Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bison & Panthers: legal action being taken to provide needed habitat

I have been focusing on ocean issues for a while, so for a change of pace, let's take a look at some dry, four-footed (or should I say paws and hoof) concerns.

In some parts of the world, endangered animals like tigers and lions are at risk because of demand on the black market for hides and other parts as either trophies/souvenirs or homeopathic "medicines" (as in the case of tigers) or because of competition with subsistence level cattlemen and farmers in developing African nations (lions).

Plains Bison At Yellowstone Park
In the United States, one of the great but unfortunate icons of the Old West, the plains bison, or buffalo, is still teetering on the edge, following the slaughter in the 1800s that brought the bison to the edge of extinction. Today, there are actually around 500,000 bison across North America, but many are the result of cross-breeding with cattle. The challenge has been in the proper management of bison. Conservation groups and federal or state agencies differ as to the methods for keeping a healthy breeding population within a defined area.

A prime example are the 4,000 or so free-roaming bison in Yellowstone National Park. During harsh winter weather, bison will forage at lower elevations outside the park, and to insure that the bison do not transmit a particular bovine disease (although transmission of such has never been proven), wandering bison are killed - in the winter of 2007-2008, 1,600 bison were killed, the greatest number since the 1800s.

Several conservation organizations and other concerned groups banded together to issue The Citizen's Plan to Save Yellowstone's Buffalo. The plan was not considered by state and federal agencies and this has pushed several conservation groups to file an intent to sue the Department of the Interior for failing to act on the status of the bison as an endangered species (it has been "under review" for some time). An endangered status would require both designated protected habitat and effective (ie: non-life threatening) management.

Here's some additional info from Defenders of Wildlife and The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

Development Threatens Florida Panther
In Florida, urban development has continued to encroach upon the habitat of the endangered Florida panther. Only 117 panthers remain approximately, but 21 have been lost so far in 2009, with 15 in each of the preceding two years. Most are killed by cars but one was recently found decapitated.

With the Florida panther listed as an endangered species since 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to insure a safe habitat but, apparently, the political pressure from developers has pushed Florida officials to drag their feet. It's a dilemma I can relate to.

Having grown up in sunny Southern California, I witnessed firsthand the expansion of my hometown, with housing moving more and more up into the base of the San Gabriel Mountains and forcing many coyotes and the occasional mountain lion to forage right within a suburban neighborhood. You could be walking the dog and find a coyote following fifty paces behind you, sizing up little Fido as a possible meal. Caught in cages or tranquilized, these animals are often released back into the hills; but many are killed, particularly if they injure someone.

In Florida, a scientific, legal petition was filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting to set aside 3 million acres as "critical habitat" which would comply with the intent of the Endangered Species Act. The petition was ignored and so CBD, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and Council of Civic Associations have jointly filed notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Info from Miami Herald/Center for Biological Diversity.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Aquafarming Standards: new U.S. legislation to clean up a mess

I have mentioned in several past posts, my enthusiasm for the development of responsible aquafarming, also called aquaculture. It comes from a simple realization that man has learned to raise cattle and poultry to feed its population through the understanding that the continued taking of wild animals would not suffice.

Unfortunately, centuries ago, man did not make that same intellectual leap when it came to seafood. And we have been, as Dr. Sylvia Earle describes it, eating ocean "bushmeat" ever since, all to the ultimate detriment of the ocean's ecology.

But there are some very serious challenges that aquafarming must overcome for it to be truly commercially successful without harming the environment. This requires the cautious and well-thought out use of science and technology to insure maximum yield will also protecting the environment within which the aquafarm exists. Once you determine just how it is to be done right, then there must be regulations and enforcement to insure it is done properly. This requires government oversight and this is where it can get a bit tricky.

The Ocean Conservancy has an excellent article explaining the problems in developing national standards for aquafarming. Currently, there are several issues of concern regarding aquafarming: ocean pollution due to feed waste, fish waste, and medications; keeping farmed fished contained and not entering a wild fish population accidentally; responsibility for the maintenance and/or dismantling of an aquafarm (dismantling due perhaps to severe ocean weather or storms); and impacts on other fish populations that are required to act as feed sources for the farms. Many of these issues could be regulated by several different agencies but, without a unifying national policy of standards, we're only setting ourselves up for a bureaucratic nightmare with overlapping agencies, jurisdictions, criteria, and responsibilities.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, one of the last acts of the Bush Administration was to put forward a U.S. plan to increase aquafarming from $900 million to $5 billion by 2025. This plan provided for the National Marine Fisheries Service to issue permits to meet the goal but did not specifically or clearly address how it was to be done responsibly, ie: regulation and enforcement. Pollution or water quality issues would be handled by one agency, often using terrestrial standards in place of a non-existent marine standard; environmental impacts would be handled by another, and so on. It was basically putting the cart before the horse, and many scientific, conservation, public advocacy and even commercial fishing groups objected. This stalled the roll out of the plan, halting it on several occasions, but it was eventually put into place in September of 2009 - flaws and all.

Earlier this month, California Representative Lois Capps introduced The National Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2009 (H.R. 4363). According to Representative Capps' office, the submitted piece of legislation will,

"Establish an overarching, federal regulatory system for offshore aquaculture that includes standardized, precautionary measures to protect the environment and coastal communities. The key provisions of the legislation include:

1. Establishing a clear, streamlined regulatory process for offshore aquaculture with specific provisions and permit terms to protect marine ecosystems and coastal communities;

2. Requiring coordinated, regional programmatic environmental impact statements to provide regulatory certainty, ensure environmental protection for sensitive marine areas, and reduce conflicts among competing uses of the marine environment; and

3. Authorizing new funds for research to provide the crucial feedback needed for adaptive, environmentally-sound management of this new use of offshore waters."

Right now, this is just proposed legislation, newly introduced. Watch how it develops and stay on top of the efforts of groups, like the Ocean Conservancy, in retracting the current piecemeal plan. And you can expect to hear more in this blog as I continue to promote aquafarming as our best chance at attaining sustainable commercial seafood levels while protecting the ocean's wild populations from decline and possible extinction.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Loggerhead Turtles: threatened by new Hawaii and Florida regs

The fate of sea turtles, particularly the loggerhead sea turtle, is once again at further risk - this time due to a loosening of U.S. regulations for the longline fisheries in Hawaii and Florida, fisheries that are in pursuit of swordfish and must deal with sea turtles (and many other unfortunate species) as accidental bycatch.

A suit was filed this week against the National Marine Fisheries Service by Earth Justice on behalf of The Center for Biological Diversity, Caribbean Conservation organizations, Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf Restoration Network, and Turtle Island Restoration Network. The suit states that
while the Fisheries Service has filed reports that claim that the loggerhead sea turtles face extinction unless the numbers of commercially caught turtles are reduced, they have also proposed a change in longline regulations that would allow for more longlines - literally more hooks in the water - that would produce a three-fold increase in turtle bycatch. The loggerhead sea turtle is currently on the endangered species list, so these new regulations, obviously designed to increase the catch of swordfish, would seem to run counter to the intent of protection required by the Endangered Species Act.

The swordfish fisheries, particularly in Hawaii, have experienced closure at times in the past, even during the past U.S. administration, so it is particularly disheartening to see the influence of the commercial fishing industry on the new administration.

And then on top of it all, we're talking about increasing capacity for commercially-caught swordfish - a fish that currently provides in one 8 oz. fillet over 4 times the acceptable level of mercury for the week. That's a month's worth in one sitting. What crazy, fish-hugging radicals came up with those levels? The government's own Environmental Protection Agency. (Check out

Read press release from Courthouse News Service.
If you would like to add your voice in protest to the new regs, click here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Oceana at COP15: NGOs getting the facts out

There are many worthwhile non-profit conservation organizations operating today (some would say too many, as over-proliferation can dilute the power of each group). Based on their available financial resources, some of these groups are singularly focused while others succeed at being more broad-based. To regular readers of this blog, you know that one of my oft-cited organizations is Oceana. Why? Because they have had measurable success at being international, comprehensive, media-savy, and are science-based.

At the recent Copenhagen Climate Conference (COP15), Oceana was a visible presence with media presentations and staff on hand for interviews and discussions. While what seemed to captivate the press, and by extension the public, was whether a binding agreement could be achieved between the participating nations, what also was taking place at the conference was the dissemination of a lot of information concerning climate change and its related effects: ocean acidification, impacts on and from commercial fishing, changes within the Arctic circle, and so on.

All this information was being provided to insure that delegates from participating nations had the latest and most accurate information. Unfortunately, what was "sexier" to the press was the protests, bickering, and diplomatic machinations taking place, particularly as the conference moved into its second week and the question as to whether an agreement would be hammered out moved to center stage.

Oceana has assembled several videos that illustrate their presence at COP15. Blowing their own horn? Sure, but why not? Particularly since media coverage was focused elsewhere. Click here to view the videos.

One of the videos is an overview of the impact of climate change on the Arctic Circle, narrated by actor and staunch ocean conservationist, Ted Danson. I have seen some of the changes to the Arctic firsthand, working with in the summer of 2007 when we conducted a
reconnaissance of the Northwest Passage. Assisting expedition leader Ed Cassano, I documented, both on video/still images and through interviews with Inuit tribal elders and government officials, what has been taking place over the years.

What at first appears to be desolate and formidable, the Arctic Circle is, in reality, a very vibrant but delicate ecosystem, the health of which having great implications for the rest of the planet. Several of the many warning signs we saw are subtle but alarming: shrinking summer sea ice, shrubbery and trees where there used to be only permafrost, the appearance of bees and other insects that had never been seen before - all are "canaries in the coal mine" that speak to bigger and more extensive worldwide changes in the near future.

In the informative application Google Earth (available at no charge; click here for details), throughout the area of the Northwest Passage (within the Arctic Circle, north of Canada), you can find several interesting pieces of visual/textual content supplied by InMER. I had the pleasure of producing several videos for this effort and would look forward to the opportunity to return to the Arctic again to further the cause for its protection.

The other videos on Oceana at Copenhagen center on interviews with dedicated staff members and scientists discussing issues ranging from ocean acidification to over-industrialization. One of the challenges in presenting these subjects in short form (IE: brief videos) is to arrive at a balance between presenting a simplified and oft-repeated message and providing technical information which can be lost on the viewer/listener. One of the videos, I thought, illustrated this balance well: an interview with Oceana science director Dr. Jeffrey Short who, with just a bit more information and an analogy or two, describes ocean acidification as something more than an obscure or academic concept for the average viewer.

Click here to view the videos.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

China and the Environment: Alibaba CEO indicates a change may be in the wind is a leading online source for small to medium-size Chinese businesses to get their goods to market. The parent company, the Alibaba group, owns several online properties to assist Asian businesses, from retail to wholesale. It is also a company that felt the wrath of conservationists because the web site was a source for the sale of shark fins and other shark-related products.

Recently, commendably removed all shark fin products from its web site. Did the company cave-in to outside pressure from shark advocates? Well, I'm sure it played a role. And they still have a long way to go, as the site continues to offer other shark-related products such as oil and cartilage. According to an interview with Alibaba Group founder and CEO, Jack Ma, he was not aware that shark fins were being harvested directly from the sea.

"Well, honestly speaking, before [the shark fin issue] I had never thought about the environment. That was the first environmental issue I dealt with. In the beginning, I did not understand those anti-shark fin guys because I had never given much thought to where shark fin came from and thought it was cultivated."

This lack of awareness is also illustrated in the reactions of Asian people who see footage of shark or dolphin kills (The Cove) - amazing as it may seem, it's all new to them.

But the change is also indicative of a subtle groundswell that is brewing in China. For the past decade, China has been growing as a economic powerhouse. Whatever long-term effects it will have on their communist system of government remains to be seen, but there definitely is a growing level of wealth, a growing middle-class, and the people would like that to continue. And while that new-found wealth has greatly increased the demand for shark fin soup in certain segments of the Chinese populace, what is also slowly beginning to grow in China is a greater appreciation as to their environmental responsibility. It's not perfect by any means; there are still plenty of industrialists who would prefer to utilize their natural resources at the expense of the environment (Western civilization did it. Why can't we?). But the seeds are there and they may just take root.

China is beginning to realize that to be a long-term industrial and economic leader, it must consider the environment. In fact, if it can solve its own environmental problems technologically; if it can establish itself as a leader in alternative energy implementation, then its position as a global superpower will undoubtedly be secured. But it will be a struggle: new clean factories and reduced CO2 emissions are one thing; a long standing cultural history in utilizing endangered species is another.

The world must watch China. They could very well be at the commencement of a long-term strategy that realizes the benefits of development which does not tear down the environment or deplete its own resources. They could be embracing what other industrial developed nations are so slow to adopt. And it could benefit developing nations while sending shivers of paranoia through the halls of powerful nations who have prided themselves as masters of the world for the past several decades.

Click here to read the entire interview with Jack Ma. Mr. Ma has been working with The Nature Conservancy and has some very interesting and heartening things to say about his environmental approach to his business and what is beginning to happen in China. If it's real and it continues, the world could have a new superpower to look up to and emulate.

"What we want to do is to raise awareness among as many people as possible on the seriousness of the environmental situation in China, and let them know that everybody can contribute something to make things better. The better we educate people on the issues, the more will happen. With more and more young people joining the government, they will bring an understanding on the importance of the problem and take action. So it is about influencing a whole system.

I think we are in the process to building it up right now. We cannot expect change overnight. We need to create the change over time, say 5 or 10 years. That's called a long-term strategy, and is necessary for sustainable action and results."

Monday, December 21, 2009

COP15 Summary: what the public and science can do next

The end result of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15) was an agreement hammered out by the U.S., China, India, Brazil, and South Africa and recognized, but yet to be voted on, by the remaining participating nations. While the agreement would seem to recognize the importance and impact of climate change, the specifics - or lack thereof - has left many, from governments to NGOs to scientists, wanting and disappointed. No specific percentage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, no guarantees for proposed financial support to underdeveloped countries currently dealing with the effects of climate change, in fact nothing is particularly binding in the agreement.

International strategy: the human element
So was it a wasted exercise? Well, not entirely. Certainly, going in expectations were incredibly high. As more and more research data slowly filters into the discussion (not fast or effectively enough, but more on that later) and as increased public awareness and media coverage puts more pressure on the decision-makers, meetings like COP15 place international diplomacy under a microscope and can give conservation strategists new insight as to what motivates international policy and how best to approach these political bodies in the future.

Since I was not in attendance at the conference, I can only comment on what I read and saw in the media. What struck me was the emphasis and subsequent turmoil over the human costs of climate change. Not that these are unimportant matters, but I think many were surprised that the emphasis seemed less on the actual degradation of the global environment and more on the impact in human terms: the polluters vs. those impacted, developed countries vs. poor or developing countries, and moral responsibility or blame equating to financial compensation. Those were the issues that seemed to take center stage or at least generated the most controversy (and a momentary walkout of delegates). It all seemed to say, "Damn the polar bears, the corals, and the weather - what about me?" And perhaps that is where we must realize that international policy will always be focused: on the human consequences; personally, politically, and economically.

I have mentioned this in other posts; talk about the human terms of climate climate change - how people are starving and dying right now, how water supplies and crop yields are declining right now, how the migration of peoples will threaten other nation's resources and security - and you can often get people's attention. In a similar vein, I am beginning to see shark and dolphin advocates place a greater emphasis on the human cost of consuming these ocean animals due to their high mercury content. Just wanting to protect shark and dolphins may not be enough; making people want to protect theses species because it will protect themselves may be the answer.

Making a difference at home
So, how can we influence international diplomacy? By tackling the issues right at home. When your community, state, or country can address the challenge of climate change - becoming more
"green", developing alternative energy sources, substantially reducing C02 emissions (350ppm and below) - then you set a new benchmark; you show it can be done and a new tipping point looms on the horizon, a positive one that, by example, prods and propels the international community to collectively go beyond tentative measures.

Although COP15, according to Alden Meyers of the Union of Concerned Scientists,
"clearly falls well short of what the public around the world was expecting . . .," the World Wildlife Fund declared, “on a more positive note, attention will now shift to a host of initiatives by countries, cities, companies and communities that are starting to build low carbon economies from the base up.”

Science: moving beyond the data
Working on my first white shark documentary and subsequently working with in the Arctic Circle, I soon realized there is a lot of research taking place within the scientific community, with considerable amounts of data and detailed studies or papers being generated. But there the trail begins to thin. What is reaching the general public? What is being brought to the attention of the policymakers? Not enough.

As a filmmaker and former marketing communications executive, I appreciate the value of effective messages, of connecting with the masses to gain consensus. And this is why I am interested in working with scientific research organizations: media communications needs to be an integral part of the research discipline, right up there with hypotheses, methodology, and analysis; it must not end in a scientific journal destined for the academic hinterlands. With many of the environmental issues facing the planet, it has been said that science will provide the answers - but only if science can communicate effectively so as to moderate behavior and influence policy.

Understandably, media communications is not something that most scientists and researchers are comfortable or familiar with, but there are several strategic components to consider in developing an effective media communications plan. One key piece is the translation of detailed data and analysis into three sequential steps that the layperson can understand: issues, implications, and solutions.

What is the problem, what does it mean to me, and what can I do about it? When research can address these points and make a personal connection, the better the work will be absorbed and appreciated by a broader audience. And in today's world, with so many environmental and conservation issues looking to science for the answer, this is imperative.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Trafficking In Wildlife: Nat Geo article takes it on

If you do not currently subscribe to the National Geographic magazine or peruse it's web site, here's a good reason to: the January, 2010 issue has an excellent, informative, but ultimately disturbing article written by Bryan Christy about the wildlife trade - both legal and illegal - in Asia.

Christy details the rise and ongoing operation of one of Asia's most successful and notorious wildlife dealers and his operation that entails collusion - or at least a blind indifference - from government officials. We're talking about the very people who are expected to enforce the laws and regulations to curtail the illegal activities of the very same wildlife dealers.

And the illegal wildlife trade also exists supported by a complex structure of fronts and third-parties including zoos or animal parks and captive breeding facilities - all used to deter suspicion while endangered or highly regulated flora and fauna are smuggled through, sometimes with documentation to support their supposed "legal" status.

But the corruption and demand for exotic wildlife based on centuries-old beliefs in homeopathic medicine that pervades these poor or developing countries is not the only issue. Market demand in the legal wildlife trade for life animals and animal parts is certainly fueled by Asian customers and but also by the biggest customer of all: the United States.

Sadly, Asia's wildlife trade is big business: over 13 million live animals were legally exported from Southeast Asia from 2000 through 2007, over 30 million animal parts (dead stony corals and reptile skins are prime examples). The scope of legal trade in wildlife is disconcerting enough - and actually greater than the illegal trade - but endangered species command such high prices on the black market that the illegal trade remains a highly profitable activity.

Kudos to National Geographic - an organization not only dedicated to wildlife preservation but one that must regularly deal with many of the agencies under suspicion - for tackling this subject head-on.

On a lighter note, the same January issue has a great photo article about anemonefish, also known as clownfish, or "Nemo, Nemo!" if you have small children. Accompanied by striking images from Nat Geo's resident underwater photographer, David Doubilet, James Prosek writes about the symbiotic relationship these colorful reef dwellers have with their anemone hosts and their current status in the wild and as a popular home aquarium fish.

If you want to learn more abut the legal and illegal trade in exotic or endangered wildlife, visit these web sites:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Island of the Great White Shark: sale priced today at

Today is known by retailers as "Black Saturday" for those who are cruising the web for last minute gift ideas, and I noticed that Amazon has priced Island of the Great White Shark at a reduced price. The U.S. east coast is getting hit with quite a winter storm and it's expected that many holiday shoppers will think twice about venturing out, so there should be plenty of online inducements.

I don't know how long Amazon will have the DVD on sale (it's their call to lower their price; they don't alert me), but if you're interested in a comprehensive, accurate, and educational look at the great white sharks of Isla Guadalupe, Baja, check it out.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sharks, Rays & Whales: end of the week wrap-up

Here's a collage of several conservation items of interest to close the week:

Chinese Celebrity Promotes Shark Conservation. . . in China
Basketball sports celebrity Yao Ming, ranked as China's most successful celebrity six years running, has been actively promoting shark conservation for several years, often in conjunction with WildAid. Not only is it important to have someone who is Chinese to make the case for sharks and the elimination of shark finning, but it is also strategically critical to bring the issue to where the market for shark products is the greatest. To that end, a new television commercial featuring Yao will air on China central television, the country's main government-run broadcast outlet, in addition to having the commercial play on screens in government buildings.

According to WildAid president Steve Trent, many Chinese are not aware that shark fins (for shark fin soup) are obtained from sharks! And what can be a very effective tool in making the issue personal to the Chinese people is the unfortunate levels of mercury found in shark products. According to Trent, a 2007-2008 WildAid study indicated that a quarter of shark fin samples sold at Hong Kong markets were unfit for human consumption.

Read article in Mother Nature Network.

Panama Bans Fishing of Rays
Cousins to the sharks are the many varieties of rays in the oceans - from small round sting rays up to the manta ray which can reach 20 feet from fin tip to fin tip. This past week, the Panama government instituted a ban on all the fishing and commercialization of rays within its territorial waters. According to WildAid, "the Authority on Aquatic Resources of Panama (ARAP) informed that "the fishing, capture, transport, transfer, possession and commercialisation of rays [is now] totally prohibited" throughout the national territory."

This is a remarkable move on the part of a government because it was in response to an increasing level of catch but the decision was made without scientific evidence that the rays were at risk of being endangered or facing extinction within Panama waters. Unfortunately, decisions of this sort are typically made when a species is at grave risk; but here Panama has taken a preventative step and chosen to follow the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing of the United Nations Fishing and Agriculture Organization (FAO). With the ban in place, scientific studies will now be initiated to determine current populations and what, if any, sustainable levels of fishing can be managed successfully.

Read WildAid news item.

Beached Sperm Whales Died of Ingested Plastic
Scientists have now determined that seven sperm whales that beached themselves last week on the shores of Foggia, Italy, had died due to the ingestion of plastic. The whales, ranging in length from 30 to 45 feet, died within a few days of coming ashore. The results of necropsies showed the whales stomachs contained a variety of plastic, which gets caught up in the digestive tract and causes blockages or can cause the tract to twist or strangle itself. In addition, the stomachs also contained other indigestible items like rope, tin cans, and other containers.

Sperm whales are toothed whales and eat a variety of fish but are particularly fond of squid.
"They must have mistaken the objects for squid, one of their favorite foods," said Giuseppe Nascetti, who teaches marine ecology at Tuscia University.

Read news item.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Ocean Summit: relocates to Monterey, California

I just returned from Monterey, California, where a press conference was held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to announce the relocation of the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Ocean Summit to the Monterey Peninsula.

I had the pleasure of attending and participating in the inaugural festival that was held last June in Savannah, Georgia, and what I found most exciting with this event compared to others of its kind was that it was more than a film festival, more than an industry event for filmmakers. It was a celebration of the ocean and an opportunity for the general public to learn from those who are dedicated to preserving it, from filmmakers to leading scientists to recognized conservationists.

Savannah, with its "Old South" charm was a great place to hold the first BLUE Ocean Film Festival but, I'm sure for the festival's organizers, the opportunity to put on an event in such a picturesque ocean community with the support of one of the world's leading aquariums and other important ocean-based organizations, well, it's just to good of an offer to pass up.

“Films play a key role in connecting people everywhere with the beauty and wonder of the oceans,” said Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Done well, they can compel people to care more, then do more to protect the oceans. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s expertise is in exhibiting living creatures, but some stories are best told through film. We’re very pleased to support BLUE as the festival’s presenting sponsor. It’s an event we feel is both important and needed.”

For 2010, the festival will be run from August 24th through the 29th with over 50 films to be presented, discussion groups and seminars for both filmmakers and concerned citizens alike, and educational events for kids and grownups of all ages.

At the press conference, Fabien Cousteau, grandson of famed oceanographer and filmmaker Jacque Yves Cousteau, recounted one of his grandfather's favorite sayings, "'People protect what they love. But how can they protect what they don't understand?'"

It is to address that very challenge that events like the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Ocean Summit exist.

I had a chance to sit in on discussions with CEO Debbie Kinder and her husband, Charles, along with Charlotte Vick, communications director for Dr. Sylvia Earle's Deep Search Foundation, and I can tell you there are some great things planned for this event. Mark your calendar: it's summer time in Monterey with the Aquarium, Cannery Row, Fisherman's Wharf, and some gorgeous scenic ocean views.

And, of course, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Ocean Summit. I'll see you there!

Read complete press release.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Octopus Smarts: take the coconut and run

Here's a piece of light-hearted news that my brother alerted me to from the BBC. Off Northern Sulawesi and Bali, some of the underwater landscape is just silty sand (some divers refer to investigating this terrain as muck diving). For creatures like the octopus, this is a difficult world to find a suitable hiding place.

But Dr. Julian Finn of the Australia's Museum Victoria, has been able to document the ingenious behavior of these eight-armed mollusks. Dr. Finn reported - and captured on video - several octopi not only using discarded coconut shells as safe habitats - but portable ones at that. The octopus would climb aboard the empty shell and then stiffen it's legs and literally walk across the sea floor with its new-found home in tow.

It's hard to describe but hilarious to watch. Click the image below to link to the BBC online article and video.
The interesting thing, from a scientific point of view, is how this demonstrates a rudimentary use of tools. It's one thing to find adequate shelter regardless of what it is - a crevice in the reef, a discarded tin can, whatever - but it's a whole different thing when the animal realizes the object's importance and devises a means to take it along and use when needed.

As aquariums have often discovered, the octopus is very curious and capable of investigating its surroundings and finding ways to escape. Here's another example to prove they're smarter than your average cephalopod!

COP15: a rough start to Week Two

This is definitely one of those times when you hate being right. The second and pivotal week of the COP15 conference got off to a rocky start with the G77, representing 130 poor nations including many African nations, digging in regarding binding obligations set forth in the Kyoto Protocol for richer, developing nations to cut back on their CO2 emissions.

Several hours were lost in bickering and even a walk-out of delegates. But apparently, things are calming down as I write this and hopefully discussions can return back to something more productive. However, as I mentioned in the previous posting on the COP15, the whole issue of rich & poor, the polluters & those impacted by climate change continues to grow in importance.

Here are a couple of links to breaking news sites:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

COP15: summary of Week One of climate conference

Well, the first week of the Copenhagen Climate Conference is coming to a close and it has been an interesting but perhaps frustrating and disappointing week. And maybe that was to be expected, given the range of issues at hand and the number of players and various agendas involved.

The expectations placed on this event have been monumental. On the face of it, here was an opportunity for many nations - big and small, rich and poor - to come together and discuss issues that transcend those of boundaries or international status, to address problems of a truly worldwide magnitude. Add to that, though, the behind-the-scenes politics of various interested parties: energy industries, oil and coal, retail corporations - all those that could be impacted by more stringent environmental regulations, and the pressure is on.

Going into the conference, some of the low points were the U.S. Senate's watered-down version of climate change legislation (recommending what amounts to only a 4% cut in CO2 emissions), the stink about tainted climate change data (whether actually exaggerated or simply comments taken out of context), and the fact that several leaders from major countries were delaying their arrival until next week.

So this first week consisted of presentations and discussions involving leading scientists, ecologists, economists, and some government representatives, in addition to a lot of positioning on the part of many nations - including smaller, poorer nations that are already feeling the impact of climate change - in preparation for what will hopefully be some serious headway regarding a meaningful treaty.

And one of the biggest roadblocks to reaching that accord appears to be growing between the concerns of the larger, more wealthy and developed nations (those that have been responsible for generating most of the climate changing effects) and the smaller or poorer nations (who have been feeling the impact the most on their lands and their people). For the more developed nations, it's an issue of the economic impacts in changing their ways; for the less-developed nations, it's more a matter of survival. (Read related TIME article on the issue of water coming from the Himalayan glaciers, known as the "third pole", and how it's loss could destabilize the entire Asian region.)

As an example, the Alliance of Smaller Island Nations has put forth very strong climate change proposals as they see a greater threat to their existence with rising sea levels. There is also an ongoing debate between nations regarding compensation from the chief "polluting" nations to those smaller nations that will be most impacted. Culpability, responsibility for the past, and equating such into monetary terms - a touchy subject indeed. This rich/poor, polluter/victim divide may be a major issue in the conference's concluding week.

If you want to catch up on what's going on in Copenhagen, here are a couple of articles or news sources:

Shark News: improved regulations in Florida; handling conspiracy buzz

Two issues regarding shark conservation: one encouraging; the other not so encouraging, if not down right annoying.

Florida Tightens Rules:
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission recently took additional steps to improve the protection and management of sharks within Florida waters. The commission prohibited the harvesting of sandbar, silky, and Caribbean sharpnose sharks and extended the minimum catch size to 54-inches on approximately 14 shark species. This will decrease the take of juvenile sharks and hopefully improving the chance for better reproduction rates. Additionally, the new rules require that sharks are to be taken by hook-and-line only and must be brought back whole - the head and tails cannot be removed at sea, as has been currently happening. This allows for better monitoring and management of catch levels by government officials.

A lot of attention amongst shark advocates has been placed on protection of Florida's lemon sharks - sharks that have been gaining considerable interest with commercial shark fisheries for the shark fin market. Lemon sharks can congregate in large numbers in shallow water and this makes them a potentially easy catch. The Florida commission has responded with a proposed rule that prohibits recreational and commercial harvesting of lemon sharks in Florida waters. This is a great step on the commission's part but it is only a proposal - meaning it's subject to a period of public comment before being acted upon or rejected. You can expect plenty of comment from conservationists and commercial or sportfishing interests alike. And I am sure there will be plenty of pro-lemon shark petitions circulating for you to consider.

Read FWC press release.

Shark Con and the 100 Million Debate: The less-than-encouraging news has to do with a soon-to-be-released documentary that purports a conspiracy within the shark conservation/shark ecotourism community. It all started with an issue of concern - the possible exaggeration of the worldwide shark catch numbers. Ever heard the figure 100 million sharks killed each year? I'm sure you have but that number is being challenged or questioned (and perhaps rightfully so). But the concern for accuracy is being manipulated into being the tip of the iceberg of some worldwide conspiracy to be exposed in the upcoming film Shark Con.

As a filmmaker, I smell a hyper promotional campaign in full swing and while I regard the need for using verifiable or at least reasonably estimated data when it comes to shark catch numbers, I have suggested to other shark advocates to take a breath and rather than add to the hype and buzz that the producers are looking for, let's wait until the film is out so that we can better examine - and I suspect dispute - what ever fanciful conspiracy theory they are putting forth.

David Schiffman at the Southern Fried Science blog, ran a post about this issue and received some 40 responses to date. Here was my response:

For myself, as an ocean advocate but also someone who is familiar with the film/TV business, I am both concerned – when inaccuracy can be construed as incompetence or, even worse, conspiracy – and I am suspicious – as we have filmmakers here who are trying to generate buzz and sell a product.

Indeed, 100 million has always been a conveniently round number. When I speak to groups about shark conservation, I have used the range of “20 million to as high as 100 million” and then I proceed to explain the wide discrepancy as an estimate based on legal catch, illegal catch, and by-catch – questionable variables indeed and ones that many scientists and researchers do not like to work with. But even if we use the low-end numbers, given the low reproductive rate of these animals, wouldn’t that be cause enough for concern?

But nothing hurts a cause more than exaggeration. And, conversely, exaggeration is a mainstay of entertainment promotion.

So, what is the big Shark Con? A conservation movement fabricating numbers for what nefarious purpose? Shark diving operators forming some worldwide collective of small businessmen to drain divers of their hard-earned dollars? Shark-huggers hiding the fact that the populations of sharks are greater than they ever have been? Or . . . an attempt to simply exploit and capitalize on, for entertainment purposes, the lack of precision that is inherent with many environmental issues today – from shark conservation to climate change?

I suspect we are witnessing a classic public relations strategy: start a quiet dialog about shark catch discrepancies; raise the bar with indignant reactions and comments from some scientists and researchers; introduce the conspiracy angle; let the viral/rumor mill stir a bit; then start promoting the film that purports to bare it all.

We are living in a world of rumor, over-opinionated blogs and radio hosts, heated partisanship, and unfettered viral communication. Shark conservationists need to take a breath, calmly and rationally promote the cause based on the most reliable data, and rebut Shark Con only when they have made their arguments or accusations clear.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Dugong: a revered marine mammal threatened in Okinawa

The Dugong, with a face only a mother dugong could love, is a gentle marine mammal that lives in the marine saltwater shallows along the coast of Asia, northern Australia, and the east coast of Africa. A kissin' cousin to the manatee, except for its preference for salt water (the manatee prefers brackish water), the dugong suffers many of the same threats as the manatee - loss of habitat from human development, injury from boats, and hunting.

The dugong is listed by the IUCN as vulnerable to extinction and CITES limits or bans trade in dugongs based on the specific population. In Okinawa, Japan, a small, fragile population of 50 that inhabit the shallows near Camp Schwab, a U.S. military air base, have been at risk for years as the U.S. has been working towards expanding the air base, thereby eliminating the dugong's primary feeding area.

Conservation groups have been battling the military on this for several years and it appears to be moving forward to at least a showdown, if not a resolution. While a lawsuit was filed by several conservation groups back in 2003 and awaits its day in federal court, recent progress has been made with a petition/letter campaign from over 400 conservation groups. And last year, a judge issued a ruling that the Department of Defense violated the National Historic Preservation Act, requiring the military to review its impact on the dugong habitat.

But the military is still pressing forward with its plans while the legal process grinds away. If you would like to add your voice in requesting the current administration to reconsider the base expansion in consideration of the dugong - an animal revered and considered sacred by the Okinawan people and listed as a national monument by Japan's federal government - then click here.

“For Okinawans, the dugong compares only to the American bald eagle in terms of cultural and historical significance,” said Takuma Higashionna, a city councilmember from Nago City, Japan.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Shark Conservation: the need to resonate on a personal level

I have said in the past that shark conservation is a tough sell. Whether it's the public's general uneasiness with sharks thanks to years of over-sensationalized media or an ingrained cultural bias towards shark products (or seafood in general), gaining converts throughout the masses has been challenging. Part of that lies in the difficulty in making a personal connection, making an argument that resonates within the individual - "this will affect me." But sometimes it's the opposition that, unfortunately, is able to accomplish that to their advantage.

Case in point: If you have been reading some of the shark conservation blogs or web sites, you may have read about a recent study that detailed how U.S. scientists were able to use DNA testing to trace the origin of shark fins for sale in Hong Kong. It turned out that 21% of the fins tested came from endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks from the western Atlantic. A ground-breaking study because it established an accurate method for determining the species and geographic source of a shark fin and because it put Hong Kong's lucrative shark fin market on notice.

Those are the basic facts that caught the attention of most shark advocates. But what caught my eye was the response from the shark fin industry's representative. In criticising the study, Mak Ching-po, chairman of the Hong Kong Dried Seafood and Grocery Merchants Association, said, "Shark populations will grow exponentially if we don't keep fishing them. As a result, humans will be in short supply of smaller fish such as garoupa, as sharks will eat them."

Clever. Fiendishly clever because he just made it personal.

Sure, there's a kind of pretzel logic here: if we don't overfish the sharks, we won't be able to overfish the other fish in the sea. But the sinister beauty in what he said is how it will resonate subtly with the Asian people, a population that has been heavily dependent on seafood for centuries: If we can't fish the sharks, you will go hungry.

Or how about the continued use of shark nets at Australian recreational beaches. Despite the number of sharks and other large sea animals not deterred but killed by these nets, their use is still being supported. Why? Because it's personal. Overtly or covertly, the issue becomes: without the nets, you will be eaten.

Regardless of how weak or illogical the argument, if the listener can make a personal connection then the argument will have some traction. This unfortunate aspect of human nature has been exploited in other areas. It's a mainstay of political campaigns. Some who deny the impact of climate change often turn to fanciful Orwellian conspiracy arguments because people are sensitive and distrustful of intrusive government, real or imagined. Climate change proponents will explain ongoing changes that, for many people, are taking place in faraway, remote places; so curiosity, sympathy, or even a few well-meaning baby steps might be achieved but decisive action lies just out of reach - because it hasn't hit home hard enough. It's still very complicated, abstract or nebulous.

That's why you will see more personal connections trying to be made at the Copenhagen Climate Conference that began this week, connections that link climate change to human misery that is happening right now. (A past post of mine cited a UN report that attributed 300,000 deaths annually to climate change.)

But I digress. . . For shark conservation to really have an impact on the general population, the argument needs to be distilled to very personal messages. To say that the loss of reef sharks will disrupt the marine ecology to where we will lose coral or even oxygen is perhaps possible but may be a bit too abstract for most people to embrace. To position sharks as warm and friendly to man, while agreeable to some ardent shark fans, really pushes the envelope beyond what the everyday individual can accept. (Just look at how those "shark huggers" are always portrayed as irresponsible in the media.)

International organizations like CITES, the IUCN, and legislation like the U.S. Senate Bill S850 look after the big picture. We must support these efforts as they set the framework for regulation and, hopefully, enforcement. But to impact the market demand (which can fuel legal and illegal activities), we must make personal connections to win the hearts and minds of the general public.

It's not easy. When I speak with people, I always emphasize the important role sharks play as predators and scavengers; I don't downplay it. But I will try to distill it down to a simple message. In fact my message is the opposite of Mr. Ching-po: without sharks, other fish populations - fish populations that some people depend on - would potentially be less healthy, their numbers would be impacted. Sometimes I see it working, sometimes the light bulbs of recognition turn on - and sometimes not.

Think about personal connections that will resonate with people who are perhaps less committed than you to conserving animals like sharks. Use them and feel free to share them here in this blog.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Island of the Great White Shark: holiday stocking stuffer

Here is my one self-serving plug for a holiday gift item: Island of the Great White Shark on DVD.

Island of the Great White Shark was the first comprehensive documentary to examine the great white sharks of Isla Guadalupe and detail the working relationship between shark diving operators and dedicated Mexican marine researchers. You can experience what it's like cage diving with these magnificent sharks while also getting to see them in their real environment: critically important predators shown as they truly are and not the malevolent monsters of cinematic legend.

"A primal scene of unearthly beauty. Excitement and information pepper this film." -

"Beautiful videography, good graphics and information." - Dr. Bob Hueter, Director, Mote Marine Center for Shark Research

Reasonably priced and available at or the gift shops of several leading aquariums, Island of the Great White Shark succeeds as a visually striking and informative overview of one of nature's most legendary creations, how it is being studied, and what threatens its future.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

State of the Oceans Forum II: important ocean conservation panel discussion

As a member of the Explorers Club, I have had the honor and opportunity to meet some amazing people involved in a variety of scientific endeavors and participate in some great events. One such event that is coming up this Monday, December 7th is the State of the Oceans Forum II, a follow-up to an earlier event held this year.

The event, hosted by renown oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, will include presentations and panel discussions from distinguished scientists covering such subjects as ocean pollution, acidification, deep sea ocean conservation, and shaping effective ocean policy.

Is this a must see event? Well, let's put it this way, it's sold out and there's a lengthy waiting list. But never fear, there are options! I've been told that David Guggenheim of The Ocean Foundation and a participant in the forum, will be posting a podcast on the foundation's web site - is a great web site to check out and you'll be able to get the podcast of the State of the Oceans Forum II as soon as it's available. I couldn't make the trip to New York, unfortunately, so I'll be anxiously waiting for the podcast myself.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Whales At Risk: it's not just hunting

Three news items about whales caught my attention:

Off the northwest coast of Maui, a juvenile humpback whale (30-35 feet) was reported entangled in polypropylene rope. Officials from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were successful in removing hundreds of feet of rope but more still needs to be extracted from the whale's mouth. We have seen whales with fish nets or rope wrapped around the tail; entangled around the head and mouth would possibly explain this whale's reported weakened condition, being unable to feed properly. The whale is being tracked and officials hope to remove the remaining rope soon. Let's wish them luck and hope for the whale's speedy recovery. Derelict "ghost" nets and loose line pose a hazard to whales and the growth of industrial fishing - more boats, more nets - only increases the chances for an accidental encounter. Read The Maui News article.

Off the west coast of New Zealand, a sperm whale washed ashore, apparently the victim of a ship's propeller. The sharp cut across the whale's dorsal fin area exposed muscles and intestines and probably was an unfortunate slow death. Staff from New Zealand's Department of Conservation examined the whale and took biological samples, then allowed representatives of indigenous tribesmen bless and bury the whale in accordance to local custom. There have been issues in the past with sorting out safe shipping lanes that don't interfere with known whale migratory routes. A reduction in ship speed has proven somewhat effective in some areas, but the occasional accidental encounter seems inevitable. Read article.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, NOAA proposed a 3,000 square mile critical habitat for beluga whales in Alaska's Cook Inlet. There is a required public response period before the proposal is enacted, and already the habitat opponents have got the PR wheels in motion. Meant to stir the blood of Alaskan citizens, here is a choice exaggeration from Alaskan Senator Don Young, declaring the proposal was
"yet another attempt to halt resource production and development in Alaska and a step toward making the whole state a national park for the enjoyment of outsiders." What's clever here is that any input from national conservation groups or comments/petitions from non-Alaskans will appear like more interference from the "outsiders." Outside support for the proposal will be inevitable but there will need to be strong support from Alaskans too to combat this kind of clever PR positioning. Read article.

Seems like whaling is not the only thing that puts these majestic creatures at risk. . .

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Geoengineering: changing the earth's climate for better or worse?

Geoengineering - this is a concept that we will be hearing more and more about with regards to managing climate change. It doesn't necessarily involve us on a personal level, like buying fluorescent light bulbs or driving more fuel-efficient cars; this is large-scale proactive approaches where science and commerce are utilized to directly counter the effects of climate change and CO2 emissions rather than deal with root causes.

Basically, we are talking about taking the CO2 we have in the atmosphere and finding some other place to park it, often referred to as CO2 sequestration. There have been proposals to store it underground while others have focused on methods of increasing absorption by the oceans where it is stored at deep depths.

I was reading several reports on ocean sequestration and there are many techniques that have been studied and even experimented with on a small scale. The results and/or recommendations have been conflicting - in part due to the fact that none of this has been undertaken on a large, truly global scale so we are walking into unknown territory with only projections and theories to guide us. Here are some of the current concepts regarding ocean CO2 sequestration:

Ocean Fertilization: Using the addition of iron particles to induce greater phytoplankton blooms which will, as part of their normal biological process, consume more CO2 and then sink to the ocean bottom. Some scientists say this is a viable approach, others say that the results are not substantial enough compared to the costs and related effects that would impact the ocean ecosystem.

Ocean Nourishment: A variation on ocean fertilization wherein additional nutrients are added to the process that could enhance the growth of feeder fish populations, thereby providing additional benefits with an increased food source and potential commercial value to developing countries.

Alkalinity Change: A land-based process where a CO2 source is combined with limestone and sea water. Basically the reaction alters the pH level and binds the CO2 to the sea water, which is then discharged back into the ocean. The use of limestone, which introduces calcium carbonate, is expected to neutralize acidification and therefore have minimal impact on the marine ecology.

Direct Injection: When ocean sequestration is discussed, the storage of CO2 is to take place at great depths where CO2 actually forms a liquid more dense than seawater (below 3000 meters). There are proposals for direct injection that involve piping CO2 directly from sources like industrial plants or energy refineries into the ocean depths where it is trapped at depth, forming a kind of deep sea lake of near-solid CO2.

These are techniques that are currently being experimented with, but whether they ultimately prove to be physically or financially practical on a large scale remains to be seen. And what of the unforeseen ecological implications? Attitudes range and proposals are hotly debated within the scientific community.
There are those that say that geoengineering represents "doing something rather than nothing" with the current and future volume of CO2 in the atmosphere, regardless of what preventive steps are taken. (Remember the Carbon Bathtub analogy I cited earlier this week? Even if we radically cut back on CO2 emissions, we will have excess amounts in the atmosphere to deal with for centuries.)

Geoengineering is not a silver bullet solution nor does it free us from addressing the ongoing sources of CO2 emissions. At best it could work in concert with CO2 reduction strategies, but it is technology that is new with unforeseen consequences and perhaps must operate on unimaginable scales worldwide. However, it may find its place because we don't have a choice.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bluefin Tuna Update: ICCAT perpetuates bad management

Several times I have posted updates on the fate of the Bluefin Tuna, particularly those populations that have been heavily fished in the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. The two organizations that could have an impact internationally on how bluefin tuna fisheries are managed are CITES and ICCAT.

In early October, I reported that scientific groups, including ICCAT's own advisers had recommended a severe cutback in the catch quota as the population was on the brink of collapse, having shrunk by more than 85%.

"Many countries turn to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) for guidance regarding commercial limits but their quotas have often fallen short of levels recommended by many research groups, showing a bias towards the commercial tuna fishing industry. But that may be changing.

I was wrong.

According to a press release from Oceana, the ICCAT has just approved a catch limit of 13,500 tons for next year:

"'The risk of collapse has already been addressed in previous assessments, and there is scientific consensus about what's happening right now. [The proposed quota] is not sufficient to recover the stocks and it will lead to individual vessel quotas that are too low to economically sustain fishing activities. This will definitely encourage underreporting of catches and illegal fishing, said Xavier Pastor. He added: 'ICCAT has now definitely lost its credibility and its CITES' turn to avoid the collapse of this species.'"

This means we must turn our attention to the next major CITES meeting in March to see if it will list Bluefin Tuna as an Appendix I endangered species, as has already been proposed by at least one CITES member nation. This listing would mandate a complete cessation of commercial bluefin tuna fishing.

Also mentioned in the Oceana press release, ICCAT apparently took little if any action regarding limiting the take of certain shark species:

"'Sharks are being caught without any limit at all in the Atlantic, and there is little hope now for getting these fisheries regulated in the near future,' said Rebecca Greenberg, shark campaigner with Oceana. 'ICCAT scientists recommended that mortality for shortfin mako be reduced years ago, and the Commission still has not done anything to implement this. ICCAT is ignoring the advice of its own scientists, and dooming species to overfishing and imminent stock collapse.'"

Despite the scientific data, ICCAT appears to be an organization dedicated to preserving a floundering industry rather than a floundering marine species. It's sad that they can't seem to live up to their own namesake.

Read the Oceana press release.