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Sharkwater: An Argument for Conservation


Rob Stewart (1979-2017)

By Liz Clift

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, we used social media to post condolences about the death of Rob Stewart (1979-2017), a marine conservationist and documentary filmmaker who died in a diving accident off the coast of Florida, at Alligator Reef. Stewart was best known for his 2006 documentary Sharkwater.

I recently watched Sharkwater, a documentary about sharks, and was immediately captivated by the beauty of the world under sea that Rob Stewart captured—as well as the devastation caused by the commercial shark fin industry.

Stewart once said, “Conservation is the preservation of human life on earth, and that, above all else, is worth fighting for.” In the course of the documentary, it’s clear that he believed this, because viewers witness some (though not all) of the challenges he faced while making the film—including risks to his life. He created Sharkwater as a way of raising awareness about sharks (and how, despite what the creators of Jaws and Sharknado might have us believe, they are not all that dangerous. In fact, you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark.).

There’s a memorable scene where Stewart is on the ocean floor, cuddling a shark. There’s a breath-taking view of hundreds of hammerhead sharks schooling. There are also multiple scenes depicting the brutality of the shark fin industry, and statistics that will break your heart.

In the documentary, Stewart makes the compelling argument that sharks play a vital role in the survival of humankind, and life on earth as we know it. An understanding of how predators change landscapes indicate he’s probably right (think: reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone).


Lemon Shark with Remora


Sharks, as Stewart points out, are apex predators and have existed for millennia almost unchanged. As apex predators, they provide evolutionary pressure to fish (and are likely the reason that some fish form tight schools, much as herd animals on land evolved to tighten up to avoid predation) and help maintain fish populations at a state that can be supported by the marine ecosystem.

This in turn helps ensure that plankton, which produce the majority (estimated 70%) of the oxygen we rely on, are not overconsumed. With fewer higher level predators, primary and mid-level consumers that include a heavy diet of plankton could cause the plankton population to crash.

That would not spell good things for the planet, or for us.

Tiger Shark

Tiger Shark

When Stewart died, he was reportedly making a sequel to Sharkwater. He also made the 2012 film Revolution and the 2015 film The Fight for Bala.

If you haven’t seen Sharkwater yet, and have the ability to access it (it’s available on a number of streaming services, including ones that do not require a subscription), take the time to watch it. The Sharkwater website also contains a teacher’s guide for teaching this film to secondary school students, which may also be useful for home viewing, especially if you watch the film with teens.


Scene from Sharkwater


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City on the Sea, Part III

By Liz Clift

Editor’s Note: This is the final segment of a 3-part blog on the future of seasteading, that posted on consecutive Tuesdays. Check out Part I and Part II.


Many of the models on the Seasteading Institute website showed solar energy capture, with solar fields taking up part of the city, or covering rooftops. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to store solar energy, but depending on the location of the floating city perhaps this would be only a minor problem (if it was located in a place in the world with abundant sunshine).

As long as we’re talking about solar energy—what does this look like without solar panels? The Seasteading institute suggests that since the tropical oceans absorb 3x the amount of energy each day that the world currently consumes, there are opportunities for research, development, and harnessing. The Institute also suggests that Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion provides an opportunity for generating power (for the floating city as well as land-based nations).

There’s also the potential for capturing wave energy. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) notes that wave energy, at least along the coast of the United States has tremendous potential as an energy source. “[T]he total wave energy resource along the outer continental shelf [was estimated] at 2,640 terawatt hours/year (TWh/yr).” The energy potential in this is significant as just one TWh/yr can supply a little shy of 94,000 average US homes with power annually. However, wave energy cannot be fully harnessed due to things like shipping, commercial fishing, and environmental concerns in sensitive areas.

Harnessing wind energy is something we’ve already started to do, and with a fair amount of success. Depending on the location, wind energy has a lot of potential (pun intended) for this type of project. It would be fairly easy to set up wind generation stations on the roofs of buildings or as other parts of the landscape.

Compost piles can be used to heat water or to generate biogas (through the use of a biodigester) for use in cooking. If done properly, either of these options will have little to no odor, and provide an opportunity for dealing with the floating city’s waste.

Partially-constructed compost mound water heater. Image from: Cornell University.

Partially-constructed compost mound water heater. Image from: Cornell University.

Other Concerns

My colleague brought up the question of what happens to sea life beneath these cities, and I think that really depends. If the cities are static (i.e. more or less permanently moored), this has the potential to radically alter the way that sea life looks below them, since fewer-to-no UV rays would be able to extend into those parts of the ocean. The materials used would also impact the suitability of these cities to become anchor points for crustaceans, seaweeds, and other ocean life that prefers to anchor to a particular place rather than drifting or floating.

We may have some reference points in the form of oil and gas (O&G) platforms, which are generally designed to last 20 to 30 years, though some are maintained to last longer. The topsides of most O&G platforms include living quarters that consist of an average of 20 rooms, with thirty beds, a cooking facility, a galley, a landing pad for helicopters and other features. Most fixed structure standing oil platforms can stretch as deep as 1,500 feet, and may stretch across several pilings or ‘legs.’ The British Petroleum Oil Rig in the Gulf of Mexico that lead to the deep-water horizon disaster was 400 feet by 250 feet, roughly the size of two football fields, and supported a crew of 130 people. Some platform structures are even larger, in fact many of today’s platforms are essentially small cities equipped with cafeterias, lounges, and some even have small movie theatres.

Life on an oil platform. Image from: Blue Latitudes.

Life on an oil platform. Image from: Blue Latitudes.

While the aforementioned O&G structures are fairly typical to the industry as we’ve understood it in the past, there may also be a model in the world’s largest ship ever built, and the first floating liquefied natural gas platform, which is scheduled to begin drilling later this year. Although this is a moveable facility, the ship is expected to remain moored for 25 years. The sheer size of these structures alter the ocean life around them—but they also provide new opportunities for colonization, which leads to species congregation near the structure and/or greater species diversity.

On the other hand, if these cities are unmoored (truly floating cities), that changes the impact to sea life immediately beneath them—and likely decreases the risk of an area receiving little or no UV light. It also increases the risk that these floating cities would drift into deeper waters, where wave power could change, and where ocean currents could sweep them far adrift (and therefore outside of the range of mainland emergency services, among other things). There would also be the risk that truly unmoored floating cities would break apart in rougher waters without ways to reunite or end up in the path of a barge as they drifted into a shipping channel. They might even end up in the territorial waters of a hostile nation or face other, unexpected interpersonal or geopolitical problems.

These considerations must be taken into account to keep the residents of the floating city safe.


While the reality of a floating city might be years (or longer) away, it’s interesting to consider some of the problems (and solutions!) which might arise from such a place. Floating cities, in some ways, force us to consider what it might be like to dramatically restructure our lives—and potentially on a more permanent basis than what occurs with remote research or O&G facilities.

Floating cities also provide an opportunity to expand our conception of what SLR planning (and resiliency planning, in general) could look like and how technology, engineering, ecology, and a spot of idealism might play a role in shaping these types of places.

Floating cities are not exactly a new concept—but so far, none have come to fruition in the ways conceived by this project. As mentioned earlier, O&G platforms, in many ways, serve as self-contained cities for short periods of time. People have also approached this idea as a way to divest themselves from global politics or economics—for reasons focused on self-governance, participatory governance, and economic freedom.

But, these projects have, so far, failed to become reality because of the tremendous expense associated not only with the conceptual design and development, but also with the actual construction of such places. This price tag will need to be addressed, as will the idea of who, exactly gets to live in places with such a high price tag. Will these options truly be open to people who lose their homes and livelihoods due to sea level rise?

Although I’ve focused on floating cities for the purpose of this blog post—because of the MOU signed between the Seasteading Institute and French Polynesia—the research for this blog has also taken me on an adventure of exploring how these floating structures might look as research centers or farms, and the potential opportunities these options present as well (algae farming, anyone?).


What have I missed? I would love to hear your feedback through our Facebook page.

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City on the Sea, Part II

By Liz Clift

Editor’s Note: This is a 3-part blog on the future of seasteading, that will post on consecutive Tuesdays. Check out Part I.

Food & Water

The Velella mariculture research project is testing an unanchored drifter pen in waters between 3 and 150 miles off the Big Island of Hawai’i. The project seeks to grow fish in the open ocean without leaving an environmental footprint. The pen is placed into eddies, which move it around, and thus minimize impact compared to mariculture that takes place in a static location. Additionally, the mesh on the pen is made of brass, which eliminates biofouling, the formation of microbial layers on a surface (which can have a corrosive impact on other metals as well as decrease water flow through the area).

Vellela Project. Image from Undercurrent News Website.

Vellela Project. Image from Undercurrent News Website.

A solar-and-salt water farm in the south Australian desert provides an examination of how agriculture might be transformed. The system uses no soil, pesticides, fossil fuels, or groundwater, but does collect rainwater from its roof. The greenhouse uses seawater-soaked cardboard to regulate hot summer temperatures and solar heating in the winter to keep conditions from becoming too cold. The farm currently grows only tomato plants, which are rooted in coconut husks instead of soil. The farm uses a thermal desalination system to distill water for use. The leftover saltwater is mixed with seawater then returned to the sea once salt levels have reached a baseline. This agricultural practice could provide an ideal alternative to traditional terrestrial-based farming, and would be of particular use to a city based on water.

Abalone farming, as practiced in the Monterey Bay, may offer another solution to how food is produced for inhabitants of the floating island. Abalone, unlike many other animals raised by mariculture, are herbivores and will happily munch along on freshly harvested kelp while living under piers, wharfs, or similar structures.

Monterrey Abalone Company, open water abalone farming

Monterrey Abalone Company, open water abalone farming

Seaweed is quickly becoming a trendy food—even when it’s not holding together some sushi! A cookbook released late last year offers beautiful photography (and probably really tasty recipes; I live inland and so don’t partake in the seaweed revelry like I might if I lived on a coast, even though notably many of the recipes do call for dried seaweed) and makes the argument that seaweed, when responsibly harvested, is one of the world’s most sustainable and nutritious food choices.

Several of the conceptual floating cities on the Seasteading Institute’s website featured biodomes (it wasn’t just a bad 90s movie!) or biospheres. Biodomes, or other greenhouses, dedicated to growing food crops could also provide a number of jobs, and could be set up as aquaponic systems or more traditional agriculture systems, using technology similar to the tech that’s been put in place by the south Australian greenhouse mentioned above. In addition, these spaces could also act as living classrooms for students since on a floating island space is likely to be limited!

Green roofs (which could allow people to garden) and water capture also offer opportunities for sustainable food and water use on a floating city. Green roofs also contribute to thermoregulation of the buildings upon which they rest, and can be used to produce food, recreational space, or to keep beneficial insects, such as pollinators. Roof space also provides an opportunity for water catchment, particularly during storm events. While this water could be processed to make it potable, it could also be used to help maintain garden systems, used for greywater within the household (i.e. – to flush a toilet), or be channeled through pipes as part of a cooling system.


It’s tempting to think that when we flush the toilet (throw something in the trash/composter/recycling bin) it just disappears. This is one of the tricks of living in a society that makes a lot of the work of cleaning up waste invisible (after all, landfills and waste water treatment plants are often out of sight and out of mind, as are the people who move our waste). However, things like composting toilets, or just plain composting provide options for sustainably dealing with waste. In addition, filter feeders such as oysters and clams could be used as part of a water treatment process (though, depending on what exactly these bivalves filtered—and for how long they did it—they may or may not be edible afterward).

Earthships, a type of passive solar house that is built from a combination of natural and upcycled materials, were pioneered as a solution for moving “off-the-grid.” These homes provide: thermal/solar heating/cooling; electricity based on solar or wind power; contained sewage treatment; water harvest; and food production. Earthships have been integrating waste management options for decades, through indoor and outdoor water treatment cells, and by flushing toilets using non-potable, grey water instead of fresh. Depending on the particular design of the floating city, this type of treatment plan may still be an option.

Other types of waste would also need to be considered: would this city have a way to move trash off their floating island? If they aim for higher levels of self-sufficiency, they would need to consider that—and how that alters manufacture, imports, etc. as well as become incredibly creative about re-use.

In many ways, the question of re-use in an isolated, (relatively) self-sufficient city is answered in various works of science fiction, including though certainly not limited to: young adult novels like The 100 and Across the Universe; the post-apocalyptic worlds depicted in Earth Abides, Station Eleven, The Fifth Sacred Thing, and The Dead Lands; and dystopian novels including Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. Although certainly none of these books will hold the answer, science fiction has had a way of shaping our present (and likely, our future).


This is the question I’m currently most curious about. How a floating city survives a hurricane or typhoon seems perplexing—especially as I think about the onslaught of large, high waves. Would the city be able to disband temporarily and flee for safer waters, as one diagram on the Seasteading Institute indicates? Would the materials be pliable enough to withstand strong winds, while rigid enough to prevent capsizing? How would mooring the city impact this?

One design, Artisanopolis, suggests a concrete barrier that would help protect against heavy storms while also providing a recreation area. The design is modular, allowing for components of the city to be moved (via something like a tug boat), if necessary, although it is unclear if the concrete wall, which resembles a levee, would move.

Artisanopolis. From: The Seasteading Institute.

Artisanopolis. From: The Seasteading Institute.

Corrosion & Fatigue

Corrosion is a chemical reaction that ultimately weakens metallic structures—rust is a familiar example of corrosion (of iron and its alloys, which include steel). Corrosion is dependent upon the composition of the metal, pH, temperature, and other factors. The floating city—and its myriad components—would need to be designed or maintained to resist corrosion, especially since corrosion can increase on metal surfaces that have higher porosity. Protections that slow the corrosion process could include protective coatings and sacrificial anodes (metals that are designed to corrode faster) that would need to be maintained.

Fatigue relates to how “tired” a structure becomes through repeated experience with a cyclical action (like waves). For an example of how fatigue works, think about what happens as you bend a paperclip back and forth. Eventually the metal breaks (but even if it doesn’t in the moment, you know it isn’t as strong because you could feel it becoming more pliable). If the floating city was moored in some way, the design would need to include planning for fatigue of these structures in the face of ocean currents or waves.

These things, along with how the city is designed to weather storms, and how self-sufficient it is in practice will all impact how long a floating city could last. Perhaps the Rigs-to-Reefs program can provide us some insight on potential ways future floating cities would be decommissioned if that ever needed to happen—especially if components of the city are made of galvanized steel as are most O&G platforms or are otherwise designed to continue to support marine life as soon as they are installed.

In addition, better understanding how marine life adapts to man-made ocean structures could help us predict how these floating cities will interact with the ecosystem as well as provide valuable information about the impact of corrosion and fatigue on both deep water and shallow water structures. This may be especially important as different locales are determined for different floating cities—the one proposed for French Polynesia, for instance, would be located in a relatively protected bay, but deep water structures have also been proposed and would face different challenges.

Continue to Part III!

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City on the Sea, Part I

By Liz Clift

Editor’s Note: This is a 3-part blog that will post on consecutive Tuesdays.

When most of us think about resiliency planning for sea-level rise (SLR), we generally think about it in terms of coastal cities and islands. As ecologists and landscape designers, we consider options to buffer the coast from storms, ways to build parks that can withstand occasional tidal inundation, develop plant palettes with a higher salt tolerance, and consider the benefits of various building structures.

However, there is a group of people who are considering seasteading (similar to homesteading, but in the ocean) as a solution. Seasteading would, ideally, create floating, man-made, self-sufficient islands, and its gaining attention worldwide. In fact, French Polynesia recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with San Francisco’s Seasteading Institute to begin the development of the world’s first self-sufficient floating city. Seasteaders, according to the Seasteading Institute website are:

“a diverse global team of marine biologists, nautical engineers, aquaculture farmers, maritime attorneys, medical researchers, security personnel, investors, environmentalists, and artists. We plan to build seasteads to host profitable aquaculture farms, floating healthcare, medical research islands, and sustainable energy powerhouses.”

Their first step in the process of creating “blue” jobs and of moving the idea of seasteading into reality will be the Floating Cities Project. Since the idea of a floating city is still conceptual, there isn’t a set idea of how large these structures would be; if they would be moored or anchored in some way versus truly floating; or how long they would be designed to last and the necessary maintenance and associated costs that upkeep would require.

The floating city that may one day exist in French Polynesia would be located in a fairly tranquil bay. But, the idea moving from the conceptual and design stages into actualization is dependent on a number of factors including the results of feasibility studies, environmental impact assessments, and concurrence with the governments of French Polynesia and France.

Tiger Shark, image from Wikimedia Commons

Tiger Shark, image from Wikimedia Commons

Most of the model floating cities on the Seasteading Institute website are small, which would limit how much (or what type) transportation is needed. People could easily get around on foot, by bike, or by boat (i.e. sailboats, kayaks, canoes). Perhaps the island city would want an emergency vehicle or two, but I suspect alternatives could be found even for these cases.

A floating city presents a number of design challenges and opportunities, and the Seasteading Institute ran a design contest (you can see the submissions on their site) to generate ideas for how this could work. I spoke for a while with one of our landscape architects about some of the challenges that might be present with this type of project, and he raised concerns about what would happen to the sea life beneath the city.

The idea of a self-sufficient city that floats in the sea can also raise questions about how food will be grown or cultivated, what will happen to waste, how energy will be produced and captured, how it will fare in storms, how to build a structure that is moderately resistant to corrosion and fatigue, and other concerns including about how sea life will be impacted. Unless otherwise noted, answers below are not based on anything put out by the Seasteading Institute, but instead are a compilation of how those questions that might begin to be answered. As a note, my attempts at answers are based on input from colleagues, articles I’ve read, videos I’ve watched, and what I understand about permaculture design.

In the following installations, which will be posted the next two Tuesdays, I attempt to respond to some of the opportunities and challenges (maybe you would call them a concern) that such a city would present. I don’t address them all—politics, for instance, appears to be a point of challenge/opportunity, especially if these floating cities have some level of sovereignty—because they fall far outside of the work we do here, at Great Ecology.

Subsequent posts will cover:

  • Food & Water
  • Waste
  • Storms
  • Corrosion & Fatigue
  • Energy
  • Other Concerns

Continue to Part II!

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Great Backyard Bird Count 2017

By Liz Clift

I grew up in an amorphous place: the unincorporated county that became incorporated by a major city. In my childhood, there was a former cow pond that teemed with fish and turtles, with copperheads, with tadpoles and pollywogs that grew into frogs and toads, with leaches and crawdads and who knows what other invertebrates.

In no small part because food was abundant, the pond was frequented by Canada geese (Branta canadensis), mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator), great blue herons (Ardea Herodias), belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon), snowy egrets (Egretta thula), coots (Fulica americana), green herons (Butorides virescens), and red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis)—and that’s to say nothing of the occasional visitors who blew in on hurricanes or appeared as part of migratory patterns, or the birds that were just generally common to the region.

Perhaps this is why my mom liked to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place every year (this year it lasts from tomorrow, Friday, February 17 – Monday, February 20; this is the 20th anniversary). The Great Backyard Bird Count asks that people observe the birds near them for as little as 15 minutes on one or more of the four days, and then report their sightings at birdcount.org. This is a citizen-scientist project that helps researchers at the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology learn more about birds, how we can protect them, and what we can do to maintain or improve the environment we share.

You don’t have to be an expert to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC, if you like cool acronyms or are looking for it on social media). You just have to register with your name and an email address, and report your findings for each time and/or place that you spend time bird-watching. If you’re not an expert at identifying birds, birdcount.org suggests several online databases to help you ID the birds you see (or hear). Even if you can’t identify the bird, you can probably get close (a hawk, for instance, doesn’t look especially like any non-raptor, and the folks who are coordinating this information understand how tricky the Accipiter genus is), and that’s perfectly fine.

The Great Backyard Bird Count can be done with your family, your co-workers, your BFFs, before or after brunch, or on your own on a hike—those are just a few suggestions. You’re also invited to take pictures, and submit them as part of the bird count; if you’re inclined to take pictures, like I am, I imagine this could make the time even more enjoyable. The picture below is a northern cardinal, photographed by Priscilla Morris of Tennessee, which was one of the honorable mentions in the bird behavior category last year.

Cardinalis cardinalis

Cardinalis cardinalis

The Great Backyard Bird Count is also an opportunity to take a few minutes to slow down and appreciate the world around you—regardless of whether that’s the middle of a city, in the countryside, at a wildlife refuge, or somewhere else entirely. You can participate from anywhere in the world!

If you decide to participate, we would love to hear about your experience or see your photos on Facebook!

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Happy World Bonobo Day

By Liz Clift

Last year, I wrote about bonobos, and The Bonobo Project. Bonobos, unlike the other great apes (humans included) have never been known to kill each other in the wild, which can make them especially interesting to people who study the behaviors of humans compared to other great apes.

Bonobos are endangered—estimates for wild populations are as low as 5,000, in part because of habitat destruction and habitat encroachment—which was made even worse by a civil war. They naturally only live in one part of the world—the Congo Basin of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  And, unfortunately, not enough people know about them. A lack of awareness about a species can mean a lack of money going toward research and conservation efforts.

The Bonobo Project, however, seeks to change this. February 14th is World Bonobo Day (because bonobos are most definitely lovers—people who study and work with bonobos talk about “the bonobo handshake” in reference to how bonobos use sexual contact as a means of building bonds and settling disagreements) and by sharing information about bonobos, you can help more people learn about bonobos.


Bonobos, affectionate primates. This image is courtesy of Lola ya Bonobo and Dr. Jingzhi Tan via The Bonobo Project website


Here are some articles where you can learn even more about bonobos—which will make you an absolute treat to be around this Valentine’s Day and beyond (we’re sure of it!):

  • The BBC asks “Do Bonobos Really Spend All their Time Having Sex?” The answer isn’t entirely straight-forward.
  • In a Scientific American article in 1995, primatologist Frans de Waal discussed how looking at the matriarchal structure of bonobo society calls into question the assumptions about male supremacy in human evolution (you must have a subscription to read this article).
  • Just because bonobos have never been known to kill each other in the wild doesn’t mean they aren’t aggressive. This New York Times article talks about aggression and female camaraderie in bonobo populations and what it means for male bonobos.
  • If you’re into genetics, Nature published an article on the bonobo genome, as it compares to chimp and human genomes.
  • Why else should you learn more about bonobos? Even Anderson Cooper is doing it.


Bonobos will need researchers, conservationists, and lots of regular folks helping raise awareness about their plight if they are to continue to survive and thrive.

Want to spread even more bonobo-love? Share one of these articles and use the hashtags #WorldBonoboDay or #IBonoboYou.

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Reflections from a YLAI Fellow

By Agustina Tierno, Fellow from Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, Uruguay

Editor’s Note: Agustina worked with Great Ecology for several weeks in the 4th quarter of 2016. This was part of an initiative launched by Barack Obama, called the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI), a program designed to empower entrepreneurs and innovative civil society leaders to strengthen their capacity to advance their entrepreneurial ideas and effectively contribute to social and economic development in their communities.  In early October 2016, 250 fellows (of 4,800 potential fellows) from Central and Latin America traveled to the United States for 40 days, where they developed their projects, were mentored by companies related to their fields, and participated in work and training. The program culminated in Washington D.C. where they had the opportunity to share their work with the whole group of entrepreneurs, from multiple countries, and authorities in the US. Agustina was one of the five Uruguayans who participated in YLAI. She was mentored by Great Ecology. Read about her experience below.

Agustina presenting at the State Department

Agustina presenting at the State Department

October the 11th, 2016, I arrived in Great Ecology. I was received by Jessa Spainhower and we talked about our backgrounds, expectations, and possibilities of cooperation.

I must say this first day was a bit strange. I came to the USA after 40 days in Finland developing another project regarding education and arrived to work in a very important firm because of a new program (YLAI) launched by Barack Obama, with no time in between to process the experience; therefore, I felt a bit lost, not knowing what was it all going to be about.

It didn’t take me long to feel absolutely grateful to have been matched with this amazing firm.

My friend and colleague, Fiorella Bellora, and I are the co-founders of Bio-Observatories, an interdisciplinary design office specializing in sustainable architectural design solutions for natural landscapes. Working in Great Ecology for a month provided a unique opportunity to get to know, from the inside, how one of the most recognized firms specializing in habitat restoration works.

The first week, I had the chance to meet everyone at the office, not only the San Diego team, but also the New York and Denver teams. I was also invited to participate in the weekly meeting in which everyone shares the advances of the projects they are involved with. All this allowed me to confirm the professionalism of the office, as well as the competence of each one of the professionals working there, regardless their specific field of expertise.

In the following weeks, I was invited to different internal presentations, and to monitoring in-situ some ongoing projects. All those instances were formative for me. I got to learn a lot about different techniques, procedures, and aspects to consider when operating in natural areas. I also got to learn about American norms in this field and possible responses on regulations. I got to see how professionally, efficiently, and well an ecosystem restoration could occur.

I was surprised when visiting a wetland restoration, a project Great Ecology started some months before my visit; it seemed work started at least a year earlier considering the significant restoration work that had been performed.

In my last days, I had to make a presentation about Bio-Observatories for a pitch competition involving the YLAI fellows. For this presentation I was inspired and supported by Great Ecology’s team. They were all willing to share their knowledge and followed the development of my work until the final day; I even had the opportunity to present to them and received useful feedback.

I couldn’t be more happy to have had the opportunity to work in such an extraordinary company, with experienced and competent professionals, led by an inspiring entrepreneur, Mark Laska, PhD, committed to such an important cause, and with a pleasant atmosphere in which everyone helps each other and evolves together.


YLAI Fellows in DC

YLAI Fellows in DC

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Spotlight on Coquina

By Liz Clift

Growing up, I visited East and Gulf Cost beaches frequently. There, I’d find shells from Donax variabilis, aka coquina. I loved coquina because their shells looked like sunrises and sunsets—and because these tiny bivalves, a type of clam, would wash up on the surf and then hurriedly dig beneath the wet sand. Coquina are small—you can easily scoop dozens into your hand if you find a colony.

Coquina. Image from Wikipedia

Coquina. Image from Wikipedia

Coquina live in an ecotone (a place where two different environmental conditions meet), the intertidal zone. Ecotones tend to have an abundance of life, because they hold characteristics of the two types of ecosystems. To get an idea of what this means—especially if you aren’t familiar with the term ecotone, I think it’s helpful to consider Rachel Carson’s description of the intertidal zone. In The Edge of the Sea, she described the shoreline as having “a dual nature, changing with the swing of the tides, belonging now to the land, now to the sea…only the most hardy and adaptable can survive in a region so mutable, yet the area between the tide lines is crowded with plants and animals.”

Indeed, for anyone whose spent any amount of time at the beach, you know that the places where the waves wash ashore can be quite a violent place—and that depending on the weather and the season, high tides can be extremely high and low tides extremely low.

Coquina are fairly hardy, and like other bivalves, are filter feeders. Filter feeders provide a valuable ecosystem service by cleaning the water. They can live several years in the wild, but will only last a couple of days in still water. They feed on unicellular algae, plankton, and detritus, using one of the two valves that protrudes from their shell. The other valve is used to get rid of waste.

They are consumed fish, shorebirds, humans, and some predatory snails. They use their muscular foot to burrow into the sand, which allows them to escape predation and keeps them from being swept away in retreating waves—although there’s evidence that they rely on waves to move them along a shoreline, rather than remaining sedentary like oysters or mussels.

This movement, and burrowing, is part of what I loved about them. As a child, I would wait for them to wash in on the tide, and then plunge my hand into the loose wet sand. I loved the sensation of them burrowing against my hand. It was in this way that I also first learned about the mole crabs (Emerita talpoida), a small crab without pinchers that also burrows into the sand and are frequently found on the same sandy beaches as coquina. I’d use what I had (a Frisbee, a bucket, just my hands) to scoop coquina, and sometimes mole crabs, into my hands, to marvel at the particulars of their evolution.

Part of what I loved about coquina was their place in the beauty of the world. Their brightly colored shells added beauty to the beach—especially beaches with a lot of bleached shells—and I remember walking along the coast a few days after a major storm, and how sometimes hundreds of empty coquina shells would roll in the edge of the surf, and how they gently clicked against each other.

Coquina closeup (Flicr)

Coquina on the beach. Image from Flickr


However, while still quite common and not a species of concern, coquina do face environmental pressures. Sea-level rise, increasing ocean acidification, and beach erosion can all impact these little invertebrates. They may be especially at risk where damming of rivers has led to a decrease in fresh sand deposition or where beach re-nourishment projects, which add sand back to beaches, occur because they can get buried under tons of sand. Given their role in the ecosystem as filter feeder and as a food source, it may be important to monitor their presence (or absence) on a beach, especially one that is experiencing beach erosion.

Donax appears around the world, in places where there is sandy surface, and are generally an indicator of good beach health (although since they live in colonies, the absence of a visible Donax community isn’t necessarily an indicator of poor beach health—just the absence of a colony where you happen to be searching).

I’ve never eaten coquina, but I’ve heard they make a delicious green broth. If you’ve tried that, we’d love to hear from you on Facebook!

This is part of a series of posts on bivalves. Check on these recent posts on eating oysters, oyster ecology, and geoducks.

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World Wetlands Day 2017

By Liz Clift

World Wetlands Day marks the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands, on February 2, 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar. This day of awareness was adopted in 1997, and each year has focused on a theme, including “Sustainable Livelihoods” (2016); “Fish for Tomorrow?” (2007); and “No wetlands – no water” (2003). This year, the theme is “Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction,” which focuses on how healthy wetlands help people cope with extreme weather events.

As though the fact that wetlands generally make our lives better isn’t reason enough to celebrate, the World Wetlands Day website has a map that shows a variety of events going on around the world that celebrate wetlands. In addition, youth ages 18-25, can participate in a photo contest from February 2 – March 2, 2017; the winner receives a free flight to a visit a Wetland of International Importance.

Great Ecology has worked on many wetland projects, perhaps most notably Woodbridge Waterfront Park. Woodbridge Waterfront Park is a 185-acre brownfield that is being restored through an intricate mitigation strategy. This project included performing multiple wetland functional analyses, designing more than 100 acres of wetland enhancement and creation, and filing comprehensive state and federal wetland and land use permits, among other tasks. Other wetland projects Great Ecology has worked on include: a wetlands assessment in Louisiana; creation of wetland habitats along a Toronto waterfront; several wetland mitigation bank habitat studies; saltmarsh restoration; vernal pool habitat planning and restoration; and intertidal wetland design.

Woodbridge Waterfront Park


Although we may often think of wetlands as coastal, they also occur inland (as evidenced by some of the projects I’ve linked to in the previous paragraph). Even inland wetland areas can act as buffers against storms and other extreme weather events, because these areas are meant to absorb and retain large amounts of water—and can be used to treat stormwater runoff, or other forms of polluted water, an ecosystem service.

Wetlands also provide valuable habitat area for many types of plants and animals, and series of wetlands can be critical for the migratory patterns of animals due to this diversity—which can provide food, shelter, water, nesting, and resting grounds. In the Midwest, for instance, prairie potholes—small wetland areas within the context of larger grasslands—are crucial for the Midwestern flyway. Inland swamps, such as the Sudd along the Nile River in Sudan, may also be frequented by migratory and water-loving animals—including shoebills (Balaeniceps rex), black crowned cranes (Balearica pavonina), Nile lechwe (Kobus megaceros), Kob (Kobus kob), and crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus).

Wetlands in Louisiana,  Florida, and Pennsylvania (clockwise from top left)

Wetlands in Louisiana, Florida, and Pennsylvania (clockwise from top left)

Of course, there are many types of wetlands, of which I’ll only cover a few other non-tidal versions: Vernal pools, which are seasonal, depressional wetland areas, provide habitat for endemic species such as certain varieties of fairy shrimp. Playa lakes are found on the southern high plains of the US and, like vernal pools, are ephemeral existing only at certain points of the year (generally after spring rainstorms). Fens, which are peat-forming wetlands, are less acidic than bogs (another type of wetland) and have higher nutrient levels, and occur in the northeastern US, the Great Lakes region, the Rocky Mountains, and Canada.

If you’d like to learn more about wetlands, their functionality, and how wetlands are governed, visit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website.

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What Lies Beneath

Liz Clift

This is part of a series on bivalves. Follow these links to read Parts 1 & 2 on oysters: an ultra-brief history on why we eat them and their role in an ecosystem.

There’s a marine clam so large that it can’t stuff itself in its shell. You might imagine that leaves it vulnerable to predators because its tender parts are so readily exposed (tender parts that are, apparently, lightly sweet and crispy).

But that clam also buries itself.

It’s the Pacific geoduck (pronounced gooey duck; Panopea generosa) clam, which has been reported to live more than 125 years. Like other bivalves, the geoduck filter feeds—which means it likely has some impact on water quality, although there don’t appear to be published studies on how much water an adult geoduck can filter a day or the degree to which it cleans the water relative to other bivalves.

Geoducks, like other bivalves spend the first weeks of their life in a larval state, floating around on ocean currents. When they begin to settle onto the substrate, they start to bury themselves, as deep as their siphons will allow. As they grow, they can bury themselves deeper, which provides additional protection from animals—including people—that might enjoy a tasty geoduck snack. Additionally, the pressure from the sand helps them keep their bivalve closed (the muscles which do this in other bivalves, like oysters, are not strong enough in geoducks to do this naturally). If you see one on the beach, in the wild, most likely you’ll notice it because it spurts a little fountain of water out occasionally, from its siphon. If you’re diving, you might only see the siphon, which resembles certain types of sea sponge (such as Alpysina archeri).


Geoducks being held closed with rubber bands (Photo from USDA)


Like oysters, and many other mollusks, geoducks are a facet of the aquaculture/mariculture industry. Geoduck farms may look like a bunch of pipes plunged into a beach, which at low tide, may be exposed. Each pipe is seeded with a couple juvenile geoducks, which will remain in those pipes for a few years until they reach maturity (the exact timing of this depends on a number of factors, including water temperature). At that point, the geoducks are harvested by essentially super-saturating the surrounding sand with water and then extracting the geoduck by reaching one’s arm down into the pipe. The goal is to grab geoducks by their shell (so as not to damage the siphon) and then quickly wrap a rubber band around them to keep their shell closed.

There have been some concerns, however, from environmentalists and property owners about the impacts of these geoduck farms on coastal ecology. One study showed no net negative ecological impacts of geoduck (although there has been a shift of species in areas with geoduck farms—for instance, halibut and flounder, which prefer uninterrupted bottom areas are scarcer, but other animals that like to congregate (and hide) around structures have increased in population). In fact, there’s evidence that geoduck farming may even work to recruit* eelgrass, an endangered species. However, another study, completed in 2015, showed that the particular practices of farming geoducks may have a negative impact on species, such as birds, since the netting used to protect geoducks also serves to protect the prey those birds might otherwise forage, such as small crabs.

Geoduck Farm (Wikimedia Commons)

Geoduck Farm (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Like many things, it seems to be, in part, a matter of scale.  Double or triple the amount of geoducks  farmed in the Puget Sound area, and we might see more impacts from geoducks themselves. As of right now, the primary impacts seem to be the methods of farming, and perhaps changes to these methods, in a move to become more sustainable for impacted species (predator species, such as salmon, great blue heron, and others), is to come. After all, one of the largest shellfish farms in the region claims to have a vested interest in maintaining geoduck health as a means of sustaining their business.


*Unfortunately, if netting is used to cover the geoducks, to prevent easy predation, the removal and replacement of the netting can cause eelgrass to die back.

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