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Creative Writing Program Annual Faculty Reading, Monday, December 2,
7 p.m., SMG Auditorium
Week of 22 November 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 13

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Bearing bad tides and bad tidings
Environmental writers focus on imperiled oceans

By Tim Stoddard

It’s been 13 years since images of oil-stricken birds in Prince William Sound inspired a heroic cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This week, a tanker split in two off the coast of Spain, spilling twice as much oil as the Valdez catastrophe. Enviromental disasters like these stir public outrage fairly easily; an oil spill is not a difficult concept to grasp, and its remedy is straightforward. But the layperson is less likely to understand or care about larger environmental threats to the world’s oceans.

For journalists and scientists concerned about collapsing fisheries, melting polar ice caps, and the wholesale destruction of oceanic ecosystems, the challenge is to communicate dire issues without alienating a public already numbed by doom-and-gloom headlines. That challenge will be at the heart of an environmental writers conference cosponsored by COM’s Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism and the New England Aquarium November 23 and 24. Tomorrow’s Ocean will be a platform for leading marine scientists to address the threats to ocean ecosystems and a forum for environmental writers of all ilks to discuss the future of their craft.

The first day of the Tomorrow’s Ocean conference will be similar to earlier festivals at the aquarium, featuring poetry workshops led by David Barber, a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly, and Andrea Cohen, communications director at MIT Sea Grant. Nature essayist Robert Finch and science photographer Felice Frankel will join Barber and Cohen on a panel later in the afternoon to critique the aquarium’s new Living Lakes exhibit. Among other things, the panelists will debate the effectiveness of the exhibit, discussing whether it communicates the importance of biodiversity to a larger audience.

On Saturday evening, renowned deep-sea researcher Sylvia Earle will present never-before-seen underwater footage at the aquarium’s IMAX theater (note: the footage was shot on standard film, not IMAX format). An oceanographer, diver, and developer of deep submersibles, Earle has been surveying U.S. marine-protected areas as part of the Sustainable Seas program that she runs as a National Geographic Society explorer in residence. An outspoken advocate of protecting the world’s oceans for over 30 years, Earle was cited in the November 2002 Discover magazine article “The 50 Most Important Women in Science.”

Oceans of issues
On the second day, the conference will shift venues from Central Wharf to BU’s Charles River Campus, and will delve into the journalistic side of nature writing. “There are different ways to write about the environment,” says Doug Starr, codirector of the Knight Center and a COM associate professor of journalism. “One approach is journalistic, teasing apart an issue or event and exposing the deeper social causes of the problem. The other, in the style of Barry Lopez and other great nature writers, is a more naturalistic approach. There’s no reason that one should exclude the other. At the center, we’re trying to break down every barrier that we see in terms of keeping good journalism from being great writing.”

The agenda for November 24 includes four panel discussions profiling threats to ocean ecosystems and the best strategies to writing about these problems. Les Kaufman, a CAS associate professor of marine biology, moderates the opening panel, an overview discussion entitled Saving the Ocean -- Turning Back a Noxious Tide. Kaufman’s research is in the evolutionary biology of marine organisms, but he has also been deeply involved in conservation and public advocacy. “Historically, humans have assumed the ocean’s resources to be limitless and the ocean itself to be incorruptible because we’re so puny,” Kaufman says. “That’s not true anymore.”

The demise of coral reefs worldwide is a case in point. “Coral reefs are the first vast ecosystem in the oceans to have been massively pummeled by human impacts,” Kaufman says. The assault has come on several fronts. In the Caribbean, where over three quarters of the reefs have been severely damaged, people have already overfished the large predatory species and are now “moving in on the horses and cows of the reef -- the herbivorous species such as parrot fish and surgeon fish.” When you remove them, Kaufman says, there is little left to graze on the algae that normally grows rampant in clear shallow water. “If you take the herbivores away, it’s harder for the coral to keep the algae out. Coral reefs all over the world are being transformed from the fairylands we’re used to seeing on Channel 2 to monotonous stretches of seaweed.”

To compound the problem, deforestation and misguided land use on shore are causing topsoil to wash down into the ocean, resulting in turbidity that further cripples coral reefs. In murky water, only the phytoplankton at the surface can thrive. When they bloom, Kaufman says, they further shade out the coral, giving the algae another advantage. Biological waste from sewage outfall pipes fertilizes coastal waters in a process called eutrophication. “To survive,” Kaufman says, “coral reefs depend on water being relatively nutrient-poor because they don’t grow as quickly as the large seaweeds.”

Beach writes
A separate panel discussion will address the problem of coastal sprawl. Seafront real estate is extremely valuable, but overdevelopment of shorelines is creating environmental and socioeconomic problems. “What’s interesting about coastal sprawl,” Starr says, “is that it’s not just about the physical barriers to going to the beach. It can accentuate economic problems, but it also brings in questions of social equity. Why should the rich have all of this real estate when middle-class people can’t anymore? This is a heavily loaded issue that journalists can look at.”

Other panels will address the multifaceted issues of fisheries management and the impact of global warming on the Arctic and Antarctic. “We don’t have to resort to any exotic or fuzzy concepts to deal with these issues,” says Kaufman. “The evidence is extremely concrete. It essentially comes down to having lots of money now, or money forever.”

At the end of the conference, Starr and Ellen Ruppel Shell, codirector of the Knight Center and a COM associate professor of journalism, will encourage the journalists to discuss ways of improving their coverage of the environment. “Environmental journalists need to develop a language for educating the public about ocean environment issues without totally depressing them,” Kaufman says. “In this conference, I’d like to convey how hopeful things are and how easy it would be to solve some of these problems compared to others that we’ve tackled with some success. It’s a message of despair, perhaps, because things are even worse than we realize. But it’s also a message of tremendous hope, because it speaks to the extraordinary resilience of the oceans.”

Tomorrow’s Ocean is free and open to the public, but advance registration is suggested. For more information, please visit www.bu.edu/com/jo/science/conference_oceans.htm or call Maureen Clark at 617-353-4239.

BU and the New England Aquarium

Before joining the BU faculty as a CAS associate professor, Les Kaufman was a full-time employee at the New England Aquarium for 11 years in the education department and then the research program, and would often hire BU students as summer interns on research projects. He has helped to maintain the bridge between BU and the aquarium, and now about a third of the Boston University Marine Program (BUMP) students spend time as interns at the aquarium. Students in Kaufman’s lab work with aquaculturists at the aquarium on lobster nutrition. Other BUMP faculty work with aquarists on projects related to corals and skates; one project focused on studying turtle cognition with Myrtle, the aquarium’s obese green turtle. Kaufman suggests that students interested in the topics addressed in this conference consider registering for BIO 260, the introductory course in marine biology.

22 November 2002
Boston University
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