Adult Australian Lungfish, part of a captive breeding program in Queensland, Australia.
Credit: Gordon Hides (used with permission)
On Sunday, February 5, 2017, Granddad the Australian Lungfish, the oldest fish in any aquarium or zoo, was euthanized due to health complications. Although his exact age is unknown, he arrived at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago as an adult in 1933. Australian Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) take over a decade to mature, so we can estimate he was over 90 years old when he passed.
The Australian Lungfish is a unique species, considered a “living fossil”, resembling its ancestors whose lineage dates back over 380 million years. The Australian Lungfish genus (Neoceratodus) itself has been around for about 100 million years. When first described, they were believed to be amphibians; one look at their elongate body and flipper-like fins, and you can imagine the classification conundrum. The fish even possesses a primitive lung, allowing it to breathe air in low-oxygen environments (although they usually breathe with their gills).
We have a problem in conservation biology (ok, to be fair, we have a lot of problems, but this is one of them). The biggest environmental challenges–climate change, ocean acidification, over-fishing, agricultural runoff, species invasion, and myriad other emergent issues–are global challenges. They respect no borders and require a cohesive, multinational response. Researchers, stakeholders, and conservation managers, on the other hand, are increasingly impeded in their work by more and more restrictive barriers to travel.
This isn’t new. The Global South has often been excluded from major international conferences hosted in European and American cities, which are expensive and hard to get to. Onerous visa restrictions from and to a multitude of countries have been in place for decades, but the events of this week have made it clear that scientific societies need to plan for and provide alternatives to a membership that may not be able to travel to a conference yet still need to participate.
President Millard Fillmore
The numbers are in, and over the last eight years, President Barack Obama has protected more ocean than any other president in history. His expansion of NOAA and implementation of a National Ocean Policy will impact ocean health and fisheries management for generations. By almost any measure, he has had the biggest impact on the ocean of any modern presidency. Which raises the obvious question: is President Obama the most influential ocean president in history? Not by a long shot. That honor has to go to the president who’s policies have fundamentally shaped and reshaped how we view and control ocean territory, who laid the foundation for almost all the ocean protections we currently enjoy, and who set the precedent for the American Empire. That man is President Millard Fillmore, and he did it all for bird poop.
Agricultural science is beginning to understand that soil is not just soil, but a collection of nutrients that are slowly drawn from the ground by growing crops. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are crucial ingredients. The Industrial Revolution is pushing agriculture away from passive crop re-nourishment processes and towards intensive, fertilizer-driven farming. Fertilizer producers can’t keep up. At the same time, the American whaling industry had reached its zenith and began to fall. Coastal whales were harder to find and the bold men of Nantucket ventured out across the Pacific in search of the last great whaling grounds.
In these voyages, the whalers found numerous tiny, often uncharted islands in the Pacific. These remote islands were refuges, not just for weary sailors, but for generations of seabirds. From these seabirds rose great mountains of guano, guano rich in the nutrients plants crave. Guano was the solution to the fertilizer crises.
Climate Change is real. It’s happening now. And the best available data points to us as the cause.
That the foundational science is settled is a point of unending frustration to scientists, science writers, and policy advocates who face continuous partisan push back, from whitewashing government websites to threatening scientists with legal repercussions for reporting the data. During my International Marine Conservation Congress keynote last year, I argued that Climate Change denial is not a science literacy problem, but rather a product of increasing political bifurcation. Political ideology is a much stronger predictor of Climate Change understanding than science literacy.
The term “Climate Change” is now loaded with so much political baggage that it becomes almost impossible to hold a discussion across political lines. In stakeholder interviews, people generally understand and acknowledge the impacts of climate change on local and regional scales, as long as you don’t call it “Climate Change”. This has been my experience working in rural coastal communities, which tend to be strongly conservative and intimately connected to the changing ocean.
Which is why, when I talk about Climate Change, I don’t talk about science. Read More
Early this December, the National Park Service announced that the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument made the short list for UNESCO World Heritage designation. Though hidden beneath the water’s surface, the Mariana Trench, a unique geologic and ecologic landmark and a natural treasure, dwarfs the Grand Canyon in scale and scope.
The Mariana Trench is more than a mile deeper than Mt. Everest is high and hosts Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth. It is also home to numerous sites of exceptional scientific value, including submerged volcanoes that host deep-sea hydrothermal vents, the largest documented mud volcanoes, coral atolls and fringing reef ecosystems that support apex predators like sharks and whales, as well as habitat-forming stony corals.
Plastics, more importantly microplastics, clog our oceans. This phenomena in the ocean has been likened to smog around cities. These plastic particles are dangerous because they can absorb toxins, subsequently be consumed by zooplankton and invertebrates, and bioaccumluate up the food web to fish that are consumed by humans. A study in Nature found that 25 percent of seafood sold contains microplastics! There has been a recent awareness of the unseen harm that exists when plastic pollution in the ocean degrades into microplastics. A report in Environmental Research Letters estimated that “accumulated number of micro plastic particles… ranges from 15 to 51 trillion particles, weighing between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons.” That is cray cray. Despite a better awareness of the impact of microplastics on marine ecology, we still have a poor spatial understanding of microplastics in the ocean. The presence and density of microplastics is determined by trawling the ocean (i.e., researchers go out with a net and physically count the pieces of plastic they pick up). As you can imagine, this is not very effective.
Conceptualization of plastic degrading in the ocean. (Photo credit: Archipelagos Institute)
The fam attending my dissertation defense
After a little more than 5 years of hard work, I’ve officially completed my Ph.D.! You can read my dissertation (“An Integrative and Interdisciplinary Approach to Shark Conservation: Policy Solutions, Ecosystem Role, and Stakeholder Attitudes”) online here in its entirety.
In case there are some among you who don’t really want to read a 281 page dissertation but are curious about what I found, I’ve prepared this blog post to summarize my key conclusions. (Note: this does not include every conclusion. Some are aggregated together, and some more technical conclusions are omitted for this summary).
That ambassador is Bathynomus giganteus, the giant, deep-sea isopod.
A giant deep sea isopod on the sea floor. Photo via NOAA Photobank.
Conservation has long had the concept of Flagship Species—popular, charismatic species that serve as rallying points for conservation awareness and action. Formalized within the framework of conservation marketing, flagship species are focused around particular goals and audiences. Think of the WWF’s Giant Panda, Polar Bears and a thousand different arctic or climate change campaigns, or even the American Bald Eagle, whose decline galvanized the country into action. These animals are iconic. They connect people to species and ecosystems in crisis. They are Flagship Species.
The Giant Deep-sea Isopod is not a flagship species. The Giant Deep-sea Isopod addresses a much more fundamental issue: despite being the largest, most diverse ecosystem on the planet, most people have no direct connection, no frame of reference, for the deep sea. Read More
Learning to hunt by Kimberly Fraser / USFWS.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service is adapting new technology to the business of saving and endangered species: they’re sending in the drones.
Pellet drone in flight by Randy Matchett/USFWS
Black-footed ferrets are a small, solitary, extremely territorial weasel-like animal that lives in the American west. Once abundant in central North America, today, their wild population stands at around 500. Black-footed ferrets were decimated by sylvatic plague (a close relative of the bubonic plague), as well as habitat loss and an early eradication campaign.
A few years ago, we organized a group of marine conservation scientists to meet to discuss, and list, the most urgent issues that need to be studied. The resulting paper came up with 71 questions which urgently needed to be addressed, because a lack of an answer was severely impeding marine conservation. However, during this exercise we also came up with a list of other questions – these were issues that were controversial, that everyone knew were important, but were unwilling to raise as being an issue. These were the Voldemorts of marine conservation questions (they that shall not be named), the elephant (or elephant seal) in the room questions …. or as we more aquatically termed them: “the kraken in the aquarium” questions.