News Report by Kip Hansen – 7 May 2021

The unfortunately named “Ocean Acidification” (OA) has hit the news again – and not in a good way.  Much of the research reporting adverse effects of  OA on fish has come out of Australia’s James Cook University, 50%  of it (43 out of 85 major papers) from the lab team headed by Philip Munday.  OA research is hot topic research, as it relates to CO2 emissions, fossil fuel use, coral reefs and climate change.  There are allegations of fraud.

If you are not familiar with what OA is and the controversies surrounding it, you can read my earlier essays on the topic:  hereherehereherehere and a bit in this one.

Note:  I say “unfortunately named ‘Ocean Acidification’” because the name might  cause some people to think, just because of the name, that the ocean might be or become acidic, neither of which is the case.

Many readers are already familiar with another infamous case involving an academic whistleblower and James Cook University and the very same ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.  It is  the ongoing Peter Ridd story, which Peter reports will be going to the Australian High Court (their equivalent of the US Supreme Court) in June.

Science Magazine carried the whole story here: Does ocean acidification alter fish behavior? Fraud allegations create a sea of doubt”  by Martin Enserink.  The quotes below are from this article.

“Munday has co-authored more than 250 papers and drawn scores of aspiring scientists to Townsville, a mecca of marine biology on Australia’s northeastern coast. He is best known for pioneering work on the effects of the oceans’ changing chemistry on fish, part of it carried out with Danielle Dixson, a U.S. biologist who obtained her Ph.D. under Munday’s supervision in 2012 and has since become a successful lab head at the University of Delaware (UD), Lewes.

In 2009, Munday and Dixson began to publish evidence that ocean acidification—a knock-on effect of the rising carbon dioxide (CO2) level in Earth’s atmosphere—has a range of striking effects on fish behavior, such as making them bolder and steering them toward chemicals produced by their predators. As one journalist covering the research put it, “Ocean acidification can mess with a fish’s mind.” The findings, included in a 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could ultimately have “profound consequences for marine diversity” and fisheries, Munday and Dixson warned.”

And the effects they found were striking —

Munday and Dixson often found unusually large effects from ocean acidification. In the PNAS paper, for example, the time orange clownfish spent on the foul-smelling side of the flume went from 0% to 80%. In a 2010 study in Ecology Letters, clownfish larvae reared in normal ocean water completely avoided chemical cues of two predator species, the small rockcod and the dottyback, but in more acidic water they spent 100% of their time around those predators’ scents—a “fatal attraction,” the authors said. A 2013 paper in Marine Biology reported that coral trout, an economically important species, became 90 times more active at a high CO2 level.

Now, after three years of research, another team of scientists are saying that those effects are not only unusually large, they are, putting it mildly, far too large to be believed. 

But their [Munday, Dixson, et al.] work has come under attack. In January 2020, a group of seven young scientists, led by fish physiologist Timothy Clark of Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, published a Nature paper reporting that in a massive, 3-year studythey didn’t see these dramatic effects of acidification on fish behavior at all.

. . . . .

Clark says when he “started to read Dixson’s and Munday’s ocean acidification papers—and was struck by the large effect sizes. ‘I thought they were some of the most phenomenal findings in the whole discipline of biology,’ he says. He set out to Lizard Island to repeat the work with predator cues, thinking he could unravel the physiology behind the phenomenon.”

But he didn’t get the same results at all. Placed in the flume, fish would start to explore their surroundings, but they rarely had the strong preference for one side or the other that Dixson and Munday reported, and amping up the CO2 did not make a difference. Some fish were “terrified,” and didn’t move at all, says Fredrik Jutfelt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who joined Clark for a season on Lizard Island in 2014, along with Sundin and several other scientists. “They’re taken out of their environment and placed in a highly unnatural situation,” Jutfelt says.

Munday has acknowledged some errors in the data sets used in some of the papers and promised “corrections” – blaming the errors on hand-transcription of data.    Dixon defended her work saying “I stand by the papers that we’ve published. … The data was collected with integrity. I mean, I preach that to my students.”  However, doubts about the work of Munday’s OA team at JCU are increasing being aired by other researchers, some of them  from Munday and Dixon’s own team. 

“In January 2020, Nature published the Clark team’s findings: Elevated CO2 levels in water had a “negligible” effect on fish’s attraction to chemical cues from predators, their activity levels, and “lateralization”—their tendency to favor their left or right side in some behaviors. Based on a statistical procedure called a bootstrapping simulation, the team reported that Munday’s and Dixson’s data on chemical signal preference had a “0 out of 10,000” chance of being real. They left it to the reader to decide what to think about this.” [ source ]

In 2017, another alumni of Munday’s lab, Oona Lönnstedt, had a paper retracted after Clark, Jutfeld and others filed a compliant.  The paper Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology”, had been published in June 2016 in the journal Science.  RetractionWatch covered that story here.

This latest JCU/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies flap has yet to play out.  Several things are certain:  JCU will defend and deny, JCU and the researchers involved, along with many other academics, will attack the whistleblowers for, well, blowing the whistle on suspected poor/bad/faked research.

This is another “time will tell” story and  as investigations are done [if – there will be attempts to block any meaningful investigation]  and findings are issued, I’ll try to cover it here at WUWT. 

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Author’s Comment:

Scientific integrity is hard to maintain in today’s Publish-or-Perish academic climate.  Dr. Judith Curry has written quite a bit about this type of problem and the biases it introduces into research findings.  John P. A. Ioannidis has as well.  The need to publish is exacerbated by the need to have new and exciting findings in order to get published in the leading journals. 

I don’t know what the outcome of the fishy OA studies investigations will be but from my own study of the research (see some of my essays here) I don’t think the JCU/Munday/Dixon studies will hold. 

A shame that an entire field of study will have been held back and misled for so many years by shoddy “got to get a big result” research. 

Address comments to “Kip…” if you want me to see them.

Thanks for reading.

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May 7, 2021