Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Galapagos Tortoise: A conservation success story

It would seem that the Galapagos tortoise has been officially declared a conservation success. This is lovely news- in the first decade of the 20th century, there were few tortoises left on the islands and researchers could find no active nests. In effect, the tortoises that existed on the islands when Darwin visited on his Beagle voyage had stopped breeding or being able to bring clutches to fruition. This population decimation came from two major pressures- the Pacific whaling community had been using the Galapagos as a convenient stop for fresh water as they roamed further and further from shore for longer voyages. When they were stopped for water, the sailors supplemented their diet of hard tack and dried beef with fresh turtle soup. This effectively lowered the number of breeding tortoises, but it wasn’t the only cause of their demise. In addition to eating the tortoises, the whalers introduced pests, such as goats. They were introduced to the islands to serve as supplemental meat for future voyages and they overgrazed the islands, leaving no food for the tortoises.  These pressures effectively destroyed the population and habitat of the species, pushing them to the brink of extinction. But, now these tortoises on making a comeback!

In recent years, Galapagos tortoises have returned to the islands through a combined effort. The largest effort, and the one written about in the most recent news releases about this success, involves the eradication of goats and the restoration of vegetation on the affected islands. In an article on The Conversation, James Gibbs states that "the tortoise dynasty is on the road to recovery, thanks to work by the Galapagos National Park Directorate, with critical support from nonprofits like the Galapagos Conservancy and advice from an international team of conservation scientists."  Gibbs highlights the work done to restore the ecosystem and to breed the species in captivity on the islands.  Other news outlets have trumpeted the breeding capacity of individual (male) tortoises. Diego, a Hood Island tortoise, is being hailed as a lascivious sex-machine who has bred his species back from near extinction. The NYTimes says that he’s "an ancient male" tortoise returned to the Galapagos from the San Diego Zoo in 1977. What is most interesting to me about these articles is not that they aren't fascinating and completely correct, but that they are so short-sighted in their conception of the conservation effort to save these tortoises. 

Also, someone please tell me why everyone is so freaking interested in male tortoises and how they have sex. The continued obsession with Lonesome George is confusing to me. I can name at least 6 male Galapagos tortoises but there aren't any famous females. Why? Why are science journalist obsessed with the virility of male tortoises?!  (go ahead and google diego the tortoise and you'll find these headlines: "How one highly fuckable tortoise saved his whole species from extinction" and "Fuck Tortoise saves his entire species from extinction by having sex all the time" and my personal favorite "A bro tortoise had so much damn sex on the Galapagos that he's been credited with single handedly saving his species." The NYTimes article is only one step away from these bro tortoise articles and seriously, all of these sound really like this Onion article.   Apparently no one cares that male tortoises gotta have some receptive ladies. But I think you should know about these amazing ladies. So here's a famous lady- Nigrita is a tortoise at the Zurich Zoo doing some great work laying clutches and bringing baby tortoises into the world with her mate Jumbo. Check her out!

In fact, Diego is part of a group of tortoises taken from the Galapagos in 1927 as a last ditch effort to save the species and learn to breed them in captivity.  These tortoises ended up at zoos and aquariums throughout the southern hemisphere in the hopes that breeding pairs would produce offspring in captivity. And they did. The first Galapagos tortoise was born in captivity in 1945 and today, many of those pairs have been returned to the Galapagos to continue breeding.  This historical narrative is extremely important because it is a (tentative) success- we have so few of these that watching something work should be cause for analyzing why and how it has worked. Of particular interest in this story is the combination of ark breeding--that is breeding a population of endangered or extant in the wild organisms in captivity to create a reserve population meant to eventually be released-- with ecosystem restoration. This is, for all intents and purposes, the gold standard in conservation- the meeting point of two types of conservation to produce a revived population.  It is important that we tell the century-long conservation story of these tortoises (not only the recent narrative) to fully understand the time required to actually produce results with ark breeding and ecosystem recovery. Townsend removed these tortoises from a dying ecosystem in 1927 and it is only 90 years later that we are seeing a recovery and tentative success story emerge. Much of this comes from the nature of Galapagos turtle breeding but we can think about the long road of conservation with this particular story. 

In the early 20th century, Charles Haskin Townsend worked for the US Bureau of Fisheries. Townsend, along with David Starr Jordan, were asked to look into the conservation of the United States’ fur seal herd in the Bering Strait. Jordan, Townsend’s superior, suggested that Townsend speak with Japanese and Russian officials to get their whaling and sealing records to see how many seals these men were taking each year. While Townsend was pouring over the whaling and sealing records, he noticed something else startling: whalers were reporting fewer and fewer tortoises on the Galapagos every time they stopped. By looking through the logs, Townsend could tell that the population was completely decimated. Townsend visited the islands himself and confirmed this suspicion. And for his own reasons (he was not particularly moved by all species so it is unclear why he was so moved by the tortoises), Townsend set out to save this species. He did this is two ways: he urged the New York Zoological Society (who ran the Bronx Zoo and NY Aquarium) to lobby to Ecuadorian government to protect the islands and label them a national park. In addition, he sought permission to bring as many Galapagos tortoises as could be found on the islands to the United States to figure out how to breed them in captivity.

This is an image of Townsend and his men collecting tortoises for export off of the island chain. Wildlife Conservation Society Archives, Bronx Zoo (Townsend Collection) 
In 1927, Charles H. Townsend, then the director of the New York Aquarium, transported as many Galapagos tortoises as could be found from the islands to a group of botanical gardens, zoos, and aquariums throughout the US, the Caribbean and Australia. Townsend didn’t just give the tortoises to these places and walk away- he wanted to actively breed these animals. He asked the zoos to keep track of each animal, keep records of weight, age, and any ailments and to send those reports to Townsend. He used these reports to track the health of the animals and to gain knowledge of what they ate, common ailments, and the possibility of breeding behavior.

The Hawaii zoo sent this diagram of a tortoise's shell after a necropsy. Townsend hoped a better understanding of the morphology and behavior of the animals would help in breeding efforts. Townsend papers, Wildlife Conservation Society Archives, Bronx Zoo, New York

A list of the many places Townsend sent tortoises. This note in 1930 shows all the deaths of individuals based on location and, if a large amount, what had caused those deaths. By 1935, Townsend shifted most of the tortoises to warmer climates where it was believed they would be healthier and more likely to breed. Townsend papers, Wildlife Conservation Society Archives. 

An image of Townsend measuring a juvenile tortoise taken from the Galapagos. This might possibly be the infamous #120, a very small tortoise stolen from the exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in 1930. I like to think that some family in the Bronx still has #120 hiding somewhere (they'd be almost 500 pounds now) and is just co existing with him or her. 

In the earliest years, he found that the tortoises did not do well in colder climates. To decrease mortalities and save the animals, he sent them from New York to Arizona. He also suspected that the tortoises preferred certain rocky enclosures without deep sand and urged a similar habitat for all the tortoises across institutions.  While many tortoises were lost (including the youngest and smallest- #120- stolen from the Bronx zoo exhibit) the tortoises did eventually breed. The year after Townsend died (1944), the first Galapagos tortoise born in captivity hatched at the Bermuda zoo and aquarium, run by a former co-director of the New York Aquarium under Townsend.

Diego is a Townsend tortoise and to date, he has fathered over 350 tortoises. Other Townsend tortoises have been shipped to the Galapagos, as well as throughout the world to breed in zoo programs. Read this story about Ralph, a 100 year old tortoise just shipped to Texas to be a companion to Mr. Potato Head (another old tortoise).

There are two really important sides to the Galapagos tortoise success story. The first is the repair of an imbalanced ecosystem no longer able to support the tortoises. The removal of goats and the regrowth of native flora were both extremely important. But the other half was the removal of organisms to be bred in zoos. This type of breeding is known as ark breeding- named after the Judeo-Christian tale of Noah who saved animals on the ark until they could be returned to dry land. Ark breeding creates captive stocks (reserve stocks) that can, hopefully, be returned to their habitat once it has been restored. The Galapagos tortoise success can be added to others, including the black footed ferret, the California condor, the American bison (also a Bronx Zoo early 20th century story) and others that have been deemed relatively successful. 

Saving the Galapagos tortoise took over 90 years and the (initial and continued) collaboration of individuals, scientific institutions, and governments from all over the world. We should celebrate this tentative success, but also make sure we understand and properly tell the historical pieces of the puzzle. We cannot fully apply the lessons learned from this story unless we tell the whole thing- it is long and it involves a lot of trial and error. And oddly enough, a weird bro culture surrounding tortoises. Let's understand what we did to hopefully apply these lessons to other endangered ecosystems and species. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Climate Change is not (only) science**

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that I'm a bit all-over-the-place about my interests, Marine research fosters this plurality because the marine world is huge and impactful- it touches everything. So I thought in this post I would talk about what I actually research.

My research is concerned with the way that a huge swath of people from all walks of life contribute to knowledge about the ocean. At one end of the spectrum is a bunch of different people, including (but not limited to) fisheries biologists, professional aquarists, hobbyists, anglers, beach goers, sailors, and academic biologists and on the other end is a product: published scientific knowledge.

In our world, we have a system of knowing- how do we know something? Society generally agrees that we "know" something because it was published and peer reviewed (i'll get to the quibbles later). So someone can feel some way about the weather, but a scientist can confirm that it is true. This is what we in the academy call epistemology- we know something for sure when people we trust go through a system we trust to prove it. Sometimes, this seems ridiculous. This is what makes morning talk show hosts and buzzfeed writers goggle at reports that say things like, "Scientists find that getting punched in the face hurts." Because,yeah, if you're a youngest child you didn't need a degree in physics to know the velocity of a fist to know that getting squarely punched in the face for stealing someone's favorite toy hurts like hell. You know it. But your childhood abuse at the hands of your older siblings doesn't count as universal "knowing"- there's too many questions. Maybe you have a sensitive face, or you're a crybaby, or your sister has a really supernaturally strong arm. So scientists study and they publish a report and that's when we know that it's okay that you told your mom. Because that really, according to scientists, hurt dude.

But here's what I study- I study the way that people who got punched in the face contribute to knowledge about face punching. Only in marine science.

The ocean is huge. And the health of the ocean impacts everyone. The US Fish Commission (now Fish and Wildlife and NOAA) was founded in 1871 because fishermen started noticing that their catch was decreasing dramatically and they asked the federal government to mediate an argument. The argument was between two states- one said that the problem was the use of a certain type of nets and the other said it wasn't. So the government formed a special commission to go check it out. And, after extensive interviews with fishermen and others who worked on or near the water, what they found was a bunch of fishermen who all said the same thing- there's way less fish. And they all had different ideas about the cause. They found that, based on study, that catches were much smaller and that it was most likely caused by the use of a certain type of net. Interestingly, when the findings were presented to both states, one banned the nets and the other didn't. We can see this small historical moment as indicative of most marine science (and environmental science in general).

The first to notice changes in the land are those that work with and on it and who thrive when that land thrives. These laborers and residents are the first to see the changes in the land and to sound the alarm. Rachel Carson knew this and used it as evidence in Silent Spring. For her, the people that knew about the danger of pesticides were backyard bird watchers- she uses the voices of judges and doctors who see fewer and fewer birds in their backyards as evidence. And this is powerful- because she could throw so much scientific evidence at people, and she does in doses, but  she is clear- these residents are the people to really trust. They are sounding the alarm. They have knowledge.

This is the same with climate change. The residents of islands and artic regions are screaming. They are sounding the alarm. Those societies that survive and thrive when the ocean does are struggling. In ecology, we call these indicator species- it means a species that shows the effects of a stressor first- one species that basically shows us which way the wind is blowing. These societies, that survive because they have marine proteins, ice shelves, or even just land, are indicators of what is to come- and they are telling us. These are not scientists- they are laborers, fishermen and women, people who are residents at the front lines of a changing planet. They are giving information to scientists and while that information is confirmed by climate scientists, they are getting it from real people- people who don't make money from a universal scientific conspiracy. Just people who labor and live by the sea and are rapidly watching their way of life get washed away.

The ruling classes everywhere have always been particularly bad at understanding warnings about the ocean. Wealth and privilege allow distance, not just from a subsistence lifestyle, but from the actual labor that attaches people to the land. They cannot "know" the land because they are separated from it. For instance, at the turn of the twentieth century, a very well-known British Scientist (T.H. Huxley), going against the knowledge of American and English fishermen of that era and quite a few fisheries biologists, declared the ocean to be endlessly abundant. He said that there was absolutely no way we could ever overfish- none. And people really believed him. Especially people in power. Because he was a scientist and a really really famous dude to boot. But here's the thing, we already knew that stocks were disappearing when he said it because laborers and residents knew it and they had told people. And papers had been written. But those at the top- those that eat but don't gather- they see little.

Right now, Americans are terribly spoiled and wealthy. Especially when it comes to the ocean and its resources. If you want fish for dinner, or scallops, or clams, or oysters, or shrimp- you go to the store and you get it. And most people don't look on the package to see where it came from or how it got there. If there isn't one type of fish, you get another. But most of the time, you buy frozen and the amount and price seems consistent. So when you hear scientists and residents yell about declining stocks or ocean acidification or mass migration, you don't listen. Because of course it seems preposterous. Possibly another Population Bomb scare if you're old enough to remember it.

But it's not. Climate Change is not (just) an academic science- it's the knowledge produced by confirmation of the alarms raised by people who know the most- those that are living on the front lines. And eventually, whether we want to talk about it (or can talk about it), that person on the front lines will be you. At first, you'll just be inconvenienced because you can't get the fish you like, then your usual spot for your beach vacation will be ugly or unavailable because of erosion. But eventually, the salinization of drinking water on the coasts coupled with extreme droughts will make you a front line resident and you will sound the alarm and wonder why no one is listening.

Anti-intellectualism shouldn't stop you from believing in climate change. Because the people it affects, the people who are sounding the alarm, are not scientists. They just live in the most sensitive places right now. Climate science isn't academic- it is the most down-to-earth knowledge available. Don't let conversations about lazy, rich, privileged scientists stop you from listening to the people you trust. Laborers, mothers, fathers, anglers, and yes, business people, see the change.

The argument that climate change is a scientific conspiracy is wrong. Because it is knowledge of the earth by people who live on it. If you are a fan of laborers, blue collar workers, people just trying to survive and raise their babies, you have to be concerned about climate change. They are the telling you the truth.

Climate Change isn't Science: it's common sense.

**if you're concerned about this title, know I've thought about it- and I used it because I want it to come up in google searches in a specific way.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Maritime Music Traditions: Longing and Belonging near and on the ocean

When I write, I often listen to one genre on heavy rotation. While I’m a pretty eclectic music lover overall, when writing in long stretches, I most commonly turn to country. I grew up listening to country and I find it calming. However, I’m not such a huge fan of newer country music. There are exceptions, and finding an exception led me to this blog post.

A few months ago, I started working on my book heavily and I wanted to find an album that would get me into the writing spirit. I usually listen to older country music- Dolly Parton and Conway Twitty types of things- but I wanted something new. So I googled “best country albums of 2016” and got a nice list of country albums. I immediately nixed a few- but I came across one- Sturgill Simpson’s Sea Stories- that interested me. Obviously the title intrigued me, but the album also contained a cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom which is terribly satisfying. After listening to the album, I basically fell in love with two things- Simpson’s voice (which is somewhere between George Jones and Merle Haggard- this is high praise indeed)- and his subject material. Simpson’s album is an extremely lovely collection of sailor’s songs. Simpson was in the US Navy and his material for this album draws a lot from his time as a sailor. One of the most interesting songs is “Sea Stories”- an intense, fast paced narrative of a stint in the US Navy from enlistment to discharge (and seem reminiscent of John Prine at times):

Basically it's just like papaw says:
"Keep your mouth shut and you'll be fine"
Just another enlisted egg
In the bowl for Uncle Sam's beater
When you get to Dam Neck
Hear a voice in your head
Saying, "my life's no longer mine"
Have you running with some SAG SOG
BMF sandeater

Sailing out on them high seas
Feels just like being born
That first port call in Thailand
Feels like a pollywog turning nineteen
They've got king cobras fighting in boxing rings
And all the angels play Connect Four
Seems like a sailor's paradise
But turns out to be a bad dream

Now you hit the ground running in Tokyo
From Kawasaki to Ebisu
Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Shinjuku
Shibuya, Ropongi, and Harajuku
Aw, from Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket
From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur
Seen damn near the whole damn world
From the inside of a bar

I've got sea stories
They're all true
Might seem a little bit far-fetched
But why would I lie to you
Memories make forever stains
Still got salt running through my veins
I've got sea stories
And my shellback, too

Sometimes Sirens send a ship off course
Horizon gets so hazy
Maybe get high, play a little GoldenEye
On that old 64
And if you get sick and can't manage the kick
And get yourself kicked out the navy
You'll spend the next year trying to score
From a futon life raft on the floor
And the next fifteen trying to figure out
What the hell you did that for

But flying high beats dying for lies
In a politician's war

In this video, Simpson calls it a "pirate song". 

Listening to A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth reminded me of reading maritime novels- Simpson’s snapshot of the maritime world uses the lens of labor- that of the lessons learned as a sailor laboring on the sea.

Critics have struggled to place his album into a genre—it leans in some places to blues, Southern Rock, traditional country—but it isn’t difficult to see that it is, in many ways, most clearly in the maritime tradition.

According to Neuenfeldt, maritime music traditions are songs of “longing and belonging.” They typically take the form of shanties/chanties- specific song structures of call and reply or singing in the round. There are several groupings or “types” that one might be tempted to describe. When I first started reading about maritime music I was tempted to make some divisions.  Songs like those of Pacific Islanders that tell the history of cultures and are integral to cultural identity seemed somehow different than ‘Surf City’ and midcentury American rock-and-roll.  But of course, the more I thought about the divisions, the more colonially minded and close minded they appeared to me. It is both simplistic and telling to say that maritime traditions of singing are ways of exploring “longing and belonging”: all songs about the sea are built around themes of culture building through leisure, labor, and longing (either for the sea or to return home from it).

There’s a rich history of studying and recording these musical traditions (and basically every sea-going culture from black boatmen in Maritime Canada to Pacific Islanders and pirates [and basically all people who work on waterways- including rivers and at docks in general]). I'm going to use just one of example of many here. In 1966, Roger Abrahams, an American folklorist visited Barrouallie, St. Vincent. The village is a traditional whaling and fishing outpost in the Caribbean. In addition to hosting a fishing community, it is also known for producing sailors that served on fishing and shipping ventures throughout the world. The maritime tradition in Barrouallie, one of labor on the sea, dependence on successful labors, the seaside labor to convert a whale into money,  and also of leaving home for extremely long stretches with no ken of how quickly you would come back (if ever) produced a specific type of musical traditional.

Several types of songs emerged from this particular maritime culture:

1.       The love song about loneliness and distance
2.       Songs meant to keep time for rowing or to encourage work
3.       Narratives that highlighted tensions between the laborer and the owner or government

The last is an interesting case.
When rigging broke or the boat was in poor condition, the sailors might sing this shanty:

if de owner is lame, that’s the one we must blame
oy yay
Oh Blow de Man Down
Blow de man right down to de ground

Another song in this tradition involved mocking those that didn’t work on the water but reaped the benefits:

The song De Man in De Waistcoat talks about the government official at the port that collected taxes for bringing in catches. He sittin’ on his stool just like a little boy in Sunday School, de man in de waistcoat love fisherman’s money.

The combination of songs about loneliness and labor “of longing and belonging”, match Simpson’s album perfectly. The album is meant, according to the musician, to mirror a letter Simpson’s grandfather wrote in the South Pacific during WWII in case he didn’t make it back from the war. Sailor’s is a letter to Simpson’s first child in this vein. There is a song to his wife (Oh Sarah) that mimics traditional narratives about fears of not returning from a voyage- of never finding a way home from the water (both metaphorical and literal; several songs (Keep Between the Lines and Brace for Impact) give advice to his son for growing up without him- should the possibility arise. And several (Call to arms and Sea Stories) have an edge of anger at Simpson’s employer (the US Navy) in the tradition of employer/employee relationships on the sea.

The song I struggled to place into the maritime tradition the most was the cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom. How, I wondered, does this translate into maritime music? But anthropologists and musicologists have studied the transfer of traditional, terrestrial songs into maritime cultures as well. And what they’ve found is that many maritime shanties/chanties are derived from a basic structure used in both marine and field labor. The Shanties of the Caribbean whale trade borrow and mimic the Chanties and songs of the field slaves and workers on Caribbean plantations. Music was taken from each context and changed by workers to suit the requirements of each group. I was reminded, when listening to In Bloom, of a friend who told me offhandedly one time that while he was in the marines, everyone’s favorite song was Baby Hit Me One More Time and many marines sang it constantly. At the time, it struck me as odd. But when thinking about longing and belonging, about floating on a boat in the middle of the ocean, about building identity, I place In Bloom into these traditions- of borrowing and building relationships through songs that are shared but not necessarily about the water.

Maritime songs aren’t necessarily about the water but about the identity one builds on the water to survive and thrive. And while Simpson is no longer a sailor in the US Navy, he has created a maritime album that sits squarely in the tradition. Give it a listen.

And if you want to hear more traditional maritime music, there are maritime music festivals all over the United States (and World) each year. I leave you with a few videos of such a festival in Portsmouth, NH. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Trashing the Oceans Part 2: Normalizing Human Pollution in the Marine Environment

My previous post was on the inclusion of certain types of plastic pollution in the movie Finding Dory. Basically, the type of plastic that we see as a problem is really a problem for the 80s and 90s. The problem today is microplastics spreading throughout the ocean and the food chain.

This post, I’m going to focus on a more theoretical question about the depiction of plastic in the movie: Does the act of depicting garbage without comment somehow normalize that sight for young children? or to ask it another way, Does Finding Dory succeed in its conservation messaging?

I’m going with a gut instinct here that the makers of the film were making an environmental statement with the inclusion of garbage in the movie. If not, we have a bigger problem because that means the thing I fear will come to pass, i.e. that people have become so used to an ocean full of trash that it seems somehow normal and natural to them, has already happened. That would be bad. So I’m going with the more optimistic belief that we as an audience are supposed to be appalled by this garbage and angry that it’s there.  But unfortunately, the directors didn’t really make the garbage a plot point nor did they give any information about picking up trash or recycling at the beginning or ending of the film so the audience is left to assume their motivations. 

So, for those of you that haven’t seen the film, maybe take a look at the previous post to watch the Dory preview, but here’s a few stills from the movie so that we can get an idea of how trash is being depicted.


In the past, overt environmentalist messages in animated films have been just that: overt.

Fern Gully (1992): The Last Rainforest is one of my personal favorites.  I’m old enough to remember Fern Gully when it was new (when I anthropomorphize pollution in my head it sounds just like Tim Curry). Fern Gully was heavy handed and pretty much hit all the high points of environmental concerns- animal testing, native rights, logging, eco feminism. This was a movie for the 80s and 90s crowd raised on the even heavier handed Captain Planet. Our little hearts ate up these messages and we swore to always protect the mythical, magical rain forests of the world.  There was no guessing what this movie was about- save rain forests from logging!

Wall-E (2008): Another overt message here. Wall-E is startling because it portrays robots as having more humanity than humans where the environment is concerned. Humans destroyed the earth, left it, got super lazy and fat and it takes a robot to fix it. And when the earth is fixed humans get to come back down to earth and reap the benefits of reconnecting with the land. We get skinny! (ugh) We learn skills! We reclaim our humanity from robots who love Hello Dolly!! 

These movies have issues with their environmental message- Fern Gully’s reliance on supernatural causes of environmental degradation is labeled by Michelle Smith and Elizabeth Parsons as “antithetical to the environmental movement.” Wall-E has some major fat shaming issues that make it basically unwatchable to me (and I won't ever show it to my child for this reason). But it is clear at least that these films are meant to convey an environmental/conservation message. The plot revolves around pollution and the degradation of the Earth and the heroes are those that save the earth.  There are more (Bambi, Over the Hedge, Princess Mononoke), but these seem the most prominent in my mind and what is striking is how they differ from Finding Dory.

Finding Dory depicts a trashed ocean without it seemingly impacting the characters.  Yes, Dory gets caught in a six-pack ring but it doesn’t lead to a story line where she can’t find her parents because she is emaciated from being unable to eat- she gets picked up and taken into a marine facility for "rehabilitation" but the audience doesn't get the sense that she needs to be rehabilitated; she doesn't complain of pain or have any seemingly ill effects from the rings. She seems to be completely healthy while in quarantine. We don't even see the scientists cut off the ring or talk about the horrible nature of this type of pollution.

In addition, while searching for her parents, Dory swims through a desert of rusted out automobiles, broken bottles, tin cans, and tires but this is just background. Trash doesn’t stop her from seeing her parents’ shell directions and it doesn’t get her lost in the first place. In fact, during her search she comes across a graveyard of rusted metal containers serving as hiding places for a variety of sea creatures all of whom warn Dory to be quiet or she will wake the squid. Instead of appearing out of place, these cans and containers serve as useful housing for creatures just going about their lives.

At no time in the movie is the case made that the pollution is bad or that it hurts any of the animals in the ocean. Adults recognize trash in the ocean (and therefore in the illustrated ocean) as being bad, but can we rely on subtle messages where children are concerned or does this depiction without comment possibly naturalize garbage in these environments?

Dolly Jorgensen has written  about the way that seemingly unnatural edifices become commonplace in our perception of the marine environment. Her work highlights the way that oil companies seek to naturalize oil rig structures by sponsoring tanks containing these pieces at public aquariums. When an oil rig is decommissioned, companies are responsible for clean up and disposal of those rigs. A common way that oil companies have sought to minimize clean up costs has been to cut the rig off under the water line and leave it as an artificial reef. As Jorgensen points out, governments have to give permission for this disposal and one way that companies are making sure that people have no objections is to give them the sense that rigs actually belong in the marine environment- that they’ve always been there. One way that companies naturalize these rigs is to pay for tanks at public aquariums that include rigs as reefs.

Jorgensen uses the example of the rigs to reef tank at the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans. The Gulf of Mexico tank is sponsored by 5 oil companies (BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and KerrMcGee) as well as an individual that has worked in that industry. These companies could have sponsored an exhibit without a rig in the tank (it’s prominent) but they didn’t and their money is going further than to educate children about the underwater environment. It is doing something priceless: naturalizing rigs as reefs in the ocean. After seeing rigs in tanks at aquariums, a place that works to construct the underwater environment for its visitors, who would be surprised when they encounter one in the ocean? The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is not the only one with a rig tank- some are less prominent than others, but when they become commonplace and unnoticeable, so do the rigs.

If this sounds completely off, just bear with me. Do ship wrecks belong in the ocean? Do they seem natural? Are they much of a bother? I ask this because there are a lot of shipwrecks on the ocean floor and it is with these that we see the work of naturalization done so well. Think of the amount of times you have seen a shipwreck depicted in either animated or nature films as part of the underwater landscape. We would be surprised if, in a National Geographic episode our explorers scaled a particularly high mountain and found a plane or tank (it happens but not that much) but we’re not at all surprised by the depiction of ships in the furthest reaches of the ocean. In fact, many sunken ships have grown reefs over their structures and have become protected marine areas.

Take for example the Shipwreck Trail in the Florida Keys.  Located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, “The nine ships along this Shipwreck Trail have many tales to tell, from the stories of individuals who came before us to why they were here and their difficulties in navigating these waters.”

The nine wrecks consist of 6 accidental wrecks, 1 ship purposely sunk to create a reef, and ironically, two ships that were about to be sunk for artificial reefs that broke free from their tugs and went down accidentally. 

What is interesting to me is how common images of ship wrecks our in my imagination of the underwater world. So much so that sinking ships to create artificial reefs has become fairly common. Instead of questioning the role of ships in underwater reef building- do these things really belong?- we just keep adding more.

I think one of the largest questions is, why would we be making artificial reefs? The answer is varied. One major reason seems to be that we know that creating a reef will bring divers to that area- you are basically creating a space where you know that people are guaranteed to see the types of organisms that they imagine are in the ocean. In many ways, this is the impact of TV and public aquariums on our understanding of the ocean: most people think that the ocean resembles a tank of fish- full of beautiful corals, multiple types of fishes, and all of these organisms should be visible immediately. The truth, if you've ever dived is that this is just not so. The ocean is big, dark, cold, and generally pretty empty. Unless you're diving on a reef in relatively shallow water. So governments are trying to draw tourists in and give them what they want and artificial reefs do this. Scuttled ships and decommissioned reefs offer structures on which new ecosystems can grow. 

In addition, these spaces are being built in places where humans have injured the existing reef structure. In places where reefs have been destroyed or are in decline, humans are using these reefs as band aids for the injuries they've caused. 

Finally, there is some evidence that these artificial reefs increase fish stocks. Especially in areas with little diversity or decreasing fish stocks, the rigs seem to offer spaces for fishes to feed and hide. Slate just reported this week that a large amount of BP money from the oil spill is being used to create artificial reefs to increase fish stocks. 

There are ongoing debates about these artificial reefs and the possible positive and negative impacts on ecosystems. Studies show that rigs and ships (along with concrete pyramids) are successful in facilitating reef growth. However, the question is, at what cost? Some suggest that, while these spaces increase fish stocks, they also allow poachers and illegal anglers to hone in on fish attracted to these areas easily; instead of large fish being spread around a large area, the reefs concentrate these fishes and make poaching easy. Basically, it gives new meaning to "shooting fish in a barrel". In addition, questions have recently been raised about the impact of these spaces on the spread of invasive species. Some researchers suggest that these wrecks amount to a disturbed ecosystem and allow invasive species to build strong communities that will then increase their numbers and allow them to spread more rapidly though the ocean. Most reports are relatively early on the colonization of these spaces by corals, but most suggest that these spaces grow more slowly than natural reefs and support smaller coral (although some researchers believe this could change over time). Most of these studies are from the last 15 years and many in the last 10, with researchers calling for more expansive research on the impact of disintegrating ships on the health of these ecosystems long term.  

What is interesting to me is the way that we take for granted (politicians and the public) that we already know the answers to the questions.  Most people don't bat an eye at the idea that there is a ship being sunk to create a reef.

It is this type of naturalization that I fear where rigs and small level pollution are concerned. It is true that we currently recognize sunken cars, rusted cans and broken bottles, and floating plastic, as not belonging in the marine environment. But Finding Dory did something concerning- it normalized that trash by having characters co exist without struggle.

So the question is, would it have been better for conservation goals to draw the ocean without pollution in the hopes that children would imagine it as such (and be startled when it is trashed) or is it better to show it as a site of trash in the hopes that children will want to clean it up.

I'm of the thought that the former is more useful than the latter. I'm open to conversation.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Finding Plastic: Images of the Plastisphere in Finding Dory Part 1

When I first saw the Finding Dory trailer, I knew I had to see the movie.  There are, of course, a million reasons that someone interested in the history and current study of the marine environment would want to see a movie about a bunch of lovable talking sea creatures. A particularly important aspect of the movie (spoilers maybe?) involves the role of public aquariums in conservation, a topic especially close to my heart. And ensconced at this public aquarium is Sigourney Weaver, also especially close to my heart (Aliens is a classic).

But nope, that wasn’t what caught my attention. What immediately caught my attention was that a trailer is usually supposed to include some of the most important and eye catching scenes in the film. And what I saw was trash. Take a look:

Dory is caught in a piece of plastic from a 6-pack during part of the trailer and she is swimming through a dead zone full of tires, rusted cars, cans, and bottles in another. It is important to analyze why these images are in Finding Dory and also the impact that the portrayal of the ocean as a trash heap might have on the way that people think about the ocean. So for this first blog post, I’m going to think about the history and current status of trash talk and the ocean. In the next part of this series, I’ll talk about conceptions of the ocean as a pristine environment and the possible impacts of portraying the ocean as containing trash.

I don’t find it surprising that the most noticeable piece of garbage in this trailer is the six-pack-ring. The rings were brought to the attention of the public during the earliest reports of ocean pollution. In 1988, a beach cleanup in Texas found 15,600 six pack rings in 3 hours (this was over a 300 mile span). If you were a kid in the 80s or 90s, there’s a good possibility that you were taught that you should cut up these rings before throwing them away so that if they made it out to sea they wouldn’t kill a sea turtle or bird. Images of desiccated animals caught in 6-pack-rings were used fairly regularly during the 80s to galvanize a public to clean up their act. While the emphasis on these plastics has been largely misplaced, the majority of debris in the ocean is not from six pack rings, it is still a highly recognizable form of pollution and presents a visceral message to those of us who grew up during this period.

This is a picture of Peanut. A red-eared slider in Missouri that must have slipped into a six pack ring when she was born in the 1980s. Found in 1993, she was cut free and is now used for wildlife conservation education. She's still alive and living in Missouri. Obviously not a sea turtle, but you get the point.

The other visual in the trailer is that of Dory swimming through a wasteland of sunken ships, cars, bottles, tins, and tires. I think the ships are something we have come to expect and associate with the ocean- in some sense shipwrecks have become naturalized and normalized when we imagine the underwater environment (more on this in the next post). But there is something jarring about the cars and tires, even though we shouldn’t be particularly surprised that they are so common on the ocean bottom that they exist even in animation.

In 1972, officials in Fort Lauderdale, Florida proposed a “tire reef”. The Reef would be built out of used tires- deemed an eyesore on land but perfect for the building of artificial reefs. The proposal suggested a win-win. The reef would get rid of ugly trash constructively (instead of just chucking it into the ocean while no one was looking) and bring more game fishes into the area for anglers and tourists (they were rapidly diminishing: read about it here).  Tire reefs had already been initiated in Indonesia, Malaysia, Africa, Australia, and the American Northwest (against better judgement and advice from experts) and the South Floridians were super excited. So yeah. In what I think you can imagine was a pretty bad idea, Broward county, with the help of Goodyear and the Army Corps of Engineers, dumped over 2 million tires over 36 acres about 7000 feet off the coast in 35 feet of water. The tires were tethered together at the time and anchored on concrete slabs. This became known as the Osborne Artificial Reef.

A barge dumping tires onto the Osborne Reef. 

It didn’t work out so well. While some coral grew on the tires, the tethers quickly eroded because of the salinity of the water and tires began drifting. They damaged previously healthy reef structures. Each subsequent hurricane pushed tires onto healthy reefs and further up and down the coastline. Tires from the reef have washed up on the Florida Panhandle and as far north as North Carolina. In 2001, a biologist at NOVA Southeastern began a project to remove the tires but it wasn’t until 2002 that government support began to remove most of the tires. The Army began removing the tires, combining the conservation initiative with dive training exercises. However, as of 2015, the state and federal budget only encompasses the time and manpower to remove 160,000 tires, leaving almost 40,000 to float freely off the coast of Fort Lauderdale.  The Osborne Reef wasn’t the only tire reef to fail- all tire reefs have come to naught.

The Osborne reef today. Clean up is going slowly. 

In truth though, neither six pack rings nor tires are the biggest threat to the marine environment. In fact, even though images from the great pacific garbage patch and recent reports of trash littering Chinese beaches have called attention to the issue of pollution in the ocean, it is the plastic that we can’t see that has recently been identified as a danger to marine health.

Microplastics are just what they sound like: minute pieces of plastic that are either the product of plastic that has degraded and been broken down over time or small plastics like microbeads used in beauty products and other industrial products. These plastics are nearly invisible to humans but they taste, look, or feel (depending on how the organism senses) like food to many organisms, especially gelatinous zooplankton. While it would be bad to have an ocean full of jellyfish full of plastic, this probably doesn’t sound horrible to you. What’s a few jellyfish in the grand scheme of things? But here’s the thing- if plastic is the daily special for the lowest organisms on the food chain, it will eventually be the inadvertent consumable of those highest on the food chain (that’s us). Little fish eat jellyfish and bigger fish eat them and so on and so forth until humans eat the biggest fish because we like those predator fish so very much. And before you know it, we don’t just have to worry about mercury in our tuna, but also plastics with a wide range of chemicals. The ocean is full of these microplastics.

I’ve been reading about microplastics for a while now but still I was startled after a storm in Florida to walk on the beach and encounter a clear line of microplastics along the shoreline. I had gone to the beach with a trash bag to pick up what I knew would be a huge amount of trash kicked up by a heavy surf (even I was surprised by the amount and range of trash I picked up). But there it is: a tiny, colorful line in the sand.

You can just see the microplastics of different colors on the tide line. 

This is a bottle cap found on the beach. It is ringed with algae and blends into the beach. If you weren't looking for plastic, you would think that it was a jellyfish or a beautiful shell. 

And it turns out that ingestion is not the only fear where microplastics are concerned.  While tires might not be the best way to start coral reefs, it turns out that microplastics are a pretty awesome place to build microbiomes. Microbiomes, conveniently named the “plastisphere” by researcher to identify the newly created environments surrounding these floating plastic trash heaps, are communities of microbes that build up on these microplastics.   When I initially heard about this new area of study, I was initially optimistic. Wouldn’t it be great if these plastics could host great little floating communities? Alas, no. It appears that these microbiomes are a cause for concern because they could serve as particularly crafty vectors to move viruses and bacteria across the ocean relatively easily.

So what does all this plastic talk mean? The ocean has a big plastic problem- humans have created a whole new ecosystem and handily named it. We did that. But the type of conservation we are still talking about, the type of plastic pollution we are still supposed to be fighting are the concerns of the 70s, 80s, and 90s kids. Of course, it isn’t wrong to worry about six-pack-rings and tires, but the major problem is something huger than these individual pieces of plastic. It felt like nostalgia, watching these animated moments even though I was startled that they appeared at all.

There is no solution to the plastisphere problem at the moment, technologies and strategies like those proposed by The Ocean Cleanup are still in developmental phase and fail to take into account the multiple variables required to pull-off such a large project. As of now, smaller projects to remove the plastic are here to stay. So focus needs to be on preventing more plastic from entering the ocean. 

This is where films like Finding Dory come in. It is clear that the animators, writers, and directors were hoping to make some statement with these images. Portraying the ocean as a beautiful place being trashed seems like an important step towards teaching children stewardship. However, I wonder how the inclusion of trash without actually pointing out how wrong it is, how harmful it is, might actually go to naturalize or normalize these images for younger children. The question of how to raise good stewards, and whether these types of images work, is for the next post. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Eat Lionfish!: saving our seas by consuming invasive species

Lionfish are a rapidly advancing invasive marine species. They eat juvenile fish, reducing the diversity and native fish population on some species by up to 95%. So, what to do with these creatures?

As with all problems, my own personal answer involves food. So I have always been interested in the idea that we can best manage these invasive species by eating them. Proponents of this plan don't just want to get people to eat lionfish occasionally, but instead they want to develop a cultural and social acceptance of the organism as a commonly consumed species of fish. This is a lot harder than it might seem. 

In the middle of the 19th century, two things happened in parallel: 
The first was a large influx of immigrants from Europe (and especially Germany).
The second was a noticeable decline in native fish stocks (I say noticeable because they were probably declining for some time and it wasn't until this period when fishermen sounded the alarm). 
These two occurrences (increased immigration and decreased fish stocks) were not causal (no, immigrants didn't steal our fish)  but they did mean that there were more people and less fish to feed everyone. 

So the newly created U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries decided to do something about this: they would farm carp and release it into nearly every part of the US. 

Carp was already a popular ornamental and food fish in Germany- so the US Commission thought that the introduction of this species would be a win-win. They already knew that immigrants considered this an acceptable food source and they assumed that the fish would become popular with other Americans as their native fish stocks declined. What could go wrong? 

Initially, citizens responded favorably to carp introductions. According to Robin's Dougty's history of carp farming in Texas during this period:  

"Texans were expected to find carp delectable-especially European
immigrants or first- and second-generation Americans of German stock,
who were supposedly accustomed to the practice of carp culture in the
Old World. Initially, people reacted very favorably to their stocks of
young carp obtained free from the U.S. Fish Commission ponds in
Washington, D.C., or, after 1882, from state carp ponds in Austin. In
July, 1883, the U.S. Fish Commission sent out a survey to 2,ooo recipients
of earlier carp shipments across the nation. Sixty-seven respondents
from thirty-three Texas counties replied positively to the set
of fifteen questions. The number of responses from the Lone Star State
matched that from Ohio (Texas ranked fourth in the nation); the response 
was about half of that from Virginia, which ranked number

But excitement about carp was quickly replaced by disgust and annoyance. Farm bred carp were kept in squalid conditions: the fish are hardy and thrived in muddy, murky ponds on basically any food. However, they also take on the taste of those muddy, murky and garbage filled locations. Complaints flooded into the Commission that the fish were inedible. 

In addition, the stocking of lakes and rivers lead to an overabundance of the species. The German carp began to push out the already declining native species. For those fisherman interested in trout, the carp was a less beautiful and sporting fish, regardless of taste. 

As public opinion turned against the carp, the Fish Commission continued to try to make it a thing. They posted pamphlets on cooking methods 

This poster seems a bit informal, exasperated, and slightly grasping. I'm not sure it's particularly convincing all things considered. 
And they were particularly interested in promoting all fish during WWI and WWII because of meat shortages. 

But alas, similar to fetch, carp was never really going to happen. 

There are other instances of trying to interest people in eating invasive species, especially when those species have overtaken and threatened the food source upon which those populations used to thrive. For instance, the oyster and mussel populations in Cancale, France are being crowded out by the invasive Atlantic slipper snail. While locals refuse to eat the snail, which they consider little more than disgusting vermin, one entrepreneur is trying to interest high end Parisian restaurants in the species. 

No one quite knows how the lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific found its way into the Atlantic. The first sightings in Florida occurred as early as 1985. What we do know is what has happened since then. Lionfish have invaded the Caribbean and Atlantic seaboard. They have been spotted as far north as Rhode Island and are beginning to work their way into estuaries. The hope that lower salinity would stop the spread of these fish inland has been smashed by the realization that they have broad salinity tolerance, meaning that they will have an impact on both reef ecosystems and broader littoral and coastal ecosystems.  

Some scientists, activists, and environmentalists think that the best form of control could be to make it a popular food fish. The January 2016 updates to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch lists lionfish as a "best catch" and states that "When you buy lionfish you are helping to prevent the spread of this invasive species in US waters." Earthinvaders.org  points to Cuba's success with eating these fish: 

"The Cuban government promoted harvesting lionfish in 2011–and when we visited in 2014, we saw only one pez león over five days of snorkeling on the reefs. Although the invaders persist in deeper waters, the fishing pressure appears to be working." (They do not cite this assertion so take it with a grain of salt)

One of the concerns with harvesting and processing lionfish is understandable: they have poisonous spines. Those spines can remain poisonous up to an hour after they are caught. Learning to properly clean the fish is the first step to eating them. 

After they are cleaned, they can be cooked like any other fish. Many people compare them to grouper or other salt water fish. 

I was lucky enough to get to try lionfish this winter while vacationing in Cape Canaveral, FL. Grills bar and restaurant has started serving lionfish and I was excited to get to contribute to ecosystem conservation by eating and drinking beer on a deck in 80 degree weather. This is the type of conservation that Americans really like!

 Grills prepares their lionfish by frying it and then broiling it (something they call froiling) and they serve it with a type of teriyaki sauce. 

The fish is a huge amount of meat- in fact, we shared the appetizer above and it was overwhelming how much of the fish is actually meat. The flesh is similar to any white fish you might have had- it doesn't taste "fishy" (a common complaint about fish because apparently people like to eat food that doesn't taste like food and while I find that confusing I accept it). In fact, it doesn't taste like much at all, so I think that would be a great hit with consumers. There are a lot of tiny bones if you don't fillet it first, but the fish is so good it is worth the effort of weeding them out. 

One of my favorite things about the lionfish is that its skin is edible. While many people don't like to eat fish skin, I absolutely love it. The taste and texture are something that appeal to me (I love trout and catfish for this reason). Lionfish skin is really good and on a fried fish like the one above, it was probably my favorite. part. 

All in all, I hope that the lionfish catches on in the US. If it doesn't, it won't be because it isn't good to eat. I would order it as a regular entree, even without the added incentive of eating invasive species. 

It's fetch. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The historical precedent to Mickey and Jay

If you're on the internet, you might have been introduced to the above video of two guys freaking out about a sunfish they've spotted near Boston. If you haven't watched it, it's lovely for a few reasons but also not exactly safe for work (the cursing is epic). One of the reasons I was so excited when viewing it was that one of the first reactions is to "call the aquarium." I study the interaction of aquariums with the public and it's great to see that people see what they think is either a new creature or an injured creature and want to call their local aquarium.

But I was also interested in the video when I ran across this picture researching this morning:

This is a picture of a sunfish caught off the coast of Catalina Island on Sept. 3, 1919. Mr. Van Campen Heilner (The man behind the cart) describes the capture in the Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society:

The narrator goes on to say he wanted to take the fish into shore alive, but quickly found that it wasn't going to happen- it was so heavy that the drag created from the boat basically killed the poor thing (if the harpooning and gaff through the mouth and eye socket weren't enough). While there wasn't a big enough scale the weigh it when they did get to dock, they did measure its length.  The sunfish ended up measuring 10 feet 11 inches. 

The sunfish in this narrative was doing the same thing that the one in the above video is doing: basking on the surface of the water to get warm after diving to great depths (go here to read more about it).

They are found throughout the ocean and there are often sightings similar to the one in the video (minus the freaking out and Boston accent).

We should never forget that the history of marine animal sightings is usually peppered with men on boats screeching "What's that?! Let's kill it and find out?!" However, we should be happy that the first reaction this time around was 'let's help it' and 'let's call the aquarium.' That seems to be progress,  even if it devolves from there.