U.Va. January Term Students Study the 'Captive Ocean'

January 16, 2011

January 18, 2011 — Stephen Macko took his University of Virginia students to explore the ocean in captivity.

Macko, who teaches organic geochemistry and oceanography in the College of Arts & Sciences, and his January Term class examined the ocean in microcosm – contained, along with its denizens, within tanks and walls.

In the course, which combined classroom work with field trips, Macko raised questions of philosophy and oceanography, examining the ocean as it is held captive in aquaria, as well as the ethics of keeping marine animals in captivity – especially in conditions that may shorten their lives. He also explored with students aquaculture, or farming seafood.

"What does it take to keep the organisms alive – food, oxygen – as well as generally happy?," he asked. "How many die from captivity? Do they live as long as the wild?"

For their fieldwork, the students visited the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, the National Aquarium in Washington D.C. , and the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

"The scientists at the aquaria were incredibly cooperative with their time," Macko said. "They all have a special emphasis on educating the public on ocean life. This was  especially true the at Virginia Aquarium."

The students were impressed with the guest lectures Macko was able to arrange from aquaria personnel, including Jerry McCormick-Ray, a senior scientist in the Department of Environmental Sciences at U.Va.

"I had studied animals in captivity and I wanted to get a broader perspective," said third-year biology student Brette Harding of Appalachia, Va. "It surprised me because it's not just animals, but oceanic chemistry and how what humans do in the atmosphere affects the oceans."

The students also examined questions of aquaculture, which is farming seafood, and sustainable fisheries where the harvesting does not deplete the stocks and the fishery remains economically viable.

"How many things go into keeping stable and sustainable fisheries?," Macko said. "And how impacted can an area be by pollutants and the like."

As part of the exploration of seafood, harvesting and the environment, Macko and his students followed the food chain, visiting fish markets in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, as well as seafood restaurants, such as L.P. Steamers in Baltimore and  Matuba in Bethesda, Md.

"This was to check out the menus and see what is on them as far as threatened species, and to see what is aquacultured," Macko said. "Same thing with going to seafood markets. What is for sale, at what price? What are the aquaculture ones and what are the threatened ones?"

Macko supplied the students with dining guides prepared by the Blue Ocean Institute, which offers lists of "Best Choices," "Good Alternatives" and "Avoid," based on the abundance of the fish, how well-managed the population is and how sustainably they are harvested or farmed.

"We want to try to understand what the requirements are for life in the ocean," Macko said. "There are so many different things. I hope this give the students a better appreciation of life in the ocean."

"I didn't know a lot about oceanography and I wanted to expand my horizons," said Andrew Annex, a first-year environmental sciences major from Charlottesville. "I'm interested in planetary geology, but to understand the continents, you need to understand the ocean."

Annex said the class expanded his horizons on seafood.

"We surveyed the stores, to see the sources of their fish, and we sampled seafood," Annex said. "I'd never had sushi before this trip and I like it."

This is the first time Macko has offered the course, thinking it would work better with a small group that has the time for the extensive field trips.

— by Matt Kelly

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications