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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.

squid

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.

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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 www.whoi.edu 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: mmoore@whoi.edu

 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 www.whoi.edu

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

SPelisson@WHOI.edu

Kate Goggin

Kate.Goggin@noaa.gov

 

 

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 www.whoi.edu.

 

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.

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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 www.whoi.edu

 

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 www.whoi.edu

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 www.whoi.edu

 

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 www.whoi.edu

 

 

 

 

 

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 www.whoi.edu.

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

Big Questions About Tiny Bacteria

Big Questions About Tiny Bacteria

November 3, 2014

It’s 3 a.m., and Jesse McNichol is struggling to stay awake. Since midafternoon, he’s been in his lab, tending to a jumble of glassware, plastic tubing, and metal cylinders filled with microbes. He sighs, rubs his bloodshot eyes, and heads back to work.

As a Ph.D. student at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), McNichol says he’s used to keeping odd hours like these—but normally, he’s able to retreat to his apartment around the corner when he needs to recharge. For the entire month of January 2014, however, that quick trip home wasn’t an option. His lab and his late nights were more than 1,000 miles off the coast of Panama, in the east Pacific Ocean.

McNichol, a biological oceanographer, joined an international team of researchers aboard WHOI’s research vessel Atlantis to study microbes living at some of the most extreme environments on Earth—hydrothermal vents. These vents are like undersea geysers that form in volcanic areas on the ocean floor. Some spew liquid that can reach more than 750° F (400° C); others are lukewarm jets, formed as cold seawater mixes with hot vent fluid under the seafloor. All are situated a mile and a half below the surface, where they experience enormous pressure—more than 3,500 pounds per square inch. Yet despite these seemingly harsh conditions, the areas near these vents support lush communities of life, which can range from giant six-foot-tall tubeworms to microscopic single-cell organisms.

McNichol is specifically interested in a class of microbes called Epsilonproteobacteria, which dominate the vents. On Earth’s surface, he said, these bacteria are found only in small numbers, in environments ranging from mudflats and swamps to cows’ stomachs. But at vent sites, they thrive.

For McNichol, what makes them interesting isn’t where they live, though; it’s how they live. Unlike plants and animals at the surface, organisms living at deep-sea vent sites exist in total darkness and can’t take advantage of energy coming from the sun. Rather than photosynthesis, these Epsilonproteobacteria survive using chemosynthesis: To build their bodies, they extract energy from inorganic chemicals that leach out of rocks below the seafloor and into the vent fluid. The bacteria also flourish in places with little or no oxygen. It’s an unusual method of making a living—one that might offer clues to the way early organisms first carved out an existence on a highly volcanic early Earth, before oxygen appeared in its atmosphere.

“In many ways, these bacteria could be similar to some of the earliest life on the planet,” McNichol said.

Exactly what they do to live and grow is something he wants to find out.

Early life on Earth

The origins of life—and the many forms it has evolved into over billions of years—is a topic that has always fascinated McNichol. Growing up in Canada, he spent hours exploring in the woods, identifying edible plants and mushrooms. He read books about natural history and reveled in the outdoors. But it wasn’t until he was an undergraduate at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, that he realized just how little humans actually know about the first organisms on our planet.

“When I was young, I was of course interested in dinosaurs. But when I got to university, I realized there was three billion years of history before that, with many big, unanswered questions,” he said. “I mean, there’s very little known about dinosaurs, but there’s even less known about bacteria from three billion years ago. For me, it all comes down to that mystery about the history of life on Earth.”

In his undergraduate research, McNichol strove to chip away at those big questions. He moved through several fields searching for answers, studying botany, the biology of algae, and the symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi. As it turned out, that interdisciplinary background comes in quite handy when studying chemosynthetic bacteria at hydrothermal vents, said WHOI microbiologist Stefan Sievert, McNichol’s advisor at WHOI.

“He has enough practical knowledge to approach topics in both microbiology and biochemistry,” said WHOI geochemist Jeff Seewald, with whom McNichol also works. “That’s quite an accomplishment, especially for someone just starting out in the field.”

McNichol is hoping his work will help explain which chemicals these Epsilonproteobactera use to survive, and how they metabolize them. “That’s something we don’t have much knowledge about,” Sievert said, “yet it’s critical if we’re going to assess the role these ecosystems play in the deep ocean.”

In the past, expeditions have catalogued the basic species that live in and around vent systems on the East Pacific Rise, a vast volcanic mountain chain on the seafloor beneath the Pacific. Other research has shown that the microbes survive by using chemicals in the vent fluids as raw material in a series of chemical reactions called reduction-oxidation, or “redox” reactions, which transfer electrons between molecules and release energy in the process. Yet even with these existing studies, Sievert said, it’s still unclear exactly which combinations of vent chemicals different microbial species prefer to use, which biochemical reactions they employ to make energy, and which of their genes allow these processes to happen.

High-pressure experiments at sea

To truly understand how vent bacteria behave, McNichol said, it’s necessary to study them in their natural habitat. If the team of researchers simply brought samples back to the surface in an unsealed container, the change in pressure would cause gaseous chemicals dissolved in the fluids to bubble out, changing the fluid’s chemistry, and potentially altering the microbes’ activity.

To get around this problem, the researchers used the remotely operated deep-sea vehicle Jason to send down devices called “Isobaric Gas-Tight samplers” (IGTs) to the vents. These samplers, made of a titanium cylinder, can suck in bacteria and fluids, and then maintain the intense pressures of the deep sea inside the cylinder as it journeys all the way back to the surface.

Once aboard the Atlantis, McNichol then incubated the cylinders, allowing the bacteria inside to grow as they normally would on the seafloor. Over 24 hours, he removed small amounts of fluid from the device and analyzed its chemistry. If the amount of certain chemicals dropped off over time and others increased dramatically, he reasoned, it would offer a clue that the vent microbes inside were using them to generate energy.

Doing these kinds of experiments while aboard a ship wasn’t easy, however. The constant motion of the deck made simple procedures—like weighing chemical solutions—impossible, and if a piece of equipment failed, running out for a spare part was out of the question.

“Most people use cruises just to collect samples, bring them back to the lab, and analyze them,” Sievert said. “Conducting microbiological experiments aboard a ship is pretty unique. Very few researchers have tried to do this while at sea.”

In fact, it’s almost unheard of. According to McNichol, he and Sievert are among the first to conduct high-pressure experiments on deep-sea bacteria while aboard a research ship, yet he offers that detail with trademark humility.

“I really don’t like to exaggerate my work. Sometimes maybe I tend to go to the other extreme, and make it sound like it’s not that novel or new. But it really is. And I guess it’s novel for the exact reasons you would expect—who else has access to the kinds of equipment we have here at Woods Hole? If it wasn’t for Jeff Seewald’s IGT samplers, there’d be no way we could do it. In this little unassuming village, we have access to unbelievable technology, which is really cool.”

During the 2014 cruise, McNichol and his colleague, François Thomas, used Seewald’s samplers to run more than 18 individual experiments, each lasting 24 hours. In addition to testing the changing chemistry inside the IGTs, the pair added other chemicals, including hydrogen gas, nitrate, and oxygen, to see which ones the vent microbes might use as “fuel” to survive and grow.

“We were able to get pretty interesting results from doing that,” McNichol said. “We found that the microbes were able to not only tolerate high levels of oxygen—more than 50 times the level that would normally be available in a vent ecosystem—but they could actually use it all as well, which is really striking and surprising. We also found that the microbes were able to use chemicals like hydrogen as an energy source, which was already predicted by other researchers—so our experiments are starting to confirm those ideas.”

Meanwhile, back on shore

The data McNichol collected at sea are only part of the puzzle, however. Back on shore, he’s working to sequence the DNA of the microbes from each sample, which will help him identify which species were present in the IGTs. Working with collaborator Niculina Musat in Leipzig, Germany, he is also using a new technique called NanoSIMS (for Nanoscale Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry), which can analyze cells of individual bacteria to tell him which species created the most biomass (the organic material that makes up a microbe’s “body”) during his experiments. With this information, he’ll be able to calculate which microbes experienced the most growth when exposed to specific chemicals, providing clues to the biochemical reactions the bacteria use to survive. The research will also help pinpoint which microbes are the most active in the vent ecosystem.

The January cruise gave McNichol a wealth of new data, but he’s still working on fleshing out his research. On Nov. 2, he returned to the East Pacific Rise to continue his experiments. Although he’s bracing himself for another month of sleepless nights in the lab, he said, he’s motivated by the fact that there’s still much to be learned about these vent bacteria—and that every new discovery could lead to new questions.

“I recently read [naturalist] E.O. Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist, and his advice is, ‘Find a field where there are as few people as possible, and many open questions.’ That’s exactly how I feel about oceanography,” McNichol said. “In the grand scheme of things, we know very little about these organisms—so any work I do, as long as I don’t totally screw it up, is going to provide useful information. That’s really exciting and empowering.”

This research is supported by a National Science Foundation Dimensions of Biodiversity gran. The WHOI Ocean Life Institute, the WHOI Ocean Exploration Institute, and the WHOI Accesss to the Sea Fund helped support the participation of David Levin in Dive and Discover, Expedition 15. Jesse McNichol is supported by NSF, a fellowship from The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and a graduate fellowship from the NASA Earth and Planetary Science Division.

It's Hard to Kill a Killifish

It’s Hard to Kill a Killifish

October 1, 2014

“Somehow I just keep ending up back here,” laughed Lily Helfrich when commenting on her third summer working in a laboratory in Woods Hole. An early interest in biological sciences led the Falmouth native to work at the Marine Biological Laboratory for two summers before landing a spot in the Summer Student Fellow program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in 2014.

Coming off her junior year at Northwestern University, Helfrich spent the summer working with biologist Neel Aluru on Atlantic killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus), a fish abundant in coastal waters of the East Coast. The species is of particular interest to scientists because it can thrive even in areas contaminated with high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from past industrial activity.

WHOI biologist Mark Hahn, with whom Aluru was a postdoctoral scholar, and his colleagues have been working to understand how killifish in New Bedford Harbor, which is contaminated with PCBs, have evolved genetic resistance to PCBs.

Although genetic mechanisms (those that involve DNA sequences) are considered to be the major players in the development of resistance and other characteristics, in recent years, so-called “epigenetic” mechanisms which include non-coding RNAs have emerged as being important in determining various characteristics. Epigenetics refers to the study of heritable changes that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence.  Helfrich’s project focused on small, non-coding RNA molecules that have recently been shown to play an important role in epigenetic regulation. Helfrich analyzed a group of non-coding RNAs called microRNAs from killifish embryos from New Bedford Harbor and an uncontaminated creek on Cape Cod (Scorton Creek, Sandwich, Mass.). She used bioinformatic analysis to characterize different microRNAs in the killifish. By the end of her study, Helfrich identified changes in the abundance of some microRNA sequences in killifish that have adapted to high PCB levels.

Her research was one of the first projects to do microRNA analysis in killifish. “This kind of analysis is going to be the future of biology, so it’s neat to have a hand in looking at some of this data,” she said.

After Helfrich graduates in 2015, she hopes to take some time to travel before jumping into a graduate program. She is unsure of what field of biology she would like to study then, but her experiences this summer have broadened her horizons.

“I hadn’t really been exposed to oceanography as a science, or given that much thought to all the different questions you can ask,” she said. “I had just been focusing on basic biology that uses marine organisms, but now I have more of an interest in the oceans.”

 

Helfrich and her research were supported by The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Fund for Summer Student Fellows.

 

On the Trail of an Invader

On the Trail of an Invader

October 1, 2014

Anyone who knows Filip Buksa is likely not surprised that he decided to travel all the way to Woods Hole from the shores of Croatia for the summer. “Marine science came to me as continuing to work with what I love, and my family has always been fed by the sea, so I am a person who really feels like I need to give something in return,” Buksa said of his interest in joining the Summer Student Fellows program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

Back at home, Buksa studies marine biology and ecology at the University of Split, the second-largest city in Croatia, and he has spent much of his free time volunteering in labs at the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries in Split. Although he enjoyed his previous lab work there, at WHOI Buksa sought out a project that would allow him to explore genetics.

Under the guidance of WHOI biologist Jesús Pineda and research associate Annette Frese Govindarajan in the biology department at WHOI, Buksa has spent the last couple of months analyzing the ecology and genetics of the intertidal barnacle Chthamalus fragilis. These barnacles are an invasive species on Cape Cod, and populations have been found spreading northward to Sandwich and Provincetown. Because they look much like native barnacles, they are not always noticed when they invade a new area.

Buksa plans to compare the DNA of barnacles from up and down the coast to figure out how the invasive species came to the Cape. He isolated and sequenced DNA from barnacles collected in various locations and ultimately constructed genetic trees to trace the northward movement of the invader.

Buksa hopes to incorporate his past and current studies to paint a larger ecological picture. “I do not want to be a pure molecular biologist locked in a lab pipetting and working on the computer, but I want to use it in order to understand the ecology of organisms,” he said.

Even when Buksa makes it out of the lab, he doesn’t end up too far from the water. As a member of the Croatian National Fishing Team, Buksa has won several world championships in both the angling and offshore categories. He also enjoys freediving, which is a form of deepwater diving that does not rely on the use of SCUBA gear.

After his upcoming senior year at the university, Buksa hopes to continue on to a Ph.D. program. “To continue working in marine science would just be another day of enjoying life.”

Buksa and his research were supported by The C. Russell Feldman Fund.

 

A Summer of Science by the Sea, 2014 (Part II)

A Summer of Science by the Sea, 2014 (Part II)

October 1, 2014

It’s a science major’s dream job: live on Cape Cod for the summer and do ocean research with top-notch scientists as a Summer Student Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

This year, as in every summer since 1959, undergraduates from around the world came to WHOI to learn about ocean science and conduct research under the guidance of WHOI scientists. Members of the 2014 group hail from the United States, Croatia, Italy, England, Trinidad, Germany, Canada, and China. Their projects here spanned a wide range of topics, from the genetics of barnacles along the East Coast of the United States to the effects of the monsoon on salinity in the Bay of Bengal.

And this year, another undergraduate, Allison Gage, joined us at Oceanus to delve into the world of science writing. As part of her internship, Gage profiled several of the Summer Student Fellows. We published four profiles in September (see links at right). Here are three more.

It’s Hard to Kill a Killifish

Lily Helfrich
Summer Student Fellow Lily Helfrich is using a new molecular tool, microRNA analysis, to explore why some killifish are able to thrive in waters heavily contaminated with PCBs.

On the Trail of an Invader

Filip Buksa
To find out when and how fast a small gray barnacle came to New England waters, WHOI researchers turn to forensic techniques.

Recovering After a Hurricane

Maya Becker
Summer Student Fellow Maya Becker studied how vulnerable four coastal communities were to major hurricanes—and how fast they recovered.

The 2014 Summer Student Fellowships were funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey-WHOI Cooperative Agreement, The John M. Alden Fund, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Fund for Summer Student Fellows, The Christopher Haebler Frantz Fund, The AOP&E and G&G Alumni Fund, The Carl and Pancha Peterson Endowed Fund for Support of Summer Student Fellows, The Lawrason Riggs, III Memorial Fund, The Richard Vanstone Fund, The C. Russell Feldman Fund, The William D. Grant Fund, The Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation Fund, The Jake Hornor Fund, The Noel B. McLean Fund,The Cooperative Institute for the North Atlantic Region, and The Virginia Walker Smith Fund.

Is Ocean Acidification Affecting Squid?

Is Ocean Acidification Affecting Squid?

September 26, 2014
Swimming in Low-pH Seas

Swimming in Low-pH Seas

September 18, 2014

Doriane Weiler grew up on the coast of California and remembers spending so much time at the beach as a child that she often had to be pulled out of the water before the tide swept her away. Now starting her senior year at University of California, Berkeley, Weiler entered college on a pre-med track, but she soon found that her hobbies could become a career in marine science. As a Summer Student Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) this year, Weiler was thrilled to land a position with biologist Aran Mooney and graduate student Casey Zakroff studying the effects of ocean acidification on the swimming behavior of juvenile squid.

Even before coming to WHOI this summer, Weiler had a lot of experience in ocean research. She volunteered in labs back home and participated in several research cruises. Most of Weiler’s previous lab work involved marine chemistry, and she was able to incorporate those skills into her work at WHOI.

Weiler said squid movement is of particular interest with regard to ocean acidification because the organ squid use to detect their orientation in the water is vulnerable to ocean acidification. This organ, called a statocyst, is comparable to a human’s inner ear, which performs a similar function for us: enabling us to detect our position in space and maintain our balance. Inside the statocyst is a pebble-like structure called a statolith, which is made of calcium carbonate. The pressure of the statolith pressing at different places inside the statocyst, like a pebble falling on different spots inside a hollow ball as the ball rolls around, tells the squid its position.

Previous experiments in Mooney’s lab found that statoliths do not develop normally if the squid are kept in water with high acidity. Weiler’s job was to find out if that affected the squids’ ability to maintain their orientation and to maneuver through the water.

“When you look at the statoliths of squid that have been raised in higher levels of carbon dioxide, it is evident that they are damaged, so we’re trying to see if this anatomical change has behavioral effects as well,” Weiler said.

To test whether and in what ways the movements of young squid are affected by ocean acidification, Weiler developed squid eggs with varying concentrations of carbon dioxide, some high enough to cause damage to the statoliths (higher concentrations of CO2 produce a lower pH, or more acidity). Once the eggs hatched—an event affectionately known in Mooney’s lab as a “squidsplosion”—she monitored the babies’ swimming patterns. Cameras recorded the squid from different angles to generate three-dimensional plots of their movements. Weiler is now analyzing the results, looking mainly at the squids’ velocity and depth.

After Weiler completes her research this summer, she will go to the island of Moorea, near Tahiti, to work on an independent project through the fall. She hopes to make her career in the field of marine biology. “This is hands down what I want to do!” she said.

Weiler and her research were supported by The Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation Fund.

A Summer of Science by the Sea, 2014 (Part I)

A Summer of Science by the Sea, 2014 (Part I)

September 18, 2014

It’s a science major’s dream job: live on Cape Cod for the summer and do ocean research with top-notch scientists as a Summer Student Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

This year, as in every summer since 1959, undergraduates from around the world came to WHOI to learn about ocean science and conduct research under the guidance of WHOI scientists. Members of the 2014 group hail from the United States, Croatia, Italy, England, Trinidad, Germany, Canada, and China. Their projects here spanned a wide range of topics, from the genetics of barnacles along the East Coast of the United States to the effects of the monsoon on salinity in the Bay of Bengal.

And this year, another undergraduate, Allison Gage, joined us at Oceanus to delve into the world of science writing. As part of her internship, Gage profiled several of the Summer Student Fellows.

Swimming in Low-pH Seas

Doriane Weiler
Researchers knew that squid raised in acidified water developed abnormal balance organs. To find out whether the young squid could still balance and swim normally, Summer Student Fellow Doriane Weiler mapped their movements.

Scallops Under Stress

Cailan Sugano
Like other marine species, scallops face multiple climate change-related problems. Summer Student Fellow Cailan Sugano studied how scallops respond to acidification and lack of food—and whether extra food can help them resist damage due to more acidic seawater.

Surface Waters Go Their Own Way

Sam Kastner
Summer Student Fellow Sam Kastner found that at a given spot in the ocean, water at the surface may not be moving the same direction or speed as water deeper down—which can make predicting the path of nutrients or pollutants very challenging.

It’s Hard to Kill a Killifish

Lily Helfrich
Summer Student Fellow Lily Helfrich is using a new molecular tool, microRNA analysis, to explore why some killifish are able to thrive in waters heavily contaminated with PCBs.

Sea Science in the Space Age

Mara Freilich
South Asian monsoons bring huge amounts of fresh water into the Bay of Bengal. Summer Student Fellow Mara Freilich used huge data sets from satellites to show how and where the salinity of the Bay changes as a result.

On the Trail of an Invader

Filip Buksa
To find out when and how fast a small gray barnacle came to New England waters, WHOI researchers turn to forensic techniques.

Recovering After a Hurricane

Maya Becker
Summer Student Fellow Maya Becker studied how vulnerable four coastal communities were to major hurricanes—and how fast they recovered.

The 2014 Summer Student Fellowships were funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey-WHOI Cooperative Agreement, The John M. Alden Fund, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Fund for Summer Student Fellows, The Christopher Haebler Frantz Fund, The AOP&E and G&G Alumni Fund, The Carl and Pancha Peterson Endowed Fund for Support of Summer Student Fellows, The Lawrason Riggs, III Memorial Fund, The Richard Vanstone Fund, The C. Russell Feldman Fund, The William D. Grant Fund, The Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation Fund, The Jake Hornor Fund, The Noel B. McLean Fund,The Cooperative Institute for the North Atlantic Region, and The Virginia Walker Smith Fund.

From Penguins to Polar Bears

From Penguins to Polar Bears

August 12, 2014

As air and sea temperatures rise, the United States and other nations are experiencing more and bigger storms, droughts, and wildfires. But the effects of climate change may be greatest in Earth’s polar regions. In Antarctica and the Arctic, thinner ice is covering less area for a shorter time each year, and that ice loss threatens organisms whose lifestyles depend on it, ranging from algae at the bottom of the food chain to polar bears at the top.

Conservation efforts for polar species, however, are especially challenging. While managing a forest or a fishery might be done at a regional or national level, managing polar zones requires international solutions. Why? Because climate change involves the entire planet, and because polar regions cut across national boundaries, said Stephanie Jenouvrier, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) who studies penguins and other seabirds.

How then can scientists best help policymakers to develop effective conservation strategies for polar species? To explore these issues, Jenouvrier invited climate scientists and biologists, resource managers, policy experts, and artists to WHOI in May 2014. This was the ninth in a series of Elisabeth and Henry A. Morss Colloquia, which bring experts to WHOI to exchange and foster ideas on important issues that confront human society today.

On thinner ice

Many polar species are “ice obligates,” which means they absolutely require sea ice in order to survive, said Scott Doney, director of the Ocean and Climate Change Institute at WHOI.

Polar bears, for instance, rest on large floes between their forays into the sea to capture seals. Without plentiful ice islands, they can’t stay close enough to their rich hunting grounds and may drown in the attempt to swim farther, or starve. Because they evolved for life on ice and at sea, they can’t shift to a terrestrial lifestyle. Restricted to land (where their grizzly, nonseagoing cousins thrive), they struggle to find enough to eat.

Less charismatic species, such as the algae that grow on the underside of sea ice, also suffer when the sea ice goes away—and that affects the entire ecosystem. Under-ice algae feed the krill that support much of the oceanic food chain, including fish, seals, whales, and penguins. With loss of sea ice, the annual bloom of algae shrinks, along with the prospects of all those other species—including the people who rely on polar ecosystems for their livelihood.

Doney added that loss of sea ice also means we will see more ship activity and oil and gas drilling in polar areas, increasing the potential for spills and other environmental impacts in those areas. Finally, he said, the higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, primarily from burning of fossil fuels, not only warm the air and water but also cause the ocean to become more acidic, an effect that is especially pronounced in Arctic waters.

The tools at hand

Efforts to protect polar species are under way—some brand-new, and some with help from laws that are decades old. Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, pointed out that the United States has laws on the books that can be used to address many problems related to climate change, even though they were not enacted with climate change in mind.

The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 and helped reduce smog in major cities and acid rain in the Northeast, but more recently it has been applied to climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. The purpose of the Clean Water Act, passed in 1948, is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s water” (both fresh- and salt-). That includes acidification of coastal waters, which in many parts of the U.S. are already impaired according to Clean Water Act standards.

Then there’s the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which aims to protect imperiled species and the habitats they rely on. Ninety-three percent of the species listed as endangered under the ESA since 1973 have either stabilized or improved (although few have recovered to the point of being de-listed), said Wolf. “It’s the world’s strongest wildlife protection law.”

Because saving a wild species requires maintaining its habitat, the ESA provides a route to protect areas, such as the Arctic, that are vulnerable to climate-related damage. But it is not a perfect tool, said Lynn Scarlett, managing director of public policy at The Nature Conservancy. While the ESA mandates that listing decisions be based solely on science (and not on economic, social, or political concerns), its language is frustratingly imprecise.

For a species to be listed as “threatened,” for example, its danger of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its range must be “reasonably likely to occur within the foreseeable future.”

“ ‘Reasonably likely, foreseeable future’—what does that mean?” Jenouvrier asked. “My work is to project into the future what will happen for penguins. What kind of time frame should I use? It was very helpful to see how the term has been interpreted in the past, so we can implement a scientific approach that matches the needs of policymakers.”

Local, national, global

Even at their best, U.S. laws are of limited use when it comes to polar protection because they only apply to species and habitats that occur within U.S. territory. Polar bears, the first species to be listed as endangered primarily because of climate-related habitat loss, were eligible for protection under the ESA only because some of them live in the U.S., specifically Alaska, and the legal protections don’t extend to those living elsewhere.

Antarctica presents a special case, because the region does not belong to any one nation or small number of nations, as much of the Arctic does. The activities of scientists, whalers, fishermen, and others who study or harvest its resources are governed—in a very loose sense—by multinational agreement. Participants in the Morss Colloquium heard from several speakers about the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a treaty established among 24 states, including the U.S. and the European Union, to monitor changes in the Antarctic and manage its resources, particularly fisheries.

Protecting Antarctic species can begin with a strong statement from one member, such as the potential listing of Emperor penguins under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, as Jenouvrier and her colleagues recently called for. At the very least, Jenouvrier said, the U.S. could influence resource use in Antarctica by banning products harvested there, such as krill-derived dietary supplements. Reducing the market for such items could protect krill by making it not worth the expense to harvest them.

Coming together

Like nations, scientists also need to coordinate their efforts, among other reasons, because there are differences among polar “neighborhoods.” Complex air-sea-ice interactions can lead to different climate impacts in different places, WHOI biologist Hal Caswell pointed out. In some parts of Antarctica, sea ice is actually increasing.

Such nuance poses a problem in the political realm, where differing results may be cited without context and portrayed as meaning that nobody really knows what’s happening. But rather than negating an overall conclusion, different circumstances at various study locations that can help illuminate and refine the broader conclusion, he said.

At the colloquium, scientists studying Adélie penguins in colonies all over Antarctica agreed on a common framework for their research that will make it easier to understand why some colonies are crashing and others are thriving. Eventually, said Jenouvrier, gathering comparable information about each colony and its environment will help scientists provide better information to policymakers.

“You really need to use the same tool everywhere to be able to assess the impact of climate change,” she said. “If you use different research tools, how do you distinguish between the impact of the various methods and the true impact of climate?”

Jenouvrier is aiming to establish that approach as a model for research on other polar species that are vulnerable to climate change. Despite the difficulties of doing long-term studies and influencing international policy, she is optimistic about our chances of conserving polar areas and species, in part because of public interest in programs like the colloquium.

“People seem to care,” she said. “And if they care, it’s a way we can change things. I don’t know how long it will take to change, but we can at least develop the science that is good enough to be ready to influence policy.”

The colloquium was supported by a generous donation from Elisabeth and Henry Morss.

A Haven for Whale Sharks

A Haven for Whale Sharks

July 30, 2014
Alvin's Animals

Alvin‘s Animals

July 2, 2014