Blankets of a goopy, camel-colored substance have been accumulating in the water off Turkey’s coast for months.
The goop, called marine mucilage or “sea snot,” is covering so much of the coastline along the Sea of Marmara that people can no longer fish there. The sea snot formations can get up to 100 feet (30 meters) deep, according to the Turkish news site Cumhuriyet.
The sea snot fills fishing nets and weighs them down – one fisherman told Cumhuriyet that nets have been bursting from the weight of the mucus. A fishery co-op leader said people were barely pulling in a fifth of the fish they hauled at this time last year.
Marine mucilage is a goopy discharge of protein, carbohydrates, and fat from microscopic algae called phytoplankton. The substance was documented in the Sea of Marmara for the first time in 2007, as researchers at Istanbul University reported in 2008.
Normally, sea snot is not a problem, but when phytoplankton grow out of control, the goop can overpower marine ecosystems. This can wreak ecological havoc, since the substance can harbor bacteria like E Coli and ensnare or suffocate marine life. Eventually, the snot sinks to the sea floor, where it can blanket coral and suffocate them, too.
Since phytoplankton thrive in warm water, scientists suspect that climate change is fueling the new sea-snot crisis. Runoff from nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich fertilizer and sewage could also be causing an explosion in the phytoplankton population.
“We are experiencing the visible effects of climate change, and adaptation requires an overhaul of our habitual practices. We must initiate a full-scale effort to adapt,” Mustafa Sarı, dean of Bandırma Onyedi Eylül University’s maritime faculty, told The Guardian.
This is the largest accumulation of sea snot yet, according to The Guardian. It began in deep waters during the winter then spread to the coastlines this year. Barış Özalp, a marine biologist at Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, first noticed it in December but became alarmed once the snot carpets continued to grow through the spring.
“The gravity of the situation set in when I dived for measurements in March and discovered severe mortality in corals,” he told The Guardian.
Thousands of fish have been washing up dead in coastal towns as well, Sarı told The Guardian. The fish could be suffocating because sea snot clogs their gills, or because it depletes the water’s oxygen levels.
“Once the mucilage covers the coasts, it limits the interaction between water and the atmosphere,” Sarı said.
The researchers aboard the Polarstern research vessel found themselves in the right place at the right time last month. They were sailing near Antarctica’s northern rim when a giant iceberg broke off the continent.
The ship was some 3,000 miles from the southernmost tip of South America, not far from the Brunt Ice Shelf, which is replete with giant, growing cracks. On February 26, one of those cracks tore through the shelf, and an iceberg of more than 490 square miles (1,270 square kilometers) splintered off. This known as a calving event.
The iceberg, named A74, is about the size of Los Angeles, and more than 20 times the size of Manhattan. As it moved away from Antarctica, it revealed a part of the sea floor that hadn’t seen sunlight in 50 years.
The Polarstern crew waited for strong winds in the area to abate, then entered the gap between the A74 and the ice shelf on March 13. The scientists’ goal: investigate the portion of the Weddell Sea bed that had been covered by up to 1,000 feet of thick ice for decades.
The Polarstern crew deployed a camera instrument called the Ocean Floor Observation and Bathymetry System, or OFOBS.
They towed it behind the the ship on a long cable, submerging the OFOBS up to half a mile under the surface.
The OFOBS recorded five hours of footage and took thousands of photos.
The crew also deployed buoys that could measure the temperature and salt content of the water in the newly created gap. Data from the buoys could tell scientists how quickly that part of the Antarctic is warming.
Once OFOBS reached the sea floor, it spotted various creatures living among stones that had tumbled into the water from the ice shelf above.
Most of the creatures the cameras spotted were sessile animals: organisms like anemones that attach themselves to rocks or the ocean floor and don’t move.
Most of the species were filter feeders, like sea sponges.
These immobile creatures eat microscopic algae and other tiny organic particles in the water that float near their stony abodes.
According to Autun Purser, a member of the OFOBS team, the presence of these filter feeders wasn’t a surprise. But some of the findings shocked his team.
“I was expecting fewer, larger filter feeding animals (sponges mainly),” Purser, an oceanic researcher with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, told Insider via email from aboard the Polarstern.
That expectation was based, in part, on findings from a group of British researchers that also drilled more than half a mile into the ice shelf last month, 162 miles from the area Purser’s team was exploring. That team found sponges living on stones under the ice.
Purser’s team was startled to see many creatures swimming around, rather than staying stationary.
“I was not expecting to see octopus and fish, or many mobile animals, and they were actually there,” he said.
The OFOBS spotted sea cucumbers, brittle sea stars, mollusks, worms, at least five fish species, and two types of octopus.
Using a grabbing device aboard the OFOBS, the scientists collected specimens of some of the creatures, as well as silt from sea floor.
The OFOBS also glimpsed a cute type of sea cucumber called a sea pig.
These translucent, water-filled creatures have tube-like legs — sometime on their heads — that help them scuttle about in the deepest, darkest parts of every ocean on the planet.
It’s a bit of a mystery what, precisely, sustained this diverse, underwater ecosystem in the absence of sunlight. Most organic food stuffs and algae hang out in parts of the ocean where they have access to the light they need to survive.
By collecting more seafloor samples and visiting this area of the Weddell Sea again in the future, the Polarstern researchers hope to answer that question.
Purser said the team’s observations show that marine ecosystems can be quite diverse and abundant, even if there’s only a moderate amount of food available.
“Possibly everything happens over a longer timeframe, animals more slowly growing, etc.,” he added. “But to determine if this is the case, repeat observations of the under-ice community, whilst still under ice, would be needed.”
The team hopes to one day use autonomous underwater robots to investigate parts of the ocean that were formerly trapped under the ice.
This isn’t the first time Antarctica has lost a giant iceberg, and it won’t be the last.
“It is entirely natural for sections to calve away from ice shelves. As ice flows off the land, the ice shelf grows and eventually reaches a size which is unstable,” Adrian Luckman, a glaciologist at Swansea University in Wales, previously told Insider. “Some calving events are small and go unnoticed, but every few years a large one such as this happens.”
Researchers aboard the Polarstern said icebergs the size of A74 slough off every decade or so.
In 2017, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off the continent’s Larsen C Ice Shelf.
Luckman thinks another iceberg will break off the Brunt Ice Shelf in the coming weeks or months.
Narrator: Stone crab claws are one of the priciest seafoods you can buy. And depending on their size, a pound of claws at a restaurant can cost as much as $70. But catching these crabs is hard work. Strangely enough, fishers can only harvest the claws from the crabs, while the bodies must be returned to the ocean. So, what makes these claws so coveted? And why are they so expensive?
You can only fish for stone crab on the southeastern coast of the US, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Mexico. And it’s Florida where more stone crabs are caught than anywhere else. These crustaceans are markedly more expensive than other popular crabs. A pound of claws can cost two times the price of Alaskan snow crab legs. Part of what makes these crabs so costly is the labor-intensive process of catching them.
Ernie Piton: There’s a nice crab.
Narrator: Ernie Piton Jr. has been commercially fishing for stone crabs for over 40 years. With limited time to harvest each year, his crew must start their days early, sailing out before the sun rises. The process begins with dropping traps down to the ocean floor.
Kevin Henry: This is probably the funnest part, you know? You get to be a little more physical, you know what I mean? It’s a little bit of a rhythm thing going on here. It’s like dancing mariachi.
Narrator: But plucking these claws can be a dangerous process.
Bill Kelly: The claws on an adult crab can have as much as 9,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. With the enormous pressure that’s exerted, they could actually pop a finger off at the joint.
Kevin: These crabs, they have a mind of their own. You can easily get bit, you know, if you’re not careful. I’ve only been bit maybe, say, eight times in my career. Popped over a million claws in my day.
Narrator: The crew leaves the traps in the water for about two weeks before they’re pulled in by a rope. Then each one must be sorted thoroughly.
Kevin: We come back in a couple weeks, and then got a couple in the trap, we’re gonna pull them out. We’re gonna pop their claws and hope for a good day.
Narrator: Crews break off the claws quickly, so they don’t keep the crabs out of water for too long. But even if a trap is full of crabs, Kevin can’t necessarily take every claw. The state requires all harvested claws to be at least 2 7/8 inches long. Crabbers can legally break off both claws if they meet the required size.
Ernie: The ones that look smaller, we measure them on the gauge. Like that one.
Narrator: Crabs are one of few animals that can regenerate. When a crab loses a claw — or two — it can grow each one back in time. On average, claws can take up to three years to grow large enough to harvest again, which is why the state requires that crabbers pay close attention to each claw’s size. This ensures fishers don’t remove one prematurely. But despite the claws’ ability to regrow, some researchers have questioned the sustainability of this system.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found that 46% to 82% of crabs died from the loss of two claws, while 23% to 59% died from the removal of one. That’s compared to just 12.8% of crabs that died when no claws were removed. Crabs can also only regrow a claw if the joint that linked it is left intact. Otherwise, it’ll bleed to death. This makes the way these claws are broken all the more important for preserving the fishery’s future.
Hiring enough people to make the operation run smoothly is another reason for the high price of these claws. And then there’s one other cost you’d never expect. Each trip requires 900 pounds of pig’s feet for bait. And that’s just about half of the total cost of fishing for the day.
Ernie: Normal running cost to go stone crabbing today is about $1,100 to leave the dock. Bait prices have gone up, fuel prices have gone up. You know, the track tag prices have gone up.
Narrator: After 10 hours on the boat, Ernie’s crew must boil and ice their catch as soon as they return, otherwise the claws won’t stay fresh. They finish the day by weighing each claw, which ultimately sets the final value. Claws are sold in four sizes. At Billy’s Stone Crab, restaurant prices range from $35 to $70 per pound.
Brian Hershey: We run about 4,000 pounds of stone crab through the restaurant each week. On a busy weekend, we sell 700 to 800 pounds of stone crab.
Narrator: The most expensive order costs $140. The plate is made up of four 7-ounce colossal claws, which yields just under 1 pound of crabmeat. Fresh-cooked claws sold on ice are less expensive, but even then, the mediums will cost you $29 per pound.
Years ago, stone crabs weren’t such valuable food. In the 1890s, they were nothing more than bycatch in spiny-lobster traps. Fishers began to keep the crabs that fell into those traps, and by the late 20th century, the stone crab fishery had become one of the most valuable industries in Florida. Today, it’s worth $30 million, and the prices of these claws aren’t likely to drop anytime soon.
Data from the FWC show the number of crabs caught each year has declined by 712,000 pounds. That’s since peak harvest in the late 1990s. Many commercial harvesters have also started fishing farther offshore, pointing to a lesser number of crabs in the area. The FWC says both of these changes signify a threat of overfishing, and prices have gone up in order to keep the fishery profitable.
To further protect the species’ future, the FWC instated even stricter regulations last year. Two changes include an increase in the minimum size of harvestable claws and cutting the fishing season short by two weeks. These limitations aren’t likely to lower the cost of stone crab claws. But the goal is to help preserve them and keep Florida fishers busy for years to come.
Kevin: One crab, I remember, my favorite crab I ever saw, it looked like a Louis Vuitton pattern. Bunch of diamonds. And it was just a pretty thing.