Monday, May 31, 2010

Understanding Seamounts: More study of an oceanic oasis is needed

Seamounts are fascinating oceanic structures - mountains really, rising up from the sea floor, pushed up by volcanic forces. While a seamount that reaches the surface, thereby producing some sort of island formation, is still technically a seamount, scientists generally describe seamounts as submerged, typically rising 1,000 meters above the seafloor, thousands of meters from the surface.

I was reviewing several scientific papers about seamounts and how these unique structures carry significant ecological, commercial and conservation implications.

Each seamount serves as an oceanic oasis, often harboring tremendous biodiversity including localized animals and pelagic species. Tuna, billfish, sharks, and other pelagic fish have been known to frequent seamounts. Studies are ongoing to determine whether such species are attracted due to food sources or whether the seamounts act as breeding grounds - or both. Studies have shown that pelagic biodiversity appears to be higher at locations further away from coastal habitats.

The somewhat isolated nature of seamounts makes them of special interest regarding genetic diversity and evolution. While challenging to study, one report called for more scientific research so as to better understand the interconnectivity within and between these unique ecosystems, particularly in the face of negative impacts from commercial fishing and mining.

"In fact, the large variety of interconnected mechanisms that promote or impede the genetic connectivity of seamount communities via dispersal (and the long-term maintenance of species or the subsequent divergence of populations leading to speciation) are key unknowns to understanding the fundamental evolutionary processes that structure both the diversity and biogeography of deep-sea fauna" from Seamounts: Deep-ocean laboratories of faunal connectivity, evolution, and endemism/Oceanography.

Because of increasing demand for seafood and with stocks declining in other open water or coastal areas, seamounts have become targets for industrial fishing, and subject to bottom trawling and longlining.

Reported in Seamount fisheries: Do they have a future?/Oceanography, "Today, seamount fish populations are in trouble following a 30-year history of overexploitation, depletion, and collapse, with untold consequences for global biodiversity and the complex, delicate, but poorly understood, open-ocean food webs. We estimate present global seamount catches to be about 3 million tonnes per annum and increasing – vastly in excess of estimated sustainable levels."

In addition, because of the geological/volcanic nature of seamounts, they have an untapped potential for metals and minerals in the eyes of commercial mining companies. While the technology to obtain these ocean resources is still quite formidable, as terrestrial resources decline, commercial mining interests will ultimately make the effort to expand beyond current levels of mining activity.

With commercial interests having an impact and the potential for even greater exploitation lying ahead, the need for proper management of seamounts is critical. But much still needs to be learned regarding these unique ocean formations. Current mapping techniques have only scratched the surface as to location and true number of seamounts. And while there have been many studies made of individual locations, according to one report, there is a lack of study to better understand the links between these formations, how they interact with each other, and what would be the consequences on the total marine ecology from negative impacts on individual locations. Seamounts may be relatively isolated but they do not exist within a vacuum.

"Extractive processes such as fishing and mining are degrading seamount ecosystems considerably, raising serious concerns about the impacts of these practices on global ocean biodiversity and key fluxes. Despite the data collected to date, we remain ignorant of the quantitative details of many of these issues," reports Can we protect seamounts for research? A call for conservation./Oceanography.

More understanding of seamounts is needed - individually and holistically - so as to develop proper management policies. Across the ocean floor, seamounts may serve as vital connected waystations that feed, foster, and perpetuate the entire oceanic web of life.

Order special issue on Seamounts from Oceanography. Click here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Hawaii's Shark Fin Ban: signed, sealed and delivered!

And speaking one more time of sharks, today turned out to be a landmark day for Hawaii and all of the islands' proponents of shark conservation. As reported in Pete Thomas' blog, the state's proposed shark fin ban, SB 2169, was signed today by Governor Linda Lingle.

I have reported on the progress of this important legislation in past posts (click here and here) and now it is finally a done deal. While nation's bicker over whether to curtail the lucrative shark fin market, perhaps the future lies in regional efforts such as Hawaii's.

Whatever the future may hold, this is at least a moment of celebration for the sharks and the oceans of the world!

Read Pete Thomas' blog post.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Great White Sharks and Boats: do they stalk small boats?

Great white sharks are known for their ability to ambush and capture large prey, like seals, sea lions, or elephant seals - a common prey because of their high fat content that provides the shark with the energy it needs. But do they selectively hunt and attack boats?

This is the question that The Dorsal Fin blog was asking in response to a recent press release covering the upcoming trans-Atlantic voyage of Wave Vidmar as he prepares for a solo-rowboat expedition this summer. Apparently, previous solo boaters have reported being followed by white sharks for hours, even days, and have experienced shark bites on their vessels.

The press release stated, "
Typically Atlantic Great White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) will follow the tiny ocean row boats for hours to days, then attack by biting the backs of the boats."

That's a pretty bold statement to make and one that The Dorsal Fin rightfully questioned. He received additional information from Wave Vidmar to clarify that four solo boaters had anecdotal experiences of white sharks following them, but that it was not necessarily "typical" behavior. Perhaps an over-ambitious public relations person felt that Vidmar's upcoming voyage needed a little extra sizzle, but let's put it in perspective based on what we do know about white shark predatory behavior.

First of all, great white sharks have two roles as predators: hunters and scavengers. As hunters, besides feeding on marine pinnipeds (seals) and large fish (like tuna), white sharks have been known to feed on cetaceans like dolphins, porpoises, and small whales on rare occasions. Studies have shown that their primary point of attack is on the caudal, or tail, area, as this will immobilize the cetacean.

As scavengers, white sharks have been shown to feed on a variety of cetacean carcasses including much larger whales. The sharks, attracted by the scent of the decomposing animal, will make a slow and careful investigation, and then commence feeding on the remains.

So, could either of these behaviors come into play involving a small boat? Perhaps. The shark may be first attracted to the vibrations given off by the rowing motion. Then the visual of a large dark body floating on the surface may further pique its curiosity - is this a floating carcass? The shark may very well follow the boat for some distance, making a determination as to whether this is viable prey. Bumping the boat or engaging in an investigative bite or nibble, often at the stern (the carcass' "tail"), is not uncommon. But a full-on rush from underneath, as when ambushing a seal, is highly unlikely.

From Great White Sharks: The Biology of Carcharodon carcharias, "While predation by sharks on cetaceans is relatively rare, many sharks scavenge dead cetaceans. White sharks are frequently observed feeding on carcasses of whales off Australia and the eastern United States."

I have had the personal experience of being bumped by a great white shark while sitting in a Zodiac inflatable, during filming. Of course, the "bump" from a 15-foot white shark is no little pat - the shark pushed the inflatable, and the two of us on board, a good foot out of the water. But the shark was merely checking out whether this black mass floating on the surface was a dead whale - it was in its scavenger mode and certainly was not trying to sink the inflatable to get after the two occupants aboard.

So, would a great white shark trail behind a boat and bump or bite it? It's possible. Would it track the boat for several hours? That's also possible; I have seen white sharks spend a considerable amount of time cautiously investigating a tuna head suspended in the water, used by shark divers as an attractant. Would a shark spend days tracking the boat? My gut feeling tells me that's a bit of a stretch. The boaters may be seeing more than one shark over a period of several days. Or it may be the same shark returning, its curiosity once again piqued. But the press release statement seems to imply that the shark is round-the-clock relentless in its pursuit. Sensational but unlikely.

Like the oceanic white tip shark I wrote about earlier, great white sharks are important ocean predators. But we must not think of them as only hunters, continually on the prowl. Their roles as scavengers is critically important and can be the source of their curiosity with surface objects like small boats.

Read the entire press release.
To get some detailed information on white shark hunting and scavenging behavior, read
Great White Shark: The Biology of Carcharodon carcharias, edited by Drs. Peter Klimley and David Ainley. Of particular interest is Chapter 27: White Shark Predation and Scavenging on Cetaceans in the East North Pacific Ocean.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dealing With Plastics: California legislation proposed

While oil pollution is, understandably, capturing a lot of our attention of late, there are other forms of ocean pollution that need our continued attention. Plastics, in its multitude of forms, constitutes a major ongoing threat not only to marine animals but the entire marine ecosystem.

Much has been written about the North Pacific Gyre, a congregation of floating plastics coming together due to the various movements of Pacific Ocean currents. While it contains pieces of plastics that pose immediate threats to fish, marine mammals, and birds due to entanglement or ingestion, there is the additional problem of what becomes of the plastics over time. Sunlight combined with water/wave action breaks the plastic down into smaller and smaller particles which can be ingested by smaller and smaller creatures - down to the plaktonic level - which means that the plastic can permeate its way through the entire oceanic web of life.

Plastics seemingly last forever. Their so-called biodegradability involves breaking down into base components, which means the separation of the various chemicals used in the production of plastics - chemicals which can prove to be toxic and, again, enter the food chain at base levels, impacting plankton, and more. So first you have large plastics pieces - discarded bags, bottles, soda can container rings, rope, netting, etc. - that can ensare, entangle, or if ingested, block the digestive tracts of a variety of sea creatures. Then as the plastic breaks down, there are the micro-particles that can be consumed by smaller creatures. And finally, there are all the chemicals being given off: low-level poisons that can have a cumulative effect.

Plastics: the "gift" that keeps on giving.

To address the issue requires industrial science to generate improved or alternative products - a new generation of plastics or plastic-like products that break down safely, as opposed to the current specific and unrealistic set of precise circumstances (light, temperature, moisture) needed for "successful" biodegradation. And there must be a more responsible use of plastics on the part of the consumer to reuse and/or recycle.

And there is also the need for legislation to nudge both industry and the consumer in the right
direction. The Sea Turtle Restoration Project recently alerted its California members of upcoming state legislation to restrict the use of plastic bags, bottle caps, and more (plastics endanger leatherback turtles that feed on the plastic or became entangled). Within California, several cities have already banned the use of plastic shopping bags or instituted stiffer fines for plastic littering. Here are the three bills:

AB 2138 (Chesbro) - Plastic Ocean Pollution Reduction, Recycling and Composting Act

AB 2138 would prohibit food providers from distributing single-use food packaging and bags unless they are accepted for either recycling or composting in at least 75% of households in a jurisdiction and are recovered at rate of at least 25%. This policy will make the fast food sector financially responsible to:
  • Switch to packaging that is compatible with the recycling and/or composting services available in the communities they serve.
  • Work with local governments and recyclers to increase processing and market capacity for recyclable and compostable packaging alternatives.
  • Work with consumers to ensure that their packaging is recycled or composted.
  • Single-use food packaging litter kills endangered sea turtles that become entangled or mistake it for food. Single-use packaging is a primary source of urban litter and oceanic litter pollution, according to storm drain and beach cleanup studies. Polystyrene, plastic bags and other non-recyclable packaging have a high propensity to be littered because they are light and aerodynamic and are consumed away from home. Up to 80% of ocean pollution is litter from urban runoff, and non-recyclable single-use food packaging is a primary component of urban litter.
AB 1998 (Brownley) - Carryout Bags
AB 1998 will reduce dangerous plastic bag litter pollution by banning plastic bags at large retail outlets. Plastic bags are a primary component of urban litter pollution. And urban litter pollution is the primary component of marine litter pollution. Plastic already outweighs plankton in the North Pacific Gyre. Plastic pollution costs California families hundreds of dollars annually in hidden litter clean-up costs. Current retailer practices result in the distribution of approximately 19 billion plastic carryout bags annually.

AB 925 (SaldaƱa) - Plastic Bottle Caps
Requires plastic bottle caps be attached to the plastic container and be recyclable. As more than half of all single use beverages in plastic containers being consumed outside of the home, these plastic bottle caps can easily become part of the litter and waste stream. Beach clean-up studies find that plastic bottle caps are among most littered items. AB 925 proposes to address this problem by requiring that the bottle caps remain connected to the bottle, more than 60% of which are currently recycled, thereby significantly reducing the waste, litter and threat to wildlife posed by discarded bottle caps.

Californians can and should voice their support for these bills (they can click on each assembly bill listed above to send an email). And for you non-Californians, check your own state's government web site to see if similar legislation is in the works to protect the quality of life where you live. It doesn't matter whether your state has an ocean coastline or is landlocked, we all have bodies of water - be they freshwater or saltwater - that can be adversely effected by the growing volume of plastics we have produced over decades.

I suspect that plastics, in one form or another, are here to stay. If that be the case, then it behooves us to produce, use, and recycle plastics more responsibly. Or it will bury us.

Learn more about plastic pollution at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Galapagos Islands: WildAid focuses on conservation results

There are places throughout the world that can serve as both a unique oasis of ecological development and a microcosm of the world as a whole. The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador that fit that description to a tee. First brought to worldwide attention by Charles Darwin's studies during his 1835 expedition, the islands have been a source of fascination with scientists and, more recently, tourists.

The islands' uniqueness is a result of their isolation, producing endemic species and acting as a perfect laboratory for the study of natural development and the relationships that intertwine to
produce healthy marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The islands are known for their marine iguanas, Galapagos tortoises, and several species of birds - including the only tropical penguin, the Galapagos penguin - just to name a few.

To preserve some of that uniqueness, the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) was established in in 1986, covering over 70,000 square miles of surrounding ocean, one of the largest marine reserves in the world.

However, the more troubling and challenging side for the Galapagos is the islands' role as a microcosm of the world: an ecosystem threatened with the imprint of man. From a growing island population and tourism industry to invasive plant and animal species to illegal fishing within the reserve (often for sharks or sea cucumbers to satisfy a demanding Asian market), the Galapagos Islands are besieged from all directions. Island agencies, struggling with limited resources, must turn to outside conservation organizations for support.

One such organization that has taken a special interest in the Galapagos Islands is WildAid, based in San Francisco. Often working in conjunction with other conservation groups, WildAid has been closely involved in the monitoring of fishing boat activity, finding illegal fishing for shark fins and sea cucumbers taking place under the guise of boats supposedly only passing through the GMR. Last year, the ability to monitor boat activity was improved with the installation of a satellite-based vessel monitoring system.
WildAid was also instrumental in bringing sniffer dogs to the islands several years ago, trained to smell not only drugs but shark fins and sea cucumbers.

But while enforcement is an important part of conservation, it is equally important to tackle the root, or roots, of the problem. And in that regard, WildAid has worked with several agencies to help island locals with changing their personal economies away from poaching and abusing their natural resources, assisting them with building more sustainable activities. WildAid's efforts towards alternative incomes garnered the organization the UNDP Equator Prize in 2007.

Realizing the impact of the online world, WildAid has worked in conjunction with Good Egg Studios to develop Elf Island Virtual World, where kids of all ages can participate in interactive online game play to track and protect threatened sharks of the Galapagos Islands, thereby learning what is being done and what they can do to preserve these endangered species. The game company merged with recently, expanding their nature and conservation slate of online gaming.

There are other organizations like WildAid, ones that walk the talk, that provide tangible results and are truly making a difference. When you consider showing your support for any conservation organization, understand that they are all well-intentioned but in the final analysis there must something solid backing them up - good words supported by good deeds.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Australian Marine Reserves: government review approves the science that supports their parks

One of the bright spots in ocean conservation has been the worldwide adoption of marine reserve areas. From Hawaii to Australia to the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, marine reserves or parks that prohibit or strictly limit recreational and commercial activities are being recognized as a positive step in preserving delicate marine ecosystems and allowing biodiversity to flourish. A lot more reserves are needed but what we have is a start.

But what defines a marine reserve? What is the method or methods by which the boundaries are determined? Well, this is where scientific research - past and ongoing studies - plays a crucial role. It requires research that examines a whole range of factors - biodiversity, population studies of specific species, water quality and movement patterns, topographical seabed mapping, and more. No one study can do it all, so research accumulates and from this wealth of knowledge, recommendations are made to determine the location and size of the protected area.

But not everyone agrees on the science. Lobbying forces that represent recreational or commercial fishing, and other business interests such as mining and mineral exploration, often question the validity and accuracy of the science. And so the battle rages for the attention and vote of the politicians and decision makers in charge.

Recently, Australia's Department of Environment, Climate Change, and Water commissioned an independent review of the scientific research used to determine its marine reserves, and the results heavily favored the available scientific research. Newly designated areas in New South Wales (NSW) had been heavily criticized, but it would appear by the review that the research that, both, had been done and was planned for the future was sufficient to support the marine reserves.

''The independent review panel found evidence of much ongoing or completed research and monitoring that has taken advantage of established marine parks within NSW,'' the authors of the review wrote, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.

''These are resulting in presentations at conferences and scientific papers published in the international literature, and the reputation of the work being done is, on the whole, excellent.''

The Sydney Morning Herald also quoted Dr. Klaus Koop, the department's conservation and science director, who felt that marine parks not being supported by science was an idea that has been debunked. However, he did make one interesting observation.

''One of the things that we haven't done well enough, perhaps, is communicating exactly what we've done and … what we've found,'' Dr Koop said.

I am a proponent of good media communications for scientific research and that often means a lot more than just published articles in academic journals. Researchers need the assistance of those with media expertise, like myself, in communicating their work to a broader audience - one that includes policy makers, commercial interests, and the general public. The more the information is disseminated in easy-to-understand results and implications, the more challenging it becomes for opposing forces to dismiss or question its legitimacy.

Read the Sydney Morning Herald article.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Oceanic White Tip Sharks: curious pelagic predators with an unfair reputation

A sleek but muscular body gliding effortlessly through cobalt blue water, its rounded snow-capped dorsal fin slicing the water just below the surface, the Oceanic White Tip Shark is one of the premier pelagic (open ocean) predators.

Beqa Adventure Divers's blog picked up on a series of terrific photos of oceanic white tips, posted by LupoDiver on a recent South Atlantic trip with Jim Abernethy's Scuba Adventures.

Oceanic white tip sharks are important open ocean predators and scavengers. As with most other sharks, they play a critical role in keeping the oceanic backyard clean and the populations of their prey healthy by culling the weak, injured, and sick. They are intensely curious as they do not live in a world of wall-to-wall animals, so anything that catches their attention either visually or by scent is quickly investigated.

Unfortunately, these sharks also have a bad reputation carried down through history as a man-eater. Often attracted by the low frequency sounds given off by sinking ships (not your typical underwater background noise), particularly from sinking warships, these sharks were known to attack sailors in the water - their hunting/scavenging instincts piqued by blood from wounded sailors. Sadly, what began as natural curiosity and a reaction to food stimulus in a limited-prey environment turned into a fearsome oceanic killer reputation. Turn down the anxiety level a few notches and you get a lot closer to the truth, as LupoDiver and his fellow divers discovered on their trip.

Beqa Adventure Diver also comments on LupoDiver's picture of a blue shark, another pelagic predator whose numbers have dropped considerably over the years, a favorite target for the commercial shark fisheries.

My first unexpected encounter with a shark in open water was with a beautiful blue shark, over 20 years ago, off Santa Cruz Island which is part of California's Channel Island chain. Following that, my first cage diving experience was being surrounded by a group of blue sharks. Now, Southern California's blue shark diving operations have all but disappeared and, sadly, I suspect I may never come across another blue shark without a lot of chumming and patience.

LupoDiver, treasure your experience with the oceanic white tip and blue shark. Like the great white shark and others, these are very unique and important members of a healthy marine ecosystem. Without them, both the oceans and mankind are the lesser for it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Endangered Species Day, May 21st: a day to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves

Tomorrow, May 21st, has been set aside by the U.S. government as Endangered Species Day. From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) web site, it reads, "On May 21, 2010 the Fish and Wildlife Service will observe Endangered Species Day in order to recognize the national conservation effort to protect our nation’s endangered species and their habitats."

Recognition is certainly important, but action speaks louder than words. And according to some conservation organizations, the government - under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act - has been a little slow out of the starting blocks with several species that have been designated as "endangered."

When a plant or animal is listed as an endangered species, the government is required to take steps to protect it - definitive steps that include setting aside critical habitat areas and addressing the environmental issues that placed the species in such a degree of jeopardy. Organizations such as Earthjustice and The Center for Biological Diversity have often resorted to legal action against any government agency that can be shown to be negligent or disinterested in following the letter of the law as prescribed by the Endangered Species Act.

Sometimes government action has been lacking because of government bureaucracy; sometimes because of a perceived lack of resources to act; and sometimes its intransigence is more politically deliberate. When concern was growing for the polar bear living in an Arctic with less and less sea ice for it to rest or travel on, the prior administration acted against the advice of many leading conservation and research groups and gave the polar bear a threatened species classification, which freed the government from the obligation of having to take action to correct the environmental situation that would imperil an "endangered" polar bear species - in this case, to recognize and correct global warming.

However, there are many organizations that are going beyond just lip service in recognizing Endangered Species Day including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Check these out:
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: lists educational information and USFWS/state-sanctioned events.
  • Stop web site includes event calendar, K-12 school info for teachers, podcasts, and Endangered Species Day Ambassadors.
  • National Wildlife Federation: web site has ways to celebrate the day, endangered animals portraits for Facebook, and tweets that you can post on Twitter.
There's something for everybody, so celebrate Endangered Species Day by helping someone you know learn a little more about what needs to be done to preserve the planet's priceless animals and plants.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

iGorilla: fun and informative iPhone app that helps the mountain gorillas

Here's a recommendation for an iPhone app that is both entertaining and informative: iGorilla. With this app you can follow the day-to-day lives of several mountain gorilla families that reside in one of Africa's most important national parks. Information is regularly updated and you can see pictures and videos to learn about specific family individuals.

The Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been one of the vanguards in African wildlife protection and has put considerable effort into their mountain gorilla program by developing a network of trained rangers to reduce poaching. Of the 720 remaining mountain gorillas on this planet, 200 of them live within the park's boundaries.

While the Virunga National Park is a well established park (second oldest in the world, next to Yellowstone), it too struggles for funding. For the gorilla program, considerable funds go into ranger training, uniforms and salaries, and equipment - money well spent in establishing a strong conservation and protection presence within the park.

You can download the app through the Apple store or right on your iPhone for $3.99. It's well worth it as a portion of the proceeds goes to the park.

Please note: don't get confused - there's another app called iGorilla! (with an exclamation mark) that is a game.

Read more about the iGorilla app.
Read more about the Virunga National Park.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Thresher's Tale (Tail): video footage solves a shark's mystery

One of the ocean's most unusual sharks, the thresher shark, has carried with it a great mystery: why the elongated upper caudal (or tail) fin? Suspicions were that it was used to strike and stun its prey. However, there wasn't any definitive documentation (ie: video or motion picture footage) to confirm it. Until now. . .

According to the BBC News, Dr. Chugey Sepulveda of the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research in Oceanside, California, captured some brief images of a thresher shark swatting several smaller fish and stunning or outright injuring them, making them easy prey.

The water visibility is a bit murky and it all happens in a blink of an eye, but the video slows it down to half speed and you can clearly see the shark's unique hunting ability. The BBC doesn't allow for embedding a video, so click on the image below to link to the BBC and view the footage.

Followers of great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe are very familiar with the Pfleger Institute as they were one of the first organizations to do an exhaustive picture cataloging of the island's population of white sharks that migrate there every fall.

Kudos to the Dr. Sepulveda. These are very special sharks - all three species of thresher sharks are listed as "vulnerable to extinction" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

What Next?: Gulf oil spill legacy signals need for new energy paradigm

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the unwanted gift that keeps on giving. I awoke this morning to televised news reports of tar balls being found in the Florida Keys. While not totally unique to this area, these tar balls will be sent to labs for analysis to determine whether they are from the current Gulf oil spill. If so, it represents evidence of the oil reaching the Loop Current that could ultimately deposit oil as far away as the Atlantic Ocean coastline off the Carolinas.

Several scientific and tracking organizations, like SkyTruth, have reported that the oil spill will enter the Loop Current - which runs from the mid-Gulf, around Florida and up the east coast - if not now, then eventually. This current not only adds another later of complexity to the catastrophe in the Gulf, but it also reminds us of the consequences of our age-old attitude regarding the oceans: that it is a vast open resource - a source of limitless bounty and capable of handling endless abuse. Such thinking is total folly.

To the media and much of the general public, the biggest concern is what we can see: oil splashing up on the shore, oozing into the marshlands, and coating shorebirds - these are the visible signs that something has invaded our backyard. Unfortunately, if these events do not occur, or at least not in great magnitude, then we have a tendency to think we dodged the bullet.

Initially, weather played a role in delaying or keeping the oil at bay, far offshore. And the interplay of the onshore/offshore winds even got some people to wonder where the oil was or whether the spill was as disastrous as claimed. But there is close to 6 million gallons of oil (a conservative figure; other estimates run into the hundreds of thousands) that has leaked into the Gulf and it has to be somewhere.

I have to admit, when I first heard about the Loop Current, I imagined a current hugging the coastline around the eastern Gulf of Mexico. As it turns out, the current starts in the middle of the Gulf - behind, or south, of the site of the spill - then proceeds towards the tip of Florida, where it whips around the tip then stays close to the east coast shoreline. So, if we breathe a sigh of relief that the oil has, to a large extant, stayed offshore, it's ironic that any movement away from shore means it is heading directly into the current to spread an even wider and unexpected path of pollution.

There have been some reports of a large swath of oil moving below the surface, relatively undetected. These reports have been questioned by some government agencies and so further investigation continues, but it would not surprise me if there is a political media person somewhere saying that the longer the oil goes missing, the better. Again, out of sight, out of mind.

But there's no escaping the fact that we are talking about millions of gallons of oil.
  • Oil that has settled on the bottom? That would be disastrous for marine life as the oil would work its way into the fundamental base food chain that impacts a variety of shellfish and other bottom feeders.
  • Oil that has dissipated or spread itself into a thin micro-globular layer? There it can be ingested by plankton, spread across sensitive coral, or enter the atmosphere through evaporation.
  • Or how about broken down by hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant (a toxic brew unto itself) to be eaten by hungry microbes which, in turn, would consume oxygen in the process, thereby degrading water quality.
There is no getting around it - whether we can see it or not, oil and water (in this case, sea water) don't mix.

My growing concern and question is: What will the decision-makers learn from this? What will the oil companies? And perhaps most importantly, what will we learn from this?

If anything, the Gulf oil spill highlights the complexity and multi-disastrous impact such an event can have on marine ecosystems near and far. What will it take to finally make definitive steps away from fossil fuel - our national, in fact global, addiction? As a society we are definitely in the throes of an addiction. We know that it is bad for us, we know that it harms the environment, we know that it produces lopsided economic dependencies - but we do nothing of any lasting consequence. That's textbook addiction.

Hopefully, British Petroleum will contain and stop the oil leak soon. We will have to live with degraded marine environments throughout the Gulf and perhaps along the southeast coast. And seafood commercial fisheries will be cut off from the stocks that they have plundered for years to meet demand. Tourism will suffer and seafood prices will rise. Gasoline prices too, perhaps.

But what will we do next? It has been said that the drug addict, regardless of his or her past bad experiences, must decide that they have now hit rock bottom before they can change their lives. Are we there yet?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Losing the Lizards: study indicates climate change can lead to global extinctions

According to a new study published last week in Science Magazine, lizards are at a high risk of extinction due to climate change. With rising temperatures, they will spend more time seeking shade and less time feeding and breeding to perpetuate the species.

Researcher Barry Sinervo of the University of Santa Cruz and his colleagues compiled data that included local population extinctions to date, climate temperature changes, and the known temperature ranges or requirements of lizard species to construct predictive models.

The research study indicates that, since 1975, local population extinctions had reached 4% worldwide and that global extinction of entire species could reach 20% by 2080 based on current rates of temperature increase.

Ever seen a lizard sunning itself? It's not actually just sunbathing or taking a snooze. As a cold-blooded "ecotherm", it is, in essence, charging its battery so that it can engage in the important activities of foraging for food and breeding. But it does so within a particular range of temperature. And since it can not sweat or pant to cool off, when it becomes too hot it heads for shade or burrows to cool down.

But when lizards are spending more time seeking cooler conditions, they are not engaged in the activities that will guarantee their long-term survival.

"So they don't die directly but they can't reproduce. It only takes a couple of generations of that and the population is going to spiral downward until it goes extinct," says Jack Sites, one of the study's collaborators and a herpetologist from Brigham Young University.

Lizards play an important role in nature's food chain, feeding on insects and being a food source for larger animals like birds. Their loss would definitely have a severe impact on local ecosystems but just how devastating that would be is hard to determine. It is something that scientists, like Sinervo, would prefer not to have to find out.

"The numbers are actually pretty scary. We've got to try to limit climate change impacts right now or we are sending a whole bunch of species into oblivion," Sinervo said.

Read the Science Magazine abstract/article.
Read MNN article about the study.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Whale Sharks and Oil Dispersant: research scientists weigh-in on the hidden risks

Many organizations and blogs have been keeping the Gulf oil spill front and center - and for good reason. The Shark Divers blog has posted several items of interest including this one, which covered an interview that I sat in on with members of the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. While the mainstream news and general public watch for signs of oil on the shoreline, there are some serious impacts that can be occurring right now, out in the Gulf, below the waves.

Gulf Oil Spill - Prime Time for Whale Sharks at Ground Zero

Friday, May 14, 2010

We spent some time with Dr. Eric Hoffmayer, shark biologist at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and Dr. Joe Griffitt, aquatic toxicologist, to discuss the current oil situation in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dr. Hoffmayer has tracked close to 300 whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in the Gulf since 2002. He is the preeminent whale shark biologist of the region and has concerns for the seasonal migration of these animals, some of which have come from as far away as the Caribbean.

As many as one third of his tracked animals are estimated to be at "ground zero" the very place upwards to 70,000 barrels of oil are pouring into the Gulf and 500,000 gallons of Corexit, a toxic dispersant, is being sprayed.

This map is an overlay of where the Gulf whale sharks most likely are and where the oil slick and dispersant is now.

"Most people have no idea we have whale sharks in the Gulf. It has been a terrific success story; we have just realized there are more animals out there then we originally thought," said Dr. Hoffmayer. "Because the public is unaware of that, the issue of this oil spill and these animals is just not on the front burner. This is critical whale shark habitat."

"We're hoping that these whale sharks might sense the oil and move out of the area. We have seen other species of sharks closer to shore under a sheen of oil, but until we get out there and tag a few sharks we just do not know what's happening, or even if they are moving."

Dr. Hoffmayer confirmed, "This is the peak season for whale sharks in the Gulf: May through September."

Meanwhile, we asked Dr. Griffitt to comment on Corexit, a dispersant being widely used by BP, and it's effects. "This stuff is designed to break up the oil into micro droplets. The concern is where it goes from there through the water column. Smaller oil particles get taken up through the food chain very quickly. The fact is we're in uncharted territory, no one knows what these amounts of dispersed oil and Corexit will do to bio-accumulation."

"No one is talking about pelagic species right now in the media," said Dr. Hoffmayer. "Or what this shower of smaller oil particles and dispersant might be doing to the wildlife - it will have a tremendous impact."

Dr. Hoffmayer plans to have his team attempt to tag and track whale sharks this season. "We are linked with people doing aerial surveys right now and they report whale shark activity to us."

Dr. Griffitt pointed out, "These smaller globules of oil will spend a lot of time in the ocean and once it mixes with dispersant this combo can be more toxic than the original substances. More study is needed."

Dr. Hoffmayer is currently seeking funding from all sources to get an expanded tagging and tracking program in place for 2010. Those seeking to help can contact him directly at:

Dr. Eric Hoffmayer Ph.D.
University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory

His website will be updating whale shark activity as it comes in and as the 2010 migratory paths are known. We will keep you updated.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Underwater Video Boot Camp: better videos and beautiful sharks

If you or any of your friends have been tinkering with underwater video - either as a hobby or with hopes of becoming a serious filmmaker, here's an opportunity to learn some skills while at the same time getting a chance to behold one of the most magnificent of ocean predators.

In association with Shark Diver, I will be holding an Underwater Video Boot Camp aboard the MV Horizon as we make our way to Isla Guadalupe, Baja to cage dive with great white sharks. These amazing sharks migrate to Isla Guadalupe during the fall months and we will be there during the height of the season (Oct. 10th thru 14th); so you can expect plenty of frisky male and large female sharks.

The Underwater Video Boot Camp is a comprehensive look at underwater documentary filmmaking, designed to not only help make your videos technically better but to also deliver powerful and dramatic messages to best suit your medium of interest: television, online, and more. In fact, much of what you'll learn is just as applicable above the waterline as below.

In addition, Boot Camp members will be eligible for a "mini-film festival" by submitting a 5-minute video of their trip. The videos will be judged by a panel of independent UW videographers and the winner will receive a FREE trip to Isla Guadalupe in 2011.

Here's a short promotional video:

So, come join the fun. For more details, you can call Shark Diver today at 415-235-9410.

Biodiversity Yin-Yang: sobering UN report and more tigers in India

Yin-Yang news about biodiversity: the United Nation's Convention on Biological Diversity recently released its third Global Biodiveristy Outlook report and the results were not good. Eight years ago, targets were set to improve both plant and animal biodiversity and not only were those targets not met, but the report determined that the rate of extinction of plant and animal life is happening 1000 times faster than expected.

The report examines global biodiversity which includes ecosystems such as coral reefs, tropical rainforests, and other ecosystems in addition to specific threatened plant and animal life.

But on a more positive note and speaking of threatened animal life, a recent field study of tigers in the Kaziranga National park in northeast India revealed the largest concentration of these
highly endangered cats. Using camera traps, the study, conducted in the first quarter of 2009, photographed tigers at a rate of 32 per 100 sq. km - that's compared to the rate of 3-12 tigers found throughout India's reserve parks and nearly twice that of the previous record of 19.6 tigers found in another reserve.

The success of the tiger population in this one reserve is being attributed to the reserve's grassland features and available food sources like deer and wild boar. Hopefully, the reserve's ability to resist poaching is also playing a role. Unfortunately, tigers are illegally hunted for their hides and, in particular, for their genitals - a homeopathic freeze-dried aphrodisiac that commands a high price in many Asian countries.

Read about the biodiversity report in the
Read about the tiger study (with pictures) in the BBC Earth News.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill: flow rate is questioned; just how big is it?

As the news from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill continues to seemingly go from bad to worse, I came across this widget provided by the PBS News Hour web site:

What is interesting and most disturbing about this widget is the ability to adjust the flow of oil based on the various estimates being provided by different companies or agencies. The number of 5,000 barrels per day that has been used in most news reporting is now being questioned, as it is being suggested that the number could be far greater.

Independent scientists and research groups have given estimates of 25,000 barrels per day (1,050,000 gallons daily). In fact, in a closed-door hearing today, a senior executive of British Petroleum stated that the number could get to be as high as 60,000 barrels per day or approximately 2.5 million gallons daily.

Read the PBS NewsHour article.

Also, if the size of the oil spill is a bit hard to fathom looking at a map of the Gulf of Mexico, Google Earth provides you with the ability to overlay the spill as its currently known over your city. You need to download the Google Earth software - it's free (click here) or try this link (click here).

The image above is what the spill currently looks like when overlaid on my hometown of Orange County, CA. It reaches from Los Angeles to San Diego and from Santa Catalina Island well into Riverside.

Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge: combines research with catch-and-release event

RTSea has been a supporter of the Shark-Free Marinas Initiative (SFMI), which takes an incremental approach to re-educating sport fishermen as to the value of living sharks - as opposed to dead, trophy animals - through the use of catch-and-release techniques. While it would be great to have sport fishermen stop fishing sharks altogether, such an all-or-nothing approach would not find a receptive audience, and so the SFMI transitional strategy has found support from many participating marinas and organizations like the Humane Society of the United States.

Another SFMI supporter, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, conducts a major shark fishing tournament that is not only a catch-and-release event, but also works with research organizations like the Mote Marine Laboratory. At the start of this year's Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge, a large female bull shark was tagged and it's location is being regularly tracked. This kind of data allows researchers to better understand the shark's travel/migratory behavior and what risks it is exposed to as it travels through various territorial waters - meaning various commercial shark fishing areas.

Here's is a recent update posted by SharkDivers:

Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge - Tagged Shark Moving Fast

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge
represents a radical change in shark tournament modeling.

Combining shark research and best shark fishing practices the ultimate goal for this tournament is to promote "change from within" the sport-caught shark fishing industry.

A recently tagged female bull shark (perhaps gravid) is now making tournament shark fishing history in Florida waters as she reports her position to Mote Marine Labs and waiting researchers.


On the first day of the Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge (May 1, 2010), a large bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) was caught by tournament competitor Bucky Dennis. This adult female was possibly pregnant and an ideal candidate for satellite tagging by Mote Marine Lab's research team. The tag was attached to the shark's first dorsal fin such that it would be able to transmit whenever the shark was at the surface of the water. These transmissions provide precise location and movement information that will contribute to our understanding of the habitat preferences of this important marine predator.

For more information and to view her daily track go here.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Colossal Squid: study suggests its not the aggressive monster of myth

There is so little that we know about the deepest recesses of the oceans. Our ignorance and our fears often unleash our imagination to conjure up the worst of monsters - not just in today's sci-fi movies, but for centuries man has felt that there are unspeakable horrors lurking in the ocean's blackness.

As many of my readers know, in March I was on assignment for National Geographic to film the jumbo squid, or Humboldt squid, in Baja, Mexico. Working with Scott Cassell of the Undersea Voyager Project, who has spent many years encountering and studying the jumbo squid, this was my first opportunity to meet these voracious predators on their home turf. I soon learned these are very aggressive animals that will attack just about anything if they think it means a potential catch.

There are actually three large species of squid - each with a name that one-ups it's smaller cousin. The jumbo squid, followed by the rarely seen giant squid, and topped by the even rarer colossal squid. Each squid is considered a powerful and aggressive predator based on what evidence was available on any of the species combined with anecdotal evidence such as bite markings on large whales, like sperm whales who, as one of the larger squids' natural enemies, are suspected of diving deep and hunting large squid using echo-location.

It is now being suggested in a recent scientific study, that the colossal squid, the rarest of the rare and the world's largest invertebrate, may not be as aggressive as our imaginations lead us to think. Reported in the BBC's Earth News, the study by Dr. Riu Rosa of the University of Lisbon and Dr. Brad Seibel of the University of Rhode Island suggests that the colossal squid just may turn out to be a slow moving, lies-in-wait ambush predator. This theory is based on metabolism studies of related squid species and then extrapolating those findings to account for the colossal squid's size, in addition to other factors, such as the cold temperatures in which the squid lives.

"Our findings demonstrate that the colossal squid has a daily energy consumption 300-fold to 600-fold lower than those of other similar-sized top predators of the Southern Ocean, such as baleen and toothed whales," says Dr Rosa.

Studies of trace isotopes in tissues samples from the few dead specimens of colossal squid that have been found, show evidence of one of the squid's primary food sources: the arctic toothfish. Based on that, the study determined that an 11-pound (5 kg) toothfish could nourish a 1000-pound (500kg) colossal squid for up to 200 days. It all makes reasonable sense. Given that the deep depths contains less large scale bio mass than in shallower, sunlight-bathed waters; a large predator would need to maximize its use of whatever it could catch, and a lower metabolism - which can equate into less activity - would be one way to accomplish that.

Nonetheless, based on the few specimens that have been examined, the colossal squid is a formidable source of nightmares and mythological legends. It can reach a length of possibly 50-feet (15m) from the tip of its large mantle to the end of its tentacles, equal in length to that of a sperm whale. And whereas the jumbo and giant squid have small teeth that ring each sucker disk on its arms and tentacles, the colossal squid has large, swiveling hooks to latch on to their prey. Yikes!

We know so little about the ocean depths. It has been said that we have more data about the backside of the moon than we do about the oceans depths that make up the vast water volume of our blue planet. The more we commit ourselves to studying it, the more we will learn what is happening to our fragile marine ecosystems and what we should do to protect them. And along the way, a few nightmares might get dispelled, a few legends might get rewritten.

All the same, I'll sleep with the light on tonight.

Read the complete article in the BBC Earth News.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill: real-time web news, politics, and scientific facts

Today, British Petroleum hopes to take careful aim and secure a hastily developed steel tower over one of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill's primary leaks. Once secured, the oil that accumulates inside will be drained out from above. No easy task and there is much concern as to whether the tower can withstand Gulf currents and remain in place.

There is a constant stream of news bites coming from the broadcast media and most every environmental or conservation group is issuing calls to action to repeal offshore oil drilling permits. Rather than presume that I have anything more illuminating to contribute, I will leave you with three interesting information sources:

Real-Time Gulf-Crisis Web Site: Set up by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), this web site compiles breaking news reports on the Gulf oil spill throughout the day, in addition to providing an updated listing of FAQs. CBD is a proactive organization that uses the courts to produce results - so you won't find much love for oil companies or ineffective government agencies here but it's a good one-stop-shop for the latest news.

Interesting video segment from Keith Olbermann/MSNBC that documents some of the political history behind U.S. offshore drilling including Cheney/Halliburton and Interior Secretary Salazar/oil industry connections and even info about BP, years ago, passing on additional technological backups that could have prevented the oil blowout because they were deemed too costly - before BP reported record profits.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

We don't need to be rocket scientists to understand that oil is not good for the environment, but where is the objective science that measures and confirms that assumption? SeaWeb has issued a special report on the effects of oil, listing a variety of scientific studies and reports in abstract (ie: summary) format - you have to search for the complete article, although many are freely offered on the web via links. The studies are listed in categories covering the impact on humans, marine mammals, marine ecosystems, corals, and more. Click here to download the report in PDF.

We will all watch the events in the Gulf unfold and hope that the leak will be arrested soon. But the impact it will have on the Gulf of Mexico's ecosystems and shoreline economies will be felt for perhaps decades. Long after the last drop of oil has been mopped up, we need to keep the pressure on our elected officials in re-evaluating strategies that involve more drilling, when developing alternative energy sources should be our number one priority.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Florida's Immigration Problem: tropical snakes pose an ecological threat

A young alligator lies quietly at the water's edge, momentarily oblivious to its surroundings as it basks in the warmth of the sun beating down. Moving slowly along the river's muddy sand, a boa constrictor silently approaches and then in an instant wraps itself around the gator, one coil after another. Thus begins one of nature's ageless struggles between predators deep in the tropical forest.

Except that it is not a tropical forest, but Southern Florida. And the snake is actually an invader that is disrupting the fragile ecological balance of Florida's Everglades, marshlands, and rivers.

Throughout the world, more and more we are having to contend with invasive species ranging from mussels and seaweed to lionfish, squid, and now, a laundry list of imported snakes. In the fall of 2009 the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) issued a report listing a total of nine constrictors - including various pythons, boa constrictors, and anacondas - that were considered an ecological threat (5 were listed as a serious risk, 4 listed as medium risks).

An invading species is not out to deliberately hatch some devious plot to takeover new territory. They are typically introduced through the actions of man. Some species are transported in the bilges of large ships, like certain forms of algae and seaweed. Others are allowed to expand their range because overfishing of their natural predators have allowed them to do so, as with the Humboldt squid. And in some cases, the invasion was a deliberate attempt by man to control one problem, thereby starting another.

With Florida's snake invasion, it has come about from the importation, often illegally, of these snakes as pets. Either a snake escapes from its owner or is foolishly released into the wild because it has become unmanageable. While many snakes serve an important predatory role in controlling rodent populations, these tropical snakes have a much broader diet. Finding a comfortable home in Florida's wilderness, their numbers have been steadily growing - these snakes are also quite prolific; significant breeding populations of Burmese pythons and boa constrictors have been recorded in the state.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is now considering how best to approach the problem. There are several strategies on the table, a combination of which is probably called for:
  • Tightening and enforcing importation restrictions of snakes from Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.
  • Increasing penalties for the accidental or deliberate release of snakes currently in captivity or making certain species illegal to own at all.
  • Capturing snakes in the wild and, sadly, disposing of them and any eggs found.
Unfortunately, having imposed ourselves on nature as enablers for the planet's invasive species, we are left with the task of imposing ourselves again to hopefully set things right. No easy task, but government agencies have few choices, given what can befall an ecosystem thrown out of balance when unexpected neighbors move in.

“We have a cautionary tale with the American island of Guam and the brown treesnake,” said Dr. Robert Reed, USGS invasive species scientist and coauthor of the report. “Within 40 years of its arrival, this invasive snake has decimated the island’s native wildlife—10 of Guam’s 12 native forest birds, one of its two bat species, and about half of its native lizards are gone. The python introduction to Florida is so recent that the tally of ecological damage cannot yet be made.”

Read a report summary prepared by the USGS.
Use Defenders of Wildlife's
email form to voice your concern to the USFWS (5/11 deadline).

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

G-20 Summit: Mission Blue, TED, and Oceana take on overfishing

After the disastrous March CITES conference, where conservation groups made heartfelt arguments for protecting tuna, sharks, and other critically important marine species - only to have well-oiled political machines representing commercial interests successfully block all proposals for protection - another opportunity for sensible conservation is presenting itself in June.

The G-20 Summit will be held in Toronto, Canada and several major conservation and think tank groups are working together to make up for lost ground. The Mission Blue project, a arm of the Sylvia Earle Foundation and supported by TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) - an innovation think tank - will be focusing on the government subsidizing of commercial fisheries and how that has exacerbated overfishing. With government support, commercial fisheries have pushed themselves into overcapacity, propping up an industry that is no longer economically feasible by perpetuating overfishing in a vicious cycle.

According to a press release from Oceana, who is also working with Mission Blue in preparation for the conference:

“'We believe that the G-20 nations have a powerful opportunity this summer to halt the practice of fishing subsidies and put the world’s fisheries back on a path to recovery and towards an abundant future,' said Chris Anderson, TED curator. 'Nearly all of the world’s fisheries are in jeopardy from overfishing and could be beyond recovery within decades if current trends continue.'

Despite international consensus on the dire state of the oceans, many governments continue to provide major subsidies to their fishing sectors. These subsidies promote overfishing by pushing fleets to fish longer, harder and farther away than would otherwise be economically feasible. The fleets are overcapacity – as much as 2.5 times what is needed to fish at sustainable levels. Destructive fisheries subsidies are estimated to be at least $20 billion annually, an amount equal to approximately 25 percent of the value of the world catch.

'Governments are paying companies to overfish our oceans,' said Andrew Sharpless, chief executive officer of Oceana and Mission Blue participant. 'It’s taxpayer-financed ocean depletion and it’s crazy. Cutting government subsidies that produce overcapacity in the world’s fishing fleets is the silver bullet to restoring our world’s fisheries.'"

You can learn more about Mission Blue at their web site and Facebook page. TED is a fascinating organization with conferences and online videos that cover a plethora of subjects. And of course, Oceana is one of the leading ocean conservation organizations.

The G-20 Summit in late June - another opportunity to get policy makers attuned to the reality of many threats facing our oceans and the urgency needed to address them.

Read Mission Blue press release about Mission Blue/TED strategy.