Thursday, September 29, 2011

Protecting Corals and Island Nations: conservation group and the President of Palau both speak out

The Center for Biological Diversity is blowing its environmental horn not only to draw attention to its own actions but those of other nations concerned with the fate of marine ecosystems and the forces that impact them worldwide:

Settlement Requires Protecting 82 Corals
"On Tuesday the Center for Biological Diversity and the [U.S.] National Marine Fisheries Service reached an important agreement that will move 82 species of coral closer to protection. The agreement, following a 2009 petition and two notices of intent to sue by the Center, requires the Service to make decisions on protecting 82 U.S. corals -- including the mountainous star coral, blue rice coral and several Acropora corals -- under the Endangered Species Act by April 15, 2012. The Center has already earned protection for elkhorn (another Acorpora species) and staghorn corals."

As reported in the Houston Chronicle,
"Unless we protect them right now, coral reefs will be lost within decades, and our grandchildren will never see these colorful underwater forests teeming with life," Miyoko Sakashita, the director of the organization's oceans program, said in a statement.

Currently, only reef-building staghorn and elkhorn corals are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Of the species under review, 75 are found in the Pacific. Nine exist in Hawaii waters, including ringed rice coral, which sometimes has a purple hue but is other times rust orange or brown. It's a candidate for listing because it's only found in the Hawaiian islands. This makes the species vulnerable to being wiped out if there's a heat wave or an invasive species infiltrates its habitat. Protection under the Endangered Species Act could put fishing, dumping, dredging, offshore oil development and other activities under stricter regulatory scrutiny.

Palau Speaks Out Against Climate Change
"The Pacific island nation of Palau has announced it will urgently seek an "advisory opinion" from the United Nations on whether some polluting countries have a legal responsibility to ensure that their greenhouse gases don't harm other countries. Under international law, Palau points out, states are required to take all necessary measures to stop their activities from harming other states. Despite mounting evidence that the climate crisis is only deepening, the U.S. has failed to make significant strides in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and, in fact, some in Congress are pushing to weaken the Clean Air Act rather than harness it to do what's needed to reduce greenhouse pollution and avert the worst effects of the global climate crisis."

Palau President Johnson Toribiong told the General Assembly’s annual general debate that, along with the Marshall Islands, Palau will call on the 193-member Assembly to urgently seek an advisory opinion – which would be non-binding – from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), also known as the World Court. Palau is one of several Pacific island countries that have repeatedly spoken out at the General Assembly about the impact of climate change, with rising sea levels resulting from the emissions of greenhouse gases threatening to swamp their islands.

"Article 194(2) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that States shall take all measures necessary to ensure that activities under their jurisdiction or control do not spread and do not cause damage by pollution to other States. It is time we determine what the international rule of law means in the context of climate change,” the president was quoted as saying in the UN News Centre.

In today's difficult economic climate, we see the impact of globalization; that our economic health can not be isolated or immune from the financial conditions being experienced by other nations. The same is certainly true for the environment - we're all in this together.

Watch a video of President Toribiong speaking to the General Assembly.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Earth Overshoot Day: group quantifies annual demand on natural resources

Today is not a particularly good day if your planet Earth. Today, September 27th, is Earth Overshoot Day, according to the Global Footprint Network (GFN). What this day signifies is that for the remainder of the year we are living on, essentially, borrowed natural resources. We're in debt ecologically-speaking.

GFN has been monitoring this kind of ecological yardstick, the "ecological overshoot," which evaluates the natural resources required by humankind compared with the amount of resources available and their ability to renew themselves. According to GFN, since the mid-70s we have been demanding more every year than the earth can replenish: dwindling forests that can not grow back fast enough before being cut down, shrinking numbers of fish, more CO2 produced than the planet can sequester, and so on.

According to GFN,
"Our research shows that in approximately nine months, we have demanded a level of services from nature equivalent to what the planet can provide for all of 2012. We maintain this deficit by depleting stocks of things like fish and trees, and by accumulating waste such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the ocean."

Earth Overshoot Day is based on a concept originally designed by the UK-based New Economics Foundation. The foundation wanted to devise a method of use versus resources that would be understandable to policy and decision makers - people who are less inclined to understand scientific theories and observations and more receptive to concepts of net gain and loss. The ecological overshoot illustrates when humankind is withdrawing more than it is depositing and, therefore, dipping into its savings of natural resources - an account that is not at all endless.

The culprit that drives this model, and is a primary force even behind our current budget and employment crisis, is the ever-present 800-pound gorilla in the room: population growth. Despite all of our technology and production capability that provides us with everything from flat screen TVs to higher rice and corn yields for developing nations, we are asking more of mother earth than she can give and still renew herself. And it has been estimated that we will reach 7 billion in the next couple of months.

Earth Overshoot Day is an interesting concept, albeit not a cheery one, because it goes beyond theorizing about an environmental apocalypse and, instead, applies a system of measurement that enables us to gauge where we are going, good or bad, and what degree of improvement the future may hold if we all realize that the planet is a bank account with very limited reserves and a low rate of return.

"Global Footprint Network’s preliminary 2011 calculations show we are now using resources at a rate that would take between 1.3 and 1.5 planets to sustainably support. Our research shows us on track to require the resources of two planets well before mid-century. Of course, we only have one Earth. The fact that we are using (or “spending” natural capital) faster than it can replenish is similar to having expenditures that continually exceed income. In planetary terms, the results of our ecological overspending are becoming more clear by the day."

Monday, September 26, 2011

White Shark Rescue: SoCal surfers come to the aid of a juvenile shark

As California shark conservationists, supporters, and advocates wait for Gov. Jerry Brown to sign into law AB 376, the shark fin prohibition; we get reminders that perhaps the tide of public opinion is slowly turning in favor of the sharks. Pete Thomas' Outdoors, action, and adventure reported an unusual rescue at Venice Beach in Southern California:

"Sharks have many allies these days, as people, states and even nations are rallying behind efforts aimed at conservation.

But for a group of surfers and other witnesses at Venice Beach, Calif., over the weekend, one shark in particular needed rescuing, and it was a precarious job well done, as you can see in the accompanying video.

The juvenile white shark apparently was hooked on the city pier and became stranded on the shore with the fishing gear still in its mouth. It appeared listless and in bad shape, but at least its rescuers got the hook out and gave it a chance to survive.

The incident occurred one month after an angler reeled to the surface and gaffed a white shark from the Huntington Beach Pier. He became the subject of an investigation because white sharks are protected in California and it's illegal to kill them.

Southern California waters are a nursery area for juvenile white sharks, which prey on fishes, rays and smaller sharks until they grow large enough to begin preying on seals and sea lions."

I'll be back among the white sharks at Isla Guadalupe in two weeks. I'll be sure to let the big mommas and poppas down there know that their youngster is all right.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hong Kong Shark Foundation: taking shark advocacy to the streets of Hong Kong

Shark conservation has grown over the years with some quantifiable progress in the form of legislation, regulations, and defined sanctuaries. There has been some improvement in advocacy and general public awareness. But there has also has been time, energy, and needed funds wasted over perhaps well-intended feel good campaigns whose results did nothing to move the needle in the direction of improved conservation.

Actually, that can probably be said of all conservation movements and so it is incumbent upon all of us who are interested in conservation issues to study the players and make sure that our efforts and support are directed to those groups who can bring about real change.

Regarding the issue of market demand in Asian countries for shark fin products, I was encouraged to see this small news item by the Associated Foreign Press and picked up far to the west in the Oman Daily Observer: a "plankmob" in the streets of of downtown Hong Kong to protest shark fins and shark fin soup. The event was planned for today, Sunday, by the Hong Kong Shark Foundation - an organization dedicated to conserving sharks and situated in the midst of one of the major trade centers for shark products.

"Supporters of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation march along a street to raise awareness for sharks killed each year for their fins, in Hong Kong yesterday. According to studies of the shark fin market up to 73 million sharks are killed each year, primarily for their fins used in shark fin soup. A bowl of shark fin soup can cost 100 USD, with a single fin being worth more than 1,300 USD."

Read about the Hong Kong Shark Foundation.

Diana Nyad: long distance swimmer battles nature in latest swim

On Friday, as the sun began to set outside of Hemingway Marina, near Havana, Cuba, Diana Nyad once began her attempt to swim the 103 miles from Cuba to Key West, Florida - an accomplishment that was thwarted in early August due to a shoulder injury and an asthma attack, apparently brought on by the use of a foreign-made medication to combat the shoulder pain. With water temperatures and calm seas offering ideal conditions, Diana, at age 62, went after a goal that has alluded her for several years.

I was fortunate and privileged to have been on the Xtreme Dream team involved in the August swim as a shark watch diver, having filmed her earlier for a CNN documentary which aired recently. The expense of this kind of undertaking is enormous and so to try again so soon after the August attempt, Diana needed to scale back her operation. To save costs in airfare and accommodations, August lead shark crew member Luke Tipple and myself had to bow out (we had other obligations anyway), and Diana recruited three Florida locals, including Rob MacDonald and Johnny Rose who were with us in August.

With every meeting or conversation I have had with Diana, I was always impressed by her energy and determination. And so in the weeks following the August swim, in the back of my mind I was always thinking that if she got a sufficiently clean bill of health from her doctors regarding her right shoulder which had been such a big issue in the August attempt, she would be thinking seriously about making another go of it if the weather was right. So, Xtreme Dream redux - with Diana once again heading into the unknown of the first night crossing the Florida Straits on her way to Key West.

Challenges Once Again
As has been reported on her website and in several news outlets, it didn't take long for challenges to present themselves - this time in the form of severe sea jelly, or jellyfish, stings. Diana received several stings from a Portuguese Man-of-War which required some quick action from Johnny Rose.

An entry from the Xtreme Dream blog:
"A testament to Diana’s strength was the two hours tonight following her sting by numerous Portuguese man of war. Chief handler Bonnie Stoll said, 'Diana was stung along both arms the side of her body and her face.' Jonathan Rose, a safety diver and EMT, immediately got in the water with Diana to try and free her of the tentacles and stingers. Rose was also stung numerous times. The crew got Diana’s swimsuit changed and put a new suit on with a shirt covering her. After an hour and a half of treading water Diana began to rehydrate and swim her freestyle stroke."

The encounter took its toll on Diana and her ability to maintain her stride in the water. After getting some medical attention, under the watchful eyes of independent observers from the International Swimming Foundation to ensure that all rules for an unaided swim were met. Diana continued on and started to show improvement. Things were looking up.

Next up was some Saturday afternoon unwanted company: an oceanic whitetip shark. Even though Diana was using the electronic shark shields that we had also used in August, an oceanic whitetip can become intensely curious - this was the one species I had the most concern over in August. Fortunately, Rob MacDonald approached the shark and it proved to be less than curious and bid a hasty retreat. As it turned out, it wasn't the big creatures that would prove to be the greatest threat as the hours wore on.

A Difficult Decision
Entering her second night of the swim, Diana once again encountered Portuguese Man-of-War and was badly stung about the face, affecting her eyes even though they are protected by goggles. This time, more extensive medical treatment was required and Diana had to make a tough decision; she chose to come aboard the support vessel, resting on the transom while receiving treatment from two doctors. This would normally signal an end to the entire swim attempt, but there was one more avenue available to her.

From the Xtreme Dream blog:
"According to the independent observer from the International Swim Federation, Diana may continue the swim if she has only been removed from the water for medical treatment. In other words, not simply to rest. The swim then becomes something called a “staged swim,” meaning that it may occur in stages. Diana’s swim will still be record breaking if she decides to continue."

This is why it is so critical to having independent observers watching over a world record attempt such as this swim from Cuba to Florida. The observers can authenticate what was or was not accomplished and can verify changes in strategy that may be dictated by circumstances. With the support vessel not moving forward during her break, Diana eventually resumed her swim from the exact spot where she stopped to receive medical treatment; a record could still be accomplished as a staged swim.

Nature Can Have Its Way
In the waters where Diana is swimming, there are several jellyfish species. Some of the most common are the Portuguese Man-of-War, the Moon Jelly, and the Sea Walnut. The Moon Jelly and Sea Walnut are relatively harmless, but the Portuguese Man-of-War can deliver quite a wallop. During the day, it is relatively easy to recognize with its large, bluish-purple dome that floats on the surface. Trailing underneath are stinging tentacles that can sometimes reach 30 feet in length. And these tentacles can still sting even when broken off from the main body itself.

While warm water temperatures and calm seas are the ideal conditions for a long distance swimmer, they are also ideal conditions for jellyfish reproduction. So it is during these summer months that the numbers can increase exponentially, thereby increasing the chances for an encounter. Worldwide, there have been increasing jellyfish "blooms" with thousands of jellyfish appearing at sea or along coastlines, sometimes washing up on beaches. Scientists have yet to draw definitive conclusions as to why these increases in numbers may be occurring but climate change and loss of natural predators are theories being researched.

Moving into Sunday, Diana persevered, having swam for over 40 hours. But she faced two additional nights before she would reach Florida and there was concern as to the threat of additional jellyfish encounters. Reluctantly, but giving wise consideration to her personal health and the counsel of her physicians, Diana concluded the swim at 11:00am, completing 82 nautical miles (over 92 statute miles) and once again proving herself to be a champion athlete and an inspiration to so many, young and old.

Diana, it's my birthday today and I'm only a couple of years behind you. You're a terrific reminder of what all of us can accomplish in our daily lives when we set our minds to it. You also demonstrate to us the wisdom of knowing when to change strategies so that drive is not mistaken for obsession.

". . . for each of us,
isn’t life about determining your own finish line? This journey has always been about reaching your own other shore no matter what it is, and that dream continues.” - Diana Nyad, Sunday, 9/25/11

Now, as you so often say, "Onward!"

Read about Diana's swim at her website.
Quotes sourced from her
Swim photos courtesy of

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cambodia's Tigers and the Banteng: protecting a predator can also mean protecting its prey

In Cambodia, international conservation groups and the Cambodian government are working to restore the eastern plains as a primary habitat for the country's dwindling population of tigers. The number of tigers worldwide is perilously low, with totals estimated at around 3,200 to perhaps 5,000. Poaching has been the primary threat to the tiger, but to develop a comprehensive conservation and management program, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recognizes that more must be done than just eliminate poaching. One must also protect its food source.

The Cambodian tigers feed on wild pigs, muntjac deer, and banteng - an endangered species of cattle. All have suffered declines in number in the past few decades. In particular, the banteng, estimated at 2,700 to 5,700 in number residing in the eastern plains, has seen a decrease of 50% in the last 30 years. Due to its scarcity worldwide, the banteng is listed as globally endangered by the IUCN.

While the banteng suffered at the hands of poachers seeking its meat and horns, the WWF has recently issued a report based on surveys taken in 2009 and 2011 that identify social and agricultural land concessions and infrastructure as the primary threat. Human development is encroaching upon the banteng, and their loss threatens the future of one of its primary predators: the tiger.

“For the tiger population to recover, one of the most important things needed is a sustainable source of prey, such as banteng,” read a statement from the WWF regarding the need for a comprehensive and effective conservation management plan in Cambodia. “Anything less threatens to unravel a decade of conservation progress and with each passing day diminishes the Eastern Plains’ value as a national and global ecological asset for current and future generations.”

Because of the complex web of inter-dependencies that make up a healthy ecosystem, simple "silver bullet" solutions are far and few between. Should we stop the commercial killing of, say, whales or sharks, we must then also consider the health and status of the animals upon which they feed - from the smallest krill to large commercial fish. And for the remaining Cambodian tigers, should we protect their numbers we must also provide an environment within which they can feed and flourish.

“For tigers and prey species- including a globally endangered banteng population to recover within the landscape, stronger protected area management and a commitment to conservation from high levels of Cambodian government are essential,” WWF species conservation manager Nick Cox said.

Read about the banteng in the Phnom Penh Post.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

U.S. Senate Ocean Caucus: group formed to weigh pressing ocean management issues

How does one get 100 senators and 435 representatives to agree on anything? Well, judging by today's standards, it would appear to be an impossibility. But one method is the senate caucus - a group of senators that discuss the most pressing issues regarding a particular topic, trying to move forward on proposed legislation with a unified, bipartisan voice.

The Senate Ocean Caucus has been forming, its latest permutation consisting of 19 senators, co-chaired by Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

As reported in the Cape Cod Times,
"Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., and 17 other senators founded the Senate ocean caucus last week to collaborate on federal ocean management and protection policies. The caucus also plans to educate congressional members and staff on ocean and coastal policies and scientific research.

'The ocean caucus will help focus attention on ... laws that govern the seas, affect jobs and vital industries, concern our marine ecosystems and protect our waters off Massachusetts,' Kerry said."

David Helvarg's Blue Frontier Campaign has been watching this group closely (At the Blue Frontier Campaign's Blue Vision Summit in May, I had an opportunity to hear Sen. Whitehouse speak cautiously but optimistically about the caucus) and David had this to say,

"Senator Whitehouse said the caucus will focus on 'the role of the ocean economy, ecosystems functions and the need for more research.' Hopefully it can also help save ocean agencies and programs from having their budgets slashed by the House and that other body, oh yeah, the Senate. From what was said, it sounds like the caucus will begin working around issues involving the melting Arctic, the Law of the Seas treaty that the Senate has yet to ratify (30 years and counting), and ocean conservation. It’s a truly hopeful sign in a generally less than hopeful town."

With a Senate Ocean Caucus - there is also a House version, too - ocean conservation organizations and citizens as a whole will have a focal point toward which they can direct their concerns and watch what is being considered, debated, and acted upon in Washington. As dysfunctional as our government currently is, we still need those lightning rods where we can direct our energy towards getting government to seriously consider the long-term consequences of ineffective conservation and natural resource management.

Read the Blue Frontier Campaign's latest newsletter.
Read about the Senate Ocean caucus in the Cape Cod Times.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Whale Sharks: Nat Geo documents unusual feeding behavior

Whale sharks - the largest fish on the planet. For many of us who dip below the surface of the sea, either with snorkels or scuba, catching a glimpse of any large marine animal is always a powerful and memorable experience. It almost seems surreal; something so large gliding past you like a zeppelin in a liquid sky.

That feeling is heightened when the leviathan in question is a whale shark. Not that you are concerned about becoming prey to the whale shark - these animals are filter feeders like baleen whales - but it's a shark all the same. Throughout the world there are several "hot spots" for finding small congregations of whale sharks, but it's not always guaranteed. Many divers can tell you of their experiences being skunked, and then learning about the sharks that appeared the day after they departed.

For underwater photographer Michael Aw, luck was on his side while taking pictures for National Geographic. Not only did he find whale sharks off the northern shores of Papua, Indonesia, but he was able to document an unusual behavior. The whale sharks had come across a reliable food source, that of the baitfish caught by local fishermen. With hundreds of small fish corralled into fishing nets, the sharks would grab at the nets, trying to make off with an easy meal. It would appear that it runs in the family - whale sharks are opportunistic feeders, like their smaller shark cousins.

Accompanying Aw's photos in Sharing with Sharks for the October issue, on sale September 27th, and online edition of National Geographic, Jennifer Holland wrote, "The giant fish is hard to study because it is hard to find and track. By tagging individual specimens, scientists have learned that whale sharks can log thousands of miles in years-long trips. But they sometimes disappear for weeks, diving more than a mile down and resting in the chilly deep for a spell. No one has ever found mating or birthing grounds.

Whale sharks are ordinarily loners. But not in one corner of Indonesia. [Michael Aw's] photographs, shot some eight miles off the province of Papua, reveal a group of sharks that call on fishermen each day, zipping by one another, looking for handouts near the surface, and nosing the nets - a rare instance when the generally docile fish act, well, like the rest of the sharks."

One might question whether these sharks are becoming habituated or "trained" to look to the
fishermen for their food. This has been a concern leveled at others in the eco-tourism trade who are accused of attracting animals, in particular sharks, to the extant that it potentially interferes with the animals normal hunting instincts. But research has shown that what is offered as an attractant is usually insignificant compared to the animal's normal nutritional requirements and with whatever behavior modification that might take place, its effects are transitory.

But it can provide for some amazing moments, as Michael Aw's photos can attest. You can read the entire photo-article in the October issue of National Geographic or visit the National Geographic website.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Monarch Migration: butterfly faces challenges along the way north and south

It was over three years ago that I started the RTSea Blog with an inaugural entry about the Monarch butterfly and its annual migration from the United States to Mexico. Not much of an ocean conservation subject but I linked it to the plight of white sharks and their migratory routes.

That was in May of 2008 and now the Monarch butterfly once again appears here, this time regarding how the Monarch butterfly is able to last through its entire journey and how researchers are tracking these butterflies in a manner, once again, similar to sharks: tagging.

The Monarch is an endangered insect due to the ongoing loss of deep forest habitat in Mexico. The trees are being cut down, usually illegally, and this limits the Monarch as it migrates south to the tropical forests in southern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula.

Amazing as this annual migration seems, it is even more unusual because of the fact that many of the Monarchs do not live to make the entire journey, but their offspring know to continue southward, or northward depending on the time of year. Scientists are not sure as to why the Monarch has this ability to know where to go when born and they have yet to conclusively agree on how these insects are able to migrate from point A to point B and back again. Antennae which are sensitive to the magnetic fields around the planet is one of the more common theories - a concept that is used to explain migratory behavior in birds and even sharks.

As reported in the, a large population of Monarchs passes through Kansas, feeding on some of their primary food sources: nectar from milkweed and the Biden flower. In Kansas, there is an organization named Monarch Watch that monitors the butterflies' migration and conducts "tagging" of the Monarchs so that they can better determine the actual migratory route. Butterflies from across the central to eastern United States head south to a much smaller area in Mexico before heading northward in the early Spring.

Monarch Watch holds a one-day tagging event and this year's event drew 500 people of all ages to come see these butterflies and participate in learning more about the migration. According to Orely Taylor, ecology professor and founder of Monarch Watch,
“Everybody needs to get out and experience the wild. We need to get out and enjoy nature, and this is one of the opportunities to not only enjoy and participate in this incredible phenomenon, but also to contribute to science by learning about these butterflies through their tagging.”

Just as there is concern over the Mexican government's ability to effectively police the forests and prevent poaching of the trees that the Monarch butterfly seeks at the end of its migration, so it is in Kansas that conservation groups wish to ensure that there is sufficient food for the butterflies as they pass through. Much of the butterflies' food source in Kansas grows in wetlands and wetlands across the nation are continually threatened by urban development. Monarch Watch makes available Monarch Waystation Seed Kits that allow concerned citizens to grow the various types of plants that the butterflies depend on for growth to sustain them through their journey.

If people can become interested in tagging and feeding an endangered butterfly - something that they can see, that flies right into their own backyard literally and figuratively, geographically speaking, then perhaps they can come to appreciate other animals around the world that migrate as part of an evolutionary pattern of self-preservation. Perhaps, as I mentioned in my very first blog post, the Monarch butterfly and great white sharks still have a lot in common.

Friday, September 16, 2011

High Dolphin Deaths in South Australia: Humane Society challenges fishery management

Another example of the problem with the indiscriminate nature of gill nets: ABC News reports that in South Australia, the Humane Society International is pitting itself against legally sanctioned shark fishing due to a recently high level of dolphin deaths. The commercial shark fishing operators use gill nets which are notorious for catching other marine life other than sharks. Seals, turtles, billfish, and dolphins have been known to get ensnared in gill nets and summarily discarded as bycatch.

Apparently there has been a high accumulation of baitfish in South Australian waters where the shark fishermen operate. This has attracted dolphins, thereby increasing the number accidentally caught and killed in the gill nets. Shark fishing industry officials say they are not to blame as they are operating within all legal regulations. Regardless, Humane Society officials believe action needs to be taken immediately to protect the dolphins.

"It's not only a conservation issue, potentially it's also an animal welfare issue," said Alexia Wellbelove from the Humane Society. "What we're asking AFMA, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, to do is put some measures in place to protect the dolphins. If those can't be put in place then the use of gill nets needs to be banned in that area until they can figure out what the problem is that's causing all these deaths, because it's totally unacceptable."

The Humane Society International is recommending that dolphin experts be brought in to assist the AFMA and the fishery industry in determining a solution to the problem, rather than, in essence, blame the entire situation on the dolphins.

"What we need to do is actually get some dolphin experts to give the industry some advice," Wellbelove said. "I don't believe the industry has the capability or the understanding of dolphins sufficiently to be able to give us that information with any certainty."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hawksbill Sea Turtles: endangered species discovered in Pacific mangroves

Sea turtles, collectively, are some of the most endangered animals in the sea, due to loss of habitat, illegal poaching for the turtles and their eggs, and as accidental bycatch. The hawksbill sea turtle is no exception and, in fact, is listed by the World Conservation Union as critically endangered and CITES prohibits the capture and trade of hawksbill trutles and any products derived from them.

However, such proclamations of status and prohibitions have not yet prompted the hawksbill turtle populations to recover. Even in the best of natural circumstances, sea turtle eggs and young hatchlings face formidable challenges that thins the population so just the hardiest, smartest, and luckiest survive.

Found throughout all oceans, primarily in warmer climates, hawksbill sea turtles often live among the corals reefs in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific. By 2007, the eastern Pacific population of hawksbills were considered effectively wiped out. However, recent tracking studies lead by Conservation International has shown that the eastern Pacific variety of hawksbill may have found another habitat to call its home: saltwater mangroves.

The study, recently published in Biology Letters, reports,
"New satellite tracking data on female hawksbills from several countries in the eastern Pacific revealed previously undocumented behaviour for adults of the species. In contrast to patterns of habitat use exhibited by their Caribbean and Indo-Pacific counterparts, eastern Pacific hawksbills generally occupied inshore estuaries, wherein they had strong associations with mangrove saltwater forests. The use of inshore habitats and affinities with mangrove saltwater forests presents a previously unknown life-history paradigm for adult hawksbill turtles and suggests a potentially unique evolutionary trajectory for the species."

It's not clear as to whether the hawksbill migrated from more open water environments to the mangroves - perhaps as a defense reaction to a declining habitat - or whether the eastern Pacific hawksbill had, by some evolutionary quirk eons ago, found the mangroves to be a suitable home along with coral reefs. But it does add one more reason for preserving mangrove ecosystems which are currently losing ground to coastal development and pollution.

Today, every species of sea turtle is threatened with extinction to one degree or another; as yet, none are in the clear. There are several organizations - Conservation International, PRETOMA, Turtle Island Restoration Network, and others - who are working to preserve and protect sea turtles and the environments within which they thrive.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hawaiian Monk Seal: numbers not increasing within protected reserve

Back in June, I wrote about the tenuous state of the Hawaiian monk seal, one of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet. The northwestern Hawaiian islands contains one of the largest marine reserves, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and this was hoped to provide the monk seal with a suitable area of refuge to rebuild its numbers.

However, according to researchers, led by conservation biologist Leah Gerber of Arizona State University, the population of monk seals within the reserve is shrinking by 4% each year, while outside of the reserve the seals are increasing by 7% annually.

As reported in NatureNews, "
The difference in the seals' survival rates could be a result of an increase in shark predation within the reserve. Locals in the French Frigate Shoals, a group of islands that are part of the protected area, have noticed a steep increase in shark predation, says Gerber. 'They actually started a shark-culling program' to control 'problem sharks', she says. 'It's not something they like to broadcast,' she adds, because of the conservation status of sharks.

Although the authors don't know for sure whether shark numbers have gone up, they speculate that the population could have been boosted by fishing discards before all fishing in the area was banned in 2006. A few of those sharks could now be wreaking havoc on seal pups. 'All you need on each atoll is one really hungry rogue shark,' says conservation biologist Les Kaufman.

Other possible explanations for the decline, which is being caused by a low survival rate of seal pups, include a change to the food supply owing to warming waters; competition for food from large fish called jacks; or the possibility that the reserve is simply too new for its ecosystem to have settled down. It can take 15 years of monitoring, says Kaufman, to properly understand the dynamics of an ecosystem."

Proposals to address the problem have included relocating pups to outside of the reserve until they have grown to an age where they are less vulnerable and could better withstand whatever perils exists within the reserve and then relocate them back. Others have suggested that may not be feasible and it would be better to let nature take its course and find ecological stability at its own pace. Eliminating sharks or jacks may simply put the marine ecology within the reserve further out of whack.

"It depends how you define success," says Gerber. "Is it about saving endangered species, or preserving a functioning ecosystem? It's worth taking a step back. Marine preservation areas may not be the solution in all situations."

Read prior post on Hawaiian monk seal protections.
Read about current Hawaiian monk seal populations in

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Willing To Go Green: study finds adults and youth ready to embrace conservation

The Ocean Project - a nonprofit network of aquariums, zoos, and other public educational institutions dedicated to advancing ocean conservation - has released a report on public attitudes regarding conservation, "going green" and the willingness of today's youth to get engaged. The results are encouraging in that it shows adults to be willing to take steps and become part of the solution and not part of the problem.

The report, America and the Ocean, is the culmination of an over two-year long study carried out in conjunction with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the National Aquarium and supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is based on national surveys taken , the most recent being this past April-May, with over 12,000 Americans. Properly documented surveys are able to mathematically rate their effectiveness in representing a larger population and express it as a "level of confidence" percentage figure. According to the report, the survey research came in with a 99% level of confidence.

According to Dr. Wei Ying Wong, The Ocean Project's Communications Project Coordinator,
"Americans may not be looking to make a wholesale shift to a more sustainable lifestyle, but it is clear that Americans are open to taking a few steps in a sustainable direction and interested in seeing themselves as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem."

Of particular importance were conclusions drawn regarding the attitudes of the youth and their willingness to become in engaged in conservation issues and solutions. Three core findings were:
  • Adults are united in their support for teaching younger generations how to care for our blue planet, even while they themselves are divided on issues such as climate change.
  • Young Americans not only possess significantly higher levels of concern about the problems facing the world's ocean, and are most open to new information, but also are the most confident in their ability to make a difference.
  • Young Americans may not be the decision-makers in the household but they are increasingly major "influencers" when it comes to making choices related to our ocean and the environment and becoming more "green."
Julie Packard, executive director of Monterey Bay Aquarium, commented, "This survey has important implications for all of us working at institutions that aim to inspire our audiences and the public to protect the ocean. It points to ways in which we can be more effective. It confirms that people are eager for aquariums and zoos to take a stronger leadership role. It challenges us to provide people with practical steps that will make a difference. It confirms that, working together, we have an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference for the future of our ocean."

John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium Institute, said, "Aquariums, zoos, and museums need to nurture the energy and environmental enthusiasm of our country's youth. Together we can help channel this generation's concern for the world's environment and ocean by providing hands-on opportunities, practical knowledge, and action-oriented avenues help create a new movement to inspire care for our blue planet."

In my own personal experience, I remember, several years ago when I was a dive team leader and underwater presenter at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, as presenters we were instructed to play down any references to climate change, carbon dioxide emissions, or ocean acidification. The Aquarium needed to play it safe and not offend any of their more conservative or skeptical trustees or major donors. Many of us, who had read the research and knew the facts, muttered expletives under our breath and massaged the message as much as possible to get the point across - donors be damned.

Turn the clock forward a couple of years and the Aquarium of the Pacific's big summer exhibit for 2011 is Arctic and Antarctic: Our Polar Regions in Trouble and the fall issue of its quarterly magazine distributed to all members (including those high roller donors) is devoted to "Carbon, Climate Change, and the Ocean." What a difference a few years and a little public opinion can make.

With The Ocean Project's new report in hand to show that both adults and the youth are ready and willing to embrace conservation ideals, it is critical that public science and educational facilities like aquariums and zoos step up so that the public does not have to ponder the future in a vacuum.

Read the entire report, Americans and the Ocean.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Demon Fish: an A to Z look at sharks and the world surrounding them

The summer has come to a close, Discovery's Shark Week has passed, sightings and shark incidents have once again brought out the "Summer of the Shark" hyperbole and so now, as the seas begin to calm, it's time for some well-written, intellectual discourse on the subject.

If one is interested in learning about sharks, there are quite a few books available - just do a search on your favorite online book retailer and you'll find a vast selection to choose from. There are many stunning picture or coffee table editions from which you can appreciate the variety of sharks. And there are some good informational books, many of which churn over the same information - almost a common vocabulary or library of factoids. It can be interesting to review some of these books based on when they were written; there's much that we keep learning about sharks so the science is continually being re-written.

However, I don't believe there has been a definitive volume that looks at not only the well-worn facts, but also the culture, the history of man's relationship with the shark and how that effects our past, present, and future attitudes - all of which play a hand in the shark's future and our own. No such volume existed until now, with the publication of Demon Fish by Juliet Eilperin (Pantheon Books).

Subtiltled Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, Demon Fish represents several years of study by Ms. Eilperin into both the role of sharks within the marine ecosystem and the role it has played in our society. The reader experiences the big picture and the many players involved, from scientists to sportfishermen to commercial shark traders to island natives to worldwide conservation groups. Eilperin weaves these all together into a tapestry of interconnectivity: many may fear the shark, but it has been a part of our lives for centuries.

As the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post, Eilperin is the consummate journalist, digging deep for details, providing the background to put people, places, and events into context. For some who may be looking for a wild adventure yarn, there may be more detail here than desired. But to take a pass would be a shame. Demon Fish takes you into the world of the shark and the world that surrounds it. If sharks are to succeed as a species, we must understand and appreciate both worlds.

Eilperin writes of the many scientists, shark advocates, and conservation organizations that are working to both understand and protect sharks. Names like Peter Klimley, Robert Hueter, Neil Hammerschlag, Mahmood Shivjii, Barbara Block, South Africa's Alison Kock, and many others from around the world - some well-known in shark advocate circles, some perhaps not - all have their work highlighted to show what we are learning about sharks, how important they are to maintaining a healthy ocean, and why many of them are become scientist-activists as they reaffirm that the greater predator - the true villain in this aquatic play - is humankind itself.

However, even though Eilperin's pro-shark position is clear throughout the book, as a seasoned impartial journalist she also delves into the lives and the minds of those who we might think of as some of the shark's greatest adversaries: commercial shark traders, sport or commercial fishermen, and indifferent or anti-shark cultural attitudes particularly in Asia. This is an aspect of Demon Fish that I believe sets it apart from all the rest. From avid shark hunters like "Mark the Shark" Quartiano, who runs shark fishing charters out of Florida, to Yip Chiu Sung, a major Hong Kong trader in shark products, Eilperin's interviews and observations paint a complete portrait of those who view sharks as a commodity or as a demon that needs to be destroyed.

For many of today's fervent shark advocates, having this backstory view of those who they would prefer to condemn is critically important as more and more legislation and regulations are being proposed worldwide to protect sharks. In today's political world, the success of such policies will depend on strategies that can convince and win over those who view sharks more in economic rather than ecological terms. Demon Fish allows us to know our enemies just as much as our heroes.

Centuries ago, many cultures respected and even worshiped sharks - some island nations still do. But for the most part there was a cultural shift that propagated fear and ignorance. It has taken time, but those attitudes are now wreaking havoc on an entire species. Meticulously written, Juliet Eilperin's Demon Fish comes closest to being the alpha/omega examination on how we got to where we are today, what's being done, and what may lie ahead.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

EPA Ruling Fallout: short-term goals put ecology & environment in back seat

On Friday, the Obama administration backed off of it's plan to initiate strong standards for the reduction of ground-level ozone (smog) - standards recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its independent scientific advisers. After three years of championing the cause of setting realistic standards in terms of public and environmental health - standards by which would compel the energy industry to evaluate their current business models and be forward-thinking in the adoption of new technologies and business opportunities - the White House abruptly turned its back, instructing EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to withdraw the proposed regulations.

According to the New York Times, John D. Walke, clean air director of the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, likened the ozone decision to a “bomb being dropped.”

While environmental groups are, to put it mildly, disappointed in the President's action, lobbyists for the energy industry and other business interests are more than pleased. "The president's decision is good news for the economy and Americans looking for work. EPA's proposal would have prevented the very job creation that President Obama has identified as his top priority," said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute".

The Associated Press reported, "The withdrawal of the proposed EPA rule comes three days after the White House identified seven such regulations that it said would cost private business at least $1 billion each. The proposed smog standard was estimated to cost anywhere between $19 billion and $90 billion, depending on how strict it would be. However, the Clean Air Act does not allow the EPA to consider how much it will cost to comply when picking a new standard."

What it all points to is the short-term mentality that is so prevalent in today's social and economic fabric. The economic policies and strategies, both government and corporate, that brought us to our current condition were years, if not decades, in the making and, as much as we would like it to be otherwise, it will not be undone in a great hurry. Regardless of that reality, the demand for short-term, silver bullet solutions is front and center of the minds of Main Street Americans and the politicians whose eyes are on the prize in the next election.

Environmental issues, getting off of our dependence on fossil fuels, alternative energy, ocean conservation through commercial fishing management and aquaculture, protecting endangered species - all of these are problems that require long-term solutions supported by bold leadership. The solutions will produce economic opportunities, fertile ground for innovative thinking and technologies, new jobs and revenue. But they require many industries to reinvent themselves and, in light of business' ingrained aversion to that, the quick fix and turning back of the clock are more attractive choices.

While President Obama is a sharp intellectual, he is stuck in the mud with an obstructionist opposition party who is dying to return to the "good old days" and he is decidedly exhibiting a deficit in leadership that is leaving him perceived as a push-over or, even worse to some of his supporters, as a Democrat in name only. This certainly isn't the country that he had hope to inherit when he was elected and I'm not sure that anyone from either party would be standing tall today, given that so much has occurred over the past few years which in many ways has been outside of the government's control or influence. But nonetheless, he is the man of the moment and he has yet to prove himself to be the leader for these turbulent times, akin to an FDR or a Reagan (to appeal to both parties).

“I think that two-plus years into Obama’s presidency is more than enough time for him to have established a clear weak record,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been battling the president on endangered species. “The environmental movement needs to keep piling the pressure on and realizing playing nicey-nice won’t work.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, The American Lung Association, and other organizations will be reanimating lawsuits first initiated to force the hand of the Bush administration but subsequently put on hold when Obama's earlier stated position on ozone favored the tighter regulations.

"The Obama administration is caving to big polluters at the expense of protecting the air we breathe," said Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters to the Associated Press. "This is a huge win for corporate polluters and huge loss for public health."

Within today's socio-political climate where labeling just about anything as "anti-job" can bring about its defeat, the current administration has done an about-face on several important environmental issues from oil drilling to EPA standards. If this trend continues, he could be faced with a short-term legacy - a one-term presidency - and a long-term legacy of lost environmental and public health opportunities that will impact generations to come.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bermuda Humpback Whale Sanctuary: NOAA and island nation working to learn more about whales' migration

Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a letter of intent had been signed with the Bermuda Department of Environmental Protection to establish a sanctuary for humpback whales. This will be the third such sanctuary for Atlantic Ocean humpbacks - the other two being the Stellwagen Bank in Maine and the Santuario Mamiferos Marinos in the Dominican Republic.

There are five distinct populations of humpback whales in the North Atlantic: Maine (Stellwagen Bank), Nova Scotia, Greenland, Norway, and Iceland. In the north, the whales feed but when breeding season approaches, they head south to the Caribbean. These migratory patterns are of considerable importance to researchers as the better they understand them, the more effective the management and regulatory policies can be made to protect them. Some of these migratory highways are known to cross established shipping lanes, and that has resulted in collisions with ships which produce serious injury or death.

As an example, after studying whale movements based on sightings over a 20 year period, a proposal was recently made to move shipping northward by 12 degrees; the anticipated result being a drop in strikes by ships of over 80 percent.

Both the proposed Bermuda and the Dominican Republic sanctuaries are considered "sister" sanctuaries to Stellwagen Bank. In the Caribbean, the various whale populations mingle, guaranteeing a good mix of the gene pool, before all heading back to their respective northern locations. While more sanctuaries are being sought in and around the Dominican Republic, the Bermuda sanctuary is less in the specific breeding zone than it is a spot along the route.

Positioned just south of halfway along the whales' journey, the sanctuary would afford researchers the opportunity to study the whales during migration, provides protection within the migratory corridor, and even affords Bermuda the opportunity to generate additional tourism dollars through whale watching excursions.

"This is a first step in putting together conservation stepping stones throughout their migration. The expansion of our Sister Sanctuary Program will play a powerful role in protecting endangered humpback whales, and the opportunity for international cooperation in marine conservation is invaluable," said Nathalie Ward of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Humpback whales - recognizable by their long pectoral (front) fins and famous for their possible communicating via long, ethereal "songs" - are found in basically all of the world's oceans. While protected by many nations, they have been hunted by a few of the remaining whaling nations, in particular Japan, who takes them under the guise of scientific research, a shameful loophole in the whaling moratorium regulations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The current population of humpback whales is estimated at around 80,000, down from a pre-whaling population of around 125,000. That's a better situation than other species of whales and, in 2008, the IUCN changed the whale's listing regarding possible extinction from "Vulnerable" to "Least Concern."

Sounds like a slowly evolving success story but there is still much that we don't know about these immense but graceful marine mammals, so the work goes on and whale advocates remain ever vigilant.