Possible record setting dead zone predicted for the Gulf of Mexico

Scientists predict that the Gulf of Mexico may have a record-setting dead zone this year. The low end of the estimate is a zone the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia combined. The high end of the estimate is a zone the size of New Jersey. (Does anyone else see the irony/joke in that?) The large dead zone prediction stems from the flood conditions in the Mississippi River watershed this year, which transported more-than-usual excess nutrients to the Gulf. This shows us once again that the oceans and coasts are intricately linked to what happens upstream, in inland watersheds that are far from the coast, and effective management needs to consider these linkages.

Fish kill in Narragansett Bay, RI. CREDIT: oceanographerschoice.com

Fish kill in Narragansett Bay, RI. CREDIT: oceanographerschoice.com

QUICK SCIENCE ASIDE: A “dead zone” occurs when the oxygen level in the water is extremely low (called hypoxic) or absent altogether (called anoxic) and can not support life in waters near the bottom. Fish, crabs, oysters, clams, or anything else living in that water either leaves (if it can) or dies. Dead zones can cause massive fish kills, like the one shown at right.

Dead zones occur when excess nutrient pollution enters the water, causing a cascade of biological activity that sucks up the oxygen. This excess pollution comes from us, humans, from fertilizer, agriculture runoff, storm water, industrial waste, or any other source that contains high levels of nutrients (the main culprits being phosphorus and nitrogen). Regulations over the past several decades have tried to curb the amount of nutrients entering our waterways, but huge dead zones still occur.

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New report from the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative

On June 20, 2013 the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative released a new report entitled “Charting the Course: Securing the Future of America’s Oceans,” calling on the Obama administration and Congress to improve management of ocean resources. Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy are highlighted as examples for the need for more proactive ocean management. The report includes four major recommendations for action and details on implementation that will strengthen ocean-dependent economies, protect coastal communities, and provide new opportunities for growth. The report also urges the administration and Congress to build off the National Ocean Policy, and make the oceans a priority.

You can read the article from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership here, and download the full report from the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative here.

Cruise I: June 13-20, 2013

This cruise was aimed at using the C-BASS (Camera Based Assessment Survey System) designed by the team at the Center for Ocean Technology (COT) at the College of Marine Science. We planned on going to different areas on the West Florida Shelf (in the Gulf of Mexico) to film fish assemblages. Sarah Grasty, a master’s student in the lab, is analyzing the footage to see if marine protected areas enhance fish populations. The camera is an innovative new technology that will help with fish stock assessment and advance fisheries management with better-informed science. A second goal was to take fish samples – liver, bile, muscle, and otoliths (the tiny set of ear bones that record age and growth in annual layers, just like the way tree rings are formed every year) – to be analyzed for traces of oil from the BP spill, and see if oil exposure slows fish growth.DSC01732

Day 1: A rocky start

Heavy equipment on the aft deck

Heavy equipment on the aft deck of the R/V Weatherbird II

First impressions are important, and I have to say that this boat is great! In addition to all the great equipment for doing our science, there is a nice, large galley and dining area, the bunk spaces have real beds and small closets, and the bathrooms are full size with real showers. Not all the creature comforts of home, but it was definitely comfortable as far as boats go.

As soon as we made it out of Tampa Bay, Steve decided that he wanted to go fishing. Within a half hour he had caught a barracuda. We opened it up to get samples of liver, muscle, and take its otoliths. After much hacking, Steve was only able to get one otolith out, and it was teeny tiny. We also took out its heart, stomach, and gonads for a little anatomy lesson. Inside the stomach there was a lizard fish, a fresh meal that was gobbled down in just three bites! He then caught a tunny (a.k.a. a false albacore or bonito) which we sampled the same as the barracuda, plus a bile sample.

Unfortunately, when we got out to the gas pipeline where we were going to do some initial tests, there were problems with communications between the C-BASS and the computers in the lab. It took the COT team all day and night to assess and fix the problem, so we weren’t able to film on Day 1.

Day 2, 3 & 4: Success!

Sarah with Alex and Chad from the COT team, watching the live camera feed in the lab

Sarah with Alex and Chad from the COT team, watching the live camera feed in the lab

After a long day and night of working, the COT crew finally got the C-BASS up and running on Day 2! At that point we were in the Florida Middle Grounds, which is a “habitat area of particular concern.” Flying the camera from inside the lab is tricky – it consists of watching the sonar feed on one screen (which shows our depth and the bottom features so we know how much to move up or down in the water), watching the live camera feed on another screen, watching the GPS positioning of the boat on yet another screen, and talking to the winch operator outside on a radio to adjust the camera’s position. Needless to say, there were a few kinks to work out along the way. We were able to get some good footage, despite a few run-ins with the bottom.

Day 3 was a great day with the camera! There were no major issues and we got even better footage of fish than the day before – red snapper, amberjacks, butterfly fish, and angel fish among them. We also saw several pods of dolphins playing around the camera, especially when we were retrieving C-BASS.

Some curious dolphins hanging around the boat

Some curious dolphins hanging around the boat

On Day 4 we made it to our second site, Madison-Swanson. Again we saw a lot of dolphins, especially on our first retrieval. There were tons of red snapper over many of the rocky reefs and we deemed one of the spots that was especially abundant as “Sarah’s Rock.”

Day 5: Opportunistic fish sampling

Working to get otoliths out of the brain cavity

Working with a hacksaw to get otoliths out of the brain cavity of a Red Snapper

In another bout of bad luck, we lost the C-BASS during our second transect. A rocky ledge came out of nowhere and caught on the camera, which put extra pressure on the winch cable, causing it to snap. Luckily no one was hurt. Since we had no way to retrieve the C-BASS, we went to a different location to collect some fish samples. Sarah and I collected samples of liver, bile, muscle, and otoliths. We got a wide range of fish, including red snapper, porgies, Gag grouper, vermillion snapper, speckled hind, and red grouper. We didn’t use all of them for samples (mainly just the red snapper and porgies), but they all became filets, several of which we had for lunch and dinner over the next couple days – they were deee-licious.

Day 6 & 7: Attempts at retrieval

DSC01804Overnight and into Day 6 we steamed to Panama City to pick up an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) and some supplies (rope, buoys, a grappling hook), which we hoped would allow us to find the C-BASS and retrieve it. The ROV was driven up from USF that morning by another student in the Murawski lab. We spent the day in Panama City and a few of us took time to stretch our legs on land.

The COT team working on getting the ROV down

The COT team working on getting the ROV down

An aside: I would advise anyone not to go to a book store when you’re fresh off 5 days on a boat. The dock rock combined with trying to read book titles was enough to just about knock me over.

On Day 7 we returned to the site where we lost the camera and tried to find it with the ROV. The idea was to find the C-BASS, attach a rope to it with the ROV, and then pull it up onto the boat using the winch and a heavy duty rope. But the wind and currents were working against us and there were some electrical problems with the ROV so we weren’t able to get the ROV down to the C-BASS for retrieval. It is still sitting at the bottom of the Gulf in about 350 ft of water. A commercial ROV recovery team will have to return in a couple weeks to get it.

Day 8: Return home

After failed attempts at retrieving C-BASS, we started to steam home. Along the way on Day 8 we stopped to Skype in to the Florida Board of Governor’s meeting – Steve talked about the work we were doing on the cruise and Sarah and I gave quick snippits about the work we’re doing for our respective theses. We pulled in to the dock at the College just in time for dinner at home.

It was a little bit of a rocky cruise, not without its problems, but all in all it was a great experience! I’m looking forward to the next one!

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Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico

Capitol Hill Oceans Week was a huge success!

IMG_1038I recently got back from a very successful, productive, and fun trip to Capitol Hill Oceans Week (CHOW) in Washington, DC! Myself and 7 other students from last semester’s ocean policy class (taught by Dr. Frank Muller-Karger and Dr. Mark Luther) organized the trip and the various meetings that we had. I have to say that over the past several weeks I learned a lot about organizing a large group for such a trip.

Firstly, I want to say a HUGE thank you to Dean Jackie Dixon at the College of Marine Science for her generous funding for this trip. Without her help, this trip would not have been possible.

The Issues

The issues we discussed during the week were largely focused around the National Endowment for the Oceans Act (recently passed in the Senate as an amendment to the Water Resources Development Act), which aims to promote protection and conservation of U.S. oceans and Great Lakes, the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act (which will do a lot to combat seafood fraud, support American fisherman, and support the many jobs and monies that stem from productive American fisheries), and the challenges ahead for the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. We also spoke some about restoration from the BP oil spill in the Gulf, and immigration reform (which affects a HUGE number of international students in higher education science programs across the country).

Meeting Highlights

IMG_1434Upon first arriving in DC we met with the communications staff at the American Geophysical Union (AGU), to get a briefing on how to have a successful meeting with Congressmen and their staff. Several of us then met with Rep. Ed Markey’s office to discuss seafood fraud and voice our support for the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood ActRep. Markey (D-MA) is the sponsor of the Act in the House, in addition to being an advocate for the environment and the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

On Day 2, all of us went to the opening CHOW keynote, given by Dr. Kathy Sullivan, the Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere (and a former astronaut!) entitled Healthy Oceans and Coasts for A Resilient America. She stressed how to take action to make oceans and coasts more resilient in times of increasing vulnerability from storms and other disasters.

Most of the group then met with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), who represents Tampa and St. Petersburg, and supports many issues that we care about here in the Gulf, including environmental cleanup, economic reparations, and scientific research following the BP oil spill. She is a big supporter of the College of Marine Science, and the USF-led consortia to study the impacts of the BP oil spill (for which she secured $10M in 2010). She was very excited and supportive of our trip, and voiced her concern for the issues we brought up.

Several of us also met with Paul Cough, the Director of Oceans and Coastal Protection Division at the EPA, to discuss their role in the National Ocean Policy (NOP) Implementation Plan and actions they hope to take moving forward. To finish the day before heading to the NMSF awards dinner, we met with staffers from the offices of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that work on the Senate Oceans Caucus, again to discuss our various topics and get an idea of their priorities.

IMG_1044On Day 3, we all headed to Silver Spring to meet with Glenn Boldevich (the Chief of Policy, Planning and Analysis), Senior Policy Advisor Jennifer Lukens from NOAA’s National Ocean Service, along with others from NMFS and Woods Hole. We discussed some general history of ocean policy in the U.S., how the NOP was drafted (a process that made me exhausted just hearing it), and the goals and challenges for the NOP implementation plan. It was especially great to get Jennifer’s input since she served as NOAA’s representative on the task force that formed the final recommendations for the NOP.

Next we all went to the Consortium for Ocean Leadership where we met with Kevin Wheeler, the VP and Director of Public Affairs, and discussed the opportunities for young scientists to enter into the policy realm and what it’s like to advocate for ocean policy in DC. Some of us then headed to Don Young’s (R-AK) office to discuss our issues. This meeting was very successful – we felt like we really informed the staffer on our issues.

IMG_1064On Day 4 we had just one last meeting with the Office of Science Technology Policy, the executive office that advises the President on science. We had a great discussion with them about the NOP and implementation, how scientists can get experience with policy, and the potential for scientists to enter in politics. The best part: the office was right across the street from the White House!

What Did We Learn?

There are a lot of people in DC that are fighting and advocating for healthy oceans and coasts, and supporting the science that we need! Large pieces of legislation, like the NOP, take a lot of collaboration, in addition to a lot of hard work. It seems to me that there is a need for more scientists in Washington that can communicate science, and its importance, to policy makers and the public at large.

And while the National Ocean Policy takes a step in the right direction, it is an executive order and there are no monetary appropriations for it right now. There are going to be a lot of challenges for the NOP implementation, both short and long term, because many in DC are opposed to the NOP by virtue of the fact that it was an executive order.

Priorities for ocean sciences in the near future, as told to us by several agencies, will be fisheries, ocean acidification, and increased traffic in the far north Arctic due to warming.

The Endowment Act has passed through the Senate on the WRDA, but it’s now up to the House to pass it along to the next phase. Many said that it’s unlikely that it will happen this year, and we may need to wait until next year to see progress on passing the Endowment.

Other Trip Highlights

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Ready for the NMSF Awards dinner

On Day 2 we all went to the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation Leadership Awards Dinner, where Dr. Jane Lubchenco received the Lifetime Achievement Award and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) received the Leadership Award for his work in advocating for ocean protection, stronger environmental protections, and combating climate change. Both gave great talks about the importance of protecting our oceans and coasts. This was a black-tie optional event, and I must say that we all looked very spiffy! 

On Day 3 we went to the NOAA fish fry at the Dept. of Commerce building, where we ate a variety of sustainable seafood delicacies from around the country. Chefs were flown in to DC for the event. King crab legs were just one of the many delicious things on the menu!

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And of course when we had some free time we did a little sight seeing! For registering for CHOW we got free tickets to the Newseum, where the event was held. I would highly recommend the Newseum to anyone visiting DC. I also got to see the Botanical gardens (another must-see!) and the group got a staff-led tour of the Capitol, set up by Rep. Castor. All in all it was a great trip, with many insightful and informative meetings and a lot of new great contacts in DC!