Issue 77, August 2016
bulletThe Future of the Ocean
bulletMicroplastics in the Ocean
bulletInterview with Ocean Researcher Prof. Dr. Martin Visbeck
bulletResearch on Coral Reproduction
bulletBionatics - Sustainable Food Packaging Solutions to Reduce Waste
The Future of the Ocean 
The world's oceans are choking on plastic waste.
According to a recent study published in Science, plastic debris in the marine environment are widely documented, but the quantity of plastic entering the ocean from waste generated on land is unknown. By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, the authors of the study calculated that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste were generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. Other researchers estimate that approximately 8.8 million MT of plastic find their way into the world's oceans every year. While the amount of plastic in waterways can only be speculated, the island of Manhattan, a part of New York City, is already surrounded by its own mini version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most of the plastic particles are Styrofoam-based, according to the New York Times; other categories include fishing line, clothing fiber, pellets, and film.

Some experts estimate that in the near future, more plastic will populate the world's oceans than fish. Previous studies have documented the presence and location of plastic waste floating on the water's surface, but researchers are now also studying the effects of microplastics on marine life and on the human food chain. In order to generate awareness and encourage action to preserve the world's marine habitats, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) launched the Seas and Oceans German Science Year in June 2016. Together with the Science in Dialogue (WiD) initiative, BMBF is cooperating with partners in society, science and the media to encourage public dialogue on the many aspects of marine research and conservation. One of the partners is The Future Ocean Cluster of Excellence, for which this month's GCRI Interview partner, Prof. Dr. Martin Visbeck, serves as speaker.

Our oceans are not only home to large pieces of plastic, but also to minute plastic particles, called microplastics. Researchers now know that microplastic particles can be found in all sea regions, even in arctic sea ice.

Once in the ocean, all plastic trash eventually breaks down into tiny pieces. Many of these are lighter than water and float on the sea's surface. Over time, exposure to sunlight and wave movements create miniscule plastic pieces, which sometimes end up inside the stomachs of fish.

The Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) focuses on various research topics related to marine litter. AWI scientists discovered, for example, that mackerel consumed plastics at much higher levels than other fish. According to Dr. Gunnar Gerdts, who led one of the AWI studies: "We believe that the animals we investigated ingested the microplastic fragments drifting in the water column quite accidentally while searching for food. The many plastic fibers, which we mainly found in mackerel, tell a different story. We believe the fish mistook them for prey."

Another study conducted by Dr. Gerdts measured the extent of microplastic pollution in the Baltic and Arctic Seas as well as in rivers, such as the Elbe, Ems, and Weser. The results were alarming. The analysis of arctic sea ice, for example, showed that approximately one million microplastic particles could be found per cubic meter.

Image: Gunnar Gerdts, Alfred Wegener Institute

Did you know that the ocean provides 50% of the oxygen we breathe, 90% of long distance transport, and access to 95% of telecommunications? As the world's hunger for food and goods grows, marine life is being pushed to the brink of ecological collapse. Scientists are discovering how the ocean reveals the state of the planet, which has broadened the climate change discussion.
In this GCRI Interview, Prof. Dr. Martin Visbeck explains the effects of climate change on the state of the oceans and how science distinguishes between human climate change and natural climate change, also referred to as climate variability. Given that half of the global population is dependent on marine food, his research also explores new ways to use ocean resources in a more just and sustainable manner.

Prof. Visbeck is the Head of the Research Unit, Physical Oceanography, GEOMAR - Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. He has been a Professor at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel since 2004 as well as an Adjunct Senior Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University. For more information about Prof. Visbeck and his work, please click here.

To read the full interview, click here.


The saltwater aquarium business is an important economic factor in many industrial countries where more than one million corals are sold each year. The high demand for tropical corals is met primarily by extracting corals from reefs in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, which causes significant damage.

The Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (ZMT) in Bremen, Germany, in collaboration with other business and research partners, is investigating the optimization of coral reproduction. The project Experimental Coral Reproduction (ExCoRe) is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

Corals reproduce through fragments, which are driven by the current to a new place to attach, and through sexual reproduction, from which the larvae develop. To meet the increasing demand of aquarists, attempts are ongoing to establish coral nurseries, especially in tropical countries. These focus mainly on propagation via fragments. But corals from such farms can only be produced in lower numbers and have less genetic diversity.

In this particular research project, the ZMT is paying special attention to the coral larvae and their behavior. "A successful coral nursery can only be ensured through optimal breeding conditions, which is why it is essential to know the species-specific preferences of the larvae," says Dr. Andreas Kunzmann, ecologist at the ZMT. His research group is seeking to elucidate which factors lead to the successful settlement and healthy growth of the larvae. "Of particular importance are the 'settlement signals' that induce the coral larvae to colonize in one place. They don't like bare rock; they need a biological substrate. It is suspected that certain biofilm-forming bacteria species attract them with chemical signals. Our findings will be important not only for the aquarium trade, but also for the restoration of coral reefs."

Source: Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology 
Image: Staghorn coral in Spermonde Archipelago, Indonesia 
(Leyla Knittweis, Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology) 

InnovationInnovation: Clockwork Ocean - A Unique Marine Research Expedition Utilizing a Zeppelin
In June 2016, for the first time in history, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG) used a zeppelin in coastal and marine research. In a unique research expedition, called Clockwork Ocean, marine biologists were looking to understand the influence that countless water eddies have upon the sea's nutrition and energy inventory, especially in relation to ocean circulation, global climate, and the production of microalgae.
"The expedition will fundamentally change our understanding of climatic and oceanographic interrelations," said Otmar D. Wiestler, President of Helmholtz Association at the presentation of the expedition in Berlin before its launch. "It illustrates very dramatically how important it is for all of us that our best minds take on the huge societal challenges."

The goal of the expedition was to track down small, near-surface gyres and to measure their life cycle, dimensions, and temperature distribution.

The centerpiece of the 12-day expedition was a 75-meter-long zeppelin, equipped with special cameras to track down the gyres and to record observations while hovering directly above them. Several research ships supported the zeppelin in the measurement procedures, including a speedboat that was used to drag a measurement chain numerous times through the gyre. "The small sea gyres still represent one of the big mysteries of oceanography," explains Burkard Baschek from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, who led the expedition and its team of 40 oceanographers.

In addition to the Helmholtz Center, the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research Warnemünde (IOW), the University of Lübeck, the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven (AWI) as well as the Naval Research Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the USA were involved in the expedition. For more information, click here
Image: Dr. Torsten Fischer, Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht

BionaticBionatic - Sustainable Food Packaging Solutions 
In today's fast-paced world, people rely on easy solutions, from plastic water bottles to disposable food containers. But what is convenient for the individual increases the flow of garbage into the world's waterways and water supplies at alarming rates. Whereas non-biodegradable petrochemical plastic poses a threat to marine animals and can end up in the human food chain through decomposition and absorption, high-tech bioplastic degrades into its organic components.

Driven by the desire to reduce waste and to develop renewable and recyclable food packaging solutions, Robert Czichos founded Bionatic in 2009. The Bremen-based company focuses on sustainable food packaging for caterers, food service providers, as well as private households. For more information, click here.

To date, the Bionatic product range encompasses 450 products made from residual vegetable fibers and bioplastics based on plant starch. In addition, Bionatic began to develop innovative bioplastics from bacterially produced resources in 2012. As a partner in the European Horizon 2020 program, Bionatic is currently involved in the development of high-barrier organic packaging coating as well as a range of applications for biopolymers. Other project partners include research institutes of German universities and institutes of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.  
Image: Bionatic