Thursday, September 30, 2010

Plants At Risk: research catalogs potential extinction threat to one-fifth of all plants

There are several news agencies that are picking up on a recently released study that declares that one-fifth of the world's plants are faced with extinction. Animals or large-scale ecosystems seem to catch the attention of the general public more than plants, perhaps because we can relate to an animated polar bear, a wolf, or a shark better than we can to an orchid. And ecosystems catch our attention because their fate is often wrapped up in global implications.

However, plants, as much as they may be taken for granted or ignored altogether, play a significant role in not only the overall health of the planet but to mankind specifically.

Researchers at England's Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and the Natural History Museum, along with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have analyzed over 4,000 plant species and determined that 22% should be considered threatened with possible extinction, while another 33% could not have their status determined because so little is known about them. Their research forms an important baseline by which future growth or loss can be measured.

With an estimated 380,000 plant species in the world today, what appears to be the greatest threat is habitat loss - areas of land that are being consumed and redirected towards agriculture. Tropical rain forests seem to be the greatest botanical areas at risk.

Now what might assume that the loss of some obscure orchid or weed is not a big deal; that as long as we have plenty of fruits and vegetables, we will be okay. Not so, according to the research. Many medicines have been first derived or can only be derived from plant extracts, and with the loss of botanical environments that can be a loss of an untold number of future medications. Ironically, developing countries, where much of the tropical forests and plant systems are being wiped out, are one of the main benefactors in plant-derived medicines for conditions ranging from malaria to leukemia.

In addition, focusing on plants that serve the greatest numbers of people as food is a limitation that can have profound effects on the very plants we depend on. It is reported that 80% of the calories consumed by the world come from only 12 different plant species. That can cause a precarious limitation in the DNA gene pool of plants which can have a negative impact on those 12 species we so much depend on. Imagine ridding the world of all animals except for cows, pigs, chickens and a few fish and you can see how precarious our situation would become in maintaining a healthy gene pool of feed animals.

The report on the ongoing botanical research comes in advance of next month's United Nations Biodiversity Conference. The future of plants on earth must be an important component of a more holistic approach towards biodiversity, realizing that every plant or animal plays a role and we must consider the implications when any species, plant or animal, is brought to the level of extinction.

Stephen Hopper, professor and director of the the Royal Botanical Gardens said,
"We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear - plants are the basis of all life on Earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel. All animal and bird life depends on them and so do we. Every breath we take involves interacting with plants. They're what we all depend on."

Read more about it in the Royal Botanical Gardens' KEW News.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sharks in the Arabian Gulf: new research to determine population before it's too late

Declining shark populations have been reported in many parts of the world - some reductions reaching as much as 80 to 90 percent compared to just a few decades ago. But there are still some important bodies of water where the status of the shark populations is unclear. One of those bodies is the Arabian Gulf (or Persian Gulf, depending on who you talk to).

But that is about to change.

Marine biologist Rima Jabado, from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) University, has begun a study to determine the health and extant of shark populations in the Gulf. As part of her doctoral thesis, she has been interviewing Arab fishermen (over 125 to date) and their anecdotal information combined with in-the-field study will hopefully paint an accurate picture of what shark species are living in the Gulf and what their true numbers are.

Jabado was pleased to find that the fishermen were sympathetic to the need for shark conservation to maintain a healthy marine ecosystem, thereby helping to provide sustainable levels of commercial fisheries. But, as noted in the Gulf News, she also heard their frustration in how to deal with sharks when caught.

"The majority of the fishermen would want to protect sharks and believe in the protection of fish for a sustainable fishery," said Rima. "But if sharks are caught in a fisherman's net, should they be thrown back? Perhaps they should be brought in? [This subject] causes them to debate. Some complain that sharks just make holes in their nets."

In many publications, including this blog, the impact of declining shark populations on marine ecosystems has often been presented as a looming threat. But scientists and commercial fisherman are beginning to see real, tangible evidence.

For its predominantly international audience, the Gulf News cited several examples ranging from Australian reports of octopus - no longer being preyed upon by sharks - exploding in number and devouring the lobster population; to increased numbers of cownose rays along the U.S. Atlantic coast decimating vast beds of bay scallops (sharks, particularly hammerheads, feed on cownose rays).

Hopefully, Jabado's research will provide UAE government officials with hard evidence from which responsible shark conservation policies and fishing regulations can be derived. While the Arab fisherman expressed an interest in shark conservation to insure the future of their fisheries, the catch numbers have not been so flattering. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, UAE's catch alone of sharks averaged between 1,300 and 1,950 tons annually from 1985 to 2000. While that number remained fairly stable through that period, rather than increasing, it certainly is sufficient to cause harm to shark populations in a relatively closed body of water like the Arabian Gulf.

"The state of sharks in the Arabian Gulf is a blank," said Jabado. "Attention should be given to sharks — they're the apex predator and their demise could lead to the collapse of the marine ecosystem."

Let us hope that the Arab nations that border the Gulf will prove to be more long-term in their thinking when it comes to establishing policy that will preserve both sharks and their commercial fishing interests.

Read entire article in the Gulf News.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oregon's Proposed Marine Reserves: politics in getting MPAs in the US northwest

Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, are aquatic reserves that are designed to restrict or prohibit activities deemed harmful to the marine environment. This has typically meant strict regulations on commercial or sport fishing activities but in some cases it has extended further to include other industrial or recreational activities. What is or is not allowed depends on where the reserve is located, its size, and the environmental and economic considerations impacted by the reserve.

Some reserves are quite large, like the South Pacific's multi-national Pacific Oceanscape or Hawaii's Northwestern Islands. Or they can be smaller and localized, like California's central coast marine sanctuaries that include the Channel Islands. But as a global total, marine protect areas cover only a mere one percent of the world's oceans.

The challenge with all MPAs is that they are the end result of a political process, and to deal with that can be as exciting as watching paint dry. Thought-provoking pictures and images and reams of scientific data are all part of the process in considering a marine reserve, but ultimately it boils down to government officials, conservation and environmental interests, and economic interests all trying to hammer out a compromise that the interested or effected parties can live with. And this can be a drawn out process at best.

Along the U.S.'s Oregon coast lies some of the country's most rugged and beautiful coastline and marine ecosystems. Rugged, but just as fragile as any tropical reef system when faced with overfishing, pollution, or any other man-made abuse. The state has been at work to determine the scope of possible MPAs along the Cape Arago area, developing as many as eight different proposals. A recommendation committee has been formed to whittle that number down to just three for public comment.

MPAs follow a process very similar to our legislative process in the U.S. A proposal is put forth, much like a bill, and then it goes to a committee where it is tweaked and amended, then brought forth for public comment, and then ultimately voted on - that's it in a simplified nutshell. Anywhere along the way, it can be derailed by lobby groups or public sentiment and pushed from an internal governmental process to an open ballot initiative, which can be a more drawn out and openly politicized battle.

In 2008, Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski asked the state's Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC) for recommendations for coastal marine reserves. Thus began a lengthy process that included environmental groups and commercial and sport fishing interests. Oregon has several major commercial fishing industries, including salmon and crab, and so the delicate political maneuvering began to reach a suitable compromise. A committee was formed to try and develop proposals that would be at least close to acceptable to all involved.

As reported in the Oregon The World, OPAC committee chair Jim Pex said,
"There's a strong political force trying to get as much area in reserves as possible, and a strong force wanting no reserves at all. . . As with any group that is diverse, it takes time to get everyone to move in one direction."

To insure that the process would move forward, the committee adopted several interesting rulings:
  • No proposal would be considered that inhibited salmon fishing or crabbing.
  • There is no known biological problem that a marine reserve would solve at this time.
  • Additionally, funding for ongoing government research would be required to justify the reserve. No funding, no reserve.
Personally, I found these to be some interesting concessions. Once again, an economic consideration (salmon fishing and crabbing) was given a higher priority over the environmental benefit. If it's bad for business then nature will just have to wait. The problem is, as we have seen with other commercial fishing industries, nature doesn't wait; it continues to degrade until the industry collapses due to a decimated fish population.

The second point is a curious one. If the position is to not recognize any biological problem that a marine reserve would solve, then why have the reserve? Or is it a case of getting commercial interests to cooperate by not ascribing any problem specifically to their activities? MPAs have already been shown to increase sealife populations and this has even had a positive effect on commercial fish populations outside of the reserves boundaries. And as I have reported in previous posts, there is a growing issue of increased populations of Humboldt squid all along the eastern Pacific - a situation which possibly could be mitigated by marine reserves which would support an increase in natural predators to the squid (right now, Humboldt squid can pose a serious threat to a multi-million dollar salmon fishery).

In addressing the research funding issue, to insure that there will be continued research to justify any reserve established, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is investigating ways of procuring funding, made difficult in a "no more government spending" climate. Non-governmental funding is being looked into through the use of foundations, trusts, and even federal appropriations.

OPAC is hoping that the final proposals will be brought before the public for comment by the end of the year. The process is an elaborate one and, as we have seen with other U.S. legislation, the end result can be considerably watered down from what was perhaps once envisioned. It certainly is not the "sexy" part of ocean policy but beyond all the fund-raising or issue-raising parties and events, after all the videos and slide presentations, this is what it boils down to: hard-fought negotiations and back room politics.

Hopefully the end result is something that provides the oceans with a real benefit. And, hopefully, mankind learns that by doing that, it too becomes a beneficiary.

Read about Oregon's MPA politics in The World.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bahamas' Deep Water Sharks: institute conducts research into little-known species

The Bahamas is known within the shark diving community as one of the top locations for seeing sharks. Tiger sharks, lemon sharks, and Caribbean reef sharks are three of the more common species, along with occasional bull, hammerhead, and nurse sharks. From Stuart Cove's Nassau shark diving operation to the boats that frequent popular Tiger Beach off Grand Bahamas, shark diving has flourished as a tourist activity in relatively shallow water.

But cruising in deep waters is another entire world of sharks, one that has largely remained out of sight from divers and scientists alike. There is much that we do not know about sharks, but with these deep water denizens we know even less. Over half of the documented species of sharks live below 200m (660 ft.) but only a handful have been studied to any appreciable degree.

To help fill that void in knowledge, researchers at the Cape Eleuthera Institute, along with scientists from Florida State and Stony Brooks Universities, are conducting research on several deep water sharks as part of the institute's Shark Conservation and Research Program. Utilizing
satellite tags supplied by Microwave Telemetry, Inc. (including a new, next-generation of micro-tags more suitable for smaller sharks), the researchers have been quite successful in capturing and tagging 25 sharks from six different species, ranging from a 13-foot bluntnose sixgill shark to a petite sawtail catshark at 18 inches.

According to The Bahamas, Dr. Dean Grubbs of Florida State University was more than pleased. "I have conducted research on deep water sharks in a number of locations around the world including the central Pacific off Hawaii, the temperate western Atlantic off the east coast of the USA and in the Gulf of Mexico. Cape Eleuthera appeared to be an ideal location to expand my research however I never expected the incredible diversity and abundance of species we encountered these last few days. Twenty-five sharks from six different species on only six surveys is an incredible record." said Dr. Grubbs.

Realizing the impact of commercial shark fishing on these important predators and scavengers, in addition to appreciating their role as a component of the islands' tourist economy, the Bahamian government has been proactive in shark conservation, which includes a longline fishing ban in the 1990s, and enthusiastically supports the research taking place involving these deep water species.

"The absence of a commercial fishery of any significance for sharks in The Bahamas, along with a wide variety of marine habitats within close proximity to the facility makes the Cape Eleuthera Institute an ideal location for the pursuit of research into these important species," said the Department of Marine Resources director, Michael Braynen.

Best of success to the Cape Eleuthera Institute. The more light that can be shed on all members of the shark family, the better we will understand how they are woven into the fabric of the ocean ecosystem - not only as pelagic apex predators but as ocean citizens of a mysterious deep water community.

Read the article in The Bahamas

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Macaque Monkeys: trappers and handlers accused of animal abuse in Mauritius

One of the more disturbing moral dilemmas between man and nature is the use of animals for scientific or medical research. While the desire amongst many is to treat these subject animals in the most humane way possible, there will always be a strong argument for using them in research rather than expose a human to possible harm - particularly if it involves research for disease cures.

While the ethical debate goes on (and there has been some progress for the animal rights activists regarding the use of animals for cosmetic testing and other non-life threatening pursuits), the one thing no one wants to see is mistreatment of the animals that are captured or bred for these purposes. Many seem to agree that is the least we could do.

Long-tailed macaque monkeys are a primate species that has been used in a wide range of research from the early days of the space program to today. They are also somewhat prolific, being listed as of "least concern" for endangerment by the IUCN. Macaque monkeys are bred in several African and Asian countries primarily to supply the research field with test subjects.

Off the southeastern coast of Africa, east of Madagascar, lies the island nation of Mauritius, which is home to at least four breeding farms to service its customers - the United States is the largest importer of primates from Mauritius, followed by breeders in Spain, Israel, and Puerto Rico. But according to a report by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), monkeys are being seriously and cruelly mistreated in Mauritius, perhaps due to an attitude that views the long-tailed macaque monkey as a pest worthy of eradication.

According to the Associated Press, a report just released by the BUAV cites instances of monkeys being kept in small, restrictive wire cages; showing clear signs of injuries; and even being swung around by their tails by the trapper/handlers. Inquiries by AP to several Mauritius government agencies have gone unanswered.

Quoting AP, "'The animal was clearly terrified, yet the trapper routinely removed him from the cage and tormented him by picking him up and swinging him around in the air by the tail,' the report said. "This particular primate also had injuries to his forehead.'"

The long-tailed macaque monkey has been introduced as an invasive alien species over the years in several locations including Hong Kong, western New Guinea, Palau, and Mauritius. It has proven to be a successful predator and in so doing, disrupted the natural balance, particularly in island nations where isolated species are unaccustomed and unprepared for the impact of alien species. While it certainly may be considered a pest on the island of Mauritius, mistreatment of this animal, particularly when it serves an economic value to the islanders, does not seem in any way justified.

The BUAV's agenda is clear and so their report may be viewed by government or industrial officials with a measure of bias. Whether that impacts the reports ability to change conditions in the Mauritius monkey trade remains to be seen. But as the debate continues as to whether mankind is to continue to use animals - monkeys or otherwise - for research purposes, providing a measure of dignity and respect for an animal that is providing us with a benefit would not seem to be an impossible goal.

Read the Associated Press news release.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Studying Pacific Blue Marlins: scientists enlist the aid of sportfishermen

Cruising throughout the warmer waters of the Pacific, the Pacific Blue Marlin is one of the most magnificent of the top or "apex" predators to roam the seas. But as with many other pelagic sea creatures, not much is known about them. A majestic mystery.

But that is slowly changing through the help of a seemingly unlikely source: sportfishermen. The Pacific blue marlin is a highly prized catch in ocean sportfishing; landing such a fish can entail hours upon hours of strenuous effort, making it one of the pinnacle goals of the sport. But rather than lose the fish to a trophy photo or dinner plate, the marlins are being released after being tagged with satellite tracking tags.

Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, home to the Global Tagging of Pelagic Predators (GTOPP) program, has been working for nearly a decade on tagging a variety of ocean predators, ranging from billfish - like the marlin - to tuna, great white sharks, and more. Headed by Dr. Barbara Block, GTOPP has uncovered migratory patterns that were heretofore unknown, such as the migratory patterns of white sharks traveling from the California and Baja coasts to a large area in the Pacific, dubbed the White Shark Cafe, and then back to their respective coasts year after year.

Working with sportfishing tournament organizations, such as the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament, GTOPP has promoted catch-and-release techniques that allow the researchers to tag the animals with electronic tags that can record a variety of information including global position, speed, and depth. Ultimately, the tags come free and upon reaching the surface, release their stored data to satellites for study by an anxious and waiting team of researchers.

GTOPP researchers just recently completed launching a series of ten tags on Pacific blue marlin caught as part of the Hawaii's big marlin tournament; an event called the Great Marlin Race due to the long distances that the marlin can cover. They are waiting to see what new surprises the tagged animals will reveal as they patrol the open sea.

In 2009, several tagged marlin traveled a distance of more than 1800 miles, from Hawaii to the Marquesas Islands. In addition to such a long distance, what made this remarkable to the researchers was the fact that the animals crossed the equatorial region, which is unusual due to its warmer surface temperatures and lower oxygen content - not a normally hospitable environment for a high energy-consuming animal like a marlin.

"The equatorial region is such a significant boundary for so many species, it was really surprising to see that three long tracks went right across it," said Randy Kochevar, Hopkins Marine Station marine biologist. "We don't really know a lot about the marlins' patterns and their behavior. It appears that rather than traveling to a particular place to spawn, and then spending the rest of the year feeding, like tuna, it seems like they are constantly spawning and they sort of come and go from place to place."

So, while some tagged predators have defined certain migratory routes or oceanic highways, like the white sharks traveling from the coasts to mid-Pacific, other animals appear to roam the seas, perhaps directed by yet undiscovered stimuli. Enlisting the aid of sportfishermen in events like the Great Marlin Race, can be an effective means to learn more about these important ocean predators while allowing the fishermen to engage in the most challenging aspect of their sport - and at the same time preserving the species rather than see it hanging tails-up from a local dock.

The Shark Free Marinas Initiative is another organization that encourages catch-and-release techniques for sportfishermen, politically avoiding a more confrontational approach (banning sportfishing altogether) by taking an incremental step toward shark protection and confrontation. While some people may debate the hooking and reeling in of sharks or marlins as unnecessarily cruel, it has proven itself to be one of the more effective methods for enabling scientists to tag and track these animals.

"What we hope to learn from this work," says Stanford marine biologist George Shillinger, "is basic information about these animals' life histories. We want to know where they go to feed and where they go to breed. We want to understand how they use the ocean in which they live and, ultimately, how we can manage their populations to ensure that they remain plentiful."

Read more about GTOPP and the Great Marlin Race at their
Read more about
marlin tracking and see a brief video through Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Shark News: important research in the Gulf of Mexico, California, and more

Several news items have been swirling around the shark conservation news outlets and blogs of late - from the big picture, population view to the more drilled down, scientifically-studied behavioral aspects.

Research in the Gulf of Mexico
In the aftermath of the Gulf Oil Spill, many research organizations are studying the current and long-term effects on the marine environment. Much of those effects can be very subtle and on a microscopic level that can slowly work its way up the food chain. Similar to the pollution from methylmercury that can work its way into larger ocean fish where it can accumulate, oil and the toxic brew generated from the massive use of dispersants could end up in sharks.

Oceana, one of the larger non-profit ocean conservation organizations, is embarking on a study of sharks in the Gulf through tagging and long-term monitoring of the tagged sharks health and migratory behaviors to detect any significant changes. In addition to sharks, Oceana will be studying the impact on many of the smaller organisms - the building blocks of a marine ecosystem.

As reported in Tampa Bay Online, Oceana's chief scientist Michael Hirshfield said,
"We all notice the sharks and the whales and the turtles and the seabirds when an accident like this happens. If they die, it's pretty visible. It's the worms and the little tiny things that are at the bottom of the food chain that matter a lot to the rest of the Gulf ecosystem. If they die, we're not going to notice it.''

Sea Otter Predation in Central California
On the western coast of the United States, scientists with the California Department of Fish and Game have been recording an increase in the number of great white shark predations on sea otters along the state's Central Coast. From Pismo Beach to Monterey Bay, there has been a recorded 26 cases since August.

In most cases, these attacks are considered investigative bites and probably coming from juvenile white sharks who are in the transition process from feeding on fish to mammals (adult white sharks primarily feed on marine mammals like seals and sea lions). Not finding the sufficient taste and texture of fat that the white shark needs, it moves on. But even with an investigative nibble, that can prove fatal for the sea otter. Of the 26 reported cases, only one sea otter apparently survived.

The ten-year average for sea otter predations by white sharks is only seven in August; six in September. This year's spike could lead to a new record, surpassing 2009's annual record total of sixty-three.

Fish and Game scientists are studying the increase but a definitive reason has not been established. A mild summer with cooler ocean temperatures could be a cause - making conditions closer to shore (and closer to the sea otters) more tolerable. But it could also be indicative of an increase in the overall white shark population, as mentioned in an earlier post, which would be good for the white sharks, but poses a quandary for Fish and Game officials who are entrusted with protecting sea otter populations that have been negatively impacted from decades of overhunting and encroachment by man on their natural habitat.

The Monterey County Herald discussed the issue with Fish and Game scientist Michael Harris.
"Shark attacks on otters are part of nature, Harris said, but they concern researchers who want to preserve healthy populations. 'It becomes complicated,' he said. 'They are both protected species.'"

Studying Electrical Sensitivity
Just a little further north along the California coast, the University of San Francisco was extolling the work of one of their own, Dr. Brandon Brown, the university's winner of the 2010 Distinguished Research Award. Dr. Brown has focused much of his recent work on the characteristics of the hydrogel in sharks and other elasmobranchs that gives these animals a type of sixth sense - the ability to detect faint electrical fields given often by other animals.

Many shark enthusiasts are familiar with this feature of a shark's hunting capability. The Ampullae de Lorenzini are the pores - a kind of five-o'clock shadow seen around the nose area of a shark - that contain the hydrogel, Dr. Brown has been studying. Through his research, one of the interesting results has been his analysis of how experienced and inexperienced sharks use the hydrogel in their hunting patterns.

According to a news release from the University's news room,
"By comparing mathematical models to actual shark behavior, Brown has been able to witness sharks who use their “sixth sense” to make a beeline for the source while some, thought to be less experienced hunters, spiral in toward the source of the electrical impulses. Spiraling allows them to maintain the same orientation to the impulses as they approach, so as not to lose the scent, so to speak."

The research goes on and these amazing animals continue to fascinate us all.

Read the Tampa Bay Online article on shark research in the Gulf of Mexico.
Read the Monterey County Herald article on white shark predation of sea otters.
Read the USF
article on Dr. Brown's research on elasmobranch's hydrogel.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

BLUE on Tour: an ocean conservation film festival takes to the road to enlighten

The BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit, which took place last month in Monterey, California, was a resounding success. It brought together aquatic film industry types, respected ocean conservationists, and a fascinating and diverse slate of films about the ocean and many of the issues that threaten its survival. I was fortunate to attend and honored to have been asked to participate in it.

But it's not an event that pats itself on the back, rolls up the welcome mat, and looks forward to next year. When the dust has settled and all the attendees have gone home, the festival takes to the road with BLUE on Tour. Over a dozen venues on three continents, from academic institutions to public viewing facilities, have voiced their interest and are ready to present the traveling mini-festival. This form of educational outreach has always been a part of the non-profit BLUE Ocean Film Festival's mission and the festival's founders, Debbie and Charles Kinder, are dedicated to its realization. But it costs money and they have determined that it will take $20,000 to launch the BLUE on Tour for 2010.

To move things forward towards that goal, one of the festival sponsors, beBLUU filtered water bottles, has promised to donate three dollars of each sale to the festival through November 30th. But support from the public will also be needed if the festival is to reach its financial goal.

beBLUU has an interesting product - the next generation in portable water bottles. The beBLUU bottle is constructed of 100% recyclable, FDA-approved food and medical grade resin which contains none of the harmful chemicals that have been found in many of our plastic products. No BPA, DEHA, or DEHP. And the bottle includes a replaceable filter that cleans and purifies the water. So no matter the tap from whence it came, your water will be filtered clean, just like the pricey name brands we buy. And that can eliminate the single-use of thousands of plastic bottles - a major source of plastic pollution, right up there in importance with disposable plastic bags.

BLUE on Tour is a great way for people across the globe to see some of the very best in ocean wildlife and ocean conservation films. It can motivate people of all ages by using the power of the visual image to educate and enlighten. Let's hope the festival can reach the financial goals that will guarantee the start of the BLUE on Tour journey. beBLUU is lending a hand; you can too.

For information on the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit, visit its website or contact Ashley Huffman at And to learn more about beBLUU filtered water bottles, click here.

Read the beBLUU press release about their commitment to the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Conservation: friend or foe to developing nations?

Conservation. The word has different meanings and consequences in different parts of the world. In many developed countries it serves as a means to protect natural resources for future generations to see and enjoy. Global implications might enter into the picture, promoting conservation so as not to disrupt large-scale ecosystems. Or perhaps it's a cause du jour; it's just good manners.

But in underdeveloped or developing countries, conservation can be an intimate matter of life and death, having a profound impact on poverty. But a good or a bad impact? Does conservation help to eliminate poverty or exacerbate it? Or are the two not linked at all in any way?

To the conservationist, it would seem an obvious benefit and many worldwide organizations - like the United Nation's Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) - have adopted that position. But studies to date have not yet provided a clear path to that conclusion. According to's NatureNews, past small scale studies were inconclusive, "
Many studies have simply shown that poverty frequently overlaps with areas that are a high priority for biodiversity conservation."

With the U.N. coming up short in its two goals of stemming the loss of biological diversity by 2010 and lifting at least half of the world's poorest out of poverty by 2015, considerable attention is being drawn to upcoming CBD meetings later this month. Convention members will be turning to research studies for answers and there have been a few large scale studies that provide an indication that a connection does exist between conservation and the reduction of poverty.

Conservation International conducted a massive global study of a group of ecosystems including water from rivers and streams. Using data and maps from sources ranging from the World Wildlife Fund to NASA, Conservation International combined that with population and human distribution data derived from LandScan data from the U.S. Department of Energy to determine whether any relationships exist between areas of poverty and possible biological diversity conservation efforts.

NatureNews reported, "
The study, as yet unpublished, showed that water conservation projects could aid poverty alleviation. The 16 other ecosystem services they assessed, including crop pollination by insects and waste treatment, showed similar results. 'This suggests we should continue to push for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development where these synergies exist,' says [Conservation International researcher Will] Turner."

All well and good, but another study from a London-based research group brought up
an important issue when conservation measures are initiated in countries as an economic stimulus to eliminate poverty, IE: eco-tourism. The study by the International Institute for Environment and Development questioned whether the economic benefits were actually reaching those in greatest need. As an anecdote to this study, I was reading about efforts to improve the controlled hunting of lions in African reserves. At issue was that, while considerable fees were being charged to the trophy hunters, local villagers who staffed the park reserve were still drastically underpaid.

More large-scale studies are taking place, but a final, definitive conclusion will be a difficult goal to achieve as there are so many variables at work in any particular situation. Population sizes, what specific ecosystems or natural resources would be conserved, what species are at risk, what economic benefits can be derived - all play a role and all can be different from place to place, situation to situation.

In the next few weeks, the United Nations will be struggling with strategies that can hopefully both lift the poverty levels of needy nations through economic development while preserving natural resources and enhancing biodiversity. It is a difficult tightrope to walk. Wrestling with finding solutions that will prevent conservation from being at odds with the reduction of poverty, Bill Adams from the University of Cambridge observed,
"Maybe we can't stop biodiversity loss and lift people out of poverty at the same time, but we have to try to make it work."

Read article in NatureNews.
Visit the Convention on Biological Diversity website.

The Sargasso Sea: a famed Atlantic Ocean region is a gyre at risk

The Sargasso Sea - an area in the North Atlantic that is unique in several ways. It is a sea without shores, defined by aquatic borders made up of four open ocean currents: on the west by the Gulf Stream, to the north by the North Atlantic Current, on the east by the Canary Current, and on the south by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current. Collectively, this forms the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre - a rotating pool of water some 700 miles wide and 2,000 miles long.

The other unique feature of the Sargasso Sea is its namesake. Within this large body of water resides Sargassum seaweed. Sargassum is a floating seaweed and as such provides an oceanic haven for a variety of sea creatures from juvenile fish, to predators to coral larvae. Over the centuries, vast mats of Sargassum were seen and documented by sailors. But there has been a steady decline in the acreage of this vital seaweed, which serves as a barometer of the ocean's health.

Mission Blue, the new research and expedition arm of Dr. Sylvia Earle's Deep Search Foundation, has designated the Sargasso Sea as one of the organization's Hope Spots - an ocean area that deserves attention and study because of what it says about the state of the planet's oceans.

Mission Blue recently visited the Sargasso Sea, near it's Bermuda epicenter, and from the organization's blog came these comments from Dr. Earle,
"No large mats of Sargassum but we snorkled around some small patches and had a great at sea rendezvous with the Bermuda Aquarium team who had a big tub of water on board their small boat and were able to show us a cross section of Sargassum's floating zoo -- some of the endemic crabs, shrimp and a miniature Sargassum fish as well as a little puffer, tiny jacks and other little critters."

Being a gyre, the Sargasso Sea is open to many of the same conditions that have grabbed attention in the Pacific Ocean with its Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Plastics, both in large floating pieces and in the degraded micro-particles, threaten the health of the Sargasso Sea and all of its inhabitants. Micro-particles of plastic form a deadly and sometimes toxic stew in the water which threatens everything from seabirds, turtles, pelagic fish (which are also at risk from swallowing larger pieces of plastic) all the way down to larval creatures that ingest the particles.

Disrupting the floating marine ecosystem and Sargassum seaweed that makes up the Sargasso Sea, through climate changes in surface temperature and pollution from plastics, puts this shoreless sea at risk of becoming a lifeless zone. Often written about in history as a thriving breeding ground and mysterious vast ocean forest floating across the surface of the water, the Sargasso Sea needs protection, lest it becomes just a footnote in our memories.

Visit the Mission Blue web site to learn more about the Sargasso Sea.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Whales & Carbon Sequestering: new study shows potential carbon storing by large whales

Following up on my recent post about whalers being early and unintentional environmentalists, here's some interesting news coming out of the University of Maine. A study conducted by researchers from the university, in addition to the University of British Columbia and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, outlines the enormous carbon sequestering ability of whales and other large marine species; an ability that puts these animals on a par with other carbon storing organisms like peat bogs, grasslands and trees.

As an example, a blue whale can store up to 9 tons of carbon, surpassed only by large trees. But since the populations of blue whales have been reduced by as much as 99 percent, the planet has lost a vital source of carbon sequestration. Andrew Pershing, one of the Maine research scientists, describe the loss of potential carbon storage due to a century of whaling as the equivalent of burning more than 70 million acres of temperate forest or 28,000 SUVs driving for 100 years.

Many scientists have proposed "iron fertilization" as a method for sequestering carbon in the oceans. This process bonds iron particles with carbon and then, as the iron sinks into deep ocean depths, it takes along with it an amount of carbon. Pershing, whose research was supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation, sees whale conservation as equally if not more effective.

Pershing noted,
“The big surprise was in our calculations comparing carbon exported by sinking whale carcasses to the carbon exported by iron fertilization. If we had all the whales we used to have, they would remove the same amount of carbon in a year as 200 of the most efficient iron fertilization events. What that tells me is that we can get significant carbon savings by conserving resources in the ocean, protecting whales, larger fish and sharks.”

Additionally, The larger whale and marine species prove to be more efficient at carbon storage than smaller species. While all animals absorb some measure of carbon (we're carbon lifeforms, remember?), the larger animals require less food (which equates to carbon) per unit of weight. The same amount of food can support more whale tonnage than, say, compared to penguins.

As the University of Maine reported in a recent press release, according to Pershing,
“In many ways bigger is better.” Any whale could have told us that.

Read the University of Maine press release.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Whalers as Early Environmentalists: 19th century ice reports ironically provides climatologists with important data

Over the past few years, scientists and government agencies have reported changes in the Arctic sea ice. Monitoring its annual undulations, they have seen marked reductions in the thickness and overall extant of the floating ice pack. But to determine whether this is a minor fluctuation or an actual alarming trend, a baseline is needed - one that extends farther beyond the time frame that researchers have worked within.

For that data, scientists have turned to what some ocean conservationists would consider an unlikely source: whalers.

Specifically, whalers of the late 1800's, when the industry was in full swing and whaling vessels were plying the Arctic seas in search of whales to meet the Industrial Revolution's demand for whale oil. By charting the range and condition of Arctic sea ice for the purpose of determining safe routes for their ships, whalers unintentionally became early environmentalists, providing detailed reports that scientists can use today to help establish that needed baseline for assessing long-term trends and conditions. Talk about unlikely bedfellows.

Douglas Mair, environmental expert from Scotland's Aberdeen University, is preparing to deliver a series of talks at the university on the whalers' contribution to Arctic climate science. As reported in Scotland's The Press and Journal, he said, “They [whalers] recorded a lot of their observations about sea ice, or frozen oceans, in the Arctic. They were simply trying to find a safe way through the ice. There was nothing scientific about it. But their notes show us how the Arctic waters have changed over the decades. There has been a dramatic decline in sea ice."

Another rather unlikely source for past Arctic ice data also comes from Russian studies done in the 60's involving suitable locations for hydrogen bomb tests. Again, ironic that out of the era of "mutually assured destruction" we find something that provides evidence for environmentalists to show the importance of climate change and why we must address it as the world-changing event that it is.

From one mutually assured destruction scenario to another. We seemed to have steered away from one; now let's chart a new course away from the other.

Read more about it in The Press and Journal.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Basking Shark: NOAA's "species of concern" designation is a warning flag

NOAA, the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, took a slightly unusual step by declaring the eastern North Pacific's basking shark a "species of concern." While it sounds a bit like a suspect in an unsolved homicide, what the designation actually does is recognize that the basking sharks that migrate along the coast from Canada to the central coast of California are not recovering in numbers as expected since the taking of basking sharks commercially was curtailed in the 1970s.

Basking sharks, which are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List but not yet eligible for protection under the U.S.'s Endangered Species Act, are typically cold water, plankton-feeders
and quite spectacular to see. Reaching lengths of up to 40 feet, they cruise near the surface with their cavernous mouth agape, filtering plankton and other small organisms. They pose no threat to humans but the reverse is certainly not the case.

Basking sharks have been hunted in the past - sometimes for meat, sometimes because they disrupt the salmon fisheries. Though now protected from deliberately being taken, they can still get caught in fishing nets or struck by vessels as they cruise the surface.

The importance of a government scientific agency taking a step like this is that it essentially greases the wheels for marine scientists to consider the basking shark as a study subject. With NOAA's acknowledged concern, the designation can assist scientists in seeking funding for research projects.

"But why should we fund your study of this shark? It's not exactly endangered is it?" "No, not yet. But NOAA feels sufficiently concerned enough to give it this designation as a warning that steps need to be taken to avoid endangering the animal further. And to know just what those steps should be, we need research. Funded research."

The basking shark - a shark that once schooled by the hundreds in decades past, now only seen a few at a time. If at all. NOAA is taking the commendable step of raising a flag. And they plan to do more. A website will be launched in December for scientists and the public alike to report sightings. In the meantime, you can report sightings by calling 858-334-2884 or send an email to

Read more about NOAA's announcement in ScienceNews.
Read more about basking sharks at
NOAA's website.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Green Dollar Across the Potomac: reduction in nitrates improves waterway's ecosystem

Sewage treatment seems like a practical and logical step from an environmental perspective. Much better to treat raw sewage than to flush it right out to sea. But in taking that step decades ago, there was a learning curve involved, and part of that curve was the realization of the impact that nitrates, produced by the treatment process, would have on fresh water and ocean environments.

Organic nitrogen (nitrates) has been shown to cause a marked increase in plankton and several forms of algae which reduce both sunlight and oxygen levels - thereby choking off aquatic plantlife and from there a cascading effect ripples through the aquatic ecosystem, eliminating fish, shellfish, and just about everything else within the ecosystem. Rivers, estuaries, and shallow bays have been hard hit by many years of treated sewage, but there are distinct signs that conditions can be improved - if not reversed all together.

A study monitoring the effects of reducing nitrates in the Potomac River, in the eastern United States, has verified a noticeable improvement in aquatic vegetation. With a return of this basic ecological building block, so returns the animal life. And the vegetation acts as a filtering agent and buffer against floating particles, thereby improving overall water quality.

According to NatureNews, a reduction of two-thirds in the discharge of nitrates (from 20 tons per day in 1990 to 6 tons in 2007) through improved technology is primarily responsible for the improvement.
"'It [the vegetation] is the base of the food chain,' says [participating scientist Nancy] Rybicki. 'The number of fish, particularly young fish, and the number of invertebrates increase dramatically within the plant beds.'"
Not only does this improvement in the Potomac mean good news for adjacent waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, which has seen a disastrous decline in its crab and oyster populations over the years, but it gives hope for many bodies of water and shallow tidelands worldwide. With past attempts to improve conditions in the Chesapeake Bay having been largely unsuccessful, in 2009 President Obama mandated a change by executive order, recognizing the bay as a national treasure and calling on the federal government to renew efforts to restore it. Through improved sewage treatment technology and careful monitoring of conditions, improvements can be realized.

William Ball, environmental engineer at John Hopkins University was quoted as saying,
"Because much of the nitrogen decrease in the Potomac has been due to advanced wastewater treatment, this study is a strong validation of the utility and importance of applying this technology worldwide."

Margaret Palmer of Maryland's Biological Laboratory in Solomons added,
"If we can clean things up in the bay, it offers great hope for other ecosystems, such as the Black Sea, the Baltic and many others."

Read the article in NatureNews.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sea Jellies: a summer swarm in Monterey!

Imagine slipping into the cool, late summer waters of Monterey Bay in central California, expecting to settle to the bottom and film kelp beds and the sealife associated with this unique marine ecosystem. As you descend into the Bay's emerald green water laden with nutrients, you find yourself surrounded, engulfed by sea jellies reaching two feet in length. An invasion of sea jellies is in full assault in Monterey Bay.

But it's not as hostile as it seems. Aggregations of sea jellies have occurred around the world, to the extant that scientists were able to see cyclical patterns. But now they are beginning to scratch their heads as more and more population outbreaks of various species are happening worldwide. The potential for a sea jelly to become an invasive species is always there, possibly transported in the bilges of international freighters as has been the case for some species of algae and seaweed. And their increased presence can destabilize local fish populations as fish seek locations free of the sea jellies' stinging tentacles.

But marine biologists are also considering man-made factors like climate change and ocean pollution. Increasing water temperatures due to climate change can stimulate sea jelly growth. And sea jellies also thrive in areas of low oxygen as a result of pollutants.

Additionally, you have the impact of overfishing on some of the sea jellies' natural predators, whether they are a commercially sought species or not. The loss of tuna and sea turtles, among others, removes an important control mechanism to sea jelly populations. And in turn, swarms of sea jellies can envenom and spoil entire commercial catches.

Sea jelly invasions. It's a topic that raises more questions than there are definitive answers at this time. Some scientists are hesitant to correlate human actions with sea jelly populations, while others pose the possibility that sea jellies could become the dominant species in the ocean. And in several Asian countries, sea jellies are already on the menu; an indication that their increasing numbers could prove a viable food source (I'll pass, if you don't mind.)

One thing is for sure; to be in the midst of thousands of these fascinating invertebrates, slowly weaving along with the currents, is an awesome sight. That is until you feel the burning, itching sensation around your unprotected face and you give leeway to these gelatinous invaders.

Video produced for Google Earth's Ocean layer.

Hong Kong's Ocean Park: a possible opportunity in Asian perceptions of ocean conservation

A brief news item caught my attention as it serves as a follow up to my recent post about the assessment of shark conservation at the recent BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Ocean Summit.

Hong Kong's Ocean Park - an aquatic amusement park similar to the Sea World parks in the U.S. - is initiating preliminary research on the viability of acquiring beluga whales from Russian waters, specifically the Okhotsk Sea.

According to Hong Kong's The Standard, the research could take anywhere from 5 to 10 years, but some conservationists are concerned that the research will be fast tracked to just a few years and that whales could be captured without fully knowing the impact on beluga whale populations in the area.

Naomi Rose, senior scientist with The Humane Society International, was quoted as saying,
"'My guess is [Ocean Park officials] are going to acquire them from Russia, and if they sponsor this research ... it would take five years minimum, more like 10, before they would have sufficient information to determine any kind of safe removal level,' she said. 'They are not going to wait five to 10 years. They are going to do a couple of years of research and say: `Oh, we know now' and this is how many that would be safe.'"

Ocean Park is a very successful attraction in China. It includes a marine mammal park, major aquarium, and a variety of amusement park rides. In attendance, it ranks in the top 20 worldwide (15th in 2008), exceeding Hong Kong's Disneyland. It is also a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which requires members to seek animals from other institutions and acquiring wild animals only as a last resort.

Now, as I have previously said in this blog, I am not an advocate of marine mammals like whales and dolphins in captivity, particularly as these animals are pelagic. There just isn't an exhibit
large enough to provide a healthy environment. But what I found interesting with the article and after reviewing the Ocean Park website is the growing schizophrenic position that Asian cultures are beginning to find themselves in. They can view sea creatures with awe and enthusiasm at Ocean Park - just like Western cultures - and then finish the day with a bowl of shark fin soup or whale meat. But this paradox can lead to an opportunity.

As Peter Knights of WildAid commented during the recent shark conservation panel I moderated for the BLUE Ocean Film Festival, many of the Chinese people, and other Asian countries, are not fully aware of the practices of shark finning, or dolphin/whale hunting. At the moment, they have their feet in two worlds - a cultural heritage that looks at many sea creatures as merely food items to be taken as needed and by any means possible, and a more contemporary approach where a greater appreciation for the animals and the ecological implications exists. It's a paradox that provides a fracture for conservationists to utilize if done rationally and carefully.

However, it is very easy for outside groups to alienate themselves and lose the opportunity to sway Asian public opinion in favor of protection and conservation if the approach is perceived more as condemnation and ridicule rather than a rational and tempered argument. Everyone responds to enlightenment and illumination when it is not at the expense of humiliation. That is the tightrope that shark and marine mammal conservationists must walk to effectively reach the Asian populace.

Read article in The Standard.
View Ocean Park's website.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Complexities of Climate Change: ongoing studies to determine mankind's impact

The complexity of global warming and its effects are highlighted in journal articles cited by SeaWeb in its latest Marine Science Review (issue #359). The challenge to scientists in determining the long-term effects is how best to correlate a myriad of artificially introduced components that can either increase or even decrease atmospheric and ocean temperatures.

A study in Nature Geoscience examines the complexities behind the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) which begins in the tropical Pacific but whose effects extend worldwide. Predicting the frequency and extant of this oscillation has been a challenge even in the best (aka "al naturale") of circumstances. By interjecting man-made factors, the predictability becomes even more difficult. But it is clear that a strong ENSO raises temperatures along the equator, changing wind patterns that impact temperature gradients between surface and deep water layers both at the equator and beyond.

Another study in Nature Geoscience examined issues related to atmospheric aerosols - particles and gases in the atmosphere that have the ability to actually lower temperatures (an extreme example of this would be the extended "winter" that doomed the dinosaurs brought on by ejecta from a meteorite impact). With man-made pollutants, like smog, sometimes both effects - heating and cooling - are at work due to the nature of what is being thrown into the air. This can make it challenging for scientists to determine the end net result and for those who have proposed the use of man-made atmospheric aerosols to moderate temperature, called radiation management, the results are questionable. One fact is known: atmospheric aerosols ultimately weaken the ozone layer, as we had over the Arctic, which increases temperatures.

There were two studies in Toxicon that examined the increase of Ciguatera, a fish poisoning that occurs with the ingestion of algal toxins. As it works its way up the food chain, the effect accumulates and becomes magnified. Human consumption of infected fish can produce some nasty gastrointestinal and even neurological effects. One study, focused on the Caribbean, and showed that the incidence of ciguatera was highest where high and relatively consistent sea surface temperatures (SST) occurred. In contrast, another study in the South Pacific showed that there is a temperature threshold over which ciguatera prevalence is dampened, but determining where and when this dampening effect occurs is challenging due to the oscillation of ocean currents in the area.

And lastly, a study in Climate Policy reminded us all of where the impacts of climate change will fall on human populations. Equatorial, developing countries - in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, and small island states - will feel the greatest effects, affecting subsistence-level economies. And this will have to be taken into consideration when establishing international policies. The industrial world, existing in colder latitudes, has produced over 66% of the global greenhouse gases, but its equatorial neighbors will experience over 75% of the effects within this century.

Climate ecology, like many of the natural forces from evolution to the birth of the universe, is an incredibly complex system unto itself. This makes the study and outcomes of man-made intrusions a very difficult one to forecast. But there is no doubt that mankind is having an impact. I receive 20 to 30 summaries on climate change studies each month from SeaWeb - the data is there, the research is ongoing, and the reality of climate change should be a worldwide concern.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mangroves: new study shows less than previously estimated of critical shoreline forest

With the recent Gulf Oil Spill disaster, the subject of mangroves has become a hot topic. We have all seen the images of oil lapping at the roots of mangroves in Louisiana and Florida, choking the life that not only is growing from the silty bottom on up, but which also surrounds the mangroves in the form of shrimp, sea larvae, and newly hatched fish seeking protection.

Now, a new study published in Global Ecology and Biogeography warns that the world's entire acreage of mangroves has been overestimated, that there is less than originally thought and that we are losing these critically important aquatic forests at an alarming rate.

Scientists from the United States, Australia, and Kenya poured over the most recent satellite data taken by the U.S. Geological Survey for its Global Land Survey, along with other archive images, that utilize remarkable high resolution Landsat satellite photographs. By comparing them to previous estimates by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it was found that overall, mangrove forests are 12.9% less than previously thought. And since 1980, 20% to 30% has been lost globally, with mangrove forests disappearing at an average rate of 1% per year.

As reported by BBC Earth News, Dr. Chandra Giri, one of the scientists involved in the study, warned, "
13% is significant, especially as it is disappearing faster than inland tropical forests. We need to preserve the remaining mangrove forests with urgency otherwise they might disappear."

What makes mangroves so important? First, they serve as a protective nursery for a variety of sea life. Their root structures and the action of the roots on the fine ocean sediment make for ideal habitat conditions for oysters, sponges, algae, shrimp, lobsters and other small crustaceans - not to mention offering a safe haven for a variety of larval and juvenile fish. The loss of mangroves as nurseries can have a profound impact on adult populations further out at sea.

Because of the mangroves' massive root networks, they also serve to protect fragile coastlines from erosion. The impact of daily tidal ebb and flow - and even the extreme action of storm surge or tsunami movements - are moderated by this botanical line of defense. And the mangroves can assist in filtering and maintaining water and air quality by sequestering CO2 and helping the sediments to retain gases and heavy metals.

While the Gulf of Mexico's mangroves have received a lot of publicity of late, 40% of the world's mangroves are located in Asia (compared to North and Central America's 15%). Often based at the mouths of large delta river areas, the shrinking mangrove forests pose a major risk to local communities both from heightened exposure to the elements and from the negative impact on seafood that is a means of economic or nutritional survival.

Read an abstract of the research study.
Read more about the study in
Earth News.