Friday, November 30, 2012

COARE: successful regional ocean conservation group expanding nationally

Even a casual look at the ocean conservation community and one finds that there are hundreds of non-profit organizations, each addressing an issue or issues of concern and applying their best available resources to bring about solutions.

At least that's what you hope for.

COARE (The Center for Ocean Awareness, Research and Education) has in just a few years, gone from being a small regional non-profit in the San Francisco area to an organization that is being recognized nationally.  Under the direction of its founder and executive director, Christopher Chin, COARE has managed to rack up some impressive wins, particularly in its work nationally with politicians and policy makers regarding shark fin legislation.  It is an organization worth looking into when you consider those last minute, end-of-the-year donations.

I tend to put ocean conservation groups into three tiers.  The lower tier is made up of many of the smaller groups, formed by well-intentioned individuals who either lack the resources or the strategy to move themselves beyond the position of supporting troop morale.  Collectively, they can have an impact in keeping a movement fired up at the grass roots level but, for one reason or another, many can't make the transition into the mid-tier.

Mid-tier organizations have worked hard to get to a point where they now are working with the real forces of change: policy makers, government officials, and even cavorting with the "enemy" in the hopes of winning over those political and economic forces that would oppose them.  Mid-tier groups often have to work the hardest of all three tiers, as they try to expand under limited means and sometimes find themselves working alongside top tier groups; and those efforts can further tap their economic resources. 

Top tier groups are the ones with the greatest resources (financial or otherwise), the celebrities, and the clout to be heard.  Their results are very tangible and quantifiable - or they should be if they deserve our dollars in support.

Christopher Chin and his team have worked hard and taken COARE right into that mid-tier level.  It is a challenging place to be, wrestling with the mid-tier pressures of expansion: expanding the organization and expanding the economic base.  However, Christopher sees it as an exciting position to be in and is making plans to carry COARE well beyond a regional entity.

I had the opportunity to interview Christopher about the origins of COARE, what it has accomplished, and where it is going.  You can begin to appreciate the amount of work involved in propelling an ocean conservation group forward by what he has to say.

RTSea: As founder and executive director of COARE (The Center for Oceanic Awareness,
Research, and Education), what motivated you to take the step to start your own
organization? What did you see that you could provide that other organizations
perhaps couldn't?

Christopher Chin: This is a great question, Richard, and one that I think every organization should ask itself.

The initial inspiration for COARE occurred nearly eleven years ago while I was diving and filming in Fiji.  It's actually a story that I put in writing for the first time on our blog, and I encourage you to check it out for the full story.  To make a long story short, I had an epiphany after a meaningful and personal interaction with a bull shark.  Afterwards, when I got out of the water, I decided that I needed to do something to make a difference.

I began to collaborate with other conservation-minded folks to figure out how we could be most impactful.  After a great deal of brainstorming, data-collecting, and consideration, we realized several things.  First, the power of the individual and each individual's influence were both often underestimated.  We also realized that there were two major roadblocks to any given individual's involvement: knowledge or awareness, and belief that his or her actions will make a difference.

A person unaware of an issue or situation could not possibly be inspired to get involved - and of course, if that person believed that his or her involvement was only symbolic and would not have an impact, then that person would be less enthusiastic about being involved.

We saw that most other organizations catered to those already indoctrinated in the conservation world, and saw that there was a need to enlighten and inspire the average person, and then to show that person how easy it is to make a difference.  We like to joke that "awareness" is our middle name.

RT: COARE is based in San Francisco. Are the majority of your projects and
efforts focused regionally, in the San Francisco Bay or northern California area?

CC: COARE participates in many issues that are local to the greater San Francisco Bay Area and throughout California because it's relatively easy for us to do so.  We're volunteer run and operated, and most of our volunteer resources are concentrated in California.   However, ocean issues are of worldwide concern, and also a worldwide responsibility, so we are also very involved at the national and global levels.

RT: Regionally-speaking, what are some of the major marine issues and how are you
addressing those issues and the implications they represent for local residents?

CC: In the San Francisco Bay area, there is a natural tendency for people to take notice of the San Francisco Bay, local estuaries, and the state waters of the Pacific Ocean.  It's relatively easy for residents so close to waterways to see and understand the impacts they have on the marine environment.

A great example of how that translates into issues and action is our policy work around single-use plastic bags. 

As you may already know, the City of San Francisco was the first city in the United States to implement a ban on plastic bags.  Back in 2007, this was landmark legislation, and many cities and counties throughout the U.S. - and around the world - have since followed suit with their own bans.

We've learned quite a lot over the years, and have an improved approach to these issues.  We wanted to strengthen that original ban so that it would apply to a greater number of establishments, and so that it would address a number of previously exploited loopholes.  We worked with a number of other organizations to support an improved and expanded ordinance, and we're proud to say that the improved San Francisco ban, now one of the strongest in the nation, went into effect last month.

Industry-backed opposition often talks about how such policy will kill jobs, cause hardship, or will simply be ineffective.  At both the governmental level and on the ground, we strive to show people that these claims do not hold water.  Of course, now that these policies are in effect in various places, we can see the differences; we see less single-use waste, and people everywhere realize that it's really not an imposition to bring your own bag. 

We're based in Oakland, and we're naturally looking forward to the countywide ban going into effect next year.  Other cities and counties around the Bay Area and throughout California have similar bans, or are considering them, and we're looking forward to re-proposing and heralding a statewide measure.

RT: Many small or mid-size environmental groups will focus their resources on
grass roots initiatives. Do you focus on that target audience or do you also
work with government or regulatory agencies regarding policy making?

CC: One of COARE's principal tenets is that every single person has the power to effect change, and we wholeheartedly encourage that.  We work diligently on grassroots initiatives because we believe that conservation efforts must become more popular and ubiquitous, and that such a wave will have tremendous power to influence the way the world works.

As important as grassroots efforts are, we also firmly believe that it's necessary to build a sound framework to focus conservation efforts and provide direction for our leaders.  With that in mind, we also do a fair amount of work with governmental, regulatory, and legislative bodies to create, support, and promote sensible and effective policies.  In fact, we've become a recognized leader in environmental policy work, particularly with regard to shark conservation.

RT: Safe to say that most ocean conservation organizations have the best of
intentions and are quite adept in citing and detailing the various marine issues
we face. But my position has been that the organizations that deserve the
financial support of the general public (particularly in these challenging
economic times) are those who can provide definitive results, not just talk. So,
here's an open forum; what are some of COARE's quantitative and qualitative results?

CC: COARE has seen and shared in a number of amazing victories this past year.  In many of them, we played a notable role, but it's important to recognize that in some cases we were part of a broader team.  While our support and involvement in such efforts was integral, we were not alone in those achievements.

In some efforts, however, we stood apart, or took more of a leadership role - and we're extremely proud of our results.

Similar to last year's shark fin ban in California (in which we were intimately involved), we worked on a number of new statewide proposals this past year.  Of the all statewide bills, the only one that succeeded was the measure we sponsored and led; SB4119, which prohibits the sale, possession, and distribution of shark fins in the State of Illinois, saw tremendous success.
As we were wrapping things up with AB376 in California last year, a number of people asked me, "What's next?"  When I told them I had my sights on Illinois, many looked at me quizzically... what most people don't realize is that after California and New York, Illinois has the largest market for fins, and Chicago's Chinatown is the fourth largest in the United States.  What we're addressing here is the consumption side of the conservation equation, and the fin market is not about ports or fishing efforts or landings; it's about the demand.  Yes, Illinois was a big victory!

We attribute our success to several things.  For one, we had some key partners like The Humane Society (HSUS) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who helped with our lobbying efforts and legislative strategy.  We're eternally grateful for their support and for their faith in our leadership and enthusiasm.

We also started off with an extremely solid bill.  We crafted the language with comprehensive ideas and goals, and it was able to withstand the scrutiny of both chambers without any substantive changes.

Another key factor in our success, and a tremendous success in its own right, is that we won the support of the Chinese community in Chicago.  In the end, we had the restaurants on board as well as the Chinese press.  In fact, some of the most positive Chinese-language articles to date covering the shark fin issue were a direct result of our campaign.

While our Illinois campaign was the only statewide initiative to reach the finish line this year, I was honored to provide testimony for a number of other measures.  In fact, my appearance before legislative bodies has been extremely persuasive, and nearly every committee before which I've testified has voted unanimously in support.

If we can convince legislators who live about as far from the sea as one can get, (some of whom have never even seen the water) that sharks and the ocean matter to them and their constituents, we can do anything!

RT: A lot of my readers are shark advocates. Can you explain what the goals and
specific components are of your "Shark Safe" program?

CC: The Shark Safe Certification Program is designed to increase public awareness of the need for shark conservation and to reduce the sale, use, and trade of shark products like shark fins, shark cartilage, and shark liver oils.

Since sharks are universally recognizable, the shark-based logo draws attention and intrigue and immediately inspires interest.  People who aren't familiar with it are drawn to ask about it - allowing for teaching opportunities.  For consumers already familiar with the program and its aims, Shark Safe certification is designed to give discerning customers confidence that their choices help protect sharks, and thus the ocean.

While The Shark Safe Program might seem to be creature specific, the Program looks at ocean conservation in a comprehensive ecosystems manner.  The use of fishing gear and practices that result in shark bycatch generally tend to be wasteful, harmful to non-target species, or destructive to habitat.  Encouraging more sustainable and sound fishing practices is better not just  for sharks, but for the ocean as a whole.

RT: There might be a passionate, committed ocean conservationist reading this who
dreams of building the next Conservation International, Oceana, or WildAid. But
we must all walk before we can run. What advice would you give to anyone who is
considering starting an ocean conservation group?

CC: One of the recent trends in conservation that I find most encouraging is that of collaboration.  Many successful campaigns have seen the use of diverse coalitions to ignite broader public and legislative support for different policies and practices.  It is such collaboration that I believe is key to the success and viability of an organization and its programs.  We must realize our common goals and work around any differences to move forward.

If someone is interested in starting their own organization, it's likely for one of two reasons:  They believe that what they want to do is not already happening; or, that it's already happening, but they want to do it differently, or better.

If it's for the former reason, I'd encourage you to make sure that what you envision is really not already being undertaken.  If there are programs or organizations already working on the issue, I'd encourage you to join or support what's already in the works. Reinventing the wheel, or designing and building a new one from scratch, takes an enormous amount of time and effort - and those resources could potentially directly serve an effective program already in existence.

However, if you're sure that you can make a difference in a new and unique way, please follow your dream, your heart, and your passion, and you'll find that there is no greater reward than knowing that you are changing the world.

RT: Where do you see COARE heading in the next few years?

CC: It's encouraging to see COARE's growth over the years, and to see that we've been embraced and welcomed in the conservation community.  New organizations are often viewed with skepticism, and the "new kid on the block" is seldom taken very seriously. COARE has continuously and consistently made meaningful impacts - all while keeping the integrity of our mission and ideals in plain view - and people have taken notice.

COARE does a tremendous amount on a very slim budget.  What most people don't realize is that we're entirely volunteer led and run.  Not a single penny has gone to our management or administration since day one.  However, we are now at a point where our growth, both organizationally and in terms of impact, could leap forward exponentially with increased capacity.  We're ready to take on staff and expand our already stable and proven process.

If you already like who we are now, what we stand for, and what we do, you're going to love us as we continue to build and grow.

Source: COARE

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Abrolhos Seascape: Brazil and Conservation International work together to form MPAs

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have shown themselves to be both effective ocean management tools and providers of economic renewal for local fisheries.  The forces that resist the establishing of an MPA are typically represented by the local fishing community as they are concerned that the no-take zones usually put in place within a marine protected area will mean reduced revenue.

Time and time again, the opposite has proven to be true.  By defining a potentially productive area fish-wise as off limits to commercial fishing, then the resident populations are given a chance to recover.  And, as fish do not recognize man-made boundaries, the inevitable spillover supplies the fishery with a catch sufficient to sustain the business.

This has happened in South America along the South Atlantic coast: the Abrolhos Seascape.  Within this region, the state of Bahia in Brazil has established two marine protected areas.  The first was the Abrolhos Marine National Park.  Over time, this park was expanded and recently the Corumbau Extractive Marine Reserve was added.  These MPAs were the end result of the efforts by the Brazilian government supported by Conservation International and other organizations.

According to Conservation International, "Through the establishment of both protected no-take zones and areas that allow fishing, the fish populations not only recovered — they thrived. And, as the fish from the no-take zones spilled over into the fishable waters, local fishermen saw an increase in their catch — nearly tripling their take of some commercially important species alone."

"This bounty not only directly improved the livelihoods of local communities, it revitalized the regional economy as well, bringing with it the expansion of services like electricity and secondary education — services to which many in the region had never before had access. These positive changes also led to new, more sustainable opportunities in tourism, now the primary source of income in the region."

The Abrolhos Seascape coral reefs and shoreline mangroves were suffering from illegal fishing and destructive aquaculture practices.  Organizations like Conservation International have the scientific and research resources to assist governments in determining both the extent of the problem and how best to deal with it.  This is the beauty of large organizations that can support and influence ocean management policy through more than just words, thereby becoming real instruments of change. 

At nearly 37,000 square miles, the Abrolhos Seascape is not the largest marine area to see mandatory protection.  There are some MPAs that are as many as 10x larger or more. But it is proving to be a very productive reserve for the marine ecosystem and the local fisheries.  Success need not be measure in big steps; little steps can make a big difference too.

Source: Conservation International       

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Surging Seas: interactive map shows climate change-induced sea levels and surge

There's a very interesting (and disturbing) website anyone living in the United States should check out.  It was first brought to my attention by Deb Castellana, Director of Communications for the Sylvia Earle Alliance-Mission Blue.  The website is called Surging Seas and is the brainchild of Climate Central, an organization dedicated to disseminating information about climate change.

Surging Seas is an interactive map-based site that shows the impact of rising sea levels along the U.S. coasts.  You can select a coastal city or region and see a map that shows the expansion of sea levels in increments of one feet at a time.  If you live on the west or east coast or along the Gulf of Mexico, you can see your neighborhood and what becomes of it as water levels rise.

One might view the map with a sea level rise of one foot and decide, "Well, that's interesting.  But that much of a rise in sea level won't happen for many, many years."  True, rising sea levels are gradual, but add to that high tides and a storm surge, as we had experienced recently with Hurricane Sandy, and you begin to see the level of exposure we face.  Climate change not only impacts sea levels but also the currents and winds that influence the severity of storm conditions.

I tried the map out on my hometown area of Orange County.  I was surprised to see popular Balboa and swank Lido Islands, right off of Newport Beach, get swallowed up and nearby Huntington Beach residential communities were inundated with a 4 to 5 foot storm surge.  

The Surging Seas website provides lots of background information on how the maps were generated using proven, available data from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other scientific resources.  That's what is disturbing - it's not a wild-eye, scare-your-pants-off fabrication.  It's based on hard facts easily available.

What people in coastal metropolitan areas might fear as a possible danger (although already having proven itself to be real in the Gulf and now the Eastern Seaboard), is a daily reality for many island nations dealing with climate change.  Countries like the Seychelles, Kiribati and others are already wrestling with the social, political, and economic implications of literally going under permanently at some point in the future.

How do we prepare ourselves now by stemming climate change while also bracing ourselves for the effects it will bring before any reversal of fortune takes effect?  With each swell crashing along the shore, the question begs for an answer.

Source: Surging Seas
Source: Climate Central

Monday, November 26, 2012

Chasing Ice: new film dramatically documents shrinking glaciers

Chasing Ice is a new documentary that chronicles the struggles of photographer James Balog as he set out to complete the Extreme Ice Survey.  The survey was designed to monitor the movement of glaciers existing today under the threat of climate changes, in particular the increase in temperatures that are resulting in glaciers melting at phenomenal rates.

Filming glaciers and other ice formations in Alaska and Montana in the U.S.; Greenland, Iceland and the Alps in Europe; Canada and even Bolivia, Balog used a variety of cameras to conduct time lapse photography, usually taking one picture per hour all through the daylight hours.  When placed in sequence the work of many months and even years could be seen in a few seconds and the results were startling.

With warming air, ground, and water temperatures, ice formations are being attacked from all angles.  While glaciers have experienced back and forth ebbs and flow, nothing in the historical record compares to the rapid disappearance that they are experiencing today.  What might seem gradual, even imperceptible, to most people is happening in the blink of an eye in geological terms.  And Balog's work captures it most dramatically.

While the underlying message of Chasing Ice is the destructive power of climate change as seen in the ice formations, the film also focuses on Balog's journey itself.  And this was not an easy one.  To get cameras in their optimum position was not just a case of a camera, a tripod, and a nice wide shot in a meadow miles away.  Balog and his team had to often move into dangerous locations on the ice formations themselves, scaling ice walls or venturing out onto ice and snow that could give way at any second.

And there was the challenge of getting the technology to cooperate.  Extended cold temperatures and moisture do not mix well with digital cameras.  Balog had to devised safe, dry, insulated housings for many of the cameras used.  A wide range of cameras were used including Sony, Nikon, Panasonic, and others - a total of 30 in all. 

Chasing Ice is the dramatic adventure of a courageous and dedicated photographer.  That is the hook, the entertainment, meant to draw in the audience.  But once there, they will see that what is truly dangerous is what is happening to the planet.  Climate change is shifting the fundamental components that make up the life support system that animal and plant life have depended on for tens of thousands of years.  And it's happening much quicker than many had anticipated.

Chasing Ice premiered in November at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been in limited release in the U.S. (There was a screening this past Thanksgiving holiday weekend near my neck of the woods in Los Angeles.)  Look for it in your area.  The National Geographic Channel will also air it in the first half of 2013, but see it in a large screen theater if you can.  Big images need a big venue.           

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bison Return To The Wild: finding mankind's balance with nature

There is no greater image that represents the Great Plains of the United States as the wild bison or buffalo.  However, that iconic symbol is an emblem of a long ago past when massive herds of bison roamed free, when nature had not yet felt the sting of industrialized society.  By the late 1800's only a few dozen wild bison existed, the majority - in the tens of thousands - having been wiped out to meet the demand for their hide.

The nomadic Native American Indians that depended on these herds for meat, clothing, and shelter found the foundation of their lifestyle crippled with the loss of the bison.  Their ability to live in harmony with nature was in jeopardy as traders and settlers from the east encroached on their lands.  A culture was being undermined and cast to the winds.

In March, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana received 61 genetically pure wild bison from one of the last remaining herds in Yellowstone National Park.  The transfer was many years in the making, with additional pressure being exerted on Montana state agencies by the Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation organization that focuses on many threatened wild species in the U.S. like bison and wolves.  The bison will run free within the reservation's over 7,000 acre reserve.

There is an ecological significance to the expansion of territory for this once prevalent species.  But the cultural significance is probably of greater import.  Bison are grazers and as such they kept prairie food supplies and the animal populations that depended on that grassland in check.  Occasionally a juvenile bison might be prey to wolves.  However, in today's world of bred cattle and urbanization, the extinction of the bison would probably not have any serious ecological consequences - not like the loss of, say, wolves which help control the deer and, in particular, the small varmint and rodent populations.

It is on a cultural level that the return of the bison has tremendous resonance.  Again, the bison is an iconic image of a lifestyle in harmony with nature, a reminder of a time before the loss of innocence to the forces of progress of western civilization.  

These majestic animals have played a very significant part in the history, religion and culture of our native people of the Fort Peck Reservation. These bison have sustained our ancestors for thousands of years and they are in need of us returning the favor. We are here to make sure they will always be here for our children," told Floyd Azure, Fort Peck Reservation Tribal Council Chairman to the Associated Press.

That same attitude regarding mankind's role in the fabric of nature, that interaction and interdependency, can be found in other cultures, particularly with island nations and their relationship with the sea.  From Hawaii to the South Pacific to Malaysia and beyond, their histories are culturally intertwined with the oceans and the animals that live within.  It is a spiritual relationship that impacts their entire way of life.

"Civilized" industrialized man has chosen technology as its spiritual guru and while it has certainly improved the material quality of life, there is a price that we are now learning which must be paid.  All of the environmental issues we face today have their fundamental root cause in this greater devotion to technology over that of nature.

What to do?  Well, we're not ready to give up our cars, flat screens, and cell phones for teepees and buckskin.  However, we can learn from these nature-bound cultures as to how to strike a new balance, to redefine "in harmony with nature" in a manner that meets our needs while protecting our natural resources.

Conservation should not be viewed as a form of sacrifice or denial.  It should be seen as a means to preserve what we have so that we can responsibly continue to prosper in what we are realizing is a finite world.

Source: Defenders of Wildlife                        

Friday, November 23, 2012

Getting Inspired, Inc.: CA conservation group getting the job done

Getting Inspired, Inc. is one of many regional nature conservation organizations that keep a low profile but get the job done.  The organization focuses on bringing both land and sea ecology to schools through special outdoor classes or camps.  And Getting Inspired benefits California's local marine environment by spearheading a kelp restoration project that has been responsible for the re-planting of kelp forests in areas that have been, in some cases, barren for decades.

The organization is headed up by marine biologist and sea captain, Nancy Lightowler Caruso.  I knew Nancy when I was a dive team leader at the Aquarium of the Pacific and Nancy was just getting her kelp reforestation project off the ground.  It has grown into a project that includes 7,000 schoolchildren and 400 volunteer divers who assist in the aquatic greenhouse growing of young kelp and the eventually planting of the kelp along California's Orange County coastline.

Kelp is the basis for much of California's marine ecosystem.  It is the forest that provides food and shelter for a variety of different aquatic animals.  Kelp can be impacted by storms, which dislodges the kelp from the bottom, in addition to cyclical events like El Nino warm water currents, which heats the waters beyond the ideal growth range for kelp to flourish.  But these are natural events that constitute the normal ebb and flow of the kelp forest, just like brush and forest fires can be beneficial to terrestrial forests.

However, kelp has suffered from a variety of other threats.  In some areas, sea urchins, which feed on kelp, have exploded in numbers due to overfishing of the urchins' natural predators.  Then there's coastal pollution along with the effects of climate change which produces extended periods of warm water - all have taken a toll on the kelp forests.

Besides the concrete accomplishments achieved by the ongoing kelp restoration project, Getting Inspired also works with schools to enlighten and inspire kids to understand and appreciate the natural ecosystems that make California unique in many ways.  This includes getting schoolchildren involved in kelp, abalone, and white sea bass aquaculture and even an annual trip to Yosemite where they get to learn about the importance of land-based ecosystems as well.

Getting Inspired focuses its efforts on quantifiable results.  It does not engage in a lot of promotional hype or marketing as that would draw resources away from its core mission.  That's an admirable position that many other groups could follow. (Although I think Getting Inspired could use a good facelift to their website.  But that's a minor criticism.)

What's important here is that, as I have said many times in the past, we all should support worthwhile conservation organizations.  All have passion, many are dedicated and hard-working, but I prefer to focus my support on groups which can demonstrate action that equates into solid results.  Getting Inspired is one such group here in California.  Check them out.  And use that yardstick of quantifiable accomplishments to evaluate organizations in your area.

As a fundraiser, Getting Inspired is offering a Batik button-front shirt with a colorful kelp and garibaldi pattern.  It's a great gift item (I've ordered 6) that will also help support Captain Caruso's efforts.  You can learn more on Nancy's Facebook page (click here).

Source: Getting Inspired 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012: taking the glass beyond half full

In the U.S. we are preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday.  It commemorates a moment when early Pilgrim settlers chose to give thanks for what they had at that moment, even when they knew they still were facing formidable obstacles.  That is the power of optimism coupled with a strong sense of reality.  The glass is half-full but we won't stop until it's over the rim.

Conservation and environmental issues have taken a pretty good beating over the past few years.  Since the two depend so heavily on "the kindness of strangers" (as Blanche DuBois once said) or on a benevolent or generous government, funding and government allocations have diminished as nation after nation endures a prolonged depressed economic situation.

And that can lead to the biggest threat of all: apathy.  The oceans face many perils, the consequences of which may be many years away but, to gain the upper hand, they need to be dealt with sooner rather than later.  Climate change, acidification, overfishing, pollution - they all loom large but they become even more threatening if government officials, policy makers and the everyday individual choose to take their eye off the ball.  Distraction leads to disinterest which leads to apathy.  Only a crisis can snap us out of it but by then it may be too late.

So that is the biggest challenge we face in filling that glass to the rim.  But with that said, we still have a tremendous amount to be thankful for.  We continue to achieve significant victories that speak to our optimistic side and fuel our desire to achieve more.  Whether it be the growth of substantial marine protected areas, more and stronger legislation regarding shark conservation, forward strides in seafood sustainability through better managed ocean harvesting, or technological innovations in alternative energy - each step is bringing us just that much closer to the kind of stewardship of the planet that will help sustain it . . . and us.

Search through the blogosphere, through social media, or simply type in "ocean conservation victories" in Google.  The list is long, it is encouraging, and it reaffirms that what we have done, what we are doing, and what we hope to accomplish is feasible, reasonable, and righteous.

Give thanks today and always.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

ICCAT 2012: gains and losses with no help from Canada

ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, recently convened in Morocco for its annual evaluation of catch limits.  This is a group that for many years seemed to be turning a deaf ear to the calls of conservationists and even its own scientific advisers as to the diminishing bluefin tuna population (read prior posts here & here).  Year after year, catch limits were set way above any recommended number that could potentially provide sustainability.

This year, the ICCAT awoke slightly from its deep, dark slumber and established catch levels that were in line with limits prescribed by marine scientists: maintaining the current level of 13,500 tons annually, along with an improved management and control process.

It still leaves the Atlantic bluefin tuna on a razor's edge with extinction a distinct possibility.  A complete moratorium would be the most sensible environmental solution but the economic influence of the tuna fishing industry makes that a slim possibility - although it could occur if continued observation and management shows that tuna stocks are not improving.

That was the wake up call this time around: that after 30 years of setting catch levels that were considered sufficient, the ICCAT realized that was just not the case.  Now the big concern is whether this new effort will be sufficient to give the bluefin tuna a fighting chance.

The ICCAT also establishes quotas for its member nations with regard to sharks.  This year there was a proposal from the EU to limit catches of shortfin mako and a complete ban on the porbeagle shark.  The poor porbeagle.  This is a shark that has truly been hammered by the shark fishing industry.  Authorities do not question the fact that the population of porbeagle sharks has declined by 90% since the 1960s.  Where once there were ten, there is now only one - and it only took five decades to do it.

Unfortunately, the EU's proposals were tabled due to some political maneuvering by a few dissenting members.  To accommodate some of the dissenters, like Canada, there were rumored discussions about allowing Canada an exemption.  With that, other dissenting members demanded equal treatment which was sufficient to knock the wind out of the sails of the entire proposed platform.

Often when we think of the overfishing of tuna or sharks, many turn to Asian markets as the primary villains.  While it may be true that that is where most of the demand is coming from, we must also consider the nations that support that demand.  At the ICCAT meeting this year, Canada turned out to be a disappointing supporter; one of the pushers supplying the junkie's habit.

The Canadian contingent had actually requested an increase to 2,000 tons in the bluefin tuna catch limit, but they were soundly defeated by the majority.  However, they doubled their efforts when it came to resisting the shark limits, even though the Canadian government is considering listing the porbeagle shark as an endangered species under its Species at Risk Act.

“I think it is fair to say that there was a general feeling across the meeting that [Canada’s tuna proposal] was out of step, that there was very clear scientific advice that said maintain the quotas,” said Amanda Nickson, director of the U.S.-based Pew Environmental Group’s global tuna conservation program.

Basic supply and demand principles work fine for manufactured or grown products.  It can be a seesaw of price vs. demand and demand vs. production, but it works most of the time.  Where it does not work is when you have a finite resource like tuna or sharks.  Demanding consumers and the producers that blindly support that demand with product, both are responsible parties to what could be the collapse of an industry and, sadly, the extinction of important ocean species.  Scientists and conservationists must be relentless in their efforts to halt overfishing of the bluefin tuna, shortfin makos, porbeagle sharks, and many others.

Source: The Globe and Mail                       

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sharks, the Beauty of the Ocean Predator: March lecture/exhibition event in Long Beach, CA

In early March, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA will host a lecture/exhibition, Sharks: the Beauty of the Ocean Predator featuring yours truly and sculptor Victor Douieb. 

The event is being described as "Art and science come together like never before to heighten awareness for ocean conservation.  Sculptor Victor Douieb and filmmaker Richard Theiss present an exhibition and lecture series combining stunning and impressive bronze pieces of marine animals with insightful and thought-provoking commentary on marine research and the changing landscape of ocean conservation.  Douieb's work has been on display nationwide in major galleries and museums and his magnificent shark sculptures are popular favorites.  As a filmmaker, Theiss has worked closely with marine scientists and spent many years filming the iconic great white shark.  His work has been seen on major networks like Discovery and National Geographic.  Many of Douieb's most popular sculptures will be on display and there will be a series of lectures where people can learn more about these two dedicated conservationists, the challenging issues facing many ocean species like sharks, and what we can do to shape the future of the oceans." 

The origin of this event came about when I first met Victor at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.  I had been contemplating a new lecture series, a kind of update from my presentation at the time and Victor was looking for more avenues to present his work.  It occurred to me that by combining forces we could offer something special that aquariums and other ocean education institutions might be interested in having.  I approached my friend, Dr, Jerry Schubel, CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, and he was quite enthusiastic with the concept.  And so, the Aquarium will host the inaugural event, putting Victor's work on display for several months and the lectures will take place in early March.

Victor has sculpted some amazing works in bronze and stainless steel of sharks and other sea creatures (his recent work of a lionfish is a favorite of mine).  His work is striking in its artistic beauty while also being anatomically accurate, and that allows people to view and appreciate sharks from an entirely different perspective.  His website lists sculptures currently available and at the event he will be presenting a new sculpture of one of the Aquarium's sand tiger sharks which Victor studied firsthand in the Aquarium's Shark Lagoon exhibit.

For my part, I will be sharing some of my personal experiences with sharks - in particular the great white shark, given that it's a California audience.  Also, I will be touching on what science has found that makes these predators so unique and critically important.  Then we will turn to the important issue of shark conservation and how it has evolved from a grass roots movement to a struggle on the battleground of international politics.  And finally, despite the progress that has been made to date, we'll look at why and how people still need to be concerned and involved.  Victor will also be on hand to discuss his journey as a committed conservationist.

The Aquarium of the Pacific will be posting details soon for Sharks: the Beauty of the Ocean Predator on their website.  Lectures are tentatively scheduled for the evenings of March 5th (opening night), 7th and 13th.  The sculptures will be on display for several months.  If you're in the neighborhood, hope to you see there.  It will be an opportunity for Southern Californians to see some awesome sealife sculptures and learn about the amazing sharks of California and what is in store for their future.

Source: Aquarium of the Pacific

Shark Net: Dr. Barbara Block/TOPP release great app to track California's white sharks

I have been fortunate to meet and speak with many accomplished marine scientists and researchers.  One who is definitely on my Top 10 list is Dr. Barbara Block.  Based at Stanford University, California, she oversees TOPP (Tagging of Pacific Predators), a program started in 2000 that tracks pelagic animals from tuna to swordfish to turtles to great white sharks, and more. (Couple of previous posts on the subject here & here.)

Barbara is a spunky taskmaster but, working with her staff, it is that very drive that has enabled TOPP to discover many of the secrets involving the migration patterns of these large and critically important animals.  It was TOPP that coined the phrase "White Shark Cafe" to describe where great white sharks from California and Mexico migrate to in the Pacific Ocean. 

One particularly important finding regarding these migration patterns was the possible explanation for the seasonal nature of the sharks' sojourns: Mid-Pacific upwellings which bring nutrients that feed the food chain and ultimately replenish the larger fish that the sharks feed on.  Cyclical weather and ocean movement patterns produce these upwellings - and as climate change continues to present itself, there is always the possibility of shifts in the upwelling cycle that could have unknown consequences for these animals.

Whenever I am called upon to speak about sharks, these fascinating migration patterns are always a topic I include as I am guaranteed they will mesmerize my audience.  So, thank you, Dr. Block!

While Internet users can monitor the ongoing activities of TOPP through its website, it's now possible to carry it with you on your iPhone or iPad.  Shark Net - Predators of the Blue Serengeti is available from iTunes at no charge (as in free!) and provides a range of features on the cataloging and whereabouts of those most iconic of California ocean predators, the great white shark.

Users can get updates on the latest monitoring of sharks, pinpoint the location of the tracking buoys that gather the data, and get biographies, photos, and videos about many of the sharks that frequent California's waters.  There are other apps available that provide white shark tracking info but this is the definitive app for monitoring the white sharks that ply the waters off California's coast  - and beyond, thanks to those incredible migration patterns.

In a recent interview for U.K.'s The Guardian, Dr. Block explained her use of the term "Blue Serengeti" to describe California's coastal waters and the large migration patterns that occur within it.

"White sharks and tuna travel for thousands of miles before returning to the same hot spot just as salmon do when they return to the same stream. These journeys are the marine equivalent of wildebeest migrations that take place on the Serengeti plain in Africa. That is why I call this part of the Californian coast the Blue Serengeti."

"Everyone knows about watering holes on the Serengeti even though most of us have never been there. We can just close our eyes and see the zebras, the elephants and the hyenas. We want to do the same for the migration hot spots we have found off the coast of California."

Dr. Block and TOPP are setting new standards for ocean animal tracking, expanding on the various GPS and satellite tracking methods (which can sometimes provide data intermittently) to include cutting-edge, round-the-clock monitoring technology using monitoring networks or even self-contained, solar-powered tracking stations like Wave Glider that travels the currents along the California coast. 

Through the efforts of TOPP and consumer apps like Shark Net, Dr. Block hopes to bring the hidden complexity of our ocean planet to a wider audience.  Humankind's curiosity makes it look outward, and that has lead us into the stars.  But there is a whole world to be discovered starting right at the shoreline.

"Human technology has made it to Mars. We are transmitting gorgeous pictures from it. Yet we have not explored our own planet. Two-thirds of it is covered with oceans that are still mysterious places. We are trying to hook people up to what is going on out there now and get them to realize that it could all be lost if we did not do something to protect it. Ultimately, I want to create a world heritage site here. Wiring up the oceans, as we are doing, is our way to get people to understand the importance of these places."

Shark Net app available on iTunes for iPad and iPhone
Source: The Guardian   

Friday, November 16, 2012

Handling Invasive Species: studies look at treatment and commercial enterprise

Invasive species continue to pose problems around the world - from relocated fish and land animals to plants to even infectious diseases.  In the oceans, invasive species can prove to be both disruptive to the marine environment and a potential hazard to humans as well.

Two recent scientific studies, one in Emerging Infectious Diseases and the other in Marine Pollution Bulletin, looked at the issue of ballast water that is taken in and released by tankers and freighters in ports all over the globe.  This exchange of water to maintain a safe balance to the ship as it loads or unloads its cargo has introduced a variety of unwelcome guests including mussels, seaweeds and algae, and even cholera.

Sometimes the ballast exchange takes place in deep enough water so that its contents are sufficiently dissipated.  But in shallower water, pathogens as a product of urbanization and sewage can either come aboard or be expelled and soon brought into shore via swells and currents.

One solution is to treat the ballast water on board the vessel.  However, ports and cities are then dependent on the ships having the proper equipment and using the methods effectively to do the job.   The other possible approach is to develop an onshore treatment process wherein the ballast water is pumped ashore for treatment and then pumped back to the ship as needed, rather than having the entire ballast exchange take place in open water.  A better idea perhaps on paper, but it requires  considerable investment in equipment and the design of each port must be carefully studied to determine if and where the systems can be installed.

However, compared to the financial losses incurred by invasive species from disrupted commercial fisheries to clogged water inlet/outlet pipes to disease outbreaks, the costs of advanced onshore treatment systems could prove to be a bargain.

Another study, written up in Conservation Letters, examined the issue of whether consuming an invasive species as a possible food source could prove to be an effective means of populations.  Why beat it, just eat it.

This has been the approach taken in areas where the Humboldt squid has moved in, shifting the fishermens catch from local commercial fish stocks to all squid.  And in the Caribbean and the eastern Florida coast, where the lionfish population has exploded recently from its accidental introduction several years ago, attempts are being made to develop a taste for the South Pacific reef fish's meat among local sharks and even with the human population (a bit tricky to prepare but, I have been told, quite tasty).

The study, however, notes the dilemma that this approach can cause through the production then of a viable market.  An invasive species could turn out to be a commercial success and where there is commercial success there can be the desire to maintain or even expand it.  Suddenly, the invasive species becomes a profitable friend to man - at the expense of the marine environment it is affecting.  The ultimate insult would be that an effort could be made to protect the species for the sake of its commercial value - a complete reversal of the original concept of reducing or eliminating the population through harvesting.

The introduction of commercial enterprise and consumption in the control of any invasive species must be undertaken with a clear understanding by government and regulatory agencies as to the underlying purpose of taking such a step.  Either supported by scientific research or even just the common sense that every invasive species is a Pandora's box of unknown consequences, decisions must be thoughtful and well-informed.

Source: Emerging Infectious Diseases 18(10)
Source: Marine Pollution Bulletin 64(11)
Source: Conservation Letters 5(5)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Conservation Victories: government steps up to help whales, sharks, and birds

Well, how about some good news for a change?  Conservation and protection of species and the environment got a bit of a boost from the machinations of government today in several areas.  Some of these advances are moving through cyberspace as I write this, while others are more quiet victories.

No Sonic Tests Off California for Utility
The California Coastal Commission today unanimously agreed to deny a permit to Pacific Gas & Electric, who had requested to begin a series of seismic tests using sonic air cannons to determine fault lines in and around the seafloor near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Now checking for faults that could potentially threaten a nuclear power plant isn't a bad idea (nuclear power plants themselves are another controversial subject for another day) and PG&E officials claimed that the multiple sonic blasts would be ramped up in intensity to warm or scare off any marine mammals that could be at risk.

However, those same officials also stated that the tests would induce short-term disruption.  And given the number of beachings and deaths that have been documented regarding whales, porpoises, and dolphins, long-term effects can not be definitively ruled out.

According to the Associated Press, the coastal commission's staff recommended to the coastal regulators to reject the utilityy company's plan. "In a report this month, the staff said sonic blasts would cause 'significant and unavoidable impacts to marine resources.' More than 7,000 sea mammals would be disturbed by the ear-piercing noise, including fin whales, blue whales, humpback whales, and harbor porpoises."

PG&E has not yet said what it plans to do next, but should they appeal, they will find stiff resistance from many of the regulators.

Win one for the cetaceans!

American Samoa Bans Shark Fishing
In the South Pacific, the United States' unincorporated territory of American Samoa has initiated a ban on all shark fishing that will go into effect this week.  The ban will extend three miles from the shoreline and also include three reef fish species.

What is most encouraging with this news is that it was not an island nation like Palau or Kiribati that has imposed these restrictions; it was the U.S. government.  The Department of Marine & Wildlife Resources is the agency that has imposed the ban, recognizing the decline of shark populations throughout the Pacific Ocean.

Dog Fenner, who monitors sharks for the department, claims that these new regulations are the strongest ever imposed by the U.S.  About bloody time.

Win one for the sharks!

Animal Lead Poisoning Amendments
Getting a little less attention are two amendments to S.B. 3525, known as the "Sportsman's Act."  Filed by California's Senator Barbara Boxer, the amendments would 1.) eliminate an NRA-supported provision in the Sportsman's Act that banned the Environmental Protection Agency from doing anything regarding lead poisoning from lead ammunition and fishing tackle (originally supported by, and 2.) require the EPA to conduct a potential threat study of human health, wildlife, and the environment regarding lead ammunition and tackle.

According to the Conservation for Biological Diversity, which has been prodding the EPA regarding this issue for years, "Lead poisons and kills millions of eagles, loons, endangered California condors and other birds and wildlife each year." 

Win one (hopefully) for a lead-free wilderness!

The common thread in all of these encouraging developments is that it represents government, in one form or another, getting of its butt and doing something about the environment.  One can only hope that as the U.S. economy improves, attention will once again be turned toward solving long-term environmental issues with decisive action in the here-and-now. 

Source: Associated Press (Cetacea)
Source: Washington Post (Sharks)
Source: Center for Biological Diversity (Lead)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Children & Nature: Australian writer captures what conservation needs from our youth

Occasionally I will come across an article that needs no journalistic rephrasing, no "spin" or retelling.  It is succinct and delivers a message that must be presented undilluted.

Such is the case with an article I came across in the Opinion section of ABC News (Australia).  Written by educator and naturalist Warren McClaren, it addresss the impact on our children when there is a disconnect between ourselves and nature.

Growing up as I did in suburban Southern California, I can look back on my experiences with nature in a very positive way and I can see the roots of my current passion for preservation and conservation of our natural resources stemming from those early moments.  I was not someone who lived 24/7 in the outdoors, but I came in contact with enough to leave a lasting impact.  And, sadly, that is much more than what many children are experiencing today.

Children are hearing about threats and negative impacts on nature and they are voicing their concern.  And that is good.  But if those feelings exist in a bubble, devoid of the first hand knowledge, can we expect their concerns to carry them into adulthood? 

 Without nature, the little children suffer
Warren McLaren ABC Environment 12 Nov 2012

Most adults climbed trees and played outdoors when they were children. But today's young people don't play outdoors like their parents. It's an omission with grave implications.
We come alive for what we hold near and dear. It's hard to be impassioned for a cause which feels remote.

Charities know this. It's why they bring impoverished third world villagers, or cancer suffers, into our lounge room, via the telly: if they can make us connect with the issue, we are more inclined to support it.

Environmental activists are emboldened to speak up because they perceive they are about to lose something. Something they truly, deeply connect with.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world." With these few words, American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, succinctly captured humanity's fate. Nature is unruly, untamed. But it is also our future.

Yet we so often talk of 'The Environment' as if it exists elsewhere else, a distant entity that humankind is not connected to. A naughty, wild child, whom we might put in a room and close the door on, for a bit of 'time out'.

We may have disconnected from nature, but we are delusional if we think we can live without it. Ignoring the value and contribution of nature to our well being is, quite literally, life threatening. 

But ignoring is exactly what we're doing. In his seminal 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv, gave this ignorance a term: Nature Deficit Disorder. While not a medically recognised condition, there is an ever expanding body of work which supports Louv's central theme: that deprivation of a relationship with nature is fraught with multiple health and welfare issues. For people. And planet. 

There's head-shaking anecdotal evidence of our disconnect with nature, such as the story I was told of kids too scared to play in their own backyard, because they'd heard that insects wee and poo out there.

Scientific corroboration is also abundant. The Children and Nature Network has a collection of research papers, published between 2009 and 2011, which explored benefits to kids from contact with the outdoors. The list of abstracts alone runs to 68 pages.

Research such as Planet Ark's recent examinations (pdf) of Australian childhood interaction with nature today, relative to a generation ago. One of the findings being that, "64 per cent of respondents reported climbing trees when they were children as compared to less than 20 per cent of their children." (pdf) 

The Danish Society for Nature Conservation observed very similar findings in their survey of 2,000 Danes:"59 per cent of grandparents reported visiting a natural setting every day during the summer when they were children, as compared to... just 26 per cent of children today." (pdf) 

Four hundred German and Lithuanian high school students participated in research that found "children's emotional affinity towards nature was a significant predictor of children's willingness for pro-environmental commitment."

A related study in the USA set out to "understand what leads children to continue participating in natural history-oriented professions/education/hobbies as a young adult." The research concluded that a such vocational choice results from "early childhood and is driven by direct, informal and unstructured experiences with nature (from wildlands to vacant lots)."

For many Aussies their introduction to camping and outside adventures began with involvement in Scouts and Guides. Five years ago the international Scout movement celebrated 100 years of life in the great outdoors. But it was a bittersweet centenary. In 2001, Australia had 2,126 Scout Groups, yet by 2011 this had shrunk to just 1,524. A noteworthy decline, coming on the back of a significant modernisation drive within Scouting.

Where did all those budding young Baden Powells go? Inside.

For 98 per cent of Australian children, "watching TV or videos out of school hours remains the most common recreational activity of children aged 5 to 14 years." So revealed the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in the 2003 study, Children's Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities.

A follow up report in 2006 noted that "[N]ot only was the participation rate highest for 'watching television, videos or DVDs', on average, children involved spent more time on this activity than on any of the other selected activities." In a study published last year, the ABS reported that whereas a tad over half of all children were playing games online in 2006, by 2009 and this had increased to just shy of 70 per cent. The ABS also noted that 17 per cent of kids 8 to 14 had a computer in their bedroom.

Researchers at the University of Sydney discovered that "Children who spend more time in outdoor sport activities and less time watching TV have better retinal microvascular structure." Retinal blood vessels have been linked to cardiovascular disease risk factors and blood pressure.

A couple of years ago the Australian national depression initiative, Beyond Blue, engaged Associate Professor Mardie Townsend of Deakin University's Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences to investigate any health benefits from including the outdoors in our lives. She observed, "Experiencing nature in an outdoor setting can help tackle not only physical health problems such as obesity and coronary heart disease, but also mental health problems - and there is plenty of evidence to support the claim." Laying out that evidence in her 160-page report.

Drawing on the work of Kurt Hahn, pioneer of experiential learning and the guy behind Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, Expeditionary Learning schools cite as one of their core principles, "direct respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations."

Developing this early connection with nature is not just some bucolic vision of the 'nuts and berries' crowd. It also has a deep and profound influence on children's intellectual health as well. Richard Louv's book is packed with examples, including the school who educated their kids out amongst local rivers, mountains and forests, "96 per cent of [their] students meet or exceed state standards for math problem-solving—compared to only 65 per cent of eighth graders at comparable middle schools."

I'm not suggesting that everyone need spend 738 days hugging a tree like Julia Hill or Miranda Gibson. There are a host of mainstream opportunities for our children to learn about, and from, the outdoors. There's school endorsed outdoor education experiences, or Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden programs as currently embraced by 267 Australian primary schools. From horticultural therapy to care farming. Or Scouts and Guides. And let's not forget family weekends camping in the bush; or simply get down and dirty, rolling in the grass and watching bees in the backyard or nearby park, with Mum and Dad.

For as William Shakespeare penned, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."

Source: ABC News

Thursday, November 8, 2012 Gets Cooperation From Supermarket: testing seafood in two month pilot program

 It has been some time since I mentioned the GotMercury organization.  But that is not to say that they have not been busy.  This is an organization dedicated to making people aware of the unhealthy levels of mercury in our seafood - levels that can, in some cases, reach in excess of 4 times the weekly safe levels recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from just one serving of certain fish.

Much has been written about whale, dolphin, and tuna meat and the high levels of pollutants, like mercury, that can be found in these fish.  Served to children or pregnant women, as is done in many Asian countries, is a risky business indeed.  However, these fish are not the only ones with unsafe levels of mercury in their tissues. provides a handy online calculator with which you can use to determine the approximate levels of mercury in various seafood.  There is also a cell phone version of the calculator which I keep with me to educate my friends when we are in a restaurant and they are considering the seafood on the menu.  You enter your weight, select the fish you are considering, and then choose a size portion in ounces.  The calculator then gives you the percentage of your EPA/FDA limit of mercury you will be consuming.  Most people are shocked by the results.

GotMercury has also been hard at work exposing tainted seafood at the seafood counter of your local supermarket.  In years past, they were the renegades, buying seafood like any other customer, then testing it and announcing their findings - which were usually disturbing and much to the chagrin of the supermarket.

However, times are changing.  GotMercury is collaborating with Safe Harbor Foods to do testing of seafood sold through the Safeway supermarket chain - with Safeway's cooperation.  Any tainted seafood that is found will be pulled and not sold.  This is a pilot program that will take place over the next two months in 47 Safeway stores in Oregon and Washington.  From there, it will potentially go nationwide throughout the entire Safeway chain.  You can follow the results of this testing process online either through GotMercury's Facebook or Causes pages.

Congratulations to, Safe Harbor Foods, and to the Safeway supermarket chain for taking the responsible step in participating even at the risk of losing money should any of their seafood be found to be high in mercury.

And if you don't already have the GotMercury calculator either loaded on your cell phone or bookmarked in your browser, I would highly recommend that you do so.  To do otherwise is a risk not worth taking.