The Fish Story

Grab Your Litmus Paper and Come With Me to the Rubbery Mediterranean; Your Watchful Eyes Are Needed, as Rip Currents Are Taking No Prisoners

By JAY MANN | Jun 21, 2017

Sorry, but I must go all teachy-feely on you this week. It’s in large part due to America’s distancing itself from the atmosphere, i.e. the sky’s well-being. Oh, don’t worry, this is not going to be about that odd twit in the Oval Office. Hey, I’m talking twitterer. Remember, I’m apolitical -- “A political what … I have no idea” enters the voice of Groucho Marx’s from the great comedic beyond.

Anyway, as an odd rallying cry, I must usher in an academic jewel taught to me by a very great and influential man in my life. I can’t remember his name, but I’m pretty sure there was a “b” in it. He was a marine biology professor.

The sound bite of oceanic minutiae he offered me back in the day is, as the saying goes, good to know. It can serve you well at the next seminar on climate change, or at an upcoming aging Baby Boomer dinner party – which begins with a wine-sipping discussion on the book-of-the-month and ends with you jamming straws into your nose to suck tequila shots directly through your nostrils.

That said, I need you to studently flash back to those school days when you first experimented with litmus paper. Hell, even D-grade students somewhat fondly recall dipping those strips of pH-testing paper into solutions to see what color they changed, indicating acidity or alkalinity – whatever the hell alkalinity was.

So, here, everyone please take a strip of litmus paper. Garry, I’ll even give you a piece, providing we won’t have a repeat of what you tried testing back in homeroom. Hopefully, that three-week suspension and year-long detention hall left a lasting impression.

Now, hold your hats – and litmus paper. We’re zipping over to the Mediterranean Sea, where researchers are proudly waiting to show us their mats of fake-o subaquatic non-vegetation, some of which they’ve placed on the sea bottom. The mats are made of rubber, formed into shapes best suited for what they’re trying to do: regrow coral reefs where dead ones now lie, bleached out and barren.

You likely know of the coral die-offs occurring within many reef systems worldwide. The culprit might very well be chemical changes in the oceans. But we’ll be diving into those troubling waters – the essence of this column – a little farther down.

The Mediterranean rubber-reef research has been a slow-go, albeit egged on by an anxiously awaiting worldwide academic realm. It was this attentive audience that recently cheered on arriving reports of a “biological film” beginning to grow on the artificial material. Of course, the average guy on the street, upon hearing about this film, would automatically reach for some Tilex. I’m here to make sure you’re not that guy.

The heralded arrival of biological film has folks in dead-reef tourist regions of the world rushing to order rubberized reef material. It’s perfectly acceptable that there’s a commercial component to this re-reefing research effort. It’s glowingly obvious that the private business sector gets things done a ton faster and a load cheaper than the science-gratia-science sector. Of course, when that business sector is an air-polluting entity? Once again, more on that in a minute.

You’ve likely surmised that biological film is apparently a precursor to larger underwater biological growths, leading to, in a perfect underwater world, spanking new coral reefs. I say apparently because this entire rubbermade reef concept is a whole new coral-corralling concept. The big fly in the reef ointment is the ocean itself. Is it even ready for coral-growing, having been unable to keep the old-growth coral alive?

As for us odd Americans, standing on the banks of the Mediterranean pinching pieces of litmus paper and marveling over efforts to bring reefs back from the dead, it’s due time to head back to NJ, where we can put that pH paper to good and enlightening use.

As you might recall, I was letting on earlier about what my marine biology professor had taught me, minutiae-wise. Looking at my 1971 notes, the prof’s exact words were “People think the ocean is acidic. Nope. It’s actually alkaline.”

Per my prof, our oceans have long and comfortably been mildly alkaline, to a perfectly balanced chemical degree. It took millions of years to establish this perfect pH – an ideal alkalinity for marine lifeforms to prosper; growing forth to maximally multiply.

I’d like to say a hush fell over the classroom with the arrival of that stunning bit of oceania. Oh, there was plenty of hush all right. The prof’s mere mention of the word “ocean” set every in-class surfer and beachgoer to idly daydreaming. It was one of those cool schools. Nonetheless, that long-ago-spoken, who-cares bit of oceanic esoterica has recently reared up in a thoroughly modern manner, via growing fears of so-called “ocean acidification.”

As a sudden teacher-of-sorts, I must make it clear that the much-ballyhooed term “ocean acidification” is a goodly bit off the pH mark, though it remains highly sexy in a mass media manner.

For the angling realm, a perfect oceanic pH is at the heart of all forms of fishing. Any pH swings could easily knock our fisheries off their reproduction game. That could quickly come back to bite us, leaving us biteless.

Here’s a nutshell Smithsonian read on where I’m going with this columnistic course.

“Over the past 300 million years, ocean pH has been slightly basic, averaging about 8.2. Today, it is around 8.1, a drop of 0.1 pH units, representing a 25-percent increase in acidity over the past two centuries. The oceans currently absorb about a third of human-created carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, roughly 22 million tons a day.”

Yep, despite my efforts to make all this stuff newish, it still comes down to the old ocean-ruining outrage over worldwide industry loosing ruinous amounts of CO2 upon the planet – hitting down as acid rain, hellbent on raining on a delicate pH parade.

“But how can the raining down of acid-making CO2 not make the ocean acidic?” someone among you insightfully asks. And it’s a good ocean acidification ask.

Carbon dioxide, upon making contact with the ocean, does indeed form carbonic acid. However, my acid wonderer, it simply can’t stay acidic very long. The alkaline bent of the ocean means it isn’t on the best of chemical-reaction terms with acid, as evidenced by its sworn duty to neutralize it. The ocean is not getting more acidic, per se. It’s getting less alkaline.

No, that’s not a tomato/tomahto thing. It is, though, a very bad thing. Check your notes. Marine life is dependent on an ideal acid/base ocean arrangement. With the endless bombardment of CO2, the ocean is straining to preserve a life-acceptable alkalinity. This acid-neutralization struggle is taxing Earth’s oceans like they haven’t been taxed in millions of years.

An article sexily titled “Ocean Acidification” by The Ocean Portal Team reads, “Scientists formerly didn’t worry about this process because they always assumed that rivers carried enough dissolved chemicals from rocks to the ocean to keep the ocean’s pH stable. But so much carbon dioxide is dissolving into the ocean so quickly that this natural buffering hasn’t been able to keep up, resulting in relatively rapidly dropping pH in surface waters. As those surface layers gradually mix into deep water, the entire ocean is affected.”

While there’s no need to go out and dip your litmus paper in the drink, be conceptually assured that it will read differently now than when my prof first brought up the subject of oceanic pH. That’s just how fast we’re taking on water, to speak in sinking-ship terms.

Before the bell rings, I need to pontificate. The ocean is working its ass off to neutralize the fallout from our acidic industrial ways. It can hold its proper pH for only so long. Already pH changes near the ocean surface are going a bit batty – coral-killing batty. In coming months, there will be rallying to change our nation’s one-man stance on abandoning global efforts to rein in acid rain and such. Here’s hoping this column will get a few more informed folks fighting the good pH fight.

MATES WANTED … WILL TRAIN: The Beach Haven Charter Fishing Association will be starting its highly popular Junior Mates Program on Thursday, June 22.

Normally, the sessions are held both out in the field and at the New Jersey Maritime Museum on Dock Road in Beach Haven. However, due to a scheduling conflict, the first class will be held at the Beach Haven Marlin & Tuna Club, which is located at 420 North Pennsylvania Ave. in Beach Haven.

Any interested teenagers are urged to attend the session, which will begin at 7 p.m.

Questions can be answered by calling Capt. John Lewis at 609-670-5980.

This is some amazing training – and a life experience to be sure. Get your kids signed up. Coming in on the second week can be arranged.

BAD WATERS RISING: We had a horrible rip current stretch over the past week. We lost bathers in AC, Avalon and Belmar. Locally, serious rescues were carried out by lifeguards, often overlooked heroes … until you or a loved one is pulled from a life/death situation by them.

I have been reporting “High Enhanced Rip Current” concerns to the National Weather Service for almost a week straight, knowing some common and not-so-common factors were in play.

A very large groundswell, carrying some 7-foot waves, was the most obvious rip current player in the surf.

Adding to the rip-iness were suddenly mild ocean waters, edging into the 70s. This come-on-in invitingness was booby-trapped with cold-water eddies. Mild spring ocean waters offer no clues that such icy eddies are on the prowl. They can carry water temps as much as 20 degrees colder than a swimmer expects. Going from 70 degrees to 50 degrees within a couple swim strokes … hypothermic swimming times are ahead.

Adding to the cold-water threat, rip currents are notorious for drawing up icy bottom waters, just when such strength-draining water temps are the last thing a struggling bather needs.

A subtler factor making it hard to pre-warn folks about spring rip currents and cold-water eddies is the manic school’s-out mentality. Face it, those first days of summer freedom often turn into trips to the beach … and daredevil dives into the suds. This carefree approach to ocean play applies to grammar schoolers right through to collegians, though high schoolers are far-and-away the goofiest of the bunch – and the most at risk.

That said, here’s hoping you can lend an eye – and maybe save a life or two.

When using unguarded or minimally guarded beaches, stay alert to any and all ocean goers, even so-called waders. Hey, it doesn’t reduce one’s beaching pleasure to watch about a bit. For Islanders, there is an inborn responsibility to always watch for in-water problems, especially prior to the full regimen of guards coming on.

I wouldn’t be so paranoid if it weren’t for the deadly stretch we just had. I can call in my daily sunrise rip current forecasts/reports, but there’s no keeping folks from trying out the suds, any time, day or night. Watchful eyes are always needed out there.

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