Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sharks and Turtles: the yin-yang of government action

The Yin: Sharks

Over the past months I have mentioned the progress of HR 81, the Shark Conservation Act that requires sharks to be landed whole with fins attached. This will allow for better enforcement and monitoring of shark catches. Additionally, it indirectly imposes on captains to re-think the value of shark as a catch, once they are no longer allowed to fill their holds with only higher-priced fins. It's U.S. legislation that helps the U.S. to encourage other nations to be leaders in shark conservation.

"The Shark Conservation Act will improve existing laws that were originally intended to prevent shark finning. This legislation will also allow the U.S. to take action against countries whose shark finning restrictions are not as strenuous, labeling the U.S. as a continued international leader in shark conservation," says Beth Lowell, Oceana federal policy director.

The legislation died on the floor of the Senate last year, but was reintroduced by Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) for this new session. Earlier this month it was passed by the House and has once again moved on to the Senate. This is the government moving in the right direction, so to ensure its final passage, take a moment and send an email or call the senator from your state. You can find contact information for your senator by clicking here.

The Yang: Sea Turtles

On the other hand, regarding the protection of sea turtles, particularly loggerhead and leatherback turtles in U.S. waters, the government - specifically the National Marine Fisheries Service - failed to respond to petitions filed to review their status as threatened or endangered species (many populations have dropped by as much as 80% through commercial fishing and/or loss of nesting habitats). Petitions must be reviewed within 12 months and as the NMFS failed to do this, they are in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The Turtle Island Restoration Network, Center for Biological Diversity, and Oceana have filed petitions to sue - once again taking proactive measures to break the government's legacy of indifference and inaction left over from the prior administration.

"It's time for the Obama administration to overturn the Bush policies of hostility and disregard toward endangered marine species. We are asking for immediate action based on the best available science to determine their current endangered status and better protect them by creating designated critical habitat," said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

What this all says is that government action is critical in protecting our natural resources, but it must be supported by diligence on the part of all of us, least specific issues fall through the cracks.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Blue Vision Summit: bringing together the players to spread the word

Earlier this month, the Blue Vision Summit was held in Washington D.C. This conference represented a coalition of several ocean conservation groups, government bodies, and scientific organization, coming together to forward an agenda of proactive steps regarding ocean issues. Over 400 recognized scientists, oceanographers, decision-makers, political influentials, representing over 200 organizations including NOAA, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and National Geographic to name a few.

The summit was the brainchild of the Blue Frontier Campaign, headed by David Helvarg, author and ocean activist. The Blue Frontier Campaign has a 10 point plan to generate greater proactive interest by the general public regarding ocean issues by harnessing the power of education and media communications of all types.

There are many worthwhile organizations making their best efforts regarding preserving our aquatic resources. Summits like this allow them to pool their collective brainpower and capabilities to speak with a more unified approach. There are enough well-intentioned organizations; sometimes what is needed is for the public to hear them as one voice. It will be interesting to watch what comes from this event over the months to come.

To learn more about the Blue Frontier Campaign, their 10 point plan, and what was accomplished at the recent Blue Vision Summit, check out their web site. Click here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hungry Oceans: new report on critical prey fish populations

This past Monday, I ran a post about aquaculture and the efforts to find alternatives for fish meal; one of the concerns being that the demand for fish meal is a contributing factor to the reduced populations of feeder fish (also known as prey fish or bait fish).

The loss of these smaller fish has a negative impact on the health of many other ocean animals in the food chain. These little guys are a major building block that is being severely chipped away.

Oceana has just released a detailed report on the subject. Hungry Oceans: What Happens When the Prey is Gone? takes a comprehensive look at the issue; examining the scope of the problem, the impact and implications, and - just so it's not all gloom and doom - the solutions.

"We're constantly making life difficult for endangered species from seabirds to whales, and going hungry is not going to help. Valuable fish like bluefin tuna are struggling, and we can't expect the fishery to recover when we are stealing their food supply. By taking food from the tuna we could end up hungry ourselves" said Margot Stiles, Oceana marine scientist.

We often focus on the big things that catch our eye and our attention: big whales, big sharks, big polar bears. But it can be the little things that can be our undoing.

Click here for an Oceana press release. The report is available from their web site home page.

From the Deserts to the Oceans to Outer Space: CBD takes it all on

Here's some interesting news items from the Center of Biological Diversity (CBD). This group is making more and more of an impression in the state and federal political hallways because they are not afraid to go for the judiciary jugular when necessary and initiate legal action on behalf of endangered animals and ecosystems. And they get results!

U.S. Jaguar Court Hearing
Exactly three weeks after the death of Macho B, the last known jaguar in the United States, this Monday a federal court heard oral arguments in the Center for Biological Diversity's bid to win a federal recovery plan and protected habitat areas for the endangered species. The hearing went very well. The judge peppered the government lawyer with difficult questions and clearly was skeptical of the agency's changing litany of arguments.

Though jaguars were declared endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1997 -- thanks to another Center lawsuit -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done nothing to recover the species or protect its habitat. In a cruel irony, the agency argues that it doesn't need to protect the jaguar because it's too endangered. That's right -- because the great cat's U.S. range has shrunk to near nothing, the agency argues it's too small to protect. Presumably, if the jaguar were less endangered, it would receive more protection?

Real Protection for False Killer Whale
Seeking an end to the slaughter of false killer whales in Hawaii, last week the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, and allies sued the National Marine Fisheries Service over its failure to protect the rare marine mammal from the state's longline fishery. For nearly a decade, false killer whales -- actually large members of the dolphin family -- have been getting hooked and entangled by Hawaii's longline fleet, dying at rates far beyond what the population, which numbers at only about 500, can sustain. The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the Fisheries Service to try to eliminate these deaths, yet even after a 2004 Earthjustice lawsuit by the Center and allies -- when the Hawaii-based fishery was ominously classified as "Category 1" due to its excessive killings of false killer whales -- the agency failed to act on the mammals' behalf.

San Francisco Bay-Delta Fish Protection
While the state of California is moving (slowly) toward safeguarding two of the San Francisco Bay-Delta's most imperiled fish, the longfin and delta smelt, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stalled on responding to petitions for protection -- so this week, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Bay Institute filed a notice of intent to sue. In 2007, the Center and allies petitioned the federal government and California to protect the longfin smelt, but the Bush administration didn't make a decision on protection by its August deadline. Way back in 2006, the Center petitioned to upgrade the delta smelt's federal and state Endangered Species Act status from threatened to endangered -- but 23 months after a decision was due, the feds still haven't responded. Luckily, California has been a bit more proactive, designating both fish as candidates for greater protections. But meanwhile, thanks to degraded conditions in the Bay-Delta caused by water diversions, pollution, and introduced species, both the delta smelt and the Bay-Delta population of the longfin smelt are fading fast.

The "smeltdown in the Delta" -- as the extinction trajectory of Bay-Delta smelts is known -- is on fast-forward, but despite court orders to clean up their act, federal and state water agencies are still mismanaging California's largest and most important estuary.

And here's an odd one . . .

Bat Blasts Off as Space-shuttle Stowaway
A small, daring free-tailed bat made one giant leap for batkind this month while clinging to the external fuel tank of the space shuttle Discovery -- and holding on for dear life even after liftoff. It's highly unlikely that the bat made it into space -- since the shuttle accelerates from zero to 100 miles per hour in 10 seconds after takeoff -- but in the photo of Discovery clearing the launch tower, the tiny creature is definitely visible on the side of the tank. Though the flight was probably fatal, the bat has made history and will live on in legend.

Unfortunately, even as we mourn the loss of the first "space bat," bats across the Northeast are experiencing an even scarier and not-at-all-entertaining demise thanks to the mysterious, deadly, and rapidly spreading bat disease known as white-nose syndrome. The Center is working to protect bats from all threats in the face of the devastating sickness, which just this month was confirmed to have spread to West Virginia.

You can learn more about these at the Center for Biological Diversity web site. Click here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lifestyle Magazine: UK magazine promotes sharks and shark documentary

It's always nice when sharks and shark conservation issues get some positive media attention. I was fortunate enough to contribute to an article on sharks for the UK-based Lifestyle Magazine, an online publication from CBL Media.

The magazine is an eclectic collection of timely and trendy topics for the more upscale individual. What makes it an interesting choice for discussing sharks, shark finning, et al, is that their readership represents people who might very well find themselves in situations where a choice could be made between shark fin soup or shark meat and some other alternative.

While preaching to the choir of conservationists is all well and good - keeping up morale, exchanging news, data, and ideas; it's also important to try to reach those who are in need of some enlightenment.

Many thanks to Lifestyle Magazine for bringing an important conservation issue to their readers' attention and for promoting my documentary, Island of the Great White Shark.

Click here to read magazine (shark article on pages 8-9).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Sea Change: important new film on ocean acidification

A while back, I posted info on ocean acidification. (Click here.) This is one of the great sleeper issues of the environmental movement and it could turn into a literal nightmare if ignored much longer. Ocean acidification - the raising of the ocean's pH level due to the absorption of CO2 emissions - can have profound effects on all marine life as it disrupts bone, shell, and reef development.

A new documentary has come out on the issue, A Sea Change, produced by Niijii Films. The film received exceptional response at the Washington D.C. Environmental Film festival and has been covered by C-Span:

Ocean acidification actually corrodes the very foundation of the marine ecology, which has a catastrophic impact on the entire food change. My congratulations to Niijii Films for taking on what is a critical issue to the long-term health of the oceans.

To learn more about the film and future screenings, visit their web site at www.aseachange.net.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Aquaculture News: greenhouse gas emmissions and fish meal substitutes

A lot of interesting discussions have come out of the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This one was reported in Science News and concerned the carbon footprint of aquaculture operations.

I am one of those who is a firm believer in aquaculture as a method to meet seafood demands without decimating wild populations, but it is in its infancy and is experiencing all of the growing pains associated with a new technological enterprise. According to the AAAS panel, in the growing/feeding process there are greenhouse gas emissions associated with the type of food used (in addition to harvesting/catching and shipping methods). Monitoring aquaculture operations in several countries, it was determined that when certain types of plant-based meal are introduced, there is a lower level of greenhouse gas emissions. However, not all plant-based meal produces positive results; wheat gluten or palm oil produced higher gas levels.

However, there are others hard at work at other possible beneficial substitutes. Reported in the Coloradoan, a Fort Collins brewery is developing a technique in which a portion of it's brewery waste products can be converted into a fish meal substitute. (Not sure if you end up with drunken fish, though!) The significance of finding a replacement for fish meal is due to the declining populations of anchovies and sardines. These "feeder fish" not only support the fish meal trade but are important prey items for larger fish, all the way up to tuna and dolphins (not to mention its value to low-income human populations).

There are those who say that fish raised on fish meal, as opposed to plant meal, tastes better. This may be due to the different oils found in each. According to the Fish Site, a Brazilian soybean processor is developing a technique for extracting oil from algae which would be high in omega-3 fatty acids, similar to fish meal. An acre of algae can produce up to 42,000 gallons of oil compared to only 210 gallons from an acre of soybean. The company is also looking into methods for capturing the CO2 emissions given off by the processing plant and directing it to the algae which uses it in photosynthesis.

With industrial open water fishing continuing to deplete fish populations worldwide, each stride to improve the efficiency and environmental impact of aquaculture is a great step forward.

Many thanks to Seaweb.org for the heads up on these news items.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Marine Life & Climate Change: possible species invasion & extinction

Seaweb.org recently reported on a study published in the journal Fish and Fisheries which provided projections as to marine species invasion and extinction due to climate change, specifically the increasing ocean temperatures. The projections were based on climate change models including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The results of William Cheung and his colleagues at Canada's University of British Columbia were also presented at a recent Chicago meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

What the report postulated was that with increasing ocean temperatures, many marine species would migrate towards the temperate to sub-polar regions. Extinctions would occur in tropical regions because of a species inability to migrate, while species in colder waters would be faced with both the same negative impact due to temperature increase plus the impact of invasive species (increased predation and competition). Semi-closed bodies of water (ex: the Mediterranean, the Red Sea), could experience high levels of extinction because of the species' inability to migrate due to geography.

The study pointed out the rate of extinction would be much lower than for terrestrial animals, the theory being that marine animals have a higher dispersal ability and can more easily migrate to suitable habitats. However, the impact by and to human populations can also enter into all of this in the form of decreased fishing in low income tropical economies - economies that depend on seafood on a very basic subsistence level, and in decreased fish populations in colder waters due to industrialized fishing for moderate to high income economies.

We often look to the Arctic and Antarctic for critical signs of climate change, indicators of profound changes. But we must realize it is a worldwide change which challenges all of nature, including man, on many different levels.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Canadian Harp Seals: remember, the hunt still continues

I received an email today from the Humane Society to remind me that the clubbing of harp seals in Canada for the fashion fur industry still continues to this day. This was a hot button issue at one point in the past, with activist organizations like Greenpeace getting physically involved, and yet it has somewhat fallen off the radar - an unfortunate victim of too many issues and too short an attention span.

Part of the Humane Society's strategy is to get a celebrity face involved, in this case, Cat Cora, executive chef for Bon Appetit magazine and founder of Chefs for Humanity - an excellent choice because of the Ms. Cora's and the Society's call to boycott Canadian seafood products as a form of protest.

How so? Because it represents a method for a broader audience to participate in and have a greater effect than if they chose not to purchase fashion fur. Face it, fashion fur appeals to a small, upscale market - a market, however, that is still fed by the loss of up to a million seals in the past four years. In contrast, Canadian seafood is consumed by a broader market and a successful boycott can send a stronger economic message.

And in the end, nothing legitimizes the opinions of the general public in the mind of commercial enterprise than when the bottom line is involved. To them, definitely money talks, bulls**t walks.

So, check out the Human Society's boycott campaign, include your voice if you feel it's right for you, and pass on consuming Canadian seafood as one way of showing that you care about issues, no matter how far past our intellectual expiration date they may be. Click here for more info.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Media and the Thrill-Seekers: a bad combination for shark ecotourism

I've been involved in some video editing and so, my apologies, I have been tardy on my posts.

There has been a significant buzz generated the past few days within the shark ecotourism community regarding a Today Show/MSNBC segment that ran on Monday regarding shark diving in the Bahamas - an area that has seen increasing reckless behavior on the part of some dive operators. And, unfortunately, that was the tone of the media piece, showing shark divers as thrill-seeking, adrenaline junkies. Whatever half-hearted attempt on the part of the leader of the trip to offer comments about moderate shark behavior was lost under the news commentator's slant of irresponsible thrill-seeking divers asking for trouble.

Well, in hindsight, they were asking for trouble. Shark diving neophytes, no cage available as a safety option, hand feeding, direct human-shark interaction (touching, grabbing) - that is a recipe for disaster.

In the past, I have commented on the thrill-seekers in shark diving and the difference between those who pay to see sharks (tourists, paying customers) and those who are paid to see sharks (scientists, filmmakers) - Click here and here. And with this latest round of negative media attention, there have been two excellent posts on the subject from my colleague, Patric Douglas of SharkDivers.com, and Fiji's Beqa Adventure Divers. (Click here for Patric's and here for Beqa's.)

Patric correctly describes the growing shark diving industry as having three legs: commercial, political, and conservation. Thrill-seeker operators focus on only the commercial aspect, using short-term gain strategies that ignore - or thumb their nose at - the political realities (government regulations, lawyers, insurance companies, etc.). It certainly does not help the long-term interests of shark ecotourism. In the next few weeks I'm going to be speaking with several California lawmakers regarding Isla Guadalupe's white sharks and some issues of concern between the Mexican government and San Diego dive operators. And thanks to this recent media attention, I know I will be having to do a lot of backpedaling before I can move the agenda forward.

But conservation also plays a key role in the future of ecotourism. Working with marine scientists and educators, shark ecotourism must play an active role in supporting research studies and focusing their reason for existence on the preservation of our dwindling shark populations. The thrill-seeking approach will ultimately run afoul of the political and ecological trends that are growing, but I am afraid those punitive actions will be broad and impact shark ecotourisim as a whole.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Living Oceans Foundation: coral reef research with a royal benefactor

If you are a member of the Saudi royal family with seemingly untapped riches thanks to the industrialized world's dependence on oil, how do you spend your sizable wealth? Some choose to invest in luxury developments, others choose to lead an opulent lifestyle, while others choose to invest in world markets. But one has chosen to invest in coral reefs.

The Living Oceans Foundation, an NGO based in Landover, Maryland (U.S.), was founded in 2000 and supported by Saudi Arabian Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz who was first fascinated by undersea life as a boy studying sea fossils in the desert. Becoming an avid scuba diver in later years fueled his appreciation for the need to preserve the seas for future generations.

The foundation operates under the vision of Science without Borders (r) - a concept whereby scientists from different countries are brought together to study marine ecosystems and work hand in hand to solve the challenges that face our oceans, recognizing that what impacts one part of the world impacts the entire planet. Nature does not recognize political borders - neither should science.

The foundation is preparing for an extensive study of the world's coral reefs beginning in 2010, having secured interest from some of the world's leading sites for coral reefs including Australia, the Bahamas, Colombia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Fiji, Indonesia, Palau, Madagascar and others. Through the Royal Prince's financial support, the foundation is assembling an impressive array of support equipment including a 220-foot research vessel complete with seaplane and an extensive Geographic Information System database and Compact Airborne Spectrographic Imager for mapping coral reefs.

Let's wish the Living Oceans Foundation success not only with their upcoming coral reef research project but with the concept of Science without Borders. We are all wrestling with understanding the impact of and accepting a global economy; we must also add the importance of a global view to scientific research that benefits the planet.

Click here to learn more.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sharks and the Media: another casualty

Several months back, an unfortunate incident took place where several free-divers spearfishing and filming in the Gulf of Mexico were approached by a large tiger shark whose moves were perceived as aggressive and so began a long and tortuous (for the shark) adventure to kill the offending animal. The incident is now getting wide media attention on morning talk/news shows and several online news sources - once again perpetuating the evil shark mythos.

My colleague, Patric Douglas, CEO of Sharkdivers.com, posted a comprehensive op-ed on his blog. Dead on, no need for me to say more.

Shark Kill - The "Sin of Media"

Friday, March 13, 2009

Last month we blogged about an Outside Magazine article called Ready, Aim, Sushi. The story was about a group of professional spearos caught in a "life and death" moment with a large tiger shark.

Shark Perceptions

At the time we wanted to know more and called Ryan McInnis who shot much of the video of this tragic event. Ryan was upset about this, in his world the killing of a tiger had never happened and according to him it was unavoidable.

In fact none of these free divers had ever encountered a tiger at this site.

Some of the video supports Ryans claim that this animal was ready to attack - from his perception. A large tiger coming in danger close, frantic voices can be heard in the distance. To others in our industry who have had 100's of hours with tigers this video shows nothing more than a curious animal.

For a spearo who has never encountered a tiger having an animal this large come within six inches, head on, might be considered a prelude to an attack, justifying a kill.

That fact of "justified kill" remains debatable depending on your perception of sharks. As this story has blown up in the media those with many hours of experience with tigers are calling foul, or worse. Those with many hours of experience are in the absolute minority as well, and come to the table with a full understanding of these animals under a range of conditions that few in the general populace understand.

The Sin of Media

What I think is more to the point in this discussion is not what happened, or even why it happened, it is the "Sin of media". This absolutely sad story about a split second perception of a large predatory sharks "intentions" was well documented by the spearos. In fact one might argue too well documented. As these spearos recount, the final death of this animal took two hours, after six shafts were put into the shark, it was dragged behind the vessel, and finally was put to rest with a dive knife to the brain. Horrific.

In my opinion, where this group goes completely wrong, nine months after the event, is to appear on major news channels to recount their stories. In effect being used by a biased anti-shark media to regurgitate a man vs shark 70's story that pushes the perception of sharks back into the stone age. The "Sin of media". There's really no point for being on television with this story but for the two minutes of fame it generates.

This story has been picked up by the British tabloids and has migrated to the US where these spearos are on the morning talk shows and CNN. The "Sin of media" is taking a negative shark event and allowing it or promoting it to a wider audience, where sharks are once again seen in the worst light.

Did these guys stage the whole thing? They might have. In my conversation with Ryan he was verbally upset and even broke down on the phone. If they staged the event - why wait nine months to get major media attention?

I keep coming back to the "Sin of media". These guys documented an unusual event in great depth. They killed a tiger they felt was going to attack. All of that is horrific enough. The real sin is showing this to the world with the perception that tigers in close proximity are "going to attack".

Shark Diving Industry

Industry members are outraged as we suggested they would be last month. We know the worlds perception of sharks is ultimately negative, and these stories serve to cement that perception into the zeitgeist. As an industry we can help change this, media is not a one way street. We need more pro-shark 2 minutes PSA's on You Tube and elsewhere. We need more pro-shark dive media everywhere. We need effective counters to media stories like this when they break, from credible sources.

If we want to see change to the perception of sharks, we have to make that change. Getting in front of the major media with our own pro-shark stories would be a good first start.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Earth Hour 2009: lights out on March 28th

Another NGO-sponsored event is World Wildlife Fund's Earth Hour 09, coming up this March, 28th. This is an event where, starting at 8:30pm local time, for one hour we turn off the power - your lights, your TV, your iPod. What began as a Sydney, AU-only statement of concern in 2007, became a global event in 2008. It's a symbolic gesture to show worldwide interest and support for curbing our insatiable demand for resources and the toll it is taking on the climate and the environment as a whole.

Now, there are those who dismiss these symbolic gestures as merely jumping on the bandwagon to feel good about ourselves for a brief moment before firing up the flat screen and revving up our SUVs to pick up more soda in the plastic liter bottles. Well, in terms of concrete proactive measures, they may have a point to some extant.

But generating public awareness is a fundamental step toward solid action, so let's hope that Earth Hour 09 is a bigger success than ever before. And hopefully, after the lights come back on, there will be data to show just what that brief respite meant in terms of emissions saved, resources saved, and more.

To learn more about Earth Hour 09, click here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ocean Conservancy's 2008 Coastal Cleanup Day: here's the dirt

For several years the Ocean Conservancy has been holding the International Coastal Cleanup Day in late September. On that day, people, from scuba divers to beachcombers, clean up beaches, shorelines, and local dive sites, collecting trash that is measured and listed in several categories - not only is it important to pick the trash up, but it is equally important to understand what kind of trash is making its way into our coastal waters.

For 2008, 400,000 participated worldwide and collected 6.8 million pounds of trash - that's 3,400 tons in one day! In terms of sheer numbers, the biggest culprits were cigarettes, plastic bags, and food wrappers/containers. Some items were perhaps not so surprising, like 1.3 million cigarette butts in the United States; others were a bit of a surprise, like over 11,000 diapers in the Philippines - even small countries can generate lots of trash from today's "modern convenience" items.

The Ocean Conservancy has issued several summary reports. There's an executive summary or the full report available in PDF (click here). As far as solutions go, the report offers several but nothing that is new or unique - it doesn't take a unique solution to fix what is an obvious problem: public and commercial participation, more recycling, better coastal management. Here are 10 suggestions from the Ocean Conservancy for any individual to consider:
Number 1 Volunteer for Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup.
Number 2 Put trash in a secure, lidded receptacle - most marine debris starts out on land.
Number 3 Properly recycle everything you can in your area.
Number 4 When boating, bring your trash back to shore, and ask your marina to handle waste properly.
Number 5 Less is more: Don't buy stuff you don't need, and choose items that use less packaging.
Number 6 Inform and inspire your friends and co-workers to help stop marine debris at the source.
Number 7 Bring your own containers for picnics instead of using disposables. Take your own reusable bags whenever you go shopping.
Number 8

Write to companies or visit local businesses and encourage them to reuse, recycle, and generate less packaging.

Number 9 Put cigarette butts in ashtrays, not on streets, sidewalks, or beaches.
Number 10 Write to your elected officials and ask them to support policies that protect our ocean.
Congratulations to the Ocean Conservancy for another successful proactive environmental event. Let's look forward to the day when the International Coastal Cleanup Day is cancelled due to lack of trash!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Coral Reefs: usage zones to be set up in Nusa Pineda

Always nice to hear about measures being taken to protect coral reefs. Some people feel we have bigger fish to fry when it comes to marine issues, but coral reefs are extremely important to the health of the entire oceanic ecosystem. Just because you may not have coral reefs in your backyard, doesn't mean they have less impact.

The Coral Reef Alliance reported that in Nusa Pineda, near Bali, steps are being taken to establish various coral reef zones that will determine their use for activities like fishing and diving or snorkeling. It was recognized that the health of the reef impacts its value as a tourist destination. And the dollars brought in by tourism can offset or compensate loses in fishing or other aquatic farming activities.

Marthen Welly of The Nature Conservancy-Coral Triangle Center explained that what was proposed was three zones, namely the central, the utilization and the marine tourism zones, in the marine conservation area plan.

The central zone will cover areas that have the most breathtaking underwater view and are often visited by the world-famous Mola-mola fish and other types of marine life, including the manta ray and sperm whale. The utilization zone comprises offshore areas that can be utilized for seaweed farming and fishing; while the marine tourism zone, which also includes the central zone, can be used for water sports activities.

“Separating the zones is important because the activities in the islets are not well-managed now. People can plant seaweed anywhere, or fish in the snorkeling and diving spots,” Marthen said.

Balancing the interests of local fishermen or farmers with the economic benefits of tourism is an important goal for many tropical reef locales. Let's hope that was has been proposed for Nusa Pineda is successful and acts as an example to others. (Read article from The Jakarta Post.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cook Inlet Beluga Whales: Palin's latest target

While Alaska governor Sarah Palin generated a lot of interest during the presidential campaign, she also came under fire from conservationists due to her anti-conservation views regarding polar bears (opposed to a possible endangered species status) and timber wolves (approves aerial hunting by helicopter).

Seems she has not re-thought any of her views as she has taken a position against the pending endangered species listing of the Beluga Whales in Alaska's Cook Inlet. Feeling that enough is already being done, she has, on behalf of the state, filed an intent to sue in 60-days. But not every conservative supports her position. "Sarah Palin is a very gifted politician, she obviously has a future and she's going places," says Jim DiPeso, spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection. "And she is certainly within her rights to file litigation. But in this case she's on the wrong side of history and the American conservation movement, and of what's prudent and right."

The Cook Inlet is home to an isolated population of beluga whales that are exposed to pollutants from the oil industry - a leftover effect from a grandfather clause when the 1972 Clean Water Act was enacted, allowing the pollution to continue. That population has declined dramatically since the 1980s, from over 1,000 to about 375 now. More than 300 whales perished in one four-year stretch (1994 to 1998) alone, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Salon.com wrote an interesting and detailed piece on the entire flap and the Center of Biological Diversity plans to take decisive counter-action. Oddly, the belugas were listed as endangered candidates during the Bush administration. "It's hard to imagine that anyone could be more anti-environmental than Bush, but Palin is Exhibit A," says Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Here we had the most anti-environmental administration in U.S. history, and Palin still feels compelled to sue over one of the few environmentally positive things to come out of that administration."

Not hard to see where her intentions and allegiance lies - from the woman who echoed "drill, baby, drill."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Filmmaker's Journal: summer sea ice above the Arctic Circle

I had the pleasure and thrill of traveling above the Arctic Circle to the area known as the Northwest Passage. Working for the research organization InMER, I was tasked with documenting evidence of climate change through interviews with Inuit indian tribal elders and government officials, in addition to capturing images of the flora and fauna.

Flying from one location to another, we came across a vast field of sea ice - the very stuff that provides a floating base for animals like polar bears, penguins, and even seals. My first impression was that the ice was solid and impenetrable. But soon I could see that it was like a vast expanse of shattered glass.

At that very same moment, we learned that the summer ice levels had reached their lowest in recorded history. This made for a very sobering moment. Here I was, looking down on clear cut evidence of climate change, on a landscape as fragile as any you could imagine. With the loss of more and more sea ice, the opening of the Northwest Passage to commercial shipping traffic becomes an increasing reality. That spells serious environmental concerns for the region, not to mention what it says about the worldwide impact of climate change.

Here is a video that I put together for InMER that has been included in the new ocean layer of Google Earth (courtesy of InMER.org). Check it out and check out the new Google Earth!

Some of the footage I shot for InMER was also used in a segment of National Geographic Wild Chronicles series on PBS. The more that people learn about what is happening to our climate, hopefully the more we can do to improve the situation.

Friday, March 6, 2009

World Population: guess who is in the room?

When discussing conservation, the environment, or any number of global issues, there lurks in the background the 800-lb. gorilla that no one wants to talk about: human population. Not just populations in 3rd world countries, but global numbers and that includes industrialized countries as well.

If we look at this matter-of-factly, nature has over thousands of years developed methods of equilibrium, checks and balances as it were, all designed to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Whether through predation, disease, or life cycle, all plants and animals are given a chance to flourish within the boundaries of that system or face possible extinction. And humans are part of that equation. However, because of our intelligence (some cynics would say our self-importance) we have exceeded the boundaries of that natural system and are now facing many unintended consequences.

It's a touchy subject to be sure. Who wants to turn to a young child or a close family relative stricken with serious disease and say, "Sorry, it's nature's way." And who wants to consider an Orwellian future where governments control reproduction - regulations like China's one-child policy run amok like some futuristic sci-fi movie. But as long as populations increase, as long as life expectancies are increased, and mortality rates are lowered, then we have a responsibility to consider the consequences in terms of the demands we are putting on the planet as a whole.

There was a time when our ability to feed, clothe and house a growing population was accomplished through our intelligence and our ingenuity. But we are fast approaching the point where we are exceeding what the planet can provide us with in terms of food, resources, and clean air. We must act decisively to control the problems that we have brought upon ourselves and also find the compassionate means to manage a world population of 6.76 billion that has been predicted to increase by another 2+ billion in less than fifty years.

Or we can wait for nature to take care of it . . . coldly but effectively.

(Read press release from Center of Biological Diversity.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

AU Shark Fisheries: blames shark attacks on sustainability

Always on the hunt to increase their annual shark catch to satisfy the growing Asian demand, Australian fishery industry officials are continuing in their strategy to link three recent shark-human interactions with the need to expand on shark catch limits.

In an online article in The Australian, it was reported that in North South Wales, Australia's southeast territory and home to the three recent attacks, an increase in prey fish and Sydney Harbor's improved water quality may be a contributing factor to the number of attacks.

"NSW has worked very hard for the last couple of decades to try and ensure the sustainability of its fisheries. There is less fishing and the fishing is more controlled -- there is more abundant prey in Sydney Harbour and maybe more sharks because of this," said Rik Buckworth of the Northern Territories Fisheries Department. He also said other factors could be climatic changes and more swimmers at Sydney beaches. "The number of shark attacks doesn't mean there are more sharks around, per se, but they're localized on the feeding schools," said Taronga Zoo shark expert John West.

So, you improve the marine ecosystem by improving water quality and control fishing, which increases fish populations (ie: getting back to normal) . . . and that's a bad thing?

Well, according to fishery industry spokesman Duncan Gay, it is as he is blaming conservation-friendly policies for increases in predatory sharks in NSW waters - once again, the fear factor. He said high shark numbers could be linked to "bad government policy in closing up large amounts of the fishery and changing fishing habits."

In another related article, Dr. Gilly Llewellyn of the World Wildlife Fund says, "The calls for an increase to the shark fishing quota in NSW are driven by this opportunism. Some fishers are using the current media feeding frenzy around sharks to call for an increase in shark hunting levels and are making claims that have no scientific basis. They should be ignored." And other Australian fisheries department officials say there is no evidence that fishing restrictions have led to more shark attacks.

Could improved marine environments lead to a higher number of sharks? It's possible. Could the three recent shark-human interactions be simply a statistical anomaly? It's possible. Could the fishing industry be on a witch hunt, drumming up excuses so as to increase profits? Most definitely.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

From Wolves to Sharks: undoing 11th hour damage from a prior administration

In December and January, I posted items regarding the previous U.S. administration's 11th actions to change or loosened environmental protections. These ranged from removal of the Gray Wolf from the endangered species list to allowing federal agencies to move forward on projects without consulting with environmental experts to looser air quality standards. (Read prior postings: Dec. '08 / Jan. '09)
  • The challenge was that to undo the damage required a complex and lengthy process. But an amendment to a spending bill will empower President Obama to reverse the rule (one of the few times that something tacked on to a bill made any sense).
  • Shortly after his inauguration, the president ordered all pending Bush regulations to be frozen. The Dept. of the Interior has cancelled oil and gas drilling leases near national parks (another piece of 11th hour chicanery).
  • In addition, the president has directed the EPA to reconsider its denial of California's request to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for automobiles (California's proposed regulations are stricter than federal standards).
Shark News!

Additionally, the Shark Conservation Act (H.R.81), that was making progress in 2008 but ultimately languished and was reintroduced by Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo, was passed by the House of Representatives on Monday. H.R. 81 requires that all caught sharks must have their fins naturally attached. This will allow better enforcement of anti-finning laws and better management of catches (it's difficult to determine the number and species of sharks being taken when all there is for inspection is a hold full of fins).

The Senate must pass the legislation and many of the NGOs are lining up support efforts to make sure voices are heard. Check in with Oceana.org to see what you can do. (Oceana press release.)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Why Endangered Species Matter: WWF and Parade magazine address the basics

I am always interested in forms of communication to the general public - those teeming masses that need ecological and environmental enlightenment far more than the die-hard advocates that frequent conservation web sites and blogs like this one. So, this past Sunday I noticed a small insert in the Parade Magazine supplement that appears in many weekend newspapers - remember newspapers? Those archaic trumpeters of news and analysis that you used to ponder over, sipping your coffee while the Mrs. reminded you to take out the garbage? That was before news was replaced by abbreviated online sound bites or bloviating commentary?

Anyway . . . Parade ran a brief Q&A with Carter Roberts, president/CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), about "Why Endangered Species Matter." It caught my eye because it addressed some very basic issues that the general public should consider, particularly when they hear a conservation advocate addressing a specific issue and might be thinking, "What's this got to do with me?" Here it is:

How do you justify spending millions to protect plants and animals when humans are struggling?
This is not an either/or choice. Our environment produces things that are fundamental to human life—and to saving human life. For example, many of the leading cancer drugs come from plants like the rosy periwinkle. If we only have species that coexist well with humans, we’ll be left with starlings, rats, pigeons, and a few dogs and cats.

Why does it matter if we lose a species?

There are incredible consequences when species disappear, consequences we can’t foresee. With the decline of predators such as wolves on the East Coast, the deer population exploded and we had an increase in Lyme disease.

Can we change the fates of endangered species?

We’ve reintroduced 120 species into the wild. When we succeed, as we did with the bald eagle, it gives the world hope. Right now, there are only a couple of thousand tigers left in the wild. But with the right protections, they can come back.

What are we doing right and wrong in terms of the environment?

The rush into biofuels has had unintended consequences, like the destruction of the tropical rain forest—20% of our CO emissions come from cutting down those trees. Our best path would be toward greater energy efficiency. The future of our planet rests on our ability to produce more with less.
— Lyric Wallwork Winik

And I confess, it's also available on Parade's online version. I just like putting my feet up on the coffee table and getting some ink smudges on my fingers.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sharks Myths and Misconceptions: the hits just keep on coming

While NGOs are working to improve government and public opinion regarding the need for shark conservation and protection, we are still getting items popping up that either fuel the myths and fear that people have about sharks, perpetuate bad ecology, or are just plain dumb.
  • A shark of, as yet, undetermined species bit a surfer at North Avalon beach in Sydney, Australia yesterday. This has been the third such incident in 18 days - the other two attributed to a bull and white shark. While the beach has been temporarily closed, the Australian press has done a pretty fair job of keeping a lid on the potential for shark hysteria. What has been interesting is to watch the news as it travels across the worldwide media: what becomes less newsworthy is the pronouncements for calm as the focus leans towards the recent frequency, subtly (or not so subtly) introducing the fear element. (Article.)
  • Again using the element of fear: faced with a government mandated 40% reduction in their catch limits of sharks, Australia's Queensland Seafood Industry Association is claiming such a reduction will generate more shark attacks. But scientists, like Dr. Colin Simfendorfer, argue that the commercial catch primarily consists of smaller, harmless species, "Most of the commercial catch is things like milk sharks, black tips, spot tail sharks and scalloped hammer head, which are relatively small and really don't hassle the people." In opposition, fisherman are using inflammatory language. "The ramification from this decision is you are putting human life at risk," said fisherman Greg Radley. "People that allow their children to swim in the ocean deserve to know these things so they can make up their own minds about the dangers." Again, it would seem that, to some, when humans enter a foreign ecosystem, they trump all other considerations. (Article.)
  • With the passing of Frank Mundus, famous (or infamous) shark fisherman, the fate of his vessel, the Cricket II, was determined through auction and the new owner plans to continue to use it for shark fishing (there are still shark fishing tournaments taking place in the New England area, taking sharks for no other reason other than trophies and prize money). My colleague at Shark Diver, Patric Douglas, had made a generous pre-auction bid to the Mundus estate which was refused; the auction ultimately brought in a figure much lower than Patric's. His intent was to use the vessel for shark ecotourism but it would appear that, for the moment, an infamous lineage will continue. (SharkDiver posting.)
Grumble, grumble, grumble. . .