Monday, March 26, 2012

Rozalia Project Intern Blog: Starting at a young age

Today's intern blog post, third in our series asking our 2012 interns to write about marine debris and a personal experience, is from Blais Hickey, an environmental studies/ecology major at UNC...

Despite growing up in landlocked Atlanta, I’ve always been drawn to the ocean.  Whether enjoying a summer beach trip to the Florida panhandle, taking a day sail on my uncle’s boat, or fishing with my cousin in his dinghy, my summers have always been full of sun, salt, and sand.  While most of these visits were spent blissfully splashing in the waves and making cities of drip castles, one of my most vivid memories actually involves beach cleaning as a child.  During one elementary school spring break, my family made the horrible mistake of joining the hoards of inebriated high school and college spring breakers that flocked to Panama City, Florida to relieve the stress of exams and college life.  Each morning, my family and I walked along the water, picking up stacks of red solo cups and bags of beer cans and bottles left over from the previous night’s celebrations.  At the time I complained to my parents that they made me clean other people’s trash when I just wanted to play.  Looking back, however, those hours spent picking up the mess in the sand got me into the habit of cleaning up trash everywhere, no matter who left it.

As I got older and progressed through school, I became more aware of the impact that what we throw out has on the environment, and especially on the oceans.  Videos of porpoises getting stuck in plastic can holders and sea turtles swallowing plastic bags that now seem oversimplified angered and confused me as a child.  I didn’t understand why anyone would be so irresponsible with their trash when it so obviously was hurting our friends, the dolphins!  

Ten years later, I participated in Sea Education Association’s Oceanographic Exploration semester.  One of the biggest focal points of SEA’s research is the presence of plastics in the oceans.  When I first arrived on campus, I imagined that these plastics were large objects such as buckets and cups floating near the coast that would be fairly simple to remove.  I quickly learned, however, that not all plastic is created equally!  

Our cruise track passed through the North Atlantic gyre, a vortex created from converging currents that creates an area of still water in the Sargasso Sea where Sargassum, plastic, and other debris accumulate.  On top of the occasional buckets, buoys, and shoes, our twice daily Neuston Tows removed all sizes of plastics, from quarter-sized fragments to broken fishing line to barely visible specs.  Water samples also revealed the presence of microplastics, too small to see with the eye, that will never be completely broken down.  These small fragments and microplastics are ingested by fish and other marine life, and the buckets can often trap fish inside.  As Andrew discussed in his post, the PCBs that leech from plastics cause biological problems for marine life all the way up the food chain.  Over my six weeks at sea, I realized that those solo cups on the beach cause many more problems than just ruining the beauty of our spring break beach trips.  Once the plastic enters the ocean, it will continue to breakdown to microplastics so small that they will never be removed.  

After sailing through the North Atlantic gyre, I have come to the rather pessimistic view that completely removing all the debris from the oceans is a monumental task that can never be accomplished.  Additionally, as long as we depend so heavily on plastics in our daily life, we cannot stop them from entering the oceans, even if accidently.  We can, however, drastically improve our situation.  We can develop our recycling programs, make goods out of reused products that aren’t plastic, and, eventually, change our country’s throwaway culture.  I cannot wait to join the Rozalia Project because I believe that programs like these will lead to the changes we need.  By doing our part to physically clean the oceans and educate children, we can definitely improve the conditions of our oceans now and for the future.  I’m hoping that my time with Rozalia will be the natural continuation of little Blais cleaning up the beach with her family and that by engaging the youth, others will become interested and do their part to help, too.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rozalia Project Intern Blog: Hope for the Orcas of Puget Sound

This is second in our series of blog posts from our 2012 interns. The assignment was to write about marine debris from a personal angle. The following is from Andrew Randazzo (Environmental Studies, Niagara County Comm. College 2011).

Hope for the Orcas of Puget Sound

Greetings Rozalia Project readers, my name is Andrew Randazzo.  I am one of The Rozalia Project's 2012 interns. In 1995 when I was a young boy, my mother, sister and I lived in Seattle, Washington.  Seattle is home to the Puget Sound, an estuary known as the “gateway to the Pacific.”  In that sound resides a clan of Orcas known as the Southern Residents or The Puget Sound Orcas. The clan consists of pods J, K and L that are now listed as endangered species by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (N.O.A.A.).

While living in Seattle, my family took us on a whale watching expedition on which we saw no whales at all, yet managed to have a good time.  However, even at a young age I was always a kid who asked questions - and it worried me that the whales didn’t come to see us. I wondered if there was something wrong with the whales and, if so, what was causing it.

Ever since I’ve held an interest in the Puget Sound Orcas, and it turns out that there’s a lot wrong with the Southern Residents.  According to the Center for Whale Research, an organization dedicated to studying the Southern Residents Orca, the clan was subject to devastation between 1965 and 1975. During this time, marine parks across the country came to Puget Sound to capture the Orcas in order to put them on display.  Forty-five of these Orcas were delivered to the parks and at least 13 additional whales were killed in the process.  Little did I know that, even though we didn’t see a single Orca on our whale watching trip, just a year later in 1996 the Southern Residents Population would reach it’s post-devastation peak of ‘97 (N.O.A.A., pg 1).

Only 4 years after the whale populations peak, the N.O.A.A. launched an Endangered Species Act review.  In November of 2005, they determined the Southern Residents where in fact endangered.  Since then, many hypotheses have been given for the decline of the species, including disease as well as overfishing.  Though this is terrible, arguably the most disturbing cause is the build up of toxins in the blubber of the Orcas.  When food shortages occur the Orcas digest their blubber, which releases these toxins into their bloodstream. 

“Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were used in the electrical and plastics industries from the late 1920s until the late 1970s” (Washington Toxics Coalition, PG1).  “Researchers with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Charleston, South Carolina, say that dolphin blubber carries some of the highest PCB concentrations found in any wild animal.”  PCB’s are linked to a lower rate of pregnancy in female whales and a lack of sexual maturation in the males.  (PBS, PG1)  Similar effects are caused by a still-used toxin known as “polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), found in everything from building materials to T-shirts.” (Sierra Club,PG1).  The presence of these toxins continues to increase in our nations’ waterways from runoff as well as litter.  

The process of Biomagnification is what keeps PCBs in our ecosystem even after its discontinuation.  It also exacerbates the effects of PBDE as it continues to leech into aquatic biomes.  Biomagnification is the increase of a chemicals’ concentration as the food chain progresses, which is what makes it important to eliminate the contamination before it happens.  

Right: Red dots indicate the increasing concentration in P.P.M. as the food chain progresses

We can protect the Orcas and the waterways from the 143,000 pounds of toxic chemicals that flow into the sound everyday!  From cigarette butts to plastic bags, disposing of trash in the proper manner is crucial to protecting the ocean ecosystems and especially species at the top of the food chain like the Southern Residents Orca.  

Right: Orca savers: Seattle schoolkids build a rain garden to filter runoff before it reaches Puget Sound.  [Via: Sierra Club online magazine])

The issue of runoff can be curbed via efforts to conserve water and with innovative projects to design our urban environments in a more ecologically sound manner.  Rain gardens, like the ones being created by Seattle School kids. do just that.  This group, The Water Sentinels, is taking the need to protect the Orcas from runoff to heart by planting gardens with numerous layers of soil so that runoff is naturally filtered and kept from polluting the sound and other waterways.  With smarter design and an emphasis on prevention the Orcas may still have a chance.  
Works Cited 
Center for Whale Research. Web. 09 Mar. 2012.
"ESA Status." Redirecting to New Site. Web. 09 Mar. 2012.

"Like An Unwelcome Guest, PCBs Just Won't Go Away." Washington Toxics Coalition. Web. 09 Mar. 2012.

PBS. PBS. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.

Walker, Thayer. "Empty Sound." - November/December 2009. Web. 09 Mar. 2012. .

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rozalia Project Intern Blog: Even in Paradise

This year, we have a great line-up of Rozalia Project interns. They come from a variety of academic backgrounds from marine biology to chemistry to environmental policy. We are excited to have their energy and different perspectives on the boat helping with marine debris removal, our education and research. But, we do not have to wait that long to hear from them. This is the first in a series of blog posts. Each intern was asked to write about marine debris from a personal angle. Marina Maze (Marine Biology, UC Santa Cruz 2011) kicks it off...

Even in Paradise
Everyone needs a vacation at some point, to recharge their batteries and let go of everyday stress brought on by our daily grinds. What’s the most popular destination in my book? Hawaii, and I am sure thousands of others would agree. The easily accessible tropical island chain offers a variety of escapes, to white sand beaches, dense green forests and exquisite marine life. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of vacationing on Oahu for two weeks. Anxious to get to the beach and stare at the turquoise water, my friends and I took a day trip to a town called Waimanalo, home of Sealife Park and Hawaii Pacific Universities Oceanic Campus. Sitting on a large stretch of beach chatting with friends taking in the scene, I began to notice something a little disturbing. In the sand there were bright colored pieces of plastic littered everywhere. No one seemed to notice it but me, the marine debris enthusiast. Once I noticed what it was, I could see it everywhere. 

As I sat taking in the sad sight of a tropical paradise poisoned by plastic remains, I realized the immensity of the problem. It struck me that what enters the ocean from our shores, washes up on someone else’s shore thousands of miles away. It doesn’t matter if you’re on vacation, the problem doesn’t go away. Plastic debris still has an immense effect, no matter where you are. Whatever plastic we allow to enter the oceans, will break down into smaller pieces and eventually wash up on someone else’s beach, littering it with undegradable confetti. 

Why did I see so much plastic debris on this beautiful beach in Waimanalo? Waimanalo beach is Oahu’s largest beach, stretching over 5 miles long, and is located along Oahu’s windward shore. The northeasterly trade winds hit this coastline first, dumping any floating trash onto the pristine beach. The steady trade winds and ocean currents create windrows, long visible lines on the surface of the ocean where material such as seaweed, bubbles, phytoplankton and plastic accumulate. These windrows travel with the wind and, in this case, are dumped on Waimanalo’s long coastline. 

Even though I was on vacation, forgetting about work and bills, I still could not escape the problem of plastic debris. Once I pointed the plastic out to my friends, a silence fell over us and I could see the hurt in their eyes as well. This shows that debris we let slip into our ocean, willingly or not, doesn’t disappear into the vast incomprehensibility of the ocean, it ends up somewhere causing problems for marine life and marine enthusiasts. Removing plastic debris that can escape into the ocean will make someone else’s beach cleaner. This is everyone’s problem, it affects people in different ways all over the world. We can all help remove and prevent the distant pristine shorelines of our dream vacation littered by our own garbage.