WARNING: Handle With Care!
 Our oceans are home to the discarded munitions of wars past!

In 1987, hundreds of dead dolphins washed up onto the shores of Virginia and New Jersey. Following an investigation, one marine-mammal expert stated that the dolphins showed wounds that resembled chemical burns. It is now believed that these dolphins were exposed to chemical weapons that had been discarded in the ocean. Since World War I, the oceans have been the dumping ground of enormous quantities of captured, damaged, and obsolete chemical, biological, conventional and radiological munitions.

idum.3In many cases, these munitions are resting quietly at the bottom of our oceans. However, in other places, these discarded munitions are causing a myriad of problems. There are risks to both humans and marine ecosystems. Let’s first take a look at the some of the potential risks to humans – explosive or chemically dangerous munitions washing up on beaches, munitions being disturbed/activated by fishing vessels, and the leakage of deadly chemicals into the water contaminating the water and the fish that digest these toxins. As the casings on some of these munitions erode and others detonate, poisonous materials are entering the food chain via plankton.

So, what is being done? In 2004, a Canadian by the name of Terrence Long founded a non-profit organization called the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions (IDUM). Today, the IDUM is an internationally recognized body where all stakeholders (diplomats, government departments including external affairs, environmental protection and fishery departments, industry, fishermen, salvage divers, oil and gas, militaries and others) can come together in an open and transparent forum to discuss underwater munitions, seek solutions, and promote international teamwork on their issues related to underwater munitions.

Recovered Mustard Gas Canisters

Recovered Mustard Gas Canisters

In most cases, once an underwater munition has been removed, the problem is removed. That being said, the removal of these munitions can be incredibly dangerous and must be conducted by specialized teams trained in the handling of explosives and hazardous materials. In 2013, tourists visiting the Assateague Island National Seashore, a U.S. National Park on the Maryland coast discovered an unexploded ordnance on the beach. Fortunately they reported the find and the beach was closed while an Army bomb squad exploded the World War II-era munitions.

Between 1941 and 2003, the U.S. Navy occupied about 2/3rds of an Island in Puerto Rico called Vieques. The land was used both as a naval ammunition depot and for live training exercises. Operations included not only the storage and processing of supplies, but also the disposal of wastes and munitions of all types. As of 2004, the EPA had listed the presence of contaminants, such as mercury, lead, copper, magnesium, lithium, napalm, and depleted uranium, as well as unexploded ordnance and remnants of exploded ordnance.

As of 2014, the Navy has spent about $220 million since 2003, to investigate and clean contaminated lands on Vieques. For the remainder of Fiscal Year 2015 Congress appropriated $17 million for the cleanup of Vieques. While it is fantastic that there is forward momentum on the clean-up up this particular area, the effects are showing themselves in many very visible ways. The cancer rate in Vieques is 27% higher than mainland Puerto Rico and the infant mortality rate is much higher than other areas in Puerto Rico. These staggering numbers have turned Vieques into the poster child example of this issue. Unfortunately, the subject of underwater munitions isn’t sexy and doesn’t get the attention that is needs and deserves.

Noseart Bombs AwayThings YOU can do to make a difference! Educate yourself on this issue, research where you live and locations you make be visiting, talk to others about this issue so more people know, write to your government representatives to let them know you care about this issue, and if possible, make a donation to organizations like the IDUM so they can advocate for all of us. Underwater munitions might be “out of sight” but they have the capacity to make a huge impact on your health and the health of our future generations.

Combatting An Invasive Species: The Lionfish

Fire ants, zebra mussels, Asian carp, Burmese pythons… what do all of these species have in common? They’re abundant in certain parts of the U.S. and are outcompeting many other species in their respective habitats. What you may not know about these species is that none of them are native to the areas in the U.S. that they are taking over. Fire ants are from South America; zebra mussels and Asian carp are from Eurasia; Burmese pythons are from Southeastern Asia. All of these species have been introduced into the U.S. for various reasons and have since flourished in these environments. These are textbook examples of invasive species. Once established, they begin to outcompete and drastically endanger native species.


Photo by Richard Carey

In the marine environment, there is one particular invasive species that is wreaking havoc on coral reef environments in the Western Atlantic: lionfish. These venomous fish were introduced into Florida waters from their native Indo-Pacific waters in the 1980s when aquarium owners decided they didn’t want them anymore. The pet trade has been the cause of the establishment of many invasive species, but lionfish are one of the worst culprits. Lionfish reproduce very quickly; a female can release two masses of up to 15,000 eggs as often as every four days. These fish also have high site fidelity, meaning once they find a habitat that is good for them, they will remain there. In some areas, the density has reached 200 adults per acre. There invasion has grown rapidly into other Southeastern U.S. states’ coasts, as well as into the Caribbean Sea. Projections indicate that lionfish will continue migrating further north and south; juveniles have recently been spotted of the coasts of some northeastern U.S. states and in both Columbia and Venezuela in South America.

Lionfish are voracious predators that will eat practically anything that fits into their mouths; one study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found over 40 different species of fish in their stomachs, including ecologically and economically important ones, such as grouper and yellowtail snapper. Lionfish are known to corral prey with their large, fan-like pectoral fins and then blowing water at the prey until they turn around and then promptly devoured. Lionfish eat many juvenile fish, which significantly reduces the number of native fish species, particularly ones that help feed grouper and snapper populations, as well as species that keep sea grasses and algae from overwhelming coral reefs.

The invasion of lionfish has led to some creative mitigation methods, including NOAA’s “Eat Lionfish” campaign. NOAA and others are working to encourage an appetite for lionfish in the seafood market, including hosting lionfish food fairs and seafood receptions. Don’t worry, chefs remove the venomous spines before the fish are sold to markets and restaurants. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF.org) has even released a cookbook that includes information on how to safely catch, handle and prepare lionfish recipes. The 2011 Smart Seafood Guide also encouraged the public to begin dining on this invasive species, deeming it the “safer, more sustainable” seafood product, as many popular food species are overfished and their numbers are declining.

lionfish_cookbook_coverWhile this one mitigation method will be helpful, other efforts are needed to reduce the lionfish populations. Total eradication is very unlikely, if not impossible, because lionfish have already shown that they can easily adapt to different environmental conditions, including colder temperatures and deeper depths. In February 2015, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries released a 3-year comprehensive plan on how to respond, control, and adapt to an active marine invasion, specifically the lionfish. You can find this document here.

REEF.org has also created an annual event to help with mitigation efforts: lionfish derbies. These derbies, held in numerous locations, are single day competitions to collect and remove as many lionfish as possible. Teams collect lionfish by netting or spearing while SCUBA diving, free diving, or snorkeling. Lionfish derbies typically begin at sunrise and contestants must have their catches in to the scoring table by 5:00pm. Prizes are awarded to the contestants who bring in the most fish, the biggest, and the smallest individual fish. REEF.org has done a great job at using these contests to educate as well. The night before each event, all contestants must attend a “Captain’s Meeting,” where they learn about lionfish biology, ecology, impacts, harvesting methods, and derby rules. During the event, spectators are welcomed to observe scoring, and can also observe lionfish dissections and filleting demonstrations. Spectators can obtain free samples of prepared lionfish and are encouraged to ask questions they may have about the invasive fish. REEF.org began hosting lionfish derbies in 2009, and since then have brought in almost 15,000 fish.

Lionfish-Scuba-Diving-ExperienceIt is clear that mitigation efforts can make a significant impact at the local level; however, it is still unknown how significant those impacts are at the macro level. Raising awareness is one of the major goals of the aforementioned mitigation techniques and is important for the eventual control of this invasive fish. Healthy coral reefs and lionfish are struggling to coexist in the Western Atlantic, and we need our reefs to be healthy, as many people depend on these fragile ecosystems for their livelihoods. So order lionfish at your next dinner out, and whenever you see one while diving or snorkeling, spear it, but please be careful!

Article by Hillary Ballantine:

Hillary Ballantine is from a small town in central Ohio, a long way from the ocean. She became mesmerized by marine life at a very young age, and always knew she wanted to help save the whales. She graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a B.S. in Marine Science and a B.S. in Biology, and is currently attending graduate school at Antioch University New England, earning a M.S. in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Conservation Biology. She has worked with educating the public on marine life at Myrtle Beach State Park, and hopes to further her experience in both the education and scientific aspects of conservation.

Citizen Science: A Partnership Between Everyday People & Professional Scientists

Measuring TurtleLast summer, my family and I were strolling along a beach in South Carolina and noticed beautiful shells that were washing up onto the beach with each wave. The creatures would quickly burrow themselves, and their protective shells, into the wet sand. I took a few photos and posted them on Facebook. I commented, “Wow, these shells are beautiful, anybody know what they are?” Honestly, I didn’t expect much of a response. Instead, I received a number of comments about what species of marine gastropod it was and one oceanographer friend exclaimed, “I am so envious, where are you? I have always wanted to see one of those!”

The now famous Olive snail

The now famous Olive snail

I am not scientist, but I learned that my observations, questions and photos were of value to the scientists who make a living studying, tracking, and monitoring our amazing ocean life. Without knowing it, I was acting as a “citizen scientist”. Citizen science can mean anything from people simply observing natural events and characteristics to a full-fledged revolution in ‘science’ that establishes the important social role of learning about the world we live in. Citizen science can enable professionally-trained scientists to leverage the efforts of groups of people distributed widely, or a way to leverage the brains, experience, and insights of the world’s people to advance understanding.

In order for citizen science data to be used and usable, it is important that the information collected is credible and needed by scientists. Fortunately, the value of citizen science is being recognized by individuals and organizations that are in a position to get the word out. Programs are being developed by government agencies and nonprofits, like ours, to train people interested in getting involved and to develop Web-based applications where citizen scientists can share their findings.


Copyright REEF.org

Mote Marine Laboratory, in conjunction with the US government and numerous universities, has developed a program called the Marine Ecosystem Event Response and Assessment Program (MEERA). MEERA is a community-based reporting network, which enables ANYONE on the water to report on unusual biological events in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and surrounding waters. Another online tool, supported by the National Geographic Society and called Project Noah, enables nature lovers and citizen scientists to explore and document their natural world. These tools are a powerful source of information that can be used for science research and educational programs that promote wildlife awareness and preserve biodiversity.

In tandem with our geotourism based programs, the Marine & Oceanic Sustainability Foundation (MOSF) is developing training and participatory programs that enable ocean lovers to get involved in hands-on citizen science activities. All of our programs are marine conservation focused and include activities ranging from the identification and protection of sea turtle nesting locations to scuba diving trips on which divers help reduce the population of invasive species, like the lionfish, on coral reefs. MOSF’s first geotourism and citizen science programs are already being developed and will be launched in the Caribbean region.

Turtle Research

Turtle Research

Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology has an established citizen-science program that has more than 200,000 individual people contributing data each year; data collection on this vast of a scale was only recently unimaginable. Cornell’s scientists are using these data to determine how birds are affected by habitat loss, pollution, and disease. They trace bird migration and document long-term changes in bird numbers across the North American continent. The results have been used to create management guidelines for birds, investigate the effects of acid rain and climate change, and advocate for the protection of declining species.

Citizen science is very important! It helps scientists attain information and answer questions about topics that they may not have the resources to collect on their own. Citizen science encompasses a broad range of topics, geographic settings, and strategies. Some projects are confined to a single species and locations, like loggerhead sea turtles on an specific island in the Bahamas, while others are global in scope. On any scale, citizen science creates opportunities for people of all ages to connect with the natural world, gain scientific skills, and learn key science concepts.SharkTagging

Your Perfect Vacation Adventure is Waiting! Vacations for explorers-at-heart

Have you ever wanted to have your own genuine adventure? Do you dream of exploring far off places and immersing yourself in another culture? Stop dreaming, these types of adventures are now possible for young and old travelers alike! There are a variety of vacation options out there that aren’t your standard trip to the beach or amusement park. Your ideal adventure is out there and achievable via geotourism.

snorkel-turtlev2What is geotourism exactly? Geotourism is sustainable tourism that promotes the local atmosphere, culture, history, environment, residents, and economy of a geographical region. You can immerse yourself in all the local delights, participate in conservation efforts, local festivities, and really learn about an area from the people who call it home. Many popular destinations have unfortunately become “tourist traps,” designed to suck in tourists with disposable income and simply take their money in exchange for plastic trinkets. You may return home with souvenirs showing where you’ve been, but probably missed the true memory making experiences a destination has offer. With geotourism, you are invited to go behind the scenes, see the things only locals know about, and discover the little-known gems of a geographic region.

Regular monthly reef monitoring in Apo Reef Natural ParkMost of us have heard of ecotourism, which is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas while preserving the environment and improving the well-being of local people.” Geotourism is the evolution of ecotourism, it takes the concept to the next level by embracing environmentally sustainable travel and extending it to the culture and history of a destination. Geotourism operations actively engage and support local businesses, natural resources, products and services. In many cases, geotourism involves conservation activities, education, and volunteerism – you could help protect hatching sea turtles, plant trees that help prevent erosion, or participate in a coral reef restoration program. Prefer the arts and cultural attractions? No problem! Geotourism activities often include local art programs and community festivities that engage your creative side. There really is something for everyone in geotourism and the wide variety of activities and the possibilities for adventure are endless!

sustainable fishing sunset

Let’s get to the aspect of geotourism that is near and dear to our hearts: marine conservation. Geotourism promotes the conservation of local natural resources and biodiversity. The Marine & Oceanic Sustainability Foundation (MOSF) is diving into the geotourism market with both feet – we are working with local hotels & resorts, coastal communities, and conservation groups around the globe to bring you a variety of options. Some of the many activities we will offer range from hands-on sea turtle nest protection and kayak-guided mangrove educational tours to coral reef restoration and marine conservation classes with local students. Program availability will vary depending on the location, community needs, and ecosystem. Stay tuned to our website and social media sites for announcements of new projects throughout 2015 and beyond.

Article by Hillary Ballantine:

Hillary Ballantine is from a small town in central Ohio, a long way from the ocean. She became mesmerized by marine life at a very young age, and always knew she wanted to help save the whales. She graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a B.S. in Marine Science and a B.S. in Biology, and is currently attending graduate school at Antioch University New England, earning a M.S. in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Conservation Biology. She has worked with educating the public on marine life at Myrtle Beach State Park, and hopes to further her experience in both the education and scientific aspects of conservation.

Caring for Color: Conserving the World’s Corals

Picture this… an underwater oasis teeming with colorful corals and fish. Sea turtles are masterfully maneuvering through the corals in search of tasty sponges, crabs, and jellyfish. You can spot several sharks swimming peacefully around the reef, paying no mind to you. A shadow falls over you, and you glance up nervously, only to sigh in relief to see a harmless manta ray gracefully glide above you. After the ray passes, you notice that the reef has suddenly and drastically changed. The coral has become white, as if all of the color had been sucked out of it. Silvery specters of the colorful reef fish are now the only inhabitants of this ghost town. There are no more turtles, sharks, or rays in this reef. The reef has become bleached; it’s dead. Although this doesn’t actually happen in the blink of an eye, with rising ocean temperatures and falling pH, it is happening more and more frequently around the world. It’s not a great time for coral reefs, but there are many different ways that we are racing to conserve these “rainforests of the sea,” and many of them are working.

spiegelgroveWhat do shipwrecks and statues have in common? They have both been made into artificial reefs. Contrary to the name, these reefs do not contain fake coral, but real, living, natural coral. The term “artificial reef” comes from the fact that the base the corals attach to is not naturally occurring. Many retired ships have intentionally been sunk in areas where they would serve as the base of a new reef. In fact, this is probably the most common form of artificial reef, whether the shipwrecks were intended for such use or not. There are some more unconventional bases for artificial reefs, as well. We’ve all seen the hauntingly beautiful pictures of statues sunk in shallow locations to create a garden of substrate for corals and sponges to grow on. More recent pictures show that this project has been very successful and the statues are now covered in colorful creatures, attracting fish and tourists.

artificialreefartArtificial reefs often attract visitors interested in snorkeling, recreational diving, and both sport and commercial fishing activities. These reef structures not only draw tourism to an area, but they can alleviate the pressure on existing natural reefs. When planned well, tourism can also bring much-needed infrastructure and economic revenue to coastal communities. It is very important to educate both locals and tourists on how their activities can affect coral reefs and the ocean ecosystems that they support.

For example, many tourists are eager to take a piece of the reef home with them, and will often either break off a piece of coral themselves or buy pieces broken off by locals to sell. Recreational divers and snorkelers can also unintentionally break off coral by swimming around and brushing against the reefs. Both of these activities are very hard on the life in and around the reefs. Luckily for the coral reefs, through proper education, management and reef building techniques, there are many ways in which we can help them thrive.

lionOne of these techniques has been used in the aquarium trade for decades; coral propagation, also known as “fragging,” is the process of breeding coral. Almost any coral can be fragged and conservationists around the world have begun raising coral in nurseries or coral farms. Currently the focus is on growing endangered coral species to be replanted on reefs that have been damaged due to storms, human and boat traffic, or deteriorating ocean conditions. The coral can be grown in a protected environment when they are young and most vulnerable and then planted on established reefs. Coral gardening is a great example of aquaculture, which is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, mollusks and aquatic plants.

CRFAlthough there are a number of factors putting our reefs in danger, we are applying various practices to help combat this. The use of many artificial reefs and coral gardening is helping to increase not only the number of reefs in the world, but also their health. Remember, a healthy reef brings no grief!

Article by Hillary Ballantine:

Hillary Ballantine is from a small town in central Ohio, a long way from the ocean. She became mesmerized by marine life at a very young age, and always knew she wanted to help save the whales. She graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a B.S. in Marine Science and a B.S. in Biology, and is currently attending graduate school at Antioch University New England, earning a M.S. in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Conservation Biology. She has worked with educating the public on marine life at Myrtle Beach State Park, and hopes to further her experience in both the education and scientific aspects of conservation.

The Right Place at the Right Time: Recovery of North Atlantic Right Whales

North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) were voraciously hunted for centuries. These whales were the perfect target for shore whalers: they stayed close to shore, swam slowly, and floated upon death. These attributes caused the species to nearly go extinct, until they became the first cetacean species to receive protection after the First Convention for the International Regulation of Whaling in 1931. These whales have been protected from whaling since the implementation of the Convention’s ruling in 1935, but the population has been unable to fully recover. This is largely due to the growth of the shipping industry. In the past 50 years, the number of commercial shipping vessels has tripled, and the size of these vessels has increased by a factor greater than six. This growth has led to numerous collisions between whales and ships, making it the leading cause of mortality for E. glacialis. However, things are starting to look up for right whales.

Habitat Area

Habitat Area

In 2003, Canada decided to move the shipping lanes transecting the Bay of Fundy four nautical miles to the east, taking the ships out of critical feeding grounds for right whales, and reducing the potential for collision by 80%. This unprecedented ruling was brought about by a very unlikely partnership: an aquarium and an oil company. Irving Oil has the largest shipping fleet within the Bay of Fundy, but worked with many different groups within both Canada and the U.S. in the hopes of increasing conservation measures for E. glacialis. With their complete support of these measures, the shipping lanes have been successfully moved, with negligible impacts on the shipping companies.

The U.S. followed Canada’s example in 2007, shifting international shipping lanes out of areas within the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary where right whales congregate. The U.S. furthered their protection of E. glacialis by implementing a 10 knot speed restriction for vessels over 20 m in length in 2008, making it permanent law in 2013. This speed restriction has reduced the risk of collisions between right whales and ships by 80-90%.northern right whale size

Because of these implementations, right whale numbers have increased from 350 individuals in 2003 to 450 in 2012, with an average annual rate of increase of 2%. The number of calves per year has also increased from 11 (in 2001) to approximately 22 every year. In fact, Dr. Moira Brown of the New England Aquarium has said that as of 2012, no known collisions with right whales have occurred in the Bay of Fundy. Moving the shipping lanes and providing speed restrictions are not the only measures that have been taken for the conservation of E. glacialis, however.

In order to further reduce the number of ship strikes occurring within the U.S., the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association have collaborated to create Right Whale Listening Network. These organizations have placed acoustic buoys within shipping lanes to detect the vocalizations of right whales. When a call is heard, it is analyzed by a research lab to confirm the presence of a right whale. If it is a right whale, an alert is sent to ships located near the source of the sound so they can take necessary precautions to avoid a collision.northatlanticwhale

The increase of E. glacialis shows the world that it is both possible and plausible to conserve this species with minimal impact on our own lives. If these measures are used as a precedent for other countries to conserve their whales, it is probable that we might just be able to save numerous species. If these implementations can work for the U.S., they can work for just about everywhere else.

Article by Hillary Ballantine:

Hillary Ballantine is from a small town in central Ohio, a long way from the ocean. She became mesmerized by marine life at a very young age, and always knew she wanted to help save the whales. She graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a B.S. in Marine Science and a B.S. in Biology, and is currently attending graduate school at Antioch University New England, earning a M.S. in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Conservation Biology. She has worked with educating the public on marine life at Myrtle Beach State Park, and hopes to further her experience in both the education and scientific aspects of conservation.

“Two Billion People are Coming to Dinner and We Are Not Ready to Serve Them.”

“It’s ok to use the oceans, it’s not ok to use them up.

“This was the succinct, and eminently tweetable, summary of the Economist Magazine’s World Ocean Summit offered by Jane Lubchenco, currently a professor at Oregon State University and former Administrator of NOAA.

The World Ocean Summit brought together about 300 people divided between NGOs, government officials, journalists, business people and financing organizations. The depth and breadth of knowledge about oceans and fisheries was evident everywhere and made the meeting fascinating. One day of the meeting was devoted to a variety of in-depth sessions on many subjects.  I had the opportunity to speak in the Aquaculture session.  Below is a summary of my remarks at that meeting.

To begin, I was struck by the first sentence in the program outlining the session.  It introduced aquaculture by saying: “As a counterpoint to the better stewardship and sustainable harvest of wild-catch fisheries, one controversial view suggests aquaculture as a solution to feeding the world.”

oyster farming 2I would suggest to you that aquaculture is decidedly not a counterpoint to improvements elsewhere; it is an adjunct.  The proper conjunction applied to seafood from wild catch and aquaculture is AND not OR. Better stewardship of wild fisheries is imperative as are the development and implementation of sustainable practices in aquaculture.

In addition, I must say that I was puzzled by the statement that aquaculture as part of the solution to feeding the world should be at all controversial. Both the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Wildlife Fund say that 87% of the world’s wild fisheries are harvested at or above their sustainable limits. From a very practical point of view, what this certainly means is that we cannot harvest more seafood from the oceans; what it likely means is that we should be harvesting less.

In the face of our population increasing from 7-9 billion in the next 25-40 years I contend that the only way for us to continue to eat fish is to farm them.

As corollary to this we must impose some very important expectations on aquaculture and its growth.  While there are many, I would suggest these as two major expectations of aquaculture:

  • It must result in the net production of fish.
  • It must be sustainable.

fishfarm3Some definitions are warranted here. Net production of fish means that aquacultural operations must result in the increase of fish or seafood biomass on the planet. This calls to question capturing and feeding wild fish to farmed fish and I will discuss this in greater depth below.

I would like to offer an operational definition of sustainable from two perspectives. From the point of view of the environment, sustainability means practicing now in ways that do not diminish our ability to practice in the future.  The question I pose to myself is “What do we need to do so that we may continue to farm our fish in seven generations?” If we have this as our foundational focus then we are very likely to be asking and answering the most important questions.

The second important aspect is the sustainability of farming operations.  Farmers must profit adequately from their work so there is sufficient incentive to remain in aquaculture.

These two goals-net production of fish raised sustainably-seem axiomatic. This is a good thing because it means our challenge then becomes how to go about achieving them and it is here that our work begins.

What then are some of the most important challenges?

There are many, however, I wish to hold up four to you as particularly important. Solution of these four do not resolve all issues but they make a very significant contribution in our journey to the farming practices that allow us to produce fish seven generations hence.


Wild fish such as anchoveta, sardines and mackerel are caught, rendered to fish oil and fish meal and subsequently included in the diets of farmed fish. Dependency of aquaculture on these wild fisheries must be broken.  Historical practice in salmon aquaculture is that 3-4 kg of wild caught fish are required to make the feed to raise 1 kg of salmon. This is untenable. Our proper goal is not to use the wild caught fish efficiently but, rather, to develop the aquacultural practices that result in us not using them at all.  As the FAO and other organizations have said-We cannot continue to capture wild fish to feed farmed fish. I will end below with two very hopeful stories about how this challenge is being addressed.

Both biodiversity and the environment must be maintained/retained at and near farm sites. Much is subsumed in these needs.  Farms must be sited away from fragile ecosystems; the vagaries of interaction between farms and the local environment must be discerned; and farms must not be placed in areas of high carbon sequestration. All agriculture, whether land or water-based, has effects on the environment.  In the case of aquaculture, effluents in their many guises must be controlled so that they do not adversely affect the environment-this means the water column, the benthos and adjacent areas.

The aquacultural practices of the future must reduce risk and raise productivity. Disease can result in cataclysmic losses.  We witnessed this with Infectious Salmon Anemia virus outbreaks at salmon farms in the Faroe Islands in 2000 and in Chile in 2008.  Currently there is a bacterial disease caused by Vibrio parahaemolyticus afflicting shrimp in Asia. This devastating disease may affect the ability of farmers to stay in business at all much less produce now in the face of the challenge.

Managing disease has, as one component, the cultural practices in place at farms. A public heath analogy is the overall healthfulness of lives led in Victorian London and current day New York City.  Populations treated differently will respond differently and research is needed to help us understand what those best practices are.

With that said, there is one area where we know what we need. There is a crying need for rapid development of vaccines.  With respect to disease, the best answer is to prevent it and not to treat it. Vaccines are crucially needed. Governments should help vaccine providers by establishing judicious and efficient trial programs that facilitate practical, rapid introduction of preventative measures.

Lastly, improved governance will enhance both environmental health and economic growth. Local, national and international attention to regulation that effectively fosters the twin goals of net production sustainably obtained is greatly needed. For this to happen, governments need to be more invested in aquaculture as a central player in agricultural production.

How best do we approach our goals and challenges?

In their pursuit expertise and contribution comes from many venues. NGOs and academic institutions help to identify and prioritize important environmental issues.  Farmers, in consultation with those experts, then need to make the actual changes that happen on the water.  Greatest benefits will be seen when this is a collaborative relationship with both partners assuming good will on the part of the other. From a parochial viewpoint, Verlasso has had continual conversations with environmental NGOs since our inception.  By having conversations early we were able to incorporate their input as we developed.  I believe we are better producers for having had those discussions. Also from my parochial point of view, I have found a huge reservoir of good will.  People in the NGOs have been generous with their time and advice on questions we have posed to them.

Kampachi Farms

I mentioned earlier that I would tell you two stories about aquaculture that show a hopeful future. The first is a group called Kampachi Farms.  Neil Sims, its owner and founder, raises yellowtail tuna.

Tuna are carnivorous fish and their culture could make a significant call on fish meal and fish oil. With years of research Neil has now designed a tuna diet that contains no fish meal whatsoever. He is about to expand his operations and his new diet, over the next few years, will become a notable contribution to reducing pressure on wild caught and rendered fish. I would also say that the fish is simply delicious. His diet has not in any way compromised the quality of his tuna as delightful food.


Verlasso Farms

At Verlasso, we are salmon farmers.  Salmon, as I noted earlier, require a significant amount of fish oil to provide the omega-3s they require from their diets. At Verlasso we feed our fish a diet containing a yeast that makes the essential omega-3 and, in doing this, we lower the amount of fish oil we use in our diets by about 75%. This means that instead of 3-4 kg of fish in for 1 kg of fish out, we are 1 in and 1 out. We wish to take this further.  However, in the last year, by feeding our diets we have saved over 6 million pounds (about 3 million kg) of feeder fish compared to what would have been consumed by a traditional salmon diet.

Let me conclude by saying again that aquaculture will succeed for us, writ large, when it results in the net production of fish produced sustainably by farmers who make a return that incentivizes them to remain farmers.

There is a real urgency for us to move to this status.  2 billion people are coming to dinner pretty soon and we are not ready to serve them.



Scott E. Nichols

Scott is responsible for Verlasso’s NGO engagement and the ways we evolve aquaculture to meet the ever-growing demand for fish while preserving the ecosystems where fish are raised.  Previously, Scott worked extensively on biodiversity projects in Africa and South America, giving him a deep appreciation for developing comprehensive approaches to sustainable food production.  Scott’s education includes a Ph.D. in biochemistry from UCLA and Wharton’s Advanced Management Program.  “I have a complete and total belief that we must act with urgency to find the most sustainable ways to produce good and healthy food. Big and little steps are both important.” 





Proposed Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve

Have you ever heard of the Pitcairn Islands? As an ocean lover, I was surprised that I had never heard of this amazing chain of islands in the southern Pacific Ocean; their closest neighbor, New Zealand, is a distant 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) away.pitcairn-island-location-on-map240x180 A British Overseas Territory, humans only inhabit one of the four islands and the waters surrounding them are teaming with fish, marine mammals, turtles, and pristine coral reefs. Boasting some of the clearest seawater in the world, the remote location of this area has helped keep it protected and allowed sea life to thrive.

Since early 2011 the Pew Environment Group’s Global Ocean Legacy project has been working with the Pitcairn islanders on the idea of establishing a large-scale marine reserve within their waters. In March of 2012, the National Geographic Society and Global Ocean Legacy teamed up to perform a scientific expedition to Pitcairn and surveyed the underwater landscape. Following this expedition, the islanders of Pitcairn joined with the Pew Environmental Trust and the National Geographic society to call upon the British government for the establishment of a large highly protected marine reserve within the exclusive economic zone (the area of ocean from the shoreline out to 200 nautical miles) of the Pitcairn Islands.

sharksandcoralHome to the two southern most coral atolls, the deepest, well-developed coral reef in the world, and two known active hot spots of biological richness, Pitcairn is of great interest to marine and conservation scientists. Despite the fact that researchers have only just begun to explore this area, they have already identified 1,249 marine species. This population includes 22 species of whales and dolphins, 2 sea turtles, 365 species of fish, and 48 marine species already classified as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, or near threatened.

If approved, the Pitcairn marine reserve would be the largest highly protected marine reserve in the world encompassing over 834,000 square kilometers. As a large no-take reserve, the local population would be able to continue the low impact traditional sustenance fishing that they do today, but large commercial fishing would be restricted. The local economy would likely benefit from the increased interest in scientific research, conservation, and tourism. Last month, the Deputy Mayor of Pitcairn visited London in order to champion their cause, they returned home with high hopes that the British government will endorse the proposed marine reserve area.


Copyright © The PEW Charitable Trust

A beautiful video on the Pitcairn marine reserve.

Ocean Revival

I’m beginning to believe there may be seawater in my veins. My earliest childhood memories have me gazing out over the vast Pacific Ocean, tide pools were my playground, and my bus stop for school stood on the side of scenic Highway 1 on the California coast between Carmel and Big Sur. As an adult, I confess that spend a disproportionate amount of time researching and dreaming of amazing travel destinations, almost all of which seem to be located on the water. A recent search led me to a new underwater park in Southern Portugal… yes, you read that correctly, an underwater park.

ocean-revival-is-a-nonprofit-organizationCreated by the MUSUBMAR Association, a non-profit association created to promote and develop the underwater tourism industry in Portugal, the Ocean Revival project is the worlds largest artificial reef structure. In accordance with OSPAR Convention rules, four decommissioned vessels from the Portuguese Navy were cleaned of all environmentally hazardous materials or dangers for divers. The ships were then deliberately sunk, one-by-one, to create an artificial reef in an area with ideal conditions for the proliferation of marine life.

oceanrevival-padiCurious about artificial reefs and their affect on the environment, I decided to dig a little deeper. In an article by the National Geographic Society, University of Tel Aviv marine biology professor Yehuda Benayahu, who studies artificial reefs in the Red Sea, stated, “When a ship sinks, it immediately becomes shelter for marine organisms. Such habitats provide new food sources, greater protection for juveniles, and more space for settlement.” The artificial reefs that are a part of Dr. Benayahu’s research studies include sunken ships ranging from 16 to 130 years in age. Many of the artificial reefs are located near natural reefs, enabling the scientists to compare the two environments at various stages of reef development.

With the steadily increasing popularity of scuba diving and the increasing accessibility of recreational diving, many scientists have expressed concerns about the strain it may cause coral reefs and their inhabitants. U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Mark Eakin points out, “The presence of artificial reefs as an alternative dive site can reduce the stress placed on the natural reefs… in many cases, artificial reefs will decrease the total dives on natural reefs.”

Well-planned artificial reefs, like the Ocean Revival site, can actually be beneficial to the environment.

sealifeonshipThe Ocean Revival project was founded on “the belief that sustainable tourism is a viable way to protect bio-diversity and the preserve the environment.” The dive site, which opened in late 2012, is located in an area of southern Portugal called the Algarve. This area is unique in that it is situated where the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean mingle. Good weather and clear, calm water prevail for most of the year and as a well-established vacation area there are a number of tourist attractions for those who don’t scuba dive. Dive operators in the area offer a broad range of services from introductory dive certification classes for new divers to less structured tours for advanced divers.

Learn more about OceanRevival and their amazing work.

Diving the Almeida Carvalho Hydrographic Vessel

17 Points of View of the Hermenegildo Capelo Frigate Scuttling

Sustainable Aquaculture

fish-farmingAs wild fish stocks decline in several parts of the world, marine aquaculture, the farming of aquatic species, is filling the gap. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), more than 1 billion people depend on fish as their main source of protein. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), says as of September 2013 aquaculture provides nearly 50% of the world’s supply of seafood. In fact, over the last decade, aquaculture has quickly moved up the ranks to become the fastest growing sector of food production worldwide.

Like any human or animal activity, aquaculture can and does have an impact on the environment. However, when practiced responsibly, the impact of aquaculture on our marine populations, marine habitats, and our water quality can be minimized. As a rapidly a developing industry, aquaculture has experienced growing pains and faced stumbling blocks. For aquaculture, those problems seem to primarily focus on environment issues including water pollution, degradation of ecosystems, and the depletion of wild fish stocks for feed pellets. At the community level, conflicts have arisen related to water allocation, land use and commercial fishing.


Merimbula boardwalk oyster farm post 5In some cases, aquaculture can both bolster our seafood supply and benefit the ecosystem. An example of this is oyster aquaculture;oysters naturally clean the water, remove nitrogen, accelerate denitrification, enhance water clarity, promote eelgrass survival, and provide excellent habitat for myriad juvenile fish and crustaceans. Additionally, aquaculture creates employment and business opportunities in coastal communities, provides safe and sustainable seafood, and supports marine fish populations and habitats.

Governments, non-governmental organizations (also known as NGOs or non-profits), and the people in the marine aquaculture industry are working together to come up with reasonable and attainable regulations. The goal is to find a balance so that we can meet the global demand for seafood and do so in a manner that has a benign or positive affect on local communities and the environment. In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is working with their partners to develop innovative techniques and management practices that ensure we are protecting our marine ecosystems as aquaculture production expands around the world.


oyster farming 2Because different regions have different market needs, a one-size-fits-all approach would be impractical. Internationally, producers and other interested parties must work together to come up with models to address local and regional issues. Aquaculture farmers understand that sustainable practices are critical to environmental and human health, and their long-term economic success.  Aquaculture and wild fish stocks can and should complement each other to provide both a healthy diet and sufficient food supplies for the world population. In the long term, a healthy aquaculture industry will assure healthy fish populations worldwide.

Fish Farming in California