Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sharks Win By A Nose: research details stereo olfactory ability

To be the efficient predators and scavengers that they are, sharks have an amazing array of sensory functions - from smell, sight, hearing/vibrations, to sensing electrical impulses. Working in coordination or in a sequence, these capabilities give sharks the edge to survive whether cruising an ocean reef or plying the wide open oceans hundreds of miles offshore.

Now, new research by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the University of South Florida shows how shark's sense of smell is even more refined than previously thought, by sniffing scents one nostril at a time - a sort of stereo smell-o-vision!

In a recent press release, WHOI researcher Jelle Atema said,
“The structure of an odor plume is chaotic and not at all coherent. It’s just like what you see with the Gulf oil spill, which is essentially a gigantic odor plume. The plume breaks up into pieces, floats to different levels and gets transported in a current.”

By determining which nostril detects the odor first, the shark is able to determine a direction, much like our stereo hearing allows us to determine direction based on which ear detects a sound first or with greater intensity. The researchers confirmed this with tests using smooth dogfish, a small shark local to New England waters, and squid odor as an attractant.

But as Atema said, odors are transported rather haphazardly by currents, so sharks bring another sensory ability into play to help steer them in the right direction: the lateral line. This sensitive organ along a shark's body can detect faint vibrations in the water - vibrations like those given off by an injured fish or by the movement of water currents. Previous studies by Atema and fellow colleague Jayne Gardiner of the University of South Florida, showed that sharks use the lateral line to detect the direction of subtle currents - much like sensing wind on the hair of our bodies but with much, much greater sensitivity.

Combining these sensory abilities - stereo olfactory perception and lateral line vibrations - sharks are able to determine a direction and follow an odor to its source.
“Inspired by odor, sharks also look for current,” Atema said. “The two together is what makes them so efficient.”

One more reason to look at sharks with awe and fascination and not ignorance or fear.

Read the Woods Hole press release.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ban the Bag: California moves toward eliminating single-use plastic shopping bags

Plastic bags - in particular, the flimsy grocery store variety - have become the target of a wave of anti-bag fervor as more and more people become aware of plastic bags as an unsightly blight, a pollutant, and a threat to ocean sealife. In several California cities, the bags have been banned from use and now there is legislation moving forward that would eliminate the plastic grocery bags statewide.

First introduced in February by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, AB 1998 passed the Assembly and is headed for the Senate Environmental Quality Committee for review before moving to the Senate for a vote. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has expressed interest in signing it. The bill currently provides for the elimination of the single-use plastic shopping bag and a 5-cent charge to the shopper for each paper bag used (a concession to the grocers as paper bags cost more than the plastic variety).

The single-use plastic shopping bag has become the dark iconic symbol of our growing plastic pollution problem. It is a very visible component of the ocean's plastic pollution problem, exemplified by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but it must take its place in the ocean with a long list of other plastic items that break down into micro-particles that leach chemicals into the water and disrupt the fundamental food chain when ingested by embryonic sealife all the way to adult animals. Many plastics are supposedly "biodegradable" but do so only in the right set of conditions - circumstances that often don't exist in reality. So, to "ban the bag" is a step in the right direction, but only a step.

Without the single-use shopping bag, we still must be mindful of these:
  • Eliminate or recycle as much plastic as possible. Or turn it over to recycling centers so that it doesn't end up in landfills where little if any biodegrading takes place.
  • Use paper bags instead of plastic. I've been saying "Paper, please," in my local supermarket for years. But be sure to recycle or dispose of properly - remember, landfills have been dug up only to find 50-year old newsprint intact and readable.
  • Use reusable shopping bags, typically made of canvas or burlap. But be sure to occasionally disinfect them as they can have trace moisture from meat products that can produce bacteria which can be later transferred to other perishables like fruits and vegetables.
Read LA Times article about AB 1998.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fins to Limbs: study identifies possible gene trigger

In the complex web of evolution, one of the pivotal moments occurred with the transition from aquatic animals to land animals - an event marked by the change from fins to limbs. While fossils have shown us evidence of this transition, the actually biological processes, what accomplished this change, has not been clear.

In a report recently published in Nature, a research team from the University of Ottawa conducted experiments that could shed some light on evolutionary change. Their studies identified a group of genes responsible for the supportive fibers found in fish fins, not found in tetrapods (land animals). These genes, known as actinodins, were found in both the researchers' primary laboratory specimen, the zebrafish, and in the elephant shark - an example of an ancient fish that has changed very little from its millions year old ancestors.

By chemically suppressing the actinodin genes in zebrafish embryos or in adults that were regenerating new fins, the resulting fins lacked the supporting fibers. What could not be tested is the causal event that might have triggered the gene change millions of years ago or whether the gene loss occurred as the instigator of change or as a reaction to some other evolutionary biological process.

"It's a very nice example of how changes in one or two genes can be responsible for a huge evolutionary transition," says Axel Meyer, a evolutionary biologist at the University of Konstanz. "We tend to think that new genes bring new functions, but this study shows that the presence of genes constrains or directs development in certain directions. Gene loss is actually a creative force in evolution."

Evolution is an incredibly complex process that not only provides historical insight but has the potential for unlocking secrets into the processes that impact species today in their ability to alter or adapt to changing circumstances. While some people do not subscribe to theories of evolution for religious reasons, I find that, if there is a higher power, there is no clearer evidence than in the intricacies of evolution, from single-celled organisms eons ago to the diversity of life that graces this planet today - a diversity that is being threatened by one of its most successful species.

Read more about the study in Scientific American.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Whales & Heavy Metals: new study documents high levels of toxins

Because of the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) this week, there has been a lot of related cetacean news with various scientific reports being issued for the benefit of the commission.

BTW: The IWC went into closed door sessions regarding potential changes in the current whaling moratorium. Apparently, the issue was tabled, which is being considered a good or bad thing by observers, depending on who you talk to. Good because the status quo remains and nations like Japan and Norway haven't stormed out; bad because it's still an issue that has sticking points for some and the delay allows opposing parties to exert more influence against the moratorium as it currently exists.

The Associated Press recently reported on a disturbing scientific study presented to the IWC by Dr. Roger Payne and the Ocean Alliance, which conducted the research. According to the report, whales are carrying a stunningly high level of various toxic heavy metals including cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury, and titanium.

The research, begun in 2000 by taking tissues samples from 995 whales over a five-year period, was initially designed to track persistent organic pollutants (DDT, PCB, etc.). The researchers were surprised by the levels of heavy metals in their samples.

"The researchers were stunned with the results. 'That's where the shocking, sort of jaw-dropping concentrations exist,' Payne said. Though it was impossible to know where the whales had been, Payne said the contamination was embedded in the blubber of males formed in the frigid polar regions, indicating that the animals had ingested the metals far from where they were emitted. 'When you're working with a synthetic chemical which never existed in nature before and you find it in a whale which came from the Arctic or Antarctic, it tells you that was made by people and it got into the whale,' he said. How that happened is unclear, but the contaminants likely were carried by wind or ocean currents, or were eaten by the sperm whales' prey."

The report cited levels of mercury at an average of 2.4 parts per million (ppm), with some whales recording as high as 16 ppm. Chromium - a known carcinogen used in the making of stainless steel, dyes, paints, and leather tanning and the subject of a major environmental civil suit made famous in the movie "Erin Brockovich" - was found in all of the study's 361 sperm whales.

Mercury pollution has become a hot topic in the shark and tuna conservation movement with levels typically around 1 ppm. There has been considerable industry opposition in the form of conflicting or disputing counter-reports as to either the levels or toxicity of mercury in seafood. It would not be surprising to see a similar response to this Ocean Alliance report from nations with an economic interest in continued whaling.

"'The entire ocean life is just loaded with a series of contaminants, most of which have been released by human beings,' Payne said in an interview on the sidelines of the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting. Payne said sperm whales, which occupy the top of the food chain, absorb the contaminants and pass them on to the next generation when a female nurses her calf. 'What she's actually doing is dumping her lifetime accumulation of that fat-soluble stuff into her baby,' he said, and each generation passes on more to the next. Ultimately, he said, the contaminants could jeopardize seafood, a primary source of animal protein for 1 billion people. 'You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what's going on,' he said."

Dr. Payne is well known for his studies in the late 60's of humpback whale songs. His research advanced our understanding of the intelligence and complex social behaviors of whales and significantly added to the public groundswell in support of a whaling moratorium. But his recent research gives him much reason for concern as to the whales' future.

"'I don't see any future for whale species except extinction,' Payne said. 'This is not on anybody's radar, no government's radar anywhere, and I think it should be.'"

Read entire Associated Press article.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Filmmaking & Conservation: wrestling with the Faustian bargain

The picture above shows me on the job recently as director of photography on a recent film shoot (see previous post about reluctant sharks on this same shoot). I enjoy many aspects of location filming and this image represents some of the particularly fun moments - getting an interesting camera angle, doing something a bit different, maybe even a bit risky.

But there are moments when you are reminded that you are part of a large organization, simply a hired hand with a defined role. A recent post by David Shifman/Why Sharks Matter (portions of which are copied below) is a perfect example of the dilemma that filmmakers face when trying to both educate and entertain. David cites an episode of the Animal Planet series River Monsters about bull sharks and how it is full of over-the-top killer shark hyperbole. The host of the show, biologist Jeremy Wade, describes the bull shark and its ability to move within fresh or brackish water rivers in very alarming terms. If I was on the film crew, I would have been most likely rolling my eyes around, hearing this dialog - but I would know that I was hired to do a specific job and that I was not the screenwriter.

Jeremy Wade is in the same position. Hired as the on-screen host, with his biology credentials adding a degree of credibility to the show, the reality is that he is very limited as to his input regarding content. I'm sure he is able to make some suggestions, but if the producers or the network want more sensationalism, 99 times out of 100 they will get it. Sometimes a host, if he/she was the original developer of a show, might be able to initially negotiate with the networks to have some degree of editorial oversight - but that is a very, very rare occurrence.

The issue is the fundamental business model of broadcasting which has not changed in decades: the need for the broadest audience, which equates to high ratings (used to determine how much advertisers pay for commercials) and the tendency for that need to pander to a lower common denominator.

The world of digital online video has begun to shake the foundations of that business model in recent years but the type of productions that many of us in the nature documentary field would like to make are not necessarily cheap and so, if we expect to pay our bills, we work with the networks and hope the end product is something that is factual and enlightening. It is often a Faustian bargain.

Anti-shark stereotypes in River Monsters
Over Memorial Day weekend, Animal Planet aired a marathon of it’s new hit show “River Monsters”. The show focuses on self-described “biologist and extreme angler” Jeremy Wade’s attempt to find some of the largest freshwater fish on Earth. I’ve heard good things about the show in the past but had never seen it before. After discovering that there were two episodes that dealt with bull sharks, and I immediately DVR-ed them to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I was absolutely shocked at what I heard Jeremy Wade say about sharks:

“No fish inspires the same terror as the shark… but at least these killers are confined to the oceans… or are they?”

“As an angler and biologist I wanted to find out how this is possible, and how far inland these sharks will bring their reign of terror. My mission is to find out whether it’s safe to get back in the water even if you’re miles from the sea.”

“It would mean that there is no water safe from these predators. It can happen anywhere. The danger they present isn’t restricted to Australia.”

“Their ferocity is the stuff of nightmares… the ultimate killer shark”

“…there lurks a beast that is the embodiment of savagery…”

“…a battering ram armed with razor sharp teeth…”

Are you kidding me?

Most ridiculous of all was Wade’s constant assertions that bull sharks swimming into freshwater was a new behavior. He describes this several times:

“more and more, it seems like this freshwater Jaws is bringing its savagery into our once tame backyard”

“This is totally not normal in a river”

“I’ve hooked a creature so strong there’s no way that it should ever be in this river”

“This unstoppable predator is bringing its savagery into the very heart of our civilized world”

“Now we know that there’s more than one shark using this river, and that’s a concern”.

“It seems one species of shark has been trespassing… fresh water, operating where people thought no danger existed”

Actually, Mr. Biologist, bull sharks have been doing this for millions of years. And of course there’s more than one.

This kind of unscientific fearmongering would be intolerable from anyone, but it is completely inexcusable from a scientist who works for a nature channel.

Read David's entire post.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Africa's Great Green Wall: renewed interest in project to combat encroaching desert

Centuries ago there was the Great Wall of China, built to thwart marauding invaders. Recently, the United States talks of a wall along its southern border to resist illegal immigrants. And then there is the Great Green Wall of Africa, literally a wall of trees stretching across the African continent, designed to fight the encroaching Sahara Desert, which is consuming vital farmland.

An effect of climate change and the reduction in rainfall throughout central Africa, the Sahara Desert has been slowly expanding southward for decades. This desertification process reduces usable farmland critical for feeding developing African nations. While some research has
indicated that desertification can actually provide some relief from climate change by reflecting the sun's heat outward - much like what the polar ice caps do - the agricultural impact is considered a more pressing issue.

The Great Green Wall of Africa was first proposed over five years ago and supported by the African Union but the project has languished due to lack of funds. A conference involving ten African nations is taking place in Chad in the hopes of revitalizing the project. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), an independent financial organization consisting of governments and international groups committed to addressing worldwide environmental issues, has proposed funding support of as much as $119 million dollars USD.

For the Great Green Wall of Africa to succeed, it will need that kind of support. Trees have been shown to be proven barriers against wind, sand, and erosion. For Africa, the proposed wall would consist of drought-resistant trees indigenous to each region and would need to be approximately 9 miles wide and over 4,800 miles long.
Not only is it an ambitious project but there are concerns as to whether it can be properly maintained. But with the Sahara's relentless drive southward, it may be the best defense against loss of farmland and the risk of widespread starvation.

Read BBC News article.
Yahoo News article on GEF support.
Treehugger article of desertification research.

Monday, June 21, 2010

International Whaling Commission: crucial annual meeting underway

Without too much fanfare and media scrutiny, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has been holding their annual meeting in Morocco for the past several weeks. The meeting began on May 27 with "pre-meetings" and scientific committee meetings while the formal commission meeting began today and will run through June 25th.

There are both whale conservation organizations and commercial whaling groups in attendance - each making their case for either the greater protection of whales or the maintaining (or increase) of current catch quotas. Several nations including Japan and Norway have expressed a desire to resume full-scale whaling operations. Having been shown on the worldwide stage of public opinion that their "whaling for scientific research" to be largely a farce, Japan has, in particular, been rumored to favor major expansion of its whaling activities.

We'll have to wait and see what the final outcome of the IWC meeting will produce. The petitions have all been signed, the key players are there, and the backroom political leveraging, I am sure, is in full swing - so all we can do is hold our breath and hope that reason prevails in determining the future of what is, by today's standards, an archaic activity and an ironic reminder of the consequences of dependence on a limited resource - once it was whale oil, now it's crude oil.

My brother Chris alerted me to a clever and interesting interactive article in the BBC News that lists a variety of whale species and then provides key information as to their size, range, and current population and threatened status (Click on the image of a particular whale species and up pops a photo and key data). I don't know how long the article will be available in the BBC archive, so take a look now to get a handle on some of the key cetacean species that are of concern with many conservation groups.

And let's cross our fingers and flippers and hope for the best for earth's dwindling cetaceans.

Read more about the IWC's meeting agenda.
Read the BBC interactive article.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Gulf Oil Disaster: a few items of interest

News coverage of the Gulf oil disaster continues unabated, as well it should - we must never become anesthetized to this environmental bombshell of an event. Because there are so many news and conservation outlets following this on a daily basis with much better skill and detail than I could provide, I have left the subject in their able hands.

But here are a couple of items I wanted to bring up today:

My good colleague, multimedia producer Liz Smith, brought this web site to my attention. Assembled by Andy Linter, it brings together several timely widgets and news feeds, some of which I have mentioned in past posts. Included are the live camera feed, the counter showing the number of gallons leaked to date, the spill zone map that can be transposed to your region or community to give you an idea as to the scope of the spill, and several news feeds from leading news outlets.

Visit the If It Was My Home website.

Lawsuit to Lift Deepwater Drilling Moratorium
On May 27th, a federal moratorium on deepwater oil drilling was put in place, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. Earlier this month, a group of companies that provide oil drilling services, including Hornbeck Offshore Services, filed a lawsuit against the government, declaring that the moratorium violated the Outer Continental Lands Act and would impose financial hardship on the plaintiff companies. With support from several conservation organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Secretary of the Interior and several related agencies intend to continue with the moratorium.

“The Secretary’s decision was a valid exercise of his discretion predicated on the need to ensure that no further drilling accidents occur pending review and implementation of safety protocols and procedures,” lawyers for the agencies said. “The short-term economic harm asserted by the plaintiffs fails to meet their burden of demonstrating irreparable harm.”

Here is the dilemma: when a society's economy is so entrenched in oil, that businesses will sue to maintain the status quo even in the face of one of the largest environmental disasters ever.

Read Businessweek article.

Petition to Prevent Drilling Without Environmental Review
And speaking of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the organization filed a legal petition with the Department of the Interior, requesting the elimination of the "categorical exclusion" which allows the infamous Minerals Management Service (MMS) to approve drilling plans without the usual environmental review as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

According to a CBD press release,
"BP [British Petroleum] received approval for its Deepwater Horizon operations under a NEPA categorical exclusion, which allows MMS to greenlight oil and gas exploration and development activities without companies needing to submit an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement, as typically required under NEPA."

"The petition also charges that MMS violated NEPA in its approval of Gulf oil and gas exploration activities. According to the center, the environmental assessment prepared by MMS for the 2007 lease spill — the one that parceled out the Deepwater Horizon well — concluded that the lease sale would have 'no significant environmental impacts.

Read Law360.com article.

The Blame Game
While certainly BP and several federal agencies have to take responsibility for setting the stage for this now ongoing disaster, we ourselves are not free of blame, as a recent issue of TIME pointed out.

"And all of us bear responsibility too for depending on and demanding cheap oil underwritten by risky drilling while showing again and again at the ballot box that we wouldn't support a government that really regulated the industry. 'This failure of government is government acting the way the American people have said they want it to act,' says Sarah Elkind, a political historian at San Diego State University. 'We get what we deserve.' The question is whether we have the strength and smarts to recognize how Americans got to this oil-soaked moment and to force the changes needed to make sure it never happens again."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

UN Proposes End To Fishing Subsidies: restructuring could avoid collapse of fish stocks

Throughout many fisheries worldwide, overfishing has greatly reduced fish stocks and the response of some governments has been the subsidization of fleet expansion - more vessels, more nets and related equipment - so as to maintain or increase catch levels of a dwindling resource. Unfortunately, while this logic may make some sort of economic sense, it also most certainly hastens the inevitable collapse of the species and the industry itself - a sort of Band-Aid solution for a festering, terminal wound.

In a recent report put out by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), a drastic reduction in commercial fishing subsidies is being proposed as a way to save both the fishing industry and fish populations. The report recognizes that approximately 20 percent of the world population depends on seafood as a primary food source and that there are over 170 million people involved in commercial fishing and processing. But the report also recognized that by 2003 , 27 percent of the world's marine fisheries had collapsed. And without a major restructuring of how this marine resource is utilized, that number was bound to increase.

According to UNEP, $27 billion (USD) is being spent each year as subsidies - $8 billion of which is earmarked for managing marine protected areas, but the rest is being spent on propping up fishing fleets to maintain or expand fishing capacity when that capacity already exceeds what is sustainable. UNEP proposes a systematic restructuring in subsidies, focusing more on buying up excess vessels and retraining fishermen, thereby reducing commercial fishing to a level that would be more in line with enabling fish populations to provide their "maximum sustainable yield."

Would this allow commercial fisheries to meet increasing demand from an ever-growing human population? Probably not, but it would forestall the total elimination of one fishery after another, while alternatives are developed such as aquaculture. Others have indicated that taking any food from the sea will lead to its eventual elimination, that "sustainable fishing" is a myth. Whether that is true or not, it must be recognized that a demand for seafood will always exists and so steps must be taken to best preserve what is most certainly not an endless resource.

Some have also suggested that the economic rationale that supports farm subsidies - where, instead of expansion, productive farmland sits idle for the purpose of maintaining stable prices - may need to be re-examined in the face of the moral dilemma of developing nations in need of food staples for an undernourished populace.

You can read more about UNEP's commercial fishing subsidy proposals - part of an overall strategy for a "Greener Economy" - by clicking here (PDF download) or reading UNEP's latest press release.

Information source: SeaWeb.org.

Bahamas' Sharks: a moment's scarcity with disturbing implications

I returned late Thursday night from a video assignment in the Bahamas as director of photography - hence, the lack of postings over the last few days. The crew was out there to film sharks but, as it turned out, we had to look far and wide to find what we were looking for. In the "usual places" where we would expect to find numerous lemon, tiger, and Caribbean reef sharks, we were being skunked - a highly unusual experience.

The boat captain made radio calls to other boats in the area only to find that they were also experiencing the same lack of sought-after quarry. So, we were not the only ones and apparently this had being going on for several weeks. Two possible theories were being bandied about - either of which raised concerns as they illustrated the fragility of a marine ecosystem.

Hunting for sharks:
One of the dive operators that regularly works the area off the Bahamas related a rumor that a tiger shark, possibly a pregnant female, was taken by a fisherman the week before. Had the sharks, in response, moved away from their usual haunts, perhaps deeper or farther out to sea? Possibly - although the theory demands a multi-species reaction to a singular event that may not be that plausible. But it's a tantalizing idea: what would be the response by schooling predators like lemon and tiger sharks to life-threatening events? No matter how much bait or chum was used, at sites where we would normally have so many sharks on hand, you could almost walk across the water on their backs, there were virtually none.

Rising temperatures:
The other theory, which we were experiencing first hand, was an increase in water temperature. We found the temperature in be in the mid-80's from the surface (which is to be expected this time of year) to as deep as 60 feet before it abruptly dropped about ten degrees. Could this abnormal wider range of warmer water have pushed the sharks to deeper and more comfortable depths? Several of the locations where one would typically be surrounded by sharks are in the 20-foot depth range - and we had no luck at those sites. Ultimately, on the last day of shooting, we came upon a small but suitable number of Caribbean reef sharks at 80 feet. My B-camera operator, Scott Cassell, commented to me that he also noticed a lot more algae growing on the reefs in the shallower, warmer depths, versus the more colorful sponges and corals.

In the end, the production crew was able to get the footage it needed, but it was challenging to say the least. And disturbing to think about the implications to a balanced and healthy marine ecosystem when normal conditions are disrupted. In the end, either of these two mitigating factors - fishing or water temperature - which impacted the number of sharks we encountered could be mere anomalies. But it did provide a disturbing indication as to the impact of shark fishing and climate change.

In a couple of weeks, all we experienced could be forgotten and the frequency and range of the Bahamas' sharks could return to normal. But it was sobering to think what the future may hold in store.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Arctic Sea Ice: researchers prepare to monitor 2010 summer levels

We're in June now, so it's time to dig out the sun tan lotion and down parkas, right? What, no? Well, as described by ScienceNews, "While most folks are breaking out their shorts and swimsuits for a summer of play, some researchers are packing warm-weather gear for a much colder trip — to Arctic ice."

This is the time of year when Arctic researchers prepare to monitor and measure the summer sea ice, which has been in steady decline for several decades. Scientists generally agree that
climate change, in the form of increasing temperatures in both the air and water, is slowly depleting the Arctic region of its year-round sheet of sea ice. The sea ice is an undulating mass that grows in the winter and shrinks in the summer, but overall, the sea ice is shrinking. The white ice normally reflects sunlight but with an increase in overall temperatures, the ice melts and exposes more dark sea water, which absorbs heat. This "feedback loop" aggravates and accelerates the problem.

In 2007, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center recorded the lowest level of summer sea ice in recorded history. But on a year-by-year basis trends can sometimes be difficult to detect. In the subsequent 2 years, late summer weather changes produced more sea ice than the record low of 2007. But each year has still been below the mean average and the trend is still moving downward.

According to SEARCH (Study of Environmental Arctic Change), "In fall of 2009, the area of second-year sea ice [ice that has remained from one season to the next] has increased relative to 2007 and 2008. However, the arctic ice pack remains substantially younger, thinner, and more mobile than prior to 2005. The long-term trend in summer sea ice extent is still downward. Furthermore, the rate of refreezing at the end of October is less than in 2007."

As of right now, the sea ice level for May was close to the lowest ever recorded for that time of year. But scientists will be monitoring it closely and if any months experience an extended cold snap, the summer sea ice could put up a fight to stay around.

But the big picture still remains unchanged - a steady decline that is a "canary in the coalmine" indication that climate change is real and has been unusually rapid - more so than can be attributed to a natural cyclical pattern.

Read ScienceNews article.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ocean Acidification: SeaWeb brings bring scientists and commercial fisheries to the table

With many environmental issues, real quantifiable progress is often attained when scientists and commercial interests can sit down and objectively discuss the situation. SeaWeb.org, through its Seafood Choices Alliance, realizes this and has been taking steps to get what can seem like disparate interests to sit down at the same table to discuss the reality of ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is when the oceans become more acidic from the absorption of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. This increase in the water's acidity levels impacts a variety of corals, shellfish, and other animals that rely on the use of calcium in building shells or other supporting structures - a process that is severely weakened by the more acidic water.

SeaWeb has conducted two workshop meetings - one in Portland, Oregon and another recently held in St. Petersburg, Florida - between scientists and commercial fishing leaders to discuss what the latest data says about the current and future status of ocean acidification, and what it means not only for the marine species but for the commercial fishermen and aquaculture companies.

"It is good for various and even opposing stakeholders of a public resource to sit down and talk. At least we can understand the investment each of us has in our finite fisheries and oceans," said Bobby Aylesworth, chairman of the Board of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, about the workshops. "Hopefully we find some common ground to grow from."

According to SeaWeb, one of the ways that scientists hope to collaborate with the seafood industry is through the sharing of data. Ocean acidification is not something that anyone can hide from, so by sharing data drawn from water quality tests taken at hatcheries and nurseries, combined with ongoing scientific studies by local scientists; all interested parties can have a better idea as to what changes are taking place within their own particular region of commercial concern.

There is already documented evidence of the impact of ocean acidification on sealife, so it behooves commercial industry to work with scientists - rather than to oppose or worse yet, buy-off scientists - to get an accurate picture of the issue. Nothing grabs the attention of policy and decision makers regarding an environmental threat than when a commercial enterprise is put at risk. When may be thought of as a bit esoteric suddenly becomes very real.

Read about SeaWeb in Action.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau: centennial celebrates a pioneer

On this centennial of the birth of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, I'd like to reprint an article from today's National Geographic News, that pretty much says it all as to why this man was such a seminal figure in bringing oceanography and ocean conservation to the masses:

Jacques Cousteau Centennial: What He Did, Why He Matters
Marking Cousteau's hundredth anniversary—five successes, one great legacy.
By Ker Than for National Geographic News
Published June 11, 2010

The late Jacques Cousteau's hundredth birthday is inspiring headlines and, Friday morning, a Google doodle—perhaps the ultimate Internet accolade.

Why is the ocean explorer such a legend? Here are five good reasons.

1. Jacques Cousteau pioneered scuba gear.

With his iconic red beanie and famed ship Calypso, the French marine explorer, inventor, filmmaker, and conservationist sailed the world for much of the late 20th century, educating millions about the Earth's oceans and its inhabitants—and inspiring their protection.

Little of it would have been possible without scuba gear, which Cousteau pioneered when in World War II he, along with engineer Emile Gagnan, co-created the Aqua-Lung, a twin-hose underwater breathing apparatus.

With the Aqua-Lung, Cousteau and his crew were able to explore and film parts of the ocean depths that had never been seen before.

(Get the inside story of Jacques Cousteau's adventures with the National Geographic Society.)

2. Cousteau's underwater documentaries brought a new world to viewers.

Jacques Cousteau's pioneering underwater documentaries—including the Oscar-winning films The Silent World, The Golden Fish, and World Without Sun—"had a storyline," said Clark Lee Merriam, a spokesperson for the Cousteau Society.

"Their message was 'Come with me and look at this wonderful thing and see how it acts and behaves,'" said Merriam, who had worked with Cousteau for nearly 20 years before the explorer died in 1997.

"It was a deep and complete introduction for the general public to the undersea world."

(Download wallpaper of Jacques Cousteau underwater and deploying a "diving saucer.")

3. Cousteau pioneered underwater base camps.

Jacques Cousteau and his team created the first underwater habitat for humans: Conshelf I, which begat Conshelf II and III. The habitats could house working oceanauts for weeks at a time.

"He was ahead of even the United States Navy, which was doing the same thing in proving people could live and operate underwater for extended periods of time," Merriam said.

Broadly speaking, "it's technology that industry uses now, because it's a lot less expensive to keep someone down there working than to have them down there for 30 minutes and come back up," she said.

4. Cousteau helped restrict commercial whaling.

Cousteau "intervened personally with heads of state and helped get the numbers necessary for the [International Whaling] Commission to pass the moratorium" on commercial whaling in 1986, Merriam said.

The moratorium remains in place today, though some countries still hunt whales in the name of scientific research.

5. Cousteau helped stop underwater dumping of nuclear waste.

Cousteau organized a popular campaign against a French-government plan to dump nuclear waste into the Mediterranean Sea in 1960—and took his fight straight to the president of the republic.

Cousteau "faced off with General de Gualle in France about the proposed dumping, and he continued to oppose nuclear power," Merriam said.

"He acknowledged that it was a clean power source and full of possibilities but felt that—as long as we're dealing with waste that we don't know how to handle—we should not pursue it."

In the end, the train carrying the waste turned back after women and children staged a sit-in on the tracks.

Jacques Cousteau, Late-Blooming Environmentalist

Cousteau's films and books could make the ocean seem like a boundless and bountiful wonderland, bursting with life and blessedly isolated. But the captain himself knew better.

"He thought it was a conceit of humans that the oceans are endless and that we can keep turning to them as an unending source of food and anything else we wanted," Merriam said.

By all accounts, Cousteau was not always an ardent environmentalist, nor was he always particularly sensitive to the creatures he was filming in the beginning. "He started out as a spear fisherman and a world explorer, not a guardian," Merriam said.

Merriam points to a "horrific" scene in The Silent World in which the Calypso collides with a baby sperm whale. Believing the animal to be near death, the crew shoots the animal—then also shoots sharks that attack the now dead whale.

Merriam remembers when The Silent World was remastered about 20 years ago. "Everyone in the organization said we have to cut out these really ugly scenes that show all of this bad behavior."

But "Cousteau said, 'No, no we're not. It was true, and it shows how far we've come and how dreadful humans can be if we don't curtail ourselves,'" she recalled.

Jacques Cousteau Legacy Endures

If Cousteau were alive today, he would probably be saddened by how little has been done to address pollution, overfishing, and other threats to the world's oceans, said Bill Eichbaum, vice president of marine and Arctic policy at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an international conservation organization.

(Read why Jacques Cousteau would be "heartbroken" at our seas today—commentary by his son Jean-Michel.)

But Cousteau wouldn't be discouraged, said Eichbaum, who worked with Cousteau briefly during the 1970s.

"He would be passionately concerned, and I think, even more articulate and aggressive in urging governments, companies, and individuals to protect the environment," he said.

For her part, the Cousteau Society's Merriam said, "We miss the visionary, and we're glad he set us on the path that we're trying to keep on."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pelagic Predators & Math: study finds hunting patterns not just random

Do pelagic predators hunt in random patterns or with some more organized approach that actually has some mathematical significance? Underwater Times picked up on an article in ScienceNews, about a study showing that fish like tuna, billfish, and some sharks exhibit a mathematical logic in their movements, called a Lévy walk or flight.

In tracking various ocean predators, the researchers noted foraging patterns that were not random - moving here and there without any particular method to their movements - but more deliberate, punctuated with long movements and demonstrating evidence of mathematical fractals.

A fractal is a mathematical pattern that is used to describe the shapes of many things, from snowflakes to the shapes of leaves. No, snowflakes and leaves don't have intelligence, at least not intelligence that necessarily demonstrates free will. But in analyzing the foraging patterns of their test subjects, the researchers detected a level of mathematical thinking or intelligence that was not purely random-based, which was the prevailing theory in the past.

"Many of the animals displayed Lévy behavior at least some of the time, researcher David Sims and his colleagues report — 'the strongest evidence yet that these Lévy patterns are exhibited by wild animals,' he says. Lévy behavior showed up more often in waters where plankton, fish and other food was scarce. In regions with plentiful food, random motion dominated. This observation, says theoretical physicist Gandhimohan Viswanathan, fits with earlier suggestions that 'animals may use a Lévy flight motion to improve their chances of finding prey.'”

This kind of research can provide more insight into migration and other feeding patterns based on availability of food. Perhaps in the future we can better understand or anticipate the actions or movements of some species or their ability to adapt when environmental conditions change.

Read ScienceNews article.

Bluefin Tuna: Mediterranean fishing closed early

Here's a post today from Mike at Beqa Adventure Divers regarding the Bluefin Tuna fisheries in the Mediterranean:

Med Tuna Fisheries closed!

Betcha you remember

Well, as I said, not all hope is lost!
The much-reviled European Fisheries Commission has closed the Mediterranean Tuna fisheries one week early - much like they did last year! The situation of the Northern Bluefin continues to be dire and the Gulf oil spill has likely made things even worse (read this!) - still, this is good news as it clearly illustrates the desire to enforce sustainable fisheries. As is this - and I may add, very much contrary to these shenanigans!

The equally
reviled ICCAT will meet in Paris this November, this after a host of preparatory meetings. This is the body that has the mandate, and contrary to CITES, the know how to regulate the Atlantic Tuna fisheries. Members here. The fisheries in the Mediterranean are regulated by the GFCM - members here.

Has anybody started talking to them - inclusive of talking to Japan?
And even more importantly: is anybody stepping forward with ideas and funds aimed at mitigating the impact of possible quota reductions, especially when it comes to the poorer African and Caribbean countries - oh, and Greece? All whilst wielding the stick, as in leveraging development aid?

All kidding aside: has anybody learned the lessons of Doha and developed a realistic, and above all, unified strategy - or will the NGOs continue to be naive, badly prepared and fragmented, only to incur yet another inevitable defeat?

We shall see!

I have written several posts in the past regarding the decimated bluefin tuna population, the commercial fishery agencies that have dropped the ball time and time again, and the international organizations that have caved in to pressure from countries where the market demand is high. But more meetings are coming. The big question is will anything change? Will something be done before we say "Sorry, Charlie" for the very last time and watch an important pelagic species fade into extinction?

Cousteau's Calypso: a future for the once iconic research vessel?

To the many people who watched or read of the ocean exploits of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a visible icon of that era was the research vessel Calypso. I know it's white outline, punctuated by scientific toys like the distinctive yellow submarine "saucer," was burned into my memory. I built the Revell model kit, supported the Cousteau Society's occasional efforts at refurbishing it, and watched with sadness as it was eventually eclipsed by its high-tech replacement, the Alcyone. Ultimately, it sat rusting away in a French dry dock after having been rammed and sunk by a barge in Singapore in 1996.

However, according to British news reports in the Independent and BBC News, efforts are underway to resurrect the famed ship, making it once again seaworthy as a touring educational exhibition. Cousteau's widow from a second marriage is involved in the effort and would like the French government to declare the Calypso as part of France's national heritage, making it eligible for
public restoration funds. But getting the Calypso, a converted minesweeper, to once again ply the waves will be no small feat, as the years of abuse and neglect have definitely taken their toll.

According to long-time crew member Albert Falco,
"Everything which is not rusted is rotten and everything which is not rotten is rusted."

Unfortunately, various controversies have dogged the Calypso and the Cousteau family regarding ownership since Jacques-Yves Cousteau's death in
1997. Hopefully, the passage of time has healed some of those wounds and as we enter the centennial of Cousteau's birth, we can look back on the legacy of his work and how it fired our fascination in the undersea world. Oceanographic science undoubtedly received a public relations boost that helped support further research which built on and refined some of the studies and observations made aboard the Calypso.

Whether that famed vessel can once again make its own wake upon the open sea remains to be seen.
But what it has meant to many ocean conservationists - professional or armchair - would seem to justify not seeing the Calypso become a distant memory.

Read the BBC News article.
Read the Independent article.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Vaquita: Mexico's diminutive porpoise at risk of extinction

From the large and majestic humpback whale, mentioned in yesterday's post, we can travel to the other end of scale: the rare and diminutive Vaquita. Reaching a mere 5 feet in length, the vaquita is a member of the porpoise family and is only found in the northern end of the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). And at a scientific meeting of the International Whaling Commission being held in Agadir, Morocco, the findings of a 2008 population study show that there are only approximately 250 vaquitas alive today. As disturbing as that low number may seem, it is even more disconcerting when compared to a 1997 population study that estimated the population to be 567 - a decrease of 55% in just one decade.

The vaquita is similar to other small porpoise species that inhabit deltas and river outlets (one such species in China was considered extinct by 2007). Probably attracted to the shallows of the Sea of Cortez near the mouth of the Colorado River, the vaquita's habitat was impacted by the damming of the river in the U.S.; but researchers do not believe this has been a detriment to the vaquita. What appears to be the primary cause for the vaquita's decline is its tendency to get caught in the gill nets of local fishermen - a tragic victim of bycatch.

The 2008 population study represents the combined efforts of both Mexican and U.S. research groups with additional government support. To conduct the study required an elaborate high-tech version of a common biodiversity technique: to determine basic biodiversity, a transect is used to define an area and then sealife is counted within that area. Doing that several times over a wider area, estimates can then be extrapolated. For the vaquita population, several vessels were used to make large surface transects within which visual sightings and results from hydrophones (which picked up the distinctive clicking sounds made by the vaquitas) were tallied. From that raw data, the current population of 250 was estimated.

Although their primary range is now within a protected reserve, as of 2005, and includes a ban on the use of gill nets; the vaquitas are still very much at risk from illegal fishing. A lack of resources to provide effective enforcement combined with the economic needs of subsistence-level fishermen continue to put the vaquitas at risk. Plans are being considered to introduce fishing techniques that do not use gill nets, but getting local fishermen to abandon their traditional fishing methods will be challenging.

According to Nature News,
"A more immediate challenge is to expand the protected area. 'We need to get all the gill nets out of the water,' says Timothy Ragen, executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission in Bethesda, Maryland. But a broader ban would be a difficult economic and political challenge, pitting the vaquita against the livelihoods of local fishermen."

The unique vaquita is one more cetacean that stands at the brink of extinction - not from industrialized commercial fishing or whaling, but from the needs of local fisherman trying to survive. This is dilemma being played out in many other parts of the world.

Read more in Nature News.

World Oceans Day 2010: Share what inspires you

Today is World Oceans Day 2010. Here is some info from the Nature Conservancy that was sent to many of their Facebook members. Notice they start with a question, since recent events have overshadowed World Oceans Day 2010.

Did you know June 8th is World Oceans Day?

We encourage you to celebrate World Oceans Day today, not just because the need to protect our oceans and coasts came into sharp focus with the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but because you are affected by the ocean every day.

Compounds from coral reef plants and animals help treat cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, viruses and other diseases. This is just one example of the ways you are connected to the world’s oceans.

Our connection to the ocean plays a vital role in our survival, yet there is more to it than that.

Why are you drawn to the sea? Is it the beauty of a sunset reflecting on the water? Is it the immense power of waves crashing on the shore? Tell us! Share what inspires you about oceans.

Thank you for all you do to help with marine conservation each and every day.

Happy World Oceans Day,

The Nature Conservancy

Monday, June 7, 2010

Humpback Whales: the ladies hang out together year after year

Humpback whales - those beautiful songbirds of the cetacean world - may have another behavioral trait that sets them apart from the other baleen whales: the ladies apparently form lasting friendships among themselves - kind of an oceanic "Sex in the City."

According to research being conducted by the Mingan Island Cetacean Study of Canada, along with researchers from Germany and Sweden, when humpback whales return to the Gulf of St. Lawrence following extended periods of migration and breeding, the females congregate in groups to feed - not just any group, but the same group of females year after year. They develop friendships.

While toothed whales, like orcas and sperm whales, have shown similar types of social behavior, baleen whales are much less social. The study, reported in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, reports that no such behavior was seen between blue and fin whales. Only the humpback whale exhibited this bonding between females, bonding that resumed with the return of the whales year after year.

"I was expecting stable associations within one season, not beyond. I was particularly surprised by the fact that only females form these bonds, especially females of similar age," said Dr. Christian Ramp, one of the Canadian leaders of the study. "Staying together for a prolonged period of time requires a constant effort. That means that they feed together, but likely also rest together. So an individual is adapting its behaviour to another one."

What has yet to be determined is how they find each other every year - perhaps by their distinctive songs or some other low frequency sounds which can travel great distances underwater. Another question to be studied is what implications does commercial whaling have on this behavior. Did this bonding in female groups make them easier targets for whalers in the past? If countries that are proposing a resumption of large scale whaling were to have their way, would these friendships among female humpbacks once again make them easy targets? What are the socio-biological implications of disrupting this behavior; how is the overall family structure - hunting, breeding, calving - impacted?

This is another fascinating component in the complex world of marine mammal behavior. Just like a group of women getting together to have lunch and catch up on maybe some juicy gossip. (I'm not being sexist - men do they same thing; they just do it around the tube with a six-pack and a bag of Cheetos!)

Read more about this in BBC Earth News.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Leaving a Good Legacy: authors say combating climate change should appeal to conservatives

I was reading an interesting editorial in the latest issue of TIME, Leaving a Good Legacy, written by William Antholis and Strobe Talbott, about the ethical case for combating climate change and how it should appeal to conservatives.

What, you say? Conservatives combating climate change - how could this be? Well, on the face of it, it would seem a stretch in this world of polarizing politics where so-called "liberals" are the ones dedicating themselves to the environment and "conservatives" are dedicated to ravaging it for profit. And there would certainly be some truth in that, particularly based on the shrill comments from the extreme ends of both parties.

But Antholis and Talbott make an argument that taking on climate change and preserving the environment are actually conservative values at heart. Recognizing that government and society are part of a legacy to future generations and that what debts we incur on our way of life should be paid within our own time and not placed on future generations - these are actually prudent fundamentals exposed by founding conservatives throughout history.

Perhaps, in the U.S., the conservative movement, personified by the Republican party, has focused its aim to conserve on merely maintaining the status quo and conserving financial assets - wealth. But, as Antholis and Talbott point out, there are some in the party who recognize where the future of their party lies: with a generation that is keenly aware of environmental issues and the kind of world they face if those issues aren't addressed. U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is supporting new energy legislation, working with Senators John Kerry (Democrat) and Joe Lieberman (Independent), that addresses job growth in the alternative energy sector which would have a positive impact on the fight against global warming.

"Surprisingly, perhaps, it is Graham who has been most forceful in making the case for effective steps to counter climate change. 'I have been to enough college campuses to know — if you are 30 or younger, this climate issue is not a debate,' he told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in February. 'It's a value ... From a Republican point of view, we should buy into it and embrace it and not belittle them.'"

The Gulf oil spill is a consequence of our dependence on fossil fuels, one that is staring us in the face right now and whose effects will linger for decades. Global warming is also a consequence of fossil fuels, with effects that can be more far-reaching on many generations to come. If a true conservative is prudent, responsible, and less inclined toward excess, then the ramifications of our dependence on fossil fuels and what we are saddling future generations with, regarding the air we breathe and the water we drink, should be of major concern. In an ideal world, the environment should be a common cause for all politicians because it speaks to our living legacy to those who will have to carry on with what we did or did not do.

"We come into this world in debt to our ancestors, and we leave it an incrementally better place, believing our descendants will come up with means of fending off or coping with whatever their age throws at them," writes Antholis and Talbott. "Down through the years, that has been the narrative of the human family. But global warming alters it in a basic way. We cannot leave those who come after us to their own devices. If we do not get the process of mitigating climate change started right now, our descendants, however skilled, will not be able to cope with the consequences. If we do nothing, we will likely bequeath to them a less habitable — perhaps even uninhabitable — planet, the most negative legacy imaginable. That is why there is no time to lose."

Read entire editorial in TIME.
Antholis and Talbott are authors of
Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming.