Sunday, November 27, 2011

David Shiffman: new generation of shark researcher seeks your vote

As a filmmaker, one of the reasons I write the RTSeaBlog is because through my work I have come to see that there is a tremendous amount of important research and data which is not making its way to the decision makers or the general public. This is true in the environmental and ecological field as well as in other disciplines. But I am certainly not alone in this understanding and there is a growing group of young scientists determined to change that status quo.

David Shiffman, also known as "Why Sharks Matter" at the Southern Fried Science blog, is one of a new generation of marine scientists who both relishes in research and understands the importance of communicating that research to the widest possible audience through today's various online mediums. He currently is working on his doctorate as a research assistant at the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program of the University of Miami.

David is also currently in the running as a finalist in the CollegeScholarships.org program that recognizes the efforts of college students and researchers who are utilizing the world of blogging to get the message out. The program is a cash prize awarded to the person with the greatest number of votes from the public.

"[The scholarship] will provide me with $10,000 towards my dissertation research, focusing on the ecological importance of sharks to coral reefs. I'll also use the money to support our lab's citizen science program, which has taken over 1,000 high school students and teachers into the field to learn about sharks and participate in an active research program. I'll also adopt a satellite tagged shark in the name of Southern Fried Science's readers, let them name it through a contest, and post regular updates about where it is and what it's likely to be encountering."

Voting ends November 30th, and it's going to be close. David is the only ocean blogger among the finalists. It would be great if all the finalists could receive cash rewards and maybe someday, with a change in the economy or the mindset of those who don't see conservation as a critical issue, that could happen. But, for the moment, this is what we have.

I have cited David and his blog work in previous posts. I met David several years ago at the first BLUE Ocean Film Festival and can attest that he is dedicated to both sharks and the need for making people aware as to the plight of these animals and what it means to the future of the oceans as a whole. He's got my vote. How about you? You can vote for David by clicking here which will take you to the CollegeScholarships.org voting page (it accepts one vote each day).

Or you can cut and paste their web address: http://www.collegescholarships.org/blog/2011/11/18/2011-blogging-scholarship/
http://www.collegescholarships.org/blog/2011/11/18/2011-blogging-scholarship/

Proposed Marine Park for Bermuda: environmental group working to protect Atlantic island's marine resources

The islands that make up Bermuda lie just west of the center of the Sargasso Sea in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Further north and a bit removed from its Caribbean cousins, Bermuda has nonetheless enjoyed a fairly healthy tourist trade and is home to a variety of sea life It's aquatic abundance is due in no small part to the Sargasso Sea with its large floating mats of sargassum seaweed which provides a haven for many juvenile fish species.

The Pew Environment Group, as part of its Global Ocean Legacy program, is working to have a national marine park established in Bermuda, similar to marine parks found in other island nations.

“Our goal is to work with the Government of Bermuda, non-government organisations and scientists to establish a very large, no-take marine reserve to protect Bermuda’s ocean habitat within its Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ], which extends from the islands’ coastline out to 200 nautical miles, and is part of the Sargasso Sea,” said the Pew Environmental Group, which launched the marine national park scheme in 2010.

Such a marine park would not only protect Bermuda's coastal marine resources and contribute to an international effort to establish safeguards to protect at least 10 percent of the world's oceans (I know, 10 percent is not much, but it's a start), but it would also provide protection for the Sargasso Sea and its namesake seaweed.

There is quite a variety of sea life that call the floating sargassum home, from juvenile reef fish to young turtles, invertebrates, and all of the larger predators that might feed on the juvenile populations. And it's not just animals that you would expect to find living locally to Bermuda. There are species that travel great distances to use the sargassum as a breeding ground and nursery. As an example, scientists have documented eel species coming from rivers as far away as North America and even Europe to spawn within the sargassum. The young eels mature in the Sargasso Sea and ultimately migrate back to the rivers.

Six hundred and forty miles from the coast of North Carolina, Bermuda is also surrounded by deep water which provides for a variety of deep sea life, again ranging from small larvae right up to deep-diving whales.

Bermuda might seem a bit remote on the map but it is not immune to the threats of climate change and commercial fishing. The Sargasso Sea is home to tuna, dolphin, wahoo, billfish, sea turtles, and the Porbeagle shark (just recently passed over for protection by the ICCAT). And there are thirty-six species local to Bermuda that have been declared threatened and placed on the IUCN's Red List.

“Given this highly productive ecosystem, scientists, Bermudians and others are concerned about protecting this area from emerging threats, such as proposals to harvest Sargassum for biofuel,” said Pew.

As part of the Global Ocean Legacy program, Pew will be focusing on Bermuda as home to a marine park, as well as areas in the Indian Ocean, Australia's Coral Sea, Hawaii, the Mariana Trench and the waters surrounding Pitcarin - famed for the late-17th century mutineers from the HMS Bounty who came to the remote island from Tahiti.

Here's a brief video about Bermuda's rich ocean resources, produced by National Geographic and narrated by Dr. Sylvia Earle.



Source: Bermuda News & Culture Source.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Octopus Takes a Stroll: tide pool visitors see mollusk on the march

Marine researchers and aquarists are familiar with the amazing abilities that the octopus has up its sleeve . . . or tentacle. As a mollusk, or more specifically, a cephlapod, the octopus does not have a bony skeleton and this allows it to crawl through the tiniest of cracks and inhabit seemingly cramped quarters from small crevices to discarded teapots to even soda and beer bottles. This skill can be a source of frustration for aquarists as the clever octopus is notorious for seeking out and escaping from its aquarium exhibit through the tiniest of spaces.

Add to that, it's incredible camouflage ability, changing not only its color but the very texture of its skin to match its surroundings. Try doing that, guys, the next time your told to take out the garbage. The one thing that ties these two skills together - as an escape artist and camouflage expert - is the octopus' inherent shyness.

However, for a group of tide pool watchers at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, south of San Francisco, one bold eight-armed cephlapod decided to be adventurous and go for a walk, literally. A popular YouTube video captures an octopus exiting the water and moving over the sea grass and algae-covered rocks at low tide. Carrying a crab which it later discarded, perhaps to aid in a hastier retreat, the octopus actually walks in a very wide circle, heading back into the water to nearly the exact same spot from where it came.

Although not that uncommon for shoreline octopuses to move from one tide pool to another, it's still fascinating to watch because you can see its arms not only pulling itself along but also pushing its body upwards, acting like strong legs. And you can get a sense it is looking around to get its bearings, seeing where it wants to go and how to get back to the water. All very deliberate-looking in its movements and direction. And all taking place with an enthralled crowd watching and snapping pictures.



One commenter on YouTube had the right idea, suggesting the octopus came from the sea to present an offering of goodwill. "We mean you no harm. Here's a crab. Now go. And leave us in peace."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Renewable Energy: report paints hopeful picture for EU if properly planned

In the U.S., the Thanksgiving holiday is just a few days away. It's a time when we reflect on what we have, despite all the bad news that is swirling around us, and give thanks. It can be an optimistic day as we consider how far we have come as a nation and a people, and we consider a future filled with many more Thanksgivings by resolving to tackle the challenges we face.

That's a recipe for the whole world to follow as we consider our natural resources and the environment, and the threats that beset them.

So, from across the pond, coming from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK is a report that caught my eye. "Meeting Europe's Renewable Energy Targets in Harmony with Nature" examines the importance of expanding the European Union's renewable energy capabilities and how it can be done without sacrificing nature at the same time. It's a report whose goals and objectives could be applied worldwide.

With renewable energy sources providing EU countries with an average 20% of their energy by the end of the decade as a declared EU goal, the report focuses on the importance of energy sources that have a low impact on nature, such as solar panels, rooftop solar thermal systems and electric vehicles. The report categorizes wind and wave power as medium-risk, while biofuels are placed in a high-risk category.

Martin Harper, RSPB conservation director, said the report was
"a call to arms for nature conservation. Climate change is a grave threat to wildlife, and we need ambitious renewable energy targets in order to tackle it. Our study shows that it is possible to meet these targets without putting nature at risk--but there are consequences for nature if we get it wrong."

That, of course, is the trick: avoiding rushing into implementing a particular energy technology without proper planning to consider both short-term and long-term implications. The report reviews many of the issues regarding biofuels, which is an energy source that many feel is a disaster due to the amount of habitat destruction that goes into producing one gallon of fuel. However, the report also brings up the need to, in essence, look into a crystal ball to try to anticipate future issues regarding energy sources. An example from years past would be hydroelectric dams which produced plenty of power but over time severely damaged many rivers, estuaries, and the ecosystems they supported.

Overall, the report lays out a predominantly positive future if we can energize ourselves in committing to renewable energy and if we carry it out carefully and judiciously.
"With so much exciting and innovative technology out there from solar arrays and geothermal extraction to electric cars and wave power systems, there is clearly a healthy future for renewable energy and wildlife in the UK and Europe," Harper said.

To download the report, click here.
Learn more from the RSPB website.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

ICCAT PostScript: silky shark afforded greater protection but other species ignored

Follow up to yesterday's post, "Sharks of the Atlantic: new report cites dismal international conservation efforts" . . .

The results of the ICCAT's 22nd Regular Meeting of the Commission in Instanbul, Turkey produced a mixed bag of results, leaning towards more disappointment than satisfaction. ICCAT agreed to establish greater protection for the silky shark - one of the most sought after sharks in the Atlantic shark fishing industry - but protections for the porbeagle, blue, and shortfin mako sharks were passed over, along with other important shark conservation measures that were recommended by Oceana and other conservation groups.

Maintaining a diplomatic stiff upper lip, an Oceana press release stated,
“'It is a great day for silky sharks,' said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, senior manager of marine wildlife at Oceana. 'ICCAT should be commended for its continued effort to protect the oceans top predators. Today’s decision to protect silky sharks is a strong step forward in protecting one of the most commonly found species in the international shark fin trade.'

Oceana did voice concern that ICCAT failed to reach consensus on
several important shark measures, including those to protect vulnerable porbeagle sharks, establish science-based precautionary catch limits for blue and shortfin mako sharks and improve the current finning measure by requiring that sharks be landed with their fins wholly or partially attached in a natural manner."

Also in attendance at the ICCAT meeting were representatives of the Pew Environment Group.
"Protecting one shark species a year and adopting no other measures for their conservation will not be enough to ensure the survival of these animals across the Atlantic Ocean," said Max Bello, senior advisor on global shark conservation for Pew.

Progress with international organizations can be painfully slow and patience is one of the founding principals of diplomacy. However, incremental steps at this stage may not be enough to preserve endangered shark species like the porbeagle which, it has been reported by scientists, would need a minimum of several decades and possibly more than 100 years to fully recover.

Read Oceana's press release on the results of the ICCAT meeting.
Read comments from the Pew Environment Group in the
San Francisco Chronicle.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sharks of the Atlantic: new report cites dismal international conservation efforts

Over the past several years, we have been seeing progress made in conserving sharks through the establishment of shark sanctuaries or protected zones that have included entire island nations. The latest measure has been taken by the U.S. state of Florida which initiated a prohibition on the catching of tiger sharks and three species of hammerhead sharks inside Florida state waters. Additionally, we have seen legislation aimed at shark fin bans which, at best, puts pressure on the shark finning industry and, at the very least, forces them to fold up their tents and move elsewhere.

As positive as these steps are, they are regional efforts, globally-speaking, and many sharks species, particularly those considered the most endangered, are known to travel great distances whether traveling along migratory routes or randomly covering a lot of ocean territory and, in so doing, they move in and out of protected areas frequently.

Since these sharks will move in open international waters, it therefore becomes the responsibility of multinational fishery management organizations to ensure that sharks are being properly managed and, in many cases, prohibited from commercial shark fishing.

This could not be any more truer than in the Atlantic Ocean. A just-released report from Oceana cites as much as 75% of the migratory sharks in the Atlantic are classified as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) but less than 1 percent are protected by the organization that is most responsible for protecting these sharks.

The ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, is that responsible organization. According to Oceana,
"The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the primary international maritime treaty, establishes that fishing nations must cooperate to ensure the conservation of highly migratory species both within and beyond their exclusive economic zones, through appropriate international organizations."

"Because highly migratory species require international cooperation for effective management, Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have been established to manage fisheries for these species with the goal of long-term sustainability. In the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is the most relevant and appropriate international organization to manage highly migratory species, including sharks."

Unfortunately, ICCAT's scorecard has not been a particularly winning one. Heavily influenced by commercial fishing interests, the organization has set catch limits for tuna that are consistently way below levels recommended by their own scientific advisers, and only a few species of sharks have been afforded any degree of protection.

The ICCAT has been holding its 22nd Regular Meeting of the Commission this past week in Istanbul, Turkey and Oceana is there to present the 48 member nations with the facts and to make recommendations as to actions ICCAT should be taking regarding Atlantic Ocean sharks.

Just how many sharks are being taken? Well, trying to answer that question is also part of the problem because as many as half of ICCAT's member nations did not report any shark catches in 2009 - there's no data. Based on what figures are available, combined with scientific and anecdotal observations, the current state of affairs is not good. But until there is reliable data from all member nations, the full extant of the problem can not be appreciated - which is just fine with the commercial fishing industry representatives whispering in the ears of ICCAT delegates.

In its 10-page report, Vulnerable Sharks in the Atlantic Ocean: The Need for International Management, Oceana puts forth the following recommendations to the ICCAT:

  1. Prohibit retention of endangered or particularly vulnerable shark species, especially porbeagle and silky sharks.
  2. Establish science-based precautionary catch limits for blue and shortfin mako sharks.
  3. Require reporting of catch data as a prerequisite for landing a particular shark species.
  4. Improve the ICCAT finning measure by requiring that sharks be landed with their fins wholly or partially attached in a natural manner.
I have reported on the ICCAT's dismal record in the past regarding tuna catch limits and so if the organization's history is any indication, Oceana has probably had it's hands full this past week. But it's a fight worth taking on so, as the meeting in Turkey comes to a close this weekend, let's hope that some decisive progress has been made.

Perhaps someday, with regional protections in place, a growing public awareness and clamor as to the problem, and catch levels reaching limits that are economically unsupportable, the ICCAT will live up to its environmental responsibilities. The sharks are betting their lives on it.

Download Oceana's report: Vulnerable Sharks in the Atlantic Ocean.
Read about the status of Atlantic sharks at Ocean's
website.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Wolf Hunts: U.S. gray wolves, no longer protected by Endangered Species Act, are hunted down

It's official. The gray wolves of the U.S. northern Rockies are getting exterminated.

Government agencies are calling it "predator management" or "harvesting" but the numbers are staggering. In Idaho, from a population of 750 to 1,000, hunters are being allowed to reduce the wolf population to just 150 animals. That's up to 85% of the population - gone. Montana intends to take down 220 of their 556 to 645 wolves. That's nearly 35% to 40% wiped out. Many scientists are concerned that the reduced populations will collapse as they will be so widely dispersed that healthy reproductive patterns will be difficult to maintain. They will literally be spread to thin to sustain themselves.

How has this come about? Weren't wolves protected by the Endangered Species Act at one time? Was it the result of political lobbying by ranchers and hunters? Yes on both accounts.

As reported by James Gibson in the Earth Island Journal,
"The recent anti-wolf campaign represents an extraordinary cultural and political victory by the far-right wing in the Rocky Mountains. A loose coalition of some ranchers, hunters, and anti-government zealots demonized the gray wolves reintroduced to Montana and Idaho from Canada in the mid 1990s by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They cast the animals as huge, aggressive, disease-ridden monsters bent on ravaging livestock, elk, deer, and even people. Wolves became symbolic representations of the hated federal government. In time, both the mainstream Republican and Democratic Parties came to accept this vision of demonic wolves invading from Canada.

In April, 2011, Senator John Tester, Democrat of Montana, facing a tough 2012 reelection challenge from Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg, led a campaign among fellow Democrats to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act using a federal budget bill rider, while Idaho’s Congressman Mike Simpson did the same among House Republicans. The rider passed with little dissent, marking the first time a species has been removed from the protections of the Endangered Species Act by Congress."

That's a key point in all of this: For the first time, politicians - rather than scientists - have decided whether an animal is endangered and entitled to protection under the Endangered Species Act. The danger here is not just the immediate and ongoing threat to the wolves; there are also the implications that this action can mean for a host of other species whose protection under the law might be inconvenient for some lobbyist-represented industry. Do you see a slippery slope building here? If so, you're not alone.

A long list of environmental organizations have been fighting this change in how the Endangered Species Act is wielded. There have been lawsuits and legal appeals - and there will certainly be more.

The Center for Biological Diversity reported, "The Center and its allies are in court to challenge the congressional rider that removed these wolves from the endangered species list. 'The Endangered Species Act rightly put scientists, not politicians, in charge of deciding which species get protection,' said the Center's Noah Greenwald. 'Wolves once roamed most of North America, but were wiped off the map by intolerance and persecution -- which persist today. Wolf recovery is far from complete.'"

But for the moment, gray wolves are more than important natural predators which maintain balance in the Rocky Mountains ecosystem. They're also, now, targets.

Click here to view pictures taken by Maureen Mitra of the ongoing hunt for gray Wolves.

Read more about the wolf hunts in Earth Island Journal.
Read about what is being done on the legal side in The Center for Biological Diversity.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Seagrasses: important coastal marine plants at risk

This month, SeaWeb is focusing attention on seagrasses, their importance, and the organizations working to preserve them. Sea grasses are not to be confused with seaweeds (algae); seagrasses are actually "flowering" plants much like we find on land - male and female, pollen and seeds. They grow in marine shallows and estuaries where their root structures take in nutrients (which differs from the roots of algae which serve primarily to secure the plant to the bottom).

Seagrasses play a key role in the ocean's ability to sequester carbon via photosynthesis. However, that capability is being impacted by man-made activities. Our current population of approximately 7 billion puts a tremendous demand on agriculture to produce enough food. To do that has required the introduction of powerful, nitrogen-based fertilizers. When these fertilizers make there way to the oceans, with they often do, eutrophication occurs. This is when the excess nitrogen causes an increase in phytoplankton and macro algae. This in turn, blocks sunlight and hampers photosynthesis in the seagrasses. The seagrass beds are weakened and ultimately an entire marine ecosystem can shift from seagrass-based to algal-based.

Coastal urban development can also impact seagrass beds as building and land reclamation can occur in prime seagrass areas. Worldwide, we are currently losing seagrass populations at a rate of 7% on average each year. Adding to that decline are the impacts from climate change. As we begin to see more and more periods of hot and wet weather, the increased rains and floods mean more freshwater flowing into local shorelines, thereby altering the salinity levels that are crucial for the healthy growth of seagrasses.

Mankind is not the only beneficiary of seagrasses. Juvenile sealife, from lemon sharks to scores of fish, find a safe haven within seagrass beds, while sea turtles and dugongs or manatees depend on the plants as a food source.

There are several organizations working to conserve and protect seagrasses. Seagrass-Watch is one such group that monitors and assesses the health of seagrasses in Australia and initiates replanting programs in an attempt to regain seagrass beds that have been lost to flooding. The World Seagrass Association, in conjunction with Conservation International, has produced a learning syllabus for marine management groups and government agencies. While designed to be the foundation for professional training and education, the syllabus does provide the layperson with a good sense of the importance of seagrasses and the threats that these plants are facing. You can click here to download the syllabus and give it a read.

Here's an excerpt:

The Ecological Role of Seagrass Beds Seagrass beds are important because:
  • They provide food for macrograzers (e.g. sea turtles) and micrograzers (e.g. sea urchins)
  • They provide refuges and nurseries for larvae and juveniles of many fish species (e.g. groupers, snappers, barracudas, yellow grunts)
  • They reduce coastal erosion, filter water, and trap sediment
  • They produce oxygen and take up carbon dioxide
Food and shelter
  • Juvenile fish and prawns mature in seagrass beds
  • Lobsters, crabs, and seahorses also live in seagrasses, as do important molluscs such as clams and conch
  • Marine herbivores, like dugongs, rely on seagrass as their primary food source, a healthy dugong can eat up to 40kg wet weight of sea grass per day
  • Seagrasses are also an important part of green sea turtle diets, turtles eat around 2kg wet weight of sea grass each day
  • Coastal waterfowl, such as ducks, geese, and swans eat seagrass too
Sediment and water clarity
  • Seagrass leaves trap sediment particles, improving water clarity
  • Seagrass roots also stabilize sediments, keeping the water clear
  • Seagrass root structure keeps coastal erosion under control
Oxygen and carbon dioxide
  • Seagrass takes up carbon dioxide during the process of photosynthesis and converts it to food for the plant
  • As a result of this process, seagrasses release oxygen that other marine creatures use
  • Oxygen is the major gas that seagrasses pump into sediments, keeping them aerated
There are many forms of marine life and complex ecosystems further out at sea that get a lot of deserved attention and concern. But right along our coastlines, right under our noses, are critical ecosystems that revolve around seagrasses which require our attention as they benefit man as well as the oceans themselves.

Read about seagrasses at SeaWeb.
Read about
Seagrass-Watch.
Read about the
World Seagrass Association.
Download the Seagrass Syllabus.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Manta Rays: decline motivates IUCN to declare rays vulnerable to extinction

Here's a piece of good news for manta rays and all those who love them. David Shiffman (WhySharksMatter) writes in southernfriedscience.com about steps being taken by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) regarding adding manta rays to the IUCN's Red List, listing them as "Vulnerable" to extinction.

Now that may not seem like good news at first, but by making the declaration, it can start the wheels in motion that can lead to international regulations and restrictions. This can lead to preserving the species and preventing any further erosion to their numbers beyond the 30% decline that has been seen in the past few decades.

Threatened Gentle Giants: both species of manta ray added to the IUCN Red List

Manta rays are true gentle giants; though they can grow more than 20 feet wide from wingtip to wingtip, they eat only plankton. Swimming with these animals is a rare thrill for SCUBA divers, and manta-viewing ecotourism is worth over $100 million each year. Like many species of sharks, manta rays grow slowly and reproduce rarely. According to Dr. Nick Dulvy of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, “ they give birth to an average of one offspring every two years…they are a long-lived species with little capacity to cope with modern fishing methods.” They also migrate across huge distances, regularly crossing between national boundaries and spending much of their time on the high seas, making management difficult.

Although their biology cannot support a large-scale fishery and their behavior makes any fishery inherently difficult to manage, manta rays are very much in demand. At least part of them is: their gill rakers. According to Lucy Harrison, program officer for the IUCN Shark Specialist group, “Increasing demand for these fishes’ filter-feeding system for traditional Chinese medicinal purposes, especially in Hong Kong, is rapidly driving down their population everywhere.”

By some measures, the global population of manta rays has declined by more than 30% in recent decades, with some local populations facing much larger declines. Earlier this week, an IUCN Shark Specialist Group team led by Andrea Marshall has concluded that both species of manta ray (the giant manta Manta birostris and the reef manta Manta alfredi) should be declared Vulnerable* to extinction.

The IUCN Shark Specialist Group recommends that several steps be taken to protect mantas from further population declines. These include creating an international conservation treaty for both species, a CITES listing, and national-level policy changes in countries that fish for mantas. Some of these proposals may benefit from the support of the online conservation community, so please stay tuned! I’ll continue to report on these suggested policies as they moves forward.


* “Vulnerable” in the context of an IUCN Red List status should be capitalized, as should other IUCN Red List statuses. For more information on what “Vulnerable” means, please visit the Red List website here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ocean Medicines: PolicyMic looks at deep sea potential

For many, the oceans are both a source of nourishment and a waste disposal site. But they can also be a source of important new medicines. Unfortunately, our desire to fill our stomachs with the ocean's bounty or empty our trash is also threatening its possibilities as a new-found pharmacy.

In June, I wrote about the ocean's medicinal potential and Jonathan Booth, writing for PolicyMic.com, has written an excellent piece on the deep ocean as a source of new medicines. Rather than paraphrase, here is his piece in its entirety:

Oceanic Discoveries With Medicinal Powers

When we think of obtaining medicines from natural sources, we usually conjure up scenes of trekking through vast swathes of dense tropical forest in search of rare ferns, vines, palms, and other plant life. However, there is now a growing interest in the lesser known organisms that inhabit the oceanic abyss and the medicinal and genetic properties they may contain. An organisation that has taken significant steps to examine deep sea animals is CIOERT, which recently conducted deep sea expeditions in search of invertebrates to help alleviate an array of ailments, including cancer. Likewise, researchers in Australia have discovered derivatives from some sea cucumber species that can work as an anti-inflammatory, and some coral compounds may be used to help with bone grafting or the treatment of tumours. Accordingly, swift actions need to be taken to fund and promote the exploration, research, and protection of the oceans – some of the least explored habitats, which often escape environmental and ecological policy.

Over three-quarters of our planet is submerged under seawater, and with the Pacific Ocean’s deepest point extending over 10,000 metres below sea level, the oceans form undoubtedly the largest habitable and least explored environment on earth. Yet, unlike terrestrial regions, the absence of breathable oxygen, diminishing light levels, and immensely pressurised depths make the seas an almost inaccessible domain for humans. Due to these conditions, marine systems also function differently to land-based habitats. The land relies on plants to capture the sun’s light and combine it with water and CO2 to synthesise sugars; this provides the crux of all land food-webs. In the sunlit upper layers of the sea, conversely, green plants are substituted for single-celled phytoplankton, and terrestrial insects and herbivorous mammals are replaced with zooplankton (a drifting soup of eggs, sperm, and microscopic animals).

The deep ocean is devoid of light so no plants can live in this region; instead, abyssal organisms have to rely on organic detritus that drifts from above, or mineral-laden volcanic plumes that belch from the inner earth. In this unfamiliar realm, it is not surprising that marine scientists are making seemingly countless discoveries about new animals and even new ecosystems.

The sea floor is dominated by the weird and wonderful world of invertebrates. From the colorful architectures of sponges and corals, to mechanical crustaceans and a bewildering array of worms, starfish, sea cucumbers, and sea squirts it is difficult not to be amazed by some of these curious creatures. However, such life forms are not only visually stimulating: In the eyes of the medical profession, their physiologies can be lifesaving too, which reiterates the need to research and preserve oceanic organisms and their environments.

An animal that has been a favorite lab companion for many pharmaceutical industries is the horseshoe crab. With a large, flattened, dome-shaped carapace that masks almost all signs of the segmented limbs that emerge from beneath, and a long, tail-spike that juts out from the rear, this animal almost defies belief. Yet apart from its science fiction-like form, these extraordinary creatures have also caught the attention of the medical profession, who have been collecting specimens over the past few decades to assist scientists with medical trials. This is due to the presence of copper-based haemocyanin in the animal’s blue blood (unlike the red-pigmented ferrous haemoglobin found in mammals); this blood contains amebocytes – white-blood cell substitutes – that can help identify the presence of bacteria in medicinal solutions. Marine discoveries like these have helped to further medical progression, which in the case of the horseshoe crab includes the development of wound dressings, optical research, and the guarantee that all your injections are free from bacterial contaminants.

Recent discoveries concerning the physiological and genetic characteristics of this cast of organisms are advancing the understanding of medicine, which could be significant for society. In order to further this knowledge, we need to expand deep sea exploration projects and associated research. Since the 1970s, submersibles have discovered not only new fauna, but also entire ecosystems that function without any source of sunlight. However, there is also a need to conserve and protect the oceans. Currently, national marine parks and marine protected areas help to conserve certain coastal regions, such as coral reefs; yet the open oceans and abyss have been largely neglected. Pollution, oceanic waste-sites, overfishing, and other marine exploitations have had adverse repercussions on our marine systems; such impacts could be furthered by the escalating threats of projected anthropogenic climate changes. It is apparent, therefore, that appropriate measures need to be taken to not only research the deep and its inhabitants, but also to conserve it. Otherwise, we may be destroying a ready stocked medicine chest that has yet to be delved into – and a beautifully adorned one at that.

Read more at PolicyMic.com.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

theBlu: bringing an interactive, underwater world to the Web

Ocean conservation can be challenging because it requires engaging an audience in a world that for the most part they cannot see. Ocean ecosystems exist below the waves, out of sight of most people and so to relate to it in any kind of meaningful way, we rely on photographs, films, and books.

These kinds of media can be moving and effective but they are also passive. Interaction can add that little extra which can sometimes help to bring an unseen world truly to life in the mind of the participant. This is what scuba divers, free divers and even snorkelers experience with their in-water activities; a different kind of visceral stimulus that media is not able to provide.

theBlu - an oceanic interactive experience
Now comes theBlu, bringing the interconnectivity of the Web to further our understanding and appreciation of the ocean and all its inhabitants. theBlu is a new, web-based application that allows users to view different oceanic realms, selecting and adding sealife to their own personal ocean experience and even sharing sealife with other users throughout the world. It is a platform in which qualified digital artists can contribute realistic computer-generated sealife and users can build their own underwater domains and learn about the various inhabitants.

The brainchild of Neville Spiteri, founder and CEO of Wemo Media based in Venice, California, theBlu has received support from various media and high-tech sources as Andy Jones, animation director on "Avatar"; Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab; and Louie Psihoyos, director of the 2009 Academy Award-winning "The Cove."

Online soon - a undersea world like we would want it to be
theBlu is currently wrapping up its beta-testing phase and should be fully online in the next several weeks. For the moment, interested users or digital artists can sign up for an invitation to explore and learn more about theBlu and its inner workings. (High demand has pushed invitations being completed in sometimes 1-2 weeks.) What I have seen so far is very intriguing. It paints a realistic world of oceanlife, perhaps the way we would like it to be - without the fishing nets, the pollution, and other threats. That could be a starting place to get people to realize that it is a precious, living, breathing world happening just below the surface.

Perhaps at some future point, theBlu will need to show more of the reality of what is happening today - of what was, what is now, and what could be. What propels many of us in being ocean conservation advocates is that we have seen what is going on behind the beautiful pictures of coral reefs, huge masses of schooling fish, and magnificent undersea behemoths; we have seen the loss and know that it must stop. So, for those who may never have the opportunity to actually look beneath the waves, theBlu is working to harness the Internet to hopefully enlighten those people and from there we can all work together to preserve this vital natural resource that the world depends on.



Visit and submit an invitation request at theBlu
website.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Western Black Rhino: IUCN declares the African species officially extinct

We've lost one and the world is a lesser place for it.

Today, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the Western Black Rhinoceros of Africa officially extinct.

In addition, two other sub-species of rhinos are being considered as most likely gone. The Northern White Rhino of central Africa is considered "possibly extinct" in the wild, and the Javan Rhino is "probably extinct" in Viet Nam (a small population is still holding on in Java, but their numbers are declining).

Rhino populations have suffered for decades due to habitat loss and, in particular, poaching. The demand for rhinoceros horn as a homeopathic cure in Eastern medicine, ranging from cancer cures to an aphrodisiac, has lead poachers to track down rhinos within supposedly protected animal reserves. The same situation is putting tigers and Asian bears at a high level of risk also.

When the population of a particular species gets low enough, several factors come into play that can cause their numbers to rapidly decline, spinning out of control. Lack of sexually mature males and females; bio-dispersion, whereby the population is now so diverse the odds of an encounter between a male and a female become more remote; poor health due to a lack of good mixing of the DNA gene pool - all begin to work against the few remaining animals.

"In the case of both the Western Black Rhino and the Northern White Rhino, the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented," he added. "These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve breeding performance, preventing other rhinos from fading into extinction," said Simon Stuart of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

But all is not a total loss for one of wild nature's iconic species. Although a quarter of all mammal species are facing extinction, according to the IUCN's Red List, when conservation measures are put in place and effectively managed and enforced, there can be positive results. Case in point: Africa's Southern White Rhino had reached a perilous low of around 100 animals at the end of the 19th century - a victim of both poaching and "great white hunters." But today the Southern White Rhino numbers over 20,000.

In Nature, any extinction is a loss - from a small insect to a massive animal like a rhino. The biological web that ties all species together within an ecosystem makes adjustments for the loss and sometimes those adjustments cascade through several different flora and fauna as it looks for some sort of stability. Whether the changes are subtle or catastrophic, they are changes at the hand of man, changes that nature was never truly prepared to deal with.

When we lose the Western Black Rhino, we lose a little bit of ourselves, of our potential as stewards of the environment.

Source: MSNBC.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cayman Island Tiger Sharks: tagging data shows possible Caribbean migratory patterns

The Cayman News Service reported that three tiger sharks that were tagged almost a year ago in waters off the Cayman Islands have returned having roamed the wide waters of the Caribbean. The original tagging project was a joint effort between the Department of Environment (DoE), Marine Conservation International (MCI), the Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI) at Nova Southeastern University and the Save Our Seas Foundation.

The three sharks were tagged with satellite tags which can provide a variety of data in addition to basic positioning information. One of the three sharks spent a great deal of time cruising the coast of Jamaica; another has been in deep waters off the Cayman Islands; while the third shark spent the summer in the southwest, off Honduras and Nicaragua.

While not necessarily covering the same long "point A to point B" distances that have been reported with sharks like great white sharks and whale sharks, the data does show that the sharks can cover a considerable amount of territory and that these movements might constitute "migrations" if there is a schedule or pattern to their journeys.

Being able to verify that sharks frequent the Cayman Islands via migratory patterns might help give weight to the need to protect them - proving that they are not infrequent or fluke visitors not deserving of specific attention.

The Cayman News Service reported,
"Despite their precarious situation, there is no law to protect sharks in Cayman waters but hopes for the species have been raised in the region following the ban on shark fishing by Belize, Mexico, St Maarten, Honduras and the Bahamas. Timothy Austin, Deputy Director of the DoE, welcomed the ban by neighbouring countries. 'This will give a boost to the health of the marine environment for the Caribbean,' he said."

Read about the sharks in the Cayman News Service.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ocean Strategy: UN groups issue report as framework for international ocean conservation efforts

Four United Nations organizations jointly released a report recently that outlined 10 general steps as part of an overall ocean conservation strategy. The four groups - the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, UN Development Programme, International Maritime Organization, and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization - released the report, Blueprint for Ocean and Coastal Sustainability, as a means to lay down a unifying framework for international efforts.

Formal adoption of the report's recommendations is anticipated during the next United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (RIO+20) in June of 2012. The 10 steps are broad in scope, lacking in details or specifics. And that can always be a problem because once you wade into an issue, issues of cost or economic impact can raise their heads and that always seems to attract the lobbyists and industry-supporting diplomats. Backroom deals are cut and often the end result can be good intentions but little or no action.

Here are the ten measures listed in the report:
  1. Create a global market for ‘blue carbon’ or carbon dioxide stored in the oceans;
  2. Correct problems in governance on the management of the high seas by strengthening the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea;
  3. Support the development of a green economy in small island developing states;
  4. Encourage research on ocean acidification to adapt to it and mitigate it;
  5. Increase institutional capacities for scientific observation of the oceans and coastal areas;
  6. Reform and strengthen regional organizations in the management of ocean resources;
  7. Promote responsible fishing and aquaculture in the context of a green economy;
  8. Strengthen the legal frameworks to address the problem of invasive aquatic species;
  9. Green' the economy of nutrients to reduce hypoxia in the oceans and promote food security;
  10. Strengthen coordination, coherence and effectiveness of the United Nations in all activities related to oceans.
South America's MercoPress reported, According to the authors of the report, 'the full realization of many of the goals and objectives will require increased efforts by states, intergovernmental organizations and the international community.' Their goal will be successful if responsible policies and effective institutional arrangements are adopted, 'which will require a greater degree of commitment and funding from the international community, and also from the nations and the business world.'”

That's quite a handful, but with quantifiable deterioration of 60% of the planet's marine ecosystems in addition to nations and their citizens continuing to abuse natural resources rather than conserve and sustain them, let's hope that with a defined general framework of ocean conservation measures as a starting point, we will be able to fill in the blanks and accomplish needed specific objectives on an international level.

Download the Blueprint for Ocean and Coastal Sustainability in PDF.
Read more about the 10 measures in the
MercoPress.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fiji's Sharks: study shows big business and locals are depleting a tourism and natural resource

Following on the accomplishments of island nations like Palau to establish shark sanctuaries, there is a movement developing to do the same in Fiji. While it has not yet reached the point of actual legislation or regulations for consideration by the Fijian government, it would appear to not be a moment too soon either.

According to a study just completed by Dr. Demian Chapman of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, Stony Brook University in New York, shark fishermen are targeting at least 10 species that are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List. Included are sharks that make up a large part of Fiji's shark eco-tourism operations which contributes to the islands' tourism base.

Working in consort with the Fiji Fisheries Department, Dr. Chapman, who gained scientific recognition for his research in shark DNA that allowed for the tracking of hammerhead fins back to their place of origin, studied two shark fin traders in Fiji and combined his data with that of other researchers to paint an overall disturbing picture of the shark fin trade between Fiji and Hong Kong.

Three species - blue sharks, oceanic whitetips, and the silky shark were being targeted as bycatch from the tuna fisheries. However, one aspect of the study that was of particular concern was the extant to which local fishermen were involved, catching species more commonly found closer to shore. These are the sharks that divers from around the globe come to Fiji to see and so it represents a sizable lost economic value for the shark eco-tourism operators and the islands as a whole.

"I also observed a number of fins from inshore species. According to traders, these come from the coast of Fiji and are collected by local people who are paid by the dealers for shark fins and sea cucumbers," said Dr. Chapman.

This points to one of the major problems with the shark fin trade. While there is a large industrial fishing component that must be combated, there are also locals involved, merely trying to make a living. Like organized crime or the drug trade, these locals are not paid top dollar for their efforts - that's reserved for those further up in the shark fin distribution food chain - but they are tempted to participate as it could mean food on the table in a tough economy (not every Fiji citizen is employed by or benefits from the tourist trade).

And speaking of those further up the food chain, the amount of product that is being moved through Fiji alone is staggering. As reported in The Fiji Times Online, Dr. Chapman said,
"I estimated the total number of fins present at each dealer by counting the number of fins visible in digital photographs taken onsite. Since most sharks produce four marketable fins (dorsal, two pectoral and lower caudal), I divided the estimated total number of fins by a factor of four to estimate the total number of individual sharks killed. One dealer had approximately 1000 fins drying, which represents at least 250 sharks killed.

"The dealer also had four large freezers full of frozen fins that were impossible to count. The other dealer had three very large piles of dried fins that I estimate contained a total of 10,000-12,000 fins and represented 2500-4000 dead sharks. The dealer indicated that they were exporting this volume on a monthly basis from Nadi International Airport to Hong Kong."

Twenty-five hundred to four thousand sharks each month, potentially coming from Fijian waters. Fiji's shark species and reef ecosystems can not withstand this kind of harvest.

The Fiji Times Online also quoted Ratu Manoa Rasigatale, who is spearheading an awareness campaign for the Coral Reef Alliance and Pew Environment Group to turn Fiji's waters into a shark sanctuary, '"It is sad to note from Dr Chapman's assessment that locals are heavily involved in the killing of reef sharks,' said Ratu Manoa, dubbed the Sharkman for his efforts to spread the gospel of shark conservation to all levels of the community in Fiji."

The only upside to a report like this is that it represents the kind of factual data needed to support a drive for establishing a shark sanctuary. No moral arguments about finning, no anecdotal evidence or stories of tradition or folklore; just the cold hard facts. Economic facts. Somebody is making a lot of money and it's not Fiji's everyday citizen; and one of the islands' major economic engines - the tourist trade - is at risk. Hopefully, that should catch the attention of government officials who are willing to look at the long-term future of Fiji's economy, its reefs and the sharks that call those reefs and the surrounding waters home.

Read about the shark fin trade in Fiji in The Fiji Times Online.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Antarctic Ocean Alliance: coalition to protect fertile seas of the South Pole

It was many decades ago that several leading nations essentially carved up the continent of Antarctica, and so you had nations like the U.S. Russia, Great Britain, and others exploring and studying this hostile, austere, but starkly beautiful landscape. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was put into place which effectively demilitarized Antarctica, recognizing its primary value as a scientific laboratory. And in 1991 (made fully effective in 1998), the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty banned all mining and designated Antarctica as a "natural reserve devoted to peace and science."

So much for the protection of the continent. But what about the seas that surround it?

The oceans that surround Antarctica are extremely rich in marine life including krill which is one of the fundamental building blocks of a marine ecosystem. And it has been a source of major commercial fishing for several nations including Russia, Norway, Korea, New Zealand, the UK, and Spain.
The Ross Sea, which hugs the Antarctica coast almost equi-distant between South America and Australia, is a particularly fertile ground for commercial fishing. However, as the rest of the world's seas are showing evidence of overfishing, it's only a matter of time for Antarctica to potentially suffer the same fate.

To address the future of the seas of Antarctica, several leading conservation organizations have banded together to promote the Antarctic Ocean Alliance. The Alliance's mission is to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) and no-take reserves around the icy continent, thereby providing the same measure of protection for the oceans as is afforded the land.

The organizations include the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), Oceana, Greenpeace, Mission Blue, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Last Ocean, Oceans 5, Forest & Bird, and several others. Famed oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, head of Mission Blue, has been an avid spokesperson for the coalition and its goals (see video below) and through her public promoting and that of the other organizations, it is hoped that there will be a sufficient groundswell of support to help motivate the policymakers.
“As the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has set a time frame for a representative system of marine protected areas by 2012, there is an unprecedented window of opportunity to establish this network in the oceans around Antarctica as a legacy for future generations,” said the Antarctic Ocean Alliance in a public statement.

Developing Antarctic MPAs would be an ambitious project and the cumulative end result would be the establishment of the largest collection of MPAs on the planet.

Steve Campbell of the Alliance said,
"The biggest marine reserve in the world at the moment is about 600,000 sqkm but we know that there are areas around Antarctica which could certainly add up to a lot more than that. We've identified about 19 regions around Antarctica where there could be a marine reserve or marine protected areas set up and this would establish a network of areas all the way around the continent of Antarctica and would be put in place for all time we hope."

The Antarctic Ocean Alliance has produced a brief video that clearly explains the situation and their goals. It shows how, due to commercial overfishing, the Antarctic's seas stand as an oasis surrounded by depleted waters. With the impact of climate change already threatening the continent's ice masses and surrounding ocean temperatures (which has worldwide implications as the world's polar regions act as generators of current, temperature and weather patterns across the globe), it would seem that protecting the marine life which call these chilly waters home would be a positive step. However, getting consensus from nations and being able to effectively enforce the security and integrity of the MPAs could be the greatest challenge.

"The problem at the moment is that as fisheries resources around the world come under more and more pressure, there are going to be more distant water-fishing nations who want to go to the oceans around Antarctica to extract protein," said Campbell. "And they are going to do it either legally or illegally."



Read about the Antarctic Ocean Alliance in Fish Info & Services.
Visit the Antarctic Ocean Alliance
website.
Read about the history of Antarctica in
Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Montebello's Oil: California wreck is no longer a threat but a mystery lingers

A couple of years back, I had pitched a television show on potential environmental disasters - man-made situations waiting to turn into ecological nightmares unless we act now. One of the segments of the show was to examine the condition and future fate of the Montebello, a 457-foot oil tanker resting on the ocean floor off the central California coast.

In the pre-dawn hours, only fifteen days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine sent the Montebello to the bottom as it left Port San Luis. She came to rest in 900 feet of water, taking along her cargo of over 3 million gallons of crude oil.

Mystery has surrounded the Montebello; surviving crewmembers claimed she was struck amidships but no oil leaked from its wound and its current position on the sandy bottom perhaps tells a different story. In 1996, NOAA sent a submersible down to explore the wreck and found it in surprisingly good shape. It appeared that the freighter had been struck near the bow, which was separated from the rest of the ship when it struck the bottom. Fortunately, the holds or tanks that would contain the oil appeared to be intact.

In 2003, the Montebello was again visited, this time by scientists from the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands Marine Sanctuaries. And this time, the old girl was beginning to show her age. The threat of the ship giving up its cargo in the form of a massive oil leak became a very real issue. However, no one was quite sure of its deadly cargo - what type of oil was it that none had been detected in over 70 years?

The following year, the Oakland Trubune reported, "Scientists were vexed by the mystery: They didn't know the density of the oil that the Montebello had taken on, an important factor for predicting the likelihood of a leak. After reading a newspaper story, Richard Quincy [surviving crewmember from the Montebello] called marine sanctuary officials with the answer: At Port San Luis, the Vancouver-bound ship had taken on a load of Santa Maria crude - oil so thick it had to be heated just to flow."

One of the 1996 researchers, Robert Schwemmer was quoted as saying, "The historic record has not revealed any oil discharge or oiled beaches in the area. So, that leads us to believe it potentially has the oil. The water temperature's 41 degrees. So, the consistency of this oil is a tar ball or Jell-o."

The Montebello was an ecological time bomb. And the clock was ticking. . .

Now return to the present and the results of several weeks of underwater testing on the Montebello have just been announced. Using advanced technology to determine the density of the liquid inside the still-intact ship, along with drilling into the fuel tanks to sample what was inside, scientists and researchers from NOAA, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Coast Guard have come up with a startling discovery.

"At the end of the day, the Montebello is filled with seawater," said Fish and Game spokesperson Andrew Hughan.

Seawater! So, just where did over 3 million gallons of crude oil go? In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, writer Tony Barboza reported, "
The answer may never be known, but scientists have developed one scenario: Some of the oil leaked out and evaporated within the first few days after the boat went down. The bulk of it probably gurgled to the surface as the ship sank, drifting south and away from the shoreline, scientists suggested. Whatever was left inside might have washed ashore but, scattered so widely, it probably went unnoticed."

But can that be possible? Can oil, once reported to be the consistency of Jell-o, simply gurgle to the surface and evaporate? Granted, the oil becomes much for fluid when exposed to warmer temperatures - but 3 million gallons going unnoticed? Well, it's truly a mystery with what would appear to be a happy ending: no horrendous oil spill to blacken the beaches and destroy surrounding marine life in central California.

Jordan Stout, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Scientific Support Coordinator, summed it up,
"We will probably never know what happened to the oil."

Read about the Montebello from the
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Read recent article on the Montebello's oil in the Los Angeles Times.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

California's Cap-and-Trade: guest post looks at proposed economic solution to carbon pollution

Beginning in 2013, a major component of AB 32, California's climate change legislation, will commence: cap-and-trade regulations. California will lead the United States in the initiation of cap-and-trade policies and much of the country will be watching as to whether it proves to be a viable approach to stemming carbon emissions.

Cap-and-trade has it proponents, and at first blush it does seem to look good on paper. But it has its detractors, too - from businesses opposed to more government regulations to environmental groups opposed to the idea of polluters buying their way out of trouble. (Nature does not take into account a polluter's ability to pay for its own mess and then simply mitigates the negative impacts accordingly.)

One encouraging note is that, whether or not the cap-and-trade provisions of AB32 succeed and continue or fail and are discarded, the legislated overall reduction in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions will continue. At least that is what the politicians are currently saying.

Reported in the Los Angeles Times, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said,
"Today's adoption of a cap-and-trade program is a major milestone for California's continued leadership on reducing the world's greenhouse gases. As I said both when we signed the legislation in 2006, and when we fought to protect it last year when Texas oil companies attempted to overturn it with Proposition 23, the most critical phase in the fight against climate change is diligently, aggressively, and correctly implementing this law."

Elaine Hirsch, writer and affiliate with MastersDegree.net, a clearing house for online degree programs, has contributed the following guest post on the subject of California's cap-and-trade program. In it, she examines how cap-and-trade hopes to find an economic motivator to address an environmental issue.

Why Cap-and-Trade in California Should be Given a Chance


Scientists , policymakers, and academics have intensely argued about the validity of climate change since the late 20th century. With over seven billion humans inhabiting the Earth, the negative externalities of consuming energy and polluting the atmosphere are becoming increasingly pertinent problems. Regardless of arguments over climate change or increasing energy prices, it doesn't take a master's degree in climate science to realize that the amount of energy consumed is increasing at an unsustainable rate. Either consumption needs to be capped from excessive use or alternative resources must be found. California recently announced that it's pioneering a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, which will help exacerbate both problems mentioned above.


Benefits of Cap-and-Trade

Starting in 2013, California's Air Resources Board will dole out carbon credits to carbon emitters in the state. Companies can use all of their credits on emissions or buy/sell credits to others. The idea behind this system is that California will be able to control how much total emissions businesses will be able to produce as a whole, allowing the state to reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. Furthermore, policymakers expect this system to become a $10 billion market by 2016. Essentially, California would be creating a market out of thin air while cleaning the state's air quality.

Although a cap-and-trade system is ultimately dictated by the state government, it retains a market approach which will please many businesspeople. Theoretically, allowing parties to dictate the costs of negative externalities is the most efficient way to find a true cost for a good. Since valuing the price of carbon is a little-researched topic, allowing businesses to essentially bid on the price will be a simple way to value the substance.


In addition to financial benefits, capping the amount of carbon emissions would act as an incentive for companies to innovate alternative energy methods. Say, if the price of a carbon credit would be too expensive for start-up companies, these companies would increase the demand for alternative energy forms such as solar, wind or nuclear. This demand would help fund initiatives for energy companies to seek cheaper alternative energy sources, creating a sustainable future for the state (and the world!).


Far From a Solution

With that said, cap-and-trade is nothing close to a panacea for our energy woes. A classic argument opposing cap-and-trade stems from disdain towards government interventions in the marketplace. Removing government intervention from markets theoretically allow businesses to most efficiently allocate their capital. Imposing the extra costs of buying carbon credits would drive up business costs and create inefficiencies for businesses.


For less free-market adherents, an alternative proposition would be a carbon tax in lieu of a cap-and-trade model. Although it would set no hard limit for how much emissions are released into the atmosphere, the state will gain tax revenue and create an incentive for businesses to find alternative energy sources to relieve taxes.


Obviously, non-believers of climate change will also be against a cap-and-trade policy. Both economists and policymakers admit that cap-and-trade would create business inefficiencies and dead-weight-losses, which will be a central focus during a time of stagnant economic growth and dismal unemployment numbers.


Hopefully, this article has illuminated many of the tangible and ideological arguments for and against a cap-and-trade system. With the cost of pollution being a hard commodity to value, implementing a cap-and-trade system in California is a great way to test how the system would work in a real-world setting. California is a large state with a vibrant economy and prominent businesses, which provides a solid framework for such a social experiment. The upside of this project would lead to less carbon emissions, higher tax revenues, and innovations in energy ideas. The downside would be an increase in government control in private enterprise and further economic stagnation. Finally, if the experiment were to fail, the costs of reversing the policy would be much less than if the United States were to reverse policy on a national level. Regardless,
the entire country will be watching this social experiment, so it may be wise for both proponents and opponents to wait for the results before citing arguments based solely on economic and/or scientific models.
Elaine Hirsch, MastersDegree.net

Read more about cap-and-trade in the Los Angeles Times.
And you can read more in FastCompany.com.