Oceans in the Anthropocene: Forever changed but still awesome [Recap of talk ft. Jeremy Jackson]

The Talk:

Uncharted Waters: Novel Ecosystems in the Marine Environment (part of the Ecological Systems in the Anthropocene series)

In Plain English:
Humans have messed up the ocean, so Harvard asks marine biologists, “What are you excited about?!”

The Speaker(s):
Mary O’Connor of University of British Columbia, Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institute for Oceanography, Trevor Branch of University of Washington. & John Pandolfi of the University of Queensland Australia

The Sponsor:

Harvard Center for the Environment (HUCE)

What it covered:

“Biologist work on systems dominated by the footprint of man,” Elizabeth Wolkovich, Harvard biology prof and the series organizer, declared in her opening remarks. Most biologists (and a fair number of geologists) will tell you that we are living in a new epoch, a period of time where the Earth’s biogeochemistry becomes so different from the last few million years that geologists have to declare it its own thing.

This particular new epoch is an outlier, because we started it. It’s called the Anthropocene. Wolkovich pointed out that if you look back at Victorian-era papers and essays on natural history (because obviously you’re Stephen J. Gould), you’ll see scientists talking about Nature, with a capital “N”, pristine and untouched by human boot-clomping.

Scientists don’t do that anymore.

Not that they all agree on how fast ecosystems will collapse or even when the Anthropocene started. Some argue that we should date it back to 1610, when massive plagues began wiping out native people in the Americas. So many First Nations people died that forests started growing back over abandoned farms and towns. There’s a noticeable dip in the amount of CO2 that started in 1610, and researchers think that when the Europeans brought their catastophic plagues to the Americas, they caused an ecological shift that created more trees- aka “carbon sinks”.

But the focus of this panel was not on trees, but rather on the oceans.

Marine biologist Mary O’Connor of University of British Columbia led three other well-known marine biologists through a discussion of whether the current ocean populations count as a “novel ecosystem” (See key terms below). She noted that the term came out of work land ecologists were doing, because for a long time everyone assumed the ocean’s vastness would engulf and disappate any damage we humans did. (Cue Harrison Ford saying, “Humans? I don’t owe them a thing. I give. They take. But I can take back…It’s not their planet, anyway.” )

Alas, the ocean might be big enough to cover the planet, but it’s not big enough to be immune to all the chemicals and plastics humans throw into it.

The paleoecologist, John Pandolfi, spoke first explaining that coral reefs evolved to cope with changes in sea level, but not changes in ocean acidity or dramatic changes in the number of aquatic herbivores. Unfortunately, the types of coral that are good at coping with sea level rise and fall- which have had the upper hand for the last several million years– are the most vulnerable now.

Jeremy Jackson, the panel’s resident¬† Famous Scientist, also works on coral reefs, and today’s coral do not look the way they did in the late 1960s. He told us a story about how Hurricane Allen devastated the coral reefs off the coast of Jamaica in 1980. Jackson and his colleagues wrote a paper predicting how the Jamaican coral reefs would grow back. Their predictions turned out to be “completely wrong”.

The marine biologists who studied the coral reefs had forgotten to take into account that the Jamaicans, who live in a country with a large population but not much room to grow food, had taken most of the big herbivorous fish out of the equation. The recovering reef was growing in a different ecosystem than its predecessor. “As scientists, we really suffered from the notion that the world is pristine,” Jackson said.

The third panelist, Trevor Branch, was the open oceans guy. He specializes in the fish and whales that live far from the coast, where the water is deeper and the humans have to work harder to get out there. Not that we don’t.

Branch says that 29% of big fisheries are overfished or collapsed, and even with the fish populations that are still kinda okay, we’ve “reached the limits of what we can fish”.¬† The upside is that we can address overfishing through “local management”, which is kinda doable. (In rich countries, anyway. It’s much harder to “manage” fishing when you have a coastline in a poor country with thousands of subsistence-level fishermen who go out and catch fish for their families every day.)

All three experts agreed that humans have radically shifted the ocean’s ecology, but there are a few success stories out there. “Oysters are growing in New York Harbor,” Jackson said. “I mean, they’re full of PCBs and you wouldn’t want to eat them, but they’re there.”

Branch argued that with more effective management, the ocean’s situation could get a lot better. In the past, he said, the obstacle was politics; when all the nations in a region would sit down to decide on maximums for the number of fish they could catch, the nations would end up trading “I’ll fish less here, if you let me fish more over here” favors. A lot of the agreements would end up allowing countries to catch 50-60% more fish than “scientific advice” said they should. “But now it’s gottten down to 5-10%,” he added. “So just barely over.”

The panel urged the audience to be active, to vote for politicians who take action on the environment, and to encourage local businesses and legislators to take ocean health seriously.

Still, humans tend to make ocean problems any time they live near a coast.

The best moderator question of the night was about how even though the near future looks pretty dire, there might be interesting ecology shifts happening over the next 100-500 years. “What are you excited about?!” O’Connor asked the panelists.

“Do you mean ‘excited’ in a good way?” Jackson shot back. Yes, she wanted know what might be positive or at least neutral.

“Well, I’m going to Tasmania next week!” Pandolfi said.

Aside from laughing in the face of apocalyptic change, Jackson said that for non-humans, Florida’s succumbing to sea level rise might be a good thing. The Everglades would move northward and expand to a greater area than they cover today. Plus, the underwater parts could become a refuge for fish species that have had a hard time surviving along the Gulf Coast. “The coast of Louisiana is a mess,” Jackson said. “And I mean that in every possible way.”

Branch said that rich countries, which have enough food to sustain the population and enough bureaucrats to make overfishing difficult, would probably do well. Poor countries, less so. Of course, many of the world’s poor countries are becoming richer, and now the question is: will they become richer in a way that gobbles up the Earth’s remaining resources or will they become wealthier in a more sustainable way?

Also, Branch pointed out, CO2 will peak at some point in the next five hundred years, because will have basically burned up all the available CO2 in fossil fuels by then. So 500 years from now, carbon dioxide levels will be going down. Of course, at the present rate, they would peak at 1700 ppm (as opposed to the 400+ ppm we have now), but why dwell on the negative?
My Personal Take:

First off, if you are into oceans and their ecology, you should look up my MIT classmate Claudia Geib (@cm_geib on Twitter), because oceans are her thing.

Like seriously. Read her stuff.

Most days I go around thinking, “Welp, climate change is the most important topic that 21st century science writers have to cover. But drug-resistant bacteria, the lack of predictability between DNA base pairs and traits, the pervasive sloppy data handling in medical science, sexism in STEM, and the lack of helpful resources for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people are all pretty important too…Maybe slightly less important, but enough to justify me worrying about one of them instead of climate change for today.”

But sometimes, you’ve just gotta write about the environment.

Most of the ideas that the speakers presented were pretty familiar, but I hadn’t heard about the lobster shell disease problem (see below), and hearing the post-Allen coral reef recovery misprediction straight from the source was awesome. (Also, Jackson is a New Yorker and very much has a New York accent; it’s entertaining.)

I was a bit irked when Branch seemed to be blaming continued overfishing on subsistence-level fishermen in developing countries, because what the heck else are they supposed to do when the global supply chain isn’t bringing them enough food?

Oh well. For me, my favorite part of this talk was just getting to think about what the world looks like for non-humans. Ocean covers almost 3/4 of the planet’s surface, but how many of our science news stories are actually about the ocean?

Not that many.

Anyway, this talk was upsetting but still fun, and it reminded me that I need to start writing about estuaries (Hudson River ecology class, holla!) more often.

Biggest Misconception to Avoid:

Most eco-conscious people think that climate change and ocean acidification are the biggest threats to the ocean. Those threats are extremely important, but a lot of damage to the ocean comes from the way humans treat their local coasts, where the fishermen fish, the yachters go yachting, and the trash gets dumped. Overfishing and pollution are local problems, so when people lean on local politicians, sometimes something gets done.

Best One-Liner:

Jackson on sea level rise in Florida: “The future of Florida for people is not good. I mean, it won’t be there. But biologically, that’s fantastic!”

Best One-Liner: (runner up)

Pandolfi: “As a paleontologist, I can interrogate rocks!”

Best Audience Question: (tie)
[Note: The question & responses are paraphrased. I don’t record the talks I attend, so I work off of whatever notes I can scribble down during the lecture. Italicized parathenticals indicate what I was thinking at the moment.]

Audience member: First off, thank you, Dr. O’Connor for doing a great job of moderating. (Hear! Hear!) I’m a deep sea ecophysiologist, and what I notice when I talk to students is that we humans tend to think in a kind of binary. Everything has to be either good or bad; it’s a very digital way of thinking.

So I worry that when we talk about these optimistic stories, people will make the mistake of assuming that things will fix themselves. My question is can we move away from binary to something that’s more how the world works?

Jackson: You go case-by-case, example-by-example, and you get bogged down in the details. Success begets success. Look at California’s Coastal Protection Act. Look at how Jerry Brown just rationed the water, taking some from the farmers and some from other people…

So you’ve just got to walk the tightrope. Because if you don’t offer opportunity [to do something], they’re just going to drink!

(Soooo….us science writers have got to just turn everyone into wonks? Without driving them to drink too much in the process?…okey-dokey.)

Pandolfi: (agreeing re:tightrope) In Australia, the Australian government is giving out grants to farmers to get them to stop putting so much fertilizer on their crops, because most of them are putting way more fertilizer than they need. And then the farmers save money by not spending so much money on fertilizer and there’s less fertilizer in the ocean. It’s a win-win situation…You have to invest in the win-win situations.

Branch: Well, the first thing to do is to say there’s a problem– and don’t overstate it. But say it. And then say, “This is what you can do”. Because otherwise people turn away. They turn away so quickly.

Best Audience Question: (tie)

Audience member: I was really intrigued by your Humpty Dumpty Paradigm. (…Oh, Harvard audiences!) You can’t put him together again, but what if you could put together a different kind of egg that could could keep doing what Humpty was doing?

Jackson: That’s a deep ecological question.

Branch: In some places [where fisheries have collapsed], people are making more money from catching lobster and crab than they were with the fish that were there before.

Jackson: But then the lobsters are going to die. A former student of mine wrote a brilliant paper about “The Golden Trap” on what’s going to happen when the lobster shell disease hits Maine. All the lobsters will die, and 10,000 people are going to lose their jobs in Maine.

Key Terms:

  • Novel Ecosystem = an unprecedented combination of species living in one place, under unprecedented climactic conditions. Pretty vague term, usually used by ecologists when speaking amongst themselves. Implies that ecosystems may be so disrupted they need to reach a “new normal” rather than restoration.
  • Anthropocene = the new biogeochemical epoch that has been created by human actions, such as pollution and overfishing
  • Fisheries = A place where fish are caught or grown for commerical fishing
  • #OceanOptimism = a social media effort based on notion that people are more likely to help save planet if they think there’s hope of a good outcomeTl;dr:Humans, despite everything, have disrupted the ocean’s ecosystems. But pessimism does not save fishes, so don’t forget to vote!

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