The importance of wetlands

Coastal habitats like wetlands are vital for protection from storm surge and flooding. With the rapid expansion of urban development in many major cities, that protection often gets lost and can lead to catastrophic loss of property and human life, like what we’ve been seeing in Houston this past week from Hurricane Harvey.


House Fishes For Improvements To Magnuson-Stevens Act

Last week, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans held a hearing to discuss areas for improvement to consider upon reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Both sides of the aisle praised the successes of the law and conceded need for change but had different ideas for what those alterations might be. Read the COL policy brief here.

Exciting new research support!

The Murawski lab received great news earlier this month about several of our ongoing projects. The C-IMAGE consortium has been awarded a new three year, $20.2 million grant to continue research related to the BP oil spill disaster. This will help support ongoing work on fish health related to the spill. Read about it here.

NFWF also just announced $100 million in support for projects all around the Gulf Coast. $34.3 million from the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund will go to projects in Florida, including the C-BASS project project at USF for continued characterization and assessment of the benthic ecosystems and fisheries of the West Florida Shelf. Read about the project and NFWF award here.

Proposed protections for Orcas in captivity

There’s a proposed new bill in California from Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) that would “eliminate performance-based entertainment and captive breeding of the whales with an ultimate goal of phasing out killer whale captivity in California.” It’s called the Orca Welfare and Safety Act. The Act was inspired by details revealed in the move Blackfish, which documents the cruel treatment of Orcas in captivity and gave SeaWorld a lot of bad pressSeaWorld is obviously not happy about the new proposal.

See my past blog post for more information and more links on Orcas in captivity.

USF Professor named to Brilliant Ten

Dr. Mya Breitbart at the College of Marine Science here at USF has been named to this year’s Popular Science Brilliant Ten! The list compiles the “brightest young scientists and engineers” who aredramatically reshaping their fields–and the future.”

Mya studies marine viruses, and has developed a new method to detect what viruses are present and what they’re doing – in an entire ecosystem at once.

You can read about Mya’s research here and all those on the list here. The article appears in the October 2013 issue of Popular Science.

The Marine Amusement Park Industry

There has been a lot of recent attention paid to the multi-billion dollar marine theme park industry – you know, those places like SeaWorld where whales and dolphins are used for human entertainment.

Tilikum, the largest Orca currently in captivity. Courtesy of

Tilikum, the largest Orca currently in captivity. Courtesy of

The attention has been largely if not completely negative, focused on the ways in which dolphins and whales (collectively known as cetaceans) are either captured in the wild or bred in captivity, and the mistreatment and deteriorating mental and physical health of the animals while in captivity. The largely publicized 2010 death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau (at SeaWorld Orlando by an Orca named Tilikum) raised a lot of questions about how the animals at these parks are treated, what trainers actually know about individual animals, and what goes on behind the scenes.

Reports have documented that SeaWorld down-plays the risks involved with working with these wild animals, not just to the public but to their trainers. Animal profiles that are meant to be a collective history of an individual are often misconstrued to mask aggressive or problem behavior and hide fatal or major injuries inflicted on trainers. There were two fatal incidents with Tilikum that occurred before the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau (one of which was at SeaWorld), yet the details of the events were kept from trainers working with Tilikum. To the point, SeaWorld has never compiled an official incident report for Dawn Brancheau’s death.

Some former trainers have been speaking out about their experience and the toll that captivity takes on the animals. You can watch two television interviews with former trainers here (the first video interview starts at 2:00 and the second at 3:33).

An Orca performs with a trainer at SeaWorld. Courtesy of

An Orca performs with a trainer at SeaWorld. Courtesy of

Orcas have been starring in shows at marine parks since 1965. The history of the industry is one filled with exploitation, greed, cruelty, and legal loopholes. SeaWorld owns 26 of the 42 Orcas that are currently alive in captivity around the world. Dolphins and whales live extremely shortened lives when in captivity – Orcas rarely reach their 20’s in captivity yet in the wild males can live for 50-70 years and females up to 90+ years.

But attitudes about keeping large marine mammals in parks and aquariums may be changing. On August 6 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied a request from the Georgia Aquarium to import 18 Beluga whales from Russia. This was the first application to NOAA in 20 years to import wild-caught whales to the US, and its denial challenges assertions often made by marine parks and aquariums when importing these animals.

The deaths of trainers or visitors at marine parks is a tragedy. I’m not denying that. And I love aquariums. I was mesmerized by all the critters in aquariums as a kid, and is probably a large reason why I love and study them now. Aquariums expose and teach people about the marine world and garner an appreciation for our oceans, rivers, lakes, and estuaries. I understand that.

An Orca pod in the wild. Courtesy of

An Orca pod in the wild. Courtesy of

But I also know that marine mammals are not built to live in captivity. Most large cetaceans like Orcas are migratory, often traveling 1,000’s to 100,000’s of miles every year. Orcas are incredibly intelligent and live in a highly complex family social structure of individuals (called pods) that play, hunt, live, and travel together for their entire lives. Families within a pod are so close that males often die shortly after their mothers do. Distinct populations throughout the world have even evolved unique hunting strategies and different “dialects” for communication. Separation anxiety is very real for them.

And Orcas are more commonly known as “killer whales.” This is because they are hunters, they can be aggressive, and they can be dangerous. But as this report in Outside notes, Orcas have never been known to attack, never mind kill, humans in the wild. Also in the report, Dr. Paul Spong, Orca researcher and founder of OrcaLab in British Columbia, notes that “If you pen killer whales in a small steel tank, you are imposing an extreme level of sensory deprivation on them….Humans who are subjected to those same conditions become mentally disturbed.”

Tilikum was captured in the wild when he was 3 years old and has been living in captivity for 30 years. Since Dawn’s death in 2010 he has been isolated from other Orcas and receives no direct human contact whatsoever.


Courtesy of

I think (or maybe just hope) that it’s only a matter of time before the mistreatment of these animals for human entertainment falls out of fashion. The new documentary Blackfish, which has been named a NY Times Critics’ Pick, details the life of Tilikum and “compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the mulit-billion dollar sea-park industry.”

SeaWorld was completely uninterested in the documentary until its recent release in the US and UK. They have since started refuting many points in the film. You can watch the trailer here and get links for many more articles on the subject here.

PLEASE NOTE: I am in no way associated with the Blackfish movie, SeaWorld, or any other organization mentioned here. I am simply a lover of marine life. This continues to be a controversial subject and this post is the author’s opinion, meant to stimulate conversation. Research on the mental and physical health of cetaceans in captivity continues to generate knowledge that can inform our thoughts and actions.

Women still under-represented in science

The under-representation of women in science is still a reality. The proportion of female students seems to be increasing (I see this myself especially in marine science), but there are still significantly fewer women represented at conferences and in tenure-track faculty positions. Yes, it’s better than 50 years ago, but we still have work to do.

I’ve been lucky thus far in my (very young) science career to have had some great female mentors and role models – women who are not only smart, hard working, dedicated, and successful scientists, but who are also loving mothers, wives, and friends. They have given me insight and inspiration on many occasions. I wonder if I’m an exception to the rule. I sure hope not.

This blog post is one lady scientist’s experience, complete with some suggestions on what we can do to support more female representation at conferences, and links to 2 journal articles that discuss this very issue.