Why Do Marine Animals Eat So Much Plastic?

It doesn’t just look like food. It smells like it too. Via NatGeo:

Algae are consumed by krill, a small crustacean that is the primary food source for many sea birds. As algae breaks down naturally in the ocean, they emit a stinky sulfur odor known as dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Sea birds in the hunt for krill have learned that the sulfur odor will lead them to their feeding grounds.

It turns out that floating plastic debris provides the perfect platform on which algae thrives. As the algae breaks down, emitting the DMS odor, sea birds, following their noses in search of krill, are led into an “olfactory trap,” according to a new study published November 9 in Science Advances. Instead of feeding on krill, they feed on plastic.

So humanity’s plastic debris is the perfect poison once it is in the ocean. Recycle, recycle, recycle. or don’t buy it in the first place (the ideal solution but I have tried avoiding plastic and it is NOT easy).

This is from Chris Jordan’s powerful campaign (which also produced the picture above) to help protect albatrosses from plastic debris:

SeaWorld’s (Slippery) Support Of The Virgin Pledge

SeaWorld has released a statement supporting the Virgin Pledge:

SeaWorld welcomed the opportunity to participate, along with similarly accredited organizations, in the six-month stakeholder engagement process on marine mammals conducted by Virgin Unite. We have always been willing to lend our expertise to any objective and science-based process that seeks to assure the health and welfare of animals living in professionally operated zoological institutions.

SeaWorld has supported efforts to protect and conserve our oceans for future generations since we first opened our gates 50 years ago. We were pleased to share this commitment with Virgin Holidays, and fully support their pledge concerning the collection of whales and dolphins from the wild — something SeaWorld hasn’t done in decades. The millions of guests who come through our gates each year are not only inspired and educated by what our parks offer, but also are key contributors to the important conservation and research we do that helps protect wildlife and wild places. We thank Virgin for recognizing the vital role zoological facilities can play in ocean preservation and conservation and look forward to working with them on these efforts in the future.

I highlighted the section about wild captures because it makes two questions pop into my head:

1) How does this statement lauding SeaWorld’s restraint regarding wild captures square with the fact that SeaWorld was part of a consortium led by Georgia Aquarium that in the past few years both captured 18 wild belugas and tried to import them into the United States?

The import permit was denied (Georgia Aquarium is appealing), which I suppose allows SeaWorld to stay technically consistent with the Virgin Pledge. Though to the extent that SeaWorld was part of the consortium that captured the belugas (even if Georgia Aquarium was acting as the umbrella for the group) I don’t think they can honestly say they haven’t “collected” from the wild in decades.

2) If protecting and conserving our oceans is linked to refraining from wild dolphin and whale captures, why stop with those species? Why not help protect and conserve our oceans by refraining from all wild captures?

Both those questions posed, I do credit SeaWorld for taking the Virgin Pledge. I also think it will have positive implications going forward, implications that SeaWorld may or may not have thought through. Having signed the pledge, plenty of people (like me) will keep an eye on the extent to which SeaWorld remains true to the spirit and letter of the pledge. And that could constrain how they pursue their marine mammal entertainment business.

For example, what if Georgia Aquarium wins its appeal regarding the wild beluga import? Will SeaWorld take its allotment of 11 belugas, and say “oh well, never mind” with regard to the Virgin Pledge? Or will it make a painfully self-interested argument that the beluga import is about conserving a wild species (even though belugas are not listed as endangered by the IUCN)? Or will it say “Hey, those belugas were caught before February 2014, so stop hassling us?”

No matter what option it chose, SeaWorld’s choice would come under extra-detailed scrutiny because it has signed the Virgin Pledge. Is it even conceivable that SeaWorld would take a look at how bringing in 11 wild belugas would look in light of changing public opinion about captivity and their support of the  Virgin Pledge, and take a pass on the wild belugas? Unlikely, I know. But these days it seems like almost anything is possible.

I can also forsee other choices SeaWorld might have to make in the future that will get extra scrutiny, and may even be constrained, thanks to SeaWorld’s commitment to the Virgin Pledge (even if the action comports with a very lawyerly, narrow reading of the words of the pledge).What about engaging in breeding loans with captive facilities that violate the Virgin Pledge? Or keeping future rescue animals for SeaWorld shows? Or breeding wild caught rescue animals, like Morgan, to increase SeaWorld’s killer whale holdings and benefit its bottom line?

That sort of analysis against the Virgin Pledge will be a very good thing. And while enthusiastically signing onto the Virgin Pledge today might yield a quick PR bump, I wonder if SeaWorld may come to regret taking the pledge down the road.

Quote Of The Day

“I think a question that we’re not asking ourselves is: ‘Isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?’”

–Pope Francis (from his list of tips to becoming a happier person).

Sylvia Earle Does Not Eat Fish

And here she explains why:

Except for those living in coastal communities — or even inland if we’re talking freshwater species — for most people, eating fish is a choice, not a necessity. Some people believe that the sole purpose of fish is for us to eat them. They are seen as commodities. Yet wild fish, like wild birds, have a place in the natural ecosystem which outweighs their value as food. They’re part of the systems that make the planet function in our favor, and we should be protecting them because of their importance to the ocean. They are carbon-based units, conduits for nutrients, and critical elements in ocean food webs. If people really understood the methods being used to capture wild fish, they might think about choosing whether to eat them at all, because the methods are so destructive and wasteful. It isn’t just a matter of caring about the fish or the corals, but also about all the things that are destroyed in the process of capturing ocean wildlife. We have seen such a sharp decline in the fish that we consume in my lifetime that I personally choose not to eat any. In the end, it’s a choice.

There are few people on the planet who have thought more about that choice, so Earle is worth listening to (though she isn’t quite willing to tell people not to eat meat as well; attention Cowspiracy).

And, since we are on documentaries today, you can hear a lot more about her and her work in the Netflix doc Mission Blue.

The US Navy vs. Nature

Just catching up on the bad news that the National Marine Fisheries Service has signed off on the Navy’s plan to inundate whale and dolphin habitat, otherwise known as the oceans, with harmful sonar:

While the Final Rule is not yet available to review (the website link provided by the agency doesn’t have the Final Rule), it appears from NMFS’ release that it has adopted the course laid out in its Proposed Rule.  There, it found that millions of instances of harm to the area’s whales and dolphins (including habitat abandonment, temporary hearing loss, and in some instances permanent hearing loss, injury to internal organs, and death) constitutes a “negligible impact” to the species harmed.

And once again, NMFS is finding that that the most severe impacts (temporary and permanent hearing loss and death) can be “minimized” by a Navy lookout regime that is wholly inadequate and ineffectual.

Such nonsense would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Scientific research developed over the last five years (the last time NMFS authorized Navy training and testing in the area) shows Navy training and testing activities are harming marine mammals far more than previously known. NRDC recently won a lawsuit against NMFS for ignoring that science when authorizing Navy training and testing in the Pacific Northwest.

This sort of testing and training is mostly a product of Cold War inertia and seems to me detached from strategic reality. Or at least serious strategic analysis. I know the phrase “national security” trumps just about all reasoned analysis. But what foreign threats justify such extensive damage to marine mammals? What increment of security is gained from live training versus simulations? Will we ever start to value other life and habitat on the planet?

Saving The Oceans

We’re used to seeing lots of bad news about how poorly the oceans are faring. Naturalist Carl Safina went in search of more positive stories, in a PBS series. You can now watch the entire first season online here.

It’s encouraging to see the people and ideas who are working to reverse, or at least combat, the decline of our seas. But somehow I feel like we’re all going to have to get a lot more radical to make a real difference.

Here’s the trailer for the series:

Deep Sea Internet?

More clever technology that aims to address human issues and problems. But I wonder whether the researchers have considered the impact of adding more sound to the oceans:

Researchers have tested an “underwater wi-fi” network in a lake in an attempt to make a “deep-sea internet”.

The team, from the University of Buffalo, New York, said the technology could help detect tsunamis, offering more reliable warning systems.

They aim to create an agreed standard for underwater communications, to make interaction and data-sharing easier.

Unlike normal wi-fi, which uses radio waves, the submerged network technology utilises sound waves.

Radio waves are able to penetrate water, but with severely limited range and stability. Sound waves provide a better option – as demonstrated by many aquatic species such as whales and dolphins.

Yes, as demonstrated by whales and dolphins who might benefit from having their use of sound go untrammeled by more human-created sound. This is a classic example of how technology is only evaluated from a human cost-benefit perspective, as opposed to a more universal perspective.

Sylvia Earle On The Oceans

Speaking of the future of the planet’s watery realms, here’s an excellent podcast of Sylvia Earle talking about humanity and its impact:

If you’re inspired by Earle’s ability to pull this off at age 78, just wait: The real inspiration lies in her stunning plea for ocean conservation. In this episode of Inquiring Minds (click below to stream audio), Earle doesn’t shy away from giving us the really, really big picture. She explains that we’re the first generation of humans to even know what we’re doing to 96 percent of the Earth’s water—through assaults ranging from over-fishing to noise pollution to global warming’s evil twin, ocean acidification.

Older generations just didn’t get it; they simply had no idea they could have this effect. “We have been under the illusion for most of our history, thinking that the ocean is too big to fail,” Earle says. Now, thanks in large part to the work of ocean adventurer-scientists like Earle, we know better. And we’re right at that crucial moment where knowing something might actually help us make a difference.

Actually, I think knowing something about 50 years ago might have really helped us make a difference. We often don’t want to know until we are on the edge of disaster, and that is naturally very late in the game. Still…

Ocean Agonistes

The more we learn about what is happening in the oceans, the more we understand about how bad the trends are. That truth is perfectly captured by the latest State Of The Ocean report, which is a global look at what science is telling us about how the oceans are faring. Here’s the key point of the Executive Summary:

The scientific evidence that marine ecosystems are being degraded as a direct result of human activities is
overwhelming; and the consequences both for the vital and valuable ocean goods and services we rely on,
including for the maintenance of a healthy Earth system, are alarming. Recent assessments by the UN’s
climate change panel the IPCC, for example, show that these changes are progressive and relentless: whilst
terrestrial temperature increases may be experiencing a pause this is not true for the ocean, which
continues to warm regardless. For the most part, however, the public and policymakers are failing to
recognize –or choosing to ignore— the severity of the situation and are not taking the action necessary to
address it.

The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) is publishing a set of five papers on ocean
stresses, impacts and solutions by leading international experts to present the key findings of the workshops
it held in 2011and 2012* in partnership with IUCN and its World Commission on Protected Areas. The
purpose of these workshops, and the papers published today, is to promote a holistic, integrated view of
both the challenges faced and the actions needed to achieve a healthy global ocean for the future.

The central messages from the workshops are that the risks to the ocean and the ecosystems it supports
have been significantly underestimated; that the extent of marine degradation as a whole is greater than
the sum of its parts; and that it is happening at a much faster rate than previously predicted.

The 2012 workshop additionally reviewed new material and evidence, available since the workshop in
2011, and concluded that the threats to the ocean were even faster, bigger and closer than the first
workshop set out: faster with an accelerated rate of change, bigger in scale, and closer in time in terms of
the impacts being felt.

Yes, it’s alarming. But instead of turning away, the right response, as with climate change, is to imagine even more radical and deeper changes in the way humans live and do business, and build the grassroots political will to actually make the sacrifices needed to make a difference. No  more nibbling around the edges. Time to reinvent humanity, which would not only be good for the planet, it would be good for humanity.

Here’s a good example of the sort of choice (and there are thousands of choices just like it) that could determine whether we start to protect the oceans instead of ruthlessly exploiting the oceans for financial profit–the question of whether to ban deep-sea trawls:

The biodiversity of the deep sea is equaled only by that of tropical rain forests, and the destruction of rain forests has long been known to affect biodiversity and the global climate. Similarly the deep sea is home to countless species, including the oldest known living animal and to life-forms found nowhere else. Ninety percent of the ocean is below 200 meters, but not much is known about life in the deep sea; expensive research sampling has been done in about 1 percent of this vast area.

Over the years, as fisheries in shallow waters collapsed, the fishing industry began looking to the deep for new species to exploit. Most deep-sea fish have flesh that is not palatable, but a few were found that could be marketed for human consumption, if filleted and renamed to be made more attractive, or for processing into food pellets for poultry. These stocks were readily attacked using trawls large and heavy enough to reach as deep as 2,000 meters, and it took only 10 to 15 years to reduce the fish biomass by about 80 percent.

In 2011, vessels from eight E.U. countries landed 15,000 metric tons of four species of marketable deep-sea fish, which represents only 0.4 percent of Europe’s fish haul. Several deep-sea fish species are poorly fertile (2 to 4 juveniles a year for the shark Centrophorus) and others reproduce for the first time when quite old (up to 32 years). Most of them are more biological curiosities than fishing stocks.

Bottom trawls are not selective; in the Northeast Atlantic alone they catch untold amounts of more than 100 species of fish. Deep-sea bottom communities harbor species that can be large, but are delicate and fragile, such as corals and sponges. Deep-sea corals are not what we are used to seeing in tropical waters, and with a few exceptions they do not build massive reef structures. Instead, many are more akin to trees, sometimes more than three meters high, and sometimes very old, often reaching more than 100 years and occasionally more than 4,000 years. These are smashed by trawl gear. Bottom images of trawled deep-sea areas, and two seamounts I visited with a deep-diving remote vehicle, show that nothing is left standing in the wake of this type of fishing gear.

Reinventing humanity means reinventing how we manage the Earth’s resources. Nation states claiming sovereignty over large swathes of coast waters, where they do what they please, and competing relentlessly and ruthlessly with one another to out-compete and out-exploit each other in the vast swathes of the oceans that are not regulated, is a failing model. The oceans need to be treated as a global resource that is managed for the benefit of the oceans and for all of humanity, through the UN or through an international collaboration of likeminded states with the will and tools to impose real consequences on violations. My guess is the best model would be as large a group of likeminded states who would use their economic and political influence to try and create a new set or priorities and regulations related to climate and the oceans.

Ridiculous, idea, I know. Never gonna happen. Well, the alternative is increasingly apparent, and it is disastrous. Incrementalism is the same as failure. So why shouldn’t we think in revolutionary terms? What other option is there?

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