Seagrass Spill the Beans on Ecosystem Health

The rocky shoreline of the West Coast is a beautiful, yet perilous place. Humans can add to stress to the ecosystem through overfishing, pollution, and development. A research team assessed the health of this environment by studying seagrass beds along the coast. Seagrasses are critical in this habitat, as they provide shoreline protection for humans, and food and shelter for marine critters. Their results showed that highly developed areas are contributing nitrogen pollution and causing a decline in the seagrass population. Luckily, action can be taken to help reduce these impacts and restore the health of this ecosystem.

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Summertime Sadness: Hurricanes and Water Quality

Hurricanes are natural disasters that can turn water quality nasty! Just how nasty depends on what’s on the land that’s being flooded. Hurricane Fran (1996) struck the Cape Fear region in southeastern North Carolina, and researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington noticed dissolved oxygen plummeted as a result of swamp water and swine farm waste flooding. The lack of oxygen in the water caused widespread death of fish and critters living in the bottom of the rivers, not to mention all that sewage introduced bacteria and disease into the environment! Swamp water flooding may be a natural, unavoidable consequence of hurricanes, but we must have policies and practices in place to reduce further degrading water quality from human activities.

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Going, going, gone! Living shorelines send nitrogen packin’!

Coastal wetlands provide critical ecological services, but are rapidly disappearing from the planet. Salt marshes are a type of coastal wetland that provides habitat, food, and shelter, while preventing erosion, and protecting our water quality. Researchers are investigating how well reduce nutrient pollution, specifically nitrogen, from terrestrial and aquatic environments. A recent study discovered that living shorelines such as salt marshes are quite effective at removing nitrogen, especially in the first seven years after construction. These findings indicate that living shorelines are an effective solution to coastal pollution challenges.

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Endangered Species Act: Headed for Extinction?

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a law designed to protect and recover endangered species of plants, animals, and ecosystems, and in turn, preserve our nation’s ecological history and functionality. However, there has been a recent push to overhaul the ESA in favor of economic opportunities. This would relieve the burden carried by landowners and industries who have been hampered by ESA restrictions, but would strip protections on species already listed on the ESA and make it more difficult to add species to the list. Left unprotected, those endangered species would be left to go extinct, and the ecological functions they serve within their ecosystem could collapse or irreversibly shift their biomes. With human activity responsible for current accelerated extinction rates, this is the time for urgent action on conservation, not a time to overhaul the law designed to protect our nation’s species and ecosystems.

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The Fate of Our Microplastics

Microplastics, or plastics smaller than a sesame seed, have become a growing concern for marine environments. A majority of facial cleaners contain microplastics, such as microbeads or micro exfoliates, which get washed down the sink drain and end up in our oceans. A research team in Auckland, New Zealand investigated four local brands, and determined all four brands contained about 150 microplastics per 1.5 grams of cleanser. Most were around the size of a grain of sand, and some were irregularly shaped and susceptible to breaking down into smaller pieces. The apprehension of these findings is that small plastic particles could be confused for food by microscopic marine life, and the plastic could accumulate up the food chain and harm marine life. Furthermore, microplastics can also accumulate chemical toxins in the ocean, and their environmentally persistent nature allows for them to become more toxic as they age. Therefore, simple measures such as using organic facial cleansers, and becoming more aware of our daily habits and products use, are essential to reducing ocean pollution.

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Are Harmful Algal Blooms a New Concern For Coral Reefs?

Coral reefs are marine invertebrates that create a diverse ecosystem that supports sea life, fish communities, and humans. Corals have a symbiotic relationship with the algae that grows inside their shell, providing coral food through photosynthesis, and allowing the coral to expand its reef. However, coral reefs are already under pressure from a changing ocean climate, human pollution, overfishing, and development, all which can stress the coral and their algae counterparts. Harmful algal blooms (HABs), a consequence of human derived nutrient pollution, were investigated to determine their impact to coral reef or fish communities. Reef and fish communities at two sites in the Gulf of Oman were surveyed before and after a HAB in 2008. One site saw coral reef abundance reduced from 53% before the bloom, to 6% after, and both sites had a significant decrease in total fish biomass. These results demonstrate that HABs have a negative impact on both coral and fish communities. HABs cloud surface waters, preventing the coral’s algae from photosynthesizing and providing food for corals. Once the HAB dies, it decays and depletes the oxygen along the seafloor, suffocating corals. These changes to corals impact fish, as a struggling coral reef cannot provide food and shelter to attract sea life and fish communities. These impacts are felt by the nearly 30 million people that depend on coral reefs for their livelihood. Nutrient pollution to coastal waters resulting in HABs, along with other stressors, need to be addressed to safeguard coral reef ecosystems for the future.

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Are Warmer Waters More Toxic?

Cyanobacteria are an aquatic microorganism that releases a toxin known as microcystin, which can negatively impact water quality and endanger human health. They need sunlight and nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) to grow, but are dependent on other environmental factors such as water temperature. A research team in Ohio focused their research on how water temperatures affect cyanobacteria abundance and microcystin concentration in water. The results demonstrate that water temperature can be used to forecast cyanobacteria growth and toxin severity.

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Protecting Our Beaches From an Unlikely Foe.

Coastal areas are prone to pollution from fecal bacteria, which are known to be associated with viruses and disease. When it rains, roads and sidewalks wash pet and wildlife waste into storm drains, which end up in our waterways. This can endanger human health, and cause economic losses to shellfishing businesses and tourism. A study conducted before and after installation of stormwater filtration infrastructure showed tremendous success in reducing fecal bacteria loads in Wrightsville Beach, NC, and stands as an example for other coastal areas looking to address their fecal pollution issues.

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Don’t Throw That Out! Turning Dairy Waste into Microalgae Products.

Wastewater produced on dairy farms can be a tough challenge for small and medium sized farms. High-tech treatment methods work for large farms, but smaller farms need a more effective way to treat their wastewater. Discharged without treatment, wastewater can highly endanger aquatic systems, deteriorate water quality, and has cost the US billions annually to clean up. This study’s research shows the potential to turn that waste back into commercial products by growing microalgae. Because wastewater is rich in the nutrients microalgae need to grow, it can be harvested and turned into biofuels, biofertilizers, animal feed, and other products. This provides smaller farms with a method to treat their wastewater and turn it into a usable commercial product.

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