Thursday, 4 February 2010

Don't Catch the Cod: the ebb and flow of marine biology in the UK

About quarter of a century ago I was walking along the north Welsh coast when I came across an extraordinary sight: dozens of large, pink jellyfish, some a metre across, were lying stranded on the beach. I later discovered that these were Rhizostoma octopus - jellyfish despite the name and so-called because of their eight tentacles - marooned during a gathering to breed. In a country not known for unusual fauna, events like this give food for thought about the unknown creatures living just off our shores. Since fifty to eighty percent of all life resides in the sea, there's obviously a lot more out there besides cod, haddock and plaice. Another exotic but almost unknown organism that inhabits British waters is Regalecus glesne, a species of oarfish that grows up to 11 metres long and is therefore probably the longest bony fish in existence today. With more than a passing resemblance to the classic sea serpent of yore this king of herrings has rarely been seen alive, with only around fifty known strandings over the past two and a half centuries. Incidentally, this category excludes the cartilaginous basking shark, at 20 tons the second largest fish in the world and commonly to be found around the British coastline. Lucky for us, it's a filter feeder!

For a nation where it is impossible to live much more than 100 km from the sea, we appear astoundingly ignorant of our marine neighbourhood. In an early example of what has now become a cliché, pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson pointed out in The Sea Around Us (1951), that the oceans remain the last great frontier on Earth. We are only now realising just how little we know about the role marine organisms play in everything from climate stability to food chains. Speaking of marine cuisine, a thoughtful example of changing attitudes can be found in Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 novel The Deep Range, which concerns the herding of whales for food, at least until a Buddhist leader campaigns for the slaughter to stop. Interestingly, it was the recordings of humpback whale song in the 1960s that started the anti-whaling movement, gaining popularity through the 1970s (including a UK top-forty single Don't Kill the Whale in 1978), leading to an eventual, if not outright, ban in 1986. Not that, if given half a chance, several nations wouldn't like to see 'scientific whaling' increased to the level of commercial operations...

If whaling shows the traditional viewpoint of the oceans as a limitless larder, another popular notion but somewhat at odds is to treat the sea as an ever-obliging rubbish tip. Despite the likes of Jacques Cousteau starting campaigns as early as 1960 to halt the dumping of nuclear waste from ships, it is generally recognised that the Irish Sea is one of the most radioactive in the world thanks to land-based pipelines. The rest of our coastal waters aren't much better off, being subject to pollution from oil, bilge water, sewage and nitrogen fertiliser run-off, all of which do little for the health of marine organisms. As an extreme example, in 1988 half of Britain's seal colonies were lost due to immune deficiency linked to pollution, with smaller-scale outbreaks reoccurring since.

Going back to the perception of the sea as a food store par excellence, the E.U. announced last year that over 80% of fish stocks in the region were over-fished, the classic example of the fishfinger's friend, North Atlantic cod, having reduced by over 98% in three decades. Whilst many people may not worry whether their children eat pollock/pollack or coley instead, a rapid decline in a few species could have unforeseen consequences, as with the proliferation of a rapidly expanding Humboldt squid population which is currently supplanting the dwindling number of sharks as top predator off Mexico's west coast.

But at least as important as well-known species are the minute marine organisms that will continue to require a high level of research for decades to come. Microscopic phytoplankton are responsible for at least half of all photosynthetic activity, thereby regulating atmospheric oxygen content, in addition to being the base of many food chains. Evidence is even beginning to favour the CLAW hypothesis (the 'L' being co-author James Lovelock), in which one group of phytoplankton is viewed as an essential component of the cloud condensation cycle. So what happens 'down there' may have an enormous influence of what goes on over our heads. The Gaia hypothesis (in the strictest feedback loop sense) could be alive and well, after all...

Whilst we are currently lacking the kind of public fervour seen in the 1970s anti-whaling campaigns, marine biology in the UK appears to be flourishing. There are about sixty higher education courses to chose from with an apparently good success rate in obtaining relating jobs. The subject is often taught as one of several components, including conservation and oceanography; what interests me is this way it so readily interacts with other disciplines, ranging from chemistry to meteorology, and thereby uses a wide gamut of scientific tools, from observation satellites to remotely-operated vehicles or ROVs. On that basis alone it is currently one of the most exciting areas of science in Britain, as well as being increasingly relevant to our quality of life. One scheme involving British scientists in recent years was some of the earliest research into pouring iron sulphate powder into the oceans, in an effort to stimulate plankton production (and thereby other marine life), reduce carbon dioxide, and decrease atmospheric temperature. The recent licences issued for nine new offshore wind farms around the UK will presumably provide research for marine biologists too, as current studies indicate the short-term disruption is more than compensated for by the turbines doubling as artificial reefs.

An example outside the scope of the promising Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 but now under active consultation, is the controversial campaign to turn the Chagos archipelago in the British Indian Ocean Territory into the world's largest marine reserve. Although protection status would obviously be a positive move, the primary downside would be the permanent dispossession of the local inhabitants: such is the complexity facing sustainable development projects. Closer to home, we can't all be involved in marine conservation, but it's very easy for anyone to help preserve biodiversity - simply find an alternative to cod to go with your chips!

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