Monday, March 28, 2011

Whales and Sonar: Woods Hole research proves changes in behavior

The long-standing controversy over the effect of sonar signals on whales has festered over the years primarily due to that fact that the whale's supposed adverse reaction to the electronics sounds was theorized, implied, but never definitively proven. All evidence was anecdotal.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has changed all that with a recently published study in PLoS One. Here is an overview from SeaWeb on this important research:

Whales Change Behavior to Avoid Navy Sonar
U.S. Navy photo by Ari S. <span class=Friedlaender" height="167" width="250">
By studying whales fitted with electronic tags, researchers have been able to ascertain that beaked whales alter their behavior in response to naval sonar. Friedlaender, U.S. Navy

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have become the first to conclude definitively that naval sonar affects whale behavior and movement. This follows years of anecdotal evidence linking naval exercises with mass strandings of several species of cetaceans. The research team developed experiments to slowly increase the level of sonar directed at a tagged whale, to stop exposure as soon as the whale started responding, to measure that exposure and to define the response.

"These experiments were very difficult to develop, and it was a major breakthrough simply to be able to develop a study that could safely study these responses," said Peter Tyack of WHOI, the lead author of the study, which was published in the online open-access journal PLoS One. "All three times that tagged beaked whales were exposed experimentally to playback of sounds when they were foraging at depth, they stopped foraging prematurely and made unusually long and slow ascents to the surface, moving away from the sound."

The team then monitored reactions of beaked whales during actual sonar exercises on a naval testing range where an array of underwater microphones, or hydrophones, covered the seafloor, allowing whale sounds to be monitored over 600 square miles (1,554 square kilometers). "During actual sonar exercises, beaked whales were primarily detected near the periphery of the range, on average 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from the sonar transmissions. Once the exercise stopped, beaked whales gradually filled in the center of the range over 2 to 3 days," they write. In a press release, Tyack said that the research shows beaked whales are particularly sensitive to sound, and that they altered their behavior when exposed to sound levels below those previously believed. But, he added, "The observations on the naval range suggest that while sonar can disrupt the behavior of the whales, appropriate monitoring and management can reduce the risk of stranding."

Source: Tyack, P., et al. 2011. Beaked whales respond to simulated and actual navy sonar. PLoS One 6(2011): e17009; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017009.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Preserving Coastal Ecosystems: study shows loss of mangroves and salt marshes releases long-stored CO2

Surfbird News reports on all things related to coastal surfbirds and the environments that support them. The site recently reported on the findings of an international consortium of scientists on the impact on CO2 sequestration with the loss of coastal ecosystems like mangroves and marshlands.

Urgent Action Needed To Halt Increasing Carbon Emissions from Destroyed, Degraded Coastal Marine Ecosystems

The destruction of coastal carbon ecosystems, such as mangroves, seagrasses and tidal marshes, is leading to rapid and long-lasting emissions of CO2 into the ocean and atmosphere, according to 32 of the world’s leading marine scientists.

That key conclusion highlights a series of warnings and recommendations developed by the new International Working Group on Coastal “Blue” Carbon, which convened its first meeting in Paris last month. The Working Group was created as an initial step in advancing the scientific, management and policy goals of the Blue Carbon Initiative, whose founding members include Conservation International (CI), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO.

Much of the carbon emitted when mangroves, seagrasses or tidal marshes are destroyed is estimated to be thousands of years old because the CO2 stored in these ecosystems is found not only in the plants, but in layer upon layer of soil underneath. Total carbon deposits per square kilometer in these coastal systems may be up to five times the carbon stored in tropical forests, due to their ability to absorb, or sequester, carbon at rates up to 50 times those of the same area of tropical forest. The management of coastal ecosystems can supplement efforts to reduce emissions from tropical forest degradation.

Dr. Emily Pidgeon, Marine Climate Change Director at Conservation International, and a leading blue carbon conservation scientist emphasized, “We have known for some time the importance of coastal ecosystems for fisheries and for coastal protection from storms and tsunamis. We are now learning that, if destroyed or degraded, these coastal ecosystems become major emitters of CO2 for years after the plants are removed. In the simplest terms, it’s like a long slow bleed that is difficult to clot. So we need to urgently halt the loss of these high carbon ecosystems, to slow the progression of climate change.”

“The capacity of coastal wetlands to reduce climate change by capturing and storing carbon dioxide is considerable, but has been overlooked” says Jerker Tamelander, Oceans and Climate Change Manager for IUCN. “If valued and managed properly, coastal ecosystems can help many countries meet their mitigation targets, while supporting adaptation in vulnerable coastal areas.”

Read the entire article in Surfbird News.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Coral Reef Stress Test: researchers develop model to determine survivability

With corals reefs being assaulted, it would seem, from all directions with global warming, pollution, and damage from urban development or tourism pressure all taking its toll; would it not be a valuable tool to have the means to gauge a reef's susceptibility to various environmental pressures, to be able to determine whether one reef has a better chance of survival over another?

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society believe they have developed just such a tool - a "stress test" for coral reefs.

Reviewing the history and the current conditions (coral health, biodiversity) of reefs throughout the western Indian Ocean, the researchers were able to construct a test model with which they could determine which reefs would have a higher possibility of survival based on today's environmental pressures. By identifying specific reefs, the researchers would hope that greater coral reef management could be put in place to protect those particular reefs.

Through their work, which was recently published online in Global Change Biology, the researchers identified coastal regions stretching from southern Kenya to northern Mozambique, northeastern Madagascar, the Mascarene Islands, and the coastal border of Mozambique and South Africa as having the most promising characteristics of high diversity and low environmental stress.

"Reducing human impacts to minimize the multiple stressors on these globally important reefs will give corals a fighting chance in the age of global climate change. These results reveal a window of opportunity for the future conservation of the ocean's most biodiverse ecosystem," said Caleb McClennen, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Marine Program.

The unfortunate reality to all of this is that, while it would seem to be advantagous to be able to clearly identify regions that deserve protection based on those that would appear to have a more promising future, the flipside would imply that some regions would be sacrificed, basically written off because limited management resources would only be able to focus on those coral reefs with the best chance of survival in today's conditions.

It is a sad reality that we face; like a mother with two children but only enough food for one. How does she choose who shall survive and who shall perish? Have we cornered ourselves into a similar predicament with our coral reefs?

Read more about the coral reef "stress test" in EurekAlert.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Invasive Alien Plants: not from Mars, but controversy brews over source of introduction

Botanical gardens - those quiet sanctuaries where folks go to stroll amongst flower and trees, contemplating the fate of the world - or escaping from it for a few precious minutes. Not exactly a place that you would consider as a hotbed of invasive species activity, now would you?

Well, it may not be that extreme but Philip Hulme, a weed specialist at Lincoln University, New Zealand, claims that a large number of invasive plant species can be traced back to botanical gardens or arboretums. Hulme reviewed the history behind 34 of the top 100 invasive plant species as defined by the IUCN. Researching the origins of these plants, Hulme found that over half of them could be traced to botanical gardens. From a horticultural laboratory or garden, winds, temperature, and animals that can distribute seeds - all can play a role in allowing an alien species to gain a foothold.

Just what are we talking about when we say "invasive plant species"? Well, it casts a fairly broad net, ranging from weeds and vines to flowers all the way to large trees. In the right climate and soil environment, many have the ability to propagate quickly and literally push indigenous plants out of the way. This has often happened when exotic tropical plants have been brought into non-tropical forest environments - the tropical plant comes from an ecosystem where many different plant species are thrust together and battle it out for territory. In less competitive environments, these species can quickly dominate.

As expected, the botanical garden community is not particularly pleased with Hulme's research and conclusions. Stephen Blackmore, head of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, U.K., says that while botanical gardens may have been interested in introducing non-native species - but lax in protocols - in the past, today they are much more mindful of the consequences and that it is home gardeners and the horticultural trade that probably deserve greater inspection.

"I am not saying that that lets botanic gardens off the hook," says Blackmore, adding that botanical gardens today go to great lengths to quarantine new plants to guard against the spread of fungus or disease, and that they are very conscious of preservation and conservation of the local botanical ecology. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, a global network of botanical gardens, is beginning to develop a set of guidelines for how alien or non-native plants should be managed.

Home gardeners and commercial plant shops remain as a possible point of introduction of invasive species, much like the tropical fish stores and home aquarists who thrill at displaying tropical fish and seaweed species until they become to large or too aggressive for the tanks they are in and accidentally end up in local waters, disrupting the balance of an ecosystem. Case in point, the Caribbean invasion by the voracious lionfish, a Pacific Ocean species.

As mankind becomes more and more global in his curiosity and his movements, then the threat of disruption of ecosystems by invasive species - whether accidental or by design - remains high.

Read more about invasive plant species in

How Do You Clean A Shark's Skin?: small reef fish know how

Sharks have amazing skin - sleek and smooth when felt in one direction, as rough as sandpaper when felt in another. Shark skin is built on denticles, rather than scales, which is similar to the compounds that also make up the predator's teeth. In many species of pelagic, or open ocean, sharks, the skin is tightly woven and very hydrodynamic, making it impervious to many but not all of the ocean parasites that are floating about looking for a host and a free ride.

For those persistent parasites, like copepods, which are able to latch onto a passing shark, some sharks, according to researchers at Bangor University, North Wales, U.K., will make use of one of nature's symbiotic relationships that is also utilized by many reef fish to rid themselves of annoying parasites.

In reef communities, from tropical to cold water, there are small fish that will remove parasites and other material from the skin of larger fish. By doing so, the smaller fish is provided a food source and the larger fish receives a hygienic cleaning. Symbiosis evolves because the larger fish, which could easily consume the smaller fish, realizes the benefit from the smaller fish's actions and allows the cleaning fish to go about its business, even swimming into the larger fish's mouth and through its gills to provide a thorough cleaning.

Having studied several species of sharks in the Philippines, Bangor University researcher Simon Oliver says that several sharks, like the endangered thresher shark, will sometimes move into coastal areas not to feed but for the express purpose of getting a parasite-removal cleaning.

"Parasites are extraordinarily successful organisms and would propagate if the sharks had no way of getting rid of them. So these cleaning services are essential to the life history of these animals," said Oliver.

In tropical environments, the cleaner wrasse, or bluestreak wrasse, is known for staying in one area, establishing a "cleaning station" where large fish will hover patiently while the cleaner wrasse goes about its work - an oceanic car wash of a sort. In colder climates, fish like the senorita, another type of small wrasse, perform the same function. Oliver suspects that, while not all species of shark are able to literally stop and hover while getting a grooming, he did see evidence of sharks coming in close and getting a beneficial once-over by resident cleaner fish.

Oliver also observed that the sharks would momentarily set aside the tendency of some species to resist close contact with other species of sharks.

"It's like a lion at a waterhole with an antelope. Its thirst takes precedence over the natural order of things. The grey reef shark could easily take a bite out of a thresher, or a ray, but doesn't, which shows the necessity for these cleaners" said Oliver.

Not all sharks will swim to sea mountains or coastal reefs to take part in this kind of dermatological hygiene. Makos and white sharks can be observed with long, hair-like streamers along the edges of their fins - the telltale sign of established parasites. But it is another fascinating aspect of behavior in the ocean environment that even pelagic animals, like some species of shark, have come to recognize and take advantage of what the reef fish community has to offer other than being a source of prey.

Read more about shark cleaning in the BBC News.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Eutrophication: mapping the first steps that lead to dead zones

Dead Zones - an alarming term used to describe aquatic areas where oxygen levels are so greatly reduced as to push out or kill most fish, plants, and shellfish. It's a dramatic descriptor for the extreme end result of two much more complex processes: eutrophication and hypoxia. While both of these can occur naturally, they are also increasing with greater frequency due to man-made causes.

Eutrophication is the introduction of natural or artificial substances, such as nitrates or phosphates, into an aquatic system. Sometimes this can be due to natural occurrences - such as runoff from rains that include a high percentage of decaying plant matter or animal waste. This has been known to occur in some lakes and rivers, particularly in areas of the world where seasonal changes can be extreme - long droughts followed by heavy rains.

However, eutrophication is often caused by the introduction of fertilizers and treated or untreated sewage. And when this happens there begins a series of cascading disturbances that can ultimately lead to a dead zone. Everything from increased nitrogen which upsets the proper balance of dissolved nitrogen and oxygen levels; the expanded growth of algae and phytoplankton which can reduce sunlight, upsetting the process of photosynthesis that produces oxygen and impacting bottom dwelling creatures; a feedback loop that is generated by more decaying plant material from the increase algal growth - all begin to enter into the picture at varying degrees.

When dissolved oxygen levels are reduced to the point at which a wide swath of animal and plant life is severely impacted, then you have a hypoxic or low-level oxygen condition. This can lead to a major shift in the aquatic ecology through either the migration or elimination of species or by predation from animals than can better withstand or even prefer low-oxygen environments. Another offshoot can be the development of toxic bacteria, which has been linked as a possible culprit in a recent die-off off hundreds of thousands of sardines in Redondo Beach, California. While not yet determined to be the definitive culprit, the overall water condition outside the harbor in Redondo Beach is being scrutinized as a polluted, low oxygen area that may have allowed for a large mass of sardines to be affected by neuro-toxin bacteria.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) has been compiling evidence of eutrophication and hypoxia on a global scale for some time. WRI provides an interactive map whereby one can view areas of either or both of these conditions. It also includes areas that have actually shown improvement, which means that this is a process that can be reversed.

While it is true, as mentioned earlier, that eutrophication and hypoxia can be a naturally-occurring process, by using the map's time frame feature - where you can select segments of time in years ranging back to 1850 - one can see the increase in these conditions over the years. Currently, the World Resources Institute lists 762 impacted coastal areas, 228 effected by eutrophication and 479 effected by hypoxia. Fifty-five areas show improvement. The institute is constantly searching for information on scientifically-verified sites so as to provide as accurate of a picture as possible.

Aquatic ecology has its ups and downs, its own ways of pummeling itself and then recovering - something it developed over hundreds of thousands of years. But today there is clear evidence that mankind is throwing unexpected blows from which the oceans, lakes, and rivers are unable to recover. Better control of our use of fertilizers and our disposal of sewage and other chemicals is the obvious solution, but it requires the political will, economic incentive, and public support to produce positive action.

View the interactive map at World Resources Institute.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan Earthquake: Macro facts, radiation, and a time for compassion

The destruction wreaked upon Japan by the earthquake, tsunami, and ongoing threat from radioactivity is, understandably, central on the minds of people and media worldwide. The loss of life, property, and the infrastructure of a developed culture is near apocalyptic and begs comparisons to what befell Japan at the end of the Second World War.

Macro Facts
Not to take away from the impact on the Japanese people, but there are also some staggering macro or global facts and issues as result of these recent events. Writing for Yahoo News, Vanessa Evans cited these facts:

* Although the largest earthquake recorded on Friday was the massive 8.9 quake that caused the vast majority of the damage, there have been hundreds of aftershocks, some of which reached magnitude 6 strength, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

* Any number of those aftershocks were as large as the earthquake that shook Christchurch, New Zealand, late last month.

* Geophysicist Richard Gross of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, has estimated that the Japanese earthquake shortened the Earth's day by 1.8 microseconds. Gross also said that the axis of the Earth probably shifted about 6.5 inches, which affects how it rotates, but not its position or movement in space.

* The U.S. Geological Survey initially estimated that Japan as a whole has physically moved by approximately 8 feet, but other scientists around the globe have estimated that some parts of the country may actually have moved as much as 12 feet closer to North America. In addition, parts of the country's terrain are now permanently under sea level, which will make it difficult for the flooding caused by the tsunami to drain.

* The loss of 1.8 microseconds as a result of the shift in the Earth's axis is unlikely to cause more than minute changes, but among those changes will actually be differences in the passing of the seasons. This will only be observable using satellite navigation systems with very precise monitoring equipment.

* The shift of the Earth's axis and loss of time is similar to that experienced after the Chilean earthquake last year, which sped up the Earth's rotation and resulted in the loss of 1.26 microseconds.

Radiation and the Sea
While many of these facts are scientifically interesting, they won't necessarily have a profound effect on the day-to-day activities of the planet. However, one ongoing issue, that of the possibility of a large discharge of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear facility, is an important concern to the ocean environment.

Current weather forecasts are showing prevailing winds blowing to the East, therefore taking any escaped radiation away from the mainland - but out to sea. The Japanese government has been exceedingly cautious in their pronouncements about the crisis at the nuclear facility. However, from an ocean ecology perspective, there are some important questions to be answered.

How powerful or strong would the radiation be if there was a major leakage from the facility? What kinds of particles would the radiation consist of? Would these particles travel great distances above the sea or would they settle quickly, close within Japanese waters? Could the radiation be consumed by fish or smaller creatures, entering the food chain at a base level and work their way up in time? Could certain fish like swordfish, tuna, or sharks - which are known to accumulate other pollutants - also accumulate radiation over time. Or would the radiation dissipate to such low levels as to not be an issue.

The potential harm from radiation to the Japanese people is certainly an important concern. However, the same can be said of the environment, and particularly the sea, should a major discharge occur and the predicted winds carry it out to sea.

Our Better Nature
Speaking of the Japanese people, I have read a few online comments from some highly passionate but misguided conservationists who see the events of the past few days as a fitting retribution on the Japanese people for their whaling, dolphin, and tuna fishing activities. Nothing could be further from the truth and, in fact, denigrates us as a civilized society when we stoop to those kind of pronouncements.

This was not justice, or God's will, or bad karma, or any other vengeful nonsense. Natural disasters of this sort have occurred throughout the history of this planet and they will continue to do so long after we have either resolved the issues of protecting the environment or vanished through our own self-extinction. If we are at all worthy of sharing any space on this planet it will be because we can call upon the "better angels of our nature" - the same ones that make us strive to protect endangered species and conserve our natural resources - and bring comfort and compassion to our fellow man in the face of such catastrophe.

Support the relief efforts through the American Red Cross or similar agency in your country.

Read more about the changes in the earth in Yahoo News.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Focus On Fur: protecting endangered or threatened animals on land

Proactive conservation groups come in a wide variety of flavors, focusing on a singular issue or many, working in conjunction with other groups or going it alone. Whatever the strategy, the goal is to achieve results that are meaningful and lasting.

In the past, I have cited the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) as an organization that has chosen the legal approach to advancing the cause of conservation and protection of endangered species. Working with other legal groups like Earthjustice or conservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, and others, CBD adheres to a strategy of utilizing the courts to get federal agencies to follow through with laws or regulations already in place or to consider issues that are in line with the agencies charter or mandate.

While this blog gravitates mostly towards issues regarding the ocean, occasionally I like to turn attention to those creatures that reside on dry land. Focusing on fur, here are a few developments announced by the Center for Biological Diversity that caught my attention. Two represent ongoing challenges - of which public support can have an impact - and two are victories that can be savored but require continued diligence if they are to persevere. The Center is not the only the group involved in pushing ahead on these issues; CBD will mention working in conjunction "with others" and I often wish they would list those others groups - all deserve their due credit.

And you can make a difference to - by petition support or financial contribution, if possible.

Wolves' Fate at Stake in Congress -- Take Action
The Center for Biological Diversity and 47 other groups yesterday wrote to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, urging her to oppose legislation that would permanently end federal protections for endangered gray wolves, leaving them open to slaughter. Later in the day wolves caught a slight break when the Senate voted down a House Republican spending bill that, among other anti-environment measures, included a provision to strip wolves of federal protections.

But that doesn't mean wolves are out of the woods. Members of Congress have shown a disturbingly keen interest in stripping Endangered Species Act protections for wolves throughout Montana and Idaho and parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington. If approved, such legislation will bar protection for northern Rockies wolves as "endangered" even if their numbers plummet toward zero. Both Montana and Idaho have long been chomping at the bit to raze wolf populations.

Congress has never taken a step like this before -- and endangered species protection must be determined according to science, as current law prescribes, not through a rider hidden in a gigantic funding bill. In fact, such legislation puts the very Endangered Species Act at risk and sets a terrible precedent for other species hovering on the brink of extinction.

Take action with us now by telling your senators to stop any congressional effort to strip protections from gray wolves.

Read more in E & E News.

Big Oil Sues Over Polar Bear Habitat Protections
Big Oil has filed the first lawsuit challenging the biggest "critical habitat" designation ever made -- and won by the Center for Biological Diversity and allies. Specifically, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association -- representing 15 oil and gas companies, including BP, Exxon and Chevron -- last week sued the federal government for protecting 120 million acres for Alaska's polar bears. The oil companies say that polar bears are too "abundant" to deserve the protected area, and that setting aside the land will be too expensive because it may get in the way of oil and gas development. Other entities, including the state of Alaska, are also expected to challenge the designation.

The Center has been working since 2001 to save the polar bear from the dire threats the species faces -- including oil and gas development. We're the group that originally wrote the petition earning the bear its status under the Endangered Species Act; we're still fighting to earn it the full "endangered" protection it desperately needs. We won't let any critical-habitat challenge succeed. Stay tuned for a polar bear update soon.

Read more in the UK's Daily Mail.

Wolf Massacre Halted in Alaska -- Thank You
Wolves on Alaska's Unimak Island won't have to face the prospect of getting gunned down by aerial shooters -- and you deserve some of the credit. After Center for Biological Diversity supporters sent in nearly 34,000 comments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this Monday announced it won't let Alaska aerial gunners kill gray wolves on the island as part of a misguided attempt to stop the decline of caribou. (There's little evidence that wolves are at fault.) The Alaska Department of Fish and Game was planning to shoot wolves from helicopters on the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. Aerial killing is as inhumane as it is unnecessary, especially during the pup-rearing season. Thanks so much for saving wolves young and old from devastating deaths.

Get more from the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Protection Restored for Tongass National Forest
In another big Alaska victory, a judge has ended a lawsuit brought by the Center and allies by vetoing a decision that exempted the majestic Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The rule, passed in 2001, is meant to protect pristine public forests from destructive activities like road building and resource extraction. But to boost the timber industry, the Bush administration decided the rule wouldn't apply to the Tongass, leaving the 17-million-acre forest wide open to exploitation.

"This is a victory for the wolves, bears, deer, goshawks and other unique species that rely on the untouched old-growth forest of the Tongass for their survival," said the Center's Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin. "The Tongass never should have been exempted from the roadless rule, and this court decision provides valuable respite for old-growth-dependent species that have been hammered by unsustainable logging practices in the Tongass."

Read about the Tongass victory in the
Los Angeles Times.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

China and Shark Fins: chipping away at the wall

As a follow up to my recent post on shark conservation advocate Stefanie Brendl, here's something from my friends at SharkDiver, running an interesting post today about recent developments in China. SharkDiver seems to always be on top of the latest news regarding sharks and shark conservation and here is news about a Chinese lawmaker taking a position against shark fins. One can only hope that this gentleman and his supporting colleagues will be able to affect real change.

Change in China? Lawmaker Urges Shark Fin Ban

A Chinese lawmaker has proposed that the country's top legislature ban the trade of shark fin, a high-end delicacy consumed by wealthy people in China and East Asia.

Shark-fin trading generates enormous profits, but encourages overfishing and the brutal slaughter of sharks, of which some 30 species are near extinction, said Ding Liguo, deputy to the National People's Congress, the top legislature.

He has filed a formal written proposal to the legislature, together with a dozen of other lawmakers.

China is now the biggest market of shark fin, consuming 95 percent of the world's total with Taiwan, Hong Kong counted, said Ding Wednesday, a billionaire and executive chairman of Delong Holdings Limited, at a panel discussion of the ongoing parliament session.

Shark fin soup has become an essential part of any respectable banquet in China over the years. And there are no laws in China banning shark fin trading, he said, adding a publicity campaign against shark fin consumption has had limited impact.

"Only legislation can stop shark fin trading and reduce the killings of sharks," Ding said, adding China should take the lead in banning the trade.

Fin trade encourages shark-finning, a practice in which the fins are typically cut off while the shark is still alive. The shark then dies a slow death.

Shark fins are used to make a soup that is a high-end staple on the menu of most upscale restaurants. Many of them make the delicacy a signature dish to lure customers, as Chinese culture has lauded shark fins to boost virility and enhance skin quality.

Further, shark fin soup represents wealth, prestige and honor as the gourmet food was coveted by emperors in China's Ming Dynasty because it was rare, delicious and required elaborate preparation.

With both culinary and symbolic significance, the dish is popular at important occasions such as weddings, banquets and important business deals.

Treated with this Chinese cuisine is a show of respect, honor and appreciation to the guests. Ordinary people normally can't afford to have the dish.

Price of shark fins is up to 4,000 yuan (about 600 U.S. dollars) per kilogram, said Huang Liming, duty manager at the medium-level Hongxing Seafood Restaurant in southern Guangzhou city. Shark fins could be sold up to 10,000 yuan per kilogram in upscale restaurants, Huang said.

But sales of shark fins have declined 30 percent recently from a year earlier to at most 0.5 kilogram each day as people prefer healthier and environmental-friendly food, Huang said, adding most of the delicacy is consumed by businessmen.

"People are mistaken by the supposed nutritional value of shark fin," Ding said.

"Research shows the nutritional value of shark fin is similar to that of poultry, fish skin, meat and eggs. It is tasteless and its low level nutritional value is hard to absorb by the body." He said.

Further, it contains high levels of lead and mercury, which most people know little about, he said, adding he neither eats shark fins nor treats guests with the dish.

Ding proposed that governmental officials take the lead in stopping the consumption of shark fin, and that state-owned hotels and restaurants stop serving shark fin.

Zhang Xingsheng, managing director of North Asia Region of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), started an online poll on microblog website of since Jan. 8, calling on the country's legislature to ban overall shark fin trading.

As of Wednesday, 27,370 people have voted for the ban, and 440 voted against the ban.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Stefanie Brendl: shark conservation mover and shaker

Over the past couple of years I had the pleasure of getting to know Stefanie Brendl through a series of email conversations and then meeting up with her at last year's BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit in Monterey, CA.

Stefanie hails from Hawaii where she first came to my attention as the owner of Hawaiian Shark Encounters, one of Oahu's leading shark diving operations and a leader in shark conservation efforts in the state. Her shark conservation efforts progressively broadened as she formed the non-profit Shark Allies and worked more and more with the political decision makers responsible for shark fin prohibition legislation in Hawaii, Marianas Islands, Guam, and elsewhere. She currently works closely with WildAid in pushing for more and more shark conservation legislation throughout the Pacific Islands and the U.S. West Coast. She is definitely becoming one of the preeminent figures in productive shark conservation efforts.

The 7th Generation recently conducted a video interview with Stefanie. Take a peek at someone who is part of a small circle in the field of shark conservation who are helping to make a difference.

Guardians of the Ocean - Interview with Stefanie Brendl from Carsten Essig on Vimeo.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: the yin-yang of the sea

Last night, my long-standing dive buddy, Budd Riker, and I did a night dive at Shaw's Cove in Laguna Beach, California. Budd had been out to this dive location two nights before and was amazed at the range of sea life he came across. One round stingray after another, large mantis shrimp strolling across the sandy bottom, and surprisingly good visibility considering the flat sandy bottom of the cove.

But as can, frustratingly, often be the case when you come across an unusual occurrence, Budd had not brought his digital SLR camera that particular evening. And so here we were on Sunday, hoping for a repeat performance. On this dive, I kept my video camera at home (not much fun dragging a 70-pound rig through the surf) and was going to act as Budd's scout, using my underwater light to search for subjects to shoot.

We arrived as the sun was beginning to set. Some dark clouds were rolling in, but that did not matter to us (whereas in a daytime dive, losing the sun's ambient light would be a bit disappointing). Shaw's Cove has a large rocky reef structure to the right side that extends perhaps 200 yards out. At the moment, the tide had much of the top of the reef exposed and so Budd and I spent some time combing over the tidepools and recalling some of the many dives we had made here.

Budd has done literally thousands of dives at Shaw's Cove both for pleasure and when he used to be a scuba diving instructor. I had not done anywhere near as many, but still knew many of the contours of Shaw's Cove's reef structure. We talked of the "Crack" and grotto that runs across the reef and how much fun it was to investigate its many passages - always mindful of the occasional swell that could rush through, sending you on a roller coaster ride and slamming you against the rocks or a wall of spiny sea urchins if your timing was all wrong. Ah, the good times.

And so we waited for night to fall, reminiscing over past dives and noting how so many formations seem unchanged after all these many years. There seemed to be a consistency to the sea, a familiarity at Shaw's Cove that said, no matter what the ocean has been through, there are some things in life that never change. Now, with a black sky above, Budd and I suited up and waded through the very calm surf. Budd was ready for images of the many creatures he saw just a few nights ago. And I was ready to be his hunting dog, pointing them out to him.

That was the plan. The ocean saw things a bit differently that night.

We swam on the surface for a while before descending to 18 feet to begin our dive. Shaw's Cove has a wide sandy plain that drops off slowly, so one can travel quite a ways and still be relatively shallow - at several hundred yards off shore you can still only be at 25 to 30 feet in depth. We moved out slowly, keeping our eyes alert for those multitudes of stingrays and mantis shrimp.

But tonight was to be a very different night. First, I saw, through the beam of my light, what first appeared to be a considerable amount of particles floating in the water; sea grass pulverized by wave action perhaps. "Well, this loss of visibility won't make Budd very happy," I thought. Then I realized that the particles had an interesting dancing movement to them. Plankton! A multitude of minute larvae gyrating about - I felt like I was trapped in a goldfish bowl full of sea monkeys.

Next up on the changing menu was the contour of the sandy sea bottom itself. What was very flat a few nights ago, with small ripples in the sand, was now transformed into deeper ridges and valleys of sand, exposing purple sand dollars and allowing small ghost shrimp or juvenile halibut or flounder to find safe haven in the deep sandy depressions. Only a couple of small rays appeared and there were no mantis shrimp to be seen. Several types of crabs were scuttling about, raising their claws in defiance of the bright lights that gazed down upon them. We came upon two small crabs in the throes of conjugal bliss and while Budd snapped photos, the male slowly dug into the sand, holding fast to his mate and taking her with him. Oh, no. Hounded by the paparazzi once again.

And so what was familiar was now different. The sea can be a very fickle place. Some things can appear unchanged, dependable - this will last for eternity. And yet, below the waves, there is a very fragile and constantly evolving world taking place. Set into motion by waves, currents, temperatures, and the bio-rhythms of thousands of sea creatures, the yin-yang of the sea is susceptible to all of these influences and those imposed upon it by man.

Eventually feeling the chill of the early Spring water temperature, Budd and I surfaced and made our way back to shore. More surprised than disappointed that his hoped-for quarry had eluded him, Budd still had some great pictures from our dive. As we stepped out of the surf, we found that the dark clouds from earlier in the evening had now turned into a light rain; another reminder that our world is ever-changing.

It was a good dive and a reminder that we can never take the ocean and all that live within it for granted.

See more at Budd Riker Photography and Budd's blog.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sharks on the Right Path: research indicates predators know where they're going

Researchers continue to learn more about the movement of sharks, particularly their ability to navigate along deliberate paths as opposed to random, meandering movements. Much attention has been paid in recent years to the incredible long-distance migrations that many species of shark undertake. But scientists with the Florida Museum of Natural History focused their attention on shorter distances; in essence, how and where the sharks traveled over several days or weeks as opposed to many months. What they found was that sharks at times appear to know exactly where they are going.

The Florida researchers tracked the movements of tiger, thresher, and blacktip reef sharks, and their results, recently published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, showed that the sharks would often exhibit random movements or "walks." However, there were plenty of times when the sharks, particularly the tigers, would demonstrate very directional movement behavior. The tiger sharks appeared to be the best at pursuing these directed walks, covering as much as 30 miles in a singular direction and even traveling several miles to a very specific point underwater.

Yannis Papastamatiou, co-author of the study, said, "Our research shows that, at times, tiger sharks and thresher sharks use highly directed walks to swim to specific locations. Simply put, they know where they are going.

Many people could walk to a known destination 3.7 to five miles away, but imagine doing it in deep water and at night.

As anyone who dives knows, finding your way around underwater without a compass is very difficult, but this is what we found tiger sharks could do."

As a diver, I can attest as to how difficult visual navigation can be underwater. Rock formations that appear one way as you move in a particular direction can look completely different when approached from the reverse direction or different angle. But with a full range of sensory capabilities far beyond that of man, using visual cues combined with other sensory input like temperature, currents, or even the magnetic fields of the earth could make it simply all in a day's work for a shark.

In June of last year, I wrote about similar research studying a variety of pelagic - or open-ocean - predators like swordfish, tuna, and sharks. In this study, the researchers were looking for certain mathematical patterns: Brownian walks for so-called random movements, and Levy flights for more directional straight movements. One of the researchers noted that the use of straight line movements as opposed to random may have been initiated due to the availability of food.

Lévy behavior showed up more often in waters where plankton, fish and other food was scarce. In regions with plentiful food, random motion dominated. This observation, says theoretical physicist Gandhimohan Viswanathan, fits with earlier suggestions that 'animals may use a Lévy flight motion to improve their chances of finding prey.'”

Whether motivated by food or some other impulse or whether or not supported by a keen sense of visual direction or some other ability (all questions to be answered with future research), it can be said that in a challenging environment like the ocean, sharks are being shown to demonstrate some highly intelligent movement behaviors, perhaps relying on some "cognitive maps" lodged somewhere deep within their brains.

Read about shark movements in U.K.'s Mail Online.
Read about Brownian walks and Levy flights in RTSea Blog.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Japan's Whaling Industry Setback: what conservationists do next is critical

The past several weeks have seen a considerable amount of media attention over the decision by Japan to curtail its annual Antarctic whale hunt ahead of schedule. This has been due in no small part to the actions of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in disrupting the Japanese whale fleet's activities through harassment and intervention. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been dogging the Japanese fleet for many years while the island nation hunted whales under a "whale research" loophole in the regulations put forth by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

I have gone on record as not being an advocate of the kind of attention-grabbing, eco-terrorist techniques employed by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I believe that it polarizes the opposing parties and does not pave a way for reasonable negotiations - which, like it or not, is where the necessary economic and regulatory change comes about. But credit where credit is due. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's efforts this season, while not as dramatic as in past seasons (with rammed ships, arrests, and calls for international prosecution), succeeded in reducing Japan's catch this year from an anticipated 850 minke whales and 50 fin whales to just 170 and 2, respectively. The Society deserves a hardy pat on the back.

The big question is: What next?

What will be Japan's strategy for 2012? This is a nation whose government and whaling industry is smarting and feeling very defensive over their cultural predilection toward whaling (indeed, toward commercial fishing in general) and their sense of national pride and indignation regarding verbal (and in the case of Sea Shepherd, physical) intervention from foreigners. One mustn't think that, based on this year's curtailed whaling season, Japan will be willing to throw in the towel.

However, there are several social and economic factors at work that may be pressuring the governing forces in Japan to begin to re-evaluate their position regarding whaling. In a recent article in Inter Press Service (IPS), Suvendrini Kakuchi reported,

"Despite campaigns to increase the sale of whale meat from minke whales, the local market has reported a reduction of 30 percent in 2010, according to the Tokyo-based Minato Newspaper quoting the publicly funded whaling company Koyodo Senpaku.

Whale meat is popular among older consumers in the sixties and above whose diet soon after World War II relied on whale as a protein.

But a 2008 September survey conducted by an independent organization under a request by Greenpeace Japan conservationists indicates that 70 percent of people between the ages of 15 to 39 years have not eaten whale meat.

The Japanese media has reported that 4,000 tonnes of excess whale meat was frozen and stored in warehouses in 2009."

Japan's government and regulatory agencies are inclined to maintain the cultural and historical status quo, but as younger generations begin to view whale consumption differently from generations past, that is producing some harsh economic realities that the industry will need to confront.

This provides a window of opportunity for delicate, non-combative diplomacy exercised by conservation groups, international agencies and individual countries. These forces have an opportunity to discuss with Japan the merits of sustainability, tighter fishery (and whaling) management, and perhaps work together on economic issues like shifting more resources towards developing, say, more environmentally efficient aquaculture.

Make no mistake, there is a tremendous opportunity here and there are even forces within Japan that are pressuring for a change. Some local governments are looking into establishing restricted or limited fishing as a means of maintaining sustainability of both the industry and marine species.

"The decision to call back the Japanese whaling fleet is based on low whale meat consumption locally, and other evidence that shows the industry is not sustainable," Prof. Toshio Katsura, marine biologist at Mie University told IPS.

But our response now must be a judicious one. Japan's whaling industry has sustained a serious blow this season and rather than gloat, we must carefully negotiate with the country's old guard, who are still very much in power both politically and commercially, to find ways to save face and set a new course in marine resource management.

Read the IPS article on Japan's whaling policy.