Thursday, July 29, 2010

Nature Crimes: professor looks at how conservation can go wrong

Now here is a different spin on current conservation strategies, one that takes a skeptical look at the overall approach taken by many western-style societies when it comes to implementing animal reserves and ecotourism operations. It may not be a perspective that you agree with (it made me squirm in my seat to read it), but as we move forward in our efforts to conserve animals and natural resources worldwide, it's worth considering so that we can best insure that we're on a fair course.

As reported in The Guardian, in the new book Nature Crime: How We're Getting Conservation Wrong, author and professor of international politics Rosaleen Duffy declares that, in many developing countries where endangered species or habitats exist, conservation efforts often penalize or even criminalize large segments of a population which can threaten their very existence. According to Duffy (who supports the need for animal and habitat protection), this can cause bigger long-term problems in keeping these disenfranchised groups in step with the program.

The Guardian reports, "When wildlife reserves are established, Duffy says, local communities can suddenly find that their everyday subsistence activities, such as hunting and collecting wood, have been outlawed.

At the same time, well-intentioned attempts to protect the habitats of animal species on the edge of extinction lead to the creation of wild, 'people-free' areas. This approach has led to the displacement of millions of people across the world.

'Conservation does not constitute neat win-win scenarios. Schemes come with rules and regulations that criminalize communities, dressed up in the language of partnership and participation, coupled with promises of new jobs in the tourism industry.'"

Ecotourism is another area in which Duffy is critical. Developing ecotourism in areas with the promise of increased tourism and jobs, can in the end prove counterproductive when there is hotel development to support the tourism, work done to provide tourists with a "clean" experience (pristine white beaches, etc.), but a populace that does not fully benefit from the limited number of jobs that ecotourism can sometimes generate.

"'Holiday makers are mostly unaware of how their tourist paradises have been produced,' she says. 'They assume that the picture-perfect landscape or the silver Caribbean beach is a natural feature. This is very far from the truth. Tourist playgrounds are manufactured environments, usually cleared of people. Similarly, hotel construction in tropical areas can result in clearing ecologically important mangroves or beach building which harms coral reefs.'"

Duffy's thesis is that many conservation strategies are too optimistic and there certainly have been instances where the end results were not as anticipated for both, the environment and the community. So, I personally take what she says as more of a warning rather than an across-the-board indictment. Government, non-profit, and commercial organizations involved in conservation efforts - from reserves and protected areas to ecotourism - must be cognizant of how their efforts might inadvertently penalize subsistence-level groups which, in the long run, can undermine the success of the strategy. It's a challenge getting the balance just right between the interests of all.

The article is thought-provoking as I found myself both initially disagreeing with her position and yet taking stock of many conservation programs, checking to see if there could be roadblocks to their success down the road. I may even read her complete book, just to make sure I'm on my toes when it comes to analyzing and supporting the best conservation efforts.

Read the article in The Guardian.

Buy the book at Amazon.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sharks Bite Back Without Biting: study finds deadly bacteria

With only a few days remaining before the start of Discovery Network's annual Shark Week, circulating through several news agencies (even Discovery's own Discovery News) is word of a new wrinkle in shark predatory behavior, a new weapon in its arsenal as it were: deadly bacteria.

Detailed in an article in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, a study was conducted by researchers who examined nearly 200 of seven different species of shark (and one species of redfish) from Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts to the Florida Keys, the Louisiana coast, and south to Belize. Taking swab samples from the fishes' cloaca (its genital opening), strong evidence of deadly Staphylococcus and E. coli along with a host of other bacteria was found. These are bacteria that are life-threatening as they have become highly drug-resistant over the years - one of the side effects of man's extensive use (some might say overuse) of antibiotics.

Drug-resistant diseases and bacteria have been an issue with the medical community for some time, but here is a documented study showing transference of these microbes to fish. The question is: how did they get there?

As reported in Discovery News, one of the researchers, Jason Blackburn at Florida Atlantic University, has some theories.
"Drugs given to humans could simply be excreted and eventually find their way into the ocean. Or bacteria in humans could acquire the resistance, be excreted, and then colonize fish that sharks eat, or the sharks, themselves. Some antibiotics are routinely dumped into aquaculture to help prevent infections -- that could be a source for some of the resistance."

The bacteria apparently is causing no harm to the sharks; perhaps the sharks are acting like host carriers, as occurs with other animals. But due to the drug-resistant nature of these bacteria, the
potential for harm to man by casual contact or perhaps through eating raw meat can not be discounted. The research team plans on another study to investigate that aspect of the problem.

Today, we are learning more and more about the way in which pollutants like methylmercury and other toxic substances can work their way up through the food chain and often collect in surprisingly strong levels in many of the ocean's large predators including sharks, tuna, dolphins and more.

"You don't expect to see multi drug resistance from these animals because they shouldn't be exposed to antibiotics," said Adam Schaefer, a co-researcher involved in the study. "These animals are at the top of the food chain; they reflect everything that's going on beneath them."

When I dive with sharks, I'm less concerned with their teeth than with their overall attitude and posturing. Looks like now I'll have to check to see if their running a temperature.

Read an abstract from the study in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine.
Read the
article from Discovery News.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shark Physiology: shark tournaments provide researchers with specimens and a moral dilemma

For marine biologists to better conserve and protect the creatures of the sea, they must understand them - their behaviors, their lifestyles, their physiology. To understand them from the inside out means having access to specimens for dissection and this poses one of the great moral scientific dilemmas: having to catch and kill the very animal you hope to protect.

Can this be done responsibly? Are there animals whose internal structures have been studied enough? Are there others resources for specimens available? In many cases the answer is "yes" but not for all. Sharks are one example. There's still much that is unknown about the inner workings of these important predators, but sharks decompose quickly so sharks found dead in the wild are not ideal for study. The same can be said of sharks commercially caught as bycatch or, if commercially sought after, that are immediately processed.

An article in the Cape Cod Times caught my attention as it addressed this issue by examining how researchers use shark tournaments as a means to gain access to suitable shark specimens. The article details how researchers from NOAA and other universities take advantage of the large, mature sharks that are caught to make quick dissections of their internal organs for study. The article is accompanied by a video showing the researchers at work during Massachusetts's long-running (and notorious to many shark advocates) Monster Shark Tournament.

I found the article and video to be very disturbing. Disturbing because it plays to that scientific moral dilemma that many shark advocates just don't like to think about. And for good reason. A 200+ pound mako is hoisted by its tail and brought onto the dock. People are commenting about how beautiful it is with it's cobalt blue body and sleek shape. It pained me to see it.

A large crowd is gathered to watch the festivities of sharks being hauled in. Is there a macabre fascination in seeing the infamous malevolent predator hanging unceremoniously by its tail; a vindication that, in the end, man conquers all? Fishermen are making toasts to their trophies, hoping to gain rewards - sometimes financially sizable whether offered legally or otherwise - and brandishing justifications that the shark meat will be provided to those in need. I can just see the child of a low-income family calling out, "Momma, mako steaks tonight!" Oh boy, shark fin soup - a favorite of the projects! Right. I get angry even as I write this.

But then there is the other side of the argument. The researchers, who are unable to afford boats and crews to go on selective fishing expeditions, are at least afforded some sort of access to fresh specimens for study. Tournaments that set specific rules regarding species, size and weight (favoring older, more mature sharks) garner a measure of favorable PR by providing researchers with the opportunity to do on-site dissections.

"While scientists can get some sharks from fishermen who catch them while targeting other species or from research cruises, large, sexually mature sharks are mainly seen only at tournaments. [NOAA biologist Lisa] Natanson credits tournaments such as the one in Oak Bluffs for welcoming researchers and for encouraging fishermen to land only large animals. Penalties are assessed for landed sharks that are under the weight limit, which is between 200 and 250 pounds, depending on the species.

'Without these tournaments, we'd have to go out and hire a boat and kill them ourselves, and that would be expensive,' said Greg Skomal, the state Division of Marine Fisheries' shark expert. Tournaments also offer college students the chance to do research necessary for advanced degrees. Skomal did his thesis on blue sharks with information gathered at shark contests."

Taking stomachs, intestines, livers, and other tissue samples, there have been some telling results ranging from parasites to diseases. As an example, the Cape Cod Times article sites three forms of cancer that have been found in adult shark specimens.

Shark advocates take note: CANCER HAS BEEN FOUND IN SHARKS, which debunks the belief that sharks resist cancer - one of the foundations behind the demand for shark products as homeopathic cures.

But still, I am troubled. There has got to be a better way. I support the efforts of organizations like the Shark Free Marinas Initiative, which gets marinas to cooperate by banning sharks from
their docks and promote catch-and-release techniques. And researchers have taken advantage of catch-and-release tournaments to take blood and tissue samples, and tag sharks with transmitters before the shark is released at sea. Recognizing that an outright ban of all shark fishing is unlikely, the Shark Free Marinas Initiative is taking an important incremental step forward and away from senseless slaughter for the sake of a trophy kill.

However, for scientists, the need for whole specimens for dissection is still there, as we are continually learning more and more about these important but threatened ocean animals. It is a dilemma that is not lost on the scientists, as they have ambivalent feelings, too.

"While she [University of Hartford biology professor, Joanna Borucinska] appreciates the information she is able to glean from tournaments, Borucinska said she would not be saddened if they went away. The crowd cheered when a big thresher shark was hoisted overhead. But the sight brought her no cheer.

'I never get excited (about seeing a shark on display), especially a big one,' she said. 'I get sad.'"

Professor, you're not the only one.

Click here to read the Cape Cod Times article and watch the video.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Filmmaker's Journal: guest posting on Oceans4Ever's "Summer Sharktakular"

It's been said that the future belongs to the young. If so, then here is an example of hope: ten-year old Alexa, with the help of her mother, Cindy, have established the blog Oceans4Ever. It succeeds in bringing important issues to light without hyper-opinionated rants and complex scientific jargon. Just straightforward talk from the perspective of someone who is living with the world we adults have given her, warts and all.

Right now Alexa is running a Summer Sharktakular with contests along with information and guests posts from a wide range of sources. I was asked to contribute a guest post about shark filmmaking and I was most pleased and honored to oblige. I addressed the responsibility that the nature filmmaker has towards getting the story right when it comes to sharks:

"... the truth is that sharks are predators and scavengers – extremely important predators and scavengers that help maintain the proper balance and health of the marine ecology.

The oceans cannot survive without them.

The message I try to convey to my audience is: you may not love them, but you must appreciate them. You can’t enjoy the jackrabbit or the deer without appreciating the coyote or the wolf. And you can’t enjoy the colorful reef fish or the comical seals without appreciating the shark."

My hat's off to Alexa and Cindy for Oceans4Ever! We are standing very close to a precipice but its because of the efforts of young people like Alexa that, in that perilous moment, we might spare ourselves that long fall.

"Shark films can be exciting, they can be entertaining, but they must be on-target. We owe it to the sharks; we owe it to ourselves – for our futures are intertwined."

Check out the Ocean4Ever blog.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Finds in Newfoundland: discoveries in cold Canadian depths

One often thinks of near-Arctic waters as not a likely environment for corals and sponges - or for much else for that matter. And if it's deep, when we think of life, we think of thermal vents and the temperatures and nutrients that spawn unusual species.

And yet, scientists and researchers from the Canadian Fisheries Department, Canadian and Spanish universities have discovered new coral and sponge species off the coast of Newfoundland - species whose coloration and beauty would befit a tropical reef.

Using a robotic submersible (ROV), the researchers plumbed the depths as deep as 9,800 feet (3 km) in an area protected by the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization. At these deep depths, species of coral, like gorgonian sea fans, grow extremely large (over 3 feet in height) and provide shelter for sealife and even protection from currents - much like trees.

As reported in the Montreal Gazette, according to Fisheries Department scientist Ellen Kenchington, “It’s a similar function a tree would serve in the forest, cutting down wind, providing branches for birds. We have the same type of communities that take shelter down there.”

As the researchers continue their work for the next few weeks, they will be assessing the condition of this protected area to determine whether additional sanctions are needed in other areas to better insure that populations of commercial fish remain at sustainable levels.

Click here to view a slide presentation of fascinating deep sea creatures.

Read article in Montreal Gazette. Photos by HANDOUT, Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Earth Lashes Out At the Sea: terrestrial fungi can strike ocean reefs

Here's an interesting post from the Southern Fried Science blog - a blog consisting of a trio of dedicated grad students from the U.S. Carolinas. Described in this post is a type of fungus that raised havoc in the coral reefs of the Florida Keys in the late 90's. Acting like a brush fire that thins out a forest, this fungus spawned diseases that cleared out mature coral sea fans, allowing young coral with greater disease resistance to take hold.

This would seem like a natural cyclical disaster that nature could handle - much like the forest fires started by lightning. But this was a terrestrial fungus brought in by wind-borne dust from faraway continents and could also be brought in by ships or more frequent storms due to man-made climate change. So, while nature has an incredible ability to, in time, balance out the the impacts of natural disasters; mankind can accelerate those factors beyond what nature's ecosystems can handle.

Alien Invaders: coral pathogens

It was a story that could very easily have been written as science fiction. Gorgonian (sea fan) corals of the Florida coast were turning black and dying. The infectious culprit was something no one working on the reefs had encountered before. It was totally alien. The black rot spread across the Caribbean, decimating coral populations. By the time the contagion had been deduced, more than 50% of total sea fan tissue had been eradicated in the Florida Keys. It was one of the worst coral epidemics in recent history.

The culprit was indeed an alien, though certainly not extra-terrestrial. In fact, it was very terrestrial. Aspergillus sydowii, a globally distributed saprophytic soil fungus was the nightmare creature. Aspergillus causes a variety of diseases in humans and birds, but had not previously been recognized as a marine pathogen.

The coral epidemic lasted six years, beginning in 1997. Not surprisingly, it targeted larger, mature corals, severely reducing their biomass and impairing reproduction. Because of this predilection, the total population of gorgonia remained stable, thanks to the influx of juvenile corals from other sources. Eventually, the disease epidemic subsided, due largely to increased host resistance, but also due to the decline in large corals.

How Aspergillus was introduced into the ocean is no surprise. Fungi are prolific in their spore production and dispersal. For every cubic meter of air, there are more than 10,000 fungal spores. That’s a lot of opportunity to take hold. But there is a concept called the mycostatic effect in marine mycology. Simply put, most fungal spores do not germinate in the sea. The osmotic pressure of saltwater prevents most fungal spores from functioning. So, though prolific in numbers in the sea, fungi are not often seen as having a large ecologic contribution.

At least, that’s the conventional wisdom.

Recently other reports of fungal infection in the ocean have appeared. In the Fiji Basin anther black yeast, those this one uncharacterized, has infected mussels at a deep sea hydrothermal vent. These mussels grow black and eventually die. More then 60% of the mussels at one site were infected. How the disease spreads, and how it was transmitted to the deep sea remains a mystery.

Fungi were one of the first to colonize land, and I have a bit of a history of that event here. Only the most basal fungal forms are known to thrive in aqueous environments. So how do these more derived forms return to the sea?

The final chapter (or first chapter? I’m still getting a handle on this whole narative thing) is one that is a common thread in modern ecology. Fungal spores identical to those of the infectious Aspergillus were isolated in the Virgin Islands from layers laid down by dust storm events. These dust storm events originated on the African Coast and carried spores across the Atlantic to settle in the Caribbean. An organism of little notice (though very significant ecology) becomes a pathogen when introduced into a new environment.

We live in a global ecosystem. What happens to one place, no matter how seemingly remote, happens to us all.

~Southern Fried Scientist

From Southern Fried

Monday, July 19, 2010

Jumbo Squid in Oxygen-Poor Zones: new study shows ability to expand territory and evade predation

New research adds further insight into the ability for the Humboldt, or jumbo, squid to expand its territory and become even more of a destabilizing predatory influence along the coast of the Eastern Pacific. In the latest issue of Progress in Oceanography, researchers from the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and the University of Rhode Island, U.S., studied the squid's metabolic rates in water with different oxygen levels - duplicating the oxygen-poor environment found in waters several hundred meters deep and also the oxygen-rich environment of relatively shallower depths.

Dr. Ruis Posa, of Portugal's Center for Oceanography, posed the question,
"Jumbo squid display oxygen consumption rates that are among the highest in the oceans. This high energy demand reflects the low efficiency of jet propulsion. So the question is how can they survive in these deep, cold and oxygen depleted zones?"

According to Dr. Rosa, from Portugal's Center of Oceanography, the squid displayed the ability to shut down its metabolism by as much as 80% in the oxygen minimum layer (OML). This enables the squid to find a safe haven during the day beyond the reach of many of its predators. During the night, the squid rejuvenates itself in shallower waters where its metabolic demands increase dramatically as it hunts for food using its jet propelled speed coupled with tentacles laced with tooth-lined suction disks.

As mankind continues to alter the marine environment, we are finding more and more areas of lower-than-normal or even near-depleted oxygen levels in the oceans, thereby providing the voracious Humboldt squid with the capability of expanding its range. An animal's territorial range can be maintained by a variety of factors, some of which are based on the quality of its environment and on the predators that help keep the population in check. With this newly studied metabolic ability, the Humboldt squid can utilize spreading OMLs to its advantage, avoiding predators during the day and causing havoc amongst commercially fished species at night.

Read the study in Progress in Oceanography. Read more about the study in BBC News. Watch video below from Google Earth/Ocean.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Filmmaker's Journal: Shark Diver - the Movie

This past December, I had the pleasure of working on a film project that was the brainchild of marine biologist Luke Tipple and his director/brother Mark Tipple. It was to be the pilot episode of a proposed series titled Shark Diver. In this opening segment, it sets the stage for a series of worldwide shark encounters with Luke as the central figure, supported by a cast that includes an investigative reporter, a zen-like scuba master, and more. I was on board as Director of Underwater Photography and topside "B" camera operator.

The end result is a very entertaining piece that sets the stage for more adventures while also providing an important insight into shark ecotourism, research, and conservation.

The production company, What We Do Media, has set up a web site where you can view the pilot episode or order an HD-quality download or DVD. It's a different twist on providing both entertainment and education, so check it out.

View or download the film at

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Failing Fishery Management: report and video illustrate excesses by EU and Japan

The logic is so simple: if you harvest from a finite resource without giving back then you will deplete it.

But combating that is the economic principal that requires the use of available resources to meet market demand and sustain business growth.

These are the concepts that fishery management has been wrestling with for decades - and it is becoming more and more apparent that economic interests win in the short term and the environment loses in the long term.

I have sited in past postings the European Union's inability to effectively manage its industrial fishing. It has failed to the extant that it moves from one species to another, harvesting until there effectively is no more in their territorial waters. And so they export their trade to other countries, fishing in the territorial waters of developing countries who are lured by the economic gains of providing fishing rights and/or fishing crews to prop up struggling economies - ultimately sacrificing their natural resources for short term gain.

A report recently published by the New Economics Foundation declares that the EU has now basically consumed all of its own fish and must look elsewhere to meet demand. The report says the EU has reached a "fish dependence day" and is now having to live off the rest of the world when it comes to seafood.

The report, Fish Dependence: The Increasing Reliance of the EU on Fish From Elsewhere, states,
"In a context of finite resources and growing populations, the current EU model is unsustainable. The EU's increasing fish dependence has implications for the fish stocks in other countries, which are also overfished, and for the communities that depend upon them."

It makes me recall the science fiction film, Independence Day, which portrays an attack on the earth by malevolent aliens that travel the galaxies, plundering all the natural resources of a victim planet before moving on to the next one. We don't need fictional aliens to see that that is exactly what is happening right now in our oceans.

Click here to download a copy of the report.

Also making the rounds of various online forums right now is a startling video from Alex Hofford, showing industrial shark fishing at its most graphic. In the Japanese city of Kesen-numa City,
blue sharks and salmon sharks are piled high like cord wood, awaiting processing which includes the removal of their fins and, in the case of the salmon sharks, their hearts. In watching the video I was struck by the methodical way in which the workers went about their business - with gentle musak playing in the background and visitors walking above.

Here are hundreds and hundreds of sharks - animals that, because of their low reproductive rates, can in no way withstand such massive harvesting - all being dispatched like cattle in a slaughterhouse. And to the Japanese, that is exactly what it is. This is something that many western pro-shark advocates fail to appreciate: to the Asian markets, seafood is food, no different than beef or poultry. The butchering of sharks to them is no different than the butchering of cattle or chickens.

But there is one crucial difference: cattle and poultry are breed and raised for consumption; the majority of seafood is not.

The Asian markets may not have developed sizable cattle and poultry operations, and they may never will. But if any society - Asian, European or otherwise - is going to respond to a growing market demand for seafood, then they must make a concerted commitment and effort in developing effective and environmentally-safe aquaculture while also radically changing open-water commercial fishing as we know it today. Unless capable of being successfully grown in an aquaculture environment, some commercial species will need to be severely restricted, if not off limits all together.

The EU report states, "There is only so much fishing that our oceans can sustain. So for fisheries policies to be sustainable, they need to acknowledge and respect the ecological limits of the marine ecosystems on which they depend."

The logic is simple. But the motivation to act in the face of a bleak future is apparently difficult.

Read more about the EU fisheries report in the Guardian.
See the shark fishery video at Alex Hofford Photography.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Climategate Ends: independent review clears researchers but science has lessons to learn

As the world faces more and more critical environmental issues and turns to science for possible answers, the need for the scientific community to re-evaluate its ability to develop meaningful communication with the general public becomes imperative. Now, along with such disciplines as hypothetical testing, methodology, and results analysis, must be added media communications and public relations. No greater example of this need could be better demonstrated than by what has come to be called "Climategate."

Just before the recent March Copenhagen Climate Conference, a series of emails from the highly respected Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia were somehow hacked and posted online. While all basically taken out of context, the emails seemed to imply that the researchers were denying access to or hiding data that did not support their research conclusions. Having hit the online community - a community made up of legitimate news outlets, bloviating blogs, and a soapbox for any person with an opinion no matter how extreme - it exploded into a public relations disaster for climate change advocacy. Charges of worldwide scientific conspiracies, corrupt scientists, and bogus global warming theories flooded cyberspace and, according to some, impacted the effectiveness of the Copenhagen conference. And collectively, it all came to be known as Climategate.

Now, an independent review of CRU's work, published last week, has officially cleared the research group and the participating scientists of any wrongdoing. In the end, there were no nefarious schemes, no attempts to corrupt or circumvent the peer review process, and no forcing of the data to meet preconceived notions regarding global warming.

But, in general, the media reacted to this new development with a big yawn.

If you are someone familiar with public relations and crisis communications, you know that this does not come as a big surprise. It doesn't make for a splashy headline; it's not sexy; and it means that all prior media exposure was potentially inaccurate - and that's a confession that's not going to necessarily make the 6 o'clock news.

The lessons to be learned from Climategate are the need for science to have complete transparency and, by doing so, to better understand how the language can be understood or misunderstood by the media and the general public. These are lessons that we are demanding our politicians and corporate leaders get attuned to, and so the scientific community will need to do the same.

When the research emails first exploded on the news, I recalled reading about one item of terminology that caused quite a stir. In preparing a graph presentation, a CRU researcher referred to using a "trick" in representing the data. It was not meant to be a deception but a reference to a valid technique for preparing data in a graph, one of many "tricks" that can be used to effectively illustrate information. The connotation of it being something devious was ascribed by the media and, in particular, the critics of climate change - and so a full-fledged PR boondoggle was born.

That particular use of terminology struck me because of my background in the film business. In describing stunts or clever events taking place in a film or television program or commercial, the term "gag" is often used by industry people - "We're going to shoot the car explosion gag next." "The commercial ends with the gag of the dog talking." The gag may not necessarily be funny - it could be sad, poignant, or even dangerous - but it's still referred to as the "gag." But it's that kind of insider lingo that can also be misconstrued or distorted, as was the case in Climategate.

The reviewers of the CRU research, while exonerating the participants of any wrongdoing, did level some general criticisms about the level of secrecy that exists with regards to the safeguarding of data. The comment was less directed to the CRU as it was to the scientific community as a whole.

As reported by Damian Carrington in the Guardian Observer,
"'Like it or not, this [demand for openness] indicates a transformation in the way science has to be conducted in this century.' That, say many, will be the lasting legacy of the independent review published last week into the controversial emails between climate scientists that were stolen from the University of East Anglia and posted online."

Scientists will need to look inward into their own culture, rethinking the processes that researchers use to collect and sometimes shield data from the prying eyes of other researchers - a protective attitude that can backfire and become suspect by the media. And with such globally important environmental challenges as climate change, ocean acidification, and chemical pollution gaining more attention and momentum with each passing day, scientists must be more cognizant than ever that what they say and how they say it - basic media communications 101 - must be skills they need to master, rather than leaving it to others to misinterpret.

Unlike the detail and precision of scientific instruments, the microscope of the media and public perception can be wildly inaccurate.

Read the independent review of the climate change email controversy.
Read the Guardian Observer article.
More reaction to Climategate distortions from

Sunday, July 11, 2010

New Deep Ocean Species: RRS James Cook studies the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Perhaps you have heard it said that over 75% of the Earth's surface is covered by water but that we have explored less than 5% of the world's oceans. Some have said we know more about the backside of the moon than we do about the ocean depths right here at home.

Whenever scientists pull back the curtain and gaze into the depths, something new is always discovered - a new species, a new geographical formation, or a new process invaluable towards understanding the complex inner workings of marine ecosystems.

The renown U.K. research vessel, RRS James Cook, has recently released pictures taken of several potential new species from the ocean depths along the northern portion of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Using the ROV named ISIS, which was able to view the creatures alive and free swimming at depths as deep as 8800 feet (2700m), researchers from the University of Aberdeen noted the marked differences in sealife on either side of a 10-mile wide span of the ridge (where northern cold waters meet warmer southern waters).

Click here to view a series of images taken by ISIS, published in the Guardian.

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge actually is the meeting of two major tectonic plates in the Atlantic Ocean and runs a considerable distance beginning near Greenland and extending all the way into the South Atlantic, below Africa. Along the way, there are deep trenches and mountain ridges. In the past, scientists have trawled the bottom to see what type of animals live there, but such methods often did considerable damage to the specimens. With today's advanced submersibles and ROVs, researchers are now able to see these animals unharmed and living in their natural environment.

The deep oceans are a major part of the macro-marine ecosystem and so it is important that we study and gain a better understanding of these mysterious regions as to how they survive, how they interact with and impact shallower bodies of water, and how our activities can affect these great depths which, in turn, could alter the overall health of the oceans and the planet.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Seen & Unseen: Dave Gallo talks about some of the ocean's amazing ways

Here's just a little reminder - a fun one - as to why the ocean and all the animals that call it home need our support in conserving and protecting this vital environment. David Gallo, Director of Special Projects for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is a great speaker and puts on presentations that always leave the audience in awe and amazement. Here is a wonderful video clip from 2007 given at a TED meeting (TED is an interesting organization, dedicated to Technology, Entertainment, and Design - which means a wide range of fascinating speakers and subjects):

Bioluminescence in the greater depths and a cephlapod's camouflage through manipulation of skin color and texture - two of nature's fascinating ways it perpetuates life in the aquatic kingdom.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

FishPhone: great iPhone app for making sound seafood choices

For all you iPhone users and ocean fanatics, there is a new app to add to your phone. The FishPhone app from Carl Safina's Blue Ocean Institute is a great extension to Blue Ocean's Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood.

The app lists a wide variety of seafood items using the guide's informative labeling system that covers ratings in population health, wild vs. farmed health, and pollutant levels. The app then takes another step by listing, for appropriate choices, some healthy recipes and wine selections. Most of the recipes come from chef Barton Seaver, noted for his work with sustainable seafood.

So, it's not only an informative app to have when you go to a restaurant or supermarket but, with the recipes and wine selections, it also makes it more palatable (excuse the pun) for those who are perhaps unenlightened about the issue of sustainable seafood - no shaking of the finger, saying "No, no, no!" which could be a turn-off to those who may be the most in need to understand the importance of making responsible choices when it comes to seafood.

While there are some who choose not to eat seafood altogether (and that may certainly be the ultimate solution), a larger portion of the populace has a place in their diet for seafood. And so anything that can help people transition from irresponsible choices to better choices to ultimately contemplating what is right for the ocean environment as a whole should be considered a useful step in the right direction.

And the app is FREE!

Congratulations to Carl and his team at the Blue Ocean Institute for putting together a terrific educational tool.

Get the app at Apple's iTunes/App Store.
Learn more about the Blue Ocean Institute.
Download Blue Ocean's Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shark Week Approaches: annual event nears; alternatives to sensationalism

Over the next couple of weeks, those of you who watch Discovery will be seeing advertising for the channel's annual Shark Week programming that takes place in the first week of August. For over 20 years this has been one of Discovery's most successful programming events with tens of millions of viewers - from die hard fans to the mildly curious.

For some shark advocates, the week's programs and the images they convey of the shark have been a source of disdain. Over-sensationalized programs that focus on shark attacks involving humans perhaps appeal to a dark, lower common denominator interest in sharks but it is one that represents, unfortunately, a wide segment of the Shark Week viewing audience. Discovery knows this very well.

What is in store for Shark Week 2010 is, at this point, anyone's guess - the Discovery Shark Week website is currently still listing last year's show schedule. Whatever it turns out to be, there are alternatives that can provide accurate representations of sharks and the efforts of those scientists dedicated to studying them - educational, enlightening presentations while still entertaining.

So, in a shameless plug, may I suggest Island of the Great White Shark. This award-winning documentary, which I produced in 2008, features the great white sharks of Isla Guadalupe, Baja, where I have been filming these magnificent predators/scavengers for over 6 years. The film paints a more realistic and natural portrait of the feared and often misunderstood white shark, while also documenting the efforts of dedicated researchers who study the sharks' day-to-day behaviors to better understand how best to protect and conserve them. The film also shows shark eco-tourism operators supporting the researchers' efforts while providing divers with a unique experience to see white sharks in the open ocean - something that has been responsible for generating many new shark supporters.

The Island of the Great White Shark DVD is available through and several aquarium gift shops nationwide. If you have purchased the DVD in the past, my thanks. If not, then learn more at the film's website and think about adding it to your DVD collection. Independent documentaries are generally not big money-makers for those involved - they usually are labors of love with participants dedicated to getting their message across. With Island of the Great White Shark, I am always hoping that someone will see these animals that are so critically important to a healthy marine ecosystem in a different light - one that will help to insure their continued survival.

Learn more at the Island of the Great White Shark website.
Learn more about the film at

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Disease Growth: as we alter the environment, watch out for the microbes

Increased levels of CO2 emissions, ocean acidification, melting polar ice - these are some of the major impacts of global warming, ones that have been brought up time and time again to warn us all of worldwide changes that need immediate corrective measures. But there are some very subtle changes also occurring; subtle and yet, if ignored, capable of delivering a measurable blow to terrestrial and marine life alike.

A recently published study highlighted one such change: expansion of fungal-based diseases in mammals. Now I know this sounds pretty obscure at first read and it certainly doesn't appear to have the attention-grabbing sensationalism of rising sea levels and increased hurricanes or tornadoes, but it does represent a real threat to many species including man.

Fungi can be a major pathogen for diseases in plants, insects, and amphibians. It does not usually pose a threat to mammals because of the complex immune systems and higher body temperature that all mammals regulate. In fact, in humans, fungi-borne diseases were not an issue until the late 20th century as a consequence of impaired immunity through medical intervention or HIV infection (in tropical Africa, there is a higher incidence of fungi-transmitted pathogens among AIDS patients because the warmer climate generates a greater variety of fungal carriers).

But the temperature gradient between most of the environment and a mammal's internal temperature acts as a protective barrier. With global warming that could all change. In the study by Monica Garcia-Solache and Arturo Casadevall in mBio magazine, the authors hypothesize that global warming will increase the geographical range of many fungi species and that these unique multi-celled organisms also have the potential for developing higher temperature tolerances, thereby thinning out the protective temperature gradient barrier between themselves and mammals.

And while we're on the subject of man-made environmental changes and disease, scientists are also looking at the ramifications to the environment from the use of phosphorous and nitrogen. There is a proper, ecologically-balanced level for these nutrients, but when it is artificially thrown out of whack, through fertilizing or waste pollution as examples, then the potential for emerging pathogens and/or diseases - including the West Nile virus, malaria, harmful algal blooms, coral reef diseases, and amphibian malformations - is magnified.

In a study published in Ecological Applications (Pieter T.J. Johnson, et al), the authors suggest that, "Interactions between nutrient enrichment and disease will become increasingly important in tropical and subtropical regions, where forecasted increases in nutrient application will occur in an environment rich with infections pathogens." They emphasize the importance of careful disease management in conjunction with anticipated continued global nutrient enrichment.

As we tamper with the earth, watch out for the big changes - but keep an eye on the little guys too.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bottom Trawling: ROV used to study effects in California's soft sediment

Clear-cutting the Amazon that denudes acres of vital rain forest; strip mining that gouges deep into the hillside with discarded rubble filling valleys and streams - these are some of the industrial harvesting techniques that have a dubious if not villainous reputation with many conservationists and environmental scientists. In the oceans, bottom trawling has a similar reputation.

The technique of bottom trawling involves large nets that scrape along the ocean floor, catching bottom-dwelling fish and other animals like shrimp. The drawbacks to this technique are two-fold: there can be a tremendous amount of unwanted animals caught, known as bycatch, and the scouring motion can be very destructive to the ocean bottom, much like clear cutting and strip mining, leaving behind crumbled reef structures that took decades to build - a marine ecosystem totally disrupted, its recovery in question.

But a more prudent use of bottom trawling in soft, sandy bottom areas may be proved viable. At least that is the hope of fishermen along the Central California coast who are watching the ongoing efforts of researchers from the
California State University Monterey Bay in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy. They are conducting a three-year study to determine the long-term effect of bottom trawling on the soft sediment that makes up 70 percent of the Continental shelf along California.

In an area of 3.8 million acres that is currently listed as an "essential fish habitat" through an arrangement with the Nature Conservancy and the Pacific Fishery Management Council, tests are being conducted where a portion of the sea floor is bottom trawled and then 2 weeks later
an ROV does a fly-over to survey conditions, followed by a 6-month and one-year checkup. The use of the ROV provides a better picture of how the ocean floor is recovering and to document what interactions are taking place, compared to other sampling techniques.

“An ROV allows us to have our eyes underwater, looking at everything that’s going on.” said CSUMB professor James Lindholm said.

This research is confined to soft-sediment environments and Lindholm makes no projections as to what the final analysis and results, which are years away, will show.
“There’s just a handful of people doing trawl-related research worldwide and outside of really charismatic habitats, we don’t know very much,” said Lindholm. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s to not make any judgment based on what we see live when we’re flying over the bottom.”

But local fishermen are hoping that the research could help fisheries regulators develop management techniques that would allow limited bottom trawling in very specific areas.
“Fishermen have always said that grounds that are trawled are better fishing than non-trawled grounds — a lot of the organic nutrients get stirred up and reintroduced to the ecosystem,” said one local fisherman.

Bottom trawling will remain controversial as it has proven itself to be very destructive in many of the ocean environments where it has been used. Even with this ongoing California research, there is still the issue of bycatch - ranging from unwanted bottom creatures to open water animals like turtles and sharks. If the California studies show a sustainable level of recovery in soft sediment areas, there are still other serious ecological issues that must be addressed before regulators should endorse bottom trawling in any form.

Read more about this research in the High Country News.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Eye of the Whale: entertaining fact-based novel with timely issues

The fact-based novel, much like a "based on a true story" film, is an interesting literary device - a cross between education and entertainment. When done right, meaning when the factual side is accurately portrayed, it can present information and issues (the non-fiction part) in the context of a personal human experience (the fictional part). This is something that non-fiction can sometimes miss, particularly when discussing science- or environmental-based issues.

There are many great examples. Carl Sagan's Contact, comes to mind, a novel combining present-day science in radio astronomy that then takes the reader a step beyond to our first contact with intelligent extra-terrestrial life. And that's the beauty of the fact-based novel, using facts to set the stage to then transport us to a fictional situation or premise that scientists may have actually dreamed of or bandied about over a couple of beers but would not openly propose without the research to actually support it.

Eye of the Whale, by Douglas Carlton Abrams (Atria Books) is just such a work - combining the topical issues of whale communication research, ocean pollution, and industrial/political influence to move the reader from what we know into what could be and, in so doing, takes us on an adventure with a dramatic ending and much to ponder as to our own future.

The story centers on Elizabeth, a young PhD candidate studying humpback whales and their songs in the Caribbean. Her research is in competition with local whalers and their paths cross in the opening act when, during a hunt, she detects a unique and abrupt change in the whales' communication. A baby whale is dying - not from a whaler's lance but from disease and this leads Elizabeth on both, a detective's investigation to find out what is causing whales worldwide to vocalize songs of concern for their offspring, and a crusade to save another humpback whale trapped in the brackish water far inland from San Francisco Bay - a whale that is trying to communicate an important message to its species and perhaps the world.

"Apollo swam northwest toward the summer feeding grounds - his long flippers not far from those of his two companions--
The three whales moved their flukes rhythmically and forcefully--their grace belying the extraordinary thrust of the broad tails propelling them onward--

Apollo could feel his companions by the lift and fall of water and the low sounds of the contact calls that groaned from within their great bodies--"

As Eye of the Whale unfolds, it lays a foundation of facts regarding whale intelligence, the insidious threat from chemical pollution and its impact on animals and man in even the most minute of quantities, and the multitude of players involved in maintaining the status quo for whaling and industrial chemical production. Abrams establishes a host of characters and locations with great detail and from there, the fictional novel takes over, culminating in Elizabeth literally fighting for her life - against those who are concerned as to what secrets she is uncovering - while racing against the clock to save the life of an important messenger whale.

The extent of Abrams research, with copious acknowledgments at the conclusion, is clearly evident and adds greatly to the believability of the story - an important component to any fact-based novel; the reader must be convinced of the factual foundation before any literary license is taken. And while some of the romantic dialog was a bit awkward at times, I found Eye of the Whale to be a riveting story, keeping one's attention to the end where the reader is left to ponder the real implications for the future that the story presents.

For lovers of whales, this book would certainly be an engaging read. However, and perhaps more importantly, if you have even a faint passing interest in environmental issues but resist those non-fiction works that sometimes seem to be factual digests of gloom and doom, then pick up Eye of the Whale. Every good yarn has a foundation of truth and Eye of the Whale accomplishes just that.

Available in hardcover, paperback, or Kindle from Amazon.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

China's Finless Porpoise: dwindling population faces extinction in Yangtze River

China's Yangtze River has been described as the "Asian Amazon" and, as seems to befall many large rivers in growing nations, it has seen its share of perils from urban development, commercial use, and industrial pollution. Unfortunately, many of the river's inhabitants pay the price - including the river's dwindling population of freshwater cetaceans.

The Baiji - a freshwater river dolphin with an unusual, elongated jaw/beak that roamed the Yangtze for tens of thousands of years - was declared extinct in 2007, eliminated from the planet in a matter of a few decades.

And now another rare dolphin species is facing a similar fate. As reported in the BBC Earth News, a new study published in the Marine Biology journal, says that the river's remaining population of finless porpoises are headed for extinction. The finless porpoise (so named because it lacks a dorsal fin) lives in the Yangtze, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea; and according to the study, there are genetic differences between the various populations. This would indicate that there is no co-mingling between the groups and this can add to their inability to withstand adverse changes to one group's environment.

This type of isolation and loss of mixing of the DNA gene pool is also what threatens land animal populations, like some of the wolf packs in the north central United States.

With everything from human waste and industrial chemical pollution, boat traffic, and commercial fishing taking place in the Yangtze River, the rapidly declining freshwater population of the finless porpoise - numbering less than 1,000 when last estimated in 2006 - will not survive without strong action on the part of the Chinese government.

The only hope is for a fundamental change in attitude in China regarding its aquatic natural resources. And there is some evidence of that which could produce results, hopefully before it is all too late.

While a major producer of CO2 emissions and the greatest exporter of seafood of any country, China is also realizing the environmental impact its economic growth is having on itself. The country is making sizable investments in alternative energy and, according to the Seafood Choices operational arm of SeaWeb, China's seafood distributors are beginning to show some interest in sustainability. Seafood Choices is holding seminars with seafood exporters in advance of a Sustainable Seafood Forum to be held in China this November.

Whether all of this will produce changes that will come in time to save the finless porpoise remains questionable at best. It is unfortunate that humans seem to be a reactionary species, responding to a tragedy that might spell a better future for some but leaving victims - like the Biaji and the finless porpoise - as reminders of what we could have done if only for a little foresight.

Read about the finless porpoise in BBC Earth News.
Read about SeaWeb/Seafood Choices progress in China.