by Carlos M. Duarte, Rob Condon & Kylie Pitt
First published in The Conversation
It’s turning out to be a great summer for jellyfish. Spectacular blooms of ‘blue blubbers’ are occurring in Moreton Bay, Queensland; Cable Beach near Broome was littered with tonnes of stranded ‘sea tomatoes’ and ‘jimbles’ are thriving in the waters of Sydney. Indeed blooms of jellies are a conspicuous feature of coastal waters throughout the world and are notorious for interfering with tourism, fishing and industries, such as desalination and power generation, depending on seawater intakes.
Increased reporting of jellyfish blooms by the media has fuelled a perception that jellyfish blooms are on the rise. Indeed, even the scientific literature regularly reports that jellyfish are increasing globally as a symptom of a degrading ocean. But are the blooms of jellyfish really increasing? Claims of a global increase have been largely inferred by extrapolating from several case studies that indicate jellyfish have increased in some regions of the world. Until now, however, a rigorous analysis of all available time series data on jellyfish, has been missing.
The Global Jellyfish Group, a consortium of experts on gelatinous organisms, climatology, oceanography, time-series analyses and socioeconomics, met regularly over the past three years at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a cross-discipline ecological and data synthesis research centre affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, receiving funding from NSF, to undertake the study. The group assembled all available time series data on jellyfish from around the world, to provide the first formal test of whether available data support the hypothesis that jellyfish blooms are increasing. The data set stretched back more than 200 years and contained 1,140 observation-years of jellyfish abundance. The surprising results of the study have just been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Condon et al. 2012).
The key finding was that globally, jellyfish populations undergo synchronous oscillations with successive decadal periods of rise and fall, including a rising phase in the 1990s and early 2000s that contributed to the current perception of a global increase in jellyfish abundance. The previous increasing phase of jellyfish populations, which occurred in the 1970s, went largely unnoticed, probably because fewer people were studying jellyfish, there was less awareness of global-scale problems, and, without the internet, there was less capacity to share information. There is, however, just a hint that jellyfish populations could be starting to increase because the most recent minimum in the time series was well above the preceding minima. This slight trend, however, was countered by the observation that there is no difference in the proportion of jellyfish populations that have increased versus decreased over time and the uncertainty in interpreting a small baseline shift against an order of magnitude larger increase as part of the cycle. Thus, confirmation of whether we are now seeing the start of an emerging trend will have to wait until we observe where the next minima in the time series will fall.
Natural long-term cycles are not a new phenomenon in nature. North American cicadas invade en mass every 17 years, tree-ring exhibit multi-decadal growth patterns, and even oceanic oxygen concentrations generated by phytoplankton production rise and fall over 20 year periods. The most pressing question, however, is how do anthropogenic practices, such as excess fossil fuel burning and increased urbanization along coastlines, compound or synergistically interact with natural oscillations to cause potential shift in these baselines. Of course, without long-term monitoring or data to analyse this is difficult to answer, but this underscores the importance of oceanic time-series programs for they enable interpretation of the baseline over appropriate spatiotemporal scales.
The realisation that jellyfish populations synchronously rise and fall around the world should now redirect researchers to search for the long-term natural and climate drivers of jellyfish populations. Moreover, the analysis also revealed regions of the world, such as the open ocean, and much of the southern hemisphere, where data are scarce and so highlights where new research efforts should be directed.
Although we found little evidence for a global rise in jellyfish, there are regions of the world where blooms have indeed increased over time, including the Sea of Japan, the North Atlantic shelf regions and parts of the Mediterranean Sea. For these regions, sustained increases in jellyfish populations continue to present problems for coastal industries and research on how to mitigate the effects of jellyfish blooms must be prioritised, including a search for drivers, such as the growth in artificial surfaces around the coast, which may provide habitats for polyps producing jellyfish or climate change, which can alter the phenology or timing of seasonal blooms.
If the global oscillations in jellyfish populations that have occurred for hundreds of years persist, there will continue to be periods in the future where jellyfish abound and coastal industries should prepare for these, as every new rising phase meet a society that is interacting with the oceans not only more intensively but also in new ways and, therefore, more vulnerable. Importantly, however, we now have a solid baseline from which to assess future changes in jellyfish populations.
The $4.5 billion (US) fine levied on BP for their role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the northern Gulf of Mexico was the “largest-ever criminal resolution in US history” and has been generally praised by environmental managers, conservationists and the public. The BP settlement has certainly set an historic precedent, and with criminal enquiries ongoing, similar fines are expected for BP under the Clean Water Act.
The environment seems to be the winner from this agreement. Too often it seems that the fate of the environment is in the hands of legal argument, as was the case for Exxon Valdez where courts ruled that over 80% of the $150 million fine didn’t have to be paid because of the company’s cleanup efforts. As part of this recent settlement, BP will allocate $2.4 billion to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, an independent not-for-profit conservation group, for restoration and conservation efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. A further $350 million will be allocated to the National Academy of Science.
By comparison, the fines levied on the Thai-based oil company responsible for the Montara wellhead blowout, Australia’s third largest oil spill, at $ 510,000 was dwarf and did not include funding for monitoring and research. Environment Minister Burke was quoted saying ``When we’re talking about protecting something as precious as our oceans, no amount of money ever provides genuine compensation for environmental catastrophe, ever”. We concur, but this is no reason to settle an accident of the magnitude and consequence of the Montara accident for just half a million $.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the Deepwater Horizon settlement has been the overall response by BP. By all accounts, BP pled guilty to all the charges and took full responsibility for the incident. This is an encouraging step and reinstalls confidence in industry and their willingness to accept their role as one of the leaders in management of environmental resources, amongst other things. It also reinforces what we wrote in a recent piece about finding common ground between academia, industry and government on policy and research priorities in advance of spill events. This is a unique opportunity for all parties and the public to respond and be proactive by bridging gaps and building partnerships toward a common goal.
It has been predicted that the US will be the biggest oil producers by the year 2020. For political and economic reasons this is an important forecast but there are equal if not more important consequences for the environment as well. Increased offshore means expanded operations into deep-water environments that sustain oil rich deposits. For the US, this means less reliance on foreign oil supply and opening up deep-sea drilling operations in equally vulnerable areas of Alaska and Gulf of Mexico. For Australia, this means expanding drilling operations in the proximity of national and indigenous heritage sites such as the Ningaloo Reef (drilling by BHP Billiton at 5 miles), as the GBR a World Heritage Site, and the remote Rowley Shoals (proposed drilling by Woodside) in the Western Australian coast and shelf area. With a vast span of cost spreading across 21,000 Km, it is hard to explain why high-risk activities, such as drilling for oil and gas near unique heritage sites including vulnerable fauna, are necessary. Science-based spatial planning is necessary to ensure that all outcomes, from biological conservation to resource extraction, can be achieved in ways that minimize risks while maximizing benefits.
Since Deepwater Horizon there have been at least a dozen spills of 100 tonnes or more into vulnerable and economically important marine systems, including Christmas Island, Rana spill New Zealand, Bonga Field in Nigeria, the Marshall Islands, Singapore and China. Given it took over 20 years for environmental impact assessments from the Exxon Valdez spill, it will be many decades before we begin to know the long-term effects of these recent spills on ecosystems thus monitoring efforts should be financially sustained for this period. The increased demand for fossil fuels cannot be a surrogate for environmental integrity and the quest for alternative energy sources must be given a priority.
What is more concerning though is the increased rate of spills with unknown volumes of oil released or regions that simply do not keep records on oil spills, such as Russia where there is an annual estimate of 500,000 tonnes of oil released into the Arctic. Furthermore, access to many spill records are restricted because they are considered “too sensitive” to release to the public. Simply knowing how much oil was released can provide all parties with vital information about the spatial and temporal scope of spills and how to best to administer clean up efforts. The trust barriers must be broken down and a common sense approach should be adopted with information sharing channels opened up between all parties.
Oil spills are stressful for everyone involved, thus such open discussions and collaborations are required now for clarity in advance of any oil spill incident. In particular, we identify the following needs:
Where there is oil drilling or shipping operations there is always the risk of release or exposure of hydrocarbons (and subsequently dispersants) to marine ecosystems, including pelagic and benthic organisms some of which humans depend on in commerce. Indeed, at least 200 tons of oil is illegally released into the water from the cleaning of oil holding tanks in large crude oil tankers.
Risk-management should not be about managing the size of fines following accidents, but taking measures to minimize the likely of such accidents to an absolute minimum and to ensure that sound and effective response plans are in place to contain the impacts of accidents, shall these happen.
We should all learn from our mistakes and heed warning from the Deepwater Horizon case to make sure appropriate management and industry strategies are in place through compromise and collaboration.
by Rob Condon & Carlos M. Duarte
First published in The Conversation
In August 2009, a blowout at the Montara wellhead platform became Australia’s third-largest oil spill. Three years later, a fine of $510,000 has been levied on the Thai-based oil company PTT Exploration and Production, responsible for the release of an estimated 4,750 tonnes of crude oil into open ocean water off WA.
This fine closes the legal process, and is likely to be one of the smallest in the history of major oil spills. It compares to a settlement of $US7.8 billion for the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout.
The Montara fine is capped by the rather small maximum fines dictated by Australian law, but also by major uncertainties about impacts. Until we are better prepared to assess the effects of oil spills, we cannot expect stricter penalties.
Laws are important, but the laws governing petroleum and natural gas exploration already impose penalties to deter future oil spills. In spite of this, at least a dozen large spills have occurred since Montara, including Deepwater Horizon, the Rena spill in New Zealand, and more recently the spill in pristine habitat on Christmas Island. Without data, the law is powerless. It is in the interests of Australian marine industries and our environmental heritage to develop and fund rapid investigation of oil disasters.
The Montara Commission of Inquiry (MCI) concluded, “It is unlikely that the full environmental consequences of the Blowout will ever be known”. Estimates of the oil release range from 400 to 1,500 barrels per day. Estimates of the surface coverage of the hydrocarbons range from 6,000 to 90,000 square kilometres. These and other uncertainties - a result of the delay in deploying the scientific assessment program - compromised the worth of the impact evaluations.
Information is lacking about the effects of oil spills on food webs, the consequences of dispersant use to break up surface slicks or deep sea plumes, and the impacts on commercial fisheries and key ecosystems. With many untested dispersants slated for future application in spills, there is an urgent need to accelerate research in this area.
Australia has a rich marine environmental heritage that supports many healthy fisheries. But it also sustains significant oil reserves and supports high shipping traffic. Increased demand for oil results in expanded oil exploration at increasing depths offshore and into vulnerable environments such as the Arctic. The risk of large-scale oil spills in the future is high.
Preventive measures with a focus on environmental protection and conservation must be given top priority. The Montara verdict, while a disappointing outcome for many, can be a motivational tool to increase the importance of the environment in the eyes of industry and politicians.
So how do we create common ground with a focus towards conservation and protection of our marine heritage?
A new Commonwealth Agency, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), has generated new regulations requiring oil companies to apply objective, science-based environmental monitoring plans tailored for each oil exploration site. This is certainly a step in the right direction.
The scientific community must also step up to fill the knowledge gap on the effects of oil spills. Following Deepwater Horizon, British Petroleum (BP) committed $US500M over 10 years to establish broad, independent research programs involving Gulf scientists and domestic and international partnerships. This will ensure the longevity of research in the Gulf of Mexico, and the creation of similar funding programs in Australia to kick start research collaborations and hold industry accountable for environmental spills.
The Montara inquiry recommended better-integrated operational and scientific environmental monitoring. Scientific monitoring must be adequate, peer reviewed, independent and timely. Adequate baseline data must be available for comparison, and data must be updated throughout the extended lifespan (decades) of the environmental effects of any oil spill.
Australia has the third-largest economic exclusive zone in the world. But Australia’s fleet of oceanographic vessels is comparable to that of Belgium. Only one coastal research vessel, the Solander, is based in Western Australia, which has 15,000km of coastline and a dense concentration of marine-based industry.
Spain, with 4,000km of coastline and a crippled economy, operates seven oceanic research vessels and five research vessels over 50m. The public portion of the fleet is fully funded by the government and managed by a commission that allocates ship time to research projects and designates the ships to address disasters when they happen. They can be at sea immediately following a disaster. There are no complicated financial negotiations, such as those that delayed scientific monitoring of the Montara spill by seven weeks.
Australia’s deficiency in oceanographic research vessels remain the elephant in the room. A partnership between research providers, industry, government and the Australian Navy could, as demonstrated in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Canada, the US, Belgium and France, help develop a modern oceanographic fleet prepared to respond to disasters in our territory.
This is particularly important in Western Australia, where the oil and gas fields are located up to 4,000km from the nearest research facility. In the Gulf of Mexico, industry has jointly funded and maintained a research vessel, available to research providers for monitoring and prepared to address future spills.
Citizen-based monitoring and science projects could create increased awareness of the ocean environment and its resources. Operators in marine-based industries and their governmental regulators will benefit from advanced education in key notions of oceanography, marine ecology and environmental science. Scientists also need to take more of an active leadership role in educational outreach activities.
All involved those involved - government, industry, science and society - must change our mindset and attitude towards the way we operate in the ocean. We must be willing to meet on common ground. We can do better, and we should look forward to the challenge.
By all means, let’s clean up the milk. But let’s also stabilise the glass to avoid spilling it again.
Rob Condon is an Assistant Professor at UNCW. He studies jellyfish blooms, global oil spills, climate change, carbon cycles& marine food webs. He is also interested in elementary outreach & education, and runs a program called the Young Scientist Academy.