Thursday, April 28, 2011

Shark DNA: an aid to tracking the origin of shark fins

As a follow up to yesterday's post on thresher shark research, another shark news item is making the rounds: tracing the source of shark fins through DNA. Thanks to research in identifying DNA components in various shark populations, scientists can now track down the origin of dried shark fins right back to the source - the location of the shark population from where the fin was taken. This will assist in enforcing shark conservation management regulations and hopefully stem the illegal taking of sharks which adds so much to the overall devastating annual toll.

Covering the subject, here is a re-cap post from Shark Divers' Underwater Thrills:

Sharks and DNA Zip Codes - Hope?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

An international team of scientists, led by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, has used DNA to determine that groups of dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus) and copper sharks (Carcharhinus brachyurus) living in different coastal regions across the globe are separate populations of each species. Both are large apex predators that are heavily exploited for the shark fin trade, which claims tens of millions of animals every year to produce the Asian delicacy, shark fin soup.

Many of these species are declining as a result of this fishing pressure for their fins.

DNA research projects were conducted by a collaborative international team of scientists from the United States, Australia, South America, Asia, New Zealand and southern Africa. The scientists collectively analyzed part of the mitochondrial DNA in nearly 400 sharks sampled from all over the globe.

This research was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University. Sequence data were collected in the Field Museum's Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution, operated with support from the Pritzker Foundation. Additional sequence data were collected at the Guy Harvey Research Institute with operational funds and a grant from the Save Our Seas Foundation. Funding was also provided by the Turner Fellowship Program and the Tinker Foundation.

For more information on "Global phylogeography of the dusky shark, Carcharhinus obscurus: implications for fisheries management and monitoring the shark fin trade," visit here.

For more information on "Phylogeography of the copper shark (Carcharhinus brachyurus) in the southern hemisphere: implications for the conservation of a coastal apex predator," visit here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sparkle-Clean Sharks: thresher sharks practice good hygiene in the Philippines

As marine biologists continue to study the physiology and behaviors of sharks, we are learning more and more about these fascinating creatures and what we can do to protect them if it's not too late. Case in point:

Thresher sharks have been greatly depleted in number - caught for their fins and meat - which is disappointing over and above the obvious loss in population because it is a very unique species. The thresher shark's namesake elongated tail fin has been shown to be used as a hunting tool, slashing and stunning its prey. Diver encounters with thresher sharks have always been scarce as they often swim in deep, open waters and don't typically congregate in large groups.

However, off the northern tip of Cebu in the Philippines, a dive tourism business is growing based on the thresher shark. Apparently, a concentration of thresher sharks frequent a seamount there, which increases the opportunity for divers to see these beautiful sharks in the wild.

Researchers from U.K.'s Bangor University have been studying the behavior of these sharks in the Philippines and have recently published their findings in the journal PLoS One. According to the research team, the thresher sharks are frequenting the deep seamount to get a good
cleaning. Residing at the seamount are a number of cleaner wrasses, a fish well-known for cleaning larger reef fish by picking away parasites and dead skin or scales. It seems that thresher sharks have caught on to the benefits of this hygienic service and will cruise close to the seamount, slowing down to half their normal speed and allowing the cleaner wrasses to give them a thorough once over.

The researchers have filmed this behavior, amassing over 1,000 hours of footage. They are quick to point out that mankind can have a disruptive effect on this symbiotic relationship - the seamount already shows evidence of dynamite fishing, a local commercial technique that literally destroys reef communities.

According to lead researcher Simon Oliver,
“Our findings underscore the importance of protecting areas like seamounts which play an important part in [the sharks'] life strategy to maintain health and hygiene.”

Fellow researcher Dr. John Turner said, regarding their studies, “The work uniquely describes why some oceanic sharks come into coastal waters to perform an important life function which is easily disturbed by man.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: trying to keep up with Diana Nyad

Scuba divers, like myself, like to think that we become one with the ocean every time we put a regulator in our mouths and dip below the surface. Boaters and hard-core yachtsman, I'm sure, feel the same way. And perhaps even fishermen. It's a combination of appreciating the environment we are in and, at the same time, testing or challenging it a bit - because, after all, we are being the intruder.

This past week I had the opportunity to meet and film someone who takes the physical and metaphysical experience of the oceans to a level that I can only marvel at. Shooting a segment for CNN's Medical News with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, I had the pleasure of working with Diana Nyad, a world record-holder in open ocean, long-distance swimming. We were filming in the Raleigh Runnels Memorial Pool at the beautiful Malibu, California campus of Pepperdine University. With a warm day and a clear sky to work with, I proceeded to put Diana through her paces as she swam lap after lap while I shot her from a variety of angles. I say put her "through her paces" totally tongue-in-cheek, as this exercise was a mere stroll through the park for her. But by the end of the day, I was exhausted.

Long-distance ocean swimming is an intense exercise in endurance, concentration and, in many ways, becoming one with your environment. The distances that Diana covers and the hours that she spends continuously swimming are incredible. Her world record is 102.5 miles, from Bimini Island to Florida, over two days. Over 102 miles and two days non-stop.

Diana prefers to swim without the aid of a shark cage - there are those swimmers who feel the use of a shark cage makes the swim a bit less challenging - not because of the concern for sharks but because the cage acts like a box that tows the swimmer along, keeping him or her on the right path and smoothing out ocean swells. Diana deals with the possibility of shark encounters by using several electronic Shark Shields attached to a following kayak.

Nourishment is provided throughout the swim in the form of fluids and high protein snacks that are totally burned up to satisfy her caloric needs and provide little waste. Diana experiences all the various levels of extreme physical and mental endurance that you can imagine, getting the mind to focus so that the adrenaline and endorphins keep pumping before the body systems eventually say they have had enough.

Diana completed her swim from Bimini to Florida in 1979 and then took a break from swimming - for 31 years. A year ago, at age 60, she began training to break her own record by trying for a distance that rough seas had kept her from accomplishing in 1978: Havana, Cuba to Florida; 103 miles and 60 hours.

As I found out in the Pepperdine pool, this is a woman to be reckoned with. An inspiring and indomitable force - and I had to try to keep up with her with scuba gear and an underwater housing in my hands. Well, all right, no excuses. She made me look like a total wuss as I gasped and dragged air from my tank at a phenomenal rate, feeling my heart leap from chest as I worked my dive fins overtime to try to keep up.

Eventually, I decided, well, enough of the underwater side-by-side dolly shots. I'll just float here and let her do all the work.

After a number of laps, you catch yourself before asking her if she needs a break. Asking if she was getting tired seemed a pretty lame idea, but actually breaks were called for to allow her to warm up. With well-developed muscles and minimal fat, even in a heated pool, Diana can lose body heat quickly. So, occasional jumps into a nearby heated whirlpool did the trick.

Life is short, which means that the goals we set for ourselves - whatever they may be - should be sought after with determination, not complacency. Diana Nyad, knows this very well. And she melds her mind and body with the sea to accomplish things that we can certainly take inspiration from, whatever the endeavor, whatever our age or sex.

As she quotes from poet Mary Oliver on her website's home page, "What is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Learn more about Diana Nyad at her website.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Attacking Oil: new research in dealing with the effects of oil spills

While developments in alternative energy - like solar, wind, and thermal - continue, the harsh truth is that it will be some time before these and other energy sources can make a considerable dent in our reliance on fossil fuels. And so the reality of someday having to contend with another spill, perhaps on the same level as the Gulf oil spill or worse, is very real.

Therefore, while science continues to look towards alternatives, it is also looking at ways to deal with the effects of spills on the environment. Chemical dispersants, while perhaps being able to actually disperse the oil, have not been given a clean bill of health, so to speak, when it comes to ancillary effects on the environment, particularly when used at the high levels administered in the Gulf oil spill. Scientists are trying to find more natural or organic methods to better treat oil in the soil, plants, and even on animal life, like birds.

Here are two interesting videos from National Geographic Daily News that highlight some of the research and progress that is being made in this approach. If successful, it could provide a means to better combat the effects of an oil spill. But these will never replace the need for more alternative fuels - just like methadone is only a temporary replacement for the heroin addict. Getting off the addiction is the ultimate and only definitive cure.

Rising Sea Levels: some nations are already seeing waters at their doorstep

Human populations have an economic attraction to the water. Whether it be oceans, lakes, or rivers - these bodies of water can prove to be effective points of transportation, and that leads to trade and commerce. Just look at the location of many of the major cities worldwide and you will typically find a water connection.

So, with the slow but study increase in sea level being brought about by climate change, particularly the effects of global warming on the Arctic and Antarctic regions, there are some very serious economic and socio-political issues that will be brought to the forefront in the next couple of decades.

Tropical regions, like the low-lying Maldives, are having to wrestle with the reality of someday being totally submerged - it's people becoming immigrants from a nation that literally no longer exists. But rising seas levels will impact more than a handful of tropical islands. As reported in the May issue of National Geographic, the heavily populated nation of Bangladesh is already feeling the effects of rising sea levels with high tides that are now bringing a foot of water into coastal homes, rising levels of salinity which impact aquifers, and river flooding becoming more destructive (three major rivers come together in Bangladesh to form the Ganges River Delta).

Bangladesh is a country with one of the highest population densities - more than half of its 164 million population live in an area smaller than the US state of Utah. As sea levels continue to rise, where these people are supposed to go and what economic infrastructure can travel with them is a big question. And if they are forced to immigrate, in that particular part of the world, who is prepared to take them in?

But rising sea levels is not an issue confined to lower income or developing nations. Major cities like Miami and New York would also have to contend with this problem. Would they need to prepare themselves, like New Orleans, with dikes and levies? We have seen the impact of walls that fail with the destruction in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. What will it take to protect a city like London when the Thames River overflows its banks, which some have predicted as early as 2025?
Within the scientific community, the vast majority do not dispute the reality of climate change and the impact of global warming. International organizations like the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are wrestling with the social, political, and economic implications. Perhaps it will be those issues, more so than purely environmental implications, that will drive nations to take action. The challenge is that it is an insidious, incremental, and long-term threat. Cities won't be swallowed up whole immediately and, as a species, we seem to react better to immediate threats. But if we wait until water floods Piccadilly or we find ourselves rowing a canoe to work in Times Square, it may very well be too late.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Florida's Dead Shark Mystery: 15 small sharks wash ashore along west coast

Every now and then we get mysteries than can initially defy explanation or fuel the imaginations of those seeking easy justification of conspiracy or doomsday theories. With regards to the oceans, there have been coral die-offs, algal blooms, whale and dolphin beachings, and mass fish deaths that occur from time to time. And this week, one more strange event occurred that, at this moment, has marine scientists scratching their heads.

Sharks have washed ashore along the northern beaches of Manatee County, Florida. This is an area along the western or Gulf of Mexico side of Florida, south of Tampa. The dead sharks, fifteen so far, consisted of bonnethead, blacknose, and sharpnose sharks - relatively small sharks that cruise coastal waters.

As reported by Bay News 9, marine scientists from Florida's MOTE Marine Laboratory do not believe the sharks succumbed to any effects from the Gulf oil spill because the normal range and travel patterns of these particular species of shark would have precluded them from getting in harm's way. However, it is nonetheless unusual for so many sharks to be found dead within a specific area - the occasional shark, yes; but fifteen sharks in a week, no.

"There were no real indicators of what went wrong with them," said Dr. Nick Whitney, Staff Scientist for the Center for Shark Research at MOTE Marine Laboratory. "There are no obvious signs of damage from fishing or net damage or anything like that."

Tissues samples were taken for analysis to determine whether the sharks died due to the effects of a red tide - an algal bloom that can carry dimoic acid which has been shown to cause neurological disruptions and death in seals and fish. Recently, an isolated mass die-off of sardines in Manhattan Beach, California left the harbor with literally tens of thousands of dead fish either floating on the surface or piling up on the harbor bottom.

Being the shark admirer that I am, I found this all very disappointing; I have dived with bonnethead sharks and they are beautiful, delicate sharks - petite relatives to the larger hammerhead species.

I also found it a bit ironic as I had just recently read an article that had listed the "top five unfounded health hysterias." The editors of the Big Think blog ran their self-appointed five and four of them revolved around over-hyped perceived threats from autism-causing vaccines, fluoridated water, the SARS virus, anthrax . . . and number five was shark attacks.

Poor sharks - lumped together in our over-worked imaginations with other obscure or statistically remote diseases or medical conditions. And yet the great malevolent ocean monster is, itself, truly susceptible to mysterious maladies that can deprive the ocean of an important member of the marine community.

It's not easy being a shark.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tracking Great White Sharks: researcher reconsiders a controversial technique

The first shark I ever filmed professionally, to this day, probably remains as my all-time favorite: the great white shark. There are certainly sharks that can rival its beauty. And I have had my adrenaline pumping while swimming in the midst of other sharks in a frenzy - something you don't see with white sharks. But there is something so overwhelmingly magnificent when I am in the presence of a great white, that it still takes my breath away (or maybe I'm just trying not to spook the shark with my bubbles).

Because of that special allure, I have always been interested in their survival and the research and conservation efforts of others to solve the mysteries regarding their lifestyle that still exist today. As those mysteries are slowly unraveled, we will be better educated as to how best to manage and protect the remaining white shark populations, which are in perilous decline.

Over the past year, there has been quite a controversy within the shark research and, particularly, the shark advocate community regarding the research methods of Dr. Michael Domeier - techniques that were featured in the National Geographic television series Operation:
Great White and can be seen in Nat Geo's new series Shark Men. Domeier devised a method that entailed hooking a great white, tiring it out to where it could be pulled up onto a large boat platform and hauled out of the water. Then, with only a few minutes available to Domeier's team, blood samples and measurements were taken and, most importantly, a long-range, long-term satellite or SPOT (Smart Positioning and Temperature) tag was bolted to the shark's dorsal fin. The shark was then released and tracking of the shark's position would begin in the hopes of determining more precisely what the migration patterns were of these animals.

From the start, there were questions as to whether this particular technique Domeier had devised was harmful to the sharks. It certainly wasn't a minor procedure and appeared fraught with animal trauma from the moment the shark was hooked to when it was dragged aboard to its final release. I, for one, had expressed concern that the method seemed overly complicated - a kind of Rube Goldberg attempt - and one that was perhaps better suited for the making of a dramatic television show.

There were some shark researchers who had expressed both concern over the method of capture and the quality of the data. But the scientific and academic community is a small and tightly-knit world and so opinions were, for the most part, somewhat muted.

However, the online world of shark advocates had a field day with Domeier, particularly with one horrendously botched attempt that left a white shark, named "Junior", with a large portion of the hook lodged deep in its throat. Recently, pictures of that shark have emerged one year after its capture and they show a noticeably emaciated shark with severe wounds that may or not be a result of the bungled tagging episode. The simmering cauldron of online opinion once again went into full boil.

So, what is the latest in this controversial saga? With National Geographic Channel's Shark Men about to air, what can we expect from Dr. Domeier and his white shark research? Well, according to MSNBC, Domeier is in the process of retooling his research techniques. While still defending his capture methods, he is not pleased with the tags themselves and how they are attached. These SPOT tags are rather large and when attached to the shark's dorsal fin, can apparently cause deformation or damage. Domeier is investigating techniques for attaching SPOT tags that would minimize any possible damage. To better focus on this problem, he has chosen not to participate in the television series. From a crisis communications/PR perspective, it's also not a bad idea to take yourself out of the limelight for a while when surrounded by controversy.

Researchers are often faced with difficult decisions regarding the methods by which they gather data, the cost to the subject in question, and how much public media exposure can be advantageous in securing funding or possibly setting you up for intense scrutiny and even ridicule. I would hope that technology would prevail and powerful, long-lasting tags - much smaller and lighter in design - could be developed which would negate the need for such elaborate capture methods as Dr. Domeier felt compelled to employ.

We owe the sharks that much. Even a 16-foot, 3,000 pound great white shark deserves a little tenderness now and then.

Read MSNBC's article on the Domeier controversy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Key Ocean Events This Week: Gulf oil spill anniversary & Earth Day 2011

For ocean conservation, this is a week of remembrance, concern, commitment, and hope.

Deepwater Horizon
It was one year ago, this Wednesday, that the Gulf of Mexico was rocked by an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil platform which signaled the start of an agonizingly drawn out event: the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. Over the course of three months, nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil spewed into the Gulf; killing sealife, invading fragile coastal wetlands, and leaving untold quantities of oil strewned over the bottom of the seafloor. And added to that was the questionable use of massive quantities of dispersants, forming a toxic soup that removed large quantities of oil from visible sight but could very well have done lasting damage to marine ecosystems at the micro level.

One year later, we commemorate this anniversary with caution and concern - and even a measure of guarded optimism. Dr. Carl Safina, who spent a considerable amount of time in the Gulf assessing the initial damage and the potential long-term implications for both the Gulf economy and ecology, said recently,
"A lot of questions remain, but where we are now is ahead of where people thought we'd be. Most people expected it would be much worse." As reported in TIME magazine, like the microbes that saved mankind from marauding Martians in The War of the Worlds, oil-eating bacteria played a similar role in the Gulf, consuming vast quantities of oil.

"Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; University of California, Santa Barbara; and Texas A&M University traveled to the site of the blown well and found that microbes had digested much of the oil and methane that remained in the water," said TIME reporter Bryan Walsh. "By autumn, the levels were back to normal. 'It's very surprising it happened so fast,' John Kessler, an oceanographer with Texas A&M, told me earlier this year. '"It looks like natural systems can handle an event like this somewhat on their own.'"

But not all of the oil is gone and many scientists believe it will take years to fully assess the damage. What impact the dispersed or broken-down oil and trace elements will have on the basic building blocks of the Gulf ecology - the microscopic plankton, the larval fish and other sea creatures, the plantlife, and overall water quality - may not fully present itself for years or even decades.

It may well be that, unlike other areas of the world where major oil spills have occurred, the Gulf of Mexico may have a unique resilience. But it cannot be taken for granted. We must look at the dangerous method of deepwater oil drilling as an indication of the level of our oil addiction and realize that, as with a hardened drug addict, when our addiction-fueled actions become so desperate as to threaten ourselves and the world around us, then we must realize that we are at the edge and must pull back and chart a new and smarter course.

Earth Day 2011
Two days after the Gulf Oil Spill anniversary, comes a reason to celebrate and be optimistic for our future. Earth Day is April 22 and, from its beginnings in 1970, it has grown from a perhaps Woodstock-generation celebration of the planet to a sophisticated event designed to make young and old aware of our connection with the planet and ourselves.

It has grown into a network of individuals and organizations working together, at least for a brief moment each year, to bring greater awareness to environmental issues and to get something accomplished, no matter how small or how grand in scope. And that's where the optimism comes in.

Earth Day does not sugar coat or gloss over the global issues we face just for the sake of holding hands and singing Kumbyah one day out of the year. Through the Earth Day network and website, they work towards mobilizing people, particularly children, to take action. One of its key efforts is the Billion Acts of Green whereby people commit to doing something "green" to protect the planet. One less single-use plastic bag, one less lightbulb left burning, one less tuna or swordfish consumed in a restaurant - all can have a cumulative effect.

While Earth Day is only two days away, there is still time to check out the Earth Day Network website and see what events are taking place in your area or how you can get your local school or other organizations involved through the course of the year.

The leaders of Earth Day know it's just a day. What we do the day after - whether in the Gulf of Mexico or at your local beach - that's what counts for future generations and the planet itself.

Read more about the Gulf recovery. Visit the Earth Day Network.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bahamas Shark Sanctuary: the call is out to protect a leading shark locale

Having just recently returned from a video expedition to the northwest banks off of the Bahamas, I was again reminded as to why this region is considered one of the shark capitols of the world. The underwater topography, from white sandy plains to lush reefs to expansive beds of sea grass, lend themselves as hospitable environments for a variety of shark species. Caribbean reef sharks and the occasional tiger shark cruise the reefs. Lemon sharks in large numbers, tiger sharks, and nurse sharks patrol the sandy bottoms. And in deeper water you can find hammerhead and oceanic white tip sharks.

With scuba diving and shark diving being major tourist attractions that support the Bahamas' fragile economy, it is surprising to find that there are no established management policies or regulated safe zones for the protection of the sharks in the Bahamas. These animals are exposed. But that could soon change.

The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), with cooperation from the Pew Charitable Trusts, is beginning a campaign to have a shark sanctuary established in the Bahamas. This would be the first of its kind in the Atlantic Ocean, and that could start the ball rolling much like what is occurring in the Pacific with the Palau Shark Sanctuary and the shark fishing regulations or prohibitions that have sprung up in several Pacific island nations.

But first, you must get the people on your side. With a committed, or least understanding and willing, constituency, you then can generate support and action within the halls of government. The Dorsal Fin blog noted the following two videos produced by the BNT and Pew Trusts. Each delivers basically the same message but with a slightly different angle. The first video is designed to appeal to the human element and to show that even Bahamian children understand the importance of protecting such a vital national natural resource and that what could happen to sharks will impact future generations. The second video shows the sharks themselves, particularly Caribbean reef sharks, and is a bit more informative - although it lacks a clever motif or hook that could perhaps better grab the viewer's attention.

But together they make for a great statement of common sense and concern. The Bahamas is more than a source or sun, sand, and a cool tropical drink (although that ain't bad by itself). No, the Bahamas is also a priceless oceanic treasure that needs an overarching policy of protection for its sharks. Without them, an oceanic gem would suffer in more ways than one.

I'll have some of my recent Bahama footage up soon in future posts, but in the meantime, check out the Bahamas National Trust and Pew Charitable Trusts to learn more about what you can do. It's about time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Northern Rockies Gray Wolves: passing budget legislation could seal their fate

With important budget legislation needing to be passed, the machinations of tit-for-tat politics was in high gear this past week. Beneath the headlines of government shutdowns being avoided and federal funding for the remainder of the year being passed, there hides the legislative rider or amendment that gets slipped in to grease the wheels of political progress.

This week, the gray wolf, which has been the subject of a back and forth battle in the U.S. Rocky Mountain states over its status as an endangered species, appears to be once again in the cross hairs of state-approved eradication meant to satisfy cattlemen and sport hunters.

But of even greater potential concern is what the legislative rider's language seems to imply regarding the future ability of the Endangered Species Act to protect any animal or plant from economic or non-environmental interests that could threaten a species' survival.

As reported by Associated Press,
" The White House is poised to accept a budget bill that includes an unprecedented end-run around Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in five Western states — the first time Congress has targeted a species protected under the 37-year-old law.

Lawmakers describe the provision in the spending bill as a necessary intervention in a wildlife dilemma that some say has spun out of control. Sixty-six wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies from Canada in the mid-1990s; there are now at least 1,650.

But legal experts warn the administration's support of lifting protections for the animals opens the door to future meddling by lawmakers catering to anti-wildlife interests.

The endangered act has long been reviled by conservatives who see it as a hindrance to economic development. Now, the administration's support for the wolf provision signals that protections for even the most imperiled animals, fish and plants are negotiable given enough political pressure, experts said.

'The president could have used some political capital to influence this and he didn't,' said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law from the Vermont Law School. 'The message to the environmental community is, don't count on the administration to be there for the protection of endangered species.'

Environmentalists still count Obama as an ally on other issues, ranging from climate change and wilderness preservation to oil and gas exploration. Yet experts in wildlife law say that in the scramble to pass the budget, the administration is circumventing one of the country's bedrock environmental laws."

This is an issue that dates back to the prior Bush administration and the many attempts it made to thwart or neutralize the Endangered Species Act or the EPA's Clean Air Act, often by trying to eliminate independent scientific research and recommendations from the process and putting the final determination of ecological or environmental decisions solely in the hands of politicians.

It would appear that, with a new administration, we are faced with that challenge once again.

"We are having the worst attack on the Endangered Species Act in 30 years while we have a Democratic Senate and a Democratic White House," said Kieran Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). "They are trying to shut citizens and scientists out of the endangered species process."

Organizations like the Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, and others have been fighting for the continued survival of the Northern Rockies' gray wolves. It has been a long battle but also a classic example of what can happen to an ecosystem when it loses a primary predator. When the gray wolf population was thinned out to protect cattle interests, rodent and deer populations exploded which threatened grazing land.

With environmental protections, the number of gray wolves has steadily increased. However, the total number does not reflect the isolated nature of individual or regional wolf packs. The loss of just a few wolves can have a disastrous effect on the fate of an entire pack, and so the fabric that makes up an entire wolf population is very fragile and not as resilient as politicians or the cattle industry lobbyists would have you believe.

“Tens of millions of dollars were spent building up the wolf population in the northern Rockies and giving wolves a toehold in Washington and Oregon," says CBD's Suckling. "Now, in one fell swoop, that investment is being swept away. Wolves in Washington and Oregon may disappear in a few years. Those in the northern Rockies will begin plummeting and may be lost in a few decades.”

Read about the gray wolf in Yahoo News.
Read a press release from CBD.
Send a letter to President Obama regarding preserving the gray wolves.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Beauty as the Beast: lionfish invasion in the Caribbean

It is an unfortunate situation when something of beauty is at risk of being destroyed through no fault of it's own. But off the coast of Florida and throughout the Caribbean, that is the fate that awaits the lionfish (genus: Pterois). For all its graceful movement, striking color, and ornamentation, it is, regrettably, an invader that threatens the ecological balance of reef communities throughout the region.

I just returned from two weeks at sea along the shallow banks northwest of Grand Bahama, and with every reef dive I undertook I was guaranteed at least a half dozen sightings of these small Indo-Pacific predators. Known for having a voracious appetite to match its venomous spines, it was reported in one study that a lionfish can consume three-quarters of a reef's fish population in as little as five weeks. Left unchecked, the lionfish threatens the Bahamas' annual $5 billion tourism industry (that's billion with a "B") and nearly half of the island's employment. Bathers can get stung by the lionfish's dorsal spines or divers can find reefs denuded of colorful tropical fish and this can spell economic ruin for many Caribbean nations.

So, how did this all come about? How did a fish found in the South Pacific make its way halfway across the planet? Well, it certainly would need some help, an accomplice or two.

And that would be us.

The lionfish invasion in the Caribbean is a textbook example of invasive species distribution. Because of its beauty, juvenile lionfish are a popular addition to home saltwater aquariums. That is, popular until your other aquarium fish begin to disappear one by one as the lionfish grows and its appetite blossoms.

So, could it have found itself in the Atlantic when a frazzled home aquarist released it into the wild? Possibly, although it has been reported that the pivotal moment may have occurred in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew battered the southeast coast of the U.S., smashing an aquarium tank in Florida, and releasing six lionfish into open sea. Through the 90's, lionfish expansion was slow, but the first one showed up in the Bahamas in 2005. Two years later, the population exploded (some studies have indicated that a possible reason for the lionfish's successful growth is due to its resistance to many of the parasites commonly found in the Caribbean). The invasion was in full force and the war was on.

Over thousands of years, the lionfish found its proper place in the Indo-Pacific as both predator and prey. Groupers and other large fish fed on them, helping to control their numbers. But in the Bahamas, groupers have been overfished, so there aren't enough of these controlling predators to do the job (and even juvenile groupers are at risk of becoming a lionfish's next meal).

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does not mince words when describing the lionfish invasion. "
With few known natural predators, the lionfish poses a major threat to coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean region by decreasing survival of a wide range of native reef animals via both predation and competition," says NOAA's Office of Research. "It was not unusual to observe lionfish consuming prey up to 2/3 of its own length. Results of the experiment show that lionfish significantly reduce the net recruitment of coral reef fishes by an estimated 80%. The huge reduction in recruitment is due to predation and may eventually result in substantial, negative ecosystem-wide consequences. It is also important to note that lionfish have the potential to act synergistically with other existing stressors, such as climate change, overfishing, and pollution, making this invasion of particular concern for the future of Atlantic coral reefs."

While in the Bahamas, I saw signs and posters proclaiming that the only good lionfish in Caribbean waters was basically a dead one. Crew members would regularly dive with short tri-tip spears in hand, looking under reef ledges - a favorite lionfish hangout - and stabbing any lionfish they came upon, leaving it there perhaps to eaten by a scavenging shark.

In fact, several of the crew reported trying to entice Caribbean reef or lemon sharks to feed on a speared lionfish in the hopes that the sharks would develop a taste for the enemy invader. The sharks would have to learn the best approach to avoid a discomforting sting and, in fact, I saw one shark make repeated bites - spitting out the lionfish until it found the right angle by which it could comfortably consume the free meal.

While the lionfish is one of the tropical ocean's most beautiful inhabitants (and one of my personal favorites), as an invasive species it unintentionally poses considerable risk to the Caribbean marine ecosystem. Could a natural balancing mechanism take hold through predation by fish who discover a new potential prey item in their midst? Or will mankind, having been responsible for the lionfish's introduction in the Caribbean in the first place, now have to take extraordinary steps to eradicate this species? To date, the success of the lionfish shows that there are no easy answers, as is often the case with other invasive plant and animals species around the globe.

Read about the lionfish invasion in
Read about
NOAA studies of the lionfish invasion.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: on location in the Bahamas

For the next ten days I will be on location out at sea in the Bahamas. Depending on internet availability, blog posts may be a bit hard to come by until I return on April 12th.

In the meantime, feel free to peruse through the RTSea Blog archives. With over 600 posts, I'm sure you'll find something of interest until I return with new images, videos, and stories to tell.

Until then, remember: Save our Seas!

Richard Theiss
RTSea Productions

Ocean Duets: Michele Westmorland highlights the beauty of underwater pairings

Ocean conservation benefits from the many informative and visually stunning collections of underwater photos that are available in a format known as the "coffee table" book. The down side is that these editions too often remain there, on the coffee table, becoming expensive and unwieldy interior decorations.

Michele Westmorland, recognized underwater photographer and recent inductee into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, took a different approach with her book, Ocean Duets. Producing a smaller, slimmer edition - one that won't throw your back out or crack the coffee table glass - Michele and writer Barbara Sleeper have a produced a very accessible and readable edition based on the concept of so many animals that live in the sea can be seen in pairs. From the tiniest of shrimp to anemone or clownfish to massive manatees, manta rays, and whales - the ocean is full of these "duets." Sometimes as mating pairs, other times developing symbiotic relationships, these pairings represent the linkage that binds the marine ecosystem together. Ocean Duets captures these relationships from around the world, but particularly from one of Michele's favorite haunts: Melanesia and the stunning reefs of Papua New Guinea to Sulawesi in Indonesia.

A busy lady, constantly living out of a suitcase and dive bag, Michele is preparing to return to Melanesia after a side trip to the Cocos Islands, I caught up with her at a recent lecture at the Aquarium of the Pacific where Michele not only presented her underwater work to impress the audience with the need for ocean conservation, but she also made the connection between the ocean and man with her images of the island people and their cultures. She is an advocate of the idea that if you travel to these remote but ecologically important locales, it can be just as important to see the interconnection between the sea and the land as it is just to marvel at what is below the waves.

Ocean Duets is available at Printed on high gloss, heavy stock with a foreward by Dr. Sylvia Earle, it would be a great edition to anyone's underwater library, from families with children eager to learn about the colorful creatures in the sea to the well-informed ocean conservationist.

"It is now with a sense of urgency that I encourage everyone to use whatever talents and resources are available to continue to explore and understand the nature of this extraordinary ocean planet - as depicted so beautifully in the colorful images and captivating creatures of Ocean Duets." - Dr. Sylvia Earle.

Available at