Sunday, January 30, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: when things go wrong, take it in stride

Saturday was to be an interesting day: diving on a newly found 100-foot wreck off of San Clemente, CA and then filming a brief introduction to a video I was preparing for a film festival/science conference. A busy day but a very satisfying one. At least that was the plan.

Wildlife filmmaking is infused with a high degree of serendipity - unusual animal encounters, shots of once-in-a-lifetime behaviors - along with an often equal measure of frustration when things don't quite go your way. You control only that which you can control, and the rest you just take as it comes.

My dive buddy, photographer Budd Riker, and I had heard about a newly discovered wreck several miles offshore from Southern California's San Clemente beach and we were looking forward to this first of what could be many dives. Ocean wrecks have always fascinated me. As a man-made structure, they seem eerily out of place underwater and yet they also can prove to be an attraction for a wide range of sealife, from schooling fish to algae, corals, and numerous small critters that take up residence in the iron and wood oasis.

But first you have to find it. The boat operators had marked the location with a buoy (which makes for an easy method to descend straight to the wreck, but today the buoy marker was no where to be seen. Lost in rough water or cut free by a grumpy lobster fisherman who felt his unspoken lobster trap territory was being encroached upon; whatever the cause, the crew's easy reference point was now gone and hopes for relocating it on the sandy bottom via sonar proved to be ineffective. Rock outcroppings provided tantalizing but ultimately disappointing sonar wild goose chases.

With time running out, the boat captain had to eventually abort all hopes of locating the wreck. He moved the boat to another site with kelp beds and rocky reefs to offer some sort of consolation prize for having missed out on diving the wreck. However, that turned out to be a disappointment too, as visibility could easily be seen from the surface as having the consistency of green-tinted cafe mocha. With that, all diving was scrubbed and the boat and its disappointed and embarrassed crew headed back to the harbor.

Well, at least I didn't have to spend part of my afternoon cleaning camera and dive gear.

On to plan B in the day's schedule: to shoot the video introduction. Budd and I scouted for a suitable location at Dana Point Harbor and found an interesting spot with rocks, trees, and ocean breakwater in the background. Well, at least I will be able to salvage something from my day, I thought. Oh, but I will have to wait a moment as this one recreational powerboat motors by; its throaty engine rumblings being picked up by the microphone.

Good. All clear. Oops, hold on; here's another one. Now a helicopter cruises over head. And another boat. Now I'm having people who are strolling along the harbor's edge, enjoying the day's great weather, stop and call out, "Hey, you guys making a movie?" Well, not at the moment, that's for sure.

Working in uncontrolled environments can often be very challenging when you have specific goals or objectives to meet. The yin-yang attitude of mother nature is not always conducive to specific agendas. But it's those occasional monkey wrenches that can and do make it interesting.

Fortunately, Budd and I are scheduled to return to the offshore wreck in two weeks, after the dive operator promised to have it once again marked by buoys and accurate GPS coordinates. And we got the introduction filmed the next morning in a different and, thankfully, quieter location - just minutes before rain, forecasted for the evening, decided to come early.

Hah. you missed me, mother nature. At least for the time being.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Dr. Gregory Stone: understanding ocean conservation on the world stage

I first met Dr. Greg Stone some years back when he was heading up research and expeditions for Boston's New England Aquarium. I was there conducting a screening and meet-and-greet for my documentary, Island of the Great White Shark. We spent some time chatting about the oceans and he was kind enough to give me a copy of his book, Ice Island, about Antarctica's largest iceberg.

We next met when I corralled him to be on the shark conservation discussion panel for the inaugural BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Ocean Summit. Soon after that event, Greg took the position of Chief Scientist for Oceans with Conservation International. In that capacity he has been instrumental in working with the Kiribati government to establish the Phoenix Island Marine Reserve, the second largest marine reserve in the world.

Greg was kind enough to once again join the shark conservation panel I organized for the BLUE Ocean Film Festival this past August. His contributions were most insightful as he has not only an extensive grasp of the scientific issues surrounding many of our most pressing ocean conservation issues, but also has a mastery of the political, economic, and diplomatic realities that are crucial in making quantitative progress. We continue to stay in touch and I look forward to meeting up with him again soon, although he has lately been racking up frequent flyer miles like nobody's business. He's currently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which follows recent meetings in London, Washington D.C., and Australia. He heads back to his new home base in New Zealand when schedules permit.

Greg has been a featured presenter for and a new interview was just posted on Below are a few interview excerpts followed by the presentation. Greg is someone who understands both the critical issues of marine conservation and how the world works. And with that, he gets things done.

"Part of Conservation International's (CI) work builds upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration. We empower societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature and our global biodiversity, for the well-being of people. That last part is key. We humans need healthy ocean ecosystems and abundant natural resources to thrive."

"The issue of profitability is less critical than the understanding and belief that sustainably
managing nature actually improves lives by providing new, diversified or more stable income opportunities. For example, if there are abundant fish and healthy coral reefs, eco-tourism and small-scale fisheries that depend on these resources are more likely to grow and succeed. If people see the livelihood benefits in responsible stewardship of ocean resources, they are more likely to become incentivized to support conservation."

"In order to save the oceans we need to begin to look at the issues in a collective way. In the past marine conservation has been issue driven and hasn't looked at the bigger picture. Now through marine reserves, marine protected areas, seascapes and now oceanscapes we can focus efforts on larger areas of ocean and can work with governments on collectively managing them. As we scale up in size, these areas will provide healthy habitats for diverse and abundant marine life, and also provide homes and income for millions of people."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shark Fin Legislation: Support efforts in Guam and Northern Mariana Islands

Building the need for shark conservation, one piece of legislation at a time, there are two important shark fin bills - one for Guam and the other for the Northern Mariana Islands - that are coming to a head and could use the support of those who feel that the rapid depletion of the worldwide shark populations due to industrial shark fishing must come to an end. Both of these bills have strong supporters within the island governments but there is also strong resistance from fishing interests and lobbying from shark product distributors.

I received an email today from Stefanie Brendl who, as a Hawaiian shark diving operation owner, worked diligently to support the Hawaiian ban of shark fins that was passed in May, 2010. Following many email conversations over the past few years, I was pleased to have Stefanie be on the shark conservation panel I organized for the BLUE Ocean Film Festival in Monterey, CA last August. At the time, she was in discussions with WildAid and other major NGOs on how to capitalize on Hawaii's bold move to protect sharks and export "anti-shark fin fever" to other countries. She has been a very busy person ever since.

Here is her latest update on the status of the Guam and CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) legislation. They both could use your written support - not bellicose rants, mind you, but respectful and well-thought out, intelligent responses. And a few well-chosen facts or scientific references wouldn't hurt either - politicians respond to data as well as opinions.

Time again for more shark fin bill action!
Some of you will have already heard about the shark fin bills (based on last years Hawaii fin bill) in progress in Guam and the CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands).

CNMI legislator Diego Benavente introduced almost the exact same bill as Hawaii last August, prohibiting possession and trade of shark fins. The measure has traveled through the House and Senate and has made it to Governor Fitial's desk, waiting to be signed into law. The opposition has mounted a last minute full blown effort to kill this bill. All hands are needed to help this bill take the last hurdle.
When Senator Hee and I were there in December, Governor Fitial stated that he would be in support, but lobbying by opposition has caused a delay of the signing and has endangered passage of this bill. Short, but powerful statements from all Shark and Ocean conservation organizations will help push this over the finish line.
We didn't need it until now.
But its time to bring everything we have to the table! Passage of this bill is key to setting the pace in the region. With Guam and other Islands considering shark fin legislation it is imperative that this bill will pass into law!

So please take a few minutes to urge Governor Fitial to sign bill HB 17-94

Deadline: Now

Send email or call
(670) 664-2282

(CNMI time zone is GMT +10)

Vice Speaker BJ Cruz and Senator Rory Respicio of the Guam legislature introduced a similar measure last week. see attached bill 44-31.
Strong opposition is already mounting in Guam, mostly from the fishing community and some members of WESPAC (Western Pacific Fisheries Council, the regional Fisheries Management Organization). Some of this opposition is based on the misunderstanding that this bill will affect local fishermen, but as they do not fin sharks, (which is now illegal due to the Federal Shark Conservation Act), this bill will not hinder their fishing activities. It will disrupt the commercial take of sharks and fins, which is beneficial to all fishing communities.
Explaining your view on why sharks are important to the ocean eco system and why such legislation is necessary in the form of testimony will be most valuable.

The first scheduled public hearing will be next week on Feb 1st. In order to get traction for this bill we need as many supportive statements as possible submitted before the hearing. See message and instruction from Senator Cruz' office below. I have attached the bill and the hearing notice.

Message from Senator Cruz' office
Please find enclosed in the attachment the memo related to the time and date for the Public Hearing for Bill No. 44-31 (COR). The hearing is for 5:30PM on February 1, 2011. Please attend this meeting and submit as much written and oral testimony and supporting data as possible. The best way to neutralize the opposition and support the environment is to turnout in mass numbers with knowledge and information.

Please submit written testimony, scientific documentation, essays, and petitions to the address below. Please Cc Mike Lydia when you send electronic documents and feel free to drop documents at the Office of Vice Speaker Cruz so that they may be transmitted to the Office of Senator Respicio.

(Guam time zone is GMT +10)

Honorable Rory J. Respicio
Majority Leader
Suite 302
155 Hesler St.
Hagåtña, Guam 96910
Ph.: (671) 472-7679/3545/6
Fax: (671) 472-3547
Committee on Rules, Federal, Foreign & Micronesian Affairs, and Human & Natural Resources

Mike Lydia email:

Learn more about the CNMI legislation on its supporters'
Facebook page.
Learn more about the Guam legislation from Shark Defenders.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Australia's Queensland Floods: aftermath poses grave risks to coral reefs

Nature has an uncanny way of healing itself from its own natural disasters, like forest fires, hurricanes and wind storm damage, and even volcanoes. The damage can be devastating but, given sufficient time, nature recovers. Time is the key factor. Time to rejuvenate and time for it to prepare for the next calamity, many of which being cyclical.

But when events happen one right after another or are working in concert to weaken the ecosystem's ability to withstand a particularly powerful disaster, or if we add man-made factors into the mix, then nature can find itself in dire peril.

Such is the case following the heavy rains and flooding that have recently taken place in and around Queensland, Australia. The flood waters don't simply evaporate but, instead, continue to move towards open sea. Swollen rivers feed into the ocean and they bring along three elements that are dangerous to the coral reef systems, offshore and to the north, that make up Australia's famed Great Barrier Reef: fresh water, sediment, and fertilizers/herbicides.

When great quantities of fresh water are introduced into a coral reef, the corals suffer tremendously as they are strictly salt water creatures. As the fresh water moves further offshore, it blends with the salt water and so the negative effects of too much fresh water are primarily limited to reefs and islands relatively close to shore.

Sediment that fans out at the mouth of rivers can also block sunlight and cover the corals. These fine particles essentially choke the corals, preventing them from feeding effectively and, with the loss of sunlight, starving the symbiotic algae that grows within the coral's tissues. Through photosynthesis, the algae converts sunlight into organic energy for the coral's benefit. But, with floating sediment, that life-giving process is disrupted.

Perhaps the corals could withstand those abuses, but then we must add man's contribution: fertilizers and herbicides. Washed down from farmlands, these chemicals stimulate plant growth, in particular seaweed and algae. Both compete for space with the coral and typically the coral loses. Nature has a way of balancing the relationship between plants and corals so that both can coexist, but with the introduction of fertilizers and other plant stimulants, that balance is thrown off kilter. Corals are rather slow growing, whereas sea plants, particularly when chemically stimulated, are very fast growing. It becomes an aquatic land grab and the seaweeds and algae soon take over.

However, even with the added impact of man-made fertilizers, coral reef ecosystems could deal with these three factors were it not for the fact that they are continually being bombarded and weakened by other hazards. Climate and temperature change, acidification, pollution and disease - one hit after another can have a cumulative effect that can leave the coral reefs exposed and overwhelmed by the negative effects of a natural disaster like the one that occurred in Australia.

The Queensland flooding has been a recent event and researchers are only now beginning to see and monitor the residual effects of the floods working their way out to sea. Coral damage from flooding has happened before and the reefs were able to heal themselves within a decade. But life in the Great Barrier Reef is different now, more precarious and fragile.

"The problem is that all forms of disturbances, loads of sediments/nutrients/pesticides, as well as bleaching events from warming seawaters, more intense cyclones and more frequent outbreaks of coral predators such as the crown-of-thorns starfish, all increase in frequency and intensity," says Dr. Katharine Fabricius of the Australian Institute for Marine Science. "This gives the reefs often not enough time to recover before they get hit again."

Read about the effects of Australia's floods on BBC News.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Southwest Fisheries Science Center: 25 years studying the Antarctic seas

Twenty-five years ago the Southwest Fisheries Science Center was formed in La Jolla, California. And since that time, federal researchers have been plying the Antarctic seas, monitoring the health and biodiversity of that chilly region to the south.

Their studies have resulted in the declaration of as many as 30 biological hotspots that need protection from overfishing and destructive bottom-harvesting techniques. In addition, the researchers continue to monitor the impact of commercial fishing on species such as Chilean
sea bass (renamed from Antarctic or Patagonian toothfish) and the overall population of krill, currently being harvested for vitamins and fish meal.

A popular commercial fish, Chilean sea bass numbers have plummeted by as much as 80 to 90% and more, according to some experts. But even with conservation efforts in place and many chefs and restaurants choosing not to carry the tasty fish on their menus, their numbers remain drastically low.

“That is one of the key things we want to unravel,” said George Watters, director of the Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division at the fisheries center. “Why haven’t these things recovered? We want to know that so that in the future we can prevent that kind of thing from happening again.”

The work undertaken by the Southwest Fisheries Science Center is by no means easy. Two month-long expeditions take place every January and February when sea conditions in the Southern Ocean are most favorable. But at best, it's bone-chilling work as the researchers monitor seal and sea birds movements, take video and samples from the sea floor, and basically spend time in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet for the purpose of gauging the overall health of an ecosystem that, as remote as it is, is closely tied to all of us.

“The real challenge with our work is to sort out the causes of the different trends we see,” said Mike Goebel, a wildlife biologist with the program. “Sometimes it can make sense and other times it doesn’t make sense, so you are always searching for the best possible explanation of what we observe.”

Of particular interest to the researchers, has been the study of krill populations and the impact of commercial harvesting on this fundamental ocean food source. If you have sprinkled fish meal on your plants or popped an Omega-3 vitamin supplement in the morning, there's a good chance that it consists of krill. Since krill is the principal food source for many ocean species, a decline in krill populations can have tremendous adverse effects on other species. And there are indications that krill populations have declined by as much as 80% in some areas.

One of the many challenges facing the seas of the Antarctic is a confusion or outright lack of unifying international regulations and management to protect the Southern Ocean. Many interested nations are looking to solve the situation and avoid a disastrous exploitation of the region from legal or illegal harvesting activities.

“There is a huge emphasis globally on maintaining the uniqueness and special character of Antarctica,” director Watters said. “Decision-making is supposed to be made on the basis of the best available scientific evidence. That is where we come in.”

Read more about the center's studies in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Coral's Fight or Flight: Coral Sea reserve proposed, but some corals can migrate to the poles

The Coral Sea, while known to some as a World War II battle zone or the name of a super aircraft carrier, it is in reality a body of water off the northeastern coast of Australia, southeast of Papua New Guinea, that has remained relatively unscathed from industrial fishing and other human impacts due to its remoteness and sometimes rough seas.

To preserve its good health, efforts are underway to make it a protected marine reserve. The Australian-based Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) is pushing for having the Coral Sea designated as a marine park that would provide for marine tourism, recreation, and scientific research, while limiting or prohibiting commercial fishing to protect the billfish, sharks , and tuna that either pass through or call the Coral Sea home.

While the idea of a Coral Sea marine reserve has been endorsed by many scientists (as many as 250 from 35 countries have gone on record in support of the reserve), there has been opposition from local recreational fishermen who see it as a step-by-step strategy leading to expansion along the entire east coast of Australia. However, proponents recognize the needs of the locals and say that expansion is not on their agenda. But protecting one of the few unspoiled tropical areas in the ocean is.

Corals head toward the poles
Protecting areas like the Coral Sea would be a good short-term strategy measure. In the long term, we need to consider what might be happening to coral reefs as ocean temperatures continue to rise. Coral thrives within a relatively narrow temperature range and as the waters become warmer, which has been documented as ongoing for several decades, coral reefs experience "bleaching" events where the symbiotic algae that lives within the soft tissues of the coral, providing much of their color, vanishes. This weakens the coral and often proves fatal.

But a new study, about to be published in Geophysical Research Letters, claims that many coral species are migrating towards the poles, to more suitable water temperatures. And the rate that these corals appear to be traveling is quite remarkable: up to 14 km (8.7 mi) annually. With average speeds of 1 km for terrestrial plants and animals and 5km for bottom dwelling sea creatures, these corals would appear to be sprinting. The study combined data with that of others who have tracked coral migrations for years and the researchers noted that of nine coral species studied, four species (all of which considered "near threatened" or "vulnerable" by the IUCN) had moved, most likely with floating larval polyps being aided by currents headed towards the poles, as found along the east coasts of the United States, South America, Africa, and Australia.

Does this mean that corals will simply out run climate change? Not necessarily. The components of climate change and the impacts on coral reefs are complex, from temperature increases to acidification to epidemics which could lead to shifts in the types of corals that stay and flourish, or migrate, or die. One way or another, the tropical reef zones will be disrupted.

In discussing coral's ability to persevere and survive in changing conditions by migrating to more hospitable environments, Paul Sammarco of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium was quoted in NatureNews,
"For corals it is good news, but for ecosystems, maybe not."

Read about the Coral Sea in

Read about coral on the move in

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Nature and the Law: Center for Biological Diversity continues to work the courts

The conservation strategy adopted by the Center for Biological Diversity revolves around bringing the courts to bear on the issues that seem to have been ignored and to put the feet of government agencies to the fire when it appears they are not fulfilling their responsibilities and obligations. It is a strategy that certainly keeps the Tucson, Arizona-based nationwide organization busy.

Turning attention towards the predicaments of cats in the United States (wild, not domesticated) and a few other animals, here's what Executive Director Kieran Suckling and his staff have been up to:

Historic Suits Defends 214 Rare Species From Pesticides
"In the most comprehensive legal action ever taken to protect wildlife from pesticides under the Endangered Species Act, the Center for Biological Diversity and Pesticide Action Network North America sued the Environmental Protection Agency today for failing to determine whether hundreds of approved pesticides harm already-imperiled species around the country.

The lawsuit names more than 200 species in 49 states -- from the Florida panther to the Chiricahua leopard frog to the Alabama sturgeon -- that wildlife officials and scientists say are threatened by pesticides. Our lawsuit challenges the EPA for not consulting with wildlife agencies before approving more than 300 pesticides. 'For decades, the EPA has turned a blind eye to the disastrous effects pesticides can have on some of America's rarest species,' said the Center's Jeff Miller."

Read more in a Center for Biological Diversity
press release.

Lynx to Earn More Protected Habitat
"The feds will likely protect more habitat for the stealthy Canada lynx, one of North America's most imperiled predators; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has dropped its appeal of a federal court decision last summer that said the agency's 'critical habitat' designation for the lynx was too paltry.

Only about 1,000 Canada lynx remain in the United States, and about half of them are in Montana. After a lawsuit in 1994 by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation (now merged with the Center for Biological Diversity) and allies, the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000 designated the spotted silver cat as 'threatened' under the Endangered Species Act. But even after a Center lawsuit overturning a previously inadequate critical habitat decision, the agency failed to base its designation on areas where lynx currently roam, leaving out habitat key for recovery (especially in Colorado). The latest development means the Fish and Wildlife Service will reevaluate how much critical habitat it will assign to this rare and mysterious forest cat."

Read more in the Helena Independent Record.

Suit Filed to Block Loan to Proposed Minnesota Mine
"The Center for Biological Diversity and four partners on Tuesday sued Minnesota's Iron Range Resources Board over its $4 million loan to PolyMet Mining Company, which has proposed the state's first open-pit sulfide mine. The state agency's loan is premature and illegal under state law because the proposed mine is still going through the required environmental review process. The mine site is in the Superior National Forest, within the Lake Superior watershed.

PolyMet's proposed mine would destroy hundreds of acres of high-quality wetlands, violate water-quality standards for hundreds to thousands of years, and eliminate two square miles of protected 'critical habitat' for imperiled lynx and wolves. The draft environmental impact statement for the proposal was deemed "environmentally unsatisfactory-inadequate" by the EPA, triggering the need for a supplemental draft analysis that is still months from completion."

Read more in the Duluth News-Tribune.

The Center for Biological Diversity wants people to realize that the legal process can be a very productive tool in building conservation awareness. The latest edition of their newsletter, Endangered Earth, recaps many of their 2010 accomplishments and lays out the organization's objectives for 2011. You can download it by clicking here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sharks and Monochromacy: examining predator's limited color vision

It's a colorful world we live in. At least it appears that way. A red apple is not actually producing red light; it's absorbing other non-red light wavelengths and reflecting those wavelengths that we perceive as red. Our eyes have evolved to contain three types of color receptors that respond to certain light wavelengths - basically reds, greens, and blues - which puts us in the category of trichromats. Other animals are dichromats, having two color receptors, while many others have little or no color vision.

Why? Well, partly its evolution's adaptive radiation at work, where animals evolve certain traits or abilities to best respond to their environment and thereby enhance their chances for survival.

In the aquatic world, color can take on a different purpose as the water environment effects various wavelengths. Red wavelengths fade quickly - the underwater world is cast in a blue or green hue because these wavelengths - particularly blue - can travel further, deeper into the water column. So, if you are a predator, what works best in hunting prey? Having a full-range of color sensitivity or limited monochromatic vision that best matches your environment?

In a paper recently published in the natural science journal, Naturwissenschaften, researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia, (including my niece, Dr. Susan Theiss) studied the color vision capabilities of 17 different species of sharks, from small bottom-dwellers like the port jackson shark to open water species like tiger and bull sharks. In many cases, what they found was a monochromatic trend toward blue but with some interesting exceptions.

Juvenile lemon sharks have a greater sensitivity to red, perhaps because of the amount of time spent in shallow waters where a fuller color spectrum would exist. But as adults, they appear to lose that sensitivity as they move into deeper waters. Bull sharks, which can spend up to the first 5 years of life in shallow, brackish water areas, seemed to have a similar sensitivity to red but research has yet to show that they too become more monochromatic as they mature, although it is a distinct possibility.

Many skates and rays are trichromatic and, as these species are close cousins to sharks, it begs the question as to what evolutionary advantage monochromatic vision might provide sharks. Well, in a very unscientific observation, as a filmmaker I can concur with one of the prevailing theories: contrast. Many broadcast video cameras have viewfinders which can switch from color to black and white. With black and white, contrast is all you are left with, and many cameramen feel they are able to focus more accurately and even track the on-camera action better in black and white, as if the fullness of color becomes a visual distraction.

And perhaps that is what the shark needs: a greater sensitivity to high contrast derived from monochromatic vision which helps to discern prey from its surrounding background. Combined with their other electroreceptive capabilities like the Ampullae de Lorenzini and sensitive lateral line, sharks may have developed the most efficient form of vision for hunting, one that has evolved from its surroundings over millions of years.

Susan and her colleagues are continuing to study the color vision capabilities of various shark species. Its microscopic, exacting, and tedious work (sharks can't exactly cover one eye and read from an eye chart: EFPTOZ . . .), but with that knowledge we can gain a better understanding of shark behavior and how, as apex predators, they effectively contribute to a healthy marine ecosystem.

Read the entire paper on sharks' color vision in Naturwissenschaften.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mission Blue in the Gulf of Mexico: ocean exploration is no walk in the park

The ocean is an incredible laboratory for studying the complex intricacies of life itself. From the sea all life first came, so what better to place to learn. But it's not exactly a controlled environment where men and women in starched white lab coats can measure, test, and analyze in sterile, secure labs. No, out in the elements, it can be a challenging place where not all goes according to plan.

Dr. Sylvia Earle's Mission Blue organization knows this first hand as they have been attempting to study the after effects of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. It has been an expedition of successes and frustrations, but that is nothing new to anyone who has spent time on the seas.

There are many unanswered questions regarding the Gulf Oil Spill. Where has all of the millions of gallons of oil settled? Dissipated, evaporated, or consumed by bacteria and other microorganisms? Has it settled into the deep sea floor and is this having an impact on the many small bottom-dwelling forms of sealife that make an important foundation in the marine ecology. What of the many fish, like whale sharks and bluefin tuna, that migrate through the Gulf or use it as a primary breeding ground? Has there been an impact on them or their eggs or other larvae?

The list goes on and on.

"Speaking as a scientist," said Mission Blue researcher Eric Hoffmayer, "this oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico sort of caught us off guard. We don't know a lot about many of these animals. Whether it's whale sharks, tiger sharks, makos, whatever, we don't know what their habitat use is in the region. We don't have the baseline data. Without understanding how they use this environment, we don't know how the spill will affect them."

Ups and Downs

The Mission Blue expedition, supported by National Geographic, the Waitt Institute, and Dr. Earle's Hope Spots LLC, has been in the Gulf several times over the past few months. It has had great success in tracking down whale sharks that have been known to congregate in an area named Ewing Bank, off of Louisiana. This location is in relatively close proximity to the site of the spill. By tagging and tracking the sharks, in addition to studying the condition of the food sources that the sharks are living on as they pass through the area, researchers hope to gain some insight as to whether the oil has had an adverse impact on these huge filter feeders.

Mission Blue's latest expedition to the Gulf was planned as an opportunity to study marine life on the deep seafloor using the advanced ROV, Medusa, and travel throughout the water column, assessing the health of the openwater community using the two-man submersible, Deepworker. While the Medusa had several successful initial dives, using its red-lit video camera systems (red light, which fades quickly with depth, is less disturbing to deep water marine life as they are less sensitive to it), later dives were scrubbed due to rough seas.

Those wind-whipped seas continued to play havoc with a series of planned dives using the Deepworker submersible. A few dives were completed in shallow water, where Dr. Earle and Harte Research Institute director Larry McKinney had to contend with poor visibility - lots of phytoplankton to see up close but "big picture" views of the surrounding open water seascape were limited at best. As the expedition is drawing to a close, famed author and ecologist Dr. Carl Safina came aboard to share his experiences, having spent considerable time in the Gulf during the spill, and to hopefully get some dives in himself.

Perseverance in the face of challenging conditions is a fundamental requirement of ocean exploration. And if we are to understand the full ramifications of our actions on complex marine ecosystems with regards to oil drilling at sea, expeditions like that being undertaken by Mission Blue and other organizations will endure what nature throws their way and they will continue. The answers to so many questions must be found before we find ourselves faced with another environmental disaster; the result of our own ignorance.

Read about tracking whale sharks in the Gulf in NatGeo News Watch.
Read about Mission Blue's ROV and submersible in the SEA blog.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mesophotic Coral Reefs: a new find in Puerto Rico brings calls for protection

For many people, the images they have seen of corals and coral reefs are of two extremes. At one end of the spectrum are the more commonly seen "shallow reefs" - colorful explosions of various shapes and sizes, mostly fueled by the combination of specialized algae (zooanthellae) that reside within the coral itself, and photosynthesis, the process by which plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds. Stereotypical iconic images of tropical reefs - from Hawaii to the South Pacific to the Caribbean to Australia's Great Barrier Reef - are compliments of the ocean's shallow coral reef ecosystems.

At the other end are the deep water corals, where light is scarce and so a different type of ecosystem flourishes. Without the supporting zooanthellae algae, deep water corals often consist of large stony corals and will aggregate in thickets or groves, forming very different reef structures compared to their shallow water cousins. Much of what we know about deep water corals, we have learned from manned deep submersibles or unmanned ROVs.

However, as we find in so many other aspects of life, nature has its middle ground. In this case, mesophotic coral reefs. These are coral ecosystems that basically exist between 30-40m (100-130 feet) down to around 150m (490 feet), which puts you at the edge of darkness. Existing beyond the range of typical scuba diving limits, mesophotic coral ecosystems have largely existed underneath the scientific radar. There's much we still need to learn about these coral reefs and the biodiversity that they support.

So when new mesophotic coral reefs are discovered, it's newsworthy indeed. Last week, NOAA announced the discovery of a large mesophotic coral reef off the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico. Found by Dr. Richard Appledoorn and his staff from the University of Puerto Rico, the reef is basically a 12-mile span, supporting a variety of plate-type corals, like lettuce and star corals, and various sponges along with groupers, snappers and reef sharks.

NOAA, along with Appledoorn, are vowing to protect this new find and managers with Puerto Rico's Coastal Zone Management are giving it serious consideration.

"We recognize the need to extend protections to mesophotic coral ecosystems in Puerto Rico, and the information being provided by this research is key to making that happen," said Ernesto Diaz, director of Puerto Rico's Coastal Zone Management Program.

The newly found reef could also benefit from fortuitous timing. Representatives from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are meeting to consider a joint program of coastal management and conservation. Under discussion is a coastal zoning map that would consider the best and most ecologically sustainable uses of the coast for recreational and commercial activities - from tourism, aquafarming, to ocean energy development. Coral reef protection, of all types, would be a key component of the program.

While shallow coral reefs might provide the laymen with the most colorful images to use for making the case for coral conservation, scientists realize that, from the surface to the deepest depths, each of the various strata that make up the entire coral reef ecosystem play an important role in maintaining a healthy and vibrant marine biodiversity. All must be protected, whether we see them or not.

Read about Puerto Rico's mesophotic coral reefs in
Read about mesophotic coral reef systems at
Photo credit: H. Ruiz/NOAA

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Evolution: study finds commonality in fish and mammal development

Evolution can appear to be a very complex process. How biodiversity developed over millions of years, producing thousands of various animal and plant species, is continually being studied and surprises seem to crop up with every new study. Whether piecing together the many branches and various dead ends that ultimately resulted in homo sapiens or deciphering the genetic code that determines who has a tail or who has wings, scientists are, piece by piece, assembling the puzzle that makes up nature's grand experiment in life on Earth.

And yet, from time to time, they discover within the puzzle a point of commonality - a puzzle piece that is being used over and over again - and the end result in diversity becomes simply a matter of timing. A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlights a genetic process that determines gill structures in elephant fish and sharks and its similarities with the development of limbs in lizards and mammals.

The elephant fish is a distant relative to sharks and rays, sharing the same type of cartilage-based skeletal system and also an outgrowth called a branchial ray - an appendage
that extends from the skeleton and forms a supporting structure for the gills. Somewhere in the development process, the elephant develops one set of branchial ray while sharks develop several. To determine how or when this takes place requires studying things at the embryonic level. And for the scientists involved in the study, from Cambridge and the University of Chicago, this was a challenge as elephant fish embryos are difficult to find. Elephant fish lay their eggs in cold, muddy ocean bottoms, so the researchers spent months diving and searching possible breeding sites in Australia and New Zealand, gathering the needed embryos.

The researchers traced the impact of a genetic factor called Shh - the sonic hedgehog gene. It is common to both the elephant fish and sharks but when it expresses itself in the early developmental process determines whether there's one branchial ray set or more. This same process appears in the development of lizards and mammals, helping to determine outgrowths like limbs and number of toes for different species.

"The research highlights how evolution is extremely efficient, taking advantage of preexisting mechanisms, rather than inventing new ones," said Dr. Andrew Gillis of Cambridge University. "By simply tinkering with the timing of when or where a gene is expressed in an embryo, you can get very different anatomical outcomes in adults."

"It's basically showing that the limb story is part of a much more general narrative, which is the story of outgrowths," said Dr. Neil Shubin, University of Chicago. "There's a common development toolkit for all the outgrowths that we know in the body; they're all versions of one another in a developmental sense."

While analyzing all of the minute components found within the evolutionary process might seem a little esoteric or obscure to some, one of the advantages in understanding species development is to then be able to consider how or what might change that process. What environmental factors might come into play to alter or disrupt embryonic development, producing an evolutionary course correction or a tragic mutation? How easily can an evolutionary process, millions of years in the making, be altered by pollution, climate change, or other shifts in the norm?

As we study and learn more about both the complexity and the commonality or simplicity of evolutionary development, we can begin to see nature's wondrous puzzle of life and how the pieces can possibly be rearranged for better or for worse.

Read about the study in EurekAlert!
Read more in a Cambridge University press release.

Read the entire report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Earth's Magnetic Fields in Flux: poles move but the sky's not falling

There's a little bit of a Chicken Little groundswell running through the news and the blogospehere and probably by the end of the week, aliens from space, the CIA, or Mayan calendars will be fingered as the culprits. It all has to do with the Earth's shifting magnetic poles.

We think of the planet's magnetic fields as constant and dependable as the Northern Star. Every Boy Scout finds his way back to camp because he can count on his trusty compass to point North. And the magnetic fields also protect us. The entire magnetosphere helps to deflect much of the solar radiation emanating from the sun that bombards us in the form of solar winds.

But the Earth's magnetic fields are always in flux; the actual magnetic north and south poles are shifting, wobbling about on its axis due to forces taking place deep below the surface of the Earth where the fields are generated. Since the 19th century, when the position of the magnetic north pole was first identified, it has been moving from high in the North American Arctic towards Siberia. Through the 20th century, its movement was clocked at about 10 km a year, on average, but apparently it has been accelerating to around 40 km annually.

This movement can manifest itself as a real world consequence for us humans. It has been reported that an airport in Tampa, Florida had to close its runways so that they could be relabeled. Pilots use their magnetic compass instruments to determine which runway to use and so runway and taxiway signs apparently needed to be changed to properly coincide with aviation charts and the pilot's instruments.

"The Earth's poles are changing constantly, and when they change more than three degrees, that can affect runway numbering,"
FAA spokesperson Kathleen Bergen told Fox News.

Once in the news, the change in magnetic fields is rippling through the air and has been linked by some to the mysterious bird and fish deaths that took place recently in Arkansas and Delaware. I'm afraid soon we'll hear reports of a coming Armageddon, compliments of the Earth's magnetic field.

Well, what is happening? The Earth's magnetic fields are generated by the movement of the molten iron outer core around the planet's solid iron inner core. This movement, much like the movement of an electric motor, produces magnetic fields that extend thousands of miles beyond the planet forming our magnetospehere. The molten outer core is a very turbulent mass.

As described by NASA,
"Sitting atop the hot inner core, the liquid outer core seethes and roils like water in a pan on a hot stove. The outer core also has "hurricanes"--whirlpools powered by the Coriolis forces of Earth's rotation. These complex motions generate our planet's magnetism through a process called the dynamo effect."

Could this movement of the magnetic poles be an indication of some major event? Scientists have been able to determine that there have been complete reversals of the magnetic poles
throughout time - and I suspect this will put some doomsday theorists into a lather with pronouncements of catastrophic upheavals akin to the movie mayhem seen in "2012". However, these reversals occur roughly every 300,000 years on average, with the last one taking place over 780,000 years ago. According to scientists, it takes thousands of years for a reversal to take place, and they theorize that it would be less of a complete reversal as it would be a fragmented disruption that would leave the Earth temporarily with several poles around the globe, not just a single North and South. And through it all, the Earth's geographic North/South pole, the axis on which it spins, would remain stable.

You just might find your GPS acting a little funny and, as NASA mentioned, you might find Tahiti as the new go-to location to watch the Northern lights.

Read about the Tampa airport runways on YahooNews.
Read about the magnetic fields in
NASA Science.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Shark Fins and Guns: celebrity chef threatened in Costa Rica

The shark fin trade is not only a very lucrative business due to the high demand in Asian markets for shark fin products, it can also be a very dangerous one. This was a lesson intimately learned by U.K. celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay will filming a segment in Costa Rica for the U.K. television series The Big Fish Fight, which advocates sustainable fishing practices.

Chef Ramsay was in Costa Rica to document the extent of the shark fin trade and he certainly got an eyeful when he and his camera crew approached a shark fin processing operation. To say the least, he was not met with open arms as he and his crew were threatened by fisherman out to protect their illegal catches. The scene was akin to Mexican drug labs and the armed guards that protect them.

Reported in The Telegraph, Ramsay recalled, "These gangs operate from places that are like forts, with barbed-wire perimeters and gun towers. At one, I managed to shake off the people who were keeping us away, ran up some stairs to a rooftop and looked down to see thousands and thousands of fins, drying on rooftops as far as the eye could see. When I got back downstairs they tipped a barrel of petrol over me. Then these cars with blacked out windows suddenly appeared from nowhere, trying to block us in. We dived into the car and peeled off."

Eventually, Ramsay was able to talk his way on board one of the fishing boats and he later found that the boat was carrying illegally-taken shark fins, which caused another commotion.

"There were people pointing rifles at us to stop us filming," said Ramsay. "A van pulled up and these seedy characters made us stand against the wall. The police came and advised us to leave the country. They said 'if you set one foot in there, they'll shoot you'."

While Costa Rica has been lauded in some circles for its ecological and conservation efforts, there is a festering weakness in its efforts due to the unregulated and illegal shark finning activities that take place there. The fact that the police are aware of these activities but choose to do nothing is an indication as to the power and influence that these groups, who have been labeled by some as an Asian "shark fin mafia", have over the Costa Rican government and its law enforcement branches.

When talking with my shark advocate colleagues, I will often propose that shark conservation must enter a new phase, a new level of strategic sophistication to combat the forces that are depleting the world of sharks. With a multi-billion dollar industry at stake, the barbarous cruelty and waste of shark finning means nothing to these people. The importance of sharks as anything else than a revenue stream is of no consequence to them. It will take strong political pressure from nations sympathetic to sharks and the important ecological role they play to try to force the hand of apathetic countries who provide safe harbor for these criminals. But it won't be easy, not when guns and corruption are involved.

We can pursue trying to influence the Asian populace and stifle the demand for shark fin products. But with continued economic growth and expanding consumerism in those markets, it's almost an insurmountable task; the war is not lost, but it's a helluva a battle. Shark conservation needs to consolidate its efforts towards strategies that encourage hardball international diplomacy. The shark fin industry is ecologically unconscionable, but - like drugs, child pornography, and slavery - it's equally as vicious.

Read about Gordon Ramsay's encounter in
The Telegraph.
Read more in Ramsay's encounter in
My thanks to my daughter, Dr. Sherrilynn Theiss, for bringing this news item to my attention.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Turtles and Sharks: long migrations studied in the South Atlantic

Animal migration is one of nature's most mysterious presentations of animal behavior. What makes an animal travel great distances? How are they able to do it in a relatively straight path? Why do they use the same route year after year? Just how are they so good at it, while I can get lost in the local Costco?

One vast body of water where several marine species migrate but where mankind has not spent much time studying these movements is the South Atlantic, between South America and Africa. However, two recent studies have shed some interesting light on the long migration paths taken by leatherback turtles and blue sharks. Both of these species are threatened with possible extinction, so the more we know, the better we can manage our conservation efforts.

As reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers from England tagged and track the migratory routes of leatherback turtles for five years, from a breeding colony in Central Africa to feeding grounds in the southwestern Atlantic. Using satellite tracking tags on 25 females, the researchers found that the turtles followed three migratory paths, often traveling in remarkably straight lines.

One female turtle was tracked along a path that totaled just under 4,700 miles and took about 150 days of nonstop swimming to complete. The researchers are keen to know the "when and where" of these journeys to ensure that commercial fisheries do not take advantage of the turtle's singular purpose and place themselves right in the turtles' paths. The researchers are hoping to avoid a large decline in leatherback turtles in the South Atlantic as has happened to leatherbacks in the Pacific.

"All of the routes we've identified take the leatherbacks through areas of high risk from fisheries, so there's a very real danger to the Atlantic population," said University of Exeter professor Brendan Godley.

At the same time, researchers from the University of Florida were tracking the migratory routes of the blue shark. Working with a Brazilian team of researchers, Felipe Carvalho, under the supervision of renown shark expert Dr. George Burgess, Director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, began tagging blue sharks along the Brazilian coast. The question was whether the tracking results would show a migration that would link shark populations in both the southeastern and southwestern Atlantic.

Blue sharks are heavily fished in the South Atlantic and within coastal territorial waters some nations are trying to determine how to best manage the remaining populations. By showing a migratory link between these separate locations, it emphasizes the need for multinational cooperation. As it turned out, one of Carvalho's blue sharks, tagged off the coast of Brazil, was detected off Africa 87 days later.

“This is the first evidence of the transatlantic migration of a blue shark from the southwestern Atlantic Ocean to the southeastern Atlantic Ocean. We thought this migration might be happening, but we never had the data before to prove it,” Carvalho said.

More and more, we are finding species that travel along oceanic highways, making incredible journeys over and over again. Navigating by prevailing currents, or visual cues, or even by the Earth's magnetic fields - all have been suggested as possible theories that could account for the animal's amazing accuracy.

Whatever the method, it is important for us to understand these migrations and their purpose and use that knowledge to protect rather than take advantage of leatherback turtles, blue sharks, and so many other species that roam the seas.

Read about tracking leatherback turtles from the
Associated Press.
Read about tracking blue sharks from

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

WikiLeaks and Whaling: Japan pressed U.S. and Australia for concessions

There has been much attention surrounding WikiLeaks and the emails, cables, and diplomatic dispatches it has somehow acquired, many of which having been released to the public amidst great consternation - and some embarrassment - from various governments.

The WikiLeaks scandal is now making its way into the conservation movement with the release of documents claiming to show some backroom diplomatic wrangling going on between Japan, Australia, and the United States regarding Japan's continued whaling under the guise of "scientific research" - a loophole that was written into the International Whaling Commission's ban on whaling. Through that loophole, Japan has been taking approximately 500 whales seasonally.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal and the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) website, in 2009, Japanese government officials were suggesting a willingness to considered curtailing their scientific research whale hunts in exchange for a lifting of the whaling moratorium and allowing a limited catch in their territorial waters. Apparently officials in the U.S. and Australia, while expressing their public support for the whaling ban, were at least willing to discuss the Japanese proposal.

The ABC reported, "Australia's Opposition party environment spokesman Greg Hunt says the Government's position on whaling has been exposed as a sham. 'The labor Government was saying one thing to the Australian people and another thing behind the scenes,' he said."

Also, playing into all this international horse wrangling were the efforts of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a constant irritant to the Japanese government due to their eco-terrorist techniques to attempt to disrupt Japanese whaling. According to the leaked documents, Japan was pressing the U.S. to take action against the U.S.-based radical organization, perhaps by depriving the NGO of its non-profit tax status.

The ABC reported,
"The cables reveal the US envoy to the International Whaling Commission, Monica Medina, held talks with the head of Japan's fisheries agency, Katsuhiro Machida, in late 2009. The two sides discussed the possibility of revoking the tax-exempt status of the US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society."

There are many conservationists who do not prescribe eco-terrorism as a solution as it can endanger lives and alienate governments beyond any hope of negotiation or change. The actions of the Japanese are an example of this. In 2009, they apparently were willing to discuss eliminating the "scientific research" whaling (I believe they realized that world opinion was opposed to that sham) but, in exchange, they wished to continue hunting in some limited fashion. However, any agreement would have depended on putting a stop to Sea Shepherd.

The WikiLeaks revelations, I am sure, will simply embolden the Sea Shepherd Society. It's founder, Capt. Paul Watson, was quoted,
"These governments play games with each other all the time, they say things they don't mean, they make deals that they don't honor. There's no honor amongst thieves and politicians are the biggest thieves of the lot."

All of these diplomatic machinations took place before the June, 2010 annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). At that meeting, nothing was resolved, though U.S. State Department officials were pressing the U.S. negotiators at the meeting to get some sort of concession from Japan regarding reducing the size of their catch. A proposal to Japan to allow limited hunting within its own territorial waters may surface at the next IWC meeting in 2011.

Here is the dilemma of international diplomacy and conservation: international organizations like IWC, CITES, and the United Nation's various environmental and ecological offshoots are necessary in adopting worldwide policies to protect natural resources and biodiversity - regional or local efforts alone are not enough. But the art of diplomacy is pain-stakingly slow and the level of compromise that is sometimes required can, in the end, prove to be of limited or no benefit to nature. As individuals, we must keep the pressure on our elected officials and appointed representatives to ensure that they do not trade the health of the planet for the sake of diplomatic progress.

Read the Wall Street Journal article.

Read the Australian Broadcast Corporation article.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Shark-Safe Beaches: testing aerial spotters and dismissing electro-magnetics

When people enter the ocean - to swim, surf, dive, or just frolic about at the water's edge - they are entering a different wilderness. In doing so, they expose themselves to a measure of risk from interaction with other animals, from a sea jelly sting or an urchin spine all the way up to an interaction with a larger animal like a shark.

To protect people from unwanted shark interactions, several methods of prevention have been tried over the decades. In Australia, there is an extensive network of netted beaches. The steel mesh nets are designed with openings small enough to ward off large sharks but large enough to allow smaller fish to pass through. The nets have been used for many years and, in combination with lifeguards acting as shark spotters, the process has been fairly successful. But not infallible.

Sharks can get through the nets on occasion due to the nets being moved about from currents or storm action, so to maintain a big picture overview, spotter planes are being deployed in New South Wales (south eastern Australia) as part of a test program during peak months of swimming activity. And the NSW government in Australia has deployed a novel method to keep their spotter pilots' skill sharp. Decoy or replica sharks will be placed in the water to check the effectiveness of the surveillance program. Lifeguards will be made aware of the days and times for the placement of the replica sharks, but not the pilots. Results of the tests will be included in the final evaluation as to the aerial surveillance program future.

Far to the west, following a recent series of shark attacks in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, a variety of safety measures are being considered. Nothing has been confirmed as yet because the government is weighing an appropriate response that also recognizes the probable causes for the attacks - reportedly everything from unregulated chumming to overfishing of the shark's usual prey to the dumping of dead sheep from a passing freighter.

One approach that apparently will not be used is something akin to electrified fencing. An organization, the Shark Academy, has proposed installing an electro-magnetic shield along the Egyptian coastline of Sharm El-Sheikh in the Red Sea, but the idea has been totally dismissed by the Governor of South Sinai, General Abdel Fadeel Sousha.

"He (the company's owner) showed us a video in a meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh on devices used to protect beaches from sharks and made verbal and purely theoretical proposals that didn't persuade me on a personal level," said General Sousha. "I asked him for a practical demonstration in front of a committee of experts so we could be sure the devices work effectively. This still hasn't happened."

A pretty far-fetched notion when you think about it. I have worked with divers who have used a protective device called a Shark Shield which emits a strong electro-magnetic pulse when needed and seems to be quite effective with medium-size sharks like lemon or blacktip sharks. But I've been told it also "rattles the teeth" of the diver when its discharged. So the idea of having something that strong running constantly across a beach seems rather unlikely.

Apparently, previous attempts at using electro-magnetic fields along beaches in Natal, South Africa and in Australia have been a dismal failure, not preventing the sharks from entering enclosed swimming areas but giving bathers a nice little shock instead.

Rather than rely on Rube Goldberg devices, common sense should prevail. Non-life threatening measures - such as nets and shark spotters - along with a better understanding and acceptance of the wild world we are venturing into is what's called for. While many of us hear the call to return to the sea, we must remember that we enter it as interlopers and strangers on someone else's turf.

Read about aerial shark surveillance in
Read about Egypt's rejection of electro-magnetic fields in

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Predators and Prey: study finds important changes in behavior from overfishing

When explaining the impact of commercial overfishing (or, for that matter, terrestrial hunting) on the predator-prey relationships in an ecosystem, conservationists will often talk in terms of changes in population of various species and it is often portrayed as a domino-like effect. This may make it easier for the layperson to understand - a singular, straight line chain of events - but scientists know that the reality of it is a lot more complex. They will speak in terms of a cascade effect, a bit like a nuclear chain reaction, where one event impacts several others, each impacting several others, and so on.

Because of that complexity, there is still a lot that we do not know as to what happens to an entire marine ecosystem when key predators are eliminated through overfishing. We have a tendency to look at just population numbers, but a recent paper in Ecology documented evidence of changes in prey foraging behavior and how this can have a pervasive effect across an entire reef system.

Researchers focused on the northern Line Islands in the South Pacific and studied the foraging behavior patterns of numerous species, using one pristine reef as a baseline for comparison to other areas that were impacted in various degrees by a loss of key predators through local fishing.

The predator-prey relationship is much more than "the big fish eats the little fish." Fundamentally, that may be true but there are also factors such as when and where prey forage that enter into the equation. Some animals maintain certain depth ranges or preferred areas around the reef, or they had particular times of day when they would venture out to feed - all offering a certain level of risk and effecting behavior designed to give them the best chance of survival.

The researchers in the Line Islands found that, with the loss of a predator, prey behavior changed over multiple species, and this, in essence, really upsets the applecart of ecological balance. In fact, the article proposed that, while there can certainly be changes in population numbers of various prey species (which can include predators of smaller species - remember, just about everybody is eating somebody else in the ocean), the changes in foraging behavior could be the more important issue with its effects rippling through the entire complex web of relationships that help to make up a healthy marine ecosystem.

We live in a very complex world, but we have a tendency to prefer our answers or solutions to be neat and simple. Unfortunately, nature hasn't successfully evolved over millions of years in a straight "A + B = C" fashion. With each day, scientists are learning more about that complexity and what profound effects we are having on it.

You can order the complete article from Ecology.