Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ocean Endurance Champions: Palfrey and Nyad take on the Cuba-to-Florida swim

In July of last year, I was honored to join the team supporting Diana Nyad as she prepared to make her open ocean endurance swim from Havana, Cuba to the Florida Keys, a distance of around 103 miles.  Working with the shark watch crew, headed up by my friend Luke Tipple, I saw firsthand what is involved in this type of long distance swimming and what kind of toll it takes on the human body.  Diana did not complete the distance, primarily due to an unexpected asthma attack possibly brought on by some pain medication that was not her usual Tylenol-type, but her effort was a moving tribute to the determination of the human spirit.

Diana was preparing to make the attempt again this summer and she had enlisted Luke once again to organize a shark team.  A film production he was working on had to extend its shooting schedule, so Luke was forced to bow out.  Diana contacted me to see if I was available to take Luke's place but I was beginning work on the second season of Lifeguard! for the Weather Channel and that would keep me fairly busy through the summer.  Fortunately, Diana was able to assemble a team that I'm sure will do a great job in keeping an eye out for any curious sharks that may approach.

I was then surprised to hear the news this past Friday that Penny Palfrey had started  a similar swim.  This is not exactly the kind of sport that has participants lined up one after another, so I was caught a bit off guard, although I am sure Diana Nyad's team had been monitoring Penny's preparation for months.

Penny had received some unfair press last year following a 67-mile swim in the Caribbean, when it was erroneously reported that three sharks which had approached were summarily killed.  When the facts were eventually all sorted out, I blogged about some of the harsh treatment she received.  It was unfortunate that her accomplishment was overshadowed by some sensationalistic headlines but by the time it was all straightened out the press had moved on to the next news cycle.

Right now (Saturday evening), Penny is over the halfway mark and apparently doing well despite some sea jelly stings and a couple of curious hammerhead sharks.  Hammerhead sharks can be attracted to all the commotion of the swimmer and the accompanying flotilla of boats and kayaks, but they are also very skittish.  Of greater concern would be an oceanic white tip or a tiger shark on the prowl.  Fortunately for Penny - and unfortunately for the oceanic white tip - their numbers are not what they used to be, so encounters, while possible, are somewhat unlikely.  Sea jelly stings, dehydration, and rough seas are issues of greater concern.

Should Diana Nyad, who is watching for her ideal weather window, begin her attempt in the next few days or weeks, there is another concern: how the press will perceive this record-breaking distance, a distance that has stood more as a barrier to all who considered it.  Should both Penny and Diana succeed in their attempts, will the level of difficulty actually be diminished in the eyes of the press?  After all, the first moon landing was considered daring and dangerous, but by the third or fourth landings it was considered ho-hum and routine.

Hopefully, the press will recognize the distinguishing characteristics of these two swim events.  If Penny Palfrey succeeds, she should receive all the attention due for being the first. (Note: It has been done once before but with the use of a shark cage which not only protects the swimmer but also has the effect of calming the water.  Most swimmers today consider that an unfair advantage.)  If all goes well, she could arrive at the Florida shoreline early Sunday.

If Diana also succeeds in her upcoming attempt, it should be noteworthy because she is older than Penny.  Diana is 63 and returned to endurance swimming after a 30-year break from a career where she was considered the dominant female force in the sport.  Penny is 49 years old and has been consistently active.  Diana had attempted the Cuba-to-Florida swim earlier in her career and it has been a goal that she has set herself to accomplish once and for all.

So there is drama on several different levels taking place in the warm waters of the Caribbean.  A little rivalry between top-notch professionals, the impact of age, and for both swimmers there is the challenge of one of the most difficult swims ever attempted.  Nature throws out some tough roadblocks in the form of ocean conditions and currents, stinging sea jellies, sharks, and what limitations the human body must overcome.  Hopefully, these elements will not be lost on the press.  Ho-hum, indeed. 

Source: San Francisco Chronicle 

Post Script:  Just as I posted this story, I saw the headline that Penny Palfrey has stopped short of completing her swim.  After 40 hours in the water, she completed over 86 miles but a strong cross current made the possibility of her finishing unlikely.  Congratulations to Penny on one helluva of a swim.  Well, Diana.  You're up.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Navy Target Practice: groups object to contaminated sunken ships

Around the globe, artificial reefs are being established by preparing and sinking ships that have surpassed their useful life at sea.  Decommissioned and potentially headed for the scrapyard, as artificial reefs, these vessels serve several purposes.  As an artificial reef, they can offset some of the natural reef that has been lost to coral bleaching or due to pollution from shoreline development.  They also serve as attractions for dive tourism and can, in some cases, reduce "diver pressure" on natural reefs by luring divers to dive on the sunken ship rather than the actual reef itself.

These artificial reefs have been the result of extensive effort by various organizations to procure and prepare these vessels so that they are not only diver-safe but, most importantly, environmentally safe.  They are thoroughly cleaned of any material, residue, or chemicals that could contaminate the marine ecosystem where they are placed.

Unfortunately, not all vessels end up in the scrapyard or as artificial reefs.  The U.S. Navy, through a warfare practice exercise called SINKEX (sinking exercise), has used old inactive naval vessels for target practice and the activity has raised the ire of ocean conservation groups to the extant that several groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and the Basel Action Network (BAN), have filed a complaint with the Navy and the EPA in the hopes of stopping another planned exercise this summer, north of Hawaii.  The main issue: the vessels are not decontaminated and pose a significant hazard to the oceans; they are simply treated as "out of sight, out of mind."

The Center for Biological Diversity issued a press release today that highlights the primary concerns.  It included:
"Based on documentation of known contaminants found in more than 100 ships sunk by the Navy over the past 12 years, the ships are contaminated with toxic heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Sinking — instead of recycling — these ships will send toxic chemicals into the marine environment and needlessly deprive the U.S. ship recycling industry of both resources and jobs.

'PCBs have been banned globally because they're some of the most dangerous pollutants around,' said Emily Jeffers of the Center for Biological Diversity. 'They leach from sunken ships into the ocean and accumulate in the bodies of fish, dolphins and whales. Our oceans should never be used as a dump for poison.'

The EPA and Navy admit that highly toxic chemicals are released into the marine environment as a result of SINKEX, including asbestos, lead paint, antifouling paint containing tributyltin (TBT), polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBDEs) and PCBs, a suspected carcinogen that has been targeted for global phaseout and destruction under the Stockholm Convention. However, the EPA and Navy seem unwilling to consider the new scientific findings presented by the coalition that show the amount of PCBs and other pollutants from the scuttled ships is far greater than EPA believed when it exempted SINKEX from ocean-dumping laws. Instead the EPA asked a federal judge to dismiss the complaint on procedural grounds — a request that was denied last week.

'The sinking of these vessels directly contradicts President Obama’s directives calling on federal agencies to lead by example in recycling and ocean stewardship. The pristine waters north of the island of Kauai have already become a graveyard for more than a dozen ships containing untold tons of pollutants. These sinkings must stop! This is not ocean stewardship, nor is it the action of a 'Great Green Fleet,' ' said Robert Harris of the Sierra Club in Hawaii.

I for one am not opposed to the target practice exercise per se, as long as the vessels have been properly scrubbed.  If that is not economically feasible for the Navy, then the ships should be scrapped - a more environmentally sound move that also supports the scrapyards, a private industry that is need of work in these difficult economic times.  For the EPA to give the Navy a pass on decontaminating the ships and dispatching them to the bottom of the sea is unacceptable and smacks of the same short-sighted thinking that went into the concept of dumping nuclear waste at sea.  No, the ocean isn't that big that nobody or no marine life will notice.

To add the voices of the general public to this issue, the Center for Biological Diversity has a petition available for signing.  Also, the latest legal complaint can be read here.

Source: Center for Biological Diversity

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Shark Week: annual event reaches the quarter century mark

Once again, it's that time of year.  No, not the seasonal dusting off of your flip flops or scrounging around for those beach chairs and umbrella.  No, it's that annual ritual known as Shark Week.  Discovery Communications has launched its press kit for the series slated for August and the news outlets are eating it up like a ravenous you-know-what.

This season marks the 25th airing of the week-long slate of shows.  Imagine, an entire quarter century of shark-related programming.  That is a testament to the enduring fascination that people have with sharks, a fascination that has kept the series continually profitable for Discovery Communications.  And it would appear there's no end in sight.

Discovery has endured much criticism from shark advocates over many, if not most, of the programs produced over the years.  And there is no getting around it: many of the shows have played on the audience's fear of sharks, focusing on shark attacks and perpetuating certain myths or half-truths.  And why is that?  Quite simply, because television is a business and Discovery shrewdly knows who their core audience is, who it is that helps to support the advertising fees that the network charges.  And it's not the shark advocates - they only make up a very small portion of the 30+ million viewers who tune in each year.  In fact, I contend that the more the critics complain, the more Discovery knows they are appealing to their most profitable audience.

The slate of programs for this year is an interestingly mixed bag.  Some, like Shark Week's 25 Best Bites or Sharkzilla are designed to stimulate the fear factor, while others seem to be geared towards content a bit more substantial - exciting entertainment mixed with some historical or scientific  information.  As I reviewed the lineup with a somewhat cynical eye, I actually found myself intrigued with several of the programs on tap.  

As listed by Entertainment Weekly:
How Jaws Changed the World  “From the importance of music scores to special effects, from natural history to human behavior — careers were made and lives were altered with the feature film. Meet the people impacted by a single shark that changed the world.”
Shark Fight  Not what you think! This special actually focuses on shark-attack survivors who’ve become shark advocates and fight to save them.
Great White Highway  In partnership with Discovery, Dr. Barbara Block, professor of marine sciences at Stanford University, has developed new tagging technology that allows her to track great whites in real-time. “They can track where the sharks are migrating, where they are meeting and possibly mating, and maybe eventually where they go to give birth — something that continues to elude scientists.”

In co-production with the BBC, Discovery Communications has presented some amazing programs like Blue Planet or Frozen Planet.  However, with attention-deficient audiences willingly tuning in to low-budget, contrived reality shows of the lowest common denominator, the Discovery Channel - as well as other channels like National Geographic or Animal Planet - will stick primarily with programming that excites viewers, keeps advertisers happy, and continues to infuriate those who remember when nature programs were truly educational.  It's a business.  It's economics.  

Perhaps the future for educational media lies outside of the advertiser-broadcaster revenue model.  Educational filmmakers will need to investigate the full potential of online or mobile media formats.  So, break out the popcorn for Shark Week and maybe save your thinking cap for your iPad.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Alaska's Lake Monster?: a large shark moving into fresh water could be answer

Big Foot.  Nessie.  Many regions of the world have there local monster animal legends.  Persistent folklore often invites the curiosity of scientists who wish to determine once and for all what is fact and what is fiction.  They do so because of the belief that where there's smoke there just might be fire.

In Alaska, at Lake Lliamna, there were rumors of a monster lurking about in the dark cold water. Scientists had debated the possibility that a Pacific sleeper shark, or sharks, had entered the lake. There had been anecdotal sightings of what could possibly have been a sleeper shark but there has not been any definitive, scientific proof.

This past Wednesday, a reported sighting of a sleeper shark in a similar, nearby lake has added some additional weight to the theory.  As reported in the Alaska Dispatch, "Chris Babcock of King Cove, Alaska, spotted something in the shallow water of the King Cove Lagoon, a lake of brackish water. Closer inspection revealed a Pacific sleeper shark rolling and thrashing around. The shark's antics were filmed and posted on YouTube (see video below)According to Babcock, the fish approached him when he entered shallow water, but later moved to deeper water." 

The shark's behavior was considered a bit unusual - but perhaps not.  That is to say, there is a lot that marine experts don't know about these sharks.  They can reach a length of 20 feet and weigh upwards of 4 tons.  That's a big shark by any standard.  In addition to being predators, they are thought to be major scavengers, clearing the ocean bottom of dead animals as they sink into the cold depths, but sleeper sharks caught accidentally in nets have also been found to have other freshwater fish including salmon in their stomachs.  Hence, the possibility that sleeper sharks are able to venture into freshwater or brackish lakes, perhaps drawn in by the opportunity to feed on large freshwater fish.

But how long can they survive in freshwater?  Is there a pattern or migratory cycle to their appearances in lakes?  Is it seasonal, based on weather or temperature changes, or are they following the migratory or breeding patterns of other prey species?  Scientists like Bruce Wright of the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association would like to answer those questions by tagging and tracking sleeper sharks, as is done with other shark species worldwide.

Some marine scientists think that sleeper sharks could become a major predator in Arctic waters due to climate change.  With warmer water temperatures melting greater amounts of sea ice, animals like seals and polar bears are spending more time in water.  Some caught sleeper sharks have been found to have seal and even polar bear remains inside, so this slow-moving predator - that catches its prey with a strong vacuum motion of its large mouth, biting with its teeth to get down what it couldn't swallow whole - could have an impact of the balance in the Arctic ecosystem.

Is the Pacific sleeper shark the "lake monster" of Alaskan folklore?  Seems reasonable enough.  The closely-related Greenland shark has been put forth as a candidate for Scotland's Loch Ness resident sea monster, so perhaps someday we will have definitive proof that monsters do exist.  They just might end up a bit tamer than our imaginations have conjured up over the years.

Source: Alaska Dispatch

Thursday, June 21, 2012

World Conservation's Hinge Pin: science group reminds UN of crucial but unspoken issue

Just prior to the start of the United Nations' Rio+20 conference, which concludes this week, one organization boldly reminded the conference's participating nations of the 800-pound gorilla in the room that threatens all areas of environmental and sociological concern: population and consumption.

The IAP, a group consisting of 105 science academies from around the world, issued a position paper and press release warning of the growing threat from population growth (now on its way to 7 billion) and the damaged caused by the consumption of natural resources to meet the demands of that world populace.

"For too long the dual issues of population and consumption have been left off the table due to political and ethical sensitivities.  These are issues that affect us all, developed and developing nations alike, and we must take responsibility for them together.  Policymakers have an extraordinary opportunity to seize the initiative at the international summit in Rio and we hope that they will choose to take the sound, evidence-based advice of their own academies of science as they make decisions that will affect the future of the planet," said Professors Howard Alper and Mohamed Hassan, co-chairs of IAP.

As an ocean advocate, I press the issue of ocean conservation as the ocean plays a fundamental role in the health of the entire planet.  Lose the oceans and we lose it all; game over.  But the reality is that what threatens the oceans, all the activities that mankind exercise which puts the environment at risk, all stem from one critical issue, one that we choose to dance around and not address.  Nature has it's methods to balance the populations of various species, but humans seem to be in a different category; immune to nature's efforts and content to simply use up earth's limited natural resources - land, water, and air - to sustain itself.  

IAP recognizes the delicate nature of the problem.  China's approach to population control has been seen as draconian and smacks of some bleak Orwellian future.  Some conservationists have suggested that the problem will actually correct itself - unfortunately the solution is through mass famine and starvation mixed with civil upheaval and war.  We'll simply begin to kill ourselves off until a sustainable population is reached.

Taking a less dire approach, the IAP has made a series of recommendations to the Rio+20 participants:

  • Consideration of population and consumption in all policies, including those related to poverty reduction and economic development, global governance, education, health, gender equality, biodiversity and the environment
  • Reduction of levels of damaging types of consumption and the development of more sustainable alternatives, with action critically needed in higher–income countries
  • Encouragement of development strategies that help reduce population growth, in particular those that promote education to women and girls
  • Provision of access to comprehensive reproductive health and family planning programmes for all.  This issue requires substantial additional resources and policy attention from governments and international donors
  • A global shift to a new, green economy through the reduction of levels of damaging types of consumption and the development of more sustainable alternatives
  • Development of policies that improve the quality of life of older people and create new opportunities for their continued contribution to society
  • Development of urban planning policies that take into account future consumption and demographic trends 
While the results from these international conferences can often be measured and progress can be frustratingly slow, hopefully the Rio+20 conference seriously consider the importance and magnitude of the population and consumption issue and begin to take responsible and humane steps to change the current course mankind is traveling - a path that certainly does not lead us to the promised land.

Source: IAP

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Defining Shark Finning: scientist champions complete shark fishery management

This past Monday, David Shiffman, who goes by the nom de plume "WhySharksMatter" on the blog Country Fried Science, posted an interesting scientific perspective on the issue of shark finning.  Concerned with how some shark advocates view the various facets of commercial shark fishing by lumping them all together as one big inhumane practice, David set about defining what is and is not shark finning.

Shark finning, specifically, is when a shark is caught, its fins cut off and the remaining live animal is discarded and thrown overboard to drown.  This is the inhumane and wasteful practice that has so many shark supporters fuming.

However, David wants to point out that if the shark is caught, finned, and the carcass kept on board, that does not necessarily constitute shark finning in the "classic" sense. And if the shark is caught and the fins are retained, with the idea that it will be processed further onshore, that does not fall under the heading of shark finning.

Three different commercial fishing techniques with different levels of waste and economic allure (a boat full of only fins brings in much more for its catch than a boat whose hull is full of whole shark carcasses).

David makes these distinctions because, as a scientist, he is concerned with the movement underway to pass shark fin prohibition legislation, as has been done in Hawaii and along the west coast of the U.S. with more states following suit.  It is viewed by some as perhaps a myopic approach to the problem of shark conservation and David supports a more comprehensive approach that includes shark fishery management including science-based quotas, selective species, and proper monitoring and enforcement.

I can understand his point of view in that shark fin bans do not address the whole range of issues regarding shark conservation.  In fact, this "silver bullet" approach - one that is often taken by societies because it can appear to be an easy fix - can often prove to be potentially counter-productive as it can be that once the legislation is passed, people falsely begin to believe the problem is now solved.  No more problem, we just banned it.

Shark conservation, like many other ocean conservation problems, is multi-faceted.  And it is governed by market demand (which fin bans do not address), scientific data, and commercial or economic interests (which can sometimes undermine the power and merit of the science-based positions).  However, while shark fin bans may not be the answer unto themselves, they can be a strong galvanizing component in a series of measures that constitute a complete shark fishery management policy.  That is, if you believe that sustainable management of today's populations of commercially-viable species is possible.  I, for one, have my doubts.

I take the position that commercial shark species have been sufficiently over fished to the point where the possibility of exercising sustainable catch levels no longer exists.  At best, moratoriums hold the faint chance that at some later date, many years down the road, a very limited shark fishery could perhaps be maintained.  I have always heeded the advice of Dr. Sylvia Earle wherein she sees eating fish, any fish, taken wild from the ocean amounts to eating "bushmeat."  Long ago, society realized that hunting had to be replaced with raising cattle and poultry to meet our needs; hunters and gatherers became farmers.  And from that historical perspective I have come to view sustainable seafood with a measure of skepticism.  It is like putting your finger in the dike to stop the leak, but someday the water will eventually reach the top and spill over.

If, according to David, shark advocates who promote shark fin bans are being a bit naive, I am perhaps guilty of being the same when it comes to my belief that aquafarming will ultimately be the answer.  Aquafarming, whether taking place on land or at sea, is currently fraught with problems ranging from pollution from concentrated fish waste and pharmaceuticals to unappealing cost-per-pound ratios (how much fish food is required to produce a pound of saleable fish).  It's the dreamer in me that says, if we can shift dollars from subsidizing or supporting a commercial fishing industry that is ultimately doomed to collapse and put those monies into addressing the challenges to developing safe and cost-efficient aquafarming, then perhaps sharks and a whole host of other marine species may have a fighting chance at survival.

David Shiffman's post is an interesting read and I recommend you take a look at it.  He presents the information as a primer followed by a brief quiz as to what constitutes finning based on a series of photos.  The string of comments that follow his post are also worth reading.  While shark fin prohibition legislation may rally the troops under an easy-to-support banner, it is not the definitive answer.  However, I believe that all other measures, while having some positive effect on the problem, will ultimately be outweighed by the basic reality that to meet the needs of a growing worldwide population, mankind will need to raise its seafood like it does its fruits, vegetables, beef, and poultry. 

Source: Country Fried Science

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Stingray Studies in Spain: film shows challenges today for research

Today's world is a challenging one for ocean conservation.  On top of all the competing or opposing interests and the need to better communicate the importance of ocean conservation to the general public, we have the crushing burden of limited finances due to struggling and fragile economies.

Obviously, the worldwide economic downturn has rained havoc on many industries and the lives of many people have been turned upside down.  Therefore, charitable donations are down significantly and government or private foundation funding has been severely cut back.

David Diley of From the Office to the Ocean has produced a short film, A Ray of Light, that highlights this predicament. In Spain, one of the Eurozone nations currently being racked by economic problems, in the island of Mallorca, a small scuba diving operator, Brad Robertson has taken it upon himself to study a large population of stingrays that seem to frequent the area.  

Do they do so because of some sort of ideal habitat?  Are they there for breeding?  Is the feeding particularly good?  These are questions he hopes to answer.  He is taking it on himself because there is no government interest (ie: funding) and these rays are exposed to local fishermen, even in supposedly protected areas.

A Ray of Light from David Diley on Vimeo.

The Mediterranean has suffered terribly over the years - tuna and shark populations, as an example, have been decimated - to the extant that Jacque Yves Cousteau once declared the Mediterranean as un-salvageable.  In the mid-80's I was working on a film, Navy Seals, in Spain and while diving in the Mediterranean I was completely taken aback by how desolate it was.  No fish, no seaweeds, nothing save for one seastar grazing on algae.

However, there are little pockets of hope and Brad Peterson is hoping to understand and protect one of them, the stingrays in Mallorca, as it benefits not only the local ecosystem but also helps support dive tourism when there is any improvement in marine life.

These are challenging times for ocean conservation.  In a recent tweet, Dr. Sylvia Earle said, "It is the worst of times but it is the best of times because we still have a chance."  David Diley wants us to see what people like Brad Robertson are actively doing to preserve the oceans even at a time when ocean conservation would seem to be low on a list of world priorities. 

Source: From the Office to the Ocean

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Australia Proposes Largest Marine Reserve: sets an example for upcoming UN summit

As a precursor of hoped for positive attitudes and actions at the upcoming United nations-sponsored Rio+20 Earth Summit conference to be held later this month in Rio De Janeiro, Australia has announced plans for what would be the world's largest marine reserve.  Actually consisting of a network of marine reserves that encircle the entire country, the proposed reserve will cover 1.9 million square miles.

The new reserve had its genesis in a proposal in the fall of 2011 to establish an expansive marine reserve and no-take zone in the Coral Sea, over 615,000 square miles from the Great Barrier Reef to hundreds of miles offshore.  With the new proposal, Australia expands its current number of marine reserves from 27 to 60.

According to Australia's Environment Minister Tony Burke, "It's time for the world to turn a corner on protection of our oceans.  What we've done is effectively create a national parks estate in the ocean."
With the new marine reserve in place, there will be more restricted commercial fishing in many areas and the Australian government is planning to compensate the commercial fishing industry to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.  Still, there are many activists who are displeased with the proposal as they feel there are several important areas still left open to commercial fishing and oil drilling, particularly in Western Australia.

However, despite whatever shortcomings that may exists with the proposed marine reserve, it must be commended because it not only represents the largest marine reserve (the current largest is the 210,450 square miles Chagos Islands reserve in the Indian Ocean).  The Australian marine reserve also represents a major developed nation choosing to ambitiously protect its entire coastline - a commitment from which other developed nations should take notice.  While protecting large remote areas of the ocean is important, it is also critically important that nations look closely to their own shores where so much potentially destructive commercial activity can be taking place.

Kudos to the Australian government for setting an example for other nations to follow at Rio+20 and all future ocean conservation conferences and political summits.

Source: BBC News Asia

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Man Evolved From Sharks!: media's hype drawn from new research

There is a new headline that is racing across the online media outlets like a Colorado forest fire: Man evolved from sharks!  Imagine the sensationalistic irony that when an unfortunate swimmer or surfer encounters a hungry shark, it is simply a case of communing with a long lost relative; some perverse form of cannibalism.

Now the facts: researchers at the University of Chicago, with funding from the National Science Foundation and published in the latest issue of Nature, have determined that one of the oldest - if not the - oldest species of fish, from which bony fish and cartilaginous fish branched off, was more similar to primitive sharks.  Vertebrates, including man, grew from that initial bony fish branch of the evolutionary tree, therefore you get today's attention-grabbing headline.

Studying what few fossil fragments exist of Acanthodes bronni, which lived over 250 million years ago, the researchers were able to determine that the brain case of this early jawed fish was more shark-like.

Professor Michael Coates, a biologist at the University of Chicago, said: "Unexpectedly, Acanthodes turns out to be the best view we have of conditions in the last common ancestor of bony fishes and sharks.  Our work is telling us the earliest bony fishes looked pretty much like sharks, and not vice versa. What we might think of as shark space is, in fact, general modern jawed vertebrate space.  For the first time, we could look inside the head of Acanthodes, and describe it within this whole new context. The more we looked at it, the more similarities we found with sharks."

For fans and diehards, like myself, of evolutionary theory, this is fascinating work in that it moves around one more puzzle piece in this enormously complex process that lead from single-cell organisms to dinosaurs, elephants, and man.  And for those who prefer a more religious-based idea of creation, I contend that the sheer complexity of the evolutionary process is evidence of a greater power.  That we have yet to have all the pieces so as to fully comprehend evolution - a process so complex with mutations, right and left turns, leaps and dead ends as to make the X-Men blush with envy - from start to finish is not grounds to dismiss it as fact.  But I digress.

And so the media is having a field day making the same kind of leap-frog assumption that was branded on Charles Darwin with the first publication of the Origin of the Species.  "Man came from monkeys" is now being modified to "Man comes from sharks," the only difference being that the former was meant to ridicule the scientific theory behind Darwin's work whereas today's headline is meant to grab the reader in an attention-deficient age, perhaps with a little chuckle under our breath.  Sigh. . .

Paleontologists study evolution - this vast, incredibly complex process of biological progress - to better understand the world of today.  It is the foundation from which grew all of the present intricate and inter-related ecosystems.  By deciphering the past, we better understand the present and can best protect the future.

And the next time I'm in the water with a great white, I'll look close to see if it resembles my Uncle Ed.

Source: The Telegraph
Source: The Daily Mail
Source: Huffington Post UK
Source: Science Daily
Source: Futurity
Source: Mother Nature Network

Monday, June 11, 2012

Gulf of Maine: high rainfall from climate change alters the marine web

The Gulf of Maine runs from between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in eastern Canada, along the coast of Maine in the U.S. and down to the tip of Massachusetts.  It is not only a body of water that houses an important cold water ecosystem but it plays an important role in New England's commercial fishing.

And according to the Bigelow Laboratory for Oceans Sciences and the U.S. Geological Survey, it is changing. . . and not for the better.

A study published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series details how increasing freshwater runoff from seven years of record rainfall has sent a surge of sediment into the Gulf, generating a milky haze that is impacting the growth of phytoplankton which serves as a foundation, an ecological underpinning that is being yanked out from underneath.  Such a change will have repercussions for many years to come.

The reduced levels of phytoplankton (by as much as five-fold), which serves as a food source to larval fish and other small animals, will work its way up the food chain over time impacting a number of important Gulf species like lobster and cod. 

"You can't drop the primary production of an ecosystem by a factor of five and not have an impact on other parts of the marine food web that depend on it," said Dr. Barney Balch, Bigelow senior research scientist and lead author of the study.

In addition to the runoff, the increased river water attributed to the higher rainfall levels has suppressed deep Atlantic waters that normally bring up key nutrients for phytoplankton growth.  The sediment and other organic matter brought into the area reduces the level of light, reducing the microscopic plants' photosynthesis capability.

The final insult to the Gulf comes in the form of reduced salinity due to the incoming freshwater - aiding by incoming freshwater from melting Arctic regions - and a rise in ocean temperatures.  All of which impacts the myriad of relationships between various species that make up the complex ecosystem.

The primary instigator of this change has been identified.  Climate change.  The increases in rainfall in the region are not some anomaly or cyclical pattern but, according to the organizations behind the research, are in line with existing climate change data.  Both nature and mankind will feel the effects of this change.

According to Jake Kritzer, senior scientist and director of spatial management at Boston's Environmental Defense Fund, this study "provides one of the most compelling arguments that systematic climatic and oceanographic changes are fundamentally altering the very basis of the ocean food web, very likely beyond the capacity of assessment models trying to capture dynamics spanning many decades.  Most stock assessment models assume more or less static environmental conditions and demography of the target stocks over the years covered by the assessment. However, more and more we are learning just how tenuous that assumption might be."

In other words, estimating current and future fish populations for the sake of sustainable fishery management could become next to impossible, as an entire marine ecosystem finds itself on shaky ground.

Source: Boston Globe 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sea Jelly Blooms: research studies conflict as whether populations are on the rise

Cause and effect.  Action and opposite reaction.  Probability and outcome.  These are a few of the staples of critical and deductive thinking.  Knowing the cause or the action, we can calculate with varying degrees of probability the effect or outcome.  However, when we are given only the effect or the opposite reaction, then working backwards to determine the cause can be more challenging, just ask any police detective. . . or research scientist.

Take the case of sea jelly blooms.  I have written of these several times before, often dramatically referring to them as invasions, although there is no evidence of any coordinated attack plan on the part of these invertebrates.  But the reasons for the sudden eruptions in populations throughout the world is still a mystery.  Marine scientists have theories but since they live in a world of facts and empirical evidence, they do not promote them as anything more than untested possibilities.  And that's fair.

But for the moment, it appears that the definitive reason behind sea jelly blooms - whether it is due to overfishing of their natural predators, rising ocean temperatures, nutrient pollution or ocean acidification - will continue to remain a mystery.  

Two recently published studies on the subject came to opposite conclusions regarding the hypothesis that sea jelly blooms were increasing in frequency.  One study, published in BioScience, by a group of researchers affiliated with the Global Jellyfish Group examined available data on sea jelly populations.  Citing deficiencies in long-term records and noting that for some species there have been reported declines, the study concluded that a global increase in sea jelly populations could not be substantiated.  The study did not discount the possibility of an increase but felt that there was not sufficient data to scientifically prove it.

On the other hand, a study by researchers from the University of British Columbia and published in Hydrobiologia concludes that "jellyfish populations appear to be increasing in the majority of the world's coastal ecosystems and seas."  The study bases its assertion on the analysis of scientific and anecdotal records of sea jelly blooms from 1950 onward, placing the accounts, geographically, into 45 Large Marine Ecosystems (LME).  By studying each LME, using "fuzzy logic" to balance the reliability of scientific versus casual reports, the researchers were able to determine that 28 LMEs showed trends towards increasing populations, 3 actually showed decreases, and the remainder appeared stable.

So, we find ourselves at a standoff, not yet able to analyze the root cause or causes until the scientific community can agree as to whether the problem actually even exists.  However, as reported by SeaWeb, both studies still view it as an open case.

"As both papers concede, there remain large gaps to be filled in our understanding of jellyfish, their population dynamics, and their roles in marine ecosystems. In a separate letter to Natureone of the co-authors of the paper, Daniel Pauly, along with two colleagues, conclude that, '[W]e are unlikely to reach a consensus in the near future. There is compelling evidence that some jellyfish species pose a risk in particular marine systems, so we believe that precautionary action should be taken now. Efforts could focus on increasing surveillance (currently scanty for jellyfish) and minimizing habitat eutrophication, overfishing and species translocation, all thought to cause jellyfish outbreaks.'”

In the meantime, reports of sea jelly blooms - often ruining commercial fish catches, damaging fish farms, or clogging intake pipes at power plants - continue and the challenge persists for the scientific community to validate whether it is actually happening with greater frequency and to determine the cause so that a possible solution could be proposed.

Otherwise, Joe's Crab Shack could become Joe's Sea Jelly Bistro someday.

Source: SeaWeb

Friday, June 8, 2012

Narwhals: the Arctic's cetacean unicorn

Okay, this week's posts have been a bit serious and long in the tooth, so how about a lighter observation?
The Narwhal - that unicorn of the Arctic seas - what's with the tusk?

Joshua Jones of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography describes the narwhal's tusk as the end result of one tooth which is actually part of a second set of teeth the narwhal has deep below the skin.  The tooth works its way through bone and skin and can reach a length of up to 9 feet.  While typically found in the male, females have been known to have them and, on rare occasions, some males have grown double tusks (see picture, right).

But why the tusk in the first place?

There's no definitive answer but the most common theory is that of social interaction.  Male narwhals have been seen "crossing swords" in narwhal breeding grounds, perhaps to establish a pecking order.  In these clashes, sometimes the tusk can be broken off, kind of a cetacean version of getting your teeth knocked out.  Researchers have seen tusk-less narwhals still fit and healthy which is an indicator that the tusk may not be used as a hunting weapon, like a sawfish's toothy proboscis.

One of nature's truly unique creations, the narwhal's population is relatively stable with polar bears, orcas, and limited hunting by Inuits as their only threats.  But climate change can pose a serious risk as the narwhal is confined to the Arctic by a narrow temperature range within which it survives.  Rising water temperatures can shrink their available habitat and put these remarkable whales at risk.

Source: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ocean Institute: SoCal marine educational center where "Experience is the Teacher"

Experience.  It can be the difference between knowing something and truly understanding something.  For ocean conservation, experience can be the path to appreciation and, ultimately, commitment.  You can read about it or watch it on television, but to actually experience the oceans, to roll up your sleeves and get your hands wet with it - that can be the ultimate eye-opener.

In Southern California's Dana Point coastal community resides an organization dedicated to educating the youth of Orange County through first-hand experience: the Ocean Institute whose motto is "Experience is the Teacher."  Located on the water's edge in Dana Point Harbor Marina, the Ocean Institute is not an entertainment or amusement park, nor is it an aquarium.  It is a full-fledged marine science teaching facility that offers a wide range of one-day to week-long programs for children starting at age 5 right up through college-age students.

The Institute has classrooms and laboratories in addition to a research vessel, the RV Sea Explorer, and two sailing ships including the Pilgrim, a 19th-century brig made famous in Richard Henry Dana's book, "Two Years Before the Mast."  Under the guidance of marine biologists, program participants become students of the ocean involved in educational activities from benthic fish counts to water chemistry analysis to sea floor core sampling and more.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dan Stetson, the Ocean Institute's CEO, who gave me a tour of the facility and talked about its history, its future, and the important role it is taking to trying to awaken science in the minds of students while the nation lags behind many of the other developed nations in the world.

RTSea: What is the genesis of the Ocean Institute?

DS: In 1977, after the harbor was completed, the Orange County Supervisors approved a Joint Powers Agreement (“JPA”) with the OC Board of Education and five Community College Districts. The Orange County Marine Institute was thus formed and a small parcel of land was set aside for marine science education.  Over $20 million was raised to build the Institute’s Ocean Education Center and to acquire its three vessels: the 75’ Research Vessel Sea Explorer, the 118’ schooner Spirit of Dana Point and the 131’ brig Pilgrim. Today, the Institute has approximately 120 employees and 599 volunteers. 

RTSea: What role does the Institute hope to fulfill both within the community and within the broader ocean conservation community? 

DS: Educating America’s next generation of young people about the sea and the importance of protecting it and its inhabitants is at the heart of the Ocean Institute’s mission. Our bold vision is to build a better world through education.  And last year, despite the current economic challenges, more than 115,000 students participated in our national award winning programs.  During these programs the students were scientists, engineers, tall ship sailors and explorers.  They were challenged to develop critical thinking skills that would enable them to grapple with real world dilemmas that do not have easy solutions. We have more than 60 other programs; they embrace all academic disciplines.  I can sum up what we are all about with three words: Inspiration, Education, and Stewardship.

RTSea: In what ways do you feel the Ocean Institute differentiates itself from other marine educational efforts?

DS: At the Ocean Institute, we believe that “Experience is the Teacher”.  As [Dr.] Bob Ballard would say, “Science is a contact sport!” Our immersive educational programs are so much more powerful than passive reading, video or television.  Experience leads to active engagement and appreciation.  Each of our educational programs is designed to elicit thought, to encourage questions and to build understanding. For some students, it is their very first time to see, smell and taste the ocean; for all of them, it is an experience that encourages learning -- in an environment that supports asking questions, exploring, searching for solutions, testing theories. Through our programs students are developing their “4 C’s” of Creativity, Critical thinking, Communication and Collaboration: skills mandatory to be successful in the 21st Century.  

At one time the US led the world in scientific innovation; today that is not the case.  This is not acceptable.  The Organization for Economic Corporation & Development conducted an international student assessment in 2009.  They found that fifteen year-olds in the US rank 17th among peers from 34 countries in science.  Countries ranking above the US include Finland, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, Estonia, Australia, Netherlands.  Only 10% of elementary school students in California regularly receive quality science education; on national science tests, California students scored the lowest, along with students in Arizona, Hawaii and Mississippi .

We believe that our future quality of life – as a country and as a planet - depends on making sure that our children have a strong foundation in science and the critical thinking skills necessary for problem-solving.  Science is fundamental to students’ education.  It teaches an approach to understanding our world which is systematic and specific and yet which holds the potential for great exploration and engagement.  In order for us to maintain economic vitality, to remain an innovative technological leader and to find solutions to current and emerging global challenges, we must have a scientifically literate population.

RTSea: To develop and/or validate your curriculum, what organizations do you work with?

DS: Programs are based on California learning standards so teachers are able to build the trip to the Ocean Institute into their curriculum and supplement instruction with experience.  We work with all local school districts as well as organizations such as Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and others.  And we make sure there is plenty of educational support.  According to a 2012 study by EdSource, the average student to teacher ratio in California is 30 to 1 or greater.  Ocean Institute programs have a student teacher ratio of 12 to 1 or less.  This gives kids a chance to get the guidance they need.    

RTSea: With on-site lab facilities and research vessels, has the Institute been involved in pure research projects, perhaps involving citizen scientists?

DS: The Ocean Institute regularly partners with other organizations and during our programs the students become research scientists. They collect and submit data such as fish counts and plankton studies. In addition, the Institute has the students involved in other research programs. One of our most powerful programs is our Watershed Program sponsored by the Miocean Foundation.

Every year more than 2,000 fifth grade student scientists develop research projects around their watershed. It begins with the teachers doing in-service classes at the Institute during the summer. Teachers prepare their students for a visit to the Institute where they are taught in our laboratories, as well as on-board the Institute’s R/V Sea Explorer. Topics studied include meteorology, internal systems, water chemistry, water cycle, biological assessments, ocean productivity and research techniques. The students develop a hypothesis about their watershed and collect data over the course of the semester. Some of the research may focus how residents of a watershed are careless in such everyday choices as how to wash the car or fertilize the lawn, which ultimately contribute to pollution on our beaches and harm the wildlife that lives along our coastlines.

The Kids’ Conferences in January is the highlight of the program, when the students return to share the results of their studies. Did the data support or refute their hypothesis? What did they learn from this process? The students present their findings to local businesses and public officials, in hopes of encouraging them to be better stewards of our ocean environment. The science conference provides these young people with the opportunity to present the findings of their studies in the program to their peers, with local elected officials and professionals in the field listening in.    

As with all non-profit organizations during these challenging economic times, the Ocean Institute relies almost entirely on donations and volunteers.  The city of Dana Point and the Orange County community have, to date, been able to support the Institute's goals through corporate and private donations and the Institute is about to start construction on a major expansion of its dock that will include more on-the-water teaching stations along with an authentic historic maritime pier.  The Ocean Institute also hosts the Toshiba Tall Ships Festival, the largest gathering of tall ships on the U.S. west coast.

Southern California's Ocean Institute, like the youth-oriented theme of this year's World Ocean's Day cited in yesterday's blog post, recognizes the power of education and the hope it brings for future generations.  Experience is, truly, the greatest teacher - no matter what the age - and perhaps from the shores of Dana Point will come the scientists who will build upon what researchers are discovering today and carry on their work for the benefit of the oceans and the world.

If you live in Southern California, see if your local schools have looked into partnering with the Ocean Institute.  Other non-school youth organizations can also participate in some of the programs and the Institute is open to visitors on the weekends.

Source: Ocean Institute

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

World Oceans Day: an opportunity to celebrate the oceans this Friday

World Oceans Day will return this Friday, June 8th.  Begun in 2002 by The Ocean Project and The World Ocean Network, World Oceans Day has been successful in coordinating the public awareness efforts of hundreds of ocean conservation organizations, zoos and aquariums, schools and local communities.

"A record number of aquariums, zoos, and museums are providing ways on World Oceans Day for their visitors to get inspired and take personal action to help our world's ocean," said Bill Mott, director of The Ocean Project. “World Oceans Day provides an opportunity for people across the country and around the world to celebrate our ocean connections, do more for ocean conservation, and learn more about our ocean!" 

From large scale events, such as WildAid working together with, to local beach cleanups in communities as diverse as Arcata along the northern coast of California to villages in the Marshall islands, there will be a variety of events and activities taking place across the globe that people will be able to participate in person or online.  Check in with any of your favorite ocean conservation groups to see what's scheduled or you can also visit the World Oceans Day website to find out what might be taking place near you.

The theme for this year's World Oceans Day is "Youth: the Next Wave for Change."  That might seem like a catchy slogan for some political election, but it represents a fact supported by public opinion research (Read about The Ocean Project's research conducted via a survey to over 30,000 Americans). The youth have a greater interest and concern than most adults over the health of the oceans, pollution, and climate change.  They also have a higher belief in their ability to address these problems, and their parents recognize that their children often have a greater knowledge as to the ins and outs of these issues.  Adults may chalk it up to naivete or youthful hubris, but let's hope that their enthusiasm never becomes jaded in the face of the enormity or the complexity of the challenges we face.

World Oceans Day coordinator, Alyssa Isakower, said, “The worldwide response has been more enthusiastic than ever. June 8th provides a chance for the world to rally for a generation of ocean advocates who go beyond raising awareness and take real action for ocean protection.”

Public awareness is an important tool in any environmental, social or political movement.  But compared to quantifiable measures like legislation or other policy-making moves, it can seem much less powerful - unless it can be coordinated and unified.  A single voice calling out in the wilderness is not as effective as a chorus of voices.

World Oceans Day tries to bring together as many voices as possible and, in so doing, embolden people to take action and, through their actions, put policy makers on notice that the future health of the oceans is more than just another item on a agenda; it is a critical investment in our future as a species.

Source: World Oceans                           

Monday, June 4, 2012

Tuna Fishing & Sharks: industry group gets tuna companies to oppose shark finning

Organizations that represent the commercial tuna fishing industry have often times been difficult groups to work with when it comes to limiting or curtailing fishing so as to preserve tuna populations that have dwindled to frighteningly low numbers in many parts of the world.  ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna) has been the subject of considerable criticism because of its repeated moves to maintain high catch levels in the face of recommendation after recommendation from scientists and conservation groups to reduce their catch levels significantly.  So, when any tuna organization makes a move that could be considered as truly positive for conservation, it deserves mention.

The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), an organization that works with the tuna industry in improving sustainability through fact-finding research, has taken a step forward on behalf of sharks.

On the ISSF website, it was announced, "This year we asked the tuna industry to take a step toward ending the practice of shark finning, the act of removing a shark’s fin while discarding the carcass at sea. It violates the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation’s (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries as well as several other resolutions adopted by the FAO, other international marine organizations and national governments. It violates our principles too.

Right now, all ISSF Participating Companies have adopted a policy pledging not to do business with vessels that fin. They’re asking vessel owners to adopt the same policy by September of this year."

The ISSF was formed in 2008, bringing together scientists, industry leaders, and other experts in conservation to act as an advisory council to the tuna industry by making recommendations based on the latest evidence.

"ISSF stands for scientific fact-finding to identify best practices and ecologically sustainable solutions, using direct action to compel governments and industry leaders to support that scientific reasoning while advocating for continued improvement in all tuna fisheries. We believe that it is imperative to take a evidence-based approach that puts the focus on the fishery pushing governments and industry to favor more responsible, sustainable practices on the water."

There are 20 participating companies in the foundation including many of the major commercial tuna fishing brands like Starkist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee.  As is often the case with industry-supported groups, positions taken by ISSF can be subject to a degree of skepticism.  After all, their primary goal for advancing the cause of sustainability is, fundamentally, the preservation of their business, and that can adversely affect the objectivity of the "evidence" upon which a position is based.

However, this new policy regarding shark finning seems pretty clear on the face of it.  Now, we need to see if the ISSF can actually deliver on their pledge.  And while they are at it, a bold policy regarding limiting the levels of legally-caught tuna while ensuring that participating companies do not do business with any illegal tuna fishing operations wouldn't be a bad idea.

Source: ISSF