Mapping the Bottom of the Seas

August 26th, 2015

We are a map loving species – from our local streets and highways to the whole universe. Now we have a new map of the bottom of the world’s oceans, and it is wonderful.

It is digitized, built from 14,400 data points pulled from data gathered by research cruises over the past half century and now converted to a continuous map by Big Data experts at the University of Sydney. Thirteen types of bottom sediments are color coded, and the whole globe is there on your screen to rotate in any direction and explore.

Take it for a spin: it is irresistible.

One view of the digitized seafloor (geologyin.com)

One view of the digitized seafloor (geologyin.com)

Seafloor sediments distinguished by source and nature of particles, and are coded by color (geologyin.com)

Seafloor sediments distinguished by source and nature of particles, and are coded by color (geologyin.com)

Published in the current issue of Geology, this is really the first new view of the ocean floor in 40 years, and not surprisingly, it is full of surprises.

First, it is a much more complex patchwork of the microfossil remains of diatoms, radiolarians, sponge spicules, shell and coral fragments, along with sand, silt, clay, mud and vulcaniclastics than all previous maps had led us to expect.

Radiolarian ooze is made up of the skeletons of protistan radiolarians which are microscopic single celled animals that secrete silicon skeletons and feed with pseudopods that stick out through the holes in skeleton (micro.magnet.fsu.edu)

Radiolarian ooze is made up of the skeletons of protistan radiolarians which are microscopic single celled animals that secrete silicon skeletons and feed with pseudopods that stick out through the holes in skeleton (micro.magnet.fsu.edu)

And then, also unexpected, surface productivity of phytoplankton diatoms (a major carbon source) is not reflected by the abundance of seafloor abundance of diatom ooze (a carbon sink) – we understand less than we thought we did.

Diatom ooze is made up of the silicon skeletons of phytoplankton diatoms, each species with its own unique architecture, which are so abundant in the  surface waters (ucmp.berekely.edu)

Diatom ooze is made up of the silicon skeletons of phytoplankton diatoms, each species with its own unique architecture, which are so abundant in the surface waters (ucmp.berekely.edu)

Calcareous ooze contains the calcareous skeletons of other single celled protistans like coccolithophores (serc .carleton.edu)

Calcareous ooze contains the calcareous skeletons of other single celled protistans like coccolithophores (serc .carleton.edu)

The chalky cliffs of Dover were once coccolithophore sediments (wordsinmocean.com)

The chalky cliffs of Dover were once coccolithophore sediments (wordsinmocean.com)

In fact, at stake is our much broader understanding of the deep ocean’s response to climate change. We need to understand the global geochemical cycles, the behavior of deep-water currents, and the transport of ocean sediments, and this map provides a framework for asking – and answering – more detailed questions.

What we see now is a more complicated, less predictable picture of the global seafloor. If we understand why sediments on the seafloor are where they are, we have another window into reconstructing the past environments of our planet, a valuable key to understanding what is now occurring.

Perhaps most of all, we are reminded once again by a new and global map like this new one that in our local piece of our galaxy our planet is a small, isolated biological and physical oasis where change in any one component may radically influence all the others in ways we can increasingly monitor and struggle to understand, with a history we can increasingly explore.

And of course with a near-future that is so uncertain yet we must still plan for.

This map can only help.

Hope for the High Seas?

August 7th, 2015

We get a clear view of our dark side in IUU fishing – fishing that is illegal, unreported, and unregulated. It occurs everywhere people can get away with it, but much of it occurs on the High Seas, beyond the 200 mile limits of national EEZs.

journal.pbio.1001826.g001

The High Seas (pale blue), beyond the 200 mile EEZ limits of coastal countries (darker blue) make up 64% of surface area the Earth's oceans - where few laws exist and those that do are very hard to enforce (pewtrusts.org).

The High Seas (pale blue), beyond the 200 mile EEZ limits of coastal countries (darker blue) make up 64% of surface area the Earth’s oceans – where few laws exist and those that do are very hard to enforce (pewtrusts.org).

With IUU fishing, quota limits and bycatch restrictions are ignored, 40 mile long drift nets are set despite international agreements banning them, and ocean ecosystems are damaged. IUU fishing accounts for somewhere around 20% of the global fisheries catch, worth somewhere between 10 and 23 billion dollars annually. And this doesn’t include the waste and ecological impact of the bycatch. Conservation is non-existent.

The human costs can also be dreadful, some of them documented over the past few weeks in the remarkable series of articles by Ian Urbina in the New York Times on the lawlessness of high seas IUU fishing: slavery, appalling working conditions, even unpunished and unreported murder. They make for very grim reading. Altogether, us at our worst.

A famous photograph of Chineses IUU vessels trying to escape detention by the South Korean coast guard. They failed.(worldoceanreview.org)

A famous photograph of Chineses IUU vessels trying to escape detention by the South Korean coast guard. They failed.(worldoceanreview.org)

Yet the situation very slowly improves, with help from a variety of initiatives.

For instance: Vessels involved in IUU fishing try to escape notice by changing their names and flags of convenience of a few countries that have particularly lax and unenforced regulations – Panama, Liberia, Mongolia (Mongolia!) and Belize come to mind. Still, the vessels become known, and major regional international fisheries organizations identify them and share the information. The result is a published list of IUU vessels – about 220 at present. Identified vessels cannot land their fish except in ports where regulations are ignored or don’t exist.

A graph of the global fisheries catch from fifteen years ago, but still reasonably accurate, estimating the very significant IUU portion (nature.com)

A graph of the global fisheries catch from fifteen years ago, but still reasonably accurate, estimating the very significant IUU portion (nature.com)

The US is a major market for the world’s fisheries, for 90% of what is sold in the US is imported. Countries identified as supporting IUU fishing vessels usually attempt to eliminate the violations, for otherwise they risk a US ban on imports of all their fisheries products. Turns out to be a powerful incentive.

And now the UN has formally agreed to take action as well. For the past few years an “Ad Hoc Open-Ended Informal Working Group” has met “to study issues related to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction” with participants from 110 countries, observers from intergovernmental organizations (like the EU and the Pacific Islands Forum) and international conservation organizations. Even the Holy See has sent observers.

The UN does not move quickly, but it does move. The report of the Ad Hoc Working Group presented its recommendations in January 2015. In June 2015 the General Assembly agreed to the next step, the creation of a Preparatory Committee, under the Convention of the Law of the Sea. About 4 years from now we should see a new UN sponsored proposed law on the conservation of high seas fishing ready for ratification. Slow, but critical.

Pacific Bonito (greenpeace.org).

Pacific Bonito (greenpeace.org).

Enforcement is obviously the biggest issue, for vessels can turn off their transponders, and no one has the resources to patrol the High Seas.

Port control of IUU fishing is an increasingly effective alternative. Even now it is almost impossible for an IUU vessel to land its catch in North America, Australia, the EU and a lot of other places. Naming, shaming and threatening import bans on countries where ports exist that permit entry to IUU vessels, or have laws that are not enforced, gradually reduces the options for IUU vessels.

Dealing with the human rights abuses is a separate problem, but progress there occurs as well. Indonesia and Thailand have agreed to cooperate to reduce IUU fishing and associated human trafficking – though they plea for time and understanding since the process will be slow. The negative publicity from the NYT articles and others like them also cannot be underestimated.

And then there is the Pope’s recent Encyclical letter, ‘Laudato Si’, written to all of humanity, where he calls for radical solutions to reduce environmental stress and human poverty, including on the high seas, enforced again through global international agreements. The parallels with the other emerging efforts are striking.

The Pope's encyclical letter, published June 18, 2015, easy to find online (esa.org)

The Pope’s encyclical letter, published June 18, 2015, easy to find online (esa.org)

Slow though these processes are, they all recognize that the violations and abuses on the High Seas can only be contained by the rule of law, through international agreements and enforcement. It is the route, the only route, through these catastrophic times.

Swordfish revival

July 25th, 2015

Is there a better taste than a perfectly grilled swordfish steak, lightly seasoned, practically melting in your mouth? Hard to imagine any.

swordfish steaks, lightly grilled, lightly seasoned, a taste and texture to die for (flikr.com)

swordfish steaks, lightly grilled, lightly seasoned, a taste and texture to die for (flikr.com)

Swordfish, like other billfish and tuna, are apex predators. They are pandemic – pretty well everywhere – but they prefer water that is 18-22 degrees C. During the night they rise to shallower, warmer water; during the day they forage at greater depths. They migrate great distance seasonally, following both prey and preferred water temps.

Swordfish fish in during the day, at depths of 2-300 meters, using their bills to slash and incapacitate their prey (arkive,com)

Swordfish fish in during the day, at depths of 2-300 meters, using their bills to slash and incapacitate their prey (arkive.com)

In the 1990s swordfish, heavily fished around the world, seemed to be declining toward extinction. Now, with the exception of the Mediterranean stock, they aren’t: IUCN has recognized the Atlantic and Pacific stocks now as ‘adequately managed’ rather than ‘overfished’ as they used to be.

This is good news. How did it happen?

Starting in 1999, a lot changed, driven not surprisingly by the US market. It started with hundreds of chefs across the US, along with and the encouragement of SeaWeb, agreeing not to serve swordfish. They called their initiative ‘Give Swordfish a Break’, mobilized consumer support, sustained it for two and a half years, and stimulated a formal 10 year recovery plan that actually seems to have worked.

Global landings of swordfish rose rapidly until the late 90s (wikipedia.com)

Global landings of swordfish rose rapidly until the late 90s (wikipedia.com)

The decline of global stocks (again, the Mediterranean is the exception) has stabilized, and generally risen to levels that fisheries scientists think can be fished sustainably. The bycatch of endangered sea turtles, which used to be horrendous, has declined by about 90%.

So the new regulations are effective.

Quotas were reduced, and are reconsidered every year. Limited access to licenses now controls the size of the fishing fleets.
Minimum size limits of individuals caught should allow them to breed at least once before their final capture. Observers must be carried whenever requested, vessels are monitored by satellite tracking, and there are time and area closures, protecting breeding and juvenile fish. An impressive array of regulations.

Bycatch of sea turtles, the other great concern, has also been taken very seriously. Long-lines with their hundreds of hooks, the dominant method of fishing, must be set only at night, at appropriate depths. Length of long-lines cannot be greater than 20 nautical miles (!). Fishing ships must move away when endangered sea turtles are seen. Larger circle hooks, much less damaging to sea turtles are mandatory.

Altogether, swordfish appears to be a fine example of an environmentally responsible pelagic fishery.

Or is it? IUCN still designates the overall population as ‘declining’. The Mediterranean stock, like so much in that sad almost enclosed sea, remains overfished. Some of the global catch is also certainly unreported. And the average length that is caught commercially is 1.2 to 1.9 meters, which seems quite large – but 50 years ago far larger swordfish were still common.

A swordfish captured in 1953, weighing in at 1182 pounds. (pinterestcom)

A swordfish captured in 1953, weighing in at 1182 ponds (pinterest.com)

So what should we do, knowing that we should thoroughly protect such marine apex predators rather than eat them? Faced with that grilled steak of a freshly caught swordfish, we’ll probably first swallow our misgivings, and then enjoy the extraordinary taste.

But swordfish are not really recovering – they just aren’t declining to oblivion any longer.

A fearsome and  famous skeleton at eh Nation Museum of Natural History in Washington  (enwikipedia.org)

A fearsome and famous skeleton at eh Nation Museum of Natural History in Washington (enwikipedia.org)

The Growth of the Pacific Blob

June 26th, 2015

It began as a persistent high pressure weather pattern over the Gulf of Alaska in the autumn of 2013. With more sunshine and lighter winds, it prevented the usual extent of winter cooling of the sea surface, and so it caused an offshore region of warmer than usual water to form.

And then it expanded into something huge, got named The Blob, and sea surface temperatures rose more than 3 degrees C (5 degrees F) warmer than average, warmer than anything on record. During 2014-2015 it moved shoreward bringing warm weather to the West coast from Alaska south to the North West States, reducing the snow pack and all that implies.

The Pacific Blob has expanded into three major parts extending south along the west coast of North America. The darker the red, the warmer the sea surface temperature relative to recent averages (noaa.gov)

The Pacific Blob has expanded into three major parts extending south along the west coast of North America. The darker the red, the warmer the sea surface temperature relative to recent averages (noaa.gov)

It also has also created relative havoc in the coastal waters: the southerly flowing cool coastal California Current has weakened, warmer water has pushed north, and sub-tropical species of fish are turning up in the Gulf of Alaska.

This past month a most astonishing crab, the Red Tuna Crab, Pleuroncodes planipes, has also turned up, stranding by the thousands upon thousands on the shores of Southern California from Ocean Beach to La Jolla. This is a crab that looks as if it wants to be a shrimp. It spends its whole life cycle swimming in the water column off the bottom, voraciously eating plankton, forming immense swarms, fed on by whales, porpoises, larger fish and seabirds Not by humans though, because of some toxins it carries.

The Red Tuna Crab Pleuroncodes planipes swims up and down in the water column, its uncurled tail making it look more like a shrimp, but it is still a crab (scripps.ucsd.edu)

The Red Tuna Crab Pleuroncodes planipes swims up and down in the water column, its uncurled tail making it look more like a shrimp, but it is still a crab (scripps.ucsd.edu)


Vast swarms of the Red Tuna Crab have stranded this past month on beaches in Southern California (usatoday.com)

Vast swarms of the Red Tuna Crab have stranded this past month on beaches in Southern California (usatoday.com)

Normally it lives in the warmer water of the Gulf of California and along the west coast of Baja. Subject to winds, tides and currents, in warmer years – El Nino years, for instance – stranded swarms are not that unusual on the shores of southern California. But of course, the past couple of years have not been El Nino years.

They have been the years of The Pacific Blob.

We don’t know yet the full extent of the impact of The Blob. But fish that have been seen far north of their regular sub-tropical coastal waters, even to the Gulf of Alaska, include skipjack tuna and albacore, Ocean Sunfish and Thresher Sharks. The strandings of the siphonophore jellyfish Velella in the summer of 2014, the starving Cassin’s Auklets, the starving California Sea Lion pups now dying along many parts of the west coast – these are all probably victims of The Blob.

Among many associated problems, fewer nutrients are reaching the warmer surface waters, chlorophyll amounts have dropped – affecting plankton abundance – and a lack of small fish for foraging adult auklets and sea lions may explain their starving and dying offspring.

Cassin's Auklets dive for fish to feed their offspring. Starving birds indicates a lack of fish (pressdemocrat.com)

Cassin’s Auklets dive for fish to feed their offspring. Starving birds indicates a lack of fish (pressdemocrat.com)

How will the salmon of the Alaskan, BC and Northwest coasts be affected? Well, we’ll see soon enough, but it cannot be good.

Why did this all happen? There is an intriguing link to weather patterns in the southern tropical Pacific, but nothing certain. Is there a link to climate change? We don’t know. How will it end? It just needs the winds of the Gulf of Alaska to pick up again, and all should return to normal.

The elusive normal. What we know is that most marine animals are closely tied to the sea temperatures around them. We know that now, finally, after several years of inaction, a new and seemingly major El Nino is developing, the first like this since the crippling one of 1997-19978, and the warm coastal temperatures will persist.

At the least we are probably getting a preview of what warming oceans will be like on the west coast in the decades ahead. Not reassuring perhaps, but fascinating none the less.

But normal? There is no normal. Perhaps there never was.

Opah, the Warm-Blooded Fish

June 4th, 2015

We have a new fish to contemplate. It is truly warm-blooded, a fish with whole-body endothermy. This is unexpected, and quite amazing.

Opah, Lampris gutattus, is disc shaped, generally orange, grows to 1-2 meters in length, and lives well below the surface, chasing down squid (noaa.org)

Opah, Lampris gutattus, is disc shaped, generally orange, grows to 1-2 meters in length, and lives well below the surface, chasing down squid (noaa.org)

The swiftest and largest predatory fish – tuna, some sharks, billfish like marlins – warm their swimming muscles a few degrees warmer than the surrounding water, and thereby get the extra speed they need to race down prey. Though the rest of their bodies are mostly unwarmed, the same temperature as the water around them, it is a remarkable adaptation.

Tbey do this through a complex heat-exchange tangle of arteries and veins (rete mirabile) near their swimming muscles, conserving the heat instead of losing it all when when the blood flows through the gills where it is cooled to the ocean ambient temperature while it is re-oxygenated. These fish usually also tend to stay near the surface, where it is warmer, dropping down into deeper colder water only to hunt.

But a fish with whole-body endothermy? Brain, eyes, muscles, heart, the works? No one thought any existed.

Now we know that at least one species, the Opah Lampris guttatus, is endothermic. Not as hot as as mammals and birds are, but surprisingly warmer than the water around them. In 10 degree C water, in a 40 kg fish, muscles and internal organs are about 5 degrees warmer, and the brain and eye muscles a couple of degrees even warmer than that.

Opah also avoid surface waters: they are mesopelagic, living circumglabally at depths 50 to 400 m below the surface. And they are predators, apparently of squid, though they lack the streamlined form we expect of predatory fish.

On the left, internal temperatures, 5 cm below the skin, of a 40 kg Opah in 10.5 degree C water. On the right, temperature of pectoral muscles of a free swimming Opah (red) at depths of 70 meters or more (temp blue, depth black) (science.org)

On the left, internal temperatures, 5 cm below the skin, of a 40 kg Opah in 10.5 degree C water. On the right, temperature of pectoral muscles of a free swimming Opah (red) at depths of 70 meters or more (temp blue, depth black) (science.org)

How do they stay so warm? Their heat is generated by their pectoral muscles, and they too have rete mirabile heat-exchange system, but unlike all other fish, theirs are in their gills, the harshest place they could be. To help conserve their body heat, their skin is unusually thick, and under their skin they have an unusual layer of insulating fat.

The warmer muscles, brain, sense organs and heart all give Opah the advantages of a warm blooded predator in a cold blooded world – more alert, faster. Its body shape is puzzling though – what kind of predatory fish has a body shaped like a disc? Perhaps we don’t know enough about this yet.

What’s ahead for this species in a world where we eat as many fish as we can catch? Though it lives where it is relatively safe from us, it not uncommon as bycatch on the hooks of longline fishers. It also is turning up now in fish markets, and apparently makes for good sushi.

Circumglobal range of Opah (also known as Moonfish).  Red denotes regions where it most common. *chefs-resources.com)

Circumglobal range of Opah (also known as Moonfish). Red denotes regions where it most common. *chefs-resources.com)

But it doesn’t form vulnerable schools, it keeps away from surface waters, its range is very large, and as long as its own food supplies persist, it isn’t severely threatened. Or so it seems, anyway.

It would be nice to understand it better but otherwise, really, let’s just leave it alone, and hope it makes it through these challenging times.

So let’s agree not to hunt this one.

Let’s agree not to sushify it.

The Partial Recovery of Coral Reefs.

May 27th, 2015

The damage to coral reefs varies of course. It’s greatest in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific – Indonesia, PNG, the Philippines, Guam. It’s least where humans can’t easily get to them – near isolated islands like Pitcairn and Easter, and around atolls scattered in the Pacific, hundreds of km from human communities.

A coral reef in the Philippines, reduced to rubble, similar to many in the Caribbean (wwf.org)

A coral reef in the Philippines, reduced to rubble, similar to many in the Caribbean (wwf.org)

Pristine reefs, with angel fish, healthy corals, even top predators, are now very rare, existing isolated far from human communities (kidsdiscover.com)

Pristine reefs, with angel fish, healthy corals, even top predators, are now very rare, exist isolated far from human communities (kidsdiscover.com)

And that variation is intriguing. If we reduced the stresses we can actually control – pollution, destruction and overfishing – will that make the reefs more resilient to the challenges of climate change? We can find out only by reducing those stresses.

Meanwhile, what happens to a reef, not wrecked by pollution and other destructive events, if overfishing is reduced? Will it recover any? some? all? of its lost ecological complexity? Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that are large, old and isolated are recognized to be the ideal solution, but in much of the tropics where humans live in any abundance they are impractical, even impossible: completely restricting fishing is not an option.

Coral reefs of the world. Far too many people live far too close to far too many of them, for instance in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific (oceanservice.noaa.com)

Coral reefs of the world. Far too many people live far too close to far too many of them, for instance in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific (oceanservice.noaa.com)

Now a new and remarkable study indicates that some limited management can go a long way. We don’t have detailed long-term data on coral reefs to guide us, but we do now have current and recent data on a lot of reefs. A team of coral reef biologists has assessed what is known about the current status and recent history of 832 coral reefs, ranging from the most damaged to the most pristine (only 20 of the 832 are considered to be pristine).

The team compared fish biomass on the reefs – finding 1000 kg or more per hectare on a pristine reef, less than half that amount on overfished reefs, and as low as 10% of that amount on the most overfished reefs.

These illustrations are from the Nature article assessing 832 coral reefs. You will need to go to the article to see the details. a and b: The fish biomass on fished reefs is a small fraction of what exists on unfished reefs (red, extremely overfished; green, unfished). c: The less the fish biomass, the longer the time to full recovery when fishing is completely restricted  - 50-60 years for the most damaged. d: With limited regulations in place, ecological complexity (functional return) gradually increases (nature.com),

These illustrations are from the Nature article assessing 832 coral reefs. You will need to go to the article to see the details. a and b: The fish biomass of fished reefs is a small fraction of what exists on unfished reefs (red, extremely overfished; green, unfished). c: The less the fish biomass, the longer the time to full recovery if fishing is completely restricted – 50-60 years for the most damaged. d: With limited regulations in place, ecological complexity (functional return) gradually increases (nature.com),

Unexpectedly, limited regulations can still have considerable impact. For instance, protecting herbivorous grazers, scrapers and browsers (Parrot Fish come to mind) reduces algal cover, promotes coral dominance once again, and raises fish biomass. Eliminating the most damaging fishing gear, like beach seines, also helps fish recovery. Restricting access to the reef to those with negotiated rights to fish there while excluding external fishers helps even more. Sustainable fishing becomes possible.

Parrotfish (this is the Bicolor Parrotfish) are critical herbivores on a coral reef, sraping back algae (ecology.com)

Parrotfish (this is the Bicolor Parrotfish) are critical herbivores on a coral reef, sraping back algae (ecology.com)

Currently most reefs anywhere near human communities are hardly managed at all. Now we know that with limited regulations, a reef can recover to about half of its pristine fish biomass, and when it does, it is much less likely to collapse.

So sustainable fishing on somewhat recovered coral reefs is a target we can realistically aim for, an outcome so very clearly worthwhile in itself. These are grounds for a little optimism.

Will such changes then also make the reefs more resilient to the stresses of rising ocean temperatures and acidification associated with climate change? Coral reef biologists predict that they will, but though the theory is sound, it is untested.

Let’s find out. It’s the least we can do.

WoRMS

April 30th, 2015

We seem to have a compulsion to name every species that we notice. Whatever the reasons, such knowledge is increasingly important to us.

For example, is there currently a new, 6th Mass Extinction underway and caused by us? To know how quickly species are going extinct, we have to know what species actually exist.

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction The Sixth Extinction - a terrific and disturbing book (grist'org)

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction The Sixth Extinction – a terrific and disturbing book (grist.org)

This is not always easy, and trying to identify the species that live in our oceans has been particularly difficult. There we have mostly cared about species of commercial interest or unusually large or exotic species, yet most marine species are small, cryptic, buried, and/or in deep water.

And other questions about marine communities also now absorb us: Are marine coastal communities shifting to higher latitudes as the sea around them warms? How does over-fishing, eliminating the top predators, restructure communities? How much does coastal development and pollution modify coastal communities? How are changes in sea currents and temperatures affecting prey species for migrating fish, marine mammals, sea turtles and sea birds?

To even start to answer questions like these, questions whose answers are critical to our own long-term stability and well-being, we need to know what species actually exist, and we need to have confidence in the accuracy of their identification. This requires a lot of energy, patience and expertise.

Enter WoRMS, the fine acronym for the World Registery of Marine Species. For the past few decades scientists have been confirming the identity of all 420,000 marine species that have been described as species since the 1700s. 190,400 turned out to be duplicates – leaving 228,450 legitimate species.

The rough periwinkle Littorina saxatilis lives in the high intertidal of temperate rocky shores, and was known by 113 different names: now just by one (aphotomarine.com)

The rough periwinkle Littorina saxatilis lives in the high intertidal of temperate rocky shores, and was known by 113 different names: now just by one (aphotomarine.com)

Of the legitimate species, 18,000 are fish, 816 are squid, 93 are whales and dolphins, the list goes on and on. Since 2008, 1000 new species have been added to the lists, including 122 species of shark and rays.

The Australian Humpbacked Dolphin Sousa saholensis was recently discovered (marinespecies.org)

The Australian Humpbacked Dolphin Sousa saholensis was recently discovered (marinespecies.org)

That all sounds impressive – but marine scientists estimate that between half a million and 2 million marine species have yet to be described.

We obviously are not going to describe everything before it goes it extinct, though it seems a pity not to know what we’re losing. What WoRMS is offering us though is reliable data, knowledge we can use with confidence as we try to conserve the marine communities that exist and as we try to understand and perhaps mitigate the impact of the global changes that are upon us.

WoRMS is a huge asset. We need to ensure a new generation of experts will be trained to keep the work going.

There is no substitute for accurate knowledge.
For evidence.

The Ruby Seadragon, a new species of a very odd  fish that lives between Australia and new Guinea (marinespecies.org)

The Ruby Seadragon, a new species of a very odd fish that lives between Australia and new Guinea (marinespecies.org)

Older Females as Leaders

April 22nd, 2015

A killer whale pod is a spectacular, complex, cooperative hunting group.

Cooperative hunting as a way of getting food is hard at best, and demands considerable intelligence and a good memory. It has evolved in a few mammals, and among these are killer whales and the closely related pilot whales.

A resident killer whale pod on the coast of BC (bcwhalewatchingtours.com)

A resident killer whale pod on the coast of BC (bcwhalewatchingtours.com)

The theory of natural selection long ago was extended to include cooperative behavior, where individuals could increase their own fitness by helping close relatives. In every case, each hunting group consists of close relatives. As with most animals, adults die not long after they reproduce for the last time, but killer whales, at least in their ‘resident’ eco-morph, are the a remarkable exception: though they are able to reproduce until about 40 years old, and males rarely live much past that age, females may live for decades after the end of their reproductive lives.

Resident pods of killer whales hunt for salmon in the Salish Sea - the coastal interior waters of southern BC and northern Washington (timescolonist.com)

Resident pods of killer whales hunt for salmon in the Salish Sea – the coastal interior waters of southern BC and northern Washington (timescolonist.com)

The best data come from a resident pod that hunts mostly for Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea (BC/ Washington State) and that has been followed intensively since 1976. Every individual and its relationships to all the others in the pod is well documented. Though the age of the oldest female is not definitively known, it is in the range of 103. And that is amazing.

What aid might she and other older females provide to her pod that younger and possibly stronger adults could not more easily provide? An enticing possibility is that older females might be able to provide ecological information about when and where to hunt for fish, particularly in times of environmental stress when fish are hard to find. In hopes of testing this hypothesis, a group of scientists studied pod leadership over the years, in times of both salmon abundance and salmon scarcity. They found that in times of salmon scarcity, older females were more likely to lead the hunt.

When fish are scarce, older females (red in this cartoon) are more likely to lead the hunt to find them (cell.com/current-biology)

When fish are scarce, older females (red in this cartoon) are more likely to lead the hunt to find them (cell.com/current-biology)

This isn’t exactly proof, but it provides tantalizing support for the hypothesis that older females are valued and useful as repositories of ecological knowledge. Of course older females may help the pod in other ways – perhaps assisting others in the pod, mediating conflicts among pod members, providing familiarity with other groups – but these hypotheses are so far too hard to test.

In any case, the more we know about resident pod behavior, including the roles of older, post-reproductive females, the more we can ensure we don’t wreck the ecosystem the killer whales depend on. We should at least be able to do that.

And yes, there is one other species we know of where older post-reproductive females play a critical role in the social success of the group: us. Let’s hear it for grandmothers.

Killerwhales_jumping

k

Eating Octopus Alive

March 30th, 2015
A couple of young, live octopus experiencing there last moment together (weirdasiannews.com)

A couple of young, live octopus experiencing there last moment together (weirdasiannews.com)

A Japanese restaurant in Toronto has recently begun to offer live octopus on its menu. I didn’t know anyone anywhere would eat octopus live, but apparently it is a not-uncommon dish in South Korea, where it is called San nachi or Sannakji.

Those of us who are carnivores eat a lot of cooked seafood, probably some raw – sushi, for instance, and perhaps on occasion some newly shucked and still living oysters, or even perhaps some raw sea urchin gonads.

But live octopus?

Only young, small octopus are eaten alive – you don’t need to imagine some huge monster in a bowl of water in front of you, ready to eat you back. And you don’t need to imagine how you are going to cut it up while it is roaming around the bowl – it is small enough that you can stuff the whole animal into your mouth and chew it up there.

What does this really look like? Here’s a video of someone eating one for the first time, and she clearly needs more practice at it. And then this video of someone somewhat more experienced.

Some places just offer freshly amputated and still writhing arms.

There is at least a very small risk that the suckers of one of the octopus arms will latch onto your palate, and when you try to swallow the rest of it, you will choke to death. But that isn’t why I have such a problem with the whole event.

The common octopus , Octopus vulgaris - intelligent, solitary predator (sites.google.com)

The common octopus , Octopus vulgaris – intelligent, solitary predator (sites.google.com)

An octopus isn’t an oyster or a sea urchin. It has eyes very similar to ours, a bigger brain for its size than any other invertebrate, and a habit of changing colors according to its probable emotional state. It is a stealthy, solitary, intelligent predator. When a female lays her eggs, she sits and guards them until they hatch, and then she usually dies. Altogether, an alien life-form to admire and co-exist with. Not to eat.

So, though I love to eat lobsters and fish, I don’t intend to eat any octopus, dead or alive. I also really don’t want to eat any animal that is still alive, even though octopus, or lobster, or fish or other non-human predators obviously eat their own prey still fresh and alive.

Famous blue ringed octopus, small and lethally toxic (marinebio.org)

Famous blue ringed octopus, small and lethally toxic (marinebio.org)

To make my hypocrisy even more blatant, lobsters usually die an ugly death before when they are cooked, fish have probably suffocated slowly to death after capture, and we know far too much about what most of our chickens, pigs and cattle go through before we eat them, yet still I eat them all with enthusiasm.

Faced with a young octopus in a bowl of seawater in front of you looking at you looking at it, eager to make a run for it, would you wrap it up on your fork and eat it?

Revenge of the octopus: beardart. (dailymail.co.uk)

Revenge of the octopus: beardart. (dailymail.co.uk)

Old Dominion Leads the Way

March 21st, 2015

Old Dominion University is in Norfolk, Virginia, a small city right on the edge of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. It is part of a metropolitan area of almost 2 million people called Hampton Roads that also includes Newport News and Virginia Beach.

Hampton Roads is one of the two most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the US to rapid sea level rise (the other is New Orleans).

Sea level is rising at about twice the rate of the global average along the coast north of Cape Hatteras, centered on Chesapeake Bay (sciencenews.org)

Sea level is rising at about twice the rate of the global average along the coast north of Cape Hatteras, centered on Chesapeake Bay (sciencenews.org)

Hampton Roads , a complex metropolitan region at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay (hamptonroadsof.org)

Hampton Roads , a complex metropolitan region at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay (hamptonroadsof.org)

Global sea levels rise as a result of the melting land-based glaciers of Greenland and the West Antarctic Peninsula as well as the thermal expansion of warming waters – an average of 22 cm (8 in) since 1930. What makes Hampton Roads of special interest is that sea levels there are rising twice as fast as the average.

Old Dominion University has established the Center of Sea Level Rise and the Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute (MARI). It has chosen to be in the thick of it all.

Why such rapid sea level rise? And why there?

Partly it is because the land in that region is also sinking – the mile thick glaciers of the last glaciation did not reach so far south, but they compressed the land they did cover, forcing the land beyond them to bulge up. Since the glaciers withdrew, the land they compressed has risen again, while the bulge to their south is still falling back to its pre-glaciation state. Along with subsidence of the land from extraction of groundwater, this accounts for about half of the current rapid rise of sea level.

Sea level rise north of Cape Hatteras is about half due to recent climate change, and about half due to the land level readjustments following the retreat of the glaciers (americanroads.us

Sea level rise north of Cape Hatteras is about half due to recent climate change, and about half due to the land level readjustments following the retreat of the glaciers (americanroads.us

So Hampton Roads has immediate challenges, finding ways to adapt to the sea level rise sooner than most coastlines elsewhere. Coastal beaches and wetlands will certainly deteriorate, and the low lying parts of the coastal cities will be flooded. Norfolk is especially vulnerable. Pretty well everyone living there now knows this.

Old Dominion has taken the lead in a pilot project aimed at developing a comprehensive government and community cooperation in preparing for further sea level rise in Hampton Roads. In the past couple of weeks MARI has hosted seminars involving residents and state officials, focusing on resilience and environmental engineering and on perceptions of climate change and sea level rise, encouraging a willingness to address change.

In the past year it held a Rising to the Challenge Conference on sea level rise with strong bipartisan support from Congressional ans State politicians – in itself a rare and extraordinary event.

And everything, in the context of preparedness and resiliency, is on the table: tide gates, levees, flood walls, raised buildings and roads, marshes created to absorb storm surge, abandonment of low lying areas, elimination of subsidized flood insurance – the list is very real and very serious. The cities of Washington,D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia all have reason to be watching closely.

Part of the US navy of 2012 at Norfolk Naval Base - which covers 4 miles of coastline and has 7 miles of piers (wikipedia.org).

Part of the US navy of 2012 at Norfolk Naval Base – which covers 4 miles of coastline and has 7 miles of piers (wikipedia.org).

And then there is the military. Nearby is the Norfolk Naval Base, the world’s largest naval base. Old Dominion has also recently hosted discussions by the military on how to prepare the naval base for the tidal flooding and extreme storm surges associated with sea level rise, while contemplateing the immense upheaval of having to move.

Meanwhile, home owners in the lowest parts of Norfolk can find no buyers for their homes, and as one pastor says
“I don’t know many churches that have to put the tide chart on their Web site so people know whether they can get to church.”

So: Go, Old Dominion. The whole world isn’t watching, but probably should be.

(iawrestle.com)

(iawrestle.com)