, to bits of car tire that wear off on roads and make their way through storm drains into waterways, she says.

They also vary in size such that they can be consumed by marine animals both big and microscopic.

“It has infiltrated every level of the food chain in marine environments and likely fresh water, and so now we’re seeing it come back to us on our dinner plates,” says Rochman.

Gutting fish won’t rid them of the bits of plastic they consume.

“These materials enter marine organisms, not just their guts but also their tissues,” says Peter Wells, a senior research fellow with the International Ocean Institute at Dalhousie University.

MICROPLASTICS JULY 15 2015 net in water

A net designed to gather samples of microplastic particles is dragged through Lake Ontario on July 15, 2015. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

And it’s not just the plastic itself, but the stuff that comes along with it, that’s a concern, says Wells.

Microplastics absorb or carry organic contaminants, such as PCBs, pesticides, flame retardants and hormone-disrupting compounds of many kinds, he says.

Wells says that until recently, the world’s attention was on larger pieces of plastic in the ocean — the kind of garbage obviously visible to the naked eye.

Pictures of seabirds with plastic rings from six-packs of beer around their necks were shared with alarm, for example.

“Only when scientists started looking at plankton and water samples more carefully did they realize that a lot of the plastic was being broken down, not seen except under a microscope,” says Wells.

Not just microbeads

​Among all the microplastics in our lakes and oceans, microbeads — those little exfoliants from facial scrubs and hand soaps — are the best known by the public.

“Microbeads are really what brought microplastics to the table in Canada as something that we would regulate and monitor,” says Rochman. A federal government ban on toiletries containing microbeads will come into effect in 2018.

However, these are not the main source of microplastics, she says.


Microbeads, like these from a sample of toothpaste seen under a microscope, are the best known among microplastics but not the most common source, says Chelsea Rochman, co-editor of the report. (Dr. Harold Weger)

“The biggest source is likely larger plastic items that we can see during beach cleanups that enter the water and over time break down with the sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces of microplastic.”

Think plastic bags, styrofoam takeout containers and plastic cutlery, says Rochman.

What does this mean for fish as food?

Kate Comeau, a registered dietitian and the spokeswoman for Dietitians of Canada, cautions consumers not to come to conclusions too quickly as a result of these findings.

“It’s an important conversation,” says Comeau, “but we don’t want people running away from eating healthy sources of food.”

Fish is an excellent source of protein, she says. “The fatty fish are also a great source of vitamin D, which we don’t have a lot of food sources of in our Canadian diet. Fish is also a great source of iron, and those omega-3 fats are really important in terms of our heart health.”

Rochman stresses that more research is required before anyone lets microplastics determine what’s for dinner.

“What we really need to do is a risk assessment … nobody has done that for microplastics.”


Researchers have found microplastics in molluscs like oysters both in field research and in retail outlets, says Rochman. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Advances in Coral Restoration Hold Promise for Protecting Coasts—and Economies

February 7, 2017

Coral reefs, mangroves, and coastal wetlands do more than furnish habitat for wildlife and protect communities from storms. These species-rich ecosystems also provide tangible economic value, attracting recreation and tourism that support local businesses.

Research on quantifying—and, where possible, increasing—all of those values is advancing, and the resulting data should help policymakers and other stakeholders make more informed decisions about whether and how to protect and manage coastal ecosystems. Some of those experts joined regional officials and others at two recent workshops in South Florida that highlighted the emerging research. The participants included numerous Pew marine fellows—ocean conservation experts who have worked under fellowships from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Coral conservation in Biscayne Bay

In the first workshop, held Nov. 14 at the University of Miami and organized by Pew with support from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, Pew fellow Les Kaufman of Boston University described how he expects Biscayne National Park, located in Florida’s Biscayne Bay, to provide a corridor for reef-associated marine species as they shift their ranges in the coming decades due to warming waters.

If that critical lifeline were broken because of further coral degradation, he said, it could leave associated species with no habitat to move into. He discussed options for continued conservation, such as restoring coral reefs, which involves growing corals in a “nursery”—on land or in the ocean—and transplanting them where they are most likely to take hold and thrive.

Pew fellow Mike Beck of The Nature Conservancy and the University of California, Santa Cruz presented his research showing that coral reefs prevent billions of dollars in coastal storm damage every year.

Most reef restoration projects are too small to substantially increase these and other benefits, but larger-scale restorations might do so.  Beck suggested that such projects could create new funding opportunities by attracting capital from coastal developers, insurance companies, or related sectors.

Pew fellow Andrew Baker of University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science described how strains of heat-tolerant algae that live inside coral could be used to enhance restoration. For example, it might be possible to seed reefs with tolerant algae to prepare them for the expected warming of the ocean.

To connect these researchers’ ongoing work to decision-making about this ecosystem, regional government representatives, stakeholders, and staff of Biscayne National Park provided their perspectives on priorities and current management planning. They noted, for example, that a stronger case could be made for the economic value of coastal ecosystems. The group will continue collaborating, including by consolidating the available data on corals and coral reef habitat in Biscayne National Park, and by communicating this value to the public.

Caribbean coral restoration

In the second workshop, held Nov. 15–17 at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Pew marine fellow Bob Richmond of the University of Hawaii emphasized the need to restore reefs using genetically diverse corals that can cope with unexpected stress, especially because climate change is expected to bring novel environmental conditions.

One technique for achieving that is larval propagation, which involves creating new combinations of coral genes through sexual reproduction in a laboratory. This, researchers say, yields more diversity than does the dominant technique of growing new corals from fragments of existing ones.

The Fort Lauderdale workshop was convened by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and focused on improving and expanding reefs throughout the Caribbean. More than 100 practitioners, scientists, and managers attended, including Pew fellows Kaufman, Beck, and Baker.

Larval propagation may also prove a faster way to regenerate a reef than individual plantings, which most restoration projects now use, although it is not clear how to reliably coax young, mobile corals to settle in large numbers to create new reefs.

Experts reiterated messages from the first workshop, namely that large, fast-growing reef restoration projects would offer flood protection for long, contiguous swaths of coastline and thus could attract funding from sources other than traditional conservation-minded supporters.

It is through projects like these that Pew staff is helping to foster research that is scientifically credible and part of realistic solutions to pressing problems.

Polita Glynn directs the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Famed snake trackers from India latest weapon in Florida war on pythons

SOURCE:  Miami Herald/Jenny Staletovich – January 23, 2017

What Judas snakes, snake-sniffing dogs and even hunters from around the globe have struggled to accomplish may finally be pulled off by a pair of singing snake catchers from India: solving the riddle for finding Burmese pythons in Florida’s Everglades.

In just two weeks this month, the two tribesmen from Southern India, working with the University of Florida, caught 14 pythons. That included a monster 16-foot female holed up in the ruins of the old Nike missile base on Key Largo.

For perspective, consider last year’s second Python Challenge, an annual contest to draw attention to Florida’s python problem. The hunt attracted 1,000 hunters, most of them amateurs. Over a month, they managed to bag just 106 snakes. The year before, hunters snagged 68.

“If we fall anywhere in that range, I’m going to be really happy,” said UF biologist Frank Mazzotti, who heads a team of researchers investigating pythons and other wildlife.

The pilot project, being funded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is also relatively cheap: just $68,888 for two tribesmen and two translators for two months.

Since arriving in early January, Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, both in their 50s and members of the Irula tribe, India’s famed snake hunters, have headed into the Everglades almost daily. Armed only with tire irons to punch through dense burma reed and sharp limestone rock and trailed by biologists, the pair are on the lookout for the sparkle of snakeskin in the bush. They’re also searching for what the snakes left behind: a ripple in the sand, a tunnel through grass or scat.

In the nearly two decades since pythons became established in South Florida, finding them has proved one of the thorniest problems for controlling their spread. The cryptically patterned snakes easily disappear into marshes that are nearly impossible to search. Biologists have tried sending out radio-tagged “Judas” snakes to ferret out other snakes, trained dogs and even tried poisoning prey. But the number of voracious snakes, blamed for nearly wiping out the population of small mammals in Everglades National Park, keeps growing. This year for the first time, hatchlings were found in Key Largo. In November, one turned up in Biscayne Bay on a water monitoring station.

The idea of having Irula snake trackers train to target python has been percolating for years among Mazzotti; award-winning herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, a leading conservationistin India and alum of the old Miami Serpentarium; and another Serpentarium alum, South Florida herpetologist Joe Wasilewski. In 1978, Whitaker founded a snake-hunting co-op for the tribe after unregulated snake trading was banned. The tribe now hunts cobras to collect antivenin to battle the nation’s snake-bite problem: about 50,000 die annually and up to 1.5 million are bit.

But almost nobody thought it was possible.

“People said, ‘They know how to hunt in India, not the Everglades, and cobras, not pythons,’” Mazzotti said.

Whitaker was certain the Irula, whose ancestors hunted pythons to the point of extinction in their state, would succeed.

“I pointed out that part of the year, the swamp is quite dry and that’s the time when they would be able to find the things like back home, the tracks of snake,” he said. “This is very big and probably the biggest invasive reptile problem that has ever existed on the planet, so let’s do something.

Even to South Florida experts, Irula tracking techniques seem mysterious. They move slowly and rather than focus on roads and levees where snakes have typically been found basking, they head straight for thick brush. The Irulas believe the boulders and high grasses that line the levees are more lucrative hunting grounds. That seems to be proving true: UF biologist Ed Metzger has so far determined that seven of the 13 snakes captured would not have been found without the trackers.

And when the going gets slow, everyone must stop to squat for a quick song of prayer — usually an ancient invocation mixed with an ad lib about pythons or the weather — accompanied by a beedi cigarette.

To the surprise of local biologists, the trackers have also been able to detect information critical to snake management: the python’s sex, approximate size and even how long ago it was in the area.

“Our search image is really just the snake, but they’re talking about something else,” said Metzger.

Sadaiyan and Gopal are staying with Wasilewski, who is helping scout out locations while picking up tracking tips.

While the team says it’s too early to tell how successful the partnership will be, this month’s haul at the missile base is a good sign. Wasilewski, who worked as an MP at the base and has been hunting snakes for three decades, suggested the spot, thinking the piles of rubble left behind would probably be good snake hideouts. Since the hatchlings were first detected on Key Largo last year, biologists also think there still may be a chance at containing their spread.

“No one is saying this is a python eradication tool. But on a local scale, I think it can be,” Metzger said.

The Irulas first spotted a tail near the 18-inch opening of a 27-foot long shaft covered by ficus roots. Once they hacked their way through the roots, they spied the fat belly of what they suspected was a large snake and hurried to the other end of the vent — formerly used to run electric cables to the missiles — to block its escape. Instead they found another, smaller tail. For the next five or so hours, the crew wrestled to extract what turned out to be four snakes: the 16-foot female, a 10-footer and two eight foot-long snakes.

Metzger is carefully logging all the catches, which are generally euthanized or used for education, keeping track of how much ground is covered each day, who spots the snakes and conditions.

“We’re going to be calculating python per dollar and python per hour,” he said.

Those numbers will then be compared to other efforts, including the Judas snake project — which cost about $11,000 per snake caught — and a group of volunteer trackers costing about $177 per snake, Metzger said. So far, the Irula effort works out to about $4,920 per snake — but they have more than another month left and it’s hard to put a value on new skills South Florida experts are learning.

“Since the Irula have been so successful in their homeland at removing pythons, we are hoping they can teach people in Florida some of these skills,” Kristen Sommers, chief of FWC’s Wildlife Impact Management Section, said in a statement.

As for the Irulas, they seem to be enjoying only their second trip out of India. Wasilewski has taken them to Arbetters for hotdogs and to his daughter-in-law’s school to talk to her AP environmental science class. On Sunday, they watched the NFL playoffs. But the big draw is clearly the snakes, the largest they have ever captured.

“Coming to America is really fun and interesting, but catching all those snakes, that’s why they’re here,” Sadaiyan told Whitaker in Irula when asked. “They’re hunters and that’s why they’re here.”

Les Kaufman Participates in Two Workshops on Climate Change and Coral Reefs

SOURCE:  Boston University/Nov. 22, 2016

Les Kaufman, a Professor of Biology and a Faculty Research Fellow at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, participated in two related workshops in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area of southeastern Florida during the week of November 13.

The first workshop was a one-day forum focused on the health of Biscayne National Park in the face of climate change and environmental degradation in South Florida, organized by the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation and the Pew Marine Fellows Program. The forum focused on the restoration of the Park’s coral reef habitat, its links to Miami and Biscayne Bay, and coastal resilience. The goal was to share a systems view of South Florida’s future, and to show how a remarkable collection of parks and preserves — including Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and a host of other state parks and restoration zones — can be engaged to safeguard the remnants of the subtropical ecosystem, along with the economy and quality of life that it supports. The forum’s background paper on coral reef restoration was written by Katey Lesneski of the Kaufman lab.

The second meeting was an historic gathering of coral reef scientists and coral restoration practitioners, led by the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and hosted at the oceans campus of Nova Southeastern University. The meeting, titled “Workshop to Advance the Science and Practice of Caribbean Coral Restoration,” boasted about 100 attendees from 20 Caribbean nations. Its goal was to “foster collaboration and technology transfer” and to “initiate a community of practice that addresses the evolving role of active coral restoration in the evolutionary history of coral reef ecosystems.” One crucial realization was that coral gardening can, in fact, be brought to a massive scale, but attention to the coral reef community and to the coastal environment as a whole is essential for hopes of life-boating Caribbean coral reefs through the centuries required to keep the impacts of climate change under control.

Photo Description – From left: Dr. Andrew Baker (University of Miami), Les Kaufman (BU Biology/Pardee), and Mike Beck (The Nature Conservancy), members of a Pew Collaborative project for Biscayne National Park. (Credit: Polita Glynn, Executive Director, Pew Marine Fellows Program)

Animals Eat Ocean Plastic Because it Smells Like Food

SOURCE:  National Geographic/Laura Parker – November 9, 2016

A new study sheds light on why so many seabirds, fish, whales, and other critters are gobbling up so much marine plastic debris. And it’s not quite what scientists thought.

As the oceans fill with plastic debris, hundreds of marine species eat astonishing amounts of it. Yet the question of why so many species, from the tiniest zooplankton to whales, mistake so much of it for food has never been fully explored.

Now a new study explains why: It smells like food.

Algae are consumed by krill, a small crustacean that is the primary food source for many sea birds. As algae breaks down naturally in the ocean, they emit a stinky sulfur odor known as dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Sea birds in the hunt for krill have learned that the sulfur odor will lead them to their feeding grounds.

It turns out that floating plastic debris provides the perfect platform on which algae thrives. As the algae breaks down, emitting the DMS odor, sea birds, following their noses in search of krill, are led into an “olfactory trap,” according to a new study published November 9 in Science Advances. Instead of feeding on krill, they feed on plastic.

“DMS is the dinner bell,” says Matthew Savoca, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, and lead author of the study. “When people hear the dinner bell, we know food is going to be in the area. This is the same sort of idea. Once the birds’ noses have told them this is where they should expect to find krill, it gets their foraging mode turned on, and their threshold is down for what the food is. ”

Plastic debris has been accumulating rapidly in the world’s ocean, roughly doubling every decade. In 2014, a global analysis measured ocean plastic at a quarter of a billion metric tons, much of it suspended in small rice-sized particles. More than 200 animal species have been documented consuming plastic, including turtles, whales, seal, birds, and fish. Seabirds are especially at risk; a study published last year by scientists in Australia concluded that virtually all seabirds have consumed plastic.

Scientists have long known that ocean plastic is consumed because it looks like food. Sea turtles, for example, often mistake flimsy, clear plastic bags for jellyfish. Other marine animals, including fish, gobble bits of rice-sized micro plastics broken down by sunlight and wave action because they resemble the small particles they normally eat. (See the first of its kind map of ocean plastic pollution.)

But the study of how odors might play a role in marine animals’ consumption of plastic is the first of its kind. Sovaca teamed up with a scientist who studies how odors affect decision-making and a food and wine chemist to determine what smell could be the culprit.

“This does not disprove that plastic might look enticing,” he says. “Often, it’s the smell that gets animals foraging in the area and turns their feeding mode on. It adds another layer on top of it. It is far more likely that a seabird will eat it if it looked and smelled like food.”

Chelsea Rochman, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Toronto, who studies the toxic effects of plastic consumed by fish, called the study an important step toward understanding why marine animals are eating plastic.

“Throughout the literature on plastic debris, you see researchers write statements implying that animals are ‘choosing’ to eat plastic debris without a proper test or explanation of why,” she says. “This is the first group to really dive into the details of why.”

Savoca’s team decided to focus on birds already severely affected by plastic consumption: albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters. They began the study by placing buoys of micro plastics in bags in Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay off the California coast. After three weeks, they retrieved the buoys and tested them in the lab for smell.

“They reeked of sulfur,” Savoca says.

It didn’t take long to identify DMS as a strong predictor of plastic consumption and the “keystone infochemical” that drew marine animals to plastic as if it was krill. Odor extraction tests confirmed that three common varieties of plastic acquired a “DMS signature” in less than a month. The team also found, not surprisingly, that the birds most attracted to the DMS odor are the albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters that are most severely affected by plastic consumption.

Many of those birds nest in underground burrows, and juvenile birds spend many more months on the ground than birds that nest above the surface. Consequently, burrow-nesting birds rely much more heavily on their sense of smell to get around.

“We should be paying more attention to those species,” Savoca says.

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