I asked 15 ocean plastic pollution experts about the Ocean Cleanup project, and they have concerns

The online ocean science community has been vocally skeptical about the Ocean Cleanup, a device that aims to physically remove plastic pollution from the ocean. Drs. Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein published a technical review of its feasibility over at Deep Sea News, and Andrew asked some important questions that have yet to be answered. Also, be sure to read environmental journalist Chris Clarke’s thorough overview of these concerns.

Overall concerns include a lack of understanding of the problem (including but not limited to the fact that much of the harmful ocean plastic is small and well-dispersed), insufficient structural integrity for a large object that will be deployed in the open ocean (which would result in the object breaking and creating even more ocean garbage), and the fact that this device is designed to aggregate objects of a certain size to remove them from the water but cannot distinguish between plastic and living things.

Mainstream media coverage has been noticeably less critical of the Ocean Cleanup, often presenting the idea as revolutionary and it’s creator as a genius.

Artist’s conception of the Ocean Cleanup, from TheOceanCleanup.com

I am not an expert in ocean plastic pollution. However, the uncritical tone of most mainstream media coverage of the Ocean Cleanup does not seem to correspond with my impression of expert opinion on this matter from speaking with expert colleagues who study this.

Through professional contacts, I developed a list of 51 ocean plastic pollution experts who work in academia, government, and the environmental non-profit sector, and I sent them some questions about the Ocean Cleanup. 15 (4 in academia, 5 each in government and the non-profit sector, and 1 in industry) agreed to participate in an anonymous survey. While this is not (and not intended to be) an exhaustive survey of the entire field of ocean plastic pollution, the broad agreement among a diverse group of experts is telling. Below, please see what they had to say through some representative quotes. Some respondents chose to provide an on-the-record quote, while many chose to remain anonymous out of concerns about reprisal.

I also asked Lonneke Holierhoek, COO of the Ocean Cleanup, to respond to these concerns. Her comments are included in each section.

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Things that go “POP!” in the deep: crushed cups, whole cans, and seafloor spam.

This week, two questions echoed through the hallowed halls of Deep-sea Science. It began, as things these days tend to begin, with a tweet. Dr. Diva Amon challenged deep-sea researchers to show off their shrunken cups from the bottom of the abyss. And we obliged, oh but did we oblige.

Concurrently, though unrelated, Angelo Villagomez announced out symposium on Human Impacts in the Deep Sea and shared several image of the garbage that finds its way to the ocean floor. Cans of cheap beer and pristine Spam littered the deepest reaches of the Mariana Trench, where they will lie forever as they are slowly buried in sediment.

And thus we found ourselves awash in to variations on the same theme: Why did that ocean thing get crushed? and Why didn’t that ocean thing get crushed? Read More

5 things to know about stingray barbs, this month’s 3D printed reward!

I recently unveiled a new tier of Patreon rewards: 3D printed shark and ray models!For $17 per month, you will get a monthly 3D printed educational model of different shark or ray parts in the mail, and you’ll be supporting my efforts to provide these models to schools for free.

This month’s reward is the barb from a Pacific Cownose RayRhinoptera steindachneri. This particular specimen is a part of the Texas A&M University Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collection, and was scanned as part of the #ScanAllFishes project! 

I reached out to Heather Prestidge and Kevin Conway, curators of the Texas A&M collection. They told me that this particular specimen was collected in 1993 by John McEachran (author of the multi-volume “fishes of the Gulf of Mexico“) and Janine Caira (now a parasitologist at UConn). It was collected in Baja California, Mexico. Heather was pleased to learn that I was using their specimen for this project, and said “our specimens have an unlimited number of uses even after their primary project!”

Here’s a picture of another specimen of the same species from this collection, you can see why they’re sometimes called “Golden Cownose Rays”.

Photo courtesy Christian Jones, NOAA

Here’s a CT scan focusing on the barb, from the Virtual Natural History Museum.

Learn more about the Pacific cownose ray and the science behind stingray barbs below!

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This month’s 3D printed reward is a horn shark and horn shark egg case!

I recently unveiled a new tier of Patreon rewards: 3D printed shark and ray models! For $17 per month, you will get a monthly 3D printed educational model of different shark or ray parts in the mail, and you’ll be supporting my efforts to provide these models to schools for free.

This month’s reward is a model of a horn shark (Heterodontus francisci) and a horn shark egg case!

It comes from Alex Warneke, the Science Education Coordinator of Cabrillo National Monument! “”Using 3D printing technology has not only changed the way we educate the public, but it has broadened our perspective on what is possible in National Parks,” Alex told me. “We have been able to connect students to nature from an entirely different angle and provide them the tools and context they will need to succeed as scientists of the next generation.” This individual horn shark comes from the ichthyology collection at Cabrillo, and has been used for public education as well as research. The egg case is one of many that wash up on California beaches.

The original horn shark specimen and the 3D model of it, courtesy Alex Warneke, Cabrillo National Monument

Learn more about horn sharks and their egg cases below!

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An open letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on revising land-based recreational shark fishing regulations

Note: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is holding a public meeting on April 25th which will include the issue of land-based recreational shark fishing. Part of my dissertation research focused on this topic, so I am submitting expert testimony, but since I no longer live in Florida I am submitting it remotely. I am sharing my testimony here. Anyone else who is interested in attending the meeting in person (Fort Lauderdale Marriott on April 25th), or submitting testimony remotely, is free to quote my talking points below if the appropriate references are cited. 

Dear Chair Rivard, Vice Chair Spottswood, Commissioner Kellam, Commissioner Lester, Commissioner Nicklaus, Commissioner Rood, and Commissioner Sole of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC),

My name is Dr. David Shiffman, and I studied land-based shark fishing in Florida as part of my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. This research was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Fisheries Research (here’s a link to an open access copy) and covered in major media outlets including National Geographic, Nature, and the Miami Herald. Accordingly, I would like to provide expert testimony for your April 25th public hearing on this topic. Since I no longer reside in Florida I am submitting this testimony remotely. As a conservation biologist who spent years studying harmful practices among some elements of the land-based Florida shark fishing community, I am grateful to see FWC holding a public meeting that includes this important issue, and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute.

Overall, the scientific evidence is clear and overwhelming that while many anglers are rule-following and conservation-minded, many common land-based shark fishing practices represent a significant conservation threat to threatened, protected shark species in Florida. Additionally, the evidence is clear and overwhelming that in many cases anglers are breaking existing laws and regulations, and that in some of those cases the anglers are aware that they are breaking the law and are explicitly stating that they don’t care. Finally, the evidence is clear and overwhelming that many of the arguments put forward by land-based anglers in support of the status quo are not argued in good faith, and are intentionally crafted to misrepresent the facts of the situation.

It is obvious to me, and to many expert colleagues with whom I have discussed this issue, that the FWC can and must do more to protect threatened sharks, building off of early successes that made Florida a leader in shark conservation. Specifically, the FWC can and must do more to regulate these harmful practices, enforce clear violations of existing regulations, and educate anglers about these issues. Below I will elaborate on each of these points and propose specific regulatory, enforcement, and public education changes that can be made to protect sharks without significantly infringing on anyone’s rights. I will also counter several common arguments that are put forth by bad actors in the recreational angling community.

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Is a Changing Environment Bringing Baby Bull Sharks to North Carolina?

Marine environments are typically considered more open than those on land when it comes to animal movement. On land, the range of a species can be limited by geographic features like mountain ranges, canyons, rivers, and anything else that might get in the way. In the ocean, however, actively swimming animals like, say, large sharks have few physical barriers and may instead be restricted by their own environmental preferences. This is why in unusually warm summers you might see tropical fishes in southern New England. Because of this, one of the anticipated consequences of warming ocean temperatures is shifting distributions of mobile and highly migratory species. Basically, changes in temperature are likely to allow marine animals to move into places they haven’t before, and if those temperature changes become consistent, these species might make regular visits or even just start staying there.

This kind of change is already happening and has been documented across a variety of marine species. Now, findings from a new paper in Scientific Reports by me and co-authors from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, Simon Fraser University, and East Carolina University show an apex predator may be joining the northward shift.

Juvenile Bull Shark captured in Pamlico Sound, North Carolina. Photo from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

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America’s Second-Largest Estuary is a Lagoon Full of Sharks

I’ve defaced this colonial-era image of Native American fishing methods from Roanoke Island, NC to show that sharks have been observed in North Carolina’s estuaries for quite some time. Original art: “The Manner of Their Fishing” by John White.

It’s a bit of a cliché to reference the movie Jaws when talking about sharks, but I’m going to do it anyway. There’s a pivotal scene where the giant White Shark is spotted moving into a salt pond, where it proceeds to terrorize the children of protagonist Chief Martin Brody. While no sharks are in the business of regularly eating humans, at least part of this scene is realistic: sharks do make use of inshore, estuarine environments like lagoons, bays, and the lower portions of rivers. Despite the fact that sharks are generally thought to stay out in the ocean, many species are not only comfortable entering estuaries, they actually depend on them. Some species make extensive use of estuaries as shelter from predators and/or a place to grab a bite themselves.

So it should come as no surprise that North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound, part of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary (the second-largest in the continental U.S. after Chesapeake Bay) offers a lot of potential real estate for sharks. Unlike Chesapeake Bay, Pamlico Sound is a lagoon, which means it’s wide, shallow, mostly water, and connected to the ocean via fairly small inlets between barrier islands. It straddles the transition zone marked by Cape Hatteras between temperate and subtropical marine ecosystems, and the amount of seagrass growth there is second only to Florida in sheer area. This estuary is already well-known for its importance as habitat for such varied (as well as tasty and/or fun to catch) species as Blue Crab, Penaeid shrimps, Flounder, and Red Drum. However, the sharks of Pamlico Sound have mostly been known by scattered reports and sightings from fishermen. That is, until my co-authors and I were able to look through a nice data set to get an idea of which sharks are present in the sound and where in the estuary they might like to be. The results are now published in PLOS One, and here’s a quick summary of how we got them.

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Thoughts on the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act

A few weeks ago, H.R. 5248, The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act, was introduced into Congress. The purpose of this bill is to “encourage a science-based approach to significantly reduce the overfishing and unsustainable trade of sharks, rays and skates around the world and prevent shark finning,” according to a press release from Mote Marine Lab. 

Though the devil is always in the details, and I’ll get into those below, here is a general overview of how this would work. The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act would direct NOAA Fisheries to evaluate the fisheries management practices of other shark and ray fishing nations. This is similar in principle to other things NOAA is already doing, and a similar role for NOAA was included in the 2010 Shark Conservation Act (but has yet to be implemented).

Nations that have sustainable fisheries management practices comparable to ours (or certain fisheries associated with those nations, even if other fisheries are less well managed) will get a formal certification of their sustainable management practices, and nothing will change for them. Nations (or fisheries) that are found to not have sustainable fisheries management practices comparable to ours will not be allowed to have those products imported into the US and sold in our markets until their management practices improve. In the meantime, they’ll have access to NOAA’s existing capacity building resources and expertise to improve their own practices.

I support much of what this bill is trying to do, but I have some significant concerns about some of the current phrasing and plan for implementation.

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In South Louisiana, Seafood Means Hope

This blog post and photo slideshow was created during OCEANDOTCOMM, an ocean science communication event, and supported by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) The theme of OCEANDOTCOMM was Coastal Optimism. Photos were contributed by our lead photographer, Rafeed Hussain/Ocean Conservancy, with additions from other OCEANDOTCOMM attendees, including Melissa Miller, Samantha Oester, Susan Von Thun, Solomon David, Rebecca Helm, and Alexander Havens.

A sign at the Bait House in Chauvin, Louisiana. Photo by Rafeed Hussain / Ocean Conservancy

In many ways, South Louisiana is seafood- a trip here isn’t complete without eating some gumbo, oysters, or crawfish. Only one state (Alaska) lands more seafood than Louisiana’s 1.2 billion pounds a year (as of 2016). As of 2008, one in 70 jobs in the whole state is tied to fishing or related industries. According to the Louisiana Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board, “when you choose Louisiana seafood, you’re ensuring that your purchase benefits an American community and a way of life.”

When we visited Terrebonne Parish, home to nearly 20 percent of all commercial fishing license holders in Louisiana, we found that fishing means more to the people of this community than food and jobs. Here in South Louisiana, fishing is a vital part of the vibrant local culture and community pride. In a region that’s been devastated by hurricanes and oil spills, fishing is also a source of something more important: hope.

Below, you’ll hear what fishing means to South Louisiana’s fishing communities through the voices of a former shrimper, the owner of a grocery store that has served the town of Chauvin for more than a century, and representatives of a local Native American tribe. You’ll also get a glimpse into this beautiful part of the world through a photo slideshow. Together, this paints a picture of communities that have overcome unimaginable struggle, but still look forward to the future, in no small part because of the riches of the sea.

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This month’s 3D printed reward is a megalodon tooth! Here are 5 things to know about megalodon.

I recently unveiled a new tier of Patreon rewards: 3D printed shark and ray models! For $17 per month, you will get a monthly 3D printed educational model of different shark or ray parts in the mail, and you’ll be supporting my efforts to provide these models to schools for free.

The first month’s reward comes from one of the most (in)famous sharks of all time, Carcharocles megalodon! The first 3D printed Patreon reward is a meg tooth, an exact copy of the meg tooth that has been used to educate thousands of students at UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum!

The original tooth

Here are some things to know about Carcharocles megalodon!

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