Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wolves & Sharks: key predators at risk from sport

From time to time in this blog, I have cited the role that ocean predators such as sharks play in maintaining a balanced ecosystem - whether we personally care for the animal or not. In fact when I would speak to groups about sharks, I would acknowledge the fears and distaste that some people in the audience might have but would then focus on the critical importance of the shark. You may not love them, but they are indispensable.

And from time to time, I have mentioned the ongoing situation regarding endangered wolves in the U.S. The designation of wolves as endangered in the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain areas has been a flip-flopping issue with certain populations faced with extinction at the hands of hunters, backed by the support of concerned ranchers who have lost cattle to predation.

There are strong parallels between sharks and wolves both socially, with their interaction with mankind, and ecologically. First, ecologically, they serve the same functions as apex predators, maintaining a proper balance of fauna and even flora within their respective ecosystems. Without sharks, the numbers of their primary prey would increase, feeding on smaller prey that are often herbivores. And so there is a potential shift in a marine community and a potential increase in vegetation and algae that can threaten other life forms like coral - all part of the non-linear cascade effect.

Wolves serve a similar function, maintaining balance between prey ranging from small "varmints" to deer, elk, and moose. In the past when the wolves were not provided protection as endangered species, there was both an explosion in the small animal or rodent population and a decline in grazing land as more and more large animals like deer and elk would de-nude the grasslands.

Secondly, sharks have been exposed to senseless hunting through "shark tournaments" wherein large numbers of both juvenile and mature breeding sharks were hauled in, often times the catch being sharks of no tournament or commercial value. With organizations like the Shark-Free Marinas Initiative, there are efforts being made to at least alter the decisively fatal outcome generated by shark tournaments through the implementation of catch-and-release techniques. With the current state of regulations and protections for wolves being in somewhat disarray (see prior post), there are now similar tournaments, "wolf-killing derbies," that leave dwindling populations of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Rocky areas, including Idaho and Montana, at great risk.

The Defenders of Wildlife, through their www.savewolves.org campaign, are working to protect these threatened land predators by educating people to their importance and by focusing public awareness towards the businesses and corporations that sponsor or support the wolf-killing derbies.

According to Defenders of Wildlife president, Rodger Schlickeisen, "Since wolves were reintroduced to Greater Yellowstone and central Idaho fifteen years ago, we’ve seen local ecosystems rebound as these top predators helped prevent overgrazing of foliage by elk and deer. According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, there are 150,000 elk in Montana, compared to 90,000 in the mid 1980s when wolves started to make their way back to the state. Wyoming's elk population is up 35% since then to 95,000, while Idaho's is up 5% to 115,000."

Sharks and wolves - critically important predators that bring balance to nature's ecosystems but whose image, from Jaws to Little Miss Riding Hood, have placed them on a collision course with man - are at risk of extinction. And, because of the complexity of nature's web, man's attempts to artificially achieve balance (eliminate the predator, then control the increasing prey populations) have not been particularly productive. The challenge is to find methods not to control nature's balance but to work with it, allowing it to flourish in it's infinitely more successful ways.

To learn more about the campaign to save the wolves, click here.
To learn more about the campaign to eliminate wolf-killing derbies,
click here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

NOAA and Google: moving further in visualizing scientific data

Google Earth (and its revealing Ocean layer) has been a multi-informational tool, providing varying degrees of visual data for the general public, educational, and research users and organizations. The Ocean layer, to which I am honored to be a content provider, has been continually growing in terms of the quantity of content and the level of detail.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a press release a cooperative research and development agreement with Google designed to create state-of-the-art visualizations of scientific data. Working with the software/Internet wizards at Google is a good step towards resolving one of my pet issues with scientific research: getting the data out to the public in a meaningful and useful way thereby better enlightening and motivating the user.

Several initiatives are planned - ranging from improving the undersea topographic data
presented in Google Ocean, expanding NOAA's efforts to publish oceanographic data from expeditions and observation systems, and enhancing NOAA's educational Earth science display system.

NOAA realizes they have the data and Google has the software muscle to get that data out there in a significant way. It would seem that this could be a great advance in an already productive relationship and I, for one, am looking forward to see what transpires.

If you haven't taken a look at Google Earth/Ocean, it's an easy upload (the program requires an Internet connection to operate). Click here to learn more.

Read the NOAA
press release.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Conservation's Indirect Strategy: mercury levels in Japanese could effect change

The strategy of reporting on the health impact on humans brought about by the consumption of endangered ocean species continues to gain momentum as a viable approach for garnering public awareness. The Ocean Preservation Society, who produced the award-winning documentary The Cove, is spreading the word about a recent article in The Japan Times about mercury levels in the whale and dolphin meat that is consumed by the people of Taiji, where much of The Cove takes place.

Taiji is known for its capture and bloody harvest of dolphins and small whales - either for aquariums or for human consumption. While there has been much government intervention to manipulate the media and downplay the event, at least one brave Taiji council member moved to have the meat tested. He was eventually shunned and left Taiji, but the testing continued and the results have been reported in some segments of the media who have resisted government pressure.

According to the Kyodo News and The Japan Times, it was found that the people of Taiji, who consume dolphin and whale meat, have mercury levels that are as much as 10 times higher than the Japanese norm. Children, who can be very susceptible to the neurological effects of
mercury, were going to school every day only to dine on contaminated dolphin meat as part of the town's school lunch program. Fortunately, the program has now discontinued serving dolphin meat.

Pelagic animals like whales, dolphins, tuna, swordfish, and sharks, unfortunately are able to retain pollutants deep in their tissues. Although mercury seems to be one of the most worrisome agents, other pollutants have been found, including DDT, and other pesticides, in addition to several other industrial chemicals that enter the ocean either directly or from discharge into the atmosphere (which then eventually falls into the sea).

While health threats against mankind might be the impetus needed to produce change in environmental or ecological policy, it seems sad that it has to come to that. It illustrates our self-centered behavior when it's not enough that the atmosphere is being altered or that species are being endangered by over-harvesting or loss of habitat - instead, it takes a direct negative effect on ourselves for us to sit up and take notice.

Perhaps it's academic; it's just human nature and we should use it to our best advantage. Shark conservationists are using mercury poisoning to drum up concern over the demand for shark products; climate change proponents are using documented changes in agricultural output and drought conditions in Africa and the related loss of life to make their case; and groups like GotMercury.org put out information on the pollutant levels in over-fished species like swordfish, tuna, and others. It seems to be a strategy that has potential for generating real change. The problem is that when that change comes to protect mankind from himself, where will the plant and animals, the ocean, land and air be by then? Will it already have been too late?

Read article in Japan Today/Kyodo News.

Monday, January 25, 2010

U.S. Salmon Policy for Columbia River: top scientist says it comes up short

It's one year into the new U.S. administration and scorecards are flying about, tallying up the highs and lows of the Obama administration as the President prepares for a State of the Union address this week.

Some people are noting that the "change" that was a centerpiece of the Obama campaign has not materialized. Others have said that much has been accomplished in the form of small steps that don't necessarily get a lot of attention. For conservationists, there were many hopeful signs at the outset, but there has been many areas of concern as the administration makes decisions that many see as counter-productive and reminiscent of the former administration's anti-environment/pro-business approach.

Case in point: Dr. Carl Safina, head of the Blue Ocean Institute, had an op-ed piece printed in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday that calls attention to the administration's adoption of a policy regarding Pacific Northwest wild salmon in the Columbia/Snake River system. The policy is the same as one proposed by the prior administration and looks to hold the line on the current levels of wild salmon - levels that already border on extinction for many salmon species that travel these inland waterways.

According to Dr. Safina, the annual migration of wild salmon through these rivers provides critical food source and nutrients for bears, wolves, orcas, and even the plants and trees in the area. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the head of NOAA and administration point person on this issue states that the policy is intended to "prevent further declines." However, Dr. Safina comments on that approach:

"Keeping salmon in a coma and on life support does not heal them, nor help the other species, including people, that depend on them. The likeliest outcome of a salmon strategy based on just avoiding extinction will be extinction -- and not only of salmon."

The current administration is learning the harsh realities of turning campaign rhetoric into actionable leadership. When to play politics and run down the middle or when to take a stand based on sound scientific research seems to be a difficult balancing act for most governments. As supporters of ocean conservation, we need to make sure our voices are heard by our elected officials and that environmental decisions are made based on scientific research and in the best long-term interests of the animals and the environment. Because, regardless of what administration is in power, when they are gone, they are gone.


Read Dr. Safina's entire op-ed article.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wintering White Sharks: possible migrations along U.S. east coast

A possible migration corridor has been identified for great white sharks on the east coast of the U.S. A satellite tagging study was initiated in the fall by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and some of the early results are intriguing. It is possible that the great white sharks that appear off the New England coast during the summer months - suspected of feeding on seal populations there - travel south during the winter months based on the results of a tagged shark who has appeared as far south as Jacksonville, Florida.

Satellite tagging has been used on great whites and other shark species to record location, speed, depth, and ambient temperature. Typically, a well-placed tag will record data for 30 to as long as 90 days then release itself, float to the surface, and download its data to satellites overhead. Researchers must wait patiently then sift through a mountain of data when it is downloaded all at once. Satellite tags can provide more long-range data than regional telemetry tags (like those documented in my film, Island of the Great White Shark) but are also subject to being dislodged prematurely. A newer technique, SPOT tagging, bolts the tag to the shark to insure a significantly longer monitoring period, but requires that the shark be caught and brought on board; a technique that has raised considerable controversy because of the physical impact imposed on the shark during the procedure.

In the summer months, several species of shark inhabit the New England coastline, from basking sharks to thresher and blue sharks to the great white white (although not in significant numbers). This new tagging study is the first indication that, like their distant cousins throughout the world who exhibit distinct migratory patterns, white sharks could very well be moving up and down the east coast based on seasonal temperature changes and any changes in prey populations that those seasons impose.

Great whites have already been shown to migrate from the west coast Farallon Islands to the mid-Pacific; same for the white sharks at Isla Guadalupe. White sharks have been monitored moving from South Africa all the way to Australia and back. While there can always be the occasional exception, there is continuing evidence that these sharks and other pelagic species develop critical migratory patterns. Our concern would be, what would happen to these sharks if their migrations were intercepted by commercial fishing fleets? Or what would happen to the overall health of their populations with changes in ocean temperature due to global warming? How ingrained are these patterns and what would happen if external factors were altered - could the sharks successfully adjust?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Black Abalone: living on the edge and in need of critical habitat

When I first began scuba diving over 25 years ago, my enthusiasm for the sport took me in all directions - photography, teaching, wreck diving, hunting, you name it. As I learned more about the health of the oceans, I soon abandoned hunting and have focused on the visuals, following the adage of "shoot only pictures, leave only bubbles, take only memories."

But back in my hunting days, abalone, a large shellfish found along the California coast and adjacent Channel Islands, was highly sought after. In fact, back then a diver could reach the State-allowed limit for a multi-day dive trip (a total of 8) in just one dive. The dive boat would anchor at one of the prime spots where you could find large abalone strewn across the bottom like hubcaps!

Then times changed. Already impacted by commercial harvesting, recreational harvesting was limited even further. The dive boats would often avoid the good spots, which were becoming harder to find anyway. And eventually a full moratorium was put in place.

There are several species of abalone - black, red, pink, white, green (their names based on either a basic shell color or the color of the short tentacles and fleshy mantle that extend from underneath) and each species today faces various degrees of decline, although all have suffered badly over the years.

The black abalone has declined as much as 99% since the early 1970s. Historically, abalone was harvested by the Chumash Indians that inhabited the California coast and Channel Islands. With the onslaught of the otter fur trade (otters also fed on abalone), the population of black abalone swelled. But, in response, so did the commercial harvesting industry. With abalone populations in decline, their overall health and robustness impacted, they have experienced a near fatal blow with the outbreak in the '80s of a bacterial disease called Withering Syndrome which attacks the digestive enzymes and the abalone begins to basically wither away.

The black abalone has been placed on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered. In 1999, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) began considering the black abalone for endangered status but, with considerable prodding from outside conservation groups, it took nearly 10 years for the black abalone to be officially designated as an endangered species.

While such a designation legally requires that measures be taken to protect the species, to date no critical habitat has been set aside for the black abalone. And this has spurred the Center for Biological Diversity to file an intent to sue.

“Critical habitat protections have a proven track record helping endangered species to survive,” said Catherine Kilduff, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as species that don’t have it. Black abalone is on the cusp of extinction, and any further delay of federal habitat protection may well seal the species’ fate.”

The black abalone is in a precarious position: it's numbers reduced by over-harvesting; hammered by a pernicious Withering Syndrome; with increasing ocean temperatures that will aid the spread of the disease and the potential of ocean acidification to weaken the health of early-stage juveniles. The NMFS needs to act quickly and the world must recognize that another "canary in the coal mine" species is living on the edge due to the effects of climate change and CO2 emissions.

Read
press release from the Center of Biological Diversity.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Omega-3: beneficial fatty acid has an ecological downside

We have all heard of the benefits of seafood; in particular the omega-3 fatty acids that are found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. In fact, according to a recent article in TIME magazine, the market for omega-3 supplements has doubled since 2006, reaching $1 billion in sales.

One fish in particular, the menhaden, plays an important role in the production of omega-3. But its popularity has equated to overfishing and that has produced some definite negative consequences on water quality and other industrial fish populations.

Not a typical fish for the dinner table, the menhaden is a filter feeder and acquires its omega-3 potential by feeding on omega-3-rich algae. In addition to a general filtering of the water (up to 7 gallons per minute!), the menhaden helps to keep the level of algae in check. Algal blooms deplete oxygen, adding to the production of "dead zones" in the ocean. While the populations of menhaden being fished within its Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico range, have not necessarily reached a critical status, their reduced numbers have produced impacts that have been felt in other fisheries, like the Chesapeake Bay which wrestles with declining commercial fish populations due to dead zones.

But are there alternatives? One possible alternative being developed is the industrial production of the omega-3-rich algae on which menhaden feeds. Makes sense - just go to the source. As part of the emerging field of algae production (also an alternative to corn-based ethanol), it's been shown that omega-3 can be derived from algae in addition to flax seed and canola oils.

For fishermen who have been bringing in menhaden for years (it's also used for fishmeal for feeding poultry and farmed-raised salmon), a shift from commercial fishing boats to high-tech algae farms is not an easy or likely transition. This is part of the economic dilemma that we face when we consider what steps are necessary to protect species or the environment. As has been experienced in the automotive industry and other collapsed fisheries, important as these changes are, they are not without their major hurdles.
Click here to read the TIME magazine article by Tim Padgett.

Monday, January 18, 2010

U.S. Energy Policy: CA governor to assess President's first-year accomplishments

The Los Angeles Times' Greenspace environmental blog reported today on an interesting web cast taking place on Tuesday, January 19th at 7:00pm Pacific Standard Time. California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will assess President Obama's first year accomplishments in energy policy as part of an Energy Task Force conference panel.

Why listen in? Well, for one thing, it would be interesting to hear a conservative with a less-than-conservative approach when it comes to the environment, discuss the energy track record of a so-called liberal who has been criticized by many environmental groups for not following through on campaign promises - quite an odd blend of positions and attitudes. And for another, it's important to know what direction our decision-makers seem to be heading, regardless of how maddening listening to political verbosity can be.

Here's Margot Roosevelt's post from the Los Angeles Times:


On Tuesday night, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will join a panel, along with former Secretary of State George Shultz, to talk about President Obama's first-year record on energy policy. The moderated question-and-answer session is part of an Energy Task Force conference at Stanford's Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank.

It will be webcast live at 7 p.m. Pacific at www.gov.ca.gov.

Schwarzenegger frequently boasts that California leads the nation in environmental and energy policy. The state enacted a law to curb global warming emissions in 2006, and it is on the verge of adopting regulations to implement a roughly 15% cut in greenhouse gases below today's level. Meanwhile, Obama has also pressed ahead on climate issues, pushing for congressional legislation. He has backed the Environmental Protection Agency's recent declaration that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health, and can thus be controlled under the existing Clean Air Act if Congress fails to adopt a climate-specific law.

The Schwarzenegger and Obama administrations cooperated on mileage standards for new cars, after the Golden State passed the country's first rules to control greenhouse gases from vehicles. Last week, California adopted a first-in-the-nation mandatory green building code.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Global Shark Diving: from Fiji to around the world, different strokes for different sharks

An article that ran in the New York Times on shark diving in Fiji has been making the rounds of several of the shark-related blogs, not because the article is some scathing expose but because it is a well-balanced look at shark eco-tourism as practiced at Beqa Adventure Divers.

What caught my attention was how the article, in a broad sense, highlighted the fact that shark eco-tourism (or shark diving, if you like) is a varied activity - something that proponents, and even opponents, need to keep in mind when discussing it. Unfortunately, it often is generalized under one heading: "You've gotta be crazy." But there's much more to it than that.

When discussing shark eco-tourism you have to consider the location, the species of shark involved, and the methods involved.

Location:
Shark diving should only take place in areas where there are recognized or resident populations of sharks. The anti-shark furor that occurred in Oahu several months back was initiated because someone wanted to start an operation in an area not known for sharks but highly populated by recreational beach goers. Bad business move.

In Fiji, the shark diving operations work in areas where the reefs are healthy and protected from overfishing (ie: a healthy reef includes resident sharks as part of a balanced marine ecosystem) and the boats keep an eye out to preserve what is a valuable source of tourism revenue for the islands.

Shark Species:
Great whites, tigers, lemons, bulls, Caribbean reef, Galapagos, whale, and many more species have been the center of attention with different operators around the globe. But each species has its own behavior, it's own level of interest or disinterest in the participants; and so each species requires its own set of protocols so as not to endanger the shark or the diver.

In Fiji, there are large groups of various reef sharks that can be active and put on quite a "show", but at deeper depths, bull sharks require more specific handling. And the great white sharks, that I have spent so much time with, require close attention not so much because of their size but their curiosity.

Methodology:
So, because of various behaviors presented by different species, the methods by which divers can be safely exposed to these animals can also vary. From open water experiences to using
chain mail suits to working within a cage - these decisions must be carefully considered to insure both the most educational and enlightening experience while also being the safest for the divers.

And there must be consideration as to any adverse or disruptive behavioral impact on the sharks and their surroundings. To date, the available research seems to indicate that, if carried out responsibly, there is, at worst, only a temporary effect on the shark's conditioning behavior and that there is nothing that indicates negative changes in their natural feeding or migratory behaviors.

Shark eco-tourism can be an effective way to communicate the importance of shark conservation whether to a specific audience of participants or to a non-participating public at large - if it is done right. And it must be done right because shark diving doesn't fly under the radar of media scrutiny.

Congrats to Beqa Adventure Divers for some well-deserved and balanced media coverage. One of these days, I'll get back to Fiji and you guys can introduce me to some of your sharky friends!

Read NY Times article.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Ocean Web: studies explore its complexities

I was reviewing the latest Marine Science Review from SeaWeb.org on Habitats and Ecosystems. These reviews are always interesting, being full of abstracts and summaries of research studies from around the world (but the academic language can sometimes leave you with your head spinning). Here are a couple of items I found interesting:

Disruption of the Top-Down Predator/Prey Relationship
There is the common analogy of the predator-prey pyramid, often used when discussing the role of sharks in the marine ecosystem, where a layered pyramid is used to describe not only the relationship of larger predators feeding on smaller animals (top down) but also how the triangular shape represents the reproductive rates (from slow-reproducing top predators down to more prolific prey, like feeder fish or plankton).

A study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology discussed some of the challenges faced by top-down or apex predators when their numbers are reduced, say by overfishing. As one might expect, there are shifts that take place in the numbers of smaller predators (those that were once prey to the larger predator), but there can also be changes that impact the larger predators' ability to recover even when the outside influence (overfishing) is removed.

Without the natural balance afforded by the top-down relationship, lower level predators can become both a predator of the larger predator when it's a juvenile and a competitor for the same prey the youthful apex predator needs to feed on. As an example, we think of great white sharks feeding on seals and large fish like tuna, but as juveniles these sharks feed on smaller fish and can, if reduced in significant numbers, find themselves in competition more and more with predators who would someday possibly be prey to the shark if it can survive to maturity. Predation and competition - two of the cascading effects that occur within the predator-prey relationship when it is disrupted.

Blue Carbon Sinks and the Importance of Coastal Habitats
An assessment originating from Norway for the United Nations Environment Programme emphasized the importance of our coastal vegetated habitats (mangrove, salt marshes, and seagrasses) as repositories for carbon emissions, or Blue Carbon Sinks. Here are some numbers that illustrate how important these coastal marine environments in the climate change debate:
  • They make up less than 0.5% of the ocean seabed, but account for 50-70% of the total carbon storage of the ocean's sediments.
  • They consume 235 to 450 tons of carbon each year, nearly half of the 1,000 tons produced by the transportation sector globally.
  • Preventing further loss of these coastal habitats would reduce carbon by up to 7% in two decades and be equal to 10% of the CO2 reduction necessary to remain under 450ppm.
  • However, the ongoing loss of these ecosystems is greater than any other on earth, as much as 4 times that of rainforest deforestation.
  • Loss of coastal vegetated habitats is currently at 2-7% annually, a seven-fold increase from 50 years ago.
As important as these habitats are as homes for various birds, fish, insects, and even manatees; they also have a critical role as blue carbon sinks to counteract climate change.

The Challenge of Understanding Ocean Ecosystem Resilience
Finally, an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London discussed the challenges in forecasting the limits of resilience in marine ecosystems. Resilience being either the ability to resist subtle changes in an environment until a tipping point is reached or by the environment's ability to make subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - changes in a quest to find or sustain a new equilibrium. To study these effects requires both long-term data and an understanding of some very subtle links and interactions taking place - not something that is easy to tackle and so forecasting and projecting accurate models has lagged behind other studies in theory and management or policy.

Yet the need for this information is critical in the development of those very theories and management and policy requirements if their results are to be accurate and sustainable. The article stresses "the challenge to theoretical and field ecologists is to make the shift from hindsight to a more predictive science that is able to assist in the implementation of ecosystem-based management." As we have seen with continually revised projection models regarding climate change, it's not easy but the need is absolute.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Environmental Protection Agency: Senator trying to take key agency out of the loop

First, let's take a moment to give thought to those impacted by the earthquake in Haiti. Needless to say, international relief agencies need your support; the American Red Cross and International Red Cross are two of the leading organizations. Give what you can.

And let's not be distracted by comments from pompous religious zealots who wish to claim that this natural disaster is the fault of the Haitian people consorting with the devil. Small minds deserve small attention.

But back on the environment front, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has proposed legislation -
actually an amendment to be tacked on a government spending bill - that would deprive the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. The crux of the issue has to do more with politics than with a difference in environmental opinion. The EPA is an executive branch agency and there are those who would prefer to see greenhouse emissions regulation originate from Congress - a decidedly less scientific body greatly influenced by outside interests opposed to decisive action to curb CO2 emissions.

The EPA's December declaration that pollution from greenhouse gas emissions endangers public health and that the agency would take action under the Clean Air Act met with support from conservation and environmental groups and disdain from lobbyists and supporters of fossil fuel energy industries. But this recent announcement was not solely on the EPA's initiative; it was the result of a Supreme Court ruling some three years ago. As reported by the Miami Herald:

"
The EPA's move to regulate carbon dioxide and other emissions is part of its compliance with a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring the agency to determine whether greenhouse gases endanger the country's health and welfare. If the agency found that such emissions are indeed dangerous -- which it did -- the court instructed the EPA to address the problem."

The wheels of Congress and the EPA, both, turn slowly and it will be years before one can expect regulations to take effect. But action must be taken now if the scientific-based input from the EPA is to be considered and not shut out of the discussion. The Center for Biological Diversity has started a drive to send letters to all members of Congress to oppose the Murkowski amendment. If you would like to add your voice, click here.

We must not forget that there are strong forces at work in opposition of regulating greenhouse gas emissions. There are huge economic interests from industries who have operated on a centuries-old business model, that of utilizing fossil fuels (oil and coal), and are not prepared to accept the fact that that business model is not only a finite model, but that the inevitable change to cleaner alternative energies must start now in earnest.

If you would like to get a perspective from the "liberal, radical, tree-hugger" side of the aisle, there are interesting articles in the latest issue of Rolling Stone (Issue 1096). One article, by contributing editor Jeff Goodell, details the extent of the lobbying campaigns by the oil and coal industries; while writer Tim Dickinson follows up with an article listing 17 leading businesspersons and politicians and others who are pushing hard to derail efforts to curb global warming. It's always good to know who are policymakers are either up against or being influenced by.

Read the Miami Herald article on Sen, Lisa Murkowski.
Join The Center for Biological Diversity's
letter campaign.
Read about climate change opposition in Rolling Stone.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Scientific Community: take a greater responsibility to get the word out

David Schiffman of the Why Sharks Matter/Country Fried Science blog has written a great post that I wholeheartedly agree with. It basically has to do with the scientific community taking a more proactive approach to the dissemination of their research, not relegating it to dusty library shelves and scientific journals. So many environmental and conservation issues are debated and disputed today but there is a tremendous amount of supportive data that the public and policymakers never hear about. However, it's understandable; media communications is not something that the scientific community is particularly knowledgeable or comfortable with. But that's where someone like me steps in.

After having had the opportunity to work with several conservation and research groups, I am focusing more efforts this year on connecting with the scientific and research community to help get the word out. Not only just documenting their projects, studies, or expeditions, but developing media communication strategies (calling on my background as a marketing communications exec) to help translate their work into personally relevant information for the masses. (BTW: I'm always looking for leads to making more contacts.)

The world is being faced with many problems for which science can provide the answers. However, the policy makers and the public must be lead to those answers. Like it or not, the scientific community has a new responsibility and they must step up to the plate.

Kudos, David. Here's his post:


If you want something done right, do it yourself
2010 January 13

Shark scientists need to actively educate the public about sharks

Many scientists believe that advocacy is not our proper role. They claim that scientists should instead focus on gathering data and solving scientific problems, and should leave advocacy to others. According to some, publicly advocating a position runs the risk of discrediting a scientist, discrediting a discovery and possibly even discrediting science itself. While I respect the opinions and concerns of my peers, I strongly disagree with them. At least with respect to my discipline of shark conservation biology, our worthy goals are doomed to failure without scientist-advocates.

According to a science-purist, discoveries should be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and discussed at scientific conferences with peers, and this is the extent of the role of a scientist. If the work is “important”, the media will cover it, conservation organizations will advocate for it, and politicians will make relevant policy. Such an attitude is well intentioned, but old-fashioned and potentially catastrophic to the cause of conservation.

Let’s consider the scientific discipline of shark conservation biology. The public, who all scientists ultimately work for and on behalf of, are not predisposed to believe that sharks are important and worthy of conservation. Many believe that sharks represent a threat to human beings, and that “the only good shark is a dead shark”. The reality is that sharks do not represent a threat to people, and that due to some sharks’ role as ecosystem regulators, sharks are economically and ecologically very important. Though many aren’t aware of it yet, the average American is better off with sharks than without sharks.

How shall we let this message disseminate to the public? Should we merely publish it in peer-reviewed scientific journals and discuss it with colleagues at scientific conferences, all the while hoping that the media will report on it, conservation NGO’s will advocate for it, and politicians will make relevant policy? If the fact that after decades of scientific papers on the subject, the general public has no idea doesn’t convince you, allow me to explain in detail why this view of science simply doesn’t work.

1) The Media. With all due respect to the hard-working and bright members of the American media, most simply don’t understand science very well (there are exceptions, such as John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal). In fact, the general lack of science knowledge among the media is one reason why some scientists are leery of being interviewed by journalists at all- their research is often completely misconstrued. This is true of science in general, and it’s particularly true of shark science. There is an enormous bias in today’s media towards selling newspapers. “Shark attacks person” sells newspapers, while “sharks really aren’t that dangerous statistically, and they’re actually pretty important” does not. Examine this case study of damaging shark media coverage. Even on the rare occasions when the author says something shark-friendly like “sharks may be more afraid of us than we are of them”, they follow it with something like “sharks have been observed spitting out human flesh after biting it off”. Even media outlets that are supposedly pro-conservation such as the Discovery Channel aren’t immune to the “shark attacks sell, conservation doesn’t” trend, as evidenced by this year’s Shark Week. We simply cannot trust the media to accurately report scientifically discoveries in this field.

The science news cycle, from PhD comics

2) Conservation organizations. There are some excellent conservation organizations out there that benefit sharks, such as WildAid, Oceana, the Save Our Seas Foundation, and Iemanya Oceanica. These organizations read scientific papers, educate the public, and lobby lawmakers just as the science purists believe should happen, and they have had some successes. There are also extremist conservation organizations out there that read scientific papers and decide that the only way to make things right is through violence. In addition to not helping animals at all, these extremist organizations undermine the public’s trust in conservation (and sometimes even in science). The only thing that such organizations are good at is generating headlines (which, I suppose, is another problem with the media). There have been many times when I’ve spoken to members of the general public about the need to save sharks and someone has said something like “Are you one of those people who attacks poor fisherman just trying to make a living for the sake of saving an animal?” Violent extremism in the name of protecting the environment is unacceptable both morally and because it makes it harder for legitimate conservation organizations to do their job. While I will continue to support the work of legitimate conservation organizations, I fear that after the actions of a few bad apples, many members of the general public will never trust environmental groups of any kind again. Conservation organizations are an important piece of the puzzle but they will never be the entire solution.

3) Politicians. I shouldn’t really have to explain why scientists shouldn’t rely on politicians to make scientifically valid decisions. Few have any training in science, and most (in both parties) are so indebted to special interest groups that they really don’t care what the truth is if it conflicts with their chances of getting re-elected. Even our much-celebrated new President hasn’t impressed me much in this regard (see this old but still largely accurate review of his policies). Ultimately, politicians are useful because only they can make the important policy changes required to make the conservation movement’s goals a reality. However, they won’t do this unless there is overwhelming support from the public- the kind of support that merely publishing papers and speaking at conferences cannot possibly generate.

What should we do? I hope I’ve convinced you that at least in my little corner of science, the viewpoint of the science-purist simply doesn’t work. I believe that in order to accomplish the goals of shark conservation, scientists need to take an active role in educating the public, controlling the message the media distributes, and advising politicians.

Personally, I speak to the public both at formal speaking engagements and in informal settings. I’ve already given a lecture on this subject to undergraduates at two top universities (Duke and Yale), and plans are in the works to speak at several more this year. I am also negotiating with local schools, community centers, and churches with the goal of reaching as many people as possible. I also talk to people about sharks whenever possible, and I can attest that my family, my barber, and everyone I’ve sat next to on an airplane is now a committed shark conservationist. The overwhelming majority of these people would never read a scientific journal or attend a scientific conference, and we absolutely need their support to get any kind of meaningful policy passed.

Shark scientists such as Dr. George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File have long been ahead of the curve with respect to scientists interacting with the media- almost every time I see a national news story about a shark attack, it includes an interview with him explaining that shark attacks are relatively rare. Still, we need to do more. I was recently interviewed for the College of Charleston newspaper about shark conservation, and both people who read the article probably learned something about the importance of sharks. Other shark scientists need to do the same thing (though ideally in more widely-read publications). We need to get the word out there to the general public, and while nothing is as effective as face-to-face conversations, the media can reach more people.

As for my colleagues concerns about how advocacy can discredit science… they are absolutely correct. That’s why science advocates need to be very careful that absolutely everything they say represents the best scientific evidence available. Recently, I asked people if I should change an incorrect shark conservation fact that I had previously written in blog posts, and after some discussion, I decided to do just that. I take my responsibility as a representative of science very seriously and I work hard to ensure that everything I tell the public represents the most accurate information that the scientific community has. When the public hears from a scientist-advocate, they need to know that they are hearing the capital-t Truth and not the bias sometimes associated with conservation organizations.

If scientist-advocates are careful to ensure that they provide the best information available to the scientific community and that they don’t let their own biases interfere, scientist-advocates can accomplish much more than science-purists.

While I have used my own scientific discipline as an example, I really believe that these principles apply to any field within conservation biology, environmental science, and fisheries.

As always, friends, I welcome a lively discussion of the issues I have raised.

~WhySharksMatter

Monday, January 11, 2010

Shark Nets: Thomas Peschak reports on the past and future

Shark Nets - long standing shark "deterrents" strung along some of the more popular beaches in South Africa and Australia - have become a source of concern among conservationists. It's a concern perhaps not as widely shared among the general population, or beach goers in particular, because of a fundamental lack of understanding as to what the nets can or cannot do.

In an excellent article in Africa Geographic, written by premier underwater photographer Thomas Peschak, chief photographer for the Save Our Seas Foundation, the history and issues regarding South Africa's shark nets are detailed.

As Thomas, a South African himself, points out, the nets have been in place in his country for over 40 years, totaling some 27 miles by the late '80s. The problem with the nets is that they actually don't deter or keep out the sharks - they catch and kill them. The Natal Sharks Board reported that nearly 34 thousand sharks were caught in these nets from 1978 to 2008, the majority of which were species that posed no threat to humans. Interestingly, for those who felt safe from any "killer" shark, a large percentage of the sharks were caught on the beach side of the net, as the shark was making its way out of the area.

But the nets - basically gill nets by design - are random killers, catching turtles, dolphins, and even whales. This unintended bycatch has fueled the conservation debate and the trend in South Africa is slowly moving towards the use of drum lines (baited hooks) and even a possible reduction of the use of any nets or deterrents at all in less populated beaches.

Peschak takes the realistic position that we can not expect all nets or deterrents to disappear any time soon; as long as there are large numbers of beach goers - representing a sizable tourist economy - then the priority of providing a "safe" beach will probably prevail. But he asks the proverbial question: if science can make such advances as cancer cures and moon landings, could we not come up with a method of shark deterrence that is less destructive? I concur. The methods have not changed much in 3 to 4 decades and have only reinforced both the idea that humans have a greater right to the oceans than its inhabitants and that sharks as a whole are dangerous and must be dealt with severely (an attitude illustrated in the Australian press regarding the government policy to hunt down and slaughter any shark reported to have been involved in biting a human).

Click here to view a great video of Thomas Peschak discussing the history and status of SA shark nets (contains a PDF download link to his Africa Geographic article).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Filmmaker's Journal: the elegance of black & white underwater

Ever since movie-goers watched Dorothy step out of the farmhouse and into the rainbow-hued Technicolor world of the land of Oz, filmmakers have worked with color film and video but often kept a soft spot in their hearts for black and white imagery. There's a stark beauty in its expression of pure contrast; and yet, it provides a myriad of subtle shadings - something that millions of colors cannot achieve.

From the gritty photos of Matthew Brady and war photographers like Joe Rosenthal and many others, to Ansel Adams' striking images of Yosemite and other U.S. forests and national parks, to the black and whites films of the '30s and '40's; monochromatic images have often been a welcome respite to color pictures and films.

When it came to underwater images, it seemed that color would understandably have a strong foothold. Capturing the explosive vibrant color of coral reefs and exotic fish seemed a natural fit and it has remained the established format to date.

But black and white can be fun and challenging - and sharks can lend themselves as excellent subjects because of their basic gray color and contrasting counter-shading (check out the Oceanic Dreams blog for some wonderful examples of b&w stills of sharks). For video, it usually requires more time spent in post-production, because what might look great in color, may not deliver in black and white without some tweaking of gamma, black, and contrast levels. But the end results can be worth all the effort.

Here's a brief experiment I completed recently using footage shot in the Bahamas of lemon and tiger sharks. Black and white helps bring out some of the wonderful effects of sunlight beaming through the blue water of the Bahamas. And leveling the playing field to just black and white helps focus attention on the graceful movements of the sharks. But it can be tedious work, requiring each and every shot to be adjusted and compared to the rest. Tedious but worth it.


Urban Agriculture: a plan to save Detroit

In the United States, shifts in the manufacturing base, heightened by the economic challenges of the past couple of years, have lead to the collapse of the business base of many American cities. No city better personifies this predicament than Detroit. With the loss of its automotive manufacturing backbone combined with high unemployment, home foreclosures. and the flight of its citizenry (the population has dropped from 1.8 million in 1950 to a current population of 800,00 and still dropping), Detroit is a city with considerable land that is going idle.

So, what does this have to do with nature and conservation, you ask? The latest issue of Fortune magazine reports on an interesting solution for Detroit's abandoned acreage: urban agriculture. And we're not talking about rooftop tomato gardens. No, what is being proposed is major, full-scale farming but utilizing the latest techniques in an attempt to produce maximum yield with as low of an impact (energy consumption, CO2 emissions, chemicals, etc.) as possible.

Currently, the plan is primarily the brainchild of John Hantz, a Detroit stockbroker, who has been consulting with Michigan State and the Kellogg Foundation for advice. And he is gaining support from Detroit civic leaders and a variety of potential investors. Hantz is prepared to make the initial $30 million investment himself and plans to begin planting this spring.

Wouldn't it be better to attract people - homeowners and businessmen alike - back to Detroit to use that idle acreage for suburban or industrial purposes? Perhaps, but it's been clear for some time that homeowners won't be coming back to Detroit any time soon if there's no work, and the industrial base has definitely moved on - either elsewhere within the country or overseas.

There are environmental benefits to this approach if it's done right. More CO2-absorbing plants rather than concrete, steel or aluminum siding. The use of compost-fed farms, thereby recycling various waste and using less chemical fertilizers. And supporting more locally grown produce, reducing the cost and environmental impact from national or international shipping.

Admittedly, the environmental benefits are not the biggest priority in Hantz's plan; he is more concerned with revitalizing Detroit's abandoned acreage - which currently totals nearly 30% of the city's 139 square miles - and seeing both a profit and revitalization of the former Motor City. And he is not without his critics who are skeptical that he is hoping for a major land grab. But something needs to be done for Detroit and anyone who steps up to the plate is most likely going to do so with some expectation of making a viable and profitable enterprise. The city's problems are just too enormous to realistically expect any other type of action.

So, we'll have to see. Maybe someday, while passing through the mid-west, you'll buy some plums grown in downtown Detroit!

FYI: I read a variety of publications, from conservative Fortune to liberal Rolling Stone, as I find it's a great way to get a feel for the pulse of things. I typically read Fortune to see what is being adopted in the world of technology gadgets - if it's in Fortune, then it's probably going mainstream.

Read the article by David Whitford in Fortune.com.

Friday, January 8, 2010

COP15: the dust has settled - do you know what's in the accord?

Several weeks ago, the Copenhagen Climate Conference (COP15) concluded and the dust from all the commotion, protests, political positioning has finally settled. And do you know what was settled? Do you know what the accord that will now be circulated amongst member nations actually proposes? Well, don't be shy. Many people don't, so you're in good company.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) assembled a very nice primer on the building blocks of a pre-conference anticipated agreement, in language we can all understand. The New Climate Deal: A Pocket Guide is a PDF download that reviews the key points, the reasons behind each one and the implications faced by developed and developing nations.

Wikipedia summarizes the final outcome, the actual Copenhagen Accord. Brazil, China, South Africa, and the United States drafted the non-binding document and it has received some strong criticism from other nations, criticism that runs the gamut from proclaiming the accord is unfair or punitive to the accord not being strong enough or doing enough to have any measurable impact on climate change.

Whatever its deficiencies, it's a start in the right direction. But, like the controversy being played out in the U.S. over healthcare reform, settling for a half-way measure may be worse than no measure at all. Yet having no measure at all would be equally disastrous. Climate change is probably the first truly unifying global issue facing mankind and a monumental test of international diplomacy, understanding, and compassion.

Click here to download a PDF of the WWF report.
Click here to view the Wikipedia summary of the Copenhagen Accord.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Leatherback Sea Trutles: NOAA proposes critical habitat along U.S. West Coast

Just a little over a week ago, I posted information about new regulations for longline fishing in Hawaii and Florida that would further imperil the loggerhead turtle. Several conservation groups were engaged in legal action with the National Marine Fisheries Service to get them to act on behalf of the endangered turtles by implementing required provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

In a more positive development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed designating 70,000 square miles along the U.S. west coast, from Northern Washington to Southern California, as critical habitat for another endangered sea turtle, the leatherback turtle.

This ruling would provide a measure of protection for these turtles when they come to forage after their long Pacific migration. Every summer and fall, leatherback turtles travel 12,000 miles - the longest migration of any marine reptile in the oceans today - from nesting grounds in Indonesia to the western U.S. coastline to feed on jellyfish, a favorite food source of many sea turtle species. And these are BIG sea turtles, reaching lengths of nine feet and weighing in at 1,200 pounds! But they are on the edge of extinction; according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, their numbers within the past 30 years have dropped by as much as 95 %, well below what many aquatic species can recover from.

There are two hiccups with NOAA's proposal, according to the conservation groups (The Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network) who have been applying the pressure for this habitat designation. One, this is only a proposal, so there will be a public comment period open until March. You can expect opposition comments from the longline fishing industry, so if you would like to add you own voice in support, here is a link to NOAA's public response web site.

The second issue is that the proposal leaves out some key foraging areas and excludes fishing gear as a threat. This hearkens back to the same issue with Hawaii's and Florida's loggerhead turtles - the impact on their numbers from accidental catch by longlines.

“Today’s proposal marks the first step in making sure that these giant turtles have a safe and productive place to feed after their amazing swim across the entire Pacific Ocean,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in an Oceana press release. “NOAA now needs to take the next step and improve its proposal by incorporating more of the species’ key habitat areas and addressing one of the worst threats to leatherback survival – entanglement in commercial fishing gear.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Orcas of the Puget Sound: article looks at vanishing whale pods

Orcas, or if you prefer, killer whales - are one of the most distinctive cetaceans in the world. Though often associated with cold water regions, these intelligent and highly social predators are actually found in all the oceans. But probably nothing personifies the classic image of the orca as the pods of orcas that frequent the waters in Puget Sound in the northeastern Pacific Ocean - tall dorsal fins cutting through the blue water or whales fully breaching from frigid waters with picturesque forest shoreline backdrops.

But something ominous is taking place in this northern wilderness: the whales are slowly disappearing. There are several theories being studied that could explain the whales decline. But whether it's one cause or a combination, it all springs from one source: mankind.

Outdoor adventure writer Thayer Walker has written a very interesting article for the online Sierra Club Magazine about the decline of these orcas, known by researchers as the "Southern Residents." I had the opportunity to work with Thayer before and he is a gifted writer with a terrific appreciation for our natural resources, from geography to biology.

Thayer writes about the dedicated work of Ken Balcomb, who formed the Center for Whale Research and has been studying the orcas of San Juan Island in the Puget Sound for over 30 years. Balcomb has documented the gradual decline of the number of whales in the area, impacted in the '60s and '70s by the demand for orcas for aquariums and amusement parks. But what appears to be happening now points to possible poisoning from pollution and, perhaps in equal or greater measure, the decline of the whales primary food source - chinook salmon.

Changes in the salmon population, from either overfishing or man-made interference or damage to the salmon's fresh water breeding grounds, have either pushed the orca pods to search for new hunting grounds or, as unfortunately suspected, doomed the whales to starvation. Orcas are known for their highly complex social structures; whales will stay within a pod for life and will stake out territories that are often not easily abandoned.

But also pollution plays a critical role in this threatening scenario. Much like the chemicals that can accumulate in sharks and dolphins, the blubber in orcas can retain a variety of pollutants that would not necessarily harm the whale (unless absorbed in great quantities) as long as the whale remains vibrant and well-fed. However, when food is scarce the orca will begin to burn some of its fat, thereby releasing stored pollutants into its system which weakens the immune system and the overall health of the whale deteriorates.

The demand for fresh-caught salmon combined with development in the area - including dam building, forest-clearing, and urban growth - are all contributing to the decline of one of the oceans' most magnificent hunters, one that has cruised these frigid waters for eons but is now faced with a threat for which its cunning and intelligence provides no defense.

Kudos to Thayer for "Empty Sound", a great story. To read the entire article in the Sierra Magazine, click here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

ACT TODAY: last day for U.S. comments on CITES tuna & shark protections

A last minute reminder from Oceana: today is the last day for U.S. citizens to submit comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the upcoming CITES convention. At the 2010 meeting, scheduled for March, several ocean species will be considered for protection under CITES' Appendix I, II, or III listings.

Under consideration are:
  • Bluefin Tuna - heavily over-fished in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
  • 8 Sharks - spiny dogfish, porbeagle, oceanic whitetip, dusky, sandbar, and the scalloped, smooth, and great hammerhead sharks.
  • Red & Pink Corals - harvested for jewelry.
CITES has taken significant steps in the past to curb the trade in endangered species like rhino horns and elephant tusks. Here is an opportunity to make significant progress with several important aquatic species.

Again, this is the last day for U.S. public comments to reach Dr. Rosemarie Gnam, the U.S. representative for the CITES meeting. If you're a U.S. citizen, let your voice be heard!

Click here to send a message via Oceana (if the link does not work properly, go to the Oceana web site and sign up for their Wavemaker e-activist program).