Can Microfragmenting Save Coral?

A Healthy Reef in Indonesia

A Healthy Reef in Indonesia

In the lower Florida Keys, a coral breakthrough has been made. Due to the warming and acidification of the oceans, almost ¼ of all the world’s coral has died in the past few decades. But now, there may be a solution.

Dr. David Vaughan, a marine biologist and the executive director of Mote Tropical Research Laboratory, accidentally found a “quick grow” technique for coral, which he now calls “microfragmenting.”

Eight years ago, while moving a coral colony from one tank to another, some polyps that had grown over the substrate onto the bottom of the tank broke off. Vaughan assumed he had killed those polyps, but a few days later they had doubled in number on the glass bottom.

This is how Vaughan discovered the amazing healing ability of coral. When damaged it races to regrow, perhaps to prevent territory loss. This is the basis of Vaughan’s latest ambitious project – one of the largest attempted coral restorations ever. With this technique, transplanted coral can grow up to fifty times faster than they would in the wild.

Vaughan and his team have already begun transplanting 4,000 microfragments from the nursery into the wild. And, although some parrotfish predation halted initial efforts, new steps are effectively combating this issue.

It seems that microfragmenting holds much promise. Dr. Vaughan is optimistic: “At worst, we’re buying time. At best, we could restore the ecosystem.”



How Boyan Slat is Saving The Oceans

This year, Boyan Slat turned 20. Although very young, he has already spent several years developing a solution to the millions of tons of plastic in the ocean. After diving in Greece at the age of 16, Slat was disgusted by the amount of garbage he saw and spent the next six months studying plastic pollution and developing a solution.

In 2012, Slat, along with a team he had built of 100 scientists and engineers, presented his passive cleanup concept. By this time, he was enrolled in an aerospace engineering program but soon dropped out to devote all of his time and energy to his project, dubbed Ocean Cleanup.

One year later, Slat and his team came out with a 530 page report demonstrating the technological and financial viability of the project. To get the funding he needed to start the pilot phase, Slat started a crowdfunding operation and within 100 days had received $2.2 million from 38,000 people in 160 different countries.

Slat’s idea is to place several floating arms with nets dropping 3 meters below the surface of the water. The technology will trap plastic while allowing sea life to swim safely below.  Positioning is key. The netting must be in the path of the powerful ocean currents which govern the movement of the plastic around the globe. This is no small task, however, as each arm will be 30 miles long.

Despite its ambition, Slat’s project has shown no signs of slowing down. Ocean Cleanup expects the first pilot to be in position within one year, and have a fully operation set up in one of five ocean gyres within three years.

Each gyre represents a massive undertaking. Heavy currents circulate profuse amounts of trash and span hundreds of miles. Nonetheless, computer simulations show that the floating barriers will be able to collect 42% of all plastic within a gyre within 10 years of initial setup. But it won’t come cheap. The estimated cost of cleanup in one gyre is close to $400 million, or $5.67 per kilogram of plastic.

This effort is so critical because of the many ways plastic is detrimental to the ocean environment and its inhabitants. Marine organisms can become entangled in plastic debris, causing “injury, illness, suffocation, starvation, and even death.” Small pieces of plastic are often ingested, leading to “malnutrition, intestinal blockage and death.” And in addition, plastics are produced from petroleum, natural gas, or coal and a toxic cocktail of chemicals like polyethylene terephthalate (makes it virtually impossible for plastic to biodegrade) and bisphenol-A, the latter of which is known for its carcinogenic properties. When organisms ingest plastic and digest it, these chemicals move up the food chain, increasing in concentration and thus toxicity through biomagnification. Every year, “one million seabirds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals die” from this pollution.

Thanks to Slat’s efforts, this could change very soon.

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The 5 Ocean Gyres


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Boyan Slat


Google Streetview Goes Under and the Importance of Its Sponsor

The latest frontier to be explored by Google Earth Streetview is the ocean. As a part of this exciting effort, over 400,000 panoramic photos have been taken of the watery world, including coral reefs and the deep sea. Although not all panoramas are available online yet, many dazzling shots can be seen here.

The sponsor behind this project is Catlin Seaview Survey, a scientifically minded organization that hopes to record the world’s reefs in 360º to increase appreciation and thus the effort to save and conserve them. But the photos serve as more than simple aesthetic pleasures. They are also valuable data points that will provide a baseline for reef health. By comparing the panoramas that are being taken now to those that will be taken later, researchers can monitor the effects of such detriments as pollution, acidification, and severe weather.

In addition to the photos, scientists with the CSS are also collecting tissue samples for further studies and using PAM (Pulsed Amplitude Modulated) stress detection devices to detect stress in deep waters without having to send divers.

This project is so vital because over 500 million people around the world depend on coral reefs, whether it’s for food, tourism revenue, or storm buffering. It is not some esoteric study that will be buried in scientific journals. All data is publicly available on the Catlin website and will hopefully encourage action to protect these reefs.

Santa Rosa Wall, Monaco

Santa Rosa Wall, Monaco

Nautilus Expedition

In 2008, Dr. Robert Ballard founded the Ocean Exploration Trust.  It’s purpose: to fund ocean exploration.  The program’s international expeditions take place on the Exploration Vessel Nautilus, a 210 foot ship.  The Nautilus collects scientific data, but also involves the public in its journey with live audio, video, and data feeds.  And, at certain stopping points, the public is welcomed aboard.  Educators and students get hands-on marine science experience.

Currently, the Nautilus is located in the Lesser Antilles at the Kick Em Jenny Submarine Volcano where the program’s ROV Hercules (remotely operated underwater vehicle) is descending to the depths.

See the amazing live feed here!

And see some shots from the trip so far below:

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“Blackfish” Revisited

Below is my original post, “Controversy Surrounding ‘Blackfish.'”  I wrote this piece before having seen the movie, and my opinions have changed since seeing it.  The new writing is in bold. 

There is no record of an orca attacking a human in the wild. In 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a veteran trainer at SeaWorld, was killed by an orca during a show. The orca, Tilikum, had already been involved in two deaths. Now a controversial documentary on Tilikum and the death of Brancheau, “Blackfish,” is in theaters.

To fully understand Tilikum’s journey, we should start at the beginning. Each year, many orca follow Atlantic Herring to the rugged fjords of Iceland. It is here that Tilikum was netted and pulled alongside a boat with other members of his pod. The youngest and smallest orca were chosen to be taken into captivity. Tilikum was hauled onboard and stored for the duration of the journey in a “module,” a small, dark holding cell.

This brutal beginning, especially when added to all the ways orca are unfit for captivity, may explain the violence displayed by Tilikum. Orca in the wild travel hundreds of miles per day and are extremely gregarious. In captivity, the lack of room to roam and the absence of a pod cause significant stress. The sensory deprivation imposed on the orcas is enough to cause a human to become mentally disturbed.

Although SeaWorld has entertained and enthralled the public for nearly five decades, animal rights advocates hope “Blackfish” will help bring about a change that seems long overdue.

As I mentioned in the old post, orcas are highly social.  When they are placed in different SeaWorld enclosures, which are essentially concrete boxes, families are not kept together.  The resulting social structure, stemming from the random placement of the orcas, can be extremely upsetting to the animals.  SeaWorld has even separated mother from calf.  

In these enclosures, the orcas’ lifespans are significantly reduced from the 30-50 year lifespan for orcas in the wild to late teens-early 20s. In the wild, female orcas sometimes live up to 80 or 90 years, males to 60 or 70 years. 

Though Tilikum was involved in two deaths prior to even beginning training with Dawn Brancheau, he was used in artificial insemination and fathered many SeaWorld calves.  Even from an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to see how this is dangerous.  Just as with dogs or any other species, animals that have demonstrated aggression should not be used in breeding. 

What my original post failed to stress was that SeaWorld is at fault.  The whales are unhappy and mistreated, resulting in unnatural aggression that has already led to multiple deaths. 

Please read more here:



Glass Eel Recovery in Japan

All over the world, eel populations are in steep decline.  These mysterious creatures have a complex life cycle that includes a stage (following the larval stage), in which they are referred to as glass eels and are only a few inches long. In the U.S., the decline of the American Eel prompted a 2007 petition to have them added to the endangered species list.  The proposal was denied; however, there will be another chance to have them added in 2015.  In Japan, the country with the highest eel consumption rate (70% of the global catch), has listed one species as endangered. This act alone, though, is not nearly enough.

Vast quantities of glass eels are captured and sent to Japanese aquaculture farms to be raised for sushi, in addition to being threatened by “changing ocean currents, disease, pollutants, fisheries, barriers to migration [such as dams] and freshwater habitat loss.”  The issue of over harvesting, which has profoundly negative effects on eel populations, is not being helped by the rising value of the eels.  In Europe, only 1% of previous number of glass eels migrating are still doing so.

In America, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is closing fisheries on the East Coast to allow for eel recovery.  Japanese researchers are taking perhaps more direct steps to heal eel populations. At the National Research Institute of Aquaculture in Shibushi, scientists have developed an efficient captive breeding system. Although the sustainability of the program may not be perfect due to fossil fuel heating and use of fish meal as a food source for the eels, 99% of glass eels cultured survive into the next life stage. While the glass phase seems simple enough to support, it is the life stage preceding the glass stage that proves problematic.

What makes the the larval eel, or Leptocephali, so unique is the “transparent gelatinous material [making up their bodies] that functions to store energy.”  The Leptocephali are so difficult to culture because of their unique diet, which is unlike that other marine larvae that feed on zooplankton.  At this point in their life cycle, the eels feed on marine snow, which is “composed of materials released by phytoplankton that mix with other free material in the ocean and are colonized by microorganisms.”  Naturally, this food source is difficult to develop for use in captivity.  Researchers have developed a pink paste substitute made of shark eggs, soy protein, and various vitamins. This method will only last so long, however, because the preferred shark, the Spiny dogfish, is listed as vulnerable.

Despite a few set backs, it does seem that the Japan’s captive breeding programs will, and are already, make a positive impact.


Tank of Glass Eels