Whales Store Some Carbon, Oceans Store Loads of It

The is quite a bit of buzz today about recent research that quantifies how much whaling has – and is – contributing to atmospheric carbon. It appears that whales store significant amounts of carbon. I doubt, however, we will ever have a global breeding program to increase our whale populations, thereby offsetting our own carbon emissions. It’s just not feasible. (Besides, encouraging more people-whale interactions isn’t a popular idea at the moment.)

The focus needs to be broadened beyond whales. Ocean habitats are continually overlooked by the global community as viable sites of carbon sequestration. Blue carbon – as some call it – is a new concept being researched by the NGO community and receiving blog hits. The New York Times has even taken notice. Three months ago, Dan Laffoley of IUCN wrote a wonderful NYT op-ed entitled, To Save the Planet, Save the Seas. Read it.

In short, blue carbon emphasizes the key role of marine and coastal ecosystems. It places value on carbon-rich marine vegetation such as mangrove forests, seagrass, brackish marshes and salt marshes. Coastal and marine ecosystems are believed to be able to complement the role of forests  in taking up carbon emissions through sequestration.

See our related posts on this here, here and here.

This is a management area that was greatly overlooked in Copenhagen. It’s a concept to which the UN and coastal nations ought to give more attention. Island nations rich in blue carbon, like Indonesia, could benefit similarly to the way Brazil is predicted to benefit from “green carbon” sequestration programs, like REDD.

In my opinion, blue carbon sequestration programs will need new research, the right political advocates, and better governance. The question I pose to you marine scientists/environmental managers/policy makers: Where to start?

False Killer Whales, Truly at Risk from Pacific Longlines

Dr. Andy Read is a marine mammologist and Duke Univeristy Marine Lab professor. He’s also part of a team of experts that convened last week in Honolulu. The new Take Reduction Team (TRT) is assessing the high mortality rate of false killer whales in the Pacific longline fishery.  The team’s assessment is long overdue.

Thanks to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, the TRT is legally mandated. Its implementation does not meant that it is too late to mitigate our affects on this population. Afterall, the Pacific longline fishery is use to being highly regulated. To its credit, it has adopted a suite of bycatch reducing technologies that have proven to minimize the take of threatened species (ie. side setting and streamers to reduce albatross take).  But the recent drop in this distinct poplulation is truly shocking; from more than 500 in 1989, only 100 individuals remain. Our behavioral changes will have to be significant.

If you’re equally as shocked, read on: http://honoluluweekly.com/cover/2010/02/truth-or-consequences/

I was recently in Honolulu at the longline fishery’s main market. I snapped this photo of Sean Martin, my guide around the market. He is the owner of several longline fishing boats, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, to which the owners of all of Hawaii’s 125 longliners belong, and co-owner with Jim Cook, another past Wespac chairman, of Pacific Ocean Producers, the Pacific’s biggest fisheries-supply company.

Sean’s on the TRT as well and has a lot to lose. The longliners, Hawaii’s largest commercial fishery, bring in about $60 million a year.

A Changing Environment where the Sun Don’t Shine

Dr. John Bruno introduced me to NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch website last year.  It’s a online tool for tracking global sea surface temperature data in real-time. But, really, all you need is an affinity for color scales to find it useful. Reddish areas on the map mean corals beware; temperatures are unusually high. For sleep deprived master’s students, pretty colors are easier on the eyes that plotted regressions.

But what about temperatures, say, a quarter mile beneath the surface?  There are no user-friendly websites or pretty maps for tracking anomalous temperatures in deeper waters. Little light reaches to this depth and it is nearly impossible for satellites to gather data. Perhaps that’s why awareness of climate-induced changes in the mesopelagic environment is only recently gaining ground.

Last week, NPR’s Science Friday hosted Dr. William Gilly of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Lab. His lab is investigating the recent population increase and geographic spread of the deep-water  Humbolt Squid up the California coast. This tropical jumbo-sized squid has even been spotted in Sitka, Alaska!

Why are there more and why are they moving? One theory suggests that their mesopelagic habitat is changing, and the squid are following new temperature and oxygen gradients. New science does conclude that oxygen levels off California are changing at about 1000m depth. But very little is known about how mesopelagic creatures are responding

The full NPR interview is worth a listen for those of you interested in new indicators of mesopelagic environmental change. The deep deserves attention, too.

Plastics and the Public Periphery

Laysan Albatross & Plastic Debris

My first blog feature on Climate Shifts was about marine debris. I wanted to get the word out there after recent Pacific travels. The usual litmus test encouraged me: does my family know about this issue? They didn’t. So, the video I had made for an academic class entered the YouTube world for Mom and blog-followers alike.

My first blog as an official contributor is about public awareness. Both Good Morning America and Stephen Colbert have spotlighted this issue in the past few months. But there really has been no mass response to the overwhelmingly apparent problem. Today,  CNN presents a long form video piece on pacific “plastic soup” featuring Capt. Charles Moore whom some accredit with discovering – what the media has dubbed – the “garbage patch.” The man has salt in his hair but not too many citations to his name. And, surprise: he didn’t discover it. Biologists at Midway Atoll have been quantifying the peculiarly abundant presence of plastic in the north Pacific since the late 1960s.

As an aspiring scientist myself, I’m struck by the lack of scientific faces in these media pieces.  The anthropogenic blame here is undeniable and disturbing. While many scientists are going on the front lines defending climate change, other phenomena of global environmental change are being left in the periphery.

The task asked of scientists is different than that of defending climate change. Instead of sound science and strong arguments, the issue needs eloquence and persistence in communicating the growing body of science assessing the ecological effects of marine debris. Fortunately, the three letters “PhD” still command a level of respect and recognition from mass audiences. It may be this recognition that can draw the “garbage patch” problem fully out from the periphery of the public consciousness.