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Science

In the Eyes of the Dolphin

Cetaceans have extraordinary eyesight.

Dolphins can use their sonar to detect complex shapes and identify them visually. Captive animals have been known to throw frisbees and catch fish without using their sonar. And at any oceanarium it is common to witness dolphins demonstrating their amazing ability to leap out of the water and touch a small target many feet above the surface. These same dolphins repeatedly sail over tightropes and through hoops without touching them, often times in unison. All demonstrating that cetaceans are capable of seeing, not only underwater, but also in air and from water to air. The combination of their visual acuity and sonar abilities makes dolphins well equipped to evaluate any and all objects in their environment.

When the ancestors of the modern dolphin re-entered the water, so many eons ago, their eyes and eyesight went through some major transformations.

On land, eyesight is primarily challenged by dust and the threat of physical harm. These problems are counteracted by hairy eyebrows and lashes and eyeballs that are located in deep sockets of the skull for protection. Tears help wash away dust and clean the eyes. In the sea, the challenges to the eye are more associated with salt and particles in the water, as well as the massive pressure associated with deep dives. Cetacean eyes are encapsulated to protect the shape and integrity of the orb from pressure during dives. There are no dolphin tears, instead special glands secrete oil that continuously wash the surface of the eye to prevent irritation from salinity.

Land animals depend on detection of movement, position, color, detail and sharpness as visual cues. Dolphin vision is more dependent on brightness. The cetacean eye is adapted to perform at depths where light is minimal. At thirty feet, as much as 90% of sunlight is lost and color disappears. The dolphin pupil is capable of opening enormously wide to enhance brightness. The eyes are also lined with a highly reflective substance that concentrates light, similar to the silver of an old traditional headlight. The eyeball has an oval shape, and the lens is positioned to prevent even the weakest ray of light from escaping the retina.

On the other hand, dolphins must see not only at lightless depths, but also at or just below the surface, where it is the brightest. Due to water movement and its effect on sunlight, it can be more than seven times brighter just below the surface than it is above the water. The eye is equipped with a flap like structure that closes over the restricted pupil. It can look as if the dolphin has two tiny pupils at times. Even so, the ability of the dolphin to go from near complete darkness to extreme brightness is one of the miracles of the dolphin eye.

The position of the dolphin eye on each side of the head not only provides additional protection from the onslaught of ocean particles as the dolphin swims forward through the water, but also allows for a nearly complete field of vision. This position of the eye provides some stereo vision directly below them, but also creates a blind spot directly in front of the dolphin. This is one of the places where the sonar comes in handy as they can virtually “see” anything in this blind spot… with sound.

Dolphins don’t just use their eyesight to locate food. The structure of dolphin societies suggests a strong use of visual cues in communication. It makes perfect sense that in an environment where danger can come from any and all directions, silent communication is important. Body posture and subtle swimming techniques can effectively give the others a warning. They can also express irritation, initiate romance and/or provide comfort. An S-shaped body posture by an individual is thought to represent some degree of annoyance, an inverted swim under a female by a male suggests courtship, and companions often swim side by side, eye to eye and rub pectoral fins, possibly during new or unique situations.

Since the dolphin body has adapted to be optimum in the aquatic world, they have lost the ability for facial expression common in terrestrial mammals. They cannot smile with satisfaction, nor grimace in pain. Therefore there must be a lot to be seen in the eye of the dolphin. As many of us here at the Palm Beach Dolphin Project can attest, dolphins are not only capable but sometimes insistent on making eye contact. Not only with each other but with us as well. Here’s looking at you kid!

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We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Coral Cartography Advances Conservation

Considered among the most complex and diverse environments on Earth, coral reefs play a key role in the health of our planet’s oceans. Pollutants, algae blooms, over-fishing, damage due to development and mooring are well known threats to their own health and recent changes in the global climate are causing additional stresses, including a rise in water temperature and acidity. The result is a further decimation of the existing reefs and the creatures that underpin the ocean’s food web.

Most of our knowledge about coral reefs and benthic habitats is based on monitoring data gathered through a range of methods, mostly reef surveys, varying from rapid monitoring by trained volunteers to highly detailed, species level observations. However, these surveys provide little, if any, information on adjacent benthic habitats, such as sea grass beds or hard bottom, and more importantly, fail to appropriately address and document the spatial component of the marine ecosystem. While coral reef mapping in itself is not new, most of these maps may differentiate shallow from mixed reef areas, but they do not provide further detail, nor do they include adjacent areas of sea grass beds or other benthic habitats.

Caring for coral reefs, however, is dependent on us knowing far more about these extraordinary benthic environments and the associated ecosystems they host, and the establishment of baseline data against which future assessments of ocean health can be measured.

To generate maps of coral reefs, we have used aerial and satellite imagery, remote sensing and ArcGIS, and on-site field-surveys combined with the marine habitat classification framework defined by the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the National Oceanography and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Habitat Conservation, which provides for the distinction of community types and density variations therein.

The image shows a highly precise map of the marine area surrounding Peterson Cay that discerns different habitat types from bare ocean floor to algae, sea grass, and coral reef, highlights density variations in each, and pinpoints the exact location of individual species of interest such as the endangered Elkhorn coral.

The ArcView software allows us to determine with impressive precision the spatial expansion of each marine habitat across the study site. As it turns out, coral reef, in its various expressions of density covers 208 acres, sandy bottom with various degrees of sea grass spread out over 263 acres, and areas of hard pad, with algae (generally red and brown algae) of one degree or another covered 209 acres. It is worth emphasizing though that the density of algae coverage in two-third of these areas is less than 10%.

Being able to accurately locate individual corals or territorial fish species is essential for successful management and conservation programs. For instance, observations of the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans), which poses a significant risk to native species, can be charted on the map facilitating its capture and eradication. Having a visual representation of the entire reef, or a number of reefs stretched out across a larger area, is the best means in determining where to install fixed monitoring devices, such as sedimentation traps. The comprehensive understanding of spatial features across the reef will also facilitate the identification of additional dive sites suitable for commercial scuba operators. Increasing the number of dive sites will alleviate the pressure of those currently used every day by multiple groups. Marking mooring sites adjacent to shallow reefs will help avoid reef damage caused by boat traffic and anchors. Last but not least, knowing the exact location, dimension and composition of the reefs will help develop sustainable land use plans for coastal projects that benefit from these natural jewels rather than harming or destroying them.

By documenting the actual environmental conditions, we are able understand the relationship between different habitat types and the larger reef ecosystem as well as monitor expansions or declines of certain habitats. Conducting similar studies on adjacent reefs will eventually lead to a larger-scale map and a deeper understanding of both local and regional reef ecosystems and their processes.

Although this new mapping technology doesn’t necessarily represent the natural state of any ecosystem, it can at least provide a baseline against which we can compare future observations, thus establishing a powerful framework for conservation and management. And that’s what the map of Peterson Cay’s coral reef will do. By combining traditional observational recordings with precise spatial information, it provides new insight into the fascinating world just below the water’s surface.

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We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Florida’s Wild Dolphins Reveal Unique Social Feeding Behavior

For the last decade, the Taras Oceanographic Foundation, under a general authority of the National Marine Fisheries Service, has been conducting dolphin surveys in Palm Beach County. We position or boat within three miles from shore, and travel at slow speed, until we see dolphins. We will then follow the dolphins long enough to photograph each dolphin and document their behavior. And although we have studied wild dolphins for decades, we still find new and different behaviors that are remarkable.

There are days when bait fish seem to fall fro m the sky. On those special days, when the seas are flat, we watch all kin ds of fish jumping out of the water; some high in the air in a single arc, others low and repeatedly as they travel some distance. Flying fish routinely glide, with ease, for several meters. Ballyhoo and Bonita will jump to avoid being eaten. Every once in a while, a clever dolphin will take advantage of these jumping fish; a clever dolphin like Odyssey, and her offspring.
Odyssey was conducting a master class in the art of catching fish. And when I say ‘catching fish’ I mean CATCHING fish. She was throwing a fish into the air, and artfully catching with in her mouth. She demonstrated the process a few times for her calf, and then did something remarkable.

She bit off the head of the fish, before throwing the body in the air, for her calf to catch. We could not help but make the comparison of a mother cutting the crust off a sandwich, before serving it to her child. But it is more than that; she was keeping her calf safe.
For the significance of this simple act, we need to first ex­ amine the basic anatomy of a fish. Fish use gills to acquire oxygen from the water. These gills are located just at the base of the head. When a fish breathes, it draws in a mouthful of water and pulls the sides of its throat together, forcing the water through the gill openings, which expand away from the body.

Dolphins do not chew their food. It is imperative, therefore, for a dolphin to swallow their prey, head first. If a fish were eaten tail first, it might expand its gills while passing through the throat of the dolphin and become wedged. In all the necropsies I performed, I once found one dolphin with a fish caught in its throat. The fish was swallow ed tail first, and the res ult was deadly. Back to Odyssey and her calf.
She was biting the heads off the fish, so her calf would not catch the fish backwards and choke to death. She threw the fish body high in the air, and her calf made repeated attempts to make the catch. More likely motivated by the game than the food, the small dolphin was still nursing and probably not too hungry. Over the next few months, as this calf grows, Odyssey will insist it hunt down its own food. The catching strategies learned now, will be all the more important in the future.

But even the best strategies and the most prepared youngster will not grow to be an adult unless there continues to be the abundance and variety of fish to eat. We are currently living through the sixth mass extinction event this planet has experienced. ln the past, these epic occurrences were the result of volcanic eruptions or asteroids striking the earth, but this time they are our own doing.

Why is it important to study dolphins? Sure they are cute and all, but why should anyone support such endeavors? Because in many ways, we are alike. Dolphins eat the fish we eat. They raise their kids to be better citizens and work every day to make a living and support their families. They are the masters of the ocean environment; a subject about which we are remarkably naive. And the ocean is vital to the survival of us both.

Although we continue to harvest the resources the oceans provide, at unsustainable rates, we could learn from the marine mammals how to find areas of highest productivity and hunt selectively. As we increase the noise in the ocean with our recreational watercraft, commercial ships and military exercises, we learn from the dolphins that in the deep ocean, it is by listening and hearing we can have the best vision. Marine mammals are the ocean canaries, warning us about the disastrous effects of pollution and habitat destruction, and they can be our guides to find answers, to questions we have not yet thought to ask about the ocean realm.

It is through the long- term studies like the one we have been carrying out in Palm Beach waters, that dolphins teach us about the ocean, the world and ourselves. We just have to keep going to school.

 

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We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world. Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective. The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Quo Tendimus

The scope of the problems we are currently facing can be illustrated with catchwords such as global warming, sea level rise, soil degradation, potable water shortages, and the loss of species and biotope diversity. It is obvious that an ecologically focused structural change is needed. The adaptive capacity of the economic and social systems, and the confined possibilities of using the environment, must be considered.

Too many people still believe that the future will be much like the past, with the task of avoiding disaster falling to markets and technologies. But think about this: the earth is stable; it does not grow. The input of the sun likewise remains constant. Much of the wealth, derived from that input and stored over tens of millions of years in fossil fuels, has already been consumed in less than two centuries. No technology in the world can alter this equation.

Obviously, our activities, especially all-harvesting of natural resources, has tremendous impact on the ecosystem. But there is also a widespread consensus that non-sustainable harvesting, and causing the extinction of species, is ethically unacceptable and unjustifiable. And we all need nature; for food, health and scientific innovation, the prevention of floods, droughts and epidemics, and of course we need wild places, animals and plants for recreation, renewal, and inspiration.

Our steadily narrowing spectrum of consumed products from agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and the concentration on a few economically valuable species, has resulted in a specialization of land and marine food harvesting systems. Combined with the conversion of habitats, these are prime causes of species loss within any particular ecosystem. The greatest problem may be the illusion that subtle changes in course direction could guide us towards a good life that will include both a ‘conserved’ nature and cozy shopping malls.

It may be useful to realize that we are dealing with the conservation of Man in nature, which requires us take Man’s cultural identity into consideration as well. If people are denied their culture, nature and the environment will also suffer. Cultural diversity must be considered part of biodiversity, and like other aspects of biodiversity, cultural diversity helps people adapt to changing conditions.

I believe, given the complexity of the challenges, only a cross-disciplinary approach with a very close and intense collaboration between science, business and all other stakeholders promises to fulfill our hopes for a better, common future. Corporations, being the dominant institutions on the planet, must squarely address the social and environmental problems that affect mankind. Science must provide the information needed to make sensible choices and decisions. Together they must rewrite economics texts and fine-tune the notion of sustainability, as only then can they create an enduring society with a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative.  Where economics, biology, and human systems are integrated and profitable, and expandable companies created that do not destroy, directly or indirectly, the world around them.

A scientist is primarily concerned with understanding the world. That commitment must, in turn, lead to the scrutiny of some aspects of nature in great empirical detail. The reward comes at the split second of time when something new has been learned.  The results need then to be communicated in a timely and comprehensible fashion, so that knowledge is expanded, and trust and confidence prevail.

            A corporate leader is primarily concerned with quarterly earnings and shareholder equity, often forsaking the curiosity for new things and foresight of a long-term time line.  As Dow Chemical manager Fussler said in an interview many years ago, corporate leaders have to re-direct their thinking, away from short-term costs arguments, into new directions, including the invention of products that are completely different from what we know today. In fact, we need to re-discover a horizon, one that goes beyond a single generation, one that ensures that our actions are based on knowledge and not on public opinion, polls or junk science. And we need to subordinate the present-day advantage under the long-term necessity of the future.  In the words of Charles F. Kettering, ‘We should all be interested in the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there’.

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We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

 

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The Objectives of Marine Mammal Research

The aim of marine mammal research is to develop progressive knowledge and understanding of their biology, adaptations, behavior and ecology, which will lead to better protection of species and their habitats, contributing to biodiversity in such a way that a sustainable use of the sea becomes possible.  Furthermore, such research strives to understand how we affect their lives and how we can gain from them, e.g. through tourism.

If you understand dolphin echolocation and how it works, then you have the tools to apply that knowledge.  If you are a conservationist and are concerned about dolphin entanglement in nets, the knowledge allows you to build better fishing nets that will not harm them.  The application of the knowledge depends on what you value: for an academic, to further knowledge and understanding; for an applied researcher, to be able to provide information to managers on the implications of a range of management options, for a conservation biologist: to find ways of ensuring the health of populations.

In the end, all this will contribute to a better understanding of the impact we have on our planet.  You can’t have seven billion people growing and running around on a planet without having some major impacts.  Right now we are making choices we don’t even understand; better to make an informed choice don’t you think?

There are various tools that can be used to achieve this goal, including expanding the knowledge base through biological inventories, research, monitoring, training of professionals, planning (environmental impact assessment), action plans and integrated area management, regulating threats to marine species and ecosystems, establishing protected areas, and ensuring active involvement of citizens in government decision making.  Public education is very important in all conservation efforts.

 

Most of science consists of answering very small questions.  Each one may not have much value in and of itself, but when the whole picture is to be seen, each of the many small pixels of knowledge will be required.  So in the long term, we can expect to truly understand some of the things that are affecting cetaceans and their behavior.  In the short term, however, one cannot expect too much.  Important results in this field are usually gained through long-term research, which will then constitute the wisdom and the power to make the best possible decisions about the future.  Research aimed only at solving a specific, well-understood short-term problem is not going to provide us with the answers we need ten or twenty years from now.  We need to commit some fraction of our resources, our dollars, to basic science, understanding that it is a risk-taking investment; not all science hunches pay off, but when they pay off, they pay off big.  And this investment of resources should not be done because it is `en vogue’ to be concerned about the animals, the oceans and the planet, but because it is intellectually and morally the correct thing to do.  By better understanding one group of marine creatures, with which we compete for resources – prey and habitat -, we may be able to better manage our affairs on this planet.

In sum, excellent research provides several results: Firstly, it leads to a deeper understanding of the world and its basic mechanisms of function, or in other words, an increased appreciation of the world in which we live.  Secondly, it provides a baseline of data against which we can measure changes and information that can be put to practical use, thus reducing our impact on these animals and their environment.  And third, the advancement of knowledge usually entrains an increase in public awareness and then support from the general public, which is a crucial determinant for maintaining biodiversity, the survival of the variety of species and their habitats and a wise resource use by man.

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We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Why Oceans Are Important To Us

In his charming and insightful book called ‘The Immense Journey’, biologist-author Loren Eiseley said:

“We have many ways to quench our thirst, but no way to overcome our need for water…its substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future; it moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of the air…If there is magic on the planet, it is contained in water.”

There are about 326 million cubic miles (=525 cubic kilometers) of water on this planet. The largest percentage, 97.4% is found in the oceans.  2.6% is on land and most of this is locked in the great polar ice caps. All the life-sustainable fresh water found in the worlds lakes, creeks, streams, and rivers and in the groundwater or aquifers, represents less than 0.01 percent of the total. Water is virtually and intrinsically important!

The world’s oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface. Life probably originated in the seas, and life still depends largely on their well-functioning. Most of the solar heat that hits this planet is stored there, most of the conversion of sunlight to food energy by plants takes place in water, most of the world’s fresh supplies of oxygen are produced by microscopic plant-like organisms floating near the surface of the oceans, the global climate is regulated, and a lot of our food protein comes from the sea. The Ocean is also one of the most important traffic routes and a sink for a large portion of our wastes. It provides natural resources and, to an increasing extent, raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry.

In addition to these primarily material aspects, the ocean has acquired significant value as a recreational area. More and more people seek recreation and relaxation in, or near the water. Marine tourism is one of the most rapidly growing branches of industry.  Proximity to the sea has great value, reflected in incredibly high real estate prices for seashore property. Roughly 70% of the world population lives within 200 km of the coast, and two third of all metropolises, having a population of more than 2.5 million, are situated on the coast. Between 100 and 200 million people live in coastal zones below storm tidal level.  Ignoring these fragile and vital eco-systems can only spell disaster.

From the earliest days of human settlements, up to the industrial revolution, waterways have been a major means of transport. Cities and industrial plants, even after the industrial revolution, have been located on these waterways, because many of them require water for manufacturing and/or shipping to coastal ports. With very few exceptions, all streams and rivers flow into other rivers or into lakes, which, in turn, have outlets to wetlands, bays, estuaries, seas and oceans.

The aggregation of wastes flowing into our streams and estuaries, and ultimately into the oceans, is a biochemical soup carrying thousands of different chemicals. Rainwater and snow melt, that run off from congested urban areas, collect street oil and chemicals as well as many metals. Runoff into streams and rivers adjacent to farmlands carry tons of suspended particles of soil. This is not only damaging to fish but can also choke-out submerged oxygen-giving grasses in coastal woodlands, bays or estuaries. Runoff from timber harvesting activities, especially clear cutting, deprives the exposed land of thousands of tons of soil and has caused the pollution of some of the most valuable spawning grounds for trout and salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Runoff of the nitrogen and phosphorus components of fertilizers leads to an oxygen depletion in the water. This depletion has caused massive fish die-offs and can wipe out whole areas of marine habitat necessary to maintain the life cycles of myriads of species of aquatic life. Other chemicals, such as DDT can accumulate in the tissues of marine animals to toxic levels, even if they live their entire lives in remote parts of the globe (Antarctic penguins and seal species for example).

The incredibly rapid petrochemical revolution, which forms the basis for this modern age of plastic, has spawned a nearly exponential increase in major sources of pollution affecting our stratosphere, atmosphere, lands and waters. We build this material to last and now, after years of dumping it into the sea, it has come back to haunt us, killing and maiming marine life. Plastic is believed to be the most far-reaching man-made threat facing many marine species, annually killing or maiming tens of thousands of seabirds, seals, sea lions and sea otters, as well as hundreds of whales, dolphins, porpoises and turtles.

We know that the deadly flows we are adding to our oceans do not just disappear.  Many of them do not even decay. In all, this mixture can kill plant and marine life, contaminate food supplies and endanger people and entire coastal communities. With over 50% of the US population now living within 100 miles of our coastlines, it is no accident that the highest chemical contamination can be found in waters of the largest of the cities on these coasts – Boston, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

What long-term effects and future afflictions are in store for our “water planet” is beyond our present knowledge, but there is doubt that global environmental changes will have serious effects on the oceans will pose great problems for many countries, and the very existence of some island states may even be threatened. Given the different functions oceans and coastal areas have for human society, conflicts between different interests, such as utilization and protection, will arise.

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We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

Read more

Sustainable Development and Biodiversity

Today, the internationally acknowledged basis for agreements on environmental protection, resource management, and conservation, consists of the principles of sustainable development and the maintenance of biodiversity. The concept of sustainable development is based on the realization that the conditions for economic activities will continue to deteriorate in the future, if the natural resources underlying these activities continue to be destroyed at the present rate.

By exploiting non-renewable raw materials, we consume resources as if making withdrawals from a limited saving account, without making deposits. At the same time, our species is using renewable resources above and beyond their regeneration capacity.  The earth’s limited absorption capacity is overtaxed by emissions and waste volumes, leading to consequential ecological costs, which can no longer be ignored. A discussion about the fundamental rules involved in our economies is tantamount to a renaissance of nature as a factor in the production-function concept.

The supplies of resources, and the absorption of residuals, both prerequisites for economic activities, are to be seen as irreplaceable functions of nature. The preservation of the capital stock (= natural resources) is a key element of sustainable development. Unlike current approaches, this capital stock should at least be kept at a constant level to prevent future generations from suffering from shortages of natural resources or a deterioration of environmental quality. First and foremost, sustainable development means preserving the vital functions of the environment, including the potential for change, evolution and self-regulation.

Biodiversity is meant to be all-inclusive; it is the genetic-based variation of living organisms at all levels. It includes the world’s millions of species and the ecological systems they live in, ranging from Polar Regions with relatively few species, to the tropics with their great abundance of different life forms. Conserving biodiversity provides us with at least three domains of benefit:

  1. Maintenance of our ecosystems in healthy condition
  2. Source of new pharmaceuticals, crops, fibers etc., all holding economic value
  3. ‘Biophilia’, which is a term used by E.O. Wilson to describe the natural affiliation humans have for the natural environment

In the words of paleontologist Niles Eldredge, it is our failure to recognize our connection with the global ecosystem that lies behind the biodiversity crisis facing our planet. We have to recognize that biological diversity is part of our heritage and is incomparably older and more complex than anything else.

Our own single species, out of the 5-30 million species that exist today, consumes nearly half of the total produce from land-based ecosystems, and 25% of all plant energy from the land and sea combined. Today there are less than 1 million elephants, but 100 million cattle on earth.  These numbers do not reflect intrinsic worthiness, but rather developed usefulness. And yet, we must confront the demographic realities honestly, if we hope to preserve biodiversity, achieve a sustainable development, and to prevent a massive Sixth Extinction.

Although it may be impossible to determine the exact rate of extinction, estimates are that about 27,000 species are lost each year, which means that three species are lost forever every hour. It is also commonly accepted that there is a relationship between habitat loss and species numbers. Reducing a habitat’s original size by 10% is expected to eventually lead to the numbers of species inhabiting that area dropping by half. Every species that disappears is a loss of evolutionary potential.  Human-caused extinction is up between a thousand and ten thousand times over what it was before humans came to Earth. This is far in excess of the rate at which new species are being created.  So again, we are quickly running out of the capital that took many millions of years to create.

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We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

Read more

Marine Litter

People create a lot of waste and even though it can be processed, recycled and properly disposed of a significant amount of it escapes into the environment. When we talk of marine debris, also known as marine litter, then we refer to human-created solid waste that deliberately or accidentally was released in a lake, river, waterway, sea or the ocean. By broad estimates, 10% of what will become marine litter is thrown away by people directly on the beach, but that 80% actually comes from inland sources, from it is transported by wind, rain and rivers into the oceans of the world.

Marine debris comes in all sizes: from wrecked vessels, large cargo containers and fishing nets, to plastic bags and soda bottles, cloth fibers and plastic beads. Similarly, the materials and substances vary across a broad spectrum: Glass, metal, cardboard, paper and textile make up about 25%, while 75% of all marine litter is composed of various forms of plastic polymers. The most common are plastic bags, beverage and food containers and the very tiny so-called mermaid spheres, which are very small plastic pellets that are used to manufacture all sorts of different plastics and shipped around the world in huge quantities. By all accounts, billions of them have found their way into the environment.

Most people are still wondering about why they should be concerned. After all, the ocean is vast, and it is hard to imagine any human activities could significantly disturb it. So let me point out some of the reasons why we should be concerned.

First, ocean litter negatively impact marine life and marine biodiversity and resilience. Litter moves with ocean currents, winds and tides. As a result what we find on our beaches constitutes only a tiny fraction while most of it stays at sea where in some areas we already find six times more micro plastics than plankton. Furthermore, the plastic accumulated through the food chain and poses significant health risk to many species who are unable to distinguish between plastic and their regular diet. As a consequence hundreds of thousands of marine animals, from sea birds, to sea turtles, dolphins and whales die every year, and when we study their stomach content, we find anything from tooth brushes and golf balls, to fishing nets. Some of these animals, such as fish, sea turtles and dolphins, get trapped by ghost nets, abandoned fishing gear that drift across the oceans. Other marine debris end of sinking to the sea floor where they can prevent the exchange between water and sediment, eventually suffocating the deep-sea environment and the life that depends on it. And if that was not bad enough, it turns out that marine litter is also a vector disease and invasive species. Algae or mollusks can attach themselves to floating pieces of plastic and then disrupt ecosystems in places far away from their geographical origin.

Secondly, marine litter impacts our economic activities, including fisheries, tourism, shipping and recreation. Data published by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) suggests that the costs associated with marine litter (fisheries, aquaculture, marine tourism and cleanups) amount to about 8 billion dollars a year.

Thirdly, we ought to be concerned because the situation will likely get worse in the coming decades. The worldwide, annual plastic production in the 1950s was about 1.5 million tolls. That figure climbed to 300 million tons by 2014 and is expected to reach 33 billion tons by the year 2050. Unless we drastically reduce the mismanagement and losses, hundreds of millions of tons of waste can be expected to escape into the oceans.

Dealing effectively with the marine litter problem requires a multi-pronged approach. Raising awareness and education people is something we have been doing all along but there is not a lot of data that suggests that these efforts have been successful, i.e. produced tangible outcomes.

Beach Clean-ups, while commendable, are not helping much to resolve the problem. For once, only about 10% of all the ocean litter is found on our beaches, and then it clearly does not tackle the actual source of the problem: our constant overconsumption and generation of waste. The idea that recycling and re-use will solve the marine litter issues is nothing more than illusion. It may buy us some time, but what is really needed is a change to our consumption habits.

In order to have clean seas, we need to make a difference on land. All of us.

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We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Spatial Dependency

One of the concepts that helps us better understand the relationship between natural and man-made systems is Spatial Dependency; the idea that ‘everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things’ (Waldo Tobler). For instance, if beach erosion is found in one area then it is very likely that places close to this spot are also subject to erosion. If a coastal dune is destroyed, the impact is not only limited to the built or natural environment no longer being protected from storm surges, erosion and sea level rise, but it also compromises the water balance (dunes store fresh water), habitat and resources for animals and plants, possibly nearby coastal mangroves and coral reefs, and the ability for people to enjoy the coastal jewels.

But spatial dependency is not just about natural resources. It can also be applied to understanding many other issues, including the intrinsic, or indispensable properties of a place, without which it loses its identity. These attributes may include natural resources, existing land uses, people and their communities, and cultural heritage such as architecture, cuisine, music and arts. Analyzing, understanding and then articulating the essence of a particular place is critical no matter what we wish to preserve, restore and develop a particular site or area.

It is paramount to apply scientific site analysis methods to address environmental and natural resources issues. And it is equally important to analyze social, cultural, political, and economic conditions, and take into account the needs, wants and dreams of people.

If the results of recent studies are any indication, people are becoming increasingly interested in protecting the environment and respecting local culture. They want local government and developers to care for the future of the planet, all living things, and its people. There is an awakening to the need for organizations that protect the environment and our social well-being. The risks associated with a failure to meet the expectations of an increasingly conscientious and demanding public cannot be underestimated. Hence, it is important to work towards a better understanding of how everything is related and interconnected and create strategies and mechanism that allow us formulate solutions that advance resilience, sustainability and the human condition.

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We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Dolphins as Sentinels for Oceans and Human Health

Over the past 50 years, a great number of previously un-known human diseases emerged, while other well-known maladies, including cholera and tuberculosis, have seen a significant resurgence. Not surprisingly, dolphins and other marine mammals experience a similar trend, with various papillomaviruses, dolphin poxvirus, lobomycosis, various neoplastic diseases, and algal bloom bio-intoxication being among the better-understood disease agents or diseases. Our experience in human medicine should cause all of us to be concerned about the deterioration of aquatic eco-systems, coastal freshwater or marine, especially since they support more than half of the population in the U.S. alone.

Monitoring the overall health status of dolphins provides an excellent avenue to evaluate the wellbeing of entire aquatic systems, and identify possible environmental trends. Dolphins are the ocean canaries, warning us about existing and emerging threats not only to the aquatic eco-systems, but also to human health. But dolphins are also charismatic and instill the desire to be part of a solution in many people who otherwise may not care. No doubt, it is in our own best interest to closely observe any patterns that could affect us.

Let’s focus here on the most talked about water-related issue in the past two months in south Florida has been the catastrophic, harmful algae bloom that descended onto the Port St. Lucie River lagoon and associated waterways all the ay to the coastline. Algae blooms have become a regular occurrence in this area for years, but this year’s outbreak was larger by order of several magnitudes.

While some people may think that such algae blooms represent little, if any dangers, it is well established that such blooms produce neurotoxins that can kill dolphins and other marine life, as well as biotoxins that affect human health. Among those threats to our own wellbeing are brevetoxins and saxitoxins that cause poisoning, and okadaic acid, which causes diarrhea.

Some recent disease outbreaks (epizootics) among bottlenose dolphin populations in southeast Florida serve as prime examples of how studying dolphins can help us manage health risks. Several of these outbreaks were associated with brevetoxins, produced by a dinoflagellate called Karenia brevis. That is the same species causing the so-called red tides. Brevetoxins are known to kill and/or contaminate fish and shellfish. Once we consume those, or simply inhale toxic aerosols, we will fall ill. It is noteworthy to emphasize that the actual exposure may be delayed, meaning that the risk to human health continues long after, or far away, from the original dinoflagellate bloom.

In sum, any increase in toxins, whether due to natural or anthropogenic cause, in our coastal habitats must be of great concern to us. While we may not yet fully understand how these toxins are absorbed and travel through the entire food chain, there is no doubt that dolphins can serve as the sentinels for ocean and human health.

We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power.

Today we face an increasing chorus of anti-science voices rampant in politics, schools, the doctor’s office and the public. It seems an increasing number of people don’t appreciate science’s relevance; they think it’s a bad word, that it ruins things, that it’s for someone else to do. Many never met a scientist.

For us scientists, our research pursuits are incredibly important. We don’t consider it a job, it’s our life, and we invest everything into it. We are passionate, purposeful and relentless in the pursuit of our objectives. We like questions. We like answers. We like knowledge. We like to understand.

But science permeates your lives, too. It is much more than an intellectual exercise because it leads to a deeper understanding of the world and its basic mechanisms, and function. Science also teaches us to care about the world. Generally, understanding begets caring.

Most of science consists of answering very small questions.  Each one may not have much value in and of itself, but when the whole picture is to be seen, the importance of each of those small pixels of knowledge quickly become evident. Research aimed only at solving a specific, well-understood short-term problem is not going to provide us with the answers we need ten or twenty years from now. We need to commit some fraction of our resources, our dollars, to basic science, understanding that it is a risk taking investment; not all science hunches pay off, but when they pay off they pay off big.

Seems straightforward, and yet many believe their lives are not touched by science at all.  Perhaps herein lies the fundamental challenge: how to get people enthused about a subject if they don’t see any value or connection to themselves.

Take solid waste for example. Most people do not spend a second thought on what happens to all the stuff they throw away and yet science is once again standing ready to figure out how to best deal with its generation, prevention, characterization, monitoring, treatment, handling, reuse and ultimate residual disposition.

By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, scientists figured out that of the 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons entering the ocean. Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste entering the ocean is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025.

Science has already played a major role in reducing waste, recycle precious raw materials, develop waste to energy conversions, and use bioremediation to prevent toxic substances from entering natural cycles.

Or take sea level rise, which is likely to cause mass migrations that will affect not just the United States’ East Coast, but reshape communities deep in the heart of the country, according to research published in the journal Nature Climate Change. People leaving heavily populated coastal communities inundated by flooding will relocate across the U.S. by 2100, including to landlocked states such as Arizona and Wyoming that are unprepared to accommodate this wave of coastal migrants. We do not exactly know what is going to happen but the important point is that only through research will we find out and can then develop tools and strategies to accommodate all those people who will be displaced from their homes due to sea level rise.

Modern science not only builds spaceships and manipulates atoms, but it also helps people to live and work in a more satisfying and healthy manner. It is not only present when a doctor prescribes a new medicine, but also when you eat potato chips, use a cell phone, or when you asked to wear a mask to help limit there spread of the corona virus.

Science is both fascinating and mysterious. Science is for everyone, everybody uses science, and everyone needs science! It is our collective responsibility to illustrate the very large role scientific research plays in the daily life of every person!

So let’s stand up for Science together. March for Science. Support Science. Scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power. Always.

 

We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

Read more

Why It Is Important To Study Wild Dolphins

Most people love whales and dolphins. They think of them as intelligent creatures. They have heard stories of dolphins coming to the aid of stranded sailors, guiding swimmers back to shore and engaging in cooperative hunting with local fishermen. They feel whales and dolphins are important. And they are right! Maybe more than you might think!

Whales and dolphins embody most of what we need to understand about oceans. They are predators at the top of the food chain and can tell us a lot about what is important in the ocean; where are sites of high productivity, what is the most energy efficient way to travel, and what are the best senses to use in the water.

Because of their complex behavior and social structure, whales and dolphins are especially interesting. But they also offer us a window into the physiological and anatomical adaptations to aquatic life; information we can apply to echolocation and boat sonar. More than valuable intellectual exercises, these studies help us understand phenomena such as population decline, recovery, and extinction, and teach us to care about the world. Generally, understanding begets caring.

Further, whales and dolphins are a vibrant part of the global ecosystem and their populations have been severely affected by, and continue to be extremely vulnerable to human impact, including interactions with fisheries and whaling. Above all, marine pollution and habitat degradation looms as the most menacing threats of all. If we have any philosophical leanings towards preserving nature, either for future generations or for its own value, than learning enough to prevent this damage is crucial.

Lastly, whales and dolphins, are the archetypal ‘charismatic mega-vertebrates’. Throughout centuries, whales and dolphins have played major roles in myths and legends. Every culture that has come into contact with an ocean, have created myths and legends about how whales and/or dolphins came into being, and what their existence means to the world and to us.

In our times, whales and dolphins have come so symbolize, more than any other species, the concern for the environment and have become a special symbol of sharing the earth. People react to them with empathy and express concern for their welfare. They epitomize and illustrate many of the problems humans inflict on the sea. They engender, in people who might not otherwise care, a wish to improve the ‘health’ of the marine environment. The huge interest in these animals can therefore be used to encourage interest in the sea more generally, with whales and dolphins becoming flagships or ambassadors of the oceans.

All that makes it important to study these wonderful creatures. If you understand dolphin echolocation and how it works, then you have the tools to apply that knowledge. If you are a conservationist and are concerned about dolphin entanglement in nets, knowledge allows you to reduce that risk. The application of the knowledge depends on what you value: for an academic, to further knowledge and understanding; for an applied researcher, to be able to provide information to managers on the implications of a range of management options, for a conservation biologist: to find ways of ensuring the health of populations and habitats.

For more than thirty years, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been studied along the west coast of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern sea border, from the Carolinas to the southern tip of Florida. I have been involved with Coastal Dolphin Conservation through the Palm Beach Dolphin project of the Taras Oceanographic Foundation, headquartered in Jupiter, Florida. This project provides critical information on coastal dolphin communities, their lives and societies and shed light on how the health of these top predators, and the conditions of the natural resources they depend on, may directly or indirectly impact our own health and well-being.

In light of the enormous impact whales and dolphins have on humans and their lives, it is not difficult to understand why studying them serves the support of all of us. Search the Internet for the word dolphin sometime and see how many ‘hits’ you get. People believe that whales and dolphins have value and people put their money in things they hold interesting.

Why do dolphins hear sounds up to 150kHz while we hear only to 15? What is there to listen to anyway? Why do only male humpback whales sing and why don’t females? What directs Humpback whales in Hawaii to swim directly north in the summer? How do they know which way is North? Do dolphins ‘see’ an image in their brain from echolocation signals that is similar to what we see with our eyes? Does a dolphin think, and if he does, what does he think about? Do whales dream? Why are blue whales the biggest animals that have ever lived on earth? Why do dolphins have pointy rostrums? But most importantly why does anyone care about the answers to these questions? The main point is that people do care, and this is why we should all take a stand, and invest our time and money into understanding and protecting these marvelous marine mammals. No doubt, life is better with dolphins around.

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