Monday, April 30, 2012

Sharks Count!: Pew provides informative infographic on sharks

The Pew Environment Group, based in Washington, DC, has been making real quantitative, measurable progress in shark conservation.  They put much of their focus on working with governments and political decision makers while also putting out some of the hard facts about the current condition of the shark species.

Here's a great infographic they just made available on their website.  If you have a conservation website of your own, they provide the embedding code you would need or you can just save the image. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bald Eagle: U.S. icon is also a conservation success story

Nations around the globe have their flags that help to give them an identity, a visual rallying point as it were.  They can also have their iconic symbols that can range from buildings to geological formations to plants and animals.  For the United States, it is the bald eagle - a symbol of magnificence and strength.

And as the American expansion rolled across the great nation, the bald eagle, whether deliberately or by accident, was slowly pressured and pushed from one habitat to another until this iconic symbol of one of the most powerful and successful nations on earth was faced with extinction.  Irony abounds.

Chosen as the national bird in 1782 (to the disappointment of statesman Benjamin Franklin who had proposed the turkey), the bald eagle's numbers slowly declined until there were only 417 nesting pairs of eagles in the lower 48 states when the Endangered Species Act was initiated in 1963 (the bald eagle was formally declared endangered under the Act in 1967).  The nation's founding fathers did not have to travel far within the new fledgling states to see a bald eagle, but by the 20th century the birds were typically found only in rugged, remote mountainous areas - further west and north where human populations were scarce as was large scale agriculture.  

Along with large commercial agriculture came the need to control pests and with that came the use of pesticides.  The broad use of DDT contributed to the decline of the bald eagle - as well as many other birds of prey - as the pesticide slowly worked its way up the food chain.  When ingested by bald eagles, it produced weakened eggs and the bird's survival rate plummeted.   

Midwest states, with large population centers and agriculture, were essentially devoid of bald eagles.  The state of Iowa, as an example, did not have a single nest from the early 1900s until the late 70s when one nest was finally sighted.  But now it appears that is all changing.

Iowa's number of nesting pairs numbered around 9,000 in 2006 and they continue to grow.  With the use of DDT discontinued, along with the adoption of other regulatory measures between the United States and Canada, the overall population of bald eagles has continued to rise and it was officially de-listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1997.  Numbers now range over 115,000 in the United States and Canada.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources carefully monitors the number of nests and nesting pairs, utilizing a program that involves both government officials and volunteers to monitor the nests.  The birds need to be observed but not disturbed in any way, so involved conservation groups and the department keep the exact location of many of the nests under wraps. 

The return of bald eagles to states like Iowa is an example of the overall success nationwide in bringing back the populations of bald eagles back to respectable levels.  It is the iconic symbol of a nation but, more importantly, it is an important member of nature's balanced community and a success story that bears repeating for many animal and plant species from coast to coast. 

Source: The Republic
Source: Wikipedia                     

Shark News: not a couple of good weeks if you're a shark

It hasn't been a particularly good couple of weeks for sharks.

First there was the large 20-foot, 4000-pound female white shark that was caught in the Sea of Cortez.  Reportedly caught accidentally in the fishing nets of some local fishermen, it garnered media attention because of its massive size.  As it turns out, it apparently had a research tag showing it had traveled from the coast of central California.  Conjecture is that it traveled to the Sea of Cortez to give birth as this is a popular theory being proposed and studied by researchers.

The Sea of Cortez is an area that is being heavily fished by local fishermen and several species are being hard hit by the overall level of the catch.  If juvenile white sharks are being taken - evidence of which has been seen in local fish markets - and females are being caught, either accidentally or deliberately, for a slow-reproducing animal like the great white shark, this is not good news.

Next up was the unfortunate fatal attack on a bodysurfer in South Africa.  There have been fatal attacks throughout the years, but what raised the hackles of locals and caught the attention of the media was the fact that a film production company/research group was in the area apparently chumming to attract sharks for tagging purposes.  South African government officials, who had issued the permits to allow the research, pulled those permits and from there it's been a media communications nightmare of accusations and a lot of CYA.

The production company had been filming in the past for National Geographic Channel's Shark Men series, but Nat Geo issued a response saying that they had not been working with this particular company for some time.  South African government officials are being accused of faulty vetting of the operation in issuing the permits, but it's been said that there were scientists on board to ensure that no reckless behavior for the sake of dramatic film footage was taking place.  And the production company claims that their actions were well within acceptable practices.

Then along comes a preliminary research study from Australia that says there may be a causal link between chumming used by shark diving operators and behavioral changes in white sharks.  The report itself says it's not conclusive and does not imply that, because of chumming, white sharks are purposely seeking out humans, but it certainly added fuel to the fire of the anti-shark locals.  It's quite a media mess and at this point it's hard to tell what the final results might be as to whether we'll see some knee-jerk reactions against the sharks by officials trying to placate those who believe they have greater rights to the seas than do the sharks.  At the very least, it's bad P.R. for the sharks; the spectre of shark nets or a crack down on all shark diving operators always looms in the background.

Finally, the media outlets have been jumping all over a new study from the University of Hawaii and British Columbia's University of Victoria which says that Pacific reef shark populations have declined by as much as 90 percent or more in the past few decades.  This decline has been noted in other studies, but this particular study had an interesting twist to it, as reported by The Washington Post's environmental writer, Juliet Eilperin.

The researchers study shark populations over 46 islands in the Pacific and not only found a decline but, conversely, found increases in shark populations wherever human populations decreased over the years and the productivity and temperature of the ocean increased.

“Our results suggest humans now exert a stronger influence on the abundance of reef sharks than either habitat quality or oceanographic factors,” said the researchers. 

Many of the islands involved in the study have laws and regulations in place to protect sharks but, as is the case with many conservation regulations worldwide, enforcement is lacking either due to lack of resources or political will.

Julia Baum, assistant professor at the University of Victoria and co-author of the study, said, “To me, enforcement of these islands is a major unsung conservation challenge, and I suspect that if this is not effectively addressed [as soon as possible], the reef sharks on these islands will be fished out within the next 10 years.”  

The Muppets' Kermit the Frog once sang, "It's not easy being green."  It's not easy being a shark either.  We need our green puppets for comic relief; and we need our sharks for something far more important: the preservation and natural balance of the sea's marine life.

Source: Sacramento Bee
Source: Mail & Guardian Online.  
Source: The Washington Post  
Photo: Brian Skerry

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Armored Catfish: eroding lake shorelines in Florida

The fish pictured above is a Loricariidae, or armored catfish.  As a teen, I had several freshwater aquariums and this particular catfish was a common fixture in my tanks as a bottom feeder and window cleaner as it fed on the algae that would grow on the aquarium glass.  But they were always just an inch or two long, a juvenile (as is often the case with many of the fish in the aquarium trade).  Cute little guy, nosing around scrubbing the small porcelain hard hat diver resting on the gravel bottom. 

However, the beast above is no welcome visitor to the freshwater lakes and streams in southern Florida.  It is another invasive species that the state is having to contend with.  While the beautiful but voracious lionfish plays havoc with coral reef fish populations off the eastern Florida coast and into the Caribbean, the armored catfish, so named because of its tough scales and spiked fins, is damaging fresh waterways by devouring aquatic plant life which causes erosion of the local shoreline by as much as 10 feet.   Full grown adults also  lay their eggs in 18-inch deep, 4-inch wide holes along the shoreline which can pose a hazard to people walking along the water's edge.

In South America, where the armored catfish is normally found, the balance of nature - the level of plant growth, the predators that feed on the catfish - all help to maintain a proper balance in the catfish population and whatever damage it inflicts on local aquatic plant life.  But in southern Florida it is running amok as it already has for several years in Texas waterways.

The armored catfish joins a long list of invasive species that include, in addition to the lionfish, the ravenous snakehead fish in the Northeast, freshwater zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, and the Caulerpa taxifolia seaweed in California, just to name a few.  And as is often the case with these unintended invaders - sometimes the result of being castaway pets or sometimes brought in from distant waters by freighters carrying them or their eggs/spores in the bilgewater - eradicating them can prove to be difficult and costly.  Estimates to correct shoreline erosion and set up various methods to deter the catfish have been as high as a million dollars.

In describing the situation, contractor Chip Collins, owner of Lake Erosion Restoration, said, "One, it's a safety issue.  Two, it's a curb-appeal issue."

"If we do nothing, I think eventually we're going to end up with a sinkhole," said Suzanne Ury, president of the Royal Lakes Homeowners Association.

It's always a difficult decision, deciding on how best to deal with an invasive species.  Will we do more damage in trying to eliminate it, or should nature take its course and over time reach a new balance.  It was mankind's clumsy handiwork that put it into a foreign ecosystem; do we have the ability to correct the situation or make things worse?
Source: Florida Sun-Sentinel 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Arctic Oil Drilling: complex issues from all sides

As a rule, I typically do not accommodate guest posts that are thinly veiled advertisements.  However, Elaine Hirsch of Online Schools did an admiral job in restraining herself and staying on point with a look at the complexity of issues surrounding oil drilling in the Arctic region.  There are a variety of environmental, logistical, and economic concerns associated with it.  Charting a sane course in the years to come, could be a tricky proposition.  
Drilling Systems May Be Online, but Not Everyone Onboard
From CNN to every environmental science class in every accredited online school, arctic drilling is part of the modern public consciousness. While many believe it is the answer to the pains caused by high energy costs, others belief it will destroy the natural beauty that still remains pristine while tucked away in the north.
On April 18, 2012, Exxon and the Russian oil company OAO Rosnef presented to New York City financiers the financial details of their 3.2 billion dollar agreement to begin drilling for oil in the Russian portions of the Arctic Ocean and Black Sea. According to a report issued by Bloomberg Media, this agreement gives Exxon the right of access to billions of barrels of oil in the Russian sectors listed above, while Rosnef receives the right to invest in oil projects in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. In light of this agreement, of which Arctic drilling is a crucial part, it may be worthwhile to assess the costs and benefits of Arctic drilling. The controversial procedure will only be used more frequently in the future as the world’s energy needs continue to grow.
One of the primary objections to Arctic drilling is the environmental impact it may have. However, assessing this is challenging particularly because, according to the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling, the Arctic Ocean has yet to be exhaustively studied. The amount of data scientists have, with regard to its baseline ecosystem conditions is extremely small. Additionally, because the Arctic Ocean is not well-charted, any sort of ocean Arctic drilling project (80% of oil in the Arctic has been found under water, rather than land) first needs to undergo extensive site studies for its suitability, environmental safety, and, of course, for how much oil may be present. As a result, any Arctic drilling project has high start-up costs, assuming that all environmental concerns are properly addressed. 
Additionally, drilling in the Arctic Circle poses significant challenges aside from the simple expense of assessing environmental impact. Due to its location, special consideration has to be made for workers, since the area is extremely cold and inhospitable for normal human habitation. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Arctic Circle is predominantly dark for half the year. During the deep winter months, or September to March, many locations within the Arctic Circle are dark twenty-four hours a day. Finally, much of the Arctic Circle is composed of ice, some of which melts in the summer and re-freezes in the winter, making it challenging to construct permanent drilling stations in such an environment. 
That said, according to an article published by Money Morning, due to overall global warming, some of these problems are becoming ameliorated – based on scientific evidence, the Arctic Circle is indisputably less icy and warmer than in was when records began to be kept in 1979. As a result, some areas in the lower Arctic Circle are now water year-round, and more areas have less ice less of the year. Scientists estimate that by the year 2050, there will be no permanent ice cap at the North Pole – in the summer, it will turn to liquid. This makes the job of drilling for oil far easier, and may encourage what is already becoming a scramble to the Arctic to find resources. 
As also reported by Money Morning, the advantages of pursuing oil in the Arctic are simple: not only do many countries have access to portions of the Arctic Circle, the amount of confirmed oil currently available is 240 billion barrels, spread across four hundred different locations. Moreover, further exploration promises to yield discovery of many billions of barrels more. The amount of money that can be made in such projects is staggering. 
For example, it is estimated that Russia, which is perhaps the most permissive country in allowing Arctic drilling projects, is propping up its economy with the practice. Currently, two-thirds of its exports are from oil, while one-third of its GDP is based on oil sales. Additionally, Greenland is using the prospect of Arctic oil as a method for gaining financial independence from Denmark by permitting international conglomerates to drill on its land and water. There are rumors that once Greenland becomes financially independent, it will then seek political independence from Denmark as well. Clearly then, the Arctic Ocean, as it continues to melt and it’s resources continue to be discovered, will be a major factor in further worldwide financial and political machinations.
However, not all international organizations are onboard with this behavior. As reported in a recent article run by the Guardian, Lloyd’s of London (the large London-based insurance company) warns all companies and countries to step back and consider their actions with regard to the Arctic. As most famously demonstrated by the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the environmental, financial, and political fallout from a botched extraction can be enormous. And it may be entirely more problematic in the Arctic. Lloyd’s of London notes that because of the overlapping jurisdictions of the Arctic Circle, the unclear environmental impact that a spill may have, and the presence of several ecosystems within the Arctic Circle, it is difficult to assess what the damage would be were a spill to take place, and how many countries would be affected. Moreover, were a (relatively) small company to spill, it would almost certainly be bankrupt, while a larger company would be severely hampered. Lloyd’s of London has said that the risk assessment of Arctic drilling is currently difficult to manage – meaning that obtaining insurance for drilling may currently be difficult or impossible – and that further research and study needs to be done before the process can be deemed safe. Therefore, even as more companies and countries enter the Arctic in search of oil and prosperity, the extraction process remains controversial and fraught with peril. 
Drilling in the arctic is a difficult subject to tackle as both prosperity and conservation are of paramount concern in modern society. However, keeping the debate nonpartisan and moving forward will ensure that the debate will be looked at clearly and the best decisions will be made.

Earth Day: making the celebration last

This is Sunday, April 22nd: Earth Day.  I had cited the event in earlier posts and there have been several news items this week covering local, national, and international events.  Carl Safina's BLUE Ocean Institute was offering up a "Saving the Ocean" photo contest; in Manila, Philippines, the newspaper The Inquirer held an ocean storytelling event for children; and in Ogden, Utah - as was happening across the nation - the local Nature Center opened its doors with extra events and participation from a variety of conservation groups.

“We do it to give people an opportunity to celebrate nature and the earth, conservation and the environment,” said Mary McKinley, Ogden Nature Center executive director.  “We invite other organizations to provide information about their work and educational options for the environment and stewardship.

Now, there are cynics who might scoff at such a symbolic event like Earth Day, the same folks who wonder why Christmas cheer or Valentine's Day affection can't last all year long.  Given the nature and critical importance of many of the issues that Earth Day attempts to focus attention, their skepticism has a certain degree of merit.  The question is, after one brief moment of celebration, will tomorrow's hangover linger or will it fade away as we all return to our day-to-day lives?

True, there's much to be done.  And much that we can do as individuals.  There are the personal measures we can take, from avoiding plastic bag use to energy-efficient lighting and automobiles, to being more prudent in our seafood choices.

But there are also the big picture issues - the ones that involve international, political organizations - like protecting the Arctic regions and its resources, ocean acidification, predator conservation (sharks, tuna, wolves, and the like), promoting aquaculture, advancing the use of alternative energy, and many more.  There are many important issues such as these that people delegate to other groups in the hope that they will find the solutions and issue the decisions and policies that will make it all right in the world.  However, that delegating of responsibility can also be a thinly veiled abdication of our own obligations. 

I would like nothing better than to prove the skeptics wrong, that Earth Day is not just a fleeting moment but one that, little by little, propels people to consider the environment and encourages them to go beyond their own personal daily efforts - as important as they are - but to voice their opinions and support of those groups who we have assigned to wrestle with the larger issues that might seem to exceed our own grasp.  We must hold them responsible and accountable for their efforts and the results (or lack of results) those efforts produce.

We face big challenges ahead and we need to be sure that the diplomats, politicians, businessmen and other policy makers and decision makers who can truly change the course of this planet's future, they must know - the whole world is watching. 

Source: Earth Day 2012

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lions, Tigers & Bears: San Diego sanctuary can be last chance for exotic cats

 Animal sanctuaries - what role do they play in conservation?  Are they the best solution or the last ray of hope for an exotic animal like a lion, tiger or other big cat?

I recently had the opportunity to visit Lions, Tigers & Bears, an animal sanctuary in Alpine, near San Diego, California.  Speaking with owner Bobbi Brink, I learned more about what a good animal sanctuary does and does not to do for the animals within its care.

First, it's important to understand why animal sanctuaries exist in the first place.  While I am fascinated by the beauty and grace of exotic cats like tigers and jaguars, I have no desire to keep one as a pet.  However, there are others who do for reasons of status or an inflated sense of macho dominance.  Whatever the reason, there are black market suppliers who are bringing in wild animals or raising them just below the radar of government officials and selling them to the highest bidder.  From there, owners eventually discover that an exotic cat can become a handful, either because of its size as it matures or its nutritional requirements or temperament.  Eventually the animal ends up in an abusive situation because of a cramped and confined living space or malnutrition or physical abuse from a sadistic owner.  Sometimes these animals are given over freely to an animal sanctuary and sometimes they are offered by law enforcement who have confiscated them but have no means to care for them.  

In either case, the choices left when such a point is reached are two: animal sanctuary or euthanasia.  Because of the length of time having been out of the wild (or raised entirely in captivity) and the amount of human interaction these animals have had, reintroducing them back into the wild is out of the question.

Somewhat surprisingly, zoos can also be another source of animals bound for a sanctuary. Zoos can find themselves with excess animals through animals naturally mating.  If other zoos are not in the market for that particular cat species, then a zoo may have one extra mouth to feed that it can ill afford.  Also, there are smaller zoos (and I use the term loosely if you think of a zoo as a properly sanctioned and regulated organization) and circuses that can find themselves economically hard pressed to care for large, exotic animals.

Sometimes, in the case of bears or mountain lions in Southern California, man's encroachment into their territory can produce a situation where an animal is no longer afraid of humans or urban environments.  When an animal wanders into a neighborhood, is caught by local officials and released back into the wild but, because of its lack of fear or its growing need to find food, it keeps returning - wildlife officials are often faced with having to put the animal down.  Unless there is an animal sanctuary available to take it in.

In many ways, sanctuary owners would like nothing more than to be put out of business because of a lack of animals who need protection. But, unfortunately, as long as the profit motive is high and the egos of some people are great, combined with the economic realities that zoos and circuses can face like any other business, there will always be a need for the animal sanctuary as a place where these special animals can live out their lives comfortably. 

At Lions, Tigers & Bears, there are currently three lions, four Bengal tigers, three black bears and several smaller exotic cats on the property.  They are provided with large, comfortable cages for eating and sleeping with much larger fenced areas for exercising.  To provide stimulus, the cages are interlinked so that the cats' access to the larger exercise areas can change every couple of days. Having suitable space is important.  Bobbi's latest addition to the sanctuary is the bear enclosure which is nearly the size of a football field for just three bears.  About ten feet out from all the cages and surrounding the animal pens is a secondary fence nearly 20 feet high.

While Bobbi has a full veterinary facility and a staff of volunteers who prepare and feed the animals a balanced and nutritious diet, contact with the animals is kept to a minimum.  No one on the staff, including Bobbi herself, ever attempt to engage in physical contact with the animals.  The animals may recognize members of the staff and approach them within their enclosures, but you won't see Bobbi or her staff throwing their arms around a tiger and giving it a belly rub.  Most sanctuaries frown on that kind of human contact.
Having gushed to Bobbi about my love of tigers, she agreed to take me and the film producer I was with inside the outer perimeter fence to get a closer look.  One of the female tigers approached, expecting a treat which Bobbi had in the form of some cut up chicken.  I remembered all of my big cat rules: no cologne or after shave, no sudden moves, and no staring eye-to-eye.  I was absolutely amazed at the manner in which this beautiful 300-pound tiger moved, but she barely tolerated my presence and several times let me know with a hiss and a healthy roar.
Visitors are limited at Lions, Tigers & Bears to small, supervised groups that must be arranged in advance and people are normally kept at a distance, outside the tall perimeter fence.  This still affords visitors the opportunity to see these animals in a more relaxed and comfortable setting, different from what one sees at many zoos or commercial animal parks.
By limiting the number of visitors as a revenue generator, as a non-profit organization, Bobbi is always on the prowl (pardon the pun) for funding.  Lions, Tiger & Bears will be holding an annual fund raising event in May, but right now Bobbi is on the road, working with other animal sanctuary owners in promoting changes to existing legislation - in particular, HR 4122, an Amendment to the 1981 Lacey Act -  to tighten the rules and regulations regarding the private and commercial ownership and care of exotic animals.  I will bring you more information on the planned fundraiser and an interview with Bobbi that she and I talked about as soon as she is back from the road.
Properly run animals sanctuaries like Lions, Tigers & Bears (the sanctuary is accredited by two leading national and international animal sanctuary organizations) provide animals, who have been unfortunately stripped of their connection with the wild, with the opportunity to live out their lives in dignity, good health, and peace.  Passionately committed people like Bobbi Brinks wish it didn't have to be so, but the alternative would be abuse or a premature death for an innocent and magnificent animal.

"To animals born in captivity, and fated to be ignored and abused, we dedicate this organization." - Bobbi Brinks

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sharks As Art: Florida art museum exhibit aims for the soul

Art, when it is properly displayed in a gallery setting, often beckons the viewer to contemplate and ponder, not just take a passing glance and turn the page. Paintings, photographs, and even video can reach their maximum visual effectiveness in a gallery. And this can be important if the image has something to say; if behind its initial visual impact there is a deeper emotional or visceral connection hoping to be made. For endangered animal species, art can prove to be a powerful champion.

To that end, the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in association with the Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center, will be presenting SHARK, an exhibition of paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, and videos of the fabled fish that elicits both fear and fascination for many people. The exhibit represents artists from around the world and was organized by Richard Ellis, renown painter of sharks of the world and accomplished author (The Book of Sharks, Tuna). Many of the images of sharks that I seek with video are based on my early impressions from many of Ellis' paintings.

“Sharks have long fascinated man; some ancient societies even revered them as gods. In my art, I pay homage to their graceful beauty,” said Ellis. “This exhibition delves into a variety of issues in an examination of the human impact on sharks. It explores the shark as a predator and its portrayal in culture, the importance of shark conservation, the biology of the myriad of shark species, and the thrill of shark encounters.”

The exhibition will display the range of attitudes mankind has had for sharks of the centuries - from John Singleton Copley's classic Watson and the Shark (ca. 1778), shown above, to a retrospective of the movie Jaws, to contemporary representations from artists including Guy Harvey, Richard Ellis, Rod and Valerie Taylor, David Doubilet, and more.

The Museum of Art also acknowledges the interactive, multimedia world we live in and will also be providing a SHARK mobile app to further engage the visitors, along with educational kiosks placed throughout the exhibit.

“SHARK is a stunning and timely exhibition about how the shark has entered the public imagination and how artists, over the decades, have portrayed one of the most fascinating, vulnerable, and misunderstood marine animals on the planet,” said Irvin Lippman, executive director of the Museum of Art.

While the SHARK art exhibit will be running from mid-May to January of next year, I don't expect everyone to jump on a plane bound for Florida and take a peek - unless you happen to be in the area. But it is important for all shark advocates to realize that there are many ways to influence and change people's perceptions about many things, say, the malevolent man-eating shark for one. Art is subtle, it plays with the subconscious but its impact can be profound, aiming deep for the soul, sometimes more so than hard facts or heated argument.

Beauty can soothe the savage beast - even when the beast is mankind and the beauty is the grace and elegance of the shark.

Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale
Florida Sportsman

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bracken Cave Bats: visitors can view world's largest colony in Texas

The poor bat - another one of those creepy things that go bump in the night. A bit like my friends, the sharks, in that they prey not only on other species to maintain ecological balance, but they also prey on some of the dark, primal recesses of our minds. They also fascinate us.

In a single cave near New Braunfels, outside San Antonio, Texas, between the months of April and October, resides the largest known colony of bats in the world. Millions of Mexican free-tailed bats migrate to this one spot, known as the Bracken Cave, each year, swelling the total number of bats to as much as 20 to 40 million.
Bat Conservation International (BCI), working with Natural Bridge Caverns, has opened the "Bracken Bat Flight" tour to the public for the first time in 2012 to raise awareness of these amazing animals and their importance to our ecosystem during this, the International Year of the Bat. Each night at dusk visitors can view the bats leaving their cave in numbers so dense that they are detected on airport radar.

"Negative myths and misinformation have generated needless fears that have threatened bats and their habitats for centuries," said Nina Fascione, Executive Director of BCI, the Austin-based group which owns and manages Bracken Cave site. "Our goal in opening tours to the public, is to teach more people the truth about bats and the critical need for conservation efforts."

Bats play a pivotal role in managing insect populations, which is key to not only the balance of natural plant ecology, but agricultural interests as well by controlling the number of crop-destroying moths, beetles and other insects. It has been estimated that the Bracken Cave colony consumes as much as 400,000 pounds of insects every night. Additional, bats assist indirectly with plant pollination, much like bees, and the seeds they consume from eating plants helps the spread of seeds through their droppings.

And speaking of bat poop, the Bracken Cave bat's droppings, known as bat guano, has some historical significance as it was used by Confederate soldiers who mined the guano during the Civil War to help manufacture black gunpowder. The nitrogen-rich guano has also been used as a fertilizer.

Conservation awareness of bats is important because many bats are being destroyed by a fungal infection known as the white-nose syndrome, so named because of the white patch that appears on the bats nose and face. It has been running rampant through caves in the eastern United States and researchers and state officials are working hard to get it under control but it has, so far, proven to be a difficult condition to eradicate.

You can learn more about the Bracken Bat Cave tours, managed by Natural Bridge Caverns, by visiting their website at Part of the proceeds generated from ticket sales will go to the protection and conservation of the Bracken Cave site.

Source: PR Newswire

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Titanic Centennial: commemorating nature and mankind's hubris

On Sunday, April 15th, I will be attending the West Coast Explorers Club Annual Dinner. As a member of the Explorers Club, I enjoy the opportunity to meet with professional, amateur, and armchair explorers to discuss topics ranging from Arctic expeditions to tribal cultures to ocean mysteries. Part of the evening will include an award presentation to renown National Geographic photographer Emory Kristof.

But on this particular evening, there will also be time to contemplate an historic tragedy that took place in the wee hours of the morning of the same day, 100 years ago. As midnight approached on April 14, 1912, 100 years ago the luxury ocean liner, Titanic, had an unexpected encounter with nature that would seal the great ship's fate in less than three hours. A glancing blow along an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland started a sequence of events that led to one of the greatest maritime tragedies of all time.

Most of us know the particulars - we've read the stories, seen the long parade of television programs, and watched the movies, particularly James Cameron's blockbuster film of the same name. With all tragedies there are questions to be resolved and the Titanic surely had its fair share of riddles and mysteries, many of which have been solved but some still persist to this day.

There have been several Titanic-related news items that have appeared recently, timed I'm sure with the upcoming centennial. One has to do with questions regarding the Titanic's captain's seemingly casual response to reports of approaching icebergs. Captain Edward Smith was the most experienced captain in the White Star Line and many have wondered why he never took the reports more seriously and initiated corrective measures. One rumor was that he was under pressure to remain under full speed, a directive coming from J. Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line and a passenger on the fateful voyage. But Capt. Smith was a master of transatlantic crossings and knew the risks involved.

Now, research that will appear in the April issue of Sky & Telescope presents astronomical evidence to show that possibly Capt. Smith was acting in accordance with his past experience with the occasional iceberg but could not have foreseen the ice that was moving into the normal shipping lanes because of an unusual occurrence that took place four months before. According to a team of forensic astronomers from Texas State University, a very rare and close juxtaposition of the sun and the moon to the earth in January of 1912 produced exceptionally high tides that could have dislodged icebergs normally originating in Greenland but which get stuck in shallower waters off of Newfoundland.

"The lunar connection may explain how an unusually large number of icebergs got into the path of the Titanic," said David Olson, Texas State University physicist, one of the leaders of the research.

Long before I was a diver, long before the magnitude of the Titanic disaster really meant anything to me, this ship fascinated me. As a boy, I read my parent's copy of A Night to Remember by Walter Lord over and over. And when I was older, particularly around the time that Dr. Bob Ballard found the Titanic's final resting place, my fascination grew and I collected books and videos on the subject. In fact, during one boring stretch of recuperation from some surgery, I whiled away the hours building a model of the Titanic - before and after - using two model kits, one of which I fabricated into the wreck using many of my books' photographs and drawings as a guide.

And like many scuba divers, I find diving on wrecks to be an otherworldly experience. There is something intriguing when you come upon a wreck. It seems so out of place; it's not supposed to be here, it should be gliding across the surface above. And yet, here it is, slowly being consumed by nature. Wrecks can become beautiful artificial reefs, providing a wide variety of sealife with a new and unexpected home. They can also be a hazard for divers who penetrate the hulls if they drop their guard for even just a moment. And as we have all seen with ships like the Exxon Valdez, they can be deadly to marine ecosystems.

In the grander scheme of things, like Titanic, wrecks also serve as reminders as to the limits of our mastery of the natural world. When Titanic slipped beneath the surface of the icy North Atlantic with a rush of escaping air and the groans of twisting metal, taking over 1,500 lives with it, it became a tragic symbol of industrial and technological arrogance and of an upper class/lower class society at the time whose have and have-nots ultimately meant nothing in those freezing waters.

One hundred years later, Titanic rests in two main pieces with debris strewn across a wide area (recent pictures from RMS Titanic Inc, the salvage owners, have been assembled into a startling mosaic of where the ship lies today). With its iron being consumed by microorganisms and bacteria, some say it won't be much longer before the once majestic profile will collapse into rubble.

But what Titanic represented back then - the pride, the achievement and the hubris and folly - is that still with us today? This great ship is a constant reminder that without acknowledging nature, we are masters of nothing. Nature provided the raw materials to build the Titanic, and it would seem that when mankind was at its industrial and technological zenith in self-serving luxury, nature reared up and acted swiftly to remind us who is truly the master of our domain. And since that cataclysmic moment, it has slowly been taking those resources back.

A lesson to be learned - again and again? A warning once more gone unheeded? Will our fate be, ultimately, not that different from that of the great ocean liner that passed into maritime history 100 years ago tonight?

Source: Reuters
Source: Los Angeles Times

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wind Farms: North Sea alternative energy is damaging ocean carbon sinks

The earth is a very crowded place. Maybe not for many animal and plant species that have been battered by overfishing, hunting or harvesting, but for we humans and the many ecological systems we impact, we're rubbing shoulders in a very big way. Just ask Struan Stevenson, Member of the European Parliament and president of the European Parliament's climate change, biodiversity, and sustainable development group.

Stevenson's concern is that in our attempts to address some of our energy needs and reduce our output of carbon into the atmosphere - in particular, the development of wind farms - we are damaging other natural systems that can also contribute to reducing or storing some of the 2.2 million tons of carbon being expelled into the air daily.

In Europe, wind farms are being constructed along shallow shorelines in places like Scotland to help reduce some of the continent's dependence on fossil fuels. Sounds good at first blush, but wind farms won't completely solve the carbon issue. In these cold northern waters, nature itself can lend a hand in the form of carbon sinks or carbon sequestering in sea grasses and salt marshes. Ocean acidification - the raising of the ocean's pH or acidic level through the dissolving of excess CO2 emissions into the ocean - is being accelerated by increases in ocean water temperatures, but in the North Atlantic, shallow aquatic flora can help to slow down the process.

That is, unless these vital marine ecosystems are being destroyed by well-intentioned builders of wind farms.

"Recent research has indicated that a tiny part of the marine environment – the mangrove swamps, salt marshes and seagrasses that cover just 0.5 per cent of the seabed – account for the capture of at least half, and maybe three-quarters, of this blue carbon [carbon stored in ocean environments]. They are our blue carbon sinks and keeping them in good shape could be one of our most important undertakings to control climate change. While most mangrove swamps are in the tropics and subtropics, the United Kingdom possesses large areas of the other blue carbon stores with its seagrass meadows and salt marshes. Government agency Scottish National Heritage has noted that the vast majority of the UK's seagrass meadows are located in Scottish waters, accounting for some 20 per cent of Europe's total," said Stevenson in Public Service Europe.

Due to the northern water's overall reduced visibility, salt marshes and sea grasses tend to grow in fairly shallow waters, less than 16 feet in depth. So, it would seem reasonable that offshore wind farms should be constructed and placed in deeper water. Apparently though, in a rush to establish wind energy technology as a viable alternative, the farms are being located in shallow areas and destroying a vital source of natural carbon storage.
Stevenson says nearly 200 turbines have already been built in shallow waters in the North Sea.

"At present, a number of developers are preparing applications to site huge wind farms in the Moray Firth development area as the Scottish Government has noted that the region 'has favourable conditions and significant potential for the development of offshore wind both within Scottish territorial waters and beyond into Scottish offshore waters'. The government does not mention either saltmarshes or seagrasses in its 'sectoral marine plan for offshore wind energy in Scottish territorial waters', though they do note that there are potential adverse effects on bottlenose dolphins," Stevenson said.

Of course, the development off alternative energy sources like wind and solar needs to be maximized to help reduce the level of CO2 emissions. But it can't be at the expense of the planet's natural carbon sinks that help to sequester excess carbon. We wouldn't level a forest to build a solar energy farm, and so it is the same for offshore alternative energy and the ocean's natural devourers and holders of carbon. Mankind has assaulted nature with this problem of its own invention and now, as we struggle to come up with solutions, we must ensure that we give nature enough room to do its thing and be part of the solution, too.

"The message to policy-makers is clear - we cannot afford to sanction the continued destruction of our remaining blue carbon habitats merely to fast-track wind farm development. Blue carbon sinks are far more effective in the battle against climate change than turbines can ever be and it is time they received full protection."

Public Service Europe

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Illegal Shark Fins: officials arrest fishermen and not where you might expect

Two local fishermen got their comeuppance when they were arrested on April 8th for having on board their fishing boat a total of 2,073 shark fins. Government officials said that the catch represented as many as 529 sharks (which included 11 whole sharks they had on board).

The fishermen had the fins stored in a hidden compartment in the bow of the ship, which means they were aware that their catch was illegal. The limit for sharks in the waters they were apparently fishing in is 33. So, they were off by only a mere 496 sharks.

Hung Anh Tiet and Rick Nguyen, both from Texas, face fines totaling more than $26,000 and potentially 2 months in jail. Seems they're getting off pretty light compared to the sharks.

The interesting facet to all this is where this took place. Far away in the South Pacific, perhaps? Or maybe in the Mediterranean or Northeastern Atlantic? Try Louisiana. Right smack dab in U.S. waters, in an area that has been both trying to recover from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and wrestling with overfishing concerns of other Gulf fish species.

Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement reported that law enforcement officials board the vessel Lady Lyanna in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Venice, Louisiana. In a wildlife refuge no less.

Just two local fishermen. 529 sharks. Now imagine what could be carried out by a large commercial fleet. Can't blame the sharks for biting back every once in a while. . . while they still can.

Source: MailOnline
Source: Lone Star Outdoor News

Monday, April 9, 2012

Puget Sound Orca Fatality: Canadian naval exercises may be a root cause

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is conducting an investigation into the death of an Orca, aka Killer Whale, that was found bruised and bleeding on a Washington state shoreline in early February. Test are being conducted to determine the exact cause of death but one likely candidate, according to several whale conservation groups, is Canadian naval war games - including the use of underwater sonar - that took place nearby just a few days prior to the orca washing ashore at Puget Sound.

As reported by the QMI Agency for Canada's, Brian Gorman of NOAA said,
"We take really seriously any kind of injury, or certainly death, in the population, as there are so few animals. They don't interbreed to any great if you lose one or two animals, it's a serious threat to the overall health of the population."

The dead orca was a member of a pod of endangered orcas that ply the waters between Washington state and British Columbia. The pod consists of only 90 whales and are protected by the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act - at least when they are in US waters.

According to the Center for Whale Research, the pod was spotted soon after the Canadian naval exercise began in waters much further south than normal for these whales. Something was driving them southward.

"HMCS Ottawa [the frigate involved in the exercise] used its sonar system in critical habitat of the endangered southern resident killer whales," the Center for Whale Research said. "The unprecedented appearance of these whales in these waters...suggests that southern residents were present in the area — and may have been significantly affected by the exercise."

Canada has implemented tighter restrictions regarding proximity of whale watching boats and other vessels, limiting them to a distance of 200 meters from any sighted orcas. However, the new regulations do not apply to Canadian military vessels.

Although US naval activities are often a source of controversy, particularly with regards to powerful underwater sonar, Gorman noted that US navy vessels have an established protocol.
"There are, however, arrangements we have with our navy about making sure that when they are conducting activities that could cause a problem with marine mammals that they post a lookout and not conduct these activities when marine mammals are present within a certain distance."


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Smartphones and Sharks: video game technology is aiding shark research

There you are, smartphone in hand, ready to engage in supersonic aerial combat. Or for more exercise, you stand in front of your television, clenching your game controller tightly, ready to play world-class tennis - game, set, match.

Many of today's video games are aided by the use of accelerometers - electronic sensors that can recognize motion in a multitude of directions. Accelerometers have worked their way from aerospace and high-tech machinery applications to today's consumer electronics.

And now they are adding another dimension to the study of sharks.

At the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, Dr. Nick Whitney, head of Mote's Behavioral Ecology and Physiology Program, has been utilizing accelerometers in shark tags to advance the study of shark movements.

"These accelerometer tags use the same technology found in iPhone[s] and Wii. It can actually tell us what an animal is physically doing, what their body movements are and what their body posture is," said Whitney.

Correlating the data on shark movements with laboratory studies on oxygen consumption, Whitney is better able to make estimations of shark behavior, such as during mating or, in particular, during catch-and-release situations. Whether when promoting catch-and-release to sportfishermen or when catching sharks for scientific tagging and then releasing the shark, the extant to which a shark may be traumatized during the catch and how quickly it recovers is of great importance.

Whitney questioned,
"Do they swim off strongly, doing great? Or does it take them a while to recover?"

There are a wide range of telemetry tags used in shark research. Some are designed for regional behavior, monitoring a shark's depth, speed, and even internal body temperature. With a limited transmitting range, these tags are ideal for monitoring sharks within a shorter range of less than a mile. Dr. Peter Klimley at UC Davis as become one of the acknowledged masters of the art of regional telemetry tags and I have seen them used extensively with the white sharks at Isla Guadalupe, Baja.

However, many sharks species are long-distance travelers and this is where "spot" or satellite tags are preferable. These more sophisticated tags record data for much longer periods of time, periodically downloading their data to satellite networks that surround the planet. Dr. Barbara Block, director of the TOPP Program (Tagging of Pelagic Predators), and Dr. Michael Domeier seen in National Geographic's Expedition: Great White series, often make use of these types of tags, as do many other researchers for a variety of migratory shark species.

With accelerometer tags, scientists like Dr. Whitney can get a glimpse of more than where a shark is, but how it's "feeling" as body movements can be correlated to its respiratory functions and overall metabolism at a given moment.

Whitney will be soon starting a research study on blacktip sharks utilizing the accelerometer tags. I can't wait for the video game version to come out for my iPhone.

Source: Bay News 9
Source: Mote Marine Laboratory

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dolphin Strandings in Peru: up to 600 lost, but some were rescued

On the northern coast of Peru there has recently been a series of dolphin strandings that have left researchers baffled as to the cause. As many as 600 dolphins have been reported as fatally stranded on Peruvian beaches and, to date, the possible cause for these fatalities has ranged from disease or pollution to poisoning from food, spilled oil, or red tide algae to naval sonar interference.

As tragic as it is in its totality, there was one momentary bright spot. A group of dolphins beached themselves but were apparently rescued by people on the beach. My friend Stan McClain of Filmtools in Burbank, CA, sent me a link to the video below that was originally posted by El Comercio, a Peruvian online new website. I could not find any additional information on this incident, but it at least represents a ray of hope when these unfortunate strandings occur.

What I found interesting with this video is that the approach of the dolphins was capture on video. So, often in news clips we simply see the animals already beached, but here you seem them actually beaching themselves. And then the beachgoers got to work on what was, hopefully, a happy ending.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Status on U.S. Shark Conservation: Juliet Eilperin identifies some of the heroes and villians

Washington Post environmental writer Juliet Eilperin wrote another great article on Sunday, sizing up the current situation with shark fin ban legislation in the United States.

As I have often mentioned in previous posts, shark conservation is moving beyond as an emotional issue - the moral indignation over shark finning does not play into it now as much as economics and cultural politics does. And Juliet deftly lays out some of the key players, pro and con, regarding growing debate over shark fin ban legislation in several east coast states.

I'll let you read it to get all the details, but I'll throw in two comments that I have - one is a concern and the other is a positive note.

Commercial fishermen are pressuring politicians to interject loopholes into proposed legislation. And one common proposal is allowing the landing of whole sharks. Once thought of as a way to dissuade fishermen from taking sharks because of the value difference per pound between a whole shark and just its fins, I am now concerned that, with several species, even the taking of whole sharks may prove to be one shark too many. The populations of some sharks is that perilous.

However, on a more positive note, while restaurateurs resort to accusations of "Asia-bashing" to drum up opposition to any and all proposed legislation, at least one Asian voice sounded a momentary voice of reason. Says Juliet, "Peter How,
president of the Asian American Restaurant Association, estimated shark’s fin soup constitutes between 2 and 3 percent of his members’ sales. 'Nevertheless, the shark’s fin soup can be replaced by dishes with other ingredients or substitutes out of environmental concern,' How wrote in an e-mail. 'It is just a matter of time for a full transition. After all, our culture has been changing along with the history for social needs.'”

Persuasive arguments that address the economic, political, and cultural realities of the commercial shark market, coming from rational but persistent voices in support of shark conservation - that's the ticket. Get a good perspective as to where we're at from Juliet's article in the Washington Post.

Source: The Washington Post

Monday, April 2, 2012

Coral Reefs: struggling with more than just climate change

Marine scientists have been studying the negative impact of rising sea temperatures on coral for some time. Coral reefs have been diminishing, in part due to increases in water temperature which destroys the algae that symbiotically lives inside coral tissues. The loss of algae produces coral bleaching, a weakened coral community; and a totally dead reef is often the final outcome.

However, new research by Scripps Institution of Oceanography shows long term effects on Caribbean coral reefs dating back to the 1800s due to silt runoff and other terrestrial pollutants and overfishing - man-made impacts brought on by development of the islands throughout the Caribbean.

According to Scripps alumna Katie Cramer, now with the IUCN's Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network,
“This study is the first to quantitatively show that the cumulative effects of deforestation and possibly overfishing were degrading Caribbean coral and molluscan communities long before climate change impacts began to really devastate reefs."

Working off the coast of Panama, the researchers dug deep into several coral reefs to determine, using radio carbon dating and analysis of coral skeleton remnants, the types of corals that were growing as far back as the turn of the century. With coastal land being cleared for plantations, the resulting silt and other sediments that ran into the sea, combined with the heavy fishing taking place to feed a growing population, took its toll on the surrounding reefs.

One of the significant discoveries was evidence of a shift or transition from branching corals, like staghorn coral, to more non-branching corals in response to changing environmental conditions. Non-branching corals, which are slower growing than branching corals, provide less habitat for many reef creatures and fish. With less algae-eating fish, coral reefs can be locked in a constant struggle for space with fast-growing algae. This can make the reefs more susceptible to the growing effects of climate change.

“Because the governments of the world have yet to undertake any meaningful efforts to mitigate climate change, it is of the utmost importance that locally caused stressors to reefs such as overfishing and deforestation are minimized,” said Cramer. “Advocating for more intelligent use of land as well as implementing sustainable fisheries management, those are things that can be done right now.”

Interestingly, while Scripps' research shows that coral has been impacted by other environmental factors long before climate change became an issue, researchers from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO) and the University of British Columbia, writing in the PLoS ONE journal, have determined that some coral reefs might be able to better sustain an increase in temperature. Studying reef environments in the central Pacific, in particular the island nation of Kiribati, the researchers examined the coral skeletons and fat issues of corals in various areas and found that coral reefs that experienced greater temperature variance naturally have a greater potential for surviving the possible effects of climate change. The more consistent the temperature for a particular reef environment, the more adversely susceptible it might be to a change in temperature.

"We're starting to identify the types of reef environments where corals are more likely to persist in the future," said Simon Donner of UBC and a co-author of the study. "The new data is critical for predicting the future for coral reefs, and for planning how society will cope in that future."

As an example, Kiribati is located in an area of the Pacific that can be hit with seasonal El Nino-induced heat waves and has a potential for weathering temperature changes, whereas Australia's Great Barrier Reef exists in a more uniform temperature range and therefore could be more negatively impacted.

All this research points to the fact that coral reef environments will change and adjust as conditions change. Some corals will remain pretty much the same, while in other areas there can be transitions from one dominant species to another. Nature will do what it has to to try to survive in an ever-changing future. But what those changes are, what that future might be, as compared to the coral reef environments of years past - with abundant fish and animal life - is anyone's guess. And what it means to mankind in terms of a continuing resource for food, a barrier to stormy weather, or a contributor to healthy ocean water quality is at question.

Source: Summit County Voice
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