Blue Marbles and Ocean Microbes: A Sea Change at TEDxMonterey

20 04 2012

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

A volunteer placed a translucent, blue marble in my hand as I walked through the door.  Everyone else in the darkened auditorium held a similar token.  Ocean-philes of one kind or another, we were gathering at the Monterey Institute of International Studies for the third TEDxMonterey.  A community-organized event modeled after the popular TED talk series, the day’s line-up of inspiring presentations revolved around the topic of “Sea Change,” and explored the connection between people and the ocean.

My blue marble from TEDxMonterey

The blue marbles were part of a project started by Wallace J. Nichols, one of the day’s speakers. The marble represents how the Earth looks from space, a blue sphere colored by its predominant feature, our ocean. It also represents a drop of seawater, teaming with life. Nichols hopes the blue marbles will pass through the hands of everyone on the planet. When you see someone doing something to help the ocean, give a blue marble to them, and tell them to pass it on, Nichols said.  He hopes the act will help inspire gratitude for the life-giving gifts of the ocean, and efforts to protect it.

James Cameron recently took his blue marble to the bottom of the Marianas Trench before giving it away, Nichols said. I read about these marbles making their rounds at the Copenhagen climate meeting in 2009; now I’m excited to have one of my own.  I will have to think of some great ocean adventure to take my marble on before I find just the right person to pass it off to.

TEDxMonterey included a number of ocean visionaries, and contained references to Shakespeare (who coined the term “sea change” in his play The Tempest), algal biofuels, education, fishing, and talk by long distance swimmer Lynne Cox that I found particular inspiring—she broke the record for swimming the English Channel at age 15, swam across the Bering Strait, and swam over a mile in Antarctic waters with just a bathing suit, cap and goggles, to name just a few of her feats!

There was a good deal of science mixed in throughout the day, and I thought one of the most engaging scientist speakers was Melissa Garren, a researcher from MIT.  Garren called for a little recognition for the ocean’s tiniest residents: its bacteria and viruses.  She gave a nod to Prochlorococcus, a species of cyanobacteria that, along with other microalgae, produce half of the oxygen on Earth. Take two breaths, Garren said. For the first, thank the trees and macroalgae, like kelp. For the second breath, thank the microbes. Though they support our very existence, scientists only discovered Prochlorococcus in 1988. We have so much to still learn about the ocean.

Thank marine microalgae like these for half the air we breathe (photo: Daniel Vaulot, CNRS, Station Biologique de Roscoff)

Garren called microbes “the invisible engineers that control the chemistry of the ocean.” They influence how the sea feels, smells, tastes and looks. Two gallons of seawater contain more bacteria than there are people on the planet, Garren said. The audience of ocean enthusiasts collectively squirmed as we recalled how many mouthfuls of seawater we had each swallowed. When we pollute the ocean with too many nutrients, which fish farms often do, the bacteria populations can sky rocket.  When the microbe population is out of whack, the ocean experiences some nasty side effects, like a person who suffers the wrath of intestinal microbes, Garren said.

Sometimes corals are the collateral damage. Corals have a protective layer of bacteria that coats their skin of symbiotic algae, but bacterial diseases also plague them.  Garren recently discovered that the bacterial pathogen behind a widespread coral disease can actively “sniff out” traces of coral mucous on a microscope slide. It was a bit mindboggling to think of tiny marine bacteria hunting down their prey. The things scientists are discovering about the ocean constantly amaze me.

TEDxMonterey was a stimulating and inspiring event. I’ll leave you with the quote from Ariel’s Song in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which made it into one of the day’s talks. I just love the words—they give me chills every time I read them.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Oh, and one shameless plug. I’m very proud of a certain photographer who was featured as a local artist at TEDxMonterey for his stunning underwater photography. Check out his work here:

Marine science graduate student and underwater photographer Scott Gabara shows off his photos and camera setup at TEDxMonterey


Who You Gonna Call?

9 11 2011

Natural Bridges, photo by Meghan D. Rosen

By Meghan D. Rosen

On Halloween, an adventure-seeking Santa Cruz surfer braved wintery water temperatures and paddled a half-mile out past Seabright Beach wearing only a bikini.  But she wasn’t trying to catch a wave.  The scantily clad surfer was trawling for an intimate look at the humpback whales that had been feeding off the coast. And she was in for a treat — or maybe it was a trick: two titanic whales burst through the water’s surface mere feet from her surfboard, scattering silvery anchovies into the air.

A nearby kayaker caught the close encounter on tape, and the video surged through local media circuits.  But “surfer-swallowing whales” aren’t just big news in Santa Cruz.  On Nov. 3, Anderson Cooper aired the clip on CNN, and three days later the YouTube video had nearly 2.3 million views.

The past week has been a special thrill for whale watchers: a pod of humpbacks settled unusually close to Santa Cruz’s seashores to hunt for food.  But curious crowds weren’t flocking to the docks just to spot a fleeting fluke: they were jamming into boats and kayaks and hopping onto surfboards to move in for a closer look. Though humpbacks don’t eat people, invading the whales’ space can still be dangerous. The marine mammals are powerful and massive: they range from the size of a school bus to the size of a semi-truck.

Humpback Whale (Megatera novaeanglieae) wrapped in kelp, Monterey Bay, Pacific Ocean. Photo by (c) Peggy Stap / Marine Life Studies NMFS Permit 1094-1836-02

Peggy Stap, director of Marine Life Studies, wants people to remember to maintain a safe distance.  “It’s exciting to see the whales so close to shore,” Stap said.  “But when they are feeding they are sometimes oblivious to their surroundings— a kayaker or boater could be hurt as the whales lunge feed at the surface.”

Humpback Whale's tangled fluke, Monterey Bay, Pacific Ocean. (c) Peggy Stap / Marine Life Studies MMHSRP Permit #932-1489

Stap’s not just worried about overeager onlookers, though. She’s worried about the whales. Her Monterey-based nonprofit organization works to protect marine mammals, and educate people about whales and dolphin conservation. In 2006, they organized California’s Whale Entanglement Team (W.E.T.), a group dedicated to helping free whales from the insidious underwater webs of fishing gear and lines.  According to Stap, 50% of whales have entanglement scars.

Before the team was established, Stap said, “If there was an entangled whale in California, there was no one to call to help.”  Now, if someone sees a trapped whale, they can contact W.E.T. at 877 SOS WHALE (877-767-9425).

Stap’s team advises snared-whale spotters to stay with the animal, but she tells people to avoid getting in the water with it. The W.E.T. team is trained to assess whether a whale actually needs help (some will ‘throw the gear’ and extricate themselves on their own) and has specialized whale-extracting tools if it does. Marine Life Studies recently received a grant to expand their W.E.T tool cache. Soon, they’ll be able to transport a trailer full of tools —Stap calls “W.E.T on Wheels” her dream— wherever there is a whale in need.

Marine Life Studies' Ocean User's Guide

Though Stap’s dream project has come true, her organization is constantly looking for ways to educate the public about marine life protection. Their most recent project, a waterproof ‘ocean users’ guide’ — Marine Mammals of Northern California — outlines little-known rules of thumb for interactions between humans and marine mammals, and is illustrated with 25 different types of whales and dolphins, along with sea lions, sea otters, and seals. The rules are based on NOAA’s regulations to protect marine mammals.

Stap hopes the guide will help people remember to keep a safe distance from marine wildlife. So far, they’ve distributed the guides to boaters, kayak guides, dive instructors, docents, and teachers.

“The law says you need to be 100 yards away from whales,” Stap said. “People need to realize that humpbacks are an endangered species.”

Nemo’s troublesome cousin

7 11 2011

Amy West

by Amy E. West

Would you like lemon on your transgenic fish?

In the interest of subduing the emotional reaction many have to genetically modified salmon when calling it ‘frankenfish’, I’ll refer to it by its technical title. But what is an appropriate name for a modified fish operating under the guise of two different fish genes— a deepwater eelpout and Chinook (king) salmon—but marketed as ‘farmed’ Atlantic salmon (Salmo salmar)? Transgenic (not to be confused with transsexual) is a perfect description to a scientist. Frankenfish, however, conjures images of a fish stitched together; some monster experiment gone horribly wrong. And if this franken-animal story does go awry, an aquatic ecosystem could be at stake.

Standing next to one of Alaska's Chinook Salmon- 2007, photo by and of Amy West

This situation is not about modifying food items like corn and tomatoes. They have no native or endemic counterparts that could be potentially decimated by interbreeding. This is about manipulating a living, breathing organism from the animal kingdom, which if approved by the FDA, will represent the first genetically modified animal for consumption. The chief difference here is that these salmon do have native relatives. With even just a slim chance of a transgenic fish reproducing, the potential exists to adversely affect a wild salmon population and its connected economy.

This is just one of several issues AquaBounty Technologies, the manufacturers of hybrid aquaculture fish, must address. Their goal is to produce a faster growing salmon in less time than typical farmed salmon, and bring a less expensive fish to the market. However, their sparse website misses a few key explanations.

1.) They state a Chinook gene (for faster growth) is incorporated, but make no mention of the other ingredient to the recipe; an eel pout gene (keeps the chinook gene turned on). Maybe the name alone isn’t appetizing, but the final engineered product is identified on the FDA’s website as:

Triploid hemizygous, all-female Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) bearing a single copy of the α-form of the opAFP-GHc2 rDNA construct at the α-locus in the EO-1α lineage.


Crossing salmon lines, Image: © Amy West

Creating female fish with three sets of x chromosomes (triploid) rather than two, ensures fish cannot produce gametes and, therefore, breed. Or does it? The molecular geneticist, Dr. Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario, has written about the need to extensively test the “leakiness of sterile triploids” to guarantee no gametes are ever produced. Molecular ecologist, Dr. Steve Palumbi of Stanford, also referred to the small percentage of triploid females that occasionally produce gametes.  If Aquabounty cited studies to prove that raising triploid fish always resulted in 100% sterility- then we could put the idea of crossbreeding to bed.

2.) Secondly, AquaBounty explains there is no threat posed by crossbreeding because the transgenic fish would be raised in closed systems that are operated inland. The company also advertizes their operations have reduced “environmental impact associated with air and ocean freight” that are normally linked to coastal enterprises.

This is confounding since these fish are to be bred in Canada, and their eggs flown to Panama to grow fish to market size. In addition, energy required to power these closed systems, process and ship the feed and market-size fish, leaves an awfully big carbon footprint. Aside from how much fish it takes to raise this new breed of salmon, where is their fish-feed coming from and what is it?

Tilapia in the US are raised in similar closed systems. But the environmental havoc suffered from escapees, in areas like Florida, has resulted in similar consequence worldwide. Would the Panama aquaculture systems be weather-tight?  What about earthquakes, fires, or tsunamis? The warm Panamanian waters aren’t conducive to salmon growth, but what are the chances of viable eggs slipping through the cracks in Canada?

“What level is the system so well-controlled and known that you can feel safe that nothing unusual will ever happen?” said Dr. Palumbi. “What are the consequences of escapes, and who is going to take responsibility?”

Though none of the fish will be raised within the US borders, other countries still face environmental risks. Dr. Jeffrey McCrary, an American fish biologist captured the aquaculture scenario best in a 2011 New York times article, “We are exporting the environmental damage caused by our appetites.”

The costs of introducing a foreign species unintentionally or intentionally has given humans plenty of environmental lessons to choose from: destructive algae let loose in the Mediterranean, zebra mussels attached to the Great Lakes, or bullfrogs taking over Australia.

Bulk salmon for sale at Costco, photo by Amoreeena Anker

FDA has been reviewing AquaBounty’s application for 15 years. Though legislators are currently voicing opposition based on potential risks, AquaBounty has yet to gain approval from Panama and Canada. Even if AquaBounty’s investors wait this out, their transgenic fish probably won’t be a menu option this year. More significant is the precedent set if the FDA approves GM salmon, which could grease the hinges to doors for other genetically engineered animals, like the Enviropig.

In the meantime, I have settled upon a new name for this genetically modified organism (GMO): Geemo.

Though I am sure Nemo, our beloved animated ocean fish, would steer clear of his man-made cousin.


Review the FDA materials on AquAdvantage salmon.

FDA accepts general correspondence from the public at any time. If you have comments on this topic, you are welcome to send them to the agency for its consideration at

'Geemo?' Image © Amy West

Not Your Average Birdhouse

24 10 2011

Researchers and conservationists are giving some seabirds an extreme home makeover on Año Nuevo Island (photo: Erin Loury)

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

On a little island off the coast of central California, researchers, conservationists and artists are teaming up to help some threatened sea birds raise their next generation. The helping hand comes in the form of some stylish new housing.

The Rhinoceros Auklet is a small seabird that researchers call the “the penguin of the North Pacific.”   When it comes to setting up shop, these seabirds have some special needs.  They only nest on islands, safe from the predators they would encounter on the mainland, and they dig those nests in the ground, burrowing long tunnels into the topsoil.

A Rhinoceros Auklet (photo: Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons)

On Año Nuevo Island, soil erosion threatens some prime seabird real estate.  A combination of human use, dry summers, heavy storms, and trampling sea lions and pelicans sloughed five feet of topsoil from the island in the 1990s.  Without stable soil, the burrows can blow away or collapse and kill the chick inside.  To top it off, Rhinoceros Auklets only raise one chick a year.

That’s where a little human engineering comes in to play.

The Año Nuevo Island Restoration project, headed by California State Parks, the non-profit Oikonos and Go Native Inc., is giving the island a little TLC to make it a better bird habitat.  In addition to planting 10,000 native plants to stabilize the soil, the team found a creative way to give the birds a boost in the nesting department.

Students at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, instructed by ceramicist Nathan Lynch and Rebar designer Matthew Passmore, crafted 90 ceramic burrows that the team buried in the soil. The burrows consist of a long tube that curves at the end like the crook of a pipe.  The shape mimics the style of burrows that Rhinoceros Auklets construct for themselves, with a bendy bit serving as a place to tuck their chicks out of the light.

The burrows create a solid place for the birds to nest without fear of collapsing tunnels.  They also have a handy little lid over the nesting area that researchers can lift to check in on the birds.  Once they know a nesting pair is incubating an egg, they won’t disturb them until they estimate they egg is ready to hatch.

The birds have been warming up to their sturdy new digs.  After the first burrows were installed in 2010, a single pair used one to successfully raise a chick. This year, 33 pairs of auklets cozied up to the new burrows.   It’s no wonder the team dubs these ceramic nests things like “The Love Shack.”

You can read a great description about the project, and follow their progress online.  And just for kicks, another recent of example of crafters giving seabirds a lift: knitters make sweaters for the oil-splashed penguins of New Zealand.