Getting a better line on the bay Before the TIES project, scientists had little idea of how the Chesapeake's baby fish and crabs hide from predators and reach adulthood.

August 03, 1998|By Rita R. Colwell

WATER, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink." Most of us are familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous line of poetry from his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." But is it prophesy as well as poetry?

Today, some 200 years after Coleridge chronicled the ancient mariner's struggle, our own "water, water everywhere" is becoming contaminated, with potential adverse effects for inhabitants of both land and sea.

This disturbing trend has long been in the making. A common theme throughout 6,000 years of civilization has been that of humans depleting the environment in the process of drawing sustenance from it. Only now, for the first time in human history, are people around the globe realizing that the environment needs sustenance as much as we do.

It is not enough to explore and chronicle the diversity of the world's environments. We must reach beyond to discover the complex chemical, biological, and social interactions in our planet's systems, or earth's "biocomplexity."

In these subtle but very sophisticated interrelationships lie lessons for sustainability of life on Earth.

To better understand the important interactions in the environment from mountaintops to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, or even our own Chesapeake Bay, scientists from many fields of biology and ecology are meeting in Baltimore this week at the annual conference of the Ecological Society of America and the American Institute of Biological Sciences. The meeting's theme is "Managing Human-Impacted Systems."

Interdependent ecologies

These deliberations offer opportunity and responsibility. Take a project called Trophic Interactions in Estuarine Systems (TIES), in which marine scientists are working to better understand biocomplexity. Behind what seems to be jargon is a $3 million effort, supported by the National Science Foundation, to understand the fundamental properties of estuaries (places where river waters meet and mix with those of the sea) like the Chesapeake Bay. Knowing the structure and function of estuarine and coastal ecosystems may explain why fish are so much more abundant in these embayments than in lakes or the open ocean.

To date, the TIES project has already changed how scientists view estuaries. Researchers have recently documented the forces that sustain the Chesapeake's nutrient mixing areas, called convergence zones, and have discovered a new such zone near the bay's mouth. This information affects us all because it sheds light on how the Chesapeake supplies the seafood we're cooking on our grills this summer. These convergence zones are pockets of nutrients, which sustain oases of tiny animals such as crustaceans and fish. From there, it's only a few steps to the dinner table.

Better choices

Information derived from TIES research will ultimately help fishery managers make better decisions, such as where to dredge channels, and how to decrease the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus spilling into the bay. These nutrients are essential to the bay's bounty, but we can get too much of a good thing. Too many nutrients lead to huge blooms of plankton that, in turn, can deplete oxygen and kill fish.

Before the TIES project, scientists had little idea of how the Chesapeake's baby fish and crabs hide from predators and reach adulthood. It now seems that they may be spending much of their early lives in or near these nursery-like convergence zones.

Convergence zones are just one example of biocomplexity in action. We need to move from a long historical pattern of remediation, that is, acting taken after pollution has occurred, to the development of increasingly predictable and, consequently, preventive capabilities. No environment exists in isolation, and neither do scientific, technical, or social problems. Today, sophisticated research methods and tools are available for understanding our coastal areas and estuaries.

Through a better understanding of biocomplexity, we could prove that Coleridge was a good poet, but not necessarily good prophet.

Rita R. Colwell is the director-designate at the National Science Foundation.

Pub Date: 8/03/98

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