Can you build a jellyfish?

I stumbled across this very cool article today and just had to share.  It’s called Artificial Jellyfish Built From Rat Cells, and as the title suggests, it describes a “jellyfish”, or medusoid, that Harvard University and Caltech bioengineers have built using a silicone “body” and the muscle cells from the heart of a rat.  When placed in a tank and exposed to an electrical field, the medusoid contracts and expands, convincingly mimicking the swimming motion of a real live jellyfish medusa.  Check out the video from the article:

Now, I think this is really interesting.  The article points out that the artificial “creature” has important implications for drug testing.  That is of course very important, and is an awesome advance for the study of physiology and medicine.  It gives scientists a much greater understanding of the biomechanics of muscle cells, which makes them that much easier to build with and manipulate.  The article states that their next step will be to build a medusoid with human heart cells (the heart cells are actually grown directly on the sheet of patterned silicone, in order to get them to spread and form an effective network).  Then, of course, they will be able to test new drugs on these medusoids and study how the pumping movements are affected.

But what interests me most about this is simply the idea that scientists might be able to build an organism from scratch in the lab.  That day is of course still a long way off.  A medusoid built from silicone and muscle cells is innovative, but still a far cry from being an actual organism.  In order to be considered a true life form, there are many different criteria that must be met: it must be made up of cells (can be unicellular or multicellular), able to respond to external stimuli, be able to reproduce on its own, be able to grow and metabolize, and be homeostatic (able to regulate its own internal environment.  By this definition, bacteria are alive but viruses are not (bacteria are cells, viruses are simply particles made of genetic material with a protein coat, incapable of reproducing without a host organism).

When you think about it, even the simplest life forms are breathtakingly complex.  In order for bioengineers to truly build an artificial jellyfish, they would need to be able to assemble hundreds or even thousands of different cell types into tissues and then organs.  Jellyfish, or cnidarians (Phylum Cnidaria) are some of the simplest animals on Earth, aside from sponges, which do not even have any true tissue layers, just loose aggregations of cells that perform different functions.  Cnidarians are diploblastic, meaning they have two different tissue layers, the ectoderm and the endoderm, between which is sandwiched a jelly-like substance called mesoglea.  In contrast, all of the more complex animals including vertebrates are triploblastic, with three tissue layers: endoderm and ectoderm as well as mesoderm.  The mesoderm is the tissue layer that gives rise to muscle cells, and because cnidarians lack that layer they rely on tissue called myoepithelium, which are similar to muscle cells in that they allow movement, but are actually derived from the ectoderm layer, which gives rise to the epithelium (i.e. skin).  So you can see that compared to vertebrates, or even complex invertebrates such as arthropods, jellyfish and their ilk are incredibly simple creatures.  And yet they are still extremely complex compared to what scientists are able to build in a lab.  Let’s just take a moment to appreciate how amazing all organisms are, how incredible life is and how impossible to emulate.

That was just a very very basic overview of organisms and the complexity of life, but I imagine that most of you who are reading this are already familiar with the concept.  If not, please feel free to ask me any questions you may have.  I get very geekily excited over stuff like this.  And as always, I am hoping that this article will spark some discussion.  Do you believe that scientists will ever actually be able to build a true organism from scratch?  Would it be extremely simple, like a sponge, or could it perhaps be more complex, like a cnidarian or even something else?  Would there be ethical implications?  Or do you think this is such a cool concept that it should be attempted just to see if it is possible?  Discuss!

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Zoos can save species from extinction

When I mention to people that I’ve studied zoology, I often get asked all sorts of questions about the nature of zoos.  Now, zoology is not the study of zoos as some people tend to assume; it is of course the study of animals, as zoo (more properly zoological institution or park) and zoology both come from the same root word meaning animal.  However, this often leads to a discussion about zoos and their various merits, which is a subject that is near and dear to me.  As a child, my parents were members of both Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle Aquarium, and I loved our frequent visits to see the animals.  In fact, the love of animals that my parents instilled in me is what has led me to pursue zoology as a career, as well as to travel the world whenever I can to seek out exotic wildlife.  Therefore, when people ask me what I think of zoos, I am happy to share my knowledge and opinions.

One thing I often hear people comment is “oh, I don’t like zoos, I hate seeing animals in captivity”.  While I of course appreciate this sentiment, I think in the vast majority of cases (in modern zoos at least), this noble sentiment is misguided.  A lot of people seem to still have the image of Victorian-era zoos in their heads, where animals were brought from around the world to be housed in bare, tiny, dirty cages to be gawked at solely for the amusement of humans.  If that is the case, then I don’t like zoos any more than the next person.  However, modern-day zoological institutions have advanced far beyond these primitive beginnings.  Zoos are certainly still a place for people to come and look at animals, of course, but this is not their only purpose.  Education is now a major focus of any decent (and certainly any accredited) zoo.  This means that the keepers and administrators of the zoo make massive efforts to provide educational material about the animals they house, and to present it in a way that is engaging to casual visitors as well as students of biology.  And with this education comes inspiration: the inspiration to conserve a beautiful, fascinating creature that you may otherwise have known nothing about.  Think about it: most people will never have the opportunity to travel to all corners of the globe and seek out (or even stumble across) most of the animals that you can see within the span of a few hours at your local zoo.  And if an animal is unknown to the general public, they will never care about aiding in conservation efforts, or protecting endangered habitat.  Even pictures in a book or on the internet do not have the same impact as actually seeing the animal in person, and being able to observe its behaviors in a naturalistic habitat.  For of course, these days animals are not kept in bare cages behind bars.  Millions of dollars go into creating extremely realistic habitats for animals so that they will look, feel, and act as if they are truly in the wild.

Earlier I mentioned accredited zoos.  For those who don’t know about zoo accreditation, I shall explain briefly.  The Association of Zoos & Aquariums, or AZA, is the major accreditation institution in the US (and in about 100 other countries as well).  In order to be listed as an accredited zoo or aquarium, the institution is held up to rigorous standards of animal care, exhibit maintenance, quality, and safety, to name just a few.  The AZA also conducts periodic inspections of all the accredited institutions, which can lose their accreditation status if they fail to maintain the standards.  Zoos gain a lot of benefits from being accredited, and not just the recognition for being held up to such a high standard.  They are also more eligible for grants, and exempt from certain governmental requirements.  AZA-accredited institutions are also able to participate in the Species Survival Plan, an important conservation program that is overseen by the AZA.  This means that zoos participate in breeding and conservation programs for many different endangered species.  Individuals of a certain species can be traded from one zoo to another within a group that participates in the Species Survival Plan for that particular animal, to improve breeding success and broaden the genetic pool.  This brings me to the other major benefit of modern, accredited zoos: active conservation efforts.

If you see this logo on a sign next to an animal’s enclosure in a zoo, that tells you it is part of a captive breeding effort designed to save the species from extinction.

The AZA oversees a couple different types of active conservation programs, most importantly field conservation and reintroduction programs.  Now, what I often get asked when I tell people that zoos are instrumental in species conservation is: what are some examples of animals that have been saved from extinction by zoos?  I’ll provide some of the best examples directly from the AZA website.  Probably some of the best-known species that have successfully bred and reintroduced to their natural habitat include the black-footed ferret, the California condor, the golden lion tamarin, and the red wolf.  These species were all critically endangered in the wild before being captured by biologists and established in breeding populations in various AZA-accredited zoos across the US (I’ve linked to their pages on the IUCN Red List, and as you can see all are listed as Endangered or Critically endangered, but the population trend increasing; each page has more detail about that particular species).  For example, only 18 of the black-footed ferrets were left by the time they were placed into a captive breeding program, but now over 700 individuals have been reintroduced to their native range.  Some lesser known (but just as important) species that have been successfully bred and reintroduced include Oregon spotted frogs, freshwater mussels, Karner blue butterflies, Palila Hawaiian songbirds, and Wyoming toads.  That last one was once thought to be extinct in the wild, until a single population was discovered, bred, and reintroduced.  Unfortunately it seems that this new wild population may have succumbed to chytrid fungus, which is a rapidly spreading amphibian pandemic.  However, all these species and more would certainly have gone extinct in the wild if not for the intervention of zoos and their captive breeding programs.  The AZA also has very specific scientific guidelines for the breeding and reintroduction of endangered species to ensure that viable populations are re-formed in the safest and most appropriate habitat possible.  The AZA also supports conservation directly in the field, as opposed to capturing and breeding animals in zoos.  This is probably more applicable in situations where a species or population is endangered, but not so critically that the few remaining individuals must all be protected in captivity and bred.  However, it is no less important.  Ascertaining the long-term survival of species (and habitats) is critical to maintaining biodiversity and the balance of delicate ecosystems.

The adorable black-footed ferret would not be around today if not for zoo breeding programs.

So there you have it, in a nutshell: zoos save many species from extinction.  I could probably write a book about all the species that have been bred in Species Survival Plans, and all the conservation programs that have been undertaken in the wild.  However, I’ll just leave you with this thought: probably any zoo or aquarium that you have visited, and certainly any zoo or aquarium worth the price of its admission, is supporting conservation programs and scientific research dedicated to preventing many species from going extinct.  Not only that, but they are making massive effort people about the beauty and frailty of our fellow creatures.  When you visit a zoo, don’t you feel as if you are being transported to a foreign land?  Do you marvel at the incredible creatures that you would never otherwise see in real life, and maybe never even have heard of?  The way modern zoos are designed is to not make you feel as if you are important lessons, but simply to amaze and inspire you so that you will care about the future of these animals, great and small.  And this, people, is why I love zoos.

If anyone has any questions or comments, I would love to hear them!  Is there something I left out?  Something I should have explained better or included more detail on?  Have a cool example you want to share?  Please let me know, I love to discuss this!

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Artificial Reefs Need Protection Too

Here is something that I don’t think a lot of people give much thought to: artificial reefs.  Something artificial doesn’t sound that nice, does it?  However, artificial reefs can be beautiful as well as fascinating and beneficial to a huge diversity of organisms.  The other day, a friend sent me a news article which she thought I would be interested in, and I was. It concerns an abandoned oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico that has become a popular destination for recreational scuba divers. Now, a massive structure built for the sole purpose of extracting oil from the Earth is certainly not very environmentally friendly. However, when a metal structure such as an oil platform (or even something as simple as a dock) sits in the ocean for long enough, it becomes encrusted with all sorts of organisms. Sessile (non-mobile) organisms such as corals, sponges, barnacles, bryozoans (“moss animals”), and mussels, which all have free-swimming larval stages, will settle onto these structures and begin to grow. These types of organisms are usually filter-feeders, though some are photosynthetic (as is the case with most corals). So the encrusting organisms filter tiny food particles out of the water, or manufacture their own energy from the sun, and can soon cover the entire submerged structure. These organisms in turn attract many fishes and other free-swimming creatures. Tiny fishes may feed on and live amongst the sessile organisms, larger fishes prey upon the smaller ones, and so on. Seals, sea turtles, and even sharks and cetaceans may be attracted to the increased abundance of life around these structures. This is the normal progression of life that occurs in a natural coral reef (or rocky reef, or kelp forest). However, with an artificial structure, it often occurs where there are no other structures available for organisms to settle on or congregate around. So you can see how an artificial structure, even one that may have originally been environmentally unfriendly such as an oil platform, can give rise to a massive profusion of life. Increases in biodiversity and species richness are not only good for the environment, they’re good for people as well. As I mentioned earlier, many of these structures become very popular dive destinations because of all the amazing and vibrant sealife. This is often the case with shipwrecks as well, including my personal favorite, the Yongala. This shipwreck, sunk on a sandy seabed in the open ocean, has attracted so much sealife, and such LARGE sealife, that it is now one of Australia’s top dive destinations. People go to see it at least as much for the sea creatures as for the interesting maritime history.

This image of a diver exploring the vast array of marine life surrounding the High Island oil platform comes from the original news article, which you should go read.

Back to the oil platform in the article I mentioned earlier. That particular structure is known as High Island 389-A, and it is slated for destruction. Why, you ask? Apparently, the U.S. Interior Department has rules governing non-producing structures such as dormant oil platforms, which gives the owners of said platforms one to five years in which to remove them (this one was abandoned several months ago). And by remove, they mean with explosive blasts. Obviously, all the lush sealife that is living on and around the structure would be killed in the process. According to the article, it was estimated that anywhere from 800 to several thousand fishes would be killed, and that’s only the fishes. Of course all the sessile organisms would be destroyed. The larger marine life that frequents the structure, such as turtles, dolphins, and sharks, would either be killed or driven away. So why on Earth would these structures, which are supporting so much life, even need to be destroyed, you may ask? Because it’s the law. The Interior Department does actually have some legitimate concerns for doing so, such as the risk of potential oil leakage from the abandoned well. However, couldn’t there be some less invasive, less expensive way of minimizing that risk? I am no expert on oil platforms, but it seems to be that removing this (and the other 650 structures that may face a similar fate) would not only be incredibly destructive, but unnecessarily expensive. It seems to me that the benefits of preserving these structures far outweigh the risks, and it appears that I’m not alone in this belief. Many different groups are noted to be campaigning for the preservation of these abandoned oil platforms, including The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the Coastal Conservation Association, and nonprofit organizations such as Save the Blue. I encourage everyone to go check out those last two links especially, as they contain a great deal of in-depth information about these “Rigs to Reefs” oil platforms, and what you can do to help protect them.

I took this picture (on a borrowed camera) to show the profusion of corals and fishes living on and around the artificial reef structures. The structures all had the same type of open framework, but were of many different sizes and shapes; from domes, to rectangles, to open bowls, to star shapes.

Now, just because I think this topic is really interesting, I’d like to mention something slightly more academic and less of an activism issue. Artificial reefs are not always just formed incidentally, they are sometimes purposefully installed. I first became interested in the whole idea of intentional artificial reefs last year, when I visited Bali, Indonesia. I traveled to Permuteran on the northern coast of the island. There, when I was snorkeling in the incredibly clear waters just off the beach, I discovered a series of metal structures that had been built and sunk in those shallow waters for the express purpose of allowing corals and other sessile organisms to colonize them. However, these aren’t just simple metal structures dropped in the water and left there. They are actually hooked up to a low-voltage current generator. This is called Bio-Rock Technology, and what the electrical current does it stimulate the precipitation of limestone from seawater, which is naturally high in calcium and carbonate ions, which in turn form the minerals calcite and aragonite, which make up the sedimentary rock called limestone. This enhanced accretion of limestone onto the metal structures encourages corals to settle and grow much more rapidly than they normally would (small coral colonies are also transplanted by hand onto the structures, where they quickly anchor themselves). Of course, this then invites all sorts of fishes and other marine life to take up residence, allowing the growth of a reef to happen several times faster than it would in nature with no stimulation. This particular reef in Bali is known as the Permuteran Artificial Reef Project, and is one of the largest and most well-known of its kind. It is a fantastic method of coral reef restoration, as reefs that are damaged by natural processes such as cyclones, or by human activities, can take many decades to recover. I really wish this method were better-known and more widely used, as I think it has very important implications for coral reef conservation.

Here is a closer view of one of the coral colonies growing at the top of one of the structures. Even a small coral colony provides a home for a great number of small reef fishes.

Anyway, my main point in writing about this subject is that I think all coral reefs, both natural and artificial, are deserving of better protection worldwide. Artificial reefs just seem to be far more overlooked than natural ones. I really hope that this brief post will provide a jumping-off point for people to learn more about artificial reef preservation. As always, I welcome any questions or comments on the subject, I’d be only too happy to elaborate on anything I may not have done justice to.

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The Horrors of Plastic

Yesterday, I went to the Fremont Solstice Parade in Seattle.  For the most part, it was just an incredibly quirky tribute to the beginning of summer.  There were a lot of inexplicable costumes, puppets, and floats that were very creative and cool to look at, but just too difficult to discern the meaning of (if there even was a meaning).  However, one of the groups in the parade was much more thought-provoking than the rest.

Plastic trash dragon with moving jaw and plastic water bottle teeth. Please excuse the less-than-ideal image quality, I was taking pictures on my phone.

At first glimpse, it appeared to be a Chinese dragon, of the type that you see many people carrying in a Chinese New Year celebration.  However, once it got closer, you could see that the entire dragon, including its articulated head and long sinuous body, was entirely made out of trash.  Plastic bags, plastic bottles, and other plastic odds and ends.  This trash dragon was meant to represent all of the plastic waste that we humans generate each year.  This was made even more obvious by all the plastic-bag-dressed people accompanying the dragon, and singing a song about plastic to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon”.

More of the plastic dragon’s body. It was quite long.

This actually reminded me of something I wanted to write about, so I figured this would be a good time (I’ll write about something cute and happy soon, I promise!)  Plastics, and their use and misuse.  To me, plastics represent everything that is wrong with our society.  Plastics are manufactured, used, and then all to often they are simply thrown away.  Few people actually stop to wonder where plastics come from, how they are made, and what happens to them after they are thrown away.  And this is to the great detriment of the environment, and by extension, to ourselves.

When I lived in Australia I volunteered for Reef Check Australia, and aside from conducting reef surveys, I also helped out with whatever promotional events I could. One of these was a free screening of the plastics documentary Bag It. I sold reusable shopping bags and those silicone coffee cups that look like disposable ones but aren’t, and after I finished doing this I watched the movie along with a lot of other curious people. This documentary really opened my eyes. I already knew a bit about why plastic is bad, and I’ve been against buying bottled water for a long time (You pay for water? Really?) but Bag It really drove that point home. It provided a lot of facts about the nasty side of plastics manufacturing and plastic waste, in a way that I think was really accessible to a lot of people. In fact, I would encourage everyone to see it if you get the chance. But I will try to summarize some of the most important points, so that everyone can make more educated choices about their use of plastic products, and hopefully be more conscientious about it. Watch the trailer for Bag It:

Plastic is really bad, people! Sorry, there’s no nicer way to put it. There are many different types of plastics, but most of them are not biodegradable, which means they don’t break down in the environment like paper or a banana peel would. Yes, they do break down into smaller pieces, due to sun exposure and mechanical damage (think of rocks grinding together in the waves until they break down into sand). However, this just means that there are small pieces of plastic that stay in the environment and don’t go away. You’ve probably seen them. A bright glimpse of red or blue or white on the forest floor or on the beach. These little pieces of plastic build up. In some places, the plastic buildup is so severe that entire beaches are made not of sand, but of tiny little multicolored pieces of plastic. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a place known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where converging currents have gathered an astounding amount of garbage into an area that is generally believed to be at least twice the size of Hawaii. It is horrifying. Much of the trash that ends up there is, of course, plastic, and the action of the sun and the waves break down all that plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, resulting in what is essentially plastic soup. These nasty little bits of plastic get into animals too, and cause a huge amount of damage. I’m sure everyone has seen images of all sorts of animals tangled up in plastic six-pack can holders. This is only a small glimpse of the havoc that plastic can wreak on animals as individuals, and on animal populations as a whole. The Bag It documentary contains a lot of heart-wrenching images of dead and dying seabirds that have swallowed hundreds or even thousands of small pieces of plastic, which are found floating in the ocean amongst the little fishes and crustaceans and other delicious things that seabirds rely on for survival. Once enough plastic builds up in a bird’s digestive system, it can no longer consume or digest its food. Unsurprisingly, this kills the bird. Even more tragic is when the parent birds hunt for food for their young, then come home to their nest and regurgitate a mouthful of plastic for their chick. In some places the plastic pollution is so bad that it is killing off a significant percentage of the seabird population, endangering the species.

It’s not just seabirds that are at a significant risk from plastics pollution. Many sea turtles are also getting sick and dying thanks to plastic bags floating in the ocean. All sea turtle species, even those that are normally herbivorous, love to eat jellyfish. And plastic bags floating around at the surface of the ocean look an awful lot like jellyfish. Due to the profusion of plastic bags and other waste that winds up in the oceans, this means that a lot of sea turtles die each year due to plastic ingestion. I have seen this firsthand. I used to volunteer at Reef HQ Aquariumin Townsville, and that aquarium operates a Turtle Hospital that rescues and rehabilitates sea turtles.

A very sick turtle being examined by an aquarium staff biologist. He was severely emaciated and covered with parasites when he was brought in.

A healthy green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) being examined in the hospital.

The turtles that are brought into the hospital are kept in small holding tanks and treated by local veterinarians, then kept and cared for until they are well enough to be released in the same location where they were found. Many of the turtles that are rescued are very sick due to having ingested plastic bags (and often other garbage as well–many cigarette butts are found inside these turtles). The bag creates a blockage in the turtle’s digestive system and not only prevents it from feeding and absorbing nutrients properly, it also causes a buildup of gas in the intestines that prevents the turtle from diving. Thus the turtle floats around at the surface of the water, unable to dive for food and at great risk from boat strikes (which kill turtles, dugongs, dolphins, and many other large marine animals). These turtles, when brought to the hospital, are lethargic, parasite-ridden, weak, and starving. Unfortunately, some of them don’t make it, but most of them do, thanks to the constant care of veterinarians, aquarium staff, and volunteers. With proper care and feeding, the turtles can usually manage to pass the plastic that causes the blockage, lose the parasites, and start gaining weight again. These are the happy stories. Most sick or injured turtles out in the wild are never even found, much less rescued.

Plastic isn’t just detrimental to animals, it can be detrimental to our health as well. Plastics are made with some pretty noxious chemicals. These chemicals can easily leach out of the plastic and into the surrounding environment, as well as our own bodies. Remember BPA? The scare a few years back concerning BPA (Bisphenol A) caused certain reusable plastic water bottle manufacturers to overhaul their manufacturing methods. This compound was once ubiquitous in plastics that we constantly came into contact with (though we didn’t realize it), it was eventually revealed through numerous studies to be an endocrine disruptor, thyroid inhibitor, it can cause neurological issues and has been implicated in increased risk of various cancers. You can still walk into any REI store and find Nalgenes galore, but nowadays they have stickers on them that proudly proclaim “BPA Free!” While it’s great that years of scientific studies finally caused a big corporation to make a significant positive change in their manufacturing methods, I have to wonder…what is it going to be next? What are they going to be banning or discontinuing in five, ten, or twenty years? I have no doubt that it will be yet another ubiquitous chemical that was previously thought to be completely harmless and is used in many of the products that we are exposed to in our everyday lives. Pthalates are another class of chemicals that have been demonstrated to be harmful (they are endocrine disruptors like BPA). Pthalates are used extensively in plastics as plastic softeners, but they are also found in many other everyday items, and you would never know it because they don’t actually appear on labels. The Bag It documentary explores this topic in more depth than I can do here, and it’s interesting but also very scary. You can read some more about the human health issues surrounding plastic (as well as the other issues) on the website.

And what of my aforementioned vendetta against plastic water bottles? Bottled water is such a terrible industry I honestly can’t believe it exists (well actually I can, but I guess that’s because I’m jaded). Not only is bottled water an incredibly devious marketing scam, it exacts a horrible toll on the environment. For starters, bottled water doesn’t even come from the pristine mountain springs where it’s often depicted to be sourced from. Many brands of bottled water have been proven to be simply bottled tap water. On top of that, the manufacture and transport of massive amounts of bottled water (they don’t just make it in your home town, they truck it all over the country and transport it all over the world) uses a hideous amount of energy. And people are upset about rising gas prices?
Check out this interesting little video that explains the problems with bottled water in an engaging and succinct way:

I also want to point out that, near the end of the video, she says that you should refrain from buying bottled water unless you live in an area where the tap water is actually dangerous to your health. Well, there are even ways around that. Last year I traveled to Bali, Indonesia, where all the guidebooks tell you to not drink the water or risk severe debilitating illness and explosive diarrhea. Well, I sure didn’t want that, so I brought along a cool little device called a Steri-Pen. It’s about the size of a flashlight and it uses a UV bulb to quickly and easily sterilize the water, killing all the viruses, bacteria, protozoans, and other disease-causing organisms. I know I probably sound like an infomercial, but it really works. I spent two weeks in Bali without buying a single bottle of water. I just filled up my Nalgene from the taps, sterilized it, then guzzled it happily and didn’t get the slightest bit sick.

So, the bottom line here is that plastic is crap. It’s terrible that our society depends on it so heavily, it seems that almost everything is made out of plastic these days. So what can you do about it? The obvious answer is to do your best to reduce your use of plastic products, especially the disposable ones. One of the most important (and not so difficult!) things you can do is say NO to plastic bags at the grocery store. Just buy a few inexpensive cloth bags and keep them in your car. Also, I hope that everyone who reads this post will go right now and check out the Rise Above Plastics campaign from the Surfrider Foundation. It has useful information about how to reduce your use of plastics. These tips are easy to follow and will make a difference. Think about how good you will feel when you can say definitively that you aren’t contributing to the huge issue of plastic pollution! Think about how many animals you won’t be dooming to a slow and painful death. I do my best to follow these rules and reduce my use of plastic. I know that I have a ways to go, but I am determined to do better and better, and see how little plastic I can possibly use. I hope that, if you have read this far, you will do the same!

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Supporting Sustainable Seafood

Today I want to write about an issue that’s been near and dear to me for quite a few years now. Sustainable seafood is a significant conservation issue, and it’s also (surprise surprise) yet another controversial one. People do not like being told what to do. If you tell someone not to eat seafood, they will likely as not run out to the nearest seafood restaurant and gorge themselves on lobster and swordfish. I get that, so while supporting the conservation of all marine species (and so many of them are now critically endangered, whether due to habitat loss or pollution or fishing pressure), I realize that one must be realistic if one hopes to accomplish anything. This is where programs like Seafood Watch come in.

I first became aware of the Seafood Watch Program when I was in college. In my senior year I did a semester-long internship at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, where I essentially learned all about how to be an aquarist. I had a fantastic time working in the aquarium, taking care of the sharks, other fishes, and invertebrates, and learning all sorts of nifty behind-the-scenes zoo stuff. One of the things we did there was pass out Seafood Watch cards to zoo visitors, especially during educational presentations. These cards, about the size of a credit card when folded into three sections, fit in your wallet and contain some very handy information about what types of seafood are sustainable (i.e. have healthy population size and growth and are fished in an appropriate manner), which are good alternatives if the best choices are hard to find, and which types of seafood should be avoided (due to inappropriate or unregulated fishing practices, small or unstable populations, or high risk of contamination). I was so hooked on the idea of educating and encouraging people to be more ecologically responsible in such a simple way, soon I was ordering my own Seafood Watch materials and handing them out whenever I could. I even scheduled an informal lecture at my university so I could reach out to more people about this important issue (which, despite me offering free goldfish crackers, only about three people attended…I probably shouldn’t have scheduled it so close to finals week).

I could really go on at length about the horrors of various fishing methods, and the critical need for better protection for marine species and habitats NOW. I will try to give just a brief overview and a couple examples, but I encourage everyone to check out the Seafood Watch website. Try looking up your favorite type of seafood and see how it rates. Maybe even download their app! Of course they have an app now, as does the Blue Ocean Institute, which has a similar seafood program. The apps are free and contain even more information that the little cards ever could, delivered directly to your phone or tablet with zero effort. What’s not to love?!

So, salmon. I love salmon, but farm-raised or aquacultured salmon have so many problems, the industry as it stands right now shouldn’t even exist. Aquacultured salmon are kept in crowded net pens in coastal areas. The extreme crowding of the pens means that parasites and disease can spread very rapidly, not only between the farmed salmon but also to any nearby wild fishes. The high volume of fishes means a high volume of waste is being produced, and again because there is no containment, the waste just flushes out of the pens and into the surrounding environment, causing a significant amount of pollution and damage to the surrounding coastal ecosystems. As if that wasn’t enough, the pens are easily damaged and farmed salmon can escape. This is bad news for the local ecology, because farmed salmon are usually not of a species to the area where they are farmed (they are usually Atlantic salmon species). This means that they tend to either out-compete native fish species, or inter-breed with them to create non-native hybrids. All of these effects can cause major disturbances in the delicate trophic web (or food web) of the ecosystem. Bad news for everyone. Farmed salmon are also known to contain high levels of PCBs, and they are often injected with dyes and antibiotics. Additionally, because salmon are carnivores, they are fed a diet of fish pellets that are made of…other fish. Small bait fish that we don’t tend to eat ourselves. In fact, it actually takes about three pounds of bait fish to produce one pound of salmon meat! This means that salmon farming actually puts more pressure on wild fish stocks, not less. So, people–please please PLEASE do not buy farmed salmon!

Many wild salmon fisheries are unsustainable as well, but the good news is that some are. Atlantic salmon stocks are severely depleted and unable to handle high fishing pressures. The best salmon to buy is wild Alaskan salmon, because those salmon populations are the healthiest and best able to cope with fishing pressures. Also, those fisheries tend to be better managed. Also…wild Pacific/Alaskan salmon just taste better. If I am going to buy salmon, and I do sometimes because it is delicious, this is what I always choose.

Shrimp! Oh man, where do I start. Shrimp fisheries produce massive amounts of bycatch, which means non-target species that get hauled in along with the target species (in this case, shrimp). A shrimp trawler can produce up to 15 times as much bycatch as the shrimp they actually target, and all the animals that make up the bycatch die in the nets and the catching process, and are then shoveled back overboard. Dead, all for nothing. And most shrimp farms, especially in developing countries, have similar problems to what I described above in the case of salmon. Through the shrimp are farmed in ponds on dry land, they are often drained into nearby waterways, such as mangrove forests, which are not only important habitats for a myriad of species including juvenile fishes, they are often important to the local people’s livelihoods as well. The concentrated waste from the shrimp ponds pollutes these very important habitats. Some types of shrimp are farmed in carefully designed aquaculture systems that don’t pollute the surrounding environment, and these are the best types of shrimp to buy. Check out the Seafood Watch page on shrimp to see which ones are okay and which ones to avoid.

I could keep going, but those two examples are some of my “favorite” to tell people about. I just hope this message reaches people, because we the consumers are the ones who really drive the market. Vote with your dollars, people! You can make a difference. The more people who encourage sustainable seafood industries and say NO to the damaging ones, the longer we can preserve our beautiful and diverse blue oceans.

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Marine Protected Areas

I’ve been hearing a lot about this lately, but I still think it’s worth sharing.  Australia is poised to create the world’s largest network of marine parks. This is great news for conservation-minded people such as myself, but obviously it is a very controversial issue. Many recreational and professional fishers feel that this vast network of marine protected areas will impinge on their valued fishing grounds. Their argument is that it will damage their livelihood and way of life, and that not all species targeted are in immediate danger of extinction. Be that as it may, this effort, should it proceed uninhibited, will be a landmark win for oceanic conservation. Australia has some of the most beautiful and diverse marine environments in the world, but in many areas they have already sustained substantial damage from fishing and tourism activities. I believe that most of the people who oppose the implementation of these marine parks care more about their own short-term goals than the long-term health of our planet. Australia is poised to lead the way in the all-important realm of oceanic conservation, and I really wish the U.S. would take a leaf out of their book.

Do read the article all the way through, and definitely check out the Maps. The maps show a lot of really cool detail of exactly where each protected area will be, along with the existing ones (such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park). As you will see, there are several different classes of protected areas/zones. If you want to read more about marine protected areas, check out this IUCN page.

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Intro Post

Greetings, Earthlings. This is my first blog post. I’m starting this blog as a pet project while I figure the rest of my life out. I wanted to have a specific direction for my blog, and it was suggested that I simply write about issues that I care about. Well, the issues that I personally care about the most concern the environment and conservation, so that is what I am going to write about. This isn’t just going to be a current events blog, and I don’t want it to get overly political as that’s not the facet I am most interested in. I really just want to discuss science-based environmental issues that I think are important or just plain awesome, and pretty much anything else nature- or animal-related (I am a zoologist, after all). I may write some articles about debunking common misconceptions that are often perpetrated by popular media (hello Theory of Evolution? Theory of Gravity?!). Heck, I may even write about cryptozoology sometimes. I do so love a good story. 😉

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