Monday, November 30, 2009

Crown-of-Thorns Seastar: threatens Japanese coral reefs

A follow up to my coral reef posting of last Monday, The Japan Times Online reported an increase at the coral reefs of Shirahama in the number of crown-of-thorns seastars, a species of seastar that feeds - and feeds ravenously - on coral.

Shirahama is located on the western Kii Peninsula just below the middle of Japan. Normally, the crown-of-thorns' range would be held in check by its preference for warmer tropical temperatures where, within a healthy reef ecosystem, it is held in balance as a predator by virtue of the dominance of coral. But the temperatures have been increasing and, along with human development (eutrophication) that has increased certain nutrient levels which weaken the coral, this has allowed the crown-of-thorns to expand its range and explode in numbers.

Unfortunately, the only immediate solution to the problem is a controlled eradication of the seastar. A small group of local divers have been enlisted in this effort which could carry on for several years. Care must be taken as the crown-of-thorns is covered on the outside with many spines (hence its name) that are actually sheaths for sharp poisonous needles.

"'If we keep removing (the starfish) in limited areas on a regular basis, there should be some effect,' said Katsuyuki Nakaya, 53, who runs a shop catering to divers and chairs an environmentalist group based in the city of Wakayama."

I have experienced the effect of the seastar's defensive weapons firsthand. When I was a novice diver, a came across my first crown-of-thorns in Hawaii. Fascinated with this ornate creature, I carefully turned it over to examine its underside and when I placed it back on the reef, I noticed a countless number of green threads streaming from the palm of my hand. Odd, I thought, until I realized the green color was blood having lost its red hue in the ocean depths. For the rest of the day my hand tingled as a subtle reminder: look but don't touch.

Read online article.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Carbon Bathtub: MIT professor makes a clear climate analogy

There's a brief but interesting article in the December issue of National Geographic that describes a simple analogy for looking at CO2 emissions. In The Carbon Bathtub, writer Robert Kunzig reports on a concept that John Sherman uses with his grad students at MIT: a bathtub filling up with CO2.

Imagine the faucet represents the CO2 emissions we are putting into the atmosphere - currently, around 9.1 billion (that's with a "b") metric tons per year, most of that coming from fossil fuels. The drain represents the approximate 5 billion metric tons of CO2 being absorbed - 30% absorbed by plants and soils, 25% by oceans, 1% by sediments and rocks, and the rest remains in the atmosphere adding to the rise in temperature.

Because we have been putting more into the tub than it can drain out, the tub has been steadily filling up. Currently, the tub is at the 385 ppm level, heading towards the 450ppm level by mid-century. The 350 ppm that has been recommended by some scientific groups still represents 745 billion metric tons of carbon! So, how do we drain the tub and how long will it take?

Unfortunately, with the bathtub analogy, it will take a long time. Even if we were to stop all CO2 emissions tomorrow, the drain works slowly - plant and soil absorption can get maxed out, ocean absorption is slow and rocks and sediments are even slower. It's been estimated that to go from 450 ppm to 350ppm could take centuries.

Discouraging? Well, perhaps, but it can also be viewed as a reason for saying "no time like the present" for making some significant changes. The CO2 emissions issue is not a light switch - flip it and it all goes away. It is our responsibility to future generations to act now and act decisively.

MIT's John Sherman will be at the international Copenhagen Climate Conference in December to help diplomats better understand the problem by illustrating the bathtub analogy (in much greater detail than I have done here). Hopefully, he will have an impact least a potential sensible climate treaty goes down the drain.

Read the article online.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Canadian Geese Migration: animal intelligence without need of a GPS

I was watching a charming movie on cable today, one I had seen when it first came out in the theaters some years back: Fly Away Home. It's a father-daughter drama that incorporates some of the interesting studies that have been done in training orphaned Canadian Geese to learn their migratory routes. Ultralight airplanes have been used to teach the geese to follow the plane and memorize the long route from Canada to the Carolina wetlands in the U.S.

What's particularly interesting is the intelligence these birds are able to display, actually learning the visual landmarks over a 2000 mile route so that they can return again and again. Do you think you could memorize aerial landmarks in one pass over a 2000 mile stretch? And yet this is a bird with a brain the size of a small grape! (See movie trailer.)

Just another example of amazing animal intelligence and the importance for man to understand animal smarts on its own terms - not to judge or compare it to human intelligence. Animals have evolved intelligence supported by senses that relate to feeding, breeding, and basic survival. From that some social interactions and relationships develop but, again, we must be careful not to ascribe human characteristics to it. It's a different animal, literally.

I have seen this misplaced humanizing with other "wild animals." Take sharks, for instance. These are animals with a wide aware of astounding sensory capabilities but with a relatively small brain (a rather fragmented or un-centralized brain actually, when compared to other land animals). In the presence of humans (ie: divers), sharks can demonstrate behaviors that we might regard as human-like interactions or relationships. That can be a mistake.

It is important that we appreciate animals for what they are and how they evolved; different from us, the end result of their successful evolution within their environment, and often superior to us in many ways within that environment.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Coral Reef Ecosystem: complex with multiple variables at risk

Coral reefs are one of the ocean's most colorful and complex creations. I'm sure you have read about how they are in peril. Climate change, acidification, human development - all are having an impact, most often represented by coral bleaching which is the result of the loss of the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral.

I was reviewing several scientific papers and found that there are many studies going on to determine more specifically what is happening to the reefs. As it turns out, the external factors of temperature, pollutants, and others can trigger a variety of eco-systemic or internal components that adversely affect the coral. Oh, if it were only simple, then the solutions might be simpler too.

One study examined the impact on several species of reef fish and their aerobic scope, or ability to breath, in elevated temperatures. Ever felt your breathing was a bit more labored on a really hot day? Well, according to this study, reef fish can have a similar reaction when water temperatures rise. This causes a reduced capacity to absorb oxygen which weakens the health of the fish, its level of immunity, and overall lifespan.

Water quality was found, in another study, to impact the sensitivity of corals to coral bleaching. "Terrestrially-sourced dissolved inorganic nitrogen" or DIN was found to make coral more sensitive to the temperature threshold that triggers coral bleaching. Higher levels of DIN are often found in areas of human development in the form of runoff from urban development or construction.

The levels of nutrients within a coral reef system can also effect the balance between hard corals, anemones, and algae. All three live in relative harmony, with hard corals as the dominant species. But in the typically low-nutrient world of a healthy coral ecosystem, warmer temperatures can increase nutrient levels and, at various levels, the anemones become more aggressive towards the coral and at the highest levels, the algae becomes dominant.

Coral reef ecosystems are tremendously complicated and we are continually learning more about the inter-relationships of species and the environment. And not everything falls into perfect agreement. One study that reviewed the relationship between temperature and salinity at a mass bleaching in Thailand, found that salinity did not seem to play a critical role in triggering the event. Whereas, another study concluded that higher salinity levels can impact both the coral host and its symbiotic algae, effecting its long-term health.

We still have much to learn but the research must continue so that we have a clear understanding as to what is happening to the earth's coral reefs so that we can both potentially treat and prevent the abuses that are impacting these critical marine ecosystems.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Conservation of Nature & Faith: author brings two ideologies together

What motivates someone to care about the environment and conservation? Is it political ideology or commercial interests, something personal or a broader altruistic concern? Obviously, there can be as many reasons as the number of micro-organisms in a seasonal plankton bloom, but one motivator was recently brought to my attention that, frankly, I have not given much thought about: religion.

I received a copy of Beauty of the Lord, part of a four-volume paperback set of books on environmental theology, written by Richard Austin, a Presbyterian minister. This book - and indeed the entire series - tries to establish a Christian perspective on why we should appreciate and protect the environment. Through detailed biblical references, the author establishes a religious foundation for accepting our need and moral responsibility to be active conservationists.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I do not adhere to any form of organized religion. In fact, I believe that some of the tenants of Judeo-Christian dogma have contributed, perhaps subtly, to our current ecological crisis. For man to have dominion over the earth, I feel, has been subverted over centuries to mean to dominate, taking only for our personal gain - and we are now realizing the price to be paid.

Austin recognizes this viewpoint:
"In Western culture Christianity has been a major interpreter of life's meaning and purpose. Like other social institutions, though, our churches were not prepared for the change in perception of the earth. This lack of foresight has generated resentment among some who are frustrated by our society's sluggish response to this new reality and look for a scapegoat. In his famous essay, 'The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,' Lynn White, Jr. claimed that the primary culprit of the contemporary crisis was the traditional Christian affirmation of the right of humanity to dominate nature. White's view is accepted widely, often uncritically, in the environment movement."

Rather than debate this issue, Austin lays out a path for re-orienting religious thinking, citing biblical passages that support the need for man to actively participate in preserving our natural resources. He makes the argument that man is not truly whole in a religious sense without an appreciation for nature.

"The Christian event of 'awakening' or 'conversion,' characteristic in the American religious tradition, may lead to a more creative personal identity; yet human identity is not complete without an affectionate relationship with nature and a sense of moral purpose that reaches beyond human culture to other life. Regard for nature may contribute to the moral beauty of our faith."

This volume from the four-volume set makes many references to Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century theologian, and in other volumes Austin turns to John Muir and others for support. For myself, in reviewing the book as an agnostic - or to be contemporary and hip, as an adherent to a "personal spiritualism" - I found the book to be impressive (almost overwhelmingly detailed) in its position that a religious foundation exists for conservation.

And Austin brings a positive spin to a situation that often seems mired in doom and gloom: "Campaigns for environmental protection are often built on fear - fear of the disaster which will ensue if we do not, for example, control pollutants or protect genetic diversity. However, I believe that love for the earth is a stronger motive than fear. It is more likely to generate creative action, and it is more likely to persist through the long effort required for change."

I am not too particular as to what motivates a person to embrace conservation - the why is less important to me than the what, what is accomplished. I have said that industry will probably be pulled kicking and screaming until they realize a commercial incentive. And politicians may act for fear of retribution at the voting booth. So, if you are a person of religious faith and you are struggling with, or even just mildly curious, as to where your beliefs and nature intersect, I would suggest you take a look at this environmental theology series of books by Richard Austin.

"We have built our nest in the tree of life; now we must save the tree."

The books are available online individually or as a set at Creekside Press.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Conservation & Politics: climate bill and species protection lagging

Getting caught up on my backlog of environmental and conservation email, I ran across some interesting and disturbing items from the Center of Biological Diversity, one of the most proactive organizations in wielding the power of the law to effect change. According to CBD:

Senate Climate Bill Spells Disaster

The Senate took a disastrous step backward on climate legislation last week, passing a loophole-ridden global warming bill with unacceptably low pollution-reduction goals that would also work against our most effective existing law to fight global warming. First, the bill has no target for atmospheric CO2 levels; in fact, it would let CO2 increase to about 600 parts per million -- while science shows we must reduce levels to 350 ppm to avoid climate catastrophe. Second, the bill eliminates the Clean Air Act's requirement for federal scientists to determine the safe level of greenhouse gas concentrations. Third, the bill's carbon-offset provisions are so many and poor that they undermine its own pathetic emissions-reduction goals.

The second point CBD lists is one that concerns me because it is the scientists - not the political or commercial interests - who should be the objective source for determining greenhouse gas limits. Industry may not like what they have to say and it may involve considerable financial cost - but nature is not interested in what is financially expedient and further delay will only guarantee greater financial and human costs later.

Read more from CBD/New York Times.

Obama Trailing Bush on Species Protection

Late last week, the Obama administration released its first review of animals and plants deemed deserving of federal protection that are still languishing without it -- and there are a whopping 249. On average, these candidates for Endangered Species Act protection have been waiting for safeguards for 20 years; at least 24 candidate species have gone extinct due to delays in protection. The Center for Biological Diversity and allies have a lawsuit pending in D.C. to stop the illegal and fatal stall in protecting all 249 candidate species, from the Oregon spotted frog to the Florida semaphore cactus.

After 10 months in office, the Obama administration has granted federal protection to only two species, including the Hawaiian plant Phyllostegia hispida, which had been on the candidate list for more than a decade. The Bush administration -- with the worst species-protection record in history -- put an average of about eight species per year on the endangered list. Obama administration, you'd better get cracking.

Many of us welcomed this new administration with hopeful expectations but were fully aware of the enormity of the problems it faced. Expectations were high and maybe, to an extant, unreasonable. But with such a backlog of candidate species and only two granted protection so far, CBD is right on target. Even with health care and foreign policy issues capturing so much attention, those within the administration in charge of federal protection of species to need to get cracking.

Read CBD press release.

The Cove: a critically important documentary available soon on DVD

While on my most recent location assignment, I had the pleasure of being on board and spending time with Simon Hutchins and Greg Mooney, two important members of the Ocean Preservation Society which is one of the key organizations behind the powerful documentary, The Cove.

The Cove, which documents Japan's capture and harvest of dolphins and other marine mammals in a secluded cove in Taiji, is an absolute must-see film not only for the marine conservationist but particularly for the unenlightened as well. As an island nation, Japan has a long-standing cultural dependence on seafood. But with it's growing population (not to mention the rest of the world), that dependence is taking it's toll on a variety of ocean species. The Taiji harvest has become a highly protected event and the filmmakers had to employed clandestine methods to document it.

In addition to the impact of the harvest on dolphin populations, is the important issue of mercury poisoning from consumption of dolphin meat (along with many other pelagic species). The Cove serves as a wake-up call to the Japanese people as to the level of dangerous pollutants they are unknowingly consuming - particularly at risk are children and pregnant women.

The Cove, which is now on the short list for Academy Award consideration, has concluded its theatrical run and will be available on DVD on December 8th. I've mention this film before in previous postings but with the upcoming DVD release, I strongly urge you to get a copy - for yourself, for your friends, for lovers of seafood who need a reality check.

I was glad to have the chance to spend some time with Greg and Simon. Guys, my hat's off to both of you and the rest of the production crew. A truly important and timely film.

Shark Conservation Act of 2009: moving forward towards final passage

Returning from a week-long assignment, I was pleased to find that the Shark Conservation Act of 2009 had moved along one more step towards reaching President Obama's desk.

The Senate's version (S. 850), introduced by Sen. John Kerry, which is similar to the House version (H. 81) introduced last year by Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, passed the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee yesterday. Hopefully, any differences between the two pieces of legislation can be quickly ironed out so that it can move along towards a vote and then on to the White House.

The Shark Conservation Act of 2009 requires that all legally caught sharks within U.S. waters must retain their fins. That prevents shark finning and impacts the attractiveness of fishing for fins when the fishing boat must also retain the entire shark carcass, taking up more cargo space which is less profitable.

According to an press release,
"Landing sharks with their fins still attached allows for better enforcement and data collection for stock assessments and quota monitoring. The Act would also close a loophole that allows the transfer of fins at sea as a way to get around current law. Additionally, the bill would allow the United States to take action against countries whose shark finning restrictions are not as strenuous."

You can log on to and send an email message to your senator, asking him/her to support passage of this important shark conservation legislation. We must also support international organizations like CITES and others that seek protection for sharks outside of U.S. or other national waters. International waters needed protection and enforcement, too.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

RTSea Blog: peruse archive while the author is on assignment

I will be on assignment for the next week, out to sea, so take this opportunity to catch up on any past postings in this blog or check out some of the other blogs listed below in the right hand column.

Writing the RTSea Blog has been very rewarding but difficult at times; there are so many important subjects to cover: shark conservation, protecting coral reefs, ocean acidification, on and on. Sometimes it's hard to take it all in so I wouldn't blame anyone for choosing just one area of interest and devoting their efforts to that cause.

But there's a lot to learn, lots of wrongs to be righted, and so little time. So read on, peruse through the RTSea Blog archive, and I'll be right back here in a week. Save our Seas!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Filmmaker's Journal: mackeral form massive aquatic highways

This past weekend, me and my good friend, photographer Budd Riker, went over to Catalina Island, off of Southern California, for a couple of dives. I needed to test out a new lens for my Amphibicam EX3 underwater housing - a great housing for a great video camera (the Sony PMW-EX3). I'm fortunate to have one of the few housings currently available in the U.S.

To make it quick and easy, Budd and I took the fast Catalina Express boat to the main island city of Avalon to dive at the popular Underwater Park at the city's famous Casino Point. With the park being a great place to conduct scuba diving classes, the sea wall at the point is typically lined with dive bags and assorted gear - and this day was no exception. It was crawling with divers.

But the Underwater Park seems to handle the diver pressure pretty well. It's a protected zone; you can't remove anything from the water except trash, no souvenir empty shells, no rocks, nothing. And because there is no fishing or hunting of any kind, it becomes a sort of refuge for many fish. Large calico bass will hang out in the flowing kelp and California sheephead will cruise by, seemingly aware that they are free from harm within the park's borders.

From above, we noticed that the visibility looked clear and promising, with a slight current moving through and bending the long stalks of kelp over to one side. Upon entering the water, our surface observation was confirmed: exceptional visibility for this location with an almost uncharacteristic blue tint to the water.

As we settled to the bottom, we were greeted by a large school of young mackeral. When they amass along the rocky shoreline, it's quite a sight to see. You have probably seen pictures or films of large schools of anchovies or other fish, congregating in immense balls. Well, for these mackeral, they instead form an undulating mass that weaves its way around the rocks and kelp like some elaborate network of aquatic highways with various underpasses, overpasses, turnoffs and junctions. Thousands of fish emulating California rush hour traffic (and when the current picks up, they come to a stop, hovering - just like our daily battle with gridlock!).

It's believed that a fish's lateral line - a sensory organ along the length of its body that can detect changes in water pressure - is what enables fish to maintain spacing and move en masse in schools. Each fish, when swimming, produces a pressure wave that the surrounding fish can sense and with that a collective sense of order and movement is established.

The mackeral continued to entertain us and gave us plenty of subject matter to film or photograph. They would double back, seeming to enjoy the security of the Underwater Park and only occasionally spreading out in large circles to give a possible hungry Calico Bass a wide berth, or darting about suddenly when a sea lion would make a quick pass.

Just an overall great day at one of Southern California's ocean treasures: a simple, little underwater oasis, able to withstand man's curiosity. Hopefully, with each new diver that completes their training at Catalina's Underwater Park, a conscientious ocean conservationist is born.

Video clips of schooling mackeral will be up soon in RTSea's stock footage library.

White Shark Tagging: controversial technique flounders in the Farallons

Controversy is now dogging the white shark tagging efforts of Dr. Michael Domeier of the Marine Conservation Science Institute. The SPOT (smart positioning or temperature) tagging began in Isla Guadalupe under the eyes of a film crew for a National Geographic Channel program to air on the 19th. It involves a technique whereby the shark is hooked and reeled on board, aerated with a water hose, while the crew literally drills and bolts a satellite transmitting tag to the shark's dorsal fin.

This is a rather elaborate tagging technique that has generated much concern within the shark conservation community (click here for prior posting about the Isla Guadalupe taggings, and here are two from other sites: click here and here).

Now, Dr. Domeier has moved northward to the Farallon Islands and, with the approval of Maria Brown, superintendent for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, has been tagging sharks there but with less than optimal success. Apparently, one shark swallowed the hook deep into its throat causing the bait's float to become lodged in the shark's jaws, thereby blocking access for the aerating water hose and requiring the cutting of the hook by working straight through the shark's gills. All in all a disaster in humane animal treatment as far as I'm concerned.

While there are concerns about the stresses this type of tagging places on the shark, there is also the question as to the need for more data acquired in the Northern California area. Dr. Barbara Block of Stanford, Dr. Pete Klimley of UC Davis, and others have amassed a considerable body of data that tracks the migratory patterns of these animals. They and their colleagues just recently issued a detailed report that can be viewed in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, published online on 11/04/09 in the Biological Sciences section ("Philopatry and migration of Pacific white sharks").

I always felt that this particular tagging technique was a more elaborate mousetrap than necessary. Now its efficacy has become controversial, the California data may ultimately be redundant, and the National Marine Sanctuary must defend a decision to allow catching a protected species in a manner that would most likely not be allowed for, say, a protected marine mammal.

Too many questions, too much controversy. . .

Read article in Bay area

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Arctic U.S. Waters: off limits to commercial fishing by December

Here's another press release, this time from, regarding the closing of U.S. waters north of Alaska's Bering Strait to commercial fishing (the Arctic Fishery Management Plan) . The federal closing recognizes the lack of sufficient scientific data on fish populations and the impact from climate change, overfishing, and other environmental or man-made factors.

While encouraging, the downside is that the Minerals Management Service is moving full speed to allow for oil drilling in the same region. With heavy lobbying from the oil industry, permits are being granted without updated and sufficient scientific impact studies and data - the opposite approach of the Arctic Fishery Management Plan.

This exemplifies the ongoing tug-of-war that goes on in Washington DC: energy vs. the environment. At some point, politics and commerce will need to realize that objective, unbiased scientific research data will need to be the final referee.

U.S. Closes Arctic Waters to Industrial Fishing

Regulations call for more science before any fishing allowed in U.S. Arctic; conservationists call for same approach for oil and gas

November 3, 2009

Washington, DC

Final regulations protecting almost 200,000 square miles of U.S. Arctic waters from industrial fishing were released today and will be effective starting December 3, 2009. The new regulations close all U.S. waters north of Alaska’s Bering Strait to commercial fishing to allow time for more science to assess the health of Arctic ocean ecosystems and the potential impacts of large-scale fishing given the impacts the Arctic is already facing from climate change and ocean acidification. The regulations do not affect subsistence fishing, and are in fact designed to help protect Arctic ocean ecosystems central to subsistence. Conservationists hailed the regulations and called for a similar approach for other industries and in other nations.

“This is ‘doing it right’ in the Arctic—there is a desperate need for more science to be done before we add any more stress to an area already feeling the heat of climate change,” said Dr. Chris Krenz, Arctic Project Manager for Oceana. “We need a rush of scientists into the Arctic, not an armada of cargo ships, oil platforms and fishing trawlers.”

The same U.S. Arctic waters protected from fishing are squarely in the crosshairs of the oil industry. Last month the Minerals Management Service (MMS) approved a plan for drilling in the Beaufort Sea next summer, and a similar plan for the Chukchi Sea is currently under review with a decision expected this month. Conservationists, scientists, local communities and others have called for a science-based precautionary approach for oil that is now in place for fishing, especially given the higher risks of oil spills in the Arctic and the inability to contain, control or clean up an accident in the icy waters of the Arctic.

The Arctic is home to thousands of people who rely on ocean ecosystems as central to a subsistence way of life practiced for generations. Climate change and ocean acidification are already placing stress on those ecosystems, and adding additional pressures from fishing or oil and gas activities could push them past the brink. Arctic communities showed strong support for the Arctic fishing protections and have expressed concern that activities from oil and gas, including seismic testing and the risk of oil spills, could adversely impact bowhead whales and other animals that are vital sources of food for local peoples.

President Obama’s Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force is likely to recommend addressing the changing Arctic conditions as a national priority and using an ecosystem based management approach to protect, maintain and restore the health of the nation’s marine ecosystems. The Arctic Fishery Management Plan exemplifies this approach.

“MMS has given the green light to drill in the U.S. Arctic Ocean next July using the same inadequate and out of date science that led fisheries managers to close the region to commercial fishing,” said Krenz. “One of the reasons Americans elected President Obama is because they believe in sustainable development based on sound science and demonstrated response capabilities. MMS and Shell continue on an unrelenting course that MMS records indicate are likely to bring a major spill and calamity to the Arctic.”

The U.S. State Department is in discussions with other Arctic nations to expand these same fishing protections across international boundaries. These Arctic fishing regulations set a worldwide precedent of putting management in place before commercial fishing occurs.

Shark multi-lingual strategy to greater awareness

One of the new ocean conservation-based organizations is COARE, based in San Francisco and dedicated to greater public awareness through education. The group has an additional effort taking place in shark conservation with their Shark Safe web site. Shark Safe focuses on shark conservation and addressing the market demand through education. To that end, here is a press release that announces the multi-lingual expansion of their web site, including a Chinese version - one of the primary markets for shark products. Adds Multilingual Support

Certification Program Uses Chinese and French Versions to Raise Awareness of Shark Conservation.

Oakland, CA, November 04, 2009 --(PR.COM)-- The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education, known more commonly by its acronym "COARE", announced today the availability of multilingual resources for its Shark Safe certification program.

The website,, which allows both consumers and businesses to learn more about the Shark Safe certification program, is now available in several languages, including Chinese and French.

Using an easily recognizable logo to distinguish participating establishments, the Shark Safe program offers certification to qualifying restaurants and select businesses that demonstrate a measured commitment to shark conservation. Now available in several languages, the website is expected to reach and influence an even greater audience.

"The need for shark conservation is a global issue, so our efforts need to transcend international borders, cultural differences, and language barriers," said Christopher Chin, COARE's Executive Director.

"We're particularly proud of and excited about the Chinese version of our website," said Chin. "The vast majority of sharks that are killed are taken for their fins, which end up in shark fin soup - a delicacy entrenched in Chinese culture and tradition."

"With an estimated 1.3 billion native speakers, Chinese is, by far, the most widely spoken language on the planet, and we are thrilled to be able to extend our message to such a key audience," said Pete Wang, one of COARE's volunteer translators.

"We have observed that a number of well-intentioned shark conservation efforts have failed to persuade their intended audience, and sometimes even alienated those they meant to engage, because they failed to account for language and cultural differences," said Richard Nelson, one of COARE's directors. "Our program takes both language and culture into consideration, and works with communities to decrease the demand for products that are harmful to sharks and the ocean."

The mission of the Shark Safe certification program is to protect oceanic ecosystems by encouraging practices that do not negatively impact shark populations. "Sharks are one of our oceans’ top predators, keeping the entire ecosystem in check, but shark populations have declined dramatically over the last few decades as a result of human greed and lack of understanding," said Chin. "If people knew more about these animals, they would want to protect them."

As a conservation based website, also offers information about the plight of sharks and about the need for their conservation. As further development of the website continues, it will serve as a portal for consumers to locate certified Shark Safe establishments quickly and easily.

COARE began development of its Shark Safe program in early-2007, seeking to protect sharks by raising awareness of threats to shark populations and by reducing the demand for shark products. In July of 2007, Jim Toomey, the artist behind the popular syndicated cartoon Sherman's Lagoon, joined the effort and helped form the Shark Safe logo in use today. "Sharks have resided in a dark corner of our mythology for thousands of years, which is partly the reason why saving this vital animal from extinction will require a special effort," said Toomey.

The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education, Inc. (COARE) is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Its purpose is to study our oceans and increase public awareness of the earth's marine environment through educational programs and outreach. COARE seeks to enlighten people, young and old, to the plight of the oceans, to change the way they think and act, and to encourage them to create positive and lasting change. For more information about COARE, visit

COARE, Shark Safe, and the Shark Safe logo are trademarks of The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education, Inc. All other company names or marks mentioned herein are those of their respective owners.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tigers: still threatened but international efforts are at work

It has been some time since I posted any news updates on Tigers. These beautiful cats are emblematic of the problem of poaching and the illegal trade in endangered species. While their habitat has been encroached upon through development or deforestation, illegal hunting seems to be the biggest threat to their existence. And the scarcer they become, the more valuable and tempting they are to the poacher.

Their current numbers across their entire range from Nepal to Malaysia is estimated at only 3,000. By contrast, in the 1950s there were 3,000 in the Malaysian Peninsula alone (a population that has now been reduced to around 500). While a complete tiger skin has value in the black market, of particular value are the male genitalia - freeze-dried and sold as an aphrodisiac in Asian markets.

Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and WildAid put a lot of their resources towards working with governments to clamp down on poaching and the illegal trade. Here is a video of a recent rescue in Malaysia of a young tiger caught in a poacher's wire snare. The tiger is being cared for at the local zoo and veterinarians hopefully will be able to save its leg. Read more.

This is an issue that requires action on a governmental and international level for more resources and better enforcement. Recently, over 250 scientists, experts, and government delegates convened in Nepal to discuss the situation and make recommendations. The Kathmandu Global Tiger Workshop cited the need for greater protection, support of a tiger resolution with CITES, and a review of development projects that could impact the tiger's habitat.

“These are a good start but the momentum from Kathmandu needs to be carried forward all the way to the Tiger Summit during the Year of the Tiger 2010 and beyond,” said Mike Baltzer, head of WWF’s Tiger Initiative. “The tiger range countries are clearly committed to saving their wild tigers and the world needs to extend unstinting support to this mission because once tigers are gone, they’re gone forever.” Excerpt from a WWF press release.

Most of you are probably not shopping for a tiger skin rug or some frozen tiger penis to spark up your romance. What you can do is support the efforts of groups like World Wildlife Fund or WildAid who are keeping the issue alive with governments and international organizations while also addressing the issue with local citizenry and the populations where the demand for ancient homeopathic medicines still flourish.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Canadian Seal Hunt: economic pressure through boycotts and bans

The Canadian baby fur seal hunt has, unfortunately, been taking place in the winter and early spring for many years. Even after extreme efforts over the years from Greenpeace and other hard core conservation groups, the Canadian government has continued to support the fishermen who participate in this hunt during their fishing off-season. For many people, it becomes one of those sad conservation issues whose persistence eventually makes it a lower priority; nothing has changed so we'd rather not think about it. But maybe that's now turning around.

Following on the heels of the European Union's recent decision to ban the commercial trade in seal fur (the U.S. initiated such a ban in the early 70's), The Humane Society International is continuing the strategy of economic pressure by promoting an ongoing ban, extending it to Europe, of Canadian seafood products - products that generate much greater income for Canada and the fishermen involved in the hunt than do seal fur.

The images of big-eyed baby harp seals and hunters wielding clubs or picks has always added to the message that the hunt was cruel in it's execution. Seals could be shot, but bullet holes reduce the value of the seal skin, so clubbing remains the preferred method. Often, the seals are skinned while out on the ice, so in the end it's a pretty grizzly scene (although, I think if we spent a day at a slaughter house or chicken farm, we'd probably all be vegetarians). In the end, the question is whether the seal fur market is worth sustaining, given a shrinking customer base (Canada exports most of its seal product), ecological and conservation implications (Grey seals were nearly wiped out due to over-hunting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence), and the anticipated bad PR and loss of revenue from an extended seafood boycott.

Several commercial food markets and restaurants have joined the Canadian seafood boycott, including Whole Foods Markets, Trader Joe's Food Emporiums, and Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville Cafes.

According to The Humane Society International:

"With more than 1 million baby seals killed in the past five years alone, Canada's commercial seal kill is the largest slaughter of marine mammals on Earth. The annual slaughter is an off-season activity conducted by commercial fishermen from Canada's East Coast who earn, on average, just a small fraction of their annual income from killing seals.

'Expanding the boycott of Canadian seafood to Europe is a logical next step in our campaign to end Canada's commercial seal slaughter,' said Mark Glover, director of HSI/UK. 'The European Union took the historic step of banning its trade in products of commercial seal hunts. Now, by not purchasing Canadian seafood products, European citizens are showing their support for putting an end to the bloody slaughter of baby seals.'

HSI's American partner, The Humane Society of the United States, launched the Canadian seafood boycott in the U.S. in 2005. To date, the ProtectSeals boycott has gained the support of more than 5,500 establishments and 650,000 individuals. With the help of European establishments, HSI hopes to increase these numbers—as the European Union is the third largest market for Canadian seafood—and bring an end to the inhumane slaughter of innocent seals."

Once again, it would seem that economic power speaks louder than humane actions when it comes to motivating commerce. If you would like to learn more about the hunt, click here. To add your name to the boycott list, click here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tuna Populations: new ICCAT assessment and new Hawaiian venture

In September, I posted information on the status of the Bluefin Tuna and the efforts by Monaco to have this highly depleted fish listed by CITES as endangered, thereby initiating a commercial ban on the species. Unfortunately, the EU was not providing much support but Monaco was still moving ahead with the request.

Many countries turn to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) for guidance regarding commercial limits but their quotas have often fallen short of levels recommended by many research groups, showing a bias towards the commercial tuna fishing industry. But that may be changing.

An analysis by ICCAT's own advisers reports that stocks of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna are probably less than 15% of their original size.

According to an article in the online BBC News, "
For a number of years, ICCAT has set quotas higher than scientists' recommendations. The pressure this puts on stocks has been compounded by illegal fishing for this valuable species, which according to some estimates adds 30% to the official quota. Atlantic bluefin tuna are mainly caught from countries around the Mediterranean Sea, but most of the meat is consumed in Asia, particularly Japan. Japan has previously argued that commercial fish species should be controlled by bodies like ICCAT rather than CITES. 'The right thing would be to impose a zero quota,' said Sue Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group."

Read the BBC news article.

And in a related development, Hawaii Oceanic Technology has received permission to establish the first Bigeye Tuna farm near the big island of Hawaii. The company intends to breed juvenile or tuna "fry" in a lab then transfer them to large pens three miles offshore.

By feeding the tuna only sustainable feeder fish species, resisting the use of antibiotics, and placing the tuna pens in water that is over a thousand feet deep, they hope to avoid some of the environmental concerns that have been raised by some ocean conservation groups about this operation and others worldwide.

It is important that 1.) we realize that traditional commercial tuna fishing is no longer a viable option as tuna populations are being drastically depleted worldwide, and 2.) raising tuna in an aquafarming operation is probably our best bet. But serious issues regarding ocean pollution and disease must be addressed if it is to have a viable future.

Read the MNN/AP article.