Scientist calls for action to help GulfBy A world-renowned ocean explorer and scientist called on her marine and coastal science colleagues at a symposium to move beyond research and take action for healthy seas, which she said are being exploited beyond what they can shoulder.
Nov. 29, 2006, Sun Herald
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Health, sealife face many threats
By MIKE KELLER
MOBILE – A world-renowned ocean explorer and scientist called on her marine and coastal science colleagues at a symposium to move beyond research and take action for healthy seas, which she said are being exploited beyond what they can shoulder.
"The bottom line is, ‘OK, what are we going to do about it?’" asked Dr. Sylvia Earle, the Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic Society who has logged more than 6,000 hours underwater studying marine ecosystems. "It is one thing to be informed. It’s another to act."
The call came during a meeting on the current state of scientific knowledge on the northern Gulf of Mexico’s bays and bayous. Some 300 scientists and natural resource managers from around the region are attending the two-day event in Mobile.
Harriet Perry, with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, also called on scientists to become active in calling for change. She pointed to many threats to the Gulf including overfishing, the invasion of foreign species and some 13 million pounds of toxic substances that flood into it every year.
Both speakers also mentioned the dangers of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which is contributing to global warming and which scientists say is causing the world’s oceans to turn acidic.
But global warming may be an unfortunate solution for the low oxygen zones off the coast of Louisiana – and to a lesser extent Mississippi and Alabama – that is damaging the northern Gulf, said Dr. Nancy Rabalais.
Rabalais, an expert who has been studying the low oxygen area for years, said that hurricanes decrease the size of the zone, which can be as large as Massachusetts. She said if global warming is spawning more hurricanes, the phenomenon that kills sealife and renders their habitat useless would be interrupted more often. The dead zone is a result of nitrogen fertilizer shooting out of the Mississippi River coupled with decreasing wetland acreage along the length of the river and flood control devices.
She said her work has gone beyond characterizing the size and development of the dead zone to advocating for its destruction through government programs limiting fertilizer use and promoting good agricultural land management.
"We are stuck right now making progress," Rabalais said. "Will science fix this problem? Not completely. We need to develop policy for the best science we have available."
Earle said society has a closing window of opportunity to get the world’s oceans on a sustainable track. She said the results of inaction would throw the atmosphere and the delicately balanced chemistry that drives life and weather, which are regulated by oceans, into chaos.
"There is a view that things are going to be alright no matter what," Earle said. "Wake up. We understand that is not true."
"What we are doing is dismembering the structure of the ocean," she said. "I hope we take what we learn from this conference. That will give us the power to take action that will be an insurance policy for the future."
By the numbers
Facts from the 2006 Bays and Bayous Symposium in Mobile:
• Two-thirds of the world’s population lives within 50 miles of an ocean.
• Humans have extracted 90 percent of fish out of the world’s oceans in the last 50 years.
• 50 to 70 percent of the Earth’s oxygen comes from the ocean.
• The greatest diversity of life on Earth is not in the rainforests but in the oceans.
• There are high levels of heavy metals in some seafood species that are toxic to humans.
• There are now nearly 150 dead zones around the globe, like the one off the coast of Louisiana.
• The Bay of St. Louis is somewhat impacted by pollution, but a series of studies showed that bacteria levels went up and down with climatic changes and viruses were about the same as in other Gulf of Mexico estuaries.
• Bacterioplankton levels in the Bay of St. Louis were highest at the mouths of the Jourdan and Wolf rivers, near Bayou Portage and offshore of the DuPont plant.
• Contrary to what researchers initially believed, Katrina ripped vegetation from the barrier islands less if the island was closer to the storm eye. Researchers believe that fast and deep submersion in the storm surge protected plants closer to the hurricane from wind damage.