Renowned ecologist speaks on “oceans in peril”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last Friday, Dr. Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institute of Oceanography delivered the Environmental Studies capstone lecture, titled “Brave New Ocean.” The lecture, which took place in the Science Center’s main lecture hall, centered upon the current ecological crisis facing the world’s oceans, which Jackson summed up as the realization “that everything I had studied as a young person was either completely gone or unrecognizable.”

Using Rachel Carson’s well-known book, “Silent Spring,” as a model, Jackson focused his talk on two particular questions facing conservationists. First, what new developments in the oceans are cause for concern? Secondly, what will be the outcome if these developments are allowed to persist?

The first question was addressed by describing specific ecological issues, such as the startling decrease in large predators around islands in which fisheries exist relative to predator abundance in pristine island habitats, an increase in oceanic temperature that is rapidly reducing permanent sea ice, and the destruction of ocean bottoms due to trawling.

Jackson tackled the second question through a series of slides in which current isolated situations were predicted to become more widespread. One example is globalization of species, the transport of organisms away from their home habitats into novel environments that lack indigenous species capable of competition. Introduction of the tropical algae Caulerpa taxifolia to the Mediterranean Sea has resulted in the choking out of local communities that cannot match its rapid growth rate.

Other examples included the increase in coral death from “bleaching” events, in which corals eject the photosynthetic algae that provide them with necessary nutrients and the “rise of slime,” as the loss of filter-feeding species such as oysters allows bacteria and algae to gain dominance, resulting in dead zones populated only by microbes and jellyfish. This, Jackson notes, effectively reverses the past half billion years of evolution in these locations.

The lecture was delivered to a mixed crowd of students, faculty, and parents. Adam Roddy ’06 praised Jackson’s ability to reach such a broad audience: “Jeremy Jackson is one of the few people who has the background in science and the passion for policy and for his subject to truly synthesize the downfall of the world’s oceans.”

Jackson was invited to Swarthmore by Professor Rachel Merz and two of her students, Jen Johnson ’05 and Katie Davenport ’05. Merz and the students met Jackson at a conference at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, where he was a featured speaker. They were impressed with his lecture there, and invited him to speak at Swarthmore.

“I was pleased with the way he wove complicated, potentially emotional material into a very powerful, clear statement…I appreciated his drawing on literature, economics and political science to help frame an environmentally important biological issue,” said Merz regarding his lecture here at the college.

As Swarthmore’s resident marine biologist, Merz agreed with much of what Jackson had to say. At a recent field trip with the Marine Biology class to a bay in New Jersey, she noted that there were far more jellyfish than in previous years, and that the mud flats were coated with algae.

Jackson and Merz both understand the need to get the public involved in oceanic conservation efforts. Jackson called for the audience to “learn the issues,” and for scientists to focus on fixing identifiable problems rather than merely diagnosing them.

Opinions among students regarding the talk were positive. Roddy, a biology major interested in conservation efforts, commented, “Listening to a talk from someone like Jackson is inspiring to those of us who recognize that there is a problem…The magnitude of the problem is so great that it’s overwhelming to realize how much we must do to better the situation.”

“It was captivating, but extremely depressing–I felt like I wanted to help, but the problem was so huge that I can’t make a difference,” said Kate Speer ’08. Similarly, although Professor Merz agreed with Jackson’s analysis, she stressed that scientists should be vocal about positive findings as well, so that the public will recognize that conservation is a realistic, reachable goal.

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