Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sea Voices: putting a human face to ocean conservation

Working towards a sea change. That is the tag line for a charming new book titled Sea Voices that compiles interviews with a a wide range of people involved in ocean conservation. From scientists and policy makers to filmmakers, celebrities, and musicians - whoever has a dedication to the protection of our aquatic resources, many of them appear in this coffee table-sized volume with personable interviews that explain their interests and what they are doing on behalf of the oceans.

Making that human connection is the foundation behind Sea Voices. As the authors note, "The purpose of this book is to unite people all around the world for one common cause, the health of our Global Ocean, a responsibility that we all share." I had the opportunity to meet and spend some time talking about the oceans with authors Duffy and Elizabeth Healey. Their enthusiasm and dedication to this approach, to bring the issues of ocean conservation to a general audience through the many names and faces who are championing the cause, was obvious the moment I met them.

From scientists and explorers like Dr. Bob Ballard and Lt. Don Walsh, to actors and celebrities like Ted Danson and Kate Walsh, to musicians like Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz - over 130 in all appear in Sea Voices because all have a stake in the game just like the rest of us.

Sea Voices. This is a delightful, informative, and fun read - a great way to get someone energized and involved but who is reticent about detailed, arcane tomes on dire conservation issues. The book just came out and will be available in bookstores soon or you can order online at the book's website.

Monday, August 30, 2010

BLUE 2010 Shark Conservation Panel: discussing new strategies to protect sharks

The BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit came to a close this past Sunday, leaving behind a terrific week of conversation seminars, ocean films, and meetings with some of the ocean's leading defenders in the film, scientific, and political arenas. The film festival's big prize winner was Bag It, by Reel Thing, a personal journey of one man to learn and unravel the issues surrounding the use and impact of plastics on the environment.

On Saturday, I moderated a discussion panel, New Strategies in Shark Conservation, at the Monterey Conference Center's Steinbeck Forum. I was honored to have four panelists who have been deeply involved in shark conservation, and their particular perspectives were very insightful as to what the future holds for shark conservation.

Shark Conservation Panelists
Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid: Peter's work with WildAid has been focused on the illegal trade in endangered species and he typically directs his battles toward the international frontlines. In particular, he sees great potential in bringing the issue directly to the people of China. This is a nation that not only has a sizable population - one that he says is not fully aware of the implications of the commercial shark market - but is also a nation that can have influence on many other Asian nations. WildAid continues with its campaign of public awareness to Asian-speaking populations with the wide use of Asian celebrity endorsements.

Stefanie Brendl, involved in Hawaii's recent shark fin prohibition legislation: Stefanie, as owner of Hawaii Shark Encounters, has jumped feet-first into the legislative arena, seeing what can be realistically accomplished through the halls of regional, state, and national politics. She is currently working with WildAid, which is based in San Francisco, to determine ways in which possible legislation can be initiated in California. The Hawaiian anti-fin bill can be an inspiration but, for California and anywhere else, a new political initiative means a minefield of new players, political influences, and constituencies. One of Stefanie's observations was that many of the emotional issues that fuel the shark conservation movement on a personal level have no resonance in the world of politics - it's a matter of economics and political logic supported by hard, undeniable data.

Laleh Mohajerani, director of Iemanya Oceanica: Mexico brings together many components involved in the shark conservation issue - governmental regulations and the viability of enforcement based on available resources; public awareness to a population whose focus can be on more fundamental needs of food and survival; and a local fishing population that has not fully been afforded economic alternatives to the overfishing of valuable marine resources. Laleh's organization is directing campaigns to bring not only more awareness to the Mexican public in general but to also show local fishing communities ways to support themselves without decimating the populations of sharks, turtles, and many other ocean species. These types of directives can be applied to other second and third world nations.

Dr. Greg Stone, senior scientist of the oceans, Conservation International: Greg brings a wealth of both scientific and international diplomacy experience and much of what Conservation International has been involved in has included scientific research that provides the hard, indisputable data for the policy and decision makers. The organization also works by bringing together the interests of multiple nations to form large-scale policy and regulatory agreements, such as the Phoenix Islands marine reserve and the Pacific Oceanscape - examples of large geographic zones where marine resources are protected, monitored, and enforced. Greg emphasized the importance of having the accurate facts and data to define the important role that sharks play in maintaining a healthy marine environment and that the larger organizations, - like Conservation International, WildAid, and the Humane Society - are perhaps best equipped to accomplish these critical, large-scale international goals that can produce quantifiable results.

Shark Conservation Maturing
The shark conservation movement is at a critical stage of maturation. It has been fueled by emotional hot buttons like the cruel hunting methods of shark finning and the seeming waste of a luxury item like shark fin soup or shark cartilage. But there was much agreement within the panel that, as important as these components are to the debate, to see quantifiable change in policy we must deal with the harsh realities of politics and economics. There are fundamental cultural differences between peoples that may never be resolved regarding attitudes towards sharks or seafood in general. And to challenge or resolve those cultural roadblocks may take too long or be too divisive. Instead, developing fact-based platforms that speak to the specific needs of nations will more and more become the model for future progress.

So where does this leave us as individual advocates and supporters? The panel still felt there was a strong need for the individual efforts, the grass-root movements. Concern was raised though that with so many "save the shark" groups today, each fighting for a measure of recognition and funding, the movement can become dissipated. Peter Knights noted that the individual choices we make regarding sharks and seafood in restaurants and supermarkets, what we tell our friends and acquaintances about the shark problem (calmly and matter-of-factly), all still can have a tremendous impact. Greg Stone commented that we all need to make careful, informed decisions about what organizations we support financially, learning what groups can show real and tangible accomplishments.

Stefanie Brendl noted that, while many shark supporters are inundated with one petition after another from a variety of groups and causes and may question whether so many of these are nothing more than feel-good exercises to rally the troops, the concept of the petition (or personal email, hand-written letter, or phone call) can be effective if properly directed to the right policy or decision-maker. And that is something that can often be best accomplished by yourself rather than relying on another group to be your water boy.

And, as a filmmaker, I reiterated my position that sharks need to be represented accurately and without over-sensationalism or, as sometimes happens with ardent shark supporters, misrepresentations of sharks as cuddly pets. Shark conservation is a tough enough proposition for many in the general public (or in the halls of congress) to appreciate; no need to come across as shark-hugging lunatics to those we are trying to persuade.

The Future
In the future, we may see a combining of efforts that will bring many shark advocate organizations to align themselves with larger organizations to consolidate power. This will be an important step in securing sensible political and economic measures on both a national and international level. And all of us will need to take greater personal responsibility for our involvement - mindful of the impact of rational and reasoned arguments in a complicated multi-cultural world, and cautious as to who we support and why.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Gulf Oil Disaster: never forget

Soon after the outset of the Gulf Oil Disaster, I posted that I would leave the reporting of the event to others - not only the mainstream media, but the many dedicated conservationists (like Dr. Carl Safina, Dr. David Guggenheim, and others) who were in a position to follow it on a day-to-day basis, who are able to literally wade into it to discuss the many environmental implications we face as a consequence of both our dependence on fossil fuels and the corporate greed generated by it.

As the drill head has been capped and we are now faced with the aftermath, I'm removing the live link that has been on this blog for these past few months. This was the link that showed the actual camera feeds from the many submersibles being used. Many of the submersibles are now on standby or have completed their missions. But that does not mean that our mission is over.

There are many issues and challenges that we must face, and we need to do it with our eyes wide open. The so-called "missing" oil, the effects of dispersant, the long-term effects on the environment and the industries that depend on the Gulf - all of these must remain fresh and alive in our minds. And we must remain forever the concerned skeptics when it comes to the proclamations that it's all behind us as the media moves on to the next news cycle.

So in the place of the live link feed, I have put in a simple reminder: Never Forget.

BLUE Ocean Festival: the importance of communing with your peers

So many films, discussion groups, and networking opportunities. Every time I attend one of these events, I come away recharged with new motivation, opportunities, friends, and just the renewed energy of knowing that what you are dedicating yourself to is worthwhile and supported by others.

Here is a link to a photo taken by Amy Schwab (one of the participants in my UW Video Workshop) of me with Stefanie Brendl, noted shark advocate who was instrumental in pushing through the recent Hawaiian anti-fin legislation, and Chris Palmer, one of the great producers of nature documentaries and a terrific speaker, motivator, and inspiration.

So many great people, swapping stories, and getting energized about the future and how to wrestle with all its challenges. If you are a dedicated conservationist, coming to these types of events reminds you that you are committed - that you don't need to be committed. You are not alone; you are among friends.

I must remember to use my iPhone - it does take pictures, doesn't it?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Filmmaker's Journal: BLUE Festival and the ocean comes alive

Sunny weather is greeting the first arrivals to the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit. The Monterey area (Monterey, Pacific Grove, Seaside, and more) is one of those great places on the California coast where, given the work opportunity, I would certain consider relocating.

First up on the day's agenda was my underwater video workshop, an opportunity for beginning and aspiring videographers to get a chance to hone their underwater skills with 2 dives in Monterey Bay and a classroom session. The water conditions were, perhaps, a bit typical for Monterey: the water can have
an emerald green hue to it with some reduced visibility from incoming particulates. But that did not detract us from what turned out to be the big attraction of the dives.

The past week there had been a large influx of West Coast Sea Nettles - a small but beautiful sea jelly with w 3- to 4-inch dome, trailing white fleshy appendages, and dark red tentacles that trailed up to 18-inches. Did I say a large influx? Well, congregating in a layer from the surface to about 25 feet, they were in the hundreds if not thousands. Getting below them and looking up through the emerald water, it reminded me of the fresh water jellies of Palau - on steroids!

I had told the workshop participants that on this first dive I would have them focus getting key shots for building a video: master wide shots, tighter medium shots, close-ups, etc. Once we submerged and saw the gelatinous panorama laid out before us, I think class was immediately postponed on account of something that divers just don't get to see every day.

See or feel. It was impossible to not come in contact with the trailing tentacles of the sea nettles and that meant we were going to get stung. Fortunately, not badly; we would exit the water with a bit of a rash on the face or some puffy lips, but it would dissipate quickly. But the images in our minds - and hopefully our cameras - of these amazing jellies would last much longer.

That evening saw several receptions opening the festival. Famed photographer, David Doubilet, had a wonderful gallery exhibit of his work and it became the focal point of the evening with filmmakers and ocean conservationists talking shop over wine and cheese. David has become one of the uncontested masters of the above and below shots - half in the water, half out - and he was telling me he was not quite sure what made him gravitate often to this type of shot but thinks it may have to do with what impressed him with the ocean as a child. Above is the world we live in, and just below is the world we dream in.
I told him what impresses me with his above and below shots is how, in one frame of film, he is bringing together these two worlds; that they are not separate, a place that people cannot relate to, but are actually two worlds that share an important connection, a bond that is crucial to our future.

Well, I did say there was wine. . .

Today, the festival and conservation summit begins in earnest with industry discussion groups and more meet-and-greets. Friday through Saturday will see more of the sames along with a barrage of wonderful ocean films. It's shaping up to be a great week. More reports to come.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Satellites and Sniffer Dogs: conservation groups support Galapagos efforts to curb poaching

While generating positive public opinion for shark conservation is an important goal, it is also a slow process. And while it builds over time, sharks continue to be slaughtered in horrifying numbers. Therefore, the proactive steps - the moves that are less of a reaction to the situation but rather are strategic steps forward - are needed probably to a greater degree.

WildAid, Conservation International, and other groups, working in cooperation with the Ecuadorean government and the Galapagos National Park Service, have been supporting the efforts of ranger managing the Galapagos Marine Reserve with the use of both technology and outright gumshoe detective work. One of the greatest issues facing the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) is poaching of tuna, sharks, and even sea cucumbers - all to meet the ever-demanding Asian markets.

The GMR utilizes a high-tech satellite-based tracking system to keep tabs on fishing boats that are periodically allowed to pass through the reserve. The Vessel Monitoring System, or VMS, can detect whether a boat is proceeding at speed or whether it is changing speed, dillydallying and a clear sign that illegal fishing may be taking place. A boat is then dispatched to investigate.

Just like in the drug world, smugglers often try to hide their illegal catches. Wrapped in foil, shark fins, sea cucumbers, and other caught species are less likely to give off a telltale scent. Unless you are a trained sniffer dog from the K-9 Environmental Police Unit of Galapagos' Santa Cruz island. The K-9 unit - supported by WildAid, Sea Shepherd, and Conservation International - has been responsible for some significant "busts" of shark fins and other illegally fisher species.

According to WildAid's director, Peter Knights,
"Marine reserves are the last great hope to save fish stocks. Marine enforcement is always difficult due to the distances involved and cost of marine operations, so illegal fishing has been an almost risk free crime. But tools like VMS can provide much better surveillance and the sniffer dogs can prove to be a great deterrent as well as assist in detection of smugglers. The sooner we can deploy these tools to more marine reserves the sooner we can secure the world's dwindling fish stocks."

Click here to read more about the Galapagos VMS and K-9 Unit.

Aspens and Chernobyl: nature's resiliency and ability to survive or not

Turning from the wet to the dryside for a moment, have you ever noticed how trees like Aspens seem to change into their fall colors simultaneously? Like the drop of a hat, one moment they're green and the next moment they are a striking brilliant yellow - almost as if they were one tree rather than individuals.

Well, in essence, they are one tree. Certain species, particularly aspens, have the ability to sprout new trees from an expanding root network without the need for reproduction or fertilization. Call it botanical cloning. In fact, some groves of aspens constitute some of the largest single living organisms on the planet (there are some fungus experts that might argue who has the title, as there are huge underground fungi that grow in a similar fashion).

However, a group of Canadian researchers from British Columbia have determined through groundbreaking (no pun intended) DNA studies, that this ability of the aspen to "clone" itself is not everlasting. Their studies show that this method of propagation, like with other biological species, can produce genetic mutations with each succeeding tree which impacts its fertility and its ultimate life span. At some point the tree (or trees) must reproduce by more "traditional" means.

According to Howard Falcon-Long of the BBC News,
"Dr Ally's team found that genetic mutations gradually build up with each subsequent generation of clone, resulting in a decline in fertility. This means that the aspen cannot clone itself indefinitely, but eventually must reproduce sexually or die."

Here's a video I shot along California's eastern Sierras which contains scenes of aspen groves in the midst of changing to their fall colors. Imagine that many of the trees you see here are actually all part of the same tree.

On the other side of the globe, the effects of genetic mutation and biodiversity brought about by contamination have been the subject of a long study at Russia's Chernobyl nuclear facility. After four years of study in and around the plant's "exclusion zone," scientists from the U.S. and France have reported a decline in the number of mammals, insects, and reptiles. So, with environmental contamination events - like Chernobyl or, say, the Gulf oil spill - when left to its own devices, without human interference, nature does not necessarily heal itself or bring itself back to "normal."

According to a BBC News report, birds were heavily impacted by the contamination. "During their census work, [scientists Professor Timothy Mousseau] and Dr. [Anders] Moller have also examined the effects of radiation contamination on the animals. They say that these impacts are particularly obvious in birds. 'We think they may be more susceptible, after long migrations, to additional environmental stress.' explained Professor Mousseau."

The scientists are not without their critics. Though their motives or supporting data may be questionable, Ukrainian scientists have said the opposite is true: that without human influence, animals are thriving in Chernobyl. Professor Mousseau claims their evidence is totally anecdotal.

Nature has amazing ways to perpetuate life; backup systems, if you will, like the cloning and traditional reproduction methods of the aspens. But mankind's technology has been able to produce impacts that can overpower nature's ability to heal and come back strong. We must carefully monitor what happens in the wild, what happens in and around facilities like energy and oil drilling plants, and we must not drop the ball when it comes to following up on the effects of our mistakes.

Read about the aspens and Chernobyl in BBC News.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It's the Summer of the Shark: yaawwnnnn. . .

It's summertime in the U.S., folks are vacationing, heading to the beaches (well, maybe not the Gulf, unfortunately) to frolic in the surf. And like clockwork, the media reports begin to pile up, one after another: sharks reported cruising the coast, increases in sharks, attacks on the rise, it's the revenge of the evil elasmobranch . . . ad nauseam.

Following a very successful week of programming for the Discovery network (this year, Shark Week brought in its highest ratings ever at over 30 million viewers), there have been reports of white sharks seen along Southern California beaches along with indications that the population of white sharks in California is increasing; surfers are having close encounters of the third kind; shark incidents in Australia are filling the news pages of sites like Underwater Times; and South Africa has issued a coastal shark warning. I think it peaked last week but there was a moment where it seemed like the world was about to be swallowed up.

It's not the individual reports that are necessarily the problem - I'll give the reporters the benefit of the doubt that what they are writing is researched and factually accurate. And there have been some very good articles from the likes of Pete Thomas, as an example (although, Pete, you succumbed to the "summer of the shark" title temptation). My concern is the collective result of all this reporting and the impact it has on the general public's view towards sharks and, by extension, shark conservation. It makes for titillating summer media but without the all-important ingredient: context, context, context.

Sharks migrate along the California coast, giving birth in the deep coastal canyons. And this happens elsewhere in the world. Ergo, we get juveniles cruising the coastline, feeding and fattening up before the migratory impulse hits them and off they go on their annual journeys. It happens every year. Perhaps there might be a spike in sightings, maybe in actual number, but those have always been considered anomalies. Is the California population actually increasing? Well, if it is, as recently reported, then that would be GREAT! But still no reason to fear, statistically-speaking.

And speaking of statistics, we all know that with more people in the water, the chances of a sighting or an encounter goes up. Drastically? Well, no - but that always seems to get glossed over.

So, the bottom line is: this shark activity is all VERY NORMAL! Time of year, migratory and birthing patterns, increased numbers of people in the water - with these factors there is bound to be an increase in sightings or encounters. Sharks just don't need the accompanying hysteria when its whipped up by the media. Shark conservationists are having a tough enough job as is.

BTW: Regarding shark conservation, there is some interesting headway being made in Hong Kong, where Asian-based conservation groups are promoting anti-finning policies. Read the latest from The Daily Caller.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Filmmaker's Journal: unlocking UW video secrets in Monterey's kelp forests

In case you just happen to be in the area, would you like to cruise through the towering kelp beds of California's Monterey Bay? Perhaps you'll come across a darting sea otter or a school of calico bass seeking shelter, partly camouflaged by the waving fronds of giant kelp.

And maybe along the way, you'd like to pick up a few ideas and tips on composing an underwater video that packs a message and a punch, better than last year's family vacation video to Wally World?

If so, then check out the Underwater Video Boot Camp workshop and 2 dives that I will be conducting next week as part of the festivities at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit. Not only will I be covering what many of those buttons and switches do, but we'll also look at preparing a meaningful storyline, what style of editing might be best for your video, and what types of distribution formats you might consider.

Two dives in some of the most acclaimed kelp forests in the world plus a full introduction to underwater video - a full day and a great start to a fabulous week at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival. Only $125 to registered festival attendees - that's a deal! And arrangements can be made for rental dive gear and even a basic video camera, if you're traveling.

You can learn more at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit website and from Facebook.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pacific Oceanscape: a tremendous step for conservation in the Pacific

When governments and policymakers listen to the scientists and listen to the voices of the people, every once in a while they get it right and something of value is truly accomplished. That would be the case with the recent announcement by a consortium of Pacific nations with the formation of the Pacific Oceanscape - a proposal to form a cooperative stewardship involving an enormous area of the Pacific Ocean equal to that of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico combined.

A result of the Pacific Islands Leadership Forum and heavily supported by the conservation and scientific research efforts of Conservation International, the Pacific Oceanscape, according to a recent press release,
"aims to address all ocean issues from governance to climate change, as well as design policies and implement practices that will improve ocean health, increase resources and expertise, and encourage governments to factor ocean issues into decisions about economic and sustainable development. It represents perhaps the largest marine conservation management initiative in history, as measured by countries and area, and a new united Pacific voice on ocean conservation and management."

First introduced in 2009 by the president of Kiribati (read original proposal in PDF), the Pacific Oceanscape agreement includes the participation of nations from Australia and New Zealand to the Marshall and Solomon Islands, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and many other Pacific island nations.

Commented Dr. Greg Stone, Chief Ocean Scientist and Senior Vice President for Marine Conservation with Conservation International,
“It is, without doubt, the most ambitious, most innovative, and most well-grounded marine initiative I have seen in my 32 years as a marine biologist and conservationist. What we are seeing here is the dawning of a new era for marine management at such a massive, multi-national scale, and the kind of leadership that brings about real, positive change.”

With so many issues facing ocean ecosystems, particularly those fragile tropical environments that not only offer such beauty but are the backbone of survival for many island communities, this is certainly a major step in the right direction. To see this many nations in cooperation over a common goal and prepared to set policies and take steps to conserve precious marine resources, well, it certainly provides a welcome uplift and a measure of hope. The rest of the world needs to take notice.

Read press release about the Pacific Oceanscape.
Read the original proposal from Kiribati.

Bear Cub Trapped By Trash: a happy ending but not the first time

Perhaps you have seen or read about the recent story reported in several press outlets via the Associated Press about the Florida bear cub with the plastic jar stuck on its head.

For 10 days, the cub was reported to have had the jar stuck on its head, obviously preventing the animal from eating or drinking. Ultimately, the decision was made to tranquilize the mother bear cub that was always nearby, allowing wildlife officials to rush in and restrain the young bear so as to remove the jar. Once accomplished, the freed bear along with its mother and one other sibling, were rounded up and relocated to an area further into the woods.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened. As recently as July,
a young black bear, having foraged in an Ontario, Canada land fill, found itself trapped - able to breath but not eat for 2 weeks. Looking emaciated, the bear wandered the local woodland and suburban area near Thunder Bay, while wildlife conservation officials pondered the best way to deal with the situation. Ultimately, the bear was able to free itself.

While the freed bears are, of course, a happy ending to what would have been a silly and tragic waste of animal life, the picture of the Florida cub and the Ontario bear atop an open land fill are disturbing. One must ponder the question of how best to restrict animal access to such an odor-tempting pile of garbage, while wondering what other toxic or life-threatening hazards are offered by such an open tribute to man's consume-then-discard technology.

Read brief AP article on the Florida bear's release.
Watch video of the Canadian bear in the Vancouver Sun.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Quiet Power of Pictures: Census of Marine Life catalogs ocean images

Being involved with video and film, I sometimes just like to revel in the pictures - no story, no facts and figures, just the impact of images that announce "here is something worth protecting."

For the past ten years, over 2,000 scientists from 80 countries have been cataloging pictures of marine life, sometimes rare and unusual deep sea marine life. Their efforts are part of the Census of Marine Life, or CoML, the final report from which will be released in October.

The drawback with these and other kinds of dramatic pictures of the seas is that it can give the impression that everything is all right. "The coral reefs are fine; just look it these amazing photos. There's plenty of healthy sealife; just look at this photo gallery." Well, you can find a little bit of peace in a ghetto; a little bit of humanity in the midst of a disaster - but it doesn't mean everything is all right.

This brief collection of images, published online in the BBC News, should only serve to remind us that the oceans need our concerted efforts to protect and conserve it. For the sake of its own beauty, for the sake of our own survival.

See more images and videos at the CoML website.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

California's Great White Sharks: expert hints at numbers on the rise

Having spent a good portion of my cinematic time filming the great white sharks of California, particularly those that migrate south to Isla Guadalupe, I was heartened by the news that the local populations of these animals might be showing signs of improvement. With all of the uphill battle issues we are having to deal with regarding ocean conservation, it's nice to to get some possible good news for a change.

Making the rounds of the shark blogs, like SharkDivers', is a recent article from Pete Thomas posted in his Outdoors blog. Pete has had a strong interest in white sharks and has been to Isla Guadalupe several times to see them first hand. He writes of some positive comments from Dr. Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at the California State University Long Beach, and someone who has studied a variety of California elasmobranchs for years, from white sharks to leopard sharks to round stingrays.

Pete writes,
"It almost seems implausible, in an era during which so many species of sharks are overfished and believed to be in decline, that any species could mount a comeback. But considering the changing landscape off California, a comeback and its timing make sense. The ban on fishing for white sharks -- for sport or commercially -- was imposed in 1994. That same year, voters approved a measure outlawing the deployment of gillnets within three miles of the California coast."

According to Dr. Lowe, "So if you add those two things [better fishing regulations and increased numbers of seals and sea lions] together, you've got a restored forage base for the adults and you've got better survivorship of the pups," Lowe said. "So what we think we're seeing from the fishery catch data and some of the other anecdotal pieces, is the actual recovery of the white shark population."

But we're not completely out of the woods yet. White sharks are migratory and do not heed the limits of national or regional ocean borders that might provide a degree of protection. These sharks are still threatened by commercial fisherman in international waters (white sharks are not specifically targeted but are subject to loss as bycatch in gillnets) or by poaching (juvenile white sharks are still being caught and sold in local seafood markets in Ensenada).

"If what we are seeing is truly an increase in the white shark population that would be a relief. Currently we are finding that the total number of adult white sharks along the west coast of North America is much smaller than many people expected," says Salvador Jurgenson, who heads up Stanford University's white shark research at the Hopkins Marine Station.

Many thanks to Pete for his article and hats off to Dr. Lowe and his continuing.work. I've had the opportunity to meet with Chris, filming his "round stingray roundup" where a local high-density population of stingrays are collected, measured and released to monitor their growth and overall health. He and his grad students have also conducted metabolic studies of leopard sharks using the Aquarium of the Pacific, where I was a volunteer dive team leader, as a test bed facility. Some good news - nice way to start the day.

Read Pete Thomas' article.
Top photo: RTSea, Bottom photo: Christy Fisher.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Marine Mammal Protection In Canada's Lancaster Sound: Inuits work to prevent seismic surveys

In Canada's Arctic region, within the territory ceded to the Inuit Indians in 1999, lies Lancaster Sound. This remote site has become the center of a controversy between the Inuits and the Canadian federal government over proposed seismic testing surveys. Over the weekend, a judge in the northern Arctic territory known as Nunavut handed down a temporary injunction to halt all seismic testing because of its potential threat to narwhals, beluga and bowhead whales and other marine mammals within Lancaster Sound.

In commenting on her decision, Judge Susan Cooper said
“There is evidence before the court that the proposed testing areas are both calving areas and migration routes for marine mammals.”

The Inuits, who are granted the right to three whale hunts per year as a recognition of their nomadic heritage, are major supporters for the protection of Lancaster Sound. The Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) was the original petitioner to the courts and, in addition to expressing concern for the fate of marine mammals, brought up the contradictory actions of the federal government regarding whether the area should be designated a marine reserve or potential oil and gas drilling site.

According to Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff, the Conservative Party-lead government is
“rushing ahead with oil exploration” in Lancaster Sound while touting plans to create a marine wildlife sanctuary in the same place. There are those critics of the government-in-power that claim that the government is trying to ascertain oil and gas deposits before potential boundaries for a marine reserve are drawn.

Chris Debicki, a member of Canada's Oceans North environmental group, says,
“We look forward to focusing our energy on the creation of a national marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound — something both the government and QIA are in agreement about — so that conflicts like this don’t arise again.”

Read article in the Montreal Gazette.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit: this summer's must-see event in Monterey

The BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit will be taking place in Monterey, CA from August 24th through the 29th - and, flat out, it is an event not to be missed for the dedicated ocean conservationist to the mildly curious.

Only in its second year, the festival has grown tremendously in scope and recognition because of the wide range of films, conservation events, and just plain fun and fascinating events for
people to participate in. There are single and multi-day passes and industry delegate passes, so you can build your schedule accordingly - watch some of the very best ocean films from international filmmakers, take in premiere photo exhibits and discussion panels on a wide range of ocean exploration and conservation subjects, or you can even get out in the field or get wet with some of the top experts in their field.

This year, the festival's 2010 Dr. Sylvia Earle Award will be presented to Dr. Carl Safina, director of the Blue Ocean Institute, who is one of our most dedicated and eloquent environmentalists and who will be giving a special presentation on the status and future implications of the Gulf Oil Spill. There will be other great speakers, like Jean Michel Cousteau, Dr. Sylvia Earle, and many other recognized heavyweights in the field, along with a variety of important seminars and panel discussions. I am pleased and honored to once again be participating in and moderating a Shark Conservation Discussion Panel and I will be joined by Peter Knights (WildAid), Laleh Mohajerani (Adoptashark), Stefanie Brendl (Hawaiian Shark Encounters), and Dr. Greg Stone (Conservation International).

Also, for all you beginning or emerging underwater video filmmakers, I will be conducting an Introductory Underwater Video Workshop that includes 2 dives in Monterey Bay's famous kelp beds along with a classroom workshop.

The films that will be shown range from major productions like Disneynature's Oceans, National Geographic and BBC productions to short films and online-dedicated videos (I have one in this category that will be screened and two that received honorable mentions) - over 60 films total.

The festival events will be taking place in venues throughout the city, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the festival's major sponsors. So you can really plan quite a time for yourself.

The BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit. Come for a day, come for a week. It's going to be one heck of an event.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Victory for the Northern Rocky Wolves: judge returns dwindling numbers to endangered status

The wolves of Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies have won an important reprieve in the courts. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had illegally stripped the gray wolves of the northern Rockies in 2009 of their protections under the Endangered Species Act by using political, rather than scientific-based, reasoning. The judge ordered the wolves be placed back on the endangered species list, which effectively halts the hunting of wolves that was taking place in Montana and Idaho.

The ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Defenders of Wildlife and other groups, and defended by Earthjustice, a major environmental legal firm. It is a prime example of the importance of utilizing the power and effectiveness of the courts on behalf of conservation issues - as equally important a component as is generating public awareness and support.

"Yesterday's ruling will also help other wildlife because it strikes a down Bush-era policy adopted by the Obama administration allowing the government to protect only small populations of endangered species instead of the entire species. Reliance on this anti-environmental Bush policy has been one of the many low points of Interior Secretary Salazar's management of endangered species," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of CBD.

Wolves - like sharks, tigers, and other apex predators - serve an important function in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. I commented on the importance of this predator vs. prey relationship and the consequences that have transpired over the years with the on again, off again eradication of wolves. This new ruling will hopefully put the natural balance back on a steady course.

But the wolves are not totally out of the woods yet, as there are pockets of wolf populations that are at risk from reduced habitat and conflict/poaching potential with ranchers. Roger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife, noted, "We must continue our on-the-ground efforts to prevent conflicts between ranchers and wolves, counter anti-wolf misinformation in the media and work with all stakeholders to ensure these wolves fully recover and can then be legitimately delisted."

Read press release from the Defenders of Wildlife.
Read article from Montana's Missoulian.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ocean's Lady of Light: scientist studies wonders of bioillumination

Bioluminescence: the ability of animals to generate light. We've seen it from fireflys to deep sea creatures to the flashing green dynoflagellates churned up in the night's crashing waves. It is an internal chemical reaction that provides many animals with unique ways to hunt, communicate, reproduce, or basically just get around in the dark. What is interesting is how much ocean life depends on bioluminescence. And scientists continue to learn more about this marvelous capability.

Dr. Edith Widder has been studying bioluminescence for over a decade, first as a grad student up to today as she continues her work as president and senior scientist of ORCA (Ocean Research and Conservation Association). Recently featured in Scientific American, Widder's passion for all things aglow underwater began with her studies in neurobiology and the light-producing plankton, dynoflagellates, that produces the emerald green light seen in the evening surf or wrapped around racing dolphins that leaves long green torpedo trails. (I often enjoy turning my dive light off during a night dive and follow my dive buddies by the light trails they give off from the action of their dive fins.)

Dr. Widder became forever hooked on bioluminescence when she had the opportunity to dive to 800 feet using a WASP - a high-tech cross between a deep sea diving suit, similar to the Newt or JIM suits, and a submersible. Scientific American quoted her reaction,
"'I was trying to take some readings with a meter,' Widder says, 'when suddenly the whole inside of the suit lit up blue.' Widder had brushed up against a chain of siphonophores—a colony of jellyfish relatives—sparking their light show. 'It was breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking.'"

She has gone on to design remote camera platforms and other devices to film and observe deep sea bioluminescent organisms in their natural state - unperturbed by large submersibles or dive suits - gaining more insight as to an animal's day-to-day (or should I say, night-to-night) use and purpose for this fascinating function of nature.

According to Widder, there is much more bioluminescence taking place underwater than most people would suspect. If you were to trawl a net from 3000 meters to the surface, over 90% of your catch would be creatures capable of bioluminescence. And Widder has found some pretty unusual examples:
  • The cookie cutter shark is able to hide itself from predators or potential prey swimming underneath with a bioluminescent stomach that matches the light coming from above, a technique called counterillumination.
  • The scaleless dragonfish can emit and perceive red light - one color that is not typical for bioluminescent animals because of its short wavelength which limits its effectiveness. But this red light capability gives the dragonfish an advantage, allowing it to see potential prey before the prey sees the dragonfish.
  • Then there is the deep open-ocean octopus that Widder recently discovered, whose suckers, not needing to cling to a rocky bottom, have evolved into light organs to attract potential prey.
Widder continues her work at ORCA and gives lectures and presentations to many academic and scientific organizations to illuminate the rest of us to the amazing world of bioluminescence. Here is a presentation Dr. Widder gave at TED this past April:

Dr. Widder notes that the study of bioluminescence is not just a look at something fascinating, that there are some very practical applications for ocean conservation,
"We are using bioluminescence in a number of different ways to protect the ocean. We are using bioluminescent bacteria to detect toxins in ocean sediments, develop pollution gradient maps and perform water quality monitoring. Since bioluminescence in bacteria is directly linked to the respiratory chain, anything that depresses respiration—like toxins—depresses illumination. That way, we can tell you exactly how unhealthy a sediment is."

Read more about Dr. Edith Widder in Scientific American.
View her April, 2010
presentation at TED.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

California's Bighorn Sheep: taking some heat for an accurate census

When you think of bighorn sheep, what image comes to mind? Nimble rock climbers? Mountain-bound and well-adapted to their environment? And so, if you felt compelled to count them, you would grab your best insulated sleeping bag, parka, and warm boots and head up the slopes, right?

Well, not so in California. In the mountain ranges of southwest California, the bighorn sheep is endangered as their populations have been threatened by habitat fragmentation, diseases from
feral cattle, and predation by mountain lions. But to effectively monitor their numbers on an annual basis, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park rangers, assisted by volunteers from The Nature Conservancy, position themselves in the blistering summer heat of the low desert to await their quarry.

Why? Because this time of year, the bighorn sheep will come down from the mountains to drink at the small watering holes along the desert's edge. That's easier for the researchers than hiking in difficult terrain. Easier, if you like 108 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

“This state park’s bighorn census is the most accurate feedback on how effective the recovery efforts are for the endangered bighorn sheep,” says Dave Van Cleve, the Nature Conservancy’s senior project manager for the region. “It’s a brutal job, counting sheep in this blistering heat, but it’s the most reliable method available.”

Fortunately, the news has been good. The number of bighorn sheep have been steadily increasing for the past 40 years (last year 354 sheep were counted). The census numbers provide state park management with the information to gauge the effectiveness of their conservation efforts - like removing all cattle from the park and prohibiting off-road vehicles from palm and riparian oases that provide food and shelter for the sheep.

Congrats to the Nature Conservancy for their support with the challenging annual desert census. According to the group, "
The [Nature] Conservancy is actively working to weave conservation lands into a connected network for wildlife like the bighorn sheep, mountain lions and other species that need large habitats. Recently the Conservancy helped the park acquire more than 4,000 additional acres of prime bighorn sheep territory and worked with California’s Fish and Game Department to acquire 7,400 acres adjacent to the park — key habitats that will contribute to a broader corridor for the park’s large mammals."

Have a cold one on me, folks. You deserve it.

Read the article in The Nature Conservancy website.

Filmmaker's Journal: fun and straight talk about filming sharks

Back in June I recounted having come back from an interesting film shoot in the Bahamas where the normally prolific number of sharks the crew was accustomed to had decided to play a frustrating game of hide and seek. While we finally got the footage needed, it was a concern to everyone as to what possibly kept all of the sharks away.

As director of photography, I was working with Los Angeles-based Digital Kitchen on a series of segments promoting Shark Week for AT&T U-verse digital TV customers. We certainly had no control over the content of Discovery's Shark Week programs, but Digital Kitchen was, to their credit, very interested in getting it right with their production.

With Luke Tipple as the host and underwater shark guide, the AT&T segments looked at the challenges in filming sharks, including interviews with me and my camera operator Scott Cassell. The Blue Iguana was our aquatic home away from home and we had fun staging some interesting and fun/odd underwater scenes as the segments show.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the segments revealed that sharks aren't always hungry. We had some very disinterested Caribbean reef sharks who ignored freshly cut up fish strewn all about. At one point, Luke was standing, waving two filleted fish over his head like an airport ground crewman flagging down a 747. And the sharks couldn't have cared less.

The segments in full HD are currently available only for those with AT&T U-verse service. But they are also available on the AT&T U-verse web site:
Segment 1: click here.
Segment 2: click here.
Segment 3: click here.
Segment 4: click here.

Again, Digital Kitchen did a great job in producing a well-balanced piece of information and entertainment. I hope Discovery Networks appreciates the effort.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Yellow Lobster: rare genetic variation (1 in 30 million)

A lobster fisherman came across this extremely rare yellow lobster in his lobster trap recently. How rare? One in 30 million! It's not that it is part of a dwindling obscure species; lobsters can have occasional color variations that are caused by an unpredictable genetic mutation. There have also been blue and even white lobsters (the white lobster is the rarest of all: 1 in 100 million).

Although caught, this yellow lobster did not end up as dinner. The fisherman has donated it to the local lobster fishermen association for display in an aquarium.

To view an AP video of the lobster (and some of the other color variants), click on the image above.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Ocean Acidification: additional not-so-fun facts

A new term that more and more of the general public is hearing about is ocean acidification - the process whereby the pH level of the oceans is lowered, making it more acidic. This effect is a byproduct of global CO2 emissions and has been documented as having a negative effect on many forms of shellfish and other creatures that depend on the use of calcium carbonate in their development (calcium carbonate is broken down in the acidification process).

Much has been written about how ocean acidification will impact coral reefs, as calcium carbonate is a major component of the supporting skeleton of reef-building corals. But tropical waters are not the only locales affected. The Seattle Times recently reported on the effects of ocean acidification on Pacific oysters fields both in the wild and in commercial oyster farms.

The deep waters off the northwest shores of Oregon and Washington are much more highly acidic than the ongoing average (even with the "average" becoming more acidic, these waters
are still higher than shallower waters). For commercial oyster farms who pull in seawater to help raise oyster larvae, as long as the winds blow in the right direction, they appear to be relatively free from harm.

But winds can blow in ways that move surface water and draw in water from below - an upwelling as it is called. And this can spell trouble for the oysters, especially those living in the wild. The lowering of the pH (raising the acidic level) impacts the growth of new larvae, baby oysters, and even the reproductive cycles of adult oysters. Pacific oysters have not reproduced in the waters off Washington state's coast in six seasons.

"Nobody had thought about those upwelling events," said NOAA oceanographer Richard Feely. "They didn't predict any impacts along the coast until we observed them."

But oysters and other shell fish are not the only creatures potentially affected by corrosive, acidic waters. Changing the ocean's pH can have impacts on an animal's behavior and even the ocean's acoustical properties.

The Seattle Times listed these additional disturbing facts as a result of acidification:
  • The metabolism of squid can change, making them more lethargic - perhaps affecting their hunting ability and susceptibility to predation.
  • Acidic waters affect the way young fish larvae seek out prey and can actually be drawn to predators. An Australian researcher discovered that clownfish and some damselfish larvae get confused in corrosive water and seek out the smell of rock cod - one of their own predators.
  • Water with a lower pH has a different density, and so acidification changes the acoustical properties of seawater, essentially making it a noisier place. This could impact whales and dolphins that rely on their underwater sonar or echolocation for hunting.
But what concerns researchers the most in the Pacific Northwest is the fundamentals. "What I'm most worried about is the bottom of the food chain, things such as plankton and other small sea creatures," said John Guinotte, a marine biogeographer with the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Washington. "We've got some of the lowest pH levels found anywhere, but we don't have any idea what the biological impacts are."

Through our actions, we are pushing the oceans into a brave new world, one in which it may adapt but not without serious consequences to a wide range of animal species, including mankind.

Read the Seattle Times article.

Shark Week 2010: how to balance against one particular perspective

It's Sunday and so begins Discovery Network's annual week-long programming of shark "documentaries" - Shark Week 2010. This event has been a ratings success (translating into advertising dollars) but exasperated shark advocates have reviled the network's reliance on over-sensationalism and distortion of the facts.

The programming usually consists of one large budget new program, several new smaller budget programs, and then the rest of the programming slate is filled out with selections from the network's vast library of shark programs they have amassed over the past 20+ years. This week's promotional spots for Shark Week seemed sharp-witted and exciting, so let's see what the new program lineup looks like:
  • Ultimate Air Jaws - leaping South African white sharks seen in super-slow motion. Hmmm, could be interesting.
  • Into the Shark Bite - Hmmm.
  • Shark Attack Survival Guide - Hmmm.
  • Day of the Shark 3 - HmmmMMmmm.
  • Shark Bite Beach - HmmmMMMmmmhhhmmm.
  • Shark Bites; Adventures in Shark Week with Craig Ferguson - Hmmm. Well, at least he's funny.
So, is there a counterbalance to Shark Week that helps to put things in some sort of reasonable perspective? Sure, in the form of blogs, shark conservation groups, and videos. Here's just a few, in no particular order or preference (and my apologies to any that I left out):

Shark Conservation Groups:
There are so many (perhaps too many, as it leaves the movement highly fragmented), so in no particular order or preference. . .
So, if you or your neighbors wonder out loud this week as to what all the fuss is about with sharks (Are they malevolent monsters out to get us? Or are they hapless victims of ruthless hunters and bad public relations?), check out some of the items listed above. When it comes to sharks, the truth is definitely more interesting than fiction.