Ocean optimism is a movement I learned about this semester that I think is worth sharing. Centered on the twitter hashtag #OceanOptimism and the accompanying website, it has a clear and simple mission: “Tracking the spread of positive and solutions-focused marine stories on social media.”
We introduced this concept to our students this semester in Marine Ecosystem Sustainability, a course for Cornell undergraduates taught by Professors Drew Harvell and Charles Greene. The course consists of advanced students who want to learn about the ecological underpinnings of coral reefs, the rocky intertidal and pelagic ecosystems, for example. In one lecture, Drew had the idea to ask each student to come in with an example of Ocean Optimism. This moment of focusing on success stories changed the tune of the course to one of leveraging scientific knowledge for positive change.
I usually think of my own role in positive change as being defined primarily by my research, but teaching has started to become a big part of this role. In Marine Ecosystem Sustainability, I got to know the students through small group discussions and the final project. This semester we ran the second generation of a research proposal final project in which the students develop and pitch a study to a hypothetical granting agency. The student’s research proposals were inspiring and thought provoking, giving me my own dose of ocean optimism!
In this post, I want to share a few of their proposals to spread the #OceanOptimism. We have highly intelligent and driven students who understand the ecological, economic and cultural value of marine ecosystems. The following three proposals focus on an interesting mix of ecosystem services, anthropogenic activity and ecological relationships.
A damselfish on a coral reef in Puerto Rico
“Impacts of Nutrient Fertilization in Mangrove Forests on Adult Reef Fish Populations in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary”
Question: What are the ecological connections between mangroves and coral reefs, and how does anthropogenic nutrient pollution affect this?
Method: Fish surveys and environmental DNA (eDNA) to assess the impacts of experimental nutrient fertilization
In their own words: “With this research, we plan to expand the existing knowledge of anthropogenic stressors that occur in one ecosystem but also impact associated ecosystems. We will do this specifically by looking at how nutrient runoff affects mangrove forests’ ability to serve as a crucial nursery habitat for juvenile reef fish, and in turn affects their relationship with coral reefs.”
Crown of Thorns Starfish (Credit: Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel)
“The Co-Effects of Eutrophication and Ocean Acidification on Acanthaster planci (Crown of Thorns Starfish) on the Great Barrier Reef”
Question: What are the separate and combined effects of nutrients and OA on larval recruitment in the destructive Crown of Thorns Starfish?
Method: Field surveys and a controlled laboratory experiment
In their own words: “In order to protect the reefs, both as a source of biodiversity and a source of ecotourism, research needs to be continued to help our understanding of COTS and the other reef stressors. This will allow for us to create the most effective plan to reduce environmental damage and help us preserve the marine ecosystems that we have put at risk.”
Coral reefs and mangroves in Puerto Rico
“Carbon Sequestration in Restored and Undisturbed Rhizophora mangle”
Question: Do disturbance and restoration affect carbon sequestration in mangroves?
Method: Measuring accretion rates and organic carbon content in a series of mangrove sites around Tampa Bay
In their own words: “Mangroves have never faced the threat they face today… While many mangrove stands are being cut down to provide room for agriculture and aquaculture, others are being replanted as people begin to acknowledge positive effects mangroves have on both marine and terrestrial ecosystems… Testing for sequestration in restored mangrove systems as compared to natural will provide information that will be vital to future mangrove restoration plans.”
Lessons learned for students and teachers
The students learned several key skills in this process, including:
As an instructor, I learned a lot as well. Certainly one of the best parts of this project was that in many cases the students knew more about their topic than I did by the end! I also came away with more ideas on how to teach writing and the scientific method, and I have a renewed sense of optimism for ocean health in a quickly changing world.
Miranda Winningham and Grace Revello, the undergraduate TAs, helped make this all possible.
Thanks also to the students who agreed to have their proposals featured: