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Tripod Fish (Bathypterois grallator)

Tripod Fish (Bathypterois grallator)

I promised more weird fish this year, and here is a fish which amply delivers on this promise.  This is a tripod fish (Bathypterois grallator), an eyeless wonder of the deep ocean plains.  The fish spends most of its time standing completely motionless on its elongated fins which reach up to a meter (three feet) off the seafloor.  It mostly copies the feeding habits of sessile invertebrates such as sea anemones and barnacles and feeds on tiny creatures which bump into its elongated (and highly sensitive) front and top fins.  It walks extremely slowly along the ocean bottom on these high fins with its mouth facing into the deep currents.

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Despite its sedentary preferences and circumscribed lifestyle, the tripod fish has not given up its brain or its ability to swim.   If and when the fish decides to swim, its stilt like fins deflate and become flexible.  Scientists have not pinpointed the exact mechanism for this transformation, but erectile tissues are not unknown in the animal world. Speaking of which…

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Mating is difficult in the abyssal zone (as any Tinder user could readily aver) so the tripod fish is a true hermaphrodite possessing both male and female reproductive organs.  If two tripod fish chance to meet, they mate together in all sorts of crazy troubling ways, however, if the fish never finds a partner it produces both sperm and eggs and mates with itself!

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Fig. 1

Fig. 1

In geometry class back in secondary school, there was one happy day, at least—the day we talked about the rhombus. The rhombus is a parallelogram in which the angles of the opposite sides are equal: diagonals drawn through the center of these angles will intersect each other at right angles in the center of the rhombus (see fig. 1). It is a beautiful shape with a stylish name that everyone started saying in amused wonder. Meanwhile, off the coast of Cuba or Tenerife or Okinawa, divers sometimes chance upon a mysterious human-sized blob of diaphanous pink gelatin composed of delicate loops of exquisite pink spheres.  What is the connection between these disparate stories?

Mysterious pink blob in the ocean (photo by

Mysterious pink blob in the ocean (photo by David Fleetham)

The pink alien blobs floating in the tropical and semi tropical seas of the world are the work of Thysanoteuthis rhombus, a.k.a. the diamond squid (which completely sounds like a crime boss name). The species is actually quite large for an invertebrate and some individuals can grow up to a meter (3 feet) in length and mass up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds). Thysanoteuthis rhombus is named for its huge fins which run along the entirety of its mantle and give it the appearance of a rhombus. If you draw diagonals through the center of its angles they would probably intersect at right angles too (although you shouldn’t do this in the real world since T. rhombus is a tremendous swimmer with ten strong tentacle arms–including two extra-long club arms covered with extra-rows of tentacles for grabbing prey or fighting).

The Diamond Squid (Thysanoteuthis rhombus)

The Diamond Squid (Thysanoteuthis rhombus)

Diamondback squid jet through the warm parts of the oceans in pairs and tiny schools hunting for swift and intelligent fish. They in turn are hunted by some of nature’s most fearsome predators: cetaceans, sharks, and the Japanese.

20080815-182740The squid hunt near the surface at night, and retreat to middle depths during the day. Somewhat uncharacteristically, they have no bioluminescence. The large enigmatic pink blobs I mentioned are their eggs. Once the female is fertilized, she lays a vast helix of eggs which are embedded in a stickly translucent line. These egg clusters look like salps or siphonophores (or extraterrestrials) but they are actually thousands of diamond squid eggs. When they hatch, they become adorable larval squid which head off into the phytoplankton to hunt.

Closeup of the eggs of Thysanoteuthis rhombus

Closeup of the eggs of Thysanoteuthis rhombus

Hatchling Diamond Squid

Hatchling Diamond Squid

The WISSARD borehole operation on the Ross Ice Shelf

The WISSARD borehole operation on the Ross Ice Shelf

Outside my window, New York City is experiencing a blizzard. The city is on high alert: the mayor is issuing all sorts of proclamations while, at the grocery store, a horde was stripping the shelves bare. Meteorologists and weather scryers warn that the city could be in for up to 36 inches of snow!

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Being forced to live under 3 feet of snow is an alarming prospect to me, but it is nothing for the life forms which were just discovered by a team of scientists exploring the extreme ecosystems of Antarctica. The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project has just drilled through the Ross Ice Shelf—a gigantic sheet of ancient ice which covers an area approximately the size of France. The amazing (albeit stupidly named) WISSARD team drilled through 740 meters (2,430 feet) of shelf ice by means of a specialized hot water drill in order to lower a cylindrical robot submarine into this hidden sea. The insertion point for the probe was near where the ice sheet, the ocean, and the long-buried lands of Antarctica all meet–nearly 850 kilometers (530 miles) from the open ocean. At the converging point of ice, rock, and water, there are vast “grounding lines” of ice which attach the glaciers to the floating Ross sheet. Below the ice, a constant rain of rocks ranging in size from microscopic dust to house size boulders fall upon the sea floor. The temperature of the sea water is 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 degrees Celsius).

An ice fish and the robot submarine looking at each other

An ice fish and the robot submarine looking at each other

The scientists had speculated that fresh melt water from inland would create an estuarial environment beneath the ice. They found no evidence of that, but they did find all sorts of strange lifeforms. The barrage of rocks keep any sessile lifeforms from finding a home in these waters, but hardy motile sea creatures live there including fish, jellyfish, and amphipods (hardy crustaceans which thrive in extreme environments). The newly discovered Ross fish (which yet lack a name) are the southernmost known fish of the world. They are translucent and pink and measure about 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. As with the crazy underground catfish of South America (which live below the water table), the existence of these ice fish raises an immediate question: what do they live on? The sun shines little through half a mile of solid ice, so what do microorganisms as the base of the food chain use for energy? These organisms do not rely on “cold seeps” (which we explored in a previous post), but the answer is not entirely unrelated.  Scientists speculate that the geological upheaval releases nutrients in the form of carbon. It seems that an ancient fossilized ecosystem eroding away into the ocean. The strange fish and sundry invertebrates of the Ross Ice shelf may ultimately be reliant on fossil fuels—which makes them our spiritual brothers for, in this era of cheap frack-gas humankind is more tied to fossil fuels than ever [looks at snow outside and turns up heat].

A fish seen at the Ross Ice Shelf grounding (Deep-SCINI UNL, WISSARD)

A fish seen at the Ross Ice Shelf grounding (Deep-SCINI UNL, WISSARD)

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) with school of wimplefish

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) with school of wimplefish

My biggest blogging regret last year was not writing more about fish.  Ferrebeekeeper has traditionally addressed fish more-or-less exclusively by describing catfish (the order Siluriformes).  Only occasionally have I mentioned other sorts of fish–like the bizarre oarfish or the gigantic extinct Leedsichthys, but all of that is about to change!  In order to enliven 2015 (and celebrate the extraordinary beauty, diversity, and complexity of the natural world), we are going to write about all sorts of fish from now on!  Ichthyophiles rejoice!  And, if, for some perverse reason, you do not love fishes—ancient, ancestral, beautiful, and sacred—then Ferrebeekeeper is out to convert you!

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To start out on this enormous topic we are starting with an enormous fish—Mola mola, the common ocean sunfish.  Some of my American readers may know sunfish as the endearing little freshwater fish which live in ponds and small rivers everywhere.  However the ocean sunfish is nothing like bluegills, bass, and crappies (er, except for the fact that it is indeed also a fish).  The Mola mola is the largest bony fish in the world in terms of mass.  It lives in tropical and temperate waters around the planet ranging from Norway in the north to Patagonia in the south (and continuously east and west).  The first time I saw a mola fish I had an unreasoning moment of horror that a huge shark had bitten the poor fish in half!  The molidae lack caudal fins—which gives them the appearance of giant truncated heads. To swim, the fish relies on large powerful dorsal and anal fins (although the clavus of the sunfish is a sort of pseudofin).  Because of this unique anatomy, the great fish is as taller than it is long.  And it can be quite tall indeed:  the largest specimens measure 4.2 m (14 feet) from fin tip to fin tip, although they are a more modest 3.3 m (11 feet) in length.  The sunfish is very heavily built and weighs up to 2,300 kg (5,100 lb) in mass.  Among fish, only the largest cartilaginous fish are bigger.

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) with human diver

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) with human diver

To reach this prodigious weight, the sunfish is an omnivore.  It eats ocean grass, small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, however, most of all, the great fish feeds on jellyfish and salps (free-swimming tunicates).  Adults lose the ability to open and close their mouth–which forms into a beak-like structure (with four teeth fusing into a sort of funnel).  Sunfish do not have swim bladders. Additionally, they have only 16 vertebrae, the smallest number among all fish (though not among vertebrates: some amphibians have only a single vertebra).

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Adult sunfish are too large for most animals to prey on, however they are sometimes eaten by sharks and killer whales.  Sea lions will occasionally tear off sunfish fins for fun and then leave the poor finless fish to die! Sunfish fry are smaller and thus vulnerable to a much greater number of predators.  To protect themselves, Mola mola fry take the shape of stars covered with spikes!  Just try swallowing a dodecahedron, and you will learn how these creatures survive long enough to become the largest teleosts!

Although Mola mola fry (pictured, greatly enlarged) hardly start out very big!

Although Mola mola fry (pictured, greatly enlarged) hardly start out very big!

Naturally, the practice of swallowing sunfish has been readily adopted by our own voracious species.  Sunfish are eaten by humans in East Asia (although there is an unresolved debate about whether they contain toxins like their close relatives the pufferfish).  Additionally they are also threatened by plastic bags, which they eat in the mistaken belief that they are jellyfish, and by fishers who catch them accidentally and then throw them away dead as by-catch.  Because they are primarily pelagic (living in the deep ocean) their numbers have never been accurately calculated, so we don’t know if they are endangered (!) but there are certainly far fewer these days than there used to be.

Here's an awesome iron-on patch from Etsy, in case you want your own sunfish

Here’s an awesome iron-on patch from Etsy, in case you want your own sunfish

A large single tunicate (blue) with a colony of smaller tunicates (saffron)

A large single tunicate (blue) with a colony of smaller tunicates (saffron)

It’s time to talk tunicates! Many people blithely dismiss tunicates as primitive sack-like marine invertebrates which derive sustenance from filter-feeding. Although that is technically true, it is a very reductive and dismissive way to think about this ancient, ancient subphylum of animals. Tunicates are chordates…barely, but they are also classified as invertebrates. Because they mostly consist of delicate tissue sacks filled with fluids, the fossil record of tunicates is understandably exiguous, but it is believed they existed in Ediacaran times (circa 550 million years ago) and were part of the mysterious soft Ediacaran biota which blossomed into the Cambrian era’s suffusion of life forms. Tunicates probably closely resemble the basal organisms from which Pikaia and all other vertebrates (lynxes, caecilians, hummingbirds, triggerfish, humans, ichthyosaurs, turkeys, moeritheriums, and suchlike animals) sprang. Of course tunicates also resemble hydrozoans, mollusks, worms, and even arthropods—so they may be very basal indeed!

A free-swimming larval tunicate (microphoto by Wim van Egmond of Rotterdam)

A free-swimming larval tunicate (microphoto by Wim van Egmond of Rotterdam)

All–or very nearly all–tunicates are hermaphrodites with both male and female reproductive organs (a single ovary and a lone testis). Not only do tunicates keep their romantic options open, they also metamorphose into different forms throughout their lives. The majority of tunicates have a free-swimming larval stage when they are motile (and have a little sliver of nerve chord). As they reach sexual maturity, their nerve chords disintegrate and they settle down to become sessile—attaching to a permanent base. Some tunicates live their entire lives as solitary individuals whereas others form colonies (like corals or siphonophores).

Not only do they have multiple genders they have multiple methods of reproduction

Not only do they have multiple genders they have multiple methods of reproduction

Colonial tunicates integrate at different levels depending on the species. In some, the zooids (the individual living organisms) merely live next to each other like coral or Brooklynites, whereas other tunicate colonies grow entwined and share common organs and anatomical structures. There are many different tunicates going by many different lifestyles and they have all sorts of crazy names. Wikipedia poetically avers that “…various species are commonly known as sea squirts, sea pork, sea livers, or sea tulips.”

Komodo National Park sea squirt (Polycarpa aurata) by nick Hobgood

Komodo National Park sea squirt (Polycarpa aurata) by nick Hobgood

As you could guess from these names, tunicates have an otherworldly beauty. Here is one which looks like a diseased zombie heart! Others look like transparent alien shrimp, fluorescent pens, or strangely hieroglyphed eyes. There are bioluminescent tunicates of the deep ocean, and pelagic tunicates that form long chains (with a single digestive tract running through the individual zooids).  They live in coastal waters, pelagic waters, and in the depths.

Colonial tunicate with multiple openings in each zooid

Colonial tunicate with multiple openings in each zooid

Most of these zoology articles end with a sad coda about how the subject organism is threatened in the modern world–no so for tunicates!  As humans overfish the oceans and drive countless teleosts to the edge of extinction, so-called primitive species like jellyfish and tunicates are flourishing! Acidification, climate change, and pollution seem to be resetting the great worldsea back to Neoproterzoic times. Additionally tunicates easily travel the world in ballast water and numerous species are becoming invasive pests (like the evocatively named carpet tunicate).  In this troubled era, there is raw power in being a primitive protean organism with only a wisp of a nervous system (as we should have known just by looking at successful late-night comedians).  Get used to the tunicate–not just an incredibly distant ancestor, but the once and future (and always) avatar of animal life in the oceans.

Chain of fluorescent tunicates. (photo by Francis Abbott/Nature Picture Library)

Chain of fluorescent tunicates. (photo by Francis Abbott/Nature Picture Library)

Gafftopsail Catfish (Bagre marinus)

Gafftopsail Catfish (Bagre marinus)

This amazing looking fish is a gafftopsail catfish (Bagre marinus). It is an Atlantic Ocean catfish which lives in coastal waters off of North America from the Caribbean up through the Gulf of Mexico north to the mouth of the Hudson. As you might guess from its intimidating Fu Manchu mustache and barbed flavor savor, the gafftopsail catfish is a formidable predator which eats crustaceans and smaller fish. The fish has a sinister forked tail, a wavelike hump, and a jaunty dorsal spine looks like a sail (and gives the fish its common name). Additionally like most saltwater catfish, the gafftopsail catfish has several venomous, serrated spines.

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The largest gafftopsail catfish ever caught weighed an impressive 4.5 kg (10 pounds), but generally the fish are much smaller. They usually measure about 43 cm (17 inches) in length. Male gafftopsail catfish are solicitous fathers. When the female lays her eggs, the male fertilizes them and collects them in his mouth. He carefully protects the eggs until they have hatched, and thereafter his young take shelter from predators inside his mouth until they are old enough to set out on their own.

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Today’s bog post is going to be largely visual—because I can’t find any reliable history about my subject. One of my favorite decorator colors is seafoam green. All sorts of kitchen appliances, bathroom fixtures, automobiles, and consumer goods come in this beautiful pale blue-green. Additionally its name is surely one of the most successful of all the names created by advertising agencies and creative departments. Seafoam green immediately makes one think about the Caribbean Sea or about Aphrodite emerging from the waves. From a purely visual perspective, the color is simultaneously bright yet neutral. It is green or blue depending on the light. It is perfect to offset all different skin hues.

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Yet, I have no idea where the name came from or when the color came about (nor can I find the first references). If I had to hazard a guess, I would say it comes from the late nineteen fifties or early nineteen sixties because, well, look at it. It just seems like a color that would have come out of that affluent consumer-oriented period when all sorts of new chemicals and bright pastel colors abounded.

Is this Seafoam green 1954 Packard Convertible a hint?

Is this Seafoam green 1954 Packard Convertible a hint?

Of course now that I have sung the praises of sea foam green, I should add one substantial complaint: sea foam green is not the color of sea foam at all! The foam of waves is white rather than pastel green. Somehow the name manages to evoke freshness, beauty, nature, and the ocean without really having anything to do with reality! I guess that is the alchemy of poetry….

Coral Reef at Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge

Coral Reef at Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge

It has been a while since this blog waded into the murky & sordid waters of politics, but recent national news demands notice…and, for once, the political news is good rather than awful! My favorite action by President George H. Bush (the 43rd president of the United States) was the creation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument–which the former president announced on January 6, 2009 just days before his second term ended. The monument included 199,500 square kilometers (77,020 square miles) of reefs, beaches, coastal waters, and unique atoll landscapes around the unincorporated United States Pacific Island territories. I have included a map of the exact area below instead of mentioning all of the little atolls, seamounts, and micro islands individually. Suffice to say, I only recognized the names from World War II naval battles. All commercial use of this part of the ocean is now prohibited: there is no factory fishing, mining, or drilling allowed (although right of passage is permitted as are research and recreational activities—including sports fishing).

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The exact details of the park can be found on the Fish and Wildlife Services website, but the net effect is that a large and beautiful part of the Pacific has become a wildlife park, free from the insatiable hunger and wanton destruction of “resource extraction corporations”. But that is all just back story: the news gets better. Last Tuesday (June 17, 2014) the current president, Barack Obama, announced his intention to vastly expand the protected area of Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (which, btw, desperately needs a snappier name). If the president follows through with his plans, the PRIMNM (the acronym is also not euphonic) will expand to 2 million square kilometers (782,000 square miles) thereby doubling the amount of protected ocean refuge in the entire world! The unspoiled site is not currently a major location for drilling, mining, or even fishing (although no doubt the all-devouring tuna fleets will weep and beg and claim that anything less than unfettered access will result in their destruction).

Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

My greatest concern about the present state of the world is the rapid destruction of the ecosystems of the world’s oceans. Because of overfishing and dumping, the oceans of Earth are emptying of fish, turtles, mammals, birds, and invertebrates while filling up with jellyfish, carbon dioxide, mercury, and plastic crap. If you are like me, you probably live a wretched existence as a disposable drone in some cubicle farm—which makes the concerns of the world’s last pristine coral reefs and natural fish hatcheries seem very distant and abstruse. Yet the world spanning ocean is not just a source of postcards, sashimi, and fishsticks, it is the cradle of life on the planet—the central and irreplaceable ecosystem which reaches out endless tendrils that touch all living beings. Our survival is contingent on the health of the oceans.  So I would like to salute President Bush for founding the sanctuary and I would also like to congratulate President Obama for his choice to expand it! Who knew we had politicians who could actually accomplish something worthwhile? Let’s have more bold choices like this so that the ocean of the future is not just a giant dead pool of salt water.

Kingman Reef (The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument) Photo by Enric Sala

Kingman Reef (The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument) Photo by Enric Sala

embroidered_celtic_knot_tote_bag_irish_green_circular_motif_b4c3af34The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns.  Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era.  The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.

Wicklow Countryside Powerscourt Castle, IrelandOnce there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles.  Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife.  To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).

green-harp-irish-flagOne day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh.  Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess.  Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland.   When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage.  Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?

oisin_niamhNiamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.  She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.

Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young.  There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…

vivid-blaskett-sunset_mg_6881-resizedExcept that Oisín was not perfectly happy.  His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family.  For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home.  In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind.  He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.

Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín.  As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse.  One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh.  Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses.  His town was alien and he knew no one.  Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm.  Everyone he knew was dead and gone.  In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse.  As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years.  The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them.  As they watched,  Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.

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Composition of Earth's Atmosphere

Composition of Earth’s Atmosphere

The atmosphere is a combination of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide.  Recently, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been swiftly rising.  We are not currently facing Apollo 13 style asphyxiation because carbon dioxide is captured by water to form carbonic acid.  As it happens, the oceans of planet Earth are made of water.

"Humankind Embarks on Ambitious Geoengineering Project"

“Humankind Embarks on Ambitious Geoengineering Project”

Ergo, we are turning the world’s oceans into seltzer water!  The results of such ocean acidification are devastating to the ocean’s inhabitants–as became tragically apparent this week when 10 million Canadian scallops died due to the rapidly dropping PH levels along the west coast of Canada.  The shellfish farming company “Island Scallops” lost three year’s worth of scallop harvest when the PH dropped from 8.2 to 7.3 in their scallop beds of the Georgia Strait.  Scallops have shells made of calcium carbonate—which dissolves in carbonic acid—so the creatures are unable to fight off predators and disease.

WHY?? They were so young...

WHY?? They were so young…

Of course most scallops and other sea creatures are not owned by Canadian farmers—so nobody notices when they go missing (because they have perished…or dissolved).  Most of the newspapers and news sites covering the scallop die-off have concentrated on what a blow the loss is to seafood lovers and fish farmers, but, it seems to me that this narrow financial approach ignores the fact that the majority of Earth’s surface is covered in ocean.

oceans Of course acidification of the oceans is only one part of a combined attack: the poor oceans are also being overfished, polluted, and subject to rapid temperature changes. The oceans are the cradle of life, and they remain crucial to all life on the planet.  Our amphibious ancestors climbed out of the sea long ago but the photosynthesizing algae that live there still remain critical to all life on Earth (unless you are an extremophile bacteria).  These tiny creatures are part of a vast web of life which is being torn to pieces and destroyed.  So join me in mourning the dead scallops.

Farewell to All That

Farewell to All That

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