The Ocean Cleanup has an ocean of problems, whales, KISS, and more! Weekly Salvage: October 7, 2019

Do we have to talk about the Ocean Cleanup?

I know they’re in the news… I just… I can’t care anymore. 

Welcome to the Weekly Salvage.

Flotsam: big news from the bottom of the sea

The Ocean Cleanup is back. And it collected some trash. And… to be honest… ocean scientists are pretty confused. Beyond the fanfare is a very weird net boom that no professional oceanographer thinks could survive deployed in the high seas for more than a few months. And a lot of the trash seems to be flagged with the same orange tape, which is raising some questions among ocean conservationists who’ve followed this project for a long time 

And then there’s this. From the very beginning, ocean scientists and ocean advocates have pointed out that the boom system could be devastating to the neuston: a vast, diverse community of organisms that floats at or just below the surface of the world’s ocean. That the cure could be more destructive than the disease. 

And here we are. In their own promotional images, biologist and hero of the neuston Dr. Rebecca Helm highlighted a veritable slaughter of ocean animals. Just so many murdered creatures. For years the Ocean Cleanup has been unwilling to engage with the ocean community on these issues and… it shows. 

And look, no one wants to see visionary ocean conservation projects fail. No one is rooting against finding a way to get plastics out of the ocean, but when an organization consistently ignores the advice of experts, mocks the good faith efforts of those trying to help, fires its own employees when they raise issues about the impossibility of a project, and consistently relies on the charisma of its leader to sell a system, you have to start wondering what their real motivations are. 

I hate talking about the Ocean Cleanup. There are so many good projects trying to rid the oceans of plastics that are doing good and doing well. There’s the incredible Mr. Trashwheel, NextWave, NOAA’s marine debris program, International Coastal Cleanup, NetPositiva, SeaBin, 5 Gyres, Ocean Voyages Institute, and thousands of beach clean-up efforts around the globe. We don’t need to hang our hopes on one marginal thing floating halfway around the world. But we’ve got to do better. 

I hope they deploy something that works. Nothing would make me happier than to be proven completely and utterly wrong about the Ocean Cleanup. But if there’s something there, I sure haven’t seen it yet.

Jetsam: what bubbled up this week

Hurricane Lorenzo spun up in the Atlantic last week, and though it stayed mostly offshore, it was a profoundly weird storm. As a Category 5, Lorenzo is the strongest storm in recorded history to occur so far east and north in the Atlantic. It’s wavering path caused many to draw comparisons between the storm and the current state of the United Kingdom

Can 3D printing save reefs? One team of researchers thinks so and they’re using 3D-printed corals to simulate habitat for reef fish and serve as a foundation for new coral recruitment. Though a warning to 3D printing enthusiasts: ABS is pretty nasty and you should probably keep it out of your ocean prototypes. 

What’s a whale worth? Well, if you’re thinking about the long term survival of our planet in the face of global climate change, they’re probably worth more than you imagine. Whales act as massive carbon sinks, transporting carbon dioxide to the seafloor, and if they were allowed to return to pre-industrial whaling numbers, would sequester the equivalent of 2 billion mature trees. That’s probably something worth looking into. 

Finally, the legendary rock band Kiss will play an underwater concert just for great white sharks. I have no comment. 

Lagan: science news that’s peer-reviewed

Did you know that the deep oceans are among the most biodiverse places on the planet? Probably not. Despite rivaling tropical rainforests in diversity, the ocean’s abyssal plains have exceptionally low biomass – that means there’s heaps of different species, but not very many of any one type. In Preliminary Observations of the Abyssal Megafauna of Kiribati, Erik Simon-Lledó and his team surveyed the abyssal plains within the exclusive economic zone of Kiribati, an island nation in the middle of the Pacific. They found everything from forams to fish, including octopuses, sponges, sea cucumbers, shrimp, and everyone’s favorite giant single-celled organism, the xenophyophore. 

This is really the first systematic study of deep-sea biodiversity in Kiribati’s waters and it was only possible by partnering with a mining company exploring to potential to extract ore from these abyssal plains. The authors close with a warning: “Although no commercial activities have been proposed to date in the Kiribati abyss, future conservation plans and exploration efforts within this area should consider the high biodiversity and low density of megabenthic populations reported in this study if they are to be effective.”

Driftwood: what we’re reading on dead trees

This week I’m reading the The Carbon Code: How You Can Become a Climate Change Hero by Brett Favaro. Most of what we need to do to fix the biggest problem facing our planet goes far beyond individual actions, but Dr. Favaro makes a compelling case for conspicuous conservation as a framework for individuals to make strong personal climate choices while pushing for policy solutions at national and global scales.

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