How Millard Fillmore reshaped the oceans in a quest for guano.

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.

1850.

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.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Harnessing Synthetic Biology to Fight Ocean Pollution

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)

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Now, More Than Ever, America Needs an Ambassador for the Deep Sea.

That ambassador is Bathynomus giganteus, the giant, deep-sea isopod.

A giant deep sea isopod on the sea floor. Photo via NOAA Photobank.

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. Continue reading

Diversity is Resilience

We stand at a crossroads.

Southern Fried Science has occupied a unique niche in the online ocean community. We have defended commercial and recreational fishers as often as we have opposed them. We have at times stood behind ocean conservation policy and at times pushed back against excessive legislation. We have criticised those within our community and those without. We have been radically libertarian and radically socialist and every label in between.

We are comfortable joining the long call, the great song that booms from the belly of a blue whale, and circles the world as it echoes through the community.

We are comfortable being the lone cry of dissent, pushing back against the onslaught of righteous exuberance.

We have never sought consensus, only common ground.

For almost a year now a phrase has been rattling around inside my head. At first it was just  catchy cadence, something to use on the next article. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to understand what it really means; how deeply it permeates almost every aspect of life on this planet.

Diversity is resilience. Continue reading

We love giant isopods and America should love them too!

14884452_10101639425674614_3310426167506511986_oSouthern Fried Science loves giant isopods. There are few deep-sea animals more iconic, more charismatic, more weird and wonderful, than the deep-sea isopod. The biggest of the deep-sea isopods, the giant deep-sea isopod, Bathynomus giganteus, is a quintessentially American beast. It dwells in the deep Gulf of Mexico. The bulk of its known range falls within the United States Exclusive Economic Zone. It was first collected by American scientist Alexander Agassiz (though it was formally described by his colleague and collaborator French zoologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards). Tough on the outside, soft on the inside, fiercely independent yet able to work in massive aggregations to consume the bloated carcass of a whale, alternately terrifying and adorable, I can think of no better animal to represent the deep water of the United States better than our own Bathynomous giganteus.

So today, with an historic election looming, we decided it was past time to reflect on the things we love, the things that unite us, the things that fill us with wonder, and call upon Congress to officially adopt the giant deep-sea isopod as the National Deep-sea Animal of the United States. Continue reading