Benjamin Kay is a marine scientist who teaches about aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems at both Santa Monica High School and Santa Monica College. He incorporates hands-on labs, field trips, expert guest speakers and civic engagement opportunities as part of his curricula, and coaches the multi-award winning environmental science teen action group, Team Marine.
Mr. Kay has won numerous educational awards. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Aquatic Biology from UCSB and his Masters in Marine Biology from the University of Queensland in Australia.
Planet Experts: On August 30, the California Senate passed SB270, the first statewide single-use plastic bag ban in the United States. You and Team Marine have been vocal crusaders for this ban. How does it feel to see it finally make it to Governor Brown’s desk?
Benjamin Kay: We are ecstatic at Team Marine headquarters, a.k.a. the classroom. For about six or seven years, we’ve been part of the Clean Seas Coalition – a group composed of environmentalists, lawyers and scientists – that’s been lobbying local and state governments to pass plastic bag bans. And over this time there have been about 100 municipalities within California that have passed various versions of a plastic bag ban – comprising about 30 percent of the population of California shoppers. We now have an overarching plastic bag ban in place, much to the delight of the environmental science community, and all those in the Clean Seas Coalition.
All of us have been working hard at the municipal level, but the state bag ban was like the pie in the sky. Before we had this hodgepodge of smaller community bans, each with its own different rules. Now we have this great unifying piece of legislation that will really help kick the single-use plastic habit and improve outlooks for all wildlife.
PE: As a marine scientist, what do you believe are the three most vital threats to our marine ecosystems?
BK: On a global level, climate change, ocean acidification and plastic pollution are all getting so bad. Close to those three we must include overfishing, as well as ocean dead zones, the latter of which number 500 strong and crop up all around the world. These are areas where marine life can’t be supported except for some bacteria that don’t need oxygen. Some of our dead zones are bigger than the state of Rhode Island and are resulting in these massive fish kills. All said, these five problems certainly demand our undivided attention.
These issues aren’t mutually exclusive either. They’re all intricately woven together. It’s hard to separate one from the other nowadays.
PE: Ocean acidification and coral bleaching have been getting a lot of press lately, and place our oceans and marine life in peril. Please explain the causes and effects of these phenomena.
BK: When I say the aforementioned problems are interconnected, the link is our addiction to oil and other fossil fuels. When we extract fossil fuels and burn them to create energy, the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere and warms our planet. One of the side consequences to releasing excess CO2 into the atmosphere is that it will actually go into the ocean.
CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere naturally go into the ocean, and that’s called gas exchange. However, the excess CO2 released from burning fossil fuels has gone into the ocean and, through a few chemical reactions, has turned into a weak acid known as carbonic acid.
Even though it’s a weak acid, it has the ability to dissolve calcium carbonate or limestone material. Some people don’t think that’s a major issue, but that’s because they don’t understand the gravity of the issue in terms of carbonic’s acid’s ability to dissolve the shell composition of many different forms of marine life.
We’re talking about some of vital members of the phytoplankton in the ocean, called coccolithophores which provide oxygen to the ocean and atmosphere. They too have a calcium carbonate outer coating formed of so called coccoliths that dissolve in the presence of carbonic acid. Even bigger organisms like corals, sea urchins, sea snails, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, which are fully or partially composed of calcium carbonate become weakened and vulnerable to other stress factors. That’s a major issue.
Of great concern right now is the threat to coral reefs, which are kind of like the rainforests of the sea. A coral’s mass is made up mostly by its calcium carbonate skeleton. A thin layer of mucous-like animal tissue lines the limestone skeleton, and works with the help of symbiotic algae that live in their tissues to deposit calcium carbonate to the ever growing skeleton base. When corals are exposed to carbonic acid, it makes the corals brittle, the carbonate deposition can be slowed, and the coral structure vulnerable to things like hurricanes.
So you basically get slower building corals and you get compromised structural integrity of the corals. Critical habitat for coral dwelling fish and other marine life are simultaneously compromised. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.
On a global scale, we’ve lost 50 percent of the coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef in the last 30 years or so. That’s the largest coral reef in the world. And there are very few pristine reefs left.
PE: Other marine scientists have gone on record to warn that our oceans could feasibly collapse within fifty years. Is the health of our oceans really in such dire straits?
BK: The short answer is sadly, yes. The science is becoming more crystallized, in terms of the forecasting. Never before in environmental history have we actually had so many bigger global issues. In the past, communities had to deal with more isolated, smaller scale problems whether that was localized overfishing, runoff or dumping of some toxic waste. Now, we have so many global scale issues superimposed on top of the localized issues, that it’s time to be gravely concerned. The gloom and doom forecasts of these scientists are unfortunately backed by very sound science, which is scary .
We’ve got coral reefs, which could be completely gone in the next 50 to 100 years. By 2050, we have forecasts that all commercial fisheries will collapse. We’ve already experienced 90 percent die-offs of all big game fish species, leaving only 10 percent left.
In the case of bluefin tuna it’s even worse. We’ve seen over 95 percent of the species disappear, as compared to fishing stocks in pre-1950s. Our technology is getting so good in terms of building bigger nets and tracking species of desired prey from satellites, that species really don’t stand a chance. Paraphrasing Scripps Scientist Jeremy Jackson, humans have gotten really good at taking everything they want out of the ocean, but at the same time we’re increasingly putting everything we don’t want into the ocean. Storm drain and river runoff contains is enormously polluting loaded with, nutrient fertilizers, industrial chemicals, and plastics.
At the same time, we’ve been harvesting oil from every swath of ocean that we can find it. We’re drilling over five miles deep in some of the most remote places on the planet, for instance, in the Arctic where it’s cold, freezing and full of storms. Just like big game fish, we’re also running out of oil and other fossil fuels at the same time. So if we continue allowing companies to extract fossil fuels and do ocean mining in marine parks, then yeah, I can’t say there is much room for hope.
I’m hoping that we get smarter as a species and say, enough’s enough. We’ve made these forecasts now for decades and our forecasts are being routinely ignored by policymakers. And some countries are quite ahead of the United States in paying attention to the science. Some of the smartest people on the planet are working in think tanks gathering empirical data to point us in a better direction. The frustrating part, is that we’re being ignored.
PE: You lead Team Marine, an environmental science action group for teens. How did that group first form and what accomplishments has it made?
BK: Team Marine is a group of environmentally dedicated students from Santa Monica High School who got their start in 2006. They entered an Environmental Science ocean stewardship competition called the QuikSCience Challenge, which was sponsored by USC and Quiksilver Foundation, the clothing/surf company.
I heard about the competition my first year teaching at Santa Monica High School, and the students were interested, so we formed a six-student group and entered the contest.
We basically did lots of activities doing science and raising awareness about the data. We ended up getting ‘Best Community Service,’ our first year which I guess was equivalent to third place. That was our first year getting our feet wet, and we were ecstatic that we did so well our first year.
The next year, we formed another team, competed again, and this time the students were very adamant about pursuing a ban on single-use plastic bags and doing research on how polluting plastic bags and other plastic particles were to the ocean. They ended up marching, testifying before city council, and doing environmental eco-artwork on the beach. Some of these artwork pieces got into the newspapers and things – and they won first place their second year.
Since then, Team Marine has morphed into a very legitimate environmental organization without the official title of the 501(c)3 designation for non-profits. It feels like a real organization complete with structured meetings, agendas, and an organized means of communicating with each other. They do a lot of networking both through social media and educational outreach. Our big initiative is to use sound science to effect positive changes in our school and the greater community.
We’ve had some success over the years, not only in environmental science competitions and LA County Science Fair – but by working locally, we’ve really been able to affect people on an international scale. We’ve had Japanese film crews and French film crews come to film us, and we ended up being on television on one of the biggest networks in Japan in front of 7 million people. We’ve been in national newspapers,and magazines, on TV and the radio many times and most recently featured in a published book focusing on STEM education. We’ve had an exciting journey bringing a voice to what the science overwhelmingly predicts.
Writing press releases, blogs and letters while leveraging media attention, the students have helped put a spotlight on the cause. And none of this could be possible if we didn’t have our tentacles wrapped around real, sound scientific research. It’s been a great experience for youth to see how they actually can, through collaboration, achieve so many great things, locally and most recently at the state level with the plastic bag ban.
They really do have a voice, and that voice matters. My job is helping open doors, navigating the adult politics, organizing them a little bit so they can better spread their message about sustainability as far and wide as possible. They then are able to focus on their research and effective means to correct industry behavior, educate the masses and change culture. At the end of the day, the science will win, it’s just a matter of when.