Matt Huelsenbeck's blog

Skin Cancer Appears in Australian Fish

Posted Fri, Aug 3, 2012 by Matt Huelsenbeck to australia, coral trout, fish, great barrier reef, melanoma, ozone layer, skin cancer

The black spots on this coral trout are melanomas. © Michael Sweet/Newcastle University 

Strange lesions are showing up in coral trout in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

In a new paper in the journal PloS One researchers found that 15% of reef fish tested showed signs of melanomas. This is a high occurrence, given that many of the fish with this condition may have already been eaten by predators or perished due to the illness.

This is the first time skin cancer has been documented in a wild marine fish species, but in the laboratory another species exposed to high UV radiation showed similar lesions, and they lived greatly reduced life spans.

The authors note that the occurrence of the melanomas was likely due to increased UV radiation and the proximity of the fish to the hole in the ozone layer which occurs over portions of Australia and Antarctica. The people of Australia already suffer huge health risks from skin cancer, topping the world in the occurrence of this illness.

These results are concerning because coral trout are an important commercial fish species, and they may suffer population level impacts if these rates continue. One third of all coral reef fish are already threatened with extinction due to the impacts of climate change on coral reefs, their home. Added stresses such as skin cancer could be the nail in the coffin for some species.

It’s important to figure out if skin cancer is occurring in more fish in a larger area, and what the risks are globally for marine life from UV radiation. We obviously can’t put sun-block on every fish in the ocean, but we can limit emissions of ozone-depleting gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a refrigerant, as well as greenhouse gases that drive climate change which was also recently shown to threaten the ozone layer.

We are all in this together, so for the sake of fish and people we need to protect our thin layer of atmosphere.


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Peru Dolphin Deaths Show What Seismic Testing Might Do

Posted Fri, Jun 29, 2012 by Matt Huelsenbeck to atlantic seismic testing, dolphins, offshore drilling, Peru, peru dolphin deaths, seismic testing

© Reuters

What will happen to marine life if the government allows seismic testing, using loud airgun blasts, to search for oil and gas deep beneath the seabed along the U.S. Atlantic coast in the next few years?

The answer may be foreshadowed by the scene in Peru, where earlier this year, hundreds of dolphin carcasses washed ashore along an 85-mile stretch of beach. While the science is not definitive, one expert, Dr. Yaipan-Llanos who has been investigating the cause of the dead dolphins and has conducted 30 necropsies, claims to have seen physiological impacts that resemble what would be expected from seismic testing for oil and gas.

Dr. Yaipan-Llanos found bubbles in the organs and tissues of the dolphin carcasses. These harmful bubbles may have been caused by the disruptive impacts of an intense sound source dislodging bubbles inside the animals or the rapid ascent of the animals toward the surface after being scared.

Alternatively, some have suggested that they could be caused by the natural breakdown of the animal’s body on the beach after death. However, the freshness of some of the carcasses sampled may rule out that theory. Another alarming finding is that the middle ears of 30 of the dolphins had fractures, an injury which could be caused by airgun blasts.  

Peruvian government officials have denied that the deaths are due to seismic testing for oil and gas or any other human-related causes, but their methodologies are being questioned by Peruvian scientists. Only two autopsies were conducted by government officials, and those dolphin carcasses were collected late in the process, making the cause of death difficult to identify.

What we do know is that seismic equipment was tested between 50 and 80 miles offshore of Peru from January 31st through February 7th and seismic surveys were conducted offshore between February 7th and April 8th.  Dr. Yaipan-Llanos first noticed the carcasses on February 7th and he collected his first samples on February 12th. Carcasses then continued to appear through mid-April. The Peruvian government report ruled out viruses, bacterial infections, pesticides or heavy metals and says that it did not find signs of trauma that would indicate seismic tests or human-related causes. But the report did not identify any cause or causes of the deaths, which remain a mystery.

This incident in Peru is unresolved, and may remain that way, but this unfortunate turn of events gives us a picture of what a mass mortality event in the U.S. could look like if seismic surveying moves forward on the Atlantic coast. Given the impacts on dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizion oil spill, it would be a shame to further threaten even more dolphins with unnecessary air gun use.

Can you imagine the headline “Hundreds of Dolphin Deaths in Atlantic May be Linked to Airgun Blasts from Seismic Testing for Oil and Gas”?

The U.S. government actually predicts that over the next eight years, 138,000 marine mammal injuries would occur from seismic testing using airguns on the Atlantic coast. Vital activities in marine mammals like feeding, calving, and breeding would be disrupted 13.5 million times. Airguns would also threaten valuable East coast fisheries, marine tourism and endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale and loggerhead sea turtle.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is currently looking into the Peruvian mass mortality of dolphins, and at the same time they are also reviewing a decision about whether to allow seismic testing for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast from Florida to Delaware. The comment period for this decision ends soon, but you can still tell BOEM to protect whales and dolphins from destructive airgun blasts: submit your comments before Monday July 2!


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BP Spill Residue Found in Minnesota Pelican Eggs

Posted Fri, May 18, 2012 by Matt Huelsenbeck to deepwater horizon, gulf of mexico oil spill, minnesota, oil spill, pelicans, pollution, wildlife

pelicans

An American white pelican sits on her nest in Minnesota. [Image via Minnesota Public Radio]

The impacts of the Deepwater Horizon are being felt in -- you guessed it -- Minnesota.

White pelicans that winter in the Gulf of Mexico and have lived in an oiled Gulf have migrated to far away places such as Minnesota to lay eggs, and the contaminants inside them have traveled as well.

Preliminary testing by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources shows that petroleum compounds were present in 90 percent of the first batch of eggs tested and nearly 80 percent of the eggs contained the chemical dispersant used during the spill, called COREXIT.

The contamination of white pelican eggs is a bad sign for the developing embryos and potentially their populations. The researchers will be continuing to monitor impacts on the population for years to come, and the true impacts may not be realized for decades.

Mark Clark, a researcher helping with these studies, says, “Any contaminant that makes its way into the bird could be bad, but it could be especially bad if it gets into the egg because that's where the developing embryo and chick starts. And when things go wrong at that stage, there's usually no recovery."

The immediate loss of pelicans and other birds that were covered in oil during the spill was amazingly disheartening and graphic. But these types of sub-lethal impacts show how the next generation may be affected.

While these effects are less noticeable, they are even more concerning for the future of the population. Nearly half of all the bird species that live in the United States spend at least part of the winter in the Gulf of Mexico, and the health of the Gulf is globally significant for birds.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, more than 88% of the birds that were found dead were outside of Prince William Sound, the area immediately affected by the spill, and the number of dead birds found was only a fraction of the total killed by the spill.

The combination of those direct losses, poor reproductive success and changes in the habitat, has prevented some species from recovering, even 20 years later. Although we don’t yet know the long-term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill, these contaminants in eggs serve as a warning sign of things to come.

We need to make sure that BP and the other responsible parties are held accountable for the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill that have likely impacted hundreds to thousands of species.

Even more importantly we need to recognize that these contaminated eggs, and the ongoing damages to wildlife, are part of the overall problem with offshore drilling and spilling. We have much better options for energy, such as offshore wind, and we should use them.


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Deep-sea Coral Sickness Linked to Gulf Oil Spill

Posted Tue, Mar 27, 2012 by Matt Huelsenbeck to bp oil spill, deep-sea corals, deepwater horizon, dolphins, gulf of mexico oil spill, offshore drilling, sick corals

Deep-sea corals. © NOAA

Even more sad news from the Gulf of Mexico, but this time it runs a mile deep. A new study confirms that the oil that likely caused deepwater coral sickness indeed came from the largest accidental oil spill in history, the Deepwater Horizon.

Back in June 2010, deep-sea coral communities showed signs of severe stress and tissue damage after being covered with heavy mucous and brown flocculent material which was believed to be caused by the spill. This type of ill-health in deep sea corals had never before been documented during deep sea research.

The lead author, Helen White from Haverford College, stated, “We would not expect deep-water corals to be impacted from a typical oil spill, but the sheer magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its release at depth makes it very different than a tanker running aground and spilling its contents.” 

Deepwater corals can live hundreds of years, and they serve as hot beds for marine biodiversity. The deepwater coral communities are habitat for crabs, shrimp, brittlestars and commercially important fish species like red snapper and grouper. These corals can take a long time to recover from damage and in comparison this would be similar to clear cutting patches of ancient redwood forests in California. 

These results are startling in that they show for the first time how harmful deepwater oil drilling is to distant ecosystems even though they are separated from humans by more than 4,000 feet of water. These ancient deepwater corals were likely  already living long before the first oil rigs entered the Gulf of Mexico. If we protect them from more drilling and more spilling they could thrive in a world that moves away from oil to smarter and safer sources of energy, like offshore wind.

Oceana is doing its part by filing a legal challenge against new lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico. We do not believe that the government has adequately studied the potential impacts of new drilling or the true extent of the biological impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. These include the deepwater corals and so many other species that live in the Gulf.

It is also clear that safety measures have not improved to an adequate level. We need your support to continue our efforts to stop offshore drilling and protect important deep sea habitats, dolphins and the thousands of species that are still struggling from oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. Go to stopthedrill.org to get involved.


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Sick Dolphins in the Gulf

Posted Fri, Mar 23, 2012 by Matt Huelsenbeck to gulf of mexico, gulf of mexico oil spill, offshore drilling, oil drilling, sick dolphins

dolphin

© Oceana/Jesus Renedo

Sad news from the Gulf of Mexico: At least 32 dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, one of the hardest hit spots by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have been given physicals and are reported as severely ill according to NOAA officials.

The dolphins are reporting a range of symptoms from being underweight, anemic, low blood sugar and liver and lung disease. One of the studied dolphins has already been found dead.

There has been a large surge in dolphin deaths in the Northern Gulf of Mexico since the oil spill, especially newborn and young dolphins. In 2011 there were 159 strandings just in Louisiana, almost 8 times the historical average in previous years.

The numbers of dolphin carcasses found is likely only a fraction of the total amount of dolphins that were killed by the oil, and the true number is likely 50 times the total of 600 strandings since the spill, so more than 30,000 dolphin mortalities may have been caused by the spill already.

The spike in young dolphin deaths since the spill is extremely concerning, and showed biologists that the health of dolphin populations in the Northern Gulf had been compromised and many miscarriages may have occurred following contact with oil pollution. 


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Offshore Wind Gets a $180 Million Push

Posted Tue, Mar 6, 2012 by Matt Huelsenbeck to clean energy, energy, new jersey, offshore wind energy, wind, wind turbines

© Oceana

Offshore wind development got a huge boost last week when the Department of Energy announced that it would provide $180 million in funding to support four planned offshore wind farms off the U.S. Atlantic coast.

To get the ball rolling, $20 million of this funding is being released in 2012, which is great news for offshore wind development at a time when Congress has been floundering on clean energy.

These funds will be used to support innovative strategies that, in the long-term, will help cut the costs of developing offshore wind. The Department of Energy’s support for offshore wind comes at a time of strong public support for offshore wind in coastal states, such as in New Jersey, where it has a 77% approval rating among shore residents.

The Department of Energy has been helping to streamline the permitting process through a process called “Smart from the Start”, which helps promote responsible development of offshore wind in accordance with environmental factors as well as recreational and commercial use of ocean resources.

Oceana has been highly engaged throughout this process as an environmental stakeholder to make sure offshore wind is developed both efficiently and responsibly in order to gain the clean energy benefits of offshore wind in a way that protects marine wildlife.


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Japan Plans to Build Floating Offshore Wind Farm

Posted Fri, Jan 6, 2012 by Matt Huelsenbeck to deepwater horizon disaster, denmark, floating offshore wind farm, fukushima disaster, gulf of mexico oil spill, japan, offshore wind

offshore wind turbine

© Oceana

The Fukushima nuclear disaster, sparked by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan last March, has led the Japanese government to embrace a safer energy source: offshore wind.

Japan seeks to expand its wind energy capacity and compete with European markets in the brand new field of floating offshore wind technology. The country plans to build a pilot floating wind farm with six 2-Megawatt turbines, and then scale up to 80 floating turbines off the Fukushima coast by 2020.

While offshore wind has begun to be used in Europe, to date, it has been dependent on shallow enough water to stabilize the foundation. There is currently an international race to develop floating offshore wind farms, which are the next big step in offshore wind energy as they will allow for offshore wind development even in deeper water.

Floating offshore wind designs are being field tested in the North Sea and Portugal. (Check out this video describing how one type of floating wind turbine is designed and deployed.)  Floating wind farms consist of large floating structures that support a spinning turbine, the base of which can be tethered to the ocean floor.

It uses a ballast system to transfer water between pillars to keep the platform stable even in very high seas. The floating farms are assembled on land and then can be towed out to sea to be placed in deeper water locations that have stronger and steadier winds. The ability to place offshore wind farms into deeper waters along with their lack of concrete bases and increased mobility reduces their environmental impact while increasing their production of clean energy.

Japan has responded to the Fukushima disaster in the way that the U.S. should respond to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster – by aggressively pursuing safer, more environmentally friendly energy sources that will allow us to phase out the older and more dangerous ones.


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New Climate Report: Hot, Sour & Breathless

Posted Mon, Dec 5, 2011 by Matt Huelsenbeck to climate change, cop17, durban south africa, ocean acidification, un climate talks

Matt Huelsenbeck is a marine scientist at Oceana.

Oceana has teamed up with several top scientific institutions in creating a report called "Hot, Sour & Breathless – Ocean Under Stress" which has been released this week at the United Nations climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa.

The collaborative report explains how the oceans are becoming more acidic, warmer, and have less oxygen due to our current fossil fuel emissions. Although it’s hard to visualize the connection between a coal-fired power plant in the Midwest United States and a coral reef in Australia, everyone around the world is bound by widespread changes in the oceans triggered by carbon emissions.

The ocean’s chemistry and its physical properties are changing dramatically fast from the burning of fossil fuels, and when one of the world’s top marine scientists leaves her hard work in the lab to communicate this issue to the international community, pay attention -- it’s probably important. I’m talking about Dr. Carol Turley, senior scientist and executive board member of the European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), who will be at the climate conference in Durban. 

She will be speaking at a side event entitled “Ocean Acidification: The Other Half of the CO2 Problem” which discusses how carbon dioxide emissions are making the oceans more acidic and posing threats to marine life, fisheries and livelihoods around the world. 

Recently Dr. Turley received a prestigious award called the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to science granted by the Queen of England. Oceana, Dr. Turley and other leading marine scientists have been working to raise international awareness about ocean acidification and climate change threats to marine life and ocean resources during the last two climate negotiations, COP-15 and COP-16, and again this year. 

The continued burning of fossil fuels poses serious threats to many creatures we know and love from plankton, corals, crabs and oysters all the way up to whales. Our report explains how there are big unknowns and massive risks with multiple stressors caused by emissions which could combine to completely alter many marine habitats and food webs.


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New Study: Climate Change Threatens Global Fisheries

Posted Tue, Nov 22, 2011 by Matt Huelsenbeck to climate change, cop-17, fisheries, fishing, new study, ocean acidification, science

As world leaders prepare for international climate change negotiations next week in Durban, South Africa, a new study out this week depicts the widespread threats that climate change presents for marine fisheries.

The bottom line? Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are presenting very long-term if not irreversible threats for the oceans.

Economists and top fisheries scientists at the University of British Columbia published a paper on Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change that outlines the many challenges fisheries face from climate change, and how this can impact the global economy and hundreds of millions of lives. 

Global marine fisheries are underperforming, mainly from rampant overfishing, but climate change also creates several serious threats to the future productivity of fisheries. These chemical and physical changes linked to climate change such as decreased oxygen levels, changes in plankton communities and plant growth, altered ocean circulation and increased acidity can disrupt the basic functioning of marine ecosystems and thwart any potential recovery of global fish stocks. 

The study outlines how impacts can scale up from changing ocean conditions to the global economy, but the authors note that the true scope of impacts to employment are hard to predict.


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