Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Problem with Plastics

Pollution is an issue for us and our oceans, especially plastics. The problem with plastics is that they don’t breakdown in the environment. The rays from the sun can degrade the plastics a bit but that causes an additional problem. The plastics get smaller and smaller until they are the same size as the base of the marine food web – plankton. Then, ocean animals and seabirds ingest the plastic along with the plankton and can get sick or die.

Once the plastics get into the ocean, they float along with the ocean currents. These currents can cause large rotating masses of water known as gyres. The rotating water causes plastics and trash to collect in certain locations, such as the gyre in the Northern Pacific Ocean. Imagine a huge landfill in the middle of the ocean. That is the Ocean Garbage Patch and it’s our trash that circles with the currents.

Oprah covered the Garbage Patch on her Earth Day Special in 2009. The patch covers an area twice the size of Texas, the garbage can be up to 90 feet deep, and its mostly plastic.

There are “green” movements that try to get people to reduce their use of plastics. You see stainless steal water bottles and reusable bags for sale all over. For a stylish reusable bag, check out Envirosax.

I glanced around my classroom a few nights ago and noticed that there were 11 glass or plastic bottles on the desks. I was somewhat surprised to have about a third of the room of a masters level business course using disposable bottles. I wondered how many of the bottles would be recycled.

What can we do? Sure we can work on reducing or eliminating our use of disposable plastics like water bottles, utensils, and plastic bags. We can also help spread the word about how plastics impact our oceans.

Anna Hepler is promoting awareness through her art. She created “Gyre,” a huge installation made from plastic to show the impact our plastic usage on the oceans. Read more about her installation here.

Colin Beavan is promoting awareness through his book No Impact Man that describes his family experiment in New York City to have a zero net impact on the environment. You can read more about my reaction to the book and what I do in my own life to reduce my impact in the University of Rhode Island Common Reading Blog

Photo courtesy of Anna Hepler. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blue Crab

Scientific name: Callinectes sapidus

Blue crabs are a staple of the Chesapeake Bay. Their characteristic blue coloration and pointy shells make them easy to spot. Since I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, I thought the blue crab was a perfect ocean critter to help make my blogging debut.

That blue pigment breaks down if you cook the crabs, leaving the hardier red pigments. Chesapeake Crab Cakes, Crab Dip, and more are regular menu items on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and beyond. My personal favorite way to eat blue crabs is steamed with Old Bay seasoning with butter and a cold beer. The blue crab fishery is an important one for the local economy. I got a taste of what it was like to work on the water a few years ago.

During a few summers home from college I worked at the Horn Point Laboratory out of the University of Maryland. I worked on projects in the Aquaculture and Restoration Ecology Program. One day, I had the opportunity to go crabbing to collect some blue crabs for an upcoming experiment. We got up super early in the morning and were on the water before sunrise.

As the sun came up, we loaded the line of hooks with bull lips (yes, facial tissue from a bull, it was gross but part of the job) and let the line into the water.  As we started to pull up the line through the equipment the blue crabs started to drop into the basket. We separated out the sea nettles (jellyfish), measured the crabs to make sure they were legal size, and determined their gender.

One of the first things I remember learning about blue crabs was how to tell the difference between a male and a female. Males have a pointy abdomen section on the bottom of their shells, shaped a bit like the Washington Monument and females have a broader section called an apron. The shells of blue crabs and other crustaceans are called exoskeletons. You can also spot the females by looking for their “painted fingernails,” or the bright red tips of their claws.

We had to measure how long each crab was from tip to tip of their shells to make sure they were within the legal limit. Local governments have to set regulations so that the blue crab population can sustain itself. By only taking the larger adult crabs, the younger ones are able to grow up and reproduce to replenish the system. You also can’t take any females with eggs so they have a chance to hatch and become part of the marine environment.

Before lunch we had several bushel baskets of blue crabs ready to load into the van. I developed a new respect for the men and women who make their livings on the water that day. It was great experience and a great way to reconnect to the Chesapeake Bay that I grew up loving.

Learn more about blue crabs at

Learn more about Horn Point Lab at  

Photos by Sara MacSorley