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right whales

Rare Drone video shows critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

May 10, 2021

May 10, 2021   During a joint research trip on February 28 in Cape Cod Bay, Mass., WHOI whale trauma specialist Michael Moore, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, and scientists from New England Aquarium, witnessed a remarkable biological event: North…

A checkup for the oceans reveals threats to human health

December 7, 2020

The health of the world’s ocean is in serious decline—and human health is suffering as a result. A comprehensive report from the Monaco Commission and co-authored by several WHOI researchers investigates the impacts of ocean pollution and recommends actions to safeguard human health.

Unicorns of the Arctic face a new potential threat

December 1, 2020

Narwhals and other marine mammals could be vulnerable to a new threat we’ve become all too familiar with: COVID-19

WHOI working to help save critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

November 10, 2020

North Atlantic right whales are in crisis. There are approximately 356 individuals remaining, and with over 80% bearing scars of entanglements in fishing line, the race to save this species is more critical than ever.

WHOI oceanographer completes epic Arctic mission

October 13, 2020

The largest Arctic science expedition in history has ended, with the return of the German icebreaker Polarstern to its home port of Bremerhaven more than one year after it departed Tromso, Norway.


Listening to fish with passive acoustics

September 30, 2020

Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA Fisheries combine forces to adapt technologies used to detect marine mammals for fisheries management.

deep water corals

Why we explore deep-water canyons off our coast

September 16, 2020

WHOI biologist Tim Shank joins NOAA Fisheries, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, the National Ocean Service, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) to study the ecological diversity and economic value laden in the 90 underwater canyons along the northeast U.S. continental shelf

Exploring the shipwrecks of Stellwagen Bank

August 21, 2020

Join us live 8/25-8/27, as WHOI and NOAA scientists partner with Marine Imaging Technologies to explore the living shipwrecks of this marine sanctuary. Send in your questions and have them answered in real time to learn more about the diverse marine communities that call these ships home

diver and kelp

Can Seaweed Fuel the Future?

August 13, 2020

Fuels generated from kelp could provide a low-emission alternative to fossil fuels, and WHOI is breeding new strains of kelp and developing autonomous robots to monitor kelp farms

seal eating fish

Scientists and fishermen team up to film seals in fishing nets

August 6, 2020

Seals find ease in taking a meal already ensnared in wall-like gillnets cast by fishermen, but at what cost? WHOI biologist Andrea Bogomolni works with the fishing community to record and observe this behavior with the hopes of mitigating marine mammal bycatch

News Releases

Northern Star Coral Study Could Help Protect Tropical Corals

April 13, 2021

Northern Star Coral Study Could Help Protect Tropical Corals

Rhode Island Considers Naming the Local Coral as a State Emblem

Close-up of a Northern Star Coral (Astrangia poculata) colony taken from a microscope in the laboratory at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island.
Credit: Alicia Schickle
Close-up of a Northern Star Coral (Astrangia poculata) colony taken from a microscope in the laboratory at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island. Credit: Alicia Schickle

As the Rhode Island legislature considers designating the Northern Star Coral an official state emblem, researchers are finding that studying this local creature’s recovery from a laboratory-induced stressor could help better understand how to protect endangered tropical corals.

A new study published today in mSystems, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology, investigates antibiotic-induced disturbance of the coral (Astrangia poculata) and shows that antibiotic exposure significantly altered the composition of the coral’s mucus bacterial microbiome, but that all the treated corals recovered in two weeks in ambient seawater.

The stony Northern Star Coral naturally occurs off the coast of Rhode Island and other New England states in brown colonies with high (symbiotic) densities and in white colonies with low (aposymbiotic) densities of a symbiotic dinoflagellate alga. The study found that those corals with algal symbionts – organisms that are embedded within the coral’s tissue and are required by tropical corals to survive – recovered their mucus microbiomes more consistently and more quickly.

The study also identified six bacterial taxa that played a prominent role in reassembling the coral back to its healthy microbiome. This is the first microbiome manipulation study on this coral.

“The work is important because it suggests that this coral may be able to recover its mucus microbiome following disturbance, it identifies specific microbes that may be important to assembly, and it demonstrates that algal symbionts may play a previously undocumented role in the microbial recovery and resilience to environmental change,” the paper states.

With thermal bleaching and disease posing major threats to tropical corals, this research, along with other work on tropical corals, “provides a major step toward identifying the microbiome’s roles in maintaining coral resilience,” the paper notes.

“We think that the algae are helping the coral select the microbes that live with it, and this suggestion of symbiont-microbe coordination following disturbance is a new concept for corals,” said paper co-author Amy Apprill, associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“Worldwide, coral reefs are in crisis. Any time we see corals recover, that’s always good news. It shows that they can combat a stressor and figure out how to become healthy again,” said Apprill. “What we found here is translatable to tropical corals which are faced with different stressors, such as warming water, disease, and pollution. This paper suggests that the symbiotic algae play a major role in providing consistency and resilience to the coral microbiome.”

“When we think about corals, it’s usually assumed that we’re thinking about the tropics and the bright blue water and where it’s warm, sunny, and sandy. However, the Northern Star Coral lives in murkier and much colder waters, yet it can still teach us a lot about expanding our understanding of corals,” said lead author Shavonna Bent, a student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science and Engineering.

The Northern Star Coral is an ideal emblem for Rhode Island, said co-author Koty Sharp. The coral is small like the state; it’s New England-tough in dealing with large temperature fluctuations; and it’s a local, offering plenty of insight that can help address global problems, said paper co-author Koty Sharp, an associate professor at Roger Williams University who is leading the effort for official designation of the coral.

Committees from both the Rhode Island House and Senate have held hearings on the proposed legislation. The Senate has approved the bill, and the House could vote on it in the coming month. Assuming the House also approves the bill, it will be sent to Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee for signing into law.

Sharp said the designation effort has a big educational component. “If designating this as a state emblem allows us to teach more people about the power of basic research to support conservation, or if this allows us to teach a generation of school children about the local animals that live around them, then this state coral will have a great deal of value,” she said.

1Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

2 Johnson State College, Johnson, VT, USA

3Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI, USA



WHOI and NOAA Release Report on U.S. Socio-economic Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms

April 7, 2021

Woods Hole, Mass. – Harmful algal blooms (HABs) occur in all 50 U.S. states and many produce toxins that cause illness or death in humans and commercially important species. However, attempts to place a more exact dollar value on the full range of these impacts often vary widely in their methods and level of detail, which hinders understanding of the scale of their socio-economic effects.

In order to improve and harmonize estimates of HABs impacts nationwide, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) and the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) convened a workshop led by WHOI Oceanographer Emeritus Porter Hoagland and NCCOS Monitoring and Event Response (MERHAB) Program Manager Marc Suddleson. Participants focused on approaches to better assess the socio-economic effects of harmful algal blooms in the marine and freshwater (primarily Great Lakes) ecosystems of the United States. The workshop proceedings report describes the group’s objectives, and presents recommendations developed by 40 participants, mostly economists and social scientists from a range of universities, agencies, and U.S. regions. Their recommendations fall under two broad categories: those intended to help establish a socio-economic assessment framework, and those to help create a national agenda for HABs research.

“This has been a goal of the research and response communities for a long time, but coming up with a robust national estimate has been difficult, for a number of reasons, mainly related to the diversity of algal species and the wide variety of ways they can affect how humans use the oceans and freshwater bodies,” said Hoagland. “This gives us a strong base on which to build the insight that will vastly improve our estimates.”

Framework recommendations call for enhancing interagency coordination; improving research communications and coordination among research networks; integrating socioeconomic assessments into HAB forecasts and observing networks; using open-access databases to establish baselines and identify baseline departures; facilitating rapid response socio-economic studies; improving public health outcome reporting and visibility of HAB-related illnesses; fostering the use of local and traditional ecological knowledge to improve HAB responses; engaging affected communities in citizen science; and engaging graduate students in HAB socio-economic research.

Research agenda recommendations include elements necessary for addressing gaps in our understanding of the social and economic effects of HABs. They include a suggested approach for obtaining an improved national estimate of the economic effects of HABs; supporting rapid ethnographic assessments and in depth assessments of social impacts from HABs; defining socioeconomic impact thresholds for triggering more detailed studies of impacts (such as in the case of designated HAB events of significance); sponsoring research on the value of scientific research leading to improved understanding of bloom ecology; assessing the value of HAB mitigation efforts, such as forecasts, and control approaches and their respective implementation costs; and supporting research to improve HAB risk communication and tracking and to better understand the incidence, severity, and costs of HAB-related human illnesses.

“These recommendations give us a strong series of next steps to increase focus on HAB-related socio-economic research,” said Don Anderson, director of the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms. “The report is certain to spur increased collaborations that will provide a better understanding of the many complex socio-economic effects of HABs and provide the tools to increase the effectiveness of efforts to minimize impacts on society and the environment.”

The detailed final proceedings report and more information about the workshop is available on the U.S. National HAB Office website.


About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering-one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide-both above and below the waves-pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit Read the report
Workshop on the Socio-economic Effects of Marine and Fresh Water Harmful Algal Blooms in the United States




WHOI and NOAA Fisheries Release New North Atlantic Right Whale Health Assessment Review

February 25, 2021

North Atlantic right whales are a critically endangered species with less than 366 left on the planet

Woods Hole, Mass. (February 25, 2021) — Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) along with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries have released the first broad scale synthesis of available information derived from right whale health assessment techniques. The manuscript published today in the science journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, reviews available tools, and current understanding of the health status and trends of individual whales and the species.  The paper concludes with recommendations for additional information needs and necessary management actions to enhance the health of individual right whales.

The manuscript is the result of a NOAA Fisheries workshop held in June 2019, in response to the ongoing North Atlantic right whale Unusual Mortality Event (UME) and the critically endangered status of the species. There are an estimated 366 left on the planet. Climate change, vessel strikes, entanglements and noise pollution can result in poor health and reproductive failure and are major threats to individuals and the species.

According to lead author Michael Moore, a whale trauma specialist at WHOI, “North Atlantic right whales face a serious risk of extinction, but there is hope if we can work together on solutions. Trauma reduction measures and applying new tools to assess their health are critically important to enhance the welfare of individual whales.  If we can reduce the number of deaths, and successfully improve their health to increase reproduction, the current decline in population can be reversed.”

Conserving and recovering the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale is a research priority,” said co-author Teri Rowles, NOAA Fisheries Senior Advisor for Marine Mammal Health Science. “In addition to the threats posed by humans, changing ocean conditions have profound impacts on where whales travel and how they behave. For these reasons, NOAA Fisheries was pleased to have hosted and sponsored this important workshop among partners to discuss how science can aid management.”

Bringing together the data and results from existing monitoring tools like aerial and vessel photography, animal sampling and prey dynamics, in the context of vessel and fishing gear trauma offers researchers a better understanding of the challenges, and possible solutions.  These include a greater emphasis in slowing vessels and changing their tracks where risk of collision exists; reducing entanglement by closing more high-risk areas to fixed fishing gear that retains rope in the water column; and reducing fishing gear density and strength in other areas.

North Atlantic right whales feed in the waters off New England and Eastern Canada and migrate to the waters off the Southeastern United States to give birth in the winter.  NOAA Fisheries has designated two critical habitat areas for the North Atlantic population of right whales, including off the coast of New England and off the southeast U.S coast from North Carolina to below Central coastal Florida.

Authors, contributors to this study include:

Michael J. Moore1, *, Teresa K. Rowles2, Deborah A. Fauquier2, Jason D. Baker3, Ingrid Biedron4, John W. Durban5, Philip K. Hamilton6, Allison G. Henry7, Amy R. Knowlton6, William A. McLellan8, Carolyn A. Miller1, Richard M. Pace III7, Heather M. Pettis6, Stephen Raverty9, Rosalind M. Rolland6, Robert S. Schick10, Sarah M. Sharp11, Cynthia R. Smith12, Len Thomas13, Julie M. van der Hoop1, Michael H. Ziccardi14,15

1Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA

2NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA

3National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Protected Species Division, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, 1845 Wasp Boulevard, Building 176, Honolulu, HI 96818, USA

4 NOAA Fisheries, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Honolulu, HI 96818, USA

5Southall Environmental Associates, 9099 Soquel Drive, Suite 8, Aptos, CA 95003, USA

6Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, New England Aquarium, Boston, MA 02110, USA

7NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA

8University of North Carolina, Wilmington, NC 28403, USA

9Animal Health Center, 1767 Angus Campbell Road, Abbotsford, BC V3G2M3, Canada

10Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, Box 90328, Levine Science Research Center, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0328, USA

11International Fund for Animal Welfare, 290 Summer St, Yarmouth Port, MA 02675, USA

12National Marine Mammal Foundation, 2240 Shelter Island Dr #200, San Diego, CA 92106, USA

13Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling, University of St Andrews, St Andrews KY16 9LZ, UK

14Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA

15Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA

*Corresponding author:

 About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit

About NOAA
NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and our other social media channels.

Media Contacts:

Suzanne Pelisson

Kate Goggin



CINAR Fellows in Quantitative Fisheries and Ecosystems Science Announced

December 18, 2020

The Cooperative Institute for the North Atlantic Region (CINAR), led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center are pleased to announce the appointment of five CINAR Fellows in Quantitative Fisheries and Ecosystems Science: Daniel Cullen (University of Maryland Eastern Shore), Gavin Fay (UMass Dartmouth School of Marine Science and Technology), Geneviève Nesslage (University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science), Joshua Stoll (University of Maine), and John Wiedenmann (Rutgers University).

The goal of the fellowship program is to engage early-career scientists in research that supports the training and education of the next generation of stock assessment scientists, ecosystem scientists, and economists, and that improves the assessment and management of living marine resources in the Northeast U.S.

Over $650,000 in funding was provided by NOAA Fisheries QUEST program, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and CINAR’s Education program for the two-year fellowships, which support early-career faculty at CINAR partner institutions who are working on assessment- and management-related issues and who are committed to education and training. Each CINAR fellow will be paired with a scientist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center to further strengthen links among research, assessments, and management in order to advance NOAA’s programmatic goals and research objectives.

Cooperative Institutes (CI) are a group of NOAA-supported non-federal organizations that have established outstanding research and education programs in one or more areas that add significantly to NOAA’s capabilities, and its structure and legal framework facilitate rapid and efficient mobilization of those resources to meet NOAA’s goals in a collection of thematic or regional areas.

CINAR focuses on the Northeast U.S. Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem (NEUS LME), a critical region within the North Atlantic that spans from Cape Hatteras to Nova Scotia and encompassing the continental shelf from the continental slope to the northern wall of the Gulf Stream. The CINAR consortium is led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and includes the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), Rutgers University (Rutgers), University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), University of Massachusetts Dartmouth – School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST), University of Maine (UMaine), and University of Rhode Island (URI). These organizations were selected from the many potential partners in the region to provide the required breadth, depth, and quality of scientific expertise, instrumentation, models, and facilities to address NOAA’s research needs.

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service. The Center has conducted a comprehensive marine science program in the Northeast region since 1871. Center scientists study fisheries, protected species, aquaculture, habitat, and coastal communities—all in an ecosystem framework. The science is then provided to decision makers throughout the region. The work of the Center promotes recovery and long-term sustainability of marine life in the region, supports both wild and cultured seafood harvests, helps sustain coastal communities, and generates economic opportunities and benefits from the use and protection of these resources.

More information about the fellowship program and recipients is available on the CINAR website.


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit


New study takes comprehensive look at marine pollution

December 3, 2020

Paper finds ocean pollution is a complex mix of chemicals and materials, primarily land-based in origin, with far-reaching consequences for environmental and human health, but there are options available for world leaders


For centuries, the ocean has been viewed as an inexhaustible receptacle for the byproducts of human activity. Today, marine pollution is widespread and getting worse and, in most countries, poorly controlled with the vast majority of contaminants coming from land-based sources. That’s the conclusion of a new study by an international coalition of scientists taking a hard look at the sources, spread, and impacts of ocean pollution worldwide.

The study is the first comprehensive examination of the impacts of ocean pollution on human health. It was published December 3 in the online edition of the Annals of Global Health and released the same day at the Monaco International Symposium on Human Health & the Ocean in a Changing World, convened in Monaco and online by the Prince Albert II de Monaco Foundation, the Centre Scientifique de Monaco and Boston College.

“This paper is part of a global effort to address questions related to oceans and human health,” said Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) toxicologist and senior scientist John Stegeman who is second author on the paper. “Concern is beginning to bubble up in a way that resembles a pot on the stove. It’s reaching the boiling point where action will follow where it’s so clearly needed.”

Despite the ocean’s size—more than two-thirds of the planet is covered by water—and fundamental importance supporting life on Earth, it is under threat, primarily and paradoxically from human activity. The paper, which draws on 584 peer-reviewed scientific studies and independent reports, examines six major contaminants: plastic waste, oil spills, mercury, manufactured chemicals, pesticides, and nutrients, as well as biological threats including harmful algal blooms and human pathogens.

It finds that ocean chemical pollution is a complex mix of substances, more than 80% of which arises from land-based sources. These contaminants reach the oceans through rivers, surface runoff, atmospheric deposition, and direct discharges and are often heaviest near the coasts and most highly concentrated along the coasts of low- and middle-income countries. Waters most seriously impacted by ocean pollution include the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea, and Asian rivers. For the many ocean-based ecosystems on which humans rely, these impacts are exacerbated by global climate change. According to the researchers, all of this has led to a worldwide human health impacts that fall disproportionately on vulnerable populations in the Global South, making it a planetary environmental justice problem, as well.

In addition to Stegeman, who is also director of the NSF- and NIH-funded Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health, WHOIbiologists Donald Anderson and Mark Hahn, and chemist Chris Reddy also contributed to the report. Stegeman and the rest of the WHOI team worked on the analysis with researchers from Boston College’s Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, directed by the study’s lead author and Professor of Biology Philip J. Landrigan, MD. Anderson led the report’s section on harmful algal blooms, Hahn contributed to a section on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) with Stegeman, and Reddy led the section on oil spills. The Observatory, which tracks efforts to control pollution and prevent pollution-related diseases that account for 9 million deaths worldwide each year, is a program of the new Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, part of a $300-million investment in the sciences at BC. Altogether, over 40 researchers from institutions across the United States, Europe and Africa were involved in the report.

In an introduction printed in Annals of Global Health, Prince Albert of Monaco points out that their analysis, in addition to providing a global wake-up, serves as a call to mobilize global resolve to curb ocean pollution and to mount even greater scientific efforts to better understand its causes, impacts, and cures.

“The link between ocean pollution and human health has, for a long time, given rise to very few studies,” he says. “Taking into account the effects of ocean pollution—due to plastic, water and industrial waste, chemicals, hydrocarbons, to name a few—on human health should mean that this threat must be permanently included in the international scientific activity.”

The report concludes with a series of urgent recommendations. It calls for eliminating coal combustion, banning all uses of mercury, banning single-use plastics, controlling coastal discharges, and reducing applications of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It argues that national, regional and international marine pollution control programs must extend to all countries and where necessary supported by the international community. It calls for robust monitoring of all forms of ocean pollution, including satellite monitoring and autonomous drones. It also appeals for the formation of large, new marine protected areas that safeguard critical ecosystems, protect vulnerable fish stocks, and ultimately enhance human health and well-being.

Most urgently, the report calls upon world leaders to recognize the near-existential threats posed by ocean pollution, acknowledge its growing dangers to human and planetary health, and take bold, evidence-based action to stop ocean pollution at its source.

“The key thing to realize about ocean pollution is that, like all forms of pollution, it can be prevented using laws, policies, technology, and enforcement actions that target the most important pollution sources,” said Professor Philip Landrigan, MD, lead author and Director of the Global Observatory on Pollution on Health and of the Global Public Health and the Common Good Program at Boston College. “Many countries have used these tools and have successfully cleaned fouled harbors, rejuvenated estuaries, and restored coral reefs. The results have been increased tourism, restored fisheries, improved human health, and economic growth. These benefits will last for centuries.”

The report is being released in tandem with the Declaration of Monaco: Advancing Human Health & Well-Being by Preventing Ocean Pollution, which was read at the symposium’s closing session. Endorsed by the scientists, physicians and global stakeholders who participated in the symposium in-person and virtually, the declaration summarizes the key findings and conclusions of the Monaco Commission on Human Health and Ocean Pollution. Based on the recognition that all life on Earth depends on the health of the seas, the authors call on leaders and citizens of all nations to “safeguard human health and preserve our Common Home by acting now to end pollution of the ocean.”

“This paper is a clarion call for all of us to pay renewed attention to the ocean that supports life on Earth and to follow the directions laid out by strong science and a committed group of scientists,” said Rick Murray, WHOI Deputy Director and Vice President for research and a member of the conference steering committee. “The ocean has sustained humanity throughout the course of our evolution—it’s time to return the favor and do what is necessary to prevent further, needless damage to our life planetary support system.”

Funding for this work was provided in part by the U.S. Oceans and Human Health Program (NIH grant P01ES028938 and National Science Foundation grant OCE-1840381), the Centre Scientifique de Monaco, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the Government of the Principality of Monaco, and Boston College.


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit


Study Sheds Light on Critically Endangered Beluga Whale Population

October 28, 2020

A team of scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and NOAA Fisheries are collaborating to help stem the decline of a critically endangered population of beluga whales in the Cook Inlet, Alaska.  A study recently published in Animal Microbiome outlines important first steps in understanding epidermal microbial communities in beluga whales, as well as their role in beluga health. This study is one piece of a larger puzzle for researchers looking at everything from social structure to acoustic interference and contaminants, all with the shared mission to reverse the dire decline of this vulnerable population.

Beluga whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska are critically endangered. Despite protections that have been in place 2006, beluga whales living in the Cook Inlet region of Alaska are still declining, currently numbering approximately 300 members.   Scientists are confounded as to why their numbers are still so low, and are considering all possible reasons, including  ocean contamination, pathogens, noise, habitat degradation, ship-strikes, disease, and declines in available prey food. Many other populations of beluga whales remain healthy, including the neighboring population in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Scientists from WHOI and NOAA used skin biopsies obtained from Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay belugas to closely study their skin microbiomes, with a goal of developing a baseline for comparisons among healthy and affected populations, and a health index that will allow researchers to identify sick individuals with minimally invasive sampling.

“After a huge research effort in human microbiomes, science is beginning to show a lot of links between microbiomes and health in humans – and an emerging field of research is showing that may be true for whales, as well,” says Amy Van Cise, a guest investigator at WHOI and postdoctoral research biologist at NOAA. “The question is whether we can use that to aide in efforts to conserve this population before it is too late.”

“Initial indications show that environment has a strong influence on skin microbiomes in these populations, but there is much more work to be done – and quickly – in order to reverse these dire population trends,” adds Paul Wade, the lead for beluga research at Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit

About NOAA Fisheries: NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on TwitterFacebookInstagram and our other social media channels.


Key Takeaways

  • The field of marine mammal microbiome studies has been mostly focused on understanding individual and population health, to inform conservation efforts. Previous studies on species like humpbacks and common bottlenose dolphins show that marine mammals have a core skin microbiome community that doesn’t change with season or geography.
  • Researchers were surprised to find that isn’t true in these beluga whale populations.  Possible reasons range from these belugas not having a core microbiome, to them living in ecosystems that are so disturbed that they aren’t able to maintain healthy skin microbiomes.
  • Researchers found that many factors affected an individual’s microbiome: from where it lives to what year it is or even the individual’s sex. Just as we have seen in humans, the beluga whale microbiome is tightly linked with the complex individual lives of each animal.
  • Researchers looked for “potential pathogens” (close relatives of known pathogenic species, since so little is known about marine mammal pathogens) that differed in abundance between sick and healthy individuals. Several key species were identified that may be important indicators of health or disease, and that is likely where future research will focus.
  • The goal is to find enough indicator species of “healthy” or “diseased” microbiomes, and use those to develop an index, allowing researchers to determine whether an individual is healthy without the need to capture for a full health assessment, which is stressful to the animals and no longer possible in the Cook Inlet population. 

Epic Arctic Mission Ends

October 12, 2020

International climate research project marked by scientific surprises, logistical challenges 

The German icebreaker Polarstern returned to its home port Oct. 12, 2020, after being frozen near the top of the world for nearly a year. The ship carried an international team of researchers—who joined and exited the ship in phases throughout the expedition—as part of the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC program, to study all aspects of the Arctic system.

The team, which included Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) biological oceanographer Carin Ashjian, collected petabytes of data describing the ocean, the ice, and the atmosphere.

“We’ve got so many samples, they won’t be processed for months,” says Ashjian, chair of the biology department at WHOI, whose focus during MOSAiC was on the seasonal dynamics of copepods: tiny crustaceans that play a critical part of the carbon cycle.

Copepods, which many larger animals rely on for food, matter enormously to the future of Arctic ecosystems, says Ashjian. “If you want to know what’s going to happen to polar bears, well, to have polar bears you have to have seals. To have seals, you have to have fish. To have fish, you need copepods,” she adds.

Speaking more than a dozen different languages, the research team worked toward the same goal: to better understand how dwindling sea ice influences the region’s climate system and how those changes ripple around the world.

“We knew the ice was thinning, but it was still far more dynamic than we thought,” says University of Colorado Boulder scientist Matthew Shupe, co-coordinator of the international Arctic mission. “It surprised us. The unpredictability of the Arctic is one of its characteristics right now. And we were right there in the middle of a manifestation of that.”

Carin Ashjian (left) at work studying Arctic Ocean zooplankton in her lab space on the German icebreaker Polarstern and commuting to work (right) at the "Ocean CIty" ice camp near the ship. (Left photo by Michael Gutsche,  ©Alfred Wegener Institute. Right photo by Serdar Sakinan, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Carin Ashjian (left) at work studying Arctic Ocean zooplankton in her lab space on the German icebreaker Polarstern and commuting to work (right) at the “Ocean CIty” ice camp near the ship. (Left photo by Michael Gutsche, ©Alfred Wegener Institute. Right photo by Serdar Sakinan, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

During the epic expedition, the sea ice moved more than expected, cracking in fractures that opened into leads hundreds of miles long, then closing, ridging, and generally creating a messy, rough icescape. Jennifer Hutchings, a sea ice expert from Oregon State University, says she’s barely begun to dig into her data, but it’s clear she and her colleagues will get new insight into the tricky physical dynamics of how sea ice fractures under the forces of wind and ocean motion.

That’s significant, she says, because “sea ice is one of the most important components of the Arctic climate system. It modulates the ‘talking’ between the ocean and the atmosphere.”

The National Science Foundation was the lead U.S. funder of MOSAiC, supporting dozens of researchers with about $27 million, putting it among the largest Arctic research initiatives the agency has ever mounted. The Department of Energy was the first U.S. agency to commit to the research mission, investing nearly $10 million and providing the largest suite of atmospheric instruments. All MOSAiC data will soon be available for free to researchers around the world; some measurements, such as from DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility, are already accessible.

“Direct observations and physical samples collected during the MOSAiC expedition represent a quantum leap in our understanding of natural processes and cycles in the central Arctic Ocean across all seasons,” said Frank Rack, NSF’s Arctic Research Support and Logistics Manager. Winter measurements are especially valuable because they’re so rare, Rack said, and MOSAiC data will “aid in the development of improved models, forecasts and future predictions.”

Data sets that researchers imagined would be continuous for the entire year do have some gaps. Polar bears occasionally disrupted research on the ice, delaying instrument repairs or atmospheric balloon launches. An Arctic fox chewed through data cables and storms broke up scientific “cities” on the ice that required relocation or repair. Most significantly, the ship had to leave the ice for about a month this spring, to exchange staff while responding to the challenges of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Some systems remained on or below the ice, autonomously collecting data. Other projects paused briefly. “We lost all our June data,” said Jeff Bowman, an ecologist and oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego. “But considering the global disruptions, we were extremely fortunate that MOSAiC could continue. Despite the hole, when all is said and done, it will still be an astonishing collection of data.”

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit


WHOI receives NOAA awards to study, predict harmful algal blooms

October 6, 2020

Projects will help enhance monitoring and determine socioeconomic impacts of blooms nationwide

Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) were recently named in a list of 17 new research projects funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to improve the nation’s collective response to the growing problem of harmful algal blooms (HABs). The four projects led, co-led, or supported by WHOI researchers total nearly $2.5 million over the coming year and $7.9 million over the course of the projects. A full list of the new grant awards is available online and includes projects funded under NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) and the  U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Office.

“NOAA is funding the latest scientific research to support managers trying to cope with increasing and recurring toxic algae that continue to affect environmental and human health of coastal communities,” said David Kidwell, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) Competitive Research Program. “These projects will address the largely unknown socioeconomic impact of blooms in various regions, improve local managers’ ability to keep drinking water safe, aid monitoring for algal toxins in seafood and advance a potentially valuable control method for Florida red tide and other blooms, enhancing our nation’s collective response to these events.”

Marine and fresh waters teem with life, much of it microscopic, and most of it harmless. Although most of these phytoplankton and cyanobacteria are harmless, there are some that create potent toxins and, under the right conditions, both toxic and non-toxic species can form blooms that threaten the health of humans and ecosystems, and cause significant societal and economic problems.

These impacts include human illness and death following consumption of or indirect exposure to HAB toxins, economic losses to coastal communities and commercial fisheries, and HAB-associated wildlife deaths. Freshwater HABs can also affect drinking water supplies far from the ocean and are a growing problem as water temperatures rise, precipitation patterns change, and the use of agricultural fertilizers becomes more widespread.

“It’s impossible to ignore the growing natural, social, and economic impacts that HABs are having around the world,” said Don Anderson, WHOI senior scientist and Director of the U.S. National Office Harmful Algal Blooms. “NOAA’s support is critical to ensure that we have appropriate scientific understanding of these events and adequate monitoring and forecasting in place to protect our nation’s people, animals, and ecosystems.”


Harmful Algal Bloom Community Technology Accelerator

Institutions: Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System/University of California San Diego/Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Axiom Data Science LLC, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of California Santa Cruz, Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System

Project Period: September 2020 – August 2023

Funding: $1,193,561 (FY2020: $399,998)

HABs are persistent threats to coastal resources, local economies, and human and animal health throughout U.S. waters and are expected to intensify and/or expand as oceans change in response to climate change. As a result, there is an immediate need for more effective strategies and technologies to monitor and communicate the risk of algal toxins to human and ecosystem health in U.S. waters. A WHOI-based team led by biologists Heidi Sosik and Stace Beaulieu will contribute to this effort by helping deploy off the coast of California six Imaging FlowCytobots (IFCBs)—automated camera systems that image, identify, and count plankton species in the water and report data to shore in real-time.


Value of the Pacific Northwest HAB Forecast

Institutions: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of Washington, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Project Period: September 2020 – August 2023

Funding: $899,896 (FY2020: $299,948)

Razor clam and Dungeness crab fisheries along the Washington and Oregon coasts have been adversely affected by marine algae that produce the toxin domoic acid. The razor clam fishery is the largest recreational bivalve shellfish fishery in the region and a major source of tourist-related income to small communities along the coast. This project, led by Di Jin and Porter Hoagland of WHOI’s Marine Policy Center, will estimate the economic benefits of the Pacific Northwest HAB Bulletin, a forecasting tool that helps managers decide how and when to open and close the shellfisheries, by using a method for quantifying the value of information.


Assessing Societal Impacts of Harmful Macroalgae Blooms in the Caribbean

Institutions: University of Rhode Island and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Project Period: September 2020 – August 2023

Funding: $838,137 (FY 2020: $318,292)

The number, distribution, and magnitude of blooms have increased in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico since 2011, with subsequent impacts on coastal ecosystems that have led many to consider them a new type of natural disaster in this region. This study co-led by Di Jin of the Marine Policy Center will examine how periodic blooms of free-floating Sargassum and subsequent mitigation efforts in the Caribbean affect social resilience across multiple dimensions, including economic impacts, human wellbeing, local ecological knowledge, and individual attitudes, values, and behaviors.


Trophic Transfer and Effect of HAB Toxins in Alaskan Marine Food Webs

Institutions: NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Alaska Sea Grant, University of Alaska Fairbanks, North Slope Borough, United States Geological Survey

Project Period: September 2020 – August 2025

Funding: $4,989,708 (FY2020: $1,460,870)

HABs and their toxins, particularly paralytic shellfish toxins produced by Alexandrium spp. and domoic acid produced by Pseudo-nitzschia spp., are increasingly present in Alaskan waters and have been detected in commercially valuable shellfish and finfish, and in animals that are not often studied by HAB researchers but which are targeted by subsistence hunters, including seabirds, seals, walruses, sea lions, and whales. The goal of this project, co-led by Don Anderson of the Biology Department is to model the movement and impacts of HAB toxins in Arctic and Subarctic food webs and reveal the extent of their impacts on human and natural ecosystems.


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit






WHOI Scientists Make Woods Hole Film Festival Appearance

July 17, 2020

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists appear in two shorts and a feature film at this year’s Woods Hole Film Festival (WHFF). In addition, scientists will also participate in Q&A sessions connected to three of the festival’s feature-length, ocean-themed entries.

The short films, “Divergent Warmth” and “Beyond the Gulf Stream” are part of a program titled “The Blue Between Us,” offered on-demand from July 25 to August 1 as part of the festival’s virtual program.

In “Divergent Warmth,” producer-director Megan Lubetkin gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the synchronized ballet aboard a research vessel during a recent expedition to the East Pacific Rise. Experimental music provides rhythm to imagery of deck operations, launch and recovery of the human-occupied submersible Alvin, and other-worldly views of seafloor hydrothermal vents and lava flows. Interwoven throughout is an evocative reading of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”

Dan Fornari, a WHOI emeritus research scholar, acted as associate producer of the 10-minute film. As one of the scientists on the December 2019 expedition, he invited Lubetkin, herself a scientist and the creative exhibits coordinator with the Ocean Exploration Trust, to assist with subsea camera operations and video data management on board. Lubetkin spent her free time shooting additional video, which she edited together while still on the ship to produce a first draft of “Divergent Warmth.”

“I was blown away. It was just fabulous,” Fornari said of his first viewing. “It captures the spirit of going out to sea and being involved in this exploratory effort in the alien realm, where very few people get to go.”

The complex winter currents that collide off the coast of Cape Hatteras are the focus of “Beyond the Gulf Stream,” a short documentary by the Georgia-based production company MADLAWMEDIA. Filmed aboard the WHOI-operated research vessel Neil Armstrong, the 10-minute film features WHOI physical oceanographers Magdalena Andres, Glen Gawarkiewicz, and graduate student Jacob Forsyth as they share their perspectives on the challenges and rewards of doing scientific research at sea, often in difficult conditions.

“I think we have a responsibility to communicate science and the process of doing of science to the public,” said Andres about the film, which was produced in collaboration with WHOI and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography at the University of Georgia. “It does a really nice job of capturing life at sea in the wintertime.”

As a scientist who uses video to capture data from the ocean depths, Fornari is highly attuned to the impact that visual media can have in capturing the public’s imagination about the ocean.

“These kinds of artistic expressions help open doors to people’s minds.” he said. “That’s crucial for getting the public to understand how critically important the oceans are. Then maybe more students will say, ‘I want to be an ocean scientist when I grow up.’”

In addition to the shorts program itself, WHOI scientists, staff, and students will also participate in “Filmmaker Chats” open to the public and broadcast via Zoom, as well as the WHFF Facebook and YouTube channels. Maddux-Lawrence will take questions about “Beyond the Gulf Stream” on Sunday, July 19, beginning at 9:00 a.m. On Friday, July 31 at 9:00 a.m., Lubetkin will appear with Fornari, as well as Alvin pilot Drew Bewley, MIT-WHOI Joint Program graduate student Lauren Dykman, and Texas A&M graduate student Charlie Holmes II to discuss the making of and science behind “Divergent Warmth.” Recordings of both sessions will also be available for viewing afterward on the festival website.

In addition to the short films, WHOI whale biologist Michael Moore appears in the feature-length documentary “Entangled,” which looks at the intertwined plights of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and coastal fishing communities in New England and eastern Canada. After being hunted for centuries, the whales face new challenges in the form of climate change and increased fishing and shipping activity, and Moore has been an outspoken proponent of the need for increased protections to stave off their slide to extinction within the next 20 years.

WHOI scientists will also add their perspective to Q&A sessions following several ocean-themed, feature-length films selected for the festival:

  • Thursday, July 30, at 10:00 p.m.: Research specialist Hauke Kite-Powell will answer questions related to aquaculture and seafood in relation to the film “Fish & Men.
  • Saturday, August 1, from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m.: Marine chemist Chris Reddy will answer questions about microplastics in relation to the film “Microplastics Madness.”
  • Saturday, August 1, from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.: Marine biologist Simon Thorrold will answer questions about marine protected areas and fishing in connection with the film “Current Sea.”

Key Takeaways

  • Films featuring WHOI scientists will be screened as part of “The Blue Between Us” shorts program at the virtual Woods Hole Film Festival, which may be viewed online by festival passholders and individual ticketholders during the festival, which runs from Saturday, July 25, to Saturday, August 1. Tickets and more information is available here.
  • Whale biologist Michael Moore will appear in the feature-length film “Entangled” about the plight of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
  • WHOI scientists will also participate in Q&A sessions associated with several ocean-themed, feature-length festival films.
  • More information is available on the festival website.

Fishing less could be a win for both lobstermen and endangered whales

May 27, 2020

A new study by researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) found that New England’s historic lobster fishery may turn a higher profit by operating with less gear in the water and a shorter season. The findings could provide a path forward for the lobster fishing industry, which is under pressure to move away from traditional pot fishing that uses long vertical lines of rope known to entangle and kill endangered North Atlantic right whales and other protected species. The study was published this week in the journal Marine Policy.

“The story the data tells is optimistic,” says lead author Hannah Myers, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a guest student at WHOI. “We know that taking rope out of the water column is the best way to protect whales, and that can likely be done in a way that could benefit fishers as well.”

American lobsters (Homarus americanus) found on the U.S. Atlantic coast bring in more revenue than any other fishery in the country, with a record high of more than $670 million in 2016. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the fishery is operating efficiently, researchers say.

In order to maintain healthy fish stocks, many fisheries have a limited season, catch quotas and/or gear restrictions. These measures often reduce associated fishing costs, such as for bait and fuel, while also ensuring that the available fish are bigger and more abundant. Although the U.S. lobster fishery has some restrictions, the trap limit is very high and for the most part fishers can operate year-round.

By evaluating three different scenarios to understand the connection between lobster fishing effort and catch, the researchers found that tightening restrictions could make the industry more profitable in the long run.

In Massachusetts, where a three-month fishing closure was implemented in 2015 in Cape Cod Bay and surrounding areas where North Atlantic right whales come to feed each winter and spring, fishers caught significantly more lobster since the closure was implemented—particularly in the areas most affected by it.

Further north, Canadian fishers in the Gulf of Maine operate with far fewer traps and a six-month season, and catch about the same amount of lobster as their American counterparts with 7.5 times less fishing effort. In Maine, a 10 percent drop in the number of lobster traps fished in recent years has not prevented fishers from bringing in record landings.

Fishing gear entanglements are the most serious threat to the survival of endangered North Atlantic right whales, only about 400 of which are alive today. During peak lobster season, right whales must navigate through more than 900,000 endlines—ropes that connect surface buoys to traps on the seafloor—in waters off the northeastern U.S. coastline, which is an important area for their feeding and migratory habitat.

Entanglements  often cause chronic injury, stress, and even starvation if the animal doesn’t immediately drown,” says Michael Moore, a coauthor of the paper and director of WHOI’s Marine Mammal Center. “If the public could see the trauma these entangled animals endure, they would be extremely concerned.”

Understanding the economic implications that right whale protection measures may have is important to the lobster fishing industry and the many communities along New England’s coast that it supports, the researchers say. This study shows that reducing the amount of gear in the water or shortening the season does not necessarily mean fishers will catch less, and is in fact likely to benefit the industry in the long-term. This is especially important, given the economic devastation of the current COVID-19 crisis.

Overall, their findings were consistent across the board: fishing with less gear and a shorter season corresponded with higher landings and higher profits.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit

Key Takeaways

  • Fishing with less gear and a shorter season could make the U.S. lobster fishery more profitable while reducing entanglement risk to endangered North Atlantic right whales.
  • Massachusetts fishers have caught more lobster since a three-month fishing closure was implemented in 2015, especially in the areas most affected by the closure.
  • In Maine, a recent drop in the number of traps has not prevented the lobster fishery from bringing in record catches.
  • Potential new right whale protection measures could benefit the lobster fishing industry as well.

Oceanus Magazine

Forecasting the Future of Fish

Forecasting the Future of Fish

October 29, 2015


October 15, 2015
Setting a Watchman for Harmful Algal Blooms

Setting a Watchman for Harmful Algal Blooms

September 9, 2015
The Man Who Opened Our Ears to the Ocean

The Man Who Opened Our Ears to the Ocean

September 3, 2015
A Green Thumb for Ocean Microbes

A Green Thumb for Ocean Microbes

May 11, 2015

Anyone who has tried to grow orchids or keep a bonsai tree alive will tell you that cultivating plants is not always simple. My thesis research absolutely depended on cultivating certain types of “plants” and keeping them alive, so that I could investigate the factors that boost or thwart their ability to grow.

My specimens were among the most ubiquitous organisms on Earth and critical to supporting life on our planet. Yet we know surprisingly little about them. That’s because it’s so difficult to observe them in their natural habitat—the ocean.

To make some headway into learning what allows them to grow, reproduce, and survive in the ocean, ironically we needed to be able to grow them in the laboratory. And that’s just a very different environment from what they encounter in nature.

My specimens are remarkably abundant and are found across the world’s oceans. Yet no one even knew they existed until they were discovered in 1979 by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Stanley Watson, John Waterbury, and Freddy Valois.

They are called Synechococcus, and they aren’t plants, but rather single-cell bacteria. Though they are leafless, rootless, and adrift in the sea, they use the same machinery as terrestrial plants—photosynthesis—for the same end: to convert carbon dioxide into organic building blocks. Collectively they move mammoth amounts of carbon around the planet. They take about 20 percent of the carbon dioxide drawn from the air into coastal waters and transform it into biomass—creating a critical source of food at the base of the marine food chain. In the process, they also release a significant portion of the oxygen we breathe.

Unexplored population dynamics

The ocean is filled with photosynthetic plankton more numerous and varied than any fields or forests of terrestrial plants. But these vital ecosystems remain largely unexplored because of limited access and observational tools.

In 2003, my thesis co-advisor, biologist Heidi Sosik, began using a new automated underwater instrument that she co-invented with WHOI scientist Rob Olson. The instrument, called FlowCytobot, detects and records small phytoplankton. Plugged into a seafloor node, it receives power via an undersea cable from WHOI’s Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory. It transmits hourly observations of microscopic plankton off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard back to shore.

Over the last twelve years, FlowCytobot has revealed complex patterns of Synechococcus abundance. To understand some of these patterns, we needed information about the different types of Synechococcus that could make up the population. While FlowCytobot can detect Synechococcus, it cannot distinguish between different types. So we analyzed genetic material in seawater samples and identified five main types of Synechococcus off Martha’s Vineyard. Interestingly, these different types were more or less abundant at different times of year.

Obvious questions arose: Why are certain Synechococcus more abundant during some seasons than at other times? Even though they are all in the same genus, do different types of Synechococcus have different responses to different water temperatures, light, nutrients, or other environmental factors?

To answer these questions, we needed to conduct experiments on the different types of Synechococcus. To do that, we needed to maintain populations of them in the lab, which scientists refer to as “cultures.” My challenge was to find the right laboratory conditions that would enable the growth of the five main types of Synechococcus. As I found out, just as each type of plant has specific needs—for sun, soil, moisture, and fertilizer, for example—so do bacteria.

Master gardeners

Figuring out the exact requirements or conditions that allow bacteria to thrive in the lab can be a less-than-straightforward process. Being new to culturing Synechococcus, I was fortunate enough to be able to seek guidance on how to isolate different types of Synechococcus into culture from the pioneers, John Waterbury and Freddy Valois, still working here at WHOI.

When they first placed natural samples of seawater containing Synechococcus into standard lab culture media in the late 1970s, the cells quickly died. “It took over a year to figure it out,” Waterbury said. At the time, media for bacteria contained a little bit of copper. It turned out that Synechocccus were quite sensitive to the metal. It wasn’t failing to add something that the bacteria needed, but adding something inadvertently that killed them.

Valois said that a lot of the process is trial and error. Many attempts will fail, but the one that works makes it all worthwhile. “You build on what has been done and then try new things—many new things.”

Smaller details matter when trying to coax an organism to grow in the lab—everything from sterilization procedures for equipment to the types of containers the cultures are kept in can affect growth. Many microbes that live in the open ocean are sensitive to glass, for example, whereas others, such coastal Synechococcus, seem to prefer it, even though it isn’t part of their natural environment.

Some recipes for media are unexpected and seem illogical. A great example is that the most successful medium used to keep Synechococcus in long-term culture is made of 75 percent seawater and 25 percent fresh water. When asked why this works better than 100-percent seawater, Waterbury had no exact explanation: “They just like it better.”

Most researchers have a few tales of cultures either growing happily or dying for no apparent reason. Another member of my Ph.D. thesis committee, MIT microbiologist Penny Chisholm, tells the story of a photosynthetic bacterium that she discovered called Prochlorococcus, which is a sister genus to Synechococcus. She had been culturing them in her lab, but when their building was being renovated and the lab had to move across the street for a year, Prochlorococcus was apparently not pleased with the location change.

“We had these beautiful new incubators, that the cells simply would not grow well in,” Chisholm said. Everything else, from the containers to the media recipe, had remained the same. When the lab got to move back to the original building, the Prochlorococcus cultures resumed their previous strong growth.

Step 1: Spike your seawater

Armed with some well-tested methods of getting Synechococcus to grow in the lab, I set out to try to culture as many types as I could from seawater samples taken at the Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory. The process starts with spiking the seawater with a small amount of media that supports Synechococcus growth. You hope that the extra nutrients in the media will encourage the cell growth you want.

However, the sample probably contains other organisms that find the media tasty, and they may start to grow as well. This can be a problem: If these organisms grow faster than Synechococccus in culture, they will outcompete the bacteria. In addition, different types of Synechococcus may also be in competition with one another, with the result that one type may end up dominating the culture. This was a special concern for me because I was trying to isolate as many different types of Synechococccus as I could.

To preclude competition, I used techniques to try to separate different types of Synechococcus. One technique is to spread out the seawater samples onto media made with agar, a gel-like substance. Oddly enough, Synechococccus is amenable to growing on a semi-solid surface, even though it ordinarily spends its entire life in seawater.

Spread out on the agar surface, cells have an opportunity to grow away from other cells. Once the cells have divided enough to be seen with a microscope, I could pick cells off the surface—trying to get only Synechococcus—and put them back into liquid media. This process can be repeated multiple times to ensure that only Synechococcus remains in the cultures.

Different strokes for different bacteria

Using the above methods, combined with a lot of patience, I cultured not five different types of Synechococcus from the Martha’s Vineyard seawater samples, but 13 different types. Many of these matched the main types of Synechococcus that I identified from the genetic analyses. These additional types of Synechococcus were in the seawater, but likely in much less abundant populations.

With cultures of these different types of Synechococcus in hand, we are now poised to investigate some of the differences among them. We can further explore the various physiological factors and environmental conditions that control when and where each type grows, reproduces, and survives.

We have indications that certain Synechococcus can’t use nitrate for growth, while others can use different sources of nitrogen, such as urea and amino acids, as nutrients. Some types have different photosynthetic pigments, indicating that they can harvest different wavelengths of light and thus have advantages in clear or turbid waters. Different types exhibit different tolerances for water temperatures or salt content. Others may be more or less palatable to various animals that graze on them, or more or less vulnerable to viruses that can kill them.

All these differences favor different types of Synechococcus at different times and in different locations, allowing them to occupy distinct ecological niches as environmental conditions shift. Ultimately, the more we learn about how individual Synechococcus types behave, the more we can understand the complex population dynamics of this essential marine organism.

Cultivating cultural expertise

Synechococcus cultivation has been a rewarding part of my Ph.D. thesis and has suggested new research ideas for the future. As a caretaker of Synechococcus, I gained perspective on the organism that I know I would not have had if I had not spent time growing them. I came to appreciate that, just as humans have different likes and dislikes, so do these amazing and highly productive marine bacteria.

I also developed a deep appreciation for the value of culture collections and the hard work of their curators. Culturing microoganisms involves tenacity, ingenuity, and patience, but even with these attributes, luck and serendipity can also be an important part of the recipe for success.

Every Ph.D. student’s thesis includes a section gratefully acknowledging those who helped them through their graduate studies. Mine of course thanked my advisors, other scientists, family, and friends for all their support. But it also included another line: “To my cultures, for growing away from the ocean.”

This research work was supported by a Department of Defense National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship; grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Atmospheric and Space Administration, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; the WHOI Ocean Ventures Fund; the WHOI Coastal Ocean Institute; and a private donation.

Sand, Seals, and Solitude

Sand, Seals, and Solitude

March 4, 2015

In high school, students interested in art or science often diverge into separate fields. For several years now, an art teacher and scientist in Falmouth, Mass., have seeded a modest cross-pollination project. This year it blossomed into a showcase of art and writing by Falmouth High School students, on display at the Falmouth Museums on the Green Cultural Center until April 10.

It began when Falmouth High School art teacher Jane Baker invited Rebecca Gast, a microbiologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), to tell students about her research on microbes in Antarctica. Gast showed photos of the often spectacular-looking microbes and scenery of the frozen continent. Inspired by the talk and photos, students worked on paintings that were later displayed at WHOI.

Accidentally mixed in with the Antarctic images, however, were pictures of another one of Gast’s research projects, a fast-growing seal population on outer Cape Cod.

“The seals were just so darn cute,” said Baker. “We took her research as a jumping-off point for the next project.”

In September, students from Baker’s art classes and teacher Lauren Kenny’s Advanced Placement English class traveled the length of Cape Cod to a beach where masses of seals congregate in Provincetown, Mass. The project was funded by the Falmouth Education Foundation.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get the kids to Provincetown, because it’s such an artists’ and writers’ haven?’ ” Baker said. “Falmouth kids don’t go down Cape, don’t experience the outer Cape.”

“A lot of people on Cape Cod don’t realize we have such a large grey seal population,” said Gast. Baker said seals were absent when she grew up on the Cape. Indeed, they were hunted until their numbers here were near zero. But since they became protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Cape Cod seal population has rebounded considerably.

Gast joined another WHOI seal researcher, Andrea Bogomolni, and staff from the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown—Lisa Sette and Owen Nichols—who told students about seal ecology.

“The seals are likely here to stay,” Gast said, but that has raised questions about whether seals compete with fishermen for diminishing fish stocks, attract great white sharks, cause fecal pollution, and spread diseases. Gast and Bogomolni are among several local scientists conducting research to answer these questions objectively.

“A real-life ecology experiment is going on here,” Gast said, with challenging societal ramifications.

Before the students went to Provincetown, they also heard a presentation from Cape Cod poet Elizabeth Bradfield, who introduced the students to Haibun, an ancient Japanese writing form. Haibun, Baker joked, is “an early form of blogging” and the students used it to record their experiences on their expedition.

“The writers had to draw, and the artists had to write,” Baker said. Students painted “plein air” (open air) landscapes and watched and photographed seals. Later they made charcoal drawings, handmade seaweed paper, and a book of Haibun.

These compose the exhibition at the Falmouth museums, called “Sand Dunes, Seals & Solitude.” Along with one more thing …

The group found a quantity of fishnet on the beach and decided to use it to make a great green seal sculpture, complete with whiskers. Gast and Baker attached the netting from the beach—plus more contributed by local fishermen and Gordon Waring, NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center—to student-built armature, and over weeks, the seal took form. They’re hoping it will be included in Provincetown’s Green Arts Festival this spring.

The Falmouth Museums on the Green is open by appointment. The Falmouth Education Foundation supported the project, including the field trip, camera, and supplies. Rebecca Gast’s research on bacteria and seals was supported by Woods Hole Sea Grant. On March 24 the Museums on the Green Cultural Center will host a “Seal-posium” round-table discussion of seals and their role in Cape Cod waters, featuring Gast, Bogomolni, and Waring.

A Telescope to Peer into the Vast Ocean

A Telescope to Peer into the Vast Ocean

February 6, 2015

Twenty-five years ago, the Hubble Telescope was launched to look out to the vast darkness of outer space. It captured images of the multitudes of previously unknown stars, galaxies, and clouds of matter, literally expanding the boundaries of human vision and knowledge.

At about the same time, Cabell Davis, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), was thinking about how humans could expand their view into the vast darkness of inner space. He spearheaded development of a remarkable instrument to capture images of the multitudes of tiny, unseen life in the ocean—plankton. The instrument, the Video Plankton Recorder, is about to make a historic voyage, journeying almost 8,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, to illuminate an unexplored universe of plankton.

Plankton is a catchall term (from the Greek word for “drifter”) that includes bacteria and other microbes, single-celled plants, tiny animals, jelly-like animals, and larvae. The vast majority of marine animal species are plankton for part or all of their lives.

Individually small, plankton are collectively mighty. Single-celled algae produce half the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. Abundant plant and animal plankton are the heart of the food webs that sustain fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and eventually people who depend on seafood. A key question is how will plankton and ocean ecosystems be affected by ocean conditions that are rapidly changing today. Excess carbon in the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning is being absorbed by the ocean and lowering its pH. Ocean temperatures are also warming, and circulation patterns may shift.

To determine how plankton populations might change, scientists need baseline information about today’s ocean from the smallest scale of the individual plankter to the full ocean scale. Fundamental information about which plankton live where, when, and under what conditions has remained out of our grasp because of the difficulties of finding, identifying, and counting such small organisms in such large ocean areas.

Birth of the VPR

Traditionally, scientists sampled plankton with towed nets, but nets are blunt instruments, mixing the plankton and damaging ubiquitous fragile forms. Moreover, nets capture merely a snapshot of plankton in a particular time and place, often missing patches of plankton, which are unevenly distributed through the sea. The result has been underestimates of plankton abundances.

To overcome these problems, Davis, fellow WHOI biologist Scott Gallager, and other WHOI engineers created the Video Plankton Recorder, or VPR, in the 1990s. Essentially, it is an underwater microscope, with a strobe and camera, that’s towed behind a ship. It takes rapid-fire images of the plankton passing through a small area, creating a running video instead of a few snapshots.

“We have two main systems now,” Davis said. “One, the battery-operated Digital Autonomous VPR, can go down to 1,000 meters, and you can tow it at 2 to 4 knots. It records images on a hard disc in the unit underwater. The other, the fast-tow VPRII, will go 10 knots. It’s like a little underwater airplane that flies on the end of a kilometer [0.6 miles] of cable. It undulates automatically up and down in the water, images an area about the size of your little finger, and takes 30 pictures a second. It has onboard flight control. It’s like an engineer’s dream toy! And we get live images and data—the instant feedback is fantastic.”

Across the Atlantic

In 2003, Davis and WHOI engineer Fred Thwaites, who designed the body of the VPRII, towed it 3,000 miles through the Atlantic, continuously sampling across an ocean basin for the first time and demonstrating the instrument’s ability to collect plankton data. The ship steered through warm and cold eddies, based on eddy locations emailed to the ship by WHOI scientist Dennis McGillicuddy. The VPR unveiled unexpected abundances of colonial bacteria called Trichodesmium, which have the ability to convert nitrogen gas into organic nitrogen, supplying an essential nutrient for ocean life.

Melissa Patrician, a WHOI research associate and Ph.D. student at State University of New York, Stony Brook, is using Atlantic VPR data to study plankton aggregations that may attract and supply food for whales, especially the endangered North Atlantic right whales. These data were collected on a second transatlantic VPRII tow, during the maiden voyage of the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor, from the United Kingdom to Woods Hole.

“I don’t think there’s a way to look at the patch dynamics—how, where, and when plankton patches form and disperse—without using an instrument like the VPR,” Patrician said. “I’m hoping we can have a better understanding of how currents and other factors are affecting patch formation, so that we can make predictions about where and when right whales may feed, because they’re so endangered, and management is really important for the species.”

“Understanding the causes and distribution of plankton patches is critical for understanding the entire marine food web and the ways mass and energy are used in the ocean ecosystem,” Davis said.

Across the Pacific

This month, Thwaites, Patrician, and WHOI researcher Phil Alatalo will conduct another first-time VPR exploration—across the Pacific, while Davis collaborates from his lab ashore. In February and March, with support from the Dalio Explore Fund, they will sample on the research ship Alucia, from the Marshall Islands to Panama. They will tow a high-speed VPR that will take color images every six inches over 7,767 miles.

The expedition will yield the first high-resolution data on how plankton species and abundances are distributed across the Pacific, and how plankton populations are related to environmental factors and currents. The team will also focus on links between plankton and eddies—large masses of water spinning like a whirlpool and moving through the ocean—which can bring up nutrients from deep water to the surface and fertilize plankton blooms. The scientists will once again consult with McGillicuddy and WHOI research associate Valery Kosnyrev to obtain satellite data along the way to locate eddies in progress and adjust the cruise track to cross them.

“This cruise will shed new light into the micro-world of the plankton across the vast Pacific Ocean,” Davis said.

Bringing a Lab to the Seafloor

Bringing a Lab to the Seafloor

December 24, 2014

If you can’t bring the ocean into the laboratory, you have no choice but to take the lab into the sea.

Marine biologists have always sought to conduct experiments to peer into the inner workings of marine ecosystems. Their holy grail is to reveal the numerous biochemical reactions performed by multitudes of marine microbes. These unseen reactions—converting inorganic chemicals into energy and biomass—jumpstart the food chain and make the whole ecosystem go.

But it’s impossible to recreate the ocean’s dynamic conditions in the laboratory. And the ocean is a tough place to bring in delicate scientific instruments and get them to survive, let alone work.

That hasn’t deterred Craig Taylor, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). More than two decades ago, he began working with WHOI engineer Ken Doherty to develop an instrument they called SID—the Submersible Incubation Device. Essentially, it draws seawater and microbes into incubation chambers and measures the biochemical business going on under natural conditions.

At first, Taylor used SID to measure how photosynthetic plankton near the sea surface convert carbon dioxide into organic carbon. When it worked, other scientists wanted to up the ante, requesting modifications that would allow SID to operate under harsher conditions in other parts of the ocean. SID begat Deep-SID, and the recent MS-SID, which worked under higher pressures and preserved microbial samples in situ, allowing scientists to probe organisms living at deeper, darker depths.

In today’s version of the SID, filters collect the microbes and preserve their RNA, which is used to both identify them and to determine their functions. Stable isotopes of elements—carbon or nitrogen, for example—are injected into the incubation chambers, where they are either converted or incorporated into chemical compounds produced by the microbes. The isotopes act as labels that scientists can track to measure the types and rates of the reactions taking place in the chambers. All together, the SID provides a picture of what microbes are using which chemicals in which reactions, and how these reactions change in response to changing environmental conditions.

Heat in the deep

WHOI microbiologist Stefan Sievert learned all about SID when he came to WHOI in 2000 as a postdoctoral scholar working with Taylor. Naturally, he and Taylor wondered whether they could develop another variation of SID to work under the even more extreme conditions of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. These vents, in volcanic regions of the seafloor, spew hot fluids like geysers. The fluids are filled with chemicals that microbes convert into food that sustains lush communities of deep-sea organisms. But very little is known about the biochemical reactions used by vent microbes at the heart of this chemosynthetic-based food web.

“The best way to observe the activity that truly exists is to conduct experiments in situ,” Sievert said. He, Taylor, and Jeremy Rich of Brown University proposed and were awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation to develop a SID that could operate at vents.

WHOI engineers Fred Thwaites, Ed Hobart, Steven Faluotico and Micheil Boesel were enlisted to work on mechanical designs for the new SID’s chambers and electronics hardware and software. Having built a SID that worked under high pressure, the next engineering hurdle was to build an incubator that could keep vent fluid samples bathwater-hot at the frigid bottom of the ocean.

“You’re surrounded by endless cold water,” Taylor said. “That inhibited people from trying, I think. People joked, ‘You’re going to have to have a nuclear power plant nearby to heat the chamber.’ ”

Power supplies are always an obstacle at the seafloor. Scientists have to bring their own power down, usually in the form of batteries with limited capacity. “My knee-jerk reaction was, ‘It’s impossible,’ ” Taylor said. But the solution turned out to be not so difficult.

The team insulated the SID’s twin incubation chambers with 4-inch-thick polypropylene, which  appreciably slowed down heat loss to the environment, resulting in low enough power consumption to enable incubations at the temperatures of the emanating vent fluids or at elevated temperatures—to probe for life living in the deeper parts of the subseafloor. “It didn’t matter if the chambers were surrounded by stagnant seawater or in a current,” Taylor said. “It consumed 10 to 12 watts of power for each of the two chambers to maintain sample temperatures at 28°C [82°F].” So the team could add enough batteries without exceeding weight constraints.

The twin incubation chambers allow scientists to simultaneously use different isotopic tracers during a given deployment or to conduct simultaneous experiments at different temperatures, Taylor said.

Next, the team created an umbilicus with a nozzle that sucks in vent fluids. The umbilicus is insulated with viscous silicone oil to prevent heat loss as the fluid travels into the chambers. The Vent-SID was born.

A visit to Crab Spa

The entire Vent-SID measures 3.5 by 2.5 by 8 feet tall. It was designed to be deployed by wire from a ship, as close to a vent site as possible. From there, pilots operating a submersible such as Alvin or a remotely operated vehicle such as Jason could pick up and re-position Vent-SID as necessary, stick the nozzle into the flowing vent fluids, and trigger the instrument to start by using the manipulator arms. At least, theoretically, Taylor said in an interview in late October “Individual parts have been tested to withstand pressure, but the combination of everything hasn’t been tested under pressure. Really nothing can substitute for putting it at the seafloor.”

In November 2014, Vent-SID was slated to travel aboard the research vessel Atlantis for its first sea trials. The instrument made its seafloor debut at a vent site about 600 miles south of Manzanillo, Mexico, on the East Pacific Rise, a volcanic mid-ocean ridge system. It collected and preserved samples on its filters, but something interrupted the incubation experiments. Vent-SID was brought back aboard Atlantis, where Taylor and colleagues worked out software glitches, installed new batteries, and conducted several Vent-SID tests near the surface. With time running out on the voyage, the team deployed Vent-SID on Nov. 18 for a final try. It was deployed by Alvin atop a tall pillar of basalt at a vent site called Crab Spa, a site that Sievert and colleagues have been using as a model system to study chemosynthetic processes at deep-sea vents.

For 24 hours, the scientists waited aboard Atlantis, unable to know what was happening nearly a mile and a half below. Then Alvin released weights at the bottom of the Vent-SID, and floats atop the device brought it back to the surface. When it was hauled onboard, they were thrilled to learn that the device had worked.

“It did what it was supposed to do,” Sievert said. “We now have a new tool that we can take to other sites with different settings to measure and understand the biogeochemical underpinnings of deep-sea vents or other ecosystems that we had no way to study before. This represents a major step forward in the way we study these ecosystems. It allows us to get more realistic estimates of the overall productivity (the rate of biomass created) occurring in them, and to assess the ecosystems’ roles in cycling carbon, nitrogen, and other chemicals throughout the ocean.”

The Waves Within the Waves

The Waves Within the Waves

December 18, 2014

If the 30-foot wave we were looking for had tumbled across the ocean’s surface that July day, it might have been mistaken for a monstrous rogue wave. But that’s not where this wave rolled. This wave surged within the ocean—deep beneath the surface.

Passing underneath us, the giant wave would reveal itself to our trained eyes only in the form of subtle alternating bands of rough and smooth water on the sea surface. But to most people, it would seem that the Atlantic was acting like its usual sleepy Monday self—irritable, but nothing very much out of the ordinary.

Scientists have a name for this phenomenon—internal waves. By definition, internal waves occur in the deep, well beyond people’s purview. Scientists have generated miniature internal waves in small tanks in the lab, but out in the wild, they’re as elusive as a white horse in a snowstorm.

Our boat rocked back and forth in the sticky midmorning sun as we waited for the sinuous beast to slither beneath our boat. It was 10:40 a.m., just thirty minutes into the four-hour time window when we expected to see the wave. Massachusetts Bay glistened—silver confetti on the navy blue sea—as though to celebrate the watery behemoth’s pending arrival.

“There’s a slick here, Jesús,” said Vicke Starczak, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), “A couple of them, one at least.”

A “slick,” or line of smooth water, usually preceded by a rough line of water, is the subtle footprint of an internal wave that manifests itself on the sea surface. Satellites see them as mammoth U-shaped forms radiating outward, but on the water we’d see only the rough-smooth bands stretching for miles until they bumped up against the horizon and faded into the sky.

“It does look like an internal wave slick. It might be,” said Jesús Pineda, a biologist at WHOI. “It might not.”

Layers in the ocean

Pineda had set up camp on the port side of the boat, staring intently at his laptop, as he would do for the rest of the day. The screen displayed a picture of the ocean, gleaned from a scientific instrument called an echosounder that was hung off the back of the boat. Like an ultrasound device in a hospital, an echosounder uses sound waves to paint a picture of objects and structure in the ocean. Denser things, such as the seafloor, showed up in yellow, orange, or red colors on the computer screen. Most of the ambient water appeared a sapphire blue. The screen and its echosounder readings were our only real-time way to “see” the internal waves, save for the slicks.

Other than some yellow-green blobs (fish), and the orange seafloor, one notable detail caught my eye on Pineda’s computer screen: a mysterious and diffuse turquoise layer from the surface down to about 15 feet. It gave the echosounder image the appearance of a bottle of unmixed salad dressing—turquoise oil sitting atop sapphire vinegar. The turquoise was warmer, less dense water sitting atop a sapphire layer of cooler, heavier water.

Where these layers met was known as the interface, Pineda explained. Off New England, this stratification of the ocean occurs only in the warm months of the year when the penetrating sun heats the top part of the sea.

Pineda glanced out the cabin window. Slicks appeared to be approaching. “There’s one, there’s two, and there’s three,” he said. A large green blob appeared on Pineda’s screen. “Oh, wow,” Pineda said. The blob got bigger. “I just really hope this is the wave,” he said. The blob continued its journey left across the screen, but never developed the telltale signature squiggle of an internal wave.

“So maybe that was not the wave,” Pineda said.

“It was a lot of action whatever it was,” Starczak said.

‘Dead water’

In 1893 the Norwegian arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen found his three-masted schooner held at a near-stop in Russia’s Kara Sea, “as if by some mysterious force,” he wrote in his expedition diaries published as Farthest North. The ship would not answer to the helm. “We made loops in our course, turned sometimes right around, tried all sorts of antics to get clear of it,” but to little effect. The ship would not budge. “Dead water,” he called it.

The mysterious force beneath Nansen’s schooner was an internal wave. The water directly below his ship was less salty because melting sea ice added lighter fresh water at the ocean surface. A saltier, denser layer of water below completed the cocktail. Then, the interface between the two layers did something sneaky. It stole the energy from Nansen’s ship.

“Put another way, some of the energy from the ship’s propulsion system was siphoned off into internal waves, rather than used to move the boat forward efficiently,” WHOI physical oceanographer Karl Helfrich said.

Internal waves are triggered when some energy is applied to the interface between different-density water layers, Helfrich explained. The water layers don’t mix. The interface remains intact. The waves move along this interface much the way waves on the ocean surface move along the interface between two other fluids with different densities—air and water. For waves at the surface, winds often apply the trigger, lifting water that gravity forces downward again, creating a rippling wave.

Within the ocean, the trigger can be the propulsion energy from a ship, as it was in Nansen’s case, or it could be tidal motions. Or the interface can flow into a protruding seafloor feature like a mountain and run upward or dip downward like a car on a roller coaster.

Internal waves are so much larger than surface waves because it takes far more energy to “lift” a mass of water into the air, than it does to lift that same mass of water into another less-dense mass of water, Helfrich said. Underwater, you get more bang for your energetic buck. In the China Sea, these waves can be on the order of 200 feet.

Because they are so large and globally ubiquitous, internal waves are hidden cogs in the inner clockworks of the ocean. They play powerful and still unknown roles in transferring heat, energy, water masses, and nutrients throughout the ocean.

Twelve decades after Nansen, here we were in Massachusetts Bay awaiting internal waves triggered by a large, deep feature sitting right below us in Massachusetts Bay. It wasn’t until fairly recently that anyone knew what that feature was.

Time and tides

Scientists began studying the internal waves of Massachusetts Bay in the 1970s. But while they could detect the presence of internal waves via echosounders, it was difficult to find the waves’ source. In the late ’70s, using satellite images, scientists discerned that internal waves emanating through the area were generated in the vicinity of (and were likely triggered by) Stellwagen Bank, a large underwater plateau. For almost four decades, Stellwagen Bank was the only known source of internal waves in Massachusetts Bay.

Then in 2008, WHOI visiting scientist José da Silva and Helfrich took another look at the satellite archives and noticed different waves. “At first, he was looking at the waves from Stellwagen Bank,” Pineda said of da Silva, “but eventually looking at all these images, it hit him that there were these waves that had not been described before.”

Internal waves were churning out of Race Point Channel—a cut in the ocean floor, 160 feet deep and several miles long, sandwiched by Stellwagen Bank to the north and the tip of Cape Cod to the south. Some of those waves intersected the southwestern tip of Stellwagen Bank, where we were looking for them on that Monday in July.

“More slicks,” said Pineda shortly before noon. “This one looks real. This one has ripples behind it.”

If we did see the wave, Pineda said, it would appear on the screen as depression, because the wave didn’t veer upward, but moved downward like a U. Whether an internal wave moves upward or downward depends on the depth of the interface. If the interface is relatively shallow compared to the total water depth, it leaves no room for the wave to go up, so it has to move down.

So, we were waiting for a U-shape to appear on the screen four to eight hours after low tide.

It would go like this: The outgoing tide would force water through the narrow Race Point Channel, converging like a ten-car pile up in a spot where four lanes merge into one. When the tide changed to incoming—6:10 a.m. on this particular day—the pileup would suddenly release, creating bumps or wiggles in the interface between density layers that would radiate outward and head back our way reaching us some time between about 10:10 a.m. to 2:10 p.m.

Where the internal wave swooped down, waters at the surface become rougher; where the internal wave rebounded up, surface waters form a smooth slick. That’s what created those bands of rough and slick water on the surface that we were looking for.

“Oh, this looks like a slick. It’s just coming, right Vicke?” Pineda said. “It might be, hmm?”

“It might be,” Starczak said.

“This might be it,” Pineda said excitedly, then quickly added, “It’s better not to say anything.”

A waiting game

To spot an internal wave requires scientific equipment, of course, but also a boatload of persistence, patience and, perhaps most critically, luck. To the poet’s delight and the scientist’s lament, the ocean has always been the paradigm of impossible complexity. Science has never quite been able to predict ocean surface movements, much less the movements of internal waves.

Yes, tidal forces generate the internal waves and tides are predictable, but once the waves form, they are subject to an assembly line of ocean dynamics that can perturb them as they roll along. In the lab, internal waves can be generated and variables isolated, “but the ocean doesn’t respect that,” Helfrich said. “It says, ‘OK, you’ve got this theory. That’s fine, but I’m more complicated than that.’ ”

“Once they generate, they are free to move,” Pineda said. “Depending on many things, the waves go faster and slower.”

The speed of the waves (and therefore their arrival times) can differ depending on assorted factors: the net density difference of the layers above and below the interface, how deep the water is, the size of the wave (larger waves travel faster), the currents, etc.

Today, the internal waves appeared to be taking their sweet time. Starczak came over to glance at Pineda’s screen.

“Nada,” Pineda said.

“Nada,” Starczak said.

“But it did look like something,” he said.

“It did,” she replied as the slick that looked like something passed underneath us and the interface on the screen sat mockingly still.

Where the waves are …

What was Pineda, a biologist, doing investigating physics and oceanography?

Around 2008, two things came across Pineda’s desk. The first was a map of the newly discovered Race Point internal waves, the waves studied by da Silva and Helfrich. The second were some figures on whale aggregations in the area. It appeared that both the waves and the whales had received an invitation to the same party, because both inhabited the exact same area.

“When I saw the map, and I saw the internal waves of my friend (da Silva), I said ‘Wow, that is a very interesting coincidence,’ ” Pineda said. Could the two be linked? he wondered. Internal waves concentrating plankton. Plankton attracting fish. Fish enticing whales.

It appeared that Pineda and his team were on to something. “The first year we came out, it was like being in a circus. Whales off the side. Sand lance, and birds,” Starczak said. Sand lance are thin, silvery fish—a prey for humpback whales. “We thought we had nailed it.”

That happened for two days straight. Seven years ago. Then it all stopped.

There were still internal waves, but there were hardly any whales or fish. After a lengthy bout of next to nothing on the whale count, and years of sitting in the same spot for about six days every year, something else caught Pineda’s eye: dogfish.

“Lots of dogfish,” he said, or small sharks. And the sharks appeared to be responding to the internal waves. When the waves came, the dogfish huddled toward the bottom. Once the waves passed, the fish redistributed themselves, dispersing more evenly throughout the water column.

“When I started to be a scientist, I knew you have to have all these hypotheses and predictions and test the predictions,” Pineda said. “When I grew up, I learned that in some cases, yes, that’s very powerful, but in some other cases, unexpected observations hit you in the head.”

Just passing through

So far today, there were no waves, few fish, and even fewer whales.

“It’s just the doldrums,” Starczak said, “It’s so variable from year to year.”

High tide came and went with little action except for imitation internal wave slicks, a whale or two, and a few dogfish. I was beginning to think that maybe, as some of Pineda’s guest students liked to joke, there were no such thing as internal waves at all. “Not today, I guess,” Pineda said.

It was about 3:20 p.m., an hour past our window for internal waves.

The heat had given way to a thick milky fog. Pineda got up to get his lunch from the boat’s miniature kitchen, then sat back down at his seat in front of the computer to guard the interface. Maybe it was because we had awakened at 4 a.m. to get here, or maybe it was the constant vigilance juxtaposed with disappointment, but time seemed to be passing in slow motion. And then …

“There’s sort of a slick out here,” Starczak said pointing over to starboard. We all glanced over and sure enough, on Pineda’s screen, the turquoise top layer seemed to be dipping into the sapphire bottom one in what would have scaled to a 30-foot U-shape. Then another one, almost an echo of the first. Looking outside, the boat appeared to be sandwiched between slicks.

Pineda scurried excitedly up the ladder to the bridge where two crew members and three volunteer whale spotters kept watch. “It’s rougher, right?!” Pineda asked the crew as we rocked back and forth as though on a seesaw.

“It changed dramatically!” one volunteer said with wonderment.

“We really started to rock,” said another.

It felt as though a mythical beast had past through our midst. We had seen and felt an internal wave.

But we had seen few whales. “I wish there was a relationship with internal waves and the whales,” but there wasn’t, Pineda said. “Not here.”

That didn’t mean Pineda was done with internal waves. “We have so much data. Beautiful data!” he said—that he and his colleagues will begin to investigate why Stellwagen Bank is such a famously fecund commercial fishing ground. “It’s physics,” said Pineda, the biologist, “but what physics?”

How internal waves work on Stellwagen Bank and how they may affect the region’s productivity are still uncharted waters.

“How can you even begin to start looking at something with so many variables?” asked one of the volunteers aboard.

“Start with one thing at a time,” Pineda said, sitting back into his chair to keep a watchful eye on the interface.

This research was supported by WHOI Sea Grant, the WHOI Marine Mammal Center, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and volunteer marine mammal observers who participated in the cruises.

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Illustrations and interactive by Eric Taylor, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Trouble in the Tropics

Trouble in the Tropics

November 26, 2014

On a tropical island vacation, one of the last things you want to worry about is food poisoning. Yet for many, a trip to the tropics includes a painful education in a mysterious food-borne illness called Ciguatera Fish Poisoning, or CFP.

Every year, thousands of people suffer from CFP, a poisoning syndrome caused by eating toxic reef fish. CFP symptoms are both gastrointestinal and neurological, bringing on bouts of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, muscle aches, and in some cases, the reversal of hot and cold sensations. Some neurological symptoms can persist for days to months to years after exposure. There is no quick way to test for the toxins, and unless action is taken within hours of the poisoning, no cure once you’re sick.

On some small islands in the Caribbean and South Pacific, it’s estimated that CFP can affect more than 50 percent of the population. Ciguatera runs like an undercurrent through these communities, not always visible at the surface but having vast economic and public health impacts. CFP is consistently underreported because of both misdiagnosis and a reluctance of local people to go to the hospital or local clinic when sick.

That’s why I’m here in St. Thomas, diving in water the color of an unclouded sky for a near-invisible quarry. Amidst the coral and seaweeds, fish appear like bright flashes in the shadows and light. They tear and scrape food from the algae and dead corals. I reach down and enclose some seaweed in a plastic bag, collecting not only the seaweed, but also thousands of tiny hitchhikers. I’m hoping to find elusive cells sticking to that seaweed.

These microscopic cells, called Gambierdiscus, produce the toxins that cause CFP. By learning more about their genetics, I hope to find out how they grow in different environments and how that affects the risk of CFP around the globe.

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Illustrations by Paul Oberlander, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Interactive by Eric Taylor, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Up the food chain

Gambierdiscus likes warm water. It’s a tropical dinoflagellate, which is a type of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton use photosynthesis, harnessing the sun’s energy to make food. They are named plankton because they “drift” through the world’s oceans. However, this can be misleading since dinoflagellates, as implied in their name, possess two flagella—whiplike appendages that they use to make small movements in their underwater environment.

Gambierdiscus lead a benthic existence, attaching themselves to seaweed, sand, and dead coral on the ocean floor. When herbivorous, or plant-eating, fish bite or scrape seaweed to feed, they also coincidentally consume many Gambierdiscus cells. The toxins in those cells accumulate in the fish. Gambiertoxins produced by Gambierdiscus are biotransformed by fish into ciguatoxins, which can cause disease in humans.

Ciguatoxins can accumulate not only in fish that directly eat Gambierdiscus cells, but also in the predators that eat those fish. When carnivorous fish consume toxic herbivorous fish, the toxins can accumulate in them as well, allowing the toxins to biomagnify up the tropical coral reef food chain. By the time a barracuda, snapper, or grouper is caught on a fishing line, it often has levels of toxin many times higher than the herbivorous fish they consumed.

To eat or not to eat?

Currently there is no reliable, quick test for ciguatera toxicity in fish, and heat from cooking doesn’t inactivate the toxins. Consumers must rely on the trustworthiness of fishermen and their knowledge of local CFP risk. Fishermen generally have learned which locations and which fish are likely to be safe for consumption through long experience of catching, selling, and hearing back from customers about which fish made them sick. Often a certain region or side of an island will be more toxic than another because of differences in winds and water turbulence.

Certain reef fish species do tend to settle and stay in the same place for their whole adult life, and choosing these “homebodies” to fish offers a better chance of avoiding a toxic catch. But the problem is that fish don’t necessarily stay in one place, and even a fish caught in a safe area could have just traveled from a prime Gambierdiscus habitat.

Low levels of ciguatoxins probably permeate the entire tropical food web, so that even if people avoid high-risk fish, they can still consume low levels of toxin. Unfortunately, even if a fish isn’t toxic enough to make you sick in one sitting, eating fish with low levels of toxin can lead to chronic effects that are still largely unknown.

If a patient is able to get to the hospital soon after they have consumed a poisonous fish, they may be given an intravenous dose of mannitol, a drug that greatly alleviates the symptoms of CFP. However, after a certain period of time, mannitol has no effect. Locals also use several herbal and traditional folk remedies, but these have not been scientifically proven effective.

A better world … for Gambierdiscus

Understanding the ecology and growth patterns of Gambierdiscus species can help us predict a region’s potential risk of CFP. As water temperatures increase because of global warming, Gambierdiscus’ range has expanded to new environments—from the Caribbean, for example, to the Gulf of Mexico and up the coast of Florida.

But it also may be diminishing in other areas if temperatures rise higher than Gambierdiscus’ growth threshold. Furthermore, coral reefs are declining, creating environments that allow seaweeds to take over corals—and providing perfect habitats for Gambierdiscus.

Corals are being damaged in many ways: physically, chemically, and biologically. They are torn up by ship anchors, damaged by blast fishing techniques, suffocated by sedimentation, or bleached by high temperatures. They are affected by pollution and acidification of the world’s oceans, and they are harmed by overfishing and marine diseases.

A trend toward warmer, more seaweed-rich environments may drastically change the map of CFP risk, potentially introducing CFP to new regions and jeopardizing the current method of using fishing histories to find safe catch locations.

The Gambierdiscus community

Back on the beach, I process the samples I’ve collected. Brown gunk settles to the top of the filter’s membrane. “This is going to be good,” I think, as I admire its muddy color and viscous consistency. Careful not to lose any of the sample, I wash the soupy mess into a plastic tube, sealing it tight and packing it away from the hot sun.

I’ve just captured the benthic community living on the surface of a collection of seaweeds. Many different types of cells inhabit the algae’s surface, but I’m most interested in which species of Gambierdiscus are there.

There are more than ten different species within the genus Gambierdiscus. Most are impossible to distinguish from one another under the light microscope. However, these species can vary widely in their production of toxin and their optimum growth conditions. Distinguishing among these species can help us determine the overall toxicity present in a location. A high abundance of cells with low toxicity may mean the same risk of CFP to local populations as a lower abundance of highly toxic cells.

Furthermore, by identifying different species, we can see if they respond differently to changes in their environment. As overall temperatures increase and natural conditions change, one species may be favored over another, affecting the amount of toxin on a reef.

Fluorescent probes

I am developing a way to apply fluorescent labels to different species of Gambierdiscus based on their genetic code, using a technique called fluorescence in situ hybridization, or FISH. FISH probes use synthetic DNA probes with genetic sequences tailored to pair specifically with the genetic material in cells of individual species.

These probes also have an attached fluorophore, a chemical compound that glows under certain wavelengths of light. In this way, we can target species of Gambierdiscus by their particular genetic sequences and identify them in samples using a fluorescence microscope. This technique will help us to identify and enumerate the different Gambierdiscus species in the environment. We can then look at how the community of Gambierdiscus changes over time and in different locations.

Since Gambierdiscus lives on a variety of substrates, from seaweed to dead coral rubble, it’s difficult to measure how many cells are in a specific location. A big research question is how the abundance of Gambierdiscus changes over the year and if we can link these changes to the timing of illness in humans. Traditionally, researchers have used the number of cells per gram wet weight of seaweed to quantify Gambierdiscus densities. This measurement is used to compare the abundance of Gambierdiscus over time and between locations. Unfortunately, the relationship between cells and the host seaweed is complicated: The abundance of seaweed can vary seasonally, and not all seaweeds are equally good hosts.

An important question has emerged from the research: How has this variability affected estimates of Gambierdiscus’ abundance over time? If there is less seaweed, does the same number of Gambierdiscus cells just pile on the seaweed surface in a more crowded configuration, or do the toxic cells move to another substrate in the environment?

Furthermore, Gambierdiscus can be choosy in where it likes to live. Different species of Gambierdiscus prefer to live on different species of seaweed. The picture gets complicated, so recently we have tried using artificial substrates to get around these difficulties.

We deployed small ceramic tiles under water for month-long periods. Gambierdiscus settle on these tiles, and when we harvest them, we can record their abundance and density. This way, we have a standard surface area to sample, and Gambierdiscus’ habitat preferences don’t bias the results. Ideally, we hope to obtain a more balanced view of what species are abundant in the environment at any given time.

Diverse cultures

Back in the lab at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, I look at my filtered field samples under the microscope, searching for the characteristic Gambierdiscus cells, which look like little brown UFOs flitting about amid the muck. Taking a glass pipette, I carefully reach in to pick up a cell, chasing it around the slide and finally cornering it behind a green blob of sloughed-off seaweed cells and bacteria.

Somewhat reluctantly, the cell releases its hold on the slide’s surface, and I happily place it into a well inside a plastic plate filled with filtered seawater. I’ll give this cell light and food, letting it multiply and provide me with another culture of cells to use to investigate the genetic diversity of Gambierdiscus.

Funding for this research was provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Science through the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health.