Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Invaders from inner space: dealing with alien species

There has been some attention paid to the discovery of Lionfish in Caribbean/Southeastern US waters. Most likely the result of discarded aquarium fish, these beautiful but voracious reef predators have drawn concern because of the potential impact they can have on the reef community. Research is ongoing to monitor their impact and while it's known that they can prey heavily on smaller reef fish, there has been some initial evidence that the lionfish themselves have fallen prey to large groupers. Whether this will ultimately balance out the situation remains to be seen.

Invasive alien species (IAS) can take the form of plant or animal - from seaweeds and exotic forms of algae to invertebrates to fish, and more. Over 200 fish species have been introduced into the US alone, often through the home aquarium trade where unwanted fish or plants are discarded into lakes, rivers, streams, or directly to sea.
Our increasing globalization and increased shipping has also been a major contributor, with ships having the ability to inadvertently transport a variety of species of seaweeds or invertebrates like zebra mussels that can push out endemic species or clog pipes and other man-made waterways.

Scientific theory used to adhere to the idea that a rich biodiversity was the best defense against IAS. Now, there are differing theories based on an ecosystem's species' maximum utilization of resources which allows for little variability. Splitting hairs? Might seem that way, but the bottom line is: the best defense is a good offense - healthy marine ecosystems and vigilance on our parts regarding international regulations and inspections. And if you are a home aquarium enthusiast - a little common sense.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

And the meek (or microscopic) shall inherit the earth

Discussions of climate change often focus on the big events that can catch the attention of the public - hurricanes, fires and flooding, vast sea melts, etc. But what can be most alarming are the subtle, microscopic changes that can have enormous consequences.

I was reading the latest Marine Science Review available from (No. 267 - Pathogens, disease, and die-offs). It covers everything from epizootic shell disease in lobsters to wasting disease in burrowing starfish, and much more. Many of these events are isolated or cyclical outbreaks, but increases in water temperature is becoming more and more of a potential factor.

Increases in water temperature - even very small changes - can produce two negative effects: an increase in bacteria and viral microorganisms, and a weakening of the immune system of many aquatic life forms. Will Nature adjust to these changes? Most likely, but at what cost to various species?

To borrow the Biblical phrase, the meek shall inherit the earth. But it may not be the banner-waving, peacenik; it may be something smaller than the head of a pin - meek but deadly. Another important aspect of climate change that has to be considered.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Spanish frigate needed to protect Bluefin Tuna

Here's some news and a word to the wise: swim quickly and carry a big stick (like a Spanish frigate!).

Sharks aren't the only fish in peril from the demands of a growing Asian marketplace. According to an article from the Agencie French Presse, posted by, populations of Bluefin Tuna in the Mediterranean are being decimated by European fishing fleets to meet the Japanese demand for tuna (sushi). Though quotas and moratoriums are in place, the lure of the almighty dollar is too great. But apparently Spain has had enough and set out a hi-tech frigate to patrol the Mediterranean with the intent of observing and catching any suspicious vessel that may be in violation of regulations established by the European Union.

There are arguments from French and Italian fishing boats regarding
restrictive limits on catches. But the bottom line is that the numbers of Bluefin Tuna have been decreasing drastically over the years - and an increasing demand from Japan doesn't help. Putting short term profit over long term sustainability is a recipe for disaster - and apparently a way to find the Spanish navy hot on your tail!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Discovery's Shark Week 2008 approaches

Next week will herald another edition of Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week - a week of shark-related programming that has come to be viewed by many conservationists as a two-edged sword.

On the one hand, Shark Week does a tremendous service by focusing attention on sharks with this concentrated week of programming. It draws in a wide swath of viewers from die-hard shark fanatics to the mildly curious. It's a great opportunity to reach people to inform and enlighten about the important role sharks play in a balanced marine ecosystem and to alert people to the many dangers these animals are facing worldwide.

But on the other hand, to attract the widest possible viewing audience often requires promoting and reinforcing the misconceptions and false stereotype images that people have about sharks. Conservation issues have often been included almost as an afterthought and were outweighed by the more sensational content - kind of a one step forward, two steps back approach as far as many conservationists are concerned.

As a filmmaker, I can appreciate the economics of this dilemma and I can only hope that Discovery will take advantage of its brand to make a difference in people's perception about sharks and what needs to be done to protect them. It can still be done profitably but the need is imperative. Otherwise, someday they will need to move Shark Week to the History Channel.

Each year, I always have high hopes but if the programming shifts to "blood-thirsty, deadly shark attacks", take that as a cue for a bathroom or refrigerator break.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pelagic Billfish: swordsmen of the seas

While I often place a lot of attention on large pelagic sharks like great whites, there are some other amazing pelagic fish cruising the high seas. Ever seen a swordfish or sailfish up close and personal? These are spectacular, high speed predators that have been known to work in packs to round up schools of potential prey and can reach speeds of up to 68 miles (120km) per hour!

There are groups that organize photo expeditions to see these great beasts. One that is getting a lot of attention of late is Big Animals Photography Expeditions, run by photographer Amos Nauchom.

Unfortunately, billfish populations - particularly swordfish - have been badly decimated by years of commercial fishing. Only a few decades ago , whopping 1000-pounders were common. Today, the average catch is under 100 pounds each. This means sexually immature fish are being caught which adds to their decline by reducing potential breeding capability. The ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna), a consortium of 22 countries, has initiated regulations regarding commercial swordfish catches. But these animals are still very much at that tipping point of possible extinction.

Although I grew up on a weekly serving of swordfish at home, today I shy away from swordfish in restaurants and supermarkets. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program recommends avoiding swordfish that was not caught under U.S. regulated methods. We are losing these animals to indiscriminate longline fishing throughout the world.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Coral Reefs: important status report

The Coral Reef Alliance, an international organization dedicated to coral reef conservation, is another good group worth looking into. They were participants in the recent International Coral Reef Symposium and are promoting the final report issued by NOAA with the formidable title of The State of Coral Reef Ecosystems of the United States and Pacific Freely Associated States: 2008. The 569-page report covers all the issues regarding our Pacific and Atlantic reefs but there are highlights or select chapters you can download and read. Here are a couple of interesting points about coral reefs:
  • Approximately half of the coral reef ecosystems covered in the report are considered to be in 'poor' or 'fair' condition, having declined over time due to natural and man-made causes.
  • Twenty-five percent of all marine species live and grow on coral reefs, including almost half of the fish caught by the commercial fishing industry.
  • Serving as natural wave barriers, healthy coral reefs protect coastal communities from damaging storms and tsunamis.
  • Considered more biologically diverse than rain forests, coral reefs have already provided the raw materials for lifesaving medical treatments like the HIV drug AZT.
If you're a traveling scuba diver, then you know how important coral reefs are to the local fishermen and tourism trade, let alone the health of the overall marine ecosystem. But if you're land-locked in the middle of Kansas, don't think that you don't have an impact. Pollution and global warming are affecting reefs thousands of miles away. And with the loss of these reefs, come changes in the delicate chemical and moisture exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, causing changes in temperatures, affecting currents and winds, and so on . . . right back to climate change issues. It's all part of the puzzle.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Shark Conservation Legislation Passed!

Here's some goods news as a follow-up to my posting on July 4th regarding pending legislation that should have a positive impact on shark fishing and finning: It passed!

HR 5471 (background)
Announcement on bill passing (

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ecuador's shark catch for June, 2008: 450 Tons!

My friend, Patric Douglas of had the following shark catch data posted on his blog site.

The following numbers come from Instituto National de Pesca, Ecuador. These are the official reported numbers of shark landings for June.

The actual numbers are much higher and do not reflect illegal shark fining where the carcass is dumped.

June 2008 :

Pelagic Thresher : 281.9 tons (t).
Silky Shark : 74.8 t .
Blue Shark : 53.7 t .
Smooth Hammerhead : 25.7 t .
Scalloped Hammerhead : 10.8 t .
Shortfin Mako : 3.0 t .
Carcharhinus spp : 0.5 t .
Thresher (Alopias spp): 0.2 t .
Brown Smoothhound : 0.1 t .
Bigeye Thresher : 0.1 t .

TOTAL : 450.8 t in the month of June 2008

One country. One month. One total. 901,600 pounds of sharks.

Depressing. So, what can we do? Start by supporting the organizations that tackle shark conservation issues on an international level - verbal support, written support, and financial support (I know that's a tough one in today's economy). Organizations like WildAid, Bite-Back, even the World Wildlife Fund's Conservation Action Network, all need our support.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sharks and Shellfish: a common thread

I was reading about two seemingly disparate animals: sharks and shellfish. And I came to realize there was a common thread to the life-threatening situations these animals are facing.

A recent report in the Norwegian scientific journal, Oikos, analyzed the impact on changes in seal predation behavior if the shark populations that preyed on the seals declined ("Do shark declines create fear-released systems?"). Pretty heady stuff, but through the researchers' computer models it was theorized that there could be major shifts in diets from shallower prey like herring to deeper water prey like pollock - where local sharks frequent, when the decline in shark populations has removed an element of fear that dictates a good measure of the seal's hunting behavior. Bottom line was that a decline in shark populations could produce a more significant change in the predator-prey hierarchy relationship than previously thought.

With shellfish, scientists are seeing an impact of warmer waters on various species that is producing population declines from deadly bacteria, among other factors. Oyster beds along the west coast of the U.S. are now seeing the effect (read recent article). The east coast has seen this effect, too. A platter full of shucked oysters may not be your cup of tea (it's not mine), but as filter feeders, shellfish play a critical role in maintaining water quality. When shellfish populations whither, bacteria and various types of algae explode and push out a wide range of sealife through water degradation and loss of habitat.

So, what's the connection? One is that both of these situations represent the domino effect that occurs within any complex marine eco-system. For every action, there is a reaction - sometimes a very severe or unexpected one. Another connection is that these are basically man-made problems - over-fishing and global warming - and will have an effect on commercial operations that involve these animals. So our actions come back to haunt us.

Certain marine issues can gain more traction and get more media attention or public sympathy and support. But in the end, we need to consider the overall complexity of this ecological jigsaw puzzle we call the oceans and give every issue its due.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Again, the need for forward-thinking leadership

Hate to get on the stump again, but last Friday the current administration rejected the findings of its own appointed experts regarding global warming, thereby initiating a "comment period" that will effectively place the issue on the doorstep of the next president. (Read LA Times article)

The 588-page EPA report identified effects of greenhouse gas emissions on changes in weather and on water/food supplies, and made proposals to limit such emissions - all of which were rejected for imposing "crippling costs on the economy."

Again, it's back to supporting "forward-thinking" leaders who are prepared to tackle the business and economic issues required rather than run from them. After all, Nature isn't slowing its course just because we have some economic problems in dealing with it. Even California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger chimed in, commenting on U.S.'s reluctance being comparable to China and India, "We don't wait for other countries to do the same thing. That's what makes America No. 1."

Whoever you support, make sure they are prepared to deal decisively with environmental issues. If their position is not clear, ask. Or better yet, tell them yourself as to what you expect from them.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Island of the Great White Shark makes it to Harvard

There will be a screening of Island of the Great White Shark on July 17th at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (my parents would have been so proud). All kidding aside, I am very honored that the museum chose to have this event - this was not a solicitation on my part, they approached me.

I'd like to think that it's because the documentary resonates with people other than die hard shark lovers. Hopefully the realistic portrait of white sharks, the ongoing research, and the conservation message presented in the film will reach as many people as possible, especially those people who are convinced that great white sharks are the Darth Vader of all sharks.

I will not be in attendance at the screening, but Dr. John Mandelman, resident shark expert from the New England Aquarium, is scheduled to be there for follow up questions and discussion about shark issues. Things couldn't be in better hands. So, if you're in the Boston/Cambridge, MA area next Thursday, check it out.

Coral Reefs: the threats continue to grow

The week-long International Coral Reef Symposium, being held in Fort Lauderdale, FL, wraps up today having brought together nearly 3,000 scientists to discuss issues and possible solutions to address the ongoing degradation of our coral reef ecosystems. Many of the results and discussions are making their way into scientific journals and newspapers worldwide.

You have all probably heard about how corals reefs have been negatively impacted by pollution, climate change, and the souvenir trade from the Caribbean to the South Pacific. The latest worldwide assessment of over 700 species shows 32.8% threatened with extinction, with a capital E. With the loss of these reefs, the inevitable domino effect follows with the loss of fish and other animal life - which carries an economic impact on tourism and subsistence fisherman in many of these tropical locales.

When I do underwater presentations as a volunteer diver at the Aquarium of the Pacific back home in Southern California, I try to impress upon the audience the importance of these marine ecosystems even though they may be thousands of miles away - they can never be "out of sight, out of mind."
  • Non-biodegradable trash (plastic bags, styrofoam, etc.) and chemicals (oil, fertilizers) originating from the California coast, can travel thousands of miles to tropical locales.
  • Carbon emissions and its subsequent effect on temperatures impact the coral in a variety of ways, from disrupting the symbiotic relationship of internally-stored zooxanthellae (single-celled algae) to an increase in external algae and bacteria that crowds out or kills coral species.
  • Conversely, the loss of faraway coral reefs effects the chemical balance of the seas and the exchange of chemicals between sea and air, which in turn can affect temperature gradients, currents, and winds - all of which can impact us worldwide.
Just another example of all we're all connected - land, sea and air - from coral to humans, we're all part of Nature. Here's some links to learn more about what you can do: NOAA,

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Rare Australian sea turtle under siege

As many of you know, sea turtles of all species are threatened worldwide - due to hunting, poaching, and encroachment on their egg-laying habitats. According to the Sea Turtle Restoration Project (and its affiliate organization, PRETOMA, in Costa Rica), the rare Australian flatback turtle's nesting areas located on the Northwest coast of Western Australia are under siege from potential exploration and drilling for liquid natural gas (LNG) (Read article from Australia's Wilderness Society).

Given the rising demand for energy resources, this is a tough call. Western Australia is a fairly remote and rustic area, not heavily populated. Hopefully, the Australian people won't think the area or its inhabitants are expendable because of its remoteness. The Sea Turtle Restoration Project and the Wilderness Society are calling upon people worldwide to let the Australian government know that their efforts will not go unnoticed (click here). Let's hope that a solution can be found that might be workable for all parties, including the flatback turtle.

Politics interferes with the EPA . . . again

Nothing too profound with the above heading; unfortunately, it's been going on for years. But the latest news bite has to do with apparent efforts to alter sworn congressional testimony to play down the threat of global warming, thereby mitigating the need for regulating greenhouse gas emissions (Washington Post / Los Angeles Times).

Former EPA official, Jason Burnett, claims that behind-the-scenes efforts by unnamed members of the Vice President's staff succeeded in deleting scientific information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as testimony regarding health risks from climate change to be presented before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, headed by Barbara Boxer. By eliminating any documentation of these health effects, the current administration is trying to skirt around a Supreme Court ruling that required the EPA to implement regulations on polluters when greenhouse gas emissions were shown to pose a risk.

Now I try not to get too political in this blog. After all, there isn't one political party that is a perfect angel when it comes to the environment. But it all comes down to forward-thinking leadership. And that seems to be a commodity in short supply these days. There is no doubt there are challenging decisions that lie ahead. But the more we avoid them, the more difficult they will be when we finally have to address them. I'd rather address them now than later. But that's just me - I'm not running for a 4-year term.

New study shows that Hawaiian reef fish are in decline - Los Angeles Times

Another great article in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times from Ken Weiss (read online version). Ken has a great knack for taking scientific data and putting into laymen's terms while also fairly presenting all sides of an issue.

Here we have a study from the International Coral Reef Symposium that documents that the Hawaiian Islands are clearly showing reef fish in decline, with as much as 75% of the species critically affected. The populations of reef fish play a critical role in maintaining healthy coral reefs "by grazing on algae that can quickly overgrow the stony corals and cause them to collapse." The primary culprit appears to be overfishing. Of additional concern is the fact that international authorities and local governments have not been effectively monitoring the take by recreational and small-scale subsistence fishermen, only the commercial operations - a bit like monitoring gas consumption among commercial trucks and ignoring the passenger vehicles.

If ever there was a need for better regulations and setting aside protected reserves, this is it. Then of course there is one of my favorite solutions: investing in more and better aquaculture. If you're a US citizen, remember: Hawaii is our 50th state, part of the team. So, check with the Oceanic Institute and NOAA to see what you can do to help our Pacific Paradise maintain its aquatic beauty.

Monday, July 7, 2008 - taking a proactive approach

As I have had the fortunate opportunity to meet with dedicated marine researchers in the making of Island of the Great White Shark and have been welcomed by aquariums nationwide for screenings and lectures about white sharks and the need for shark conservation, I have come to notice two deficiencies in current environmental/conservation communication methods: first, a lack of scientific information - translated into laymens' language - being presented to the general public and secondly, a reliance on digital communication (web, et al) which caters to the already curious but does not necessarily bring the issues to the passive reader, which constitutes the vast majority. is an organization that appears to be taking on those issues. This is a non-profit that, while using the usual digital tools (web site, email newsletters, et al), is making a concerted effort to get important research information to decision-makers while also utilizing "social marketing" techniques to reach a broader audience - an audience consisting of people who may not yet have embraced ocean issues or even given them any thought at all.

As readers of this blog, already interested in conservation issues, this is a group worth investigating and encouraging your uncommitted friends - you know who they are - to take the time and check them out.

Friday, July 4, 2008

U.S. Shark Conservation Act goes before Congress: Do your part

I often talk to shark conservationists about how they may not be part of the problem but they need to be part of the solution. Here is one of the ways you can do it: to get our elected representatives to support legislation that makes environmental sense. . .
Melanie Marks, president of Shark Trust Wines, sent me this reminder this morning:

U.S. Shark Conservation Act
The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to consider the Shark Conservation Act of 2008 on Tuesday, July 8. The bill aims to close loopholes in the national finning ban, prohibit the removal of shark fins at sea, and encourage international shark conservation. U.S. citizens wishing to support the bill should contact their Representatives as soon as possible. To find yours, go to and type in your zip code in upper left corner of page.

Thanks for the heads up, Melanie. Specifically, the bill HR 5741, is an amendment to two previous marine conservation bills that did not effectively address the issue of shark fishing and finning. The new bill would require sharks to be taken, if at all, with their fins intact. By doing so, this enables better enforcement of existing procedures and regulations and would impede fisherman from catching sharks solely for their fins, which bring a higher price on Asian markets than the carcass.

Here's a great way to do good on this 4th of July.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Consumers' Concern: Economy over the Environment

In addition to being a media producer/filmmaker, I also have a background in marketing: Here's an interesting article from the American Marketing Association regarding the results of the 2008 ImagePower Green Brands Survey (click here to view video podcast) published by the Landor agency. The survey covered a range of U.S/U.K. attitudes and perceptions regarding the environment and "green" brands or companies.
The results would indicate, perhaps not surprisingly, that the environment is taking a back seat to economic concerns. More people are thinking about the short-term consequences of energy (ie: gas). In line with their concerns on issues of immediate self-interest, the "green" brands most highly rated were those that represent products that went in or on the body, like food and personal care products. However, environmental issues were not completely off the radar. Respondents still expressed concern but responsibility was perceived differently in the two countries:
  • Environmental pessimism. Sixty-seven percent of American consumers and 69% of Britons think we are in worse environmental shape now than we were five years ago.

  • Responsibility and accountability. In the U.S., industry is perceived the most responsible for environmental problems with 36% of American consumers look to government to provide the policies and standards to advance environmental change. Conversely, U.K. consumers are more likely to accept their part of the blame.

So, we need to keep the flame alive, even if the consumer's interest may seem temporarily placed elsewhere. Particularly since many of our economic woes are in some degree or another tied in with environmental issues that are impacting us now or will impact us in the near future. Energy is a perfect example: our solutions to our energy crisis will be the result of our needs combined with what environmental impact they will impose (alternative energy, carbon emissions/footprint, global warming). Though we may be focused on one right now, the two - energy and the environment - are forever linked.

Looking North: Polar Bears' survival under the Endangered Species Act

I was just reading in Newsweek about the listing of polar bears as a "threatened" species as defined by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As the Arctic sea ice melts, as I saw last year on an expedition through the Northwest Passage with, it's a step in the right direction - but a very small step to many environmentalists. If listed as "endangered", the ESA requires the government to preserve critical habitat and develop a recovery plan. In essence that means what is specifically endangering the species - a dam or construction project, or excessive hunting/fishing - must be dealt with.

This put the current administration in the uncomfortable position of having to recognize and address the issue that is jeopardizing the future of polar bears if they were designated as "endangered": global warming. The Interior Department agrees that the polar bear is threatened by climate change, but it hedged its bet with the "threatened" designation which is a less proactive designation. Unfortunately, this adds to the current administration's dismal record on species protection - only 60 species have received protection, compared to 522 in the two-term Clinton administration and 231 in the elder Bush's one-year term.

We find ourselves back to some fundamental questions: what are we going to do about these long-term environmental issues? Where is the forward-thinking, visionary leadership that can address the interests of the people, commerce, and most importantly, the planet's species?