Happy Fun Science Friday!
Though this post does not present such a happy story, given the recent discussion about dolphin photobombing, this week’s FSF is topically related. In the spring of 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig experienced catastrophic failure resulting in the worst oil spill in human history. The Gulf of Mexico (GoM) was the unfortunate host of this catastrophe and the GoM community is still feeling the ecological, social, and economic consequences of this disaster.
Pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming underneath oily water of Chandeleur Sound, La., May 6, 2010.
Photo Credit: Alex Brandon/AP
One such impact that received little TV coverage during the spill was the uncharacteristic spike in dolphin deaths. A few months following the BP spill there was an unprecedented spike in dead dolphins washing ashore along the Gulf Coast; 67 dead dolphins by February of 2011, with more than half (35) of the dead dolphins being calves. This is in stark contrast to years preceding the spill when one or two dead dolphins per year were normally documented to wash ashore. Despite the spike in dolphin deaths, there was no definitive evidence linking the dead cetaceans to the oil spill as a number of other factors could have been responsible for the deaths, including infectious disease or the abnormally cold winter proceeding the spill.
A lot of debate among conservationists centers on the conflict between the desire to see a species totally protected from human exploitation and the reality that market forces will continue to exist (see the latest on shark fin bans for a very good example). Ideally, a conservation plan should strike a balance, ensuring the continued existence of the species while still allowing people to profit from it in some way. This also requires a clear idea of the limitations of conservation policies. For example, US policies (even the mighty Endangered Species Act) only directly affect populations within the territorial waters of the United States, while international agreements like CITES restrict trade of the species without telling any particular country what to do domestically. However, there are ways to track the interaction between conservation policies and the market, making it possible to make some predictions on how things like fishery management plans and CITES listings might affect trade. Then it gets interesting. Armed with this knowledge, can the market be pushed towards species conservation?
As part of the GCOE-INeT Summer School at Hokkaido University this year I have had the opportunity to use Samani Town as a case study of “the sustainability of coupled human and natural systems”. The small coastal town of roughly 5,500 people is dependent on farming, fishing, forestry, mining, and increasingly tourism. Samani town is one of the oldest towns in Hokkaido Island and kelp fishing just offshore traces its roots back to the Ainu people who first populated the area. While other industries are important to life and economy in Samani, fishing deserves special note both because of the history and the successful local management.
Isaac Newton, after experiencing the bottom end of a falling apple, used that experience to formulate the theory of gravity. The inductive process Newton used is common to the goals of most scientific endeavors and a deeply ingrained part of the human psyche. As humans, we love to generalize. It helps us understand the world around us by categorizing parts of it and explaining natural dynamics by the “laws of nature”. We also stereotype each other by race, hometown, or favorite basketball team. Some would say these tendencies help us prepare – to predict and expect the logical outcome of the set of clues presented in our everyday lives. But just like the reasons your mother told you not to stereotype, sometimes nature has its own surprises that defy prediction, categorization, or law-following. Especially if you don’t quite know what the law is yet.