Monday, January 30, 2012

Pakistan Leopards: research to study population and find ways for public to coexist

Most of the exotic wild cats still living in the wild are considered threatened or endangered to one degree or another. They are often pressured by a loss of habitat which either pushes them towards starvation or an increase in encounters with people - both of which usually lead to the loss of the animal.

This is true of the leopard found throughout Asia, extending towards the Middle East. However, in Pakistan steps are being to taken to learn more about the current condition of the leopard population and to educate local citizens as to the plight of the leopard, it's role as an important forest predator, and how the leopard and local communities can coexist.

The Pakistan branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-Pakistan) has been provided funding from the Humane Welfare and Nature Conservation Society to implement an ambitious program of in-the-field study of the leopard in Ayubia National Park combined with public outreach and education.

In collaboration with the University of Siena, Italy, WWF-Pakistan will conduct tracking studies using satellite collars, diet analysis, and genetic studies, along with camera traps to better determine the extant of the current leopard population within Pakistan. WWF-Pakistan will also be working with a multimedia company to develop a variety of media products, including documentaries, to increase public awareness of the leopard and its role within the Pakistan forest ecology.

No one is sure as to the actual number of leopards in the area, but Uzma Khan, a wildlife biologist and WWF representative for the project, has stated that it “could be as few as four.

“I conducted interviews of local residents in Ayubia and they all believe the population to be in the thousands,” Khan said. "But one leopard looks for prey in an area about 20 to 60 square hectares. So it is quite possible for a single leopard to be spotted at one corner of the park one day and the next corner the very next day. The villagers assume that they are everywhere.”

With the loss of forest habitat due to development and the free-grazing of cattle, there has come a greater number of predations by leopards on cattle - not to mention more encounters and attacks on humans. The new study and the information it disseminates will hopefully make people more understanding of the predicament that the Pakistan people have imposed on the leopard.

This is a situation that is very similar to how African communities are having to find better ways to protect people and livestock from the lions that are being encroached upon. Also, a loss of habitat in Southern California is causing a marked increase in mountain lion encounters - including attacks on joggers and mountain bikers. In all cases, this is the result of the demand for land to accommodate a growing human population. Predators like lions, tigers, and leopards are literally being backed into an ecological and geographical corner and their basic survival instincts are, unfortunately, putting them at odds with human societies.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department is working closely with the WWF-Pakistan in the hopes of developing a national management policy that will ensure the long-term future of the leopard while also protecting livestock and public safety.

Source: The Nation.
Source: The Express Tribune.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Groundswell: Pacific Northwest surfer and Patagonia team up on conservation documentary

Surfers of the Pacific Northwest are a pretty hardy lot. Their passion for the sport takes them into sometimes freezing cold water, they trek through virgin forest, and both in the water and out they encounter many of nature's wildest animals. And so that makes them ideal ambassadors for the conservation and preservation of rugged stretches of nature that could be threatened by the environmental damage of oil pipelines and tanker spills.

The Vancouver Sun ran an article by Judith Lavoie of The Victoria Times Colonist reporting on the efforts of a Pacific Northwest surfer and environmental scientist, in cooperation with outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, to bring to the screen a documentary that highlights the beauty of British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest and the need to conserve and protect this ocean and forest wilderness. The film currently is titled Groundswell and a fall 2012 release is planned. But you can read about the film project and the support from Patagonia. You can also view a film trailer on Patagonia's website by clicking here.

Surfers' Documentary Speaks for Wildlife

When a couple of sea lions swam close to Chris Darimont as he was surfing, he realized that, with his wetsuit and surf board, he looked remarkably like a marine mammal.

That is when the idea came to Darimont, science director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, that there should be an opportunity for surfers to speak for the marine mammals of the Great Bear Rainforest and the threats they would face from oil tankers in northern B.C. waters if the Enbridge Gateway pipeline was approved.

"Why couldn't surfers, the closest approximation of marine mammals amongst us humans, bring voice to this issue on behalf of whales, dolphins, porpoises and other species at risk," he said.

Darimont approached Patagonia Inc., a company that has supported Raincoast, and the idea for a surfer documentary film was born.

In October, the Raincoast research vessel Achiever replaced some of its usual scientific gear with a surfboard rack. Darimont, three top California surfers sponsored by Patagonia — Chris Malloy, Dan Malloy and Trevor Gordon — and top Canadian surfer Peter Devries of Tofino set off on a 10-day mission to find big waves in the choppy water off the Great Bear Rainforest.

The resulting documentary will be released internationally this fall, but a trailer, showing the diversity of animals encountered by the surfers, was released this weekend.

"It turned out to be an amazing trip," Devries said. "It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to." Seeing a plethora of marine mammals and other animals, plus dealing with heavy seas, emphasized the need to keep oil tankers away from the area, he said.

"The likelihood of a spill would be very, very high, given how crazy the seas can be," Devries said.

"The ocean is a huge part of my life and a spill would directly affect pretty much everyone and everything on the coast."

Despite his grounding in science, Darimont believes there was magic at work during the surfing trip.

"We woke up one morning and we were surrounded by a pod of killer whales. They had come to us, so, instead of surfing that morning, we spent time with the whales that seemed to have sought us out."

A walk into the forest brought encounters with grizzly bears, even though they are usually elusive, Darimont said. "That day we couldn't walk 100 feet without bumping into a grizzly bear," he said.

The working title of the film is Groundswell, which, in the surfing lexicon, means a series of intense, powerful waves, he said. That is a good metaphor for the growing pipeline opposition, Darimont said.

Source: The Vancouver Sun

Expedition White Shark: iTunes app on controversial tracking of white sharks

For those who watched National Geographic Channel's limited series Expedition Great White, where marine biologist Dr. Michael Domeier tagged great white sharks with satellite tracking tags, there is now a companion app for iPhone, iPod, and iPad that allows you to see, in real time, the latest progress in monitoring the location and migratory routes of the sharks that were tagged.

The Expedition Great White series generated considerable controversy among many shark advocates and shark researchers in large part due to the methods used to capture and secure the animals so that tags could be attached and other tests could be performed, like blood and sperm samples. There were issues raised as to whether the elaborate procedure employed to corral the sharks was causing more harm than good and Domeier is currently evaluating the capture procedure and the method of securing the tags themselves to hopefully minimize short- and long-term harm.

While Domeier's current and future methodologies will be scrutinized by many in the shark research and conservation community, the new app does provide some interesting information for the curious that might not be obtained unless a deliberate effort was made to seek it out and and read about it. Such is the clever attraction of many of today's apps.

With Domeier's app, called Expedition White Shark, you can view the latest position data for a group of tagged sharks and examine their past tracking patterns over time as they migrate between either Isla Guadalupe (off Baja, Mexico) or the Farallon Islands (off Central California) and the mid-Pacific area Domeier refers to as the Shared Offshore Foraging Area (SOFA), also referred to as the "White Shark Cafe" by other researchers.

There are other features to the app including pictures and videos - although their operations were a bit clunky in actual use; videos did not present themselves in the right aspect ratio or screen size, so some distortion occurs and many of the other images are of lower resolution. Perhaps that will be corrected in future updates. The app also includes some interesting great white shark facts and a game for children that takes a juvenile white shark through its early years to sub-adult.

Personally, I find the real time tracking of the sharks to be the most interesting feature. My primary concern is that to gain this kind of information, which other researchers have also provided by using more "conventional" means, I hope that, in the future, Dr. Domeier will be able to develop capture techniques that will prove less traumatic for the animals thereby garnering more support from the shark community as a whole.

Available on iTunes, proceeds for the $3.99 app go to Domeier's San Diego, California-based research organization, Marine Conservation Science Institute. The institute is currently working with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation on tracking tiger sharks in and around Florida and the Caribbean.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Filmmaker's Journal: working with the serendipity of the moment

Perched on the ledge of a small outcropping of rock, an explosion of white soft coral intermingled with the waving arms of crinoids, against a dark blue backdrop and the faint light from the surface creeping around the edge of the reef wall.

I have used the picture above on several occasions in this blog when talking about coral reef issues and it is a favorite of mine not just for the satisfactory end result but also for the memory of how it came about. It represents what I call the art of the moment which can often be the mainstay of nature photography and videography.

Many long years ago, when the earth was cooling and dinosaurs roamed the planet, I was shooting underwater still photography using a Nikonos V 35mm film camera, which meant no auto-focus, auto-iris - basically no auto-anything. So you had to prepare your shots in advance as much as possible. I was diving on Fiji's Great White Wall, one of the island chain's signature dive sites. The Great White Wall is a wide expanse along a large reef wall in the Somosomo Strait that is covered in white soft coral - small bunches packed in so tight it forms a virtual carpet of white like a fresh layer of snow. At a distance, the soft coral would take on a lavender hue, so shooting wide angle shots meant having to sacrifice capturing the white color. But taking close-ups was a challenge due to a rippin' strong current.

You approached the Great White Wall by descending down about 30 to 40 feet to a large reef head and then drop down another 40 feet or so through a crevice that formed a near perfect tunnel. Once you exited the tunnel, you abruptly turned left - whether you wanted to or not - as there was a powerful current that would sweep you along. You then found yourself flying over the Great White Wall. There was nothing to hold on to without damaging the coral, so your time spent seeing the white coral would only last about a minute before you turned to move out of the current and back to shallower depths.

About half way through the ride over the wall, I saw an outcropping that I thought would make for an interesting shot. But it was fast approaching. I set my focus, set my exposure based on the power of my single strobe at a pre-set distance - all designed to capture this little diversion in the wide expanse of white. However, I looked up and the outcropping was nearly upon me, closer than the camera was set for a proper shot. Frustrated, I thought the moment had come and gone; an opportunity lost.

In an instant, the coral outcropping was right beneath me, whizzing past in a blur. It suddenly occurred to me that there might still be a chance. As I passed, I quickly turned around and with the current continuing to propel me along, I waited for the right moment and took the shot facing backwards and then watched the outcropping quickly sail off into the lavender backdrop of the Great White Wall.

This was in the days of 35mm slide film, so I had to wait until I got home from the trip to see if I was successful in capturing the beauty and singularity of this one geological departure from the Great White Wall's broad, flat expanse. I lucked out. For me, while unbeknownst to all viewers of the image, it is a perfect example of what many wildlife photographers and videographers experience; that combination of preparedness and serendipity that sometimes allows us to capture beautiful images which, a split second later, would be unattainable. That is the art of the moment.

When working on a stage or in a controlled location, the photographer or videographer often works with art by design. You spend time setting your lights, you set marks to ensure your focus will capture the action just right, and you rehearse your camera moves while the actors rehearse their parts. You have the time and the ability to maximize all the resources at your disposal to design the scene the way you would like it to ultimately look. You have a measure of control; art by design. Sometimes the two can work in combination with preparation setting the stage to then catch unexpected magic moments.

For me, both experiences, art of the moment and art by design, can be exciting and very gratifying. Each have their own challenges and each can be fun for wholly different reasons. Either way, they hopefully contribute to the cinematic goal of telling a story in a compelling way without being obvious or intruding upon the viewers' own experience by visually shouting "look at me, look at what I did."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Southern Fried Science: new generation of scientists tackling media communications

Scientists can be an odd lot. They delve into the world of minutiae, seeking the ultimate truths, while knowing that it all may be rewritten with the next experiment or expedition. And, unfortunately, in a time when science can hold the key to addressing many of the worldwide challenges we face, scientists can also prove to be poor communicators, opting for peer-reviewed papers that then gather dust within the covers of obscure journals.

This is where I have tried to make my skills and services known to the scientific community, as it is vitally important that scientific research (and the issues and implications it addresses) be distilled and disseminated to policy and decision makers and the public at large. Fortunately, there is also a generation of new scientists, albeit small, who are trying to develop and utilize the skills of broad communication, whether it be traditional or contemporary (i.e.: social) media, to get the word out. The good folks at Southern Fried Science are a perfect example.

Here is a post from David Shiffman, alias WhySharksMatter, from Southern Fried Science that captures both the enthusiasm for communicating science and the frustration, knowing that today's media has shied away from science in favor of entertainment of a lower common denominator.

Core themes of 2012: Underrepresented issues in marine science and conservation

One of the many unfortunate consequences of the decline in traditional media has been a reduction in science reporting. The formerly great CNN science unit closed in 2008, followed soon after by the health and science page of the Boston Globe. Alarmingly few trained science journalists are left, and people without proper training are being asked to cover the few science stories that still make it on the air ( I was once interviewed about shark research by the weatherman from CNN’s “American Morning”). With few exceptions, science and conservation stories are no longer considered a priority to the major news networks and newspapers. However, science is no less important to our everyday lives.

As bloggers, we are blissfully free to write about the topics of our choice without an editor telling us that we only have 3 minutes to discuss overfishing so that a story about Kim Kardashian’s wedding can air. As professional marine scientists, we know all too well what’s going on in the oceans, and we know all too well what important stories aren’t being reported by the mainstream media. We consider it both a duty and a privilege to give our readers in-depth analysis of a variety of underrepresented issues in marine science and conservation.

Just because research doesn’t come with a press release and embargo doesn’t mean that it isn’t critically important to understanding and protecting our oceans. We’re proud to have written about conservation issues surrounding such diverse marine life as krill, menhaden, orange roughy, sea otters, and sandbar sharks, among many others. We’re proud to be among the only media coverage of thorny skates being denied Endangered Species Act protections, and of the disappointing result of an important international fisheries management meeting. We’re proud to have explained so many threats to the ocean, including detailed coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, destructive fishing methods, pharmaceutical products from our wastewater, altered sea turtle sex ratios as a result of climate change, deep sea mining, and viruses released into the wild as a result of aquaculture.

If there’s a new discovery about the oceans, we’ll cover it regardless of whether the mainstream media considers it headline news. While we’ll never have the resources of the mainstream media, blogs like Southern Fried Science have become a great resource for adding details to the conservation and science stories that make the news, and for detailed reporting of those that don’t.

Source: Southern Fried Science

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Marine Mammals As Food: Live Science reports on increases in hungry nations

While in some nations, farmers are subsidized to not grow crops, or vital staples are funneled towards ethanol fuel, or valuable aquaculture goes unfunded, other poorer nations have hungry coastal populations that are turning to the seas for sustenance. And what they are feeding on might surprise you.

A brief article in Live Science notes that more and more under-developed nations have people feeding on marine mammals like dolphins, seals, polar bears, and manatees. Jennifer Welsh, Live Science staff writer, states that some animals are being hunted while others start out as bycatch but are ultimately consumed.

Humans' Taste for Dolphins & Manatees on the Rise

Fillet of dolphin? Polar bear steak? As world population increases, people in coastal poverty-stricken areas are turning to the ocean for their meals, consuming marine mammals such as dolphins and seals, new research suggests.

Since 1990, at least 87 species of marine mammals — including dolphins, porpoises and manatees — have been served up in 114 countries. They are the victims of hunting and even commercial fishing operations, where they are sometimes caught accidentally, the researchers said.

The fishing of larger marine mammals, like humpback whales, is strictly regulated and monitored; but the extent to which these smaller warm-blooded marine species, including dolphins and seals, are caught, killed and eaten has been largely unstudied and unmonitored.

"International regulatory bodies exist to gauge the status of whale populations and regulate the hunting of these giants," study researcher Martin Robards, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a statement. "These species, however, represent only a fraction of the world's diversity of marine mammals, many of which are being accidentally netted, trapped, and — in some instances — directly hunted without any means of tracking as to whether these off-takes are sustainable."

Source: Live Science

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Endangered Elephants: scientists unlock mysteries while numbers decline in Indonesia

Often in this blog, I cite some of the new and unusual things we are learning about life in the ocean. Much of it is literally uncharted territory with new species and biological processes cropping up all the time.

But let's not forget terra firma, too. Take for example an iconic land animal, one that we have observed and studied for many years: the elephant. Even today, the elephant has mysteries that we are still trying to unfold.

A recent study by scientists from Canada's University of Guelph of Asian elephants that reside at Busch Gardens zoological park in Florida, revealed some new information about the pachyderm's ability to retain and dissipate heat. With an animal of this size, many of the biological processes that allow other animals, including man, to function - circulation, breathing, bone structure - often go through some adaptations. To help regulate its body temperature, it is thought that African elephants radiate excess heat through their large ears. However, the Asian elephant has noticeably smaller ears. So, as it builds up heat throughout the course of the day, how can it release that stored heat at day's end? Why through its trunk, of course.

Thermal images taken of the elephants (click here to see them online at BBC Nature) throughout the day and into the evening reveal that the Asian elephant compensates for its smaller ears by concentrating heat in its trunk. In fact, the ears are some of the coolest spots on the elephant's body.

According to study leader Dr Esther Finegan,
"As the Asian elephant ears are so much smaller in surface area, they [are] very much less effective [at heat loss] than the larger African elephants' ears. But, why African elephants do not use their trunks - as Asian elephants appear to do - is a wonderful question to which we do not yet know the answer."

So, a new study of an familiar old animal reveals heretofore unknown biological processes. And it also raises questions about pre-existing beliefs scientists held about African elephants. Once again, we continue to learn, we continue to question, we continue to re-learn.

Unfortunately, studying Asian elephants within the confines of zoos like Busch Gardens may someday prove to be the only way we can learn anything about these huge beasts. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the number of Sumatran elephants in the wilds of Indonesia have reached critically low levels and face a greater risk of extinction than ever before.

Pressured by a growing loss of jungle habitat to deforestation, it is estimated that there are only 2,400 to 2,800 Sumatran elephants in the wild - a reduction by 50% from a count taken in 1985. That's a population cut in half in just 25 years.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has now raised the Sumatran elephant's listing from "endangered" to "critically endangered" which puts it on the IUCN's Red List. The Indonesian government has been trying to limit forest development - deforestation has been replacing forest in favor of palm oil plantations - but the government has seen limited success. It is now considering a new approach using financial incentives.

"The government has recently allowed companies to have restoration areas instead of logging concessions for some remaining forest area, so those kind of initiatives can be done by companies where they can also still make profit and at the same time also have the recovery of the endangered species," said a representative of the World Wildlife Fund told Voice of America.

How unfortunate it is that, on the one hand, we are still learning about an animal that has roamed the earth for thousands of years, long before the dawn of man, while at the same time we may be witnessing its extinction in the wild - and that passing will be of our making. Whales, sharks, and other ocean creatures are not the only species at risk.

And we called the elephant Dumbo?

Source: BBC Nature
Source: Voice of America

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Magnuson-Stevens Act: recognized as a rare bipartisan success story

In the United States, for the past several years the national congress - the House of Representatives and the Senate - have been scoring abysmal approval ratings with its citizens in survey after survey and it's primarily due to one facet of today's politics: simply getting along has become a dirty word.

Whether based on political or ideological differences between the two main parties or the need to gain a tactical advantage for an upcoming election, Republicans and Democrats seem dead set opposed to bipartisanship. Where this is all going to ultimately end up is hard to say. However, there was a time when political rancor was momentarily set aside and politicians worked together to produce a piece of legislation that, although not perfect, highlighted the political process at its best: representing the interests of the people, the nation, and its natural resources. Yes, that's right. Natural resources. It was for the benefit of conservation.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) first came to light in 1976 and was designed to eliminate rampant foreign overfishing in U.S. waters and set initial fishery management policies to ensure the future of U.S. commercial fishing by avoiding overfishing. This foundation of today's national fishery management program received bipartisan support and was noteworthy because while politicians were interested in supporting the commercial fishing interests, they also recognized that overfishing would certainly lead to the industry's demise.

With the ball now set in play, in 1996 politicians from both sides of the isle came together again to support amendments to the bill that actually shifted the focus from simply supporting the fishing industry to conserving sustainable fish populations. Politicians realized that the future of the commercial fishing industry and the conservation of species were forever linked but, in the end, it was the primacy of protecting fish populations that would prove beneficial to both industry and nature.

Finally, in 2006, the Bush administration, in one of its arguably better accomplishments, took the important step of reauthorizing the MSA with the added proviso that it would be science-based research that would determine annual catch limits. While I personally have many bones to pick with the previous administration's attempts to undermine the independent science-based approach with regards to the Environmental Protection Agency and endangered species, this was indeed one of their brighter moments.

“Based on the actions of the fishery management councils, it appears that the U.S. has fundamentally ended overfishing in federally-managed domestic fisheries. This is an enormous achievement, and one that Congress and the Administration clearly intended in its 2007 reauthorization of [the MSA]. ... The Magnuson-Stevens Act is without doubt the premier fisheries law in the world,” Dr. Bill Hogarth, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assistant administrator for fisheries during the George W. Bush administration, was quoted as saying in a recent Pew Environment Group fact sheet.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is an organic piece of legislation, continually being tweaked and, hopefully, improved upon either to itself or related legislation - as was the case recently with regards to shark fishing regulations and the need to land any shark whole, not just for its fins. However, to continue with effective, independent science-based decisions on sustainability requires ongoing research, staffing to monitor catches and, most importantly, funding.

So, it will require the continued realization and understanding between legislators of all parties that nature has no interest in our current political rancor or oft times competing economic priorities. And to abuse our natural resources, whether at sea or on land, will only guarantee the future will be bleak and finite for many species. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is a model and a reminder of how a responsible government should act.

Click here to download an MSA fact sheet (PDF).
PEG News Room

Seaweed At The Pump: nations looking at alternatives for ethanol production

The development of alternative energy sources - in particular, improvements or replacements to fossil fuel-based gasoline - has been slow, to say the least. Ethanol additives are controversial as they are not necessarily cost effective. The price of processing corn into ethanol can exceed what would be a reasonable price at the pump and what it provides in emission reductions is overshadowed by the emissions generated as part of the production process. However, there are alternatives.

Researchers have been looking into the benefits of using other organic materials that contain similar sugars which can be used to produce ethanol or suitable derivatives. Sugarcane and switchgrass are two and besides being more economical to produce, they also do not divert an important food crop like corn towards energy production. Add to the list another promising candidate: seaweed.

Several nations, including the U.S., are looking at producing ethanol derivatives using seaweed. There are strains of brown seaweed, an inedible variety, that can be used to provide similar organic sugars necessary to produce isobutanol, a gasoline additive that is more effective than ethanol in reducing fossil-fuel emissions. Whereas corn and sugarcane provide sugar through the use of lignin, one of the plants building blocks; seaweed offers a similar-acting compound called alginate.

The statistics are in seaweed's favor. It can assist in the production of 1,200 to 1,500 gallons of ethanol per acre, as opposed to 900 to 1,000 gallons per acre for sugarcane, and does not require fertilizer, fresh water, or land. However, it does have its challenges. A substantial aquaculture industry would need to be developed to generate enough product to make it worthwhile and that means seaweed farms that could impinge on other commercial and even recreational ocean activities, ranging from commercial fishing to aquaculture for food to offshore energy systems like wind turbines. Energy company Royal Dutch Shell has estimated that it would require 3 percent of the world's coasts where kelp ( a type of brown algae) grows to make enough ethanol to replace 60 billion gallons of fossil fuel, which would amount to about 4 percent of global transportation fuel demand.

"I think it's definitely worth looking at," said Jonathan Burbaum, director of biofuels for the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). "There's nothing at this point that's a showstopper. We've got a situation where it would require the development of an offshore aquaculture industry for there to be enough feedstock to really compete with things like corn and cellulose. But it's the sort of thing, where if it's successful, it will be a game changer, so that fits what ARPA-E looks for."

So, a silver bullet it isn't. And that's one of the most challenging aspects regarding the entire alternative energy debate: one alternative will not entirely replace the fossil fuel (oil and coal) that society has come to depend on. In the end, if we are to succeed, it will be through a combination of technologies that collectively replace or, at least, drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

"It's [Seaweed is] no more far-fetched than the notion of using algae or any other material," said Matt Hartwig of the U.S. ethanol trade group Renewable Fuels Association. "The biofuels industry is in a constant state of innovation."

Read more here:

Currently, the U.S., Chile and Norway are actively researching seaweed's potential as an alternative energy source. Let's hope their work produces commercially viable results; I'm not sure just how long Earth can hold its breath in anticipation.

Kansas City Star

Ghost Fishing Nets: San Diego divers retrieve abandoned nets off old shipwreck

In July of 2011, I wrote about ocean debris - in particular, abandoned fishing nets and lobster traps - which can continued to ensnare and destroy sealife long after they have been given up as lost. Once hooked on a reef or submerged wreck, fishing nets continue "ghost fishing" and can damage reefs as they get swung about in the ocean currents or swells. Off Point Loma, near San Diego, California's Mission Bay, lies the wreck, High Seas and recently, local divers succeeded in removing approximately 200 pounds of derelict fishing nets that had become snagged on the remains of the ship.

The removal operation was overseen by Ocean Defenders Alliance, a Huntington Beach-based non-profit that solicits the help of volunteer divers to remove derelict nets. When fishing boats release their nets, which can be hundreds, if not thousands, of feet in length, the sharp edges and contours of reefs and particularly shipwrecks can easily tear away large sections of the nets. Initially the nets smother resident sealife and can continue to catch fish that get wrapped up in the nets. Then, as the net begins to settle over time, smaller portions begin to batter the reef as swells or the back and forth motion of ocean currents, called surge, begin to take its toll.

Over a greater length of time, the nets can actually become part of the reef itself, with encrusting algae, anemones, and other plants and invertebrates using the net as a strata or foundation for new growth. At this point, removal of the nets may produce more damage than intended. So, in some locations, the derelict nets are monitored for deterioration that might reverse their sedentary condition and once again damage sealife with portions of loose nets subject to moving ocean conditions.

The High Seas is a 128-foot Navy vessel built near the end of WWII and later sold and converted to a fishing boat. It sank in 1970 and has collected a considerable amount of "ghost fishing" nets over the ensuing years. The Ocean Defenders Alliance (ODA) and its team of volunteer divers first surveyed the wreck to determine how much net could be removed without doing unintended damage and then proceeded to lift portions of the nets with floats, which enabled them to cut away a large section more easily and safely. Since ODA works with volunteers, diver safety is a crucial issue regardless of the diver's experience level. A free-floating net is a hazard to fish and humans as well.

Here is a video taken in 2010 by a local San Diego diver, Jim Ridgway, of dives on San Diego's USS Logan and High Seas. The first part of the video focuses on the USS Logan and you can see the range of sealife, from fish to colorful anemones, that can call a shipwreck home. Then the video turns to the High Seas and you can clearly see the accumulated nets and the diver even came upon a small leopard shark caught in the netting.

Fisherman view the loss of nets as a frustrating and expensive occupational hazard. However, long after the commercial and economic loss, ghost nets can continue to exert a deadly toll on unintended sealife.

Click here to learn more about the Ocean Defenders Alliance.
San Diego Reader

Monday, January 16, 2012

Filmmaker's Journal: Being reminded of the resources and support conservation needs

This past week, I was away from the RTSea Blog as I was on the road, traveling to Washington, DC and Columbia, South Carolina.

In Washington, DC, I briefly met with the members of the Pew Environment Group's (PEG) Global Shark Conservation Campaign, headed up by Matt Rand. PEG is an arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts and their focus is on making inroads in national and international policy. Much of what is currently proving to be fruitful in advancing the cause of shark conservation involves this higher political level. PEG's Global Shark Conservation Campaign has been involved in some noteworthy successes of late, particularly the establishment of shark sanctuaries in Palau and Honduras. The group is now looking forward to an upcoming CITES meeting this year and the next United Nations-sponsored FAO meeting wherein they will discuss revitalizing a decade-old "international plan of action." It's at international events like these that policies regarding the protection of sharks in international waters - outside the borders or boundaries of national marine protected areas or sanctuaries - can be hammered out.

From the U.S. capitol, I then moved south - through a tiring, circuitous route of flights - to Columbia, South Carolina to film a corporate video for a major pharmaceutical company. The location was an oncology (cancer) treatment center and I was very impressed by the range of services and the quality of care this facility was providing cancer patients.

In scouting various potential locations within the center for filming, we were shown many of the treatment areas and, at one point, the head of the facility brought out some of the chemotherapy medications that are currently being used. Some of these medications cost as much as $2500 per injection and patients would be receiving these treatments sometimes as often as twice a week.

It made me ponder on one of the challenges that conservation issues face. Mankind invests a considerable amount of effort and expense in treating disease, partly because, if we look at it as "connect the dots," it's a very short and simple connection. Many of us falter when it comes to, say, issues of diet and obesity because there are a few more dots to connect before we see a consequence that has personal impact.

And for many people, conservation is a long series of connecting dots and the immediate or personal consequences begins to feel remote. But the impact(s) of dismissing conservation are very real, as real as any cancer, and while we all certainly need to care for ourselves and others who may be afflicted by disease, we must also be aware that the planet is ailing and if we choose to ignore this one patient, Earth, we could be setting ourselves up for a terminal condition that is beyond a cure.

As we wrapped up filming after two days, I thought of the hundreds of patients that come through this oncology center's doors each day. It was comforting to know that these people had a place to go and that medications were available, albeit costly because of the challenges in manufacturing and the exclusive nature of these medications. Now, if we can get more people to see that conservation needs as dedicated a commitment in effort and resources, we just might be able to prevent the planet and the human species from flatlining.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Beneath the Waves Film Festival: ocean films combine with important ocean ecology conference

As society turns to science for the facts and data upon which environmental decisions are made (or should be made), scientists and researchers are, more and more, realizing the power and influence of media in communicating to broad audiences. For over 40 years, the Benthic Ecology Meeting has brought together marine and ecology scientists from a variety of disciplines and areas of study. Sponsored by different U.S. southeastern colleges or universities over the years, this year it will be held in Norfolk, Virginia, March 21st through the 24th, and is sponsored by Old Dominion University. Accompanying the meeting for its third straight year will be the Beneath the Waves Film Festival.

The Beneath the Waves Film Festival presents marine-themed films ranging from white sharks to dedicated school teachers, all with a strong ocean narrative. This is not a "what I did on my vacation" film festival; the films shown here address important ocean issues. The audience is a healthy mix of scientists, students, and the general public.

While the festivals in the past were scheduled to coincide with the meeting, which lead to some competing programs, this year the festival has a special films-only evening taking place on March 23rd. Films will be shown on the IMAX screen of the Nauticus IMSX Theatre, which is a terrific venue for any ocean film.

The Beneath the Waves Film Festival, combined with the Benthic Ecology Meeting, is a great way to meet and talk with working scientists and dedicated students involved in ocean research - and it's a great way to see some informative new ocean films. The film festival has received hundreds of films for the past two prior festivals and the submission deadline for this year, February 24th, is close at hand. If you have a potential film of interest, click here to read about the submission requirements.

For more details, visit the Beneath the Waves Film Festival website. And learn more about the Benthic Ecology Meeting at the Old Dominion University website.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Cayman Island Shark Study: results show less than expected numbers

Making a strong case for shark conservation requires more than an appeal to the emotions. Railing against the practice of shark finning or positioning sharks as cuddly creatures who mean no harm can generate sympathy among portions of the general populace, but it's hard facts that are required to convince politicians and policymakers that steps need to be taken to protect these ocean predators.

For the past three years, the Cayman Islands have been host to a group of marine researchers who have been conducting a population study of sharks and rays in and around the islands. A joint effort between the Save Our Seas Foundation and Marine Conservation International, the project was coordinated by the Cayman Island's department of the environment and funded in part by the UK's Overseas Territory Environment Programme, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, and others. A presentation was recently held to summarize the findings and while anyone familiar with the current state of shark populations might expect the reported numbers to be low, what the researchers found to be most disconcerting was there appears to be far fewer species in local waters than expected.

At the presentation, several of the researchers involved with the project, including Dr. Mauvis Gore and Professor Rupert Ormond, made a strong case for shark conservation with the usual arguments regarding the overfishing of sharks, the positive impact that sharks have in maintaining balance within local marine ecosystems, and the multimillion dollar difference in economic value
between shark consumption and shark tourism value - often by a factor of x50 or more in favor of tourism. These are many of the same justifications used to support shark protections or sanctuaries in other countries.

However, what was of particular concern to the scientists was what their research found that was unique to the Cayman Islands. Several species that historically were common in Cayman waters were found to be in much smaller numbers, if found at all. The Cayman News Service reported that, as part of the study, the researchers conducted tagging of several sharks species to track their movements and, as has been documented by others, sharks like tiger sharks, oceanic whitetips, and others were found to cover considerable distances. This presents the need for establishing cooperative policies between other nearby countries as the sharks will not be paying much attention to the boundaries of local shark protected areas or sanctuaries.

"Although the tracking has helped the scientists learn more about the sharks their failure to even find key species in the area to tag such as hammerheads has limited the research but so far the scientists are able to conclude that Cayman has only a modest number of sharks and a lower than expected variety of species. Dr Gore said the scarcity of hammerheads was a concern given that in the 1970s it was possible to sea schools of this type of shark in local waters. 'People think I’m mad when I say this,' she said, given the current scarcity of the species here."

With the environment minister, Mark Scotland, calling the study's results as "eye opening," perhaps we will see action in the near future to establish protections in the Cayman's local waters combined with collaborative efforts between the Cayman Islands and neighboring countries like Mexico, Honduras, the Bahamas and others. For shark conservationists, this would be welcomed news.

Source: Cayman News Service

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Zebra Shark Survival: could "virgin births" be a sign of nature's resilience?

Nature will find a way.

It's an amazing component of nature's dedication to survival that, when faced with conditions that impede propagation of a species, nature may choose another course other than to watch a population dwindle towards extinction. Parthenogenesis, or virgin birth, is just one such avenue. This is when an animal is able to produce viable offspring without the need for a traditionally fertilized egg, also known as asexual reproduction. No males around to breed with? Well, why wait?

Parthenogenesis is a somewhat rare occurrence, limited to a few reported cases, but one zebra shark that resides in the Burj Al Arab Hotel's aquarium in Dubai, has successfully produced eggs that brought forth healthy juvenile sharks. And she has done it each year for the past four years. The aquarium can verify that the shark has not had any contact with a male in all that time.

Interestingly, the juvenile sharks are all female - but not just clones of the female; their gene structure shows distinct differences. Could this also be another way that nature is trying to improve the odds, by generating more females? Scientists are not sure; the rarity of the event makes it a difficult subject to study.

David Robinson, the aquarium's operations manager, explained how the aquarium staff originally made the discovery, "
We were actually moving the eggs and one of the guys felt something move inside the egg. And we checked the eggs with light and there were babies inside. So, it was actually quite, I don't know...we went looking for it, but I don't think we were ever expecting to find it. So we're just awestruck."

Zebra sharks - which get their name because of the striking zebra pattern on the juvenile, which later gives way to a more leopard-like spotted pattern - will continually lay eggs several times throughout the year, fertilized or not. When I was a dive team leader at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, part of my team's responsibilities was to round up zebra shark eggs strewn about the Tropical Reef exhibit, deposited by either of the two large female zebra sharks in the exhibit.

Stuck to the artificial rocks and corals with mucus-like strands that could probably be bottled and sold as the next super glue - or at least that was what we thought as we would spend considerable effort getting the gunk off of our fingers - the eggs would be collected and set aside for disposal. With Dubai's reproductive zebra shark, named Zebedee, as an inspiration, the aquarists in Long Beach are probably now taking a long look at those eggs that the divers find.

BBC News reported on Zebedee's egg-laying abilities recently and the report includes an interesting video. Click here to view the video.

Nature has many fascinating ways of dealing with the natural or organic challenges it has had to contend with for eons. Evolution can be both an organized progression and an abrupt reaction to environmental changes. Unfortunately, man-made impacts seem to exceed even nature's formidable skills in perseverance and resiliency. But if we give it a break, nature can do wonders.

Sources:, BBC News.

Sargasso Sea: Bermuda video highlights importance of floating seaweed

A quick follow up to a recent post I wrote on efforts by Bermuda and the Pew Environment Group to establish a national marine park that would provide some measure of protection to the sargassum that surrounds Bermuda - the island is situated within the Sargasso Sea, a shoreless body of water bordered not by land but by rotating currents in the mid-Atlantic.

The idea of establishing a marine park is not falling on deaf ears within Bermuda itself. Bernews, one of Bermuda's online news outlets ran a brief article today describing the ongoing efforts and included a brief video produced by Look Bermuda. The video gives a good accounting as to why a national marine park would be good for the island, the sargassum, and the countless number of species that call this floating seaweed home.

Sargasso Teaser from LookBermuda on Vimeo.

Source: Bernews.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Climate Reality Project & Our Choice: environmental issues online, in video and now apps

According to the vast majority of scientists who study environmental, meteorological, and ecological sciences, climate change is very real. And mankind is playing more than a causal hand in its proliferation. We hear about it a lot but, particularly during the U.S. presidential political cycle, we also hear that it's either a fabrication, a conspiracy, or at the very least, that the science is not there and the jury is out.


The Climate Reality Project is an organization devoted to disseminating the facts about climate change and our role in its existence to anyone who will listen. In mid-September, the group held a "24 Hours of Reality" where validated information was presented on the subject in the form of an online/video presentation that ran every hour for 24 hours in 13 languages around the world. Unfortunately, it did not get much media coverage but you can still see and hear the presentation yourself at the group's website.

"Climate change is not your fault for the car you drive, the lights you turn on, or the food you eat. The climate crisis is our problem. Real solutions, systemic solutions, innovative solutions, can only come when we address it together. That’s what The Climate Reality Project will do. Without doubt. Without delay. And with your help.

The Climate Reality Project is bringing the facts about the climate crisis into the mainstream and engaging the public in conversation about how to solve it. We help citizens around the world discover the truth and take meaningful steps to bring about change.

Founded and chaired by Al Gore, Nobel Laureate and former Vice President of the United States, The Climate Reality Project has more than 5 million members and supporters worldwide. It is guided by one simple truth: The climate crisis is real and we know how to solve it." - Climate Reality Project website

The Climate Reality Project can arrange to have a trained Climate Presenter speak to your school, church, or community organization and lay out the facts about climate change and what we can do about it. While founder and former Vice President Al Gore, being a politician, has been a lightning rod at times for opposing camps, his efforts to make climate change a global issue - before it becomes an unstoppable global crisis - have fueled progress in many ways. The Climate Reality Project is one; the recent app/online book, Our Choice, available from Apple's iTunes for iPad and iPhone is another.

Our Choice is a fine example of the potential for apps to provide a wide range of information. Using all manner of interactive media - video, infographics, text, and online links, it covers the current state of climate change, A to Z, and reviews the many solutions and alternatives that are at hand. Think of it as An Inconvenient Truth for a new decade. As an iPhone app, it's handy; as an iPad app, it benefits from the larger screen format (I prefer the iPad version). It is also available in a hardcover print edition.

Take a look at the Climate Reality Project or download Our Choice. The information is there. The rationale can be made for why we must act. Minds can be changed. A planet is a terrible thing to waste.

Visit the Climate Reality Project website.
Learn more about the Our Choice book/app.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Conservation in 2012: support, commitment, and the exchange of knowledge continues

2012 - It's a new year. We wish our friends and family health, prosperity, and good fortune. In fact, we bestow it upon perfect strangers as we disembark elevators or pick up the dry cleaning. It's a moment when we try to make sense of the world and hope that tomorrow and the days that follow will be better than the past. It may just be a seasonal courtesy, an obligatory tagline to a passing conversation. And there's nothing wrong with that, but deep down we know that a better life is ours for the making; it's up to us to make it so.

I hope that conservation of our natural resources is something that continues to resonate with people across the globe. From the personal measures we take in our own lives, to the support
we extend to organizations taking up the struggle beyond our limited capacity, to the power we wield at the ballot box - those who support conservation must continue with their efforts and work intelligently and respectfully to recruit more to the cause. Conservation can never be relegated to being an issue du juor - it is not a short-term problem, a quick fix soon to be forgotten. The consequences for passing the buck on this one are global in scope and go to the very heart of the quality of life for future generations, not to mention the entire planet.

The cause of conservation depends greatly on organizations that exist in the world of "non-profit." They, in turn, depend on the generosity of others to survive and there are many such groups out there - each seeking a piece of what has been, of late, a very limited pie. I am seeing many specific conservation issues - from shark conservation to global warming - moving from the grass roots, emotion-fueled public awareness level to the world of policy development, regulation, and legislation. My suggestion would be to support those organizations that have the infrastructure and the strategies geared toward the national and international legislative arena; this is where quantifiable progress can often be measured, albeit such progress can be frustratingly slow. With our limited resources to donate, I recommend evaluating non-profits not on their good intentions, which are honorable, but on their actions and most importantly on their accomplishments.

For myself, this past year saw another batch of posts in this blog that I hope brought some measure of awareness, enlightenment, and even entertainment in a style that was not too technical, condescending, or argumentative to my readers. I have been fortunate in my life to have been involved in a variety of creative pursuits and though I never pursued an academic degree in marine biology or environmental science (a personal regret at times), science and the wonders of this world have been a constant throughout my life. And so at this point in my life I am trying to weave my careers and my passions together in a way that, I hope, gives back - a sort of "thank you" to those places and people who impressed me, taught me, and motivated me to love and preserve life on this incredible blue marble we call Earth.

Onward and upward. Make it a good day, everyone. Make it a great year.