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Pew Institute Scientist Featured on National Geographic's “Strange Days on Planet Earth”

Program Premieres on Wednesday, April 23, 9pm on PBS
April 22, 2008

Pew Institute for Ocean Science researcher Dr. Andrew Bakun is among the innovative, investigative scientists featured on National Geographic's “Strange Days on Planet Earth,” a three-part special on PBS spotlighting the adverse and far-reaching consequences of overfishing on the ocean’s delicate balance and the larger environment. The segment featuring Dr. Bakun – “Dangerous Catch” -- premieres Wednesday, April 23, at 9pm ET and 6pm PT on the PBS network (Channel 2 in Miami; Channel 13 in New York).

Through some hard-core detective work and astute observations, Dr. Bakun and his colleague, Dr. Scarla Weeks of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, realized that the rampant overfishing of sardines off the southwest coast of Africa may have been a factor in eruptions of two toxic gases – hydrogen sulfide, and methane – from the Atlantic Ocean floor. The hydrogen sulfide causes a horrible rotten-egg smell that had long burdened (and perplexed) residents of local communities in Namibia, while also poisoning fish and causing oxygen poor dead-zones in the water. Methane gas traps 21 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.

Drs. Bakun and Weeks co-authored a 2004 scientific paper in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology Letters describing their theory that sardines, phytoplankton, and climate change are intricately connected. When plentiful, sardines consume massive quantities of tiny plants called phytoplankton, which float atop the ocean and are whisked to the surface by the “upwelling” of subsurface waters. (The ocean off Namibia is one of the world’s strongest upwelling regions in the world). But when sardines are overfished, phytoplankton continue to blanket the ocean until they die and sink to the ocean floor, where they are decomposed by bacteria. These bacteria produce massive amounts of toxic gases in the process – gases that are even worse for global warming than carbon dioxide and turn this stretch of the African coastline into a marine life dead zone.

The cyclical causes and effects of these and other seemingly unrelated events affecting the world’s water supply are chronicled in two new hours of "Strange Days on Planet Earth," narrated by actor and environmentalist Edward Norton. The acclaimed National Geographic series, now in its second season, was shot on location around the world with teams of scientists in action.

"We feel that it is important to get the message to the public that besides being productive and beautiful, marine ecosystems are complex, dynamic and, in many ways, unpredictable,” Dr. Bakun said. “If we continue to stress them by over-fishing, pollution and climate change, they may initially appear to be resilient but then may suddenly and unexpectedly ‘run away from us’ to an entirely new phase of operation that may be very different from the one we have traditionally valued and utilized.”

In this type of ecosystem "regime shift," we may stand to lose much more than merely the resources that were overexploited, he said, but also many of the other values we have traditionally assigned to these systems.

“For example, in this production, we illustrate a plausible scenario by which overfishing a relatively non-charismatic species such as sardine may have contributed to massive losses of other more highly valued species, as well as to degradation of quality of life of inhabitants of coastal communities, and potentially even to as accelerated global climate change,” Dr. Bakun said.

Complete descriptions of the episodes, both premiering on Wednesday, are as follows:

Episode 1: "Dangerous Catch”: In the West African nation of Ghana, olive baboons are ransacking crops and terrorizing villagers. Further down the coast in Namibia, a once rich fishing ground is struggling to recover while putrid fumes are exploding from the ocean depths, spewing greenhouse gases into the air. These and other events are linked to one activity — over-fishing. It's become increasingly clear that our massive demands on the ocean are impacting life far beyond the shoreline, including Earth's own life-support systems. Can we reduce fishing pressures, restore fish stocks and protect ocean habitats in time to safeguard the health of life in the sea, on land and ultimately ourselves?

Episode 2: "Dirty Secrets”: Scientists and citizens across the world are scrambling to solve a set of disturbing mysteries unfolding along the shores of rivers, estuaries, islands and the sea. Striped bass are succumbing to flesh-eating bacteria in Chesapeake Bay. Majestic seabirds are starving in Hawai'i. Coral reefs are weakening under a growing assault of invisible contaminants. Meanwhile, a known hormone-disrupting chemical is showing up in streams, rivers and other bodies of water across the nation, potentially jeopardizing the health of animals and humans. These mysteries share a similar culprit. Something is amiss in our water supply, and experts are racing the clock to find clues and devise lasting solutions.

Dr. Bakun is a Professor of Marine Biology and Fisheries at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and a staff researcher with the Pew Institute for Ocean Science. Dr. Weeks, now at the University of Queensland in Australia, is also currently funded in a Pew Institute research project. The mission of the Pew Institute (www.pewoceanscience.org) is to advance ocean conservation through science. Established by a generous multi-year grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Pew Institute is a major program of the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and has offices in Miami and New York.

"Strange Days on Planet Earth" is produced by Sea Studios Foundation in collaboration with National Geographic Television. The two-hour series has been underwritten by ITT Corporation, with additional support from the Packard Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The series will be complemented by materials for educators and a comprehensive Web site at www.pbs.org/strangedays.

Contact: Kathryn Cervino, Communications Manager, 212.756.0042 or kcervino@miami.edu

Check the schedule of your local PBS station
Read Dr. Andrew Bakun’s scientific paper in Ecology Letters on the connections between sardine overfishing and noxious gas eruptions off the Namibian coast
Learn more about the Dangerous Catch episode

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