the sometimes senseless ravings (and the occassional rant) of an aspiring marine ecologist who may enjoy killing things a little too much

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Seagrass and Plain White T's

so, here i am, in the lab all day once again. man, i can't wait to get out in the field again. being in a lab 40+ hours a week, doing the same thing day in and day out is really starting to get to me. i need to be in the field, in the heat and the sun and the water. i am so ready for the bahamas. i've started preparing all of our gear and making arrangements for when we go - 2 weeks from tomorrow. i also found out that of the 10 students in the class, there are only 2 guys. hopefully, the dorms at CEI have more than one bathroom for all those girls.

i'm hoping that i can at least go over to perdido key and collect some seagrass before we leave. it will only be a day trip, but still. see, i have decided to attempt the impossible, a feat that no other seagrass biologist to date has been able to accomplish. i am going to try and culture turtlegrass - and maybe even shoalgrass. this is for my own convenience (there is really no other way for me to get truly ungrazed seagrass for my experiments), but if i'm successful, it will have boundless implications for seagrass restoration. that appeals to my ego. i would love to be the person who finally conquered the art of keeping turtlegrass alive in a lab for more than two or three weeks. i hear it's horribly difficult, but i'm talking to a guy i know in maryland who has successfully cultured eelgrass (a seagrass species we don't have here - it's too hot), and hopefully with his help i can make this work - and possibly make some money by growing seagrass and selling it to other labs who need it for experiments and/or using it for restoration purposes. so yeah, if that works i'll pretty much be a goddess in the world of seagrass biology. even though i'm sure dr. v. will claim partial credit, though it was actually an idea brought up by some of my committee members after he had left our meeting last week. he is my advisor, so i guess that is his right. not that i think he'll try to steal my glory. he's not like that. plus, if i'm successful, it makes him look good.

ok. when i started typing, i did not intend to go on and on about science. i wanted to share my thoughts on my new favorite band, plain white t's. i downloaded some of their songs the other day, as i usually do when i notice a new band that i think i might be interested in, and i pretty much love them. three songs you should check out (if you haven't heard them already): "my only one", "so damn clever", and "hate (i really don't like you)."

they have a song ("hey there delilah") that's currently played on mtv (they may have others, but i really don't watch mtv much), but it's not my favorite. it's not bad, but it's not their best. since i've given away the mtv connetion, i am forced to admit that plain white t's may be a little teenage-punk-pop for some people, but i dig it. am i too old for music like that?

i guess it doesn't matter either way, because i listen to it anyway.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bermuda, Bahama, Come on Pretty Mama...

i don't know what's wrong with me lately, but i just haven't really felt much like posting. i've been stuck in the lab, mostly, slaving away over the HPLC. monday night i went out to dinner at banana docks with a faculty candidate, just (remember him? the spanish prof at DISL?), and another grad student. it was surprisingly enjoyable. we sat there for a long time, just talking. i don't think that guy is going to get the job, though. he was a major dork (not that that's always a bad thing), and the other candidate just had more pizazz. oh well. i got a free dinner (blackened grouper salad) out of it.

in other news, the coral reef ecology class that i'm the TA for starts in a couple of weeks. it sort of snuck up on me. it starts on may 7. and we leave for the bahamas on may 11... and we'll return may 19. for those who are paying attention, yes, that means i will be in the middle of NOWHERE with little or no phone or internet access on chad's and my three year anniversary. i haven't shared that little bit of news with him yet. i'm sure he's not going to like it. i don't really like it, either, but at least i'll be back so we can celebrate the weekend after. that makes it ok, right? ok maybe not, but there's nothing i can do about it now.

despite being there on my anniversary, about which i am bummed, i am really starting to get excited about this bahamas thing, i think. we will be visiting the cape eleuthera institute, which is apparently in the middle of nowhere, so if i get attacked by a shark, i'm screwed. according to their website, they are 40 minutes from the nearest clinic, and a reasonable estimate of the time it would take to get to a real hospital (in either nassau or florida) is something like 6 HOURS. oh my god, can you tell that freaks me out a little? well, it does. their staff is all medically trained, which is supposed to make us feel better, i guess, but they make us fill out medical releases like nobody's business, and they do that for a reason. oh, and let's not forget about the special insurance we have to by in case they have to "evacuate" anyone (meaning, if anyone is seriously injured enough to warrant an actual hospital. you know, one where they can actually perform surgery), the cost of which is something like $50,000.

before today, i didn't realize just how isolated we're going to be on our bahamas trip. it should be a good time, though. i'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

In Limbo

that's kind of how i feel, anyway. like i'm waiting for something to happen without an inkling of what it could be or the slightest desire to get off my ass and make something happen.

no, that's not exactly true. there is one thing that i would kill to make happen right about now - i'd like to get someone over here to SHUT THE FREAKIN ICE MACHINE UP ALREADY. if i could figure out where it's plugged in, i'd do it myself (despite the fear that the stupid thing would explode in my face when i leaned over behind it), but i looked, and i'm not sure how it's hooked up.

see, i'm at the lab, and the ice machine is broken. that in itself causes me problems, but i brought some ice with me today, so that's really no biggie. only they moved the ice machine into the room i have to walk through to get to the prep room with the HPLC (where i practically live these days), and it is making the most god-awful noise. even with the door between the two rooms securely shut, this racket is making me crazy. i noticed the noise (which sounds like a chainsaw. a LOUD chainsaw. cutting through steel.) when i was leaving yesterday, so i stopped in anne's office and told her that not only was there no ice but the machine sounds like it's trying to murder the autoclave (a big huge machine sitting right next to the ice machine's new home) by hacking it to bits with a saw, only really slowly to make sure it suffers. she called the department secretary to get the maintenance guys back over here to fix it yesterday, but when i came in this morning, i was once again greeted by that god awful sound that refuses to be drowned out no matter how ear-shatteringly loud i play my ipod.

so i called and left anne a voice mail (i could have walked downstairs to see if she was in her office, but i'm wearing some cute wedge espadrilles that aren't the most stair-friendly shoes ever made, and there's a phone in the next room), but no one has been up to check on the ice machine yet. i wish i could just figure out how turn it off, but every time i go in there, it growls at me, and i start thinking that there is a very real possibility that something jagged and sharp will come flying out of the motor and straight into my jugular. but at least then that sound would stop.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

We Should View Sharks as Cuddly Pandas...

within the last couple of days, a disturbing video clip has made its way through the grad student grape vine (click here to watch, but i warn you, it isn't pretty. i didn't finish it). this particular video shows heinous dolphin fishing practices in japan, and it is very hard to watch. there is an official petition to the japanese government to put a stop to inhumane fishing practices. it's been on my mind for a while, so i decided to share.

it is becoming more and more apparent that overfishing is a huge problem, as 2/3 of the world's fisheries are fully or overexploited. i just read an interesting article (reproduced below, but here's a link if you'd like to see the original) that looks at overfishing in light of regulations imposed for the endangered mammals (like pandas) that give us all the warm fuzzies. it will make you think about what you're eating.

Why is it still acceptable to eat the endangered large predators of the sea?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 3rd April 2007.

To Ransom A. Myers, who died on March 27th.

If these animals lived on land there would be a global outcry. But the great beasts roaming the savannahs of the open seas summon no such support. Big sharks, giant tuna, marlin and swordfish should have the conservation status of the giant panda or the snow leopard. Yet still we believe it is acceptable for fishmongers to sell them and celebrity chefs to teach us how to cook them.

A study in this week’s edition of Science reveals the disastrous collapse of the ocean’s megafauna. The great sharks are now wobbling on the edge of extinction. Since 1972 the number of blacktip sharks has fallen by 93%, tiger sharks by 97% and bull sharks, dusky sharks and smooth hammerheads by 99%(1). Just about every population of major predators is now in freefall. Another paper, published in Nature four years ago, shows that over 90% of large predatory fishes throughout the global oceans have gone(2).

You respond with horror when you hear of Chinese feasts of bear paws and tiger meat. But these are no different, as far as conservation is concerned, from eating shark’s fin soup or swordfish or steaks from rare species of tuna. One practice is considered barbaric in Europe and North America. The other is promoted in restaurant reviews and recipes in the colour supplements of respectable newspapers.

In terms of its impact on both ecology and animal welfare, shark fishing could be the planet’s most brutal industry. While some sharks are taken whole, around 70 million are caught every year for their fins(3). In many cases the fins are cut off and the shark is dumped, alive, back into the sea. It can take several weeks to die. The longlines and gillnets used to catch them snare whales, dolphins, turtles and albatrosses. The new paper shows that shark catching also causes a cascade of disasters through the foodchain. Since the large sharks were removed from coastal waters in the western Atlantic, the rays they preyed on have multiplied tenfold and have wiped out all the main commercial species of shellfish(4).

Much of this trade originates in East Asia, where shark’s fin soup – which sells for up to £100 a bowl – is a sign of great wealth and rank, like caviar in Europe. The global demand for shark fins is rising by about 5% a year(5). But if you believe that this is yet another problem for which the Chinese can be blamed and the Europeans absolved, consider this: the world’s major importer (and presumably re-exporter) of sharks is Spain(6). Its catches have increased nine-fold since the 1990s(7) and it has resisted – in most cases successfully – every European and global effort to conserve its prey.

The Spanish defend their right to kill rare sharks as fiercely as the Japanese defend their right to kill rare whales. The fishing industry, traditionally dominated by Galician fascists, exerts an extraordinary degree of leverage over the socialist government. The Spanish government, in turn, usually gets its way in Europe. The EU, for example, claims to have banned the finning of sharks. But the ratio it sets for the weight of fins to the weight of bodies landed by fishermen is 5%. As edible fins make up only 2% of the shark’s bodyweight(8), this means that two and half finless sharks can be returned to the water for every one that comes ashore. Even this is not enough for the Spanish, whose MEPs have been demanding that the percentage is raised(9).

Northern European civilisation doesn’t come out of this very well either. In 2001 the British government promised to protect a critically endangered species called the angel shark, whose population in British waters was collapsing. It ducked and dithered until there was no longer a problem: the shark is now extinct in the North Sea(10).

Why do we find it so hard to stand up to fishermen? This tiny industrial lobby seems to have governments in the palm of its hand. Every year, the European Union sets catch limits for all species way above the levels its scientists recommend. Governments know that they are allowing the fishing industry to destroy itself and to destroy the ecosystem on which it depends. But nothing is sacred, as long as it is underwater. In November the United Nations failed even to produce a resolution urging a halt to trawling on the sea mounts at the bottom of the ocean. These ecosystems, which are only just beginning to be explored, harbour great forests of deepwater corals and sponges, in which thousands of unearthly species hide. But we can’t summon the will to stop the handful of boats that are ripping them to shreds.

The power of the fishermen’s lobby explains the lack of protection for marine predators. Though fish species far outnumber mammal species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species protects 654 kinds of mammal and just 77 kinds of fish. Trade in only 9 of these is subject to a complete ban(11).

The rules that do get passed are ignored by both fishermen and governments. On Sunday I stood with a fisheries manager on the banks of a famous sea trout river in Wales. Perhaps I should say a famous former sea trout river in Wales. For the past four years, scarcely any fish – sea trout or salmon – have appeared. He was not sure why, but he told me that trawlers in the Irish Sea land boxes of what appear to be bass; hidden under the top layer are salmon and sea trout. No one seems to care enough to stop them: government monitoring appears to be non-existent. The pressure group Oceana walks into European ports whenever there’s a public holiday and finds hundreds of miles of illegal drift nets stowed on the boats(12,13,14). Where are the official inspectors?

Of course, governments plead poverty. Which makes you wonder why they decided last year to allocate €3.8 billion to the destruction of the marine environment. This is what you and I are now paying in subsidies to keep the ocean wreckers afloat. The money buys new engines, and boats for young fishermen hoping to expand their business(15). For the same cost you could put a permanent inspector on every large fishing vessel in European waters.

If we don’t act, we know what will happen. Another paper published in Science suggests that on current trends we’ll see the global collapse of all the species currently caught by commercial fishermen by 2048. Yet, if we catch the ecosystems in time – with temporary fishing bans and the creation of large marine reserves – they can recover with remarkable speed(16). I hope British ministers, now drafting a new marine bill, have read this study.

But beyond a certain point the collapse is likely to be permanent. Off the coast of Namibia, where the fishery has crashed as a result of over-harvesting, we have a glimpse of the future. A paper in Current Biology reports that the ecosystem is approaching a “trophic dead-end”(17). As the fish have been mopped up they have been replaced by jellyfish, which now outweigh them by three to one. The jellyfish eat the eggs and larvae of the fish, so the switch is probably irreversible. We have entered, the paper tells us, the “era of jellyfish ascendancy”.

It’s a good symbol. The jellyfish represents the collapse of the ecosystem and the spinelessness of the people charged with protecting it.


1. Ransom A. Myers et al, 30th March 2007. Cascading Effects of the Loss of Apex Predatory Sharks from a Coastal Ocean. Science Vol 315 no. 5820, pp. 1846 – 1850. DOI: 10.1126/science.1138657

2. Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, 15th May 2003. Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities.

Nature 423, pp280-283, doi:10.1038/nature01610.

3. Shelley C. Clarke et al, October 2006. Global Estimates of Shark Catches using Trade Records from Commercial Markets. Ecology Letters Vol 9 no. 10, pp1115-26.

4. Ransom A. Myers et al, ibid.

5. Francesca Colombo, 12th March 2007. Dangerous Waters – Even for Sharks. Inter Press Service News Agency.

6. Oceana, 24th September 2006. Conservationists rally MEPs to make, not break EU ban on shark finning. Press release.

7. Oceana, 5th December 2006. Oceana requests explanations from the spanish socialist and popular parties regarding their efforts to increase shark captures. Press release.

8. Oceana, 24th September 2006, ibid.

9. Oceana, 23rd August 2006. Sharks threatened by European Parliament finning report. Press release.

10. Peter Popham, 9th March 2007. Sharks hunted to extinction in the Mediterranean. The Independent.