Wednesday, September 30, 2009

American Samoa: tsunami relief organizations

With the recent earthquake/tsunami in the American Samoa and Tonga region, nature has once again reminded us all of who is the boss. I'm sure that all our thoughts go out to the people impacted by this natural calamity.

If you would like to donate to help the victims of this event, here are several recognized, reliable international relief organizations:


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Climate Change: taking action regardless of your position

Climate Change: a topic I have brought up often within this blog and one which continues to gain importance as more and more research produces findings that indicate serious changes taking place on a global scale.

There are those who question whether the effects of climate change or global warming are due to mankind or a natural cyclical event. It has been reported that over 80% of the scientific community believes that mankind is the primary instigator, while it is a near 50/50 split within the general populace.

Personally, as I read the continual flow of scientific literature, I am inclined to believe that mankind, through our fossil fuel-based activities, is the primary contributor. As I review the historical data, I can understand the arguments made for a possible cyclical event of nature based on the gradual changes in climate and temperature recorded over many years, as much as many hundreds of years. But the rapid increases - the spikes that run right off the charts - in just the past few decades is, for me, a key indicator and warning that our actions are having a critical impact.

Each month I receive from Seaweb.org, a listing of recently published articles or papers detailing specific studies on the effects of climate change. The latest issue contains 39 abstracts - 39 different studies documenting impacts on everything from microorganisms to the human experience. I receive around that same number month after month.

I have had discussions with many different people regarding climate change and it has been my experience that when I am discussing the issue with someone who leans towards the view that it is all part of a natural cycle - one that could last for decades or even centuries - there is one thing that disturbs me greatly with their position:

Resignation.

I don't hear any solutions. OK, fine, it's all a natural cycle; so what do you propose regarding cities and populations that will be swamped by rising sea levels? Or how about the impact on farmland in industrial states but particularly in 3rd world countries? Or how about the spread of
disease due to malnutrition or changing ecosystems and climate? Don't tell me there's nothing we can do. Whether you feel it can be moderated or that it's inevitable, at the very least we must take action regarding the consequences. But what I often hear is, "It's just part of a cycle" and then they want to drop the subject.

Call me proactive or just plain chasing windmills, but whether it's man-made, cyclical, or a little of both, I'm not going down without a fight. If we take the right steps, we can have a positive impact on the quality of our lives whether it's based on prevention, correction, or blind acceptance of climate change.

Not yet sure where you stand? Think global warming proponents are pulling numbers out of thin air? Well, here are a couple of articles from Seaweb's latest listings that you can read, some of the over 300 I will receive within a year's time:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Flat Coral Reefs: the architecture of Caribbean reefs is changing

Healthy coral reefs include a multitude of nooks and crannies that provide a base and secure haven for a variety of organisms - from algae and plants to mollusks, lobster and fish. But according to Seaweb.org, a new study released by the University of Anglia in England shows strong evidence that Caribbean reefs are "flattening" and providing a less than favorable architectural structure that threatens the reefs' survival.

Comparing 460 studies done since 1968, the report identifies the reef "rugosity index" which measures the habitats' architectural complexity. An index number of 1.0 is considered flat, while at the other end of the scale (a healthy reef), anything greater than 3.0 is very rare. Apparently most reefs that were studied with an index of 2.5 have now disappeared and 75% of the reefs are around 1.5.

What is causing this? The report lists several potential causes - all naturally induced calamities.
White-band disease in the 1970's (which impacted Acropora coral species), followed by a disease-induced mortality in the mid-80's of a predatory urchin species (though a predator, the urchin serves to keep coral reefs healthy and free from overcrowding; like thinning a forest through natural processes). Then there was coral bleaching in the late 90's, where stressed coral expels its symbiotic algae. All of this could represent the natural ebb and flow of a reef: calamities that the reef could withstand and recover from in time.

But add to that, the impact of human activities - everything from pollution, acidification, excess sediment from land development, destructive fishing practices - and the reefs could be pushed far beyond their ability to recover. The loss of coral reefs would have immediate impact on fish populations (which have been in decline in the Caribbean for years), in addition to impacting commercial fish and lobster businesses. Lastly, the flatten architecture of the reefs would reduce their ability to act as important coastal protection from wave energy, exposing coastal communities to increased wave action, higher sea levels, and greater exposure to hurricanes.

Not only do we need to not threaten reefs with our own activities, but we must actively study and judiciously and carefully protect reefs when they are threatened by natural events to insure their long-term survival . . . and ours.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Mir Submersibles: a fascinating undersea history now in print

As a member of the Explorers Club, I have had the pleasure and honor of meeting many accomplished scientists and explorers covering a range of scientific disciplines, from oceanography to astrophysics. This past Friday, I attended the West Coast Annual Explorers Club Dinner and had the chance to meet Dr. Anatoly Sagalevich, the chief pilot and head of the Russian Deep Manned Submersible Laboratory, home of the Mir ("Peace") submersibles. He was being honored by the Explorers Club with their annual Ralph B. White Award for Oceanographic Exploration and Conservation of the Seas.

From discovery of deep ocean geothermal vents to sunken naval vessels, from multiple trips to the Titanic (including supporting director James Cameron in the filming of both Titanic and Ghosts of the Abyss) to a controversial planting of the Russian flag under the ice at the geographic north pole - for over 20 years the Russian submersibles Mir I and II have been dependable research platforms for scientific research organizations worldwide.

Now the exploits of these famous submersibles and their captain are available in print. The Deep: Voyages to Titanic and Beyond, written by Anatoly Sagalevich and Paul Isley III and available through Amazon.com, is a fascinating accounting of the Russian submersible program, beautifully illustrated and translated from Anatoly's original Russian edition.

Understanding the ocean's complexities and secrets is always fascinating. Understanding how this research is accomplished can be equally fascinating. A beautiful coffee table book, The Deep: Voyages to the Titanic and Beyond is a testament to man's need to explore and learn.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Palau Shark Sanctuary: island nation declares economic zone a protected haven for sharks

Let's end the week on some great news! This just in from the United Nations: before the General Assembly today, the President of Palau declared its 230,000 sq.mile Exclusive Economic Zone a shark sanctuary. This is the first shark sanctuary recognized by any country and it will hopefully send a message to other countries, regardless of their economic standing, that in the end it is better business to save and protect sharks than to slaughter them. Bravo, to Palau's President Toribiong for taking this step!

Here is the press release from Palau's Shark Sanctuary (www.sharksanctuary.com):

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 25, 2009
LATE BREAKING NEWS!


PALAU DECLARES EEZ A SHARK SANCTUARY!


On Friday, September 25, 2009, H.E. Johnson Toribiong, President of the Republic of Palau, a tiny Pacific Island nation, declared the waters of Palau's Exclusive Economic Zone (230, 000 Sq. Miles / 620,000 Sq. Kms.), as the worlds first officially recognized SHARK SANCTUARY, during a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, in New York.

President Toribiong also called for a global ban on shark-finning and for other nations to follow suit. Through his actions, President Toribiong has placed Palau at the very forefront of worldwide efforts to protect sharks.


This is a tremendous day for Palau and for worldwide efforts to protect sharks from absolute and unsustainable destruction!


Palau Shark Sanctuary deeply commends President Toribiong for his international leadership in world efforts to protect sharks.

We are very proud of President Toribiong and of Palau on this momentous occasion.


Well done Mr. President!


Thank You!


Dermot Keane

Palau Shark Sanctuary


As I had mentioned in a previous post back in April, Palau went through a rocky period regarding commercial shark fishing, pressured by some outside commercial interests. That makes this move all the more important.

You can learn more at the Palau Shark Sanctuary web site and blog. To write congratulations to President Toribiong, the address is: Office of the President, P.O. Box 100, Koror, Palau 96940.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

European Union Scorecard: 1 for sharks, 1 against tuna

Following up on two recent posts about the CITES status for Bluefin Tuna and Sharks, there's good news and bad news.

The good news: The European Union countries have agreed on a German proposal to submit two species of shark to CITES for consideration as an Appendix II listed endangered species. The two species are Porbeagle sharks, a deep water species in the North Atlantic that reaches a length of 10 feet; and the Spurdog, or Spiny Dogfish, a small 3-foot variety. Both have been heavily fished for their meat to satisfy European market demand and their populations have declined worldwide. An Appendix II listing would require close fishery management of their catches by all CITES member nations.

The bad news: The EU countries also rejected support of a Monaco proposal to place the Bluefin Tuna in an Appendix I status. This would ban all international trade in this species. The proposal was strongly opposed by Mediterranean countries, who have substantial tuna fleets and would, it seems, prefer to continue supporting those fleets with fishery management policies that have, to date, failed to produce a sustainable population. In fact, at today's catch rate, the species is bound for extinction in the eyes of many scientific and research experts.

Perhaps the conservation-minded Monaco will still continue with their proposal to protect Bluefin Tuna, when the CITES members meet in March of next year.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Sea Change: airing on Planet Green this Saturday, 9/26

A Sea Change is a very important film about ocean acidification and will be airing this Saturday, September 26th on Discovery's Planet Green channel at 8pm EST. The first feature-length film to cover this relatively new but critically important topic, A Sea Change documents the growing worldwide impact on our oceans from CO2 emissions which alters the ocean's delicate balance of acidity - its pH level.

When disrupted, these altered levels impact the growth of a myriad of ocean flora and fauna; in essence, disrupting the very foundation of the marine ecosystem.

"Imagine a world without fish. It’s a frightening possibility, and it could come true. A Sea Change follows the journey of retired history teacher Sven Huseby on his quest to discover what is happening to the world’s oceans. After reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Darkening Sea,” Sven becomes obsessed with the rising acidity of the oceans and what this “sea change” bodes for mankind. His quest takes him to Alaska, California, Washington, and Norway as he uncovers a worldwide crisis that most people are unaware of. Speaking with oceanographers, marine biologists, climatologists, and artists, Sven discovers that global warming is only half the story of the environmental catastrophe that awaits us. Excess carbon dioxide is dissolving in our oceans, changing sea water chemistry. The more acidic water makes it difficult for tiny creatures at the bottom of the food web to form their shells. The effects could work their way up to the fish 1 billion people depend upon for their source of protein.

A Sea Change is also a touching portrait of Sven’s relationship with his grandson Elias. As Sven keeps a correspondence with the little boy, he mulls over the world that he is leaving for future generations. A disturbing and essential companion piece to An Inconvenient Truth, A Sea Change brings home the indisputable fact that our lifestyle is changing the earth, despite our rhetoric or wishful thinking.


A Sea Change is the first documentary about ocean acidification, directed by Barbara Ettinger of Niijii Films. Chock full of scientific information, the feature-length film is also a beautiful paen to the ocean world and an intimate story of a Norwegian-American family whose heritage is bound up with the sea."



What is of great importance in watching this excellent documentary, is that you don't watch it alone. If you're a regular reader of this blog then you are most likely a concerned conservationist who is knowledgeable about ocean acidification, but while seeing the film might provide you with further enlightenment, it is important that you get others who are not familiar with the issue to watch with you.

Invite your friends, heat up the popcorn, and make it a House Party! The more people who are made aware and informed of this very real threat to the health of our oceans, the better position we will be in to seriously address it.

So, call your friends and neighbors: A Sea Change, Saturday, September 26, Discovery's Planet Green cable channel, 8:00pm EST.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Science Debate: dedicated to bringing science out of the shadows

It's been a while since I have mentioned ScienceDebate.org. This is an organization dedicated to revitalizing the position of science within public awareness and the policy-making decision process. This is something I feel strongly about: the role of science is critical with regards to many of the worldwide issues facing us today. Whether it is climate change, alternative energy, conservation, or medicine - the information that we will need to make decisions and set policy will come from the research and data that science produces.

And yet society has lost touch with much of the scientific world, seeing science as obscure or irrelevant. But, especially today, that couldn't be further from the truth. And whose to blame? Well, it's a little bit between both sides. Society has lost interest in science, perhaps with the end of the space race. By reaching the moon, one of the most momentous goals was reached by man and we have perhaps been living in the letdown of that event ever since.

But the science community has also allowed that to happen. By not making mass communication a vital component of their research, by not realizing that reaching the layman with the results and implications of their research is almost as important as the research itself, they have stepped back into the academic shadows and must now fight for attention and funding.

ScienceDebate.org tries to close that gap. Here is a link to two video clips from their web site: an MSNBC interview with Chris Mooney, ScienceDebate's founder, and a portion of a speech by Vice President Al Gore to a group of scientists at a meeting of the AAAS. I found both clips very interesting.

According to Chris Mooney, a recent survey showed that 84% of scientists believe that global warming is man-made (so there is some room for healthy debate on the issue). But only 49% of the general public believe the same. That discrepancy is indicative of the problem.

Click here to watch the videos at the ScienceDebate.org web site and learn what ScienceDebate.org is all about.

Monday, September 21, 2009

U.S. and Climate Change: a need to get the eye on the ball

There has been a lot of politics flying around the U.S. of late with considerable attention being placed on the healthcare reform debate. While complicated, it is an issue that the current administration would like to see resolved soon, as there is another strategic issue looming on the horizon that President Obama would like to address: climate change and the related issue of a national energy policy.

What's putting the pressure on the administration are several events coming up soon that will require the U.S. to take definitive steps and have concrete positions or policies. Without the proactive participation of the United States, there can be significant international implications that could hamper overall progress.

According to an article in today's Los Angeles Times, President Obama is in need of shifting the national focus because, first, he has a major climate change speech scheduled at the United Nations tomorrow (Tuesday). Then he meets with the G-20 later in the week in Pittsburgh, where climate change and energy will be a major economic topic. Then there is a major international conference in Copenhagen in December, charged with developing an international agreement on how to deal with climate change. Should the U.S. not be properly focused on the issues at Copenhagen, it could be very disruptive to the conference's potential for success.

The administration is also having to tackle a related issue having to do with whether to allow oil drilling in the Arctic, which was first proposed by the Bush administration near the close of its term (300,000 signatures opposing the drilling along with support of over 400 scientists were delivered to the Department of the Interior today as part of a public comment period).

While there are many conservationists, ecologists, and environmentalists that all agree on the need for a sound strategy to deal with climate change and its related issues, it's not all quite so rosy throughout the international diplomatic community. Major industrial nations and 2nd/3rd world countries can have competing or conflicting interests or agendas, based on issues of cost, responsibility for emission levels, demand for economic development - either with new energy sources and power plants or with deforestation. Many countries recognize the problems but have different ideas as to what they can economically do about it.

It is a global issue and a complicated one in finding the necessary common ground or solutions to move forward effectively, to really make a difference. But it is one that can't be ignored, whether you believe that climate change is solely mankind's fault, part of a cyclical natural change, or a little of both.

Read L.A. Times article.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Weekend Update: wolves, corals, and more. . .

Here is a Weekend Update on several direct or related issues that have appeared in previous posts - some good, some not so good. Click on the subject heading to see the original posting.

Wolves - Endangered Status:
This past week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the Great Lakes wolf back on the endangered species list. This action bodes well for the pending court action to place the nearby Northern Rocky Mountain wolves residing in Idaho and Montana, which are currently subject to state-sanctioned hunting, back on the list also.

Copper Mine Expansion Stopped:
An Appeals Court voided a land trade between the Bureau of Land Management and the Asarco Corporation which would have traded 7,300 acres of private land for 11,000 acres of public land destined to allow the expansion of the Asarco copper mine. The court ruled that the trade was "arbitrary and capricious" and did not consider the environmental impact. Verizon Wireless gave a tepid response to 81k email protests regarding their support of a pro-mountaintop-removal mining rally held this past Labor Day, claiming the sponsorship was not an expression of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Desert Tortoise Relocation Thwarted:
Due in large part to public protest, the Bureau of Land Management halted the controversial relocation of over 1,000 desert tortoises, originally as part of an expansion of the Fort Irwin Army base. Relocation efforts in the past have proven fatal for many of the tortoises, but Fort Irwin is hoping to get approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move 90 tortoises, thereby defying the Bureau's action.

CO2 at 350 ppm Emphasized by UN Scientists:
Member scientists of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change again emphasized the need to establish a level of 350 parts per million for carbon dioxide emissions as the base level if we are to make any real progress. They warned that any legislation, like the current U.S. global warming legislation being considered, that sets CO2 limits above 350 ppm will lead to catastrophic effects on coral reefs and other ecosystems. The U.S. bill, passed by the House, sets the limit at 450 to 550 ppm. Over 350 organizations have urged a level of 350 ppm to be the goal in the U.S. Senate's version of the bill.

Endangered Species Waiting List:

And, as a final aside, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, there is a waiting list for species in need of Endangered Species List protection. Held back because of bureaucratic inefficiency or "higher priority" federal programs, the list includes 100 species that have been waiting for more than a decade and 73 have been waiting for more than a quarter-century. And apparently this bureaucratic quagmire has contributed to the extinction of 83 plants and animals between 1974 and 1994. The new Obama administration has said it will address a current backlog of over 250 species, but the proof will lie in the results.

Thanks to the proactive Center for Biological Diversity for the photos and info.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Today's Adventurers: evolving from daredevil to enlightenment

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to conduct speaking engagements with many ocean-conservation minded institutions regarding great white sharks, shark conservation, and shark ecotourism. Sometimes it entails a screening of my white shark documentary, Island of the Great White Shark, other times it's sharks in general and their related issues. Whether speaking to adults or children, there is always a fascination with sharks but also some progress is made in making people aware of what is threatening these important predators.

Tonight, I have been invited to speak to the Los Angeles Adventurers Club, an interesting group that wants to know what it is like getting up close with the magnificent great white shark. Of course, I will have some interesting stories to tell but I hope they won't be disappointed when I begin to deflate the monster image of this animal and also turn their attention away from the adventure thrill-seeking persona of what I do to the more important work of research and conservation.

Being an adventurer today has certainly changed from the "climb it because it's there" mentality of the past. It's an evolution taking place, and the idea of breaking records or simply challenging yourself in some extreme fashion without deriving some environmental or ecological benefit is slowly vanishing. Today, if we travel deep into the ocean or high into the atmosphere, it should be done to learn more about this amazing planet we live on. The devil-may-care adventurer has given way to the wide-eyed explorer who is searching for knowledge to benefit the planet and, in so doing, ourselves.

Whether we like or not, the fate of the oceans and the earth have come to that. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and the many generations to come.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

U.S. National Oceans Policy: important task force in charge of charting the future

Did you know that June was National Oceans Month? Neither did I but a proclamation was made by the Obama administration to that effect - one of many proclamations that are made, distributed, and then (if not picked up by the media) sink into oblivion.

It actually comes on the heels of a more important presidential memorandum where President Obama outlines the needs and a time frame for a National Oceans Policy. This too has been going on a bit on the sidelines, what with all the attention on healthcare reform, a unifying energy policy, and foreign policy. But as critical as the oceans are to the future of this planet, for the United States to have a national policy regarding our coastlines, rivers, and lakes is paramount.

An Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force has been set up and public hearings have been scheduled. The first was held in Anchorage, AK in August. The next meeting is tomorrow, 9/17, in San Francisco, CA, and the last meeting will be on 9/24 in Providence, RI. These meetings are open to the public. Following the hearings, the Task Force will have another 3 months to develop a working plan, "a recommended framework for coastal and marine spatial planning."

"The oceans, our coasts, and the Great Lakes provide jobs, food, energy resources, ecological services, recreation, and tourism opportunities, and play critical roles in our Nation’s transportation, economy, and trade, as well as the global mobility of our Armed Forces and the maintenance of international peace and security," President Obama wrote in the memorandum. "We have a stewardship responsibility to maintain healthy, resilient, and sustainable oceans, coasts and Great Lakes resources for the benefit of this and future generations."

"The challenges our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes are facing are complex, and to meet these challenges we must have the participation of a wide spectrum of views from within the federal government," said Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "The Task Force has a wealth of opportunity to make our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes healthier - both environmentally and economically."


If you can't attend one of the public hearings, you can submit comments online - but to be seriously considered your comments must be relevant to the issues and objectives of the Task Force (read about them on the Council for Environmental Quality web page). In other words, no rants, just solid comments and suggestions.

Although this has had little press, it is vitally important as it will set the tone and agenda for this administration when it comes to ocean conservation.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Oahu Shark Diving: Honolulu county council proposes ban

For several months there has been quite a controversy brewing about shark diving operations on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii. (See prior post.) Because of a badly bungled attempt by a neophyte to launch a new operation in the southern shore, a grass roots movement grew to have all shark diving outlawed at the island. The two existing operations have been there for many years and have provided safe, responsible shark diving activities several miles offshore for thousands of diving tourists each year.

Patric Douglas of Shark Diver, has blogged extensively on this subject and even traveled to Oahu to meet with Rep. Gene Ward who was, for a time, on the anti-shark diving bandwagon, preparing statewide legislation to ban the activity. But it looks like the Honolulu county council is stepping in to authorize a ban of its own. (See Patric's latest blog.) Maui recently authorized a ban although it was a moot gesture as there are no active shark diving operations on that island. But it did set a precedent and foundation for Honolulu's current action.

Unfortunately, the arguments being used by the Honolulu county council in opposition to shark diving are the same tired - and scientifically disputed - arguments that are often bandied about: the activity threatens others in the water; it is disrupting the sharks normal behavior. On top of that, the ban references Hawaii's cultural history and respect for sharks (there are those who cite Hawaii's cultural history of revering sharks as ocean gods and that feeding them is disrespectful).

But here are the facts:
  • The sharks at the north shore congregate several miles out in an area where crab fishermen dump their bait. The sharks were there before the shark diving operators came and the sharks will be there after they're gone.
  • According to a detailed study from the University of Hawaii, the shark diving activities in the north shore do not pose a threat to swimmers, surfers, or any other coastal water users. They are not attracting the sharks closer to shore.
  • The ordinance ban refers to Hawaii's cultural history regarding sharks (ie: ancient gods, do not feed) and yet no one is taking the crab fishermen to task for their bait dumping which certainly feeds the sharks.
  • The ordinance's "reverence" for sharks is in conflict with Hawaii's known reputation as a processing and commerce center for shark fins. (Ex: I have one can of shark fin soup that I use as a prop in my speaking engagements; it's a product of Thailand, wholesaled in San Francisco, and purchased from a supplier in Hawaii. So, when we complain about the Asian demand, the U.S's hands are not exactly clean.)
Sadly, the proposed ordinance is one based on fear, misinformation or a lack of understanding or accepting the facts, and a manipulation of Hawaii's culture regarding sharks. With a ban in place, will the sharks at the north shore be threatened in any way? Perhaps not, although foreign commercial shark boats operate close by. But definitely thousands of divers will be deprived of seeing and appreciating these animals first hand, becoming ambassadors to the cause of conservation; and Oahu stands to lose important tourist dollars.

If you would like to express your opinions to local Honolulu council officials, Patric has posted their names and contact info.

Monday, September 14, 2009

CITES Upcoming Meeting: a chance for more shark protection

It's several months off, March 2010 to be exact, but you want to keep an eye on the upcoming meeting of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna - better known as CITES.

What makes CITES important is that it is an international diplomatic organization and it focuses on what seems to motivate most governments and industries: trade. This makes it highly regarded as not just a "bleeding-heart conservation group" but an ecological organization focused on the commerce associated with endangered species. It's basic three-tiered (Appendices) approach to determining a species ecological status, and what can or can't be done on the open market, has been accepted by many countries worldwide.

This upcoming March meeting is when many proposals regarding the status of various species are introduced. There are discussions going on with several countries right now, including the U.S., regarding the status of several species of shark. Pelagic, or open water, sharks like hammerheads, oceanic white tip, and others are under consideration, along with several coastal species. Whether Galapagos sharks, soupfin sharks, duskys or sandbars, all have been hit incredibly hard by commercial and local fishing operations.

Keep an eye on CITES' upcoming agenda and watch other conservation organizations and web sites for announcements regarding shark status proposals. When you can jump in and make your voice heard, don't hesitate.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Richard Clarke: recognizing climate as the top issue of the day

I was watching a political commentary/political satire television program the other night. A range of the hottest U.S. news issues were being discussed, from healthcare to Afghanistan to partisan politics. There was humor but there was plenty of solid, serious discussion taking place, too.

On the panel of guest commentators was Richard Clarke, a gentleman with an accomplished history of involvement in international and homeland security affairs for many years, working with the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations and currently a lecturer, author, and faculty member for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard.

After a lengthy discussion of current events, the program moderator asked the panel what the most important issue facing us today really is. From Mr. Clarke, one might expect a political issue, terrorism perhaps, but his response was . . . global warming.

As many conservationists know, climate change is an issue that, in the end, trumps all others. But the challenge is we live in a world of short-term solutions and immediate needs first. Climate change requires long-term planning and actions that may not necessarily garner immediate or obvious results. Whether you are in the U.S. worrying about healthcare or in the African Savannah worrying about the next drop of water, it can be difficult to make the environment a front burner issue.

But make it we must because if we wait until it is a crisis priority, it just might be too late. As conservationists, our dedication must be towards outreach - making as many people aware of the importance of ecological issues as possible.
Compliments to Bill Day for the cartoon.

Friday, September 11, 2009

White Sharks at Cape Cod: keeping the news in perspective

It was about a week ago that several shark blog sites, like SharkDiver's, started to post news about a congregation of white sharks appearing off Cape Cod in the northeastern U.S. While white sharks are not unheard of in this area, the higher than usual numbers were of interest - a statistical anomaly or evidence of a population increase (wouldn't that be nice, given their decline in numbers over the years)?

Scientists want to tag as many sharks as possible with satellite tags to hopefully accumulate data that might explain the concentration. And of course the media wanted to report this as another harrowing intrusion of malevolent ocean predators upon society. This morning, NBC's Today show reported on the efforts of the lead researcher and while their reporting was fairly even-handed (better than it has been in the past when it comes to sharks), they still referred to the scientist as a "shark hunter" rather than shark researcher or tracker. It's subtle but the title still invokes a man vs. man-eater image.

This past Wednesday, the Boston Globe reported that the spotter pilot who was assisting the researchers in locating and tracking the sharks claimed that several sharks made distinct threatening movements when a diver or surfer entered the water, as if to imply that the sharks were on the hunt for humans and as soon as a person entered the water the shark suddenly knew exactly where to go and what it would find. Here's a portion:

“They definitely knew they were out there,” Breen [the pilot] said of sharks sensing the swimmers. “Whether they’d bite them, I don’t know.”

Breen was hired to help the research team, which tagged three great whites on Tuesday, bringing to five the number of sharks tagged with tracking devices over the last week. The discovery of sharks off Chatham forced the indefinite closing of the town’s beaches, but some ignored warnings not to swim in the area.

In one near-miss, Breen said he watched as a shark approached a diver from a documentary crew making a film about the researchers. He said he was circling above the filmmakers’ boat when the diver jumped into the water to retrieve a piece of equipment.

“I saw a shark going real slow about a quarter-mile away, and then when the diver jumped in, all of a sudden I saw the shark head right for the boat, going from about 2 knots to 10 to 15 knots, in an instant,” Breen said.

He radioed the crew on the boat and told them to get the diver out -- right away. The diver was attached to a tether and he was pulled out.

“The shark definitely smelled something,” Breen said. “Their sensory perception is unbelievable. The shark was only about 100 feet when they pulled the diver out.”

I know, for those of you who know anything about sharks, you're doing a slow burn right now. Sharks don't "smell" people in the water, particularly at a quarter-mile away! A white shark has pretty good eyesight, but not that good. No, it's the shark's ability to "hear" or sense vibrations in the water (a trait shared by nearly all fish) that caught its attention as the diver jumped into the water. And these animals are naturally curious. I have been fortunate to have several close encounters with white sharks and these events came about not because I was the meal d'jour but because my presence peaked its curiosity; I was something out of the norm.

Sharks like the great white have a battery of sensory capabilities that, based on distance (far away to close) typically react in this order: vibrations/sound (lateral line and inner ear); smell; eyesight; electrical impulses (Ampullae de Lorenzini); and finally, taste.

If Breen had spoken with the research team who hired him before speaking with the press, he would have been set right and his sensationalistic story could have been diffused. But if you're looking for a hot story or a little attention, what good is that, eh?

Some of the beaches in the area have been closed which, dramatic as that may seem, might be prudent for a short while. The sharks are in an area with a seasonal breeding population of seals, which is probably what has attracted them. That there might be a slight uptick in the highly remote possibility wherein a swimmer could accidentally be mistaken for a seal - particularly if the swimmer is wearing a black wetsuit - may be sufficient reason to close a beach temporarily.

But let's hope that it doesn't inspire sportfishermen or even government officials to go on some wild hunting safari to clear the area of an animal who has more right to be there than we certainly do.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chambered Nautilus: a living fossil that needs protecting

When I first started scuba diving over 25 years ago, I became fascinated with all kinds of underwater life - but often for all the wrong reasons. I tried spearfishing, game collecting, shell collecting - a variety of activities that I no longer engage in as I now view sealife as an important but threatened resource.

But in my more naive days, one of the things I fell in love with was the intricacy of the Chambered Nautilus shell. This fascinating living fossil still captivates me to this day, but I wince at some of the shell specimens I collected in my less-conservation minded past from various shops and dealers.

Several years ago, I asked a friend who was an aquarist at a local major aquarium if they planned to acquire any Nautiluses for exhibition. He scrunched up his nose, "I hope not. They're too boring." Well, he had a point. A Nautilus will simply hover in an exhibit and remain so still, you could replace it with a rubber facsimile held down by a weight; its only telltale sign to the visitor being the monofilament line running down to the weight.

But the shell collecting/gift shop and exhibition trades are apparently taking their toll on this incredible, ancient mollusk. Dead or alive, a combined 579,000 were imported to the U.S. alone between 2005 and 2008. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering proposing that the Nautilus receive an Appendix II classification with CITES. CITES defines the Appendix II rating this way:
Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. It also includes so-called "look-alike species", i.e. species of which the specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reasons. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES (although a permit is needed in some countries that have taken stricter measures than CITES requires). Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.

Such a rating with CITES would have international implications and could go a long way to protecting the Nautilus population (typically found in the South Pacific). The Humane Society International is conducting an email letter campaign to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, urging them to make the proposal to CITES.

You can add your voice to this campaign by clicking here. Do it today.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Common Fisheries Policy & World Aquaculture 2009: charting new courses in commercial fishing

On a similar note to Monday's post, there is a push to revise the European Union's overall fisheries management and an important conference coming up this month regarding aquaculture.

In the 70's, EU fishermen began working together to determine fishing ground rights and levels of equal access. Out of that came the Common Fisheries Policy in 1983 which was supposed to conserve marine resources to, both, protect the environment and sustain the EU commercial fishing industry. Unfortunately, even with several revisions, it has failed to live up to its expectations and populations of popular commercial seafood like cod, sole, and other species are in rapid decline.

So, another reformation of the policy is being considered by the European Commission, following the release of a critical report, Green Paper on a reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. The key challenge: too many boats, too little fish. To meet demand, the fishing industry expanded capacity (more boats), but without sensible catch limits in place or enforced, then this expanded capacity has greatly reduced the population of many commercial species. Rather than reduce capacity, the industry was subsidized - which means the expanded fleet was able to continue overfishing a dwindling population since their lost revenue was being covered by the government. That may have made business sense, but from a conservation point of view it meant a grim future for many marine species.

To provide any future for the various marine species and the commercial fishing industry as well, there will have to be some tough decisions that will have to be made regarding an industry that has expanded itself to the point of collapse.

And this is where the next bit of news comes in. Perhaps those in the commercial fishing industry who are faced with a loss of business can consider making a transition into aquaculture (aquafarming). There will be a major conference on aquaculture on September 25-29.
Sponsored by the World Aquaculture Society, World Aquaculture 2009 will be held in Veracruz, Mexico. Kind of an industry convention for aquaculture, the event will include speakers, panels, and symposiums along with displays from various suppliers in the industry.

As a proponent of aquaculture but one who also recognizes that it is in its infancy and has some major environmental hurdles to overcome, I hope there will be some good that comes out of the event. In my mind, aquaculture is the only viable option that we have in supplying seafood products without damaging the ocean populations and the supporting ecosystems. Unfortunately, I believe that "sustainable seafood" is only a stop gap measure - placing a finger in the dike, as it were - and to make any truly sustainable effort to meet demand, aquafarming must be aggressively pursued and all its technological and environmental issues must be addressed and solved.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bluefin Tuna: CITES endangered status could be its last hope

Some time ago, I posted information about actions taken by the ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna) regarding acceptable levels of commercially-caught Bluefin Tuna. The organization, which is supposed to be in charge of managing the fishery for much of the EU and the Mediteranean, settled on catch levels far above the recommendations of their scientific advisors. The Bluefin Tuna's future did not look good.

And apparently it hasn't gotten any better.

Monaco has proposed to CITES (International Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) to list the bluefin tuna in their Appendix I of endangered species. In so doing, it would completely ban the international trade in Bluefin Tuna by CITES member nations. With commercial levels set above recommended levels of sustainability, combined with poor fishery management and illegal fishing, the Monaco proposal would seem to be a last and final step in trying to save the Bluefin Tuna.

Oceana's European office has sent a letter to several members of the European Commission's environmental and maritime branches to support the Monaco proposal. Hopefully, a CITES Appendix I listing will provide the Bluefin Tuna with the opportunity to replenish its numbers - if it's not too late.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Northern Rockies Wolves: once again under the gun

Wolves are under the gun again, literally.

Until recently, Northern Rockies gray wolves had been on the Endangered Species List and therefore protected from extermination. While their numbers had been recovering, many conservation organizations felt the the government's decision to remove the wolf from the endangered species list was premature. It was questionable as to whether there are sufficient number of breeding pairs. But, with the increasing numbers there is the inevitable occasional loss of livestock, and so the future fate of the wolf was put into question once again as pressure mounted to find a way to placate ranchers with some sort of "acceptable" sustainable population figure.

Unfortunately, it was decided that the magic number was to be less than the current population. In August, it was reported that Idaho was issuing over 10,000 hunting licenses for the taking of 220 wolves - out of a population reported to be somewhere between 846 and 1,000. Conservation organizations rallied their legal forces to reinstate the wolves' former status and a final decision is in the hands of a judge as to an injunction against the Idaho hunt.

But in the meantime, the hunt has begun and the first kills have been reported.

And the issue is spilling over into other states. Montana is preparing to open up wolf hunting on September 15th. And there has been concern emanating from Oregon where a very small number of wolves exists, a fledgling splinter group from the larger Northern Rockies population. Conservationists are concerned that, with the reduction of wolves through open hunting, the populations ranging across all these states will be threatened due to a lack of mating prospects and lost continuum of a healthy genetic pool.

Interestingly, this is the same issue expressed regarding the loss of oceanic predators like great whites - that the loss of one population can impact another population many miles away, perhaps a population even in so-called "protected" waters, due to a loss of the gene pool mix within these migratory animals.


According to Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative of the Defenders of Wildlife, "Idaho hosts the core of the Northern Rockies wolf population, with approximately 1,000 wolves. By wiping out 220 wolves, the state will cripple the regional wolf population by isolating wolves into disconnected subgroups incapable of genetic or ecological sustainability."

"It's only a matter of time," warned Stone, "before Idaho's state legislature enforces their demand that all wolves be removed 'by whatever means necessary,' which is still the state's official policy on wolves."

Read story in Environmental News Service.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

WildAid Strategy: mercury poisoning a threat to shark consumers

Over the years, WildAid has focused much of its efforts on raising public awareness to the plight of endangered animals, whether it's tigers, sharks, or elephants. This effort often requires taking the issue directly to the people with advertising, public relations, and celebrity endorsements that often engender the wrath of governments or other official agencies that care not for the bad press and the intrusion of foreigners. Not an easy task.

WildAid is currently focusing their anti-shark finning campaigns on a new angle. Besides making people in China and other Asian countries aware as to the extent of commercial shark fishing and what it means to shark populations and the overall health of the marine ecosystem, WildAid is also pushing to make people aware of the personal threat from consuming shark products.

Many pelagic fish - swordfish, tuna, and particularly cartilaginous fish like sharks - have an ability to retain pollutants in their tissues, pollutants that enter the ocean either directly from coastal pollution or from being discharged into the air from factories and energy plants. Mercury is one of the primary pollutants that have been found in high levels, much higher than what is considered safe.

According to WildAid:
"
Steve Trent, president of U.S.-headquartered Wild Aid, said it was important for China, the world's largest consumer of shark fins, to promote public awareness of the protection of this animal which is feared on the verge of extinction.

Eating the fins may also be dangerous, said Trend, who also heads the Wild Aid's London Office. Research shows they contain heavy metals such as mercury, which can cause damage to the nervous system and male infertility."

GotMercury.org lists an 8 oz. portion of shark for person weighing 175 pounds, as having 4 times the weekly allowed amount of mercury, as defined by the EPA. That's 4 weeks worth of mercury in one sitting!

For those who don't care about the fate of sharks or that of other pelagic predators, perhaps knowing that they are also harming themselves might make them think twice. The same self-centeredness that propels them to consume these animals might make them think twice when they are aware of the personal harm to which they are exposed.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mountaintop Removal Mining: Rally for controversial mining sponsored by Verizon Wireless

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is waging a campaign, albeit a late one, to get Verizon Wireless to reconsider its sponsorship of a Labor Day rally in West Virginia to promote mountaintop-removal coal mining.

Mountaintop-removal coal mining is a controversial technique - a rather destructive technique that has faced the wrath of conservation and environmental organizations for years. It involves literally removing a mountaintop to expose coal deposits and in so doing, radically impacts the surrounding ecosystem - removing habitat and altering soil and water run-off patterns on the areas below.

Here's some info from CBD:

What are you doing for Labor Day? Sponsoring a rally to cheer for blowing off the tops of mountains and destroying one of the world’s most important biologically diverse areas? If you’re a Verizon Wireless customer, you may not know it, but you are.

Verizon Wireless is cosponsoring a Labor Day rally dubbed “Friends of America,” backed by the fourth largest producer of coal in the United States: Massey Energy. The rally supports dangerous mountaintop-removal coal mining, hosts a speaker who denies global warming is happening, and is aggressively anti-union.

Mountaintop removal has already destroyed more than 1.5 million acres of hardwood forest and 1,200 miles of streams in Appalachia — the region that boasts the world's highest diversity of salamanders, crayfishes, and freshwater mussels.

Verizon Wireless should not support this destructive mining practice or continue to ignore the fact that greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants are the largest single contributor to our current climate crisis.

Send an email right now to Lowell McAdam, president and CEO of Verizon Wireless, and demand Verizon withdraw sponsorship immediately of next week’s “Friends of America” climate change-denying, anti-union rally. Insist the company explain its support for the ludicrously destructive practice of mountaintop removal.

If you want to do even more, make a phone call now to Verizon headquarters in New Jersey and speak to Verizon Wireless president and CEO Lowell McAdams at (908) 559-2000‎. If you are a current Verizon customer, make sure to mention that.

Verizon’s 87 million customers — all of us sharing planet earth — deserve better. Urgent action is needed before the Labor Day rally on September 7. Email and call today.

# # #

Click here to get more information as to how you can get your voice heard at Verizon Wireless.

White Sharks at Isla Guadalupe: Mexican media to promote conservation

Just returned from a successful assignment filming white sharks at Isla Guadalupe, Baja, Mexico. Isla Guadalupe has become a critical site for white shark research because of its ideal visibility and calm waters (most of the time) and because of the number of white sharks (70 to 100 est.) that migrate to the island in the fall months.

Ecotourism operators and marine researchers work hand-in-hand so that we can learn more about these magnificent predators. I was working with Wild Coast, an ocean conservation group serving the Hispanic market, and Televisa S.A., and Telemundo. All of these organizations are working to make the Spanish-speaking populace more aware of the natural resources that Mexico has within its waters and its borders. To promote shark conservation, they are advocating ecotourism to government agencies and decision-makers, so that village economies can benefit from business models based on living sharks rather than dead ones.

On this particular trip, half of the boat, the Horizon from San Diego, were paying ecotourists from SharkDiver, and the rest were various representatives of Wild Coast and the two Hispanic broadcasting companies. The sharks, primarily males at this earlier point in the season, were numerous and "frisky." We saw some interesting behaviors like "parallel swimming," where two sharks uncharacteristically swim side-by-side. White sharks are not known for extensive social behavior, so it was a treat to see these two male sharks checking each other out to see who is the "top dog."
I came away with a lot of footage that hopefully Wild Coast and the broadcasters will put to good use in making Mexico and, indeed, all of Latin America more aware as to the important ocean treasures it has within its borders - whether it's white sharks, hammerheads, whales sharks, or humpbacks - and what it needs to do to insure their continued survival.