Sunday, May 31, 2009
With white sharks, the jury is still out, but an article in the Journal of Mammalogy examined the habitat preferences of California sea lions and found that the geography of the site played a critical role. The study examined 26 sites in the Gulf of California and found a preference for sites with larger rocks, lighter color substrates, and convex (bulging outward) shorelines. These characteristics play a key role in providing a more comfortable temperature environment as California sea lions are susceptible to heat stress.
This then brings up the issue of climate change and the impact that rising sea and air temperatures can have on sea lions and other pinnipeds. Will these sea mammals be able to successful adjust and/or move and find thermally suitable habitats for breeding and day-to-day existence? Will the migration of pinnipeds to new locales upset the local balance of the predator-prey hierarchy?
As often is the case in science, one question leads to several more.
Friday, May 29, 2009
But the economic incentives must not be confined to a small group of profitable businessmen; the community as a whole must benefit so as to ensure long-term support. This has been a cornerstone of the strategy taken by the Humane Society International and a recent email summary newsletter about their activities in promoting ecotourism in Latin America clearly illustrates their approach, from Costa Rica to Peru.
Ranging from hospitality opportunities, including tour guide training to cabins and restaurants, to scientific research support to land and road development - all provide a variety of economic opportunities for local communities. It's fundamental and the cynic may see it as locals just being self-serving, but one of the best ways to garner support for conserving natural resources is to provide a tangible benefit, particularly in areas where the people's day-to-day existence holds much greater influence compared to big picture goals like conservation.
To borrow from a famous quote of Teddy Roosevelt, regulations and enforcement are required to wield "a big stick" at those who would willingly threaten our natural resources; ecotourism serves as a means to "speak softly" and gain converts from both outside and within critical nature sites.
Read HSI newsletter.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
But these animals are at the mercy of environmental change like pollutants or global warming, just like any other species. And their loss would be ours too, as they play a role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem.
I was reviewing summaries of several scientific papers and found some interesting issues confronting several species:
One study looked at red knots that frequent the U.S. east coast. This time of year, red knots congregate in the Delaware Bay to feed on horseshoe crab eggs before they continue their northward Arctic migration to breed. The demand for horseshoe crabs as bait has dramatically increased over the past two decades, thereby greatly reducing the supply of eggs for the red knots. This has impacted the survivability rate of the red knot and returning populations in the Delaware Bay have dropped as much as 75 %. Of concern is that while efforts have been made to increase the horseshoe crab population, the number of red knots has not increased in kind.
Another study showed that Cassin's auklet, a cold-water sea bird, could face serious population declines due to climate change because, as a zooplankton feeder, it depends on prey like the copepod N. cristatus whose population drops when warmer waters are prevalent. The study showed that in past years, the population of the auklet fluctuated in direct correlation with copepod numbers that were impacted by warmer water temperatures. As temperatures consistently warm up, the auklet is at risk.
Not all is necessarily bad news. While some animals suffer from climate change because of an inability to adapt, the razorbill seems to be adjusting as it's dispersal and range has reported to have increased northward into the Canadian Arctic due to the northward movement of its fish prey, like capelin. As temperatures increase and a variety of flora and fauna expand their range, some animals are able to adjust, while others perish due to loss or reduction of prey or food.
If you adhere to the evolutionary concept of birds being ancestors of ancient dinosaurs, then it can truly be said that they are highly adaptive creatures. But with their long range migrations and breeding habits based on certain environmental conditions, there is a question as to their future in the face of what is happening today. Research is ongoing to determine the long-term effects of pollution and climate change on our feathered friends.
Monday, May 25, 2009
I had the opportunity to see and film firsthand the 2007 summer sea ice that had reached its lowest level that year in recorded history. It was impressive to see until you realized that the ice floes and floating shards were supposed to be one solid sheet of impenetrable ice. The following year, even with a cooler spring, produced the second lowest level.
The AMAP report, Update on Selected Climate Issues of Concern, noted the need for improved models (a subject I mentioned in an earlier posting) to determine the long-term impact of negative and potential positive effects. As an example, will the newly exposed seas increase plankton growth which can absorb more carbon (a positive) be offset by the loss of marine life, including plankton, due to the influx of more fresh water from melting ice (a negative) or vice-versa?
One thing is certain: whether you watch the summer ice in the Northwest Passage or the reduction of ice in Greenland, climate change is a real growing threat and must be addressed. Nature won't wait while the decision-makers muddle it over.
"I'm not passionate about killing sharks," said Jack Donlan, director of the tournament. "I was just putting on a fishing tournament. This was the best move for our tournament. It's going to expand our ability to put on a bigger event each and every year."
The Shark-Free Marina Initiative got good news coverage from CBS Miami and the Shark Safe Project exerted considerable pressure with a proposed demonstration this weekend (unfortunately, CBS erroneously attributed the efforts of the Shark Safe Project to the Shark-Free Marinas Initiative - they have similar names and motives).
Mr. Dolan's comments are of interest because they represent one of the best strategies in getting businesses or commercial enterprises on board with environmental or conservation issues: show that they will benefit commercially in the end.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
The theme this year is "one ocean, one climate, one future." Here's some basic talking points from World Oceans Day's web site that you can email or discuss with others:
Why Should I Celebrate World Oceans Day?
The world's ocean:
Generates most of the oxygen we breathe
Helps feed us
Regulates our climate
Cleans the water we drink
Offers us a pharmacopoeia of potential medicines
Provides limitless inspiration!
Yet for too long, human society has taken the world's ocean for granted.
Now we can give back! Take part in World Oceans Day events and activities this year and help protect our ocean for the future!
It's up to each one of us to help ensure that our ocean is protected and conserved for future generations. World Oceans Day allows us to:
Change perspective - encourage individuals to think about what the ocean means to them and what it has to offer all of us with hopes of conserving it for present and the future generations.
Learn - discover the wealth of diverse and beautiful ocean creatures and habitats, how our daily actions affect them, and how we are all interconnected.
Change our ways - we are all connected to the ocean! By taking care of your backyard, you are acting as a caretaker of our ocean. Making small modifications to your everyday habits will greatly benefit our blue planet.
Celebrate - whether you live inland or on the coast we are all connected to the ocean; take the time to think about how the ocean affects you, and how you affect the ocean, and then organize or participate in activities that celebrate our world ocean.You can get more ideas, information, and a listing of activities and events at the World Ocean Day web site. Remember, it's Monday, June 8th.
In a smiley-faced ending to a CBD lawsuit against the U.S.'s largest retailer, last Thursday a judge overturned the approval of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter near Joshua Tree National Park because the project wrote off the impacts of its greenhouse gas emissions.
"Wal-Mart talks a lot about fighting global warming, but when it comes to actually taking action, it bent over backwards to avoid incorporating cost-effective features like solar panels to reduce its carbon footprint," said CBD attorney Matt Vespa. "The enormous disconnect between Wal-Mart's stated environmental goals and its actions is classic greenwashing."
In response to a suit brought by CBD (represented by Earthjustice), a federal judge last week sent the California Fish and Game Commission back to the drawing board on its assessment of the plight of the American pika, a tiny mammal threatened by climate change. In 2007, CBD petitioned the Commission to protect the pika under the state's Endangered Species Act, and after it rejected the petition, CBD filed suit the next year. Last Friday, a judge issued a written order to the Commission invalidating its rejection of the petition and ordering it to think again about protecting the pika.
The American pika, adapted for the cold climate of mountain peaks in the U.S. West, is directly endangered by global warming because it can die when exposed to temperatures as low as 78 degrees Fahrenheit for just hours. Climate change exposes pikas to summer heat stress, lowers food availability, reduces food-gathering time, and decreases snow pack they need for winter insulation. I get encouraged by these legal actions not only for the sake of the pika, but because it's forcing governments, albeit a step at a time, to face the big issue: climate change.
This Monday the tusked, blubbery, and highly imperiled Pacific walrus moved closer to Endangered Species Act protection when a federal judge approved a settlement between the CBD and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compelling the agency to decide on protections for the species. The Pacific walrus is in danger as global warming melts the Arctic sea ice it needs for resting, breeding, raising young, and foraging activities. CBD petitioned to protect the pinniped in February 2008 and sued in December to force a response; now the feds must voice their first thoughts on protection this September, with a final decision due next year.
Even while the Pacific walrus's icy abode across its range is melting away, its habitat in the Chukchi Sea is being auctioned off to oil companies seeking to extract fossil fuels to further accelerate global warming and the melting of the Arctic -- imperiling not just the walrus but also the polar bear, ice seals, and other species. In responding to several lawsuits, including CBD's, regarding Arctic oil drilling, according to CBD's Rebecca Noblin, "Unfortunately for the walrus, the polar bear, and the entire Arctic ecosystem, [Interior] Secretary Salazar seems more inclined to protect Big Oil than America's imperiled wildlife."
As I have said before, the Center for Biological Diversity takes a very proactive stance, using the power of the law whenever necessary. Good to have them on nature's side but don't let them carry the water bucket alone. Do your part as a proactive individual and also support active NGOs when you can.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
In essence this is a bit similar to the carbon credits concept that has been bounced around of late. Basically, the WWF is looking at the relationships between human society and nature, where ecosystems support economic development in a variety of ways; and then establish an economic model where those who benefit from the ecosystem would compensate those whose responsibility it would be to maintain the ecosystem. Well, here's an excerpt from their web site to explain it further:
Natural Capital: Putting a Price on Nature
By Dr. Taylor Ricketts
Sometimes pushing the limits of conservation means changing our perspective on a problem or challenging established assumptions. Doing so can unlock whole new approaches to conservation and lead to waves of success on the ground.
Assumption: Conservation and economic development are by nature at odds - a family can either earn money off their land or set it aside for conservation. With colleagues at Stanford University and The Nature Conservancy, we decided to turn this assumption on its head: What if people could be rewarded for conserving their land through payments from other people who value the "ecosystem services" that land provides? Could those who use the water that is cleaned when it flows through wetlands pay the owners of the wetlands to conserve that ecosystem? How cool would that be? That's how the Natural Capital Project was born.
To be fair, the concept of ecosystem services - and payments - has been around for a while. The goal our three organizations now share is to make them an operational force for conservation. We have set up experimental sites - in China, Tanzania, the Mesoamerican Reef, California and Hawaii - to test valuing ecosystem services in explicit economic terms. Some say it is politically dangerous to put a price tag on nature; others say it can't be done. Both could be true, but we believe the venture is worth the risk, as the rewards could be huge.
In Tanzania's Eastern Arc Mountains. Ancient forests here sustain thousands of species unique to the area. They give birth to half a dozen rivers providing water and electricity to more than 4 million people. Local villagers depend on the forest for firewood, medicinal plants, building materials and food. But in recent decades over 70 percent of the forest has been destroyed by logging, fires and farmland conversion. River flows have declined, interfering with hydropower and leading to increasingly frequent rolling blackouts in Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam. In short, the links between nature and human well-being are as tightly forged here as anywhere on Earth.
My WWF colleague Dr. Neil Burgess and I are working with international researchers, local experts and decision makers to calculate the forest's economic value to local, national, and global populations. With funding from the Packard Foundation and the Leverhulme Trust, we're creating maps that plot the value of ecosystem services including carbon sequestration, water purification, flood control, crop pollination, and harvested forest products. Only a few months into a five-year project, we've hit the ground running. Teams are in the field collecting data on water purification, carbon sequestration and timber. By the time you read this, we'll have met with leading decision makers to ensure our research is as useful as possible. In early 2008 we'll use the data and software we're now developing to publish our first maps. We already see clear political support and interest in using our products: The Tanzanian government has commissioned a task force on ecosystem services, based in part on the technical advice Neil has provided them for years. The Natural Capital Project is simply the most exciting initiative I've been involved with at WWF. Combining powerful research with strong and immediate application, we aim to break new intellectual ground and achieve big conservation results. It is experimental, with all the uncertainties that go along with any experiment. But we have the right partners, wonderful support from our leaders, and a powerful idea: making conservation economically attractive.
You can learn more about this and other WWF projects by visiting their web site, one of the most comprehensive in the conservation field.
We know about avoiding consuming shellfish during certain months due to annual concentrations of these and other shellfish toxins. And we avoid swimming in the ocean during periods of "red tides" when the phytoplankton population explodes. Unfortunately, sealife does not know or cannot avoid exposure and so there has been an increase in poisoned animals, in particular seals and sea lions which are susceptible to domoic acid's neurological effect..
Just this past weekend, a diver friend of mine opted for a hike at Palos Verdes peninsula in Southern California when dive conditions were not good. In just one hike around the point, he came across eight dead mature sea lions. All dead due to shellfish neuro-poisoning? Perhaps. in fact, based on reports from local marine mammal centers, very likely.
But treated sewage is not the only source of the problem. Algae can also be fed by the increasing levels of CO2. On the positive side, there are blueprints for algae-based alternative fuel plants to channel the greenhouse gases they produce during processing back into their algae crop. But outside of those controlled environments, in the open sky and open ocean, CO2 produces ocean acidification, which is gaining a lot of attention lately, and feeds the phytoplankton algae, adding to a vicious cycle.
Another example of the cascade effect of our actions, greenhouse gas emissions not only disrupt global temperatures and raise the ocean's ph level above acceptable limits, but also over-feed phytoplankton which impacts sealife and our commercial use of shellfish.
Monday, May 18, 2009
This was a tragedy all around. Due to it's size, Dennis had no way of weighing it unless he brought it back to the marina where it could be hoisted and weighed - and that meant killing it.
Quoting the St. Petersburg Times, "When fishing guide Bucky Dennis reeled in the giant hammerhead on May 7, he knew there was no way to weigh the shark without killing it. 'I just had to do it,' Dennis said of his decision to claim a world record."
So his desire for a world record superceded all other considerations. This time of year, large hammerheads are typically pregnant females but we'll never know whether this one was carrying pups. Dennis offered the shark to the Mote Marine Laboratory, but Dr. Bob Hueter wisely passed so as to avoid setting a precedent that would send more fishermen out to catch large sharks.
In the end, all Dennis had for his conquest was a handful of teeth and some meat he gave away. Then this magnificent animal, once a tribute to enduring survival and longevity, was dumped back into the sea.
Could the Shark-Free Marinas Initiative have acted as a deterent if local marinas were supporters of the initiative? With this fisherman, perhaps and perhaps not, since he was so fixated on gaining a few lines in a sportfishing journal somewhere. But it certainly would not have hurt and perhaps will compel other fishermen to think twice.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
The right whale - known by that name because whalers considered it the "right" whale to hunt due to its high level of whale oil and fat - travels nearly 1,000 miles down the East Coast to give birth in the warmer waters of Georgia and Florida. This coastal migration made them any easy target for whalers or even accidental encounters/rammings by ships, adding to their diminished numbers which are as a low as a staggering 400 worldwide.
While still heavily protected or regulated for commercial use, whales have fallen off the public radar compared to their heyday in the 70's. This has enabled countries, like Japan and Norway, with long-standing traditions in commercial whaling to chip away at the current regulations and that is posing a threat to populations of whale species that have improved over the years but are still very tenuous at best.
You can learn more more the current status of whales at large at the American Cetacean Society web site.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
With the Shark-Free Marinas Initiative, participating marinas would not allow caught sharks to be brought into the marina for photos, weigh-ins, butchering, whatever. Instead, the idea of catch-and-release is promoted, much the same way as it is done in the sport billfish industry.
Check out the web site to get a complete picture as to what the initiative is all about. There's a lot there to peruse. You can learn about the current status on a variety of shark species and see what organizations are lining up to support the concept. Again, it's an incremental approach: get sportfishermen to first switch to catch-and-release, thereby reducing shark mortality, and then move to the next step of reducing the activity as a whole.
Hopefully, someday the shark tournaments that have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of sharks, all for the sake of a trophy prize, will soon fade into history.
Monday, May 11, 2009
And that's such a shame. Because - despite the critical role these animals play as scavengers and hunters that help to maintain balance in the marine ecosystem - as long as people fear them, they will listen politely to the arguments about the shark's importance, they will be put off by the gruesome images of shark finning, they will rationalize the very remote possibility of shark-human interactions . . . and they will do nothing.
And today there is much going on to reinforce that fear. And some of it is coming from the very people who wish to protect these animals. I have said before, I am a big supporter of safe and responsible shark ecotourism - shark diving, if you will. But my concept of "safe and responsible" that promotes conservation, works with scientific research, and provides a safe environment for both divers and sharks, is not the same concept as some others in the industry. Over the past several months, there have been a series of media publicity and community public relations gaffes the net result of which has been to show shark diving to be a haven for wreckless thrill-seekers and it is fueling government and community forces to clamp down or place an ouright ban on shark ecotourism at some key sites.
No doubt about it, at one time shark diving was a major thrill-seeking adventure sport, something only for the bravest of hearts. But it has evolved as an educational experience in the hands of responsible operators, in tandem with their understanding and concern regarding the future of sharks. Still there are some who cling to the images of the past and that short-sighted approach simply puts the media into its own feeding frenzy.
Now I must admit, as a filmmaker, I can appreciate their dilemma to some extent. Nature filmmakers have to wear three hats: the advocate, the storyteller, and the businessperson. In an ideal world, or an ideal film project, all three of these roles would work in harmony. But often one or two of them are in conflict.
The advocate wants to promote conservation; so the facts are important so that viewers will accurately understand and appreciate the subject animal. The storyteller wants to tell a good yarn; a dash of excitement, a little drama or pathos, and maybe a happy ending. And the businessperson understands the realities of what the broadcasters are buying, what the advertisers or the viewer ratings are demanding in terms of programming. Getting all three of these to work together for the benefit of the shark is a challenge.
Case in point: here's a short clip taken from my YouTube channel, RTSeaTV, that was done as a lark while I was filming a piece on Isla Guadalupe shark diving for a major online magazine. A colleague of mine, marine biologist Luke Tipple, and I were testing a two-man cage and at the last minute thought about making something out of whatever I shot on this one dive. It involved being in open water with great white sharks - something that is a highly calculated and thought-out risk taken only by professionals - and the cage proved to be an excellent platform to work from with plenty of easy exit/entry points (and by the way, totally unsuitable for regular shark diving customers!).
So, a little excitement and awe mixed with some important facts and a call for conservation. But does it help or hurt the cause? In a short clip, one can get a measure of balance; however filmmakers seeking to do long-form projects are always challenged by the pressure to pander to the gentleman in Kansas kicking back with a Bud and ready to change the channel to NASCAR or flip to YouTube if he doesn't see a shark attack in the next five minutes. Sigh . . .
So what does this all say? That we just keep on trying, whether it's sharks, global warming, or whatever your cause du jour. We try to do what's right, we suffer and carry on from the mistakes of others, and we never lose faith that, perhaps little by little, people will see that truth is the best antidote to fear and the key to understanding and respect.
The basic crux of the problem is that by listing the polar bear as endangered (as opposed to threatened), the ESA requires that the circumstances or causes of the endangerment must be corrected. That would mean correcting global warming (previous post).
While the incremental progress of the political process can eventually get things done - as in the case of the recent developments regarding the Canadian seal hunt (previous post), in this case this is where the wheels fall off the bureaucratic wagon. It's one thing to deny a power plant that threatens an isolated butterfly or restructure a dam project because it could wipe out a small minnow - that's treating a specific endangered species with a specific contained solution. But in the case of the polar bear, to address the issues that have put the animal in peril require such a monumental societal and commercial paradigm shift that it's just too big to handle.
It was said that the ESA was not the appropriate vehicle for addressing global warming. Then what is? The Clean Air Act has been used to push forward major commercial and societal change. What legal avenue can put global warming on the front burner? With the best of intentions, we can talk about the moral imperative of climate change, talking ourselves right into extinction, but it will be the rule of law that actually gets the job done - if only we have the courage to use it.
Friday, May 8, 2009
But that desire for the quick fix, the silver bullet, is not the only complication to the scientists' work. They must also contend with the fact that we are in unprecedented times. The various impacts of human activities and the ripple or cascade effects they have on ecological and geological systems continually skew prediction models and analysis in new directions almost daily. Critics question the credibility of the scientific community because of changing models regarding polar ice melts, ocean acidification, or future species populations.
- A study, reported in Ecological Complexity, addresses the problem in defining the impact on environmental systems with the conversion to "clean" energy because of the overall growing demand for energy, whether clean or not.
- An article on climate modeling in Annual Review of Environment and Resources applauds the ability to predict past, present and future climate patterns. But it also points out the computational limitations as prediction models try to include more and more Earth-system processes.
- In Climactic Change, an article discusses the challenge in predicting climate change accurately, despite compiling extensive data over long periods of time (to average out seasonal or spurious fluctuations) because of the increasing demand for energy (specifically coal) which skews the analysis in unforeseen ways.
Scientists find themselves in the same situation but with the added burden that the issues they are addressing will effect more than just the health of our pocketbooks - they will determine the health and future of this planet.
Let's make sure they have the tools and support to succeed.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
In the ocean, where do all the dead animals and plants go? Mostly into the abyss to be broken down, processed and, in essence, recycled. But a recent study shows that global warming and human activities are having an impact on this mysterious region. Temperature change and human activities such as ocean fertilization are impacting the level and quality of food or detritus that makes its way to the abyss. With this fundamental link in the chain being disrupted, there are many unforeseen but predicated consequences to the ecological structure and biodiversity of the ocean's deepest regions.
We think of global warming in terms of its impact on the sky, the land, and the ocean as far as the eye can see. But we need to remind ourselves it is a global issue - from the blackest edge of space to the blackest corner of the deep, deep sea.
It has been estimated that this ban cuts out as much as $6.6 million CAD of Canada's annual take of $7 million CAD. The ban has also driven down prices for seal products and of the annual quota of 280,000 seals, so far only 60,000 have been taken. However, The Humane Society will continue its efforts as the government-subsidized industry is not yet ready to admit defeat. But the EU ban is certainly a major blow.
One of the things I found interesting in this entire campaign was the strategy taken that has proved the most successful - that of developing a general public interest and consensus and applying political and economic pressure; forces that the seal industry fears the most. Extreme activism did not necessarily move the ball forward; it was the relentless pressure placed upon the traditional decision-making forces: politics and dollars. Currently, 60's-style activism and protests don't seem to be as effective as they once were. Getting endorsements from opinion makers ranging from Paul McCartney to the European Parliament's Swedish member, Carl Schlyter, and bringing their influence to bear behind the scenes with international decision-makers may not be very dramatic or "sexy" . . . but it appears to be working.