Saturday, July 30, 2011

Man Bites Shark: a rational look at reports of increased shark encounters

For better or worse, this is the shark's time of year. Newspapers, magazines, television programming and news broadcast, and motion pictures - all forms of media jump on the bandwagon to herald the summer of the shark. Nearly one-third of my posts this month, so far, have been about sharks - and I wasn't even making a conscious choice to do so.

Fueling the annual fire this year about sharks - particularly any shark-human interactions - is the fact that there have been more human interactions with sharks. There are a multitude of reasons behind this, depending on the location and the shark species, but complex explanations are not the stuff of quick sound bites and hot-of-the-press headlines. However, without delving into the devilish details then people are left to fall back on simplistic reasons that plug into their primal curiosity mixed with fear of these animals: the number of sharks are growing; and they are out to get us.

And so, at the apex of the annual shark mania (or nadir, depending on your point of view), I present the calm, rational position statement - not from my hand but from The Washington Post's national environmental science write, Juliet Eilperin. Writing for Foreign Policy, Man Bites Shark is an overview of man's interaction with the shark world from the 1500s to today. It examines the reasons why more sharks, ranging from benign whale sharks to great white sharks, have been reported in the past few years, and why shark attacks increased by 25% in 2010.

In many respects, we are two species on a collision course. And the one steering the boat is mankind.

At first glance, sharks -- with their sharp jaws, torpedo-shaped bodies, and unusual sensing abilities -- appear to be bizarre vestiges of a distant past. But they can also tell us a lot about our present and our future. Where sharks appear in big numbers, coral reefs and other marine life around them thrive because they remove weak and sick animals from the system and can keep midlevel predators in check. When they shift their migrations, scientists often detect a shift in ocean temperatures and prey populations. For researchers seeking to create a more efficient electric battery, faster vessels, or a robot that can track oil and chemical spills underwater, sharks' sleek and extraordinarily efficient bodies offer inspiration for design. In countries where their fins end up at the dinner table, economists can generally find rising incomes. The animal humans fear most has become a global commodity, an economic indicator, and environmental harbinger of things to come.

In many ways, the movie character Matt Hooper was right on the money when he said, "All sharks want to do is swim, eat, and make little sharks." That can be said of almost every creature in the sea. It's mankind that has the multiple agendas that put us in touch with sharks, from tourism to fishing to research to storytelling.

In Man Bites Shark, Ms. Eilperin is the objective journalist, putting emotions aside - either pro-shark or anti-shark. Just the facts.

During the 20th century, the increase in shark attacks in Florida -- which leads the world in shark strikes almost every year -- closely tracked both the state's population rise and the number of people going to the beach, according to statistics compiled by the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File. In 1900, Florida's population stood at 530,000, and there was one unprovoked shark strike between 1900 and 1909; by 1950, the state had 2.77 million residents, and attacks that decade totaled 13; by 2000, when the population had soared to nearly 16 million, 256 shark strikes took place over the course of the decade.

Many of us familiar with sharks have heard this argument before: more people equals more shark encounters. Ms. Eilperin adds credibility by giving us the numbers. In addition, she adds balance to sensational reports of a mass schooling of blacktip reef sharks off Palm Beach, Florida; congregating whales sharks off the Yucatan Peninsula; or increased white shark sightings off the California coast.

Noteworthy, Man Bites Shark is not appearing at the check-out counter in People magazine; it's in Foreign Policy and so Ms. Eilperin turns her attention to the environmental and economic disaster we have visited upon the shark and some of the complex diplomatic jockeying that has been taking place amongst nations.

International trade and fishery management meetings have become a series of regional skirmishes. Japan and China have managed to torpedo trade protections at international fishery-management bodies for species ranging from hammerhead to porbeagle sharks, in part through forging alliances with smaller countries such as Grenada, Suriname, and St. Kitts and Nevis. But the United States has continued to press the case, along with both European officials and those from countries such as Palau and the Maldives, both of which have banned shark fishing in their waters.

Cheri McCarty, a foreign affairs specialist in the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of International Affairs, has spent the last two-and-a-half years negotiating over shark protections in the global arena, and she has gotten used to the weary reactions her presence can provoke. "There are times I'll go to meetings where people say, 'Oh no, not the U.S. pushing sharks again.' But slowly but surely, we have more allies on our side now."

If you are already bitten by the "I love sharks" bug, Man Bite Shark is no cure; it's a rational affirmation of a position that seems to be slowly growing. If you are on the fence and what you have been reading in the news or are about to watch on television this weekend gives you pause, then you should read Man Bites Shark, too. A little common sense between handfuls of popcorn or chewing your nails nervously wouldn't hurt.

Read Man Bites Shark in Foreign Policy.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Global Tiger Day: have you hugged your big cat today?

Today is Global Tiger Day - a day when nations around the globe, particularly those nations which are home to some of these magnificent felines, recognize both the beauty of this jungle predator and the tragic situation regarding their dwindling numbers. Governments throughout Asia join with conservation groups to recognize the plight of the tiger and vow to continue or reinvigorate efforts to conserve and protect these cats which have been imperiled by declining habitat and continued poaching.

However, as well-intended as something like Global Tiger Day is, it will take a lot more than one day to make progress on the issue. As with many other animal conservation challenges, it requires manpower, enforcement and prosecution, and money. Due to the tiger's scarcity, the black market for tiger hides and genitals - yes, one of the biggest black markets is in tiger penises - makes the temptation for subsistence-level poachers just too overwhelming. The laws and regulations are on the books; its concrete and sustained action that is often lacking.

Bangladesh is trying to make just such a proactive difference in protecting the Royal Bengal tigers that inhabit the largest mangrove forest habitat on the planet, the Sundarbans.

As reported in Bangladesh's The Daily Star,
"The Tk 276 crore Tiger Action Plan would be implemented as part of strengthening regional co-operation for wildlife conservation with the assistance of the World Bank," said Dr Tapan Kumar Dey, Conservator of Forests at Wildlife and Nature Conservation Circle under the Office of the Chief Conservator of Forests.

The Sundarbans is a wide delta at the confluence of the Padma, Brahmuputra, and Meghna Rivers, spreading across southern Bangladesh and extending into India. The mangrove forests cover over 3,861 sq. miles (10,000 sq. km.) but are now surrounded by encroaching agriculture and urban development to such an extant that it has been declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site in danger.

There are three promising components found in Bangladesh's proposed Tiger Plan. First, attention will be focused on enforcement and prosecution of poachers. Violators will face new 12-year prison terms for killing a tiger and repeat offenders can be awarded life sentences. But an important second step is the recognition that many of these poachers are subsistence level villagers and so a proactive approach to alternative income, wildlife sustainability, and social change has also been proposed.
The government realizes that if you take away something that is bad, you must be able to replace it with something good.

The Daily Star reports that according to Dr. Dey, the government has undertaken initiatives including increasing the number of forest department officials, conducting regular tiger monitoring, assessment of threats to the tigers, raising mass awareness locally and nationally, and facilitating research for a new generation of scientists targeting to bring social changes among the Bangladesh people.

And finally, the involvement of the World Bank is a positive sign that it is understood without financial support all pronouncements of conservation and protection would ring hollow; empty promises lost in the forest.

Current world populations figures for the tiger, including all five of the known sub-species, number around only 3,700, a terrible decline from an approximate 100,000 cats at the start of the 20th century. According to a 2004 study by the United Nations and the Bangladeshi government, only 440 Royal Bengal tigers were estimated in the Bangladesh portion of the Sundarbans.

The Daily Star reports that there are only five sub-species of tigers surviving in the world which are Bengal tiger, Siberian tiger, Sumatran tiger, South-China tiger and Indo-China tiger. Balinese tigers, Javanese tigers and Caspian tigers have already vanished from the planet with experts predicting the remaining species could disappear by the next century or sooner. Bangladesh State Minister for Forest and Environment Dr Hasan Mahmud said the government would take action to double the number of tigers by 2022.

Global Tiger Day, July 29th, 2011. Have you hugged your cat today? You just might get a hug back on behalf of a distant relative.

Read about Bangladesh's Tiger Plan in The Daily Star.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Great White Adolescent: juvenile white shark makes rare appearance for whale watchers

Here's a bit of fun news, perfectly timed as Discovery Channel's Shark Week prepares to launch this coming July 31st. In his blog, Outdoors, action and adventure, Pete Thomas reports on a Southern California whale excursion boat that was able to provide a little extra for its passengers - in the form of a great white shark.

After watching several blue whales, which will frequent the local California waters as part of their annual migratory trek, the passengers and crew of the Dana Pride were briefly visited by a juvenile white shark, perhaps measuring around 10 feet. There are some shark researchers who say female white sharks will give birth along the coast and as they move on as part of their normal migrations, the juveniles will remain in the area, feeding on fish and growing until the migratory lightbulb goes off in their heads and, as they reach adulthood, their feeding habits switch to seals and sea lions as the preferred prey.

However, they don't spend much time near the surface, so sightings are fairly rare. But they're there all the same. As evidence, many of the white sharks that the Monterey Bay Aquarium has had on display over the years, as part of their successful captive white shark program, have been juveniles caught by fishermen in their nets in, you guessed it, Southern California.

The captain, Todd Mansur, was able to take a short video on his cellphone of the approaching shark. Although one reader of Pete's article commented that it was a mako shark, it appears to me to be a juvenile white shark, not only because of its size and proportions but because of its relaxed movement in the water.



Having been to Isla Guadalupe, Baja to film the white sharks that migrate there in the fall months (I'll be there again this October), I have seen many familiar toothy faces return to the island year after year. But, unfortunately, there are a few sharks who have not been seen in some time, so I always enjoy hearing or seeing evidence of potential future generations of these important predators whose numbers have greatly diminished over the past few decades.

Read Pete Thomas' account of the visiting white shark.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Florida's Tire Reef: 70's artificial reef proves to be a very real failure

Artificial reefs serve as a possible remedy for natural coral reefs that have been damaged either by pollution, temperature (in the form of coral bleaching), or too much manhandling from snorkelers and divers, just to name a few. They can provide new habitats which can increase the populations of fish, from local reef fish to larger pelagics, and they can take some of the pressure off of a reef enhancing the reef's ability to rejuvenate.

Scientists, conservation organizations, and groups invested in tourism are looking for new methods and materials for establishing artificial reefs. Two of the most common artificial reef formations are sunken wrecks and concrete structures, sometimes referred to as "reef balls." Wrecks have been around since man has sailed the seas and there are many which serve as unwitting artificial reefs. But today, we find organizations that take decommissioned vessels, clean them of any potential pollutants and deliberately sink them. These wrecks could last from 50 to 100 years or more and in that time, a substantial reef structure can form - one that could possibly outlive its original foundation.

Reef balls, basically made of concrete and other ground up substrate that can provide a firm base for coral growth, are perhaps less mysterious than sunken wrecks and a bit more plain-looking. However, they can provide a very natural-like foundation for a coral reef and, given time, they can look for all to see, including man and animal, like any other natural reef given enough time for coral and sea grasses to take hold.

There have been other candidates for artificial reefs. Along the California and Gulf coasts, retired oil rigs are being debated as potential artificial reefs when the upper superstructure is removed to just far enough below the surface so as not to pose a shipping hazard. Other structures have become artificial reefs sometimes by accident. In San Diego, California, the NOSC (National Oceans System Center) closed down a research tower situated about a mile offshore, in the late 80s, and was preparing to turn it over to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Unfortunately, before Scripps could take possession, heavy storms came in and knocked it over: a loss to Scripps but a gain for local mussels, anemones and a wide variety of local fish - not to mention local scuba divers who now had a new underwater attraction to break up the wide, sandy vista of San Diego's Mission Bay.

But not all artificial reefs have been successful, regardless of the best of intentions and considerable thought put into the design. Not everything that mankind makes can become a suitable foundation for a reef. Case in point, the disastrous Osborne Reef off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

In the early 70s, Broward Artificial Reefs, Inc. proposed an extensive artificial reef consisting of discarded tires. The supposed benefits would be the elimination of unsightly, old worn tires and the chance to entice more game fish for recreational fishing. The project was endorsed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, with the aid of many private, commercial and even naval vessels, the Broward County government deposited over two million tires, bound together with steel clips, cables, or nylon rope, across 36 acres. A new artificial reef seemed to be on its way.

But it was not to be. The securing cables, clips and ropes corroded and the lightweight tires were now on the move. Pushed around by currents and storms, the tires smashed into living corals as they spread out like an ever-increasing steamroller. After one particular storm, thousands of tires piled up against a reef, while others made their way to local beaches.

Even if the tires had managed to stay together, it turns out that they were not a good platform for reef growth due to their flexibility and the fact that, as the rubber breaks down from long exposure to sunlight and seawater, several low-level toxins are given off which have the potential to stunt the growth of sealife.
"The really good idea was to provide habitat for marine critters so we could double or triple marine life in the area. It just didn't work that way," said Ray McAllister, a professor of ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University who was instrumental in organizing the project. "I look back now and see it was a bad idea."

Reef Rescue videotaped the condition of the tire reef in 2010:


From time to time efforts have been made to salvage the tires. State campaigns have been put in play, often supported by the military (Navy divers have used the cleanup as part of their training), but the cost is enormous and so progress has been in fits and starts. The military has scaled back their involvement as their resources are being taxed by two wars and looming budget cuts. To date, around 73,000 tires have been recovered - a considerable number, but with the original number totaling over 2 million, there is a long ways to go.
"We've literally dumped millions of tires in our oceans," said Jack Sobel, director of strategic conservation and a marine scientist for the Ocean Conservancy scientist, when speaking about the concept of tire reefs on a worldwide scale. "I believe that people who were behind the artificial tire reef promotions actually were well-intentioned and thought they were doing the right thing. In hindsight, we now realize that we made a mistake."

We are now getting to a point with the condition of the oceans and marine ecosystems where there is less tolerance for "experiments" and a greater need for solutions for which we are much more certain about the outcome. Unfortunately, our actions that adversely impact the marine environments are bad enough; we can't afford to have our solutions simply add to the problem.


Read more about the history of Osborne Reef.
Read more about the reef in 2007 in
USA Today.
Read more about cleanup efforts in 2010 in
Reef Rescue.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Grey Nurse Sharks: Project Aware pushes for greater protection

For you shark advocates, here's an important post from my friends at Beqa Adventure Divers in Fiji regarding protection for Grey Nurse Sharks (GNS) in Australia. It's a good follow up to a post I wrote in February of this year on these very sharks.

NSW Grey Nurse Sharks: Bravo PADI!

I must say, I'm increasingly impressed by PADI Asia Pacific.

The team of Mike Holme has been nothing short of stellar whenever we have contacted them for assistance and advice, and now I learn that Project AWARE has thrown its weight behind the campaign aimed at restoring adequate protection for New South Wales' highly vulnerable stocks of GNS after the latest shameful fiasco.

Please read this appeal and please, do act now.
This is industry leadership and I am particularly happy to find an excellent letter that contains all the recommendations I've posted here. This is terribly urgent and important, the more as all the science shows that for all practical purposes, depleted Shark stocks have no real chance of rebounding once they get wiped out as that would take decades if not centuries, i.e. way beyond any reasonable time frame - and I trust that I don't need to remind you of the consequences for the marine environment including the future of those ignorant fishermen!

The GNS stocks are literally on the brink and we simply cannot afford to get this wrong.
The only way we can avert this ecological catastrophe is to show those inept politicians and their rabid cronies from the Fishers and Shooters party that the public wants nothing to do with their appalling disregard of the health of the environment.

Please, do write a letter now.
Please send a copy to David at david.roe@projectaware.org.au and please, do mobilize your friends. Bloggers, please do re-post.
Submission close on Friday, August 26.
Once again, kudos to PADI.

Visit PADI Asia Pacific's website.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Global Climate Change: a new book sorts out the facts and the myths and rebuttals

As a follow up to my recent post noting the article on climate change written by Vice President Al Gore and appearing in Rolling Stone magazine, Southern Fried Science has an interesting review of a new book by oceanographer Orrin Pilkey and his son, Keith Pilkey: Global Climate Change, A Primer.

For those who may feel a bit overwhelmed (and it's easy to do) by the many issues and environmental impacts that fall under the heading of climate change, this book addresses them one by one. Of particular note, according to Andrew of Southern Fried Science, is that the book also addresses the many arguments used by those who choose to deny that climate change or global warming actually exists or that, if it does, that it is fueled by human activities.


A Primer for Climate Change

Sea level rise. Desertification. Ocean acidification. Climategate. Permafrost. Greenland ice sheet. Hockey stick. The language of global climate change can be overwhelming. Every year, as we learn more about the ways that human activity fundamentally alter global processes, the subject becomes even broader and more complicated. Fortunately, world renowned oceanographer Orrin Pilkey and his son, Keith Pilkey, have produced a comprehensive and readable primer on global climate change. The strength of Global Climate Change: A Primer can be broken into three sections – the content, the conflict, and the illustrations.

The Content

The Pilkies are excellent writers and do an impressive, thorough job covering most of the issues involved in global climate change. The target audience for this book is the general public, so the style is heavy on anecdotes and light on dense jargon. While they touch on most of the aspects of climate change, some of sections are weaker than others. Pilkey the senior is an accomplished oceanographer who works on barrier island, so the sections on ocean acidification, sea level rise, and changes in coastal processes are, almost necessarily, the strongest and most compelling.

That doesn’t mean that other topics are short changed. For a 120 page book, the breadth of subject matter is impressive. Anyone interested in examining a specific climate change topic would do well to start with this primer.

One thing that is lacking is an accessible bibliography. The standard bibliography is an excellent collection of sources, but it is difficult to link the references with the text. A thorough collection of end notes, connecting each page to the references mentioned would make it easier for the reader to track down the primary sources.

The Conflict

Complementing the discussion of the causes and effects of global climate change are frank and thoughtful responses to the misconceptions, myths, and outright deceptions common to the climate change denial movement. Each chapter ends with a “myths” section that takes a firm look at the claims made by climate change deniers and thoroughly debunks them. Every claim I’ve heard in recent years is in this book and critically addressed.

Two chapters are entirely dedicated to the manufacture of doubt. These two chapters really shine as new and important contributions to the climate change literature. Climategate, the leaking of several thousand e-mails which, though it revealed absolutely nothing, became a lightning rod for the denialist industry (and I do mean industry, as they painstakingly lay out the funding sources and motives behind the major political and corporate players who are manufacturing climate change dissent). To paraphrase Senator Inhofe, the myth that human activities haven’t led to measurable and significant changes to the natural systems governing the earth’s climate is the real “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

But Pilkey and Pilkey don’t just pick on the low hanging fruits of climate change deniers. They also address some of the misconceptions that have promulgated through the climate change community, explain some of the issues with mathematical models, and discuss the detrimental results of “bandwagon” and “state-of-siege” effects.

These chapters could best be summed up with a quote from Elizabeth Kolbert:

“No one has ever offered a plausible account of why thousands of scientists at hundreds of universities in dozens of countries would bother to engineer a climate hoax.”

Illustrations

It is weird to refer to the illustrations in a book about climate change as beautiful, but that’s the only way to describe the batiks by Mary Edna Fraser. In the most dramatic departure from traditional popular science literature, Pilkey and Pilkey eschew diagrams and photographs common to the style and illustrate the book with luscious, vibrant silk printings of landscapes and seascapes that evoke the central topics of the book with devastating effect. While a book founded in science, by nature, adheres to data and dry analysis, the illustrations appeal to the readers’ emotions, creating a global sense of place that cannot be captured in figures and photographs.

As an introductory book on global climate change, this is by far the best I’ve found. It’s ideal for the non-specialist who wants to learn more about the issues and get an appreciation for how far out to lunch the denial lobby is. This illustrations alone are worth the price. Also of note is the final chapter on geoengineering, which proposes some possible solutions to the the current problem, adding some hope to an otherwise doom-and-gloom subject.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Whales Making Strides: possible sanctions against Iceland; Oman studies cetatcea

Two recent developments offer encouraging news for whales. Though not yet fully realized in terms of their ramifications, they are certainly steps in the right direction towards ensuring the long-term future of whales worldwide.

US Proposes Sanctions Against Iceland
Iceland is one of two nations that openly defy the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling - the other nation being Norway. Japan hides its whaling operations behind the commission's loophole regarding taking whales for scientific research.

In response to considerable pressure from environmental groups, US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, on Wednesday, put Iceland on notice that they may be subject to economic sanctions if they do not curtail all commercial whaling activities. Using the Pelly Amendment, which provides for sanctions against nations that violate global fisheries conservation agreements, the Commerce Department is taking the first step in a process that ultimately must be approved by President Obama.


"Iceland's harvest of whales and export of fin whale meat threaten an endangered species and undermine worldwide efforts to protect whales," said Locke, who oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It's critical that the government of Iceland take immediate action to comply with the moratorium."

Iceland's actual involvement is whaling is not as aggressive as Norway or Japan. Complying with the whaling moratorium for many years, Iceland resumed whaling in 2006 and most of its catch was exported to Japan - a market that has declined recently. Last year, Iceland took about 225 whales, compared to Japan's annual catch which often exceeds 1,000.

But with Japan heading towards an international legal struggle with Australia and continued harassment from pro-whale organizations like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, taking political aim at one of the two Northern European whaling prohibition violators is an appropriate move. Now it remains to be seen as to whether President Obama will concur and impose sanctions.

Oman Studies Cetacea in the Northern Indian Ocean
Recognizing the importance of cetacea that ply the waters off this Arabian peninsula nation, Oman continues to embark on research to study the several different species of whales and dolphins that call the Northern Indian Ocean home.

Oman is the only Arabian peninsula nation that is a member of the IWC and, through its Environment Society of Oman (ESO), has been studying the Arabian Sea Humpback Whale in addition to Bryde's, Sperm and Blue whales. The study has generated great interest in the scientific community as the whales inhabit a region that is not directly linked to cold, polar feeding regions that generate considerable amounts of krill - a key food source for most whales. This makes for a somewhat unique habitat for the whales living there.

Recognizing the importance of conservation measures to monitor the interactions and threats to large whales from shipping traffic and bycatch, the director of the ESO Lamees Daar said,
“The successful development of a regional CMP [Conservation Management Plan] will depend on the cooperation and understanding of all range states [Oman, Yemen, the UAE, Iran, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka], which is an ambitious undertaking but is a challenge that ESO feels is necessary.”

Read about possible US sanctions against Iceland in the Associated Foreign Press.
Read about Oman's pro-whale commitment in the Times of Oman.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Shark Week & Conservation: the time of year when hype, reality, and rational voices vie for our attention

It's summertime, August is approaching, and that means it's time for Discovery Channel's Shark Week. This ratings bonanza for Discovery (over 30 million viewers last year) continues to thrill a large segment of the general public while infuriating many pro-shark activists with program titles like Deadliest Waters or Anatomy of a Shark Bite. There's no doubt that Discovery tries to have it both ways by providing a measure of conservation content (they actually did a rather well-balanced piece on shark conservation for Discovery News - see below) combined with programs that pander to the malevolent killer shark stereotypes. Discovery seems to have found a balance that allows them to have their cake while eating their vegetables too.



During this time period, sales of other shark-related films (like my first documentary, Island of the Great White Shark) enjoy a momentary surge; press reports of shark sightings and human-shark interactions increase in frequency; and shark advocates roll their eyes and wring their hands in frustration.

Case in point would be the following promotion for a Shark Week program picked up by outdoor writer Pete Thomas for GrindTV. South African photographer Chris Fallows has made a career filming sharks and is known for his striking images of great white sharks leaping into the air when ambushing prey. He is part of a Shark Week program titled Great White Invasion - Immediately sounds ominous, doesn't it? Chris is attempting to debunk some of the myths regarding the ferociousness of these apex predators by approaching one with a paddleboard.



The shark is curious, no doubt, but appears to realize that the board and its rider are neither prey (a seal or sea lion) nor something to scavenge, like a dead whale carcass. It's in shallow water so it's not going to attack with a powerful lunge from underneath, as is its usual method, so it swims about somewhere between mild curiosity and disinterest (notice the moment in the video when it simply treads water, looking at the board and its rider - probably thinking, What the heck is this?

The risk to Chris Fallows is that, in fact, some sharks like to bump objects to check them out, particularly if they are wondering if it is an inanimate carcass. I have experienced that before firsthand. While I hung over the side of a Zodiac (a sturdy inflatable raft) filming white sharks, a large 15-foot male approached us and then "bumped" the raft a good foot and a half into the air and, with a flick of his powerful tail, proceeded to smack me across the side of the head. Me and the captain got the message and headed back to the main boat, our adrenaline pumping and my left cheek stinging.

However exciting incidents like that may be or whatever heart-racing programs Discovery's Shark Week may have in store for us, the reality of what sharks themselves are experiencing at the hands of man cannot be overlooked. People may not love them - and the fact is, they don't have to - but they do need to respect them and understand their vital role in maintaining a healthy ocean as critically important predators and scavengers.

And it will be the wisdom of rational voices that ultimately gets the job done. In Australia, Mick Dowers, founder of the Anti-Shark Finning Alliance, makes his case on ABC Brisbane radio's Breakfast with Spencer Howson. What better way to start a cat fight than to then bring on a Chinese Australian to comment - let the fight begin, eh?! But, no. Two rational people with their own points of view discuss the issue calmly and you can begin to hear common ground developing.

Click the 612 ABC Brisbane logo to download audio file (mp3).


That's what it will take: rational people talking about a less than rational practice in an attempt to preserve both, a dwindling species and a fading cultural history.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

New Medical Complex at SeaWorld: Florida park to open dolphin & whale treatment/rehab center

It has been many years since Sea World Orlando was in the business of caring for sick or injured dolphins or small whales from the wild. With the outbreak of a deadly morbillivirus - a measles-like virus - in the Miami Aquarium, brought in by some sick pilot whales, which killed several of the aquarium's captive dolphins and other marine mammals, Sea World abruptly stopped the practice.

Until now.

In the next few weeks, SeaWorld Orlando will open a new facility dedicated to the treatment of sick, injured, or stranded wild cetacea. The medical complex will be isolated from the main park and its exhibits, with its own tanks, water filtration systems, and even separate decontamination showers for employees. The main tank will contain 40,000 gallons with enough room to hold a 13-foot pilot whale.

Of SeaWorld's research and rehab efforts of various marine animals, Brad Andrews, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said, "This is what we do. [It] gives us an extremely interesting example of what's going on with the wild populations. They're like the canaries in the coal mine as they come up on shore."


According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, about an average of 51 whales, dolphins, and porpoises are stranded on Florida shores, analyzed from eight years worth of recent data. Of that number, about a third of them were sent to rehab facilities.

Marine amusement parks like SeaWorld have been criticized by many pro-cetacean activists for the treatment of dolphins and whales in captivity. These are open ocean animals that utilize echo-location and various long-distance sounds as a form of communication and hunting. It is said that the tanks provided by marine amusements parks can not possibly provide enough room to ensure that the animals have a healthy, mentally-stimulating environment.

While that is an argument that has merit (and I am one that basically sides with that position), organizations like SeaWorld have also spent millions of dollars on research and rehab. So, it presents a bit of dilemma as it is the revenue from their entertainment activities that supports efforts like the new medical complex.

Critics believe SeaWorld's new facility is simply a politically-correct way to acquire new captive animals: nursing a sick or injured animal back to health and then transferring it to permanent captive status. SeaWorld has not acquired any new animals from the wild since the late 1970s. And of the 200 cetaceans held throughout the entire company's string of parks, only 5 were sick or injured animals rescued from the wild.

In response to critics, Andrews said, "The goal here is to take care of the animal, treat the animal and let it go." To be sure, there will be many who will be watching whether SeaWorld sticks to that strategy. If they do, it will be welcomed indeed - and captive dolphins and whales will be a separate argument to be debated.


Read about the new facility in the Orlando Sentinel.

North Atlantic's Hydrothermal Vents: Irish expedition sets out to study the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Marine scientists have examined some of the world's deep ocean thermal vents that harbor remarkable sealife found no where else on the planet. Living without sunlight, sometimes in temperatures that could bake bread, bacteria, worms, and crabs flourish at the site of these vents which often spew what looks like smoke but is actually a rich cocktail of minerals. The vents typically exist along fault lines that run deep in the ocean.

Running basically down the center of the Atlantic ocean is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and scientists from Ireland are preparing to study the northern portion of the ridge, in search of deep water corals and thermal vents. Using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), researchers from the University College, Cork and UK's National Oceanography Centre set out this past week to examine in greater detail the "45 degree North MAR hydrothermal vent field" which was first discovered in 2008. The ROV will be working at a depth of over 9,800 feet.


As reported in the Irish Weather Online, "'This expedition offers us the first opportunity to investigate mineral deposits and vent animals in this unexplored and important part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge,' said Dr. Bramley Murton of the National Oceanography Centre, who is now leading the mineralisation study on the expedition. 'Nothing is known about the hydrothermal vents, their mineral deposits or the life they support on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the islands of the Azores to the south and Iceland to the north. Because this part of the ridge is trapped between these islands, vent animals may have evolved in isolation and be quite unique from elsewhere.'"

The expedition is being documented by National Geographic for an upcoming series on the ocean. Many of the research institutions involved are hoping that this research effort will help establish Ireland as a recognized deep sea science center. However, while a little nation pride can be a good thing, the focus of attention will be on the possible discovery of heretofore unknown animals. In addition, the economic potential of the types and quantity of minerals given off by the vents will be investigated.

It was always assumed that virtually nothing could survive in the deepest reaches of the ocean. But with the discovery of hydrothermal vents and deep water corals, scientists are having to re-write some of the rules as they continue to discover ecosystems based on entirely new biological principles.


Read about the expedition in the Irish Weather Online.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Conservation and the Deficit: Nature Conservancy CEO makes his case

Nature conservationists know that preserving our natural resources is not simply a passion for liberal tree-huggers. It makes environmental sense and it makes economic sense. But it is also one of those endeavors that can be dismiss as a luxury when there are trying economic times - as we are experiencing now.

The Nature Conservancy is one of the major conservation non-profits and has enough resources and clout to be able to sit down and work with many of the regulatory agencies regarding conservation issues. Mark Tercek, the organization's CEO, contributed an interesting article in The Huffington Post today, pointing out that conservation did not cause the deficit crisis and cutting conservation will not solve the crisis either.

One of his main concerns is the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill that is currently before the House of Representatives. In keeping with the mood in Washington these days, the bill seeks to trim spending on conservation and environmental protection programs, and Tercek understands the need for all government departments to carry their fair share of the load.

However, Tercek's concern is that the bill goes too far at the expense of important programs that actually provide some very important cost-preventative benefits. He sites as an example, the federally-protected marshlands along the Mississippi River that were successfully used as a flood basin when water was released from levees pushed to their limits by a rain-swollen Mississippi this past spring. Without federal protection, those lands would not be available, most likely developed for housing - the kind of housing developments that were impacted by water released elsewhere along the river.

Despite the calls for reduced federal government, this is a perfect example of where the federal government can make a difference. If all that existed were a patchwork of state-only regulations all along the Mississippi River, you could very well have had more disastrous outcomes from a body of water that cares not for state boundaries.

Another concern that The Nature Conservancy has with the appropriations bill is language that impacts the application and effectiveness of important environmental protections. Simply reducing funding is one issue, but changing how the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, or the Endangered Species Act can function - under the guise of appropriations - reminds me of the steps taken by the former administration to limit the powers of these bodies to act as they were originally intended. One can almost see the fingerprints of corporate-supported lobbyists all over the legislation.

From wild-eyed liberals to Tea Baggers, the whole spectrum of politics is vulnerable to the influence of lobbyists and campaign contributions. An ideal world would have scientists, conservation experts, and economic/corporate interests - stripped of all influence other than the logic of their arguments - all sitting down at the table with our elected officials, hammering out legislation that addresses short- and long-term environmental goals. But that is not the reality we live in and, until we address that issue, conservation interests - even those that speak to the future of this planet - will be struggling to get their fair share of attention at the dinner table.

Despite the odds, it's a struggle worth pursuing because the consequences in doing nothing are too dire and totally unacceptable. Read Mike Tercek's perspective, Cutting Conservation Cannot Fix the Deficit, in the Huffington Post.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Largetooth Sawfish: unique predator to be on U.S. Endangered Species List.

My friend and shark advocate colleague, David Shiffman, ran an interesting post in his blog, Southern Fried Science, on the Largetooth Sawfish and its new inclusion on the U.S. Endangered Species List. It is an amazing member of the elasmobranch family. Its "saw" is an elongated rostrum or snout-like projection, with a row of formidable teeth on each side. The sawfish uses its appendage to lethal effect, taking a quick swing at passing prey or using it to dig in the sand for small animals hiding there.

During my tenure as a Dive Team Leader at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, I had the opportunity to get up close to a sawfish the Aquarium had on display in its Shark Lagoon exhibit. It is a striking, awesome animal to see. One always had to approach slowly and carefully from the side, making sure the sawfish was comfortable with your presence - the last thing you wanted to do was to make it feel cornered or threatened in any way and have it lash out with its saw.

The Aquarium was able to score a first in aquarium veterinary medicine, when the sawfish's rostrum was snapped by some aggressive sand tiger sharks. A team, led by Dr. Lance Adams, was able to reattach the broken saw - glued and held in place by wooden splints. Well, okay, they were Popsicle sticks, but it worked and the sawfish fully recovered from a wound that would normally be considered fatal - particularly if it occurred in the wild.

The largetooth sawfish is plagued by a loss of habitat and by ending up as bycatch - a result of its saw getting entangled in fishing nets.

"The Endangered Species Act protections, the result of a petition by WildEarth Guardians, take effect on August 11. The U.S. will also work with nations where these animals are found to encourage similar protections. 'By adding largetooth sawfish to the Endangered Species List, the U.S. government is taking an important step toward preventing extinction of this remarkable animal and raising awareness about the plight of all sawfish species,' says Sonja Fordham [Shark Advocates International]."

Read about the largetooth sawfish in Southern Fried Science.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Our Environment in Print: articles to ponder on oceans, fish, and climate

A short post as I am immersed in preparing camera gear for an upcoming shoot. I wanted to highlight a couple of interesting articles I have recently read that not only touch on ocean and environmental issues but also deal with the human, political, or economic components that we must be prepared to deal with if we expect to make real progress.

The Ocean Health Index: Miller-McCune.com ran an interesting article, actually the first of a three, on the development of an Ocean Health Index. Three of the lead scientists in this multi-disciplined project explain how the index is being developed. The Ocean Health Index intends to express more than just the state of ocean biodiversity. There are hoping to attain a more holistic indicator of ocean health that incorporates plants and animals, people, economic or commercial viability, and more.

"Each of us individually, and each of our organizations, is vested in defining and measuring ocean health from a more holistic perspective than has been attempted in the past. The rationale for doing so is to evaluate what is happening to individual and very different parts of the ocean (such as fisheries, water quality, and carbon-sequestering coastal habitats) without losing sight of how the ocean as a whole is changing from place to place and from time to time. The litmus test for the success of our efforts will be whether the Ocean Health Index helps policymakers and the public to make better decisions about what they get from, and leave in, the ocean."

The Ocean Health Index project entails hundreds of scientists, government officials, and other subject matter experts, plus in various academic, research, government, and conservation organizations. It is hoped that the index will be ready for use in early 2012.

The Future of Fish:
TIME Magazine's latest cover story looks at the stake of our commercial fisheries and the need to turn to effective, environmentally-viable fish farming, or aquaculture. The article details the status of many commercially-sought after species and what fish holds promise within a farming model.

Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog knows that I am an advocate of aquaculture, despite its challenges to doing it in an environmentally-safe manner, as it poses the most logical solution to pulling fish from the wild - the same solution man realized long ago with cattle and poultry.

Says TIME writer Bryan Walsh, "
With 7 billion people, however, the planet doesn't have much space for such freedom. It's not that commercial fishing will disappear; in fact, sustainable fisheries like Alaska's wild-salmon industry may even produce boutique foods, finally earning what they're worth. There's no doubt that something will be lost in the transition to mass aquaculture, as fish — the last true wild food — are domesticated to support human beings, in much the same way we tamed cattle, pigs and chickens thousands of years ago. But if we're all going to survive and thrive in a crowded world, we'll need to cultivate the seas just as we do the land. If we do it right, aquaculture can be one more step toward saving ourselves. And if we do it well, we may even enjoy the taste of it."

Climate of Denial: In some circles, the term global warming is being jettisoned in favor of climate change. Why? Because the deniers of the effects of our dependence on fossil fuels take aim at every heavy snowfall or extended rain and declare "What warming?" But that's just part of the orchestrated games that are played by those who prosper from our continued expelling of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - and by the media who prefers to feed off of the controversy rather than deal with the overwhelming facts.

In its latest issue, Rolling Stone, that venerable instigator of alternative thinking disguised as an entertainment magazine for the youth, presents Climate of Denial: The Media & the Merchants of Pollution, written by former Vice President Al Gore. It is, perhaps, not the usual detailed assessment of our current climate condition given by someone who has been leading the charge for several decades now.

This time, Vice President Gore looks at why we are not further along in dealing with this earth-threatening issue. And he does so in some very pointed descriptions,
"Most politicians and the media, sadly, fall into two categories: those who cheerlead for the deniers, and those who cower before them." The gloves are off as he identifies the political motivators and economic supporters behind the politicians who choose to deny that climate change exists. From Republicans to President Obama, no one is spared a critical assessment - in a word, the Veep's p.o.'d.

"The climate crisis, in reality, is a struggle for the soul of America. It is about whether or not we are still capable - given the ill health of our democracy and the current dominance of wealth over reason - of perceiving important and complex realities clearly enough to promote and protect the sustainable well-being of the many. What hangs in the balance is the future of civilization as we know it."

However, by no means is Al Gore throwing in the towel. The article reviews many of the latest environmental indicators of the effects of global warming, then lays into the various players to whom we charge the responsibility for doing something about it, but then concludes with a measure of hope and optimism by turning to all of us and giving us some direction as to what we should be doing, how we can be the game-changers in ultimately making climate change the critical and pressing issue it needs to be.

Well, I thought it would be a short post. . .

Read about the Ocean Health Index in Miller-McCune.com.
Read about fish farming in
TIME Magazine.
Read Al Gore's article on the politics of climate change in
Rolling Stone.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Shark Conservation Progress: encouraging regional steps; next up - international regulations

Shark conservation has certainly been making some progress over the past couple of years. Several nations have instituted new regulations within their waters regarding commercial shark fishing or the total prohibition of shark fins. Here is a short list of developments:

Bahamas: The Bahamas National Trust, with support from the PEW Environment Group, was able to get substantial citizen support for its declaration of a Bahamas Shark Sanctuary. The sanctuary was created by adding an amendment to the Fisheries Resources Jurisdiction and Conservation Act to prohibit commercial shark fishing along with the sale, importation and export of shark products.

California, USA: Because of it's two large ports in San Francisco and Los Angeles, a considerable amount of shark product trade is done through California. Assembly Bill 376, a ban on import/export of shark fins similar to Hawaii's ban that went into effect last year, has passed the Senate Natural Resources & Water Committee and now moves on to the Senate Appropriations Committee. While facing strong opposition from shark industry-supported groups that claim a racial prejudice, since most of the market for shark products is with Asians, the legislation has also received considerable support from a host of vocal pro-shark groups and celebrities. Though the legislative process is complicated, passage appears to be likely. The biggest concern is whether, in making its way through the political machinations, the legislation remains intact or becomes watered down with exceptions or loopholes.

Honduras: Honduras also established a shark sanctuary in late June. President Porfirio Lobo Sosa signed the sanctuary bill into law, making permanent a 2010 moratorium on commercial fishing for sharks in the 92,665 square miles of Honduras' exclusive economic zone, which covers both its Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Guam: The Association of Pacific Island Legislatures (APIL) issued a
resolution in June stressing the need for additional actions to protect sharks. The resolution, reached at APIL’s general assembly conference in Palau, states that the association agrees with “protective legislation in Palau, Hawaii, CNMI (Northern Marianas) and Guam.” The member states of APIL are the Northern Marianas, Guam, Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, American Samoa, Nauru and Hawaii. The exclusive economic zones of all APIL member nations total an area larger than the land masses of the continental United States and European Union countries combined.

Washington, USA: Following the lead of Hawaii, the state of Washington passed legislation in May that bans the sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins. The legislation received near unanimous support in the House and 100% backing in the Senate.

Oregon, USA: The state of Oregon is moving forward with legislation to ban the sale and trade of shark fins. Legislation has passed the House and is awaiting hopeful passage in the Senate. As is the case with other US state legislation, it does not affect or eliminate existing legal commercial shark fishing regulations, but focuses on only shark fins.

Asian Markets: Taking aim at the heart of the problem, Asian market demand, a recent poll of 1,000 Hong Kong residents
showed 78 percent of respondents considered it “acceptable” to leave shark fin soup off the menu at events like weddings. In another sign that the topic is getting top-level attention, a deputy of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, Ding Liguo, filed a proposal last month to ban trade in shark fins, according to a report from Xinhua, the state-run news agency. “Only legislation can stop shark fin trading and reduce the killings of sharks,” Mr. Ding said, adding that the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan consume 95 percent the world’s fins. There's still a long ways to go in altering Asian market demand, but these are encouraging signs.

The environmental argument for protecting sharks - the disruption of marine ecosystems caused by the loss of top predators like sharks - is having some resonance with various governments. Another motivator is, as is often the case, economics. More and more substantiated reports are coming out showing that a live shark has a much greater long-term value - sometimes in the millions of dollars - than a dead shark with respect to tourism dollars, either through shark ecotourism or simply the maintenance of a healthier reef for swimmers, snorkelers, and divers by the presence of a balanced shark population.

However, as important as these national efforts are, they only impact regional waters or cause shark fin import/export centers to move elsewhere. International waters are still left wide open. While the shark conservation movement has begun to move beyond the early emotional position regarding the barbarity of shark finning to focus more on the environmental and economic impacts, thereby gaining more political traction, the next major step is to harness the momentum and weight of all these efforts to date to bring about change on an international level. Through United Nations environmental committees and other worldwide groups like the IUCN and CITES, regulations and protection can hopefully be put in place that, in essence, know no oceanic boundaries.

Encouraging steps forward, but there is still a long way to go. Hopefully, the shark is as patient as we are slow.

Read about the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary in the Caribbean News.
Read about California's AB376 in the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Read about the Honduras Shark Sanctuary in
UPI.com.
Read about the push for greater protection in the South Pacific in Pacific News Center.
Read about Washington state's shark fin legislation in
Shark Defenders.
Read about Oregons shark fin legislation in the
Oregon Capitol News.
Read about Asian market demand for shark products in
The New York Times.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Damaged Reefs or Sunburn?: corals threatened by sunscreen use

Many people, even those with only a passing interest in ocean conservation, know that many of the world's coral reefs are being threatened by a variety of environmental impacts. Ocean acidification, pollutants, runoff from urban development, and increasing water temperatures are having their effect, usually in the form of coral bleaching. Corals are supported in a symbiotic fashion by zooxanthellae, algae embedded in the very tissues of the coral. When environmental conditions are not right, the algae dies off and the weakened coral loses its color and starts a slow decline that can often lead to death.

With each summer, as tourism swells and swimmers, snorkelers, and divers entire the water, another threat takes aim at these beautiful but fragile marine ecosystems. And it is an unusual and seemingly unlikely danger. Sunscreen.

That's right. The very stuff that keeps you from looking like a lobster right out of the pot, is also a proven danger to coral. The effects of sunscreen on coral has been the subject of several studies over the past several years. One of the most revealing was conducted in 2008 and published in Environmental Health Perspectives. Researchers from Italy's Polytechnic University of Marche Region, studied the effect of several sunscreen compounds on corals in a controlled laboratory setting and found that four common ingredients caused dormant viruses in the zooxanthellae to awaken and replicate, killing the zooxanthellae and spilling into the surrounding water to do more damage to other corals.

The four ingredients - paraben, cinnamate, benzophenone, and camphor derivatives - are found in many leading brands of sunscreen. The research showed that even very small amounts of these compounds can induce coral bleaching in as little as four hours.

But really, how much of a threat can this be? The World Trade Organization (WTO) has some numbers to illustrate the problem's potential. Ten percent of all tourism takes place in tropical areas, amounting to approximately 80 million people visiting coral reefs annually. With that, the WTO estimates that as much as 6,000 tons of sunscreen lotions are released in reef areas each year, putting as much as 10% of the reefs at risk of death by sunscreen.

You can check your sunscreen label for the chemical culprits or look for sunscreens that are labeled as "coral or reef-safe." No one is suggesting that you fry in the sun and spend your later years in the dermatologist's office, dealing with skin damage. But by reading labels and purchasing sunscreen known to be safe for corals, you'll be taking a personal proactive step to protect coral reefs - while we focus worldwide efforts on the other challenges to the ocean's colorful undersea gardens.

Read a summary of the study in Environmental Health Perspectives.
Read more about coral death by sunscreen in
National Geographic News.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Antarctic Krill: study finds krill releases iron, a part of the CO2 absorption process

Krill is one of the primary foundations in the ocean's food chain. And iron is an important component of sea water, involved in the complicated process of absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2) by microscopic plants. These two elements, krill and iron, were brought together in a press release released today from the British Antarctic Survey:

"A new discovery reveals that the shrimp-like creature at the heart of the Antarctic food chain could play a key role in fertilizing the Southern Ocean with iron – stimulating the growth of phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like organisms). This process enhances the ocean's capacity for natural storage of carbon dioxide.

Reporting this month in the journal Limnology and Oceanography, an international team of researchers describe how Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), once thought to live mostly in surface waters, regularly feed on iron-rich fragments of decaying organisms on the sea floor. They swim back to the surface with stomachs full of iron, releasing it into the water.

Antarctic krill is the staple diet for fish, penguins, seals and whales; and is harvested by commercial fisheries for human consumption.

Lead author from British Antarctic Survey, Dr Katrin Schmidt says, 'We are really excited to make this discovery because the textbooks state krill live mainly in surface waters. We knew they make occasional visits to the sea floor but these were always thought as exceptional. What surprises us is how common these visits are – up to 20% of the population can be migrating up and down the water column at any one time.'

The scientists painstakingly examined the stomach contents of over 1000 krill collected from 10 Antarctic research expeditions. They found that the krill, caught near the surface, had stomachs full of iron-rich material from the seabed. The team also studied photographs of krill on the sea floor, acoustic data and net samples. All these provided strong evidence that these animals frequently feed on the sea floor.

This finding has implications for managing commercial krill fisheries and will lead to a better understanding of the natural carbon cycle in the Southern Ocean."

Iron is known to enter the seas through the upwellings of deep sediments, run-off and wind-blown dust from land, and melting icebergs. Iron stimulates plankton growth which, in turn, takes in CO2. Dying plankton settle on the bottom thereby capturing and holding the CO2 - and the iron. This new study indicates that krill may also be a vital component in the recycling of iron, thereby stimulating plankton growth, and the CO2 absorption cycle is further stimulated.

The need for managing commercial krill fisheries to ensure a healthy food cycle for a variety of sealife in the Southern Ocean is now given extra importance based on what disruptions could occur to the carbon cycle should krill be over-harvested.

Read the press release from the British Antarctic Survey.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Yellowstone River Oil Spill: 1,000 barrels pour into Montana river

When we think of oil spills, we first turn to the oceans - like the Gulf of Mexico's Deepwater Horizon or Alaska's Exxon Valdez spill. However, the transportation of oil is not limited to just the seas and spills can occur on land, impacting fresh water bodies of water in the process.

Late this past Friday, an oil pipeline that runs six feet beneath the Yellowstone River in Montana ruptured and before crews from Exxon Oil could manage to shut it off, as much as 1,000 barrels of oil spewed into the river, according to Exxon officials. Other oil company officials estimated the quantity of oil at about 42,000 gallons.

Due to record rains and a heavier than usual snowpack, the Yellowstone River is running fast and much deeper than normal, in fact it has caused some flooding as it runs from Montana to North Dakota, meeting up with the Missouri River. Moving at 5 to 7 mph, the oil plume was first reported to be 25 miles in length but later reports have suggested it has doubled that length.

Exxon response teams are using containment booms and absorbent sheets to clean up the spill as the oil makes it way into the river's marshland banks. No chemical dispersants have been suggested as of this writing - in reviewing several news reports, I did not find anyone venturing an opinion as to how a body of fresh water could handle oil broken down into micro-globules; whether there are organisms that can consume the oil as was always touted regarding ocean spills and dispersants.

The spill occurred near Billings and downstream 140 residents from the town of Laurel were evacuated for a brief time as strong, overpowering fumes and the fear of a possible explosion prompted city officials to take action.

The Associated Press reported,
"'The timing couldn't be worse,' said Steve Knecht, chief of operations for Montana Disaster and Emergency Services, who added that the plume was measured at 25 miles near Pompeys Pillar National Monument. 'With the Yellowstone running at flood stage and all the debris, it makes it dang tough to get out there to do anything.'"

Oil can have the same disastrous effect on animal and plant life as occurs in ocean spills. However, in this case, it is complicated by a fast-moving river at flood level, making containment more challenging. Residents will have to wait and see as to what becomes of the river and its ecosystem due to this spill, both in the short-term and long-term consequences.

Read about it from Associated Press/Yahoo.
Watch a video from Associated Press/The Washington Post.