Sunday, November 24, 2013

Living Ocean Foundation: a 6-year coral reef expedition with hopes of making a difference

 There are many ocean conservation organizations that support the protection of coral reefs across the globe.  Each organization does the best with the resources that they have available, ranging from scientific research to general public awareness.  My personal interest has always been in groups that are producing quantifiable results, not just fan club-like support, although each has its place.  In my experience, I have found that what moves the bar forward in terms of international and regional policy-making are results that are meaningful to the politicians and diplomats who make the decisions that can have a direct impact on the preservation of coral reefs.

The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation is one such organization that has been involved in an ambitious project to catalog the reefs of the world in a way that provides policy-makers with the information they need to make, hopefully, informed and responsible decisions.  The organization, founded in 2000 with considerable financial support from Prince Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, has been involved in a six-year expedition to document the condition and health of coral reefs, utilizing a variety of media formats and standardized scientific measurement methods and protocols.

I have been fortunate to have had several conversations at past ocean conservation events with the foundation's executive director, Capt. Philip Renaud, USN retired.  With the release of the foundation's new, revamped website, I took the opportunity to address some questions to Capt. Renaud while he was on location exploring the coral reefs in New Caledonia, 750 miles east of Australia.   

RT: You’re currently on board the Golden Shadow in New Caledonia; what are you finding as to the current condition of the coral reefs there?
PR: New Caledonia holds a special place on our list of Global Reef Expedition sites. The coral reefs are in exceptionally good health here when put in context with the severity of the global coral reef crisis. The species diversity and high percentage of living coral cover are remarkable. We are presently surveying the most northerly atolls, which are called the D’entrecasteaux Atolls. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site managed by the Government of New Caledonia. There is very low anthropogenic stress on these reefs and atolls. Most notably, the top-level predators are abundant. We observe numerous sharks on nearly every dive and there are large groupers, Napoleon Wrasse, sea turtles, tuna, etc. on most dives. There are some worrying signs, however. There are quite a lot of diseased coral colonies and we discovered an outbreak of coral eating Crown of Thorns Sea stars at one small atoll.  Also, around the mainland, there is a large amount of run-off and sedimentation from the mining industry which negatively impacts water quality.

RT: You are about halfway into the Living Ocean Foundation’s 6-year commitment to the Coral Reef Expedition.  This is much more than an extended tropical dive vacation; what are the quantifiable goals that have been set forth for this expedition?  How are you serving – or intend to serve – both the scientific community and the marine policy community?
PR: The Global Reef Expedition is surveying across gradients (change) of biodiversity and anthropogenic (caused by man) stress. The data we collect will therefore permit us to separate natural disturbances from anthropogenic stress.  At the last International Coral Reef Symposium, one of the keynote speakers criticized coral scientists for not standardizing survey methods. We claim to be the first global coral expedition that is applying standardized survey protocols around the world.  Therefore, the Global Reef Expedition will provide coral reef scientists the ability to objectively compare and contrast reef health region to region and reef to reef.  We are also focusing on measuring indicators of coral reef resilience to get an understanding of whether or not coral reefs will be able to get through the climate change bottleneck. We create high-resolution habitat maps everywhere we survey to empower resource managers and accelerate the creation of networks of Marine Protected Areas.  We also only visit countries that have invited us thereby demonstrating the political will to implement conservation measures.  The Global Reef Expedition acts as an accelerant and catalyst to reef conservation.

RT: What will the general public ultimately gain from your expedition?  How do you plan to package your data for meaningful “general consumption”?
PR: The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation has a vibrant film production program and we’re broadcasting films that build awareness of the coral reef crisis and also talk about solutions. We place emphasis on effectively communicating science to decision makers and the general public. We have also started an exciting new coral reef education program with interactive, turn-key curricula, a Coral Reef Educator on the Water (C.R.E.W.) Program where we take a teacher on an expedition, and we have a Science Without Borders© Challenge program where students win prizes for the best submission of multi-media projects focused on an ocean conservation theme.

RT: You have several more years to go, but at this point, what does your team see as the primary reasons or causes for the healthy reefs you have seen so far; and what is impacting the unhealthy reefs?
PR: Coral Reefs are very inter-dependent and highly complex ecosystems.  Coral Reefs need connectivity with mangroves, sea grass beds, and other reefs to stay healthy.  They also need a healthy fish population.  Fish need corals and corals need fish to thrive. Each organism on the reef plays a functional role to maintain health of the reef.  Just like a city, a coral reef has street cleaners, policemen, carpenters, plumbers, construction workers, garbage collectors, etc.  If you started removing these functional components out of your city one by one, your city would soon become a disaster.  Same goes for the coral reefs.  We’ve loved them to death for too long by extracting everything of value we possibly can.  We’ve removed the predators, scrapers, grazers, detritivores, and herbivores off the reef.  We’ve polluted, dynamited, poisoned and bulldozed coral reefs.  Now we’re cooking the reefs with global warming. It’s a very tough situation. Our Global Reef Expedition has found that the reefs that are most remote and inaccessible are without a doubt the healthiest.  And, of the reefs that are close to big population centers, those reefs afforded protection are doing much better than unprotected reefs. That being said, it seems as if no reef, no matter how remote, is immune to the long reach of man. Global warming and ocean acidification is affecting reefs everywhere now. Our hope is that if we can quickly remove many of the local stressors such as pollution, sedimentation, and over-fishing, that the natural resilience of coral reefs will prevail in the face of climate change stress (the bottleneck) until such time as the world shifts to clean energy and sustainable fishing and land use practices.   

RT: There’s a lot to see and do on the new Living Oceans Foundation website.  Any suggestions as to how to get the most out of it for someone new to coral conservation?
PR: My suggestion is to concentrate on the “resources” tab.  Our goal is to continue to build the resources available on our website to become the go-to source for resource managers, educators, scientists and the general public.  We’ve really just begun so visit our site frequently.  One resource I’d like to bring to your attention is the World Web Map.  This is a new and unique map application that displays all of our coral reef habitat maps with more and more coming on-line continuously.  This is a prototype application that we’re very excited about.  It is interactive and there is a data portal built in that allows anyone to download the underlying data for free. 

Source: Living Oceans Foundation website 
Source: New Caledonia

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Orcas on Parade: time to close the circus of marine mamals

Throughout 2013, there has been a spike in interest as to whether or not organizations like Sea World should have marine mammals like whales, particularly orcas or "killer whales," dolphins, porpoises, and even seals and sea lions in captivity.  Part of this heightened interest has been due to the release of the documentary "Blackfish" which recently was aired to much fanfare and additional news programming material on CNN.

In the documnetary, the 2010 death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca named "Tilikum" at Sea World's amusement park, in Orlando, Florida, was investigated.  The details leading up to that tragic incident and the subsequent aftermath was used to look at the broader history of orcas in captivity and the impact on the animals physical and psychological condition.

In past posts, I have expressed my views regarding maintaining marine mammal like whales and dolphins in captivity for entertainment purposes. (Click here, and here.)  For whatever, broad educational or even research purpose it may have served, dating back as much as fifty years, that rationale has run its course.   

My initial first-hand experience with whales and dolphins was in the early 60's at Southern California's Marineland of the Pacific, watching pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins leaping into the air and jumping through fiery hoops.  It was impressive to see such animals and to wonder if there was something more to these animals' purpose than the simple commodity by which they were being viewed by segments of the commercial fishing industry.  From those early days, the public slowly became aware of the social intricacies of these animals, their advanced forms of communication and echolocation for hunting, and their threatened existence due to aggressive whale hunting.  Attitudes and policies slowly shifted as a steady stream of scientific research and facts changed our perception of these animals, and the fate of several species have benefited significantly for it.

Through this entire process of awareness, one activity remained virtually unchanged in the face of new facts: the use of marine mammals as entertainment. What science didn't know then, we know now.  And we know better. 

While there are many aquatic amusement parks throughout the world, Sea World is by far the largest and most extensive organization.  It is involved in four different areas of research and/or entertainment: traditional aquaria, marine research, marine animal rescue & rehabilitation, and aquatic amusement park.  To give Sea World a measure of credit, it has been responsible for some significant marine research and animal rescue and rehab work.  And it has fulfilled the traditional role of combining education and entertainment through some of its aquarium settings.  However, its role as an aquatic amusement park has become its flagship activity and the most easily marketable one.  Having the public watch whales and dolphins do tricks is what Sea World is known for; it is a major revenue stream for the organization and, ironically, helps support the other activities.

From a purely business perspective, to radically alter the Sea World business model by eliminating its whale, dolphin, and seal programs, would be a very risky step.  Marine mammal shows have been a cash cow for so long, it would be hard to walk away from it.  This is the same dilemma environmentalists face in dealing with the energy companies.  Regardless of the obvious benefits to the environment from a major shift to alternative energy, the extant of change required to the established business model, the disruption of the status quo, is more than the energy companies are prepared to willingly endure.  However, if a change in public perception were to occur and, by extension, a change in attitude regarding marine mammals for entertainment purposes that equates to diminishing ticket sales, then Sea World's decision could possibly be made for them by the demands of the marketplace.

Some defenders of Sea World have compared the whale and dolphin shows to that of zoos and aquariums; that the public learns about orcas through these shows just like someone learns about tigers at a zoo.  I beg to differ.  Zoos and aquariums strive to show animals in as natural of an environment as possible, so that people can develop an appreciation for the animal in a more real world setting, seeing them behave as they would in the wild.  To be sure, zoos and aquariums are not without fault.  We have all seen animals in confinement exhibit unnatural behaviors - from the path habits of pacing big cats in bleak cages to the neurotic ticks and twitches of elephants - and there are the occasional entertainment shows with monkeys or exotic birds.  But zoos and aquariums have evolved to gain a better appreciation of their role and it has been reflected in improved exhibits for the animals' physical and psychological needs and a dedication to informing the public as to the ecological importance of the animals.  One goes to the zoo to see the tiger and marvel at an important jungle predator - not to see it jump through a hoop.

Perhaps, decades ago, going to a whale or dolphin show was the only way a person could learn anything about these animals and come away with some degree of awareness and appreciation.  However, in light of the amount of written material, pictures, and films or videos about whales and dolphins in today's information age, it is impossible to justify keeping pelagic marine mammals in confining concrete enclosures and having them leap in the air on command as the price to be paid for our knowledge and enlightenment.

But what is it about seeing a whale give a trainer a ride on its back that attracts the general public?  Why does seeing a dolphin shake its head back and forth and squeal for a hand-delivered fish fill the seats?  Why are we entertained when a sea lion balances a ball on its nose while clapping its flippers?  Sadly, people will pay money to watch these stupid tricks because, regardless of what is said at the time regarding the animals intelligence, it humors our sense of superiority.  

For some people, it is unsettling deep down to realize there are other creatures on this planet who have unique abilities that equal or even surpass our own.  We must be the dominant species, in their minds, and so they are only prepared to consider an orca as something more than a "dumb fish" if it can demonstrate it by doing something demeaning, something that it would never do on its own in its natural environment.  It does it because we, the vastly superior species, taught it to do so.  With each and every marine mammal show, consciously or unconsciously, our human arrogance is what is being put on display.

And it is that insecure pomposity with our role in the natural order of things that continues to feed Sea World's coffers.  When more people realize that no aquatic amusement park can provide suitable confinement for a marine mammal who - by virtue of its size or its echolocation, radar-like abilities - requires both space and nurturing social interaction, then organizations like Sea World and others around the world will change.  These are businesses that are providing what the public wants to see.  We must see these animals in a new light just as we must see our role and purpose on this planet in a whole new light.

We know better. 

Source: Sea World
Source: Blackfish 
Source: RTSea posts 1, 2 & 3