Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mother Nature Network: a change of pace in conservation news

Do you find yourself getting a little overwhelmed with the weighty subjects and seriousness on many of the conservation sites (this one too sometimes, although I try to keep it in check)? Well, here's an interesting change of pace. . .

My friend Charlotte Vick, communications director for Dr. Sylvia Earle's Deep Search Foundation, brought a web site to my attention: the Mother Nature Network. This site is a patchwork ranging from current conservation news issues to environmental, organic, and green fluff. Want an organic pumpkin pie recipe mixed in with your latest briefing on Washington DC energy policy? Then this just might be the place for you.

Of note is Mother Nature network's Earth Matters department which not only contains the primary big issues but also includes a section titled "Translating Uncle Sam." Here you will find many hot button issues and topics spelled out in layman language, devoid of the heavy jargon you sometimes find in detailed press releases; a good way to get a quick grasp on an issue or provide you with some simpler talking points when discussing the issue with others less well-versed as yourself.

Content contributors run the gamut from The Nature Conservancy to professional bloggers to student contributors; so there's something for everyone here. I am new to the site so I will be checking it out carefully; I noticed some of its sponsors are major energy, technology, and pharmaceutical corporations, so I will be watching for potential bias - let's hope not. Check it out.

Thursday, October 29, 2009 new web site keeps score of accomplishments

There are many conservation organizations vying for our attention and support. I subscribe to several to get the latest updates on what is happening in the world of conservation. Typically each organization has a particular strategy that best maximizes their available resources: some focus on legal action, others go after illegal trade in threatened species, while others focus on general public awareness.

Oceana is one of the larger and more prominent organizations involved in ocean conservation. They approach a wide range of issues and have international reach. They recently revised their web site and I think it's worth a look. While sprucing up a web site with the latest technology in look and feel is common today, what I found noteworthy with Oceana's new web site was some of the information it provides.

In particular, the web site explores various issues and lists what Oceana's involvement is, what they are doing regarding, say, overfishing, ocean acidification, or shark conservation. And then, most importantly, they list their victories. This is critical when you are considering whether an organization is worthy of your support, particularly your financial support: what are they doing and what have they DONE.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of well-intentioned groups out there with worthwhile agendas but, in the end, its what they accomplish that really matters. So it's good to see Oceana providing that kind of information.

The web site also contains information on a long list of various species that are endangered or threatened with extinction. And there is information on many of their ongoing scientific research projects and expeditions, which are of considerable interest to me (I'm always interested in what is going on out in the field and how these results are being communicated to the decision-makers and general public).

Oceana is among my top A-list of committed ocean conservation organizations. Check out their new web site at

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Orcas: new studies show changes in killer whales

When discussions of Arctic or Antarctic species come up, they often focus on polar bears, penguins, and walruses - all animals worthy of our concern and whose populations are at risk from changes in their environment due to climate change, pollution, or oil drilling development.

Orcas - or, if you like, Killer Whales - are also being impacted by environmental changes, some good and some not so good.

In a report from Canadian scientists, there is evidence that orcas are able to manage changes in their ocean environment by moving more northward, extending their uppermost boundaries in the Arctic Circle. This is made possible by the reduction of sea ice, particularly in the summer months.

Orcas typically cruise the thinner edges of the Arctic ice but avoid the thicker ice where access to the surface for breathing would be more limited. The scientists reviewed data of orca sightings dating back centuries and saw a definite increase since 1900 in the Arctic region, including into the Hudson Bay, that coincides with the recorded reduction of the Arctic sea ice. It remains to be seen whether this will disrupt the marine ecosystem as the orcas possibly begin to prey more and more on northern Arctic species like bowhead whales, belugas, and narwhals.

In another study, orcas were cited as a probable cause for the decline of sea otters, seals, and sea lions along southwest Alaska over a period of several decades. Not to completely blame the orcas, the study points to a cause for this change in the orcas' diet as the result of industrialized whaling. Whaling decimated whale populations and deprived orcas of an important food source. Hence the shift to other marine mammals as prey.

Orcas are extremely social animals, living in family units or pods, that can exist for many years, complete with elaborate and close social hierarchies. External stressors (ie: changes in their environment and/or food source) that produced changes in populations have been cited in a recent report as a possible cause for changes in the social structure of orcas in Canadian/U.S. waters. It opens the door for more study as to the impact of habitat change on the social order and survivability of this highly social marine mammal.

And lastly, according to a scientific report, the population of orcas that inhabit the Antarctic's Ross Sea, has apparently been decreasing both in terms of frequency (when observed) and in numbers and the primary culprit is, once again, commercial overfishing. In this case, the overfishing of the Antarctic Toothfish, a primary food source for this particular orca population. Whether the orcas have declined or are moving on to better hunting grounds has yet to be determined. But it is another example of the struggle between man and nature over available marine resources. And if the ocean's animals keep losing - from the smallest feeder fish to large predators like orcas - then ultimately we lose.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Thresher Shark: non-profit dedicated to shark's preservation

Speaking of sharks, here's a species you don't hear too much about and yet faces imminent danger: the thresher shark.

One of the more unusual and distinctive sharks due to its namesake elongated upper caudal fin or tail, it is believed that the shark might use its tail as a hunting device to stun schooling fish. The thresher shark is a popular seafood item in many forms - fresh, dried, salted - and so it's numbers have suffered (all three thresher shark species are listed as "vulnerable" by the IUCN).

Here's a post from the Shark Divers blog, discussing one of the few shark organizations devoted to the thresher shark. Based in the Philippines where considerable local fishing, commercial and, sometimes, illegal fishing takes place, this group has their work cut out for them.

Of the myriad of shark conservation sites worth visiting, none come better then the Thresher shark research & conservation project.

We have been following this site for the past year and are always happy with the vibrant field updates, images, video and news.

Consider taking the time to get to know the team behind the Thresher shark research & conservation project.

Shark conservation efforts are hard enough to get traction with; in places like the Philippines, it's doubly so.

It's takes determination, good outreach, and a serious research program to make a difference.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Shark Trust Wines: saving sharks case by case

Here's a quick plug for a good friend and a great example of business and conservation coming together. Shark Trust Wines was the brainchild of Melanie Marks, ocean and shark conservation advocate, who established the company with the idea of providing a portion of her revenue for shark research and conservation organizations. The company's wines have been served at some of the nation's leading ocean conservation events.

Shark Trust Wines is in the process of clearing out some inventory of quality wines at rock bottom prices. This is a special offer not found on the web site but only through the company's Facebook Fan Page. Check it out and get some great wine for the holidays at one-time only prices.

Visit Shark Trust Wines' web site and Facebook page.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Species Migration: Humboldt squid - a hungry predator moves northward

When we think of "invasive species," one might think of the example of the Lionfish that has invaded Florida waters due to being initially released from a home aquarium. Or perhaps algae, seaweeds or other parasites or bacteria that get discharged from the bilges of freighters and tankers, thousands of miles away from its point of origin.

But there is also species migration, wherein a species enters into a new region sometimes because of a change in its typical prey diet or because of a change in its environment - such as temperature change.

Both factors enter into the migration that has occurred over the past several years by the Humboldt Squid - a large and particularly voracious predator.

I have had the pleasure of working on several potential projects with Scott Cassell, CEO of the Undersea Voyager Project and one of the leading experts on Humboldt Squid, a distinction borne out of his having spent more time face-to-face with these creatures than anyone else. Scott has made the rounds of many news programs to express his concern with the recent regional habitat changes of the Humboldt Squid and what it represents to the balance of the marine and terrestrial ecosystems and even the safety of humans.

The Humboldt Squid is a large deep water predator, typically found along the west coast of Mexico and South America. But over the past several years, there have been two major changes that have impacted this animal. One factor: the overfishing of shallower-water predators that either feed on the squid or on the squid's food supply - thereby establishing territorial boundaries based on depth. Without these shallower predators, the squid can and has begun to roam in search of food. The second factor: increasing water temperatures which have allowed the squid to migrate up the coast and as far north as Washington and Alaska. Another possible variable is that changing temperature and acidification upwardly expands the low-oxygen water column that the squid seems to favor.

Moving into shallower water is of concern to Scott as that can increase the likelihood of a Humboldt Squid encountering curious divers or even swimmers. This past summer, divers were regularly seeing Humboldt Squid during night dives at La Jolla, CA, near San Diego. Whether on the hunt or simply being curious, these animals are not to be taken lightly - they have powerful suckers, a beak that can break bones, and the speed and strength to drag a diver around in the depths.

The squid's migration northward is also of concern because of its ability to disrupt the food supply for other animals. They have been cited by some as being responsible, along with commercial fishing, for a reduction in the northwest population of salmon. And this can impact other animals that depend on this particular food source. As an example, Grizzly Bears count on the fat-rich salmon for building up their stores to survive the winter.

There have been other invasive species migrations due to changing ocean temperatures; in particular, several jellyfish species that have moved into both Northern Atlantic and Pacific waters and doing considerable damage to commercial fishing or aquaculture operations - their stinging tentacles spoil the catch.

But the Humboldt Squid is just not someone you want to bump into in the middle of the night. He's just doing what evolution has taught him to do, but this is one critter than can really give you the willies!

350 Reasons: new web site promotes species protection from climate change

In anticipation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meetings to be held in December at Copenhagen, the Center for Biological Diversity has launched a new web site: 350 Reasons.

The site provides information on 350 species of flora and fauna subject to decline or extinction due to climate change. The significance of the number "350" is that it ties in with the level of atmospheric CO2 emissions (350 parts per million) that has been proposed by many leading scientists as the goal we all should be striving for. Currently, we are averaging 387ppm and it's increasing.

The web site allows you to look up specific species or families - or you can select your home state or region on a map and see what species are at risk.

The web site is all part of an effort to bring more awareness to the importance of the December meetings. You can review the site and sign a petition to President Obama, urging him to follow the proposed 350 ppm guideline as an international objective and mandate in climate change policy.

Check it out here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Filmmaker's Journal: Eastern Sierras in the Fall

California has many magnificent natural resources, from its shoreline to snow-capped mountains - and all need to be conserved and protected.

Joining my good friend, photographer Budd Riker, I recently spent a few days at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, moving from the Alabama Hills, near Lone Pine, up north to the Tioga Pass with stops at Bishop Creek Canyon and Mono Lake. This is a beautiful time of year for this region: the weather is beginning to cool, the Aspens are still ablaze in flaming yellow, and the mountains were dusted with snow from a recent storm.

This trip was more pleasure than professional, getting a feel for a new video camera and forgoing building blinds to capture patience-inspired closeups of various wildlife. (The squirrels and kangaroo rats seemed to know that and would tauntingly appear in the open when they heard the click of the last closing latch on my camera case!) No, this was not business; this was more one of those moments when you just suck it all in: the gorgeous vistas, the wind-rustled leaves, and the chance to clear the cobwebs from your mind.

But finding the occasional Starbucks cup or someones initials carved in the side of an Aspen, there were also those reminders that this is an area that must be protected if it is to be appreciated for generations to come. While we all know what needs to be done regarding local issues like trash and vandalism, we must also consider the larger ecological issues of how climate change, CO2 emissions, and the health of other ecosystems - whether aquatic or terrestrial - are impacting this region.

The Sierra Nevada's may seem light years removed from a South Pacific coral reef, but neither exist in a vacuum - all are connected, all are part of this planet's (and our) life support system.

View more video clips at RTSeaTV.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Commercial Fisheries: new economic objectives for a public resource

I was reviewing several articles regarding fish stocks and fisheries. Many of these articles were based on recent scientific studies covering a range of issues that reflect the current declining state of fish populations and the precarious position that industrialized fishing finds itself.

To be expected, over-fishing is one glaring issue, from declining cod fisheries in the North Atlantic to dwindling anchovy and other "feeder fish" populations in the waters off of developing nations in Africa and Southeast Asia. In some cases it is a matter of specific species depletion and in other cases, it's an overall decline brought about by a disrupted ecosystem.

Bycatch also plays a key role, particularly in areas where industrial fishing is present. This includes longline and driftnet fishing either for pelagic species or bottom-dwellers like rockfish or shrimp.

Then there is climate change, which is disrupting populations by compressing northern habitats for species like cod through overall increases in water temperature. Or the opposite expansion of habitats for warmer-water species has been effecting ecosystems and predator-prey relationships as new species migrate into different regions, also exposing themselves as potential commercial target species.

In Scientia Marina (Vol. 73[2]), Daniel Pauly postulates that the key issues that have sent commercial fishing to the brink of collapse has been a decades-long, post-World War II tri-mix of underreporting, ignoring scientific advise, and blaming the environment whenever a fishery collapsed. And as fisheries weakened, economic decisions were made to expand fishing territories, making agreements with other countries as if the fish in other territorial waters were natural resources that were fixed in place (a kind of "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" view of fish populations). Additionally, the shift was made to different species to catch, sometimes selecting a "lesser grade" species and often mislabeling these catches (in Southern California markets, for many years local Rockfish was listed as Pacific Snapper, which is a separate species unto itself).

Pauly concludes that, "Notably, fisheries biology, now predominantly concerned with the welfare of the fishing industry, will have to be converted into fisheries conservation science, whose goal will be to resolve the toxic triad alluded to above, and thus maintain the marine biodiversity and ecosystems that provide existential services to fisheries. Similarly, fisheries economists will have to get past their obsession with privatising fisheries resources, as their stated goal of providing the proper incentives to fishers can be achieved without giving away what are, after all, public resources."

The ocean is one vast public resource. Despite the territorial lines drawn on a map, it belongs to everyone and its future is every one's responsibility. Or else we all pay the price.

Support individuals and organizations, whether political or scientific, who are working towards better fishery management and make sound personal choices regarding seafood, whether you choose to consume "sustainable" species or decide to pass on eating seafood altogether.

Read entire article.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Blue Ocean Institute: Founder nominated for award; sustainable seafood guide

Hello, readers. Took a few days off to film along the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Beautiful time of year and I will have a few clips available shortly.

In the meantime, I received word that Carl Safina, note scientist, ocean conservationist, and author has been nominated for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize, a well-regarded reward for animal conservation. I met Carl in June at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and found him to be both very dedicated and accessible. Carl, along with Mercedes Lee, founded the Blue Ocean Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to ocean awareness through not only the dissemination of science, but through art and literature - mediums that can connect with the imagination and creative energies of the general populace, from children to adults.

The Blue Ocean Institute has a very readable "sustainable seafood" chart that you can download and carry with you when you travel to the market or restaurant. What makes it noteworthy is that it provides information as to why a particular seafood item is a good or bad choice - not just a simply color threat-level indicator. You can download it at the web site or click here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Arctic Ocean Ice: New report confirms rapid melting

A new report released today by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the UK-based Catlin Arctic Survey confirms what many other studies and research projects have been saying: the Arctic is melting faster than previously predicted.

In this report, Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications (you can download the executive summary or the entire report), it was determined that the Arctic Ocean will be mostly ice-free during the summer within a decade and totally devoid of summer ice within 20 years. Research has found that much of the ice is now comprised of "first year ice" - new ice as opposed to older ice that would typically form a year-round foundation. Measurements also showed the ice to be thinner and not sufficient to survive next summer's ice melt.

It's not just warmer temperatures that is causing this increasing meltdown. The Arctic ice reflects sunlight but as it melts and darker ocean surfaces are exposed, a feedback effect occurs wherein the exposed ocean retains more heat, which melts more ice, which exposes more ocean, and so on.

There is also a considerable amount of CO2 held within the ice that is then released, along with CO2 and methane that is released from the Arctic's permafrost, the land's frozen layer of topsoil. All this adds to and accelerates the effects. These are some of the variables that have skewed prior computer models, contributing to a string of revised estimates.

All of this has impacts on the lower latitudes with altered weather patterns due to changes in temperature gradients both in the ocean and in the atmosphere. Further on, there would be the impact on sea levels that result from melted ice not only in the polar Arctic but in areas such as Greenland. So, we're not immune to the effects of losing Arctic sea ice.

Working with, I had the opportunity to explore some of the Arctic region in an area known as the Northwest Passage. The InMER team documented changes that were occurring, from reduced sea ice levels to anecdotal evidence from Inuit Indian leaders and government officials. Several clips that reflect the results of the expedition can be found in Google Earth in the ocean areas of northern Canada. Here's one:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ocean Poison: chemical pollution from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Many of you have probably heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area in the mid-Pacific where the clockwise circulation of currents slowly works discarded plastics into a central area (about twice the size of Texas!). You may have visualized it as a floating garbage dump of plastic bags and discarded water bottles that we could, in some herculean effort, scoop all up.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

While there certainly are large pieces of plastic that make their way into the Garbage Patch - drawn in by the North Pacific Gyre (the famed "doldrums") and this material can pose a threat to ocean mammals and other animals like sea turtles that will sometimes mistake it for food, what constitutes a large portion of the garbage patch is "microplastic." These are minute pieces of plastic, the end result of being battered and ground by the action of the sea. It makes for a polluted soup that is ingested by a wide range of sea creatures, often unintentionally.

From seabirds all the way to larval fish, microplastic enters the marine food chain and as it does, it releases a variety of polluting chemicals as part of the process of breaking down - this breakdown we have come to call "biodegradable" but plastic doesn't really ever disappear; it simply continues to separate into smaller and smaller components, releasing chemicals into the water and into the tissues of many ocean species, many of which end up on our dinner table.

And this environmental threat is not being confined or contained within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. After all, the plastic that is there did not just drop out of the sky. It came from the coastlines and spent weeks, months, and maybe even years, floating about, slowly disintegrating and discharging pollutants throughout the ocean, on its way to the ultimate plastic graveyard.

What to do? Well, the obvious answer would be to use less plastic and to dispose of plastic in a manner that keeps it out of the ocean. Both are challenging because the ubiquitous material has become a mainstay of our lives for the past century. And our sewage/trash transport infrastructure is still predominantly designed around the idea that the ocean is our convenient dumping ground. But, we must do what we can to minimize our "polyethylene footprint." (Are you bringing your own cloth bags to the supermarket or at least asking for paper bags over plastic? That's a start.)

Scientists are looking into methods of treating plastic, breaking it down into its base components and producing hydrocarbons - an alternative fuel source. But, currently, it requires more energy than the process produces - much like the problems with the production of ethanol, and the logistics of turning this technology towards such vast areas as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and others worldwide is truly enormous.

To get a handle on the scope of this problem, read An Ocean of Plastic by Kitt Doucette in the latest print issue (No. 1090) of Rolling Stone (yes, Rolling Stone). I could cite several studies and technical papers, but this article puts the issue into language that everyone can understand. Right now, it's not a pretty picture and we can only hope that our actions to curtail discarded plastic combined with a future breakthrough in technology can stem the tide.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Shark News Bites: some good, some bad

Here's a batch of shark news items, some good, some not so good . . .

Scotland to ban shark finning:
In a bold and welcomed move, Scotland has proposed a total ban on shark finning by Scottish or any other registered vessel operating in Scottish waters. European Union nations constitute the largest exporting group of shark fins to the Asian marketplace and their has been discussion for a new EU policy regarding sharks, but Scotland decided that there's no time like the present.

"As one of Europe's most important fishing nations we have a duty to show that we are serious about protecting the sustainability of our seas, their stocks and the wider marine ecosystem, not just through words but with action," said Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead.
(BBC News story.)

Shark nets to stay in Queensland:
According to the Brisbane Times, sharks nets in Queensland, Australia will remain for now. There had been discussion about their removal - albeit temporary - due to a higher number of whale calves that have been caught in the nets during the whale's migration season.

Shark control program manager Tony Ham says, "
The program has been in place since 1962 and in that time we've had one fatal attack on a protected beach, at North Stradbroke island in 2006. There were a number of attacks prior to the program going in - some of those were pretty horrific and fatal. We believe the program does work."

Shark nets have often been controversial because on the one hand, they seem to prevent unwanted shark-human interaction, but on the other hand, it prioritizes the rights of humans to enter the ocean over the rights of sharks to be in their natural habitat.

Spanish supermarkets to no longer sell endangered shark:
Two of Spain's larger supermarket chains, Alcampo and Sabeco, have decided to no longer carry endangered shark meat in their stores, only distributing species that are not threatened (effectively eliminating all commercial shark species). One year ago, the same chains decided to stop selling bluefin tuna, which has been pushed to near extinction in European waters.

The stores are promoting the sale of sustainable or aquafarmed species such as talapia and farmed cod, in addition to working with smaller companies to supply mussels, trout, and salmon. In September, Spain's Ministry of Environment and Rural and marine Affairs initiated a ruling to begin on January 1, 2010 that prohibits Spanish fishing boats from taking thresher and scalloped hammerhead sharks - two species that have suffered major population declines.
(FiS Worldnews story.)

Petition to protect Lemon Sharks:
In the winter, lemon sharks congregate off the east Florida coast and with the demand of shark fins combined with the decrease in numbers of many other commercial sharks like the sandbar shark, the lemon shark is coming under consideration by local fisherman as a way to meet demand.

A coalition of scientists, divers, and shark conservation groups have enlisted the aid of to help circulate a petition to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, asking for the commission to take action on behalf of the lemon shark by adding the species to the Prohibited Species List. The coalition is hoping to generate 10,000 signatures and they are currently about a third of the way there. To sign the petition, click here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Coral Reef Alliance: seeking pratcical solutions to sustain coral reefs

The Coral Reef Alliance is one of the international organizations dedicated to protecting our coral reefs. They strive to strike a balance between strict environmental protection and well-managed economic development that can help sustain the reefs.

The Reef Tank's Community Blog had an opportunity to interview the Coral Reef Alliance's executive director, Brian Huse. Here's a portion of the post:

"Coral reefs are dying. It's a sad, but true fact.

Fortunately, one group out there believes in the majesty and mystery of coral reefs and in their ability to teach, sustain, inspire and give life. They've gone to great lengths to turn the dive community into one of conservation and commitment to the protection of corals. Thus, the Coral Reef Alliance has grown from a small, grassroots alliance into the only international non-profit organization that works exclusively to protect our planet's coral reefs.

'We have lost over 20% of all coral reefs in the past 40 years and, if we don’t reduce human impact on them, we may lose our remaining reefs within our lifetime,' says Executive Director Brian Huse in an interview, 'We hold the hope for reversing this crisis and believe in the power of community to make change, to find common ground, and to heal.'

Read more of Brian's inspirational words below.

What is the Coral Reef Alliance and how do you carry out your mission to save coral reefs?
Originally founded in 1994 to galvanize the dive community for conservation, CORAL has grown from a small, grassroots alliance into the only international nonprofit organization that works exclusively to protect our planet's coral reefs. We provide tools, education, and inspiration to residents of coral reef destinations to support local projects that benefit both reefs and people. We currently work in Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia.

What are some of your ongoing projects and campaigns? What creative and appropriate solutions do you seek?
CORAL’s approach is to build Coral Reef Sustainable Destinations (CRSD) around strategically located Marine Protected Areas and the communities who rely on them for food, coastal protection and livelihoods. Working with reef managers, the community, and the private sector, we build capacity for sustainable reef conservation management that returns benefits in the form of greater fish stocks, better job opportunities, and revenues that can improve the quality of life. Most importantly, CRSD targets the improvement of reef health within the MPAs in a way that builds resistance to global stressors such as climate change. For more information please go here.

Tell me about your Sustainable Marine Recreation workshops.

CORAL has developed a sequenced, comprehensive set of professional development workshops targeted for marine recreation providers and providing an introduction to the principles and practice of sustainable marine recreation. New and veteran marine recreation providers collaborate at these workshops to increase their confidence and gain familiarity with current coral science and research, issues in reef management, the benefits of marketing sustainability, and what educational experts have identified as effective strategies for learning in informal educational settings.

In addition to learning about sustainable marine recreation, participants engage in hands-on activities, practice a variety of teaching strategies for improved messaging to their clients, receive exciting materials, and review a host of resource materials to help them operate sustainably (examples of CORAL resources developed for tour operators can be found here and here.

How does recreational tourism affect the coral reef population?

Tourism is a double edge sword when it comes to maintaining healthy coral reefs. On the one hand, the development required and the increased population it generates put tremendous strain on reefs. However, if tourism can be managed sustainably, it can be leveraged in a way that generates revenue for conservation and community benefits. CORAL seeks to do just this – ensure the sustainability of tourism, and use the capacity inherent in recreational operations (boats, staff, and visitor contact) to improve reef health, educate tourists and, importantly, ensure that local populations benefit from the income generated."

Thanks to Ava at The Reef Tank. To read the entire posting, click here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Expedition Great White: reeling in white sharks for research

On November 16, the National Geographic Channel will premiere Expedition Great White, a special program that details satellite tagging research done on great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe. Using rod-and-reel techniques to pull white sharks on board to take blood samples and attach satellite tags, the researchers hope to learn more about the long-range migrations of these sharks. To promote the show, Nat Geo has released a promo video and pictures of the researchers in action. Click here to view a photo gallery from Here's the promo video:

There are differing views amongst shark advocates as to whether the method used to catch these sharks is appropriate or humane.

"While I don’t doubt the good intentions of the researchers, based on the pictures, it clearly doesn’t appear as if the sharks were "unstressed" throughout the experience. Being hooked, landed, and tied down seems like it would be a fairly stressful situation, although I’m not a 'shark expert,' so don’t quote me on that. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the knowledge gained from the research could potentially benefit the species as a whole, but I have to wonder if this approach is really the ideal technique for gathering information about the white sharks at Guadalupe." - The Dorsal Fin

"As a commercial shark diving operator I am o.k with credible science done by professionals. This is real science. The fact that National Geographic is there to document does not diminish the effort. There's also a very fine line between 'credible science' and the ad hoc 'experiments' you often see on Discovery Channel Shark Week that have no basis in science, and are often played out so film crews can do questionable and increasingly invasive things with sharks." - Shark Divers

The rod-and-reel approach appears to have come out of the need to attach the satellite tag using a bolt-on method, which requires immobilizing the shark for an extended period of time. While the need to acquire a reliable and viable stream of data over an extended period of time is critical to the success of this type of long-range migration research, one wonders whether the rod-and-reel technique is the best and most humane approach that today’s technology has to offer. Perhaps it is, based on the size and weight of the tag. Perhaps that means we need to re-think the tag itself.

If one considers the trauma placed on the animal, considering both the stress of being hooked and reeled in and the physical stress of an animal this size being removed from the water, it begs the question: could microelectronics devise a smaller, lighter tag that could be attached using methods similar to those used for regional telemetry tags – a simple hooked barb and wire leader attached via a pole spear? Looking at the photos in the Outdoor Life photo gallery and watching the Nat Geo promo video, I get a sense that a very elaborate and expensive mousetrap was devised to catch and hold these sharks out of the water. Could that effort and expense been spent on devising a better mousetrap?

Or would that not have provided exciting enough television programming?

There’s a lot here we don’t know. Was every shark that was hooked, successfully reeled in? Was every shark that was reeled in then successfully brought on board? Was every shark successfully revived? Was there follow up as to the health and behavior of every shark that was caught and released? Were there negative outcomes and would we ever hear about it? If there was any bad news, I question whether we would see it on television, as I would expect there would be some negative reaction from CONAP, the Mexican agency that is charged with maintaining the health of Isla Guadalupe’s flora and fauna.

In June, at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival, I listened to Greg Marshal, the man behind the Crittter Cam, talk about the evolution of his invention. It was clear that the effort was being made to utilize advances in miniaturization to reduce the size of the Critter Cam to improve performance, simplify attachment, and lower the impact on the animal.

It’s an age old argument: what price do we – or the sharks – pay for the sake of scientific research and data? The debate continues.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

European Shark Week 2009: no Jaws hype, just the facts

In the past I have blogged about shark conservation issues that involve the European Union and their regulations regarding commercial shark fishing or the recognition of certain shark species as being threatened. (Most recent post on the subject.)

The Save Our Seas Foundation, a leading ocean conservation group that puts an emphasis on the current fate of sharks worldwide, has been promoting European Shark Week 2009 (no, not the Discovery Channel's) which will take place starting this Saturday. Here's some information about the event from Save Our Seas:

Join us in European Shark Week 2009, 10-18 October 2009

Predator turned prey
Turning the Tide for Sharks

Most European shark populations are declining from overfishing. One-third are threatened with extinction. The EU ban on “finning” – slicing off a shark’s fins and discarding the body at sea – is among the world’s weakest.

Hope lies with the new Shark Plan, adopted by the European Commission thanks in large part to support from many of you. The Plan sets the stage for vast improvements in EU shark policies, including the finning ban. Its success depends on collaboration and action by EU Fisheries Ministers and the European Commission. These fishery managers need encouragement from the European public to follow through on the Plan’s initiatives and truly safeguard sharks.

European Shark Week 2009
This year’s European Shark Week will take place from 10-18 October. It’s a unique opportunity for people across Europe to demonstrate their support for shark conservation and effect change.

What is European Shark Week?
The Shark Alliance has declared one week in October as European Shark Week – a time for enthusiasts to express their fascination and concern for sharks, bring new voices to the debate about their conservation, and encourage policy makers to secure the future health of their populations.

Are there sharks in Europe?
European waters contain a diverse array of about 70 species of sharks, more than 50 species of skates and rays, and seven species of chimaeras. Sharks and rays are found from the cold North Sea to the warmest waters of the Mediterranean Sea, from estuaries to the deep ocean depths, and even in the Baltic and Black Seas.

Isn’t there already a European Union finning ban?
Yes, the EU has banned finning for all its vessels and prohibits generally all removal of fins from sharks on board vessels. However, a derogation to the ban allows the removal of fins from sharks under a “special fishing permit” and uses a complicated and excessive fin-to-carcass ratio to try and ensure no shark carcasses are dumped overboard. This loophole, together with the legal ability for vessels to land shark fins and bodies in separate ports, make the EU ban one of the weakest finning prohibitions in the world.

The Save Our Seas Foundation is working with many organization throughout Europe to help spread the word and educate more and more people regarding the current fate of sharks and the critical role they play in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem.

SOS . . . keep up the great work!

For the latest news on European Shark Week follow the SOSF European Shark Week Blog

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Saving Rainforests: international offsets or shell game?

Tropical rainforests, currently subject to deforestation for lumber and grazing land, are a major storehouse of carbon dioxide - when left alone - and a major producer of CO2 emissions - when destroyed. According to the Los Angeles Times, if American corporations were to utilize international offsets being proposed in current climate change legislation, both the forests and U.S. corporations could benefit environmentally and economically.

Times reporter Margot Roosevelt reports that a blue-ribbon panel, consisting of government, corporate, and environmental experts, has issued a report that ascribes some dollar figures to the concept of international offsets - part of the cap and trade concept, whereby polluters can pay for preserving forests in developing nations rather than pay for expensive equipment to deal with their own pollution. The report states that an investment of $9 billion by 2020 would save corporations up to $50 billion that they would have to spend on their own pollution. Given that deforestation accounts for a disproportionate amount of the carbon emissions in the world, that would appear to be a good deal.

The good news is that it would appear that government officials and particularly corporations, notorious for stonewalling efforts to address global warming, are now facing up to the reality and becoming participants in the solution.

The bad news is whether the entire concept of offsets and cap-and-trade is a viable one environmentally. There are many who feel that cap and trade is nothing more than a industrial shell game, where corporations are skirting their responsibilities to address the mess in their own backyard by borrowing against the efforts of those who either have succeeded in their efforts to curb pollution or are in need of financial support to do just that.

"Some environmental groups are critical of forest offsets, tarring them as a scheme to let corporations off the hook for cleaning up their own emissions. Others worry about bogus schemes claiming false preservation credits, since forest carbon is difficult to measure.

The 71-page report is timed to influence the U.S. Senate as it takes up climate legislation. It recommends that the U.S. government invest $1 billion in tropical forest preservation in the next three years. And it pushes to have tropical forest emissions included in a new international treaty to be considered in Copenhagen in December."

My personal jury is still out on the subject. But the concept of cap and trade does beg the question: what are we looking for, an acceptance of our ecological responsibility or an economic advantage? I'm not sure that you can have both, at least initially. Nature is negatively impacted by our pollution - period. And it doesn't postpone those negative effects for one company or industry as a consolation prize for supporting the elimination of pollution somewhere else. Nature doesn't play that game.

Perhaps cap and trade and international offsets were conceived as a transitional approach. My concern is that governments and corporations will latch on to it as the ongoing standard, and the serious measures regarding CO2 emissions that need to be met will remain an elusive goal.

Read entire Los Angeles Times article.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The World Is Blue: review of Dr. Sylvia Earle's new book


How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One

Dr. Sylvia Earle’s new book declares that conservation is promoting the wrong color

In her latest book, The World Is Blue, famed oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle makes a passionate and methodical argument for conserving the world’s oceans – not as one more item to be added to an ecological wish list, but as an issue that needs to be at the top of that list. The oceans need our undivided attention as it is these life-giving bodies of water that impact, regulate, and govern the environmental processes on land and in the air on which we depend.

“Even if you never have a chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume. Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.”

At a time when going “green” is both necessary and trendy, Earle takes nothing away from our current terrestrial focus, but makes the strong case that the health of the oceans – the “blue” that makes up over 80% of the earth’s surface – must be of equal, if not primary, concern. Using facts gleamed from recognized scientific research and anecdotes from personal experience and those of other oceanographers, scientists and conservationists, she weaves a complex tapestry of interdependent marine processes that give us the majority of our air, the source of our weather, and the greatest diversity of life on the planet. But it is a fabric that is being torn to shreds through our historically misplaced belief that the ocean is ours for the taking.

Earle takes you through the current state of the ocean step by step. First, she examines the taking of ocean wildlife, from mammals to fish to shellfish, and our belief in the ocean’s limitless bounty as personified in the concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – which drove much of our fishery management policies since the 1930s by assuming that a sealife population, when heavily fished, will respond with maximum reproductive efficiency, thereby producing a surplus that will sustain the population. Great plan, but no one remembered to tell the fish, and so, by the mid-70’s, MSY was unsustainable as were many commercial fisheries as a result.

From there the book takes the reader through the other major issues threatening the seas today. Plastics and their consequences on sealife and fundamental chemical processes in the ocean; the loss of biodiversity – from minute phytoplankton to some of the ocean’s largest animals; drilling, mining, and shipping; and the controversial topic of today: climate change.

“It has taken about four billion years for living systems, mostly in the sea, to transform the lifeless ingredients of early Earth into the Eden that makes our lives possible, and less than a century for us to destabilize those ancient rhythms. Present climate change policies focus on the atmosphere, largely neglecting the ocean, despite ample evidence that the ocean drives and regulates planetary climate, weather, temperature, and chemistry.”

Policies. This is a key word as the book moves into an overview of the opportunities and solutions that can make a difference. Whether discussing the need for ocean exploration, reviewing the potentials and pitfalls of commercial aquaculture, or promoting the importance of Marine Protected Areas (a proven idea which currently only covers less than one percent of the total area of the sea), Earle’s experience in the federal and international arena comes through.

As a former chief scientist for the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and, currently, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, leader of the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, and active participant in a long list of policy-making organizations and marine think tanks, Earle brings a subtle political perspective that you do not find in many other books on the subject. Personal involvement is important and she has plenty of suggestions for each of us to consider. But the book is peppered with indications as to what is being done in the decision-making circles, which kept reminding me of the need for making our elected officials accountable.

“Knowing is the key to caring, and with caring there is hope that people will be motivated to take positive actions. They might not care even if they know, but they can’t care if they are unaware.”

The World Is Blue is an extremely accessible book, one that would provide a conservationist with logical arguments and reassurance while providing enlightenment and a new way of thinking for the yet unconverted. This is not a tome to doom and gloom. Yes, it pulls no punches and lays out the consequences if we choose not to act, but what makes this book an uplifting call to arms rather than a scolding is Earle’s enthusiasm and sense of wonder with the ocean. It’s obvious to the ear at her many speaking engagements and when I have been fortunate to chat with her one-on-one – and it comes through loud and clear in The World Is Blue. This is someone who truly loves the sea and loves life and knows how they are forever intertwined. A must read.

Richard Theiss
RTSea Productions
RTSea Blog: keeping an eye on Nature
Copyright 2009 RTSea

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Crocodile Hunting: Australia rejects safaris to manage population

Sharks are not the only predators subject to discussions regarding their numbers and possible interactions with man. In the Northern Territory of Australia, crocodile populations have increased from a record low of 3000 in the 1970's, for both salt and fresh water species, to an estimated number today of 80,000 for just the saltwater species alone. The increase was the result of legislation that protected the crocodiles and limited any government-sanctioned culling to 600 per year.

But with that apparent ecological success story and the unfortunate deaths of four people by crocodiles, all in the month of March of this year, the Northern Territory government proposed "crocodile safaris" to allow tourists and trophy hunters to increase the number of crocodiles hunted with the idea that would correct the problem of crocodile-human interactions.

The proposal was rejected by Australia's environment minister who has, instead, increased the number of eggs that can be harvested and the number of crocodiles that can be legally culled.

Peter Garrett, environment minister, said,
“I am of the view that safari hunting is not a suitable approach for the responsible management of crocodiles.” The prime minister of the Northern Territory has said that he would continue to press for the safaris.

This situation brings into question the entire issue of how does one "manage" any species to sustain its population, if management is required at all? With tourists and hunters entering the picture, one could not guarantee that the most "appropriate" animals would be taken - appropriate meaning older mature males or females who have had the opportunity to reproduce (if this is applicable to crocodiles; and I must admit I know little about them).

Another issue to consider is the circumstances behind the rash of human fatalities. Are crocodiles encroaching upon humans? Are humans, through increasing development or urbanization, encroaching upon the reptiles? Is the Northern Territory, when in a healthy environmental condition, an area where these and other types of animal interactions are to be expected? (A crocodile cruising down the main street in Miami is one thing; a croc resting near the green at the 9th hole of a golf course next to the Everglades is a different story.)

And then there's the concept, suggested by some, to let nature take its course, that the growing population of crocodiles would ultimately self-regulate based on available prey and natural selection (an increased population can also mean more sick and less "successful" crocodiles which would, over time, ultimately impact the population and balance it out in line with the overall ecosystem). The counter-argument would question how long this natural selection would take, since the current Northern Territory crocodile population has been growing steadily for over 30 years.

Sharks in the oceans, mountain lions and coyotes in the hills, even lions in the savannahs - all have populations at risk and all have the potential for human interaction. If we choose to regulate the species ourselves, we must do it with an eye on the entire health of the ecosystem in which they live and to remind ourselves who is encroaching on who.
Read entire article in Embrace Australia.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sea Turtles: many factors adding to their risk

All of the ocean's sea turtles exist today under some level of endangered or threatened status due to years of hunting in the past for their meat and shells. And though laws exist for their protection, they are still severely impacted by illegal poaching for their eggs and the turtles themselves, in addition to the number of turtles lost in commercial fishing nets.

Steps are being taken to protect sea turtles and ongoing research continues to investigate their living behaviors, but populations are still in critical decline and many species face an unknown future.

Here's some info on one particular species: the large, impressive Loggerhead Turtle.

According to a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service on the status of the loggerhead turtle which is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the turtle's worldwide population is still very much at risk of further declines. While a few areas in the world have shown some improvement at nesting beaches, most areas at at risk of further decline. In particular, the Northeast, Northwest and South Atlantic Ocean; the Mediterranean, and the North Indian Ocean.

Migratory patterns of loggerhead hatchlings are being studied as these migrations can be critical in determining risk exposure for turtles, in addition to finding correlations between nesting site and other more distant populations. Studies have shown that loggerhead turtles can travel great distances, making transoceanic migrations, possibly as far away as from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Hatchlings from South Pacific nesting sites, like Australia, have been recorded along the Peruvian coast, where no nesting sites exist.

It's not just poachers or natural predators that threaten eggs and hatchlings at nesting sites. When the subject of coastal development is brought up, many often think of construction that brings about pollution. While this is an issue, another coastal development action that threatens loggerhead and green turtles is "artificial beach nourishment." This a somewhat fancy term for beach re-shaping or just plain moving sand. Either to replace sand due to or to act as a deterrent to erosion, sand is moved in and beaches are reshaped. When this occurs in areas that are known turtle nesting sites, the re-sculpturing of the beach slope sometimes makes it difficult if not impossible for the female sea turtle to properly lay its eggs, particularly for the larger loggerhead turtle.

In addition to turtle conservation campaigns being initiated by major NGOs like Oceana, WildAid, and Ocean Conservancy , there are turtle specific organization, like the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, that are worth looking into.

Ghost States: what becomes of a nation underwater?

As a quick follow up to my Tuesday posting on climate change, the U.K. online paper, The Guardian, ran an interesting article that outlines one of the real political dilemmas from rising sea levels in some island regions: the development of "ghost states."

If your an island state that must face the real possibly of finding yourself underwater, what becomes of your nation? What of the nationality of your people who must now relocate? Are they immigrants from a nation that no longer exists? Do they renounce citizenship? And what of the nation's financial assets and infrastructure?

"As independent nations they receive certain rights and privileges that they will not want to lose. Instead they could become like ghost states," he said. "This is a pressing issue for small island states, but in the case of physical disappearance there is a void in international law," says Francois Gemenne of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.

The Guardian reported, "'Industrialised countries have a duty to provide adaptation funding to make sure the costs of migration do not have to be met by the countries where the migration will happen,' Gemmene said. Such migrants should not be considered "resourceless victims" and financial assistance needed to go beyond basic humanitarian aid and pay for infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Up to a billion people could eventually be made to move because of climate change."

Read entire Guardian Article.