IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We used to think that our oceans - so big, so deep, so seemingly endless - could absorb almost any insult we could throw at them - be it garbage or pollution, our fishing trollers, our luxury liners - and the oceans would just quietly and harmlessly absorb and digest our abuse.
But we now know that that is not true. The oceans are not just a convenient dumping ground for us. It turns out that what we were doing and we are doing does matter to the oceans, and it matters a lot. Our burning of fossil fuels have caused the oceans to become more acidic and threaten our coral reefs.
Our farming and lawn fertilizing has caused too many nutrients to flow into ocean water, upsetting the balance in the water. And we have fished some of those species to near extinction.
Scientists have been tracking these changes in the ocean. And this week, they released a map, showing where the most severe impacted places are. And the map shows that there is literally no stretch of water on the planet that has escaped human influence.
So this hour, we're going to look at the fate and future of the oceans. Is it all bad news? Well, it turns out there are some success stories. We'll talk about them and we'll talk about if it is possible to undo some of what we've done to the oceans.
We're broadcasting live this hour from the Boston Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And if you're here in the audience, I invite you, I entreat you to step up to the microphones and ask your question when the urge comes to you. And if you're listening on the radio or over the Internet, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. And if you're logged onto "Second Life," we welcome you to go over to our Science Friday island and ask a question there via our SCIENCE FRIDAY "Second Life" avatar.
And of course, you can always surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com for more information.
Let me introduce my guests. Larry Crowder is Stephen Toth professor of marine biology and director of the Center for Marine Conservation at Duke University. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Crowder.
Dr. LARRY CROWDER (Marine Biology, Duke University; Director, Center for Marine Conservation): Good afternoon, Ira.
FLATOW: Good afternoon.
Ben Halpern is associate research biologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Thank you for being with us today, Ben.
Mr. BEN HALPERN (Associate Research Biologist, University of California, Santa Barbara): Thanks for having me.
FLATOW: Jane Lubchenco is the Wayne and Gladys Valley professor of marine biology and a distinguished professor of Zoology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Good to see you again.
Professor JANE LUBCHENCO (Zoology, Oregon State University): Thanks, Ira. It's great to be here.
FLATOW: Carl Safina is co-founder and president of the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Safina.
Dr. CARL SAFINA (Co-founder and President, Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Blue Ocean Institute): Thanks, Ira. Nice to actually see you this time.
FLATOW: Yes. I talk to so many of you on the phone or on a line during the year, and we only get to see each other very infrequently.
Let me ask you, Ben. You are one of the authors of the paper that looked at the state of our oceans. Forty percent of the oceans are seriously impacted by human activity. Tell us what that means, how bad - is that so bad or not so bad?
Mr. HALPERN: Well, I found it quite surprising. When you look at individual activities - climate change, fishing, pollution - you get only a partial picture of what's going on. And when you actually overlay all of these different activities onto the ocean to get the big picture, you finally get a sense of the whole cumulative impact that humans are having on the oceans.
And as you said in the introduction, it is a vast ocean. And to have over 40 percent of it being heavily impacted in a degraded state, that to me is quite alarming.
FLATOW: Where are some of the worst places?
Mr. HALPERN: By far, the biggest impacted places are in the North and Norwegian seas, around great Britain and Norway, and in the South and East China seas, which are in Indonesia, Malaysia and around the Chinese and Japanese coastal waters.
FLATOW: When you say impact, is that like a cumulative score of different kinds of insults…
Mr. HALPERN: That's exactly right. So it's the sum - it's a process of pulling together the impact of all of these different activities that we included in our analysis and accounting for the way that the different marine ecosystems at those locations respond to those different activities.
Summing that all up into a single score that gives you a sense of the relative impact of one place, or the relative condition of one place, to any place else on the planet.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Jane Lubchenco, you also had some work published in the journal Science this week, documenting a dead zone that's appearing off the coast of Oregon. Tell us about that.
Prof. LUBCHENCO: One of the surprising impacts that climate change appears to be having are changes, not only on ocean temperatures and in the acidity of oceans, but also changes in ocean circulation and in coastal winds.
What we've documented off the coast of Oregon is now in six of the last six years - the appearance of a zone of low oxygen and sometimes even no oxygen, appearing in the summertime. This is unprecedented. The paper that we published shows the 60-year time record of data of dissolved oxygen, showing that this is really anomalous for the Pacific Northwest coasts. And it's quite surprising and startling.
So these are zones of low oxygen that are created by changes in the coastal winds that affects the upwelling dynamics, the delivery of nutrients to the surface ocean and result in massive blooms of microscopic plants, which when they decay and the bacteria decompose them, they use up all the oxygen in the water.
So the bottom line is there is insufficient oxygen for most animals. And if they can't swim away, which some of the fish can certainly do, then they suffocate.
FLATOW: Would the size of this dead zone be expanding or moving around as the climate changes?
Prof. LUBCHENCO: It appears every summertime, or it has six - for the last six years. Some years are much worse than others. 2006 was, by far and away, the worst on record. It lasted four months and was actually anoxic, no oxygen, with some massive die-offs of marine life on the bottom.
But it moves around from day to day, depending on how the winds are blowing, how strong they are, what direction they are. It disappears in the fall, when the winds switch around to being more down willing, favorable. So it's just a seasonal phenomenon.
FLATOW: So you can predict it now, when it will come and go.
Prof. LUBCHENCO: Yes. Actually, when - now that we know enough about the dynamics, we can look at what the coastal ones are doing, and have some ability to anticipate.
But if you look globally at other similar ecosystems around the world - the Humboldt Current system of Peru and Chile, the Benguelan Current system of Namibia and South Africa, the Canary Current system of Morocco - each of those has similar dynamics. They're all coastal, ocean upwelling ecosystems that collectively represent 1 percent of the surface area of the oceans, but have historically provided 20 percent of the fisheries.
And they're all changing in ways that are surprising. This increased appearance of zones of low oxygen, no oxygen, spreading, becoming more chronic, is indeed a surprise.
FLATOW: Would you think that this is just - you mentioned other areas that you think we're going to see more of these areas blossoming, so to speak.
Prof. LUBCHENCO: We'd never seen these zones of low oxygen off the Pacific Northwest coast of the U.S. before, and we're now seeing it on a routine basis in the summer.
These other areas have seen hypoxia and anoxia before, but it seems to be getting worse in many of those other places.
Larry Crowder, you're based on the Atlantic side of the country. Are the problems that we face in the Atlantic the same as the stuff we're seeing in the Pacific or totally different?
Dr. CROWDER: I think the problems are very parallel, that the U.S. area that Ben didn't mention that is also problematic is in the Northwest Atlantic, where cod used to be and where Cape Cod used to have cod, which would be nice.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. CROWDER: We also have problems with hypoxia. Most of the coastal estuaries along the Atlantic Coast and the largest hypoxic zone in the U.S. is in the Gulf of Mexico. So it's driven by different dynamics, and the one that Jane refers to probably more clearly linkable to anthropogenic activities, like use of land and fertilizers and things upstream of the Mississippi River bloom.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the absence of Cape Cod - cod from Cape Cod, is that from overfishing?
Dr. CROWDER: Primarily, yeah. And…
FLATOW: Yeah. So it's not the same - it's a different cause. Fish, not no oxygen, but so many people fishing it out.
Dr. CROWDER: I guess that's the message of the paper that Ben Halpern and others published this week is that the oceans aren't impacted by a single thing. In fact, it's a whole list of things that seem to have cumulative impacts.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Have we been making any progress with the pollution runoff over the years?
Dr. CROWDER: Well, I think that the case study in the southeast U.S. has been - we've made great progress on point source pollution. The per-person loading of sewage effluence, for example, has been reduced by a factor of 10. Unfortunately, the population has grown by a factor of 10 during the same interval.
The key issues are non-point source pollution. And in the southeast U.S., 60 percent of that is over land, 40 percent is atmospheric. And so it's a very difficult problem to try to mitigate.
FLATOW: Carl Safina, let's talk a little bit before the break about some of the problems the fish might be facing. You have written a lot about the bluefin tuna. Is that a species that's in danger of extinction now?
Dr. SAFINA: Off the east coast of the United States, that population is in danger of extinction. Actually, it's going extinct now. The catch, which always overshot the quota up until about five years ago is now really going through the floor. In the last couple of years, they've caught only 10 percent or less of the quota.
Meanwhile, on the eastern half of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, they are overfishing the quota wildly. I mean, it's just uncontrolled fishing there. The quotas, on both sides of the ocean, have been much too high for a long time. But in the east, there's also no enforcement. The overcapacity is incredible.
So, over there, I think in the next few years, it will start collapsing. Here, it's already collapsing, and those fish really are going extinct at this point. It's not to say that they will go extinct, but at this trend, they are declining very rapidly toward extinction, and there are very few juveniles coming out of the spawning area in the Gulf of Mexico. And every year, during the spawning season, there are still fishing gear in there that is killing the last few of these giant animals that are there, aggregating in order to spawn. And while they're spawning, they're getting killed.
FLATOW: Is this the sushi problem?
Dr. SAFINA: Yes.
FLATOW: Yeah. The price of a tuna is what? Thousands of dollars per fish.
Dr. SAFINA: Thousands of dollars. And the world record for one bluefin tuna wholesale - not the retail value, but wholesale - was $174,000 for one fish, about five - about four years ago.
FLATOW: Wow. So that - I could see why they're overfishing.
We'll get back. We have to take a break. We'll get back, take your questions from the audience, talk more about the health of the oceans and how to bring - can we bring down, or, you know, the price of - what we can do about bringing the fish back.
Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back from Boston with more of your questions and discussion here. So stay with us.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking about the health of the oceans this hour with my guests. Larry Crowder, director of the Center for Marine Conservation at Duke University. Ben Halpern, associate research biologist at UC Santa Barbara. Jane Lubchenco, professor of zoology at Oregon State University. Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute at the Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Carl Safina was telling us the price of the record tuna. I mean, that's amazing. No wonder that this fish is being so sought after.
Dr. SAFINA: It's certainly the jackpot mentality as well. You know, it subsidizes a lot of fishless days on the water. And then, you get this sort of gambling mentality, where the next trip is going to pay off.
FLATOW: Well, how do you reverse something like that?
Dr. SAFINA: We need a five-year moratorium on catching this fish throughout the Atlantic Ocean. And then, they would have a good shot at coming back. But at the rate of fishing, they have a very poor shot of surviving more than a few more years in any kind of viable way.
The big schools of my youth, these thundering crashing herds of fish that I used to see, they're gone. It's a much…
Dr. SAFINA: …lonelier ocean out there.
FLATOW: You know, it reminds me of my early days of scuba diving. I became a scuba diver 30 years ago. I remember going to Florida and the Caribbean. In the first days there, I was out in very shallow scuba water. And I was in this bunch of staghorn coral. And I was so scared, I was stuck in the middle of this until I looked up and I was only in two feet of water. And I could stand up and find my way out of this coral.
But now, I understand all the staghorn coral are gone. And these giant forests, I call them, are not - they don't exist anymore. Is that what we're facing with the coral in the oceans now? Are they doomed because there is no way to reverse the acidification of what's going on from the CO2 being absorbed by the oceans?
Dr. SAFINA: Changes have been very rapid and they are really worrisome. And the, you know, we talk about global warming and we talk about changes in the atmosphere. But these phrases don't really cover the global change that's occurring because of carbon dioxide. It's really a global chemistry change. The chemistry of the ocean is changing. The pH of the ocean is changing because of it.
And the carbonate ions that the corals need is going away. The pollution is, you know, is making - putting a big strain on corals and making it very hard and impossible for them to live in many places. It's really - it's very worrisome and quite rapid thing that's happening.
FLATOW: Jane, have we reached the tipping point? I mean, that no matter what we do about global warming or about CO2 that the oceans are going to be in terrible shape and possibly just say we're going to be losing these corals? Or other species, you know, they're gone?
Prof. LUBCHENCO: I think there's no doubt, but the changes that are happening now are interacting and are creating just immense stresses on most life in the oceans. I don't think it's hopeless, though. I think that there is increasing awareness that there are problems, and there are some active attempts to reverse some of the degradation.
I think we're really facing - society is facing a very fundamental choice today. We can either go down the path that we're on, which Jeremy Jackson has called the slippery slope to slime, where we have no bluefin tunas, no wonderful coral reefs. We just have weedy algae and bacterial growth. Or, we can choose a different path, which I like to call the mutiny for the bounty. And there are in fact ways to transition to this other path.
The paper that was highlight in yesterday's Science that Ben Halpern was involved in really draws attention to the fact that there are multiple stressors, and we have, therefore, multiple jeopardy going on. And therefore, the solutions have to address, not just one of the drivers of change but many of them.
Prof. LUBCHENCO: Networks of no-take marine areas - I'm sorry, no-take marine reserves are one of the very positive hopeful signs when areas are established for which no destructive or extractive activities are allowed. There can be some very impressive rebounds inside the reserve, and some of that bounty is spilling outside. Many countries and a few states are embracing this idea of networks of no-take areas - the state of California, Australia are two of them. And this is a very hopeful attempt to address, in this case, a subset of the problems. But that can be coupled with addressing the runoff of pollutants from the nearby land areas and implementing much better fishery management outside.
Prof. LUBCHENCO: There's no single silver bullet here. It's going to take an approach that is multifaceted that really looks at the variety of stressors in any one place and thinks about the ecosystem on an ecosystem basis.
FLATOW: I want to go to questions on the audiences, but I want to continue this vein for one more question with Larry Crowder. I know that you are an advocate of something called marine ecosystem management.
Dr. CROWDER: Mm-hmm.
FLATOW: Can you tell us what that is and how that is different from the way we currently manage the oceans. And is that what Jane is talking about?
Dr. CROWDER: It's very much what Jane is talking about. The scientific community has been talking about the transition from managing the ocean a piece at a time to managing it holistically for some - quite awhile, actually.
The tricky part is how to transition from the current structure of governance we have, where different federal agencies, some 20 federal agencies try to implement 140 different laws about the ocean, sometimes not communicating with each other as effectively as they might.
And as a result, we end up like treating an individual human patient that has multiple threats one specialist at a time. And if you happen to be surrounded by eight doctors but they don't talk to each other, the chances that you're going to be restored in some rapid amount of time is pretty brief.
So I think the move to ecosystem-based management is something we're grappling with, how to transition from business as usual to what needs to be done.
FLATOW: Let's go to the audience, a question in the audience here. Yes, ma'am.
CHRIS (Audience Member): Thanks. My name is Chris. Question is on a practical issue. First of all, whenever I go to the grocery store - I live in California - don't buy this fish, don't buy that fish. There's an effort. Does that really make a difference? What's your take on that? And then, you're all talking about this multi-level problem. Sounds - it is overwhelming.
But individuals, you know, what can individuals do? Is getting a hybrid car, which everybody now thinks is good for, you know, the global warming? Is that going to help the oceans? Where do you make that connection? What do you say to individuals who are listening to this program to really address these problems?
FLATOW: Let me start at the end of the table and move, Carl, move down.
Dr. SAFINA: Well, for one thing, as far as the, you know, the fish that you buy - what drives all the fishing is what people are buying. And so if you buy better fish, it helps - in the marketplace, it helps give a market edge and a market advantage to people who are fishing sustainably and selling sustainably sourced fish.
And it's not an election. They don't need to see that 51 percent of people are buying only sustainable fish for it to make a difference, because what happens in the market is 2 percent of people are buying only sustainable fish.
So, some small marketer says I want to capture 2 percent of the market. I'm going to market only to those people who are interested. And I'll do well because 2 percent of the big market is a lot.
And then, you have big buyers saying we don't want to lose 2 percent of the market, and we don't want this to go in the wrong direction for us. We already have 10 percent of the market ourselves. We don't want eight. So, we'll compete, we'll start selling only sustainably sourced fish.
And it's at the point, actually, where even Wal-Mart - of all the things that can afford to lose market share - has announced that in five years, it will sell only sustainably sourced fish. So, this small effort for people who have fish guides, like my group puts out, or go to the Web site and look for sources of sustainable fish, is really making a difference.
Now, Wal-Mart is big enough that they can go and demand that the people who are producing for them, like the shrimp farmers who are doing terrible things to the waters in Southeast Asia and in South America, that they do things a lot better so that they can have a source that Wal-Mart can come up with and say this meets the standards that we're going to be implementing over the next five years.
Whether they really will do that and how well it will work remains to be seen. But where we are now with that compared to where we were five or 10 years is really quite a big difference based on just a few people, relatively, who have said somewhat publicly, you know, we are ordering only sustainably caught fish. We're going to ask the waiter and we're going to talk to the chef. And it gets known, and it makes a difference.
And if you want sources of information, you can go to our Web site, blueocean.org. We have, you know, we have a list that evaluates these things. And we have a text messaging service called fishphone that you can use if you don't have the list with you. You can just dial it in. And I think as far as individuals do - you know, what can individuals do, individuals can do all of the right things that they're capable of doing.
Anything that we do, we can always do better. And if we're doing things better, then that gives us more - moral authority to talk about these things and to make them spread.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. This almost sounds like the oil, you know, $100 a barrel of oil, so we go for more oil, because it's that expensive and people want to buy more of that oil. And by buying that, we feed the system back again, to create more of it.
Ms. ELIZABETH GRIFFIN (Marine Wildlife Scientist, Oceana; Audience Member): Hello. My name is Elizabeth Griffin and I'm a marine wildlife scientist with Oceana. The more we learn about human impacts on the oceans, the more we're realizing how damaging commercial fisheries by catch can be, especially on sea turtle species like loggerheads and leatherbacks.
And we do have a few sea turtle experts on the panel today, so I would be curious to hear from them as to what they think the most important steps are to keep fisheries from catching sea turtles.
FLATOW: Larry Crowder?
Dr. CROWDER: Thank you. I think that was targeted for me.
FLATOW: I think so, for some reason.
Dr. CROWDER: I think that we're well aware that by catch of long-lived species in the ocean like sea turtles and sea birds(ph) and marine mammals can be problematic. These are animals that the fishermen don't intend to catch. But in the process of targeting the species they do intend to catch - they inadvertently catch those species.
And there is very active research programs underway to try to identify opportunities that would allow endangered sea turtles to coexist with fisheries by modifying how fishing is conducted, what kinds of gear is used and all that kind of thing.
I think it's a little misleading to assume that the major impacts, or the only impacts are large-scale commercial and industrial fisheries. While they do have a lot of bite catch, there's also a lot of inadvertent catch in small scale subsistence kinds of fisheries in various parts of the world as well.
So I think that's really an important concern, and I guess the key thing to remember is that if fishermen are targeting a fish that reproduces, that matures at age two and they inadvertently catch something like a loggerhead sea turtle that matures at age 30, there's no win for a loggerhead in that kind of setting because the fishing intensity is driven by the animal that matures at age 2.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Dale(ph) on the phone, Dale in Portland. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Hi, there.
DALE (Caller): Hey, can you hear me?
DALE: All right. Yeah. What about the two garbage swirls that are out in the Pacific Ocean? What's happening with them? And is there any way to clean that up?
FLATOW: Yeah. Good question. There's something called the great Pacific garbage patch that's twice the size of Texas. Who can tell us about that?
Dr. SAFINA: This is one of the other bad things you can say about Texas, I guess.
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Dr. SAFINA: It's got a garbage patch named after it. Well, there is a lot of plastic in the ocean and it's - it doesn't go away very quickly.
FLATOW: Well, what's in this garbage patch?
Dr. SAFINA: Well, a lot of lost fishing gear, a lot of water bottles, toy soldiers, plastic dinosaurs, welcome mats. Bowling balls float in sea water - I learned when I was out in the middle of the ocean. And lots of animals get tangled in it. They inadvertently eat it. I've done a lot of work on the albatross populations in the central Pacific Ocean. And I love albatrosses dearly, but they're not very smart about what they swallow, because they sometimes swallow these things, having fish eggs stuck to it and having digestible goose neck barnacles on it. But they wind up feeding their chicks things like cigarette lighters and tooth brushes and things like that. And sometimes, the chicks die. And you can see very frequently where chicks have died because you see their skeletons and inside the ribcage you find things like cigarette lighters.
So, it's - that is a really heartbreaking thing to see.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me remind everybody that this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. We're here in Boston, talking about the state of the oceans. And there's this big one off of…
Dr. SAFINA: And the north Pacific Ocean, north of Hawaii, there's a big gyre, you know, where the water sort of circulates around and around and around. And a lot of stuff that comes off the continents - it's not just dumped by ships.
There are things like, you know, discarded netting and stuff in there, but a lot of it comes from the continents. It's in garbage. It gets washed down in rivers and gets out into the ocean. And it just circulates there for many, many years.
So, you know, it's been building. And in recent years, it's become obvious that there is this gigantic patch of stuff where, you know, it's not like you can walk on it. It's not a floating mat. But it is like where you can be in the boat and - wherever you can see here and there and there is some little plastic thing that's floating. And it, you know, it has an effect on animals.
FLATOW: It says, according to this article I'm reading from SFGate.com that it weighs some three and a half million tons. It's a lot of floating garbage…
Dr. SAFINA: Yes.
FLATOW: …out there.
Prof. LUBCHENCO: Ira, could I jump…
FLATOW: Yes, Jane?
Prof. LUBCHENCO: …in just a minute here? You began this segment focusing on the fact that we've thought of oceans as infinitely immense and bountiful. And I think that this problem with garbage is just one more indication of the reflection of our attitudes of oceans. And it's becoming increasingly obvious that the oceans are much more vulnerable as well as valuable, and that we no longer can have the luxury of thinking of them as a place to dump stuff, and that there really needs to be a new ocean ethic that is focused on protecting and restoring our ocean ecosystems because they give us so much that's very valuable. And if we don't take care of it, we're losing this bounty.
FLATOW: But we need to be aware of it and has to get the light of day…
Prof. LUBCHENCO: Absolutely.
FLATOW: …to see it. And because the oceans are so big, people just don't see it until it, you know, just to pick a state who is not near an ocean - let's say Kansas - does not hardly think about the oceans ever.
Dr. SAFINA: But there are many people who live right at the ocean and are staring right at it and it looks the same as it's always looked, because whether it's full or empty, it generally, you know, it has this perfect disguise, right?
Dr. SAFINA: This blue water that reflects the sky. And that's another thing. You can go out and you can see a clear cut. You can see where the forest has been destroyed.
FLATOW: Or we used to have a Jacques Cousteau and people like that showing those things. We don't have that stuff anymore.
Dr. SAFINA: Yeah. We need that again, don't we?
FLATOW: I mean, we need something that shows what's going on there, don't we?
Dr. SAFINA: Right.
FLATOW: I mean - yeah. Go ahead, Larry.
Dr. CROWDER: You know, it's interesting because the public is still enraptured with the documentaries that show the beautiful ocean. The problem is there is less and less of that beautiful ocean around. Public - people get tired of seeing the gloom and doom pictures of the ocean, but scientists confront that every day.
And I guess the point that we're trying to make is that people need to look beyond that blue veneer and recognize that the ocean has places, it has habitats, it has organisms on which we depend. And so, sustainable fishery isn't something that would be nice to do. It's something that's necessary to do to support so many of the people that depend on marine fish as their primary source of protein.
FLATOW: All right.
We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more about the health of the oceans, take your calls and questions here in the audience, and talk more with Larry Crowder, Ben Halpern, Jane Lubchenco and Carl Safina. So stay with us. We'll be right back.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about the health of our oceans, with my guests Carl Safina, Jane Lubchenco, Ben Halpern, Larry Crowder.
Our number: 1-800-989-8255.
Ben, I mentioned at the top of the hour that we're going to talk about some good news of some sort about the oceans. Have you got some for us?
Mr. HALPERN: I do think we have a lot of, well, maybe not good news but good opportunity to address some of these issues. It comes back to a point that Larry just made that there are places in the oceans. And what we did, by mapping all of these different human activities onto the oceans is reveal that it's not a single, uniform distribution of the impact of its activities. It's very patchy. There are high impact places. There are very low impact places. And that presents opportunity to think about how to protect or manage well those places that remain in relatively low impact, and think about effective strategies for mitigating the places that are receiving high impact. And so the opportunity is there because of this patching nature of the impacts that we're having.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do we have any success stories? What about the Great Barrier Reefs…
Mr. HALPERN: Well, exactly…
FLATOW: …in Australia.
Mr. HALPERN: Yeah. And Jane mentioned just earlier that, you know, like in the Great Barrier Reef and in California, these networks of MPAs, where you set aside some of the ocean for fish to recover from fishing, allows success. These fish come back, the communities become more resilient and healthy. And that's just to address the issue of fishing. And there are opportunities to regulate land use, activities to limit pollution. And there have been many examples of that that have improved the health of waters in coastal areas. So there are many examples of success stories.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to the phones. Deborah(ph) in Fort Wayne. Hi, Deborah, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
DEBORAH (Caller): Hi, Ira. How are you today?
FLATOW: Fine. How are you?
DEBORAH: I'm great. I want to thank you for taking my call.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
DEBORAH: It just seems to me that for years and years - I'm 45 and remember this going on since I was little - the government is using the oceans as their playground. We learned earlier this week that the sky missile or a spy missile will be blown up out of the sky. I do understand upon reentry some of these toxins, gases, will be burnt off. But there are toxins going in the ocean. What does the panel think of this?
FLATOW: Yeah. She's referring to…
DEBORAH: I'll take my answer off the line.
FLATOW: Okay. Thanks for calling. The spy satellite that we're going to knock out of the sky. And it's scheduled to break apart and land in the Pacific. And it's got - I don't know how many - thousand pounds of hydrazine on it or something like that. Is it - she's worried, is it going to affect the ocean life. Anybody? Larry?
Dr. CROWDER: I would say, you know, compared to effects that we know to be important, like the impacts of fishing, coastal pollution and so on, this will be a very small treatment. It'll be at a local scale. And so compared to the issues that were raised, again, in Ben Halpern's paper, about climate change and so on, it strikes me as a fairly small concern relative, in fact, an unknown concern relative to things that we know to be seriously problematic.
I wanted to add a comment about the Great Barrier Reef, because what they've done there goes beyond a network of marine reserves. What they've done is fully zone, for different human uses, the entire Great Barrier Reef. And so they're taking into account not just the impact of fishing, but all the various human activities that people want to conduct in the Great Barrier Reef.
Some 30,000 people were involved in making comments on that plan. And so it's one of the most comprehensive. It is the most comprehensive ocean zoning plan in the world. And if you stretch that reef out along the Pacific Coast of the United States, it goes from Washington to Southern California.
So it's a big area. And what they've done there, I think, shows a way for the rest of us to consider the implementation of this ecosystem approach.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. We have a couple of questions here in the audience. Yes, sir.
Mr. DICK RUSSELL (Author, "Striper Wars: An American Fish Story"; Audience Member): Yes. My name is Dick Russell and I'm the author of a book called "Striper Wars: An American Fish Story," which is in part the story of how the Atlantic stripe bass made a tremendous comeback after the mid-1980s, when a five-year moratorium was placed on fishing, the kind that Carl Safina was calling for today for bluefin tuna.
But it's also the story of how today, the stripers are in trouble again, and especially in the Chesapeake Bay area, because their main food source, the menhaden, are being overfished by a big company out of Reedville, Virginia, that turns these fish and reduces them into fish meal and fish oil. And in New England, the herrings are being overfished tremendously - again, a forage species - by these big factory trollers. And the bluefin tuna, for example, aren't getting enough to eat here.
I wonder if the panel could address the importance of forage fish which is generally been overlooked in the past, and also of course as part of the need for ecosystem management.
FLATOW: All right, Larry, you're shaking your head violently.
Dr. CROWDER: Yes. Yes. You know, I think you're absolutely right. And one of the problems with…
FLATOW: What is a forage fish?
Dr. CROWDER: A forage fish, you know, basically, we use that term for a perfectly self-respectable fish that gets eaten by another fish that we care more about. So…
FLATOW: These giant schools of fishes?
Dr. CROWDER: We call it forage fish because something we care about eats it. They don't think of themselves as forage fish. That's not their purpose in life. But I guess the key thing is that most of fisheries management has focused on species of interest like stripe bass or like menhaden as if they don't relate to each other.
And one of the things that we're keenly aware of now is that ocean food webs are tightly related, and that removal of upper predators has a big impact on things below it in the food web.
Daniel Pauly coined the term, fishing down marine food webs, which makes it clear from the data that gradually, we've mined off the upper level, trophic levels from these food webs and worked our way down into the forage fishes.
The controversy over stripe bass and menhaden is because we're fishing two trophic levels. So we want both the predatory fish and the food of the predatory fish. And who gets the fish is an allocation problem. Should the menhaden fisherman get them or should the stripe bass get them.
But it's clear, we're pushing ocean food webs too hard, too fast, and we have to deal with those kinds of conflicts. And I think your case is an important one because it points about the connectedness of these systems.
FLATOW: Carl and then Jane, comment.
Dr. SAFINA: Fishery management has approached things in a sense backwards by always asking what's the most we can take out. And so it's like what's the most herring we can take out, where, really, the question is how much do we need to leave in, and why do we need to leave it in? And why do we need to leave it in? We need to leave it in to spawn more herring, but we also need to leave it in because we want to have tuna fisheries or we want to have stripe bass.
So we have to consider these things. And really, fishery management just needs to be sort of flipped upside down to ask the question in a different way to get what we need.
Prof. LUBCHENCO: The question posed also raises issues related to aquaculture, because much of the act of fishing that's going on for these forage fish, small pelagic fishes, is used to convert into fishmeal, which in turn is used to grow salmon, in many cases, shrimp, cod, other species, especially higher trophic level species that are being farmed. And it does raise some very fundamental issues.
As aquaculture grows in value and importance, and is seen increasingly as an important mechanism for feeding a growing, burgeoning human population, there really needs to be much more careful thought given to what levels of fishing are sustainable in the ocean that support this aquaculture enterprise. And many of the seafood watch cards - Carl has mentioned his, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Environmental Defense - have other seafood choice cards that alert consumers to what is sustainably caught or farmed.
Those are good sources of information for people to not just know what is caught sustainably, but what is farmed sustainably. Now, the current administration has been actively pushing the importance of aquaculture and offshore aquaculture. And this is an area where there really need to be the right kinds of checks and balances put in place to ensure that the activities can in fact be sustainable. They can be if they're done properly.
Aquaculture can be very sustainable, but there's no priority put on doing that right now, and there really needs to be.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yes, sir. Step up to the mic and…
Mr. JOHN YOUNG (Audience Member): John Young, Fort Pierce, Florida. And I'm sure the panel is aware that all trans-oceanic vessels at sea for any period of time routinely dump their trash at sea. Last time I was involved in the issue, about 1990, there were new regulations requiring that plastics be shredded to no more than one quarter-inch diameter size. I wonder if the panel knew if that was still the case. And if so, if they believe that was an effective means of dealing with dumping plastics at sea?
FLATOW: You stumped the panel on that one.
Dr. SAFINA: It is still the case, legally, as far as I know. And I'm not sure whether I think that that's an effective way of dealing with it because just grinding it into very small particles makes it available to become a different problem to different kinds of organisms.
FLATOW: You just don't see it anymore.
Dr. SAFINA: Yeah.
FLATOW: It gets it out of sight.
Thanks. Good question. Let's go to - see if I can get the last call in before we run out of time on the phone. Brian(ph) in Rehoboth. Hi, Brian.
BRIAN (Caller): Hello. How are you doing? Wonderful discussion today.
FLATOW: Thank you.
BRIAN: I'm a eighth-grade science teacher. Actually, we introduced ecosystems and specifically, we have a wonderful program, Green Eggs & Sand, dealing with the horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay and the relation to the migratory shorebirds, specifically the red knot.
And when our kids get introduced to that, they understand the impact of the relationships. They see that local efforts have been - bear fruit in reducing - there was moratorium put on the horseshoe crab fishing, things like that. And in the bigger picture, they don't understand why it, for lack of a better term, scientists' empirical data isn't being listened to - excuse me - specifically on the national basis in the current administration.
I'm wondering if the panel could speak to this idea of science, you know, being listened to again. I know it's an overarcing(ph) problem, but - could they address that, please?
FLATOW: All right. Thanks for the question. We talked about this in other programs. How do you get the attention of the politicians to listen to scientists? Go ahead if you'd like, Carl, to take that up.
Dr. SAFINA: I think, you know, one of the reasons people don't listen to science is because science tries to talk about the long term and what will happen if we keep doing the kinds of things that we're doing.
But in the short term, people often find greed a little bit more compelling. And so since we don't have to necessarily pay all the costs of these things in our time, some people feel that, you know, it's just better to go and get what you can get while you can get it. That's, I think, one of the main disconnects. It's not a question of science versus non-science so much as it's a question of short-term thinking versus long-term thinking.
And as the science usually tends to lead us toward more of the long-term thinking, and that's why it's sometimes not really lined up with the politics, because the politics is what people now are thinking and doing.
But there are a lot of people who should be in the political debate who are not in the political debate. And those are - all of the unborn people who are about to come in the next generation, and for all the other generations. If they were here to speak on their own behalf, the politics would be very different around these issues. They'd have something very different to say than the people who are saying, well, for right now, I'd make more money catching more fish. Or, for right now, I don't think I have to worry about that problem. It's going to happen in 50 years.
And so, to me, these things really are fundamentally a moral problem. They're a moral problem because we have the responsibility, not only for what we're doing, but for what we're doing to other people who can't say anything about this right now.
And there's a thing called the tragedy of the commons that has to do with what happens if, you know, if you - if everybody is a sheep farmer and you put more than your share of sheep in the meadow and everybody does that, the meadow gets overgrazed and everything gets wrecked.
Well, the tragedy of the commons happens not only in space like that. It happens in time as well. We're putting more than our share into the future, and we're inflicting that cost on people who have nothing to say about it. And I think it's a deep moral transgression that we're doing that. And I think at its base, it's really - it becomes an ethical issue and it becomes a religious kind of an issue that is based on what the science tells us will be happening.
FLATOW: We're talking about the oceans this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Jane, did you want to jump in there?
Prof. LUBCHENCO: Just very briefly. I wanted to thank the caller and all of the other phenomenal school teachers who introduce their children to the joys of ocean and teach them about them. One thing that is abundantly clear to me is how much more we need more ocean champions, and that is certainly school kids. But I saw sitting on the Pew Oceans Commission - and I know it was true for the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy - that the more each of those individuals learned about what's happening in oceans, the more concerned they were and now are active champions for changes in taking better care of our oceans.
Both of the commissions made a number of very practical recommendations about things that the federal government can do to address many of the issues that we have flagged here today. Both of those commissions have a wonderful blueprint for the future. And there are real opportunities, and I think increasing not only urgency but hope that we can begin to implement some of those be - do a much better job of taking care of our oceans because we benefit from them.
FLATOW: So you're hopeful that we're going to turn this around?
Prof. LUBCHENCO: I don't think we have a choice but to work as hard as we can to turn this around. The problems are daunting. But many of these systems can recover very rapidly if given the chance.
Prof. LUBCHENCO: We need to give them the chance. It's in our interest to do so.
FLATOW: You need to get it on the radar screen.
Prof. LUBCHENCO: We absolutely do.
FLATOW: Because there's so many other things on the radar screen now that, you know, this is not there at the moment, is it?
Dr. CROWDER: I think it's not on the radar screen, but if you back up to one of the statements you made early on about Jacques Cousteau, those films were able to take people below the water, stick their head under the water in a way that they've never had the opportunity to do. And I think people still have this love of oceans and outrage when they see oceans that are damaged.
And so I think it's a matter of getting people engaged in a way that isn't totally daunting or discouraging, but does provide hope in, you know - in my own career, I have seen Kemp's ridley(ph) sea turtles on the brink of extinction in the Gulf of Mexico 20 years ago, increasing at 14 percent a year for the last 20 years. There are wins that we've seen. And I think it's just a matter of stepping forward and…
FLATOW: So if that means foregoing your sushi that week, then that's what is my take?
Dr. CROWDER: I think we all have to make our individual decisions about how to make this happen.
FLATOW: All right. I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today. Larry Crowder is director of the Center for Marine Conservation at Duke University. Ben Halpern, associate research biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Jane Lubchenco, professor of zoology at Oregon State University. Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute - is that SUNY Stony Brook?
Dr. SAFINA: Yes.
FLATOW: SUNY Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Thank you all again for being with us today.
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