Climate change and oil pollution are two enormous threats to the marine environment, but are rarely thought of as linked.
An editorial by Mark Hartl, Associate Professor of Marine Biology and Director of Centre for Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology at Heriot-Watt University, persuasively argues that researchers need to begin exploring the connections between these two phenomena.
Major accidental spills, while often dramatic, are not the most insidious oil pollution in the waters. The most impactful spills, Harlt writes, are often the accumulation from small amounts of chronic oil pollution, such as runoff from land or oil intentionally dumped by ships.
While "organisms might look and behave perfectly normal," following these events, he writes, "it is only over time does the chronic exposure to low-level pollution take its toll." By the time the damage becomes obvious, he continues, it is "often it is too late to do anything to save a particular population, whose decline might have knock-on effects on the surrounding environment, often with socio-economic consequences."
One way scientists can track the impacts of these smaller spills is by studying a series of biomarkers which appear at the cellular level when an organism is exposed to oil. These markers can take several forms, Hartl writes, "some can be purely biochemical, manifesting themselves as damages to DNA, alterations to the activity of enzymes involved in metabolism, structural damage to cells and their subsequent ability to perform properly, as well as more obvious pathological, reproductive or behavioural disorders."
Dr. John Stegeman, a senior research scientist at Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health in Massachusetts, for example, has been studying a biomarker called Cytrochrome P4501A (CYP1A), a protein that appears when deep sea fish have been exposed to the toxins in oil.
What happens is that when a fish comes into contact with oil, some of the most toxic parts of oil (known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs) enter the bloodstream after being inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Once these PAHs are inside of the fish, they set off its cellular defenses, which produce CYP1A in an attempt to render the PAHs harmless.
CYP1A, explains Dr. Stegeman, acts as a biological fingerprint that indicates if an organism has been exposed to the PAH's in oil. (You can learn more about that right here!)
So what do biomarkers like CYP1A have to do with climate change?
Hartl is concerned that rapid changes in the ocean, brought about by the impacts of climate change, may make it much harder for scientists to search for and find these subtle indications that damage is being done to the marine environment.
He cites the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change which confirms that the upper 75 meters of the world’s oceans have been warming at a rate of 0.11°C per decade since at least 1971 and the uptake of CO2 caused by human pollution has depressed pH (acidity level) by -0.0014 to -0.0024 per year, and that these impacts are predicted to continue.
Hartl argues that as waters warm and becoming increasingly acidic the traditional approach to studying biomarkers may no longer be effective for analyzing how oil pollution affects marine life. Changes in the water may cause species to respond differently to pollutants, which in turn will affect the data that scientists can gather on oil or other chemical toxins in the water.
The takeaway? Climate change is impact many facets of life on both the land and sea -- and marine scientits need to be alert to its impact on the study of marine pollution.
"By the time [the effects of oil pollution] becomes obvious," warns Hartl, "it is often too late to do anything to save a particular population, whose decline might have knock-on effects on the surrounding environment, often with socio-economic consequences. So there is not only a moral responsibility to look after the environment, but also a strong financial incentive, because many jobs and livelihoods depend on a healthy environment and its ecosystems."
Learn more about Hartl’s thoughts about fine-tuning the study of biomarkers to account for climate change at The Conversation.
When faced with the facts and figures of marine debris and specifically the pacific garbage patch, it’s easy to feel helpless. While creative programs already exist to combat marine debris, the scope of the issue can feel unsolvable.
Now thanks to new technology developed by Ocean Cleanup, a large-scale solution may be floating on the horizon.
Boyan Slat was just eighteen when he founded Ocean Cleanup from his hometown of Delft in The Netherlands. His idea was to create a floating boom system to capture plastic ocean debris, which could later be recycled. Just five years later, with support from backers like billionaire Marc Benioff, his novel system is undergoing ocean testing.
On September 18, 2018, Slat's team deployed its first floating boom system into San Francisco Bay for a trial run. Slat hopes that this is just the first of many booms that will eventually work together to trap 150,000 pounds of plastic each year between California and the Hawaiian islands.
The idea is that the booms, once deployed, can create an artificial “coastline” where the plastics will "land" and be collected. Since the booms are driven by the wind and waves, they will move faster than the plastic carried by the currents beneath the water, enabling vast amounts of debris to be collected by the system. Slat's goal is to clean up half of the Pacific garbage patch by 2023!
We’ll be eagerly watching for updates from Ocean Clean up, and glad to see creative ideas being brought to defend our marine environment!
Learn more about the project from Forbes, or visit the Ocean Cleanup website for yourself!
A new study by researchers at the University of Connecticut, funded by the Morris Animal Foundation, has found that the dispersant used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill has toxic effects on oysters.
In 2010 during the wake of Deepwater Horizon, roughly 2 million gallons of the Corexit® 9500 dispersant was used to break up the spilled oil, the largest use of such chemicals in US history. Dispersants do not make oil disappear, rather they help to break it down into tiny particles that are easier for microbes to ingest.
While scientists were aware that there were risks in using these chemicals at the time, this new study examines exactly how oysters are affected by the dispersant. The team compared oysters in a controlled environment that contained only oil, with environments that contained the dispersant, and a mix of oil and the dispersant -- and then measured the effects on the oysters immune function and ability to feed.
The dispersant alone was most toxic to the oysters’ immune systems, followed by the mixture, and then the oil alone. For feeding rates, the mixture of oil and dispersant was most disruptive, followed by the oil, and then the dispersant.
Dr. Kelly Diehl, Morris Animal Foundation Interim Vice President of Scientific Programs, said of the study, “Knowing the effects dispersants and oil have on oysters can help us make better mitigation recommendations the next time an environmental and ecological crisis like this happens. Species are interconnected, and what harms oysters will likely cascade through their ecosystem to the detriment of all.”
Keeping as much oil out of the water as possible is obviously the best choice for marine life, but the more we know about the impact of the tools in our oil spill-fighting arsenal, the better we can deploy them in the future.
Another marine oil polluter caught and punished!
Hai Soon Ship Management, a shipping company based in Singapore, was sentenced to pay a $1 million fine for failing to maintain an accurate oil record book. The company also pled guilty of making false statements regarding illegal dumping of oily bilge water into waters around the Hawaiian islands.
The ship caught polluting was called the Hai Soon 39, a 3,878-ton oil tanker, which provided refueling services to vessels at sea. The chief engineer, along with other members of the engine room, were found to have constructed a hose (often called a "magic pipe" in the industry) that bypassed the ship’s oily water separator -- and allowed the crew to dump untreated oily bilge water directly into the water. The chief engineer also falsified the ship’s oil record book to hide the illegal discharge. The failure to maintain an accurate oil record book is a crime under the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS).
The Coast Guard investigated the Hai Soon 39, and assistant U.S. attorneys Ken Sorenson and Amalia Fenton prosecuted the case. The $1 million fine, along with a two year probation and a new environmental compliance plan for the company's entire fleet of ships that come to the US, was handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor on July 12th, 2018.
“The marine environment that surrounds the Hawaiian islands is unique, and part of the islands’ natural beauty," says US Attorney Kenji M. Price in a US DOJ press release about the case. "This Office will continue to work with the U.S. Coast Guard and use every tool at its disposal to bring to justice those who violate the law by polluting the sea.”
The case against Hai Soon Ship Management is a vivid reminder that intentional marine oil pollution is not yet a thing of the past. Now more than ever we need brave mariners willing to take a stand and report environmental crimes at sea.
Read more about the case at the Honolulu Star Advertiser and the US DOJ"s press release about the case.
Good news for the shorebirds of the world!
According to a recent study by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, it appears that humans are getting better at caring for oiled birds.
In May 2015 an offshore pipeline off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, ruptured, releasing 143,000 gallons of oil into the water.
Christine Fiorello, a veterinarian who works with California’s Oiled Wildlife Care Network, was in Alaska at a conference on the day of the spill, but when she and her colleagues heard the news they changed their flights and headed back to Santa Barbara as quickly as possible.
Trained volunteers with the group collected 267 oiled birds, among them 73 brown pelicans, 26 of which were already dead. However, unlike many past recoveries, the volunteers did not begin by immediately cleaning the oiled birds. Instead, the birds were stabilized with foods, water and warmth -- the result of an insight that birds been covered in oil are often unable to eat, and become severely dehydrated. These birds also need warmth, because the oil on their feathers affects their insulation from the cold sea water and the birds are often hypothermic -- and need to be warmed.
This change in the order of care is a reflection of a new understanding that has emerged over the last two decades that cleaning is not the very first thing that should be done to an oiled shorebirds. Oil birds, like trauma victims in a modern emergency room, are stabilized first -- and then their injuries are treated.
The process of stabilizing, caring and then cleaning the oiled animals took about 19 days. When the birds were ready to be released, Fiorello and her colleagues outfitted twelve brown pelicans with radio transmitters that could track their movements. The results were remarkable. Ten of the twelve pelicans were still alive one year later, one was unaccounted for, and one was deceased. In a nearby control group unaffected by the spill, six of eight brown pelicans were still alive and accounted for.
These numbers are in sharp contrast to studies done in 1990 and 1991 that found that all the rehabbed birds being studied after oil spills were dead within six months of being released after treatment. The takeaway from this research was that oil causes long term harm to pelicans, and as recently as 2010 this research was being used to call into question whether oiled birds should be rehabilitated at all.
The new study by Fiorello’s team shows just how far rehabilitation techniques have come in the past twenty-five years. If the shore birds are stabilized first -- and then cleaned -- their rate of survival increases dramatically.
Fiorello and her team are encouraged by the results of the study and the behavior of the birds. Weeks after they were released, the birds with transmitters were thousands of miles away from California, feeding off the coast or Oregon in oil free waters.
While we must do everything we can to prevent oil from entering the waters, sometimes accidents do happen. It’s great to know that we’re adding to our toolbox, so that when oil enters the water, we’re giving affected wildlife the best chance possible.
Learn more about Fiorello’s work in this excellent piece by the Pacific Standard covering the study.