|Q&A with Dr. Steve Weisberg,
Executive Director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP)Okeanos’ innovations are fueled by what we’ve been able to learn from global environmental research and education. Guided by our Scientific Advisory Board, we have been introduced to leading researchers around the world, and are actively following their work in the areas of water quality, microplastics, and the effects of pollution on marine environments. The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) is one of the leading organizations in the world conducting this type of research.
Dr. Steve Weisberg is the Executive Director of SCCWRP, an aquatic science research institute that works to improve the management of aquatic systems in Southern California and beyond. He sat down with Okeanos for a Zoom interview about his work.
- How long have you been with SCCWRP and how do you best describe the organization’s mission?
The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project Authority was established by 14 water quality management agencies in California. Our purpose is to develop strategies and tools to protect and enhance the ecological health of our oceans and the watersheds that drain into them. I have been with SCCWRP since 1996 and am currently the Executive Director.
Our research is focused on a number of areas including flow criteria for streams, meaning how much flow in a stream do you need to maintain biology, and how we measure, monitor and manage emerging contaminants, meaning chemicals you don’t even know are out there. We are also one of the leading institutions in the world on the topic of Ocean Acidification, which is the acidity of ocean water caused by an increase in global CO2 emissions. Ocean acidification can be combated by the introduction of calcium carbonate, which is why these studies would be of particular interest to Okeanos. I am also the chair of California’s Ocean Acidification Task Force.
- How is the SCCWRP responsible for shaping environmental regulations?
We are a neutral agency, and do not work on government regulation or policy. Our role is to develop the science foundation that supports regulation and policy. We help governments understand the research conducted by our teams and translate that science into actionable information that guides management decision-making and policy development.
- What is SCCWRP’s role in developing microplastic evaluation and measurement?
The State of California and our member agencies are at the forefront of international efforts to implement the way we measure microplastics. In 2018, the state legislature passed two bills that required California to develop strategies for measuring microplastics in both drinking water and coastal oceans. We are looking to help them determine the extent of the problem and researching the health effects of microplastics for drinking water and human exposure, as well as the effects they have on ambient marine environments and organisms like plankton and fish.
California and our member agencies have two critical needs. First, developing standard methods for how microplastics are measured – in order to eventually enact regulations, the government needs to ensure that there is a process in place for consistent measurement. The second task would be developing a laboratory accreditation program to ensure that the labs are able to appropriately employ those measurement methods. Right now, we are helping California to develop a series of standard methods for measuring microplastics, and training their laboratory accreditation teams on how to inspect labs.
- In your opinion, what is the most detrimental factor of single-use plastic in marine environments?
When looking at this question, there are three mechanisms for effect that we are focused on: False satiation, Chemical Absorption, and Translocation.
False satiation happens when organisms eat the tiny microplastics, infuse them with things like zooplankton and then they think they’re full. When this happens, they don’t get nutritional value from the microplastics, but their stomachs feel full. In effect, they end up starving themselves of nutrient-rich foods. It’s also been found that plastics absorb chemicals, and so you might get toxic chemicals that absorb into the plastics. When something ingests these microplastics, those chemicals now come in a more concentrated form that have the potential to be released by the digestive processes. Scientists are also looking at translocation across cells, meaning that if microplastics come in and they’re small enough to cross the gut lining or gills, it has the potential to cause physical hazard within the critter, whether it’s absorbed into the bloodstream or into different organs.
- How is the addition of Calcium Carbonate beneficial to ocean environments?
Battling acidification can be done by either removing CO2 or adding calcium carbonate, which sequesters CO2. One of the negatives of acidification is that it consumes calcium carbonate. Because of this, there is not enough calcium carbonate left for organisms to make their shells. Or they have to work harder to make their shells to remove calcium carbonate from the water, requiring them to exert more energy to do so. With acidification, the shells can become so thin that they are oftentimes no longer protective. When there is an abundance of CaCO3 in the marine environment, it’s easier to make more durable, longer-lasting shells.
- Why would a calcium carbonate based product be a better alternative to other types of packaging like cardboard and plant-based?
Paper and plant based products, when they degrade, consume oxygen and create CO2. When something gets oxidized and degrades in the ocean, it’s adding to acidification. A calcium carbonate-based product has the potential advantage of improving acidification conditions.
- What is the most exciting element to you about Made From Stone technology?
With the majority of the packaging being calcium carbonate – you’re potentially solving two problems at once: reducing the amount of plastic entering into the environment at the source, and if the product somehow ends up in the ocean, introducing additional calcium carbonate into marine environments at a time when acidification is growing worse.