Donate

Science

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.

***

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

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.

***

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

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.

Read more

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.

Read more