Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cave Sponges: critical to the coral reef's food chain

I'm sure you have heard about the challenges faced by our coral reefs. Researchers are saying that from 25% to 50% and more of our corals reefs are showing definite decline due to pollution, changes in water temperature, and other effects that can be attributed to man-made activities.

Because of the low level of nutrients in tropical waters, coral reefs have often been described as oases in the desert. And we are still learning just how they are able to survive in such a beautiful but harsh environment.

A recent report explores one component that contributes to the delicate web of a healthy reef: cave sponges. Marine biologist Jasper de Goeij has been studying the role that these basic multi-celled animals play in maintaining the nutritional cycle of the coral reef. His studies show that corals and algae dispense organic compounds that few creatures can use as food. The sponges, however, filter this particulate matter as part of its normal process in filtering vast amounts of water to extract what little nutrients are available.

To protect and sustain itself against this intake of organic material (that can include viruses, bacteria, and other poisons) the sponge is continually rejuvenating cells and the dead cells it sheds form an organic material that can be utilized by many organisms on the reef. In this way, a cycle of mutual dependence is formed.

While our attention is often focused on the most colorful of the basic reef builders, the coral, we must always remember that a coral reef is a complex system with many organisms, plant and animal, playing important roles - sometimes behind the scenes and out of view - in maintaining a healthy tropical ecosystem.

Read article from Insciences Organisation.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Shark Sightings: a humorous perspective from New Zealand

Here is an amusing article from Stuff, a new Zealand web paper, first brought to my attention by my friends at the SharkDiver blog. The writer is having fun with all the news media hysteria that seems to always erupt with every shark sighting.

With every discussion or screening/lecture I conduct, at some point I have to respond to an audience member's question about whether the oceans are safe. Out comes all the statistics to try to put it in perspective. It still seems to be a "built-in" nervous response with the general public caused by, on average, a half dozen shark-related fatalities worldwide each year. Then they all drive home on the freeways where 50,000 people are killed annually in the U.S. alone.

Here's a part of Linley Boniface's take on it:

Shark yarns make me yawn
Linley Boniface
The Dominion Post | Monday, 26 January 2009

I never thought I'd say this, but I am bored with sharks. This summer, it has been impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the TV without being subjected to yet another daring shark escape story.

On closer inspection, these yarns have invariably turned out to involve nothing more thrilling than an exceptionally timorous surfer paddling for safety after spotting a fishy shadow pottering quietly along the shoreline, minding its own business.

While sharks in Australia do, as the Australians rather wonderfully say, "take" the occasional swimmer, Kiwi sharks are about as predatory as a newborn ladybug.
Occasionally, a shark will accidentally graze a surfer's calf with a tooth, while yawning: cue national panic and the mass closure of beaches.

Silliest of the many absurd shark reports the media has pestered us with this summer was one from Radio New Zealand. The national broadcaster quoted Constable John Paul Tremain as urging people to stay away from beaches near Dunedin because a large shark had allegedly chased a couple of surfers from the water.

RNZ said Constable Tremain did not know the "exact size or breed of shark" - terrifying news in itself; someone is breeding the things! - but was convinced it was "lurking with intent". Lurking with intent? Intent to do what? The sea is where sharks live: sharks no more lurk in the sea than I lurk in my house.

I would have thought the fact that the shark didn't bother eating the two surfers was sufficient proof of its benevolent intentions, but it would have had to have been waving a white flag and making a peace sign with its dorsal fin to alleviate Constable Tremain's suspicions.

(Read complete article.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Loggerhead Turtles: proposal to protect them from bottom longlines in Gulf

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, a U.S. regional council established by the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, is considering a proposal to request that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issue an emergency rule prohibiting the use of bottom longlines at a depth of 50 fathoms or less. The primary purpose of the prohibition is to limit the negative impact on loggerhead turtles that are often caught in the nets as they drag across the bottom to catch snapper and grouper.

Loggerhead turtles are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Nearly 1,000 turtles were caught in this fishery in just 18 months - eight times the federally authorized level.

"Under the ESA, immediate changes in this fishery must be taken to protect loggerhead sea turtles," said Elizabeth Griffin, marine wildlife scientist at Oceana.

The emergency closure would last for five months while the NMFS pursues a permanent solution. The council is expected to make its final review and approval today. Read entire press release from Oceana.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Antarctica redux: climate change

My previous post discussed a report that was meant to verify that overall temperatures in Antarctica were slowly on the increase. The report, featured in the journal Nature, has come under considerable scrutiny and the methodologies used to derived the results are being questioned.

Should it be proved that the researchers involved in the report chose to stretch the limits of sound, solid research and analysis, that would be unfortunate as it provides fodder for critics of climate change. In the end, the extremist positions taken on any issue never seem to help the various camps on either side of the debate.

Some critics of climate change seem to take the position that it doesn't exist at all, that it's a total fabrication amounting to some elaborate conspiracy theory to make money or gain political power.

Others seem to accept that the climate is changing but that it is due to a natural cycle, not influenced by man-made activities, and therefore there is nothing that can be done about it (unfortunately, I do not hear much from them in the way of suggestions on how to deal then with the inevitable consequences).

Something is happening to the planet's climate. And with a population of over 6.5 billion, we are definitely having an impact on the depletion of many natural resources - from water to timber to wildlife and sealife. After two centuries of dependence on fossil fuels, resulting in vast and verified quantities of greenhouse gases being generated, it doesn't take a phenomenal leap of faith or judgment to consider that our quality of life would be improved by developing alternatives to our current consumption habits.

For the brief time I have remaining on this planet, I would like to think I can make a positive difference in my life, the lives of my children, and the planet. Go ahead, call me an optimistic dreamer. I don't mind.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Antarctica: cooling in the east, but overall temps on the rise

Antarctica has been described as the "beating heart" of the planet - this massive expanse of ice actually expands and contracts over the course of the year as it regulates and impacts much of the planet's weather systems. And as we have all heard, it's future in the face of global warming can have a profound effect on the future of the planet.

Recent studies have shown that East Antarctica has actually been cooling slightly, and this has provided fodder for skeptics of climate change who claim that scientific projections of temperature change are in error.

However, a report just published in the journal Nature details a study of Antarctic temperatures over the past 50 years and finds that the icy continent's overall temperature is increasing.

"We now see warming taking place on all seven continents in accord with what models predict as a response to greenhouse gases," said coauthor Eric J. Steig of the University of Washington.

In fact, West Antarctica has experienced slightly higher increases in temperature and has summarily seen greater erosion or melting. The East Antarctica anomaly is being attributed to the location of the hole in the ozone layer, positioned over this area of the continent. The loss of ozone over the white ice of East Antarctica allows for reflective sunlight to escape, thereby lowering the temperature. With the banning of chlorofluorocarbons, the ozone hole should be closed by the middle of the century and by then temperatures for the entire continent of Antarctica will be warming at a much higher rate.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Saving Our Predator Cats: the Amur Leopard

Many of you are probably familiar with the critical need for conservation and protection of tigers (see previous posting). These great cats have been subject to relentless hunting/poaching and their numbers are in sharp decline.

But there are other cats that have been subject to poaching as well to meet the black market demand for furs. And one is the Amur Leopard found in the northern regions of Russia, China, and North Korea. A sub-species of the leopard more commonly found in Africa, the Amur
Leopard has been listed on the IUCN 2000 Red List of Threatened Species as "critically endangered" and CITES has also listed it as endangered.

The good news is that some positive steps are being taken. In 1998, Russia adopted a conservation strategy that focuses on curbing poaching and the trafficking of leopard products, in addition to rebuilding dwindling populations of the leopards' primary food sources. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been assisting the Russian government in monitoring the results of the strategy.

An amazing animal, with legs longer than the typical leopard for walking in snow, this cat is capable of leaping 19 feet horizontally and 9 feet vertically! The WWF has been an international leader in the conservation and protection of nature's feline predators - like many of our other predators, an important component to a healthy and balanced ecosystem.

#6 in CO2 Emissions: cruising the seas out of the spotlight

When we consider the impact of global warming and climate change on the land, air, and sea, we often think of the combined CO2 emissions generated by different nations and their various commercial and/or public sources. But do you know what ranks as the 6th highest producer of carbon dioxide, just behind the 5 nations with the largest combined output of all sources?

Global shipping.

That's right. Right near the top of the list of major CO2 polluters. And it continues unregulated by any U.S. or Kyoto Protocol limitations. Why? Well, for one, it's a bit removed from the public spotlight, cruising the seas as it were, underneath the radar of public awareness. And for another, the shipping industry is both a fragmented and powerful commercial force that requires major international intervention to bring it under control.

What is there to regulate? Engine types, fuels, proper operational maintenance, emission standards - in many ways, what we do (or should be doing) regarding auto or factory pollution can be applied to shipping.

If we in the United States can get the EPA on board, this can be a major first step not only for the U.S. but for the world as it can set a new standard, particularly if the United States seriously considers getting back in lock step with the rest of the industrialized or developing world and considers aligning itself with the Kyoto Protocol or its possible future manifestations.

To that end, Earth Justice, Oceana, Friends of the Earth, and the Center for Biological Diversity have petitioned the EPA and, due to a lack of response by the EPA, are preparing to take legal action. To learn more about this issue, click here.

Santa Monica Pier Aquarium: screens Island of the Great White Shark

This past Wednesday evening, Island of the Great White Shark was screened to a curious and enthusiastic audience at the MLK Auditorium, Santa Monica Library, CA. The event was sponsored by the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, which is operated by Heal the Bay, a long-standing marine conservation fixture in Southern California that first came into existence in 1985 to help clean up the Santa Monica Bay.

After the screening, I had the opportunity to discuss several important shark conservation issues and spend time answering some terrific questions from the audience - their fascination and concern for these animals was clearly in abundance. My thanks to Tara Crow, Public Programs Manager, and Aaron Kind, Education Specialist, for all their help and support.

The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium is located beneath the famous Santa Monica Pier Carousel and while open to the public it also caters particularly to schools and other groups seeking an educational and hands-on experience with touch tanks and informative displays - all designed to enlighten the next generation of future conservationists. Click here to view their web site.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My Stand: eco-tourism, apex predators, and conservation

Lately I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to screen my white shark documentary, Island of the Great White Shark to large crowds, to discuss shark issues with the audience, and be interviewed by newscasters. Their questions and comments would be wide-ranging, expressing a variety of opinions. While I tend to avoid op-ed positions (I find I get long-winded as you can see) and prefer to enlighten people with the facts, sometimes I feel compelled to express just where I stand.

Eco-tourism has taken an interesting journey, evolving from the hunting safaris of the past into photo safaris to its current position as a conservation-minded endeavor. In the process, it has moved from a high adventure, risk-your-life type of activity to that of ecological enlightenment. This is not to say that it is without risk - from inclement weather, to a charging animal, to tenuous or hostile political environments in some developing countries. But those involved in eco-tourism who choose to promote it as a thrill-seeking, dangerous activity are behind the curve regarding its future and in the end can do more damage than good.

This is particularly true of shark diving. Many leading NGOs have turned towards shark eco-tourism as a possible new strategy to pursue. While past strategies of regulation and prohibition have produced legislative results, eco-tourism offers an additional supportive approach by providing countries or businesses with economic alternatives to curtailed anti-conservation activities while also providing a means to educate the general public with first hand experiences.

However, the NGOs commitment to eco-tourism becomes shaky when safety protocols are not strictly enforced, resulting in aberrations like some of the incidents or activities that have received broadcast media or YouTube attention - like riding, grabbing or playing "kung fu" with passing sharks or cage breaches due to unsafe bait handling. The days of high testosterone, "face the malevolent monster" are at an end and undermine the efforts of those who are working hard to build a general public consensus regarding the importance of shark conservation.

I have personally seen how shark eco-tourism can be beneficial, as I brought out in Island of the Great White Shark at Isla Guadalupe. Those shark diving operators who have been a model of effective eco-tourism have supported the island's "biosphere" status financially, supported Mexican shark researchers both financially and logistically, and have acted as unofficial watchguards in the absence of Mexican enforcement due to the country's limited resources.

Criticisms of Eco-tourism:
Eco-tourism is not without its critics and many of their concerns are not based on the welfare of the participants but on the animals themselves. Here are the two most common complaints often levied against shark eco-tourism and my take on the issues:

1. The animal's normal feeding behavior is being disrupted.

Well, to be honest, I have my concerns when feeding takes place pretty much year-round. I am concerned with sites like Stingray City in the Caymans and other similar spots where the potential for negative feeding behavior is possible because of an endless stream of tourists with bait in hand. These sites need specific scientific study to determine if there are detrimental effects taking place.

At a site that I am familiar with, Isla Guadalupe, this same complaint has been used by certain political forces in Mexico who are determined to rid the island of all boat activity. In this case, I believe it is a weak argument. When hang bait is used to attract the sharks, a certain number of them succeed in occasionally catching the bait being wrangled by the crew, but we are talking about bonito or tuna carcasses (the sharks often spit out bony tuna heads) - not a major source of nutritional quantity or quality. For the 3-4 months that the sharks are at the island, this activity does not supplant their normal feeding behavior (primarily pinnipeds and whole tuna) or leave them starving the remaining 8-9 months when they migrate.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss this issue with shark researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The consensus was that a specific study would be needed for a definitive answer (researchers don't like to guess) but the feeling was there is probably some behavior modification regarding the sharks "recognizing" the presence of shark diving boats but a negative impact on their feeding habits from hang baits alone was a bit of a stretch.

2. Animals will associate humans with their food/bait.

With regards to sharks, the fear is that providing bait to sharks will make them associate humans with their food and become more aggressive to divers, surfers or swimmers - in essence that we're teaching the sharks to eat people. While a specific scientific study would be needed on a site-by-site and/or species-by-species basis to determine it once and for all, I can at least add my anecdotal observations.

In all my years of shark diving, I have yet to see any shark become specifically aggressive towards the divers in cages or myself (where I am often more exposed to the sharks) when conservative baiting is present. This is not to say that I am willing to put my arm in front of a floating bonito while a white shark bears down on it and expect the shark to swim around me. Nor will I place myself in the midst of a group of frenzied reef sharks tearing apart a large piece of bait and act surprised if I get nipped accidentally. But with all the various prey and various scents that sharks detect and recognize, to assume that a shark will equate fish blood to human prey is an A equals B logic that my experiences just don't support.

The Shark's Role as Predator:
In building public awareness in shark conservation it is critical that we build consensus based on truth. And the truth is that to maintain a healthy eco-system nature needs its predators - even the big, fearsome ones from sharks to grizzly bears to lions, tigers and so on. Many of these animals benefit from the "warm and fuzzy" factor. We look at the mother polar bear and her cubs strolling across the Arctic ice and we get all soft inside, forgetting the fact that the polar bear is a ferocious predator - a role defined for it by many, many years of evolution.

Sharks do not have the warm and fuzzy factor working for them. They live beneath the waves in their own realm and for centuries all man has been able to do is scratch the surface of that realm and form attitudes steeped in ignorance and fear.

So at one end of the attitude spectrum there is "sharks are killers" and "the only good shark is a dead shark." What we must do is to educate people as to the important role that has been defined for these animals through millions of years of evolution. For some of our larger sharks, their role as predator and scavenger may not be a pretty one, but it is absolutely vital in preserving the intricate weave that we call the marine eco-system.

Unfortunately, I have sometimes seen the spectrum move too far in the other direction. For some people, their enthusiasm as shark advocates pushes them to ascribe social or human-like traits to sharks that don't really exist. To promote sharks as cuddly puppy dogs who smile at our approach is not a responsible position based in fact and can ultimately be dangerous not only to the cause of shark conservation but literally to any person who interacts with a shark, forgetting at a crucial moment the animal's refined sense of self-preservation, of flight or fight. Timothy Treadwell tragically lost sight of this while studying Grizzly Bears.

This circles back to my earlier comments about shark diving. As a professional filmmaker, I am paid to take a calculated risk in filming and sometimes exposing myself to an animal that might choose to defend itself aggressively. Eco-tourists who pay to see these same animals should do so in a safe environment. If we promote some of our most maligned sharks as gentle, loving and smart (in human terms), we are setting up the cause of shark conservation for the inevitable backlash when someone is injured in an unprovoked (or provoked) shark/human interaction.

Let's be true to the facts, true to the sharks, and true to the belief that people can rally behind a cause like shark conservation without being misled, no matter how sincere the intentions. The truth shall, in this case, set the sharks free!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Filmmaker's Journal: stalking the arctic muskox

Last summer I had the opportunity to travel with InMER on its Summer Reconnaissance Expedition to the Northwest Passage, documenting the effects of climate change. There was a wide range of filming to do, from important interviews with Inuit tribal elders to government officials, capturing the stark but majestic arctic tundra - and then there's the "fun stuff" like stalking a herd of muskox.

Looking like prehistoric buffalo, the muskox is actually more closely related to goats. With a heavy coat of fur and a pair of curved horns, they are an odd sight - looking like something from one of those 1950's caveman movies where they throw a worn rug over an elephant and call it a mammoth!

Telling the expedition leader, Ed Cassano, CEO of InMER, that I needed close-up footage of a herd of muskox (well, "need" is a bit strong; more like "wanted" to be honest), we set out to scan the horizon from atop Mt. Pelly, a low, local mountain near Cambridge Bay, Nanuvut, in search of muskox. It didn't take long for us to spot a small herd moving across the tundra below. With that we traveled back down the mountain and tried to position ourselves out of sight and scent of our quarry.

Ever tried to sneak up on a 600+ pound muskox on the open tundra? Let me tell you, it's not easy. Tundra is made up of spongy mosses and lichens and stubby grasses, with the occasional basketball-size boulder. I felt like an ol' Saturday morning cartoon character as I slowly zigzagged from a rock to an indentation in the ground (making like a pancake!) to another rock, and so on - hoping all the while that I was moving unseen.

Well, not likely, oh great hunter with a camera. While the rest of the expedition team was safely over the next ridge, I initially found myself upwind of these hairy beasts. They knew I was there and would occasionally take off in a brief stampede. My team mates would hear this and imagine me being trampled like a rag doll. So for several hours I crawled on my belly as the herd would move about until I finally found myself down wind. Now I could close in, I thought.

As I slowly approached, some of the herd paid no attention and grazed peacefully or sat down on the tundra to rest. But others would sense something from time to time and slowly form a group with their rear ends together, forming the horned spokes of a wheel - a very common defensive action against wolves and bears.

So there I was, within 50 to 75 yards, filming these amazing animals found only well above the Arctic Circle. But before I became too full of myself, I spied a lone male standing on a nearby ridge. This was the herd's "alpha male" or dominant bull and from his perch he knew exactly what was going on. "You think I don't see you, you little pipsqueak?" he was probably thinking.

He simply watched, probably confident that if he felt the herd was truly threatened by my presence, he could stomp my sorry little rear end into the ground. So, when he would finally get bored with me, he would nonchalantly saunter over the back side of the ridge and wait for the eventual result. "Ohmygosh, Harriet! Bruno's gone! Come along everyone, chop chop! The boss is on the move!" And the subsequent stampede would follow until they were in eyesight of their fearless leader.

This went on for several hours: stalk, shoot, stalk, shoot. And there's only one word that can describe the experience - it was fun! This is one of the joys of nature filming: depending on patience, stealth, and luck - lots of luck.

The attached video is just a little collage of footage taken from that day. I wonder what Bruno thought of me in the end? Probably, "Geez, what a tourist!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Media Coverage of Ecology: getting the balance right

As a filmmaker and nature advocate, I am always interested in how environmental issues are presented by the media to the general public: Are they trying to develop public awareness? Are they only interested in a crisis or some sort of catastrophe before they show interest? The cynical viewpoint would say, yes, they only look for negative events; a situation not without a measure of truth when you consider shark issues are most often discussed following a shark-human incident.

San Diego's CBS affiliate, KFMB, has developed a fine example of ongoing environmental coverage with its web site, Earth 8, which can be accessed by itself or from a link in the main KFMB/CBS web site. I became aware of the site following my recent screening of Island of the Great White Shark at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. KFMB's Natasha Stenbock interviewed me about the film and the white sharks of Isla Guadalupe. The end result, I felt, was a very balanced piece of reporting.

Click here to see the Earth 8 web site.
Click here to see the video/print segment covering white sharks.

Also, as additional media coverage for the screening, I conducted interviews on morning shows for KUSI, San Diego 6 (CW), and Fox 5. While San Diego's interest in sharks due to the April '08 fatality of a local veteran/triathalon swimmer is still close to the surface, I was pleased to find a balanced concern for the shark's critical role as an apex predator and the decline of shark populations worldwide.

Click here to see KUSI coverage.
Click here to see San Diego 6 coverage.
Click here to see Fox 8 coverage (go to video section and type "sharks" in search window.)

Hopefully the media will continue to take a serious and responsible look at environmental and ecological issues to help motivate public awarenbess along with ratings.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gray Wolf out in the cold: endangered status in question

In the last days of the current administration, controversial environmental decisions are still being made: the latest being a proposal to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list in several northern Midwest states. Environmental groups have promised a swift reaction, with a legal suit as one possible reaction as has been done several times in the past.

The number of gray wolves has been slowly increasing since its earliest protected status during the Clinton administration and there have been several unsuccessful attempts in the past to remove the wolves from the list. The gray wolf is a perfect example of the importance of top predators. While a bane to cattle ranchers, when wolves were heavily hunted then populations of animals ranging from deer to the smallest rodents exploded - trading a rancher's problem for new problem's for farmers and flora in wooded areas.

Organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity have said they will be taking action, both political and legal, to stop the proposed change in status for the gray wolf.

On the West Coast, the State of California has filed suit against the federal government, charging that the Bush administration illegally changed provisions in the Endangered Species Act when they mandated the elimination of independent scientific review of projects subject to federal review and, specifically, the new rule imposed that eliminated consideration of the effects of greenhouse gases on protected species and their habitat. California has taken on the federal government in the past regarding environmental issues and has won practically every case.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Heal the Bay to screen "Island of the Great White Shark"

For those of you in the Los Angeles/Santa Monica area, Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium will be hosting a screening of Island of the Great White Shark on Wednesday, January 21st. Following the screening, I will be there to discuss the latest issues regarding these magnificent white sharks that inhabit Isla Guadalupe, Baja in the fall/winter months.

The film seems to resonant with both, the curious and the ocean/shark advocate. I was flattered to have a standing-room only crowd at a recent screening, and I look forward to a positive response at this upcoming event. Admission is free but on a first come-first serve basis, so be sure to arrive early.

Heal the Bay, one of Los Angeles' long-standing non-profit ocean conservation institutions, operates the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. The aquarium's goals of raising awareness of our ocean environment, promoting conservation through stewardship and teaching marine science to the public, fit nicely naturally with the programs and missions of Heal the Bay.

For more program information, visit the aquarium's web site or call 310-393-6149.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Derelict Fishing Net: divers dive deep to remove sealife hazard

Interesting artice in today's Los Angeles Times: In 2006, a fishing trawler sank off the southwestern tip of Catalina Island - one of the Channel Islands situated about 25 miles off the coast of Los Angeles/Long Beach. Sitting upright on the bottom, its haul of fishing net drapes over the ship like a billowing circus tent and has been responsible for the death of endless numbers of marine life, ranging from small fish to seal lions, dolphins and sharks. The sandy bottom around the base of the wreck is littered with the bones and skulls of many of the net's victims.

In come the Ocean Defenders Alliance, a Huntington Beach, CA-based non-profit committed to protecting offshore reefs and seabeds from dangerous man-made objects, particularly fishing nets which, when torn or lost at sea, often pose an ongoing hazard to marine life - as in the case of the sunken trawler at Catalina.

This past weekend, volunteer divers working with the Ocean Defenders Alliance made a series of deep dives, breathing a Nitrox blend to limit the possibility of decompression sickness, to cut away the derelict netting and haul it to the surface - not an easy task due to the depth, limited visibility, and shear bulk of the fishing net. As much as 800 square feet of netting was recovered, but organizers believe it will take many more dives to retrieve it all.

Congratulations to the Ocean Defenders Alliance for taking this proactive step regarding abandoned, derelict fishing nets - a worldwide problem that contributes to the death of many tens of thousands of marine animals. (Read entire L.A. Times article.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dungeness Crab: A dismal harvest impacts Pacific Coast fishermen

In the United States, the Pacific Coast commercial fishing fleet has been steadily declining for years due to regulations, declining fish populations, and the continuing growth of aquafarming. This adjustment to economic reality has recently experienced an unexpected spike downward for those fishermen who take primarily salmon and crab.

Due to a record low in the number of returning chinook salmon to spawn, the federal government canceled the entire Pacific Coast salmon season. And there is the possibility that next year's season could also be called off. This forced fishermen to count on the harvest of dungeness crab to make up for the losses.

But lo and behold, the dungeness crab season is turning out to be one of the lowest on record. Scientists attribute it to a cyclical nature to crab populations - the cycle is approaching the bottom of a natural ebb and flow - but is compounded by excess fishing and ocean conditions which have disrupted the marine food chain. This year's catch is expected to be less than 25% of what was taken 4 years ago. The laws of supply and demand would dictate that fisherman could demand more per pound for this limited catch, but unfortunately the nation's current economic crisis has reduced demand to below regular market prices. Taken all together, many fishermen expect to be pushed out of business.

Commercial fishing is unfortunately learning the hard way as to the ultimate wisdom of depleting marine resources without having a sensible plan in place to maintain fish stocks. We have a long history of commercial fishing ports drying up and becoming virtual ghost towns through short-sighted thinking. But this new chain of events is an unfortunate nail in the coffin for a declining industry. It also serves as a warning as to what may lie ahead.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Birch Aquarium: Island of the Great White Shark screens to a full house

On Tuesday, January 6th, the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in beautiful La Jolla, CA hosted a screening of Island of the Great White Shark. At the conclusion of the film I had the opportunity to discuss the film with the standing room only audience. The pressing issue of conservation and the value of eco-tourism were discussed along with the importance of understanding the shark's role in maintaining a balanced marine ecology.

My sincere thanks to the Birch Aquarium and its staff for promoting and managing what turned out to be a very successful evening (a special thanks to Lydia Cobb, Marketing Manager and Jessica Crawford, Communications Specialist). After a series of media interviews arranged by the Aquarium, the day of the event arrived and I was treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Aquarium and had a chance to sit down and discuss shark research with several of Scripps' top shark research grad students. It was very encouraging to hear about their efforts to learn more about these amazing animals so that we can take the proper steps to ensure their survival.

The Birch Aquarium plays a unique and vital role as a conduit through which the Scripps Institution of Oceanography can enlighten the public to many of the important marine issues being studied by this world renowned research organization - from climate change to marine wildlife conservation. The institution was established in 1903 and became a part of the University of California, San Diego a few years later. With a fleet of research vessels and state-of-the-art research facilities, the institution is one of the leaders in its field and has produced generations of accomplished research scientists and educators across a wide range of oceanographic disciplines.

Again, my thanks to the Birch Aquarium. If you are traveling in the San Diego area, carve out a few hours and stop by for a visit. It will be time well spent.

Shark Conservation Act: shark finning legislation re-introduced in U.S. Congress

Another piece of shark news that could prove to be a success if we all get behind it and push is the Shark Conservation Act (HR 81) recently introduced in the U.S. Congress. This piece of legislation closes a loophole in previous legislation - a loophole that was supposed to be taken care of by last year's HR 5741 which unfortunately stalled in the Senate until the session expired.

Re-introduced by Congresswoman Madeleine Bardallo (Guam), the Shark Conservation Act requires that all sharks taken in U.S. waters must have the fins naturally attached - Want the fins? Then you must take the whole animal.

Wait, you say! Isn't shark finning illegal in the U.S.? Well, yes and no. In Pacific waters, it is legal to transport fins as long as they were not finned aboard the vessel - a loophole that this legislation will close. The benefits of this legislation are two-fold:

  1. It will prevent shark finning in U.S. Pacific waters and possibly impact the practice outside of U.S. territorial jurisdiction.
  2. It will allow for better enforcement of existing regulations and improved management of the commercial fishing industry in the taking of sharks or shark-related products.
  3. A more subtle impact will be that boats will be financially pressured to reconsider the commercial value of taking sharks when they must fill hold space with the lower valued carcass along with the higher valued fins. This could in time, reduce the commercial take of sharks all together.
The Shark Conservation Act must make its way through the halls of Congress and on to the Senate for final passage and implementation. To motivate your congressperson, you can make your voice heard through's Wavemakers web page which will forward your personal email to your elected representative. Here's the link.

Let your voice be heard!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dr. discontinuing use of shark squalane

Back in August, I posted information about Dr. Susan Lark, an online entrepreneur engaged in selling moisturizers that contained shark squalane (see previous post). took the lead in putting pressure on Dr. Lark and her organization to opt for a substitute squalane derived from olives.

Here's some good news I received today from Elizabeth Griffin, Marine Wildlife Scientist at
"It's taken nearly a year of constant pressure, but we've finally convinced Dr. Susan Lark to sell cosmetic products containing squalene derived from olives rather than deep sea sharks. More than 15,000 of you contacted Lark, telling her it was unconscionable to sacrifice already at-risk shark populations for the sake of beauty.

First she claimed her product was okay because the sharks used were bycatch of the orange roughy fishery. When we pointed out the error in this logic, she then claimed the source was "sustainably fished" sharks from the Mediterranean. When it became clear that we weren't buying her excuses, or her beauty products, she finally agreed to change her product line. We are happy to report that the first new product is currently in development."

Kudos to Oceana for their dedication, to all those who sent email messages, and to the Dr. Susan Lark organization for finally seeing the light by placing species endangerment ahead of personal beauty.

One step at a time, folks. But we're moving forward.

California Brown Pelicans: found inland disoriented or dying

There is a mystery brewing in Southern California regarding brown pelicans that have local conservation groups baffled. These local sea birds that are often seen cruising in long lines low over the water's edge are now being found inland dead or dying, in a state of disorientation and extreme fatigue.

Wildlife experts say that these birds are subject to similar symptoms in the spring and summer months due to algae toxins like domoic acid, sometimes found in phytoplankton blooms or high algae growth fed by partially treated waste (see previous posting) - but not in January.

Bird rescuers have sent blood samples and carcasses to laboratories for testing and an answer will hopefully be found soon. Unfortunately, there is no "cure" for algae toxins like domoic acid; either the animal survives it or is permanently impaired or dies. Other theories range from low tolerance to toxins from previous exposures to ingestion of fire retardants and other chemicals as a result of rain runoff from areas damaged by recent fires.

"Pelicans have been hammered over the years by oil spills, DDT, domoic acid, fishing line, gunshots, starvation and parasites - we're experts at dealing with those problems," said David Weeshoff of the International Bird Rescue Research Center . "But right now, we're scratching our heads over the cause of this event. Not a good deal." (Read more.)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Chicken Soup: a quick read in support of the oceans

I just finished a delightful book I received over the holidays from my daughter: Chicken Soup for the Ocean Lover's Soul. Part of the famous series of "Chicken Soup" books with motivational stories and essays assembled by Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen, this volume was published in 2003 and includes ocean artist Wyland as a contributing editor, with pictures of many of his works included.

Using a wide range of contributors - from Dr. Bob Ballard and Dr. Sylvia Earle to the late Warren Iliff of the Aquarium of the Pacific and Wyland himself - the book covers topics including "Living in Harmony", "Courage and Adventure" and "Saving the Sea." While these books might be a bit syrupy for some, this volume does serve to remind us all of one very positive and uplifting thought: we are all connected to the sea; it is the ultimate mother of all life on this planet.

One quote by Jacques Cousteau used in the book, struck me as being very timely though it was probably said some years ago:
"For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it."

Chicken Soup for the Ocean Lover's Soul
- a quick read and time well spent.

Florida's Softshell Turtle: a target for Asian market demand

Along with shark fins for soup and bluefin tuna for sashimi, another aquatic animal that has been impacted by Asian consumer demand is the freshwater softshell turtle. With the boom in Asian economics, the demand for this oriental delicacy (and it's use as a homeopathic medicine) has skyrocketed to the point where populations of softshell turtles in Asian countries including China, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia have all been wiped out.

So, who is meeting this escalating demand? Sunny, fun-filled Miami. That's right, Florida is one of the leading exporters of softshell turtles, shipping them to Los Angeles or San Francisco for export overseas. One Florida seafood dealer alone processes up to 20,000 pounds a week - approximately several thousand turtles.

Federal laws that protect endangered turtle species do not extend to Florida's softshell species and while states like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Mississippi have prohibited or severely limited harvesting of these turtles, the only regulation in effect in Florida is a temporary 20-turtle-a-day limit. With the number of licensed commercial fisherman in the state that still equals an annual harvest of more than a million turtles.

The battle wages between those who seek to prohibit or limit the commercial catch and the those who support the commercial industry and their need to catch a sufficient number so as to be profitable. Once again, it's the conflict of short term economic goals vs. sensible long term environmental policy. Remember, it's only man that considers the economic impact of limiting the harvesting of a limited natural resource; Nature does not care to hear the economic arguments. It only reacts to what is being imposed upon it.

"They've been around for hundreds of millions of years and have survived climate change and lots of other things," says Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity. "And now we're about to eat them out of existence - in the blink of an eye, biologically speaking."

Friday, January 2, 2009

Nature and the Seas: steps forward and challenges in 2009

Covering a range of conservation and environmental issues, here are a few success from 2008, compliments of the World Wildlife Fund:
  • Sumatran elephant and tiger habitat protected in Indonesia, doubling the size of Sumatra's Tesso Nilo National Park.
  • U.S. Congress extended tax incentives for individuals and businesses to install renewable energy systems and build energy-efficient buildings.
  • United States became first country to prohibit import and sale of illegally-sourced woods - the loss of which has impacted forest animal habitats.
  • U.S. House of Representatives passed the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act, to protect lions, leopards, cheetahs and other imperiled species.
  • The House also passed important legislation to protect tropical forests and coral reefs. Similar legislation passed a key senate committee.
Now, turning to our oceans, here are some challenges we face in 2009:
  • Overfishing - We are still faced with losing most commercial fish species within 40 years (swordfish and tuna populations have already been reduced by a whopping 90%). The Magnuson-Stevens Act must be implemented. (Info on the M-S Act.)
  • Bycatch - Commercial fishing still discards up to one million tons of fish each year, not to mention the countless numbers of marine mammals, turtles, and more. (Previous post on subject.)
  • Sea Turtles - Even though listed as endangered or threatened in U.S. waters, sea turtles are still exposed to harm from fisheries and loss of nesting and foraging habitat. (More info on sea turtles.)
  • Sharks - The slaughter continues, up to 100 million sharks per year. While governments need to exercise greater effort in management and/or prohibition of species, continued efforts must be made to enhance public awareness and reduce demand for shark products. (Previous post on subject.)
  • Seafood Contamination - Mercury levels in many types of seafood is increasing. Government efforts must be increased to curb industry's use or disposal of this dangerous neurotoxin. (Mercury calculator for seafood.)
  • Climate Change - We are continually learning more about the man-made effects of global warming, not only in terms of increased temperatures, but in its many byproducts like ocean acidification. And we are finding that the effects, like changes in Arctic, are accelerating faster than previous models predicted. (Previous post on subject.)
  • Offshore Drilling - Many moratoriums on offshore drilling are set to expire soon. Before billions of dollars are spent to extract a diminishing resource, governments need to pressure the energy industries in refocusing their efforts. The U.S. needs a coherent energy policy based on long-term, not short-term, goals. (Previous post on subject.)
Time to roll up our sleeves, everyone.