Wednesday, January 25, 2017
My research is concerned with the way that a huge swath of people from all walks of life contribute to knowledge about the ocean. At one end of the spectrum is a bunch of different people, including (but not limited to) fisheries biologists, professional aquarists, hobbyists, anglers, beach goers, sailors, and academic biologists and on the other end is a product: published scientific knowledge.
In our world, we have a system of knowing- how do we know something? Society generally agrees that we "know" something because it was published and peer reviewed (i'll get to the quibbles later). So someone can feel some way about the weather, but a scientist can confirm that it is true. This is what we in the academy call epistemology- we know something for sure when people we trust go through a system we trust to prove it. Sometimes, this seems ridiculous. This is what makes morning talk show hosts and buzzfeed writers goggle at reports that say things like, "Scientists find that getting punched in the face hurts." Because,yeah, if you're a youngest child you didn't need a degree in physics to know the velocity of a fist to know that getting squarely punched in the face for stealing someone's favorite toy hurts like hell. You know it. But your childhood abuse at the hands of your older siblings doesn't count as universal "knowing"- there's too many questions. Maybe you have a sensitive face, or you're a crybaby, or your sister has a really supernaturally strong arm. So scientists study and they publish a report and that's when we know that it's okay that you told your mom. Because that really, according to scientists, hurt dude.
But here's what I study- I study the way that people who got punched in the face contribute to knowledge about face punching. Only in marine science.
The ocean is huge. And the health of the ocean impacts everyone. The US Fish Commission (now Fish and Wildlife and NOAA) was founded in 1871 because fishermen started noticing that their catch was decreasing dramatically and they asked the federal government to mediate an argument. The argument was between two states- one said that the problem was the use of a certain type of nets and the other said it wasn't. So the government formed a special commission to go check it out. And, after extensive interviews with fishermen and others who worked on or near the water, what they found was a bunch of fishermen who all said the same thing- there's way less fish. And they all had different ideas about the cause. They found that, based on study, that catches were much smaller and that it was most likely caused by the use of a certain type of net. Interestingly, when the findings were presented to both states, one banned the nets and the other didn't. We can see this small historical moment as indicative of most marine science (and environmental science in general).
The first to notice changes in the land are those that work with and on it and who thrive when that land thrives. These laborers and residents are the first to see the changes in the land and to sound the alarm. Rachel Carson knew this and used it as evidence in Silent Spring. For her, the people that knew about the danger of pesticides were backyard bird watchers- she uses the voices of judges and doctors who see fewer and fewer birds in their backyards as evidence. And this is powerful- because she could throw so much scientific evidence at people, and she does in doses, but she is clear- these residents are the people to really trust. They are sounding the alarm. They have knowledge.
This is the same with climate change. The residents of islands and artic regions are screaming. They are sounding the alarm. Those societies that survive and thrive when the ocean does are struggling. In ecology, we call these indicator species- it means a species that shows the effects of a stressor first- one species that basically shows us which way the wind is blowing. These societies, that survive because they have marine proteins, ice shelves, or even just land, are indicators of what is to come- and they are telling us. These are not scientists- they are laborers, fishermen and women, people who are residents at the front lines of a changing planet. They are giving information to scientists and while that information is confirmed by climate scientists, they are getting it from real people- people who don't make money from a universal scientific conspiracy. Just people who labor and live by the sea and are rapidly watching their way of life get washed away.
The ruling classes everywhere have always been particularly bad at understanding warnings about the ocean. Wealth and privilege allow distance, not just from a subsistence lifestyle, but from the actual labor that attaches people to the land. They cannot "know" the land because they are separated from it. For instance, at the turn of the twentieth century, a very well-known British Scientist (T.H. Huxley), going against the knowledge of American and English fishermen of that era and quite a few fisheries biologists, declared the ocean to be endlessly abundant. He said that there was absolutely no way we could ever overfish- none. And people really believed him. Especially people in power. Because he was a scientist and a really really famous dude to boot. But here's the thing, we already knew that stocks were disappearing when he said it because laborers and residents knew it and they had told people. And papers had been written. But those at the top- those that eat but don't gather- they see little.
Right now, Americans are terribly spoiled and wealthy. Especially when it comes to the ocean and its resources. If you want fish for dinner, or scallops, or clams, or oysters, or shrimp- you go to the store and you get it. And most people don't look on the package to see where it came from or how it got there. If there isn't one type of fish, you get another. But most of the time, you buy frozen and the amount and price seems consistent. So when you hear scientists and residents yell about declining stocks or ocean acidification or mass migration, you don't listen. Because of course it seems preposterous. Possibly another Population Bomb scare if you're old enough to remember it.
But it's not. Climate Change is not (just) an academic science- it's the knowledge produced by confirmation of the alarms raised by people who know the most- those that are living on the front lines. And eventually, whether we want to talk about it (or can talk about it), that person on the front lines will be you. At first, you'll just be inconvenienced because you can't get the fish you like, then your usual spot for your beach vacation will be ugly or unavailable because of erosion. But eventually, the salinization of drinking water on the coasts coupled with extreme droughts will make you a front line resident and you will sound the alarm and wonder why no one is listening.
Anti-intellectualism shouldn't stop you from believing in climate change. Because the people it affects, the people who are sounding the alarm, are not scientists. They just live in the most sensitive places right now. Climate science isn't academic- it is the most down-to-earth knowledge available. Don't let conversations about lazy, rich, privileged scientists stop you from listening to the people you trust. Laborers, mothers, fathers, anglers, and yes, business people, see the change.
The argument that climate change is a scientific conspiracy is wrong. Because it is knowledge of the earth by people who live on it. If you are a fan of laborers, blue collar workers, people just trying to survive and raise their babies, you have to be concerned about climate change. They are the telling you the truth.
Climate Change isn't Science: it's common sense.
**if you're concerned about this title, know I've thought about it- and I used it because I want it to come up in google searches in a specific way.
Monday, December 12, 2016
Basically it's just like papaw says:
"Keep your mouth shut and you'll be fine"
Just another enlisted egg
In the bowl for Uncle Sam's beater
When you get to Dam Neck
Hear a voice in your head
Saying, "my life's no longer mine"
Have you running with some SAG SOG
Sailing out on them high seas
Feels just like being born
That first port call in Thailand
Feels like a pollywog turning nineteen
They've got king cobras fighting in boxing rings
And all the angels play Connect Four
Seems like a sailor's paradise
But turns out to be a bad dream
Now you hit the ground running in Tokyo
From Kawasaki to Ebisu
Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Shinjuku
Shibuya, Ropongi, and Harajuku
Aw, from Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket
From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur
Seen damn near the whole damn world
From the inside of a bar
I've got sea stories
They're all true
Might seem a little bit far-fetched
But why would I lie to you
Memories make forever stains
Still got salt running through my veins
I've got sea stories
And my shellback, too
Sometimes Sirens send a ship off course
Horizon gets so hazy
Maybe get high, play a little GoldenEye
On that old 64
And if you get sick and can't manage the kick
And get yourself kicked out the navy
You'll spend the next year trying to score
From a futon life raft on the floor
And the next fifteen trying to figure out
What the hell you did that for
But flying high beats dying for lies
In a politician's war
Saturday, August 6, 2016
Fern Gully (1992): The Last Rainforest is one of my personal favorites. I’m old enough to remember Fern Gully when it was new (when I anthropomorphize pollution in my head it sounds just like Tim Curry). Fern Gully was heavy handed and pretty much hit all the high points of environmental concerns- animal testing, native rights, logging, eco feminism. This was a movie for the 80s and 90s crowd raised on the even heavier handed Captain Planet. Our little hearts ate up these messages and we swore to always protect the mythical, magical rain forests of the world. There was no guessing what this movie was about- save rain forests from logging!
In addition, while searching for her parents, Dory swims through a desert of rusted out automobiles, broken bottles, tin cans, and tires but this is just background. Trash doesn’t stop her from seeing her parents’ shell directions and it doesn’t get her lost in the first place. In fact, during her search she comes across a graveyard of rusted metal containers serving as hiding places for a variety of sea creatures all of whom warn Dory to be quiet or she will wake the squid. Instead of appearing out of place, these cans and containers serve as useful housing for creatures just going about their lives.
At no time in the movie is the case made that the pollution is bad or that it hurts any of the animals in the ocean. Adults recognize trash in the ocean (and therefore in the illustrated ocean) as being bad, but can we rely on subtle messages where children are concerned or does this depiction without comment possibly naturalize garbage in these environments?
What is interesting to me is how common images of ship wrecks our in my imagination of the underwater world. So much so that sinking ships to create artificial reefs has become fairly common. Instead of questioning the role of ships in underwater reef building- do these things really belong?- we just keep adding more.
There are ongoing debates about these artificial reefs and the possible positive and negative impacts on ecosystems. Studies show that rigs and ships (along with concrete pyramids) are successful in facilitating reef growth. However, the question is, at what cost? Some suggest that, while these spaces increase fish stocks, they also allow poachers and illegal anglers to hone in on fish attracted to these areas easily; instead of large fish being spread around a large area, the reefs concentrate these fishes and make poaching easy. Basically, it gives new meaning to "shooting fish in a barrel". In addition, questions have recently been raised about the impact of these spaces on the spread of invasive species. Some researchers suggest that these wrecks amount to a disturbed ecosystem and allow invasive species to build strong communities that will then increase their numbers and allow them to spread more rapidly though the ocean. Most reports are relatively early on the colonization of these spaces by corals, but most suggest that these spaces grow more slowly than natural reefs and support smaller coral (although some researchers believe this could change over time). Most of these studies are from the last 15 years and many in the last 10, with researchers calling for more expansive research on the impact of disintegrating ships on the health of these ecosystems long term.
What is interesting to me is the way that we take for granted (politicians and the public) that we already know the answers to the questions. Most people don't bat an eye at the idea that there is a ship being sunk to create a reef.
It is this type of naturalization that I fear where rigs and small level pollution are concerned. It is true that we currently recognize sunken cars, rusted cans and broken bottles, and floating plastic, as not belonging in the marine environment. But Finding Dory did something concerning- it normalized that trash by having characters co exist without struggle.
So the question is, would it have been better for conservation goals to draw the ocean without pollution in the hopes that children would imagine it as such (and be startled when it is trashed) or is it better to show it as a site of trash in the hopes that children will want to clean it up.
I'm of the thought that the former is more useful than the latter. I'm open to conversation.
Friday, July 15, 2016
This is a picture of Peanut. A red-eared slider in Missouri that must have slipped into a six pack ring when she was born in the 1980s. Found in 1993, she was cut free and is now used for wildlife conservation education. She's still alive and living in Missouri. Obviously not a sea turtle, but you get the point.
A barge dumping tires onto the Osborne Reef.
The Osborne reef today. Clean up is going slowly.
|You can just see the microplastics of different colors on the tide line.|
|This is a bottle cap found on the beach. It is ringed with algae and blends into the beach. If you weren't looking for plastic, you would think that it was a jellyfish or a beautiful shell.|
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
|This poster seems a bit informal, exasperated, and slightly grasping. I'm not sure it's particularly convincing all things considered.|
Thursday, October 1, 2015
If you're on the internet, you might have been introduced to the above video of two guys freaking out about a sunfish they've spotted near Boston. If you haven't watched it, it's lovely for a few reasons but also not exactly safe for work (the cursing is epic). One of the reasons I was so excited when viewing it was that one of the first reactions is to "call the aquarium." I study the interaction of aquariums with the public and it's great to see that people see what they think is either a new creature or an injured creature and want to call their local aquarium.
But I was also interested in the video when I ran across this picture researching this morning:
This is a picture of a sunfish caught off the coast of Catalina Island on Sept. 3, 1919. Mr. Van Campen Heilner (The man behind the cart) describes the capture in the Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society:
The sunfish in this narrative was doing the same thing that the one in the above video is doing: basking on the surface of the water to get warm after diving to great depths (go here to read more about it).
They are found throughout the ocean and there are often sightings similar to the one in the video (minus the freaking out and Boston accent).
We should never forget that the history of marine animal sightings is usually peppered with men on boats screeching "What's that?! Let's kill it and find out?!" However, we should be happy that the first reaction this time around was 'let's help it' and 'let's call the aquarium.' That seems to be progress, even if it devolves from there.
Friday, June 12, 2015
Don't get me wrong- there have been studies done to try to assess the environmental impacts of beach nourishment on both organisms in the borrow area and the deposition area. There are several articles that highlight optimal studies (Nelson, "Beach Restoration in the Southeastern US" Ocean &Coastal Management, 1993 and Petersen and Bishop, "Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Beach Nourishment" Bioscience, 2005) and after reading these and several other articles, there seem to be two different environmental questions that stem from beach nourishment: 1. what does constant sand removal and deposition do to organisms that live on or near the beach? and 2. how does a change in sand quality or quantity impact those same organisms?
The first set of questions, regarding the impact of removal and deposition of sand on organisms and the environment is probably the group of questions that spring to mind when thinking about this subject. In much of the reading, it would appear that, while rigorous research has yet to really be performed, early indications suggest deposition of sand does not negatively impact many organisms who live on or near the beach in the long run.
Based on research highlighted by Nelson (1993), crabs and clams that live in the area closest to the beach do decrease in number after the initial deposition of new sand. For the first season, their numbers decrease and then steadily climb back to pre-deposit numbers over time.
While the impact on the beach fauna seems to be minimal, the impact on organisms in or near the borrow area might be more negatively affected. The process of dredging for sand can be destructive both to organisms directly in the line of dredging and ecosystems near the dredging area.
There are many different types of dredges, but they all basically scour a chosen area of the ocean bottom, picking up everything on the surface and either depositing it on the top of the boat for transportation into shore or directly pumped onto shore via a piping system.
Dredges tear up the seabed and they also kick up sediment that can settle on nearby coral reefs. Coral is extremely delicate and reacts to a variety of changes in the water (including sunscreen). Negligence in dredging can bury coral reefs in sediment, blocking the sun and effectively killing the reef; this type of careless dredging is less common today. However, dredging even near a coral reef can stress the corals and cause them go from slightly swollen to covered in a secreted mucus that could eventually kill entire reefs.
While Fisher et. al don't draw a lot of conclusions from this research- they merely report their method and findings- it is something to consider that dredging causes stress on coral reef ecosystems,leaving coral weakened and unable to fight viruses, hurricane damage, and a host of other predators or issues. Basically, the harshest effects of dredging on coral can be alleviated by choosing dredging spots and monitoring coral stress levels but the low level stress leaves coral vulnerable to other complications.
Finally, sea turtle nests can be buried when dredged sand is dumped on beaches. Hatchlings can have trouble getting out of the nest if it is buried too deep (and the temperature might also be too cold to actually incubate and hatch correctly). Careful monitoring of sea turtle nests and nourishing beaches in non-nesting season can alleviate these issues. Sea turtle nestings do go down on beaches the season after nourishment projects, but it appears as if they return to normal within a year of nourishment. (Rumbold, Davis, and Perreta "Estimating the Effect of Beach Nourishment on Caretta caretta (loggerhead sea turtle) nesting" Restoration Ecology 2001) However, the biggest threat to beach systems might not be where or how sand is deposited, but what sand is used.
Choosing sand for beach nourishment is a tricky business. There are a lot of variables to consider- location, cost, aesthetics, and ecological impact. Up to date, most borrow areas for beach nourishment have been located relatively near the fill areas. However, as of 2014, Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade counties are out of usable borrow areas. While those counties have been begging their northern neighbors to share (the answer has been a pretty resounding "no") they are also looking to other borrow areas, including an inland source from an ancient ocean near the Everglades and sand dredged from the Bahama Banks.
Most borrow areas are relatively close to the deposit site which cuts down on cost (free sand if it is in your county and you only have to pay for the dredging equipment and man hours). It also commonly means it will be the same color as the original sand- something you wouldn't think is a huge deal but aesthetics are an important part of beach going apparently- just ask the citizens of Coney Island in 1922. The dredging brought up red sand from borrow areas. Locals flipped out- no one wants a red-sanded beach- THE SAND MUST BE WHITE! If you think this is a ridiculous reaction
Grain size is something commonly debated in the beach nourishment community. When it comes to engineers, politicians, and tax payers looking at the financial bottom line, it makes sense to try to dredge and fill with a larger grained sand than that which was originally eroded. Why? Because larger grains are heavier and therefore less likely to be eroded quickly by wind and surf. However, grain size is a fine line to walk (pun alert!)- too heavy and it can crush sea turtle eggs or make it impossible for organisms buried to uncover themselves. In the other direction, if it's too fine grained (something that makes for great beach walking), it becomes too hard packed and organisms can't dig through it. This also hurts sea turtles who struggle to dig nests in tightly packed sand. So, grain size really matters. For more information on this, see Stauble's review of grain size variables in nourishment projects here.
In addition to grain size, mineral make up can also change the ecology of the beach. Probably my favorite article I read for these two blog posts was "The Effect of Beach Nourishment with Aragonite versus Silicate Sand on Beach Temperature and Loggerhead Sea Turtle Nesting Success" by Milton, Schulman, and Lutz (Journal of Coastal Research, 1997). Seriously, it's a great article. It was written because the authors already recognized the issues facing South Florida if they ran out of borrow areas. Milton, Schulman, and Lutz sought to test the impact of using another available sand source, the Bahama Banks, on sea turtle nesting. The major difference between the original sand and the new sand was mineral make up- the new sand was primarily aragonite sand instead of silicate (These two materials are chemically different but I will not try to explain this because I am quite horrid at chemistry- trust me, they are different). So- similar grain size, different mineral make up.
The study found that there wasn't much difference in hatching success between these two types of sand. In fact, nearly the same amount of turtles hatched and made it out of the nest (there are always some turtles that hatch but aren't strong enough to make it out of the nest so these two variables are actually important to measure separately). This is awesome- no difference between these two sands means that we don't have to worry about ecological impacts of dredging, right? Wrong! Because the authors found something important- turtle nests in aragonite sand were consistently cooler than those in silicate sand.
Sea turtle sex, as is the case with many reptiles, is determined by temperature during a critical window in egg incubation. For an even sex ratio (50:50) in a clutch, the magic temperature is 29.1 C during this period. 1-2 degrees above and the majority will be female and 1-2 degrees below will be mostly male. Anything below 28 C will produce only males. This is a concern because altering sex ratios in endangered species could drastically change the availability of nesting females in this area. I loved the study not just because it was super clear, but because it really brought home something that has been bugging me about all the literature on beach nourishment: it just doesn't ask tougher questions most of the time. A simple, well the crabs came back the next year, seems to be as deep as many of these studies go. And that's a huge problem because this study shows that seemingly innocuous choices have unintended and possibly overlooked consequences.
The gaps in the literature have been clear for a long while. In 1993, Walter G. Nelson called for careful study designs for studying the impact of beach nourishment on ecological communities. In 2005, Charles Petersen and Melanie Bishop found that "A review of 46 beach monitoring studies shows that (a) only 11 percent of the studies controlled for both natural spatial and temporal variation in their analyses (b) 56 percent reached conclusions that were not adequately supported, and (c) 49 percent failed to reach publication standards for citation and synthesis of related work. Monitoring is typically conducted through project promoters, with no peer review, and the permitting agencies exhibit inadequate expertise to review biostatistical designs. Monitoring results are rarely used to scale mitigation to compensate for injured resources. Reform of agency practices is urgently needed as the risk of cumulative impacts grow." (abstract, "Assessing the Environmental Impact of Beach Nourishment" Bioscience 2005)
Much of the issues seems to be that there are a lot of communities involved- local governments, environmental engineers, homeowners, ecologists. Beach nourishment is important for a variety of interests- it should be equally important to question how much it hurts local ecosystems and how we can find a way to nourish without destroying. Right now, we haven't scratched the surface of studying something so vital to all of these communities.