The health of marine ecosystems is declining. So says James Douglass, a marine ecologist working at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida. Unfortunately, there are many factors behind these declines, both man-made and natural, and it can be challenging to figure out which are the most significant and how we should address them."
These are just some of the questions James asks himself almost everyday as he continues to research this and other matters of marine ecosystems, his goal being to describe and protect the biological diversity and beneficial functions of coastal marine habits. As the oceans are threatened by both its natural ups and downs and issues like decreasing water quality and too much of an overharvest of important marine species, James continues to research what might truly be the cause.
He writes about his experiences on his site: James' Blog, where he also gets to boast about his windsurfing expeditions.
As if he didn't already have his hands full with all this, James is also working on a postdoctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Marine Science Network, where he compares food-web structure and grazing impacts on seagrass in no-take marine reserves versus areas where people are fishing.
The marine ecologist shared some thoughts on his work with The Reef Tank.
How important was marine life to you in your childhood and did it pave the way for your current career in marine ecology?
Marine life was hugely important to me as a kid. I think the marine phase started for me in early grade school, around the time the dinosaur phase was winding down. My family was very supportive- we watched a lot of nature shows together on PBS, and my mom was a children’s librarian who found a lot of illustrated sea life books for me to read. I was also lucky enough to live next to Puget Sound in Olympia, Washington, where I spent tons of time fishing, beachcombing, digging clams, etc. (Recently, I got a kick out of reading Jim Lynch’s 2005 novel, “The Highest Tide”, about a beachcombing youth in Olympia who has some of the same seashore experiences that I had growing up, along with some exciting, romantic adventures of the sort that I only daydreamed about.) In high school I got scuba certified with one of my good buddies, and we did a lot of cold-water shore dives around the sound and Hood Canal. By that point I definitely knew I wanted to pursue a marine biology career.
What was it like at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, where you studied invertebrate grazers and Cheseapeake Bay eelgrass beds.
VIMS, which is located in a small, waterfront town near Yorktown, Virginia, was a great environment for research and a great community to be a part of for the six years it took to get my PhD. My graduate advisor, Dr. J. Emmett Duffy was a brilliant workaholic, inspiringly dedicated to conservation-oriented research and tackling “big issues” in ecology. I still follow his science and environmentalism blog at www.naturalpatriot.org. My own research at VIMS built off Duffy’s insights from eelgrass experiments performed in small aquariums. I tried to extrapolate the grazing and predation effects we observed in the aquariums to the actual dynamics of eelgrass communities in Chesapeake Bay. There were a lot of differences between what I saw in nature and what we saw in the aquariums, which helped us realize the importance of some large-scale environmental processes like climate variation, and exchanges of organisms among interconnected habitats. What kinds of things have you been noticing about marine ecosystems in your current studies?
There are two main things I’ve been noticing. 1, the health of marine ecosystems is declining virtually everywhere I go, from the already-very-polluted Cheseapeake Bay to the no-longer-pristine Belize Barrier Reef. 2, spatial and temporal variability in marine ecosystems is huge. I.e. marine plants and animals are very patchily distributed in space, and go through wild swings in abundance as the seasons change, and from year to year. The causes of these changes are often poorly understood- are they natural ups and downs, or are they the result of human impacts on the oceans? Long-term monitoring studies of marine ecosystems are one of the best ways to get a handle on which changes are natural, and which changes indicate degradation by humans. Of course, we need not wait until all the results are in to start saving the oceans, because we already know quite a bit about how certain human activities are harmful to marine life.
When you say that coastal oceans are being threatened by both decreasing water quality and overharvest of ecologically important marine species, how did you come across this conclusion?
When I talk about decreasing water quality, I’m mainly talking about excess nutrients causing overgrowth of algae, including phytoplankton suspended in the water and macroalgae growing on the bottom. Algae overgrowth is known as eutrophication, and I see it and hear about it happening almost everywhere. It tends to be worse where the population is dense, because humans add nutrients through sewage, fertilizer, urban runoff, etc., and destroy the natural forest and wetland filters that keep nutrients out of the water. It can also happen far away from people, though, because of nutrients that settle out of air pollution, so it’s really a global-scale problem. The most obvious symptom of eutrophication is murky, green, brown, or red water. Ask any old-timer what the water used to be like where you live, and he or she will almost always say it used to be much clearer. Eutrophication is also associated with loss of sensitive benthic (bottom) habitats like reefs and seagrass beds, which need clear water to get enough light, and can’t compete with fast-growing seaweeds when nutrients are abundant.
Some of the ecologically-important marine species I’m alluding to can counteract moderate eutrophication. Filter-feeders like oysters can clarify the water by sucking up phytoplankton, and grazers like urchins, snails, and some fish and crustaceans, can keep seaweeds from overrunning reefs and seagrass beds. Marine predators, like the big fish preferred by human fishermen, are important in the food chains that maintain proper numbers of filter feeders and grazers, so they play an indirect role in preventing eutrophication. There are a number of instances where overfishing has caused eutrophication or other negative ecological changes, even in the absence of nutrient pollution. The combined effect of humans removing massive amounts of predators and adding massive amounts of nutrients to the ocean is causing what scientific power couple Drs. Nancy Knowlton and Jeremy Jackson have called “the rise of the slime”; an increasing dominance of yucky algae, bacteria, and gelatinous organisms.
Tell me about the Smithsonian Marine Science Network in Florida and your role there.
The Smithsonian Marine Science Network is based around four research stations; one in Edgewater, MD, one in Fort Pierce, FL, one on Carrie Bow Caye, Belize, and on in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The stations have a permanent staff of museum scientists, plus a constantly changing crew of postdoctoral research fellows like me, who are funded by the Smithsonian for 1-2 years to work on specific research projects. My research project is a study of the indirect effects of overfishing on seagrass beds. I’m based in Fort Pierce, because my main study site is nearby in the Banana River Lagoon. Half of the Banana River Lagoon is protected from overfishing because it’s inside the Kennedy Space Center, but the other half is heavily fished, so it’s the perfect setting for my study. I’m also comparing inside and outside marine reserves in the Florida Keys and in Belize.
What the most interesting piece of research or marine biology news you’ve ever reported on for your personal marine biology blog?
That’s tough to say. I don’t try to comprehensively cover new marine biology news and research in my personal blog, but I do post marine biology stuff when I get particularly excited or riled up about it. One post that I hope everyone reads is about how CO2 is not only causing global warming, but it’s also causing the oceans to become more acidic, dissolving coral reefs. Another that I put a lot of effort into was about seagrass ecology and conservation, particularly eelgrass in Chesapeake Bay.
On a side note, how did you take up windsurfing?
My dad got into windsurfing on Green Lake in Seattle in the late 1970s, shortly after the sport was invented. He started trying to teach me as soon as I was old enough ( http://jimbodouglass.blogspot.com/2009/08/30-day.html ) but I was intimidated at first, and didn’t begin to actually windsurfing enjoy until I was a teenager. I didn’t windsurf much during college, but when I started grad school at VIMS I took a set of my dad’s old equipment and started riding on Chesapeake Bay every chance I got. That’s when I became truly obsessed with it. I scrimped from my small grad student stipend to buy some better equipment, and hooked up with the Windsurfing Enthusiasts of Tidewater windsurfing club (www.sailwet.com). Windsurfing is peculiar in that it’s easy to learn the basics of light-wind, slow-speed sailing, but it takes a lot of effort and determination to progress into the high-speed, high-performance side of the sport. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s amazing. It’s also much, much safer than kiteboarding.
Do you think someone who owns an aquarium can be considered a marine conservationist?
I’m sure anyone who takes care of an aquarium realizes how delicate and sensitive his or her miniature “ecosystem” is, and develops some appreciation for the importance of maintaining the proper balance in real ocean ecosystems, as well. What are some of the biggest issues facing marine ecosystems today?
We’re taking too much good stuff out of the ocean (i.e. overfishing) at the same time we’re putting too much bad stuff into it (i.e. nutrient pollution, CO2, plastic garbage, toxic compounds, and non-native species). We desperately need to bring both the removals and the inputs down to a level that the marine ecosystem can actually sustain. That means we need to curb our careless consumption and waste, and, even though people don’t like to talk about it, we seriously need to stop human population.