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Stephen Palumbi: Following the mercury trail

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It can be a very complicated thing, the ocean. And it can be a very complicated thing, what human health is. And bringing those two together might seem a very daunting task, but what I'm going to try to say is that even in that complexity, there's some simple themes that I think, if we understand, we can really move forward. And those simple themes aren't really themes about the complex science of what's going on, but things that we all pretty well know. And I'm going to start with this one: If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. We know that, right? We've experienced that. And if we just take that and we build from there, then we can go to the next step, which is that if the ocean ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. That's the theme of my talk. And we're making the ocean pretty unhappy in a lot of different ways.

This is a shot of Cannery Row in 1932. Cannery Row, at the time, had the biggest industrial canning operation on the west coast. We piled enormous amounts of pollution into the air and into the water. Rolf Bolin, who was a professor at the Hopkin's Marine Station where I work, wrote in the 1940s that "The fumes from the scum floating on the inlets of the bay were so bad they turned lead-based paints black." People working in these canneries could barely stay there all day because of the smell, but you know what they came out saying? They say, "You know what you smell? You smell money." That pollution was money to that community, and those people dealt with the pollution and absorbed it into their skin and into their bodies because they needed the money. We made the ocean unhappy; we made people very unhappy, and we made them unhealthy.

The connection between ocean health and human health is actually based upon another couple simple adages, and I want to call that "pinch a minnow, hurt a whale." The pyramid of ocean life ... Now, when an ecologist looks at the ocean -- I have to tell you -- we look at the ocean in a very different way, and we see different things than when a regular person looks at the ocean because when an ecologist looks at the ocean, we see all those interconnections. We see the base of the food chain, the plankton, the small things, and we see how those animals are food to animals in the middle of the pyramid, and on so up this diagram. And that flow, that flow of life, from the very base up to the very top, is the flow that ecologists see. And that's what we're trying to preserve when we say, "Save the ocean. Heal the ocean." It's that pyramid.

Now why does that matter for human health? Because when we jam things in the bottom of that pyramid that shouldn't be there, some very frightening things happen. Pollutants, some pollutants have been created by us: molecules like PCBs that can't be broken down by our bodies. And they go in the base of that pyramid, and they drift up; they're passed up that way, on to predators and on to the top predators, and in so doing, they accumulate.

Now, to bring that home, I thought I'd invent a little game. We don't really have to play it; we can just think about it here. It's the Styrofoam and chocolate game. Imagine that when we got on this boat, we were all given two Styrofoam peanuts. Can't do much with them: Put them in your pocket. Suppose the rules are: every time you offer somebody a drink, you give them the drink, and you give them your Styrofoam peanuts too. What'll happen is that the Styrofoam peanuts will start moving through our society here, and they will accumulate in the drunkest, stingiest people. (Laughter) There's no mechanism in this game for them to go anywhere but into a bigger and bigger pile of indigestible Styrofoam peanuts. And that's exactly what happens with PDBs in this food pyramid: They accumulate into the top of it.

Now suppose, instead of Styrofoam peanuts, we take these lovely little chocolates that we get and we had those instead. Well, some of us would be eating those chocolates instead of passing them around, and instead of accumulating, they will just pass into our group here and not accumulate in any one group because they're absorbed by us. And that's the difference between a PCB and, say, something natural like an omega-3, something we want out of the marine food chain.

PCBs accumulate. We have great examples of that, unfortunately. PCBs accumulate in dolphins in Sarasota Bay, in Texas, in North Carolina. They get into the food chain. The dolphins eat the fish that have PCBs from the plankton, and those PCBs, being fat-soluble, accumulate in these dolphins. Now, a dolphin, mother dolphin, any dolphin -- there's only one way that a PCB can get out of a dolphin. And what's that? In mother's milk. Here's a diagram of the PCB load of dolphins in Sarasota Bay. Adult males: a huge load. Juveniles: a huge load. Females after their first calf is already weaned: a lower load. Those females, they're not trying to. Those females are passing the PCBs in the fat of their own mother's milk into their offspring, and their offspring don't survive. The death rate in these dolphins, for the first calf born of every female dolphin, is 60 to 80 percent. These mothers pump their first offspring full of this pollutant, and most of them die. Now, the mother then can go and reproduce, but what a terrible price to pay for the accumulation of this pollutant in these animals -- the death of the first-born calf.

There's another top predator in the ocean, it turns out. That top predator, of course, is us. And we also are eating meat that comes from some of these same places. This is whale meat that I photographed in a grocery store in Tokyo -- or is it? In fact, what we did a few years ago was learn how to smuggle a molecular biology lab into Tokyo and use it to genetically test the DNA out of whale meat samples and identify what they really were. And some of those whale meat samples were whale meat. Some of them were illegal whale meat, by the way. That's another story. But some of them were not whale meat at all. Even though they were labeled whale meat, they were dolphin meat. Some of them were dolphin liver. Some of them were dolphin blubber. And those dolphin parts had a huge load of PCBs, dioxins and heavy metals. And that huge load was passing into the people that ate this meat. It turns out that a lot of dolphins are being sold as meat in the whale meat market around the world. That's a tragedy for those populations, but it's also a tragedy for the people eating them because they don't know that that's toxic meat.

We had these data a few years ago. I remember sitting at my desk being about the only person in the world who knew that whale meat being sold in these markets was really dolphin meat, and it was toxic. It had two-to-three-to-400 times the toxic loads ever allowed by the EPA. And I remember there sitting at my desk thinking, "Well, I know this. This is a great scientific discovery," but it was so awful. And for the very first time in my scientific career, I broke scientific protocol, which is that you take the data and publish them in scientific journals and then begin to talk about them. We sent a very polite letter to the Minister of Health in Japan and simply pointed out that this is an intolerable situation, not for us, but for the people of Japan because mothers who may be breastfeeding, who may have young children, would be buying something that they thought was healthy, but it was really toxic. That led to a whole series of other campaigns in Japan, and I'm really proud to say that at this point, it's very difficult to buy anything in Japan that's labeled incorrectly, even though they're still selling whale meat, which I believe they shouldn't. But at least it's labeled correctly, and you're no longer going to be buying toxic dolphin meat instead.

It isn't just there that this happens, but in a natural diet of some communities in the Canadian arctic and in the United States and in the European arctic, a natural diet of seals and whales leads to an accumulation of PCBs that have gathered up from all parts of the world and ended up in these women. These women have toxic breast milk. They cannot feed their offspring, their children, their breast milk because of the accumulation of these toxins in their food chain, in their part of the world's ocean pyramid. That means their immune systems are compromised. It means that their children's development can be compromised. And the world's attention on this over the last decade has reduced the problem for these women, not by changing the pyramid, but by changing what they particularly eat out of it. We've taken them out of their natural pyramid in order to solve this problem. That's a good thing for this particular acute problem, but it does nothing to solve the pyramid problem.

There's other ways of breaking the pyramid. The pyramid, if we jam things in the bottom, can get backed up like a sewer line that's clogged. And if we jam nutrients, sewage, fertilizer in the base of that food pyramid, it can back up all through it. We end up with things we've heard about before: red tides, for example, which are blooms of toxic algae floating through the oceans causing neurological damage. We can also see blooms of bacteria, blooms of viruses in the ocean. These are two shots of a red tide coming on shore here and a bacteria in the genus vibrio, which includes the genus that has cholera in it. How many people have seen a "beach closed" sign? Why does that happen? It happens because we have jammed so much into the base of the natural ocean pyramid that these bacteria clog it up and overfill onto our beaches. Often what jams us up is sewage.

Now how many of you have ever gone to a state park or a national park where you had a big sign at the front saying, "Closed because human sewage is so far over this park that you can't use it"? Not very often. We wouldn't tolerate that. We wouldn't tolerate our parks being swamped by human sewage, but beaches are closed a lot in our country. They're closed more and more and more all around the world for the same reason, and I believe we shouldn't tolerate that either. It's not just a question of cleanliness; it's also a question of how those organisms then turn into human disease. These vibrios, these bacteria, can actually infect people. They can go into your skin and create skin infections.

This is a graph from NOAA's ocean and human health initiative, showing the rise of the infections by vibrio in people over the last few years. Surfers, for example, know this incredibly. And if you can see on some surfing sites, in fact, not only do you see what the waves are like or what the weather's like, but on some surf rider sites, you see a little flashing poo alert. That means that the beach might have great waves, but it's a dangerous place for surfers to be because they can carry with them, even after a great day of surfing, this legacy of an infection that might take a very long time to solve. Some of these infections are actually carrying antibiotic resistance genes now, and that makes them even more difficult.

These same infections create harmful algal blooms. Those blooms are generating other kinds of chemicals. This is just a simple list of some of the types of poisons that come out of these harmful algal blooms: shellfish poisoning,fish ciguatera, diarrheic shellfish poisoning -- you don't want to know about that -- neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, paralytic shellfish poisoning. These are things that are getting into our food chain because of these blooms. Rita Calwell very famously traced a very interesting story of cholera into human communities, brought there, not by a normal human vector, but by a marine vector, this copepod. Copepods are small crustaceans. They're a tiny fraction of an inch long, and they can carry on their little legs some of the cholera bacteria that then leads to human disease. That has sparked cholera epidemics in ports along the world and has led to increased concentration on trying to make sure shipping doesn't move these vectors of cholera around the world.

So what do you do? We have major problems in disrupted ecosystem flow that the pyramid may not be working so well, that the flow from the base up into it is being blocked and clogged. What do you do when you have this sort of disrupted flow? Well, there's a bunch of things you could do. You could call Joe the Plumber, for example. And he could come in and fix the flow. But in fact, if you look around the world, not only are there hope spots for where we may be able to fix problems, there have been places where problems have been fixed, where people have come to grips with these issues and begun to turn them around. Monterey is one of those.

I started out showing how much we had distressed the Monterey Bay ecosystem with pollution and the canning industry and all of the attendant problems. In 1932, that's the picture. In 2009, the picture is dramatically different. The canneries are gone. The pollution has abated. But there's a greater sense here that what the individual communities need is working ecosystems. They need a functioning pyramid from the base all the way to the top. And that pyramid in Monterey, right now, because of the efforts of a lot of different people, is functioning better than it's ever functioned for the last 150 years.

It didn't happen accidentally. It happened because many people put their time and effort and their pioneering spirit into this. On the left there, Julia Platt, the mayor of my little hometown in Pacific Grove. At 74 years old, became mayor because something had to be done to protect the ocean. In 1931, she produced California's first community-based marine protected area, right next to the biggest polluting cannery, because Julia knew that when the canneries eventually were gone, the ocean needed a place to grow from, that the ocean needed a place to spark a seed, and she wanted to provide that seed.

Other people, like David Packard and Julie Packard, who were instrumental in producing the Monterey Bay aquarium to lock into people's notion that the ocean and the health of the ocean ecosystem were just as important to the economy of this area as eating the ecosystem would be. That change in thinking has led to a dramatic shift, not only in the fortunes of Monterey Bay, but other places around the world.

Well, I want to leave you with the thought that what we're really trying to do here is protect this ocean pyramid, and that ocean pyramid connects to our own pyramid of life. It's an ocean planet, and we think of ourselves as a terrestrial species, but the pyramid of life in the ocean and our own lives on land are intricately connected. And it's only through having the ocean being healthy that we can remain healthy ourselves.

Thank you very much.

(Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 15 minutes and 22 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Director: TED.com
Views: 257
Posted by: tedtalks on Jun 29, 2010

There's a tight and surprising link between the ocean's health and ours, says marine biologist Stephen Palumbi. He shows how toxins at the bottom of the ocean food chain find their way into our bodies, with a shocking story of toxic contamination from a Japanese fish market. His work points a way forward for saving the oceans' health -- and humanity's.

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