EDGEWATER, MARYLAND - The ocean provides many benefits to our planet and all the creatures that live there. It regulates the earth’s climate, produces 60 percent of the oxygen for the earth and is an important source of food.
Denise Breitburg is a marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Her research and studies center on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, a large water system that stretches from New York to Virginia. The Bay itself receives about half its volume from the Atlantic Ocean.
“I do work on a wide range of organisms, from fish, jellyfish to oysters. Any of the things large enough to see without a microscope. But, I'm also really interested not just in individual animals, but in how it all fits together, how food webs change, how the environment influences evolution and really the ecosystems as a whole.”
Breitburg says one thing that has a negative impact on the ecosystem is oxygen decline in the ocean.
“Animals need oxygen to breathe, grow, reproduce and survive. The marine ecosystems require oxygen. But, oxygen is declining in the open ocean and coastal waters because of increasing global temperatures and excess nutrients.”
Finding a solution to this problem, Breitburg says, requires spending much of her time doing research and instead of being in the open waters. She also spends time speaking to policy makers and environmental managers to educate them on the issues so they can develop policies that are going to be effective.
Breitburg says ocean deoxygenation does not occur in isolation or only in waters in the United States.
“I’ve been co-chairing a working group that’s part of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission from UNESCO. It includes about 20 researchers and scientists from around the world, who all work on various aspects of the problem of low oxygen in the oceans. Waters are warming and acidifying, food webs are changed by fishing and habitat can be degraded by plastics and other pollutants.”
This is a problem around the world, says Breitburg. “Everything from fisheries to global models to trying to understand the effects of climate change. Many many places around the world have the same sort of problems that we have here.”
Breitburg says the Clean Air Act and other kinds of management of coastal waters has reduced the amount of nitrogen coming into the Chesapeake Bay. In other words, policies, regulations, and research can make a difference over time, Breitburg says.
“The Earth's population has increased. It's almost tripled since 1950, and things that we used to be able to do when there were many fewer of us just don't work in a global population this size, and at a time when we still need to think about how to bring people from poorer developing countries up to a better standard of living so that they're healthy and can lead long lives. And for that to happen, that means each of us having less of an impact on this earth and supporting government actions that will encourage that to happen. So, we can hopefully leave a healthier environment for our children and grandchildren.”