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The scourge of plastic waste that washes up on once-pristine beaches and finds its way into the middle of the ocean often starts on land, is dumped in rivers and canals, and gets carried out to sea. At the current rate, marine plastic is predicted to outweigh all the fish in the seas by 2050, according to Silicon Canals.
A lethal virus that killed tens of thousands of harbor seals in the northern Atlantic in 2002 suddenly spread to sea lions, seals and otters in the northern Pacific Ocean two years later, confusing scientists, as NBC News reported.
How could the pathogen that causes a measles-like disease in marine mammals that had only been found on the Atlantic coasts suddenly have spread to the Pacific?
"We didn't understand how a virus from the Atlantic ended up in these sea otters. It's not a species that ranges widely," said Tracey Goldstein, a scientist at the University of California Davis who investigates how pathogens move through marine ecosystems, as National Geographic reported.
Goldstein and her colleagues looked at 15 years of data and realized that the spike in the virus was commensurate with Arctic sea ice loss. The data, published in a new study in the journal Scientific Reports, finds that the loss of Arctic sea ice allowed otters and other mammals to move west and spread the virus. The study shows that global heating is opening new avenues for diseases to spread, as National Geographic reported.
"The loss of sea ice is leading marine wildlife to seek and forage in new habitats and removing that physical barrier, allowing for new pathways for them to move," said Goldstein in a press release. "As animals move and come in contact with other species, they carry opportunities to introduce and transmit new infectious disease, with potentially devastating impacts."
The rapid loss of sea ice is creating a fertile breeding ground for viruses as animals travel to areas they have never been before. The phenomenon was first observed 17 years ago.
"It was a perfect storm in 2002," said Goldstein, as NBC News reported. "It was the lowest ice year on record at the time, and at the same time, in August and September, there was a really large outbreak."
To study the outbreak, the researchers took blood and mucous samples from seals, sea lions and otters from arctic and subarctic areas, from southeast Alaska to Russia. The swab samples allowed the scientists to determine which populations had been infected with the Phocine distemper virus, or PDV, and which specific strain they had been exposed to, as NBC News reported.
PDV is a common canine virus that vets vaccinate for. It spreads easily when an animal comes into direct contact with an infected animal. The virus manifests in seals much like the canine version does in dogs — goop discharged from the eyes and nose and a fever. With marine mammals, it also leads to erratic swimming, according to National Geographic.
"The virus has been shown to spread pretty easily between marine mammals," said Shawn Johnson, the vice president of veterinary medicine at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California to National Geographic. Since so many marine mammals migrate north, "the Arctic could be a perfect melting pot for transmission of the disease," Johnson said.
Not only is the changing landscape of the Arctic allowing animals to travel further, animals that need to travel farther for food will experience extra stress and exhaustion, which will weaken their immune systems and leave them susceptible to disease, Goldstein told National Geographic.
The study adds to a growing body of research signaling trouble for marine mammals, including an increase in marine heat waves that deplete their food supply and an increase in toxic algal blooms that can infect fish with a toxin that causes brain damage in marine mammals, as NBC News reported.
"When we see these changes happening in animals, we can't ignore them, because the impacts on people and the planet are not far behind," said Elizabeth VanWormer, the study's lead author, as NBC News reported. "This shows how interconnected these things are — the health of people, animals and the planet."
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A lot of the discussion around ocean plastic pollution focuses on consumer items like bottles, bags and straws. But a new Greenpeace report zeroes in on a different plastic threat: lost or abandoned fishing gear.
Discarded plastic fishing equipment, dubbed "ghost gear," is especially dangerous to marine life because it was designed to trap and kill it.
By Emily Petsko
Update, Nov. 4: Brazilian and international media are now reporting that fragments of oil have reached the Abrolhos Marine National Park. This story is still developing.
One by one, the golden beaches in northeastern Brazil have begun to turn black. Thick clumps of oil have been washing ashore since late August, killing marine animals, threatening the livelihoods of coastal communities and tainting 2,500 kilometers of coastline spanning nine Brazilian states. Once-pristine beaches now look like something resembling a Rorschach inkblot test. And the complex root systems of carbon sink mangrove forests have become polluted mazes.
A new subspecies of fin whale, the second-largest species on Earth after the blue whale, has been discovered by scientists in the Pacific Ocean.
An oil spill in the endangered Ganges river dolphin breeding grounds located in southeast Bangladesh has been called a "major disaster" by environmentalists, reports Agence-France Presse (AFP).
By Chandra Salgado Kent
Scientific research doesn't usually mean being strapped in a harness by the open paratroop doors of a Vietnam-war-era Hercules plane. But that's the situation I found myself in several years ago, the result of which has just been published in the journal Marine Biodiversity.
By Emily Petsko
For many, the end of October evokes images of falling leaves or Halloween's ghosts and ghouls. But those of us focused on oceans also know October as National Seafood Month.
New research finds that the western South Atlantic humpback population is well on its way to recovering from the devastating impacts of commercial whaling.