Fiorenza Micheli: The race to save the ocean - Lake Harding Association

Fiorenza Micheli: The race to save the ocean

Fiorenza Micheli: The race to save the ocean

By Micah Moen 0 Comment March 20, 2020


– Today on The Future of Everything: The future of our oceans. Anyone who’s looked at
a globe, a world globe, Earth globe, knows that most of the Earth is covered with water and the oceans. Oceans have been on our mind recently because they are rising,
and we are worried about the future of flooding because they seem like they are polluted, especially by plastics and
other human-generated waste, and because they seem to be contributing to strange weather patterns. Warming, cooling, storms,
many other things. Oceans, of course, are also the homes of an amazing diversity of life from algae and plankton
to sharks to huge whales. These ecosystems are not
only affected by warming, but also things like the
carbon dioxide levels, chemical changes, and many other pressures that change the living
conditions of ocean life. And of course, these changes affect humans both directly and indirectly in many ways. I think most concretely our
access to healthy fish for food can be jeopardized by
pollution, temperature changes, and changes in the chemical
composition, but more generally it can change the overall
health of the ocean life and the life of the whole planet. Professor Fiorenza Micheli is a professor of biology and marine
science and a Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods
Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. Fio, where does your deep
interest in oceans come from, and what are the big scientific challenges in understanding the
ocean that are facing you and your colleagues these days? – Thank you for having me here. So I started being interested in oceans as far back as I can remember. As a kid, I grew up in Italy
by the Mediterranean Sea. I spent a lot of time by
the sea and the water, and I was just fascinated
with marine life. And then, when I found out that
that could be my profession, that it could become a profession, basically I took that path
and never looked back, and I feel, uh, I have
the dream job basically. And you know, nothing, I
couldn’t hope for anything better than this. – It is extremely fun to
review your publications because there are so many
topics that are fascinating, but let’s go to one that I think you’ve been working on recently. I know there’s many things
you’ve been working on, but one is the effect of
carbon dioxide on biodiversity and on life itself. And there’s many other
things that I want to get to, but if I understand, one of
the things you’ve done is you’ve gone to these
naturally-occurring sources of carbon dioxide and looked, like, close to them, medium, and far, what are the impacts on ocean life. Can you tell us about
what motivated that work, and what did you find? – Yes, ocean acidification,
you were asking what are the– – Acidification. – Yeah, what are the big challenges? Well, one is climate change
in ocean acidification. So oceans absorb, um, about
30% of the carbon dioxide we produce since the
Industrial Revolution. And so, they play a very important role in buffering, y’know, the
atmosphere from these increases. But then at the same
time, they’re impacted. The sea water is becoming more acidic, and this is affecting marine life. So to get a better understanding
of what does this mean, saying what are the implications for marine biodiversity and marine life, we are using underwater
carbon dioxide vents as a natural laboratory. – Okay. – These are places in the
southern part of Italy, where I’m from, so it’s quite convenient.
– How convenient! – Yes. I can go there and then hop on
home and say hi to everyone. – So when you say “south” is
this, like, Sicily or not– – Uh, Naples! The Gulf of Naples. So, in the Gulf of Naples,
there’s two little islands, Capri and Ischia, and, um,
around the coast of Ischia, which is volcanically active areas, uh, there’s essentially cracks
in the bottom of the sea from which carbon dioxide bubbles up. It looks like a jacuzzi. – Okay. – And these bubbles of carbon dioxide, as they come in contact with
the water, acidify the water. And as you were explaining,
next to the vents where the emission is
really intense, the pH, a measure of the acidity
of the water, is very low. Extremely low. Far lower than we expect, even under the most dire projection to the end of this century. A little farther away, it gets to levels that we anticipate seeing in our oceans in the next decades. And then– – So it’s almost like a
preview of the future. – Yeah. We call it a crystal ball. – Crystal ball. – Basically, it’s a voyage
to the future of the ocean that we can use to see, not
only how individual species respond to acidification,
which scientists have been investigating in their
laboratories for example, but how whole ecosystems respond, because entire reef ecosystems
are exposed to this. And what we found is that acidification, even at these moderate levels
that we anticipate seeing relatively soon, diversity declines. We lose many species. But we don’t lose all species. We talk about winners and
losers because there are, in fact, species that actually do better because they don’t have
predators or competitors, for example. – So if you could figure
out how to sustain yourself in that low pH area, there’s some upside–
– You can thrive. But unfortunately, when you’re
looking at the whole system and how it functions, how it works, there is an overall loss. So even though some species thrive, those that are negatively
impacted tend to be species that provide habitat
for other species, food, they regulate the system through
their predation activities. And so, the net result is a loss of what we call functional redundancy, a measure of the extent to which
species are interchangeable in their role in the ecosystem. In their ecological role. – You get worried if
the diversity is too low because then you have a
single point of failure of the ecosystem.
– Exactly. – One bad virus or whatever,
and then the whole thing can go down very fast. – The food webs become shorter, the ecosystem becomes less complex, and it becomes vulnerable because there’s just fewer options, basically. – Do you see, um, evolution? Do you see, I don’t know
if the timescales of this are compatible with having the organisms actually evolve and change their DNA in response to these environments. One of the questions that people ask is “Is global warming happening too fast for organisms to adapt?” And I would guess you might
get some data on this question, I don’t know. – So the vents we have been
working at are too new, really, because they probably resulted
from a small earthquake that happened just 20 years ago. – Oh, okay. – And so we haven’t. But in other systems, yes. There is evidence of
some adaptation capacity, but the question remains “Is change happening to fast?” And indeed it is. We are seeing, in a new
analysis we just published, we looked at the cumulative
impact from climate change, acidification, and other pressures like fishing and pollution on the ocean, and over the past decade
in about 60% of the oceans, the cumulative impact has
increased significantly. So this is very, very fast. Just in a few years, we
are seeing an expansion, so it brings up the question “Is there enough time?” – Right. So this is The Future of
Everything, I’m Russ Altman. I’m speaking with Professor
Fio Micheli about oceans, and I wanted to move from
carbon dioxide acidification and the impacts there which, in summary, were a concerning loss of diversity. I know that you also
look at what I find to be a very interesting human-ocean
interaction with fishing, and I know you’ve done a
lot of work in this area. First of all, what’s
the issue with fishing? Because there’s many potential issues, so what are the ones that you focus on? And then I’d love to hear, because I know that you’ve
also made some interventions, almost experiments, with nature and humans to try to address these problems. So please. – Yeah so fishing, and more generally production of seafood from the ocean, is one of the most important services, one of the most important benefits that we get from the ocean. And the problem with fishing
is that we fish too much. – It’s too delicious. – Yes. It’s too delicious, we fish too much, and we don’t fish well. We fish sometimes with gear and, no, and in places that cause damage. So the trends in fishing
are unsustainable, and the amount of catch
that we produce worldwide has leveled off in the 90’s. And despite increases in
effort, we spend more time, we have bigger boats, we go farther away, we are still not catching more. So that shows that– – That’s very concerning. – Yes. At this rate– – So a fisherman from 50 years ago would have a day and he would wonder “Why is this my worst day ever?” – Yes, exactly. And we’ve seen this shift
in baseline, we called it, where people on their best day
years ago is unthinkable now, and the worst day is the norm now. So that is the problem. The solutions include
protection, paradoxically. Protecting parts of the
ocean results in more fish– – You mean saying “Please
don’t fish here anymore.” And I’m sure that’s very popular. – Yes. (chuckles) Although it’s happening
now at higher rates, so protection is expanding
but not fast enough. And the idea is to set
aside portions of the ocean to just let fishes basically
recover and ecosystems recover. And the establishment of protected areas and marine protected areas
not only can benefit fishing, but has been shown to
provide some resilience from climate impacts. And the way we have seen this work in marine reserves here
in the California quadrant where we have been working
for over 15 years now is that, essentially, if
you don’t catch fishes or other marine creatures,
they become bigger. They are older and bigger. – Okay. – And this results in a disproportionate reproductive output. They produce way more
eggs when they’re larger than when they’re smaller. – So a big fish is a productive fish. – Yes. And they’re called the BOFFs. The Big Old Fucking Fishes. (both laugh) These larger super producers
are really important in populations because we have seen that with mass mortality
associated with climate change and particularly hypoxia, when the oxygen levels in
the water become too low and animals suffocate and
die, the few that survive, the BOFFs that survive actually make up for the loss of the others. The babies that they
produce are so plentiful that they replenish the area,
both in marine protected areas and around around them
because in the ocean eggs are largely dispersed with currents, and so they’re taken elsewhere. – So these are hugely important. – So they’re very important– – They’re almost like,
uh, I’m thinking of, like, pluripotent stem cells that
can repopulate a population. – It’s an important engine. – It’s proportionally important. – So that is very important. And then, the other
approaches that have shown great success in fisheries are actually allocating rights to people. So open fishing is what we
call an Open Access system. People go out and fish– – If your boat can get
there, you can fish. – You can fish. If you can get
in the middle of the ocean, you go in the middle of the ocean. But increasingly, approaches
to fisheries management have included rights. Where people have
territories where they’re the only one who can fish, or
get assigned a quota to catch. It’s called individual
transferable quotas, and this creates incentives
for better fishing. There’s a stake in
maintaining the resources in the long term, and so this
has also proved effective. – So just so I understand, in this case are you actually giving
a geographically defined, like by GPS, region? Almost like a farm on land– – Yes. – But this is like a farm in the sea, and then the individual
fisherperson has to decide “Do I overfish and risk
the value of my plot, or do I be a little more
moderate to try to make sure that the long term value is maintained?” – That is exactly right. And interestingly, often it’s not the case of individual fishers, but it’s
cooperatives or coalitions. And so there are communities
that come together to make these kind of decisions. This is The Future of
Everything, I’m Russ Altman. I’m speaking with Professor Fio Micheli about fisheries right
now, and I wanted to ask for these protected
regions, one of the, uh, I love the idea that
science can inform this because it makes sense as a general idea, but of course the details matter. How big of an area must be protected to have a meaningful
impact on the quality? I can imagine that if it’s
five feet by five feet, this is a ridiculous example, a five feet protected
area will do nothing. And I don’t know if it
needs to be a 10 mile region or a 20 mile region. What is the science telling us about the minimal productive
size of a protected area? – That varies greatly depending on the characteristics or the
species or the habitat, but in marines, we were
talking about dispersal. The fact that animals
and lava and materials can disperse longer distances in the ocean can be used to build networks
of small protected areas that as a whole function as a unit to protect species and
fisheries over a large scale. And so California in the United States was a pioneer in establishing one of the first networks
of protected areas. – So when you say network,
is just a series of islands that are kind of close
enough so that the fish can move between them and, essentially, have a larger protected range without having to protect
the entire region. – That’s exactly right. – That’s a great idea. And I can imagine mathematicians getting very excited about this. – Oh yes. Done all sorts of modeling exercise and understanding where and
how much and how far away, but it’s an approach to
protecting a very large area while, at the same
time, allowing for users without excluding people from fishing, or for recreational users over very large areas of the coast. And then, increasingly, protection
is established offshore. We’ve been working with
Center for Ocean Solutions recently and partners
on this case off Palau, the Republic of Palau
in the western Pacific, that as of January 1st, a month ago, has established one of the
largest protected areas in their waters. It’s larger than the
whole state of California. – And it surrounds this island? – It surrounds it. We call it Donut Sanctuary. It surrounds the
archipelago and leaves area around the land and a little strip going out into the high
seas open to fishing for the development and
use of Palauan fisheries. – Fascinating. So this, what was it about this
island and their leadership and their population that
enabled what sounds like a huge societal decision? Were they at risk, or were they suffering and seeing imminent problems? – Yes, small island
nations are perhaps among the most vulnerable system
because they depend on oceans for everything, and they’re
also very vulnerable to climate change and sea levels rising, so there’s really no other place to go. And so because small
island nations increasing, we call them big ocean
states because they depend and manage and own such
vast areas of the ocean. And so among small island nations, Palau has been a leader in protection starting with establishment
of coastal network of small marine protected
areas, and then now moving into the high seas with
establishing protection of their waters and important
fisheries like tuna fisheries. – Did this require them to address changes in international ocean laws? Because I know there are
rules about how far out from your coast you can claim dominion, and did they have to
bend some of those rules in order to protect the surrounding water? – In the case of Palau,
the protection concerns their exclusive economic zone in which they have jurisdiction, but increasingly we’re looking to areas beyond national
jurisdiction into high seas and protection into high seas, and I’ve been recently
involved in the establishment of a protected area in
the Mediterranean in fact, in the Adriatic Sea, in the high seas outside of the territorial
jurisdiction of countries. So this area now protects
an area of the seafloor from trawling, from bottom trawling, which is a fishing type that uses gear that destroys the bottom, essentially, and it’s waters comprised
between the territorial waters of Italy and Croatia. And so there are now some
mechanisms, legal mechanisms, and treaties that allowed
establishment of protected areas beyond the exclusive economic zones. – This is The Future of
Everything, I’m Russ Altman. More with Professor Fiorenza
Micheli about the oceans, the seas, fisheries, next on Sirius XM. Welcome back to The Future of
Everything, I’m Russ Altman. I’m speaking with Professor
Fiorenza Micheli about oceans, fishes, and ocean life and biodiversity, and I wanted to turn this
part of our conversation to some of the work you’ve
done on specific species, species of interest, or
species that are easier for you to study. And of course, everybody
loves to think about sharks, and I know you’ve published about sharks. What is special about
sharks as a target organism for you to study, and what have we learned about the impacts of all
of these multiple pressures on shark life? – Sharks are interesting because it’s an ancient group of species. They’ve been around for a very long time. But their life history, their life cycle, makes them very vulnerable to
overfishing and other impacts. They mature late in life,
they produce few young, and now they’re the
target of shark finning, which is a really valuable– – So there are cultures that
value pieces of the shark. – Pieces of the sharks, and that results in the death of too many sharks for what this population can sustain. The reason we’re
fascinated by them is that they play a real important
role in ecosystems. As predators, they can set in motion a cascade of interactions that goes all the way down to the reef. Their presence, by scaring other species, and their feeding activity
affects the whole ecosystem. They also connect to distant systems. In work we have done with grey reef sharks in the Line Islands in the
middle of the Pacific Ocean, we found that sharks spend time on reefs, so they’re called reef sharks,
but they also feed offshore. You know, far away. And so they connect different ecosystems and draw on the productivity
of a much larger ecosystem. And so as a result, many
unexploited ecosystems are what we call top-heavy. A lot of the biomass is at
the top of the food web. – The big animals? – It’s almost an inverted pyramid. We tend to think of
food webs as a pyramid, but it’s really the other way around. And so as we deplete
sharks, not only do we impact populations that are
endangered in many cases, but we also alter the
functioning of whole ecosystems. – Now are these, you described
this inverted pyramid, is that an unstable situation
or can that be stable? It just seems to me counterintuitive
that it could ever work because if you have too many
predators and not enough prey, that doesn’t seem like it’s
gonna work for very long. But are there stable
systems that are inverted? – Yes, the reason the systems are stable is that the top of the
food web draws energy on a much larger area, and so they don’t depend on that productivity of just a focal ecosystem. They’re mobile, and they
feed on a much larger area. In fact, they connect distant ecosystems, like offshore and reef ecosystems. – So in some ways, it sounds
like you’re saying that if we study sharks, it’s
a way to biopsy the health of the entire ecosystem. So, referring back to
our previous discussion, that suggests to me that if
you have these protected areas, the sharks in those areas
might be, like, doing well. – Yes. They’re sentinels of
the health of the ocean, along with many other
species and habitats. For example, species that
form important habitats, like coral reefs and mangrove
forests and seagrass beds, or kelp forests here in California. Those species, they’re
called foundation species, and the predators are the sentinels of how healthy an ecosystem is. – Yes, this makes perfect sense. This is The Future of
Everything, I’m Russ Altman. I’m speaking with Fio Micheli
about sharks and other things. So, I wanted to also ask, two
areas that I want to go to. One is I believe you’ve studied
the impact of fish farms, where they create, I guess, enclosed areas where they grow salmon or shrimp, and the impacts on the ecosystem of these. I wanted to find out
about where we are there because I know that there are
now scorecards that come out about things that you can
eat, and it’s not always easy to guess what the answer
is, and so I just wonder if you have things to
say about the safety, the food supply of farmed
fish, and farmed sea products. – So farming, in
aquaculture and mariculture, are incredibly important means
of addressing food security. Recent estimates tell us
that the potential of growth, for producing, is in
aquaculture and mariculture. So doing that well, doing
it in the right places with the right procedure
is incredibly important because there’s a lot at stake. Some aquaculture corporations
have an environmental impact. Destroying coastal habitat, use antibiotic and other substances that are toxic to us. – It’s like cows all over again. – Yes. So I think we can learn from land, maybe, on how to be better. So there are several
important aspects of this. One is that even the most
sustainable operations, at some point, at some
scales, can cause impact. Work we’ve done in China, in Sango Bay, shows that the very large
operations that exist there, whole bays basically apply
for this, at some point result in the decreased
productivity of the system. There’s just too much taken out of it. So we need to better understand, and really do the science in collaboration with the producers to understand how can we improve on the feed they use, the water practices that result in sustainable and healthy seafood,
so a lot to be done there. Organizations like Seafood
Watch, which is based in Monterey Bay Aquarium,
Marine Stewardship Council, are developing standards,
a way of assessing the sustainability and
health of these operations. – Are these the ones that may have given me my little scorecards? – Yeah, so those are the cards! Exactly. It’s basically telling
consumers, but also businesses, companies that trade seafood,
where we are on the right path and where instead improvements are needed, and that color scale
signals that progression from red to green. – This image that you’ve
painted, I really like that. As we think about the ocean, we might want to think about this network, and there will be areas where
there are fisheries and farms, there will be protected areas,
there will be other areas. But I wanted to end by
asking you about technology and the ways in which
technology is helping us make the kinds of
measurements and observations that are important for your work. – One of the major challenges with oceans is that they’re enormous, and so it’s very hard to know what’s happening. A recent revolution involves technologies. For example, vessel tracking systems. The were initially developed
as anti-collision devices for safety, and now allow
us to see what is happening in the oceans everywhere. Where there’s fishing, where
there’s deep sea mining, where there’s transportation– – Most boats are labeled with
one of these transponders? – So, most boats above a certain size. – Ah, okay. – So large boats have
mandatory use of these systems, but smaller boats don’t,
so there’s a lot to be done in developing the technology
that will allow us to track all vessels, all activities. But Global Fishing
Watch, this organization that is tracking large vessels, has developed this incredible
resource and database that gets updated in real time. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of many technological development. Inexpensive technologies
for monitoring water quality like pH and oxygen, and
technologies like Environmental DNA that allow us to establish
the diversity in the water, and also the quality of the– – Literally like DNA
sequencing of a scoop of ocean. – Yeah, a liter of water! So there’s so much of this happening now. This is such an exciting
time, and at the same time we need to ramp up the pace of solutions and innovation for
oceans, and so all of this is happening right now. – So there’s gonna be this
great, like many other areas, we’re gonna have a big data for ocean, and we’re gonna try to
address the questions that we’ve been discussing. Well, thank you for listening to The Future of Everything, I’m Russ Altman. If you missed any of this
episode, listen any time on demand with the Sirius XM app.

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