Friday, April 30, 2010

Disappearing Honey Bees: the little guy who brings food to our table

The past week has seen some major ecological issues - from oil spills to the commercial shark fisheries to entire seas at risk. Let's finish the work week with a look at something a lot smaller: Apis millifera - the honey bee.

To many people, bees are responsible for two things: honey for our toast or tea, and a tender red welt (or worse) if we happen to get stung. For years, we have followed news reports of the expansion of the African killer bee; a more aggressive strain that was migrating from South America northward and establishing its own colonies or cross-breading with other species. While the aggressive nature of this particular species is certainly a point of concern, there is a greater threat to bees and humans alike.

The populations of honey bees have been in steady decline, often identified as CDD (colony collapse disorder) and responsible for declines in many areas, ranging from 30 percent to as high as 90 percent. The U.S. government has reported declines in bee hives in the last three years (2007 thru 2009) by 32, 36, and 29 percent, respectively. Since bees are the primary pollinators for many fruits and vegetables, this represents a major multi-billion dollar threat to the agricultural industry. In fact, it has been reported that as much as a third of our food is due to the actions of the honey bee.

"Honey and royal jelly are examples of precious food that we owe to bees but foremost we owe them abundant harvesting of fruits and vegetables since they contribute to pollinate the flowers which will produce the harvest," said Bernard Vallat, the Director General of OIE (World Organization for Animal Health). "Bees contribute to global food security, and their extinction would represent a terrible biological disaster."

The OIE has issued a report that points to a combination of issues which are conspiring against the honey bee. The extensive and sometimes irresponsible use of pesticides can weaken the overall health of the bee, exposing it to other diseases and pathogens - some old and some newly discovered.

Also, invasive species can take their toll (like Europe's recent intruder, the Asian hornet, which hunts and devours bees in mid-flight). Various mites and parasites attack bees and their numbers have increased in various parts of the world due to changing conditions, in some cases brought on by changes in climate.

Adding to all of that, as much as we depend on bees for our agricultural output, we don't make it easy for them. Large mega-farms, that look to bees for their cooperation, provide poor nutrition for the bees by stripping away wild flowers and shrubs. I have seen this on drives up California's central valley (the state's agricultural "breadbasket"). Row after row of fruit and nut trees with white man-made bee hives constructed throughout the orchards - but with nothing else in the area for the bees to feed on.

Insignificant to many, the honey bee actually plays a major role in our ability to feed ourselves. And it is under attack. There is no "silver bullet" solution. As much as we like to gravitate towards those simple answers, what is required here is a comprehensive approach. The cascade of influences impacting the health of the honey bee can have profound economic and health implications right in our own backyard.

Without the simple honey bee, mankind can really get stung.

Read article from the Mother Nature Network.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hawaiian Shark Fin Ban: a great victory in the legislature, but what next?

SB 2169, the Hawaiian ban on the sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins, has passed the state legislature and awakes signature by Hawaii's governor. This is a significant moment on several counts:
  • It eliminates Hawaii as a major distribution hub for shark fins
  • It sets a new standard for other states or countries to emulate
  • It places the social heritage of Hawaiians' respect for sharks over the lucrative economic interests of the commercial shark fishing industry
  • It recognizes the importance of the shark as a vital member of a healthy marine ecosystem
In the final vote, the sole opposition came from Rep. Riki Karamatsu, who had opposed the legislation, then seemed to favor it, and then at the eleventh hour re-took his opposing position. Because of his apparent support from the shark fishery industry, I took the position that he would remain opposed to the legislation. While some commended the representative when he appeared in favor of it, I was skeptical and adopted a what-and-see attitude.

It usually feels good to be right, but not when it means that it confirms the undue influence that economic interests can have over politicians.

Hardy congratulations are well deserved to those legislators who initiated and supported SB 2169 and to the many citizens who worked hard to promote it through some difficult times. But we must still be vigilant.
  • As Hawaii's shark fin distribution business is dismantled, will the business move to other potential sites: San Francisco, other Pacific islands, or back to Asian soil?
  • Will Hawaii continue on this path and consider banning or limiting business in other shark products like cartilage, liver oil, or meat (at least from highly threatened species)?
  • Will future legislation, spawned from backroom deals with industry lobbyists, weaken the current legislation?
For now, it is a time to celebrate a great victory and loudly commend Hawaii's decision makers for siding with sensible conservation. And then tomorrow we carry on.

Read Washington Post article.

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: energy has consequences beyond the shoreline

One of the leading environmental stories has been the recent explosion, fire, and sinking of the Trans Ocean/BP floating oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and the subsequent oil spill that has been expanding by approximately 42,000 gallons of oil each day from an oil head 5,000 feet deep. According to the latest news reports, efforts are being made to stem the flow of oil, using ROVs to activate what is called a blowout preventer - a system of valves situated at the well head - but, as of this posting, they have not been successful. Alternatives include drilling relief lines to reduce the pressure, but that would take several months to complete.

In the meantime, the spill continues to spread and although a high pressure weather ridge, producing offshore winds, once slowed its advance, according to the Los Angeles Times, the first oil should reach the Louisiana shoreline by Friday. To many within the general public, particularly those living in the Gulf states that lie in the path of the oil spill, that's when it will become all too real. But what about the environmental impact right now?

Although the NOAA has reported that the spill is shallow (most of it apparently appears to be on the surface), it is coming from the bottom of the ocean floor up - as opposed to right from the surface, as with an oil spill from a ship. Does this have an impact on marine life - fish, plankton, etc. - as it makes its way up to the surface and then spreads out? While we are concerned with oil fouling local beaches, what about the migratory animals that might be moving through the oil far out at sea, well beyond our vision and, perhaps, our concern?

While efforts continue to stop the oil at the source, BP (British Petroleum) intends to conduct an oil burn-off, whereby sections of the oil spill will be isolated, condensed, and set fire. The burned oil will either sink or be removed from the surface. What is the environmental impact of burned oil on the seafloor bottom if it cannot all be collected? Unfortunately, any oil spill of any magnitude is an environmental disaster and as long as we continue to drill for oil - or expand ocean drilling, as proposed by the current U.S. administration - then we must accept the possibility of spills and the consequences that ensue.

This is the trade-off we struggle with. As we promote alternative forms of energy, there is no clear cut, totally environmentally-safe solution. Wind and solar are promoted as viable alternatives, but some conservationists say that expansive solar panel and wind tower farms are harmful to the environment. There are city ordinances that limit or prevent the use of wind and solar devices on individual buildings and the current cost is prohibitive for most residents. Hybrid or all-electric vehicles are advocated, but how will the extra demand for electricity be met? More nuclear or coal power plants?

As the politicians have said, we have an addiction to oil. But in fact, we have an addiction to energy. It runs your car, your lights, and the computer you are using to read this blog. And so,
from wherever we get it - fossil fuels, wind, solar, nuclear, or something else, there will negative consequences; energy is just that kind of two-edge sword. We must do everything we can to prevent broad-based environmental disasters such as what is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico (Can oil companies channel their considerable technical knowledge toward the design of auto-shutoff valves, which could have prevented the blowout or the subsequent leakage?). And we must re-evaluate our entire energy system infrastructure and how energy is consumed at the user end.

No easy task. But do we have a choice?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Persian Gulf: threats make it a microcosm for the world's oceans

Another pair of articles covering studies in recent academic journals, this time on the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf: "Protecting the Arabian Gulf: Past, present and future" (Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management [Vol. 12/4]) and "The Gulf: A young sea in decline" (Marine Pollution Bulletin [60/1]). Like the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf is a nearly enclosed body of water which can often amplify the impact of environmental changes. It can also serve as a microcosm of what can happen to larger bodies of water.

The Persian Gulf is bordered by several countries that are both experiencing significant industrial, residential, and tourism development and are hampered by a lack of cross-border cooperation in investigating and acting upon environmental issues key to the health of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), and Iran are some of the key nations that surround the Gulf. Environmental impact studies typically depend on extensive background data, or a baseline, to determine potential impact from development activities. Due to a lack of intra-country cooperation, these baselines are limited or non-existent, thereby weakening the power and effectiveness of the studies.

Development around the Gulf ranges from dredging to provide new land areas for industrial, residential and tourism developments; to oil exploration and drilling; to dams and desalination plants. Sea bottom dredging removes large areas of productive, shallow water habitat. This destruction impacts sealife nurseries and feeder fish populations (a source of food for many local low-income communities) and the extended land for huge developments can alter the water flows which can adversely affect other productive marine areas.

The threat of oil spills from the region's oil operations, as happened in 1991, always looms as an environmental threat, just as we are seeing take place in the Gulf of Mexico today. And dams and desalination plants, designed to quench the thirst of growing populations, deprives or disrupts the Gulf of natural intakes of fresh water which rejuvenates marshlands and helps to balance overall salinity.

Then there is the impact of climate change and a marked increase in water temperature which has also contributed to changes in salinity levels and water quality, in addition to impacting coral reef communities and spurring the growth of various algi that compete and crowd out or overtake the corals.

The small, nearly enclosed nature of the Gulf exacerbates these environmental issues and without the political cooperation needed for comprehensive scientific research and multi-national strategies to preserve and protect the Gulf, one of the studies I reviewed said, "the prognosis for the Gulf continuing to provide abundant natural resources is poor."

What is happening in the Persian Gulf is also happening worldwide. Accelerated in the Gulf; perhaps more slowly on a global scale - but the end results can be the same. Will the citizens of the Gulf nations learn and respond to save the Gulf? Will the rest of us?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Coral Reef Studies: stress the importance of holistic reef management

Was perusing through two articles on coral reefs that addressed the same basic issue - coral health - and had an interesting connection.

First, for those of you who are not familiar with the coral-zooxanthella relationship, within the tissues of coral are forms of algae, zooxanthellae, that provide much of the coral's color. This algae exists in a symbiotic relationship with the coral: basically, the coral generates wastes and nitrogen which the algae feed on and, in return, the algae produces nutrient sugars that the corals require.

Healthy coral exists only within very specific parameters and when environmental conditions are not ideal, as with an increase in water temperature, the algae disappears and the overall health of the coral is weakened, a condition called "coral bleaching" which can often prove fatal for the coral. Coral bleaching can be a naturally occurring event, like lightning-induced forest fires, which nature can withstand or handle. But climate change has been cited as a leading cause of an alarming increase in coral bleaching events worldwide.

A study published in Ecological Applications (Vol. 19[6]), detailed how better coral reef management which would produce clearer and cleaner water can help improve the coral's ability to withstand the effects of temperature change, thereby better resisting coral bleaching events. The article, Improved water quality can ameliorate effects of climate change on corals, cited coral's inability to genetically adapt or to alter the coral-zooxanthella relationship to better resist changes in temperature. The study reviewed data from coral bleaching events occurring in Australia's Great Barrier Reef during 1998 and 2002, examining relationships between heat stress and nutrient flux (what's in the water). Areas of poorer water quality played a significant role in the severity of the coral bleaching event.

So, what kind of factors can impact the water quality surrounding coral reefs and how can coral reef management be of help?

Another study, published in Environmental Pollution (Vol. 157[8-9]), also examined the Great Barrier Reef - this time focusing on pollution, specifically herbicides which, along with insecticides and fungicides, make their way into the coral reef ecosystem as runoff from agricultural areas through rivers and creeks. According to the article, Herbicides: A new threat to the Great Barrier Reef, even at low trace levels, these pollutants can impact the overall health of the corals, thereby reducing their ability to withstand any other adverse changes to the environment, such as temperature change, and making them more susceptible to coral bleaching.

Proper coral management must be a far-reaching holistic approach encompassing activities, such as agricultural development in developing countries, that can contribute to a compromised marine ecosystem already beset with worldwide issues like climate change. Healthy coral reefs provide home and food for a variety of sealife, a natural barrier to protect island communities from weather-inspired wave action and, at the very least, serve as a barometer for the overall health of the oceans.

To learn more about coral reef conservation:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Christie's Green Auction: over $1.3 million for NGOs

On Earth Day 2010, the famous Christie's auction house held an event to benefit several conservation organizations - Christie's Green Auction: a bid to save the Earth. With an auction to bid on a long list of luxury items ranging from a trip to the Galapagos Islands with National Geographic to lunch with Vera Wang, the well-heeled participated (with an additional silent auction that will conclude on May 6th) in support of Oceana, Conservation International, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Central Park Conservancy.

A little too rich for your blood? Only for the celebrities and upper-crust who only care about the environment if there's an opportunity to enjoy a day of sailing with the Rockefellers as a reward?

SO . . . WHAT!

Conservation and research groups around the world struggle for every bit of funding they can get. Whether it's scrambling for pennies or going for high society gold, it all ends up in the same place, with organizations who need funding to bring about public awareness and provide critical information for policy and decision-makers. So, if you're a down-in-the-trenches, scrounging-for-what-you-can-get kind of conservationist, please don't view these types of events with disdain.

Yeah, I too couldn't afford to bid on a pair of tickets to the pit suites at the Singapore Grand Prix or a walk in Central Park with Candice Bergen. Maybe next year . . . or many years after that. But in the meantime, according to a recent press release, the auction has raised $1,387,000USD, with more to come after the silent auction concludes.

Fundraising is as challenging in many ways as the environmental issues these organizations are confronting. As long as it is well spent (and that is a critical criteria: Is the organization accomplishing anything?), then VIP events for the well-to-do are just as valid as grass root campaigns.

Oil Rig Disaster: potential harm to whale sharks

President Obama's announcement several weeks ago, wherein he would consider issuing offshore oil drilling licenses along the southeastern seaboard and portions of the Gulf of Mexico, drew criticism from many conservation groups as it appeared to be a reversal of his position during his presidential campaign. From a public relations standpoint, once you take on a controversial position, the last thing you need is to add fuel to the fire. Or should I say fire to the oil.

As you probably know, a massive floating oil rig off the coast of Louisiana suffered an explosion and fire, sank and, as of yesterday, is reported to be leaking oil from some yet to be defined source underwater.

Here's a post from SharkDivers, bringing up the issue of the oil threat to whale sharks that cruise the area. Unfortunately, this could be only the beginning. . .

Oil Spill in the Gulf - Whale Shark Impact?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

For the past two years we have been covering whale shark aggregations off the coast of Morgan City, Louisiana.

Upwards of 40-100 animals at a time have been sighted here year after year and have become both industry and major media news.

Scientist Eric Hoffmayer has been studying these groups as far out as 100 miles from shore and that's where this week's news from the Gulf takes a decidedly nasty turn.

The Swiss-based Transocean Ltd's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sunk last week, leaving many in the region to worry about ongoing oil seeping from the wellhead at 5000 feet. The worst case scenario has happened and now experts agree close to 1000 barrels a day are leaking to the surface or close to 42,000 gallons of oil.

Oil clean-up crews have dumped over a million gallons of chemical oil dispersant into the region and more is sure to come in an effort to break up the oil on the surface. As whale sharks feed on the surface this oil and chemical dispersant does not bode well for these peaceful giants of the Gulf.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Science Info Links: interesting links from an unlikely source

Here's some interesting information - covering a range of biology, medical, ocean, conservation, energy, and climate issues - from a rather unlikely source. The MRI Technician Schools, an organization involved in the evaluation of medical training programs has compiled a very interesting set of links to video and text lectures and presentations on a wide range of subjects loosely placed under a biological science heading:

100 Incredible Open Lectures for Biology Geeks

The links come from various sources like The Forum Network (PPS/NPR), YouTube, MIT and elsewhere. All are informative and worth checking out. Scroll down the list of subject categories and you'll come across Ecology & Conservation, Sustainable Energy, and Climate Change, with titles like:
You really don't have to be a biology geek to appreciate this listing. If you're a reader of this blog, you're bound to find something of interest. And of course, pass it along to your friends.

It's Earth Day 2010: do something for the planet

It's Thursday, April 22nd . . . It's Earth Day.

Now celebrating its 40th year, Earth Day 2010 is a chance for all of us to take a proactive stance in protecting our natural resources, in protecting our environment - indeed, in protecting the planet.

So, today of all days, DO SOMETHING!
  • Plant a tree or purchase some CFL or LED lightbulbs.
  • Go to your local shoreline and do a little beach clean up.
  • Make a contribution to your favorite conservation organization.
  • Check the various conservation group web sites. Many of them have a shopping list of ideas.
  • See Disneynature's Oceans. In its first week, Disney will make a contribution to coral reef protectection for each ticket sold.
You'll feel good about yourself. Trust me.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Chagos Archipelago: Britain designates world's largest marine reserve

In a historic move that one-ups the United States, Britain has designated the Chagos Archipelago as a marine reserve, making it the largest such marine protected area in the world. At 210,000 square miles, the new reserve surpasses the U.S.'s Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument in the Northern Hawaiian Islands by 70,000 square miles.

"In 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, the UK has secured a conservation legacy which is unrivaled in scale and significance, demonstrating to the world that it is a leader in conserving the world's marine resources for the benefit of future generations," said Alistair Gammell of the Pew Environment Group.

The archipelago is home to a wide variety coral and fish species, numbering in the many hundreds, along with substantial sea turtle and sea bird breeding areas. The archipelago - which contains the world's largest coral atoll, the Great Chagos Bank - is positioned right in the middle of the Indian Ocean, making it a sort of oceanic oasis to support many species while also developing endemic species because of its isolation.

In fact, when you look its position in the Indian Ocean and the size of the marine reserve, one can see how small the world's largest marine protected area actually is in relationship to the size of the Indian Ocean and, by extension, the entire ocean area on the planet. That's the only downside. The British government is to be applauded for their efforts, but more needs to be done - more critical marine areas need to be identified and protected across the globe.

Time and time again, marine protected areas have proven themselves to have a positive effect on marine ecosystems, including increased fish populations, even beyond the borders of the actual reserve. Bad things can spread throughout the oceans - but so can good things.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hawaii Shark Fin Ban: proposed bill needs your support now!

There is quite a showdown brewing regarding Hawaii's shark fin ban legislation, SB 2169, which I commented on last week. It's been through its ups and downs but has moved forward to the next step: a legislative committee which will determine this week whether the bill be brought to a vote in this session or die on the floor and have to be re-introduced all over again in the next session. As a shark conservation advocate, I favor the legislation but I am realistic in recognizing the strength of the forces that oppose it.

Money and Political Influence
In March, at the CITES conference, the political forces that were supported by Asian (particularly Japanese) commercial interests succeeded in thwarting all proposals for increased protection for seven shark species. Conservation organizations made impassioned pleas for protecting these species but, in the end, the commercial fisheries and their political influence won out.

Hawaii has the potential of being a repeat of CITES if certain politicians, who apparently have strong commercial fisheries support, get their way. One politician, Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, has been singled out by some people as opposing the legislation and having ties to the commercial shark fishing industry. In some blogs, he has become the poster boy of the opposition and been subject to strong vitriol from some shark advocates. Whether that is productive or not is questionable. If Rep. Karamatsu is influenced or supported by lucrative commercial shark fishing interests, I suspect then that his position will not change and the best strategy would be to support the proponents of the legislation and nudge those who are fence-sitting, thereby limiting his influence on their vote.

Proponents of the legislation have been making their case with the media and soliciting support from major NGOs and even a celebrity or two. For the most part, the ecological arguments are
pretty solid and have been repeated many times in this blog: tens of millions of sharks are being killed each year for the fins only; scientists are reporting definitive and severe drops in the populations of many shark species; sharks play a critical role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem as hunters and scavengers; because of ocean pollution, shark fins and other shark products contain high levels of mercury; while shark fin soup is considered an expensive luxury item, its demand has increased with the growth of a wealthier middle and upper class in many Asian countries; the shark fin provides little if any nutritional value in soup, and its homeopathic qualities have never been scientifically proven.

And yet it persists. Why? Money, plan and simple. The shark finning industry is an incredibly lucrative one. And with that money comes significant powers of influence.

Culture Clash
Hawaii has an interesting mix of cultures, two primarily. There is the culture of the native Hawaiians. Within that traditional culture, the shark is held with great reverence. To harm the shark is an insult to that near-sacred position. Proponents have been tapping into those beliefs to rally citizens and politicians alike of Hawaiian descent.

Then there is the Asian culture that has grown in the islands over many decades, many of Chinese descent. And within that culture there is an attitude brought from their ancestral homeland that runs counter to the mindset of many ocean conservationists: fish is food and food is survival.

This was brought to my attention at a shark conservation discussion panel I moderated and participated in at last year's BLUE Ocean Film Festival. On the panel was Dr. Greg Stone of Conservancy International. He related a discussion he had with a leading Japanese fisheries management official. The official said (and I am paraphrasing from memory) that one of the main differences between Asian and western attitudes regarding marine sealife is that "We don't play with our food." A bit caustic, but the point was that we (meaning westerners) sometimes personalize - and in some cases humanize - our relationship with sealife, whereas for many Asian cultures it's just food; it's a matter of survival.

Now this is not a totally pervasive attitude and is prone to generalization. And whenever one discusses cultural differences, it is a delicate ice of political correctness that one is skating on. However, it certainly is a component of the situation taking place in Hawaii. If shark finning is perceived as cruel (the animal is finned and often thrown overboard, left to drown), then what about the cruelty imposed on poultry or cattle? Are we not treating those animals as simply a food source? Well, that can be another debate in itself, but suffice to say that, yes, cattle and poultry are food. However, they are raised to be food and we utilize as much of the animal as possible. Whereas, shark fishing is not based on farm-raised animals (not feasible with sharks) and it is not an efficient utilization of the animal. We are pulling these animals from the wild and the marine ecosystem suffers for it.

What You Can Do
There's a lot that is in play with the proposed SB 2169: conservation, morality, political influence, economics, and cultural heritage - all working with or against each other. So, what can you do, particularly if you are not an islander? Well, the pen can be mightier than the sword. And what better time to voice your position during this week: I have read that the legislative committee will make its vote this Thursday, Earth Day 2010.

If you wish to make a brief but thoughtful and respectful statement regarding support for SB 2169, do it now. Here are a couple of key email addresses:

The entire Hawaiian House of Representatives:

Sen. Clayton Hee (proponent who introduced the bill):

Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu (opponent):

Also, here's some interesting articles to provide you with more background info:
Honolulu Advertiser - Senator pushing to get vote on shark fin ban - Shark Fin Ban Uncertain
Pete Thomas' Blog - Support for Hawaii shark fin ban grows, but will it be enough
SB 2169 - the text of the proposed legislation

Celebrate Earth Day and help Hawaii set the standard in shark conservation for others to follow: let your conviction be known!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Earth Day 2010 & Disney's Oceans: two great events for this Thursday

Just a reminder, adding my voice to a growing chorus, that Earth Day 2010 is coming up this Thursday, April 22nd. This is a perfect opportunity to make your support of our natural resources a more visible and actionable commitment.

The Earth Day 2010 web site has plenty of suggestions. They don't all have to be monumental; incremental steps can be better than no steps at all - every little bit helps. The Earth Day organization has a pretty lofty goal set out for themselves; but whatever they accomplish, it won't be possible without your support.

"Earth Day 2010 can be a turning point to advance climate policy, energy efficiency, renewable energy and green jobs. Earth Day Network is galvanizing millions who make personal commitments to sustainability. Earth Day 2010 is a pivotal opportunity for individuals, corporations and governments to join together and create a global green economy. Join the more than one billion people in 190 countries that are taking action for Earth Day."

Also, on that same day, Disney's new Disneynature division will be releasing it's latest big-screen theatrical nature film: Oceans. I had the opportunity to see some scenes from it at last year's BLUE Ocean Film Festival and it looked pretty impressive. There is a interesting web site full of promotional info and also a page for educators, providing an activity guide for young students.

An additional plus: if you see the film during its opening week, Disneynature will contribute $0.20 to the Nature Conservancy for coral reef conservation. Disney's maximum commitment is $100,000 which comes out to 500,000 ticketholders in 7 days - not likely but certainly a worthwhile effort and cause.

So there's one thing you can do on Earth Day. And skip the popcorn.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Warmest March and a Cold Winter: science agencies explain a climate conundrum

This winter's harsh weather has provided fodder for those who debunk the issue of global warming and climate change. In fact, with any brief fluctuation in weather patterns, opponents of climate change jump on the chance to dismiss the big picture climate patterns that are being closely monitored by many scientific and federal agencies. Of course, along with that comes the cries of conspiracies supported by foul-mouth online comments that I won't even bother addressing.

With Washington D.C. experiencing heavy snows recently, climate change critic Sen. James Inhofe and his family constructed an igloo near the US capitol. As reported by Geoff Mohan in the Los Angeles Times, what the senator fails to appreciate is the explanation for this winter's weather given by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (no whacko organization here): Arctic
oscillation, a cyclical change in air pressure over the Arctic that alters weather patterns in the northern hemisphere. While this oscillation was somewhat varied over the past century, changing from positive (drier) to negative (colder) phases, since the 1970s it has favored the positive phase. But this year there was a switch to the negative phase.

There will always be climate fluctuations, but one must look towards the larger trends. And that is what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), another non-partisan federal agency not prone to exaggeration, did with its just-released Global Climate Analysis for March 2010. Seems last month was, globally, the warmest March on record with the first quarter of the year being the fourth warmest 1st quarter on record. "On record" means going back to 1880.

So often we miss the bigger picture because we get wrapped up in day-to-day events that may actually represent anomalies or minor fluctuations. In essence, we miss the forest for the trees. And despite what might be said about some studies from scientists who may or may not have been wholly accurate with their research, there are plenty of respected agencies and research groups that are reaching and supporting the scientific conclusions that celebrity spokespeople, like Vice President Al Gore, have attempted to bring to the public's attention only to be pilloried as self-serving opportunists.

We miss the forest for the trees. And someday we could miss the forest because there are no trees.

Read the LA Times article.
Read the NOAA report summary.
Read the NSIDC explanation of Arctic oscillation.
View this Nat Geo video on climate change:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

3D Technology: new format can benefit nature conservation

Sometimes the technologies developed for our own entertainment or amusement can also have additional benefits as well. As an example, computers have taken game simulator technology to a level that benefits science (NASA simulators) and the military (pilotless drones). And in the 1950's, a crazy movie experience came and went, with red and blue glasses that made monsters or native spears fly out of the movie screen at us.

Yes, the early days of 3D or "stereoscopy" was an interesting fad - and now, thanks to the success of movies live-action films like Avatar and many animation films like Up, it is back and could very well be here to stay.

I just returned from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual convention and trade show, held in Las Vegas. This is a BIG show, covering every aspect of broadcast technology, from cameras and support gear to broadcast production and distribution equipment. And this year, 3D was the hot item, with televisions, cameras, and all the toys for launching 3D-dedicated channels. Networks were lining up with Discovery, ESPN and DirectTV all dedicating future channels to this new viewing format.

But the underlining question was: Where is the content? And, secondly, what does this have to do with a nature & conservation blog?

Well, for one: nature documentaries, properly shot using the latest in 3D technology, can be absolutely stunning. The ability to enrich the viewer's experience can add immeasurably to the
power of the message. The ability of 3D to draw you in, with that sense of "you are there," can help communicate to the viewer - whether or not they are a nature lover - the importance of ecosystems, be they on land or under the sea.

Now, this has been done successfully in movie theaters and large format venues like IMAX. But the new technologies are now focusing on the small screen: television. And this avenue has the means to make 3D ubiquitous and the next wave of technology that will simply become part of our everyday lives. That can empower conservation groups and filmmakers with the ability to provide content which can be more impactful, more meaningful to the average audience.

Scientific research can also benefit from 3D technology. 3D can provide details and subtleties to images from faraway Mars to the bottom of the sea that no 2D or conventional image could provide - particularly in situations where a manned presence would be prohibitive. At the NAB show, I attended one presentation on advanced scientific imagery and learned that many respected scientific organizations are now fully committed to 3D technology - regular 2D video is becoming yesterday's news.

But as with many steps forward, there will be a transition, not a simple "out with the old, in with the new." Many don't remember, it took more than a few years for color television - something we take for granted - to be adopted both by the industry and by the viewers themselves. There are plenty of challenges that must be dealt with - from optimal viewing (3D TVs without glasses are being developed) to replacing or modifying existing viewing platforms (TVs) to the quantity and quality of programming.

So, no one is suggesting you throw out that new high definition flat screen you just bought. But for those of us who work so hard at getting people to appreciate the magnificence of our natural resources - from the beauty of an Amazon forest, to the delicate explosion in color and variety of a coral reef, to the warm interplay between a family of threatened wolf cubs - there is another communication tool that is on the horizon for our disposal.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Green Spaces as Driving Economic Forces: a guest post

As I am in Las Vegas this week, attending the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show, I'm pleased to have a guest post from Jack Lundee of EverythingLeft - an interesting read on the use of "green space" within our cities.

Green Spaces as Driving Economic Forces

Some of the more heavily discussed topics of early 2010 include obesity, green infrastructure, clean water, and more. In particular, the addition and/or substitution of green spaces has been quite controversial as of late. Senior resident of Urban Land Institute Ed T. McMahon states, "Green space adds value to property." Not only would these areas of conservation drive economic trends upward, but they also improve the overall health of the community surrounding. For example, substituting things like golf courses for conservation areas would essentially increase surrounding property value while diminishing overpriced maintenance fees. The same holds true for airports and other large acre-eating developments.

Some of these areas are already abandoned or unkempt. For instance, park and recreational areas that were once highly visited have become urban wastelands. In an article from the Salt Lake Tribute, Lindsay Whitehurst discusses how an area that was capped with tennis courts to replace an old reservoir had been empty for some time now. She further explains how the University of Utah received a loan to fill the old reservoir and turn the land into a conservation area.

Much larger metropolitan areas are also playing their role in promoting sustainability by implementing many Green Spaces within the city. In Meg Muckenhoupt's new book Boston's Gardens & Green Spaces, she discusses different green space within the city of Boston. With very low cost maintenance fees and little liability, these areas are perfect for protecting our wildlife and the environment. They also attract further tourism; which would in turn generate revenue from ticket/tour sales.

This aligns with the implications of "economic viability" and long term sustainability, posing the question, "Would the substitution of golf courses and airports in the short term lead to an abrupt economic downfall?" It's true that this type of architecture provides undoubtedly high revenue. On the contrary, they both come with ridiculously high expenses and maintenance. Incorporating various elements of green architecture implies things like green roofing, which could in turn drive down electrical/gas costs dramatically.

Larger organizations are already taking a step in the right direction in Haiti. Machine behind the CGI (Clinton Global Initiative) Doug Band has been working closely with organizations like AFH (Architecture for Humanity) to discuss potential means of green restoration. Combined with the additional efforts of many large collaborative units like the USGBC (United States Green Building Council), AFH hopes to shed some light on a terrible situation.

Recent findings have driven people like McMahon and fellow conservationists to investigate further into upgrading and expanding green infrastructure efforts. As earth day 2010 slowly approaches, it's important that we as individuals follow and support these ventures. It's equally important that we adapt greener disciplines to support both our planet and our economy.

Guest post by Jack Lundee.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Alaska & Arctic Oil Drilling: moves of protest within government

While many conservation groups bemoaned the recent U.S. administration's announcement of oil drilling, all is not lost. The proposed strategy, which included areas in Alaska and the Arctic, has led many to either believe that President Obama is back-tracking on campaign promises or that (as I believe) he is compromising in an attempt to gain bipartisan support for future climate and energy legislation.

However, while conservation groups are initiating email and letter write-in campaigns to voice their protest, there are significant wheels in government that are turning that could also make a difference. Here is an excerpt from an article from Los Angeles Times writer Kim Murphy about various actions which we should be watching:

What's next for oil in the Alaskan Arctic?

"Just because the Obama administration has finally settled on its strategy for offshore oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf, don't think the issue of what happens in the Alaskan Arctic is settled -- far from it.

Already, lots of new developments are underway. New briefs have been filed in the attempt to stop Shell Offshore Inc.'s plan to drill exploration wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas; a new Government Accountability Office report criticizes the Minerals Management Agency in Alaska for how it conducts its environmental reviews; and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is turning attention back to the classic battleground over Arctic oil, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The agency announced it is beginning its first update in more than two decades of the conservation plan for the 19.2-million-acre refuge that lies west of the Prudhoe Bay oilfields on Alaska's North Slope -- home to grizzly bears, moose, wolverines, Dall sheep, birds, a massive herd of caribou and, if you're feeling optimistic, as much as 10.4 billion barrels of oil.

About 8 million acres of the refuge already are protected as wilderness. The new study could recommend additional areas for wilderness protection (read: no oil drilling, ever) including, conceivably, the so-called 1002 area of the coastal plain designated by Congress to study for possible oil development.

'There are no avenues of discussion closed off to the public,' Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods said."

Read the entire article to learn who, within government, is supporting the protection of the Alaskan/Arctic wilderness and what is going on behind the headlines.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Possible Gray Whale Decline?: commercial and research groups clash over numbers

An article from the Associated Press looks at the possible declining numbers of gray whales off the eastern Pacific coast. Actually, no one's really sure whether there is a real decline taking place or, perhaps, an anomaly for this season.

These whales migrate all the way from the Arctic to Mexico and back, and are a popular species for whale-watchers. But according to boat captain and whale-watching operator Bill Reese, the numbers this season have dropped from highs of 25 per day in good years to a current low of only 5 per day. Is something happening with the gray whale population? Scientists at this point aren't sure.

Unfortunately, one of the results of listing an animal as endangered, as the gray whale was in 1970, is that as the numbers improve (if they improve), then the census counting from which total populations are estimated becomes less frequent - a typical result of limited
government/scientific resources and funding. And so, if there are any negative changes to the number of whales, it can take a while before the data accurately reflects those changes.

However, simultaneous to this reduction in ongoing population tracking, the International Whaling Commission is considering allowing the taking of 1400 gray whales over the next decade (140 whales per year for subsistence use by Alaskan/Arctic aboriginals. Is this sustainable or too much? Because of a lack of reliable data, many scientists are unsure.

"If you count 2,500 animals [a number recorded in 2006 and used to estimate a total population of 20,000], all you really know rock solid for sure is there are more than 2,500. Beyond that you're using models and assumptions," said Stanford University marine biology professor Steve Palumbi. "The problem comes when you say, 'We do know how many whales there are and we're going to start making unalterable management decisions on that basis.'"

"You can't set specific quotas for 10 years based on 2006 data," said Sara Wan, a California Gray Whale Coalition member who is also a state coastal commissioner. "It's irresponsible."

It looks like we are heading towards a butting of the heads of commercial and scientific interests that won't be resolved until there is more data that more accurately and conclusively indicates the actual current trend in the gray whale population. In the meantime, the gray whale may pay a high price.

Read the Associated Press article.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Scientific Research: turning data into a compelling message

The latest issue of TIME magazine has an interesting article on plastics and the chemicals they can leach back into our food and the environment. It's an interesting read but what caught my eye was it's closing statement as it is applicable to nature and ocean conservation in general:

"' Science isn't just about data,' says the NIEHS's [National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences] [Linda] Birnbaum. 'It's about the interpretation of data.' That interpretation, ultimately, won't be up to scientists. It will be up to us. The lesson of Earth Day [when air pollution was a heightened and more visible issue], 40 years on, is that smart policy - fired by popular will - can make a difference that we can see."

In my documentary, Island of the Great White Shark, this sentiment was echoed by Ed Cassano, Deputy Director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans and founder of the marine research/education group, "Data for data itself is not very important. When data turns into information, it's very powerful. But if it only has a limited audience then it has a limited effect. And so, you have to get that information to the people that make decisions."

In the years that I have spent as a filmmaker, working with researchers, and promoting conservation issues, I have seen how this is true. There is important research data that appears
in scientific journals or other publications but, because of its complex nature and scientific jargon, does not go much further in reaching and motivating the public. Arcane, esoteric language is ignored, or worse, is misinterpreted.

Scientists may not make the ultimate interpretation, but they can do a lot more to insure that the public and the policy makers come to conclusions that are accurate and actionable.

This is where people like myself, involved in media communications, can play an important role and need to be included in the research process. There are a multitude of media channels by which research groups and scientists can take their results and translate them into issues, implications, and possible solutions - something that the public can get a handle on. And it should be a component of the research process and not left, after the fact, to university public relations departments or headline-seeking networks on a quest for ratings. Therein lies the potential for distortion of the facts.

Scientific research can provide answers to many of our pressing environmental challenges which means it has a greater responsibility to better control and deliver the message itself. When I discuss this with scientists and researchers, they seem to agree (I get a lot of enthusiastic head nods). But it's a big step for them to include media communications in their proposals or projects - it's one more item that requires funding in a strained economic environment. However, the residual benefits of making the extra effort can pay off: more exposure for a group's work, providing additional recognition and leverage when seeking future funding.

As someone who has been involved in a variety of corporate and broadcast media activities, from strategic planning to multi-channel development and execution, every time I look through the lens, I'm thinking beyond just capturing a pretty image. How will it be used? How will it motivate? What is the big picture that could be accomplished here? These are the thoughts that go through the minds of people who realize the power and reach of effective media communications - for good or for bad. And because the truth can be distorted, it behooves scientists and researchers to be more proactive and work with those who have a mutual interest in getting the message right.

I am always looking for opportunities to work with scientific research groups in documenting their work and insuring that their results are effectively communicated to the masses. This is a direction that really excites me and speaks to my passion for conservation.

The general public, educators, and policy makers are turning to science for answers and we must be sure we are all speaking the same language.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hawaii Shark Conservation: positive steps but more work lies ahead

On the shark conservation front, there are interesting news items out of Hawaii.

Some time ago, there was a growing movement afoot to eliminate all shark diving at the islands (see prior post). This all came about through one man's poorly thought-out attempt to establish a new operation in an area close to a large populace of recreational ocean users. Badly handled public relations triggered a firestorm of protest, based on emotional rationales, fear, and highly disputed assumptions. But the island of Maui was able to pass an ordinance banning any potential shark ecotourism operations and established operators in Oahu were similarly threatened. Hard work on the part of Oahu's operators, particularly Stefanie Brendl of Hawaii Shark Encounters, got legislators to see the weaknesses of opposition arguments and the potential for lost tourism revenue. So, for now, the furor seems to be subsiding in Oahu.

Almost simultaneously, some enlightened state legislators initiated legislation that would ban the sale, trade, and distribution of all shark fins. The proposed legislation, SB 2169, has gone through some ups and downs but just recently cleared Hawaii's House of Representatives. So
that's one major hurdle that has been cleared. The next step in the state's bureaucracy is for the bill to go to conference to be reviewed by Senate representatives before reaching the Senate floor for a vote. This is all encouraging, but it's not a done deal yet.

While Asia receives the majority of the blame for the market demand in shark products, Hawaii is, quietly, one of the leading centers for trade and distribution of shark products. That means there will be forces at work to combat the bill, but its passage would certainly place Hawaii in the foreground of compassionate and sensible conservation, would protect a marine resource that contributes to a healthy ecosystem which impacts other recreational and commercial fishing activities, and would be in keeping with the islands' long cultural heritage of viewing sharks as a resource to be protected. Perhaps future legislation can address shark liver oil, cartilage, and other shark-related products as well.

Let's hope that responsible shark ecotourism and strong legislation to protect sharks commercially will be the order of the day in Hawaii. Sharks would certainly benefit from both.

My friends at the SharkDiver blog have posted the text of the bill, which is fortunately straight-forward and easy to read. Click here to read it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Toxic Fish Investigative Report: making consumers aware of what is in their local markets

While many of us bemoan the recent failure of CITES to initiate trade controls on bluefin tuna due to the concerted efforts of commercial tuna fishing interests, one of the strategies that we can turn to is to chip away at market demand. And one of the best ways to do that is to focus on the self-interest of the user: their own personal health.

Fish like tuna, swordfish, halibut, and others have exceedingly high levels of mercury that accumulate in their muscle and cartilage tissues, often times at levels well over recommended safe levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Got, a part of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, has just issued an investigative report where they sampled fish from 13 markets in the San Francisco area, ranging
from a local Safeway to more higher end stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. The fish samples were analyzed by an outside, independent laboratory - and the results were not good.

Over 40% of the fish had high levels of mercury (one sample registered over twice the EPA limit). Some of the stores had signs warning of possible mercury contamination; many stores did not. Click here to read the entire report.

Organizations like Got and media like "The Cove" are using a strategy which takes the position that if you don't care about the fate of the animal, at least consider what you are doing to yourself and your children. Perhaps a sad commentary on the attitudes of some regarding conservation, but in my book, whatever gets the job done.

Congrats to Got for telling it like it is.

Read more about Got Read the entire investigative report.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Misson Blue: new web site from the Sylvia Earle Foundation

A new web site was launched yesterday that I highly recommend you take a look at: Mission Blue. This new site is part of Dr. Sylvia Earle's foundation and provides a sharp focus on many of her recent expeditionary activities, including an ongoing expedition and ocean conference at the Galapagos Islands.

Ocean conservation can be a very broad and overwhelming issue to get one's arms around, so many organization devote their resources and energy to more specific topics of interest. Mission
Blue accomplishes this by identifying Hope Spots - geographical marine areas of critical importance that can also serve to highlight specific marine issues or challenges. The web site allows you to select and learn more about a specific Hope Spot - ranging from the Seychelles off of Africa, to Antarctica's Ross Sea, to the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), and more.

There is a lot of great interactivity with the site, added by Dr. Earle's working relationship with Google, which provided map imagery and a handy version of Google Earth incorporated into the site. And then to round it off, there is a blog to keep readers updated with the activities of each expedition and other events with which Dr. Earle has been involved, such as the creative think tank organization, TED (technology, entertainment, design).

Mission Blue, another avenue for ocean conservation and enlightenment. Check it out.

Self-Preservation: of nature and the institutions we turn to

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, as the saying goes. And so we must always be prepared to yank the sheets out from underneath to clean up the hankypanky. Basically, all these colorful metaphors reflect the need to maintain a healthy skepticism of political institutions, corporations, and, yes, even the non-profit organizations we often turn to who carry the cause of conservation.

Why? Self-preservation. It's fundamental, it's common to all living things. But I'm not talking about the self-preservation of nature, the cause that we are championing. Self-preservation is also a driving force behind less tangible or tactile entities - like, government, business, non-profits, and even public attitudes. Take these recent examples:
  • President Obama opens up the possibility of offshore oil drilling off the east coast, in areas he had specifically vowed during his campaign that he would prevent. The California and Alaska coast were spared for the moment, but his actions set a dangerous precedent for future drilling in those areas. Why the turnaround? Self-preservation of possible energy/climate change legislation, of his presidency's effectiveness, his party's position of power and/or influence, and so on.
  • Former Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin has tentatively inked a deal for a limited series on the Alaskan wilderness. With Ms. Palin's track record regarding oil drilling, polar bears, beluga whales, and more; for many conservationists, this would be like Michael Vick hosting a canine puppy series. So, why? Self-preservation of a cable network sure to get ratings, of a politician/celebrity positioning herself for both monetary and political gain.
  • The UN-based CITES conference walks away from taking a pro-conservation stance regarding a variety of marine species. Why? Self-preservation again. This time with the economic interests of certain nations exerting their influence to such a degree that to resist would have threatened the stability of the organization - something that has plagued many UN-based efforts.
It is this fundamental and understandable sense of self-preservation which propels us to be skeptical of the institutions that are supposed to provide, support, or protect us. Skeptical but not cynical, for that can lead to disillusionment and rejection - which can lead you to either stockpile ammunition and live in a cave or become an eco-terrorist, both of which are ultimately counter-productive.

So rather than throw in the towel when progress seems mired in institutional self-interest, I hope that conservationists - young or old, veteran or neophyte - can retain these attitudes and continue to press forward:

Determination: Remember that, while there are bound to be setbacks, the cause of conservation is also one of self-preservation - that of the entire planet - and that is a fundamental worth pursuing.

Reasonability: This is to say that if you want to convert or change someone's position, you had better have your arguments well-founded and indisputable. There will always be debate, so it behooves us to make accurate and rational arguments, devoid of acrimony or exaggeration.

Proactive: To get self-preserving institutions to act on behalf of a larger cause or greater good, such as conservation, requires relentless pushing and nudging. They may do so kicking and screaming or only doing so when they perceive it as also serving their own self-interests, but it can be done - at the ballot box, in the courts, at the check-out counter, and even at the grass roots level in the court of public opinion.

Do what you can when you can. And retain a healthy dose of skepticism.

"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion." - Thomas Jefferson

Political cartoon 2010 by Toles/Washington Post

Monday, April 5, 2010

Meddling With the Predator vs. Prey Relationship: man must pay up in sometimes surprising ways

When we selectively eliminate critical species from ecosystems, there is a price to be paid not only by the animal itself and the ecology. Man too must pony up - but our price may not be so obvious. It may be a price that is paid years down the road or is one we choose to ignore in the face of immediate personal or commercial gain.

This is what was once faced by cattlemen with regard to the hunting of wolves in the northern United States. Whatever was gained by cattle ranchers in eliminating a key predator, it ultimately came back to haunt them when the deer and varmint population exploded and competition between nature and the cattlemen for suitable grazing land necessitated bringing back the wolf population. But now the pendulum seems to be swinging back and the hunt for wolves is once again beginning in earnest - with no lessons apparently learned.

Many commercial fisheries stand on the brink of collapse, but sometimes the reason is not the obvious one: overfishing of a particular species. In some cases, it is rather the domino-like effect of our actions - as in the case of the hake fishery in Chile which has been severely impacted by the expansion of the Humboldt squid population, a voracious predator whose numbers have grown because of the commercial elimination of the squid's primary natural predators: sharks, tuna, and billfish.

This secondary effect is now being seen in other regions along the eastern Pacific coast: in the Sea of Cortez, where catches of grouper are in decline; and Northern California, where local fishermen are switching from catching rockfish to hauling up huge quantities of squid.

Here's a short video from my recent assignment in the Sea of Cortez.

The filming was for an important future program about which I have to be tight lipped for the time being. But the issue regarding Humboldt squid, which represents one of the multiple effects of disrupting once-balanced marine ecosystems, is an ongoing and growing one.

You fish. The fish are all gone. You move on. It's not that simple anymore.