Thursday, January 16, 2020

Sea urchins could be Rhode Island’s next climate-resilient crop

             Atlantic purple sea urchins are common in coastal waters along the East Coast, and University of Rhode Island scientist Coleen Suckling thinks the Ocean State could become the home of a new industry to raise the spiny marine creatures for consumption in Japan and elsewhere around the world.
                She has teamed with a company called Urchinomics, which is pioneering urchin ranching around the world. Suckling is testing a sea urchin feed the company developed in Norway to see if Rhode Island’s urchins will eat the product and, in turn, become commercially appealing.
                “Sea urchins are generally good at coping with climate change; they appear to be resilient to warming and ocean acidification,” said Suckling, URI assistant professor of sustainable
aquaculture. “So they’re a good species to turn to for commercial harvest. And you can get a good return on your investment from them.”
             The global sea urchin market is valued at about $175 million per year, with about 65 to 70 percent of the harvest being sold to Japan. Urchins are primarily used for sushi, though they are also an ingredient in a variety of other recipes as well.
                Red urchins and Pacific purple urchins are harvested in California, Alaska and British Columbia, while green urchins are captured in Maine and Atlantic Canada. Little is known about how successfully Atlantic purple urchins would compete in the marketplace, but Suckling is taking the first steps to find out.
                The edible part of the sea urchin is its gonad tissue – which chefs refer to as roe or uni and Suckling describes as tasting “like what you imagine a clean ocean smells like” – but the tissue must be firm and bright yellow or orange to get the best prices.
                “Wild urchins typically have small gonads and the color isn’t great, so commercial harvesters are collecting wild-caught urchins and feeding them an enriched finishing diet in cages in the open water for a few months to allow them to grow larger gonads and develop good color,” Suckling said.
                At the Narragansett Bay Campus, URI undergraduates Max Zavell, Anna Byczynski and Alli McKenna are undertaking a three-month food trial on purple urchins caught in Rhode Island waters. The animals are being fed a variety of foods to see how well they grow and if they become marketable. The students monitor water quality and regularly weigh and measure the urchins, and by February they should have preliminary results.
            “If they become marketable, then it opens up a whole interesting range of potential options,” Suckling said. “Under future climate conditions, there may be a need to diversify what we produce in the seafood sector. And since urchins are good at coping with acidification, this could be a good opportunity here in Rhode Island to exploit sea urchins.”
             Even if the formulated diet works as expected, many additional questions remain to be answered before urchins could be raised commercially in the state.
             “It’s a local species, so we can potentially grow them here, but is it something the Coastal Resources Management Council and the Department of Environmental Management would be interested in?” Suckling asked. “Are there aquaculture farmers interested in growing them? Can we ranch them reliably? We’re just taking the first step to see if it’s worth the effort to answer these other questions.
             “Part of my role is to try to understand what seafood we may need to turn to in a sustainable manner so we can maintain food security and economic security in the future,” she added.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A tangled knot: Plastics and wildlife

           Almost every day, Geoff Dennis walks the beaches of Little Compton with his dog Koda and picks up the trash he sees along the way. Most of it he discards in a proper trash receptacle, but some of the plastic he finds – bottles, balloons and straws, for instance – is saved and recorded with a photograph at the end of the year to document its annual accumulation.
            In the summer of 2018 alone, he picked up 2,946 plastic bottles, 129 cigarette lighters, and 529 straws on just one beach. And that’s just the trash he counted and photographed. He picked up many many more plastic cups and plates, Styrofoam take-out containers, plastic bags, and an untold number of other plastic items. One day last May he collected 282 balloons on the beaches he frequents, and two weeks later he picked up another 89. This year he noted
Koda and balloons collected on RI beaches (Geoff Dennis)
the growing number of plastic pods from Keurig coffee makers, and blue rubber gloves are on the rise as well – 70 one day in September and 30 more three weeks later.
            “They’re small, as some people say in defending the use of plastic straws, but still part of the plastic problem,” said Dennis. “Smalls add up.”
            He estimates that about half of what he picks up is generated by local beachgoers and the other half from people and industries many miles away, since it shows evidence of having drifted on ocean currents for some time.
The growing problem of plastics pollution is due in part to our throw-away society and because plastic degrades very slowly in the environment. It persists for hundreds of years, at least. And unless we change our consumer behaviors and the plastics and packaging industries reform themselves, the problem won’t go away anytime soon. The recycling rate of plastics is floundering at dreadfully low levels while plastics production is expected to increase by about 40 percent by 2025.
“Plastic pollution has been an issue for Audubon for a long time, largely because of its impacts on wildlife,” said Meg Kerr, Audubon’s senior director for policy. “The global focus on plastics in the oceans and the attention it has received through social media has made it an issue of top concern to us. And in the context of climate change, plastics are made by fossil fuels, which we are trying to transition away from.
“Our throw-away society wasn’t created by accident,” she added. “It’s a very intentional industry push to create a throw-away world so the industry has a use for its products. They greenwash the ability to recycle and reuse, knowing full well that only a small portion actually gets recycled or reused.”
Jamie Rhodes agrees. A Providence-based attorney who has been working on plastics reduction initiatives around the country for the last decade, he said that consumer product manufacturers and those who use plastic for packaging and shipping have no incentive to reduce their use of plastics because it costs so little and its creation is subsidized by the oil industry.
The plastics industry emerged after World War II as the oil industry sought uses for the byproducts of the process of refining crude oil into gasoline and other fuels.
“They realized that the chemicals that came from the fossil fuel refinement process could be turned into plastics, which are among the most flexible chemical compounds out there,” Rhodes said. “The growth of plastics was a way for the fossil fuel industry to find value in what had been an industrial byproduct. They were drilling for oil, and plastics became a byproduct.
“Now we’re at the point where the tail is wagging the dog,” he continued. “Our use of oil for transportation and heating is declining, and a lot of the large fossil fuel companies have realized that the future of oil extraction is in plastics. There has been a significant shift in oil extraction efforts to cater to the needs of the plastics industry. We’re now seeing a growth in the construction of cracking plants in the U.S., which crack the chemical chain into component parts for specialized plastic resins.”
The results of all of that plastic production can be seen everywhere you look.
Approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, and only about 9 percent has been recycled. Drink companies alone use about 500 billion single-use plastic bottles each year. Much of it finds its way into the oceans and across the landscape where it affects wildlife of every sort.
According to a 2016 report by the United Nations, more than 800 species have been harmed by marine debris, mostly through ingesting or becoming entangled in plastics, which causes suffocation, starvation and drowning. As many as 40 percent of cetaceans and 44 percent of seabird species have been documented to have ingested marine debris.
Because plastic floats, small pieces are often accidentally consumed by seabirds, which may be the most likely wildlife to be harmed by plastic. University of Rhode Island Professor Peter Paton said the “classic example” is the laysan and black-footed albatrosses on Midway Island in the Pacific, which soar for thousands of miles around the ocean in search of food and often bring pieces of plastic back to their nests to feed their chicks, sometimes pieces as large as toothbrushes.
“If you go to Midway, you see dead chicks everywhere with their crops and gizzards completely full of plastic,” said Paton, a member of the Audubon board of directors.
Closer to home, an ongoing study of chemical contaminants in the tissues of great shearwaters off the New England coast by a URI doctoral student turned into a study of plastics after she found plastic inside every one of the 350 dead birds on which she conducted a necropsy (an animal autopsy).
“It’s been quite jarring,” said Anna Robuck, who examined birds that were found dead between 2007 and 2019. “There hasn’t been a bird I’ve cut open that hasn’t had plastic in it. I’ve analyzed about 400 pieces of the plastics I found in the birds, and most are recyclable polyethylene.”
Among the plastics Robuck has found in great shearwaters are fragments of bottle caps, food wrappers and tangled up balls of microfibers. Most are smaller than 5 millimeters in size, which are considered microplastics, though many are considerably larger, large enough to pose a choking hazard. Some birds were found to have more than 100 pieces of plastic in their bodies, but they averaged 7 to 10.
“Great shearwaters are opportunistic foragers at the water’s surface, which means they’re probably ingesting the plastic directly,” she explained. “Most pieces are large enough that their prey – primarily small fish called sand lance – didn’t consume it first.”
While it is uncertain if the ingestion of plastic was the primary cause of death of the birds, it is likely to have been a contributing factor. And because chemical contaminants easily adhere to plastics, the plastics may also serve to deliver toxic chemicals to the birds and other animals that ingest them.
Not all plastics are equally hazardous when consumed by wildlife, however. Balloons are especially deadly.
A study published last summer by researchers in Australia found that balloons are more likely to kill seabirds than any other kind of plastic debris. In an evaluation of 1,733 dead seabirds, the researchers noted that 32 percent had ingested plastic debris. And while soft plastics like balloons accounted for only 5 percent of the items ingested, they were responsible for 42 percent of the seabird deaths. In addition, although just 2 percent of all ingested plastic were pieces of balloons, the birds that ingested balloon pieces were 32 times more likely to die than if the bird had ingested a hard plastic. According to the research team, balloons are especially lethal because they are easily swallowed and can squeeze into a bird’s stomach cavity, where they reduce the space available for food.
But pelagic seabirds aren’t the only birds negatively affected by plastic pollution.
Paton said that gulls often include a wide variety of plastic debris in the construction of their nests, some of which pose an entanglement threat to the birds and their chicks.
“Leg injuries in gulls and shorebirds are common due to entanglements,” he said. “One of the first piping plovers I caught for my research had fishing line entangled around one foot and the leg was swollen. It causes them to have a hard time foraging, and they often lose their leg because of it.”
It’s not just coastal birds that are at risk, however. Paton received a call in September about a great blue heron in Burrillville whose neck and wing were entangled in plastic debris, making the bird unable to fly.
Examples abound of marine mammals and sea turtles being similarly affected by plastic pollution in the marine environment. A Cuvier’s beaked whale died on the coast of the Philippines last spring with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. A month later, a pregnant sperm whale in the Mediterranean Sea was found dead after having swallowed 48 pounds of plastic. Then there’s the harp seal found dead in Scotland with plastic wrappers in its intestines and the viral photo of the sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril.
“When baleen whales feed, they aren’t selectively nibbling on their very tiny prey. They swim across the water with their mouths open, and they take in a lot of water and whatever else happens to be in the water,” said Janelle Shuh, the stranding coordinator at Mystic Aquarium. “When they filter the water out with their baleen, any plastics in the water get stuck inside their mouths.”
Shuh calls ocean plastics a significant problem for all species living in the ocean environment, and it’s a problem she sees regularly in the animals she rescues from beaches throughout the region. She regularly responds to calls about seals entangled in monofilament fishing line and other plastic debris, which often causes wounds and infections. She once conducted a necropsy on a dead harp seal and found several plastic bags in its stomach.
“I’ve also done plenty of sea turtle necropsies where we’ve seen plastics in their stomach and esophagus,” she said. “Leatherback turtles eat jellyfish, and a floating plastic bag can have the appearance of a jellyfish and they’ll eat it assuming it’s prey. Loggerheads also tend to have had plastics in their system. They munch on crabs on the sea bottom, and if there’s a plastic bottle cap down there, they might accidentally ingest it along with the crab.”
While it’s often difficult to determine whether the plastic items were the primary cause of death of the animals, Shuh believes the plastic is usually a contributing factor.
“Our narrative needs to shift,” she concluded. “I grew up in the 70s with the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’ But we’ve only really focused on recycling, and that’s becoming more challenging. We need to shift our mindset to ‘reduce and reuse’ so the materials aren’t getting into the environment in the first place. That’s the direction we need to go in now.”

This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Audubon Report.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Scientists work to save world's smallest sea turtle

            The combination of the curving shape of Cape Cod, the region’s strong winds and currents, and the rapid cooling of the ocean in October and November make for a deadly threat to the rarest and smallest sea turtle on Earth.
            That’s the problem being addressed by a series of research projects conducted by an oceanographer at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., and a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island. The scientists used satellite-tracked oceanographic instruments called drifters to determine where Kemp’s ridley turtles that are late to return south in the fall are most likely to float ashore near death.
            The critically endangered turtles lay their eggs on beaches on the Gulf Coast of Mexico
Kemp's ridley turtle being released on Cape Cod. (Todd McLeish)
in a mass nesting event called an arribada. After spending their first couple years far offshore in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda, many of the young turtles visit the waters of the Gulf of Maine to feed on crabs and other small marine creatures that live on the seafloor.
            “There are little warm water bridges from the Gulf Stream that come up here, and we think some of the turtles are riding those into the area,” said URI student Felicia Page. “The problem comes when those little bridges close off and the water in Cape Cod Bay and the Gulf of Maine stay warm, which keeps the turtles here longer than they should instead of heading south in September.”
            Not realizing that they must swim north to escape Cape Cod Bay before migrating south, the turtles “hit a wall of cold water” and become hypothermic or cold-stunned as the water temperature rapidly cools, slowing their heart rate, respiration and metabolism, according to Page. Unable to swim, the animals drift on the currents and eventually land on the shores of Cape Cod Bay.
            It’s a problem the turtles have faced for many years, but because the climate crisis has caused the Gulf of Maine to warm faster than almost any other body of water, the turtles are increasingly finding themselves trapped in New England waters.
            “It can kill them if they can’t recover, and they can only recover if the water warms up,” Page said. “They have to be rescued in order to survive.”
            In the 1970s and 80s, fewer than 100 Kemp’s ridley turtles were found stranded on Cape Cod beaches each year, but by 2014 the number reached 1,100. Volunteers with Massachusetts Audubon wander the coastline each fall to rescue as many as they can. Many are brought to New England Aquarium and other agencies to be rehabilitated before being released the following summer.
            To help the volunteers identify the most likely beaches to search from day to day, Page and oceanographer James Manning deployed drifters built by local students to see if they could forecast where the turtles would land based on winds and currents. They also deployed sensors on commercial fishing gear to identify how the water temperature changes at different depths.
            “What physical processes are causing the turtles to suddenly come ashore at certain days and places?” asked Manning. “It’s a combination of currents and water temperature, we think.”
            The challenge is that the speed and direction of the current at the surface is often different from that on the seafloor, he said, and no one knows at what depth the turtles spend most of their time. The scientists have used surface drifters, underwater drifters, and even drifters shaped like sea turtles, and they all travel a different route.
            “We’ve shown how complicated it is,” Manning added. “We can’t yet make predictions about stranding locations yet.”
            So far, they have confirmed that the turtles do not begin to strand on Cape Cod beaches until the water drops below 52 degrees. In most years, that means the stranding season begins in late October and continues through the end of December, when most turtles have either escaped south, washed ashore alive or died.
            Page is continuing her research this winter to examine how underwater currents affect the stranding locations of Kemp’s ridley turtles.
            “A lot of the turtles don’t float at the surface; they’ll swim to deeper waters trying to escape the cold or they’ll sink to the bottom if they get cold-stunned at the surface,” she said. “So we’re looking at different levels of the water column to see how the current at different levels affects stranding locations.”
            By next fall, when the stranding season begins again, Page expects to have an app or software program developed so volunteers can plug in data about wind direction, wind speed and water temperature and know the best area to search for cold-stunned turtles.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on January 8, 2020.