Friday, December 31, 2010

What Triggers Mass Extinctions? Study Shows How Invasive Species Stop New Life

Underwater Times: What Triggers Mass Extinctions? Study Shows How Invasive Species Stop New Life

ATHENS, Ohio -- An influx of invasive species can stop the dominant natural process of new species formation and trigger mass extinction events, according to research results published today in the journal PLoS ONE.

The study of the collapse of Earth's marine life 378 to 375 million years ago suggests that the planet's current ecosystems, which are struggling with biodiversity loss, could meet a similar fate.

Although Earth has experienced five major mass extinction events, the environmental crash during the Late Devonian was unlike any other in the planet's history.

The actual number of extinctions wasn't higher than the natural rate of species loss, but very few new species arose.

"We refer to the Late Devonian as a mass extinction, but it was actually a biodiversity crisis," said Alycia Stigall, a scientist at Ohio University and author of the PLoS ONE paper.

"This research significantly contributes to our understanding of species invasions from a deep-time perspective," said Lisa Boush, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research.&

"The knowledge is critical to determining the cause and extent of mass extinctions through time, especially the five biggest biodiversity crises in the history of life on Earth. It provides an important perspective on our current biodiversity crises."

The research suggests that the typical method by which new species originate--vicariance--was absent during this ancient phase of Earth's history, and could be to blame for the mass extinction.

Vicariance occurs when a population becomes geographically divided by a natural, long-term event, such as the formation of a mountain range or a new river channel, and evolves into different species.

New species also can originate through dispersal, which occurs when a subset of a population moves to a new location.

In a departure from previous studies, Stigall used phylogenetic analysis, which draws on an understanding of the tree of evolutionary relationships to examine how individual speciation events occurred.

She focused on one bivalve, Leptodesma (Leiopteria), and two brachiopods, Floweria and Schizophoria (Schizophoria), as well as a predatory crustacean, Archaeostraca.

These small, shelled marine animals were some of the most common inhabitants of the Late Devonian oceans, which had the most extensive reef system in Earth's history.

The seas teemed with huge predatory fish such as Dunkleosteus, and smaller life forms such as trilobites and crinoids (sea lilies).

The first forests and terrestrial ecosystems appeared during this time; amphibians began to walk on land.

As sea levels rose and the continents closed in to form connected land masses, however, some species gained access to environments they hadn't inhabited before.

The hardiest of these invasive species that could thrive on a variety of food sources and in new climates became dominant, wiping out more locally adapted species.

The invasive species were so prolific at this time that it became difficult for many new species to arise.

"The main mode of speciation that occurs in the geological record is shut down during the Devonian," said Stigall. "It just stops in its tracks."

Of the species Stigall studied, most lost substantial diversity during the Late Devonian, and one, Floweria, became extinct.

The entire marine ecosystem suffered a major collapse. Reef-forming corals were decimated and reefs did not appear on Earth again for 100 million years.

The giant fishes, trilobites, sponges and brachiopods also declined dramatically, while organisms on land had much higher survival rates.

The study is relevant for the current biodiversity crisis, Stigall said, as human activity has introduced a high number of invasive species into new ecosystems.

In addition, the modern extinction rate exceeds the rate of ancient extinction events, including the event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

"Even if you can stop habitat loss, the fact that we've moved all these invasive species around the planet will take a long time to recover from because the high level of invasions has suppressed the speciation rate substantially," Stigall said.

Maintaining Earth's ecosystems, she suggests, would be helped by focusing efforts and resources on protection of new species generation.

"The more we know about this process," Stigall said, "the more we will understand how to best preserve biodiversity."

The research was also funded by the American Chemical Society and Ohio University.

Victoria river mysteriously turns bright green

National Post: Victoria river mysteriously turns bright green
(Seems like someone was putting food dye into the water as they do for St Patrick's Day parades, IMHO. But just goes to show how easy it would be for anyone to poison a river.)
VICTORIA — Horrified nature-lovers at Goldstream Provincial Park watched as the Goldstream River turned bright green late Wednesday afternoon.

The fluorescent green colouring appeared to start about 500 metres on the Victoria side of the entrance to the park and, over the course of an hour, the substance flowed down into the environmentally sensitive estuary.

By 5:30 p.m. the river, known for its dramatic salmon runs, eagles and other wildlife, was back to its normal colour.

Ministry of Environment teams were immediately sent to the area to investigate and members of Langford Fire Department collected samples for analysis.

No dead fish or animals had been found by early evening.

Earlier in the day a fountain beside Veterans Memorial Parkway in Langford also turned bright green, said Langford Fire Chief Bob Beckett.

Victoria Times Colonist

(A comment on the article reveals who is probably doing it, and why:
My favourite artist, Olafur Eliasson.

He has done this to a few rivers around the world and watches and studies how the public and media react to the river.

"Eliasson watches spectators [present and media forms] and studies their responses in a search for new ways of surprising them, of heightening their perceptions. When he talks about his Green River project, for example, it is mostly in terms of how the witnesses react. Green River involves dyeing a river green, and so far he has done it four times. In Tokyo, he says, ‘a lot of people stopped and looked… And of course they were stunned. I did it in a spot where the cherry blossom comes out a month later. It’s well known as a beautiful place. Actually the police came and. basically I ran away. And the police then put up posters asking anybody who had seen somebody suspicious to contact them. [He laughs.] I have a photograph of the poster.’

It is, as he puts it, ‘a kind of action’. He doesn’t seek permission (though he makes sure the dye is safe) and he doesn’t give notice; he also picks fairly small sites and it’s all over in two or three hours. ‘If you do it on a big stage the mediation of the project immediately becomes quite sensational. I’ve tried to avoid that spectacular approach.’ The purpose of the project is the response. ‘Los Angeles, Stockholm, Tokyo are places where the relationship between the water and the city is completely different, and the way people experience and refer to the water in their local setting is very different. It has been interesting for me to investigate that relationship.’"

'250 billion' plastic fragments in Mediterranean

France 24 International News: '250 billion' plastic fragments in Mediterranean

The group is launching an on-line petition to demand tougher European Union (EU) rules on the disposal and biodegrability of consumer goods.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dolphins surface to challenge Nessie as biggest visitor draw

The Press and Journal: Dolphins surface to challenge Nessie as biggest visitor draw
The enduring appeal of the Loch Ness monster as one of Scotland’s biggest visitor attractions has come under threat.

An audacious challenge to the elusive charms of Nessie has been launched by supporters of the Moray Firth’s dolphin colony.

The Banffshire Coast Tourism Partnership wants to lure holidaymakers to the area with the near certainty of spotting dolphins and other sea life.

Group chairman Roger Goodyear said: “No one, and certainly not those who depend on the mythology for a living, cares to admit that Nessie doesn’t exist except in the imagination of visitors.

“Is Nessie real? As they say in panto at this time of year – ‘Oh no, she isn’t’ and she’s not even behind you.

“We want people to know that instead of spending valuable holiday time looking for something that doesn’t exist, they should come to Scotland’s dolphin coast instead. They will see something that does exist, like our dolphins, porpoises or even minke whales.

“We can assure visitors our dolphins will be 100% genuine and not a floating log, upturned rowing boat or a trick of the light.”

Nessie supporters yesterday dismissed the notion that the dolphins could dent her appeal.

Fraser Campbell, managing director of Drumnadrochit-based Cobbs restaurant and coffee shop chain, said: “They are not a serious challenge unless they can swim with three humps in the water.

“People come to our part of the world not just for the monster but for the amazing scenery as well.”

He countered the Banffshire group’s claim that Nessie was a myth and said: “I know a lot of credible people in this area who have seen something in the loch.

“At any event, people come and stay here and go to the Black Isle to see the dolphins so we can offer them and the monster too.”

Mr Goodyear said the partnership encouraged responsible dolphin watching and worked only with boat trip operators who are members of the dolphin space programme scheme.

He said: “Accredited operators follow a code of conduct that helps to ensure any interaction with wildlife at sea does not cause disturbance.

“The harbours at Banff and Macduff are departure points for boat trips which are accredited under the scheme.”

The Moray Firth is home to a colony of about 130 bottlenose dolphins and sightings are common in the summer months.

Scottish Natural Heritage claims nature-based tourism is worth about £1.4billion a year to the Scottish economy and supports the equivalent of 39,000 full-time jobs.

The tourism group’s dolphin appeal coincides with the launch of a website at

Dover firm creates sea sculptures for silver screen

Plant City Courier Tribune: Dover firm creates sea sculptures for silver screen
Special correspondent

Published: December 29, 2010

DOVER - Steve Brancati is used to making replicas of sea creatures that decorate restaurants and theme parks.

Recently, Hollywood came calling.

Brancati, owner of Ocean Creations, recently finished three weeks of building props such as shark replicas for "Dolphin Tale," being filmed in Clearwater.

The movie is based on the true, inspiring story of Winter, a tailless dolphin found in 2005 off Florida's east coast. This resident of Clearwater Marine Aquarium has become the first dolphin to wear a prosthetic tail and has become a symbol of hope, especially for children with prostheses.

The film production company needed lifelike sculptures of aquatic life and found Ocean Creations online. The company was hired to make replicas of three dolphins, five sharks, a sea turtle and a manatee.

The film, starring Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd, is expected to wrap this month and be released next fall.

For nearly 30 years, Ocean Creations has made large, authentic, fiberglass and resin sculptures of aquatic animals, wildlife, barnyard animals, even sandwiches, Brancati said.

The company's customers generally are theme parks, hotels, restaurants, mini-golf courses – whoever needs a giant mascot or eye-catcher.

The film company "wanted us to do eight weeks' worth of work in three weeks," Brancati said, "and they've been calling about every other day to check on the progress."

The roots of Brancati's business go back to 1982 when he wanted to mount the fish he caught during dive trips to the Florida Keys. He couldn't afford the going rates to have them mounted, so he started experimenting and learned how to do it himself. Eventually he began sculpting, too.

"My father and my girlfriend said I'd never be able to make a living doing it, and that challenge was all I needed," Brancati said. He built up his business, employing up to nine skilled workers two years ago.

There aren't as many orders these days, because of the current economy and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has reduced his team to two and has diversified, selling cars as well.

He said Ocean Creations has only two major competitors: one company that makes cartoonish sculptures and a taxidermist who prepares only marine fish mounts.

In contrast, Ocean Creations offers a larger variety of products than just taxidermy and exact replicas of living things, Brancati said.

"We'll get a call from an aquarium saying they've got a prize hammerhead shark in the freezer," he said. "Or they found a dead sea turtle. They'll bring it over, frozen or not, and we put it in sand and cast a fiberglass mold from it. Then we reverse it and make a fiberglass sculpture from the mold.

"They look very real because they were real," he said.

For information or to see samples of Ocean Creations' sculptures, go to or call Brancati at (813) 300-6931.

Brazil to replace oil rigs with 'underwater cities'

The UK Telegraph: Brazil to replace oil rigs with 'underwater cities'
Traditional oil rigs will be replaced with “underwater cities” within a decade under ambitious plans being drawn up by Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned energy group.

Petrobras plans to turn science fiction into reality to extract oil from the vast pre-salt oil fields discovered off the south east coast of Brazil.

The plan is to construct 'cities’ more than 2,000 metres under water, containing machines, giant pieces of equipment and robots that could inspect the systems being used to extract millions of barrels of oil. Many operations would be fully automated while others would be controlled by humans at a distance.

“Our target is that we won’t need platforms in ten years from now,” said Carlos Tadeu Fraga, executive manager of the Petrobras Research Centre.

Petrobras already owns virtual reality laboratories where engineers can inspect 3D images of oil fields. But now they want to take a further technological leap by installing floating rig equipment on the sea bed.

The machinery under the sea would be capable of separating oil, gas, water and sand, compressing substances and generating enough energy to keep the operation functioning.

Petrobras will take the first step in turning its plans into reality when it installs machines to separate water and oil in the Marlim oil field in the Campos Basin.

It is having to ambitious to extract the huge reserves in the pre-salt fields, which lie below layers of sand, rock and salt as well as water .

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New species of fishes found in Indian waters

The Hindu: New species of fishes found in Indian waters

The presence of a shark species new to science and 84 other deep-sea dwellers new to the Indian waters have been brought out by a stock assessment of deep sea fishes of the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone and the central Indian Ocean, according to researchers.

Mustelus manglorensis, a new gummy shark species, was discovered from a depth of 500 metres off the Mangalore coast. According to researchers, this is the second gummy shark that has been reported from the Indian Ocean against the 19 known worldwide.

Of the 84 species of fishes found in the Indian waters, 15 were shark varieties, including Baloon, Cat, Lantern and Gulpers. Researchers have also confirmed the presence of 10 species of eels belonging to Conger, Cusk and Snipe families from the study region. Most of the species were found inhabiting the sea at a depth beyond 500 metres, researchers said.

The assessment was carried out by a research team led by B. Madhusoodana Kurup, Director, School of Industrial Fisheries of the Cochin University of Science and Technology. The team included researchers M. Harikrishnan, S. Venu, Sharin Sonia, A.V. Deepu, Ginsen Joseph and Diana. The study was supported by the Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology of the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

The assessment also revealed that the Indian waters supported rich and diverse deep sea angler fish, which uses the fleshy lobe on its head to catch its prey. The presence of six new species coming under ‘smooth,' ‘double,' ‘dicerateid' and ‘blackmouth' angler fish categories was also recorded. Most of them were found occupying the ocean space between a depth of 500 and 800 metres.

The samples were collected from the exploratory deep sea fishery cruises on board the ocean research vessel Sagar Sampada. Fishing was carried out in depths between 200 and 1100 metres from the Wadge bank in the south and Ratnagiri in the north along the south west coast during the last 10 years. Fishing operations were carried out in 220 stations with high speed demersal fish and shrimp trawls, researchers said.

The analysis has revealed that the Kozhikode-Mangalore region was rich in deep sea fish biodiversity as 121 species were collected from there. This was followed by the Kochi-Kozhikode belt with the presence of 95 species. In the Kozhikode- Mangalore belt, the richest fish biodiversity was found at depths ranging between 500 and 800 metres, they said.

Morphological features
The morphological features of some of the species identified included transparent or black body, poorly developed muscles, absence of gas bladder and greatly reduced eyes. Some of the species possessed expandable stomachs. In some other fishes, jaws were either absent or present with huge hinged jaws with long and inward pointing teeth, they said.

The origin of many species could be tracked to the tropical regions of the Pacific and the Atlantic, especially to South African coast, Madagascar Bridge, Mozambique, Gulf of Aden, Canary Islands and the Mediterranean Sea. Many species were found sharing similar habitats with their counterparts in other oceans, they said.

Environmental group sues NOAA over document fees

SouthCoast Today: Environmental group sues NOAA over document fees
By Steve Urbon

In a federal lawsuit filed just before Christmas, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is accused of violating the Freedom of Information Act by charging the environmental group Oceana Inc. exorbitant fees to fulfill its document requests.

"The (National Marine) Fisheries Service told Oceana that it would only provide the unclassified, non-commercial documents to which Oceana is entitled if Oceana paid $16,338.60 in advance," says the suit filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C.

Oceana, based in Washington, D.C., contends that it is entitled to a waiver on the grounds that it qualifies as a media company because it publishes government information to inform the public about environmental issues. Media outlets are exempt from charges associated with FOIA requests.

"This happens all the time," Pamela Lafreniere, a New Bedford lawyer who deals with fisheries cases, told The Standard-Times. She said she is being billed some $600 for the answer to a single question about the use of the asset forfeiture fund within NOAA.

Oceana, which filed an earlier lawsuit in May accusing fisheries regulators of being too lax, was asking NOAA for the documents used to establish agency policy on sea turtles.

Recently, New England Fishery Management Council finalized Amendment 22 to the Scallop Fishery Management Plan, further restricting scallop boats from entering areas known to contain a large population of sea turtles in warmer months.

Carlos Rafael, owner of 20 scallop boats, said that the rule is unnecessary. In his case, he said his crews have taken one turtle in 15 years, and it was thrown overboard unharmed.

Ron Smolowitz of the Fairhaven-based Fisheries Survival Fund said that recent science estimates the number of loggerhead turtles alone at more than 1 million. And in any event, he said, gear changes have cut the take of sea turtles by scallopers from hundreds a decade ago to just a handful today.

He said that Oceana contends that scallopers are failing to account for turtles that run into the gear but aren't brought aboard, and that turtles on the bottom can be harmed by the turtle-resistant net chains. Smallowicz said that the chains do keep turtles out of nets efficiently, and a new dredge design will allow turtles to pass over the gear unharmed, and may soon be required by regulators.

Oceana claims NOAA, by charging excessive fees for information, is interfering with the public's right to know how policy is developed. Oceana, as well financed as it is, cannot afford such bills and is exempt by law from paying them, according to the lawsuit.

Lafreniere said that NOAA's practices are typical not only at NOAA but across the Obama administration. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a Freedom of Information Act case brought by a Washington State resident who sought information about the amount of damage expected from an explosion at the Navy's main West Coast ammunition dump on an island in Washington.

The Obama administration, the suit alleges, is abusing the FOIA exemption that exempts from disclosure documents "related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency."

Mayor Scott W. Lang said it is ironic that Oceana is complaining about withholding documents when environmental groups are siding with NOAA and opposing the disclosure of documents and the taking of depositions in the city's lawsuit challenging catch shares and sector management of the fishery.

NOAA is slow to produce documents even when it is willing, Lang said. He said only now is the city receiving a few documents it sought in spring when it filed a FOIA request for information about scallop quotas.

Lang said it would be best if all parties would just be transparent about what they are doing. "This isn't the START treaty, this is fisheries management, for heaven's sake," he said.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Scientists say tidal generators could confuse sea life

Anchorage Daily News: Scientists say tidal generators could confuse sea life
MIGRATION: Critters guided by magnetic fields could lose way.

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: December 28th, 2010 08:13 AM
Last Modified: December 28th, 2010 08:15 AM

WASHINGTON -- Without maps or GPS, great white sharks travel thousands of miles roundtrip from California to Hawaii or Australia to South Africa. Sea turtles hatched on the beaches of Florida travel the currents of the North Atlantic Gyre to Europe, Africa and South America before heading home.

And in one of the most mysterious and epic journeys of all, salmon from the streams and rivers of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest head to sea and swim into the far reaches of the North Pacific before returning to spawn.

Scientists increasingly believe these marine creatures and others use the earth's magnetic fields to navigate vast distances.

But as the search for green energy turns to the oceans, there are concerns that tidal and wave-powered generators, and the cables that bring their electricity to shore, could interfere with the internal compasses of sea creatures.

The fear isn't that the fish and other marine life will get chewed up in revolving turbine blades or other machinery. It's that the generators and the cables to shore produce electromagnetic fields that could interfere with their natural guidance systems, which use the earth's magnetic fields. In addition, there are some worries the machines may produce a low-level hum that interferes with such marine mammals as whales.

"Before we put these power generating devices in the water, we need to know how they will affect the marine environment," said Andrea Copping, an oceanographer with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Marine Sciences Lab in Sequim, Wash.

Though the Europeans are far ahead, Copping said widespread commercial development of generating stations using tidal and wave power may be 10 years off in the United States.

Even so, projects have begun, and the Northwest has become a center for their development.

The Snohomish Public Utility District has received a $10 million grant from the federal Energy Department to install two tidal turbines in Admiralty Inlet west of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. The current through Admiralty Inlet can flow at up to 8 knots, or 9 miles per hour.

The 400-ton tidal turbines resemble fans and will sit on platforms 200 feet deep. The turbines will generate enough electricity to supply 700 homes.

Several years ago, Tacoma Power explored placing tidal generators in the Tacoma Narrows in southern Puget Sound. The Navy also has explored the possibility of placing generators in the Sound. Tacoma Power decided not to proceed with a pilot project, and the Navy project is on hold, Copping said.

Off the Oregon coast, a company has a license to move forward with a commercial scale wave project, Copping said. The waves along the coast of Washington state and Oregon are considered among the best energy producing waves in the world as they roll in from the deep Pacific.

The Northwest Power Planning Council has estimated that wave-powered generators off the coasts of Washington State, Oregon and northern California eventually could produce 50,000 megawatts of electricity, roughly the output of 50 nuclear power plants.

In addition to the Northwest, possible sites are being studied off Hawaii, in Alaska's Cook Inlet and off Florida and Maine. There is a study under way on installing hydrokinetic turbines in the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, she said.

Along the shores of Puget Sound, Copping and her colleagues at the Marine Sciences Laboratory are trying to determine exactly what effect electromagnetic fields may have on salmon, Dungeness crab, halibut and American lobsters.

"We picked EMF (electromagnetic fields) because there is no scientific literature," she said.

In the lab, two specially designed coils each containing 200 pounds of copper wiring have been wrapped inside what looks like window frames. When electricity is fed into the coils, an electromagnetic field is created with a magnetic flux roughly the power of a small bar magnet. Aquarium tanks filled with marine species are placed near the coils and scientists study their reaction when the coil is energized.

Different marine species have different ways of detecting the earth's magnetic field to navigate and even to track prey.

Sharks have little black pores near their snouts that are filled with a conductive jelly-like substance and serve as external magnetic receptors, said Stephen Kajiura, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida Atlantic University. Sharks can even determine when they are moving north and south or east and west. Rays have a similar detection system.

Turtles have magnetic receptors connected to their central nervous systems.

"This mechanism allows them to have long ocean migrations in an environment where everything is blue, there are no landmarks and you can't tell east from west and north from south," Kajiura said.

Lobsters, crabs, tuna and other species are thought to have similar guidance systems.

Salmon may have some type of chemicals in their brains that detect the Earth's magnetic fields, though Kajiura and Copping cautioned that more research is needed to be certain.

"We are not sure about salmon," Copping said. "No one has ever been able to show how they navigate back to their streams."

Kajiura has studied how underwater electric cables can affect a shark's behavior. The cables can create electromagnetic fields.

"Sharks will bite at them (the cables), thinking they are prey," he said. "It's not a new phenomenon. The cables may very well produce magnetic fields that could disrupt behavior."

Copping said some preliminary results from her lab's experiments should be available in the coming weeks.

"We won't have definitive answers, but we should know whether it is a problem or not," she said.

Both Copping and Kajiura said it was important to have some scientific answers to questions regulators are sure to ask.

"It's coming so fast, regulators are asking questions we don't have answers to," said Kajiura. "It would be nice to have some baseline research before we move ahead."

Seals imperilled by early births off Labrador

CBC News: Seals imperilled by early births off Labrador
An environmental disaster may be developing along the coast of Labrador as unusually warm weather causes some seals to give birth three months before they should, a conservation officer says.

He says seals born that early won't survive.

"If they're going to be keeping on giving birth in December, I think that our seals are going …their numbers are going to get lower and lower," said Simon Kohlmeister, a conservation officer with the Nunatsiavut government in Labrador.

Kohlmeister said he's never heard of seals having pups so early. It usually happens in March, he said.

He's said he's talked to elders in Nain, the administrative capital of Nunatsiavut, and they have never seen births this early either.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is investigating the early births, Kohlmeister said.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Study: Drifting Fish Larvae Allow Marine Reserves To Rebuild Fisheries; 'Should Help Resolve Some Skepticism About Reserves'

Underwater Times: Study: Drifting Fish Larvae Allow Marine Reserves To Rebuild Fisheries; 'Should Help Resolve Some Skepticism About Reserves'
CORVALLIS, Oregon -- Marine ecologists at Oregon State University have shown for the first time that tiny fish larvae can drift with ocean currents and "re-seed" fish stocks significant distances away – more than 100 miles in a new study from Hawaii.

The findings add credibility to what scientists have believed for some time, but until now been unable to directly document. The study also provides a significant demonstration of the ability of marine reserves to rebuild fishery stocks in areas outside the reserves.

The research was published this week in PLoS One, a scientific journal.

"We already know that marine reserves will grow larger fish and some of them will leave that specific area, what we call spillover," said Mark Hixon, a professor of marine biology at OSU. "Now we've clearly shown that fish larvae that were spawned inside marine reserves can drift with currents and replenish fished areas long distances away.

"This is a direct observation, not just a model, that successful marine reserves can sustain fisheries beyond their borders," he said. "That's an important result that should help resolve some skepticism about reserves. And the life cycle of our study fish is very similar to many species of marine fish, including rockfishes and other species off Oregon. The results are highly relevant to other regions."

The findings were based on the creation in 1999 of nine marine protected areas on the west coast of the "big island" of Hawaii. They were set up in the face of serious declines of a beautiful tropical fish called yellow tang, which formed the basis for an important trade in the aquarium industry.

"This fishery was facing collapse about 10 years ago," Hixon said. "Now, after the creation of marine reserves, the fishery is doing well."

The yellow tang was an ideal fish to help answer the question of larval dispersal because once its larvae settle onto a reef and begin to grow, they are not migratory, and live in a home range about half a mile in diameter. If the fish are going to move any significant distance from where they are born, it would have to be as a larva – a young life form about the size of a grain of rice – drifting with the currents for up to two months before settling back to adult habitats.

Mark Christie, an OSU postdoctoral research associate and lead author of the study, developed some new approaches to the use of DNA fingerprinting and sophisticated statistical analysis that were able to match juvenile fish with their parents, wherever they may have been from. In field research from 2006, the scientists performed genetic and statistical analyses on 1,073 juvenile and adult fish, and found evidence that many healthy juvenile fish had spawned from parents long distances away, up to 114 miles, including some from marine protected areas.

"This is similar to the type of forensic technology you might see on television, but more advanced," Christie said. "We're optimistic it will help us learn a great deal more about fish movements, fishery stocks, and the genetic effects of fishing, including work with steelhead, salmon, rockfish and other species here in the Pacific Northwest."

This study should help answer some of the questions about the ability of marine reserves to help rebuild fisheries, the scientists said. It should also add scientific precision to the siting of reserves for that purpose, which is just one of many roles that a marine reserve can play. Many states are establishing marine reserves off their coasts, and Oregon is in the process of developing a limited network of marine reserves to test their effectiveness. The methods used in this study could also become a powerful new tool to improve fisheries management, Hixon said.

"Tracking the movement of fish larvae in the open ocean isn't the easiest thing in the world to do," Hixon said. "It's not like putting a radio collar on a deer. This approach will provide valuable information to help optimize the placement of reserves, identify the boundaries of fishery stocks, and other applications."

The issue of larval dispersal is also important, the researchers say, because past studies at OSU have shown that large, fat female fish produce massive amounts of eggs and sometimes healthier larvae than smaller fish. For example, a single two-foot vermillion rockfish produces more eggs than 17 females that are 14 inches long.

But these same large fish, which have now been shown to play key roles in larval production and fish population replenishment, are also among those most commonly sought in fisheries.

The study was done in collaboration with the University of Hawaii, Washington State University, National Marine Fisheries Services and the Hawaii Department of Natural Resources. It was funded by Conservation International.

"The identification of connectivity between distant reef fish populations on the island of Hawaii demonstrates that human coastal communities are also linked," the researchers wrote in their conclusion. "Management in one part of the ocean affects people who use another part of the ocean."

Scientists: In The Evolutionary Mating Game, Brawn And Stealth Rule; 'Females Will Almost Always Choose A Red Male'

Underwater Times: Scientists: In The Evolutionary Mating Game, Brawn And Stealth Rule; 'Females Will Almost Always Choose A Red Male'
SYRACUSE, New York -- When prowling for a hook up, it's not always the good-looker who gets the girl. In fact, in a certain species of South American fish, brawn and stealth beat out colorful and refined almost every time.

In a series of published studies of a South American species of fish (Poecilia parae), which are closely related to guppies, Syracuse University scientists have discovered how the interplay between male mating strategies and predator behavior has helped preserve the population's distinctive color diversity over the course of time. The third study in the series was published Dec. 23 in BMC Evolutionary Biology, a publication of BioMed Central, London. The studies were supported in part by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"Poecilia parae are an ideal model for investigating how genetic diversity originates and is maintained within a species," says study author Jorge Luis Hurtado-Gonzales, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology in SU's College of Arts and Sciences. "The findings may help us better understand how to protect biodiversity in larger ecosystems." Hurtado-Gonzales' co-author is J. Albert C. Uy of the University of Miami.

Like guppies, Poecilia parae sexually reproduce and their offspring are born live. Unlike guppies, in which no two males have exactly the same color patterns, Poecilia parae males come in five, genetically determined colors—red, yellow, blue, parae (clear with a black stripe), and immaculata (drab gray that mimics the color of immature females). When found in the wild, the abundance of each color group represented in the total population is relatively constant despite the fact that females prefer to mate with the more striking reds and yellows.

"If females prefer red and yellow males, then one would think that red and yellow would dominate and the other colors would phase out over time," Hurtado-Gonzales says. "However, red and yellow are the rarest colors found in the wild."

The most recent study in BMC Evolutionary Biology found that while females prefer reds and yellows they go for the winner of fin-to-fin combat in a significant number of cases. In the study, the larger parae almost always prevailed, thus gaining a mating advantage despite its less-than-desirable coloration. Immaculatas, which are the smallest males, generally shunned the showy displays of violence and were mostly ignored by all but yellow males. The larger yellows almost always defeated immaculatas, stopping them from approaching females.

"In the absence of male-to-male competition, we found that females will almost always choose a red male," Hurtado-Gonzales says. "However, if the red loses a fight, the female will generally seek out the winner. In most cases, that is the larger parae, which is the most dominant male."

Immaculatas compensate for their lack of physical prowess and attractiveness through a mating strategy that relies on stealth. In a 2009 study published in the journal Animal Behavior, Hurtado-Gonzales found that the immaculatas' drab color provides camouflage that enables them to stealthy mate with females while the more colorful red males were wooing them. Females are promiscuous and will mate with multiple males. Additionally, immaculatas have developed larger testes, which produce more sperm, providing a post-mating advantage in the race to fertilize female eggs.

Finally, in a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, produced by the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, Hurtado-Gonzales found that a common predator of Poecilia parae prefers to dine on reds and yellows, most likely because their striking colors make them easier to see. This predatory disadvantage contributes to the lower numbers of reds and yellows in the overall population.

"It seems that within an evolutionary scale, the less attractive males persist in the population over their more attractive counterparts by evolving unique, but likely equally effective mating strategies," Hurtado-Gonzales says. "Therefore, the maintenance of multiple colors may result from the interaction between predator control of attractive males (reds and yellows) and the ability of less attractive males to exploit other areas of sexual selection, including male dominance, sneak behavior, and sperm competition."

A forthcoming study will focus on how blue males gain a mating advantage. Early results indicate that blues exploit habitats in which blue light waves maximize their attractiveness to females and possibly limit their vulnerability to predators.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Scientific American: What's the Catch?

What's the Catch? Researchers Wrangle Over How to Measure Commercial Fishing's Impact on Ocean Biodiversity
The global demand for seafood is high, and over the past several decades the harvesting of wild fish from the oceans has grown into a huge business. In the 1950s most of the world's commercial fisheries were concentrated in the northern Atlantic and Pacific, near the coasts of heavily industrialized nations such the U.S., the U.K. and Japan. Since that time the industry has expanded rapidly southward, and into deeper waters in search of more fish to satisfy the growing market and to compensate for depleted legacy fisheries. Between 1950, the year the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began releasing an annual report of catch statistics, and the late 1980s the global annual reported catch ballooned from around 18 million metric tons to peak at about 80 million metric tons. Since then, the catch has stagnated, dropping to near 79 million metric tons in 2005.

There is no argument the industry's massive growth has vastly affected ocean ecosystems, but the extent to which this disruption has depleted and continues to deplete the sea's biodiversity has become source of a heated debate within the world of marine fisheries science. At the center of the disagreement, which is highlighted by two recently published studies, is a question: What is the best way to measure the ecological footprint of commercial fishing?

The answer is complicated, due to the inconsistent nature of the data from a large portion the world's fisheries, especially those operated by developing nations. But the authors of a new study published December 2 in PLoS One say they have for the first time quantified, on a global scale, the ecological consequences of commercial fishing. They say their results, gleaned by analyzing global catch statistics, reveal that only the expansion into new fishing grounds has maintained seafood supply by making up for devastating destruction of the biodiversity in older fisheries. Now, they say, there is no more room to expand, and current fishing practices are not sustainable.

Daniel Pauly, a professor of fisheries biology at the University of British Columbia was a co-author of the new paper. Pauly, also the principal investigator of the Sea Around Us Project, says his group was able to measure biodiversity loss by developing a "'currency,' or common denominator, for the impact of fisheries on ecosystems," necessary because that impact varies depending on which species is harvested.

In previous work Pauly's group divided the planet's oceans into 180,000 individual cells and used catch statistics to determine the amount of every species caught in each cell between 1950 and 2005. Then, they determined the "primary production"—an ecological term referring to organisms at the very bottom of an ecosystem's food web—required to produce all the fish harvested from every cell. In ocean ecosystems primary production comes from phytoplankton. Each fish species needs a unique amount of primary production to survive, depending on their place on the food web. The higher in the web—or, as ecologists say, the higher the trophic level—the more that is required.

In the new paper the authors expressed the primary production required to produce the catch from each cell as a fraction of the total primary production—a value they inferred by analyzing satellite photos to measure pigmentation in the water—in each respective locale. The result is an illustration, say the authors, of the global "ecological footprint" of marine fisheries—one that, given current trends, cannot be sustained.

The limitations of catch data
Not all marine fisheries scientists, however, agree that primary production required is a reliable enough measurement of biodiversity loss.

Care must be taken not to overinterpret the metric, says Kevern Cochrane, the director of the resources use and conservation division of the FAO's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. "I think it is a useful complement to other ways of looking at the picture," he says, but "it does introduce other uncertainties as well."

These uncertainties stem from the fact that it relies on records of fisheries catches. "If you really want to know what the health of the ecosystem is, it's better to focus on what is actually in the ecosystem, rather than what you get out of it," says Trevor Branch, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington (U.W.) in Seattle. "There are lots of reasons why catches go up and down, irrespective of what's happening in the ecosystem."

Catch data alone do not necessarily reflect abundance, Branch explains, as catches are also driven by additional factors like economics, technology and fisheries management. For example, he cites the U.S. west coast, where "10 or 20 species have by this measure completely collapsed." In fact, he notes, managers in that area have deliberately cut back on catches of those species. "Now those species are rebuilding, and many of them are not even overfished anymore, but the catches are still low," he says.

Researchers can more comprehensively evaluate an ecosystem by supplementing catch records with surveys of an area's biomass, and models, called stock assessments, which account for all available catch and survey data for individual species. "Wherever you have a scientific stock assessment, or the result of a rigorous scientific survey conducted using acoustic or trawl techniques, you should use that data as well," FAO's Cochrane says.

But stock assessments and scientific surveys are only available from a fraction of the world's fisheries—mainly high-value, intensely managed ones in the waters of developed countries. Often, catch data are the only information available. "It's the most globally available information—it's as simple as that," Cochrane says. He notes that the FAO is engaged in efforts to improve the quality and accuracy of global catch data, and to expand the world's library of surveys and stock assessments.

The "fishing down the food web" controversy
The authors of the new study argue that destructive overfishing by the industry has been masked by spatial expansion. "If people in Japan, Europe, and North America find themselves wondering how the markets are still filled with seafood, it's in part because spatial expansion and trade makes up for overfishing and 'fishing down the food chain' in local waters," said lead author Wilf Swartz, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Center, in a statement.

"Fishing down the food chain" refers to a supposed phenomenon in which commercial fisherman, when they first move into a new area, target larger, longer-lived fish until they are depleted, at which point they shift to smaller, less desirable species lower on the food web until all that is left are species near the bottom of the web. Fisheries scientists have accepted this occurrence since 1998, when a landmark study, authored by Daniel Pauly and colleagues and published Science, concluded that the average food-web position of the contents of global catches—known to ecologists as the mean trophic index—was declining.

The mean trophic index has since become the most widely-used indicator of ocean ecosystem health. In 2004 the Convention on Biological Diversity named it one of eight indicators that would be used to monitor progress toward the accord's goal of reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss.

But a study published in Nature November 17, by Trevor Branch and colleagues, found that the decline in the mean trophic index Pauly had observed in 1998 is no longer present in the global catch data. Further, the study cites catch records, stock assessments and scientific surveys to show that in many cases the index does not correspond to the average food-web position of the organisms researchers directly observe in the ecosystem. On the contrary, Branch says, "just under half the time what you get from catches goes in the complete opposite direction from what you get from the ecosystems."

Pauly says the new PLoS One paper "completely invalidates" Branch's Nature paper because the authors failed to account for the spatial expansion described in the former. As fisheries move offshore, he says, they first target large fish high on the food web—just as they did closer to shore. "Hence, moving offshore will mask inshore declines in mean trophic levels."

Branch counters that the expansion paper actually reinforces his study's conclusion that mean trophic index is not a reliable indicator. "Fisheries expansion is just another reason why we shouldn't trust catches," he says. "That was the point of our paper—that we shouldn't be basing our judgment on catches."

The value of the mean trophic index depends on an assumption that is not supported by the available data, says Ray Hilborn, also a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at U.W., although not an author on the Nature paper. In particular, he notes, recent evidence suggests fisheries do not necessarily begin by targeting fish higher up on the food web, but often simply pursue the most economically valuable species, regardless of their position. "If you think about it, what is the most expensive stuff at the market? It's lobsters, scallops, crabs and things like that. It's not yellowfin tuna," Hilborn says.

The (contested) state of marine fisheries
If catch data are not a reliable reflection of what is happening in ocean ecosystems, does that mean Pauly's argument that eventually our oceans will be left only with jellyfish and plankton overblown? Again, the answer is complicated by the inconsistent quality of the available information. But in the places for which there is good data, it appears things are actually improving, says Bill Fox, vice president and managing director for fisheries for the World Wildlife Fund. "For the last decade we have been making great progress—certainly in the U.S., northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand and many developing countries as well—in terms of improving the sustainability of fisheries," he says.

Hilborn agrees, citing a 2009 study in Science that brought together conservation biologists and fisheries scientists, and compiled multiple data sets—ecosystem models, stock assessments, trawl surveys and catch statistics—to assess the global state of fisheries. This study, on which Hilborn and Branch joined 19 other scientists as co-authors, showed that although the majority of commercial fish stocks for which there are data remain below target thresholds, fishing pressure has been reduced enough to expect that most of the ecosystems studied should be able to rebound to those thresholds.

Pauly, meanwhile, maintains the situation is direr, and compares current fishing practices with a Ponzi scheme. "It has been, throughout, a raid on the capital," he says, and it's happened under the cover of spatial expansion. "The supply has been guaranteed, and has been provided by expansion. When expansion is not possible anymore, how will we guarantee the supply?"

Study: Rising Greenhouse Gases Profoundly Impact Microscopic Marine Life; 'We're Engaged In A Global, Unreplicated Experiment'

Underwater Times: Study: Rising Greenhouse Gases Profoundly Impact Microscopic Marine Life; 'We're Engaged In A Global, Unreplicated Experiment'
MERCED, California -- The prolonged, extensive emission of greenhouse gases over the next several decades could have significant impacts on ocean life, according to a study by UC Merced marine biologist Michael Beman.

Increases in carbon dioxide emissions — exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities — are making ocean water more acidic, and Beman's study shows that the increased acidity will fundamentally alter the way nitrogen cycles throughout the sea.

Because nitrogen is an important nutrient for all organisms, this could ultimately have significant impacts for all forms of marine life.

"There is growing concern about this issue because human activities are modifying ocean pH so rapidly," Beman said. "While we do not know what the full effects of changing the nitrogen cycle will be, we performed experiments all over the world and believe that these changes will be global in extent."

Beman's study — funded by the National Science Foundation and co-authored by a team of researchers from the University of Hawaii, University of Southern California and the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences — will be published this week in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Beman conducted the studies while at the University of Hawaii, before coming to UC Merced in 2009.

During the study, Beman and his coworkers decreased the pH level of ocean water — making it more acidic — in six total experiments at four different locations in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans: two near Hawaii, one off the coast of Los Angeles, one near Bermuda and two in the Sargasso Sea southeast of Bermuda.

In every instance, when the pH was decreased, the production of the oxidized forms of nitrogen used by phytoplankton and other microorganisms also decreased. That nitrogen is produced through the oxidation of ammonia in seawater by microscopic organisms.

The results showed that when the pH of the water was decreased from 8.1 to 8.0 — roughly the decrease expected over the next 20 to 30 years — ammonia oxidation rates decreased by an average of 21 percent over the six experiments, with a minimum decrease of 3 percent and a maximum of 44 percent.

Such a reduction could lead to a substantial shift in the chemical form of nitrogen supplied to phytoplankton, the single-celled aquatic "plants" that form the base of the ocean's food web. The decrease in nitrogen would likely favor smaller species of phytoplankton over larger ones, possibly creating a domino effect throughout the food web.

This is an important step in furthering science's understanding of how continued increases in greenhouse gas emissions will affect marine life on a global scale and another example of UC Merced researchers addressing society's most challenging problems.

"What makes ocean acidification such a challenging scientific and societal issue is that we're engaged in a global, unreplicated experiment — one that's difficult to study and has many unknown consequences," Beman said.

"Nevertheless, our results can be used to estimate the potential impacts of acidification on the marine nitrogen cycle and on marine life in general. These effects could be substantial and deserve additional study."

Monday, December 20, 2010

20 Dec 2010: Safety of Gulf seafood debated 8 months after BP oil spill

Safety of Gulf seafood debated 8 months after BP oil spill
New Orleanians LuAnn White and Patricia Williams are highly trained toxicologists, experts in food safety who agree on the lethal dangers presented by the carcinogens found in oil.

Enlarge Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune CHRIS GRANGER / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE Amy Landry, center, adds more fresh shrimp to a scale as people line up at her stand in Westwego on Saturday, December 18, 2010. Landry said despite the holiday rush going on right now she said overall business is probably down about 40 percent from what it should be and she blames that on people's fear of eating contaminated seafood thanks to the BP oil spill. Landry has sold seafood at the Westwego seafood lot for 21 years.

Safety of Gulf seafood debated 8 months after BP oil spill gallery (16 photos)

But when it comes to the safety of eating locally caught seafood since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they disagree completely.

"I eat the seafood and feed it to my family and I'm absolutely comfortable with that," said White, a Tulane University professor and consultant for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

"Since the spill I haven't eaten the seafood and I've urged my children not to eat it or feed it to my grandchildren," said Williams, who teaches at UNO and is on retainer for plaintiffs suing BP. "I consider it too risky."

Whom to believe?

In the five months since BP's gusher spilled as much as 200 million gallons of crude off the Louisiana coast, federal and state agencies have repeatedly proclaimed Gulf seafood safe. The state says of more than 800 seafood samples tested, 503 showed no contamination at all, and the others only tiny amounts that pose no threat. Their message: The oysters, shrimp, crabs and fish you crave are safe -- dig in. Officials from President Barack Obama on down have done photo ops scarfing Louisiana seafood.

Yet people remain skeptical. Sales of locally caught seafood are down, and some restaurants still won't serve it.

"The public remains confused and concerned," conceded Dr. Jimmy Guidry, head of the DHH testing program. "I think it's a combination of the size and duration of the spill, but also the media reports from other organizations that claim to have found hydrocarbons in the seafood. I think a lot of people just don't understand the process."

But even some of those who understand -- certified toxicologists and public health advocates -- remain concerned.

They charge the formula used to set allowable levels of contamination is flawed in at least four ways:

It lowballs local seafood consumption rates.

By assuming an average weight of 176 pounds, it leaves large populations unprotected, including children.

The amount of seafood being tested is far too low.

The list of toxic substances being searched for is too narrow.

In short, they think the whole process is flawed.

The process

The seafood testing program was developed by the federal Food and Drug Administration in cooperation with Gulf states.

Like most food testing programs, it does not certify products free from contamination, or even safe for all consumers. Rather, it attempts to establish a lifetime cancer risk that "is considered appropriate by risk managers" for the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

View full sizeAssociated Press archiveIn June, President Barack Obama ate shrimp when he visited Camardelle's, a live bait and boiled seafood restaurant shop, to meet with residents about the BP Gulf Coast oil spill in Grand Isle.
In this case, FDA and state officials said, they decided the appropriate risk was a 1-in-100,000 chance of a 176-pound person contracting cancer sometime during his 78-year life span if he eats specified portions of seafood every day for five consecutive years.

The FDA acknowledges that many hydrocarbons of concern already are abundant in the environment. So this system looks only for the worst ones -- 12 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, known to cause cancer and other serious health problems.

The formula sets a "level of concern," or LOC, on contamination in each sample.

As of last week, the state says not a single sample has measured at or above the LOC. Test results are posted at the FDA Web page.

When the FDA and Gulf states discovered there was no valid survey of Gulf Coast seafood consumption, the agencies agreed to use data from a national survey. Acknowledging the popularity of seafood in the region, they agreed to assume locals consume it at the 90th percentile found in the national survey.

That resulted in the following monthly seafood menu determining the level of concern: 9.1 fish meals of 5.6 ounces each; 2.9 meals oyster meals of 4.2 ounces each, and 4.4 shrimp/crab meals of 3.1 ounces each.

Who eats just 4 shrimp?

Criticism of the formula was loud and immediate.

Environmental and food safety groups considered the consumption rates laughably small, pointing out that few locals sit down for one oyster or four shrimp, which their experts say is the equivalent of the portions in the FDA formula.

A recent survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council of 547 seafood eaters along the Gulf Coast supports that complaint. The median seafood consumption rate of those respondents was 20 meals a month, while those at the 90th percentile ate as many as 60 seafood meals a month. Portion sizes were also larger than those used by the FDA, especially for shrimp.

While the NRDC conceded its voluntary survey is also imperfect, it tracked EPA and World Health Organization surveys of seafood consumption rates in fishing communities.

Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the NRDC, said her group asked the FDA to use those surveys as a baseline for the Gulf Coast "but the FDA never gave us an answer."

Solomon said her group was "not telling people not to eat Gulf seafood, not by a long shot," but merely pointing out that the low consumption rates in FDA protocol are unrealistic.

Of equal concern to critics was the formula's 176-pound average weight. Critics said it leaves out children as well as some ethnic groups, specifically Vietnamese-Americans, who tend to weigh less but eat lots of seafood.

"My objection to this is that just by the body weight they are using, they're leaving out children, so many other people -- and pregnant women with fetuses," said Williams, the toxicologist. "Yet they're going around telling people, 'It's safe to eat!'"

The FDA and the state DHH stand by their formulas. While acknowledging they would prefer to have valid seafood consumption rates for Gulf communities, they say their risk assessment is extremely conservative and protects the public.

"People need to remember that this level of consumption is for every meal for every day for five consecutive years -- that's 1,825 consecutive days of eating seafood at or above the levels of concern," said Bob Dickey, director of the FDA's Division of Seafood Science and Technology. "And this also assumes those levels of contamination in the seafood will remain over that period, but experience (in past spills) shows the level diminishing over time."

FDA officials said the 176-pound body weight is actually appropriate for children because it is an average weight over a 78-year life span.

Still, the FDA is developing a separate level of concern for children, said agency spokesman Don Kraemer, though the agency doesn't expect the results to change anything.

Kraemer pointed to the negative testing results thus far. "Remember, even at these conservative levels," he said, 'the sampling isn't turning up anything at the LOCs."

But the collection process is also under question.


On May 9, with most of the coast still closed to fishing, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries began taking water and seafood samples to establish a baseline for the presence of hydrocarbons.

When the state moved to reopen fishing in areas in late July, it used a simple protocol: If there was no oil visible in an area and if samples contained no odor of contamination, samples could be tested for safety using the FDA rules. If samples tested below the LOC, commercial fishing could resume, but testing would continue.

Samples are collected from each of seven coastal estuarine basins between the Mississippi and Texas state lines. Harry Blanchet, coordinator of coastal finfish programs, said samples were originally taken weekly, but when lab results showed little or no traces of PAHs, sampling frequency was reduced to twice monthly, then monthly.

Each sample consists of about a half-pound of tissue, collected at one spot in each basin, Blanchet said.

That means a half-pound of fish from the 5,000-plus square miles of Barataria Basin; likewise for the 10,000-square mile Pontchartrain Basin.

Critics scoff at the idea that such a small sample can be seen as representative of such a large area.

"The proper way to do this is to consider the total volume of that seafood being harvested from that area, then basing your sample size on that," Williams said.

"Are you telling me that we're saying all the shrimp from Barataria Basin is safe because a half-pound was collected one time that month from one spot?"

Blanchet said the answer is yes -- once again pointing to the consistency of results.

"I think any scientist would tell you he would prefer to have complete coverage of all areas all the time, but based on what we saw, the consistently low results, we are comfortable with this."

However, he noted the testing program will become much more intensive in 2011 as the state uses an $18 million check from BP to establish a long-range monitoring program 400 samples per month for 20 years.

Critics want broader tests

Critics hope the agencies use those funds to broaden tests to go beyond the 12 PAHs listed in the protocol. They want to search for traces of total petroleum hydrocarbons, or TPHs, a family of compounds found in crude oil, some of which are carcinogens.

Dickey said TPHs are not on the list because they pose little or no health risk, and many are found naturally in seafood.

Dickey and others, including Tulane's White, say the testing protocol is conservative and the results to date give no reason for concern.

"I understand there is a tremendous distrust of government, and that probably goes back to the way the estimates of how much oil was out there kept changing," White said. "But I know the process being used; I know we're only allowing seafood from open areas. And I know the amounts we're finding is five times lower than the lower limits of detection equipment.

"I know what the result means -- and that's why I have no hesitation in eating the seafood and feeding it to my family."

But Williams, the UNO toxicologist, disagrees.

"All this test is doing is making a 'risk assessment', which is simply a guesstimate of your chances of contracting cancer from this small list of PAHs -- if you eat the amount of seafood in the portions they say over the years they say," she said.

"It is not based on the tenets of toxicology. It does not consider things such as peak exposures, or dose frequencies, or how these different compounds react to each other to increase or decrease the threat. And, of course, that weight they're using doesn't even cover children."

Williams said the state should not be proclaiming seafood that passes its lab screening safe for all, rather that it's safe for someone weighing 176 pounds who eats those portions at those frequencies.

"Everyone else should be warned, they are not protected by this process," she said. "That's what I tell my family. That's why -- even thought I love our seafood, I haven't been eating it, and I urge my family not to eat it, either."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

16 Dec 2010, Fishing World: Tagged sharks break records

Tagged sharks break records
A tagged blue shark recaptured by a longliner off the south east coast of South Africa, has clocked up the record distance travelled by any shark recorded under the Gamefish Tagging Program. The previous record was a blue shark released off Kilcunda (VIC) that was recaptured in the Indian Ocean, having recorded a straight line distance of 2400 nautical miles.

The new record breaking fish recorded a straight line distance of 5,073 nautical miles having swum across the Indian Ocean from its first release location at Port MacDonnell (SA) five years previously.

The blue shark was released originally by Adelaide GFC member, Paul Williams off Port MacDonnell on the 20th May 2005. The shark was estimated to be 9kg in weight when first tagged and was released on a day when Williams had tagged fifteen using circle hooks. When recaptured, the shark weighed 47kg.

In related events, Nickol Bay SFC boat Tourettes has been successfully targeting tiger sharks over the past 20 months, fishing local Western Australian grounds. Kevin Deacon’s team has tagged a total of 33 tiger sharks in this period.

The Tourettes team recently notched up three recaptures of sharks that they originally tagged. One shark recaptured by Candice Williams after a period of almost 15 months at liberty had been previously released by Tourettes when fishing off Dampier in March of 2009. It was recaptured in Nickol Bay in June 2010, just 17 nautical miles (as the crow flies) from the release location.

The other two sharks were recaptured on the same night as the first release, in the same location, interestingly one of which was caught after being tagged only two hours previously despite it having fought for 80 minutes prior to its release.

16 Dec, 2010, MSNBC: Antarctic Melting as Deep Ocean Heat Rises

MSNBC Environment: Antarctic Melting as Deep Ocean Heat Rises
Global warming is sneaky. For more than a century it has been hiding large amounts of excess heat in the world's deep seas. Now that heat is coming to the surface again in one of the worst possible places: Antarctica.

New analyses of the heat content of the waters off Western Antarctic Peninsula are now showing a clear and exponential increase in warming waters undermining the sea ice, raising air temperatures, melting glaciers and wiping out entire penguin colonies.

"In the area I work there is the highest increase in temperatures of anywhere on Earth," said physical oceanographer Doug Martinson of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Martinson has been collecting ocean water heat content data for more than 18 years at Palmer Island, on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

"Eighty-seven percent of the alpine glaciers are in retreat," said Martinson of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. "Some of the Adele penguin colonies have already gone extinct."

Martinson and his colleagues looked not only at their very detailed and mapped water heat data from the last two decades, but compared them with sketchier data from the past and deep ocean heat content measurements worldwide. All show the same rising trend that is being seen in Antarctica.

"When I saw that my jaw just dropped," said Martinson. The most dramatic rise has happened since 1960, he said.

What the rising water heat means, he said, is that even if humanity got organized and soon stopped emitting greenhouse gases, there is already too much heat in the oceans to stop a lot of impacts -- like the melting of a huge amount of Antarctic ice.

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"There's the potential that we're locked into long term sea level rise for a long time," Martinson told Discovery News. Martinson presented his latest ocean heat results on Monday at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

As for how fast the ice will melt and in what locations, that depends largely on whether the upwelling warm water comes in contact with the thick ice shelf that crowds the coast and holds the block the glaciers from reaching the sea.

That, in turn, depends on the winds which drive away the surface waters and make it possible for the deeper waters to rise to the surface, said senior researcher Robert Bindschadler of NASA's Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

"It can destroy the ice shelf if that heat can get to it," said Bindschadler, who at the same meeting presented his work from the melting Pine Island Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

Now that the upwelling deep sea water is the clear cause of the melting ice shelf, rather than summer melt water, as had been thought in the past, it's a question of how winds will change in a warming world and whether they will drive more warm water into the ice shelves.

"So we have thrown the problem back over the fence to the climate modelers," said Bindschadler.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

15 Dec, 2010: The Ledger: [Fish] Farmers Battle on as Freezing Temps Continue

Farmers Battle on as Freezing Temps Continue
Some temperatures didn't dive quite as low overnight as the night before, but other areas were slightly cooler.

The National Weather Service reported Lake Alfred as the coldest spot in Polk County, hitting 26 degrees. Frostproof was at 28 and Winter Haven 30. Lakeland's official temperature was unavailable by noon, but Bay News 9 reported it about 29 degrees early today.

Temperatures vary depending on location, so some areas dropped lower.

Lakeland strawberry Carl Grooms recorded 25 degrees at his farm, which was 1 degree cooler than the night before.

So far, farmers raising cold-sensitive tropical fish have reported minor losses, but the extent of the damage may not be immediately known.

Forecasts predict lows will again drop into the upper 20s or the lower 30s tonight, and the highs today should be in the low to mid 50s. It is expected to warm up after that.

Low temperatures were reported south of here, also, according to Mongi Zekri, a multi-county citrus agent with the University of Florida extension service.

It got as low as 23 degrees in groves in Southwest Florida, he reported.

"It was the coldest night so far," Zekri wrote in an e-mail. "Some growers/production managers in Southwest Florida reported finding some frozen fruit in the 'cold pockets' and along the grove edges. Bad news!

"Trees have been extensively losing leaves before the freeze and will keep losing more leaves after the freeze, which is more bad news. Defoliated trees will become weak and may not bloom well and set a good crop next spring. However, it is too early to evaluate the extent of the damage."

HAINES CITY | Florida's tropical fish farmers face disastrous losses from the recent freezing weather, possibly as bad as last January's freeze that wiped out about 70 percent of their stocks.

"It looks like we're going to have another January," Art Rawlins, a Lithia tropical fish farmer and president of the Winter Haven-based Florida Tropical Fish Farm Association Inc., said Tuesday. "We've seen some loss already, but we're seeing a lot of lethargic fish. If the weather keeps on like this, they'll be dead by tomorrow."

Tropical fish farmers are vulnerable not just to freezing nighttime temperatures but to low daytime temperatures that do not allow pond water temperatures to recover to 60 degrees or warmer. Some tropical fish species begin to die or sustain fatal injury once temperatures fall below 60 degrees, and massive fatalities occur once water temperatures sink to the low 50s.

Pond temperatures can recover under sunny skies during the day, particularly in ponds covered with plastic, which generates a greenhouse effect from the sunlight.

Like January, the first two days of the week have seen limited daytime sun, Rawlins said.

Although the recent cold snap does not threaten to break January's record of 13 consecutive days with temperatures below 40 degrees, farmers lost 70 percent or more of their fish stocks 11 months ago after the first three days, he said.

Weather conditions for the first three days this week look depressingly similar.

Marty Tanner of Aquatica Tropicals Inc. in Plant City, president of the Florida Aquaculture Association, had a sunnier outlook on potential losses. He pointed to the forecast for sun today and the rest of the week with temperatures expected above 40 degrees.

"At least that gives us an opportunity for temperatures to recover in the ponds during the day," Tanner said.

"I'm looking at it more optimistically that losses may not be as industrywide as they were (in January)."

Still, Tanner acknowledged, "we could sustain some heavy losses."

15 Dec 2010, Underwater Times: High-Tech Software, Unmanned Planes Allow Scientists To Keep Tabs On Arctic Seals

High-Tech Software, Unmanned Planes Allow Scientists To Keep Tabs On Arctic Seals: 'Biologists Are Thrilled'
BOULDER, Colorado -- A novel project using cameras mounted on unmanned aircraft flying over the Arctic is serving double duty by assessing the characteristics of declining sea ice and using the same aerial photos to pinpoint seals that have hauled up on ice floes.

The project is the first to use aircraft to monitor ice and seals in remote areas without putting pilots and observers at risk, said Elizabeth Weatherhead of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who is leading the study team. Weatherhead is a senior scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint venture of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Monitoring the seals is important because the Arctic is rapidly warming as a result of human-produced greenhouse gases building up in Earth's atmosphere, according to climate scientists. Warming temperatures and sea ice loss are of concern to biologists because they are impacting at least some Arctic marine and terrestrial mammals.

"Because ice is diminishing more rapidly in some areas than others, we are trying to focus on what areas and types of ice the seals need for their survival," said Peter Boveng, leader of the Polar Ecosystems Program at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

"By finding the types of ice they prefer, we can keep track of that ice and see how it holds up as the Arctic sea ice extent shrinks," said Weatherhead.

Weatherhead gave a presentation on the subject at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union held in San Francisco Dec. 13 to Dec. 17. Other scientists involved in the project include Boveng, Robyn Angliss, deputy director of NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, NMML researchers Michael Cameron and Erin Moreland, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Greg Walker.

The four species of Arctic seals of most interest to the research team are the bearded, ringed, spotted and ribbon seals, each of which rely in some way on sea ice for breeding, resting and as a safe haven from predators.

Known as the "Scan Eagle," the unmanned aircraft was launched in May and June of 2009 from the NOAA vessel McArthur II over the Bering Sea west of Alaska. The drone has a 10-foot wingspan and is owned and operated by the University of Alaska.

The image recognition software was developed by Boulder Labs Inc. in Boulder, Colo., and used to automate the identification of seals in 27,000 images that were collected during the flights. "The results show that the seals have distinct preferences for specific types of ice, demonstrating that ice extent is not the only factor affecting seal populations," said Weatherhead.

The Scan Eagle flights lasted from two to eight hours and flew at altitudes ranging from 300 to 1,000 feet. While the amount of ocean and ice scanned by the unmanned aircraft was small -- it flew 3- to 5-mile-long transects over the Bering Sea -- the researchers were eager to see whether the image recognition system would work for characterizing both the ice and the seals. "The answer was a resounding yes," Weatherhead said.

The analysis of sea ice by the team included edge-to-area calculations of ice floes as well as ice floe size and distribution. "There is an incredible variety of ice and we are trying to come up with mathematical ways to describe it," she said. "One thing that really interests us is how broken up the ice is in particular areas."

According to CU-Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center, the total loss of Arctic sea ice extent from 1979 to 2009 was an area larger than the state of Alaska. Scientists there believe the Arctic may become ice-free during the summers within the next several decades.

In December 2010, NOAA's Fisheries Service proposed to list the Arctic ringed seal as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of diminishing sea ice and snow cover. Arctic ringed seals do not come ashore, but use sea ice for whelping, nursing and resting. Ringed seal pups are born in snow caves on the ice, and their survival can be affected by snow depths and the timing of spring snowmelt and ice breakup.

"Biologists are thrilled about the image recognition software because it could change the way we monitor seal populations," said Weatherhead. "We can send an unmanned craft out from a ship, collect 4,000 images, and have them analyzed before dinner. This is a great example of physicists working closely with biologists who are concerned with the health of seal populations."

Typically, seals appear in less than 1 percent of the images, said Weatherhead. But on the ice floes or ice edges where they are found, the software can help researchers identify seals by species. In the future, researchers might be able to identify the relative age and gender for some seal species. The software could even be adjusted to look for polar bears and their tracks.

Weatherhead said the team wants to combine its results with forecasts not only of future sea ice extents, but also of future ice characteristics that will allow for predictions regarding the impacts of changing and disappearing ice types on seal populations.

15 Dec: Flying squid leap out of the sea

Flying squid leap out of the sea
British photographer Graham Ekins has proven that squid use jet propulsion to leap out of the sea and fly up to 65ft.

The Flying Squid are an incredible sight rarely caught on camera but these shots show one of the most bizarre sights in the natural world.

They swim in shoals and leap from the surface of the water and are often mistaken for the more common flying fish.

The squid actually fly looking backwards, with their tentacles dangling behind them and fins acting like wings, keeping them balanced in the air.

The 60-year-old retired deputy head teacher from Boreham, Essex, took the shots in the waters south of Japan.

Graham said: ‘These squid are often mistaken for flying fish and at first that's what I thought these were.

‘There was a group of about 20 flying squid and they sensed danger from the bow wave of the boat and their defence mechanism is to leap out of the water.’

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

14 Dec, 2010, Underwater Times: Engineers Calculate Tidal Energy Turbines' Effects On Sediments And Fish

Engineers Calculate Tidal Energy Turbines' Effects On Sediments And Fish
SEATTLE, Washington -- The emerging tidal-energy industry is spawning another in its shadow: tidal-energy monitoring. Little is known about tidal turbines' environmental effects and environmentalists, regulators and turbine manufacturers all need more data to allow the industry to grow.

Engineers at the University of Washington have developed a set of numerical models, solved by computers, to study how changing water pressure and speed around turbines affects sediment accumulation and fish health. They will present their findings this week at the American Geophysical Union's meeting in San Francisco.

The current numerical models look at windmill-style turbines that operate in fast-moving tidal channels. The turbine blade design creates a low-pressure region on one side of the blade, similar to an airplane wing. A small fish swimming past the turbine will be pulled along with the current and so will avoid hitting the blade, but might experience a sudden change in pressure.

Teymour Javaherchi, a UW mechanical engineering doctoral student, says his model shows these pressure changes would occur in less than 0.2 seconds, which could be too fast for the fish to adapt.

If the pressure change happens too quickly the fish would be unable to control their buoyancy and, like an inexperienced scuba diver, would either sink to the bottom or float to the surface. During this time the fish would become disoriented and risk being caught by

It's too early to say whether tidal turbines could harm fish in this way, Javaherchi said. The existing model uses the blade geometry from a wind turbine.

"The competition between the companies is very tight and they are hesitant to share the designs," Javaherchi said.

The researchers are open to working with any company that wants to use the technique to assess a particular turbine design.

Another set of numerical modeling looked at whether changes in speed of water flow could affect the settling of suspended particles in a tidal channel. Slower water speeds behind the turbine would allow more particles to sink to the bottom rather than being carried along by the current.

Javaherchi's modeling work suggests this is the case, especially for mid-sized particles of about a half-centimeter in diameter, about two-tenths of an inch. This would mean that a rocky bottom near a tidal turbine might become sandier, which could affect marine life.

The UW research differs from most renewable energy calculations that seek to maximize the amount of energy generated.

"We are [also] interested in the amount of energy that can be extracted by the turbines, but we are aware that the limiting factor for the development of these technologies is the perception by the public that they might have a big environmental impact," said Alberto Aliseda, a UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering and Javaherchi's thesis adviser.

As to whether any negative effects discovered for tidal turbines would be preventable, Aliseda said, "Absolutely."

"We need to establish what is the lowest pressure that the animals can sustain and the period of time that they need to adjust," Aliseda said. "The blade can be shaped to minimize this effect."

Aliseda says engineers in the wind-turbine industry are already adapting the UW work to look at interactions between wind turbines and bats, since high-frequency pressure changes are now thought to be responsible for the mysterious deaths of bats caused by wind turbines.

"Maybe the best turbine is not the one that extracts the most energy, but the one that extracts a reasonable amount of energy and at the same time minimizes the environmental effects," he said.

14 Dec 2010, Global BC: Canadian researchers suggest sponge theory may not hold water

Canadian researchers suggest sponge theory may not hold water
Canadian researchers who probed the traits of a freshwater sponge from Vancouver Island say their findings about the species' "skin" could rewrite the history of animal life and illuminate a primordial family connection between humans and the porous organisms best known for mopping up kitchen spills.

A study by three University of Alberta biologists, which appears in a journal published by the U.S.-based Public Library of Science, shows how the outer tissue of the B.C. specimen acts much like the protective layer of skin that distinguishes almost all other animals, including humans, from the seemingly flow-through sponges.

The discovery, the research team concludes, could eventually force scientists to reclassify sponges closer to our own "eumetazoan" clade of animals, and to rethink humanity's evolutionary roots among these absorbent creatures of the deep.

"It doesn't quite make them into Sponge Bob," study co-author Sally Leys told Postmedia News on Monday. "But it very much does put sponges into the fold with the rest of us."

The U of A team, including Emily Adams and Greg Goss, gathered samples of the common species Spongilla lacustris from Sarita and Rosseau lakes near Bamfield, B.C., about 120 km northwest of Victoria.

Leys said the chief advantage of collecting sponges from Vancouver Island is that their habitats typically don't ice over in winter — allowing access year-round — and that colder weather triggers a degree of shrinkage and dormancy that makes the specimens easier to handle in experiments.

The researchers tested the sponge's "epithelial" membrane to determine whether it can effectively block certain molecules from penetrating the organism's interior — the way a mammal's skin or an insect's outer layer does.

They found that the sponge's membrane provided a "good, tight seal" akin to how a chimpanzee's skin protects against unwanted microbes and chemical invaders.

"It shows that sponges share a physiology with other animals and are not just some odd offshoot," said Leys.

Sponges, fossils of which have been found from about 550 million years ago, are known to be among the earliest complex creatures to appear following the evolution of life from unicellular to multi-celled organisms.

Leys said different camps of scientists have "very polarized perspectives" on whether sponges should remain grouped in a separate branch of animal life from other ancient, blob-like creatures that gave rise — hundreds of millions of years later — to the mammalian class of species that encompasses humans.

The Canadian finding "has relevance to our understanding of the eumetazoa" clade of animals, the study states, because "if sponges have functional epithelia, and epithelia are usually considered to be tissues, then the presence of tissues can no longer be used as (an exclusively) eumetazoan character."

They argue that the specialization of cells resulting in skin "was therefore one of the first defining features of multicellular animals," including the ancestors of modern sponges and humans alike.

Monday, December 13, 2010

13 Dec 2010, Half of life could be hidden undersea

Half of life could be hidden undersea
Half of the Earth's living matter could be locked two to three kilometres below the ocean floor.

New Zealand co-ordinator for the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, Guiseppe Cortese says the findings are thanks to IODP geosciences research programme.

For two months a crew of international scientists onboard the IODP's research vessel the JOIDES Resolution have studied the subsurface life in a largely unexplored region of the ocean between South America and Australia called the South Pacific Gyre.

In oceanography a gyre is a circular system of ocean currents.

"People are putting lots of effort into understand these things because it is completely new," Cortese said.

"Basically we didn't even know that this life existed and suddenly people are estimating now that more or less half of the biomass on earth is actually locked in these places."

The bacteria lives under very special conditions, he said.

"Some of them live with a very very small amount of organic matter, like energy sources or food, which means their metabolism is completely different from other life forms.

Understanding their metabolism could lead to the development of new medicines and technology.

The JOIDES Resolution arrives in Auckland today to exchange scientific teams.

On Wednesday it sets sail again - this time on a two month expedition that will see another team scientists drilling up to 350m below the sea floor to collect samples of four extinct volcanoes that form part of the 4300 km underwater Louisville Seamount Trail volcanic chain.

By drilling into the seamounts off the northeast coast of New Zealand scientists hope to examine the trail's eruptive cycle, geochemical evolution and whether or not the Louisville hotspot has moved.

Cortese said while the scientists will be looking forward to setting off, the work is "very very very tiring".

"Essentially people work on 12 hour shifts - you go to sleep, maybe relax one hour or two hours, when you wake up you already have work lined up for you.

"The drilling operation goes 24/7 - so there is no respite in a way."

One of those shifts will include whale watch.

"These ships, in order to find what is below the sea floor, they have instrumentation that uses sonar," Cortese says.

"For some people, they think that this is a hazard to the health of whales and dolphins and so on.

"But there are rules. All of these ships, when they go on expedition, are required to have part of their crew looking out for whales.

"So if the sonar is on and suddenly somebody sees a whale all the operations stop because they don't want to endanger their health."

On Wednesday leaders from both expeditions will give a public talk at the Auckland Museum.

Visitors can also follow the progress of the Louisville expedition through an interactive exhibit in the Museum's ocean gallery.

12 Dec, Washington Post: Are ocean's monsters [waves] getting bigger?

Are ocean's monsters [waves] getting bigger?

It's one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the world, where 1 million cubic feet of water a second collides with 20- or 30-foot ocean swells over a four-mile stretch of shifting sand.

A small band of pilots often braves dangerous conditions to guide ships across the Columbia River bar spanning Washington and Oregon.

The pilots who work the "Graveyard of the Pacific" have a deep respect for the relentless forces they face daily as they ride out to tankers, bulk carriers, car carriers, and cargo and passenger ships standing offshore. They commute in 72-foot self-righting boats that can roll over 360 degrees as winter gales and sometimes hurricane-force storms blast out of the North Pacific.

The pilots also confirm what marine scientists have just started talking about: Ocean waves are becoming bigger and more powerful, and climate change could be the cause.

"We've been talking about it for a couple of years now," said Captain Dan Jordan, who served in the merchant marine for 30 years before becoming a Columbia Bar pilot. "Mother Nature has an easy way of telling us who is in charge."

Using buoy data and models based on wind patterns, scientists say the waves off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and along the Atlantic seaboard from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Cape Hatteras, N.C., are steadily increasing in size. And, at least in the Northwest, the larger waves are considered more of a threat to coastal communities and beaches than the rise in sea level accompanying global warming.

Similar increases in wave height have been noticed in the North Atlantic off England.

Unclear is whether the number and height of "rogue" waves beyond the continental shelf have increased. The existence of such freak waves, which can reach 100 feet or more in height and can swamp a large ship in seconds, wasn't proved until 2004, when European satellites equipped with radar detected 10 of them during a three-week period. According to some estimates, two merchant ships a month disappear without a trace, thought to be victims of rogue waves.

"Obviously, this is an issue we are interested in," said Trevor Maynard of the emerging risk team at Lloyd's of London, which tracks global climate change developments. "We are seeing climate change fingerprints on a lot of events."

Increasing averages

Since the mid-1970s, buoy data show the height of the biggest waves off the Northwest coast has increased an average of about four inches a year, or about 10 feet total, according to Peter Ruggiero, an assistant geosciences professor at Oregon State University and the lead author of a study published recently in the journal Coastal Engineering.

Ruggiero and his colleagues also estimated how high a 100-year wave might be. These would be the largest waves expected to come along every 100 years. The estimate has increased 40 percent since the 1970s, from 33 feet to 46 feet. Some calculations estimate that a 100-year wave might be 55 feet high, taller than a five-story building.

"We are assuming the trends will increase in the future," Ruggiero said.

The future may already be here, however.

Jordan, the Columbia River pilot, said a 44-foot wave was recorded off the river in October. In a major spring storm in 2007, a 54-foot wave was recorded.

"After that, the buoy quit recording," Jordan said.

On the East Coast, a yet-to-be-published study also has showed that average wave heights have been increasing, by a couple of centimeters or so a year.

"The averages aren't very exciting," said Peter Adams, an assistant professor in the University of Florida's Department of Geological Sciences, who used wind data from the past 20 to 30 years to develop a wave height model. "Given that there are 3 million waves a year, one wave every 10 seconds, it's not so alarming."

But Adams said he finds it startling that the height of the biggest waves has increased nearly a foot in 10 years.

"In a lifetime, that can be profound," he said.

'A lot of speculation'

A scientific debate is raging over what's causing the increase in wave size. Possible causes include changing storm tracks, higher winds and more intense winter storms - all signs of global climate change.

"While these increases are most likely due to Earth's changing climate, uncertainty exists as to whether they are the product of human-induced greenhouse warming or represent variations related to natural multi-decadal climate cycles," Ruggiero's study said.

Among the weather phenomena that could be affecting wave heights in the Pacific, Ruggiero said, are El Nino - warmer surface temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific - and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation - 20- to 30-year patterns of warmer or cooler surface temperatures in the Pacific.

"There is a lot of speculation, a lot of reading of tea leaves," he said.

Others are skeptical about any link to climate change.

Richard Seymour, the head of the Ocean Engineering Research Group at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, said any connection between increased wave height and climate change is tenuous. In fact, Seymour said, there isn't enough data on wave heights to provide the "statistical reliability" to predict any trends.

Seymour and others said too little is known about the oceans.

"It always struck me as odd we know more about the surface of Mars than the floor of the Pacific Ocean," he said.