The deadly ‘ghost gear’ which haunts seas and coastlines

Minke whaleImage copyrightSMASS ORKNEY
Image captionA pregnant minke whale was found tangled in a fishing net in Orkney in October last year

More than half a million tonnes of fishing gear is estimated to be lost or abandoned every year in the world’s seas and oceans. Some of it entangles and kills wildlife at sea and on shore.

Conservationists call it “ghost gear”.

It includes fishing nets, long lines, fish traps and lobster pots left drifting at sea usually after being accidentally lost from fishing grounds or boats, or discarded in an emergency such as in a storm.

“Fishing gear is designed to trap marine organisms, and it can continue to do so long after the gear is lost or discarded in the ocean,” says Joel Baziuk of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI).

“When lost fishing gear keeps catching fish after its intended lifespan, it is called ghost fishing.”

Dead whaleImage copyrightKAREN MUNRO
Image captionThe whale’s body came ashore near Scrabster

He said ghost gear was the most harmful form of debris to marine life because of the risk of entanglement or entrapment.

GGGI estimates at least 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost or abandoned every year.

The hotspots include the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia and Hawaii in the Pacific.

Joel says: “Ghost gear is a problem anywhere fishing takes place, and that includes Scotland.”

Seal pup in netImage copyrightDAVID YARDLEY
Image captionThis five-week-old grey seal pup was successfully rescued after getting entangled in a plastic net
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The risks this marine pollution poses to wildlife include entanglement, when animals get wrapped up in rope and other gear.

In Scotland, the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (Smass), which investigates marine animal deaths, recorded 12 entanglement cases in 2019.

They included a pregnant whale found dead and tangled in a fishing net in Orkney in October. The net was jammed in the animal’s baleen, the filter-feeder system inside its mouth.

In May, a humpback whale entangled in fishing gear washed up dead close to Scrabster, near Thurso on the north Caithness coast.

The previous month, another humpback whale was found to have been entangled in rope for “weeks, if not months” before it drowned off the East Lothian coast near Tyningham.

What are the other risks?

Rope found in whale's stomachImage copyrightSMASS
Image captionA 100kg “litter ball” was found in the stomach of whale that washed up in Harris

Entanglement is not the only threat posed to whales.

A sperm whale that died after stranding on the Isle of Harris in November had a 100kg “litter ball” in its stomach.

Fishing nets, rope, packing straps, bags and plastic cups were among the items discovered in a compacted mass during an investigation by Smass.

Seals have also been caught up in nets and ropes, though there have been successful rescues of these animals, including the saving of a five-week-old grey seal pup entangled in a plastic net on Lewis.

A hotline run by British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) has received 47 reports of entangled seals this year in Britain. Some of the animals were lucky and were rescued, or managed to free themselves.

Stag with fishing gear in antlersImage copyrightSNH
Image captionA stag on the Isle of Rum with fishing gear caught in its antlers

Other ghost gear victims include animals that forage on shorelines.

In 2017, stags on the Isle of Rum were found with fishing gear caught in their antlers. Two of the animals died after becoming snarled up together in discarded fishing rope, while another stag was photographed with an orange buoy and rope balled up in its antlers.

Even tiny fragments of ghost gear is a risk, say conservationists.

Noel Hawkins, of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas project, says: “Some of the small stuff can be as devastating to wildlife as many seabirds swallow it thinking it is fish eggs or food.

“They choke on it and even use it as nest material, which endangers chicks.”

What is being done?

BDMLR volunteers rescuing a young minke whaleImage copyrightBDMLR
Image captionBDMLR volunteers rescuing a young minke whale

Scotland is playing its part in a global effort to tackle ghost gear.

In a GGGI project, divers from the Ghost Fishing UK initiative have carried out underwater clean-ups in Orkney.

BDMLR, meanwhile, is part of the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (Sea), a coalition of conservation groups, rescue teams and fishermen.

The coalition is seeking to find best practices to avoid entanglements and the most effective responses to any incidents.

This year the alliance trained 20 people working in the fishing industry throughout Scotland in how to help disentangle animals.

And there have been success stories. In October, BDMLR helped to free a humpback from fishing ropes in Orkney.

New technology, such as prawn creels that can be lowered into the sea and returned to the surface without the need of ropes is also being trialled.

What else is happening in Scotland?

Summer Isles rubbishImage copyrightSWT
Image captionWhile tonnes of marine litter is cleared from Scotland’s shores, conservationists warn much more remains floating out to sea

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation says the fishing industry across Europe is “actively engaged” with the issue of discarded gear.

“Very little” fishing equipment is lost at sea by the Scottish fleet, according to the federation’s chief executive Elspeth Macdonald.

She says: “Trawl nets are expensive, which means that skippers try to get as much use as possible out of them, and put them ashore to be mended when required.

“The bulk of the ghost gear found in the Scottish sector is monofilament netting used by French and Spanish gill netters and longliners on the west coast.”

There is also an effort to clean up ghost gear that washes up on Scotland’s shores.

Summer Isles rubbishImage copyrightSWT
Image captionRubbish collected from beaches in the Summer Isles being loaded on to a boat for disposal
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In the north west Highlands, Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas project has been setting up beach clean stations in remote locations.

The stations are large pallet boxes with litter pickers and bags attached and members of the public walking along the beaches are encourage to use the stations to gather up any litter they find.

The project’s Noel Hawkins says: “One of these just north of Ullapool at Dun Canna beach has taken in over tonne of rubbish alone.”

In July, tonnes of rubbish was removed from the Summer Isles in the north west Highlands in another of the project’s clean-ups.

Fishing ropes and nets were among the other items gathered in a clean-up

But Noel says: “It is worth remembering that some estimates think only 3 to 5% of rubbish actually comes ashore though.

“There is still a lot more out there.”

All images are subject to copyright.

More on this story

  • Pregnant whale found tangled in ‘ghost gear’ in Orkney
    8 October 2019
  • Whale washes up near Scrabster entangled in fishing gear
    30 May 2019
  • Dead whale was tangled in rope in East Lothian for ‘months’
    25 April 2019
  • Stags on Rum found tangled in discarded fishing gear
    23 May 2018

Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment Joins Efforts with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

 

As part of a campaign to protect the Cocos Island UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society partnered with Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment to collect and transport 34 tons of marine pollution, illegal shark finning long lines, and other confiscated fishing gear, which had been accumulating on the remote volcanic island of Cocos for over 25 years.

For a one-time project, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society removed over 1700 miles (2800 kilometers) of nylon monofilament fishing line from Cocos Island and shipped it to Aquafil to be transformed into ECONYL® regenerated nylon, which is used for carpet flooring and fashion items.

Island Del Coco National Park is home to many marine ecosystems that provide universal importance. The Costa Rican thermal dome off the coast of the Cocos Island gives 7% of biodiversity to the world. Thanks to this one-time collaboration, harmful marine debris was recovered from the ocean and is set to be transformed into a high performing material that can have a second life in new products.

“It is not just about sending a boat to the island and bring the trash to the mainland, it is to do the whole work,” stated Costa Rica’s Minister of the Environment Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, concluding “this is an achievement we are very proud of, and above all, we are very grateful for the support we received.”

“Plastics are a serious threat to marine ecosystems. Removing illegal nylon fishing gear from such a pristine environment, repurposing the material and ensuring it will not be used to kill sharks again is a big step in protecting sharks and the Tropical Eastern Pacific marine environment, which Cocos Island is part of,” said Captain Paul Watson. Adding, “This is a very important migration route for sharks and Sea Shepherd’s commitment to protect sharks and their habitats is a holistic one, tackling Illegal targeting of sharks by longline and overseeing the proper disposal of the fishing gear, by ensuring a chain of custody from the high seas to the recycling facility.”

ECONYL® nylon is obtained through the regeneration process of nylon waste and reduces the global warming impact of nylon by up to 80 percent compared with material generated from oil. Aquafil, the Italian company that invented ECONYL®, brings new purpose to waste materials that would otherwise pollute the world’s landfills and oceans.

Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society


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Dumped fishing gear is biggest plastic polluter in ocean, finds report

https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/06/dumped-fishing-gear-is-biggest-plastic-polluter-in-ocean-finds-report?fbclid=IwAR1h_HPV6ferfDXKjvILXpctxAEh-Rl9DrO0WyMd8MhtjR14x1xmV-IOwwA

Greenpeace calls for global action over nets, lines and traps that are deadly for marine life

Tue 5 Nov 2019 19.01 EST

Lost and abandoned fishing gear which is deadly to marine life makes up the majority of large plastic pollution in the oceans, according to a report by Greenpeace.

More than 640,000 tonnes of nets, lines, pots and traps used in commercial fishing are dumped and discarded in the sea every year, the same weight as 55,000 double-decker buses.

The report, which draws on the most up-to-date research on “ghost gear” polluting the oceans, calls for international action to stop the plastic pollution, which is deadly for marine wildlife.

About 300 sea turtles were found dead as a result of entanglement in ghost gear off the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, last year. And in October, a pregnant whale was found entangled in ghost gear off the Orkney coast. The fishing gear was jammed in the animal’s baleen, the filter-feeder system inside its mouth, and scientists said the net would have hugely impaired the minke whale’s feeding and movement.

Louisa Casson, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “Ghost gear is a major source of ocean plastic pollution and it affects marine life in the UK as much as anywhere else.

“The UK’s waters do not exist in a vacuum as oceans have no borders. The world’s governments must take action to protect our global oceans, and hold the under-regulated fishing industry to account for its dangerous waste. This should start with a strong global ocean treaty being agreed at the United Nations next year.”

The report said abandoned fishing gear was particularly deadly. “Nets and lines can pose a threat to wildlife for years or decades, ensnaring everything from small fish and crustaceans to endangered turtles, seabirds and even whales,” it said.

“Spreading throughout the ocean on tides and currents, lost and discarded fishing gear is now drifting to Arctic coastlines, washing up on remote Pacific islands, entangled on coral reefs and littering the deep seafloor.”

Ghost gear is estimated to make up 10% of ocean plastic pollution but forms the majority of large plastic littering the waters. One study found that as much as 70% (by weight) of macroplastics (in excess of 20cm) found floating on the surface of the ocean was fishing related.

A recent study of the “great Pacific garbage patch”, an area of plastic accumulation in the north Pacific, estimated that it contained 42,000 tonnes of megaplastics, of which 86% was fishing nets.

Another expedition to the south Pacific found an estimated 18 tonnes of plastic debris on a 2.5km stretch of beach on the uninhabited Henderson Island and it was reportedly accumulating at a rate of several thousand pieces per day. In a collection of 6 tonnes of garbage, an estimated 60% originated from industrial fisheries.

Greenpeace said ghost gear was particularly prevalent from illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, but overcrowded fisheries also contributed to the problem. “Poor regulation and slow political progress in creating ocean sanctuaries that are off-limits to industrial fishing allow this problem to exist and persist,” the report said.

Greenpeace is calling for the UN treaty to provide a comprehensive framework for marine protection, paving the way for a global network of ocean sanctuaries covering 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

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Salt-Water Fish Extinction Seen By 2048

The apocalypse has a new date: 2048.That’s when the world’s oceans will be empty of fish, predicts an international team of ecologists and economists. The cause: the disappearance of species due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.

The study by Boris Worm, PhD, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, — with colleagues in the U.K., U.S., Sweden, and Panama — was an effort to understand what this loss of ocean species might mean to the world.

The researchers analyzed several different kinds of data. Even to these ecology-minded scientists, the results were an unpleasant surprise.

“I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are — beyond anything we suspected,” Worm says in a news release.

“This isn’t predicted to happen. This is happening now,” study researcher Nicola Beaumont, PhD, of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, U.K., says in a news release.

“If biodiversity continues to decline, the marine environment will not be able to sustain our way of life. Indeed, it may not be able to sustain our lives at all,” Beaumont adds.

Already, 29% of edible fish and seafood species have declined by 90% — a drop that means the collapse of these fisheries.

But the issue isn’t just having seafood on our plates. Ocean species filter toxins from the water. They protect shorelines. And they reduce the risks of algae blooms such as the red tide.

“A large and increasing proportion of our population lives close to the coast; thus the loss of services such as flood control and waste detoxification can have disastrous consequences,” Worm and colleagues say.

The researchers analyzed data from 32 experiments on different marine environments.

They then analyzed the 1,000-year history of 12 coastal regions around the world, including San Francisco and Chesapeake bays in the U.S., and the Adriatic, Baltic, and North seas in Europe.

Next, they analyzed fishery data from 64 large marine ecosystems.

And finally, they looked at the recovery of 48 protected ocean areas.

Their bottom line: Everything that lives in the ocean is important. The diversity of ocean life is the key to its survival. The areas of the ocean with the most different kinds of life are the healthiest.

But the loss of species isn’t gradual. It’s happening fast — and getting faster, the researchers say.

Worm and colleagues call for sustainable fisheries management, pollution control, habitat maintenance, and the creation of more ocean reserves.

This, they say, isn’t a cost; it’s an investment that will pay off in lower insurance costs, a sustainable fish industry, fewer natural disasters, human health, and more.

“It’s not too late. We can turn this around,” Worm says. “But less than 1% of the global ocean is effectively protected right now.”

Worm and colleagues report their findings in the Nov. 3 issue of Science.


SOURCES: Worm, B. Science, Nov. 3, 2006; vol 314: pp 787-790. News release, SeaWeb. News release, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/salt-water-fish-extinction-seen-by-2048/?fbclid=IwAR07lyVZ4WYeyb3Tx7_zGVtW-jzp5IUO2DGa5f7j-yJiJL4o7mqsO6UEeuA

How the octopus got its smarts


Did the octopus evolve its unique intelligence by playing fast and free with the genetic code? Elizabeth Finkel investigates.


IAN CUMING / GETTY IMAGES

https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/how-the-octopus-got-its-smarts

In 2008 the staff at Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany, had a mystery on their hands. Two mornings in a row, they had arrived at work to find the aquarium eerily silent: the entire electrical system had shorted out. Each time they would reset the system only to find the same eerie silence greeting them the next morning. So on the third night a couple of staff members kept vigil, taking turns to sleep on the floor.

Sure enough the perpetrator was apprehended: Otto, a six-month-old octopus.

He had crawled out of his tank and, using his siphon like a fire hose, aimed it at the overhead light. Apparently it annoyed him or maybe he was just bored. As director Elfriede Kummer told The Telegraph, “Otto is constantly craving for attention and always comes up with new stunts… Once we saw him juggling hermit crabs in his tank”.

Anecdotes of the mischievous intelligence of octopuses abound. Individuals have been reported to solve mazes, screw open child-proof medicine bottles and recognise individual people. Keepers are inclined to give them names because of their personalities.

Problem solving, tool use, planning, personality: these are hallmarks of the complex, flexible intelligence that we associate with back-boned animals, mostly mammals.

But a squishy octopus?

Some researchers who study the octopus and its smart cousins, the cuttlefish and squid, talk about a ‘second genesis of intelligence’ – a truly alien one that has little in common with the mammalian design.

While the octopus has a large central brain in its head, it also has a unique network of smaller ‘brains’ within each of its arms. It’s just what these creatures need to coordinate the mind-boggling complexity of eight prehensile arms and hundreds of sensitive suckers, which provide the octopus with the equivalent of opposable thumbs (roboticists have been taking note). Not to mention their ability to camouflage instantly on any of the diverse backgrounds they encounter on coral reefs or kelp forests. Using pixelated colours, texture and arm contortions, these body artists instantly melt into the seascape, only to reappear in a dazzling display to attract a mate or threaten a rival.

STEVEN TRAINOFF PHD / GETTY IMAGES

“They do things like clever animals even though they’re closely related to oysters,” says neuroscientist Clifton Ragsdale, at the University of Chicago. “What I want to know is how large brains can be organised not following the vertebrate plan.”

So how did evolution come up with this second genesis of intelligence or what film-maker Jacques Cousteau referred to as ‘soft intelligence’ back in the 1970s?

Cousteau inspired many a researcher to try and find answers. But it has been hard to advance beyond Technicolor screenshots and jaw-dropping tales – what zoologist Michael Kuba at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) refers to as “YouTube science”.

For decades the number of octopus researchers could be counted on one hand. They were poorly funded, and their valiant efforts were held in check by notoriously uncooperative subjects and inadequate tools. “You really had to be a fanatic,” says Kuba.

In the last few years, with more and more researchers lured to these enigmatic creatures, the field appears to have achieved critical mass. And these newcomers are the beneficiaries of some powerful new tools. In particular, since 2015 they’ve had the animals’ DNA blueprint, the genome, to pore over. It has offered some compelling clues.

Octopus are famous escape artists.

Octopus are famous escape artists.

CARLINA TETERIS / GETTY IMAGES

It turns out the octopus has a profusion of brain-forming genes previously seen only in back-boned animals. But its secret weapon may not be genes as we know them.

A complex brain needs a way to store complex information. Startlingly, the octopus may have achieved this complexity by playing fast and free with its genetic code.

To build a living organism, the decoding of the DNA blueprint normally proceeds with extreme fidelity. Indeed it’s known as ‘the central dogma’. A tiny section of the vast blueprint is copied, rather like photocopying a single page from a tome. That copy, called messenger RNA (mRNA), then instructs the production of a particular protein. The process is as precise as a three-hat chef following her prized recipe for apple pie down to the letter.

But in a spectacular example of dogma-breaking, the octopus chef takes her red pen and modifies copies of the recipe on the fly. Sometimes the result is the traditional golden crusted variety; other times it’s the deconstructed version – apple mush with crumbs on the side.

This recipe tweaking is known as ‘RNA editing’. In humans only a handful of brain protein recipes are edited. In the octopus, the majority get this treatment.

“It introduces a level of sophistication and complexity we never thought of. Perhaps it’s related to their memory,” says Eli Eisenberg, a computational biologist at the University of Tel Aviv. Though he quickly adds, “I must stress this is complete speculation”.

Jennifer Mather, who studies squid and octopus behaviour at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, suggests it might go some way to explaining their distinct personalities.

Pigment filled sacs on octopus skin are called chromatophores.

Pigment filled sacs on octopus skin are called chromatophores.

JEAN LECOMTE / GETTY IMAGES

There’s no doubt that linking octopus intelligence to RNA editing is the realm of fringe science. The good news is it’s a testable hypothesis.

Researchers are now gearing up with state-of-the-art tools such as the gene-editing technology CRISPR, new types of brain recorders and rigorous behavioural tests to see whether RNA editing is indeed the key to octopus intelligence.

How did the octopus get so smart?

Some 400 million years ago, cephalopods – creatures named for the fact that their heads are joined to their feet – ruled the oceans. They feasted on shrimp and starfish, grew to enormous sizes like the six-metre long Nautiloid, Cameroceras, and used their spiral-shaped shells for protection and flotation.

Then the age of fishes dawned, dethroning cephalopods as the top predators. Most of the spiral-shelled species became extinct; modern nautilus was one of the few exceptions.

But one group shed or internalised their shells. Thus unencumbered, they were free to explore new ways to compete with the smarter, fleeter fish. They gave rise to the octopus, squid and cuttlefish – a group known as the coleoids.

Their innovations were dazzling. They split their molluscan foot, creating eight highly dexterous arms, each with hundreds of suckers as agile as opposable thumbs. To illustrate this dexterity, Mather relates the story of a colleague who found his octopus pulling out its stitches after surgery.

But those limber bodies were a tasty treat to fish predators, so the octopus evolved ‘thinking skin’ that could melt into the background in a fifth of a second. These quick-change artists not only use a palette of skin pigments to paint with, they also have a repertoire of smooth to spiky skin textures, as well as body and arm contortions to complete their performance – perhaps an imitation of a patch of algae, as they stealthily perambulate on two of their eight arms.

“It’s not orchestrated by simple reflexes,” says Roger Hanlon, who researches camouflage behaviour at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “It’s a context-specific, fast computation of decisions carried out in multiple levels of the brain.” And it depends critically on a pair of camera eyes with keen capabilities.

It takes serious computing power to control eight arms, hundreds of suckers, ‘thinking skin’ and camera eyes. Hence the oversized brain of the octopus. With its 500 million neurons, that’s two and a half times that of a rat. But their brain anatomy is very different.

A mammalian brain is a centralised processor that sends and receives signals via the spinal cord. But for the octopus, only 10% of its brain is centralised in a highly folded, 30-lobed donut-shaped structure arranged around its oesophagus (really). Two optic lobes account for another 30%, and 60% lies in the arms. “It’s a weird way to construct a complex brain,” says Hanlon. “Everything about this animal is goofy and weird.”

Take the arms: they’re considered to have their own ‘mini-brain’ not just because they are so packed with neurons but because they also have independent processing power. For instance, an octopus escaping a predator can detach an arm that will happily continue crawling around for up to 10 minutes.

Indeed, until an experiment by Kuba and colleagues in 2011, some suspected the arms’ movements were independentof their central brain. They aren’t. Rather it appears that the brain gives a high-level command that a staff of eight arms execute autonomously.

“The arm has some fascinating reflexes, but it doesn’t learn,” says Kuba, who studied these reflexes between 2009 and 2013 as part of a European Union project to design bio-inspired robots.

And then there’s their ‘thinking’ skin. Again the brain, primarily the optic lobes, controls the processing power here. The evidence comes from a 1988 study by Hanlon and John Messenger from the University of Sheffield. They showed that blinded newly hatched cuttlefish could no longer match their surroundings.

KELLY MURPHY ILLUSTRATION

They were still able to change colour and body patterns but in a seemingly random fashion. Anatomical evidence also shows that nerves in the lower brain connect directly to muscles surrounding the pigment sacs or chromatophores.

Like an artist spreading pigment on a pallet, activating the muscles pulls the sacs apart spreading the chromatophore pigments into thin discs of colour. But the octopus is not composing a picture. Hanlon’s experiments with cuttlefish show they are deploying one of three pre-existing patterns – uniform, mottled or disruptive – to achieve camouflage on diverse backgrounds.

As far as detailed brain circuitry goes, researchers have made little progress since the 1970s when legendary British neuroscientist J.Z Young worked out the gross anatomy of the distributed coleoid brain. Escaping Britain’s dismal winter for the Stazione Zoologica in balmy Naples, Young’s research was part of an American Air Force funded project to search for the theoretical memory circuit, the ‘engram’.

“They were ahead of their time,” says Hanlon, who experienced a stint with Young in Naples. Nevertheless they were limited by the paucity of brain-recording techniques that were suited to the octopus.

It’s a problem that has continued to hold back the understanding of how their brain circuits work. “Is it the same as the way mammals process information? We don’t know,” says Ragsdale.

Unwilling subjects

It’s not for want of trying, as Kuba will tell you. In the 1990s, he joined the lab of neuroscientist Binyamin Hochner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Hochner was a graduate of Eric Kandel’s lab, the Nobel laureate who pioneered studies on how the sea slug Aplysia learns.

All the action takes place in the gaps between individual neurons, the ‘synapse’. The synapse may look like an empty gap under the microscope but it’s a crowded place. It’s packed with over 1,000 proteins that assemble into a pinpoint-size microprocessor. If each neuron is like a wire, it’s up to this microprocessor to decide whether the signal crosses over from one wire to the next. When the sea slug learns a lesson, for instance withdrawing its gill in response to a tail shock, that’s because new computations at the synapse rerouted the connections.

Kuba, however, found an octopus to be far less obliging than a sea slug. Whatever electrical probe he stuck into its brain was rapidly removed thanks to all those opposable thumbs. Ragsdale also had his share of frustration. “We have a technical problem with sharp electrodes. For example, if you put an electrode into the optic lobe, the neurons will fire for about 10 to 20 minutes and then become silent.”

Kuba, who is now based at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, hopes that a new kind of miniature brain logger that sits on the surface of the brain, hopefully out of reach of prying suckers, will kick-start the era of octopus brain-circuit mapping.

“There’s a lot of technical challenges, but they are surmountable,” agrees Ragsdale.

The irony is that the first insights into how the vertebrate brain sends signals came from a squid. In 1934 Young identified a giant squid nerve cell that controlled the massive contractions of its mantle, the bulbous muscular sac behind the eyes that both houses the organs and squeezes water through the siphon with such great effect!

Like mammalian neurons, the most distinctive feature of the squid cell was its wire-like axon, but with a diameter of around one millimetre, it was 1,000 times fatter than those of mammals. The colossal size allowed researchers to insert a metal electrode and measure the changing electrical voltage as a nerve impulse travelled along the axon.

All this foundational knowledge shed light on vertebrate brains, but the detailed circuitry of the squid brain was largely left in the dark.

Octopus are body artists that use skin colour, texture and arm contortions for their disappearing acts.

Octopus are body artists that use skin colour, texture and arm contortions for their disappearing acts.

ULLSTEIN BILD / GETTY IMAGES

Breaking the central dogma

It was another frustrated neuroscientist who opened the latest front into the understanding of soft intelligence.

In the early 1990s, Josh Rosenthal, based at William Gilly’s lab at Stanford, was making use of the time-honoured giant squid motor axon. But with a new purpose. Rather than measure its electrical properties, Rosenthal wanted to isolate one of its key components: the ‘off’ switch. It is a protein called the potassium channel.

The squid neuron made this protein according to a recipe carried by its DNA blueprint, which is cached in the cell’s nucleus. To access the recipe, the cell makes a mRNA transcript, rather like transcribing a single recipe from a recipe book. Rosenthal wanted to isolate these transcripts and read the code sequence for the protein channels.

But he had a problem. Every time he read the sequence for the potassium channel, it was slightly different. Was it just an error? If so, it was highly consistent. The changes were not random. They always occurred at one or more precise positions in the code. And, invariably, the letter A was always changed to the letter G.

For instance, imagine a recipe for apple pie was supposed to read: Place the crust around the pie. Instead it was being edited to: Place the crust ground the pie. Such a change might instruct the modern-day deconstructed apple pie rather than the traditional crusted version.

Unbeknownst to Rosenthal, Peter Seeburg at the University of Heidelberg was puzzling over a similar glitch in a recipe for a human brain protein, the glutamate receptor. When Seeburg’s paper was published in 1991, Rosenthal recalls, “everyone got excited”.

Clearly editing brain recipes was important for humans and squid. But why?

In the human (or mouse), editing the glutamate receptor changed how much calcium could flow into brain cells. In mice, failure to edit was lethal, as it allowed toxic levels of calcium to stream in. There’s also evidence that failure to edit the same receptor in humans is associated with the neurodegenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

An enzyme called ADAR2 carried out these crucial edits to the RNA recipe. Just why evolution hasn’t gone ahead and ‘fixed’ the DNA source code of the glutamate receptor remains a mystery.

As for the squid potassium channel, Rosenthal had a hunch. After an electrical signal has passed through a neuron, it needs a ‘reset’ for the next signal. The potassium channel plays a crucial part. In cold temperatures, the reset might take longer, making the animal a bit sluggish. Could RNA editing be a way of fine tuning the system in response to temperature? Rosenthal tested his idea by spending several years collecting octopuses that live in either tropical, temperate or polar climates. It was indeed the polar octopuses that were the most avid editors of their potassium channels.

Potassium channels turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. Rosenthal teamed up with computation geek Eli Eisenberg at Tel Aviv University to trawl through mRNA databases and find out just how much recipe tweaking was going on with squid genes. In humans, tweaking is rare – restricted to a handful of brain gene recipes. In the squid, the majority of brain recipes received this treatment. Many of them were related to proteins found at the synapses, the microprocessors for memory and learning.

Could this extemporising with brain protein recipes be important for soft intelligence? It’s a tantalising idea. “Coleoids show it. Nautilus – the stupid cousin – does not, it’s like any other mollusc,” says Eisenberg.

“Coleoids are editing the same proteins that we know are involved in learning and memory. By editing them or not, it’s not a stretch to hypothesise that they are adding flexibility and complexity to the system,” says Rosenthal.

Cuttlefish have an impressive capacity to learn. These Australian giants are learning about the birds and the bees at Whyalla, South Australia.

Cuttlefish have an impressive capacity to learn. These Australian giants are learning about the birds and the bees at Whyalla, South Australia.

WILDESTANIMAL / GETTY IMAGES

Clues from the blueprint

Over in Chicago, Cliff Ragsdale, another frustrated octopus neuroscientist, was also turning his interest to octopus DNA.

In 2015, working with Daniel Rokhsar and Oleg Simakov of OIST, the Ragsdale laboratory managed to read the genome of the California two-spot octopus.

It turns out that the octopus has more genes that we do: 33,000 compared to our 21,000. But gene number per se doesn’t bear much relation to brain power: water fleas also have about 31,000. In fact most of the genes in the octopus catalogue were not all that different to those of its close relative – the limpet, a type of sea snail. But there were two gene families that stood out like a sore thumb. One was a family of genes called protocadherins. This family of ‘adhesion’ proteins are known to build brain circuits. Like labels on the tips of growing neurons, they allow the correct types of neurons to wire to each other — so neuron 370 connects up to neuron 471 at the right time and the right place. Limpets and oysters have between 17-25 types of protocadherins. Vertebrates have 70 types of protocadherins plus over 100 different types of related cadherins. These circuit builders have long been thought to be the key to vertebrate braininess.

So it was stunning to find that the octopus has a superfamily of 168 protocadherins. Ragsdale says the squid genome, also now being sequenced, shows it is similarly equipped with hundreds of circuit-building genes.

The other stand-out in the octopus genome was a family of genes called ‘zinc fingers’. They get their name because the encoded proteins have a chain structure that is cinched by zinc atoms into a series of fingers. These fingers poke into the coils of DNA to regulate the transcription of genes.

Limpets have about 413 of these zinc fingers. Humans have 764. Octopuses have 1,790! Perhaps this profusion of octopus zinc fingers is involved in regulating the network of brain genes?

COSMOS MAGAZINE

So far, the octopus has revealed three big clues as to how it generates brain complexity: it has multiplied its set of circuit-building protocadherin genes and its network-regulating zinc fingers. It has also unleashed RNA editing to generate more complexity on the fly.There may also be a fourth mechanism at work.

Genes are supposed to stay put. But ‘jumping genes’, which are closely related to viruses, have a tendency to up anchor and insert themselves into different sections of the DNA code. That can scramble or otherwise change its meaning. Imagine if the words ‘jumping gene’ just started appearing randomly in this text. Fred Gage’s group at the Salk Institute in San Diego has found that during the development of the nervous system in mice and humans, jumping genes start jumping.

What this means is that each individual brain cell ends up with slightly different versions of its DNA code. Gage speculates that this may be a way to generate diversity in the way neurons wire up. Perhaps it goes some way to explaining why twins, born with the same DNA, nevertheless end up with different behaviours.

“If you believe that theory,” says Ragsdale, “you’ll be struck by the fact that we also found a high number of jumping genes active in the brain tissues of the octopus.” Testing the theory

Unravelling the details of how octopus and squid are using and abusing the genetic code is generating iconoclastic hypotheses about how they generate their complex brain circuitry.

And researchers are not blind to the problems of dogma-breaking. For one thing, playing fast and free with the genetic code creates an astronomical number of possible proteins, most of which would be toxic to the animal, says Eisenberg. “It’s very troubling; one hypothesis is that this may explain their short lifespan of one to three years.”

Troubling or not, Rosenthal and colleagues at Woods Hole are moving full speed ahead to test the role of RNA editing in the coleoids by bringing together researchers with different expertise. “There’s a lot of moving pieces,” says Rosenthal.

For starters, their Woods Hole team is cultivating four species of small squid and cuttlefish that reach sexual maturity in two to three months. The goal is to manipulate the squid’s genes using the genetic engineering tool, CRISPR. To see if they can get CRISPR working, they will try to ‘knock-out’ the pigment genes. If they’re successful they should see the result on the squid bodies. “It’s a beautiful in-built test,” says Rosenthal.

If that works, they will try the big experiment. Does impairing the ability to edit proteins at the synapse (by knocking out the ADAR2 gene responsible for RNA editing) tamper with learning and memory?

Meanwhile, collaborator Alex Schnell, a behavioural biologist based at the University of Cambridge in the UK, is developing rigorous tests for complex learning and memory in cuttlefish. In particular, she is testing their capacity for “episodic memory”, a detailed weaving together of memories once thought to be a strictly human attribute.

For instance, it’s thanks to your episodic memory that you recall exactly where you were and what you were doing on 11 September 2001. Since the late 1990s, we know that animals like great apes, crows and jays also have that capacity. Maybe cuttlefish do too. Schnell’s initial results show that cuttlefish can learn and memorise complex information about their favourite food, such as when and where it is likely to be found.

With other teams around the world pursuing similar strategies, it seems likely that after decades of awe and wonder, the mystery of soft intelligence may soon yield to hard science.

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ELIZABETH FINKEL is editor-at-large of Cosmos.

Taiwan nabs truck-load of illegal shark meat

Fisheries Agency seizes over 30 tons of illicit shark meat in southern Taiwan

Over 30 tons of contraband shark meat. (Image courtesy of Fisheries Agency)

Over 30 tons of contraband shark meat. (Image courtesy of Fisheries Agency)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – Taiwan authorities seized over 30 tones of illegal shark meat at Kaohsiung Xiagang Fishing Harbor (高雄小港漁港) on Sept. 5, the Fisheries Agency (漁業署) said in a statement yesterday.

The seizure is the biggest haul since revised offshore fishing rules entered into force in 2006, according to the Fisheries Agency.

Fishing of silky shark is banned by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which led Taiwan to do the same.

30 tons of silky shark (carcharhinus falciformis) meat was seized during an inspection of a small fishing boat named “Jin-chang 6” (金昌6號). The boat came under suspicion after authorities noted the vessel made unscheduled stops in two other fishing ports.

The suspicious catch was confirmed to be that of the banned silky shark days later, after a positive DNA test, which led the contents of the boat to be seized on Sept. 13.

The Fishery Agency said that according to relevant regulation, the boat operators face of a fine of between NT$2-10 million (US$65,000-325,000), and potential revocation of fishing licenses.

The Fisheries Agency urges the public to not catch illegal aquatic animals, adding it has set up a 24-hour monitoring center to tackle illegal fishing.

Although some forms of shark are legal to eat in Taiwan, the practice has gained increasing opposition from environmental groups. According to a recent survey by the WildAid and Life Conservationist Association found 76 percent of Taiwanese people surveyed had eaten shark fin soup in the past three years, but only 32 percent within the last year.

Corporate Food Brands Drive the Massive Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

Mighty Earth

By Reynard Loki

Whole Foods bills itself as “America’s healthiest grocery store,” but what it’s doing to the environment is anything but healthy. According to a new report, the chain is helping to drive one of the nation’s worst human-made environmental disasters: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

By not requiring environmental safeguards from its meat suppliers, the world’s largest natural and organic foods supermarket—and most of its big-brand counterparts in the retail food industry, like McDonald’s, Subway and Target—are sourcing and selling meat from some of the worst polluters in agribusiness, including Tyson Foods and Cargill. The animal waste and fertilizer runoff from their industrial farms end up in the Gulf of Mexico, where each summer, a growing marine wasteland spreads for thousands of miles, leaving countless dead wildlife in its oxygen-depleted wake.

Community members and environmental activists demonstrate outside Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas, on August 2, 2018.Mighty Earth“The major meat producers like Tyson and Cargill that have consolidated control over the market have the leverage to dramatically improve the supply chain,” according to the report, which was released by Mighty Earth, an environmental action group based in Washington, DC. “Yet to date they have done little,” the report’s authors note, “ignoring public concerns and allowing the environmentally damaging practices for feeding and raising meat to expand largely unchecked.”

How animal feed moves through the meat supply chain.Mighty EarthOn Aug. 2, the day the report was released, those public concerns found a voice as citizens, environmentalists and sustainability advocates gathered outside Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas, to deliver 95,000 petition signatures demanding that the company hold its meat suppliers accountable for their role in destroying the environment.

“Grocery stores like Walmart and Whole Foods and meal outlets like McDonald’s and Burger King have the power to set and enforce standards requiring better farming practices from suppliers,” states the report, which Mighty Earth says is the “first comprehensive assessment of major US food brands on their environmental standards and performance for sourced meat.”

Feeding the Nation, Failing the Environment

Ranking the largest food companies in the U.S. based on their sustainability policies for meat production, the report found that the biggest players in the food industry—including major fast food, grocery and food service companies—are failing to protect the environment from the impact of their supply chains. Remarkably, the researchers found that not a single one of the 23 major brands surveyed have policies in place to require “even minimal environmental protections from meat suppliers.”

Even more startling is that so-called “green” brands like Whole Foods that have built their reputations on providing sustainable food options have, according to the report, “failed to commit to environmentally responsible farming practices that protect drinking water, prevent agricultural runoff and curb climate emissions.”

The 23 companies surveyed were evaluated on their requirements for meat suppliers regarding where they source their animal feed, how they process their animals’ manure and how they manage their greenhouse gas emissions.

All but one of the companies scored an “F” overall for their environmental policies (or lack thereof) for meat sourcing. The only company to score better than an “F” was Walmart, which received a “D” due to its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions across its supply chain, as well as the launching of programs meant to improve the management of manure and increase the sustainability of corn and soy farming.

Soil erosion and agricultural runoff are the top sources of water pollution in the U.S.Mighty Earth

Dead Cows on Your Plate, Dead Fish in the Ocean

In oceans and large lakes across the globe, human activities are creating oxygen-depleted areas where marine life can no longer survive. These hypoxic areas, currently numbering more than 400 around the globe, are commonly known as “dead zones,” and are caused by an increase in certain chemical nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that drive the massive growth of algae, causing the spread of deadly “algal blooms.” As the algae decomposes, their biomass consumes the oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other marine life.

Algal blooms are harmful to ecosystems because the blooming organisms contain toxins, noxious chemicals or pathogens. They also suck up all the oxygen, killing fish and other marine life.National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationIn the U.S. the largest recurring dead zone is located in the Gulf of Mexico, mainly off the coast of Louisiana, and extending east to the Mississippi River Delta and west to Texas. The Gulf acts as a massive drainage basin for polluted water containing manure and fertilizer runoff coming from the American heartland, from major beef-producing states like Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. During summer months, this area becomes a 7,000-mile-wide lifeless region—the only reminders of past life being the bodies of fish, crabs, shrimp and other marine animals that have suffocated due to a lack of oxygen. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the second-largest human-caused dead zone in the world, after the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Oman.

The Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin drains approximately 41 percent of the contiguous United States that includes all or part of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. Map scale is approximately 2,000 miles across.Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality“Excess nutrients bleeding off fertilized crops constitute the overwhelming source—over 70 percent—of the nutrient pollution that causes the Gulf Dead Zone,” Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science and former president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told the Independent Media Institute.

In August 2017, scientists measured the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and found that it was at its largest since the mapping of the zone began in 1985—more than 8,000 square miles. But recently, scientists reported that the area is only about 40 percent of its average size. That doesn’t mean that it is no longer an issue. “Although the area is small this year, we should not think that the low-oxygen problem in the Gulf of Mexico is solved,” Nancy Rabalais, a marine ecologist at Louisiana State University and the lead scientist of the study, told The Associated Press. “We are not close to the goal size for this hypoxic area.”

Nearly half (45 percent) of the Earth’s landmass is being farmed by the global industrial livestock system, which includes both the animals killed for human consumption and the crops used to feed those animals. The current human population, 7.6 billion, is expected to swell to 9.8 billion by the year 2050. And if most of them will be meat-eaters, the negative impact of the meat industry on marine ecosystems and coastal communities, if not addressed soon, will surely get worse. According to NASA, “The number and size of ocean dead zones is closely connected to human population density.” It’s basic math: More people means more meat-eaters, and more meat production means more and bigger dead zones.

Red circles show the location and size of many dead zones. Black dots show dead zones of unknown size. The size and number of marine dead zones—areas where the deep water is so low in dissolved oxygen that sea creatures can’t survive—have grown explosively in the past half-century.NASA Earth Observatory, 2008

More Pathogens, More Pollutants, Less Profit

Dead zones could also introduce a host of public and animal health issues. Boesch points out that “various pathogenic microorganisms can thrive” in hypoxic areas. A 2012 study published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology discovered “sequences affiliated with Clostridium,” a human pathogen that causes botulism and diarrhea, in the hypoxic zone of China’s Lake Taihu. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that algal blooms contain cyanobacteria, “which are poisonous to humans and deadly to livestock and pets.”

Renee Dufault is a former environmental health officer for the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the founder of the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute. Dufault told the Independent Media Institute that the antibiotics and hormones injected into animals raised for food “are pollutants themselves when they are released from manure via surface water runoff into streams that may be used as drinking water supplies.”

Dead zones also have economic impacts that harm local communities. The NOAA estimates that marine dead zones cost the U.S. food and tourism industries $82 million every year.

Risky Business: Eating Meat

The main source of water contamination in the U.S. is the manure and fertilizer coming from industrial farms that grow feed to raise animals to be killed for human consumption.

The production of meat isn’t just one of the most polluting of all human activities, contaminating waterways and driving the growth of dead zones across the world; it’s literally bulldozing the planet’s landscape. By converting rainforests and prairies into industrial farms, large-scale meat producers are responsible for the widespread destruction of many of the planet’s native ecosystems, which threatens wildlife by destroying native habitats and releases stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating climate change. Animals raised for food produce 42 percent of agricultural emissions in the U.S. Two-thirds of those gases are emitted directly by those animals in the form of belches and farts. And the majority of those emissions—around 44 percent—is methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

report released in July by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy offers some perspective: The top five meat and dairy companies, including Tyson and Cargill, emit more greenhouse gases combined than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP.

This NASA satellite image shows deforestation in the state of Rondonia in western Brazil, where land has been converted for cattle farming. In 2017, Brazil exported 1.3 million metric tons of beef to the United States, worth $6.2 billion.NASA

A Few Bright Spots

The Mighty Earth report does note a few positive developments. Of the sectors studied, the food service industry that caters meals to universities and hospitals “is doing the most to promote plant-based diets, with Aramark reporting that 30 percent of its menus offer non-meat options and Sodexo reducing beef consumption through its mushroom-blended burger initiative.” And McDonald’s states that it is moving toward 100 percent sustainably certified soy by 2020 to feed the chickens it sources in Europe. (Unfortunately, that requirement isn’t in place for U.S. suppliers.)

“Bright spots were few and far between,” the report states, “but indicate that awareness is growing and improvements are possible.”

Possible, yes. But probable? The food industry has shown a reluctance to enact sustainable practices, but has sometimes responded to consumer demand for change. “Many of these companies have set requirements for meat suppliers to improve practices around animal welfare and antibiotic overuse when the public pressured them to do so,” Mighty Earth campaign director Lucia von Reusner told the Independent Media Institute. Her organization is hoping that their report will help raise public awareness, and that in turn will spur change within the industry.

“The public is now waking up to the industry’s polluting practices and demanding improvements,” she said.

Reforming the Meat Industry

One of the biggest misperceptions that the general public has about dead zones, says Boesch, is that “there is nothing we can do about them.” He points out that, “although experience in other parts of the world shows that while it may take years for the excess nutrients to wash out of the watershed and [be] purged from bottom sediments, we can eventually breathe life back into dead zones if we reduce nutrient pollution. We are now seeing the dead zone in the Chesapeake gradually becoming less severe and smaller.”

The Mighty Earth report recommends that meat producers start employing better farming practices to help curtail the destruction. One way to reduce the need of fertilizers on crops used to feed livestock, for example, is to use cover crops, which involves planting certain species on fields that can suffocate weeds, control pests and diseases, reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, boost water availability and increase biodiversity—all of which would benefit any farm. Mighty Earth also recommends that meat producers employ better fertilizer management, conserve native vegetation and centralize manure processing.

“The environmental damage caused by the meat industry is driving some of the most urgent threats to the future of our food system—from contaminated waters to depleted soils and a destabilized climate,” von Reusner said. “More sustainable farming practices are urgently needed if we are going to feed a growing population on a planet of finite resources.”

Map of nitrate levels by watersheds, 2016 overlaid with Tyson and top feed supplier facilities (View Larger Map)Unfortunately, there is little that the federal government is doing on this front. “Runoff pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from producing meat are largely unregulated in the US,” von Reusner notes. “There need to be much stronger regulations that protect our waters and climate from the meat industry’s pollution.”

Boesch notes that an action plan agreed upon in 2001 by the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force was meant to scale down the amount of nutrient pollution in the Gulf by 30 percent. But, he says the plan “lacks teeth.” Consequently, he said, “not only has the Gulf’s dead zone not shrunk, but the concentrations of polluting nutrients in the Mississippi River have not declined—and may have even increased.”

In the meantime, polluting the Gulf with meat production runoff continues apace. The 2001 federal and state action plan, which was reaffirmed and amended in 2008, hasn’t achieved its goal to reduce the hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA scientists have forecasted this summer’s dead zone to be “similar to the 33-year average Gulf dead zone of 5,460 square miles,” which the agency points out is about the size of Connecticut. “This should be getting more attention by regulators, lawmakers and industry,” said Boesch. “Unfortunately, the industry has worked with politicians to prevent regulations.”

He notes that the plan to revive the Chesapeake Bay has each state “allocated a certain amount of reduction in nutrient pollution and is under a legally binding agreement under the Clean Water Act to accomplish this by 2025.” But there is no such legal force when it comes to the Mississippi Basin states that are polluting the Gulf. Those states, says Boesch, “have never even been assigned an amount of pollution reduction for which they are responsible, much less been bound to it. The states have resisted even this first step in accepting responsibility. All efforts are strictly voluntary. So, there can be little wonder why, despite the commitment to reduce the size of the dead zone by two-thirds, there has been virtually no reduction in polluting nutrients discharged by the river after 17 years.”

While reforming the meat industry’s unsustainable practices is a way to stop the spread of dead zones, change from within isn’t coming quickly enough. That’s where consumers can play a vital role, says von Reusner. “Consumers need to demand that their favorite food companies provide more sustainable options by requiring more sustainable farming practices from meat suppliers.”

Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Rare sighting of leatherback off B.C. coast raises issue of plastic pollution

Endangered giant turtle, a ‘living dinosaur,’ often bears brunt of waste in ocean, marine biologist says

Jennifer Wilson · CBC News · Posted: Aug 25, 2018 8:00 AM PT | Last Updated: an hour ago

<https://i.cbc.ca/1.4795678.1535143174!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_780/leatherback-turtle.jpg>

There have been fewer than 135 leatherback sightings in B.C. waters since the 1930s. The giant turtles swim from Indonesia to feed on jellyfish. (Willie Mitchell / Jeremy Koreski)

A rare sighting of the endangered leatherback turtle off the B.C. coast is an opportunity to celebrate — but also to reflect on the danger of plastic waste in the oceans, a marine biologist says.

Earlier this month, two Vancouver Island men captured photos of the enormous sea turtle. It was one of fewer than 135 sightings recorded in B.C. waters since the 1930s.

The leatherback is one of the largest reptiles on the planet and can grow to the size of a Smart car. Instead of a shell, the turtles have a thick, collapsible leather-like back that allows them to dive to extreme ocean depths of up to 1,270 metres.

The turtles, which travel from Indonesia to feed on jellyfish, have seen their populations decline drastically in recent years, in part due to frequent entanglement in plastic pollution, according to the the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Turtles confuse balloons with jellyfish

In Jackie Hildering’s experience, marine species are often the first to bear the brunt of environmental problems and leatherbacks are no exception, as many are found with plastic in their stomachs.

Hildering, a researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society, said many people in B.C. may not even know the species exists in local waters, but that even small actions such as releasing a balloon into the air without thinking about where it might land can have an impact on the turtles’ survival.

“One of the powerful things to realize is that they can’t discern plastics and balloons from their jellyfish prey,” she told Jason D’Souza, host of CBC’s <https://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/all-points-west> All Points West.

Leatherback turtles in Canada have been designated as an endangered species under the Species at Risk Act. The species has lost 70 per cent of its numbers in the past 15 years.

Tracking jellyfish

A major challenge in tracking and restoring leatherback populations in B.C. waters is first tracking their food source, the jellyfish, said Lisa Spaven, a scientist with the DFO’s Pacific Biological Station.

Marine biologists rely on fish surveys to include jellyfish population data, including density and location. Jellyfish are hard to track and scientists are still figuring out whether leatherbacks prefer areas with a high density of small jellyfish or a low density of large jellyfish, Spaven said.

<https://i.cbc.ca/1.4522193.1535071363!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/original_780/jellyfish-bloom-b-c-ubc.jpg>

Hundreds of jellyfish float beneath the surface off Canada’s West Coast. They are the food source that draws the leatherback turtle across the ocean from Indonesia. (Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute)

“We’re still trying to get a handle on the currents and where the jellyfish are. There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” she said.

Funding for leatherback conservation was not approved by the DFO this year according to Spaven but her department continues to carry out habitat protection work in Indonesia, where nests are at risk from predators such as wild pigs.

‘​Smallest needle in the biggest haystack’

Former Vancouver Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell and photographer Jeremy Koreski spotted the turtle on Aug. 6 just west of Tofino, B.C., and forwarded their photos to Hildering.

Hildering said the men recognized the turtle as a leatherback but, like many in B.C., did not know how important the sighting was.

“​I don’t think they knew that I would fall off my chair when they sent the photos, I don’t know that they knew they found the smallest needle in the biggest haystack,” she said.

Leatherbacks are “living dinosaurs” that “belong in B.C. waters,” Hildering said, and their presence is a reminder of the wide variety of species B.C. coastal waters should support under optimal conditions.

“It’s a testament to how rich our waters are supposed to be.”

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/rare-sighting-of-leatherback-off-b-c-coast-raises-issue-of-plastic-pollution-1.4795676

Report: meat industry responsible for largest-ever ‘dead zone’ in Gulf of Mexico

VIEW SLIDESHOW

Most people know by now that a plant-based diet is better for one’s mental and physical well-being. But did you know that reducing your consumption of meat — whether from bovine, chicken or pig — can also benefit the environment? It’s an important revelation, one more people need to learn, as a new report reveals that toxins poured into waterways by major meat suppliers have resulted in the largest-ever “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gulf of Mexico, dead zone, animal agriculture, meat, pollution, toxic, waterways, ocean, algae blooms,

The report was conducted by Mighty, an environmental group chaired by former congressman Henry Waxman. It was determined that toxins from manure and fertilizer which companies are pouring into waterways are contributing to huge algae blooms. This, in turn, creates oxygen-deprived areas in the gulf, the Great Lakes, and the Chesapeake bay.

As a result of the pollution and worsening algae blooms, it is expected that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) will confirm that the Gulf of Mexico has the largest ever recorded dead zone in history. Concerned environmental advocates predict it to be nearly 8,200 square miles or roughly the size of New Jersey.

The report blamed American citizens’ vast appetite for meat for driving much of the harmful pollution. Small businesses, as well, are “contaminating our water and destroying our landscape,” said the report. Said Lucia von Reusner, campaign director at Mighty, “This problem is worsening and worsening and regulation isn’t reducing the scope of this pollution. These companies’ practices need to be far more sustainable. And a reduction in meat consumption is absolutely necessary to reduce the environmental burden.”

Gulf of Mexico, dead zone, animal agriculture, meat, pollution, toxic, waterways, ocean, algae blooms,

To determine the findings, Mighty analyzed supply chains or agribusiness and pollution trends. It was found that a “highly industrialized and centralized factory farm system” is primarily responsible for converting “vast tracts of native grassland in the midwest” into mono-crops, such as soy and corn. When it rains, the stripped soils can easily wash away, resulting in fertilizers entering streams, rivers, and oceans.

Related: Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” in 2017 could be the largest on record

Tyson Foods, which is based in Arkansas, was identified as a “dominant” influence in the pollution. This is because the company is a major supplier of beef, chicken, and pork in the United States. The Guardian reports that every year, the supplier slaughters 35 million chickens and 125,000 cattle every week. Its practices require five million acres of corn a year for feed. Unfortunately, Americans’ appetite for animal products is only expected to increase in future years, which spells trouble unless the majority of the United States adopts high-quality, organic plant-based diets which require fewer resources to grow and are less detrimental to the environment.

Mighty is urging Tyson and other firms to use their influence and to ensure grain producers, such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, implement practices that reduce pollution in the waterways. These changes include not leaving soil uncovered by crops and being more efficient with fertilizers so plants are not sprayed with so many chemicals. While more action needs to be taken, the report, at the very least, raises awareness about the pervasive issue which demands attention.

Via The Guardian

+ Mighty

Images via WikimediaPixabay

The latest nation to apply to the UN: An ocean garbage patch with 115,000 ‘citizens’

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/article174571916.html

SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 11:14 AM