Sunday, August 31, 2008

Arctic Summer Sea Ice 2008: Update

On August 6th, I posted a a status report on summer sea ice conditions in the Arctic and the possibility that it might be better than last year's all-time record low. Here's an update from the Associated Press:

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is at its second lowest level in nearly 30 years and with three weeks left in the Arctic summer, this year could wind up breaking last September's all-time record. Arctic ice melts in the summer and refreezes in the winter but more and more ice is being lost to the sea and not recovered in the winter. Ice reflects the sun's heat while the open ocean absorbs more heat and the melting accelerates warming in other parts of the world.

"We could very well be in that quick slide downward in terms of passing a tipping point," said senior scientist Mark Serreze at the data center. The melting causes "Arctic amplification" where the warming up north is increased in a feedback mechanism and the effects spill southward in the autumn as more warm water releases more heat into the air, making the atmosphere warmer than normal. "Climate warming is coming larger and faster than the models are predicting," Serreze said.

The condition of the Arctic Circle is a perfect barometer for what lies ahead in southern climates. We must pay attention.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Understanding Apex Predators: the truth shall set them free

In making a case for conservation and protection of important predators, we must always stick to the facts, understanding the true role and behavior of the animal in question. In generating sympathy for the animal's plight, we must not succumb to the temptation to paint an alternative distorted image that decieves the public and does not do justice to the complexity and balance of Nature's eco-systems.

Tonight, Animal Planet is airing "The Grizzly Man Diaries" about Timothy Treadwell, the young man who spent many years closely observing Grizzly Bears in the wild and promoting these apex predators of the forest as benevolent creatures, communing with them on a quasi-spiritual level. In posturing these important animals outside of their role as predators, he and his girlfriend paid the ultimate price as they were attacked and killed by a bear who was probably on the hunt and whose natural predatory instincts kicked in.

I have seen this same sort of misrepresentation by some well-meaning but misguided shark advocates. We must not swing the pendulum from one extreme - as malevolent man-eaters - to another extreme - as innocent puppy dogs. This does a disservice to these predators and assumes that the public is unable to appreciate these animals for the critical role they play.

And it can put people in harm's way, people who have chosen to enter the natural domain of these animals with a misguided understanding of the role and behavior of an apex predator.
In interacting with sharks, eco-tourism/shark diving operations have a responsibility to do so in a controlled environment. And the print and broadcast media have a responsibility to present these animals in their proper context.

It is abundantly clear that the populations of many of our larger species of reef and pelagic sharks are being decimated in staggering proportions. But to combat that commercial slaughter, we must not resort to "humanizing" these animals. In a Los Angeles Times review of the Treadwell program, staff writer Mary McNamara wrote:
" is impossible to walk away from "The Grizzly Man Diaries" without thinking about the place of humans in the natural world, of how we impose our definitions of love and friendship on creatures who may not be able to reciprocate and why we need to do so at all."

The truth is, one, animals like large sharks and grizzly bears are magnificent, beautiful creatures worthy of our awe and respect. And two, they play a critical role in maintaining the health and balance of the natural ecosystems in which they exist. And three, they are apex predators - and because of that, if we interact with them, either deliberately or accidentally, we must understand their natural behavior and not unfairly "humanize" them. If we do not, we misrepresent them and ultimately betray their cause for survival.

Check your local TV listings for air dates of "The Grizzly Man Diaries."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tigers: another priceless predator that needs our help

Stepping on to dry land for a moment, there are other predators besides sharks that are being threatened. Tigers are certainly in that category - there are less than 5,000 tigers left in the wild. Much like the shark fishing/finning industry, there is a clandestine black market industry that feeds an Asian market for tiger parts - a market with a long cultural history, but one that can be changed with continued vigilance.

The future of the tiger rests in the efforts of governments to prohibit and enforce against illegal poaching, for international cooperation in curtailing illegal trafficking, and for conservation organizations to continue their efforts to educate the public to curtail demand. One of the great dilemmas faced by many endangered animals like tigers, mountain gorillas, and sharks is that as their numbers become more scarce their black market value increases, making the poacher more embolden and willing to defy the law.

WildAid is one of the leading organizations dedicated to ending the trade in endangered animals. They have an excellent video that covers the issue regarding tigers. Take a look.

Tigers, like sharks, are both beautiful predators and vital to the health of the ecosystems within which they live. Support WildAid's efforts to curb the tiger trade. consulting on the future of shark eco-tourism

"The times, they are a-changing." There seems to be a subtle but growing shift in strategy among many conservation organizations. In the face of past regulations/prohibitions or designated protected areas for endangered animals that have often proven less successful due to lack of resources for effective enforcement, greater attention is being turned towards eco-tourism as a means of increasing public support and providing a more attractive economic model for government and commercial entities to endorse.

I have been honored to assist with providing consulting expertise for shark tourism and the film/television industry. As a marketing communications and media production professional, I look forward to the opportunity to advance the cause of responsible shark eco-tourism as a means of providing effective support to shark conservation.

As new strategies emerge, there will be challenges to address - ecological impact, potential behavioral changes, shifts in third world economies, tourist/diver impact, safety issues for both people and animals, and more. But shark tourism - carefully planned - holds great promise. It can generate enlightenment in people, preserve marine ecosystems that depend on their predators as vital members of the aquatic community, and it can provide economic proof that a living shark is infinitely more valuable than a dead one.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dr. Losing sharks for a bottle of moisturizer

Dr. Susan Lark is an online entrepreneur in the beauty and skin care products industry. Her web site,, offers a range of products. Of particular note is a moisturizer called Ocean Actives Deep Water Squalane. Its key active ingredient is squalane - derived from sharks, particularly deep water sharks. The company claims the squalane is procured from sharks taken as part of the orange roughy fishery. But a comparable substitute is available as a byproduct from olives.

Like many sharks, deep water sharks are very susceptiple to overfishing due to their slow reproductive rates. Not to mention the fact that the orange roughy fishing industry engages in very destructive techniques that damage the sea floor and ensare nearly anything in the path of the nets. And since there is a suitable substitute ingredient derived from olives, it makes little sense to add to the slaughter of deep water sharks and other marine life. has set up a page in their web site where you can send a loud and clear email (click here). Check it out and let's get one more commercial enterprise on the side of marine conservation.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Taiwan National Palace Museum: taking steps against shark finning

When it comes to shark conservation, one of the concepts that I have always stressed is the need for an international, combined strategy that addresses both government/business (the suppliers) and demand (the consumer). Much of the demand for shark products, particularly fins, comes from Asian countries and so, while many western countries support anti-finning regulations, attention must be paid to alter the cultural mindset of the largest shark product market.

The Humane Society International is doing just that, developing relationships with other organizations that can have an impact on Asian society. A great step forward was accomplished recently with their efforts to get Taiwan's National Palace Museum to stop serving shark fin soup. (Read press release.)

Congratulations to the Humane Society and their affiliate, the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST) for their ongoing efforts to enlighten Asian peoples and cultural institutions to the tragic effects of commercial shark fishing/finning.

Since shark aquafarming is most likely a very remote prospect, then attention must be turned towards altering the basic demand for shark products. Working with the decision-makers is one important strategy, but you also have to get right to the source and eliminate demand.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ocean in Focus: Conservation Photography Contest

The Marine Photobank, a program of, is holding a photo contest titled "Ocean in Focus - Conservation Photography Contest." The purpose of the contest is to collect images that show the other side of the coin when it comes to the conditions of our oceans.

With print and online media understandably choosing ocean images that are beautiful and visually striking, the readers/viewers are unfortunately presented with images that seem to imply that everything is okay, that the oceans are healthy. If you are an experienced diver, you know this is not the case and a more balanced portrait would be more in order.

The contest opened on World Ocean Day, June 8th, and continues through the end of September. To learn more, go to web site or click here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bluefin Tuna: new advances in aquafarming

I recently posted a story about Tuna in the Mediterranean. Here's an interesting follow up in this week's TIME magazine. There is an article about the Bluefin Tuna found in the Indian Ocean between Australia and Indonesia (Click here to read article.). The tuna migrate through these waters to breed and because their migratory paths are predictable, their populations have been severely hunted, reduced to 10% of what they were in the 60s - all to meet the demands of the Japanese sushi/sashimi market. Okay, that's the bad news.

The good news is that one company, Clean Seas Tuna, lead by Hagen Stehr, is making progress in developing aquaculture techniques for tricking confined tuna into thinking they are in their happy mating grounds, enabling Clean Seas Tuna to gather fertile eggs for farming. The developed offspring could add to the levels of tuna currently being farmed in open water pens.

While Stehr has his skeptics, it is encouraging to see work continue in improving aquafarming techniques. To meet growing demand, advances will need to be made. Otherwise, many commercial species will continue to head towards eventual depletion.

P.S. - I'm always interested in what pops up in the general media, like TIME. It's an indication of what issues are being disseminated to the public at large. While we marine conservation advocates peruse our various web sites, blogs, and scientific sources, I also make a point of checking on publications as diverse as TIME and Fortune.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Coral Reef Alliance: video of declining reef habitat at Akumal

Kudos to the Coral Reef Alliance for posting a great video by Drew Wohl that highlights how coral reefs are impacted by man-made development. At Akumal, at the Yucatan Peninsula, expanding development is adversely affecting turtle breeding grounds and affecting the overall health of the reef due to sewage (whether treated or not) that causes an increase in algae and bacteria growth.

This is not a unique phenomenon. Supposedly processed sewage disposed at sea has been shown to have detrimental effects worldwide - from California to the Caribbean.
The video the Coral Alliance posted is not all gloom and doom. It shows the benefits of marine protected areas, such as can be found in Cozumel, and how they can protect the health of the reef and, in so doing, support the tourist trade in a more environmentally sensible fashion.

Biodegradable Trash: fact or fiction?

There are many issues that need to be addressed when it comes to conservation. Not sure where to start? Well, try starting with the basics: trash. As a diver, I've had the opportunity to dive in some marvelous locales, but even in the most remote of them, I can come across man's needless neglect of trash. Ocean currents can carry trash thousands of miles away - and even so-called biodegradable trash can leave its imprint over vast distances.

Here are some lifespan figures for several biodegradable items, according to the Bureau of Land Management:
  • Paper: 2-4 Weeks
  • Banana Peel: 3-5 Weeks
  • Wool Cap: 1 Year
  • Cigarette Butt: 2-5 Years
  • Disposable Diaper: 10-20 Years
  • Hard Plastic Container: 20-30 Years
  • Rubber Boot Sole: 50-80 Years
  • Tin Can: 80-100 Years
  • Aluminum Can: 200-400 Years
  • Plastic 6-pack Holder: 450 Years
  • Glass Bottles: Lots and Lots of Years.
But there's a catch to this: biodegradability depends on how the item is stored. In a compost heap, the trash is exposed to microorganisms, bacteria and heat which aid in the process of breaking the material down. But in many landfills, the trash is not exposed to these elements (read Slate article) and can last much, much longer.

It gets even worse at sea, whether floating on the surface or submerged. It has been estimated that there are as much as 45,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile of ocean. There are places at sea where ocean currents cause floating trash to condense into huge, floating mats.

So, step one: put trash where it belongs, in the trash can or proper recycling bin. Don't throw it into the streets (where it ends up in the storm drains which lead straight to the sea) or leave it on the beach.

Already knew this? Good. Now tell your friends. That trash is coming from somewhere.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mercury Levels in Fish: Costco posts FDA advisory

Several species of fish, like pelagic sharks and swordfish, have unsafe levels of mercury and are no longer considered good choices by the FDA for human consumptions (Read FDA advisory). Man-made contaminants can work their way up through the marine food chain until they deposit themselves in animals of commercial value.

Many organizations, like, have lobbied grocers and major supermarket chains for years to post the FDA advisory for its customers. A recent participant has been the major food wholesaler, Costco. The advisory provides important information as to which fish are safe or unsafe - not just a blanket warning against all seafood, which would probably not gain much credibility with the general public.

Ironic that the potential for limiting the commercial demand for sharks and swordfish - which could help in their conservation - comes about due to our poisoning of these animals beyond safe limits. Maybe we should irradiate the Amazon rain forest so that the wood could no longer commercially be safely used for paper or building materials. Crazy logic . . .

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Cascade Effect: more accurate than the domino theory

There was a time when the term "domino effect" was used to describe everything from conservation issues to world domination. When talking about adverse effects on the ecology, scientists today prefer the term "cascade effect" as it more accurately reflects what is happening. Rather than one change affecting something else which affects something else, and so on (like dominoes), the cascade effect reflects how one change affects several others, which affects several more, broadening its overall impact over an entire eco-system.

The once precipitous decline of timberwolves in the U.S. and Canada is a typical example. Heavily hunted because of concerns over cattle losses, the decline in the wolf population caused an increase in the deer population which, in turn, encroached on the cattlemen's grazing land. But also, there was an explosion in the rodent population (also part of the wolves' diet) which impacted insect populations and birds (through loss of bird eggs and chicks) and so on and on . . .

Mankind has a tendency to look for simple cause and effects and simple solutions. Nature is much more complex than that and so we must be constantly aware of the wide-ranging impact of our actions.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Reactions to Shark Week: a shark "hater's" POV

So here is a follow up posting regarding Discovery's Shark Week and attitudes towards sharks in general. In today's Los Angeles Times there is an editorial from write Joe Queenan titled "I Hate Sharks" - can't get more direct than that.

Joe's position is that, even though he realizes the political correctness in recognizing the endangered status of sharks, he still can't get over the impact they have on him as the voracious man-eaters portrayed for centuries. In all fairness, much of his position is satirical. He humorously goes through a laundry list of potential substitutes to dread - from vultures to hyenas to anacondas, and more.

"I only hope that if a shark ever does eat me, he does so because he detects that I am a shark-loathing reactionary and deserve to die. I'd hate to get eaten just because some shark mistook me for a seal."

It's a humorous read but it does touch on some real points: for many there is a deep-seated, almost primal fear of ocean predators (undersea and therefore unseen). And it is those fundamental feelings that much of today's shark programming taps into, despite whatever mantle of pseudo-science it might wrap itself in. Are you there to see the car races - or the car crashes? You decide.

Reactions to Shark Week: a shark lover's POV

Being nice to a tiger shark...
(Photo: Felix Leander / 2008)

Reactions to this year's Shark Week on Discovery Channel cover the spectrum - from love it to hate it. Here is a posting written by Felix Leander of OceanicDreams who is a dedicated free-diver with sharks. It is representative of the position that many conservationists take regarding Shark Week.

"I recorded all the Discovery Shark week episodes this week, and unfortunately I found myself fast forwarding through most of them. How absurd was Myth Busters and Surviving Sharks. It is really unfortunate - watching the show almost had a reverse effect on me; I began to doubt if I should dive with Tigers again...that is just crazy talk! Of course I will, actually this coming November.

On the flip side, a friend of mine also watched the show and has become very interested in sharks; he actually came diving with me in the hopes of seeing one - each to their own I guess.

Around the same time that Shark Week aired, Richard Theiss sent me a copy of his film Island of the Great White Shark - and how refreshing it was to watch. It reminded me of what Shark Week used to be - informative, scientific, and not in the least bit sensational. While Richard directed, wrote, produced, and edited the film - he did not narrate it or appear in front of the camera...unlike a recent docuMEntary... :-)

So Discovery Channel - go back to the roots, take a look at Richard's film and some of your old tapes, and make a comeback in 2009."

As I said in an earlier 7/25 posting, I always have high hopes for this annual homage to shark programming. But as long as Discovery's advertisers are content with the record number of viewers (29+ million this year), the formula will most likely remain the same.

And thank you, Felix, for your kind comments regarding my film!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Aquariums: a bridge between science and the public

I am preparing to leave for the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, as I have done for nearly every Thursday for the past 8 years. As a volunteer Dive Team Leader, I have had the pleasure of helping the Aquarium with exhibit feeding, cleaning and, most importantly, conducting underwater presentations to the kids and adults alike.

If you have an aquarium nearby, check out what opportunities they may have available. As non-profits, they rely heavily on volunteers - so if you have some free time, it can be a very worthwhile and gratifying experience.

People are drawn to aquariums for a variety of reasons. They may be coming to make fish faces at the seals, recoil in fear and fascination at the sharks, or simply looking for a way to let the kids blow off some pent up energy. Whatever their motivation, it's a great opportunity to get across some important marine conservation info in a more relaxed atmosphere. Aquariums can serve as effective liaisons between the scientific community and the general public. So, if you have one nearby, give it your support.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Marine Conservation: start local and wade in

When it comes to marine conservation, we have many challenges facing us on a worldwide level. And I would wholeheartedly recommend you support those organizations that are taking the "big picture" approach - groups like Oceana, Seaweb, WildAid, and many, many others.

But , just like the oceans are made up of countless micro-systems - all interacting to produce small and large consequences, there are many organizations that focus on regional issues, perhaps more close to home. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Center for the Future of the Oceans is one example, focusing on issues that impact the California coastline from Marine Protected Areas to Sustainable Seafood initiatives.

Sometimes, when you wade into all of the issues facing our seas today, it can seem a bit intimidating. But by all means, wade in! Start small, start with what you can do - from cutting back on the air conditioning one day a week, using a car wash that recycles water rather than pouring soapy water into the storm drains (which go right out to the sea), or giving some extra thought when you are at the seafood market counter or restaurant. Every little bit helps.

Remember, move a grain of sand and you have changed the entire beach.

Arctic Summer Ice Conditions - 2008

It was almost a year ago when I had the opportunity to be part of InMER's reconnaissance expedition of the Northwest Passage above the Arctic Circle. As we were completing our route, word came from the National Snow and Ice Data Center that the summer ice was at its lowest level ever recorded. The possibility that - sooner than predicted - the Northwest Passage would be completely open during the summer months, became an important issue because of what that meant for global warming and, conversely, what it meant for potential global shipping by providing a much shorter transoceanic route (See InMER/National Geographic video).

This year, it is anticipated that the summer ice melt won't exceed last year's record due to cooler temperatures in July. But overall, Arctic ice has continued to recede and is much thinner, making it more sensitive to fluctuations in temperature. Commercial interests, due to rising fuel prices and food demands, will put considerable pressure on the region. On the upside, some action is being taken to regulate the potential for expanded industrial fishing in the Arctic regions ( press release).

The Arctic is the 800-pound canary in the room. Not only is its condition simply a warning as to what can happen in greater force in the lower latitudes, but the effect of climate change on the tundra - the scrappy landscape that covers the permafrost or frozen ground underneath - in the form of increased bacteria, encroachment by invasive flora, and the release of CO2 and methane, can have additional impact globally.

The Arctic region make look rugged and impenetrable but, in reality, it is extremely fragile. Learn more at and

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Predator as Prey: new report from

If you have been trying to convince your friends and relatives about the importance of shark conservation but are being dismissed as "that crazy shark lover" - has issued a great report that puts the issue in perspective with easy-to-read terminology and documented examples.

Predators as Prey: Why Healthy Oceans Need Sharks makes a strong case for the need for shark conservation by explaining the impact on marine ecosystems when shark populations decline.
It covers the cascade or domino effects and the impact on shark intimidation (detailed in my July 15th posting). A quick read and visually attractive, it's available in .pdf format for easy emailing to any skeptics or Doubting Thomases you may know.

Oceana press release.

Friday, August 1, 2008

HR 5741 moves to the U.S. Senate for approval

One step at a time . . . HR 5741 - the amendment to close an important loophole in the Shark Conservation Act of 2008 - has passed the House of Representatives and has moved on to the Senate for a vote. This is important legislation that will help put a dent in the taking and processing of shark fins.

The Humane Society is running an online support drive whereby you can email your state senator requesting support and passage of this important piece of shark conservation legislation. To send your senator an email, click here.

Give HR 5741 your support so that we can see it pass through Congress as quickly as possible. One step at a time, but every vote . . . and every fin . . . counts!

HR 5471 (background info)