Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Moose in Peril: a vanishing victim of climate change

With large antlers, long legs, and a notoriously grumpy disposition, the moose has been to some a symbol of the cold rugged regions of North America, and a classic cartoon figure to others. In either case, it is an icon of the wilderness. And it is vanishing.

According to scientists, the culprit behind this loss is climate change. In areas like upper Minnesota and Michigan, over the last 40 years temperatures have risen 12 degrees in the winter and 4 degrees in the summer. This has been sufficient enough to reduce the populations of moose by 50% or more. Says John Vucetich, a population biologist at Michigan Technological University, "The trends for the past 20 years are pretty clear, and if they keep up there won't be any moose in 50 years."

Whereas deer, bears, and wolves have better adapted to changing temperature by moving northward, the moose is more sedentary. They require shade, water, and cool weather. Climate change impacts these requirements and the moose is unable to obtain enough food to generate fat in the summer that carries it through the winter. All this stress affects the immune system, leaving the animal more susceptible to parasites. In short, they stay put and die.

The moose is not currently on the U.S. endangered species list and with the Bush administration proposing last minute regulations that will prohibit federal agencies from evaluating the effects of global warming in regards to animal species, it will be up to the incoming administration to clear that political stumbling block so that environmental decisions and policies can be fashioned based on scientific truth.

"I don't see the temperature change we're seeing as cyclical," says Rolf Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Tech. "The trend is definitely in one direction." But unfortunately, it may be too late for the moose in the lower 48 states. "There's not a lot of opportunity to turn this around," said Mark Lenarz, a wildlife specialist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Remember Bullwinkle once said to his cartoon pal, "Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat." Oh, if only he could.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Better Year for Sharks 2008: a look back by SharkDiver.com

There are a lot of year-end assessments being made by many leading conservation groups and I'll be highlighting some in the coming days. From my friends at SharkDiver.com, here's a look back - or maybe I should say a look forward . . .

"As we get close to a wrap for 2008 there's a chance to look back at a remarkable year for the shark diving industry and for shark conservation.

To say that things have solidified on the conservation front is an understatement...what we have now is a full fledged, organic, top to bottom shark conservation movement, and it's paying dividends.

Last week
Yahoo's Alibaba and Taobao web portals announced they are apparently discontinuing all advertising and trade of shark products as of January 1st, 2009. This stunning announcement lays two more giant cornerstones into the shark conservation movement.

On the commercial shark diving front a growing awareness of "being a global 200 million dollar industry" and the absolute need now for local site conservation efforts. The old paradigm of just maintaining commercial operations is being replaced by site activism, awareness, site stewardship and shark conservation measures. It has taken a series of horrific local site kills from South Africa to the Bahamas to bring this issue to the front burner-but it's here and operations are slowly pushing back. It is also good to mention the several forward thinking operations from Fiji to South Africa who have been leading this charge for years now. It starts with "One".

Has this been a
good year for sharks? No, the slaughter continues unabated, but that slaughter is no longer being conducted in a total vacuum. NGO's, websites, blogs, major news outlets, literally thousands of people are, getting involved, raising banners and spreading awareness like wildfire.

remarkable really when you consider all of this has been for sharks. Not Panda's (sorry Panda People) but sharks. There's still a lot of work to do, the announcement by Alibaba and Taobao comes with a caveat yet to be announced. Our hunch is this valuable division within the company has been transferred to another site perhaps as a stand alone "take the heat and answer to no one", time will tell.

For now we can all enjoy the fact the shark conservation round table has no empty seats...let the fist pounding begin!"

Birch Aquarium to screen "Island of the Great White Shark"

For those of you in the San Diego/Southern California area, here's some information on an upcoming screening/lecture of Island of the Great White Shark at the Birch Aquarium on Tuesday, January 6th.

Following the screening, I'll be there to take questions and prattle on about filming sharks, shark conservation and the latest news regarding Isla Guadalupe's white sharks.
If you have the time before the event, take a stroll around the aquarium. It's a wonderful showcase of not only the oceans but oceanography as the aquarium is affiliated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the nation's leading educational and research organizations devoted to marine science.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Future Head of NOAA: Dr. Jane Lubchenco - a great choice

With President-Elect Obama's selection of Dr. Jane Lubchenco as chief administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a very positive step has been taken in putting in place the type of qualified scientific leadership that an organization like NOAA requires. Her appointment has been met with cheers from major conservation and environmental organizations nationwide.

Dr. Lubchenco's credentials are most impressive: A professor of marine biology and zoology at Oregon State University who received her Ph.D. at Harvard, she is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is also a MacArthur "genius" fellow and Pew fellow in Marine Conservation. Lubchenco was a presidential appointee for two terms on the National Science Board and has been a member of the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Pew Oceans Council.

While NOAA is indeed a government agency and its leaders must be well-versed in the art of politics and diplomacy to accomplish their mission, it must be said that to have a scientist at the helm who happens to be a qualified administrator - rather than the other way around - is what is most needed at NOAA. This is critical so that NOAA can stay focused as a science-based source of environmental policy, rather than becoming a political mouthpiece for pro-industry (ie: anti-environment) constituencies. If President-Elect Obama is to make good on some of his campaign rhetoric regarding the environment, he will need the support of scientists like Dr. Lubchenco to provide the hard facts, opinions, and solutions.

President-Elect Obama has said, "All of us know the problems rooted in our addiction to foreign oil it constrains our economy, shifts wealth to hostile regimes, and leaves us dependent on unstable regions. These urgent dangers are eclipsed only by the long-term threat of climate change, which unless we act will lead to drought and famine abroad, devastating weather patterns and terrible storms on our shores, and the disappearance of our coastline at home."

As part of his scientific "A-Team", the PETT (President-Elect's Transition Team) will need to engage people of Dr. Lubchenco's caliber. And they will need many more of them. Let's wish her well.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Best Wishes from the RTSea Blog

Whatever your personal beliefs, may you all have a joyous holiday season spent with family and friends. Let's hope that in 2009 and for many years to come, mankind focuses its attention on the importance of the planet's natural resources.

Richard Theiss/RTSea Productions

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Refinery Pollution: U.S. Court closes loophole

In another piece of encouraging news, the U.S. Court of Appeals decided on Friday to close a gaping loophole in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on refinery pollution by striking down a provision that allowed refineries to exceed pollution limits during start-ups, shut-downs, and equipment outages.

According to a suit filed by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental defense firm, on behalf of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, refineries have overused and/or abused this regulation, enabling them to spew tens of millions of pounds of excess toxic pollutants annually.

"We are elated," said Jesse Marquez, head of the Wilmington, CA-based Coalition for a Safe Environment, a plaintiff in the suit.

The court had ruled that the EPA's regulation exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act. This ruling will impact facilities nationwide, particularly in Southern California, Texas, and Louisiana where there are concentrations of refinery facilities.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

China's Largest Shopping Site Bans Sale of Shark Fin Products

Here's some good news that was posted today on the SharkDivers blog:

BEIJING, Dec. 19 -- The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW-www.ifaw.org.cn) congratulates Taobao (www.taobao.com.cn), China's largest shopping website for its ban on the sale of shark fin products on the site. Taobao.com announced to its 400 million online members that all shark fin products will be banned from trade on Taobao.com starting 1, January 2009.

The announcement was made as part of a campaign IFAW and Taobao collaboratively initiated to combat online wildlife crime. In the unprecedented collaboration, IFAW and Taobao.com share information about online illegal wildlife trade and jointly raise consumer awareness about the detrimental impact wildlife trade has on species in the wild.

Asia is the main market for shark fin products. In major cities in China, shark fin soup is readily available on the menu in restaurants. With the coming of Chinese New Year Festivals, shark fin soup consumption will significantly increase.

However, fueled by big profit margins and the increase in shark fin consumption, overfishing of sharks is threatening more than 50 percent of the shark species with extinction. As top predators in the ocean, sharks play an important role in keeping ecosystem balance. However, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed globally each year.

"Consuming shark fin is not only harmful to the marine biodiversity, but promotes the cruel practice of shark finning, where sharks had their fins cut off then thrown back into the ocean, still alive, die a horribly painful death." said Grace Gabriel, IFAW's Asia Regional Director. "It is our choice as consumers to say No to shark fin products. Consuming wildlife equals killing."

Taobao's decision to ban shark fin was also applauded by its users. In an online message, a Hangzhou netizen condemns the shark fin trade by posting shocking pictures of shark finning. According to this posting, 5000 Kilos of shark fin are consumed daily in Beijing alone. Active Taobao users also call on others to report online shark fin sales to site management when the notice takes effect in January.

Peter Pueschel, IFAW's Program Manager hailed the move. "This is really amazing and wonderful that the leading cyber market provider in the biggest shark fin consumer nation bans shark fins. What a strong signal to other auction sites and governments in other parts of the world!"

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Northern Marianas Islands: a possible marine monument with your help

In June of 2006, one of the year's high points in ocean conservation occurred with the designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a marine monument, providing well-needed federal protections as a marine sanctuary and no-take zone. A similar effort is being promoted for the Northern Marianas Islands.

The Northern Marianas Islands, a commonwealth with political ties to the United States (it abides by most federal laws and citizens carry U.S. passports), is part of the Marianas Island chain ranging from Guam in the south to the northern islands that include Saipan, Rota, and Tinian. Geologically linking these islands is the famed Marianas Trench, the lowest point on the Earth's crust.

The Pew Environment Group is leading the charge, with the support of the Coral Reef Alliance, to have the northernmost area of the islands designated as a marine monument, similar to what was done for Hawaii. The area in question is relatively remote with pristine reefs, several species of seabirds and sea turtles and, of particular interest, deep sea vents due to the area's undersea geologic/volcanic activity - a terrific potential deep sea laboratory.

At this point, the campaign to have the area designated a marine monument is in the early stages, with public awareness as a key motivating factor. Log on to the Pew Environment Group or Coral Reef Alliance web sites to learn more and add your name to a growing letter campaign to make the designation a reality.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Last Minute Shopping: gifts that make a statement

One week left in the 2008 holiday shopping season and while many of us are scaling back this year, let me make one last crass plug (I promise!) at some last minute gift ideas for you or your friend's stockings:

A small contribution to the any of the conservation groups/NGO's and aquariums I have mentioned in this blog would be appreciated. We have all been hard hit by the downturn in the economy and non-profit groups are no exception. We provide the vocal support to causes but they do all the real legwork. Just thumb through past postings to get some ideas.

Working on converting someone to becoming a shark advocate and need a little "lubrication" to close the deal? Try any one of the fine wines from Shark Trust Wines. This is a great company with both, a great product and message: a portion of its revenue is donated to shark research organizations. One great example of how business can support conservation.

And while you're enlightening your friends to shark conservation, give them a different perspective on the most misunderstood of all sharks, the great white shark, with a DVD of Island of the Great White Shark - available at several leading aquariums and retail outlets in addition to Amazon.com. This award-winning documentary has received accolades from marine conservation organizations for its accurate portrayal of these magnificent predators while educating the viewer to the ongoing research taking place and the threats that these animals are facing.

The Arctic Permafrost: a ticking time bomb of greenhouse gases

After having had the opportunity to travel through a portion of the Northwest Passage, above the Arctic Circle, documenting evidence of climate change for the marine research organization InMER, I became more interested in what is happening to this region and the implications. There are some serious issues beyond what is most often portrayed in the news: the threatened polar bear.

In the recent issue of SeaWeb's Marine Science Review #290: Climate and Climate Change, several articles and abstracts outline studies made regarding the effects of rising temperatures
on the permafrost that forms the primary ground cover in the region. Permafrost is, in essence, a frozen soil layer. The upper or active portion of the layer supports flora with shallow root structures - different types of moss and lichen abound and bushes or trees do not grow there.

But also trapped in that frozen layer is a considerable amount of organic carbon and methane and as the temperature increases, those potential greenhouse gases can be released. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it makes the permafrost a ticking time bomb.

The SeaWeb review sited two articles: "Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: Implications for the global carbon cycle" (BioScience 58[8], 2008) and "Soil microbial respiration in arctic soil does not acclimate to temperature" (Ecology Letters 11[10], 2008). Really exciting, attention-grabbing titles, I know, and they're very heavy on the academic/scientific gobbledygook but what it boils down to is that with even a slight increase in temperature, the permafrost experiences an increase in soil decomposition that releases the trapped organic carbon and methane. And there is a considerable amount held in that frozen soil.

It's another example of the "cascade effect" where one change - an increase in temperature - causes a myriad of other changes, with some of these changes feeding back into the original issue and exacerbating the problem.

The polar bear can generate well-deserved public sympathy and hopefully provide impetus to address the problem of climate change. But it's a multi-faceted problem with potential land mines right under our feet.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Undersea Voyager Project: preserving the human experience in exploration and discovery

I had the pleasure of attending a press event for the Undersea Voyager Project that was held at one of my regular stomping grounds, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA. It's great to attend these events as you get to meet new people with similar interests, concerns, and passions for marine conservation.

The Undersea Voyager Project is headed up by Scott Cassell, who has done considerable
study and research on the Humboldt Squid - a particularly voracious predator typically found in deeper water but makes more local appearances from time to time. The primary thrust of the Project is an ambitious program involving submersibles and a variety of different marine science projects, culminating in the development of a larger submersible that will act as an undersea classroom bringing science to the general public in a very real and as-it-happens way.

I find this very exciting because throughout my involvement in marine conservation as a filmmaker and giving screenings and lectures, I have found that there is a tremendous amount of scientific data that does not get effectively translated into issues, implications and solutions for the general public to understand and appreciate. As an example, we have decades of data documenting climate change - and yet there are still many people who refuse to accept it.

Organizations like the Undersea Voyager Project can be of tremendous benefit in enlightening the public, young and old, to important issues regarding our oceans. Marine conservation must not be obscure or vague; it must be made real and tangible to all people: to the general public, to the decision-makers, and to the future generations of scientists-in-the-making.

Check out the Undersea Voyager Project web site and give it your support.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Adminstration's Parting Gifts: rolling back environmental protections

In the U.S., outgoing administrations participate in a time-honored tradition of last minute skulduggery that has ranged from taking the White House linen and gluing the computer keys to issuing executive pardons and orders or rulings of dubious merit - Democrats and Republicans alike have been guilty.

Questionable orders can be overturned under the Congressional Review Act. However, the effectiveness of the act is hampered by the requirement that the order or regulation being overturned must be done in its entirety - and many bad rulings are attached to a good one, thereby providing a protective shield.

Whether you are an advocate or critic of the past administration, it can be a fair statement that its record on the environment has not been stellar. A concerted effort was made to avoid recognizing scientific advice and reports as required for determining species status under the Endangered Species Act if doing so would mean recognizing the existence of global warming (I have noted this in previous postings). In its closing days, the current administration has been generating a series of executive orders and/or rulings that roll back many environmental safeguards. Here are a few:
  • Federal agencies would no longer be required to have government scientists assess the impact on imperiled species before giving the go-ahead to logging, mining, drilling, or other development.
  • The rule would also prohibit federal agencies from taking climate change into account when weighing the impact of projects that increase greenhouse emissions.
  • Finalized a rule that allows the coal industry to dump waste from mountaintop mining into neighboring streams and valleys
  • A rule relaxes air pollution standards near national parks, allowing coal plants to be built next to many of our most spectacular vistas - a rule established over the objections of 9 out of 10 EPA regional administrators.
  • Opening up 2 million acres of mountainous lands in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming for mining oil shale, even though the technique consumes considerable water resources (and the administration has admitted it doesn't know if the technology is viable).
  • A new regulation will allow animal waste from factory farms to seep, unmonitored, into our waterways. The regulation leaves it up to the farms themselves to decide whether their pollution is dangerous enough to require them to apply for a permit.
  • A similar rule will exempt factory farms from reporting air pollution from animal waste.
  • In the chemical industries, more than 100 major polluters have been exempted from monitoring their lead emissions and a rule is proposed to allow industry to treat 3 billion pounds of hazardous waste as "recycling" each year.
Now it's true that environmental safeguards have always been costly to big business and impose hardships on their established revenue models. But in light of an overwhelming and growing body of evidence, to ignore them or worse, circumvent them, is the epitome of shortsighted thinking, oriented towards only short-term goals - something that we as humans have been notorious at doing.

For the incoming administration, it will be difficult enough dealing with the challenges of climate change/global warming and developing an effective long-term energy policy. But it will also have to deal with the many environmental land mines the current administration has left in its path.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Media Picks Up On 2007 Shark Cage Breach: sending the wrong message on the Internet

There has been a lot of media attention in the past few days on a YouTube video showing a great white shark breaching a shark cage at Isla Guadalupe. While this event happened last year, it has suddenly become an item of interest across several online and broadcast news media outlets. As often happens with the media regarding shark-related incidents, the event has for the most part been presented for the benefit of its sensationalistic aspects - with key facts that would place it in its proper context being left out.

The breach occurred as a 15-foot white shark swallowed a fish suspended from a line to the boat (known as "hangbait"). The shark took the bait and continued forward, careening into the cage and once wedged between two bars, proceeded to thrash and severely damage the cage - much to the chagrin of the two divers inside (who escaped unharmed).

What is clear in the video is that the boat crew in charge of handling the hangbait in the water did not adhere to proper and safe baiting techniques - primarily in allowing the hangbait to float in front of the cage, leaving a shark that approaches from directly behind the bait without any room for maneuvering away from the cage. Comments have been made in some reports that the shark rolled its eye back (a protective action often part of the bite reflex) and in so doing, blinded itself to the oncoming cage. That's nonsense to blame the shark. Because of the position of the bait, the 15-foot shark was put on a collision course with the cage. Fortunately, the shark did not appear to be injured and ultimately freed itself.

Eco-tourism of all kinds involves a certain measure of risk, even in the best of circumstances - charging animals on the defensive, harsh locales, etc. But with the many misconceptions that surround sharks, any incident involving these predators becomes a hot item for the media and fuel for the critics of shark diving. With the volume of shark videos across video Internet sites like YouTube, shark eco-tourism operators and concerned shark divers/advocates must be acutely aware as to the public relations implications (FYI: The diver who took the video made a very poor showing on Thursday's TODAY program. So much for his 15 minutes of fame.).

Within the Mexican government, there are forces who would prefer to see Isla Guadalupe closed off entirely to all shark eco-tourism. This would be a potentially tragic step because:
  • Shark eco-tourism at Isla Guadalupe, properly run and managed, can educate and enlighten people to the true nature of these important animals while providing a needed revenue stream for supporting the island's "biosphere" status.
  • The shark eco-tourism operators have provided an effective platform to support Mexican and international research efforts - both logistically and financially.
  • The Mexican government does not have the resources to effectively watch over the population of sharks that migrate to the island in the late fall/early winter months. Shark eco-tourism operators have acted as unofficial watchguards, keeping commercial fishing boats and/or poachers away.
While accidents can and will happen, operators must adhere to dive protocols that promote safety for both divers and sharks if they wish to see their business continue. And when divers and/or eco-tourism operators promote shark diving under the antiquated model of "macho adventure", "staring down the malevolent man-eater", etc., they are sealing the fate of an important avenue for conservation awareness.

Feds to Protect Elkhorn & Staghorn Coral: but climate change threats are ignored

NOAA's Fisheries Service is increasing its protection of threatened elkhorn and staghorn corals in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands through a new rule to prohibit activities that result in death or harm to either species. The rule will prohibit the import, export, take, and all commercial activities involving elkhorn and staghorn corals, including collection or any activities that result in the corals' mortality or injury, anchoring, grounding a vessel, or dragging any other gear on these corals; damaging their habitat; or discharging any pollutant or contaminant that harms them.

In a related move, the federal agency has designated almost 3,000 square miles of reef area off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as critical habitat for the threatened corals under the Endangered Species Act.

As important reef-builders in the Florida and Caribbean reef ecosystems, this would appear to be good news as these coral species have declined by as much as 90 percent in many areas.
However, the conservation organization responsible for prodding NOAA into taking this action, the Center for Biological Diversity, is threatening to file suit against the government, claiming that the pressing issue of threats from climate change and the acidifcation of the oceans is being ingnored or circumvented - in keeping with the current administration's continuing strategy of denial when it comes to climate changes and the actions needed to be taken to address it. (Read complete press release.)

One step forward . . . one step back.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Island of the Great White Shark: Upcoming screening/lecture events and holiday gift DVD

For those of you in the Southern California area, two terrific aquarium organizations are holding screening/lecture events for Island of the Great White Shark. After the screening of the documentary, I will be on hand to field questions about the film, and discuss the current state of affairs at Isla Guadalupe and shark conservation in general. There have been terrific audiences for these events so come show your support or coax a friend along who might not know what all the shark fuss is about or is convinced that all sharks are demons.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography
La Jolla, CA
When: Tues., Jan. 6, 2009, 6:00-8:00pm

For RSVP/tickets, call: 858-534-4109

Heal the Bay (Santa Monica Pier Aquarium) @ Santa Monica Public Library
Santa Monica, CA

When: Wed., Jan. 21, 2009, 7:00-8:30pm
For information, call: 310-393-6149

Hope to see you there!

And one last shameless plug for those of you shopping for the holidays: the Island of the Great White Shark DVD is available online through Amazon,
currently at a reduced price for the holiday season! This award-winning documentary is a great stocking stuffer for shark lovers and those who could benefit from seeing the magnificent great white shark in a different light.

Marine Protected Areas: scientists studying the impacts

The continuing efforts to establish marine protected areas (MPA) or reserves worldwide has been an important issue with many conservation and scientific groups for obvious reasons. Activities ranging from overfishing to pollution have needed to be addressed because of the negative impact they have on marine ecosystems and marine life populations. The juggling act has always been in trying to meet the needs or at least compromise with the various stakeholders: commercial fishing, recreational activities, conservationists, scientists, and more.

Challenging as it is, MPAs continue to be established and now a new challenge facing scientists is the careful monitoring of these areas to see what effects - good or bad - the MPA may be having. I was reading interesting information from a SeaWeb.org Marine Science Review (Marine Protected Areas & Reserves #288). Worldwide, there is a considerable amount of research taking place regarding MPAs. Some of the issues they are studying have to do with bio-dispersion - the movement of marine species within a given area. We humans may define an area as "protected" but marine species don't read the fine print and may not stay within safe borders. Depending on the size, sex, and bio-density, a species that moves into harvesting areas, outside an MPA's borders, could be severely impacted. On the other hand, species of less commercial value could profligate within the MPA and perhaps upset the overall ecosystem - one example I read concerned increased populations of parrotfish which consume coral.

While the overall concept of marine protected areas and reserves seems to make environmental sense, scientists are hard at work developing new methodologies and research methods to be able to properly monitor the long term consequences of our efforts to preserve and protect our oceanic resources.

Monday, December 1, 2008

RTSea Blog: dedicated to communicating in 2009

The sun is beginning to set on 2008 and, to say the least, it has been an interesting year. The RTSea Blog, in existence for more than a year, has been in its current format for six months now. It has been a very stimulating and motivating experience; I seem to learn as much as I mean to convey to others about some of the important environmental issues we are facing.

But now I would like to hear back from my readers as to any comments, ideas, or suggestions you may have to make it a better blog. I will probably always lean toward marine conservation issues, but if there are topics of interest you would like me to cover or changes in tone - more or less confrontational, more or less political, etc. - please let me know.

All comments come to me as emails for my review before being posted in the blog, so if you would prefer not to have your comment posted, just let me know in your comment.

Hopefully the year will end on a positive note. It would be a great precursor to 2009!