Friday, February 27, 2009

Central for Biological Diversity: legal eagles getting the job done

So recently, I put up two postings (Fri. 2/20 & Sat. 2/21) on different conservation organizations, commenting on the different strategies or tactics taken by groups who feel their efforts would be best served by either educating the next generation or partaking in eco-terrorist activities. In the end, nature is best served when there are concrete results.

One organization that I have mentioned in the past, is gaining more and more influence and attention by focusing on the strategy of legal engagement, through legal petition or law suit. The Center for Biological Diversity has been affecting change through legal means and their results to date have been impressive. Cases in point, from their latest e-newsletter:

For the threatened Canadian Lynx, its federally protected habitat in the U.S. was increased from 1,841 to 39,000 square miles. CBD, along with Defenders of Wildlife, filed suit to protect the lynx under the Endangered Species Act (it's limited protection was initiated by a now disgraced former official influenced by commercial timber interests).

CBD and other organizations filed numerous suits regarding the 11th hour moves by the previous administration to gut the Endangered Species Act. A bill has now been introduced in Congress that will allow the Obama administration to more quickly rescind those moves - in particular those that denied the use of global warming as a cause for listing a species, like the polar bear, as endangered.

Even the little guys get some attention: the Northern Rockies Fisher, a rare relative of the weasel whose numbers have dwindled due to logging and trapping is receiving CBD support with a scientific petition filed to gain protection under the Endangered Species Act.

CBD, along with over 20 other groups, submitted a petition with over 19,000 signatures in support of measures to protect Arizona's Verde River from proposed pumping for new large development projects. Petition requests the consultation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine and counter potential negative ecological effects.

The Center for Biological Diversity is one of a growing number of organizations that are taking a decidedly proactive position and do so not by fighting the legal system but by getting it to work for them. The challenges can be clearly identified, the actions can demonstrable, and the results can be clearly measured. Now that's progress.

Go get 'em, CBD!

Marine Protected Areas: are they the hoped for success?

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and No Take Reserves (NTRs) have been instituted worldwide, from the South China Sea to the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean, as a method to not only preserve marine environments but also provide a means to ensure a reasonable population outside of the zone for commercial fishing. While common sense might dictate that these zones would logically improve the health of a marine environment, there are many challenges in empirically proving it.

While an MPA or an NTR may have a defined boundary, those limits have not been, shall we say, "communicated" to the marine life below the surface and so spatial density, or spillover as it is sometimes called, becomes a critical component. A healthy zone that generates populations of species that extend beyond its borders and provides a reasonable commercial yield, does not do so in a vacuum. There must be a proper flow of incoming influences including plankton, coral, and fish larval stages and other biosystem factors - all of which pay no attention to a zone's arbitrary boundaries.

While preliminary results appear positive, there is a considerable amount of challenging research taking place:
  • Studying the impact of political/public use influences on the size (reduction) of a zone versus initial environmental recommendations (preliminary research indicates the negative effect is disproportionately larger than the amount of size reduction).
  • Researchers are often challenged by a lack of extensive baseline studies of ecosystems prior to the zone for use in evaluating against post-zone studies.
  • Much research needs to be done to document the relationship/effect of multiple MPAs or NTRs and how they interact with each other.
To date there have not been any major negative ecological effects attributed to MPAs and NTRs, but let's hope with more research over time, we will have the body of data to undeniably prove their effectiveness and how we can maximize or improve on that success for both environmental and commercial interests.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Arctic Methane: from theory to harsh reality

In mid-December of last year, I posted information regarding the potential for climate change in the Arctic to allow for the release of possibly vast amounts of methane gas from warming permafrost. The info came from scientific and academic journal articles and posed a serious but little publicized consequence of global warming.

It looks like the issue caught the eye of mainstream media with an article in last Sunday's edition of the Los Angeles Times. What caught the attention of the Times was research taking place in Alaska and Siberia that documents the actual effect that was once theorized.

Melting permafrost is producing sinkholes that fill with water and rapidly become ponds which ultimately merge into small lakes. In these bodies of water organic matter decomposes and releases methane - a greenhouse gas considered to be more potent than many of the other gases, like CO2, that are typically known to the public. Scientists have found streams of methane bubbles emanating from these lakes and have actually been able to ignite these bubbles streams to form a "methane flare."

The extant of the impact of Arctic methane gas is not completely clear at this time, so research will continue in Alaska and Siberia, funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA. But Alaskans have seen the effect of warming permafrost with houses collapsing and trees falling from softened soil. It has been estimated that repairs to affected schools, roads and bridges will cost $6 billion over the next two decades.

In December, I described the issue as a potential land mine right under our feet. It may becoming harder to watch where we step. Time to act.

Click here for online L.A. Times article and excellent video.

Monday, February 23, 2009

McDonalds & Shark Conservation: advertising that misses the mark

My friend and long time advocate for shark conservation, Melanie Marks CEO of Shark Trust Wines, is taking on McDonalds regarding a radio commercial that apparently perpetuates the myths and misconceptions regarding great white sharks. Here was her initial salvo aimed at the McDonalds corporate headquarters:

"I recently heard a radio commercial for McDonald's that referenced the great white shark. More specifically, it promoted McDonald's at the expense of the great white. Sickened would not begin to describe how I felt about McDonald's when I heard this commercial.

The great white shark is on the endangered species list. It's population has declined by roughly 80% in the last 15 years and is expected to become extinct within the next several decades unless something is done to reverse this trend. In light of that, how can McDonald's approve an ad that contributes to the negative, and incorrect, image of this animal. Clearly, someone did not do their homework! A great leader once said, if you are not part of the solution than you are part of the problem.

I request that you immediately remove these extremely ignorant and inflammatory commercials from the air. I am prepared to organize a boycott of McDonald's if you do not do so immediately. And, to give you a sense of the power behind this statement, 30 million viewers tuned into Discovery Channel's Shark Week last year because they are interested in the fate of the shark.

I am an active voice in the ocean conservation community and I am not opposed to using that voice to send a message to McDonald's that your advertising campaign is malicious and contributing to the extinction of one of the great ocean animals.

I request that you respond to my request within 5 business days, or I will have no choice but to begin a PR campaign against McDonald's for your slander of an endangered animal."

Melanie Marks
Shark Trust Wines

RTSea Note: As a followup, Melanie has said she has received word from McDonalds requesting a few days to look into the matter, suggesting it might be a regional ad coming from a local agency. The ad apparently refers to great whites sharks as "killing machines" and promotes the Big Mac as able to take on the great white. Melanie is very well connected within the shark conservation community and can rally the troops if need be.

If we are to change the underlying mindset of people regarding sharks then we must address the perpetuation of false stereotypes and misconceptions, no matter whether used in earnest or jest. Let's hope McDonalds does not choose to blithely dismiss Melanie's concerns.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Moray Eels: feeding science fiction-style

For those of you who don't read National Geographic, here's an interesting "fun fact" from the latest March issue. . . You think the slimy villain from the Alien movies is the only creature with a second set of jaws? Well, how about the Moray Eel?

Many divers are familiar with the moray's threatening display of sharp teeth - a pose that comes about from the eel's breathing, as it doesn't have large flapping gill structures like bony fishes - and that these rear-facing teeth are designed to hold fast to its prey. But did you know that it has a second set of jaws that spring forward and assist in pulling the prey down its esophagus? This all takes place deep in the eel's throat and though it seems like something right out of a sci-fi thriller, it's actually a very efficient method of food transport for an animal that doesn't have the ability to gulp food down - like the vacuum motion you see with many other fish.

National Geographic reported that researchers from the University of California at Davis have
studied this ability using x-ray and high-speed video (see photo) and it is apparently the first known mechanism of its kind in a vertebrate. Snakes get close, with hinged jaws that can slowly ratchet their prey down the gullet, and it's an example of evolutionary convergence - the development of a similar solution between animals facing the same problem.

As a volunteer diver at the Aquarium of the Pacific, me and my fellow team mates would feed the aquarium's eels and watch how they would grab a large sardine or squid perpendicular, turn it towards their throat and then down it would go without any help from the front teeth. A second set of jaws . . . who knew? Well, obviously somebody in Hollywood did!

Article also on online National Geographic.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Eco-Terrorism: ultimately effective or self-destructive?

As a contrasting followup to yesterday's posting on EarthEcho International, it was reported in the Australian media that the Steve Irwin, the vessel currently used by the Sea Shepherd organization to harass Japanese whaling ships, was boarded by Australian police when it docked at Hobart, Tasmania yesterday. The police confiscated the log book, all video footage and photographs, various documents and the crew was confined to the ship. The footage was to be used for episodes of Animal Planet's Whale Wars series which has been documenting the eco-terrorist activities of Sea Shepherd.

Sea Shepherd's actions - ranging from positioning the ship in the path of the whalers to throwing rancid butter at exposed whale meat to accusations of ramming ships and endangering lives - represents one extreme end of the conservationist spectrum and one that many conservationists question as to its ultimate effectiveness. I'm sure that many of Sea Shepherd's members are sincere in their positions and probably feel that their actions are the only option available to them. But to many, it is questionable as to whether extreme protests - as seen with timber eco-terrorists planting metal spikes in trees (which injure or kill the lumberjacks when their saws hit the spikes), or spraying graffiti on SUVs, or even the bombing of an abortion clinic - actually accomplish anything substantial in addressing the issue at hand.

Those organizations that operate at the far end of the conservation spectrum are viewed as terrorists and criminals by government and international regulatory agencies;
are largely ignored by other mainstream conservation groups who hold their opinions in reserve, knowing that the fringe groups typically self-destruct from their own theatrics; and are seen as publicity stunt-seeking whackos by the general public.

In the end, the real progress that is made in ocean conservation comes from scientific research and data and political diplomacy which garners broad public acceptance and motivates the decision-makers to act. It may be painfully and frustratingly slow, but it's how the ball gets moved down field.

Read article from Australia's The

Friday, February 20, 2009

EarthEcho International: carrying on the Cousteau tradition

There are several terrific non-profit conservation organizations (NGOs) doing good work in the name of ocean conservation. While often involved in many facets of marine issues, each organization tends to focus their energies where their particular expertise can do the most good: political, scientific, education, activism, and so on.

For many of us, our initial exposure to the oceans was through the work of Jacque-Yves Cousteau - his expeditions, films, and books and the organization or marine conservation empire that he built. With his passing, the ocean movement lost a recognizable celebrity figure head and the Cousteau organization slowly devolved into different factions, each with their own skills and accomplishments, but perhaps none as powerful as the original.

EarthEcho International is an environmental media and education non-profit founded by Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau (children of Philippe Cousteau, Sr. and grandchildren of Jacque-Yves Cousteau). In existence for several years, it is slowly coming into its own and beginning to flex its muscle. While involved in efforts to motivate governments to initiate better ocean policies, one of its goals to better educate the general public, in particular the youth, as they will be the next inheritors and caretakers of the planet.

Youth likes its heroes and icons, so keep an eye on Philippe. He is a young face with a famous heritage that could prove to be an important figure in reaching young people worldwide to embrace environmental issues and set new directions in public thinking. EarthEcho International has assembled an interesting group of advocates and educators. Let's wish them well for the future.

Learn more at the EarthEcho International web site.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Scientists Confer: signs of progress in ocean conservation

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently concluded in Chicago and one of the results of the meeting was a recognition of progress in several areas of ocean conservation, particularly regarding fishery management in developing areas and coral reef health in protected or managed areas.

Several areas were cited for improved sealife populations due to effective fisheries management including Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Vanuatu. These regions were able to develop management programs that involved local communities in determining and managing protected areas. One of the challenges being faced is in "mid-development" countries - countries that have a growing commercial need for fishing but do not have the infrastructure in place to effectively manage their ocean resources. Poorer nations do not have the commercial means to severely impact their local sealife populations whereas well-developed countries have the required infrastructure in place to implement and enforce management policies. In between are the transitional mid-development countries that need both large bureaucratic and local community involvement - and there are places that have done that successfully.

"One of the things that we’re seeing that is giving me some signs of hope is that in many places throughout the Western Indian Ocean, there’s a real trend toward co-management. We’re seeing a very big devolution of power of managing of coastal resources from centralized governments toward communities," said Josh Cinner, social scientist from James Cook University. "There are some instances where you see examples of blending customary management and contemporary management. Where we do see this happening, we see great success—places like Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where there is considerably more fish inside of these community-managed areas."

During the annual meeting, it was also noted that healthy reef marine ecosystems have been shown to better withstand changes in their environment (temperature change, coral bleaching, etc.) - much like a healthy individual's ability to better ward off diseases due to good health that builds a strong immune system. The Pacific's Northern Line Islands were cited as an example and broader success is hoped for as these islands are within the larger U.S. National Marine Monument recently established.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Scuba Divers: be part of the solution, or you're part of the problem

As a scuba diver for some 25 years or so, I have had the opportunity to dive in a variety of locales and have, over the years, seen some significant changes in various aspects of marine ecosystems - from reef degradation to reduced fishlife to encroaching pollution and man-made debris. So, I have tried to be a thoughtful diver while also trying to enlighten as many people as possible to the many issues challenging our world's oceans, often through my volunteer diving at aquariums and through public speaking.

Scuba divers can serve as ambassadors for marine conservation as they have a unique perspective having been active participants, shall we say. They have seen the ocean's beauty firsthand; they have witnessed its complexities - these are not alien experiences, gleamed from a book or dreamt about. And because we divers take benefit from what the ocean has to offer us then we have a responsibility to do what we can to preserve it. We must not choose to cede it all to the activists or the decision-makers, assuming that they can carry the ball without our help.

When I am speaking to groups about marine conservation, often in regards to shark conservation, I occasionally run across a diver or two who are a bit worn out from all the eco-preaching. They just want to dive and leave the "save the seas" stuff to someone else. Sorry, but that ship has sailed. We all must chip in and do our part: know what's going on, get involved in some capacity if only just to let your voice be known; otherwise you risk being as selfish a consumer of the seas as those who have been labeled as the worst of abusers.

After all, what are you there for? To see vibrant sealife, healthy reefs, lush kelp forests? Or do you just want to experience the cool features on the latest dive computer or fashionable wet suit? To those divers who are committed to preserving the earth's oceans - many, many thanks. To the uncommitted - be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Arctic Industrial Fishing: hands off for now

With the effects of climate change becoming more apparent above the Arctic Circle, commercial interests - ranging from fishing, drilling, and shipping - are lining up to take advantage of reduced sea ice and more open seas year-round. But do we take a more prudent course and allow scientific research to take place first to determine what, if any, detrimental effects may occur? A step in that direction is coming to pass regarding industrial fishing (large scale commercial fishing).

The North Pacific Fishing Management Council (NPFMC), a government council affiliated with NOAA, recently voted unanimously to prevent the expansion of industrial fishing in U.S. waters north of the Bering Strait. This establishes one of the largest precautionary measures in the history of fisheries management.

Warming water temperatures are pushing many fish species northward and with the associated melting sea ice, there will be tremendous pressure from commercial fishing operations to move into these northern regions. However, we are just now seeing the effects of climate change but do not have the scientific data to accurately document the implications on indigenous human and wildlife populations or other ecosystems - particularly from the possible effects of increased commercial operations. This recommendation from the NPFMC provides time to study Pandora's box before we open it.

The NPFMC's recommendation is both prudent and bold. The National Marine Fisheries Service will need to review/approve the recommendation before submitting for federal approval by the end of the year. It is expected to move forward, based on the new political climate in Washington with a new administration, and it could serve as a template for other future policies regarding international conservation of the Arctic Circle.

Read a press release from Oceana.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Whaling in Japan: Japanese activists find resistance at home

Much of the challenge in addressing shark conservation issues with Asian countries centers on the strength of the cultural history behind the use of shark products. This is also true with the efforts to curtail whaling in Japan. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times addresses these challenges that range from a society that has long valued seafood and whale products to cherished beliefs in trust in government and commercial enterprises.

Many of you are probably aware of the number of whales taken by Japan in the Antarctic region under the auspices of "lethal research." Many conservation organizations consider this a fraudulent loophole in international whaling regulations, allowing Japan to continue to take whales to meet the demands of a few coastal villages and upscale restaurants.

Generally, those opposing Japanese whaling have been from the United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand and much of their efforts are met with resistance because they are viewed as outsiders in what is perceived as an internal policy decision. Additionally, the actions of more extreme radical groups like Sea Shepherd and the less radical Greenpeace seem to exacerbate the problem and, in a culture that prizes polite discourse, complicates diplomatic efforts.

Enter into the picture,Toru Suzuki and Junichi Sato, two Japanese activist members of Greenpeace who have been trying to bring the issue to the attention of their fellow countrymen in Japan. Last spring, the two uncovered a shipment of whale meat bound for the black market and sourced from a ship sanctioned under the government's whale research/non-profit policy. With a subsequent news conference, the two activists hoped for media support to bring the issue into the open but, instead, found themselves arrested for theft and, according to their lawyers, have experienced prolonged confinement and harassment.

Japan is an interesting culture. With a centuries-old dependence on seafood, combined with an ingrained trust in the integrity and support of government and commercial institutions, getting the general populace to question or level any degree of scepticism regarding official policy can be daunting and met with considerable resistance not only from the government but also from the media.

"We expected the media to support us," said Toru Suzuki. "But they turned against us." "They [Suzuki and Sato] took a stand against national policy," defense attorney Yuichi Kaido said. "So they are being harshly punished."

Many of the advances in Asian shark conservation have come about from a more "top down" approach, where political and media-focused efforts have induced government officials or the commercial users of shark products to adopt more conservation-minded policies and prohibitions. It can be a diplomatically delicate and slow process. But, can what has succeeded in some Asian countries succeed in a country like Japan - a country with an ancient history in isolationism and devout trust in authority which still shadows their thinking in today's world? Two Japanese countrymen are finding that it may not be so easy to prove that the emperor has no clothes.

Read the Los Angeles Times article.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Birds in Flight: climate change is threatening their range

Many of the discussions regarding climate change revolve around the impacts seen at the opposing polar regions: the Arctic and Antarctic. Loss of animal habitat, encroachment by previously foreign animal and plant species - with these events we often consider what has happened or will happen in these areas as indications of future events in the more populated warmer regions of the earth.

But there are changes taking place right now in "our backyard" that can be documented as was recently done by the National Audubon Society regarding North American bird migrations and changes in their range or territory. The Society tabulated winter migration data over the past 40 years from 2,000 locations nationwide. The data shows that 58% of the 305 most common North American species have shifted their ranges northward and inland by an average of 35 miles. In a few cases, the distance was much greater, as with the purple finch, common in Missouri but now moving 300 miles north towards Canada.

"Too many people hear about melting glaciers and polar bears and conclude that the impacts of global warming are far into the future and far from home," said NAS president, John Flicker. "But the impact of climate change can be seen right now in the birds that are right outside our door - or not," referring to the possibility that many species may be unable to exist in new locations and extinction becomes a real possibility.

While there are those who debate the cause of climate change, man-made or cyclical, one thing is for sure: we must consider the implications of what is happening now and in the near future - before our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases take effect or before the next cyclical change, depending on your favored position. Birds are a crucial part of plant pollination and seed germination by virtue of the plants and insects they feed upon. How will these natural processes be impacted? How will those impacts affect the large agricultural areas we have come to depend on for fruits, vegetables, or grain?

We are faced with many unknowns and there is much to be studied and hypothesized - waiting until we have a definitive result may be too late as changes in nature can move deceptively slow but with tremendous momentum. Time to act. It's not just "for the birds."

Download National Audubon Society report.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ocean Glamour: take a break and enjoy the view

Okay, break time! It's always important to step back from the pressing issues we wrestle with regarding the environment and remind ourselves of its fundamental beauty. So, here are a few ocean shots to jog our memory . . .
  • Laguna Beach, California
  • Cup Coral, Red Sea
  • Garibaldi, Dead Man's Reef, California
  • And from my fellow photographer, Christie Fisher: Dolphins, Bahamas
  • Another shot from Christie: Yours truly filming a lemon shark
All photos copyrighted, digitally watermarked, and commercially available through RTSea.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Forage Fish: challenged to support aquafarming and the marine ecosystem balance

In previous posts I have referred to the challenges and potential of aquafarming. While it holds considerable promise in meeting the commercial demand for seafood, it is an industry in its infancy and is experiencing its technological growing pains as it addresses issues from parasite control to pollution from the waste products of concentrated, confined fish populations.

Another challenge cited in a recent issue of Annual Review of Environment and Resources has to do with the feeding of aquafarmed fish. Small to medium-size fish like anchovies, sardines, and mackerel - often referred to as forage fish - are being harvested in great numbers to feed poultry, pigs and other terrestrial animals. That puts enough pressure on the populations of forage fish as it is, but now there is the added pressure of supplying them to the growing aquafarm industry. This further deprives pelagic predators and many seabirds of a primary food source.

When I engage audiences in discussing the importance of apex predators like sharks, I often refer to the predator-prey pyramid. This hierarchy of survival is depicted as a pyramid because at the wide base of the pyramid are the plankton and small forage fish - available in large numbers because of a high reproductive rate - which serve as a foundation. And as you ascend up the pyramid to larger and larger predators, the pyramid narrows, representing nature's ability to control those populations through reduced reproductivity.

All well and good but as we continue to harvest more and more forage fish, which are relatively easy to catch, we begin to undermine the foundations of that pyramid. This not only impacts nature's balance and reduces the forage fish populations and potentially the animals that feed on them, but it also affects commercial demand and the price of forage fish can increase - which hampers developing nations who rely on forage fish for food and to build aquafarming as a viable alternative to other negative fishing practices.

As we jockey resources in an attempt to fulfill our needs, we may ultimately have to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room that we have tried to ignore: 6.7 billion people and rising.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Nanotechnology: small particles could cause big problems

The growth of Nanotechnology - the science of developing compounds at an extremely small, molecular level - has brought some interesting developments, from new pharmaceuticals to our odor-eating, anti-bacterial socks. But with the emergence of this new field there also has grown concerns that it might turn out to be a substantially sharp two-edge sword.

Many of these new nano-compounds can enter the environment and scientists are just beginning to see the implications. When these compounds enter aquatic ecosystems, the impacts may appear very subtle at first because the components of the ecosystem affected are they themselves quite small. Scientists are looking at the effects of nano-compounds like various metals or carbon-based particles on aquatic bacteria, algae, and small fish.

As an example, one recent study indicated that "carbon black nanoparticles" affect the fertilization of brown algae. And there is concern that the silver nanoparticles used as an odor-remover in socks can, when released through machine washing, impact the bacteria that is necessary in breaking down organic matter - a very important function in water treatment facilities, lakes, rivers, and oceans. When any aquatic system loses its ability to consume organic matter, you are looking at a major and probably fatal disruption of the entire balance of the ecosystem.

While we focus on aquatic pollutants that are more visible - like plastics, crude oil, and discharged chemicals, we must also hold commercial science responsible for the effects of even the smallest of compunds that are entering the water, land, and air. I have great faith in science, but whether for commercial or purely research purposes, it must be held to the highest standards in balancing the rewards versus the impact on the planet.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Earle: inspiring ocean explorer and advocate

I recently had the opportunity to meet and spend some time speaking with Dr. Sylvia Earle, world renowned oceanographer and a leading advocate for marine conservation. Currently, an explorer in residence with the National Geographic Society, Dr. Earle carries a distinguished list of aquatic accomplishments to her credit. Here are just a few:
  • She began her oceanic studies with botany, ultimately writing one of the definitive dissertations on aquatic plant life.
  • While men walked the moon, Dr. Earle led an all-women expedition team aboard Tektite II, an undersea research platform, spending two-weeks at 50 feet underwater off the Virgin Islands.
  • In 1979, she set a depth record for an untethered dive of 1,250 feet wearing the Jim Suit, a pressurized deep sea suit. Brought to the bottom sea floor off Oahu by the submersible Alvin, her 2-hour excursion remains a record unbroken to this day.
  • Started several companies responsible for the design and development of some of the world's most advanced deep sea submersibles used throughout the world.
  • A prodigious author of books on ocean exploration and a producer of documentaries with recognized filmmakers like Al Giddings.
  • In the 90's, was chief scientist for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Currently, Dr. Earle is the driving scientific force behind the latest version of Google Earth which now includes the oceans. And, with co-author Linda Glover, she has just completed an updated Ocean Atlas for National Geographic Publications, available in bookstores now. Like an aquatic Everyready bunny, she just keeps on going.

It was an obvious honor to meet such an accomplished individual, but what struck me most was her enthusiastic support for anyone doing anything to advance the cause of ocean education and enlightenment. My efforts to date regarding shark conservation or working with groups like InMER on climate change issues are small potatoes compared to what she has done, but you would never think it while you're in her presence. She wouldn't let you think it, encouraging you instead and egging you on to "get it done." A true inspirer comes not from what they have done, but from how they make you feel about what you can get done.

I have had the opportunity to meet several celebrities and accomplished individuals throughout my career. Some have been polite but curt, some have been major disappointments, and some have been people like Sylvia Earle - who make us feel good about our hopes and our dreams for a healthier ocean, a healthier planet.

Black Wolves: fur color suspected acquired from domesticated dogs

An interesting follow-up to my recent posting on timber wolves, research cited in the journal Science indicates that black wolves get their coat from cross-breeding with domesticated dogs - animals originally descended from wolves - that were bred for their dark coat some 50,000 years ago.

As the first humans crossed the Bering land bridge into North America some 15,000 years ago, they brought with them their dogs - the black dogs carrying a mutated gene, beta-defensin, that is part of a family of genes thought to aid in fighting infections. Apparently it was easier for the dogs to mingle with wild animals in North America than in Europe and so the black wolf has been exclusive to the forested Canadian Arctic and icy tundra.

More black wolves occur in the forested areas than in more open icy areas (67% occurance vs. 7% respectively), and that is thought to be because of the black fur's ability to help the wolf catch prey in the forest and the added help the beta-defensin gene provides the wolf in fighting infectious agents that occur primarily in the forest.

It serves as an interesting example of Darwin's theory of natural selection - once introduced into the species from domesticated dogs, the black fur trait slowly diminished where it did not serve to enhance survival of the species (black fur not necessarily being an advantage in the icy tundra and its infection-fighting ability being of less value in that region).
Read L.A. Times article.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mercury in Shark Fins: another strategy to move public opinion

On the shark fin soup front, U.S.-based WildAid has been making some progress, working with several Asian environmental NGOs and government agencies. It's a multi-faceted strategy that includes the arguments against the cruelty of shark finning, the shark's inability to counter the drop in its population due to its slow reproductive rate, and the importance of sharks in maintaining an overall healthy marine ecosystem.

These are arguments we have all heard before - or even used ourselves to enlighten others - and it seems to be bearing some fruit, as it continues to get plenty of attention with the Asian press, and several organizations - including a major new resort on Singapore's Sentosa Island - have stricken shark fin soup from the menu.

For those who are unimpressed or oblivious to the cruelty of shark finning and the impact of declining shark populations on marine ecosystems, there is another strategic tact available: alerting them to the impact on their own health.

As is the case with several other pelagic predators, the mercury level in sharks is very high - particularly in the fins as the cellular makeup of the tissue is one that bonds strongly with mercury. A recent test of 10 fin samples taken in Hong Kong showed that 8 samples contained unsafe levels of mercury. Other tests throughout Asia have shown similar results. Using the Mercury Calculator offered by, even the meat of the shark is exceedingly high in mercury (8 oz. delivers over 4x the amount considered safe by the EPA for a 165 lb. person).

In the body, mercury does not break down, so it accumulates in sharks who feed on contaminated fish over their 20 to 30+ year lifespan. The impact of mercury on children, the unborn, and adults - ranging from mental impairment, deformities, and worse - has been well documented.

Ironic that one of the factors that might protect sharks from our destructive fishing practices is a form of contamination that we ourselves imposed on the sharks. Looks like sharks have the means to bite us back without ever opening their jaws!

To learn more about WildAid's efforts to move public opinion regarding shark products, go to their web site or download their press kit.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

RTSea Imagery in New Google Earth: work for InMER included in latest version 5.0

This past Monday in San Francisco, I had the honor and pleasure to attend the unveiling of the newest version of Google Earth - which now incorporates the oceans as well. I was invited to represent the marine education and research organization InMER as a contributing partner to Google Earth. RTSea had provided video and photographic services during InMER's 2007 expedition to the Northwest Passage, above the Arctic Circle, and the resulting footage and images have been incorporated into the new Google Earth. (Previous postings on InMER and the Arctic: click here, here, and here.)

The unveiling took place at San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences with an A-list of dignitaries on hand including former Vice President Al Gore, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and world-renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Dr. Earle was the prominent champion and driving source of inspiration for this new version, having once teasingly described the original Google Earth to its creators as "Google Dirt, because you left out over 70% of the planet."

With the new version of Google Earth, users are able to zoom in on the Earth's seas and literally dip below the surface to see an incredible perspective of our water planet. Numerous icons appear that provide text, videos, images, and links to additional information. If you ever found yourself wandering the land and zooming in on details with the old Google Earth, this new version will really have you hooked. But it's more than just a gimmick. This new version represents a serious academic and research tool for both schools and scientists alike, with a variety of visual perspectives of the oceans and a tremendous amount of data that will continue to grow over time as new information is added.

I feel very fortunate to have some of my work available on such a broad worldwide information platform. I thank InMER's CEO and founder, Ed Cassano, and Google for the opportunity and I hope to be able to participate in future contributions to help advance the world's knowledge and appreciation of our oceans.

We need to understand and protect the planet's oceans. None of us would be here without them.