Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Marine Policy Center
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Andy Solow, right, with Brendan Foley, who is studying policy aspects of deep water archaeology. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, WHOI Graphic Services)
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In Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts, Summer Student Fellow Megan Bela worked with Hauke Kite-Powell on the use of bivalve aquaculture to enhance removal of excess nitrogen and other nutrients from coastal waters. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, WHOI Graphic Services)
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» Marine Policy Center (MPC)

The Marine Policy Center (MPC) conducts social scientific research that integrates economics, policy analysis, and law with the Institution’s basic research in ocean sciences. Areas of recent research include nutrient pollution of coastal waters, the economics of ocean observing systems, offshore wind power, biological conservation, and international fisheries management.

Nutrient pollution is one of the chief causes of environmental problems in coastal ecosystems. Reducing inputs from the sources of excess nutrients—fertilizers, sewage disposal, and fossil fuel burning—generally requires costly and difficult technological and behavioral change. In some cases, it may be equally effective and less costly to mitigate the effects of nutrients after they have entered the water. Researchers at MPC are investigating one simple and inexpensive approach: the use of shellfish aquaculture to reduce nutrients and improve water quality in coastal areas.

Several lines of evidence suggest this approach could work. First, shellfish sequester nutrients such as nitrogen in body tissues, so harvesting them can remove a substantial amount from coastal waters. Second, their tendency to eat large amounts of phytoplankton may reduce the likelihood of algal blooms under conditions of increased nutrient enrichment. Third, the presence of shellfish biodeposits (feces and undigested organic matter) in sediments may increase the rate at which nitrogen is converted to a form that diffuses to the atmosphere. This process, known as denitrification, may be an even more potent tool for nitrogen removal than shellfish harvesting.

Using data from previous studies, MPC Research Specialist Hauke Kite-Powell and colleagues are developing a biogeochemical model of nitrogen flows and nitrogen removal via shellfish cultivation. The model will be verified using data collected at an experimental site in Waquoit Bay, MA. In addition to monitoring sediments for rates of denitrification and monitoring shellfish for rates of survival, growth, and nitrogen uptake, the research team is conducting experiments to assess the effectiveness of on-bottom and off-bottom shellfish cultivation techniques. Their goal is to produce a practical, bio-economic model that can be used to evaluate alternative management scenarios for a range of coastal water bodies.

Kite-Powell also led a project that analyzed the potential economic benefits of improved coastal ocean observing systems around the United States, for which he received the Award for Excellence in Partnering from the National Ocean Partnership Program.

In another recently completed project, MPC and Switzer Foundation Fellow Elena McCarthy addressed the growing controversy over the suspected links between human-generated ocean noise and marine mammal strandings and deaths. Her book, International Regulation of Underwater Sound, considers how the problem can be addressed in spite of the lack of a regulatory structure and the considerable scientific uncertainty that surrounds it.

MPC researchers are also addressing the much-publicized problems of deep-sea fisheries, where catches have increased steeply over the last two decades. Deep-sea species are especially vulnerable to rapid depletion from over-fishing because of their long lifespans, slow growth rates, and low fecundity. The ecosystems they inhabit suffer collateral damage as well from the bottom-trawling that destroys complex seafloor communities. Although the status of most deep-sea areas remains unknown, many are calling for the conservation of deep-sea biological communities and a moratorium on bottom trawling in international waters.

MPC is contributing legal, regulatory, and economic analysis to the ongoing international debate on deep-sea fisheries. Research Specialist Porter Hoagland and Research Assistant Mary Schumacher prepared a synopsis of the unprotected and largely unregulated status of deep-sea fisheries under relevant international law; it appears in the recently published book Defying Ocean’s End. Hoagland has also developed an economic analysis that highlights how the biological characteristics of deep-sea species, the “open access” nature of high seas resources, the threat of impending regulation, and the promise of increased scientific exploration, among other factors, combine to favor more fishing in the near term over more fish in the future. In light of the structural obstacles and weak management record of international fisheries organizations, this analysis suggests that consumer awareness and action may be especially important for deep-sea conservation.

—Andy Solow (asolow@whoi.edu)

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