Stewardship Monday: Acid Ocean?

Is the ocean turning into an acid pit? Is it a corrosive as a battery? No! This is a common misconception and a question that our student stewards often bring up during our hydrology lessons. What influences the pH in the ocean? The ocean has had fairly steady pH levels for millions of years, thanks to a buffering system. The term “ocean acidification” is a relatively new word for a well-known processes. The ocean has long been slightly basic, and ocean acidification is causing it to be slightly less basic (closer to neutral).

The pH scale shows the proportion hydrogen ions are in a solution. This scale is from 0 (acidic) to 14 (basic). Neutral is 7.

A buffer system is a series of reactions that break apart and form molecules that keeps the level of H+ protons (pH) constant. There are many types of buffers used in various reactions (even in hottubs), but in the ocean, the most prevalent system is the carbonate buffer system.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a very important factor in ocean pH. Sources of CO2 include combustion (volcanoes, also the burning of fossil fuels), respiration, and chemical reactions. An increase CO2 has begun to “overwhelm” the buffer system, which cannot replenish carbonate, and which is not removing hydrogen protons quickly enough to keep up with the absorption of CO2.

It is important to know that in the carbonate buffer system, carbonate ions are consumed to buffer against pH changes. Carbonate ions are also needed by many animals to create shells and skeletons—with an increase of CO2, more carbonate ions are used for buffering, and less is available for these animals.

What can a steward do? With an understanding of sources and sinks of carbon, we can make daily choices to reduce our carbon footprint, and to increase our positive impact. CO2 comes from respiration, chemical reactions, and combustion. Combustion is a huge source of human-made CO2. “Spare the Air” days target combustion by encouraging people to reduce their driving, and banning burning firewood. Biking to work, riding public transportation, carpooling, and choosing products that haven’t been driven or flown from far away, are great actions that individuals can take. Plants absorb CO2, so just by tending your garden, you are helping!

Learn more:


Stewardship Monday: Kid’s Ocean Day

Last Friday we celebrated Kid’s Ocean Day with over 700 elementary students from San Francisco and Marin. They converged onto Ocean Beach for a massive beach clean-up and a culminating aerial art project to send a message of conservation. In honor of their efforts, let’s focus once again on keeping beaches, oceans, and communities clean! We can do so by recycling and disposing of trash properly, but also by reducing the amount of trash you make. Here is a re-post of Stewardship Monday: Trash Audit to inspire us to cut out waste.

“As we clean up our homes, we may also be able to clean up our habits. In America, 1.35 billion pounds of garbage was thrown away every day­­­—about 4.5 pounds per person. That garbage weighs about as much as 6,750 blue whales! How much trash do you throw away? Sometimes it is hard to tell as we move about our face-paced lives. A straw here, a wrapper there, a ready made lunch and dinner from a mix…it all adds up.

photo credit:

Trash audit challenge:

Don’t throw anything out! Keep it all, including recycling and compost, no matter where you are. You may want to carry around a couple of bags to sort trash, recycling and compost. Start with one day, then see if you can make it to a whole week.

At the end of a day (or week), weigh your unsorted waste. Next, weigh your recyclables, compostables, and trash. What do you discard the most?

After making this trash audit, consider what you can do to throw away less stuff—can you buy something that comes in a recyclable container rather than one that must be thrown away? Are there reusable options?

My personal goal is to plan ahead to make my lunches more often rather than buying premade lunches at the coffee shop or grocery store. This will save on packaging materials, money and calories! What small change will you make?”

Stewardship Monday: Check in on the State of our Water

New rules and regulations about water saving measures are being announced, and will affect different towns in California differently. Some cities are doing well and have nearly saved enough to satisfy the requirements of their “tier”, others have a bit of work to do. Make sure you know how your town is doing, and how to report water misuse!

Top Story: California Drought.

Stewardship Monday: What is Citizen Science?

Campers take data on debris collected near Chrissy Field.

Campers take data on debris collected near Chrissy Field.

Citizen Science is research that is conducted entirely, or in part by non-professional scientists, and is an increasingly important way that science is conducted. Anyone can be a scientist! Many research institutes and universities now take advantage of that fact and encourage citizens to contribute to data collection, analysis, and communicating important results.

There are many ways to become a citizen scientist based on your interests, skills, and the level of participation you hope to put in. Smart phone applications, such as iNaturalist and Litterati are ways that you can be a citizen scientist daily—simply take a picture and upload it to their maps, and you have contributed! Other programs require training or special skills, such as ReefCheck for SCUBA divers.

All of these programs have in common that they empower non-professional scientists to contribute to science that makes a difference. It is a great way to dive into a topic that you care about, to learn, and often, to protect.

Interns take fish data

Interns take fish data

At Marine Science Institute, our students and our volunteers are all citizen scientists. In particular, they contribute to our Fish Data Program, through which we have collected data on the fish in the San Francisco Bay for over 40 years. Through this program, volunteers can collect, analyze, and share our data—and have opportunities to learn more about marine science, and to become a part of the science community. Last Saturday, some of our citizen science volunteers shared their work at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Currents Symposium about citizen science.

You can join our fantastic corps of volunteers too! This is a wonderful opportunity for those who are interested in gaining valuable hands-on experience with data collection in the field, community service hours, or to acquire knowledge of the animals in the Bay. The opportunity to analyze the data is great for those interested in analysis, trends, and patters that emerge from long term observations. Click here to learn more about the program and to see some results!

Stewardship Monday: Don’t trash the ocean!

For this week on Stewardship Monday, we go to Michael Esgro at the Institute for Applied Marine Ecology (IfAME). IfAME has sent footage from their research expeditions to MSI to share with our students as they explore the deep.

Michael Esgro with some marine debris

Michael Esgro with some marine debris

Question: What is the weirdest piece of trash you’ve seen in the ocean?

Answer:  “As a marine scientist, I get to spend a lot of time in the ocean. My job is to collect data and imagery underwater—either by scuba diving or by using robots equipped with cameras, which are called ROVs (remotely operated vehicles). Many of the marine ecosystems I study are beautiful places teeming with fish, sharks, marine mammals, and invertebrates. Unfortunately, however, I also see a lot of trash.

Old fishing gear, discarded boat equipment, and plastic containers are the most common types of debris that I see in the ocean. Occasionally, however, I’ll see something really weird, like a pair of pants that I once found while diving (“How did these jeans end up 50 feet deep?”, I remember wondering), or a giant boat propeller that had turned into a home for algae and anemones. By far the weirdest piece of trash that I’ve found, though, was a jet engine! The engine was sitting on the seafloor at about 450 feet, just off the coast of Laguna Beach. The IfAME team and I did some research and discovered that it had come from a plane that crashed in the area over 40 years ago.

Concerned by the amount of trash we were finding in the water, some colleagues at IfAME and I recently conducted a study in which we looked for debris in thousands of photographs of the seafloor. These photos had been taken over the course of about five years, by both divers and ROVs, as part of a wide variety of scientific projects all along the California coast. We found that the distribution of marine debris transcended all sites (Point Arena to La Jolla), depths (15-450 m), and habitats surveyed. Debris occurred more frequently in areas of high human use, such as busy beaches and harbors. Sadly, we found just as much trash in marine protected areas as in unprotected sites.

Any piece of trash that finds its way to the ocean has the potential to be harmful to marine animals. Fish and sharks can easily get entangled in abandoned fishing nets. Marine mammals and sea turtles can be poisoned if they ingest plastic. To protect our oceans and their residents from pollution, always throw your trash into the proper receptacles, and try to minimize your consumption of plastic. I hope that someday we will all be able to enjoy an ocean free of trash!”

Stewardship Monday: Sea Lions on Shore

We have been hearing a lot about sea lion pups washing up on shore looking underfed, and often get asked, “What is happening to the Sea Lions?” It is certainly hard to see baby animals in distress, and the amount of animals washing ashore has been alarming, so we went to the experts at the Marine Mammal Center to get an answer.

Here is what Frances Gulland of the Marine Mammal Center has to say:

“…there is some talk of [the sea lion] population having recovered after MMPA protection in 1972, and having reached carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is the population level the environment can support. Mammal populations are essentially controlled by natural factors that kick in when at “carrying capacity”.

Thus, when talking about sea lion mortality, we should be clear that

  1. Mortality is of pups that are of an age when they should be on the rookery suckling from mothers
  2. Pups are emaciated but do not have obvious disease
  3. Problem must be with lack of mother’s milk, and hence mothers food supply, but we don’t have much direct hard evidence of this
  4. If mothers food supply limited, it could be for several reasons
  5. Fish moved away from the Channel Islands, or deeper, from where mothers feed, due to oceanographic changes such as El Nino
  6. Overfishing of forage fish in southern California
  7. Large sea lion population has eaten all forage fish in the area

We do what we do for animal welfare reasons, and try to glean as much science as we can, and do as much education as we can over marine mammal conservation.”

If you see a stranded marine mammal, make sure you keep your distance, make careful observations, and report it to a rescue center! Click here for more information.

Remember! The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires that humans stay 50 yards away from seals and sea lions. Under this protection, human activity should not influence the animal’s behavior. Click here to learn more.

Many thanks to our friends at the Marine Mammal Center for this information and for hosting our guests for a behind-the-scenes tour!

Stewardship Monday: Trash Talk

Another fantastic question came from a steward-in-training aboard our ship last week. “How do scientists know how long it takes for different items of trash to decompose?”

This is an excellent question! We often talk about how certain types of waste decompose or biodegrade quickly, such as food scraps, and how others, such as plastic, degrade very slowly. This is why we have all learned to reduce, reuse and recycle! But, when we consider that plastic became more popularly used in consumer goods only recently (1950’s), it is fair to question how the estimates ranging from 500 – millions of years to decompose came about. It is also important to understand more generally how our landfills work, and how waste of any sort breaks down.

Decomposition occurs at different rates depending on the conditions. For bacteria to break down waste, such as leafs and twigs, it needs to be warm, moist, and well-oxygenated. Under these conditions, food scraps, for example, will break down fairly quickly. To measure exactly how long, scientists use respirometry tests. As bacteria work to break down waste, they use up oxygen and release gases—they respire. In a respirometry test, ideal conditions (moist, warm, oxygenated) are created and the amount of carbon dioxide released by the bacteria over a certain amount of time, to break down a known amount of trash, is measured. The more the bacteria respires, the more it is working! From this, scientists are able to estimate how quickly certain types of trash will be degraded.

Some things don’t biodegrade, even in these bacteria-friendly conditions. Plastic, for example, will show no degradation in a respirometry test—bacteria doesn’t break it down. Instead, plastic is photodegraded by sunlight. The energy from the sun causes the material to break down. This process is very, very slow.

Most garbage doesn’t make it to a perfect, bacteria-friendly environment to break down. Trash that is not composted or recycled ends up in landfills. Modern landfills are not designed to rot trash, only to cover it up. The conditions in landfills are ultra-hot, dry, and low-oxygen—not good for bacteria. Trash that would otherwise degrade in a little amount of time, such a newspapers and even food scraps has been excavated from old landfills perfectly in-tact, decades later.

Check out this video to learn more about how the landfills work, and definitely stay tuned to hear about “trash-hole explosions”!

So what can a steward do? Simple! Reduce what you put into those landfills by reducing, reusing and recycling. Check out some trash-free experts:

Stewardship Monday: Safe to Eat?

A very common question that we get from our students, parents, and teachers is, “Is it safe to eat fish from the Bay?”

This is an excellent question, and an important one for your health. Certain fish can contain contaminants that may affect human and animal health. These contaminants include mercury, PCBs (often used in coolants), and various pesticides, including DDT. How did these things get into the fish?

Contaminants end up in the water through a few different ways. Once upon a time mercury was dumped into the water intentionally! The mercury helped with the mining process during the Gold Rush. Other contaminants and industrial waste also ended up in the water until stricter laws were established to keep our water clean. Contaminants continue to get into the water from industrial sources and runoff from farms, but also from daily human activities.

Many household items and especially cleaning products contain harmful chemicals. Batteries, old thermometers, and fluorescent lightbulbs, are examples of regular household items that contain hazardous waste. These, and most cleaning supplies, need to be disposed of properly at a household hazardous waste stations in order to keep them from getting in the water. If they end up in the dump or in the storm drain, water will wash them down to our rivers and bays.

Through a process called bioaccumulation, living things absorb contaminants (and nutrients) from their environment and food. Organisms toward the base of the food chain may not have much mercury, for example, in their bodies. However, as smaller organisms (and the contaminants they have accumulated) are eaten by larger organisms, those organisms higher up on the food chain gain more and more contaminants. This process is called biomagnification. This is why certain types of animals will have different amounts of contaminants in their bodies than others—and why the recommendation for what to eat varies depending on the fish.

Stewards can help to keep us all healthy by recycling and disposing of household hazardous waste properly!

Check out these tables for recommendations for fish commonly caught in the Bay Area.

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Stewardship Monday: Saltier than the Sea

BrownleeDuring our Discovery Voyage program out of Redwood City, students study fish, invertebrates, plankton, and also the water that these organisms live in. The study of water, hydrology, is important to understanding the conditions in which certain plants and animals thrive. It can also help us to understand other connections and processes in the watershed and in the water cycle. Last Tuesday during a hydrology lesson aboard our ship, a student-steward asked a great question: “What is the term for water that has evaporated and is saltier than the ocean?”

The affix, hyper­-, when added to the beginning of many words, indicates ‘more’ or ‘excess’. For example, when a person has excess energy, they are called “hyper” or “hyperactive”. The term hypersaline can be applied to waters that are saltier than ocean water (more than 35 ppt). Bodies of water can become hypersaline in a variety of ways.

In the San Francisco Bay Estuary, as in other estuaries, salinity changes throughout the year. There are a few factors that cause these patterns. The brackish, or mixed, water in the Bay come from salty water from the ocean mixing with fresh water from the watershed—most notably in our area, down the Sacramento/San Joaquin Rivers. During seasons and years of high precipitation, more fresh water runs down these rivers, plus more freshwater running down as snow begins to melt, typically during the spring. Conversely, when there is less fresh water flowing to the Bay, the ocean’s tides bring more salt water, which can encroach upstream. Add to this the semi-enclosed shape of the Bay that reduces flow and causes the water to mix, almost “trapping” it in the estuary. During the summer, a time of low precipitation and high temperatures, evaporation causes salinity to increase (water evaporates, leaving the salt behind). In fact, this is the first step in the process of producing salt!

Mono Lake, in California, is a hypersaline lake.

Hypersaline conditions can also be found in lakes. These lakes are usually in basins with limited or no outflow, where the water coming in flows over rock formations with soluble salts. These lakes also typically experience a high amount of evaporation.

Deep Hypersaline Anoxic Basins are more recently discovered habitats of extreme salinity. These hypersaline “lakes” are found deep below the ocean’s surface, and are home to very unique lifeforms.

Life in these hypersaline habitats requires special adaptations. Diversity is typically low in hypersaline habitats, and the plants and animals that do live there are sometimes sensitive to dramatic or fast changes.

How do humans influence the salinity of the Bay? As you may have heard, there is a water shortage in California. Drought is a naturally occurring phenomenon, but human demands on available freshwater influence how much water is available for the environment under any conditions. In California, humans use over 50% of water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin watershed, leaving less than half of the regular amount to flow into the Bay. Less fresh water flowing to the Bay means salt water from the ocean can push farther into the Bay and up toward the Delta. Additionally, changes in climate that cause warmer weather and more sunny days contribute to more evaporation.

What can a steward do? As we have shared on Stewardship Monday, reducing your water use can help the Bay, the Ocean, and the local environment. Also, visit a salt pond! We can see them as we fly over the Bay to SFO—these briny, hypersaline ponds are home to interesting critters. Salt ponds can occur naturally, and have also created and managed by humans beginning with the native Ohlone tribes!

Campers study life in the salt ponds and sloughs at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont.

Campers study life in the salt ponds and sloughs at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont.

Stewardship Monday: Inspiring Stewards

CCC at Pillar PointMarine Science Institute’s mission is to “Inspire respect and stewardship for the marine environment through experiential learning.” On Stewardship Monday I have covered a range of topics, rotating through themes month by month. These posts have been an overview and explanation of important concepts and issues relating to conservation and stewardship. Now I would like to shift gears to focus more on our mission of inspiring stewardship by answering questions from our stewards-in-training and offering suggestions to promote stewardship in your home and classroom.

Before a student at any age can dive into stewardship, their natural curiosity must be peaked and they must develop questions that they care about. These questions will drive them to learn more and discover their role.

What topics are you passionate about? Share your questions and interests, and allow me to explore them with you on Stewardship Monday.

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