September 4, 2010

What is a Jubilee? Why does it Matter?

I came across something I have never heard of before when I was reading through the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe's forum. What I had never heard before was a term, a Jubilee, or specifically, a 'Crab Jubilee'/'Shrimp Jubilee'. The only time I heard the word Jubilee previous to this was when people were referring to the crappy X-men character that could shoot energy plasmids out of her hands. This new use had me pretty curious, and it proved to be even more interesting than I could have imagined.

The first information I came across was a well written, but quirky story entitled, "Breathless Jubilee" by Kevin Bay. The only thing more interesting than the Jubilee description might be Kevin Bay himself. The story starts with Kevin being woken up early in the morning by a phone call from an eccentric friend who says, "...Wake up! Crab Walk! Crab Walk!"

Kevin, like myself, had no idea what this meant, but woke up and joined his friend that morning anyway. They drove to the Chesapeake Bay and it was "There, he [His friend] said, droves of crabs were scuttling out of the water onto the shore as if led by some sort of Pied Piper intent on making seafood bisque." When they got to the Bay they were met by many people with nets standing in the water, but they were too late, the crabs were no longer running ashore, but instead into the depths.

Then Kevin's story takes a more personal turn. He drops out of medical school to become a worker at a fish market and tries to find out what happened that day at the Chesapeake Bay. What he finds is that,

"A jubilee, I discovered, is an event once thought to be endemic to Mobile Bay in Alabama. There, it is an odd summer phenomenon where rapid depletion of oxygen in the water forces a mass migration of all sorts of bottom dwellers to the shoreline. It happens only at night when the bay becomes a sort of temporary dead zone. Thousands of crabs have been seen marching out of the water, blowing bubbles as they try to respire. Flounder pass their upper gill flaps above the water’s surface trying to gather oxygen. Stingrays pile up on the beach like so many Frisbees washed ashore. And the eels bat their heads about on land, lapping at the air, trying to drink it in to survive. But then, when the sun rises, all of these creatures return to the depths from whence they came."

That's a pretty incredible description, but that is what a Jubilee is and looks like. It may not be a full explanation, that I will get to later, but it is accurate in its simplicity. What it really shows is vividly the animals literally throwing themselves out of their homes in an attempt to breathe.

He does give a more technical explanation after that, but that's less interesting than when he tries to experience the Jubilee first hand, via pillow smothering.

Now I'm not sure what would bring someone to want to experience the lack of oxygen first-hand, even reading the description gave me an uneasy feeling, but that is what Kevin thought he needed to do. I don't recommend anyone to do that, or think that it is in anyway needed.

A better account of the history and details of the Chesapeake Jubilee comes from the Chesapeake Bay Journal and Dr. Kent Mountford.  Kent spends a lot of time describing how plentiful a source food the Bay has historically been so the true tragedy of today can be seen. As a Canadian, I see this issue like the collapse of the Cod fishing industry on the East Coast. They both were sad events that should have been seen coming, in which seemed like an inexhaustible food source completely collapsed.

The start of the true collapse is pinpointed by Mountford when tropical storm Agnes went through the region and really put a lot of stress on the aquatic inhabitants. It was after that storm that the local authorities really started to pay attention to the ongoings of the Bay. Through that the first map of the oxygen-deprived summer area was mapped and that areas related to agricultural nutrients was convincingly made. This tracking has shown, "The growth of this huge 'dead zone' each year [and] has become one of the bellwethers for the Chesapeake's decline."

The situation happens as,

"A large shock of runoff nutrients results in widespread plankton blooms, which decay and settle beneath the Bay's stratified layer. Next comes hot weather, the solar and thermal reactor that cooks these products and consumes millions of pounds of life-giving oxygen. Offshore winds sweep oxygenated surface waters away from the coast. The Bay seeks to maintain its surface level in equilibrium (like sloshing in a disturbed bathtub) and replaces the blown away water with deeper-in this case anoxic-water that flows up along the shallow shelving bottom until it fills the void. The result is a barrier of oxygen-poor water completely inundating and trapping resident organisms."

The areas of oxygen deserts in the water continue to grow, the most famous of which is the dead zone around the Gulf of Mexico, and kill many creatures, yet Jubilee's and dead zones get less coverage then ocean pirating. These two stories talk about the what's and how's, but there doesn't seem to be any questions relating any solution. In fact, the Skeptical Environmentalist (page 201) goes so far to say that, "In this respect, euthrophication [the depletion of oxygen in water] is the price we let some marine organisms pay for our success in feeding humanity, while maintaining large, forested habitats."

I know there are tradeoffs to be made, but the world's oceans seem to always get the worst part of those trade-offs and it is only after a collapse that any substantial changes are made. Could you see this happening to bunnies or deer and people not being up in arms about it? When it happens to fish and aquatic creatures people just don't seem to care.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

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