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Fiorenza Micheli: The race to save the ocean

A marine scientist travels the world to understand whether and how the ocean will respond to climate change, overfishing and other challenges.

A magical place, but it’s in trouble | Unsplash/Francesco Ungaro

A magical place, but it’s in trouble | Unsplash/Francesco Ungaro

Fiorenza “Fio” Micheli grew up on the Mediterranean Sea, where she fell in love with the ocean and made it the object of her scientific career.

Now a marine ecologist and co-director of Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions, her research spans the spectrum of marine science.

She has studied the overfishing of sharks and how their absence affects coral reef ecosystems; she has explored the influence of marine protected areas on biodiversity below the waves; she has studied the impacts of the many ways in which we use the ocean — through fishing to farming to recreation — on its ecosystems, and how to more sustainably support these crucial services. And, for lessons on how undersea life might respond to climate change, she traveled to Italy, her home country, to investigate life near undersea volcanic vents that jet carbon dioxide into the seawater like a Jacuzzi.

In all of Micheli’s varied research, she returns to a constant theme: The ocean is a magical place, worthy of awe and wonder, but it is in trouble. It is time to act before it is too late.

In the latest episode of Stanford Engineering’s “The Future of Everything” podcast, Micheli takes host and bioengineer Russ Altman — and listeners — on a deep dive into ocean science and global efforts to protect this valuable resource.

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Russ Altman: Today on the “The Future of Everything,” the future of our oceans.

Anyone’s who 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 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?

Fiorenza Micheli: Thank you for having me here, Russ. I started being interested in oceans as far back as I can remember. As a kid, growing up in Italy by the Mediterranean Sea. I spent a lot of time by the sea and in the water. And I was just fascinated with marine life and then when I found out that it could be my profession, that could become a profession, basically I took that path and never looked back and I feel, I have the dream job, basically, and no nothing I couldn’t hope for anything more better than this.

Russ Altman: It is extremely fun to review your publications, because they 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 I want to get to, but I know 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?

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, ocean acidification you were asking what are the —

Russ Altman: Acidification, yes

Fiorenza Micheli: Yeah, what are the big challenges? One is climate change and ocean acidification. So ocean absorb, about 30% of the carbon dioxide we produce now since Industrial Revolution, and so they play a very important role in buffering in the atmosphere from the increases but then, no, at the same time they are impacted, the seawater becoming more acidic.

And this is affecting marine life, so to get a better understanding of what does this mean and what are the implications for marine biodiversity and marine life, we are using underwater carbon dioxide vents as a natural laboratory. These are places in the southern part of Italy, where I’m from, so it’s quite convenient.

Russ Altman: How convenient?

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, I can go there and then sort of hop on home and say hi to everyone.

Russ Altman: So, when you say south is this like Sicily or not quite.

Fiorenza Micheli: Naples

Russ Altman: Naples

Fiorenza Micheli: The Gulf of Naples So, in Naples there is two, in the Gulf of Naples there is two little islands Capris and Ischia. Around the coast of Ischia, which is a volcanically active area, there are essentially cracks in the bottom of the sea. From which carbon dioxide bubbles up, it looks like a jacuzzi.

And these bubbles of carbon dioxide as they come into contact with the water, acidify the water. And as you were explaining, next to the vents where the mission really intense the pH, measure of the acidity of the water is very low, extremely low. Far lower than we expect, even under the most dire projections to the end of this century. A little farther away, it gets to levels that we anticipate seeing in our oceans, in the next decade and then —

Russ Altman: So, it’s almost like preview of the future?

Fiorenza Micheli: Yeah. We call it a crystal ball.

Russ Altman: Crystal ball.

Fiorenza Micheli: It’s basically, it’s a voyage to the future of the ocean that we can use to see, not only, how individual species respond the acidification. Which scientists have been investigating in the laboratories for example, but how whole systems respond because entire reef ecosystems are exposed to this gradience.

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.

Russ Altman: So, if you can figure out how to sustain yourself in that low pH area —

Fiorenza Micheli: You can thrive.

Russ Altman: There’s an upside.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, there is, but unfortunately when you are 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 impacted, negatively impacted, tend to be species that provide habitat for other species, food, they regulate the systems through there predation activities. And so net result is 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.

Russ Altman: You get worried if the diversity is too low because then you have a single point of failure of the ecosystem.

Fiorenza Micheli: Exactly. It weakens.

Russ Altman: One bad virus, or whatever and then the whole thing can go down very fast.

Fiorenza Micheli: The food webs becomes shorter, the ecosystem becomes less complex, and it becomes vulnerable because there are just fewer options. Basically, that’s the —

Russ Altman: Do you see, evolution, do you see, I don’t know, time scales 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.

Fiorenza Micheli: The vents we have been working at, are too new. Really, because they probably resulted from small earthquakes that happen just 20 years ago, very least, and so we haven’t, but another system, yes, there have been evidence of some adaptation capacity but the question remains is change is happening too fast, and indeed it is.

We’re seeing in a new analysis which just published. We look at the cumulative impact from climate change acidification, and other pressures like pollution on the ocean. And over the past decade in about 60% of the oceans, the cumulative impact has been increased significantly, so this is very, very fast. Just in a few years we are seeing an expansion. It brings out the question, is there enough time?

Russ Altman: 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 very interesting human ocean interaction with fishing. And you know 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 you focus on? And then I would 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.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, so fishing, in more generally production of seafood from the ocean is one of the most important service, is one the most important benefits that we get from the ocean. And the problem with fishing is that we fish too much.

Russ Altman: It’s too delicious.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, it’s too delicious, we fish too much, and we don’t fish well. We fish with sometimes with the gear and in places that cause damage. The trends in fishing aren’t so sustainable and the amount to catch that we produce worldwide has leveled off in the nineties. Despite increases effort, we spend more time we have bigger boats, we go farther away. We are still not catching more, so that shows that —

Russ Altman: That’s very concerning.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, at this rate we’re —

Russ Altman: So a fisherman from fifty years ago would have a day and he would wonder why is this my worst day ever.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, exactly and we’ve seen this shifting baseline, we called it. While people, now best day years ago, is unthinkable now and the worst day is the norm now. So that is the problem, the solution includes protection, paradoxically, protecting parts of the ocean, results in more fish —

Russ Altman: Even saying, please don’t fish here anymore. And I’m sure that’s very popular.

Fiorenza Micheli: And it’s yes 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 their ecosystems recovery.

And the establishment to protect the areas of the marine protected areas not only can benefit fishing but has been shown to provide some resilience from climate impacts. And they way we have seen this work in marine reserves here in the California current where we have been working for over fifteen years now is that essentially if you don’t catch fishes or other marine creatures that become bigger, they are older and bigger. And this results in a disproportionate reproductive output. That produces way more eggs when they are larger than when they are smaller.

Russ Altman: So a big fish is a productive fish.

Fiorenza Micheli: Exponentially yes, and they’re called the BOFFs, the big old fecund fishes.

Russ Altman: B-O-F-F

Fiorenza Micheli: These larger super producers are really important in population because we have seen that with mass mortality are 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 they produce are so plentiful that they replenish the area. The marines protect the areas and around them because in the ocean acts and largely dispersed with currents and so they are taken elsewhere.

Russ Altman: So, these are hugely important.

Fiorenza Micheli: So, they are very important.

Russ Altman: They are almost like, I’m thinking like pluripotent stem cells that can repopulate a population.

Fiorenza Micheli: It’s an important agent.

Russ Altman: It’s is proportionately important.

Fiorenza Micheli: And so that is very important and then the other approaches have been shown great success in fisheries are actually allocating rights to people. Often fishing is what we call an open access system. People go out and fish.

Russ Altman: If you go and get there you can fish.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yeah, 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 are the only that can fish or get assigned a quota of the catch. It’s called individual transferable quotas and this creates incentive for better fishing, there’s a stake, maintaining the resources in the long-term and so this also proved effective.

Russ Altman: Just so I understand, in this case are you actually giving a geographically defined by GPS region almost like a farm on land?

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes.

Russ Altman: But this like a farm in the sea and then the individual fisher person has to decide, do I over-fish and risk the value of my plot or do I be a little bit more moderate to try to make sure that the longterm value is maintained.

Fiorenza Micheli: That is exactly right. And interestingly often it’s not a case of individual fishers but cooperatives or coalitions and so there are communities that come together to make this kind of decisions, where we do we —

Russ Altman: 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, 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? Because I can imagine 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 10 mile region or 20 mile region, what is the science telling us about the minimal productive size of a protected area?

Fiorenza Micheli: That varies greatly depending on, the characteristics of the species of the habitat but in marine, we were talking about dispersal. The fact that animals and larvae materials can disperse longer distance in the ocean, can be used to build networks of small protected areas that as a whole, function basically, as a unit to protect the species and fisheries of a large scale. So, California and the United States was a pioneer in establishing one of the first networks of protected areas, basically coast wide.

Russ Altman: Like a series of islands that are kind close enough so that the fish can move between them and essentially have a larger protected range, without having to protect the entire region.

Fiorenza Micheli: That is exactly right.

Russ Altman: That is a great idea.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes and that is —

Russ Altman: And mathematical, I can imagine mathematicians getting very excited about this.

Fiorenza Micheli: Oh, yes. Done all sorts of modeling exercise, and understanding where and how much and how far away, but, it’s an approach to protect in very large area, while at the same time allowing for uses without excluding people from fishing or for recreational uses over a very large areas of the coast.

And then increasingly protection is established offshore and we have been working with Center For Ocean Solutions recently and partners on this case of Palau, the Republic of Palau in the western pacific. 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.

Russ Altman: And it surrounds this island?

Fiorenza Micheli: It surrounds, we call it Donut Sanctuary it surrounds the archipelago and leaves area around the land in a little strip going out to the high seas, open to fishing. For the development and use of Palau on fisheries.

Russ Altman: Fascinating. What was it about this island and their leadership and there population that enabled what sounds like a huge societal decision, were they at risk? Or were they suffering and seeing imminent problems?

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, small island nations are perhaps the most vulnerable system because they depend on oceans for everything. And also they are very vulnerable to climate change, and sea levels rise and so there is really no other place to go and so small island nations increasingly, we call them big ocean states. Because, they depend and manage and own such vast status of the ocean. And so more island nations, Palau, has been a leader in protection, starting with the 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.

Russ Altman: Did this require them to address changes in international ocean laws? I know there are rules about how far out from your coast you can claim dominion. Did they have to bend some of those rules to protect the surrounding water?

Fiorenza Micheli: In the case of Palau, the protection concerns their exclusive economic zone, in which they have jurisdiction. But, increasingly we are looking in areas beyond national jurisdiction in the high seas. I’ve been recently involved in the establishment of a protected area in the Mediterranean, Adriatic Sea, in the high seas, outside the territorial jurisdiction of countries. So this now protects an area of the sea floor from trawling, bottom trawling, which is a fishing type that uses gear that destroys the bottom, essentially. Its waters comprise the waters of Italy and Croatia. There are now legal mechanisms and treaties that allow the establishment of protectorates beyond the AISES exclusive economic zones.

Russ Altman: Welcome back to “The Future of Everything.” I’m Russ Altman and 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 have done on specific species, species of interest, or species that are easier for you to study. And one of course everybody loves to think about sharks, and I know you have 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 these multiple pressures on shark life?

Fiorenza Micheli: So sharks are interesting because it’s an ancient group of species. They have been around for a very long time. But their life history, their life cycle makes them very vulnerable to other fishing and other impacts. They mature late in life, they produce few young and now they are the target of shark finning which is really valuable.

Russ Altman: So there are cultures that value pieces of the shark?

Fiorenza Micheli: [Yes], pieces of the shark and that results in the deaths of too many sharks for what if population can sustain. The reason we’re so fascinated by them, is that they play really 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 they are feeding activity affects the whole ecosystem, they also connect the distant system.

In work we have done with great reef sharks in the Long Islands in the middle of the pacific oceans. We found that sharks spend time on reefs, the coral reef sharks, but they also feed offshore and far away and so they connect different ecosystems and draw on the productivity of a much larger ecosystems. And as a result many unexploited ecosystems, marine ecosystems, are what we call top heavy. A lot of the biomass is the top of the food the food web.

Russ Altman: The big animals

Fiorenza Micheli: It’s almost an inverted pyramid, with the extent to think of food webs as a pyramid It’s really they are way down and so as we deplete sharks we alter, not only we impact the populations that are in danger in cases. But we also alter the functioning of whole ecosystem.

Russ Altman: You describe these inverted pyramid, is that a 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?

Fiorenza Micheli: Yeah the reason, yes, the reason the systems are stable is that they are top of the food web, draws energy on a much larger area and so they don’t depend on the productivity, just local ecosystem. But they’re mobile and feed on a much larger area, in fact they connect distant ecosystems like offshore and reef ecosystems.

Russ Altman: So, in some ways it sounds like you are saying that if we study sharks it’s a way to biopsy the health of the entire ecosystems. So, referring back to our previously discussion, that suggests to me that if you have these protected areas the sharks in those areas might be like doing well.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, they are 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 forest and sea grass beds or kelp forest here in California. Those species that are called foundation species and the predators are the sentinels of how healthy the ecosystem is.

Russ Altman: 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 I wanna go to. One is I believed you’ve studied the impact of fish, fish farms where they create, I guess, enclosed areas where they grow salmon or shrimp and the impact on these ecosystems by these animals. I wanted to find out about where we are there because I know that there are now score cards that come out about things that you can need and it is not always easy to guess what the answer is. I just wondered if you have things to say about the safety, the food supply of farmed fish and farmed sea products.

Fiorenza Micheli: So, farming, now, aquaculture and mariculture are incredibly important to means of addressing food security. Recent estimates tell us that the potential of growth for producing so easy in aquaculture and mariculture so doing that well, doing it in the right places with the right procedures is incredibly important because there is a lot at stake. Some aquaculture operations have a environmental impact. Habitat, use antibiotic and other substances that are toxic to us.

Russ Altman: It’s like cows all over again.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yes, so I think we can learn from land maybe on how to do it better. So, there are several important aspect 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 San Go Bay, shows that very large operations that exist there, whole bays basically in plot for this. At some point result in decrease productivity of the system, just too much taken out of it. We need to better understand and really do the science in collaboration with the producers to understand what is the, now, how we can improve on the feed used, the water practices that result in sustainable and help the seafood.

So, a lot to be done there, organization Seafood Watch which is based on Monterey Bay Aquarium, Marine Stewardship Council are developing standards, way of assessing the sustainability and health of these operations.

Russ Altman: Are these the ones that may have given me my little score cards

Fiorenza Micheli: 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 the progression from red to green.

Russ Altman: 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’ll be fisheries and farms they’ll be protected areas, there will 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.

Fiorenza Micheli: Yeah, one major challenges with oceans is that they are enormous and so it’s very hard to know what’s happening. A recent evolution involves technologies for example vessel tracking systems that were initially developed as anti-collisions devices for safety. Now allow us to see what is happening in the oceans everywhere. Where there is fishing, where there is deep sea mining, where there is transportation and so —

Russ Altman: Most boats are labeled with one of these transponders?

Fiorenza Micheli: So, most boats above a certain size.

Russ Altman: Oh, okay.

Fiorenza Micheli: So, large boats have mandatory use of these systems but smaller boats don’t. So there is a lot to be done in developing the technology that will allow us to track all of the vessels, all the activities but Global Fishing Watch, this organization that is tracking large vessels has developed this incredible resource and that is data base that is updated in real time. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of many technological development. Inexpensive technology for monitoring water quality like gauge in oxygen and technology like environmental DNA that allow us establish the diversity in the water and also quality of the food.

Russ Altman: What, literally like DNA sequencing of a scoop of ocean?

Fiorenza Micheli: Of, yeah, a liter of water and you can see what’s been so there is so much happening now, this is such an exciting time and at the same time, we need to rampant the pace of solutions and innovation for ocean and so all of this is happening right now.

Russ Altman: So, there is going to be this great, like many other areas, were, gonna have a big data for ocean. And were gonna try to address the questions that we have 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 Sirius XM app.


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