Scientists increasingly rely on the public to help them with their research. For this month’s Environmental Outlook, a look at the growing use of citizens scientists to track birds, map the universe and monitor climate change.
The first global marine census uncovered more than a thousand new species and a huge variety of microbes. Why understanding life in the sea matters for life on land.
- Paul Snelgrove a professor in the Ocean Sciences Centre at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.
- Kevin Wheeler vice president of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership
- Rep. Brian Baird (D-Washington)
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Scientists from around the world have just completed the first global census of marine life. The 10-year study identified thousands of new species, mapped fish highways and established the baseline for measuring future changes in the ocean. Joining us in the studio to talk about this rare international collaboration, Kevin Wheeler, he's vice president at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. From a BBC studio in London, Paul Snelgrove, he's an oceanographer at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. If you'd like to join us, please give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. As you can readily hear, my voice is still healing from the last treatment. I hope you'll bear with me for just another day or so. Good morning and welcome, Kevin.
MR. KEVIN WHEELERGood morning, Diane. Thanks for having me.
REHMAnd good morning to you, Prof. Snelgrove.
PROF. PAUL SNELGROVEThanks, Diane. It's great to be here.
REHMGood to have you with us. Kevin, who came up with this idea of a census of marine life and why?
WHEELERWell, I believe the genesis of the Census of Marine Life was really a single person. Fred Grassle, who's a marine researcher at Rutgers University who, back in 1996, came up with this and pitched it as an idea to Jesse Ausubel with the Sloan Foundation. And with the Sloan Foundation's backing and financial support, it really got the whole census kicked off. And as you said, it's a tremendous international program where more than 27,000 scientists from over 80 nations have participated over the last 10 years. And to understand the diversity and distribution and abundance of life in the sea, and given that the oceans comprise 90 percent of the Earth's habitat, this is no small undertaking.
REHMI should say. Paul Snelgrove, how difficult was it to coordinate the activities of so many different scientists from different nations who may have had different ideas about what they were looking for?
SNELGROVEWell, it was actually very difficult. And the strategy that we used with the census was to bring people together beforehand to decide what the big questions ought to be, and how they ought to go about tackling them. And so they really had a good idea when they went to their home countries of how they could go about trying to address some of the major problems and concerns that we have for ocean research.
REHMSo who coordinated all the findings and the people, Paul?
SNELGROVEWell, it began initially with -- as noted earlier -- with Fred Grassle and Jesse Ausubel, the program manager with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He and Fred set up a steering committee, which over the coming years after 1996 started to get people together, bring them together into meetings and then finally formalized the whole program. And so then in 2000 the program was launched. But we continued to have meetings and continued to have the steering committee, which would help to coordinate all the activities. And then about four years ago, the leaders of that steering committee realized that we needed to bring together all the different pieces of the census, and so they asked me to come in and help coordinate that activity. And I've been working quite a bit of my time on that since that time.
REHMYou know, Paul, it would seem that many people would think it's pretty esoteric stuff. Why do we need to have a census of the oceans?
SNELGROVEWell, I think there are many good reasons why we need it. You know, if you're running a corporation, and you didn't know who worked for you or which offices they were occupying, it would make it a lot harder to do your job. But in a more day-to-day sense, many of us consume seafood, and I would say that all of us consume oxygen. And the oceans play a critical role in a whole variety of processes of which oxygen production is just one of them.
REHMAnd, of course, Kevin, you've got the oceans as perhaps an indicator -- that is, what I see in the oceans -- as an indicator of the health of the oceans.
WHEELERWell, absolutely. And the census isn't just surveying what's in the oceans, but it actually looks in the past to try to determine what lived in the past. And this is also a humongous effort to pore over historical documents and artifacts to try to figure out what species were abundant in the past. And when you're able to look in the past and survey what exists today, that helps you to hopefully predict what will live in the ocean in the future.
REHMGive me an example.
WHEELERFor instance, ship logs, whaling ship logs, or even old seafood restaurant menus -- but also being able to look at fossils -- that also can tell you what was living in the ocean, you know, millions of years ago -- not, you know, thousands, obviously.
REHMWhat surprised you most, Kevin?
WHEELERWell, I think the fact that there is more than -- the census placed more than a million species in the ocean, and we've only been able to identify about a quarter of them. And so there's obviously a lot more work to be done, and that's not even including the microbes. You include the microbes -- you're talking about a billion.
REHMThe microbes. How in the world does one discover the microbes in the ocean? Paul.
SNELGROVEWell, the microbes have been a real challenge in the past. We've known that they're extremely abundant and also extremely important in what they do. But because they're so small -- and if one looks at them, there's not a whole lot to see in terms of different physical features -- but with the advent of genetic techniques, we can now really tell these things apart. And so for me, that was by far the greatest surprise of the census. Ten years ago, I would have thought that most microbes are widely distributed and are not very diverse. But in fact, as Kevin notes, we think there could be as many as a billion or more of them out there.
REHMAnd, of course, you mentioned oxygen, but there are a number of these species that live without oxygen completely, Paul.
SNELGROVEWell, that's right. We've known for a while that there's certainly microbes that can live without oxygen, but some of the work of the census found environments in the Mediterranean Sea where there were, in fact, small organisms that -- in fact, multicellular organisms living without oxygen. And that was something new that will change textbooks.
REHMChange textbooks in terms of what we think about life in the ocean, and how we look forward?
SNELGROVEWell, I think that's absolutely right. And so our basic assumptions often about life in the ocean are not always correct, and so this is one of them that we now know that there are animals that can live without oxygen. Not very many, and they're not very diverse, but there are a few things that can live in those sorts of situations.
REHMPaul, give me a sense of why you think this whole endeavor was so important.
SNELGROVEWell, if we look at the cost of the census -- $650 million -- that's a fair bit of money, but -- by any estimation -- but in fact, if you look at the amount of seafood that crosses borders annually, it actually swamps that as a numerical number. And certainly, I think anyone who's worked in the biological sciences would say that if the oceans die, then so will we because we really cannot live without the oceans. So I think knowing what's in them makes us much better as managers, and also we can, as you noted earlier, monitor change much more carefully and precisely than we could in the past.
REHMBut surely, it's not just food. Kevin.
WHEELERNo, absolutely not. I mean, we depend on the oceans for commerce, transportation. There's -- as Paul mentioned earlier -- the oxygen we breathe. About half of the oxygen that we breathe is actually derived from plants that are floating in the ocean. So our way of life and society as we know it and -- the oceans sustain life on this planet.
REHMWhat would you say to people who are listening to this program who think, wow, that is a lot of money to spend over a 10-year period to discover what's in the ocean. Why would you say they should be impressed with the work you've done? Kevin.
WHEELERWell, this nation just spent about $15 billion doing the census for the federal government, so this is a drop in the hat compared to just counting people. And it really is going to give us an understanding of how the ocean environment works, and it's integral to how human life works as well. And so it really isn't a huge investment when you consider the enormous influence the ocean has on life.
REHMPaul, give us a sense of the new technologies that you had to use to go about understanding life in the ocean.
SNELGROVEWell, it has been a whole range of technologies, and I think this is actually one of the great legacies of the census, is that these technologies will continue to be used for many more years. We already mentioned genetics. We actually used something called barcoding, which allows us to identify different animals from one another based on a very small piece of tissue sample, and it creates a situation where animals that look alike, but are actually very different, can be distinguished from each other. But it goes far beyond that. There have been tags developed with the census that allow us to track animals as they move across the ocean, from California to Japan and back again. And some of these tags can actually collect oceanographic data as they make their trips across the ocean. And so that actually allows us to piece together a whole variety of aspects of the ocean characteristics at a much cheaper price than we could otherwise do so.
REHMAnd give me a sense of who will have access to all this information, Kevin.
WHEELEROh, it's all publicly available. But quite frankly, as a nation, we haven't done the best job of making all the data that we get out of the ocean accessible to the public, making it all be able to work together in a way that's meaningful, but this data is all on iobis.org.
REHMAnd it's also -- we have some of the creatures at drshow.org.
REHMAnd joining us now is Congressman Brian Baird, Democrat of Washington State. He joins us by phone. He's chair of the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. Good morning to you, sir. Thanks for joining us.
REP. BRIAN BAIRDGood morning, Diane. Thank you for putting on this program on such an important topic, marine life.
REHMIt is important. Thank you. What are your primary concerns about the ocean?
BAIRDWell, this survey has been -- the census has been so critical to assess the diversity of life in the ocean at a really critical time. The oceans face so many threats, whether it's ocean acidification from the CO2 being emitted by human beings, to temperature increase and coral bleaching and all the adverse consequences of that, invasive species that are being transmitted by our shipping industry and other mechanisms, runoff from streams, harmful algal blooms, et cetera. The ocean is under major threat, and yet many people are unaware of it. And this census, I think, will give us a good baseline of where we are now, so we can track changes in the future.
REHMSo what have you learned from the census that you did not know before?
BAIRDWell, one of the things that I think is so exciting, is you get the quantitative numbers in terms of the thousands of new species, where their distribution is, et cetera. But on top of that, just some of the characteristics of these species, they're interesting as organisms in themselves. But many of these are going to have some very interesting biological applications. A woman named Ellen Prager, who's a marine scientist, is coming out with a wonderful book about all the potential human benefits beyond the things we normally know -- medicine, other treatments, et cetera -- the ocean provides. So the diversity and abundance of life and then just the baseline data will be tremendously helpful to us.
REHMHow do you think this information might get translated into policy?
BAIRDLet me give you a couple of examples. One of the things we've learned is that marine protected areas, areas that are set aside where you can't do any form of development or extraction of the resource, can be tremendously important breeding grounds for fish and other organisms that then help repopulate off very endangered species. By understanding where the various species exist, understanding how they interact with one another, how they move, et cetera, will help us get a great deal of information about that. In addition, our legislation I've written on ocean acidification and harmful algal blooms and anoxia, all of those pieces of legislation will be informed by this data as we seek to try to reduce the damage of this harmful impact.
REHMYou know, when you talk about damage, what truly can be done?
BAIRDWell, a number of things. The first thing in terms of acidification and temperature increase, we've got to seriously address the climate change and the CO2 emission. But there are other things we can do. If you look at harmful algal blooms, these are believed to be -- these are these red tides in the freshwater but blue-green out or in red tides in marine environments. These are believed to be caused or contributed to by runoff, often non-point source runoff from urban development but also agricultural runoff. Controlling our runoff better will reduce harmful algal blooms. That will help the health of the ocean. Those are just two, and then other measures -- for example, adjusting how and where we fish. Things like that can have a tremendous impact on restoring the health of the ocean, and censuses like this show how urgent those measures are.
REHMMmm. Do you believe, for example, that this census gives more credence to the idea that climate change is underway?
BAIRDWell, I think it gives you a baseline data against which we'll be able to compare future changes and past changes. You know, one of the challenges that we face in ocean research is what's called the shifting baseline. If you look at where things are today, they may be substantially depleted from where they were 10 years ago, which may be depleted from 10 years later. We have the potential to see massive disruption in ocean life from the combination of increased temperatures due to climate change and acidification due to CO2 being dissolved in the water of the ocean and making it more acidic. And we'll be able to better track abundance and distribution of organisms and thereby become more aware, more quickly of the kind of impact that these -- that acidification and temperature increases are having.
REHMConsidering the fact that you've got many in Congress who continue to argue or resist the notion of climate change, what role do you expect from the Congress itself?
BAIRDWell, I would hope that the data such as the Census of Marine Life will help us understand -- first and most importantly from the census perspective -- the diversity and essential presence of species in our ocean. You know, 50 percent of our oxygen comes from ocean activity. Now, that -- we've got an abundant supply. But still it doesn't illustrate the importance of our ocean, and, of course, all the various economic benefits, et cetera, that human beings derive from the ocean. And yet, you know, 68 percent-plus of the Earth's surface is covered by water. When we see those beautiful photos from space, we see that it's a blue planet. And yet we've known very little about it, and frankly most members of Congress have paid very, very little attention to the ocean. My hope is that the census will wake members of Congress up to the importance of the ocean, and they will then see how climate change and ocean acidification have adverse impacts on the various essential life forms that we have in the ocean.
REHMOne last question, I'm sure you're aware of how much money has been spent in space exploration, really dwarfing what's been spent on the ocean. Do you expect that to change?
BAIRDWell, it certainly should change. You know, I'm a tremendous advocate of space exploration. But as I say, it's rather ironic that we have to send these ships up into space with people to look back on Earth, and then we see how clearly and how beautifully the Earth is made so much of water and how rare that is. And we need to do exploration of our own planet. We need this ongoing monitoring. We need further research. And as you said, relative to the investment we've made in space science, our investment in studying our own habitat here on Earth has been small. I think we need to increase that -- hopefully not at the expense of space exploration -- but we need to recognize the importance, in and of itself, of ocean and other aquatic environment research.
REHMCongressman Brian Baird, Democrat of Washington State, thank you so much for joining us.
BAIRDThank you again, Diane. A great program.
REHMThank you. And we're going to open the phones now. We have many callers, 800-433-8850. First to Rockville, Md. Good morning, George.
GEORGEGood morning, Diane. My question is, I was wondering if their census -- the gentleman's census -- also took an extent of the Pacific gyre, I think it's called -- the trash -- if they recorded the extent and damage that that tends to produce, if they've done a first-level indicator of what its effect is. Is that -- was that part of their study?
SNELGROVEIt actually wasn't. I'm well aware of the phenomenon you're describing. We were focusing, of course, on ocean life. I would say that one of the more sobering things we found is that some of the trolls that we did in the Mediterranean Sea produced more garbage than animals, and that was a very disturbing thing to find because that was the deep ocean, very far from land. But, no, we did not focus specifically on the trash pile in the Pacific.
REHMMmm. Now, I know that you did have some researchers gathering data in the Gulf of Mexico. Is that going to help determine how much damage was done by the BP oil spill? Kevin.
WHEELERCertainly, it would all be subpoenable and subject to the litigation that's going to occur down there through the national resources damage assessment process. But I think it's really important to understand, to be able to use the baseline, understand what the impact of the oil spill is going to have on the ecosystems in the long-term.
REHMInteresting. All right. To Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Larry.
LARRYGood morning. I'm fascinated by the discussion and the attempts to quantify and describe the benefits of the study. But there's something I'd like to point out that I don't believe has been touched on yet. There's a much longer term and less definitive benefit of all of the future research and work that will be done by what I assume are thousands of undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs who work on this project. I want to point out that there were thousands of people trained in nuclear physics in the '50s and '60s in a network of national laboratories -- I being one of them -- and very few of them are working in nuclear physics. But they've contributed to hundreds of other fields, and I think you'll see the same thing with the alumni of this program.
REHMThat's a great forecast, Kevin.
WHEELERLarry, that's a great point. And in fact, we've actually -- the census had actually utilized high school students in some places to actually do some of the…
WHEELER...research. We're really getting the students early on. And the oceans really are an exciting way to get people interested in science because you actually have to understand math and physics and chemistry and biology to be an oceanographer. So we really think it's important to support ocean science, and it's a good way to get our nation more competitive in the international global market place.
REHMAny addition to that, Paul?
SNELGROVEYeah, there were many graduate students who were very much involved in the census and key players in collecting census data, and they have long careers ahead of them. And so I think the whole community of 2,700 scientists around the world will continue to work together, probably in smaller groups, but that network, I think, is perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the census. We have this team of people talking to each other and using the same approaches, and I think that's really a great outcome also.
REHMAll right. To Mary in Upper Marlboro, Md. Good morning to you.
MARYGood morning. Thanks for taking my call, and...
MARY...I'm so thrilled to hear about the study and hear you talking about it. I have two -- one question and one -- well, two questions.
MARYThe first is, it seems as though another positive outcome from the census would be the development of pharmaceuticals from a number of these organisms that may have been discovered, so I'd like -- I'd appreciate it if your guests could comment on that.
MARYAnd then the -- my other question is -- or comment is, I would love to see the same kind of census done for the terrestrial portion of the Earth because, again, we know so little about the organisms, the diversity, you know, in terms of fungi. We probably know less than one percent of all the fungi that are out there. So I would love to see this done for the terrestrial part of the world, too.
REHMThanks for calling, Mary. What do you think, Paul...
REHM...on the pharmaceutical issue?
SNELGROVECertainly there is a great potential there. A lot of the projects of the census have been working in the sorts of environments where these sort of products are eventually found. These are coral reefs and also hydrothermal vents. There's often -- it's a needle in a haystack process, so I can't say I know of any specific examples. But I would be surprised if something in the long term doesn't emerge from some of the many creatures that we've discovered over the last decade.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Any thoughts that you're aware of, Kevin, about doing a terrestrial survey?
WHEELERObviously, it's important for us to -- as a world and as a nation -- to understand the environments as best we can, and biodiversity is really a key to healthy ecosystems. So it's a great idea.
REHMTo Glen Burnie, Md. Good morning, Laura.
LAURADiane, it's wonderful to have you back. You've been greatly missed, and I'm glad you're in good health.
LAURAAbout six months ago, I think, there was an oceanographer, a lady who was on an NPR show that said that over the past 150 years, we've lost about 90 percent of the species that were in the ocean due to human activity. And I just, you know -- I may be incorrect in this, but I do recall her saying that. And I'd like your panelists' comments on it, and I'll take that off the air.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Paul.
SNELGROVEWell, yes. I know the study you're referring to, and, in fact, what they're talking about were known species, so, of course, that's a different question than the unknowns but also in particular areas of the ocean. And so where humans and the ocean intersect, there's often a lot of loss. And so we do know that in -- as you mentioned in the case of hundreds of years. But even sometimes over the last thousands of years, we've seen serious declines in many species. Again, these are typically the known species. We don't know what we've lost in the way of unknowns.
REHMThat's an interesting point. Kevin.
WHEELERYeah, and even in a shorter time scale, orange roughy just recently became popular at the end of the last 10 years. And it's a species that's declined dramatically, so impacts can be felt very quickly as well.
REHMAll right. To Jackson, Mich. Hi, there, Patrick. You're on the air.
PATRICKThank you, Diane, for taking my call.
PATRICKI have one comment and then one question. My comment -- actually both of them are going to sound simple compared to the other callers' comments and questions. But I'm a big movie buff, and the idea of 600 -- was it 657 million over the next 10 years? Is that correct? It seems really, really small compared to the cost of $100 million movie that, you know, that's done over the course of a few months. So that, to me, is just silly to even debate that. But then my question was another fictional question. I recently read the Clive Cussler novel "Sahara," which dealt with a red tide epidemic. It was red algae that just got out of control and threatened to, you know, destroy the world. And I was wondering if -- are there conditions that that could happen? I mean, that's -- I mean, it's farfetched, I'm sure. But I'm just wondering if there are conditions that could cause serious environmental problems like that.
REHMNow, hasn't there just been a horrendous development in Europe near Budapest where a factory somehow lost its bearings, and you had this red tide, Paul?
SNELGROVEI only caught a glimpse of the news...
SNELGROVE….in the last couple of days, and I thought there was just a spill of aluminum perhaps into a waterway. But in response to the question, red tides have been expanding in their footprint, and they certainly do have very negative consequences when they form toxic blooms. And so there are conditions or oceanographic conditions that favor blooms so that they become much more abundant. They don't affect everything in the ocean, and, certainly, shellfish are one of the big problems. Paralytic shellfish poisoning is linked to these blooms. But, yes, I think the expansion of some of these blooms is a very serious concern.
REHMPaul Snelgrove, he is professor in the Ocean Sciences Center at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. And we'll take just a short break and be right back.
REHMAnd before we return to the phones, we should note that an American, two Japanese scientists have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry today for finding new ways to bond carbon atoms together. And the methods developed by the three scientists have been used to artificially produce cancer-killing substances first found in marine sponges. What do you make of that, Paul?
SNELGROVEI think that's great news. And as we noted earlier, sponges and other things that lived on reefs often have these specialized characteristics, and so that's the place where a lot of the pharmaceutical-type compounds that the oceans will provide are likely to be found. But it does illustrate how organisms that we may not think have much value to us turn out to be tremendously valuable.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Tuskegee, Ala. Good morning, Harry. You're on the air.
HARRYGood morning, Diane. I'm just going to ask your guest a quick question. And thank you for taking my call.
REHMWhat I wanted to ask is that is it true that some nations are dumping nuclear wastes into the oceans? I have, you know, read some articles before that people were commenting on that. And I just wanted to ask your expert if that was true.
HARRYThank you for taking my call.
WHEELERWell, I know that in the United States, there was some research done back in the '80s in terms of trying to use the ocean floor as a repository to store nuclear -- spent nuclear waste because there are areas of the ocean floor that are very stable over, you know, thousands or millions of years, but the United States certainly didn't pursue any of those activities. I'll let Paul comment on whether or not -- what he knows about what's currently being dumped.
SNELGROVEI think right now radioactive waste is not being dumped in the oceans, at least not legally. It has been in the past, and there is concerns that some of the containers that were used for that disposal may be starting to degrade. So that could be a serious concern. And I suspect that in the future, we are going to look again at the deep ocean, and there will be pressure to dump waste there. So I think it's something we need to keep an eye on and be weary of.
REHMThanks for your call, Harry. That, Paul, takes me to the question about seamounts and what researchers have learned about them.
SNELGROVEWell, seamounts are really just underwater mountains, and they tend to be sort of localized protrusions, just like mountains are on the land. And in some cases, these seamounts are very productive, so they have very high biomass of fish and other organisms associated with them. And they've been a bit of a concern because fisheries have targeted them. And often the fishermen that target these areas use very destructive types of fishing gear. And one of the other features of the seamounts is they often have a lot of coldwater corals and other species that we don't necessarily find elsewhere. And so areas that have been trolled heavily, the seamounts are often in very bad shape. And as a fishery, it's very hard to sustain the seamount fisheries because they don't reestablish themselves very quickly at all. So that is one of the real concerns that we have in the open ocean.
REHMHow could they be protected?
SNELGROVEThat's the real problem because trying to monitor and make sure that they aren't exploited is very difficult. Certainly, if we could come to international agreements to try and conserve some these areas, I think that would be a very good thing. In the end, we're always, of course, at the mercy of poaching. But, at least, if we agree as a global community that some of these should be preserved, then I think we can at least do better.
REHMAll right, let's take a caller in Millsboro, Del. Good morning, Jose. You're on the air.
JOSEGood morning. I've been chomping at a bit here. I got a couple question...
JOSE...and also a few comments. I'll start with the comments. I think we're really, really trying to change behavior in a matter that, you know -- it's like, oh, the endangered species, when for -- I'm going to say shellfish reasons -- sorry about that, but -- that we take more animal protein worldwide out of the oceans than all of the animal protein we produce on land. Isn't that true?
SNELGROVEWell, we certainly -- there are some countries that depend more heavily on ocean protein than on terrestrial protein.
JOSEOh, come on.
SNELGROVEGlobally, I'm not sure of the answer to that.
JOSEI mean, I -- okay. We -- from what I've heard so far and some of the studies that I've seen, we do take more animal protein worldwide out of the oceans than all the animal protein produced on land, and a third of it, we grind up into fishmeal and feed it to cows, pigs and chickens. So in reality, even people that don't eat seafood, that's how much we depend on it. And we don't get that across, and then we also -- second comment. We -- I really think we really messed up when it comes to the estuaries and bays when, you know, if they're the nurseries to the ocean -- and we don't really say that. We talk about the, you know, the blue crab or this or that. But isn't it true that 75-plus percent of the species we like to harvest out of the ocean, that's their -- their direct nursery is the estuaries?
SNELGROVEYou're quite right, and actually, I don't disagree with you on either of these points. We depend very heavily on the oceans for protein. And I think if we didn't have that protein, we'd be in very deep trouble. And you're quite right. The estuaries are, in fact, breeding grounds for many, many species. And because estuaries are often environments where human populations are quite high, it creates a real stress because we have multiple demands on a relatively small parcel of ocean.
JOSEIsn't it though -- then when you're talking about where estuaries are -- but then through the watersheds, I mean, being in Pittsburgh and what comes off the streets of Pittsburgh -- are going to end up in the Gulf anyways, right?
SNELGROVEWell, you're absolutely right that all of these systems are interconnected in different ways.
SNELGROVEAnd so the watersheds -- dumping things into the watersheds does have consequences for the coastal ocean is absolutely right.
REHMAll right, Jose, thanks for calling. To Miami, Fla. Good morning, Tony.
TONYOh, good morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
TONYI just wanted to comment in regard to radioactive waste in the ocean. I had read that France is regularly releasing its low-level radioactive waste into the ocean. I believe this could be the water that's used for cooling power plants. But it, too, is radioactive. Some radioactivity is transferred. And I've never seen any report of what effect that is having in the ocean.
REHMPaul, any comment?
SNELGROVEWell, I can't -- I'm not confident about that point. I imagine it could be low-level radiation being dumped in the oceans. I think it's something that we need to keep an eye on, but it's not as serious as some of the heavy radiation that, I think, could potentially be dumped in the oceans. And I would say, another point is there is, of course, a whole variety of natural products in the ocean that are themselves toxic, but I'm not defending that activity by any means. It certainly isn't something that we should be doing, but I'm not aware of specific numbers on that activity.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Marylou who wants to know whether cruise ships are the biggest marine polluters. Kevin.
WHEELERThey certainly have an impact on the ocean in terms of their dumping of their bilge. I would probably venture to guess that they -- they're not the largest pollution -- nonpoint source pollution being run off from city streets and gulf courses and agricultural is probably larger.
REHMAny comment, Paul?
SNELGROVEI think that's probably right. On a very local scale, I think the cruise ships do have quite a negative impact on the waters around them. But compared to some of the industrial effluents that we see coming out from various point sources. I don't think globally it's as big an issue as some of these other problems.
REHMAll right. Let's go now to Tulsa, Okla. Hi there, Kelsey. You're on the air.
KELSEYHello. Thank you for taking my call.
KELSEYSeveral weeks ago I attended the talk by author Jonathan Safran Foer on his book "Eating Animals." I was really shocked by some of the statistics about how sea life is dying out because of the way that we're consuming sea life. I was wondering if your guests could tell me if the data that has been collected can better equip consumers to make responsible decisions when in the grocery store. Just this morning, I was battling, is it right for me to eat this can of tuna? Is that going to have drastic effects on the sea life?
REHMI think there are lots of people who began to wonder exactly about that. Paul, what's your response?
SNELGROVEWell, personally, I don't actually eat seafood because I'm just not fond of it. But I do think that in a restaurant one needs to be very thoughtful about what one eats because there are a lot of species that are really not in very good shape that do end up on restaurant menus and in the supermarket. I would say that we're much better equipped to be able to evaluate which of those species are in difficult circumstances because we have much better numbers on some species.
SNELGROVEThere are various conservation groups that produce little pocket reminders of which species you should and shouldn't eat, and I think these are worth a look because they do give us some good advice on which species are endangered and which ones are not. Having said that, of course, there are good examples now of situations where restaurants and supermarkets are selling food that's mislabeled, and so there are barcode tools that could be used to differentiate that. And one of my colleagues from Canada, Dirk Steinke, just yesterday was saying, next time you go to the restaurant, bring me a little -- a piece of that fish, and I'll tell you what it is you are really eating because it may not be what it said it was on the menu.
REHMWow. You know, that's the first time I've heard that. I would wonder what kinds of regulations might be at work. Paul.
SNELGROVEWell, I think the issue of labeling is something that's going to become more and more scrutinized. And we're starting to see, for example, that some products are labeled as environmentally friendly or, you know, collected by appropriate mechanisms.
SNELGROVEAnd so, I think, if consumers start to weigh that as being an important factor in their purchases, then we can really create change in the way that we use the oceans.
REHMThanks for calling, Kelly. Let's go now to Little Rock, Ark. Good morning, Billy. Billy, are you there?
REHMGo right ahead, sir.
BILLYYes. Can you not hear me?
REHMYeah, I can. Go right ahead, please.
BILLYOkay. Thank you for taking my call.
BILLYI had a comment and then a question. I had an assignment in Florida, and I would go to the area where the boats went out into the ocean from the canals. One day I counted 298 boats in an hour leaving the canal and coming back. They're also cutting down droves of those -- I forgot the name of the trees now -- but...
REHMMangroves, the mangroves.
BILLYYes, mangroves. Mangroves, yes.
BILLYAnd I heard or read that that is where a lot of the sea life on the coral reefs lay their eggs, and then the -- and when the fish began to mature, they swim back out. I just wanted to know if that was true.
REHMAll right. Let's first remind you you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Paul, do you want to comment?
SNELGROVEWell, yes. Mangroves are actually environments that a whole of variety of species use. We talked earlier -- one of the earlier callers asked about estuaries, and mangroves serve a very similar function in the ocean. There a whole variety of species that reproduce there and utilize the complex habitat that the mangroves create to avoid predators and to find food. And so when we cut this down to widen waterways and so on, we do actually remove that nursery habitat. And so that really is a very big concern and a good point to raise.
REHMAll right. Thanks, Billy. To Houston, Texas. Good morning, Mark.
MARKGood morning, Diane. Diane?
REHMYes. Go right ahead, sir.
MARKIt's great to have you back. Your voice sounds wonderful. Anyway, I wanted to know if your panel could comment on the recent report that the level of phytoplankton in the ocean has decreased by approximately 50 percent over the course of the last, I think, 50 years or so and what that means for the production of oxygen in the ocean and, therefore, on the planet?
WHEELERThere have been reports to that. And it's interesting because actually new technologies and satellites, in being able to see ocean color from space, could provide us with the global understanding of sea surface production of phytoplankton. I'll let Paul come in on the implications for oxygen.
SNELGROVEWell, first of all, the decline is about 1 percent globally per year, I think. And there are some areas where it's much higher. But on the global average, it's 1 percent, and that is a concern. If that sort of trend continues into the future, then I think we really do need to sort of think about the implications for the oxygen cycle.
REHMDonna from Utica, N.Y. wants to know about the blue whale. Is there any way to tell how many are left and where they are? Paul.
SNELGROVEWe've actually gotten much better at being able to enumerate marine mammals often through tagging techniques and also using various characteristics like fin markings and so on to identify them. And so, I think, we do have a much better idea of the numbers out there. And I would also say that for some of the marine mammals -- minke whales, humpbacks -- when we stopped trying to harvest them, they have actually recovered in a reasonable way. There are other species, like blue whales, that are still in very bad shape. And so we don't know necessarily why some species are able to recover and others don't. But it is a good sign that some can recover.
REHMHow much of this project was funded by the individual governments? Kevin.
WHEELERWell, I know the United States -- about $240 million came from the U.S., and about half of that was from the federal government. The other half is from private foundations, the bulk of that being from the Sloan Foundation.
REHMTell me about the Sloan Foundation.
WHEELERThey are a New York City-based foundation, and they really are the reason that the census occurred. Without their money and the leadership, a lot of this research would have continued to go on but not in a coordinated fashion.
REHMSo what happens now, Paul?
SNELGROVEWell, I think there a whole variety of things that will happen. As a coordinated global effort, there will certainly be a slow period as people recover and catch their breaths. But there are activities within the census that will continue on. There are various national programs. There's one in Canada. There's one in Indonesia, another one in Korea. They will continue the census research, and even some of the census projects have funding that will continue for several more years. So I think what we'll miss for the next few years is the global coordination. I think we'd like to see another census further down the road, perhaps in a few years time, because there are so many questions that we haven't fully answered yet. But we've learned a lot, and I think we've shown that this model of research can be very effective. And we have the community together now talking to each other and working together so that the potential is there to do a lot.
REHMWell, I congratulate you on the study considering the interest demonstrated by our listeners. I think lots of folks would like to see this research continue. Kevin Wheeler of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, Paul Snelgrove at Memorial University in Newfoundland, thank you both. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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