Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Moose in Peril: a vanishing victim of climate change

With large antlers, long legs, and a notoriously grumpy disposition, the moose has been to some a symbol of the cold rugged regions of North America, and a classic cartoon figure to others. In either case, it is an icon of the wilderness. And it is vanishing.

According to scientists, the culprit behind this loss is climate change. In areas like upper Minnesota and Michigan, over the last 40 years temperatures have risen 12 degrees in the winter and 4 degrees in the summer. This has been sufficient enough to reduce the populations of moose by 50% or more. Says John Vucetich, a population biologist at Michigan Technological University, "The trends for the past 20 years are pretty clear, and if they keep up there won't be any moose in 50 years."

Whereas deer, bears, and wolves have better adapted to changing temperature by moving northward, the moose is more sedentary. They require shade, water, and cool weather. Climate change impacts these requirements and the moose is unable to obtain enough food to generate fat in the summer that carries it through the winter. All this stress affects the immune system, leaving the animal more susceptible to parasites. In short, they stay put and die.

The moose is not currently on the U.S. endangered species list and with the Bush administration proposing last minute regulations that will prohibit federal agencies from evaluating the effects of global warming in regards to animal species, it will be up to the incoming administration to clear that political stumbling block so that environmental decisions and policies can be fashioned based on scientific truth.

"I don't see the temperature change we're seeing as cyclical," says Rolf Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Tech. "The trend is definitely in one direction." But unfortunately, it may be too late for the moose in the lower 48 states. "There's not a lot of opportunity to turn this around," said Mark Lenarz, a wildlife specialist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Remember Bullwinkle once said to his cartoon pal, "Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat." Oh, if only he could.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Better Year for Sharks 2008: a look back by SharkDiver.com

There are a lot of year-end assessments being made by many leading conservation groups and I'll be highlighting some in the coming days. From my friends at SharkDiver.com, here's a look back - or maybe I should say a look forward . . .

"As we get close to a wrap for 2008 there's a chance to look back at a remarkable year for the shark diving industry and for shark conservation.

To say that things have solidified on the conservation front is an understatement...what we have now is a full fledged, organic, top to bottom shark conservation movement, and it's paying dividends.

Last week
Yahoo's Alibaba and Taobao web portals announced they are apparently discontinuing all advertising and trade of shark products as of January 1st, 2009. This stunning announcement lays two more giant cornerstones into the shark conservation movement.

On the commercial shark diving front a growing awareness of "being a global 200 million dollar industry" and the absolute need now for local site conservation efforts. The old paradigm of just maintaining commercial operations is being replaced by site activism, awareness, site stewardship and shark conservation measures. It has taken a series of horrific local site kills from South Africa to the Bahamas to bring this issue to the front burner-but it's here and operations are slowly pushing back. It is also good to mention the several forward thinking operations from Fiji to South Africa who have been leading this charge for years now. It starts with "One".

Has this been a
good year for sharks? No, the slaughter continues unabated, but that slaughter is no longer being conducted in a total vacuum. NGO's, websites, blogs, major news outlets, literally thousands of people are, getting involved, raising banners and spreading awareness like wildfire.

remarkable really when you consider all of this has been for sharks. Not Panda's (sorry Panda People) but sharks. There's still a lot of work to do, the announcement by Alibaba and Taobao comes with a caveat yet to be announced. Our hunch is this valuable division within the company has been transferred to another site perhaps as a stand alone "take the heat and answer to no one", time will tell.

For now we can all enjoy the fact the shark conservation round table has no empty seats...let the fist pounding begin!"

Birch Aquarium to screen "Island of the Great White Shark"

For those of you in the San Diego/Southern California area, here's some information on an upcoming screening/lecture of Island of the Great White Shark at the Birch Aquarium on Tuesday, January 6th.

Following the screening, I'll be there to take questions and prattle on about filming sharks, shark conservation and the latest news regarding Isla Guadalupe's white sharks.
If you have the time before the event, take a stroll around the aquarium. It's a wonderful showcase of not only the oceans but oceanography as the aquarium is affiliated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the nation's leading educational and research organizations devoted to marine science.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Future Head of NOAA: Dr. Jane Lubchenco - a great choice

With President-Elect Obama's selection of Dr. Jane Lubchenco as chief administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a very positive step has been taken in putting in place the type of qualified scientific leadership that an organization like NOAA requires. Her appointment has been met with cheers from major conservation and environmental organizations nationwide.

Dr. Lubchenco's credentials are most impressive: A professor of marine biology and zoology at Oregon State University who received her Ph.D. at Harvard, she is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is also a MacArthur "genius" fellow and Pew fellow in Marine Conservation. Lubchenco was a presidential appointee for two terms on the National Science Board and has been a member of the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Pew Oceans Council.

While NOAA is indeed a government agency and its leaders must be well-versed in the art of politics and diplomacy to accomplish their mission, it must be said that to have a scientist at the helm who happens to be a qualified administrator - rather than the other way around - is what is most needed at NOAA. This is critical so that NOAA can stay focused as a science-based source of environmental policy, rather than becoming a political mouthpiece for pro-industry (ie: anti-environment) constituencies. If President-Elect Obama is to make good on some of his campaign rhetoric regarding the environment, he will need the support of scientists like Dr. Lubchenco to provide the hard facts, opinions, and solutions.

President-Elect Obama has said, "All of us know the problems rooted in our addiction to foreign oil it constrains our economy, shifts wealth to hostile regimes, and leaves us dependent on unstable regions. These urgent dangers are eclipsed only by the long-term threat of climate change, which unless we act will lead to drought and famine abroad, devastating weather patterns and terrible storms on our shores, and the disappearance of our coastline at home."

As part of his scientific "A-Team", the PETT (President-Elect's Transition Team) will need to engage people of Dr. Lubchenco's caliber. And they will need many more of them. Let's wish her well.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Best Wishes from the RTSea Blog

Whatever your personal beliefs, may you all have a joyous holiday season spent with family and friends. Let's hope that in 2009 and for many years to come, mankind focuses its attention on the importance of the planet's natural resources.

Richard Theiss/RTSea Productions

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Refinery Pollution: U.S. Court closes loophole

In another piece of encouraging news, the U.S. Court of Appeals decided on Friday to close a gaping loophole in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on refinery pollution by striking down a provision that allowed refineries to exceed pollution limits during start-ups, shut-downs, and equipment outages.

According to a suit filed by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental defense firm, on behalf of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, refineries have overused and/or abused this regulation, enabling them to spew tens of millions of pounds of excess toxic pollutants annually.

"We are elated," said Jesse Marquez, head of the Wilmington, CA-based Coalition for a Safe Environment, a plaintiff in the suit.

The court had ruled that the EPA's regulation exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act. This ruling will impact facilities nationwide, particularly in Southern California, Texas, and Louisiana where there are concentrations of refinery facilities.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

China's Largest Shopping Site Bans Sale of Shark Fin Products

Here's some good news that was posted today on the SharkDivers blog:

BEIJING, Dec. 19 -- The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW-www.ifaw.org.cn) congratulates Taobao (www.taobao.com.cn), China's largest shopping website for its ban on the sale of shark fin products on the site. Taobao.com announced to its 400 million online members that all shark fin products will be banned from trade on Taobao.com starting 1, January 2009.

The announcement was made as part of a campaign IFAW and Taobao collaboratively initiated to combat online wildlife crime. In the unprecedented collaboration, IFAW and Taobao.com share information about online illegal wildlife trade and jointly raise consumer awareness about the detrimental impact wildlife trade has on species in the wild.

Asia is the main market for shark fin products. In major cities in China, shark fin soup is readily available on the menu in restaurants. With the coming of Chinese New Year Festivals, shark fin soup consumption will significantly increase.

However, fueled by big profit margins and the increase in shark fin consumption, overfishing of sharks is threatening more than 50 percent of the shark species with extinction. As top predators in the ocean, sharks play an important role in keeping ecosystem balance. However, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed globally each year.

"Consuming shark fin is not only harmful to the marine biodiversity, but promotes the cruel practice of shark finning, where sharks had their fins cut off then thrown back into the ocean, still alive, die a horribly painful death." said Grace Gabriel, IFAW's Asia Regional Director. "It is our choice as consumers to say No to shark fin products. Consuming wildlife equals killing."

Taobao's decision to ban shark fin was also applauded by its users. In an online message, a Hangzhou netizen condemns the shark fin trade by posting shocking pictures of shark finning. According to this posting, 5000 Kilos of shark fin are consumed daily in Beijing alone. Active Taobao users also call on others to report online shark fin sales to site management when the notice takes effect in January.

Peter Pueschel, IFAW's Program Manager hailed the move. "This is really amazing and wonderful that the leading cyber market provider in the biggest shark fin consumer nation bans shark fins. What a strong signal to other auction sites and governments in other parts of the world!"

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Northern Marianas Islands: a possible marine monument with your help

In June of 2006, one of the year's high points in ocean conservation occurred with the designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a marine monument, providing well-needed federal protections as a marine sanctuary and no-take zone. A similar effort is being promoted for the Northern Marianas Islands.

The Northern Marianas Islands, a commonwealth with political ties to the United States (it abides by most federal laws and citizens carry U.S. passports), is part of the Marianas Island chain ranging from Guam in the south to the northern islands that include Saipan, Rota, and Tinian. Geologically linking these islands is the famed Marianas Trench, the lowest point on the Earth's crust.

The Pew Environment Group is leading the charge, with the support of the Coral Reef Alliance, to have the northernmost area of the islands designated as a marine monument, similar to what was done for Hawaii. The area in question is relatively remote with pristine reefs, several species of seabirds and sea turtles and, of particular interest, deep sea vents due to the area's undersea geologic/volcanic activity - a terrific potential deep sea laboratory.

At this point, the campaign to have the area designated a marine monument is in the early stages, with public awareness as a key motivating factor. Log on to the Pew Environment Group or Coral Reef Alliance web sites to learn more and add your name to a growing letter campaign to make the designation a reality.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Last Minute Shopping: gifts that make a statement

One week left in the 2008 holiday shopping season and while many of us are scaling back this year, let me make one last crass plug (I promise!) at some last minute gift ideas for you or your friend's stockings:

A small contribution to the any of the conservation groups/NGO's and aquariums I have mentioned in this blog would be appreciated. We have all been hard hit by the downturn in the economy and non-profit groups are no exception. We provide the vocal support to causes but they do all the real legwork. Just thumb through past postings to get some ideas.

Working on converting someone to becoming a shark advocate and need a little "lubrication" to close the deal? Try any one of the fine wines from Shark Trust Wines. This is a great company with both, a great product and message: a portion of its revenue is donated to shark research organizations. One great example of how business can support conservation.

And while you're enlightening your friends to shark conservation, give them a different perspective on the most misunderstood of all sharks, the great white shark, with a DVD of Island of the Great White Shark - available at several leading aquariums and retail outlets in addition to Amazon.com. This award-winning documentary has received accolades from marine conservation organizations for its accurate portrayal of these magnificent predators while educating the viewer to the ongoing research taking place and the threats that these animals are facing.

The Arctic Permafrost: a ticking time bomb of greenhouse gases

After having had the opportunity to travel through a portion of the Northwest Passage, above the Arctic Circle, documenting evidence of climate change for the marine research organization InMER, I became more interested in what is happening to this region and the implications. There are some serious issues beyond what is most often portrayed in the news: the threatened polar bear.

In the recent issue of SeaWeb's Marine Science Review #290: Climate and Climate Change, several articles and abstracts outline studies made regarding the effects of rising temperatures
on the permafrost that forms the primary ground cover in the region. Permafrost is, in essence, a frozen soil layer. The upper or active portion of the layer supports flora with shallow root structures - different types of moss and lichen abound and bushes or trees do not grow there.

But also trapped in that frozen layer is a considerable amount of organic carbon and methane and as the temperature increases, those potential greenhouse gases can be released. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it makes the permafrost a ticking time bomb.

The SeaWeb review sited two articles: "Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: Implications for the global carbon cycle" (BioScience 58[8], 2008) and "Soil microbial respiration in arctic soil does not acclimate to temperature" (Ecology Letters 11[10], 2008). Really exciting, attention-grabbing titles, I know, and they're very heavy on the academic/scientific gobbledygook but what it boils down to is that with even a slight increase in temperature, the permafrost experiences an increase in soil decomposition that releases the trapped organic carbon and methane. And there is a considerable amount held in that frozen soil.

It's another example of the "cascade effect" where one change - an increase in temperature - causes a myriad of other changes, with some of these changes feeding back into the original issue and exacerbating the problem.

The polar bear can generate well-deserved public sympathy and hopefully provide impetus to address the problem of climate change. But it's a multi-faceted problem with potential land mines right under our feet.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Undersea Voyager Project: preserving the human experience in exploration and discovery

I had the pleasure of attending a press event for the Undersea Voyager Project that was held at one of my regular stomping grounds, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA. It's great to attend these events as you get to meet new people with similar interests, concerns, and passions for marine conservation.

The Undersea Voyager Project is headed up by Scott Cassell, who has done considerable
study and research on the Humboldt Squid - a particularly voracious predator typically found in deeper water but makes more local appearances from time to time. The primary thrust of the Project is an ambitious program involving submersibles and a variety of different marine science projects, culminating in the development of a larger submersible that will act as an undersea classroom bringing science to the general public in a very real and as-it-happens way.

I find this very exciting because throughout my involvement in marine conservation as a filmmaker and giving screenings and lectures, I have found that there is a tremendous amount of scientific data that does not get effectively translated into issues, implications and solutions for the general public to understand and appreciate. As an example, we have decades of data documenting climate change - and yet there are still many people who refuse to accept it.

Organizations like the Undersea Voyager Project can be of tremendous benefit in enlightening the public, young and old, to important issues regarding our oceans. Marine conservation must not be obscure or vague; it must be made real and tangible to all people: to the general public, to the decision-makers, and to the future generations of scientists-in-the-making.

Check out the Undersea Voyager Project web site and give it your support.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Adminstration's Parting Gifts: rolling back environmental protections

In the U.S., outgoing administrations participate in a time-honored tradition of last minute skulduggery that has ranged from taking the White House linen and gluing the computer keys to issuing executive pardons and orders or rulings of dubious merit - Democrats and Republicans alike have been guilty.

Questionable orders can be overturned under the Congressional Review Act. However, the effectiveness of the act is hampered by the requirement that the order or regulation being overturned must be done in its entirety - and many bad rulings are attached to a good one, thereby providing a protective shield.

Whether you are an advocate or critic of the past administration, it can be a fair statement that its record on the environment has not been stellar. A concerted effort was made to avoid recognizing scientific advice and reports as required for determining species status under the Endangered Species Act if doing so would mean recognizing the existence of global warming (I have noted this in previous postings). In its closing days, the current administration has been generating a series of executive orders and/or rulings that roll back many environmental safeguards. Here are a few:
  • Federal agencies would no longer be required to have government scientists assess the impact on imperiled species before giving the go-ahead to logging, mining, drilling, or other development.
  • The rule would also prohibit federal agencies from taking climate change into account when weighing the impact of projects that increase greenhouse emissions.
  • Finalized a rule that allows the coal industry to dump waste from mountaintop mining into neighboring streams and valleys
  • A rule relaxes air pollution standards near national parks, allowing coal plants to be built next to many of our most spectacular vistas - a rule established over the objections of 9 out of 10 EPA regional administrators.
  • Opening up 2 million acres of mountainous lands in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming for mining oil shale, even though the technique consumes considerable water resources (and the administration has admitted it doesn't know if the technology is viable).
  • A new regulation will allow animal waste from factory farms to seep, unmonitored, into our waterways. The regulation leaves it up to the farms themselves to decide whether their pollution is dangerous enough to require them to apply for a permit.
  • A similar rule will exempt factory farms from reporting air pollution from animal waste.
  • In the chemical industries, more than 100 major polluters have been exempted from monitoring their lead emissions and a rule is proposed to allow industry to treat 3 billion pounds of hazardous waste as "recycling" each year.
Now it's true that environmental safeguards have always been costly to big business and impose hardships on their established revenue models. But in light of an overwhelming and growing body of evidence, to ignore them or worse, circumvent them, is the epitome of shortsighted thinking, oriented towards only short-term goals - something that we as humans have been notorious at doing.

For the incoming administration, it will be difficult enough dealing with the challenges of climate change/global warming and developing an effective long-term energy policy. But it will also have to deal with the many environmental land mines the current administration has left in its path.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Media Picks Up On 2007 Shark Cage Breach: sending the wrong message on the Internet

There has been a lot of media attention in the past few days on a YouTube video showing a great white shark breaching a shark cage at Isla Guadalupe. While this event happened last year, it has suddenly become an item of interest across several online and broadcast news media outlets. As often happens with the media regarding shark-related incidents, the event has for the most part been presented for the benefit of its sensationalistic aspects - with key facts that would place it in its proper context being left out.

The breach occurred as a 15-foot white shark swallowed a fish suspended from a line to the boat (known as "hangbait"). The shark took the bait and continued forward, careening into the cage and once wedged between two bars, proceeded to thrash and severely damage the cage - much to the chagrin of the two divers inside (who escaped unharmed).

What is clear in the video is that the boat crew in charge of handling the hangbait in the water did not adhere to proper and safe baiting techniques - primarily in allowing the hangbait to float in front of the cage, leaving a shark that approaches from directly behind the bait without any room for maneuvering away from the cage. Comments have been made in some reports that the shark rolled its eye back (a protective action often part of the bite reflex) and in so doing, blinded itself to the oncoming cage. That's nonsense to blame the shark. Because of the position of the bait, the 15-foot shark was put on a collision course with the cage. Fortunately, the shark did not appear to be injured and ultimately freed itself.

Eco-tourism of all kinds involves a certain measure of risk, even in the best of circumstances - charging animals on the defensive, harsh locales, etc. But with the many misconceptions that surround sharks, any incident involving these predators becomes a hot item for the media and fuel for the critics of shark diving. With the volume of shark videos across video Internet sites like YouTube, shark eco-tourism operators and concerned shark divers/advocates must be acutely aware as to the public relations implications (FYI: The diver who took the video made a very poor showing on Thursday's TODAY program. So much for his 15 minutes of fame.).

Within the Mexican government, there are forces who would prefer to see Isla Guadalupe closed off entirely to all shark eco-tourism. This would be a potentially tragic step because:
  • Shark eco-tourism at Isla Guadalupe, properly run and managed, can educate and enlighten people to the true nature of these important animals while providing a needed revenue stream for supporting the island's "biosphere" status.
  • The shark eco-tourism operators have provided an effective platform to support Mexican and international research efforts - both logistically and financially.
  • The Mexican government does not have the resources to effectively watch over the population of sharks that migrate to the island in the late fall/early winter months. Shark eco-tourism operators have acted as unofficial watchguards, keeping commercial fishing boats and/or poachers away.
While accidents can and will happen, operators must adhere to dive protocols that promote safety for both divers and sharks if they wish to see their business continue. And when divers and/or eco-tourism operators promote shark diving under the antiquated model of "macho adventure", "staring down the malevolent man-eater", etc., they are sealing the fate of an important avenue for conservation awareness.

Feds to Protect Elkhorn & Staghorn Coral: but climate change threats are ignored

NOAA's Fisheries Service is increasing its protection of threatened elkhorn and staghorn corals in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands through a new rule to prohibit activities that result in death or harm to either species. The rule will prohibit the import, export, take, and all commercial activities involving elkhorn and staghorn corals, including collection or any activities that result in the corals' mortality or injury, anchoring, grounding a vessel, or dragging any other gear on these corals; damaging their habitat; or discharging any pollutant or contaminant that harms them.

In a related move, the federal agency has designated almost 3,000 square miles of reef area off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as critical habitat for the threatened corals under the Endangered Species Act.

As important reef-builders in the Florida and Caribbean reef ecosystems, this would appear to be good news as these coral species have declined by as much as 90 percent in many areas.
However, the conservation organization responsible for prodding NOAA into taking this action, the Center for Biological Diversity, is threatening to file suit against the government, claiming that the pressing issue of threats from climate change and the acidifcation of the oceans is being ingnored or circumvented - in keeping with the current administration's continuing strategy of denial when it comes to climate changes and the actions needed to be taken to address it. (Read complete press release.)

One step forward . . . one step back.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Island of the Great White Shark: Upcoming screening/lecture events and holiday gift DVD

For those of you in the Southern California area, two terrific aquarium organizations are holding screening/lecture events for Island of the Great White Shark. After the screening of the documentary, I will be on hand to field questions about the film, and discuss the current state of affairs at Isla Guadalupe and shark conservation in general. There have been terrific audiences for these events so come show your support or coax a friend along who might not know what all the shark fuss is about or is convinced that all sharks are demons.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography
La Jolla, CA
When: Tues., Jan. 6, 2009, 6:00-8:00pm

For RSVP/tickets, call: 858-534-4109

Heal the Bay (Santa Monica Pier Aquarium) @ Santa Monica Public Library
Santa Monica, CA

When: Wed., Jan. 21, 2009, 7:00-8:30pm
For information, call: 310-393-6149

Hope to see you there!

And one last shameless plug for those of you shopping for the holidays: the Island of the Great White Shark DVD is available online through Amazon,
currently at a reduced price for the holiday season! This award-winning documentary is a great stocking stuffer for shark lovers and those who could benefit from seeing the magnificent great white shark in a different light.

Marine Protected Areas: scientists studying the impacts

The continuing efforts to establish marine protected areas (MPA) or reserves worldwide has been an important issue with many conservation and scientific groups for obvious reasons. Activities ranging from overfishing to pollution have needed to be addressed because of the negative impact they have on marine ecosystems and marine life populations. The juggling act has always been in trying to meet the needs or at least compromise with the various stakeholders: commercial fishing, recreational activities, conservationists, scientists, and more.

Challenging as it is, MPAs continue to be established and now a new challenge facing scientists is the careful monitoring of these areas to see what effects - good or bad - the MPA may be having. I was reading interesting information from a SeaWeb.org Marine Science Review (Marine Protected Areas & Reserves #288). Worldwide, there is a considerable amount of research taking place regarding MPAs. Some of the issues they are studying have to do with bio-dispersion - the movement of marine species within a given area. We humans may define an area as "protected" but marine species don't read the fine print and may not stay within safe borders. Depending on the size, sex, and bio-density, a species that moves into harvesting areas, outside an MPA's borders, could be severely impacted. On the other hand, species of less commercial value could profligate within the MPA and perhaps upset the overall ecosystem - one example I read concerned increased populations of parrotfish which consume coral.

While the overall concept of marine protected areas and reserves seems to make environmental sense, scientists are hard at work developing new methodologies and research methods to be able to properly monitor the long term consequences of our efforts to preserve and protect our oceanic resources.

Monday, December 1, 2008

RTSea Blog: dedicated to communicating in 2009

The sun is beginning to set on 2008 and, to say the least, it has been an interesting year. The RTSea Blog, in existence for more than a year, has been in its current format for six months now. It has been a very stimulating and motivating experience; I seem to learn as much as I mean to convey to others about some of the important environmental issues we are facing.

But now I would like to hear back from my readers as to any comments, ideas, or suggestions you may have to make it a better blog. I will probably always lean toward marine conservation issues, but if there are topics of interest you would like me to cover or changes in tone - more or less confrontational, more or less political, etc. - please let me know.

All comments come to me as emails for my review before being posted in the blog, so if you would prefer not to have your comment posted, just let me know in your comment.

Hopefully the year will end on a positive note. It would be a great precursor to 2009!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

CNN's Planet in Peril: discusses shark issues on December 11th

In early October, I posted information about CNN's Planet in Peril series (Oct. 10 posting). They will be covering several important shark issues, among other important environmental topics. The show will air on December 11 (check your local listings for exact times).

It appears that the show will cover shark finning/shark conservation and shark ecotourism. The video previews available on the shark finning segment cover familiar ground for those of you familiar with shark conservation issues. Hopefully it will enlighten some of the less informed. Of course, the biggest issue in saving sharks is finding effective ways to change the cultural midset regarding shark fin soup and other related products. Much like the criticisms hurled against the ineffectiveness of the "drug wars", we must wrestle with the demand for the product with equal attention and force.

The other shark issue that CNN touches on is shark ecotourism. They look at a South African operation and then touch on whether baiting white sharks is teaching them to attack surfers and swimmers (it makes for an exciting story). It's an argument often used by opponents, but in my experience and from what I have learned from respected scientists who have studied these animals for a lot longer than I have spent filming them, it just doesn't hold water. These sharks are more discriminating than most uninformed people give them credit for. Attracted to fish chum and chasing/biting hangbait consisting of tuna, bonito, or something similiar, does not make a white shark suddenly develop a taste for human flesh and begin seeking out surfers or swimmers as their next prey. Surfers have been and probably will always be subject to mistaken identity for the large pinnipeds (seals, sea lions) that white sharks feed on.

I did find it noteworthy that the South African shark diving operation CNN chose to film had an incredibly small cage that fit the divers in like slices of bread in a toaster (a cameraman could barely fit a decent video housing in there) and they dragged the hangbait right up to the cage, causing the shark to bang up against the cage - dramatic fun for the tourists but potential harm for both the shark and the divers. This is not responsible shark ecotourism.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

ICCAT: Putting Atlantic bluefin tuna conservation in its grave

Just a few days ago, I posted some hopeful information regarding proposed limits or regulations on Atlantic bluefin tuna and several shark species (see posting). A meeting was being held in Morocco by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). It seems by the end of the meeting those hopes were dashed.

The ICCAT has chosen to ignore the advice from their own scientific advisors and agreed to reduce the annual catch from 27,500 tons to 22,000 tons for 2009. The scientific advisors presented data that showed that a catch of 15,000 tons was necessary if the species was to be preserved. Once again it seems short-term economic gain has won out over long-term conservation management. Considering that negative economic impacts on commercial fishing are not something that nature has ever given much of a damn about, there are those who believe that the ICCAT's action could seal the fate of Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Xavier Pastor, Executive Director for Oceana in Europe, declared: "ICCAT’s credibility has been destroyed by the negotiating countries who opposed responsible management measures for bluefin tuna. Instead of preserving the bluefin tuna stock from collapse, they gave in to the fishing industry’s short-term economic interests. With this decision, we can only wait for the disappearance of bluefin tuna."

Also under consideration were regulations regarding the taking of several depleted species of sharks. The only regulation to pass was the releasing of bigeye thresher sharks. (Read Oceana press release.)

To modify Starkist's old advertising slogan, "Sorry Charlie", which promoted discriminating tuna quality; it seems the ICCAT wants to say "Sorry Charlie, nice knowing you."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Saving the Arctic: petitioning the U.S. to step up to the plate

Several leading conservation organizations along with the mayors of San Francisco and Pacific Grove, California; and Juneau, Homer, and Shishmaref, Alaska have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish comprehensive regulations governing greenhouse gases to protect the Arctic regions and, in so doing, North America and the world.

"We're all in the same boat—whether you live in northern Alaska or southern California, we all have a stake in the enormous impacts climate change is already having on the Arctic," said Keith Addis, Chairman of Oceana's Board of Directors. "Quite simply, as goes the Arctic, so goes the planet."

The conservation groups included the Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, and Alaska Conservation Solutions. Trying to undo years of neglect or political intransigence on the part of the EPA, efforts are being made to get the EPA back on track, particularly in light of growing scientific evidence as to the effects of climate change - from melting sea ice and permafrost to encroaching warm climate flora and fauna to changing weather patterns, caused by fossil fuels and/or other man-made activities - by using the Clean Air Act as the vehicle to provide the EPA with the federal authority it requires to protect the public and the environment.

"As the Arctic melts, California feels the heat. The Arctic is where these impacts are seen first, but the effects experienced by Alaska communities are not only crucial to the people who there, they are a wake up call that our economies and communities are at risk everywhere," said Dr. Denny Kelso, Executive Vice-President for Ocean Conservancy.

I had the opportunity to document on film the effects of climate change in the Arctic - including striking footage of the lowest recorded levels of summer sea ice - for the marine research and education organization, InMER. Some of the results and images from that expedition will be available soon as part of a leading internet company's online ocean project, currently under wraps but should debut in the next few weeks.

If change is to come in how the U.S. government operates, as has been touted throughout the recent presidential election, the EPA is one agency that needs to review its original charter and take a leadership role. (Read Ocean Conservancy press release.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Teeth & Tuna: ICCAT and EU consider tuna and shark limits

In past postings I have mentioned the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). It is the primary organization responsible for setting regulations regarding the taking of Bluefin Tuna in the Atlantic. That population is very close to reaching the classic "tipping point", where declining populations will suddenly plummet as the biological reproductive infrastructure collapses due to over-fishing. Already the population figures are showing staggering declines.

On a positive note, the ICCAT is meeting in Morocco and many of the participants, including representatives from the European Union and the United States, are feeling the heat from conservation organizations armed with not just "tree hugger" rhetoric but solid scientific data. There are several proposals on the table - from reduced catches to complete moratoriums, particularly in Atlanctic breeding grounds. (Read Oceana press release.)

Oceana also has announced that the European Union is seriously considering several regulations regarding the commercial taking of several pelagic shark species, all of which having been adversely impacted either as bycatch from longline fishing for tuna or by being specifically sought after. Included for discussion are thresher, hammerhead, mako, and blue sharks. (Read Oceana press release.)

“The EU plays an important role in shark fisheries in the Atlantic, and I’m glad to see them take this strong and positive stance to lead sustainable fishing for these species. If the rest of the ICCAT parties follow this lead, we will make a huge advancement in securing the future of these vulnerable animals,” declared Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Research for Oceana in Europe.

Since I have started this blog, I have watched Oceana.org grow as an international marine conservation organization with a particularly proactive stance: a growing force to be reckoned with. Let's wish them continued success.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Deep Sea Observatory: live from downtown Monterey Bay canyon

After six years of design, preparation and installation, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has launched a revolutionary research observatory that will serve as a power station and data link for many deep sea projects. At 3,000 feet deep, perched on the edge of the Monterey Bay undersea canyon, the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS) provides organizations with properly configured experimental equipment with the ability to efficiently gather critical data on oceanic conditions - whether it be sealife studies or monitoring water quality or climate change effects.

Where research equipment is often hampered by battery or power limitations and researchers must often wait until data is retrieved, the MARS system will act as a round-the-clock "power strip" and "high-speed internet connection." One of the first experiements to utilize MARS will be one that monitors acidity levels. Ocean acidification is a major issue tied in to the ocean's interaction with carbon dioxide levels. (Read MBARI news release.)

Speaking of ocean acidification, the NGO, the Center for Biological Diversity, has notified the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its intent to file a lawsuit against the EPA, demanding that the U.S. federal agency act more aggressively regarding the issue of ocean acidification due to increasing carbon dioxide absorption.
In particular, the suit addresses the need for the EPA to revise its outdated ph standards - set in 1976 - in light of new research regarding acidification. Higher ph levels due to carbon dioxide absorption can have profound negative effects on a variety of marine life and can threaten the overall health of any marine ecosystem. (Read press release.)

“Ocean acidification is global warming’s evil twin,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. “The EPA has a duty under the Clean Water Act to protect our nation’s waters from pollution, and today, carbon dioxide is one of the biggest threats to our ocean waters.”

Let's hope that both MARS and the Center for Biologival Diversity can help to enlightened those goverment agencies that we depend on to make important environmental decisions.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Great White Sharks: misstating the human connection

Recently, federal regulations involving California marine sanctuaries were finally put in place, ranging from expansion of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to tow-surfing at Maverick's to an expansion of the "no chum" zone at San Francisco's Farallon Islands, as reported by Ken Weiss in the L.A. Times.

Regarding the "no-chum" zone, there was a statement made by William Douros, western regional director of the National Marine Sanctuaries program that disturbed me. About the chum regulations, he said, "We just think it was a bad idea for white sharks to associate humans with blood in the water."

While this makes for an interesting news bite (one that the L.A. Times highlighted in the front section as a "quote of the day"), my concern is whether this is anecdotal or supported by solid quantifiable research. I am afraid of the implication that divers participating in shark diving in sturdy cages are somehow exposed to greater danger because, due to chumming, the shark is viewing them as a food source and would consider attacking or breeching the cage specifically because it wants to prey on a caged diver. This is not a behavior that I have witnessed in five years of filming these animals. And this has been supported by people like Rodney Fox and others.

As a professional nature filmmaker who has spent considerable time filming white sharks, my experiences would be in contrast to the conclusion that William's statement implies. I have yet to see a white shark, made curious by a chum slick or hangbait, exhibit any predatory tendencies specifically towards the divers in the cages. In fact, as a professional I accept the calculated risk of exposing myself to the sharks beyond what is deemed appropriate for the "paying tourists" and have yet to see anything beyond heightened curiosity on the shark's part - not heightened aggression.

Now, I'm no fool. I clearly respect these sharks for what they are: powerful, apex predators - not cuddly puppydogs. And I am a strong advocate of stringent safety protocols and conservative baiting techniques that do not over-stimulate the shark. These are animals with complex sensory systems that respond to scent, vibration, visual, and electrical stimulus - many factors that come into play before a white shark makes any kind of predatory move. It is too simplistic to say: blood equals human prey.

My biggest concern is what William's statement says about shark diving as a whole. His choice of words could be fuel for opponents of shark ecotourism - an activity that both educates people to the importance of sharks and provides an economic alternative to their destruction. There are valid reasons that the Farallon white sharks should be isolated and I wish he had addressed those issues rather than make a statement, whether cavalier or calculated, that could be used to damn shark ecotourism as a whole - right when such activity could do the most good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Terminator: moving climate change to the front page

California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to push environmental issues to the forefront - this time by holding a conference in Los Angeles with governors and international representatives (see link/video). Preparing for hoped-for progress from a new administration, the Governor is looking for consensus that will help push the U.S. into a more leadership position in the battle to address global warming. That would most likely mean a new Kyoto Protocol treaty - one in which the U.S. plays a more positive role.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the conference was presented with a video message from President-elect Obama. Regarding the upcoming Kyoto Protocol talks to resume in Poland, Obama said:

"Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations. . . . Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response."

On the flip side, the L.A. Times also reported that the Environmental Protection Agency plans to weaken the exisiting regulations regarding clean air in national parks, making it easier for the construction or operation of nearby coal and oil refineries - all to the objection of many of the EPA's own senior officials and experts. For some time, the current administration has been using the EPA to run roughshod over the objections of its own experts. Hopefully that will change with the changing of the guard.

Couple steps forward; couple steps back.
Let's make sure the new administration moves forward in the right direction. They seem well-intentioned but we must be vigilant.

Filmmaker's Journal: Great White Sharks 2008

I have been derelict in my RTSea Blog postings, but I have a good excuse. I recently spent two weeks on film assignments back at Isla Guadalupe with the magnificent great white sharks that reside there in the months of September through early December. Then I came home with a whopping head cold. So, let's get caught up . . .

The white sharks at Isla Guadalupe are currently in good health and as stunning as ever. There has been quite an ongoing controversy regarding regulations governing the activities of eco-tourism (shark diving) boats. There is a lot of mis-communication going on and it's not clear as to how it will impact both the operators and the future well-being of the sharks. CONAP, a Mexican government agency, administers the island's biosphere status with a well-intended but sometimes overly critical eye, but the ability for eco-tourism operators to assist the marine researchers that routinely study these animals and the role that these operators play in acting as watchguards to prevent illegal fishing/poaching can not be discounted. We'll see how it all sorts out for the 2009 season.

In the meantime, here is a taste of what these incredible and important predators look like in the clear waters of Isla Guadalupe:

There will be more video clips to come
and many clips will be available as stock footage in the RTSea Media Library. These are truly magnificent animals - powerful apex predators that must never be underestimated, but beautiful all the same.

You can learn more about these sharks, the island, and the ongoing research by checking out the RTSea documentary, Island of the Great White Shark.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Filmmaker's Journal: a white shark stakes his turf

I will be heading to Isla Guadalupe this week to film the island's magnificent great white sharks, so I will be a bit tardy in keeping up with RTSea blog postings for a few days. But hopefully I will have some great stories to report on my return.

Actually, I was at Isla Guadalupe recently, filming for a Greek television adventure series. And once again, the island's apex predator gave me a subtle reminder as to why it's the boss.

After having filmed from within the cage, capturing the show's host reacting to large females rising up from the depths and cruising majestically past the cage, I then moved to an Avon-like inflatable to shoot over the side - from open water back towards the cage - hoping to catch a shark passing between the camera and the cage.

Interestingly, we had three large sharks in close proximity to each other - closer than usual, as white sharks (particularly the large females) typically maintain some "space." The inflatable's pilot and I were in position for a great shot, but as a 16-footer came along side the cage, rather than pass in front , it made a beeline for our inflatable. Playing a little territorial game of "chicken", the shark pushed the stern of the inflatable up a good foot or so and his (my camera caught his claspers) caudal tail sliced the surface and gave me a good swat across the face as it headed back down, having clearly announced who is the big man on campus.

All very exciting, but when he came back a few minutes later and gave us another albeit smaller bump, we got the message and headed back to the boat.

Even within the accepted risk that you take as a professional, there are always moments that remind you of the caution and respect for unpredictability that any large animal in the wild rightly deserves. But, yes, it's loads of fun.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Invent Now! - the new mantra for the Energy Age

In the United States, both presidential candidates are saying that our energy policy (or lack of one) needs to be addressed for the sake of both our daily energy needs and to address the issue of global warming. All well and good.

But I am concerned with the attention put on immediate drilling, particularly in heretofore protected areas like the Arctic regions. We have all heard the arguments that it will take 10 to 15 years to realize any fuel from such exploration, but that's the case whether we drill in the Arctic or in any of the currently approved areas, 80% of which has been untouched.

No, my concern is with catch phrases like "Drill now! Drill now!" - as if drilling will be the silver bullet panacea, after which we can all go back to driving our SUV's. Having grown up watching this nation's commitment to science and invention that ultimately put men on the moon, I ask why not "Invent now! Invent now!" We are faced with a massive scientific and social undertaking - to develop multiple technologies that will allow us to shift from a centuries-long dependence on fossil fuel. There's no getting around it - no single solution will fix it all.

Before we commit to more drilling, more status quo, let's harness the same inventive energy that took man into the Industrial Age, and then the Space Age, and the Computer Age
- and let's dedicate ourselves to the Energy Age, to finding new solutions rather than recycle the old solutions and continue to destroy the planet one carbon ton at a time.

Here's some more information from the Ocean Conservancy.

Seafood Watch Guides: help you make sensible seafood choices

Besides being asked about mercury levels in seafood, which I touched on in a recent posting, I also get asked about which seafood to buy in restaurants or markets based on population of the species, healthy aquafarmed, etc. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has for many years provided terrific Seafood Watch pocket guides. These guides, which cover national and regional areas, can be printed and carried in your wallet or purse and are updated annually. It's a great way to have a quick reference to insure that your are making sensible choices in healthy seafood. I always carry a couple of guides in my wallet.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has also released a new Sushi Guide and you can view all of the guides on your mobile device browser. Add http://www.seafoodwatch.org to your mobile device's browser list and you'll have the guides right there at the touch of a button.

The concept of "sustainable seafood" works only when we choice seafood that is aquafarmed or whose reproductive capability has not been negatively impacted by overfishing.
The Seafood Watch Guides are a great way for all of us to make sensible choices regarding seafood.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Right Whales: speed regulation to avoid ship collisions

The New York Times recently reported that the National Marine Fisheries Service has adopted a long-debated regulation requiring large ships (over 65 feet) to reduce speed to less than 10 knots in certain coastal areas on the east coast from Massachusetts to Florida.

The purpose of this speed restriction is an attempt to avoid hitting and injuring or killing Right Whales that populate the selected areas. Scientists estimate that only about 400 right whales exist today, even though hunting them was made illegal in 1935. These whales were so heavily hunted in the 1800's and early 1900's that, even with a 70+ year moratorium, their future is tenuous at best.

One or two whales are reported killed each year by ship collision - and that's just the reported cases. With a population so small, the loss of even one whale can have a negative impact.

This regulation was a long time in coming due to political pressure exerted by the shipping industry who refute the correlation between speed and the possibility of collision. The regulation will take effect in less than 60 days and will be subject to review in 5 years based on scientific monitoring of its effectiveness. Let's hope the results are positive for the whale's sake.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

GotMercury.org: Calculate the mercury in your seafood choices

The good folks at the Turtle Island Restoration Network have harnessed mobile technology to help all of us determine whether the fish we eat is safe in regards to mercury levels. You may have read previous postings where I discussed this important issue and now, when you go to the market or out to to a restaurant, you can determine whether your seafood selection is a safe one by using the GotMercury calculator that can be accessed by many leading mobile devices at www.gotmercury.mobi.

You can also go to the GotMercury.org web site and type in your weight, your selected seafood and the amount, and then it will calculate whether your selection exceeds government standards for safety. Here's an example, if you decide you want to sit down to dine on 8 oz. of swordfish (as you might suspect, it's way over the limit):
Not only does this calculator help us to lead healthier lives, but it also brings home the issue of mercury poisoning in seafood - particularly in pelagics like sharks, swordfish, and tuna.