Sunday, October 31, 2010

Science and Media Communications: turning data into enlightenment - Part 1 of 3

Mankind stands at the edge of a dark night. Faced with enormous environmental and ecological challenges, we hesitate to take a first step, unsure of ourselves without a clear understanding of what is happening and what is at stake. But science can illuminate the future of this planet.

We ask a lot of science. It has done everything from having given us better-tasting ice cream to the hydrogen bomb. It has answered fundamental questions about the existence of the universe and shown us how to hold up our pants with Velcro. And now we seek solutions to environmental problems - mostly of our own making - that threaten the survival of thousands of species, including us.

In a world where communication can be near instantaneous and pervasive, we look for guidance to make the right decisions that can insure a future for this planet. We are looking for subject matter experts who can speak to us - simply and effectively - and science has been doing its best.

But it is just the tip of the iceberg. Science is not doing enough.

In the years that I have spent as a nature filmmaker and media producer, I have come to find that there is an enormous amount of data being generated from countless research projects, expeditions, and studies that is not reaching the people. It's not reaching the policy- and decision-makers. It is not having the impact on the future of this planet as it should.

To a large extant, this is understandable. Scientists, researchers, and academics spend years developing the skills to study, hypothesize, and analyze. They are trained to make science but not necessarily to sell it. To effectively communicate in today's world requires scientists and researchers to consider an additional discipline to their work, one that understandably may not be a part of their background or comfort level: Media Communications.

Media Communications
The techniques of communicating effectively to a general or targeted audience by utilizing today's available technologies that best transmit a message, generate a response, and invoke action.

This is an exciting time for media communications. The ability to reach people through a variety of communication mediums or formats is literally exploding. But to do it successfully requires strategic planning. One must examine what it is being communicated and then match the appropriate audience with the right communication vehicles to maximize the power of the message. Media communications itself is part science, part art form. And it requires an experienced hand to formulate, execute, and manage an ongoing, dynamic plan.

To demand this expertise of the scientist or researcher is not fair. After all, there are people who devote entire careers to media communications. After having spent over a dozen years in television commercial production, I migrated into corporation communications and marketing. I had seen the power of the visual image in delivering a message and then spent a decade dealing with the full range of message delivery through print, word-of-mouth, visual and audio broadcast and, of course, the ubiquitous Internet.

With the issues facing the world today, the old formula of writing a paper for publication in a scientific or academic journal, followed by a press release from the supporting university or research organization, is becoming wholly inadequate. In fact, as important as it is to the scientists involved or however much it adds to the prestige of the supporting organization, it actually is doing a disservice - it is shortchanging the potential of that research to really make a difference. And that's what is at stake here: making a difference in the future of planet Earth.

Being Proactive
To say the Internet has become quite a game-changer for message delivery is indeed a gross understatement. From websites to videos to blogs, there is a mind-boggling amount of information awaiting the curious user at the end of a few keyboard clicks. And many academic and research organizations have done what they can to take advantage of this medium with informational websites and videos that document their research or illustrate the results. This is a good step forward, but its one weakness is that it is not necessarily a proactive step.

To consciously and deliberately bring information to a specific audience, one must be proactive and the Internet does not lend itself to a proactive approach. Fundamentally, it depends on the user to be seeking the information. The user either searches for the information via search engines like Google, Bing, Ask or others, or the information is compiled for them by complex search algorithms (like suggested YouTube videos or products on eBay).

Word of mouth plays a significant role in information delivery on the Internet. The "viral" effect that can bestow a YouTube video with millions of hits within a short period of time is definitely a plus. However, it is more in the hands of others and less of your own making.

Now, none of this is meant to imply that one should disregard the Internet. To the contrary, it is an absolutely vital component of a comprehensive media communications strategy. Its effectiveness can be enhanced by carefully selected keywords or a more traditional promotional approach through the use of banner ads - all designed to nudge the user in your direction.

However, overall, it is more of a "pull" rather than "push" delivery system, and a complete media communications battle plan must have proactive initiatives that bring the information to those who need it most. Someone who is interested in, say, ocean acidification can find a lot of information on the web, but how do we reach the person who, at this moment, is completely oblivious to the issue? How do we get this information in front of a politician or governmental regulatory body? Do we wait for them to ask or do we find ways to bring to their attention?

Part 2: Steps to building a media comm strategy

Nagoya Protocol: COP 10's positive progress towards saving Earth's biodiversity

As a quick follow up to yesterday's post on the COP 10 biodiversity conference, there is some good news to report as the meeting in Nagoya, Japan of nearly 190 nations comes to a close.

The representatives have signed what is being called the Nagoya Protocol which is a strategic plan that addresses both specific biodiversity conservation goals (increasing to 17% protection of the land and inland waters and 10% for coastal and marine waters by 2020 - up from 13% and a paltry 1%, respectively) and a broader demand for each nation to look at how it can improve on diminishing the threat of overfishing, invasive species, and the general destruction of natural resources.

"This is a day to celebrate in terms of a new and innovative response to the alarming loss of biodiversity and ecosystems. And a day to celebrate in terms of opportunities for lives and livelihoods in terms of overcoming poverty and delivering sustainable development...This meeting has delivered a sea change in the global understanding of the mulit-trillion dollar importance of biodiversity of forests, wetlands and other ecosystems," declared Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environmental Programme.

While participating nations seem to be on board, the major challenge lurking in the wings is cost. Funding for the required implementation of the protocol was not determined during the two-week conference, preferring to leave to the devices of each nation. But Japan, recognized by some conservation factions as a conservation spoiler and major participant in overfishing, promised $2 billion towards biodiversity. Other cash-strapped nations may have to consider the alternative economic perils derived by not funding: collapsed fisheries, reduced tourism, greater food imports, and even population malnutrition.

While the Nagoya Protocol did not deliver everything that conservation groups had asked for (Conservation International, as an example, was pushing for higher percentage goals), it was, however, a game-changer compared to the results from previous international meetings.

A reason for cautious celebration with a strong dose of let's wait and see just what comes to pass.

Read the COP10 press release.
Read TIME writer Bryan Walsh's article on the Nagoya Protocol.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

COP 10: Biodiversity conference off to a bold start with alarming study

In Nagoya, Japan, the opening to the 10th Conference of Parties (COP 10) to the Convention on Biological Diversities took off with a bold start, announcing a study that confirms that one-fifth of the world's vertebrates are faced with extinction.

The comprehensive study, combining the efforts of 174 authors, 115 academic and research institutions from 38 countries, worked with data covering 25,000 different species from the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. The results show that human expansion, logging, and over-hunting are moving 50 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians, on average, closer to extinction each year. According to renown Harvard University Professor Edward Wilson,
"The 'backbone' of biodiversity is being eroded."

But a unique feature of the study - and one that should catch the attention of the COP 10 policy- and decision-makers - is that the study also analyzed and confirmed the positive effects of conservation, that the efforts of nation's to protect worldwide biodiversity can have a demonstrable effect. The study's results show that without the current level of conservation that has taken place, biodiversity would have declined by another 20 percent.

"History has shown us that conservation can achieve the impossible, as anyone who knows the story of the White Rhinoceros in southern Africa knows," Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN's Species Survival Commission and an author on the study was quoted in Science Daily. "But this is the first time we can demonstrate the aggregated positive impact of these successes on the state of the environment."

This is a much better start to this conference than the COP 15 climate conference in 2009 or the CITES conference in March of this year, where political and economic lobbying ran roughshod over important conservation and environmental initiatives. For COP 10, this is a good step forward and the nations involved appear to be on board with the study's findings. Now the question is, what will be the final results of the conference in terms of policy and commitment? Lip service or definitive, lasting action?

Read more about the COP10 study in Science Daily.

From the Office to the Ocean: taking a leap of faith for sharks

How does one define commitment to a cause? How do you know that you are doing enough? Will a donation suffice? Or perhaps some volunteering. Or does it require a career-changing epiphany?

Of course, it is all subjective, but many of us have a soft spot - and perhaps a little envy - for those who drop everything, throw caution to the wind, and devote themselves entirely to trying to make a difference.

From his office desk, David Diley reached that critical juncture where his concern for sharks and their future could no longer exist within his stable corporate lifestyle. From that conflict, an idea was borne, From the Office to the Ocean, that would document his journey, his escape, from the confines of the business world to travel and beat the drum in defense of sharks, proving these two seemingly disparate worlds have a lot in common and actually depend on each other.

Foolhardy? Reckless? Perhaps, but Mark Twain said it best over a hundred years ago,

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Wish David well in his journey and take a moment to learn more about From the Office to the Ocean.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Orcas and Salmon: organizations take aim at U.S. plan that could impact Washington/Oregon whales

Here is information from Howard Garret of the Orca Network regarding action being taken against a proposed conservation plan for salmon in the northwest U.S.'s Columbia Basin (where the Columbia and Snake River end at the Pacific coast of Oregon and Washington). Apparently, the plan contradicts existing science regarding the impact of a decline on salmon on the resident orca population.

"On October 29, salmon advocates asked a federal judge to reject the Obama Administration’s 2010 Plan for Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead. This includes chinook salmon that are essential nutrition for our Southern Resident Killer Whales. Today, three facts are clear. One, our orca are often very hungry. Two, they historically dined regularly on Columbia Basin chinook – especially in the lean months of March and April. Three, by failing endangered salmon, the 2010 Plan will also fail our endangered orcas.

The endangered Southern Resident orca community declined over 20% a decade ago and still teeters on the brink of extinction. Multiple studies tell us why: inadequate runs of Chinook salmon. For thousands of years this unique and cohesive orca clan has survived almost entirely on king salmon, especially those returning to the Columbia basin during winter and spring. In the past few decades those Chinook runs have dwindled to a small percentage of their former numbers. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) notes that 'Perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late1800s has been the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin' (p. 95).

We expected more from NOAA and the Obama administration when they released their Columbia Basin salmon plan as required by the Endangered Species Act. On inauguration day, we were told that good science would trump biased economics and DC politics, and that the process would be transparent. Instead we got a repeat of the corrupt Bush plan and secrecy rather than honesty, despite fierce criticism of that status quo plan from the American Fisheries Society, a wide range of independent biologists, and NOAA’s own scientists.

Regarding orcas specifically, NOAA also fails to explain the huge discrepancy between their 2010 Columbia Basin salmon plan and their 2009 California salmon plan. The CA plan says hatchery fish are no substitute for wild salmon, that orcas need viable wild salmon runs, and there are far too few today. The Columbia plan inexplicably says that hatchery fish are a reliable replacement for wild salmon, and suggests that there are plenty of salmon for orca survival. Despite repeated requests to NOAA to address and resolve this inconsistency, none has been offered.

There is no doubt in the scientific community about the ecological connection between Columbia/Snake salmon and our much-loved orcas. Canada’s DFO found '…that [orca] survival rates are strongly correlated with the availability of their principal prey species, chinook salmon.' A study concluded that 'Chinook salmon, a relatively rare species, was by far the most frequent prey item.' Winter field studies have also found Southern Resident orcas near the mouth the Columbia River eating salmon headed upriver. UW’s Center for Conservation Biology conducted a multi-year orca study of hormones found in fecal material and concluded that: 'Thus far, the hormone data most strongly supports the reduced prey hypothesis' and that 'For now, it seems clear that mitigation efforts to increase number and quality of available prey to Southern resident killer whales will be an important first step towards assuring SRKW recovery.'

Let’s hope that the judge buries this deceptive plan in early 2011, and brings the federal government and the people of the Northwest together to craft a legal, science-based plan that serves our salmon, our communities, and our orcas.

For more information, please visit: Save Our Wild Salmon and the Orca Network."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Trick, No Treat For Bats: white-nose syndrome hits hard

Halloween's approaching and for those who celebrate "All Hallowed Eve" there's candy, costumes, and images of all things spooky - like zombies, witches, and bats. What would the world be like without those things that go bump in the night? Well, we could do without the zombies, I think. And perhaps witches, both the green Wizard of Oz kind and the ones running for political office.

Then there's bats. What would the world be without bats? As it turns out, it would be a world nearly overrun with bugs. Bats are one of the planet's great equalizers, feeding on insects and helping to keep the populations in balance. While not exactly an "apex predator" like sharks, bats serve a very similar role. Sharks and other large predators that reside at the top of the predator-prey pyramid are kept in check by a slow reproductive rate. Not so for the bat, but then it's feeding on insects that can number in the millions.

So, bats, those spooky little critters of Dracula movie fame that can congregate in caves by the thousands and make us run for cover lest we get one in our hair, are actually very important to maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

But in the eastern United States, parts of Canada, and even France, we are losing vast numbers of bats to a disease: white-nose syndrome. This syndrome manifests itself as patches of white fungus on the nose and wings of the bat. There are several suspected fungi thought to be possibly involved, although Geomyces destructans is considered the most likely culprit. It is a cold-temperature fungus that can flourish in the caves that bats inhabit. The white-nose syndrome disrupts the bats normal winter hibernation cycle and produces behaviors, like flying, that can lead to the bat's death, often from starvation (due to a combination of excessive activity combined with the winter's lack of food).

No more ugly little bats. Big deal, right? So what if there's a few more insects, right? We'll just use a rolled up newspaper or get out the bug zapper. Oh, were it that simple.

Actually, the loss of bats in the northeast all the way to the Mississippi poses a tremendous economic threat to agriculture, as bats act as a very important insecticide control agent. Without bats, insects would ravage more crops, more pesticides would have to be used (with their own inherent problems), and food prices would soar. The timber industry would also be effected.

Scientists who have been studying the condition are not exactly sure as to how it is transmitted over such a wide area. To rule out any human involvement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has strictly limited access to known caves where large number of bats live. But the condition appears to be continuing to spread, having first been reported in 2006 and now affecting 9 different bat species. Research has found that the fungus reacts to some human anti-fungal treatments but how those can be applied practically has yet to be determined.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is running a campaign to get the attention of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to devote serious effort to the issue. Whatever initiatives and small cost that might be required (CBD suggested $10 million), that would easily be offset by the multi-million dollar savings to agriculture and the consumer.

Trick or treat. Looks like it's a trick for the bat this year.

Support the Center for Biological Diversity's petition campaign to save U.S. bats.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Citizens of the Sea: making sense of the marine census

The ocean is vast. For people to contemplate its complexity, requires years of study and an open and encyclopedic mind. So, for most of us, we focus our attention on areas of personal interest - a particular species like whales, sharks, or turtles; or ecosystems like coral reefs or saltwater marshlands - something we can wrap our thoughts around more easily. The big picture is often overwhelming and can lead us to believe that the oceans, overall, must be doing fine because there's just so much of it to go around.

With the recent completion of the Census of Marine Life, this 10-year project affords scientists, educators, and policy makers with a wealth of detailed information cataloged in a database of over 22 million entries - a snapshot of the ocean's biodiversity that is comprehensive and yet, by admission of those involved, just scratching the surface. Ian Poiner, chair of the Census Scientific Steering Committee, summed it up this way, "More than 2,000 scientists. 80-plus nations. 400 expeditions. $650 million. 10,000-plus possible new species. 2,500-plus publications."

One of those publications is Citizens of the Sea, written by one of the project's scientific leaders, Nancy Knowlton, Ph.D. (National Geographic Society, 2010). The book combines images and information from the census with a well-structured overview of the "who, why, and how many" of marine biodiversity that is both instructional and accessible. This is not a burdensome volume intended for just a researcher or academic; nor is it a literary softball catering to grade-schoolers. Knowlton's personable writing style affords her the ability to cover a lot of ground and provide the reader with an illuminating window into the aquatic world.

In a recent interview, I asked Dr. Knowlton about her involvement with the census and what the overall results have been:
RTSea: How did you first become involved in the Census of Marine Life?
NK: I was a member of the US National Committee on the Census of Marine Life (most of the world was represented by national or regional groups working on the Census). At one of our meetings we decided you can't have a Census of Marine Life without censusing coral reefs (the rainforests of the sea), which is how the coral reef program was launched and which I helped lead.
RTSea: What do you feel is the main contribution of the Census that sets it apart from other research?
NK: The census was the first of its kind to focus on the overall biodiversity of the entire ocean, and to link its past, present and future. There are many programs that have tackled specific ecological questions related to the sea, but biodiversity is often ignored. The problem is that except for a few groups (like fishes, corals and snails) we know so little that biodiversity is hard to study in its entirety.
RTSea: Will the Census be analyzing and drawing conclusions or basically providing data for others to work with?
NK: The Census has already analyzed and drawn many conclusions since it began ten years ago. But there is also a wealth of information in the giant electronic database that the Census created, which will continue to grow and inform future studies.

In tackling this "wealth of information" provided by the census, Citizens of the Sea focuses the first eleven chapters on the animals themselves then the last few chapters turn to interaction with man and, ultimately, the impact we are having on the oceans today. Each chapter includes
topics that are covered with a single page of text and an accompanying page of images from the census catalog. As an example, a chapter on Appearances Are Everything included topics like Blending In, Deception & Distraction, Standing Out, Stranger Than Fiction, and more. This helps to make the information easy to digest. In fact, I often set aside a few minutes, intent on reading a topic or two, and found myself having read twenty pages in no time.

Many of the most striking images included in Citizens of the Sea are those of the ocean's smaller creatures - which actually make up the greatest portion of the ocean's biomass. From bacteria to plankton to tiny pteropods, fish, and crabs; by sheer numbers the oceans truly belong to the smallest of creatures. While this expands our concept of marine diversity, it also highlights its fragility.

RTSea: What did you personally find to be the most remarkable find or findings from the Census?
NK: Well, our project found that there is more marine biodiversity in a couple of square meters (yards) of coral reef than in all of Europe's seas. I knew the biodiversity of reefs was enormous but that still really surprised me.
RTSea: What do you hope that the general public and/or the policy makers will learn from the Census?
NK: I hope they learn that biodiversity is fascinating, inspiring, and valuable, but cannot be taken for granted.

By examining many aspects of marine living with information on a variety of creatures, Citizens of the Sea deftly illustrates both the complexity and the commonality within marine biodiversity. From 200-ton blue whales to the 350,000 bacteria that can be found in a single drop of seawater, it is an astonishing web of life that must also depend on us as much as we depend on it.

RTSea: As a nature filmmaker, I am always concerned with finding the right balance between showing the beauty of nature and making sure that people realize the threats and damage nature is enduring. Are you concerned that the Census, theorizing that there are millions of species in the sea, might make some believe that the oceans are healthy and less threatened than others would have us believe?
NK: This is always a potential problem, but I think the Census did a good job in doing both - celebrating diversity while documenting what we have already lost or could easily lose.
RTSea: What do you hope readers will take away by reading Citizens of the Sea; what do you hope it will motivate them to do?
NK: The sea is a wondrous place but we need to take care of it. There is an almost infinite variety in the way marine creatures make a living, and even though we don't live in the sea, we depend on it. The Citizens of the Sea both amaze and amuse us, in addition to providing much of the oxygen that we breathe and the food that we eat. But they cannot vote and are counting on us to protect them.

With engaging writing, a bevy of sidebar facts, and striking photographs, Citizens of the Sea offers something for everyone - from those studying the oceans to the mildly curious to, well, those who just don't have a clue. It succeeds in framing the big picture of marine biodiversity as a nation of interdependent citizens who can't vote but rely on the roles given to each by nature as a means of survival of the whole.

As outsiders, what kind of diplomacy shall mankind exercise? Are we to be good neighbors or invading plunderers?

Citizens of the Sea is available at National Geographic, Amazon, and other bookstores.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Tigers Facing Extinction: November summit holds hope for their future

2010 is the year of the tiger according to the Chinese calendar.

Probably no animal on dry land impresses me more than the tiger. It is a magnificent combination of strength, grace, and color. I can almost understand the allure felt by those who delve in ancient homeopathic medicine; the power of this great animal somehow being transferred to us mere mortals. But it is that very demand which fuels poaching and, combined with encroachment on their natural habitat, has reduced the number of tigers in the wild to a paltry estimated population of 3,200.

I have written about their precarious predicament before and I bring it up again because of one significant ray of hope. In November, a meeting will be held in St. Petersburg, Russia with representatives of 13 nations - primarily those that have wild tigers within their borders - to discuss how to better enforce and protect the remaining population and what can be done in the long term to improve their numbers and ensure their survival.

Over the past century, the number of wild tigers have declined by a staggering 97%. If nothing can be achieved at next month's meeting, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the tiger could become extinct in the wild within 12 years.

"The worse scenario is that the tiger could be gone when the next year of the tiger comes along, in 12 years," said Ola Jennersten, of WWF Sweden.

But another factor that threatens the wild tiger is the demand for tiger products obtained from captive tigers and how the current economy is pushing more captive tiger owners to sell their animals, no questions asked, both of which keep the demand high for wild tigers.

In fact, according to the WWF, there are more captive tigers in the United States alone, than in all of the wild. An estimated 5,000 tigers are held in the U.S. - and, unfortunately, not just in regulated zoos and animal parks, but in private compounds that are far from healthy and humane for the animals.

The WWF is pushing for stricter regulation and better enforcement regarding captive tigers in the U.S. and is conducting a campaign to get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend the November Tiger Summit to ensure that the U.S. plays an active role in preserving and protecting tigers, both wild and those within the nation's borders. Concerned U.S. citizens can visit the WWF website or click here to become part of the campaign.

For the first time in a long time, there could be a reason to feel encouraged.
"Despite the gloomy figures, the situation is more hopeful than ever," Jennersten said.

When I was a child, my favorite stuffed animal - my security blanket as it were - was a small tiger. While I would probably be seen as potential prey by a real tiger today, there is that spot in my heart that hopes to give back to the tiger some of the security it once gave me. That's a trade in animals I could live with.

Read about possible tiger extinction in NPR.
Read about captive tigers in the U.S.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill: six months later - never forget

It is now six months since the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico erupted into one of the greatest oil spill disasters of all time. Many news outlets and conservation organizations are taking a status check at this half-year mark, to see where the environment stands, what has happened, and what needs to be done both now and in the future.

But for many of us, we would like to sweep it all under the rug. The Gulf oil spill competed with the economy and politics for our attention a lot longer than many other news cycles, and with many of those other issues still remaining, most people just don't have the stomach for it anymore. It's human nature and I understand that; call it a defense mechanism, a means to cope by emotionally and intellectually moving on.

And it would be such a mistake to do so.

The long-term effects of this spill must not only be studied by scientific research organizations, but the results of those studies and their implications must be proactively distributed to the decision makers and the general populace. In other words, we must continue to have our nose rubbed in it. The Gulf marine ecology has been altered - subtly or radically. And by remembering that the environmental and economic effects of this spill will be with us for years if not decades, it could be the seminal event that finally signals a shift in our attitudes towards fossil fuels.

If there could have been any kind of silver lining to this dark petroleum cloud, it would have been that alternative energy sources would have received the support and backing they needed to push those technologies forward, making their use more effective, efficient, and affordable. But with the U.S. government's decision to lift the moratorium on the deep water drilling, there is a sense of returning to business as usual, albeit with a few more safeguards in place - but a critical, opportune moment may be passing.

So, pay attention to those organizations that are still studying, still observing the impact of wildlife, analyzing the impact on human health - from direct exposure to the oil or more indirectly, through the food chain. Lend them your ears and your support. Here are a few:

Using the Law
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) continues on the legal front with lawsuits to have the government check on tuna populations that were breeding in the Gulf at the time of the spill.
CBD also supported the Sea Turtle Restoration Project in their successful efforts to stop the burning of surface oil as it was killing sea turtles, burning them alive. And they continue to storm the gates of Washington to insure that environmental protection laws are rightfully enforced.

Studying Deep Water Impacts
Greenpeace has a research vessel and deep water submersible in the Gulf where they are conducting studies on the impact of the spill on deep water corals. A portion of the oil was thought to have settled to the bottom. If so, Greenpeace wants to determine what effect it may be having on deep water coral communities. Do entire reef communities of fish and crustaceans move on? And if so, how does that impact other marine communities beset by oil spill refugees?

Oil-Eating Microbes

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has recently completed a study of the Gulf oil spill, verifying that there was a large oil plume that floated 3,000 feet below the surface. But they also determined that much of that plume was consumed by oil-eating microbes; more so than anticipated because of a high population of bacteria that has adapted to Gulf conditions. The researchers also found that the bacteria consumed less oxygen than expected, thereby diminishing the possibility of oxygen-free dead zones. All of which would be at least a relief, if not encouraging.

But the researchers still had plenty of questions and concerns as to what long-term effects all of this microbial activity could have on the Gulf ecosystem. Talking with Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald, the PBS News Hour reported, "
He cautions that many questions remain unanswered -- such as what has happened to the methane released into the water along with the oil, what percentage of the total oil released ended up in this deep-sea plume, and the environmental effects of changing the deep-sea microbial community."

Again, it's human nature to want to turn back the clock, to somehow take us back to when the waters were clear of oil, jobs were plentiful, and homes and credit were easily available. But if we succumb to that impulse, we are only setting up ourselves or the next generation for a repeat performance of what happened six months ago.

Never forget.

Read a six-month recap from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Read about Greenpeace's
deep water coral research.
Read about Woods Hole's microbial research.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Green Sea Turtles: coastal foraging puts endangered turtle at risk

Perusing the other ocean conservation blogs, I came across an interesting post written by Jesse Senko, marine researcher and seafood consultant for the Blue Ocean Institute - an ocean conservation non-profit headed by Dr. Carl Safina. Jesse writes of the challenges faced by green sea turtles as they forage through coastal areas. While tagging of sea turtles has produced important data regarding their long distance movements, not much is known about their shorter coastal movements, which actually constitutes the greatest part of their activity.

Although protected by law in Baja, Mexico, the green sea turtles are subjected to lax enforcement and protection and many turtles are lost to poachers or drowning in fishing nets. The turtles' dilemma in Baja reminded me of the supposedly protected white sharks, the juveniles of which can often be found in local Baja fish markets.

Daily movements of green sea turtles

Large marine vertebrates, such as sea turtles, are particularly vulnerable to human impacts due to their long lifespans, late maturity, slow reproductive rates, and extended migrations. Like most large marine vertebrates, sea turtles play key ecological roles in their environment when they are abundant. Green sea turtles are especially important in coastal areas because their grazing behavior significantly reduces nutrient cycling times in seagrass pastures.

In Baja California, Mexico, green sea turtles are protected by law, but lack of enforcement, coupled with drowning in fishing nets and illegal poaching has led these turtles to the brink of extinction. The majority of green turtles that are killed in Baja California are juveniles inhabiting coastal foraging areas; thus, understanding their movements and habitat use in this environment is a priority for conservation efforts. Nevertheless, while researchers have tracked the long-term movements of mainly nesting sea turtles, there is very little known about the short-term movements of green turtles in coastal foraging areas. Understanding this aspect of their biology is particularly important because green turtles spend the majority of their lives in these environments where they come in direct contact with fishing nets and poachers who often sell their meat on the black market.

Above: Jesse Senko (author) holding a green turtle before it is released

Recently, a team of biological scientists set out to better understand green sea turtle fine scale daily movements in a coastal foraging area along the Pacific Ocean in Baja California, Mexico. They developed a novel tracking device to conduct their study. The tracking tag consisted of a buoy that housed a GPS logger to record turtle movements and a VHF transmitter to locate the tracking tag. The researchers tethered the buoy to six green sea turtles. They found that green turtles were active throughout 24-hour periods while moving large distances over surprisingly short time periods. “We were surprised to see how far some of the turtles moved over temporal scales as short as one or two days. We had some turtles that moved total distances as far as 29 kilometers (18 miles) and occupied areas as large as 1,575 hectares (6 square miles) in a single 24-hour period”, said Senko, the study’s lead author.

The researchers also found that turtles were active throughout day, night, and crepuscular (dawn and dusk) periods of activity. “These results indicate that turtles were active throughout 24-hour periods, and did not show preferences for certain periods of the diel cycle (one 24-hour period). Given our findings that turtles moved large distances over short time periods and were active throughout 24-hour periods, conservation strategies intended to protect this endangered species may ideally need to encompass the entire coastal foraging area rather than focus on a few high use zones”, added Senko.

Above: Tracking a turtle

The full study in Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology can be found online at:*Senko_JEMBE_2010.pdf

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Deep Water Snailfish: expedition discovers new species in Pacific trench

Deep ocean trenches represent a kind of aquatic dark-side-of-the-moon environment of which we know very little. In recent years, attention has been focused on thermal vents that exist in some deep water trenches and the amazing sealife that was found to be thriving in conditions that previously were believed to be hostile to any form of life. However, thermal vents are not the only source of life in the blackness of the deepest depths.

The BBC Earth News recently reported on an expedition team from the University of Aberdeen that has been investigating life in several deep ocean trenches in the southeastern Pacific Ocean off of Chile and Peru. In one particular trench that was over 26,000 feet (8,000m) deep, a new species of snailfish was discovered at 23,000 feet (7,000m).

At these depths, much of the sealife leads a scavenger existence, feeding on the remains that float down from above. In shallower areas, dead animals that come to rest on the bottom are consumed by a variety of crustaceans, bottom-feeding fish, and even sharks. At very deep depths, basically the same process occurs but with animals that have adapted to the pressure and total lack of light. It's a bleak existence with very little if any vegetation, so scavenging or feeding on the scavengers themselves is the key to survival.

The snailfish is one who feeds on the scavengers, crustaceans mainly. Although it has eyes, they are aren't of much use, so the snailfish has an extended lateral line system with sensory pores around its head which allow it to sense subtle vibrations in the water.

"When they sense movement, they suck in all the water in front of them in the hope that there are crustaceans in that water," said Dr Alan Jamieson, who lead the University's expedition.

While other animals that cruise deep open waters often utilize light-emitting organs to attract and catch prey, bottom-feeders are less attracted to those types of lures. So other sensory skills for hunting have evolved, like the snailfish's lateral line enhancement.
There are over 195 species of snailfish, found in various depths in colder waters closer to the Arctic and Antarctic. They are similar to sculpin with elongated bodies, big heads, and large pectoral fins.

The University plans to conduct additional studies in the northwestern Pacific's Japan Trench. It was in the Japan Trench, in 2008, that the University, in conjunction with the University of Tokyo, discovered a species of snailfish at a depth of over 25,000 feet (7.7km), making it the deepest known fish.

The majority of the ocean exists in darkness and at great depths. While more abundant or colorful marine ecosystems in shallower waters might catch our attention, scientists know that these abyssal depths play an important role in the ocean's entire life cycle. We need to understand that role better and how it might be impacted or changing due to atmospheric and ecological changes occurring closer to the surface.

Read the BBC Earth News

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Disneynature Oceans & The Crimson Wing: fishes and feathers in Blu-ray

In the world of nature documentaries, wildlife filmmakers had for many years resigned themselves to the fact that their professional lives would be bound to very tight budgets with distribution limited to television and nature film festivals. Not that this would condemn them to inferior product, but the opportunity to express their passion to a large audience utilizing the power of the large screen experience, for the most part, eluded them.

In 2008, Walt Disney Studios formed its Disneynature division for the purpose of bringing nature films back to a mainstream audience in a big way. Disney has a past history in nature documentaries - cute stories of lovable bears or foxes that were both entertaining and fashioned within the mold of Disney family fare. With Disneynature, the studio has returned with several sweeping theatrical productions that are also taking advantage of today's advanced home entertainment technology in the form of high definition Blu-ray and Internet connectivity.

Set for release on October 19th in Blu-ray/DVD combo packs, Disneynature's Oceans and The Crimson Wing are two remarkable films with stunning visuals but different approaches in storylines to motivate audiences to appreciate nature. One engulfs you with the breadth of biodiversity, while the other focuses on a precarious annual journey of survival.

Oceans, a follow up to Earth, Disneynature's first global-oriented release, takes a sweeping look at life in the sea. From majestic humpback whales to quirky, pugnacious mantis shrimp; to humongous, thunderous storm waves; to Isla Guadalupe's great white sharks (some familiar toothy faces from my years filming there), the film ladles one impressive scene atop another to paint a picture of spectacular variety in shape, color size, and temperament. Pierce Brosnan provides a narration that is not too wordy, avoiding competing for attention with the images on the screen.

While many nature film-goers may have seen similar underwater scenes in other films, the sheer variety all brought together in Oceans is overwhelming. As a nature filmmaker, I knew a lot about what went into the making of this film, produced by French-based Galatee Films: high definition video, 35mm film, elaborate underwater lighting rigs, camera cranes arms working from small boats, even remote controlled model helicopters mounted with cameras - enough technical wizardry to make any major action film envious. And yet, knowing this, I still found myself thinking over and over, How did they get that shot?

The Blu-ray transfer of the film is excellent and nothing is modified from the original wide-screen theatrical format - so even on a large flat screen, the video is letterboxed to match the theatrical original. The Blu-ray disc also provides an interesting variation on the "director's comments" found with many DVDs by offering Filmmaker Annotations which provides behind-the-scenes footage and backstory while the video is running.

With such a mosaic of dramatic aquatic images, the film's one weakness is the lack of a more cohesive storyline. The film is literally and figuratively all over the map, from big to small, from one side of the globe to another, there were brief scenes that, while probably taking many days if not weeks to shoot, seemed to be mere placeholders. So the "story" of Oceans is that of spectacular eye candy. It is a marvelous achievement visually and home viewers, particularly those unfamiliar with the ocean's biodiversity, will be as impressed as theater-goers were.

While having advance knowledge of what to expect with Oceans, I was totally unfamiliar with The Crimson Wing. It is the story of Africa's flamingos and their annual migration to the lakes in northern Tanzania to breed and raise their babies. Flamingos? Those goofy-looking pink birds? This couldn't hold my attention as a feature film.

I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was stunned.

Produced by Natural Light Films and Kudo Pictures, The Crimson Wing is a remarkable example of nature filmmaking. Capturing the birds in flight or congregating in the hundreds of thousands, the filmmakers transform the image of a silly plastic ornament on a Florida lawn into a graceful creature determined to flourish in an insufferably hot and hostile environment.

The Crimson Wing focuses on Lake Natron, where flamingos arrive following brief rains that breathe life into the shallow lake in the form of red algae - remarkably, the source of the birds distinctive color. As the summer heat increases, salts separate from the evaporating waters and literally form a salt island where the birds go to build nests; mounds of salty mud. The babies that hatch must then withstand an arduous trek to the lake shore marshes where they will feed, grow and ultimately take flight as the flocks disperse across Africa, only to return again the next year, the cycle repeating itself.

While there are plenty of Disneyesque scenes of cute baby flamingos stumbling through their first steps or nestling with their mothers, the film doesn't pull its punches in showing the precarious nature of their lives. Stalking predators like giant storks or a hungry mongoose are shown taking their fill - a reminder of the cold brutality of survival. Not avoiding this hard reality of nature only adds to the mystery and miracle of the migration, and the filmmakers succeed in maintaining a balance in tone: beauty in the face of severity.

While containing stunning visuals, The Crimson Wing also benefits from a more cohesive and personal story, one that is propelled by chronological events. The close interaction between mother and chicks helps to maintain focus as these flamingos go through their own "Circle of Life" - to borrow from another Disney film. Again, the Blu-ray transfer is excellent and so you have an entertaining combination of state-of-the-art visuals with a compelling story. This is what one would hope all nature films could attain.

In addition to the video of the original theatrical release and the Filmmaker Annotation feature previously mentioned, both Oceans and The Crimson Wing offer interactive menu features that, when the Blu-ray player is linked to the Internet, provide additional nature and conservation information that is updated via the online connection. Part of the strategy to promote adoption of the Blu-ray standard is the incorporation of the Internet - in essence, your Blu-ray player becomes a computer - and I expect we will see more and more creative uses of this interactive capability in the future.

Disneynature's Oceans and The Crimson Wing are worthy reasons for adopting Blu-ray as the next home video format. Enlightening viewers to the beauty, importance, and fragility of nature is a worthwhile mission for technology. As a conservationist, I am hoping that technology will provide solutions to help protect the planet. It can also help by simply showing us what we can not afford to lose.

Available on Blu-ray/DVD on October 19, 2010.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Shark-Free Marina Initiative: brochure available from expanding shark conservation group

Many readers of this blog have come across posts that mention the Shark-Free Marina Initiative (SFMI), an organization dedicated to the incremental but crucial and challenging step of ridding marinas of caught sharks. Supported by the Humane Society of America and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, SFMI has an informative website and now, as this recent press release below cites, there are informative brochures available for distribution.

Shark-Free Marina brochures introduce the membership campaign
14 October, 2010

Mid-October heralds the beginning of our SFMI membership campaign. As part of the campaign we've selected strategic marinas around the country to join the Shark-Free Marina Initiative. The first point of contact will be the new SFMI brochures which are now available. Beautifully designed yet highly informative they feature artwork generously provided by the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and scientific contributions from many of our advisers.

Click on the thumbnails for a larger view of the artwork and message. You may also use the link provided to download a PDF version.

As you read this post our brochures are speeding their way across the USA destined for 1500 marinas around the country. Their mission? To introduce the Shark-Free Marina Initiative to key marinas who have it in their power to significantly reduce the tens of thousands of sharks killed ever year by recreational fishing activity.

To receive a package of 10 brochures please write to and tell us how you plan to make an impact. We suggest talking to your local marina, dive shop, tackle store or classroom about the need to protect our sharks.

A very special thanks to all who were involved especially those who let us use their names, message and artwork.

Download a PDF version

8.5x14 - 4 Fold Brochure - Outside

8.5x14 - 4 Fold Brochure - Inside

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef: colorful yarn and complex math to save coral reefs at the Smithsonian

To get people to appreciate the importance of ocean conservation to the future of this planet, we must highlight the importance of the oceans to our own future as well. Making this human connection can take many forms, from intellectual presentations to a more tactile approach . . . like crochet.


On October 16th, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, an exhibition opens that connects the very human art of crocheting with the complexity of shape and design of coral reefs. The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, a project started by the Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring, will be on view in the Institution's Sant Ocean Hall through April 24th of
2011. By utilizing crocheting to produce amazingly realistic representations of various corals, the exhibit helps to make very real what some may perceive as beautiful but unreal and other-worldly.

At the core of the exhibit is the use of hyberbolic geometry - a mathematical theory of lines, curves and their relationships that manifests itself in natural forms like corals and can be effectively represented in crochet. It's a good thing too, because just reading about hyperbolic geometry can give you a headache, or at least leave you slightly dazed and confused.

Originally conceived by Margaret and Christine Wertheim, and supported by Quiksilver Foundation, the Embassy of Australia, and the Coral Reef Alliance; the exhibition is remarkable in its detail and realism. And like the organisms it replicates, it is dynamic and growing, as the Smithsonian provides other crochet artists with the opportunity to contribute to the reef.

The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef- it's organic, it's colorful, and it's mathematically complex. Just like real coral. It's cared for by humans, just like the real coral reefs need to be. Because If not, it's sad to think but colorful yarn may be all that's left to remind us of one of the ocean's greatest treasures.
Learn more at the Smithsonian website.
Read about
hyperbolic geometry.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Whales and Ships Don't Mix: higher fatalities in Northern California

***News of the Hour from Chile***
The 33 miners in Chile, who have been trapped 2,000 feet below for nearly 70 days, are now, one by one, reaching the surface. A nation's compassion, determination, and technology have all come together to rescue these men and unite them with their families. A joyous moment and a reminder of what can be accomplished when we set about to preserve life.

Whale Fatalities Spike Along the Calif. Coast
While a certain number of whale deaths are recorded along the Eastern Pacific coast annually, this summer and early fall have seen a record number in the San Francisco Bay area. Since last July, there have been five dead whales sighted or washed ashore, including minke, fin, humpback, and blue whales.

The latest fatality was found on the beach in Pescadero on October 2nd: an 80-foot long blue whale with a male fetus lying beside it. The blue whale can reach over 100 feet in length, making it the largest animal on the planet.

Scientists and officials from the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary see ship strikes as the cause of death. The determination was derived from either finding severe wounds from propeller blades or from necropsies that revealed broken bones from the impact of the ship.

"We're definitely seeing an increase in ship strikes - it's awful," said Mary Jane Schramm, spokeswoman for the Sanctuary.

While the cause of death id fairly certain, the larger question is whether this series of deaths represents a statistical anomaly or has something put whales in the region at greater risk? One likely candidate being considered is a greater than usual amount of krill in the area.

Krill, a name given to a group of small shrimp-like crustaceans, is the primary food source for baleen - or filter-feeding- whales like blues and humpbacks. Apparently, this summer has seen a
larger population of krill and this may have attracted more whales into the area. (Living in Southern California, I have heard accounts from many fishing and whale-watching boats of record numbers of blue whales passing close to shore.) With San Francisco being the busy shipping port that it is, this could increase the odds for a collision between a whale and a large freighter. As big as they are, whales are no match for tons of floating steel.

But an exact reason for the krill explosion has not been determined. Krill feeds on phytoplankton and this food source can produce "plankton blooms" when warmer conditions prevail. If there is a climate change connection, no one can say with any certainty at this point.

Regardless of the root cause, what is needed is to devise solutions that could help prevent collisions and save the lives of these fragile whale populations (blue, humpback, and fin whales are all listed as endangered). Stationing monitors in the shipping channels and outfitting ships with sound systems that would alert the whales to their approach have been proposed by several groups including the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary.

All that is needed is the compassion, determination, and technology.

more in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Undersea Voyager Project: seeking ocean discoveries in Southern California's island playground

A precocious child at the age of, let's say, ten has his or her first encounter with the wonders of the sea, perhaps at a local aquarium; or a vacation at the beach, wandering about the tidepools; or simply by watching an underwater wildlife documentary. Suddenly a spark is ignited and a future marine scientist and explorer is born.

That spark becomes a fire that continues to burn to adulthood and now the freshly-minted ocean explorer enters the world of academia or corporate research in search of a living. And that's when things can change. The bureaucracy and politics of these new working environments - where papers must be regularly written, departments must have their spotlight of attention, or private companies must meet a corporate agenda - take the budding scientist further and further away from that original inspiration, that sense of pure research and exploration.

The Undersea Voyager Project (UVP), headed by Scott Cassell, has a mission to bring that original sense of exploration back to the marine scientist. Providing submersible platforms for research and study, UVP has a long-term goal of circumnavigating the world through the ocean's most vibrant depths, from near surface to 1,000 feet. It's an alternative approach in that scientists can make use of UVP with one caveat: the resulting data is open for the world to benefit from. Institutions may be reluctant to get on board with such a heretic approach, but scientists from a wide variety of marine fields have expressed interest; an interest to reconnect with that first motivating spark once again.

Through the month of October, the Undersea Voyager Project is operating at Catalina Island in Southern California. Working with the Antipodes, a five-passenger submersible owned by Seattle-based Oceangate, Cassell has been plumbing the depths of this local California island attraction, discovering wreckage from Cold War era listening stations to evidence of never-before-seen underwater landslides.

I had the opportunity to join the UVP and Oceangate team this past weekend to film the Antipodes underwater as it ran through some checkout dives and will be joining them again shortly to film Scott for a German television program and take more promotional video. There is a list of scientists and educators that plan to participate while the Antipodes is available through this month, hoping to discover what secrets might be lying just a few hundred feet below in the waters off bustling Southern California.

There are discoveries waiting to be made and secrets to be uncovered. But maybe the greatest discovery or secret is the moment when a researcher can once again connect with those youthful impulses that drove him or her to be an ocean explorer in the first place.

Visit the Undersea Voyager Project website.
Visit the Oceangate

Coral Reef News: a new algae threat; island nations take steps

Coral reefs continue to face challenges and occasional glimmers of hope. But they lead a perilous existence, with these important tropical marine ecosystems living on the edge of collapse. As remnants of geological island movements, coral reefs form important barriers to island erosion and other weather- and ocean-related conditions (storms, currents, etc.) while also providing a home for countless numbers of marine species.

Bad News: Toxic Algae Acts Quickly
On the down side, researchers are discovering that algae can not only crowd out corals when their growth explodes due to nitrate-rich pollution (as previously studied worldwide), but algae blooms can also prove to be toxic by reducing oxygen and sunlight. And it can happen with remarkable speed.

Recently, in the Gulf of Oman, scientists were conducting a coral reef study and upon returning to their research area three weeks after an algae bloom, they found the corals seriously impacted. Several species of hard corals, including cauliflower and tabletop hard corals, were completely destroyed.

"We were surprised at the extent and speed at which changes to the coral reef communities were affected," said marine ecologist Andrew Bauman in the BBC News. Scientists have known that climate change in the form of warmer waters can adversely affect the coral, causing "coral bleaching" whereby the coral is severely and often fatally weakened from the loss of the symbiotic zooxanthellae algae that literally lives in the coral tissue.

While warmer temperatures can stress the corals to the extant that coral bleaching occurs, the scientists in the Gulf of Oman now have dramatic evidence of the impact of algae blooms in open water, literally choking the life from the coral - not to mention the impact on other sealife including fish, whose gills can be become clogged with algae particulates.

Good News: Island Nations Work Together
On the more positive side, tropical island nations are becoming more proactive in their efforts to protect their national treasures - the coral reefs. In 2007, the governments of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands formed the Coral Triangle Initiative to establish policies to protect their marine reef ecosystems. Realizing the importance of the reef ecosystem not only as a component of a healthy ocean but also of economic importance as a source of food and tourism for developing nations, the Coral Triangle Initiative is a government-led program supported by leading conservation organizations like Conservation International.

In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives - a nation of over 1,100 coral islands - recognizes the economic power of conserving its surrounding coral reefs. The reefs are the lure to worldwide scuba divers, snorkelers, and swimmers, making tourism a major component of the nation's economy. In addition, the need to protect its ecology - in fact, that of the world - is of critical importance to the Maldives. The islands are, at most, just under five feet above sea level. With sea levels rising due to global warming, scientists estimate that the Maldives will be uninhabitable by 2100.

The government has taken steps to both protect its citizens and the environment by instituting a variety of eco-friendly policies including installation of wind turbines, rooftop solar arrays, and phasing out fossil fuel-burning boats and cars. In July, 2010, they also outlawed shark fishing and the sale or export of shark fins. But the government is also reluctantly prudent and developing plans for the relocation of its entire population of 400,000 as sea levels rise.

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed warned,
“Climate change is a global emergency. The world is in danger of going into cardiac arrest, yet we behave as if we've caught a common cold. Today, the Maldives has announced plans to become the world's most eco-friendly country. I can only hope other nations follow suit.”

Read about toxic algae in the BBC Earth News.
Read about the Coral Triangle Initiative at
Conservation International.
Read about the Maldives at
Mother Nature Network.