Entries in BP (3)
There’s a heck of a lot going on in the world of whale sharks right now, so I thought a news roundup was in order.
Sad news about a whale shark that was trapped in fishing nets in Pakistan and died. I have no idea what the scientist is talking about when he describes them as “inefficient swimmers”; as far as we know they are paragons of efficiency. I also have my suspicions about whether this animal was actually dead when it was brought back to shore. In a different story about the same event, it described the animal as being alive when the fisherman found it, tail-looped it and dragged it back to the beach, and how its illegal to fish for them, but legal to use them as you like if they die accidentally, hmmm.... Without witnesses, I guess we'll never know.
Our collaborator Bob Hueter from the Shark Research Lab at Mote Marine Laboratory is following an animal dubbed Sara in the Gulf of Mexico, who has been affixed with a real-time satellite tag. So far she is avoiding the worst affected area of the BP oil spill, which is a relief. Follow her movements here.
Unfortunately, other whale sharks don’t appear to be avoiding the pollution. NOAA scientists last week observed whale sharks among ribbons of surface oil, not 4 miles from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. If whale sharks are unable to avoid the oil, it’s a potential disaster because the anatomy of their gills and filter-feeding apparatus are superbly susceptible to fouling, as I discussed in a recent blog post.
One of my projects is getting a bit of press this week. Georgia Aquarium has entered into a collaboration with the Core Sequencing Facility at Emory University to start sequencing the genome of the whale shark. It’s a huge job, but the lab at Emory, led by Dr. Tim Read, are up to the task! They’re using Roche 454 pyrosequencers to generate a survey sequence right now, from DNA we isolated in the lab at the aquarium. Its exciting stuff and was picked up on the AP wire. Read an example here, or just google “whale shark genome emory”
University of Southern Mississippi research Eric Hoffmayer was lucky enough to observe an aggregation of about 100 whale sharks off the coast of Louisiana last week, accompanied by legendary marine explorer and Nat Geo guru Sylvia Earle. Eric has been working with that population for some time, but as far as I know thats the most he's ever seen in one place. Lets hope they are animals avoiding the oil spill.
And, finally, the 3rd annual Whale Shark Festival is scheduled to get underway in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, next Friday the 16th. I'll be there with other scientists including Bob Hueter and Rafael de la Parra, talking publically about whale sharks in the Gulf and the other amazing marine biology of the Yucatan. There's also going to be a film festival and cultural activities highlighting Quintana Roo. Did you know that "shark" is one of the only English words with a Yucatec Indian origin? Its comes from the Mayan "Xoc". Hope you can join us!
Just five days before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, I wrote a piece for this blog about a different oil spill in Australia, when a Chinese coal ship called the Shen Neng1 ran aground in Queensland and spilled thousands of gallons of fuel oil onto a section of the Great Barrier Reef. The gist of that post was that, horrible though they may be, there's no great cause to worry about acute events like that, because many marine ecosystems show remarkable resilience in the face of singular disturbance events. About a week later when the BP spill started, therefore, I had confidence that the well would swiftly be capped, the oil would dissipate, Gulf life would return to normal and folks would all move onto the next media-hyped panic-fest. But, as the days have dragged into weeks and the weeks are now dragging into two months and counting, and as the estimates rise of the amount of oil that continues to leak, and as successive attempts to cap the thing have failed, that confidence that the Gulf can recover to the same state it was in before the spill has started to get ever more shaky.DeepSeaNews and Observations of a Nerd and thinking about the problem in terms of ecological processes, it seems to me that we may well have passed a tipping point and that the ecosystems of the water column, benthic (bottom) habitat and coastal marshes may never return to their former states, even if they could stop the flow right now. This principle has been elegantly captured by the "rolling ball" analogy, wherein an ecosystem has, by virtue of its structure and complexity, a sort of "potential energy" like a ball on a hill and that, if disturbed hard enough, you can start cascades that see the system diverge - the ball rolling down hill - until it settles in a new organisation - a dip in the hillside. The important point is that getting the ball back up the hill to the former state is next to impossible, or at least requires inordinate amounts of energy and a thorough knowledge of the organising principles, which we lack.
What does all that mean for the Gulf, though? If a Spartina marsh isn't, then what is it? What happens in the water column? On the bottom? That's where research comes in, and I was encouraged to read on the NSF website and by conversations I had with NSF and NOAA Fisheries Service program officers yesterday that they have spent all available money on rapid response grants, most recently an NSF multi-institutional cruise coordinated by UGA to study microbial responses in the water column. Its not enough though, and the slowness of the peer review-based funding systems we have just can't meet the needs of a crisis of this magnitude fast enough, once the rapid response fund is tapped out. It really needs executive intervention: if the White House can propose a Wall Street or Auto industry bail-out, why not a rapid response research and rehabilitation fund? We can bill BP later!
Where is this all headed, and what should we expect to see in a "new" and different ecological regime in the Gulf of Mexico? No-one can be certain at this point, but a hall-mark of such reorganisations is loss of diversity, and in any worldview, that is something to be lamented. Lets hope it doesn't come to that, but at this point any concerns you may have that the damage to the gulf is irreparable could be forgiven, which is more than I can say for those responsible for this mess.