ocean

The Bounty of the Sea

Greetings from New England!Each Monday we write about the New England environment and way of life seen through our local perspective. Previous posts

By Phil Colarusso

Thousands of silver fish flashed around my head in every direction. The school of pollock seemed to be everywhere at once and their sheer abundance was disorienting. It’s easy to understand how difficult it must be for a predator to pick out individual fish in this incredible moving mass of life.

I’ve only had the pleasure of being enveloped by large schools of fish a few times in my diving career. Even so, today’s schools are typically small compared to historical accounts of fish abundance. Mariners in the 19th century and earlier reported schools streaming past their boats for hours at a time, so they probably had millions of fish. In 2013, it’s rare to find these massive congregations.

We used to believe the bounty of the seas was endless. We’ve since learned that fish, like other natural resources, are finite. Slow declines in abundance can go undetected by fishermen, scientists and the public. But, if these changes continue over a long time, lower levels of abundance become the new normal state.

Scientists have coined the term “shifting baselines” to describe this phenomenon. Each generation of scientists regards the state of the natural world during their career as the normal state, but in reality, small changes over multiple generations result in dramatic differences. The ocean that I swim in now is a very different place than the ocean of Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s.

The logical question to ask is: “Where did the bounty go?” Unquestionably, a large percentage of it went into fishermen’s nets to feed the world’s growing human population, but that’s not the only thing that’s going on. The oceans are part of a system with a large number of interlocking components involved in an elaborate balancing act. A significant change in one piece inevitably has implications (both positive and negative) for others. For example, in New England, the overfishing of cod resulted in skate and dogfish populations exploding. Simply stopping the fishing of cod may not be sufficient to restore populations to their historic levels: cod fishing ended on the Canadian side of Georges Bank more than a decade ago with little population recovery.

However, while my oceans are different than the oceans of Cousteau, they’re still special places. As I was surrounded by pollock, it was impossible not to be filled with hope.

More information about the work of EPA’s scientific divers.

About the author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA New England, and is an avid diver. He’s living the dream in Wenham with wife JoAnn, two kids, dog and white picket fence.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Around the Water Cooler: Be It Ever So Humble, There’s No Place Like Home

Reposted from It’s Our Environment.

By Phil Colarusso

Wednesday had been a long day in the field, and it was great to be home. It was early evening and I was processing the last seagrass sample. Seagrasses provide habitat for many organisms, so it is not unusual to find small invertebrates crawling around in our eelgrass samples.

I poured the last sample bag onto the sorting tray and separated the small rocks, shells and other material from the shoots of eelgrass. It was at this point I saw it: a small hermit crab lay motionless. It had ditched the snail shell it had been living in, which I subsequently found among a small pile of rocks. The crab was dead and I was immediately overwhelmed with guilt. Hermit crabs only leave the safety of their adopted shells, their homes, under periods of extreme stress. As I contemplated the poor crab’s fate, I wondered what extreme event it would take to make me leave the security of my home. I have lived in homes that survived hurricanes, the snow and coastal flooding of the Blizzard of 1978, and countless other events.

A sense of discomfort gnawed at me as my tired mind wandered. Our oceans are home to millions of species. Global climate changeocean acidification and eutrophication are some of the processes making our waters inhospitable to many plants and animals that live there. Warmer water temperatures change the normal distribution of animals and plants. Shellfish, which use calcium carbonate to build shells, will find that harder and harder to do as ocean pH levels continue to become more acidic. Sensitive habitats, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds, rapidly decline as waters near shore get over-enriched with nitrogen. What happens to all the fish that depend on those habitats? What do you do when you can’t go home?

Photo by Giancarlo Lalsingh (Tobago_Pictures on Flickr)

Photo by Giancarlo Lalsingh (Tobago_Pictures on Flickr)

As I was putting away my scuba gear, something fell out of my fin. In the dark it looked like a small rock. I picked it up off the garage floor with the intent of throwing it into the backyard. I realized it was not a rock, but another hermit crab, still tucked snugly in its snail shell. There was but one thing to do. I hopped in the car and drove the 15 minutes back to the nearest salt water. I returned this crab back to a safe location and he scrambled away. As he wandered away, I marveled at the resiliency of life. It reaffirmed to me the importance of the work I do. Nothing is more important than that place we call home.

Read more info on EPA’s work to protect ocean and coastal areas in New England.

Connect with EPA Divers on Facebook

About the author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA New England, and is an avid diver. He’s living the dream in Wenham, Massachusetts with wife JoAnn, two kids, dog and white picket fence.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Be It Ever So Humble, There’s No Place Like Home

Greetings from New England!Each Monday we write about the New England environment and way of life seen through our local perspective. Previous posts

By Phil Colarusso

Wednesday had been a long day in the field, and it was great to be home. It was early evening and I was processing the last seagrass sample. Seagrasses provide habitat for many organisms, so it is not unusual to find small invertebrates crawling around in our eelgrass samples.

I poured the last sample bag onto the sorting tray and separated the small rocks, shells and other material from the shoots of eelgrass. It was at this point I saw it: a small hermit crab lay motionless. It had ditched the snail shell it had been living in, which I subsequently found among a small pile of rocks. The crab was dead and I was immediately overwhelmed with guilt. Hermit crabs only leave the safety of their adopted shells, their homes, under periods of extreme stress. As I contemplated the poor crab’s fate, I wondered what extreme event it would take to make me leave the security of my home. I have lived in homes that survived hurricanes, the snow and coastal flooding of the Blizzard of 1978, and countless other events.

A sense of discomfort gnawed at me as my tired mind wandered. Our oceans are home to millions of species. Global climate change, ocean acidification and eutrophication are some of the processes making our waters inhospitable to many plants and animals that live there. Warmer water temperatures change the normal distribution of animals and plants. Shellfish, which use calcium carbonate to build shells, will find that harder and harder to do as ocean pH levels continue to become more acidic. Sensitive habitats, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds, rapidly decline as waters near shore get over-enriched with nitrogen. What happens to all the fish that depend on those habitats? What do you do when you can’t go home?

Photo by Giancarlo Lalsingh (Tobago_Pictures on Flickr)

Photo by Giancarlo Lalsingh (Tobago_Pictures on Flickr)

As I was putting away my scuba gear, something fell out of my fin. In the dark it looked like a small rock. I picked it up off the garage floor with the intent of throwing it into the backyard. I realized it was not a rock, but another hermit crab, still tucked snugly in its snail shell. There was but one thing to do. I hopped in the car and drove the 15 minutes back to the nearest salt water. I returned this crab back to a safe location and he scrambled away. As he wandered away, I marveled at the resiliency of life. It reaffirmed to me the importance of the work I do. Nothing is more important than that place we call home.

Read more info on EPA’s work to protect ocean and coastal areas in New England.

Connect with EPA Divers on Facebook

About the author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA New England, and is an avid diver. He’s living the dream in Wenham, Massachusetts with wife JoAnn, two kids, dog and white picket fence.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Life is Better under the Sea!

by Waleska Nieves Muñoz

I was 10 when I went snorkeling for the first time. I was immediately mesmerized with the variety of species living in the ocean, but I was also surprise to see trash on the ocean floor. That moment of wonder and confusion of seeing something so beautiful polluted with trash, motivated me to study Environmental Technology at the Inter American University at San German Campus in Puerto Rico. I later pursued a Master Degree in Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University in VA. I successfully applied for a job opportunity at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While working at the Agency, I also felt the need to serve the Hispanic community to make better decisions about their environment.

Community involvement is key for communities to make informed decisions about their health and the environment. Since language can be a barrier to many individuals with limited English proficiency to make these informed decisions, I started to translate environmental information related to the Superfund program in to Spanish. You may ask how is Superfund related to the marine environment? Well, if we don’t protect and clean up our land, the beaches and the marine environment, the marine conditions could easily be degraded to the level of a site as those regulated by the Superfund program! By translating these outreach materials was able to provide the opportunity for the Hispanic communities to become empowered to develop a healthier neighborhood and community.

As people become better informed, they will not dump trash that pollutes our beaches. We all will be able to dive, swim, snorkel and surf in a safe place, see reefs and the wonderful diverse marine life while enjoying the beach, So, what can we do? You and your family can organize a beach cleanup this summer. Or how about simply picking up after yourself when going to the beach? Educate your family and friends to use reusable utensils at the beach. Don’t leave plastic bags and trash around… You can make a difference by protecting the coastal watershed. For more information, check Protecting the Beaches, the Coastal Watershed Factsheets on The Beach and Your Coastal Watershed and Marine Debris Prevention and let’s help to keep our oceans clean for our family, our community, and our future.

About the author: Waleska Nieves-Muñoz has been working as an environmental scientist for over 12 years at EPA. Currently, she works in the Office of Civil Rights Title VI, External Compliance Program.   The mission of Title VI is to ensure that recipients of EPA financial assistance and others comply with the relevant non-discrimination requirements under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The National Ocean Policy

by Gwen Bausmith

Growing up in southwest Ohio, I lived over 600 miles away from the ocean, viewing it as a vacation destination, a place very far removed from the agricultural fields and suburbs of the Midwest. It wasn’t until years later that I learned how much all of our lives, whether coastal or inland, are dependent upon and directly impact our ocean and coasts. Where I lived, my local tributaries fed into the Ohio River, which flowed to the Mississippi River, emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, and finally became part of the Atlantic Ocean. Understanding this connection was crucial to realizing my role in ocean and coastal environments.

Healthy and productive ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes regions are a significant part of our nation’s economy, contributing to untold millions of dollars a year and supporting tens of millions of jobs. The oceans are essential in international trade, transportation, energy production, recreational and commercial fishing, national security, and tourism. They also provide many ecological benefits such as flood and storm protection, climate regulation, and important habitat for fish species, migratory birds, and mammals.

My family depended on all of these services, especially for consumer goods and food. In addition, my father worked in the steel industry, relying heavily on our nation’s waters for transporting materials.

On July 19, 2010, President Obama signed an Executive Order directing the federal government to develop a National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, our Coasts, and the Great Lakes, often referred to as the National Ocean Policy. It focuses on improving stewardship for our ocean and coastal resources and addressing their most pressing challenges.

It builds on over a decade of bipartisan discussions and looks toward a science-based approach for Federal, State, Tribal, and local partners to better manage the competing uses in these regions. Designed with extensive public and stakeholder input, the Policy will work to increase efficiencies across the Federal Government and provide access to better data to support multiple industries.

I am very proud to be a part of EPA’s involvement in the National Ocean Policy. EPA is committed to numerous actions and milestones in the Policy’s Implementation Plan, from improving water quality and promoting sustainable practices on land, to restoring and protecting regional ecosystems. I may not have realized it as a child growing up in the Midwest, but everyone has a stake in the future health of our ocean and coastal ecosystems. Every state is an ocean state.

About the Author: Gwen Bausmith is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Fellow at EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Looking For A Few Good Scientists

video imageHave you ever wondered what you could be when you grow up? How about working for EPA?  Check out one of EPA’s ocean scientists at work: Renee Searfoss.  Learn about her job and how she first became inspired to become an EPA scientist on EPA’s You Tube channel.

Go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHj-337Y1f4

Yvonne Gonzalez is a SCEP intern with the Air and Radiation Division in Region 5. She is currently pursuing a dual graduate degree at DePaul University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Surf’s Up

Great-Lakes-Beach-MeasureThe summer beach season is in full swing!

Although we’re not buff lifeguards perched on lookout stands, EPA and the coastal states play a critical role in making your day at the beach a safe one.

There are three basic ways EPA and the states keep you safe from pollution at the beach:

 1.    preventing pollution from getting on the sand and in the water,

2.    measuring beach water to learn how clean it is, and

3.    telling people about actual beach conditions.

The U.S. enjoys some of the world’s best beach quality.  For the past six years, America’s beaches have been open and safe for swimming more than 95 percent of the time.

For that other 5 percent, EPA provides the states with beach grants to monitor beach water and make sure to notify you if conditions are unsafe for swimming.

In a single year, an estimated 96 million people visited a U.S. beach. Are you among that group?  How many times do you visit a beach during the summer?  What’s your favorite stretch of sand?

For more information, visit our site about Mid Atlantic beaches, oceans, and estuaries.  You can also listen to this recent Environment Matters Podcast to learn more about the deep blue sea and the ways it’s being protected.

And check out these posts we had earlier this summer about Adopt-A-Beach programs and BEACON notifications.  And finally, make sure you don’t fry at the beach – for ways to protect yourself from the sun, check out EPA’s SunWise tips.

See you at the beach!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Life of a Subway Car: From Mass Transit to Aquatic Habitat

diveblog1Do you ride a subway to work? Do you know anyone who lives in a city where subways or other rail mass transit systems are used? Subway and rail mass-transit systems are a very efficient and economical way to travel in a city.  Some of the largest mass transit systems in the U.S. are in the Mid-Atlantic and New England Regions of the EPA:  Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA), and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).  Each of these transportation agencies utilizes dozens of subway and regional rail cars, replacing their fleets as they age.

As cars are removed from service, you may wonder: “What happens to the rail cars after they’re decommissioned?” The answer is that some go to scrap yards to be dismantled and re-sold to manufacture other metal structures.  Others, such as the Red Bird fleet of New York’s MTA, have been used to form artificial reefs.  Several of MTA’s Red Bird decommissioned cars were sunk off Delaware’s coast, approximately 16 miles from the mouth of the Delaware Bay, to serve as an artificial reef.  This reef was first examined by EPA’s Dive Team in June 2009 as part of an ongoing effort to determine its benefits and status.  Artificial reefs can be colonized by organisms like corals and sponges and provide nursery habitat for wide range of finfish and shellfish, which can increase regional aquatic biodiversity and coastal tourism through fishing.

With these benefits in mind, the question remains: What man-made structures create the best artificial reef habitat?  In addition to subway cars, decommissioned boats and ships have been used as reef structures.  EPA is currently determining whether subway cars remain intact as solid, sustainable structures for aquatic life.  Specifically, we’re examining whether there’s a difference in the structural integrity and aquatic life use between carbon steel cars and stainless steel ones.

diveblog2EPA completed its second survey of Delaware’s Red Bird reef site on June 2 – 9.   I was one of fifteen EPA scientist/divers who surveyed the condition and function of the subway car artificial reef.  This was my first dive survey since joining EPA’s Dive Team in May of 2010, and it was an exciting experience.  At first glance you may think that such dives are easy – after all, how difficult could it be to dive and look at a bunch of subway cars?  The reality is that these cars were sunk in 85-95 feet of water, the temperature at the bottom is 48º F, and the visibility was only about 10 feet in any direction.  This means that first we had to locate individual cars from the surface and dive to them. Once anchored to the car, we used a wreck reel and swam in each direction to find other cars, all without losing track of the anchor line.  Having been through EPA Diver Training, I found that swimming in such an environment wasn’t too difficult, but it definitely took some getting used to. Throughout the week-long survey, the team collected information on the structural condition of the cars, percent cover of encrusting organisms, and height of aquatic growth on the cars at six specific reef locations.  The team utilized video and still photos to document findings.

The data we collected will build off of initial information EPA gathered during the first visit to the sites in June of 2009.  This data will be analyzed by EPA and its partner agencies and will ultimately contribute scientific data to the question of whether more artificial reefs, using subway cars and other clean, steel structures should be created. Click for more information about the concept of artificial reefs, and about EPA’s Dive Team.

Also check out this post about other research being done on the OSV Bold on the newest EPA blog – Region 2’s “Greening the Apple.”  We’re excited to welcome them to the EPA blogosphere!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Adopt-A-Beach!

adoptabeachBeach season is warming up and hopefully you have gotten the chance to get your feet a little sandy. Beaches get a huge amount of concentrated use during the summer season. Millions of people choose to make America’s beautiful beaches vacation destinations. With so many people flocking to the beach it is inevitable that the beach has trash buildup. Delaware has an innovative idea on how to keep their beaches clean for everyone!
Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) has partnered with volunteers to create the Adopt-A-Beach program. The program strives to be more than litter pickup and aims to educate and inform citizens about the responsibilities of land stewardship.
DNREC has divided some of Delaware’s beaches into 1/2-mile sections. These 1/2-mile sections have been designated for the adoption program. If a beach is adopted, the volunteers must commit to cleaning the beach up to four times over a two-year period. Clean ups take place in the spring and fall each year.
DNREC provides trash bags, gloves and report forms that are to be sent back to DNREC.

 

For more information on Delaware’s Adopt-A-Beach Program click here!
Check in with the Town Hall or Municipal Building at your beach of choice; they may have clean up opportunities you can participate in. As always, throw your trash away at the beach!
Have you participated in a Beach Clean Up Day? Leave a comment below and share what it was like!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Protecting Ocean Meadows

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

“Amber waves of grain” conjures up images of vast expanses of grassland across middle America. In contrast, can you picture meadows of seagrasses covering broad areas of the seafloor?

image of underwater seagrassSeagrasses are underwater marine flowering plants that have long, narrow leaves. Because they photosynthesize, seagrasses must grow in shallow water where light penetrates. Most of the light required for these plants disappears below 30 feet.

Florida alone has about a half-million acres of seagrass meadow.

Seagrasses provide essential “ecological services,” such as reducing erosion, improving water quality, and supplying refuge and food for aquatic animals. They are vital to commercial and recreational fisheries that are a major part of a coastal community’s economy.

Unfortunately, the health of seagrass meadows has been compromised in many places due to pollution from land-based activities. Excess nutrients from fertilizers and wastewater cause algal blooms which deprive seagrasses and aquatic organisms of essential oxygen. In addition, over-fishing, over-crabbing, and other harvesting practices change the ecological balance within seagrass meadows, leading to shifts in both plant and animal populations.

My PhD thesis brings me to the shallow waters off Bermuda where I am measuring the simultaneous effects of heavy grazing and excess nutrients on the overall health of seagrass pastures. Seagrasses here are being eaten (grazed) by green turtles and parrotfish while fertilizer runoff is also affecting them.

My main focus is to understand how grazers with different feeding strategies—where and how they feed—control the effects of nutrient pollution. I am working in both the laboratory and the field to manipulate and measure nutrient levels.

A conservationist at heart, I constantly seek to educate others about how human actions can either positively or negatively impact the physical environment. My research looking at the indirect effects of local fishing practices and wastewater treatment on seagrass ecosystems has pressing applications for coastal conservation and management worldwide.

About the author: Kim Holzer is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. Funding for her research is provided by a 2007 EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Research Fellowship. Kim expects to graduate in the spring of 2011 and continue working as a scientist in environmental protection.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.