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Marine Science Center works to protect oceans’ ‘vital role in sustaining life on Earth’

Wednesday is World Oceans Day, a global celebration of our oceans and the important roles they play in our lives.

Coordinated since 2003 by The Ocean Project, this U.N.-designated day is an opportunity to discuss ways to help conserve oceans and ensure they are maintained for future generations. The theme for this year is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet,” with an emphasis on addressing marine plastic pollution.

We spoke with Geoff Trussell, director of Northeastern’s Marine Science Center and professor and chair of the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences, about the importance of World Oceans Day and how work at the MSC addresses the day’s mission.

“World Oceans Day works to enhance understanding and conservation of the world’s oceans and the vital role they play in sustaining life on Earth,” he said.

Why is this year’s focus on plastic pollution an important facet of the “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet” theme?

Plastics in the ocean, particularly microplastics, are having devastating effects on marine life. Just recently two sperm whales washed ashore in the North Sea and their stomachs were full of plastics and other human-created materials. Although the plastics are not thought to be responsible for the stranding, this discovery highlights how ubiquitous plastic pollution has become. More insidiously, microplastics are becoming incorporated into marine food chains and there is growing concern that if this continues unabated, marine ecosystems and the services they provide will be disrupted.

How is the Marine Science Center working to address the goals of World Oceans Day?

Staying on the microplastics theme, Mark Patterson and recent Northeastern graduate Ethan Edson have developed an autonomous microplastics sampler called Mantaray. This device can be deployed in a variety of ways to assess where microplastics are most problematic, which will ultimately be instrumental in guiding clean-up efforts. The novelty and promise of this invention is evidenced by funding support from the Schmidt Family Foundation.

What exciting work and research is going on at the Marine Science Center today?

The MSC and its Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative focus on interdisciplinary research aimed at developing cleaner, safer, and smarter coastal communities. Our research portfolio ranges from the use of genomic tools to understand the impacts of climate change and disease on marine organisms, the impacts of ocean acidification, the role of biodiversity in promoting ecosystem function and enhancing ecological restoration efforts, and physiological studies focused on the impacts of climate change in Antarctica.

What does the future hold for the facility and its staff?

Our future is bright in terms of marshaling academic and research talent to address the major environmental challenges confronting the world’s coastal ecosystems. It is unfortunate that such challenges exist, but we nevertheless are committed to producing innovative, interdisciplinary research that yields sustainable solutions in this increasingly coupled human-natural ecosystem that is planet Earth.