Friday, March 26, 2010

"Healthy Oceans, Healthy Humans"

As I mentioned in a previous post I was able to attend the first in the spring series of lectures at the NEAq (which, by the way, are free and open to the public thanks to the Lowell Institute. A list of upcoming lectures can be found here). The title of the lecture was “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Humans” and was given by Kathleen Frith of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. That’s a mouthful but basically what they’re up to is working with physicians, conservators and educators both to increase awareness of how the health of our ecosystems affects human health and also doing something about making those ecosystems healthier.

The first thing she did was show a short film they have developed called “Once Upon a Tide” which is intended for museums, zoos, aquariums as well as classrooms. There’s a curriculum package that goes along with the film as well. You can view the film in its entirety on the website:

Most of the lecture afterwards and the short Q+A session dealt with familiar themes of the un-sustainability of current fishing practices, climate change and its role in the decline of ocean health and, luckily, what we can do in our daily lives and what others around the world are already doing to mitigate the (excuse my alarmism) unbridled disaster we currently find ourselves in.

Frith puts human health’s relationship to the ocean into three categories, which when she first announced I found vague and too similar. They are that the ocean 1) nourishes, 2) heals and 3) sustains. When she went into further detail about the differences they started to make more sense as clear categories. The nourishing aspect is all about food we get from the ocean. She spoke about how great seafood is, how it’s a great source of healthy protein and omega-3 fatty acids. But the obvious flip side is that most of our fishing practices are woefully abusive to the ocean ecosystems, the food is often filled with toxic mercury and other chemicals and that even the outlets which we perceive to be doing the “right” thing, e.g. Whole Foods, have mostly un-sustainable seafood available. She spoke here about diet in more general terms as well, providing another Harvard Medical School resource, and repeated the mantra of Michael Pollan, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Making our diet mostly vegetarian will ideally help efforts of sustainable seafood consumption. The less we eat individually the more we will have to share with others. You can also learn about making good seafood choices on the NEAq’s website.

The second category, how the ocean heals us, was all about medicine. Specifically she talked about cone snails. These amazing mollusks are capable hunters of fish. They crawl up towards the unsuspecting prey and fire a toxic dart, instantly paralyzing the animal. They are then free to devour their food at the slow snail pace. They are so toxic that they have even been, on occasion, known to be fatal to humans. Each species of cone snails has its own cocktail of toxins, known as conotoxins, which are extremely biologically active compounds. Researchers are now fully engaged in how they might utilize the 70,000 or so known conotoxins. The first success is a new medicine called prialt which is a treatment for chronic pain. Unlike opiates it does not have a problem with tolerance or addictive properties. Also those folks who may be allergic to opiates finally have more options for pain relief. The problem is that if we continue to change our oceans at the rate we are we could lose a large number of species before researchers have a chance to find out if their conotoxins can be used for new breakthrough medicines.

The category of how the ocean sustains has to do with the water cycle and the carbon cycle. This is the big picture stuff. Frith spoke again about mercury and other toxins, plastic, the Pacific garbage patch (and apparently there’s a recently discovered Atlantic garbage patch), ocean acidification, etc.

To conclude she was able to provide some hopeful stuff. There are a lot of smart people working on many of these problems and efforts to educate the public about what a mess we are really in. Scientists, doctors, environmentalists, city planners, educators and many more are all working towards helping the public understand just what our situation is on planet Earth. The curriculum which goes with their film is intended to spread appreciation of the ocean in young people so that they will care enough to go out and do something now and through their lives. Frith talked about the growing sustainable vegetarian barramundi fisheries which are able to provide fish on a closed loop system. The vegetarian diet also means there’s no mercury present. She also mentioned the film “The Story of Stuff” and the new “The Story of Bottled Water” which if you haven’t seen you can view online here. And it’s really never too late to mention: turn off lights when you’re not using them, bike instead of driving, reduce, reuse, and recycle. Please.

This post is getting a little long but I really wanted to mention two great moments from the Q+A. One man brought up the question of population. She simply responded (and I’m paraphrasing: “Yes. We have no idea how to talk about population. Some people are working on it, but for now we really don’t know how to talk about it.” I think about population a lot. I guess that’s all I can say.

Finally: I can’t remember exactly the context but she likened eating tuna with eating a tiger. This really resonated with me because the moment I decided I would cut tuna out of my diet all together didn’t have anything to do with mercury but with the fact that I had a vivid realization of the fact that I was eating a top predator, a “key stone” species, if you will, in the food web. I was at the Harvard Museum of Natural History standing in front of a stuffed tuna and the size and power of the animal was just overwhelming. It really isn’t like a cow at all. It’s much more like a tiger. I’m really glad she stuck with her analogy.

OK, I realize that was a lot but I think it’s all important. Please let me know if there’s something you think I should go into more detail about or you have any questions. Follow those links, arm yourself with knowledge and go out and interpret the dickens out of ocean change.

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