Strategy To Flush Invaders From Ballast Water Coming Up Short
by Kristen Minogue
SERC marine biologist Jenny Carney descends the gangway of a giant bulker ship in Virginia. When ships export coal and other goods, they return loaded with ballast water from foreign ports—and often inadvertently bring invasive species with them. (Credit: Kim Holzer/SERC)
In the battle against invasive species, giant commercial ships are fighting on the front lines. But even when they follow the rules, one of their best weapons is coming up short, marine biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) discovered in a new study published in PLOS ONE Monday.
As ships move goods around the world, they often inadvertently ferry invasive species as well. These new species can come over in the ships’ ballast water—the water ships pump on board for stability, to keep them from becoming top-heavy. But when the ships arrive to port, they often discharge their ballast water from distant global regions, along with the unseen, unwanted hitchhikers.
Shipping companies and biologists have known about this problem for decades and are still struggling to combat it. Currently, their main strategy is called “open-ocean exchange.” The idea is to flush out ballast water from their original port in the open ocean, to remove most coastal organisms, and replace it with water more than 200 nautical miles from shore. When they arrive at their destinations and discharge their new ballast water, any open-ocean organisms they picked up are unlikely to survive in ports and coastal waters.
“Ballast-water exchange provides a stop-gap measure until new technologies can be implemented to further reduce species transfers,” said Greg Ruiz, SERC senior marine biologist and a co-author of the new study. Since 2004, the U.S. Coast Guard has required most commercial ships entering the U.S. from overseas to do open-ocean exchange before discharging ballast in ports. However, this strategy has some serious limitations and may not be as effective as scientists and policymakers once hoped. Click to continue »
Not long ago, a trumpeter swan sighting was nearly unheard of in the Chesapeake Bay region—or many places in the United States, for that matter. After being hunted to near-extinction in the early 1900s, the birds, who can boast an 8-foot wingspan and are the largest waterfowl in the world, struggled to recover. Now the swans are starting to reappear, including two spotted recently at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).
Unlike tundra swans, the other native swans in the Chesapeake, trumpeter swans have a small triangle of feathers above their beak. (Tyler Bell)
Lenore Naranjo celebrates 10 years of volunteer, with SERC volunteer coordinator Dan Gustafson. (SERC)
by Sara Richmond, communications volunteer
In 2016, nearly 5,000 students and other visitors learned about the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem firsthand through education programs at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). They ventured on hikes and canoe trips, hauled in fish and invertebrates with seining nets, and studied the anatomy of blue crabs. SERC’s education programs are possible through the help of dozens of volunteers who lead field trips and assist behind the scenes. In the coming months, we’ll highlight the work of some of these volunteers in the SERC newsletter and on our blog.
Lenore Naranjo has been volunteering with SERC for over 13 years. After starting as a volunteer in SERC’s canopy labs, she began working with the education program, leading field study groups that give children a hands-on approach to a variety of marine habitats.
“We set up baskets with oysters, and they stay sitting on the bottom of the river through spring, summer, and fall, where they act as a habitat for fish and small critters,” she explains. During field trips, she pulls the baskets from the river bed and sets them in a tray of water so children can explore the baskets’ contents. “Some kids are very hesitant and don’t want to put their hands in something unfamiliar. But then they watch their friends who aren’t hesitant, and the next thing you know, they’re in there too, pulling out fish and crabs.”
Marine biologists Kim Holzer (right) and Jenny Carney sample ballast water from a cargo ship in Virginia’s James River. (Kim Holzer)
The U.S. is on the brink of a natural gas boom—but that could expose its shores to more invasive species, Smithsonian marine biologists report in a new study published this winter.
Over the last decade, U.S. natural gas imports have dropped as the country tapped into its own resources. Now, thanks to new technology that makes it easier to extract and store natural gas, it’s poised to be the world’s third largest exporter of liquefied natural gas by 2020.
Ecologist Dawn Miller surveys trees in a SERC forest. (SERC)
by Kristen Minogue
The Smithsonian has a new resolution for 2017: Earth Optimism. This is the year the Smithsonian is celebrating environmental success stories, and shifting the focus to how we can fight battles to save species and preserve our planet—and win. Despite breaking a wide swath of climate records, 2016 gave us reasons for optimism as well. In our 2016 Year in Review, we’ve pulled out the most encouraging stories and discoveries at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center from the previous year. Here are the top 10 that make us hopeful about the planet’s future:
If you are a plant, when life aboveground turns harsh, you have few options. Some orchids respond by going dormant, spending years to decades underground before reemerging aboveground. But an army of the right fungi may help jolt them out of dormancy, ecologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) discovered in a new study published in the American Journal of Botany Friday.
Smithsonian scientists have been working to understand the ecology of one particular orchid – including why it enters and exits dormancy. The small-whorled pogonia is widely regarded as the rarest orchid east of the Mississippi. Federally listed as threatened, the orchid has vanished from Maryland and is endangered in 16 other states.
Pat Megonigal studies the invasive reed Phragmites australis on the Smithsonian’s Global Change Research Wetland. (Tom Mozdzer)
It’s easy to dislike Phragmites. The invasive brown reed can grow over 15 feet tall and tends to crowd out anything in its shadow. But in the story of global change, Phragmites is a gray character, like Mad Men’s Don Draper, or the enigmatic Professor Snape. Beneath the surface, Phragmites australis—a European reed sweeping over East Coast wetlands—can empower wetlands to grow higher soils and possibly survive rising seas. Biogeochemist Pat Megonigal of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) prefers an analogy from classic literature: Jekyll and Hyde.
“The Jekyll part is that Phragmites helps marshes maintain elevation and keep pace with sea level rise,” he said. “The Hyde part is that they are poor habitat for native plants and animals.”
The latest discovery in Megonigal’s lab could tip things in favor of Mr. Hyde. Phragmites’ deep-growing roots were once thought an advantage that helps wetlands build soil. But those same roots could be disturbing ancient soils deep underground—triggering them to release planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2).
Olympia oysters (Matthew Gray/Oregon State University)
by Kristen Minogue
Act local. Diversity pays. Those two phrases could hold the key to saving young Olympia oysters, the only native oysters on the West Coast of North America. What they need are large networks of adult oyster beds to settle on—and a diverse “environmental portfolio,” finds a new study in Ecology.
For decades, efforts to conserve Chesapeake river herring have run into a black hole of uncertainty. Managers knew populations had plummeted, but no one knew how many remained. A team of biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has found a way forward, recording the first complete spawning run of river herring in the Choptank River since the 1970s.
Citizen scientist Linda Perkins helps excavate a soil plot in front of the Contee mansion ruins. (Photo: SERC)
People don’t usually think of archaeologists as dumpster divers. Then again, sifting through trash for hidden treasures is exactly what the volunteer citizen scientists of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) Archaeology Lab do every Wednesday. But they don’t scavenge anything for themselves. (The market for millenia-old oyster shells is very unpredictable, and any food they find is always up to three centuries past its expiration date.) Instead, they take away new skills and a chance to put together a historical puzzle larger than themselves.
“We look back thousands of years,” said Jim Gibb, the lead volunteer and coordinator of the lab. “I always tell people—we’re the time lords.” Click to continue »