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 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 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

You can also go to the 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.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Microdocs: Learn coral ecology quick and easy

For those of you (or your friends) seeking a good overview of information on coral reefs, but are plagued with a busy schedule or a short attention span, visit This is a site put together under the direction of Dr. Steve Palumbi, Director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University in California.

The site contains a wide variety of short Flash videos - all very succinct and visually interesting. From the Bahamas to Palau, from the Turks to Micronesia, the videos discuss reef ecology, the intricate relationship between it inhabitants, what is impacting the reef, and solutions for future sustainability.

Remember, reef environments make up only 5% on the ocean's real estate but are home to 25% of all sealife. Even if you don't live in a tropical region, the health of our tropical reefs can have a direct impact on all of our lives. Microdocs - check it out.

Shark Conservation: Spain willing to consider tougher regulations

In a recent meeting, held in Madrid between Spain's Minister of Environment and Fisheries and the international environmental organization Oceana, some positive steps were made regarding commercial shark fishing. Here are some of the key points:
  • Propose in ICCAT (the organization responsible for regulating tuna and shark fisheries in the Atlantic), via the European Commission, a prohibition on catches of all pelagic shark species, except the two species of highest commercial interest for the Spanish fleet: blue shark (Prionace glauca) and shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus).
  • For these two species, the Minister showed her willingness to accept the establishment of Total Allowable Catches (TACs), if recommended by scientists.
  • Lastly, Elena Espinosa also showed a willingness for the Ministry to implement a pilot project to study the viability of storing caught sharks with their fins attached in a natural way, without the fins first being separated from the body, on board Spanish longline vessels.
Now while there was some hemming on hawing on Spain's part later (requesting more data before moving forward on all points), it was encouraging. The "fins attached" approach taken by much of the new regulations being proposed recently puts pressure on shark fisheries to not try to circvumvent existing regulations regarding fins and carcasses and subtly promotes abandoning shark finning all together. (Read Oceana press release.)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Filmmaker's Journal: great white shark biopsy

In my capacity as a filmmaker with a special interest in nature, I've had the opportunity to film some fascinating animals. Sharks in particular, like tiger sharks or great whites, can be exciting because 1.) you're in the presence of an apex predator - not that you're on the menu, but 2.) they can be unpredictable.

In filming a sequence for Island of the Great White Shark involving taking a biopsy sample, the plan was to lure a white shark close to the cage to allow the researcher, Mauricio Hoyos, to take a small sample using a biopsy pole spear. Taking the hangbait, the shark turned unexpectedly towards the cage and there were a few tense moments as the shark, weighing in between 1,500 and 2,000 lb., thrashed back and forth, slamming the cage several times with its tail before turning aside and moving on. Being in the cage at that moment was like standing inside one of those huge Buddhist temple bells; with each swing of its tail, the "gong" effect of the rattling cage could be felt right through your bones!

While responsible shark diving means not exposing the "paying customers" to unncessary risks for both the sake of the shark and the diver, researchers and professional documentarians often put themselves in less than ideal situations. As a filmmaker, you occasionally get to offset hours of tedium with a few heart-thumping moments of pure adrenaline.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

TIME's "Living Wonders": marvels and mysteries of life on Earth

About a year ago, TIME magazine issued a terrific book on Global Warming in both soft and hard cover. It was both very thorough and readable - providing readers with the issues, causes and solutions surrounding one of the most critical issues facing mankind today.

To balance that somber subject, they have just released a new volume: Living Wonders, The marvels and mysteries of life on Earth.
Currently available in soft cover (I picked up a copy today at my local supermarket for $12.00) and soon to be available in hard cover at Amazon and perhaps other retail book outlets.

This publication is a delight to read, as it lectures or admonishes not, but instead simply presents many of the incredible forms and adaptions of life on Earth, above and below the waves - from whales to desert cactus, from eagles to bioluminescent deep sea fish, and much more. Pick up a copy for yourself or make it a gift to someone who may be inclined to view Nature with an indifferent eye.

You'll go "oooh" and "aaah."

United Nations and World Bank: weigh in on the future of commercial fisheries

One of the ways to get commercial interests to move in more eco-friendly directions is to appeal to base instincts. In this case, economic viability. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, part of the United Nations), in conjunction with the World Bank, has released an assessment of marine fisheries and, as one might suspect, it shows a massive loss of revenue due to a decline in catch. (Read the press release.)

But poor management is as much to blame as is declining seafood populations. Commercial fisheries are plagued by over-capacity and over-efficiency - too many boats and advanced fishing techniques. The rising cost of fuel might be a nail in the coffin, but the problems were brewing long before fuel became an issue. Basic business economics says when you have a limited market (or resource, as in the case of seafood) and you expand operations, at some point the rate of revenue will decline. How many businesses have we seen become victims of expansion beyond what the market can bear? From computer chips to coffee shops.

The commercial fishing industry must address the need to scale back its operations to become more efficient - which will have a positive effect on seafood populations and can actually prevent market prices for seafood from skyrocketing. But it requires a shift in the industry, moving and retraining manpower and resources into other related areas, such as aquaculture/aquafarming.

(Read the complete report.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

CNN's Planet in Peril: focusing on sharks

CNN has taken the lead and a significant step forward with their series "Planet in Peril." It's significant because this is a recognized major news organization presenting a continuing look at world conservation and environmental issues, not just a one-time special.

The next installment that will air in December covers the issue of shark conservation and the inhumane practice of shark finning. Hosted by Anderson Cooper, the show will feature the work of CNN investigative reporter, Lisa Ling.

So, for all you shark advocates, be sure to round up some of your uncommitted friends (not the ones who don't know who to vote for; I'm talking about the ones who don't know anything about shark issues) and get them to watch.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

WildAid joins with major Chinese portal: educating the consumer on conservation

One of the approaches in promoting shark conservation is to speak to the market demand - primarily the Asian markets that have placed a high premium on shark products (along with other endangerd species such as tigers). What is needed is a re-education that can alter cultural habits and the internet has shown its ability to do that on other issues in other countries.

WildAid recently completed a joint agreement with Tencent, China's leading internet service portal, to promote wildlife conservation and environmental protection. Part of this agreement will be the launching of a new Chinese web site, supported by WildAid and tentatively named (it's not online yet).

"At least 27,000 species are made extinct each year, many before science has been able to document or name them, that is 74 each day and 3 every hours" said WildAid's President, Steve Trent. Continuing, "many of these species like tiger or shark have few if any natural predators – except human beings, and with the advancement of technologies and growing demand for luxuries we have become super-predators making unsustainable demands on our planet and its wildlife, such that we are now undermining the natural life-support systems which we all ultimately depend upon for survival. And this is why the engagement of leading companies like Tencent is so important, as they can help reduce unsustainable consumption and bring about effect conservation of our shared natural resources. Central to effective action is the understanding and awareness of consumers about what is happening and what needs to be done to prevent extinctions and environmental crises."

This is a good start. Let's hope the project proves successful in reaching the Chinese consumer market. Cick here to read WildAid's announcement.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Updating the Red List: wild mammals in peril

According to the World Conservation Congress, meeting in Barcelona, Spain, up to 25% of all wild mammals are threatened with extinction due primarily to loss of habitat and hunting/poaching. Of that total, up to 33% of all marine mammals are in peril - particularly dolphins which get caught in fishing nets and drown.

The figures released are part of an update of the Red List which lists all threatened species and is maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. You can view the entire list at their web site (click here).

The reasons for this plight of so many animals runs the gamut - from habitat loss for lumber or farming in developing countries to meeting the demand for "luxury" items like chimp and gorilla meat. Whatever the reason, the loss of any animal has an impact on the overall balance and health of the local ecosystem. In fact, biodiversity - having a wide range of species - is a key element to any healthy ecosystem. This has always been one of the cornerstones of the evolutionary process.

A precise accounting of all marine mammal species is complicated by the challenges in locating these animals, compared to land-based species. Says Jan Schipper of Conservation International, "If you don't know where they are or how many there are, then it's hard to determine if they have viable populations or [are] threatened with extinction." That means that the conservative numbers offered by the World Conservation Congress could be much higher. (Read article by Ken Weiss/Los Angeles Times).

Monday, October 6, 2008

Goods News re: Arctic Fishing and Hawaiian Monk Seal

Whether it's due to a sincere interest in conservation or the need for a lame duck administration to establish a favorable legacy, the federal government has taken positive action lately on two oceanic fronts, separated by thousands of miles:

  • Oceana reports that the federal government has enacted a policy to halt expansion of commercial fishing in Arctic waters and will continue to support international efforts to do the same, hoping to ultimately reach international agreement on the effective management of commercial fishing throughout the Arctic Ocean. Arctic ecology is already being impacted by the effects of climate change; potential changes to the populations of Arctic marine species do not need to be exacerbated by industrial commercial fishing operations. Read the complete press release.
  • According to the Ocean Conservancy, the federal government is preparing to expand the protected area for the Hawaiian Monk Seal, one of the most threatened of all marine mammals. Currently protected in the northwestern Islands, the seal's protected territory could be expanded to include the main islands where a healthier population exists. Read the complete press release.
It feels good to post some encouraging news from time to time!

Life on the Edge Symposium: parting thoughts on marine conservation

A parting thought on the recent Life on the Edge Symposium: On the last day I attended a panel discussion on "Environmental Action Points for the Next Administration." The panel included Dr. Mark Bernstein, Managing Director of the USC Energy Institute, and Dr. Joshua Newell, Research Professor at USC's Center for Sustainable Cities. Much of the discussion focused on sustainability and climate change issues - the "big" issues that get so much press these days.

During the Q&A that followed the panel discussion, I asked the panel to prioritize their perceived environmental issues, and their answer surprised me. Even though their professional focus is on climate and energy, they felt that the most pressing and immediate issue was that of marine conservation and commercial over-fishing. They all felt that declining commercial fish populations and the subsequent drop in nutrition that loss will impose on many developing nations was a critical issue and one that would rear its head long before climate issues reach critical mass. And this coming from a group of climatologists!

It may not be "sexy" subject matter, as the journalists would say, but commercial fishing, declining seafood, and the future of aquaculture needs to be communicated to the general populace to prod our decision-makers into action.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Life on the Edge Symposium: premiere event in Southern California

I just returned from the inaugural first day of the Life on the Edge Symposium, a three-day environmental event in Laguna Beach, CA, put together by Endangered Covering a range of topics from fuel cells and solar to air quality and sustainability, the event features a wide range of distinguished speakers and environmental experts. Of course with my particular interests in marine conservation, I have been trying to buttonhole as many dignataries as possible to get their ideas and feedback on moving marine conservation issues forward.

I had the opportunity to talk with the symposium chair, Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, former Under-Secretary-General to the U.N. Being a worldwide political figure, he had something very interesting to say, "Governments will do nothing if left alone; they must be motivated." Motivated by commerce (the military-industrial complex) and/or (believe it or not) motivated by the people. This spoke to my interest in communicating marine conservation issues to the broadest possible audience; translating scientific data into usable issues, implications, and solutions that can add to a potential groundswell of public opinion; and trying to reach those, unlike you, who have not yet expressed a commitment or even interest in marine conservation.

I also spoke with Peter Bowler, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine, about the cultural issues surrounding shark conservation. Shark conservation is less pragmatic than other marine conservation issues - for the most part, there are no issues of nutrition vs. overfishing (like, say, bluefin tuna, wherein you try to provide alternatives through aquaculture, different fishing techniques, or species rotation). The challenge here is cultural. The long-standing culture behind the demand for shark fins or other shark products, the culture behind trophy fishing, and in a larger sense, the long-standing culture of fear about sharks. Changing culture is always a more challenging task. Dr. Bowler's thoughts focused more on reaching the younger generation, the next generation that hopefully can be enlightened to a new culture, one that respects sharks and other marine animals, so many of whom are now poised on the edge of extinction.

I had a moment to bend the ear of Chris Jordan, world-renowned photographer and Eco-Ambassador for National Geographic. Chris has produced some amazing large-scale works, many of which are featured on his web site, that place our consumerism and environmental waste in glaring perspective. Though Chris' work highlights our ecological waste, he can be a very engaging individual to listen to, full of hope and encouragement. And sometimes you need that, to rev up your engine and keep moving forward.

This is Endangered Planet's first major event. It's a good start and hopefully many more will follow.