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 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.