The War on Climate Change is a Guaranteed Job Creator

climate change, Natural ScienceMarch 26, 20150

Our human history is measured in a sequence of “epochs”, periods of time defined by events or advancements. Today, we are entering the epoch of climate change.  In this era, Lindsay Graham acknowledges that climate change is real and humans are causing it. Conversations finally turn away from “Do we need to do anything?” to “What are we going to do now?”

This question terrifies conservative political parties across the globe. “What are we going to do now?” cannot be answered by old techniques aging politicians are comfortable with. The beginning of the climate change epoch is the end of their political/economical relevance just as the DVR was the death of Laser Disc. We cannot save our economies and address these new challenges by using strategies developed 30+ years ago during a completely different environment.   (more…)

A request to environmentalists and journalists discussing shark fin ban legislation

Blogging, fisheries, marine science, Natural Science, Science, sharksMarch 23, 20150

Many of the U.S. state-level shark fin bans which make it illegal to buy, sell, or possess shark fins include exemptions for smooth and spiny dogfish, i.e. by far the most common species of sharks caught by U.S. fishermen. Some of these fisheries have significant conservation concerns associated with them. Much of this fishing is not currently subject to catch limits or other basic management

You would never know that most locally caught sharks are not affected at all by fin bans by reading most of the action alerts that some conservation organizations send out to encourage ocean lovers to support these laws, by following most of the media coverage of these laws, or by reading most people’s excited posts after these laws pass. Many of these inaccurately say that shark fin bans “protect all sharks.”

I have a request to make to the conservation organizations supporting these laws, journalists covering them, and the shark and ocean lovers celebrating when they pass. If you want to support laws with an exemption for dogfish sharks, that’s fine, but let’s have an open and honest discussion about why you are doing this instead of just acting like it isn’t happening.


The disastrous feedback of what happens when fisheries funding dries up

Aquaculture in NC, Conservation, Environmentalism, fisheries, fisheries, Highlighting the Rural VoiceMarch 20, 20150

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the NC Oyster Summit, hosted  by the NC Coastal Federation in the Museum of Natural Sciences. We talked about the wonders that oyster restoration and aquaculture development can do for water quality, economic development, and taste buds. We enjoyed the demonstration of ‘merriore’, or the taste of the sea that lends a particular flavor to each oyster that captures the ecosystem it grew in. Yet, the fact that stuck with me most is that despite all of these wonderful celebrations of the oyster for the health and well-being of NC’s coastal communities, funding cuts of around 40% to the Department of Marine Fisheries mean that a large portion of the Albemarle Sound remains closed to harvest or aquaculture because there are no staff to check those oysters for public health risks.

The “Administrative Closure” of the most northern stretches of the state’s prized Albemarle-Pamlico estuary system is a worrying precedent in many ways that highlight how leadership withdrawal of support for science can trickle down to real economic, environmental, and cultural harm.

Economic flight

The northeastern part of North Carolina is already one of the most sparsely populated regions of the country, and one that remains highly dependent on commercial fishing and tourism for their economy. To those who haven’t been there, this includes the prized Outer Banks, but also miles of low-lying swampland that produces more than its fair share of pickles, blue crabs, and cotton. Until this year, it was also a strong producer of oysters that are high enough up the estuary to hide from the salt-loving diseases that pressure oyster populations elsewhere. Wild harvest watermen no longer have oysters to diversify their portfolio of catch and supply the high-end oyster bars beginning to pop up in tourist hotspots. Aquaculture operations don’t have enough of a distribution network to get their product to market – and even when they do, they have to pay for their own bacterial testing. Aquaculturists at the conference already in the region reported shipping out all their delicious product to Norfolk for processing, which is the next nearest city. But fundamentally, this region is a shaky bet if a youngin’ wants to open their own seafood business, and as a result, more of the youngest generation are leaving for more stable prospects elsewhere, which means less tax dollars from those coastal counties, and continued reduced funding to the Shellfish Sanitation program, and so the cycle turns.

Environmental worries

While no-take areas are popular tools in environmental conservation, an administrative closure does not a marine protected area make. For one, if state agencies can’t monitor for human health pathogens, they certainly can’t observe for poachers in other fisheries. And the oyster guys are no longer out their keeping an eye on their areas either. This leaves hard-won increases in shad and even sturgeon populations in the area at risk. But perhaps more fundamentally, the instability and increased costs with opening an aquaculture business and uncertainty in support for restoration in an area with uncertain future will mean less overall oysters in the water, which is bad news for water quality. Oysters provide habitat for all kinds of other species, but most notably soak up at least some of the nitrogen running off of the pig and cucumber farms that dot the terrestrial landscape. Without the help of aquaculture and restoration efforts, those farms may have to look elsewhere (or pay) for those ecosystem services.

Cultural disappearance

A seafood distributor in Belhaven, one of the tiny towns still left in the region, once described his product as entertainment, rather than seafood. Be it cracking open a blue crab or diving into a table of roasted oysters, seafood currently reigns supreme in charismatic features of the estuary. The area was founded first by the Croatan tribe, who left behind huge middens of oysters, and later the tradition was carried out by Scotch-Irish immigrants who still lend their brogue to the local accent. Closing a huge portion of the shellfishery because the state can’t fund the salary of a public health monitor seems like the state is also turning its back on some of its heritage.

While North Carolina has made huge cuts across the board in its state spending, the more I think about the role of a relatively small program in producing exactly what those cuts are supposed to help achieve – more jobs in the regions of the state that need them the most, in an area with some of the oldest families on the East Coast. You may not believe in big government, but there is certainly a role for minimal government when they can improve the well-being of the state, as is clearly the case here.

The place where dissertations go to die …

UncategorizedMarch 19, 20156

So you’ve just spent the last few years of your life working on your research project, and now in front of you, you have the final thesis, all smartly bound with a rather dashing cover that would not look out of place in Mr Darcy’s library, with your thesis title and your name glistening in silver or gold lettering. You have a sense of achievement. It has been a difficult labor, but finally your baby has been born, and you cradle it in your arms lovingly as you walk it to the library, and hand over your precious bundle of academic joy to the librarian. They take it from you and head back to the dusty shelves where theses of thousands of past graduate students have accumulated, the place where your dissertation will go to…to die.



Dipping a Toe in the Confluence

A Renewed Sense of Wonder, oceanography, Personal StoriesMarch 17, 20151

North Carolina is well known for both its distinctive barrier islands (making Pamlico Sound the largest lagoon in the U.S.) and highly productive fisheries.  Both of these features exist in large part because North Carolina sits that the point where two of the largest ocean currents in the Atlantic meet. From the north, the Labrador Current meanders from the Arctic Circle along the Canadian, New England, and Mid-Atlantic shorelines and crashes into the Gulf Stream at Cape Hatteras, deflecting this warm current off its own shore-hugging course from the south and out across the Atlantic Ocean.  Aside from literally defining the shape of the Outer Banks, the collision zone represents the boundary between temperate waters to the north and subtropical waters to the south.  This presence of this border means that, depending on the time of year and local weather conditions, you can catch just about any marine fish native to the Northwest Atlantic Ocean off of the Outer Banks.

This satellite image of sea surface temperatures shows the Gulf Stream (warm red current coming from the south) meeting the Labrador Current (cold purple current coming from the north). Image from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (


How to write and publish a scientific paper in the field of marine ecology and conservation

Blogging, ScienceMarch 6, 20150

Author’s note: The following blog post is an adaptation of a professional development training workshop that I gave to our lab’s interns. It is intended to serve as an introductory guide for advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate students who have never published a scientific paper before. It’s a combination of advice I’ve received from teachers, colleagues, and training workshops. This advice has worked well for me personally in the fields of marine ecology and conservation; as of this writing I have 14 published papers and have served as a peer reviewer for 26 different journals. However, there are lots of other strategies out there, and you should seek them out and figure out what works best for you, particularly if you’re in a radically different academic discipline. 

Part 1: What is a scientific paper?

The process of writing and publishing peer-reviewed scientific papers can be confusing and intimidating to beginning students, who may know that these papers are professionally important but not how to create their own. Different in scope, style, and significance from a class term paper or thesis, these papers are formal, technical writeups of a scientific research project or idea. They are written by scientists or technical experts, and peer-reviewed by other scientists or technical experts who (ideally) provide constructive criticism.


17 actually worthwhile things to know about mosquitoes

BloggingMarch 3, 20150

ATanjim Hossain is an NSF graduate research fellow at the University of Miami. His research focuses on the intersection of microclimatology and mosquito vector ecology from an epidemiological perspective. Follow him on twitter here

BuzzFeed: the epitome of unnecessary hyperbole and an amalgam of often unoriginal content. I’ve long been convinced that this website is a waste of time and that it parrots bullshit in exchange for pageviews. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a recent article headlined, “17 Things Only Chronic Mosquito Victims Will Understand.”For a brief moment I was encouraged, hopeful even, that BuzzFeed might have turned a page and published something worth reading. You, wise reader, likely know this this turned out. Below I present 17 things which I think are actually worth knowing relevant to mosquitoes.


What Leonard Nimoy and Spock meant to me as a Jewish conservation biologist

BloggingFebruary 27, 20154

Earlier today, the New York Times reported that actor Leonard Nimoy had died at the age of 83. Coming just two days after the death of Genie Clark, this means that I’ve lost two of my childhood heroes in one week. I’ve already briefly written about what Genie meant to me and to my friends here and here and am quoted here, but Leonard Nimoy’s impact on me  is a little harder to explain. I hope our readers will indulge me in an unusually personal post.

I’ve been a big fan of science fiction, something I’ve always loved sharing with my mother, since I was a kid. A world where science and intellect and technology, not brute force, are used to solve problems holds obvious appeal. To a kid who grew up struggling with some anti-Jewish discrimination, the diversity featured on shows like Star Trek was inspiring. People that were different didn’t have to hide their differences and lay low and try to avoid standing out in a crowd of people different from you, like I did. Not only did the main characters not tease and attack each other because they were different, but this behavior was actively portrayed as a problem on several episodes. The Federation wasn’t successful despite including different cultures and religions and even species, they were successful because of it.  The environmental conservation message in Star Trek plotlines like “the Voyage Home” made a budding young conservation biologist relate to it even more.


Fun Science FRIEDay – Ocean Acidification, More Than Just pH

climate change, ecology, Fun Science Friday, marine science, Natural Science0

You have probably heard that as the global climate changes due to human influence the sea surface is going to rise and the oceans will get warmer and more acidic. The bit about the oceans increasing in acidity is particularly troubling because it implies calcium carbonate based organisms (oysters, snails, corals, etc.) will simply dissolve in this future dystopian acid-ocean (that is a bit of an oversimplification, but you get the idea).

Ocean acidity is determined by measuring the pH, which relates acidity based on the number of hydrogen ions found in the water. So long story short, as more and more carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted into the atmosphere, it in-turn fluxes into the oceans forming carbonic acid which results in the release of hydrogen ions lowering the pH. Simple logic would suggest that this spells bad news for calcifying organism (poor Mr. Snail).

Healthy Pretopod shell (left) and degraded Pteropod shell due to ocean acidification (right). (Photo credit: NOAA [])

Healthy Pretopod shell (left) and degraded Pteropod shell due to ocean acidification (right). (Photo credit: NOAA [])


Set research free with IGoR!

Citizen Science, Natural Science, ScienceFebruary 26, 20150

Dr. Mickey von Dassow is a biologist who studies how biomechanics affects development-environment interactions. He received his PhD in Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, studying how fluid flow affects colonial marine animals. As a postdoc (U. of Pittsburgh), he studied the mechanics of tissue movements that shape amphibian embryos. Currently he is a guest research scientist at the Duke Marine Lab, and works primarily on sea urchin embryos.

"IGoR! Fetch me a protocol!" Provided by Michelangelo Von Dassow.

“IGoR! Fetch me a protocol!” Provided by Michelangelo von Dassow.

Can everyone do scientific research? I hope to convince you the answer is “yes.” I’m trying to develop an online platform ( to help amateur scientists and other science enthusiasts do their own scientific research, while at the same time helping experienced scientists tap into the skills and creativity of a broader community. I hope you’ll love the idea and want to help me spark IGoR to life*.

Currently, the vast majority of scientific research is done by professionals supported by big institutions, such as universities, government labs, or corporations. It’s difficult for even a trained and experienced scientist to find the resources and time to do research without this backing. There are pockets of science where amateurs frequently make substantial contributions (e.g. amateur astronomy and taxonomy). However, it wasn’t that long ago that the majority of science was done by people – such as Darwin and Wallace – who were outside academia. In fact, the great intellectual revolutions that created modern science were not started by trained scientists: there were no trained scientists at the time!


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