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Restaurants Recycle Oyster Shells to Revitalize Ocean Reefs

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Oysters are more than a tasty appetizer. The mollusks are key players in healthy marine environments. The filter-feeders improve water quality, and their beds provide habitat for fish and other underwater critters. Oyster beds also improve life out of the water, preventing coastal erosion and creating a buffer against large waves.

As oysters’ role in maintaining a vibrant coastal ecosystem becomes more clear, environmental groups are trying to bring back devastated oyster populations. In some places, this means getting restaurants to recycle their leftover oyster shells to put back into the ocean instead of sending them to a landfill, according to Fast Company.

This is particularly important along the Gulf Coast, where the Alabama Coastal Foundation (ACF) set up a recycling program in 2016 to collect used oyster shells from local eateries. According to The Nature Conservancy, 67 percent of the U.S. oyster harvest comes from the Gulf of Mexico [PDF]. The Nature Conservancy has been working throughout the Gulf of Mexico to restore oyster populations.

So far, the effort in Alabama, a partnership between the waste collection company Republic Services and the ACF, has collected enough oyster shells to cover 7.2 acres of sea floor. The program is currently funded by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and is free to restaurants, though that may change in the future.

Alabama isn’t the only place oyster shells are becoming a hot commodity. In New York City, the Billion Oyster Project is working to restore oyster populations and reefs in New York Harbor, in part to make Staten Island more resilient to superstorms and flooding. (Hurricane Sandy ravaged the island's east and south shores in 2012.) In New Jersey, the American Littoral Society is seeding local waterways with new oysters in Barnegat Bay in hopes of both restoring the once-vibrant oyster harvesting industry there and cleaning the waterways. Other oyster repopulation projects are ongoing in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. On the West Coast, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund plans to restore 100 acres of native oyster habitats by 2020.

However, oyster habitat restoration isn’t as easy as it sounds. In a 15-year study of Rhode Island’s oyster restoration programs, the oysters had such a high mortality rate that populations began declining immediately when the programs stopped actively re-seeding the beds with new oysters. Another worldwide study found that the median survival rate for oyster bed restoration projects was only 56 percent.

As many current oyster restoration projects are just gaining steam, it may be years before we find out if they can be as effective as natural oyster beds.

[h/t Fast Company]

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The Roomba's Creator Invented an Underwater Vacuum That Sucks Up Invasive Lionfish
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Invasive fish can be a major issue for waterways, since they can devastate native species and take a toll on environmental diversity. The red shiner, for instance, is a hardy fish that can survive basically anywhere, and in the process, outcompete and kill native fish species. Invasive species can travel far and wide, hopping across continents with human help (whether on purpose or by accident).

Colin Angle, who co-founded iRobot, the company that invented the Roomba, has an answer. It’s kind of like a robot vacuum, but for invasive fish, according to Fast Company. The Guardian, developed by Angle’s nonprofit Robots in Service of the Environment, is an underwater robot designed to stun lionfish, suck them up, and bring them to the surface.

Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, are considered an invasive species in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, where they have few predators and huge appetites for both crustaceans and other fish. The fish can eat up to 20 other fish in half an hour, lay up to 40,000 eggs every few days, and live up to 30 years, making them a formidable foe for environmentalists. They may have been introduced in the mid-1980s by personal aquarium owners in Florida releasing pets that got too big for their tanks.

As part of the effort to rid Atlantic waterways of lionfish, the U.S. government has tried to encourage people to catch and eat them. If other species can be overfished, couldn’t lionfish?

The Guardian isn’t the only robot with a mission to eradicate invasive fish. Queensland University of Technology’s COTSbot is designed to kill crown of thorns starfish in the Great Barrier Reef. Unlike COTSbot, though, The Guardian isn’t autonomous. Someone above the water has to control it remotely, directing it toward fish to suck up using a camera feed.

That’s by design, though. The idea is that like the Roomba, the Guardian will be affordable enough for fishermen to use so they can hunt the fish and sell them in restaurants. (One unit currently costs about $1000.) The Guardian's ability to reach depths of up to 400 feet will aid fishermen in waters and reefs that can't be easily accessed.

Each Guardian can bring up about 10 live lionfish at a time. And while one robot cannot eradicate lionfish from the ocean alone, a huge number of them could make a dent.

The Guardian is currently in testing in Bermuda.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Climate Change Could Resurrect the Dust Bowl
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The billowing dust storms we know from black-and-white photos of the Great Depression could become a reality for future generations, scientists warn. As Gizmodo reports, climate change is grooming the southwest and central Great Plains for a new version of the Dust Bowl that plagued the region in the 1930s.

After gathering 12 years of satellite data (2003–2015), researchers at Princeton University and NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory predict that dust clouds will increase in parts of the U.S. in the latter half of this century. As they lay out in their study in Scientific Reports, prolonged drought and barren landscapes caused by deforestation are set to create the perfect conditions for the same type of storms that drove people from the Great Plains nine decades ago. At its worst, this phenomenon could be deadly; when they're not breathing in dust, residents in the affected areas could be exposed to dangerous pathogens and chemicals carried by air currents.

Dust storms occur when winds stir up dirt particles into dark, massive clouds. During the so-called Dirty Thirties, soil loosened by over-tilling was a major contributor to the dust that enveloped land. Even with more sustainable farming practices, dry summers could create the same arid, dusty landscapes required for a repeat of the Dust Bowl.

While there's still much research to be done on the subject, the study authors hope their findings will get people thinking about how to prepare for the consequences. "Our specific projections may provide an early warning on erosion control, and help improve risk management and resource planning," co-author Bing Pu said in a Princeton University press statement.

That seems like an improvement over ideas for fighting the Dust Bowl that were proposed in the 1930s, which included paving over the Great Plains and bombing the sky. Fortunately, we still have a few decades to come up with better strategies this time around.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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