New book: Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

From a book review “Listening to jellyfish”, in the latest edition of The Atlantic, debunking the alarmist eco-narrative that “jellyfish are taking over the dying oceans”…

Do jellyfish deserve their reputation as an oceanic menace? Should we view blooms with anticipatory dread? In her memoir, Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone, Juli Berwald embarks on a mission that leads her to challenge the way blooms are popularly characterized.

We see many more jellyfish, Berwald points out, not simply because their numbers are greater but because our population is. The proliferation of coastal and subsurface infrastructure for resource extraction, maritime trade, and power generation has provided ample hardscape for jellyfish-polyp nurseries to graft onto. Human industry is in more frequent and sustained contact with many types of sea life.

There is no global jellyfish ecophagy [‘eating of entire ecosystems’ by vast jellyfish blooms]. The real bloom, Berwald argues, is in jellyfish science, where the interplay of jellyfish and their ecosystems is only now beginning to be pieced together.

Are their numbers increasing, or are contemporary scientists now capable of observing profusions that once went under the radar? Jellyfish blooms may occur at intervals that pre-date their surveillance — spreading, say, in 20-year cycles. What looks to us like an aberrance could, viewed in a longer time frame, prove natural.

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It’s all a bit fishy…

The excellent Retraction Watch, on a retracted alarmist paper on ocean microplastics…

Peter Eklöv of Uppsala University, a co-author of a now-retracted Science paper about the potential dangers of microplastics to fish. … got significant media coverage when it first appeared in June 2016, as it suggested fish larvae prefer to eat microplastic over their own natural prey. But soon after it was published, a group of researchers raised several allegations, including that the paper contained missing data and used a problematic methodology.

Uppsala [University] conducted a preliminary investigation and concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to launch a misconduct investigation, but Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board — which appointed an outside expert to review the case — found Eklöv and Lönnstedt guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” and said the paper should be “recalled.” The board also chastised Uppsala and Science, noting it was “remarkable” the university didn’t find evidence of dishonesty, and that the journal ever agreed to publish the paper.

Sadly some specialists in the field appear to be unaware of this retraction. For instance, a new paper on PLoS One this week “Do microplastic particles affect Daphnia magna at the morphological, life history and molecular level?” cites the retracted paper at the end of their text.


Update: the internal ruling on the matter, at Uppsala. Guilty. And the guilty scientist’s punishment is…? “Eklov will receive 800,000 ($94,784 USD) each year in 2018-2020 and 900,000 ($106,632 USD) in 2021, totalling 3,300,000 ($355,440 USD). The granting agency is the Swedish Research Council, controlled by Sweden’s Ministry of Education and Research.”

Fact-checked: “By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish”

A popular media claim is… “By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish”, a claim most often based on the publicity for the advocacy documentary film A Plastic Ocean (2016).

Cleaning up the world’s oceans is a very worthy aim, one I support and have blogged about here. But I’m always suspicious when leftists glom onto such concerns, often in a bid to make crude political points by blaming the oil companies / capitalism / fat guzzlers of beefburgers and sodas, and as a means of boosting the general level of alarmism around their other issues.

Therefore I looked to see if the movie had been publicly fact-checked. I couldn’t find anything in that line, so I fact-checked just this one main ‘headline’ claim about 2050. It traces back to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, “The New Plastics Economy” written 2015 for the World Economic Forum and published in mid January 2016. The report comes in two public variants, The New Plastics Economy : Rethinking the future of plastics (36 pages), and a 120-page “extended version of this report, with additional chapters and appendices”.

I search both reports for “2050” claims, and then tracked these through to their endnotes and references. The reports assumes an… “annual growth in leakage flows of plastics into the ocean of 5% up to 2025” and 3.5% per year thereafter through to 2050. Given likely economic and population growth levels to 2050, that seems a fairly sensible broad estimate, even when one factors in things like public pressure, new technologies, and better management at all levels of production and recycling.

In the first version of the report, the endnotes on page 29 give the sources for the 2050 plastics/fish claim. The footnotes are the same in both versions. Note the disclaimer at the end of endnote 25…

“The stock of fish is assumed to stay constant between 2015 and 2050” at “an estimated 812 million tonnes (S. Jennings et al., Global-scale predictions of community and ecosystem properties from simple ecological theory (Proceedings of the Royal Society, 2008).”

This is broadly line with the latest scientific consensus, as summarised in this recent paper in Food Security journal

“A consensus has emerged in the literature that the doom-and-gloom rhetoric that had driven the discussion surrounding the state of marine fisheries in the late 2000s (Garcia and Grainger 2005; Caddy and Seijo 2005) was exaggerated (Grafton et al. 2010; Hilborn 2010) and that although the situation remains concerning in respect to many stocks, we are not likely to face the global collapse that had been announced by some biologists (e.g., Myers and Worm 2003; Worm et al. 2006; Pauly 2009). Instead, the downward trend of overfished stocks may have been reined in (Fig. 4). Reflecting this, most of the projections proposed in the recent literature estimate that the global fisheries’ landings are likely to be stable in the short to medium term. The OECD-FAO model for instance estimates that capture [i.e. wild] fisheries will be 5% higher by 2024 than it is was in 2013, that is, around 96 Mt (OECD-FAO 2013) while the World Bank-FAO-IFPRI model estimates that this will be around 93 Mt in 2030. These figures are at a global scale”.

Which indicates that, broadly, the headline claim that “By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish” is correct in terms of its two inputs.

However, the claim omits a third factor. The report appears to assume constant ever-increasing accumulation of plastics,1 without degredation by plastic-eating and oil-munching ocean microbes. My search of the full report for “biodegradation” found only discussion of the man-made production of deliberately biodegradable items (i.e.: possible eco-friendly replacements for the plastic packaging used for potato chips, kebab meals, soda bottles and suchlike). The report appears to have no mention at all of natural ocean biodegradation (decomposition) of marine microplastics in the open ocean. To be more certain I hadn’t missed such a mention, I then further searched the report for “microbial”, “microbes”, “microorganisms” and “bacterial”. Nothing relevant was found. This omission seems a curious one for such an in-depth report to such a high-level group.

Thus it appears that the widely-heard claim that “By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish” rests on two broadly valid estimates — that leakage of plastics into the oceans grows marginally each year to 2050, and that global wild fish stocks will remain broadly stable to 2050. However, it seems to me that those who wish to sustain this 2050 claim in future must also address the rate at which ocean microplastics are being “cleaned up” [backup PDF] by naturally occurring microscopic ocean life.


1. The specific volumes for the claim are that the ocean currently has an estimated 150 million tonnes of plastic debris and microplastics in it, with 8 million tonnes newly added each year. And that by 2025 there will be 1 tonne of ocean plastics for every 3 tonne of fish (meaning: 270 Mt), and that by 2050 fish and plastics will be equal (meaning: 812 Mt each). ‘Accumulation without biodegradation’ thus appears to be implicit in the forecast.

Mapping the global potential for marine aquaculture

Today I encountered a recent robust scoping study “Mapping the global potential for marine aquaculture” published in summary in Nature. I had missed it during my usual summer news hiatus. So my apologies if it’s old news to some readers. The study took two years, and found four million square miles of the earth’s coasts to be very suitable for future sustainable aquaculture.

Here in red are the highest “potential productivity” coastlines, blue less so…

I should note that the authors…

“avoided areas of the ocean that are used for shipping and oil extraction, as well as marine protected areas. We also avoided depths greater than 200 meters, as a proxy for the limitations of cost and current farm technology.”

The authors also issued a different chart in press article summaries, such as the article “Global hotspots for finfish aquaculture”. This appears to shows the industry’s growth potential rather than simple farm productivity potential. Presumably the difference here is that this chart also factors in the local investment eagerness, technology readiness, population pressure, ease of doing business and access to markets? Which would explain why Argentina is blue in the Nature chart and red in this one. And why the seas off Northern Ireland turn from blue to orange. Both are relatively poor places, eager for new industries.

If one squints hard (this is the largest I could find the map), then looking at it from a UK perspective I can see a good potential for the coast of Wales around Aberystwyth (a useful boost to a primarily tourism-and-agricultural economy), and strong potential for Northern Ireland albeit at a distance perhaps some tens of miles out. Still, the UK has cracked working at that distance re: the North Sea experience, so it’s not impossible. As someone in the UK, looking forward to a prosperous globally-trading post-Brexit UK circa 2022, those orange splotches off our coast are good to see.

But it’s rather surprising that all of Scandinavia and Greenland and northern Canada have no potential, given all the hoo-ha about greenhouse warming. Yet even with their coastlines off the menu, and even if backward and somewhat corrupt nations such as Argentina (the fat red bit, off South America) can’t get their act together, the report’s authors suggest there is so much potential that such losses may not matter…

“If aquaculture were developed in only the most productive areas, the oceans could theoretically produce the same amount of seafood that is currently caught by all of the world’s wild-caught fisheries [currently 92m tons per year, a figure interestingly “unchanged for the past two decades”], using less than 0.015% of the total ocean surface – a combined area the size of Lake Michigan.”

And that’s with existing technology. But we can probably factor in new ‘blue’ industry things such as: shoals of untethered AI-powered sensors; autonomous aquatic drones; and tele-presence ‘sea-shepherd’ robots. Possibly also breakthroughs in fish-stock feed types and pollution-eating nano-meshes. In that case there may soon come a time when we basically just close the oceans to trawler fishing for 30 years or more, allowing an incredible recovery.