A 20-something Environmentalist at Blue Vision Summit 4

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By now, you have all been bombarded by the phrases “go green” and “be sustainable” in the media, in advertising and from peers, but have you heard of the phrase “go blue?”

Not to give you all horrible SAT flashbacks, but “blue” is to the ocean as “green” is to the environment. So, when I attended the Blue Vision Summit in Washington, D.C. last week, I expected to learn more about ocean policies and helping to protect the marine environment, but I never expected to find myself submerged so deeply into ocean issues with such an interesting group of people from all over America and abroad.

Blue Vision Summit (BVS) is held every other year in Washington, D.C. and serves as one of the nation’s largest ocean movement strategy conference. BVS brings hundreds of individuals concerned about the ocean and marine conservation together to take unified action on key issues and policies impacting the ocean. Each Summit reserves one day for advocates to meet and educate members of Congress on Capital Hall.

BVS is organized by Blue Frontier Campaign, a group, founded in 2003, that “highlights the economic, environmental, recreational and spiritual benefits of healthy and abundant seas…through outreach and service to hundreds of marine grassroots organizations.” Blue Frontier works to unite grassroots groups together with “private, civil and governmental organizations for the purpose of creating a visible and effective blue movement to advance sound policies and practices from coastal watersheds to deep ocean waters.”

Blue Vision Summit 2013 focused on three areas: responding to coastal disasters like Superstorm Sandy in ways that will protect ecosystems, making climate change a blue issue, and highlighting youth leadership for ocean conservation.

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Claudio Garzon’s shark sculpture made out of plastic debris found on the beach.

BVS carried out these themes in a variety of different ways. The first night of the conference, we all learned about marine debris from “artivists” (artist + activist = artivist) or “creative conservationists” who showed us their work. Many of the artivists used plastic debris collected on their local beaches to make beautiful art with a message.

We also watched a number of interesting documentaries about ocean conservation issues. My favorite was a short animated film called the “Song of the Spindle,” about a conversation between a man and a whale. I also liked a documentary about the Nightingale Island Disaster, put together by Ocean Doctor, a nonprofit founded in 2004.

I enjoyed every day of Blue Vision Summit, especially Healthy Ocean Hill Day on Capital Hill, and came home with what I think are two very important take aways:

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Ocean advocates and Congressman Rush Holt during Healthy Ocean Hill Day

One: Every state is a coastal state

BVS had representatives from 24 states, Borneo, Canada and Sierra Leone, a small country in West Africa northeast of Guinea, southeast of Liberia and southwest of the Atlantic Ocean. One of the states that brought a number of ocean advocates was Colorado. Well, yes, there is no ocean in Colorado, but these passionate individuals realize that every action we take ultimately has an impact on the ocean. Fertilizer and pesticides are carried from stream to stream, river to river, and eventually the ocean. This reason, as well as many more, is why the Colorado Ocean Coalition was formed to protect the ocean “from a mile high.”

Another interesting partnership that was showcased at BVS was that of Iowa farmers and conservationists in the Gulf of Mexico. Watch the segment of the video Ocean Frontiers below to see how the farmers came to realize that the Mississippi River carried their actions all the way to the Gulf of Mexico:

Two: Kids are Kicking Ass for the Ocean

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9 year old Mackenzie asked the panelists “how can I get money to start a group near me for the ocean?”

Towards the end of the conference, Blue Frontier organized a panel of youth advocates to speak about their work to save the ocean. Now, the environmental community is awesome for so many reasons, but my favorite has to be how we all inspire and motivate each other. I was so inspired by the 7th grader I spoke with a month or so ago about plastic pollution and by the young ocean advocates at Blue Vision Summit last week. These kids are not waiting until they grow up to save the ocean, they are working hard at marine conservation now. They were also tired of people saying they are the advocates of the future; they are working for change right now. The panelists from Teens for Oceans, The Harbor School, and 5 Gyres believe that youth make excellent advocates because of their curiosity, fresh perspective and inspiration from the world around them. One panelist spoke about how adults feel jaded and frustrated by marine issues, while kids feel empowered and see problems as an opportunity to make a positive change.

After three days at Blue Vision Summit, I felt empowered by the advocates around me, young and old, and all of the different types of people: artists, film makers, policy makers, government employees, nonprofit volunteers, to do the best I can do to “go blue.”

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NJ Has 20 Coastal Lakes (Who Knew?) And They All Need Help

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On Tuesday, I attended the Coastal Lakes Summit: Moving to a Healthier and More Resilient Future at Monmouth University.  The Summit was organized by the Urban Coast Institute (UCI), which strives to “serve the public interest as a forum for research, education, and collaboration that fosters the application of the best available science and policy to support healthy and productive coastal ecosystems and a sustainable and economically vibrant future for coastal communities.”  UCI held its first Coastal Lakes Summit in 2008.

The purpose of the 2013 Summit was to bring together natural resource managers and engineers, municipal officials, representatives of civic groups, community organizations, federal and state agency representatives, and local coastal and watershed management groups to indentify post-Sandy recovery and restoration priorities for the coastal lakes of NJ and to implement lake restoration plans.

John A. Tiedemann, director of the marine and environmental biology and policy program through UCI, said the “post-Sandy era of planning for recovery and restoration provides us with a new canvas from which to work.”

Before I could participate in the “new canvas” discussion, I first had to learn some background information about NJ coastal lakes pre-Sandy.  I had no idea that New Jersey has over 20 coastal lakes!  The coastal lakes, throughout Monmouth and Ocean County, provide local freshwater resources, offer important recreational and aesthetic amenities, and most historically were estuaries.  What I found most interesting is that many of these lakes used to have a connection to the ocean, before intense man-made development altered the landscape.

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Look for Deal Lake, formerly known as Boyleston Great Pond, to see its historic connection to the ocean. Map from 1873.

Deal Lake is the largest coastal lake in New Jersey; other well known lakes include Lake Takanesse, Spring Lake, Wreck Pond, Stockon Lake, Little Silver Lake and Twilight Lake.

Over time, these lakes have become merely regional stormwater basins, collecting untreated and unmanaged stormwater runoff generated by the surrounding communities.  What were historically estuaries have become impoundments for excessive algae growth and nutrient loading.

While nutrient loading has been an issue within the NJ coastal lakes for quite some time, Superstorm Sandy has presented new issues:

Physical Impacts

  • Filling
  • Erosion
  • Shoreline failure

Structural Impacts

  • Failed or damaged weir/flume/dam
  • Storm sewer lines filled with sand and debris

Environmental Impacts

  • Water quality: contaminants, bacteria, nutrients, sediment
  • Debris: upland wreckage, boats, trees, other submerged material

After discussing these issues, the Summit attendees split up into different break-out sessions.  I attended the fish and wildlife issues session.  A lot of what we discussed overlapped with habitat restoration and water quality issues.

Since the coastal lakes were historically estuaries, many of the species needed a delicate balance of fresh and salt water and open exchange with the ocean to survive.  Anadromous fish, like New Jersey’s River Herring, are born in fresh water, spend most of their life in the ocean and then return to fresh water to spawn.  On the other hand, catadromous fish, like the American Eel, live in fresh water and enters salt water to spawn.  Both types of fish need an open exchange between the salt water ocean and the fresh water lake to migrate and spawn properly.  Over time, human population booms and over-development have closed these lakes off to the ocean, to prevent flooding (among other issues), but also causing declines in fish populations.  The River Herring is now a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act to be upgraded from a “Species of Concern” to Threatened or Endangered.  We discussed the questionable efficiency of fish ladders and whether they could be “superstorm proof” to help with this coastal lake issue.

We also spoke about fish kills in coastal lakes like Deal Lake after Superstorm Sandy.  It seems logical to assume that an influx of toxins and nutrients caused a large fish kill in Deal Lake, but it was actually caused by increased levels of salinity from the ocean.   The delicate balance between fresh and salt water in these coastal lakes is so vital for the ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.

It is also important to preserve habitat for other endangered species like the 20 state endangered types of aquatic vegetation, water fowl, and shorebirds like the Piping Plover, Less Terns, Oyster Catchers and Black Skimmers.

At the Summit, we came up with a few solutions to help with the fish and wildlife issues in the coastal lakes of NJ.  We determined that a holistic approach is needed to assess the entirety of the watershed, damming an inlet or letting a newly reformed connection to the ocean remain may affect baseflow of the headwaters farther up the run.  Although the lakes have become “franchise lakes,” with similar watershed size, percent impervious surface surroundings, human population and nutrient levels, each lake should be assessed on a case by case basis.

To help with stormwater runoff and to return the coastal lakes from impoundments back to estuaries, we thought to plant native species around the lakes, create maritime forests around water edges, restore riparian corridors, create soft shorelines that are invertebrate friendly so that nesting shorebirds have a source of food, preserve habitat for migratory birds, scrutinize the source of sand for beach replenishment projects, re-establish dunes, and preserve open space.

It is perhaps most important to have one project as a model that can be used to educate the public and local elected officials about the responsibility that comes with “stream-side living.”  The maritime forest project in Ocean Grove/Bradley Beach at Fletcher Lake can serve as a model for citizens to visualize the benefits of preserving the coastal lakes and restoring them to estuaries for generations to come.

As seen on:

As seen on: AsburyPulp.com

Bottled Water? What’s next? Bagged Air?

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In college, I was involved with the Delaware Environmental Institute Student Programs Committee, where we encouraged students to become more “bottled water aware” and offered alternatives to buying bottled water (see Bottled Water Awareness on Campus).  After graduation, I began working for an ocean advocacy non-profit, where we also try to discourage our network of citizens, businesses and organizations from buying bottled water.

But why?

A lot of bottled water companies boast using “mineral water” and “natural spring water” in their product.  That water has to be safe to drink, right?  And when I’m in a hurry to leave my house, bottled water is just so much easier and more convenient than filling up my own stainless steel bottle or Nalgene.  What’s so bad about that?

Well, consider this…

  • The U.S. bottled water industry consumes over 50 million barrels of oil a year, enough oil to fuel 3 million cars for one year.
  • The EPA estimates that nearly a quarter of one popular brand of bottled water, for example, originally comes from tap water at a price at least 300 times the cost of tap water.
  • The recommended eight glasses of water a day for one year costs about $1,400 in bottled water versus only 49 cents in tap water.
  • The composition of tap water, which is regulated by the EPA, is also more closely monitored by the government than bottled water, which has looser restrictions imposed by the Food and Drug Administration and only when the bottled water is shipped across state lines.
  • The plastic the bottles are made from contains unhealthy synthetic chemicals like BPA and phthalates (endocrine disruptors that have been linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer, autism and obesity), which may leach into the water or the environment after disposal.

The environmental, health, and economic costs of bottled water listed above are considered “hidden costs” of the $11.7 BILLION (!!) industry.  Check out this really awesome video that further explains the idea of a “hidden cost:”

Not convinced yet?  There are cities in the United States that are banning the sale of bottled water because it is so harmful.  Earlier this month, Concord, Massachusetts  became one of the first communities in the U.S. to ban the sale of single-serving plastic water bottles.

My hope is that other cities follow suit, until the United States has banned bottled water completely.  If we allow this industry to continue to grow, what would come next, bagged air?

Featured on: Eco News Network

Canoeing the Conestoga: Agriculture and Water Quality

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Happy Earth Day 2012 everyone!  On this Earth Day, I have decided to center a post around an important environmental issue of our time: clean waterways.  Understanding the connectedness of nature is vital for taking on a “deep ecology” mindset.  A great way to explain the connectedness of our natural systems is through our waterways.  Every stream leads to a river, every river to coastal waters and eventually the ocean.  Even the smallest tributaries must be kept clean to ensure healthy, thriving rivers and oceans.

Yesterday, my classmates and I traveled to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to canoe with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  We found ourselves in Hinkletown, home of the Conestoga River.  The Conestoga is a 62 mile long tributary of the Susquehanna River.  The Susquehanna River provides the Chesapeake Bay with about 40% of it’s freshwater, making it a key component in the Bay’s health.  Since the Conestoga flows into the Susquehanna, it also plays a role in the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay.  See, everything is connected to everything else (Thanks, Rachel Carson).

Lancaster County is home to many high-order Mennonite and Amish communities.  These groups have an infamously traditional way of life, which creates an interesting challenge for keeping the Conestoga and therefore the Susquehanna and therefore the Chesapeake Bay clean.  They have been farming in Lancaster County for hundreds of years.  For years and years they have used the same traditional agricultural practices.  These practices may not pose well for the water quality of the Conestoga.  If livestock is allowed to roam free, fertilizers and pesticides are used and fields are left fallow in the winter, the water quality of the Conestoga River is at sake.  Livestock, fertilizers and pesticides all contribute to high nutrient levels in the River, while fallow fields contribute to soil erosion and sediment build up in the water.  With this in mind, my classmates and I had some predictions for what the water quality would be in the Conestoga.

As we canoed along, we saw a lot of litter in the river.  Tire after tire, old oil barrels, even a basketball hoop.  We could see cattle and horses up on the shallow river banks.  I had never canoed in an area surrounded by so much agricultural land, I was used to the more forested river banks of the Delaware back in New Jersey.  Although, we could see that most of the cattle were kept away from the river by small string fences.  There were a few billy goats that had escaped fencing and were sitting under a tree close to the water.  A feral white cat was drinking from the river.  A few plots of land with horses were not fenced in, but overall the animals seemed to be kept away from the river.  That was a good sign for the water quality of the Conestoga.

I was surprised by the amount of songbirds we saw as we canoed down the river.  Lots of American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, and sparrows.  We saw a few Mallard ducklings and many Belted Kingfishers.  I was disappointed when we didn’t see a single Great Blue Heron though; not many waterfowl.  I saw one Painted Turtle sunning itself on an old oil barrel.  At the end of our trip, we saw a stunning Bald Eagle in it’s nest.

All of these observations were turning over in my head and I still had low expectations for the water quality of the river.  We began chemical and biological testing with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to find out for sure.  We found the pH of the river to be 7.5, pretty neutral, although there is a large amount of limestone in the river that could balance out acidity.  The temperature was 63 degrees Fahrenheit.  Surprisingly, the dissolved oxygen level was at 9 ppm (above 5 being a good reading).  The nitrate level was at 4.1 ppm, 4x the recommended level and the phosphate level was at 0.3, 3x the recommended level of 0.1.  I thought these nutrient levels were very high and then our CBF guide, Tom, said that at one time the nutrient levels tested 45x higher than what is defined as healthy for Pennsylvania waterways.

We found a lot of macroinvertebrates too; crayfish, clams, leeches, snails and shrimp.  Blackflies were present, indicators of high nutrient levels, but we also found mayflies and scuds, species that are sensitive to water pollution.  In the end, we found the water quality index (a calculation that takes into consideration macroinvertebrates that are tolerant, facilitative and sensitive to water pollution) of the Conestoga River to be 28, with above 22 being excellent.  I couldn’t believe the water quality was excellent!  Tom had mentioned that a lot of the farmers were using cover crops in the winter, helping with sediment build up, in combination with the fences for livestock seem to be protecting the water quality from agricultural runoff.  He even said that between 1985 and 2009, farmers in Pennsylvania had reduced nitrate levels by 31%.

But then he said that we would see very different results in water quality after a storm event.  This Earth Day has been a rainy one and I’m curious what results we would find in the Conestoga now.  I was glad to hear that the Mennonite farmers had taken to fencing their livestock out of the river, but I think a lot more riparian buffers are needed along the Conestoga to help soak up nutrients after it rains.

In Pennsylvania, you cannot go one mile without hitting a stream.  Pennsylvania is also home to immense amounts of agriculture.  I think farmers and environmentalists must work together to ensure high water quality for the rivers and streams of Pennsylvania to protect the Chesapeake Bay.  Government funds should be allocated to farmers to help them implement best management practices.  I do think that the best management practices should strike a balance with the Mennonite/Amish traditional agricultural methods and environmentally-conscious methods.  Loving the planet is also about respect the people that inhabit it.

Above are a few (low quality) photographs taken with my cell phone at one of the mill dams along the Conestoga River.  We stopped here to eat lunch and discuss issues of shad migration, legacy sediment, and sediment restoration in streams/rivers in the U.S.  The River was very shallow at parts, so we had to do a lot of portaging.

Bottled Water Awareness on Campus

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The mission of the Delaware Environmental Institute is to conduct research and coordinate partnerships that integrate environmental science, engineering, and policy in order to provide solutions and strategies that address environmental challenges.  As their intern, one of my responsibilities is to chair the Student Programs Committee (SPC), a group of 8 undergraduate UD students that are passionate about the environment.  We are charged with being ambassadors, serving as representatives of DENIN at campus-wide events, a focus group to tell DENIN staff about what students are concerned about, event planners of programs for undergraduate students specifically, promoters of DENIN events and activists creating a greener campus through effective scientific communication.

We have started a Bottled Water Awareness Campaign on the University of Delaware’s campus.  We are petitioning students to sign on and show their support for going bottled water free.  SPC will be handing out “Platypus” style, reusable (and foldable!) and BPA-free water bottles to those who pledge to become more awareness of the products they buy.  We are planning to screen a documentary about bottled water outside on the Green at the end of the semester.  We are also working with the UD Sustainability Task Force to promote the Hydration Station on campus and advocate for more.  Over 90 colleges and universities across the nation have restricted sale/banned bottled water.

This campaign begs the question: Why go bottled water free? Watch this video:

Scientific Ocean Studies a Load of Garbage?

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The Pacific Ocean is home to copious marine flora and fauna, vital fisheries for human consumption, and…a vast pool of litter? The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is in the gyre (large system of rotating ocean currents involved with large wind movements) of the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone in the central North Pacific Ocean. The rotational pattern of the gyre brings in waste material from coastal waters off North American and Japan. The waste gets trapped in the Garbage Patch by the wind-driven surface currents that slowly move floating material toward its center.

Photo Credit: iesgoyaenglishblog.blogspot.com

Photo Credit: iesgoyaenglishblog.blogspot.com

An enormous portion of the waste is plastic material, some of which becomes small enough to be ingested by aquatic life as it disintegrates. Nueston (organisms that float on top of water or live right under the surface) eat the plastic and then the waste enters the aquatic food chain. Longer lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of sea turtles and Black-Footed Albatross, along with many other marine birds and animals.

Not only do the plastics have a toxic effect on wildlife, some are mistaken by their endocrine systems as estradiol, leading to hormone disruption. Many of the fish that eat the plastics are then consumed by humans, causing adverse human health effects. Interestingly enough, plastics in the ocean also assist the spread of invasive species that attach to floating debris and drift to new regions to colonize other ecosystems.

A paper published by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1988 predicted the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but the magnitude of the patch has been heavily disputed within the scientific community.

The estimates of the area of the patch have varied widely depending on the degree of plastic concentration used to identify the affected area. There is no specific standard for determining the difference between “normal” and “elevated” levels of pollutants or a standard for what constitutes being part of the patch. Who’s to decide what constitutes a “higher than normal” degree of concentration of debris in the ocean?

I may be a bit of an idealist, but I believe there should be trace amounts of waste in the ocean. We as humans have a responsibility to our planet to take care of it; there is no excuse for poor (or no) recycling of plastics and improper waste disposal. Therefore, my personal “higher than normal” degree would be very different from others who are not as concerned for the planet. It is easy to see how scientists may not reach a uniform conclusion on the difference between “normal” and “elevated” levels of marine pollution.

Conducting studies to determine the amount of pollution in the ocean alone is extremely thorny. Most of the debris is small plastic particles that are suspended at or just below the surface,undetectable by aircraft or satellite. Because of this, samples are taken to try to determine the degree of waste concentration and later used to calculate the area of the patch. Samples are verified by mesh net size, making similar net sizes essential among scientists for making meaningful comparisons across various studies.

After analyzing sample data, some scientists have claimed the Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas (half a million square miles) or the equivalent of 20 times the size of England. Greenpeace cites studies that have concluded the amount of plastic outweighs the amount of plankton by a ratio of six to one. Greenpeace also publicized the following claim: Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean.

Angelicque White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State, participated in a few expeditions examining the effects of plastic on microbial communities, research that was funded in part by the National Science Foundation through C-MORE, Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education. White disagrees that parts of the ocean are filled with more plastic than plankton and the claim that the patch has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950’s. Her recent research has shown that, when looking at the actual area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre, the hypothetically “cohesive” plastic patch is actually less than 1 percent of the geographic size of Texas. White also dismissed a recent claim that the garbage patch is as deep as the Golden Gate Bridge is tall, calling it “completely unfounded.”

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch raises an important question in the environmental community: How far is too far? Do scientists have some sort of obligation to their field of study; therefore exaggerate their findings to increase public awareness? Maybe the incentive of more research grants finding their way to high profile problems is enough to stretch the truth or conduct an agenda-setting study? Or do these bogus studies just create controversy among scientists and journalists, instead of shedding light on an issue? Professor White believes genuine scientific concerns are undermined by scare tactics of groups like Greenpeace, asserting that the garbage patch is so large there is now more plastic than plankton in the Pacific. White said, “There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.” Science should reveal the truth about the processes and problems of both naturally-occurring and anthropogenic phenomena — not produce a load of garbage.