Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 and the Environment: Earth Day's accomplishments in public awareness

Developing public awareness of environmental or conservation issues can sometimes be a bit more challenging to quantify or less momentous or newsworthy than other earth-saving activities. But it often is the foundation, the one-brick-at-a-time approach, and it may take a while before you can see the entire building that has been built over time.

And while industrialized nations can be some of the guiltiest parties in crimes against nature, many developing nations need educating as well, for many of the most important marine and terrestrial ecosystems remaining on the planet are within their borders.

Each year for the past 40 years, Earth Day has been celebrated as a worldwide event whereby participants can take stock of their natural resources, learn what they can do to protect them, and contemplate how good stewardship would benefit themselves and generations to come. What Earth Day succeeds in doing in that one singular event has a rippling effect that carries on through the year.

From the Earth Day Network website, here are the Earth Day accomplishments for 2010 - an indication of the importance of those "building block" steps that go on behind the bright lights of flashier news items but can be just as important:

  • In just a few months, Earth Day Network logged more than 30 million environmental actions towards the goal of a Billion Acts of Green™, from large scale climate petition drives to voter registration, city-wide light-bulb change outs, and massive coral reef and beach cleanups. Our goal is to reach a Billion Acts of Green by Earth Day 2011 to demonstrate to world leaders the global commitment to environmental change leading up to the Rio + 20 Summit in 2012.
  • Earth Day Network created the largest climate activist program globally, with nearly one million participants. This represents the continuation of Earth Day Network’s goal to create a new worldwide movement to resolve climate change.
  • Through the Global Day of Conversation, over 400 elected officials in more than 40 countries representing tens of millions of citizens took part in active dialogues with their constituents about their efforts to create sustainable green economies and reduce their carbon footprints. Mayors are leading the fight to reduce carbon emissions and to build the green economy.
  • Over one million students abroad participated in school greenings from community-wide clean ups to installing solar energy systems to creating school gardens to adopting environmental curriculum.
  • Earth Day Network announced a partnership with the Avatar Home Tree Initiative to plant a million trees in 15 countries in 2010.
  • In partnership with the Peace Corps, Earth Day Network worked with local volunteers to implement environmental and civic education programs, tree-plantings, village clean-ups and recycling seminars in rural areas including Ukraine, the Philippines, Georgia, Albania and Paraguay. These efforts helped build environmentalism in the most remote parts of the earth for underserved communities.
  • In Kolkata, India, we watched as our plans for a small series of sponsored events evolved into a nationwide presence, 17 cities large. Earth Day Network partnered with global and local NGOs and local government officials to coordinate city and village clean-ups, environmental rallies and educational programs for underprivileged children. Earth Day Network has plans to establish an office in Kolkata.
  • In China, 10 universities participated in month-long efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their communities. Students made lifestyle changes such as recycling and using public transportation to make a positive impact. Quantitative carbon reduction results will be announced in mid-May.
  • In Morocco, the government announced an unprecedented National Charter for the Environment and Sustainable Development, the first commitment of its kind in Africa and the Arab world, which will inform new environmental laws for the country. The Kingdom of Morocco also pledged to plant a million trees in 2010.
  • In Afghanistan, Earth Day Network worked with more than 40 government and village leaders across the country in environmental sustainability practices including recycling programs and the need for clean water and alternative energy.
  • On April 22, the President of Mozambique led a country-wide tree-planting initiative in schools across Maputo.
  • Earth Day Network greened 40 schools globally for Earth Day, launching its international green school program. From solar panels to school gardens, Earth Day Network is significantly cutting global carbon emissions.
  • Earth Day Network partnered with Carbon War Room to convene 200 of the world’s most important entrepreneurs in a forum that examined groundbreaking ways to solve climate change and create a new green economy based on renewable energy. Click here for an address by Earth Day 2010 Chair, Denis Hayes.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 and the Environment: Oceana lists important strides in conservation

Oceana is one of the major ocean conservation organizations and when it comes to quantifying their work, which is so critical when determining who you should donate your hard-earned money to, they do an excellent job on their website in laying that out.

Oceana listed several important ocean conservation milestones for this year, some of which they actively spearheaded and some were the end result of hard work from many organizations and individuals.

Offshore Drilling Halted in Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic and Pacific Coasts

December, 2010 - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that in the new five-year drilling plan, no new offshore drilling would be allowed in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The Eastern Gulf of Mexico will be protected from offshore oil and gas exploration for the next seven years. These areas were being considered for oil and gas development, and the Administration had previously indicated support for exploration in the Atlantic Ocean. The decision follows years of campaign work by Oceana to stop expanded offshore drilling.

Belize Bans All Trawling

December 2010 - The Belizean government announced that all forms of trawling were banned in the country's waters. Oceana in Belize collaborated with Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s administration to negotiate the buy-out of the two shrimp trawlers.

With this ban, which goes into effect December 31st, Belize has become one of the first countries in the world to institute a complete and permanent ban on trawling in all its waters.

Olin Corporation's Two Plants Will End Mercury Use

December, 2010 - The Olin Corporation announced that it will convert its mercury-based chlor-alkali manufacturing plant in Charleston, TN to modern, mercury free technology and eliminate mercury from its plant operation in Augusta, GA. Oceana has been pushing for these actions since 2005. Olin’s plant in Tennessee is the largest remaining mercury-based chlorine plant of the four plants in the U.S. that had refused to make the switch to safer, more efficient technology.

Congress Ends Shark Finning in U.S. Waters

December 2010 - The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Senate version of the Shark Conservation Act, clearing the final hurdle to ending shark finning in U.S. waters. The Shark Conservation Act improves the existing law originally intended to prevent shark finning. It also allows the U.S. to take action against countries whose shark finning restrictions are not as strenuous, labelling the U.S. as a continued leader in shark conservation.

ICCAT Improves Conservation Measures for Sharks and Sea Turtles

November, 2010 - Though failing to improve protections for bluefin tuna, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) increased the number of shark species prohibited for retention in ICCAT fisheries. Specifically, the group improved conservation measures for oceanic whitetip sharks, hammerhead sharks and shortfin mako sharks. In addition, ICCAT put in place new measures to reduce sea turtle mortality, such as the use of sea turtle dehooking and disentangling gear as well as mandatory collection and submission of sea turtle bycatch data.

Chile Creates Marine Reserve Around Sala y Gómez Island

October, 2010 - Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera announced the creation of Sala y Gómez Marine Park, a no-take marine reserve of 150,000 square kilometers around Sala y Gómez island. The decision came after a preliminary expedition to Sala y Gómez by Oceana, National Geographic and the Waitt Foundation, in which they found abundant populations of vulnerable species such as sharks and lobsters and unexpectedly high biodiversity in deeper waters.

The new park expands Chile’s total marine protected area more than 100 times, from 0.03% to 4.41%.

Chile Reduces Jack Mackerel Overfishing

October, 2010 - The Chilean government announced a drastic reduction in the fishing quota for jack mackerel and other fisheries, starting in 2011. The decision came after Oceana sent the Minister of Economy a report analyzing the annual quota set for jack mackerel during the past 10 years.

The study, put together with data that Oceana obtained through Chile’s Freedom of Information Act, shows that between 2003 and 2010 the National Fisheries Council set the annual quota for jack mackerel at higher catch limits than was recommended by the Institute for Fisheries Development. In fact, in 2009 the quota was 87 percent higher than what was recommended by the agency.

Turkey Pledges to Eliminate Driftnets

September, 2010 - Following intense campaign work by Oceana Europe, Turkey announced it will stop using drifnets in 2011. Oceana estimates that more than 500 vessels have been operating illegally in the Mediterranean, some with nets up to 12 miles long.

In 2009, Oceana identified at least 30 Turkish vessels using driftnets in the Aegean and Mediterranean to target swordfish and bonito, and there are an estimated 70 to 150 vessels operating in the country.

Chilean Senate Recommends MPA Around Sala y Gómez Island

August, 2010 - The Chilean Senate’s Fisheries Committee unanimously agreed that the Chilean government should establish a 200 nautical mile marine protected area around the Island of Sala y Gómez, near Easter Island. Oceana and National Geographic have been promoting the protection of this area, which still remains virtually unexplored, and which may well be one of the last pristine vulnerable marine ecosystems in the Pacific

Coal-fired Power Plant Defeated in Northern Chile

August, 2010 - Two days after the Regional Environmental Committee of Chile's Coquimbo Region approved the construction of a coal-fired power plant, Chilean President Sebastiàn Piñera, responding to immense grassroots opposition, requested that Suez Energy relocate it. In addition, he asked his cabinet to review all the industrial projects being considered in the country to see whether they could affect protected areas.

Alongside local organizations, Oceana has been working to prevent the approval of the thermoelectric coal-fired power plant due to its environmental impacts on nearby marine ecosystems and on the quality of life of adjacent communities.

Inch by inch, step by step. We can come to the end of the year gratified in the knowledge that some significant progress has been made. But there's much more to be done.

Read more details on these important accomplishments at

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 and the Environment: one of many reviews of the past year

The end of another year is fast approaching and there will be conservation recollections and retrospectives from a variety of sources. As I came across some that pique my interest, I will post excerpts and links so that you can peruse them and get a feel for whether we are moving forward or backwards. In 2010, there have been setbacks for sure, the Deepwater Horizon/Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill being probably the biggest, but I would like to think we have also made some progress in the right direction. Judge for yourself.

From the U.K.'s Guardian, here is an excerpt from John Vidal's compilation:

2010 was UN's year of biodiversity and it culminated in 193 countries and 18,000 people meeting in Nagoya, Japan for a summit to address the alarming losses seen in forests, plant and animal species. Countries pledged to protect ecosystems, halve the rate of loss of natural habitats, protect marine, coral and coastal areas and restore at least 15% of degraded areas. Whether they have the political will to act and force though new laws is an open question. Meanwhile satellite imagery showed countries like China planting hundreds of millions of trees in 2010 but natural forests continuing to decline worldwide. Other research showed both the US and Canada with higher percentages of forest loss than Brazil, which in 2010 dropped its clearance rate almost 75%.

The stolen climate emails
began in 2009 with the theft and the subsequent leaking online of hundreds of private emails and documents exchanged between many of the world's leading climate scientists, led to claims that they showed scientists manipulating and suppressing data to back up a theory of man-made climate change. This in turn threw serious doubts on the findings of the UN's Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its director Rajendra Pachauri. But four separate inquiries completed in 2010 cleared professor Phil Jones, head of East Anglia university's Climatic research unit, and his colleagues of the most serious charges. Instead, questions were levelled at the way in which they responded to requests for information. Pachauri survived attacks from right wing newspapers in Britain but proposed major reform of the Ipcc.


It was mostly a good year for oceans. The Obama administration reinstated a ban on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast, Chile saved a marine reserve known for its rare Humboldt penguins, blue whales and sea lions from the construction of a coal-fired power plant and the US banned bottom trawling in a 23,000 square mile area off the Southeast Atlantic coast. Sea protection group Oceana also reported that Belize became the third country in the world to ban all forms of trawling, Morocco and Turkey ended the use of illegal drift-nets and Chile announced the formation of the world's fourth-largest no-take marine reserve. Britain also announced a massive new marine park around the Chagos islands in the Indian ocean but outraged Mauritius when it became clear that this was to prevent exiled islanders ever returning to their homeland. The bad news was that the EU failed again to stop exploitation of over-fished fishing stocks, reducing the allowable catch by only 5% in 2011.


2010 was,
provisionally, the hottest year recorded worldwide but it also saw some of the coldest temperatures and heaviest snow ever witnessed in Britain. Seventeen countries broke heat records, with an unprecedented heatwave and forest fires gripping much of Russia and the Middle east for weeks. An Asian record temperature of 53.7C (129F) in Pakistan and the third greatest loss of Arctic sea ice were also recorded. Strangely, while overall sea and land temperatures climbed to their highest levels in places where people mostly did not live, the more heavily populated temperate zones, including much of Britain, Europe and the US, experienced below average temperatures. The year ended with CO2 levels at their highest level ever recorded.

Read the complete year-in-review in the Guardian.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Polar Bears: good news and bad news in the U.S.

Following up on my December 19th posting regarding polar bears, here's an example of one-step forward, two steps back.

Gaining Ground, Literally
The step forward has to do with the designation in late November of 187,000 sq.miles of northern Alaska wilderness as a "critical habitat" for polar bears. As part of a mandated response to having the polar bear listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the area - although it had to be prodded into action by a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) which has been after the Fish and Wildlife Service to fully implement protections, like the critical habitat, required by the Endangered Species Act.

The critical habitat designation mandates that any federal agency that would wish to open up any of the land for economic activity (as in granting permits for gas and oil exploration, which several oil companies were planning on doing), they would have to first consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding adverse impact against the polar bears.

“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,” said Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks in a Fish and Wildlife Service news release. “Nevertheless, the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice habitat caused by human-induced climate change. We will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species.”

Read about the polar bears' "critical habitat" in BBC News.

Losing Ground
In response to the critical habitat designation, the governor of Alaska has announce his intention to have the state file suit against the federal government. As reported by the Washington Post, Governor Sean Parnell contends the critical habitat designation will delay jobs and increase costs - or even kill - resource development projects that are important to Alaska.

"Once again, we are faced with federal overreach that threatens our collective prosperity," Gov. Parnell said. "We don't intend to let this stand."

A recent newsletter from the CBD reported, "The Center is already in court defending the polar bear against the state's previous suit to have it removed from Endangered Species Act protection, arguing instead that protection should be upgraded. Scientists estimate there's a greater than 80 percent chance that polar bears in Alaska will be extinct by mid-century under current greenhouse gas emissions trends."

"They [the Alaska state government] have opposed every Endangered Species Act listing to date," said CBD attorney Brendan Cummings.

Read more about Alaska's threat of legal action in the Washington Post.

Losing More Ground
The Center for Biological Diversity will be kept busy with the additional setback announced this past Wednesday by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The department filed arguments in court to support its decision to list the polar bear as threatened, as opposed to endangered under the Endangered Species Act - endangered being a designation that many conservation groups have pushed for because it requires the government to address the source of the endangerment (global warming).

Also, the department is maintaining a Bush-era decision to exempt greenhouse gases from regulation under the Endangered Species Act, thereby eliminating from consideration all scientific studies and data that point to climate change as being one of the primary threats to polar bear ice-based habitat.

The CBD plans to counter the department of the Interior's arguments in court in February. CBD attorney Kassie Siegal said, "[The department's action] puts a gloss on a horribly flawed Bush-era decision that is anti-science and serves to greatly undermine the protection of not just the polar bear but all of America's imperiled wildlife."

There are some environmentalists and legal experts that feel that the Endangered Species Act is not the best vehicle for pressing forward with the greenhouse gas issue, that it would best be served in Congress than in the courts. But given the current state of partisan politics and the influence of gas and oil lobbyists, that probably won't be happening any time soon, so groups like the Center for Biological Diversity continue with legal action.

Read more about the Dept. of Interior decision in the Los Angeles Times.

Sharks: Kuwait and Canada are losing important predators

A couple of items on sharks:

Documenting the Lack of Sharks in the Arabian Gulf
Sharks have been suffering at the hands of large commercial operations to meet the demands for shark fins in the Asian markets. But they can also suffer due to ignorance and, in a sense, neglect. This is what is happening in the Arabian Sea.

An expedition, organized by the U.K.'s Shark Conservation Society in 2008, set out to document the range of shark biodiversity in the Arabian Gulf waters around Kuwait. With the discovery of oil, Kuwaiti culture has changed from fishing and pearl diving as key industries to one based entirely on the lucrative oil business. While fish are still in demand among the Kuwaiti people, there is a lack of concern or awareness as to the need for balancing marine biodiversity - in particular, maintaining healthy shark populations as a cornerstone to a healthy marine ecosystem.

In the local fish markets, sharks can be found but there is not a great demand for them. Their appearance is more one of being bycatch due to the fishing techniques commonly used by the local fishermen. Gill nets are the predominant method, which basically catch anything from edible, commercial fish to sharks to turtles, and more.

Environmental filmmaker Zeina Aboul Hosn accompanied the researchers, both on the water and in the local markets, to document the decline of sharks in the Gulf. Finally, two years later, her film is currently available for viewing on Al Jazeera.

According to, Exxon has pledged support for an educational program to increase awareness, establish community-based programs, and provide cleanup activities, which could prove beneficial to local shark populations - if there's still time. Exxon's motives, I am sure, are a mix of environmental concern, politics, and public relations. Whatever their self-serving motives, if it provides a means to educate the local populace on the importance of maintaining a balanced marine ecosystem - for sharks and other species - then it could be a worthwhile trade-off.

Read more about the state of sharks in the Arabian Gulf at the

Canada Considers Support for Great White Sharks
The Canadian government is considering placing the great white shark on its list of animals covered by Canada's Species at Risk Act. Great white sharks are known to travel as far north as Nova Scotia in the Atlantic but their numbers have been in steady decline, in line with what has been seen with many white shark populations worldwide.

Although hunting white sharks in Canada is currently illegal, by covering it under the Species at Risk Act the balance of responsibility changes slightly from something that was solely on the shoulders of the fishermen ("Do not hunt white sharks") to more involvement by the federal government ("What can we do to further protect these sharks?"). This would mean another partner in the international political arena - where worldwide policy is hammered out.

"It's really a matter of supporting other international efforts to reduce catches of great whites and somehow limit their by-catch in other fisheries,"
said Steven Campana of Nova Scotia's Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

Read more about Canada's great white sharks at CBC News.

Shark conservation is becoming more and more of a complex topic as we move beyond (but don't ignore) the barbarism and waste of shark finning and shark fin soup and focus more on the critical role these predators play in maintaining a healthy marine environment and the need for worldwide public awareness to stimulate action on local, national, and international levels.

Friday, December 24, 2010

From RTSea Blog: Happy Holidays

On December 24th, 2010,

“This is my wish for you: peace of mind, prosperity through the year, happiness that multiplies, health for you and yours, fun around every corner, energy to chase your dreams, joy to fill your holidays!” – D.M. Dellinger

And let's not forget, the wisdom and passion to do what is right for the oceans and the planet.

Happy Holidays!

Richard Theiss
RTSea Blog
RTSea Productions

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Marine Protected Area Benefit: study shows drfiting larvae aid fish and fisheries

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are often viewed by commercial and sport fishing interests as a total invasion of the rights of fishermen to harvest bounty from the sea where ever and when ever they can find it. Thought of as a bureaucratic intrusion, compliments of fish-hugging environmentalists, MPAs have actually proven not only to repair and improve the health of the marine ecosystems within their boundaries, but have also shown spillover effects that actually can prove beneficial to sustainable fisheries.

Scientists have known for some time that as fish stocks improve within a marine protected area, the population also begins to improve within the surrounding area. Larger fish establish larger territories, often well outside the boundaries of the MPA (after all, they're not interested in arbitrary borders set by us humans).

Now researchers from Oregon State University have concrete evidence that fish larvae, emanating from within an MPA, can travel distances of over 100 miles and thereby increase stocks of fish well outside of the protected area.

The researchers worked with the MPAs that were established in the late 90's around the big island of Hawaii. Their study focused on the yellow tang, a popular reef fish in the aquarium trade and one whose numbers were declining - not good for commercial interests and certainly not good for the yellow tang. Since the inception of the Hawaiian MPAs, the population of yellow tangs has improved. But there was also seen an increase in numbers many miles outside of the protected areas. Could this be due to a spillover effect from more yellow tangs venturing outside of the protected zone? That would appear to be the case except for one fly in the ointment: yellow tangs are sedentary and settle into an area on the reef not much greater than a half mile in diameter.

To solve the puzzle, the researchers used the same techniques used by police detectives and paternity suit lawyers - DNA. By taking tissue samples from various groups of yellow tangs both within the MPA and beyond, they were able to establish direct relationships with yellow tangs that were as much as 114 miles apart. Only the transportation of larvae, aided by ocean currents, could explain the familial connection.

"This is similar to the type of forensic technology you might see on television, but more advanced," said researcher and lead author of the study, Mark Christie. "We're optimistic it will help us learn a great deal more about fish movements, fishery stocks, and the genetic effects of fishing, including work with steelhead, salmon, rockfish and other species here in the Pacific Northwest."

Oregon State University marine biology professor, Mark Hixon, added,
"Tracking the movement of fish larvae in the open ocean isn't the easiest thing in the world to do. It's not like putting a radio collar on a deer. This approach will provide valuable information to help optimize the placement of reserves, identify the boundaries of fishery stocks, and other applications."

One area of concern that grew out of the study was the importance of having good breeding stock by which to provide sufficient and healthy larvae yields. Larger fish are often the target of commercial fishing but these fish have a much greater capacity to produce larvae than smaller ones. Previous studies at the university had shown, as an example, that a single two-foot vermillion rockfish produces more eggs than 17 females that are 14 inches long.

While we continue to establish Marine Protected Areas across the world - some small, some covering many tens of thousands of square miles - the total coverage is but a mere sliver, approximately 1 percent of the world's oceans. And yet, as minuscule as they currently are in size, they have a tremendous impact on the overall health of countless marine species.

Read the Oregon State University news release on EurekAlert!.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dr. Jane Lubchenco: Nature journal's Newsmaker of the Year

The environmental journal, Nature, has selected Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as its Newsmaker of the Year. Much like TIME magazine's Person of the Year award, it is not a title that necessarily conveys good things or bad - just that your actions were newsworthy and had an impact on society.

Dr. Lubchenco came to NOAA in March, 2009 with the scientific community having high expectations. As a celebrated scientist with time spent in key positions at the Ecological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), many looked to Lubchenco to bring a well-needed reorientation toward science at NOAA. But much the same way as President Obama was immediately put to the test with a faltering economy, so was Lubchenco in the form of the Gulf Oil Spill. That environmental disaster tested her management and political skills and not all was smooth sailing.

However, her accomplishments in other areas have been ambitious and commendable. She has taken strong positions on overfishing through the implementing of the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act, brought more scientists into the agency, and contributed to the strategic development of the Obama Administration's new ocean policy, among other accomplishments.

Rather than simply recite the excellent article, In the Eye of the Storm by Richard Monastersky, which chronicle's her career, her ups and downs within NOAA to date, and her plans for the future; I have chosen excerpts and you can download a PDF of the entire article here:

"A sprawling department of 12,800 people with a budget of US$4.7 billion, NOAA has responsibilities stretching from the bottom of the sea to the top of the atmosphere and even to the Sun, which it monitors for signs of solar storms (see 'A global reach'). That mandate put Lubchenco at the centre of the government's response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster — a brutal test for a scientist with little previous management experience."

"As a celebrated scientist and vocal conservationist, she made her name urging other researchers to speak out on issues of public importance, a stance that not all of her academic colleagues were comfortable with. Now, at an age when many of her cohort are easing back, she is taking on the most ambitious challenge of her career: reorienting how the nation responds to pressing environmental problems such as dwindling fish stocks, rising seas and a changing climate. She has bold plans to strengthen scientific research at NOAA, make it more relevant to society and improve the health of ecosystems and coastal communities."

"Lubchenco recalls that she turned down Obama's transition team several times when she was first offered the job. Leaving her husband and research behind in Oregon seemed too big a sacrifice. But in the end, she says, she believed in the new president and in the opportunity to achieve her lifelong goals. "I came to NOAA to lead and enable change where it would make a difference," she later explained. The rough days so far have not discouraged her. "Meaningful change is not for the timid."

NOAA, as a vibrant, scientific-based government agency, can be an important resource and contributor to the development and implementation of vital environmental policy. Let's hope that Dr. Jane Lubchenco can fulfill the role of Newsmaker of the Year by leading NOAA in fully realizing its potential.

Read more about Jane Lubchenco in

Arctic Climate Change: subtle changes can have deadly impact

Scientists who have been studying the effects of climate change on Arctic sea ice, predict that, with its seasonal contraction and expansion, we can expect ice-free summers by the end of the century if not sooner. Disconcerting images of starving polar bears and proposed plans for extensive shipping through the Northwest Passage have been of major concern to environmentalists. However, researchers are studying a myriad of subtle effects that, collectively, could have a pronounced and deadly effect on the region and beyond.

Disrupted geography from melting ice that affects hunting/searching patterns is one of the leading concerns. A study recently published in Biological Conservation estimated that in the Western Hudson Bay area, there is a 3-6% starvation rate for polar bears when there is a 120-day summer fasting period. But it is estimated that with an increase to a 180-day fasting period due to increased loss of summer sea ice, the starvation rate climbs dramatically to 28-48%.

Also, the report cited female reproductivity declining in a non-linear fashion (IE: a dramatic drop) when food searching efficiency decreases faster than sea ice habitats. In other words, it doesn't not take much in the way of a changing habitat to produce a major population crash.

Another effect of climate change and the influx of warmer waters into the Arctic is a greater exposure to parasites. A study in Polar Biology looked at the increasing prevalence of Taxoplasma gondii, a potentially deadly parasite, in polar bears and seals in Norway. It is not clear whether the parasite is being transmitted by warm water invertebrates, migratory birds, or human interactions - but climate changes can bring any or all of these potential carriers into play.

Finally, researchers from several universities and NOAA reported, in the latest issue of Nature, the possibility that several marine mammal species could become extinct over time due to interbreeding brought on by climate change. Many marine mammals are unique to the Arctic because they are geographically isolated. These isolated species have adapted to life in an ice environment. With the loss of that ice, there can be an intermingling of related species moving up from the south. But, according to the researchers, this intermingling can produce hybrids that, over time, are unable to cope with the changing environment. In essence, it's not a mixing of the best qualities but that of qualities that will actually weaken their long-term chances for survival.

As stated in a Newswise release,
"In later generations, the process begins to have more negative effects as genomes mix and any genes associated with environment-adapted traits are recombined. Genes related to any trait that once allowed the animal to thrive in a specific habitat can be diluted, leaving the animal less well suited to surviving and reproducing there."

As evidence,
in 2006, hunters killed a polar bear with brown patches on its fur. DNA testing revealed it was a polar/grizzly bear hybrid. Such a hybrid, borne from polar and grizzly bear contact during the summer months, may have a very poor chance of survival in the Arctic winter months.

We like simple explanations to the challenges we face, but climate change has very complex and far-reaching implications. However, the more we learn about the impacts of climate change, the better we realize that it is a challenge we must address. That much is simple to comprehend.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Island of the Great White Shark: a stocking stuffer with teeth

Okay, readers, here's my one crass holiday plug. Island of the Great White Shark is my documentary tribute to the great white sharks of Isla Guadalupe, Baja and the dedicated researchers and scientists who study these amazing animals.

Going on six years ago, I spent several seasons filming the white sharks that migrate to this prehistoric island about 150 miles of the coast of Baja, Mexico. Since then, the lead Mexican researcher featured in the film, Mauricio Hoyos, has gone from grad student to Ph.D. but still returns to the island each year to tag and track sharks.

With online sales in full swing this weekend, you can find the DVD of Island of the Great White Shark at Amazon also suggests other shark DVDs, like a Discovery Channel Shark Week collection and a well-seasoned classic like Blue Water White Death. That would give you quite a range of perspectives from sensationalistic to realistic, from fearsome to fascinating.

Check it out and may your holiday shopping be a pleasant and sane one.

Glowing Snail: Scripps studies bizarre illuminating mollusk

This was a fun piece of news that caught my eye from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. It seems there is a small sea snail that can produce bioluminesence, strong enough with which it can illuminate the entire shell.

Researchers Dimitri Deheyn and Nerida Wilson have studied a particular species of "clusterwink snail" which has the ability to produce light but uses it in a way that is different from other bioluminescent creatures. Typically, bioluminesence is more focused - a dangling light lure atop a deep sea angler fish, a row of lights along a fish's lateral line, or literally a pair of high beams under the eyes. But with this particular snail, the light is emitted in all directions and the shell adds to the overall effect.

"It's rare for any bottom-dwelling snails to produce bioluminescence," Wilson said. "So its even more amazing that this snail has a shell that maximizes the signal so efficiently."

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences), the researchers theorized that the bioluminesence acted as a kind of "burglar alarm" triggered at the presence of a predator. The diffusion of the light caused by the shell perhaps makes the snail look bigger than it is and therefore a less appealing easy catch for a hungry crab or shrimp. The researchers are interested in the implications of how light can be transmitted through various materials, like the shell. Also curious is one of the study's funders, the U.S. Air Force, who would be interested in how this research could perhaps provide new approaches to better illuminate instruments and aircraft data readouts.

"Our next focus is to understand what makes the shell have this capacity and that could be important for building materials with better optical performance," said Deheyn.

Military applications aside, I find it very fascinating. It reminds me of the various little "glow-in-the-dark" plastic critters I had as a kid that would illuminate my room when the lights went out. But nature's parlor tricks are always way cooler.

Read the Scripps news release on the glowing snail.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Egypt's Shark Frenzy: expert team issues findings

The furor that erupted in Egypt and amongst shark advocates over the recent spate of shark incidents in Sharm El-Shiekh, near the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, has begun to subside. The beaches and dive sites are, for the most part, all open and, most importantly, the events have fallen off the media spin cycle.

SharkDivers, which has been following this situation closely, forwarded to me a news release issued by the international team of experts that were brought in at the behest of the Egyptian government. Their conclusions touched on many of the suspicions that existed at the time of the last attack (see previous post). The majority of the factors cited in the news release centered around human activity - illegal human activity. And absolutely none of the suspected causes could be attributed to some malevolent behavior on the part of the sharks.

There have been reports that the Egyptian government will utilize steel nets to cordon off swimming areas. Hopefully that will be a temporary measure and that once the illegal activities have ceased, over time the sharks will resume movement patterns that may diminish the possibility of adverse shark-human encounters.

Global Shark Attack File


For additional information please contact:

Ralph S. Collier, Shark Research Committee/Global Shark Attack File

Marie Levine, Shark Research Institute

Sharm El-Sheikh Shark Attacks: Update

Between November 30 and December 5, 2010 there were 5 unprovoked shark attacks reported from Sharm El-Shiekh, Egypt. Following these attacks the Egyptian government assembled an international team of experts to conduct a forensic analysis of the attacks: Ralph S. Collier, President of the Shark Research Committee and Director of the Global Shark Attack File; Marie Levine, Executive Director, of the Shark Research Institute; Moustafa Fouda, MSEA; Mohammad Salem, EEAA; and Nassar Galal, CDWS. The team gathered eyewitness testimony, examined the attack locations, and reviewed the forensic evidence, including all environmental factors present prior to each of the attacks. The following is a list of those factors they believed to be contributor to the attacks:
  • The illegal dumping of sheep carcasses by animal transport vessels within 1.2 miles of the shore.
  • The unique underwater topography of the area; i.e., deep water very close to shore allowing pelagic sharks and humans to swim in close proximity.
  • Although fishing is restricted in the Sharm El-Sheikh region, unrestrained fishing in the Red Sea has depleted fish stocks and reduced the amount of natural prey available to sharks.
  • Shark and human population dynamics, i.e., 5 million people visit Sharm El-Sheikh annually and numbers of sharks migrate through the area each year.
  • Feeding of fish by glass bottom boats and swimmers drew the sharks close to the beach.
  • Elevated sea temperatures resulted in higher metabolic rates of the sharks and increased their energy (food) requirements.
  • Although prohibited, it is believed that some dive operators have been feeding the sharks, which could have habituated the sharks to humans as a source for food.
It was determined from forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony that two species of sharks were responsible for the attacks; shortfin mako, Isurus oxyrinchus, and oceanic whitetip, Carcharhinus longimanus. Historical data obtained from the Global Shark Attack File for Egypt confirmed additional incidents from 2004 to the present (

Suggestions to reduce the potential for such future events were provided to officials for review and implementation.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oceanic Cooperation: research groups join forces for more informative results

Scientific research groups are known for their detailed and focused work. Communication or educational groups are known for getting the word out. For ocean conservation, it's usually a good idea when the two can come together. You end up with fresh new data that is presented to others in a way that increases public awareness or stimulates further research.

While this type of cooperation was a bit rare in the past, more and more often organizations are working towards a collective good, a more broadly shared base of information. Here are two examples recently announced.

The Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute is developing a partnership with the Georgia Aquarium's Research Center, the goal of which is to conduct
studies that will be communicated to a variety of audiences, from the general public to academic/educational groups. Initial joint studies by the two groups on a health assessment of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins along the eastern Florida coast proved successful and the door is now open for future studies of whale sharks in Mexico, beluga whales in Alaska, spotted eagle rays in Florida, and penguins in South Africa.

“We are so pleased to formalize our relationship with the Georgia Aquarium,” said FAU President Mary Jane Saunders. “FAU and the Georgia Aquarium already have a number of existing marine science research, education and conservation collaborations that reflect our shared interests, and joining forces will enable us to expand our research enterprises.”

On the other side of the globe, in Indonesia's Sulawesi Sea, scientists from the Indonesia Agency for Marine and Fisheries Research
are working with their counterparts in NOAA to study the deeper waters of this biodiversity-rich area. The coral reefs of the Sulawesi Sea are well
known to both serious and vacationing scuba divers and are a constant source of study for researchers due to the currently relative good health of the reefs. But not much is known about the deeper waters where volcanic activity and hydrothermal vents produce harsh environments that support unusual forms of life able to withstand these extreme conditions.

Assisted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, NOAA's research vessel, Okeanos Explorer, and the Indonesian research vessel, Baruna Jaya IV, utilized remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and the latest in high definition video and satellite transmission to deliver real-time images and discoveries to waiting scientists and academics from Jakarta to Seattle to Silver Spring, Maryland.

“We observed and imaged perhaps 40 potential new coral species and 50 potential new species of other animals, including those inhabiting an actively venting volcano. Documenting the abundance, biodiversity and distribution of deep-ocean animals will allow us to better understand the functioning of the ecosystems in the area and infer how resilient they are to human activities,” said Woods Hole grad student Santiago Herrera.

Dr. Sugiarta Wirasantosa, Indonesia's chief scientist on the expedition, commented,
“It’s especially important for Indonesians to better understand our ocean,” said Sugiarta. “Indonesia is a nation of 17,000 islands with a population that depends largely on the ocean for safety and on ocean resources for food, trade and economic well-being. Measurements of the flow of deep water masses through the deep Sulawesi Sea will help us better understand the ‘Indonesian Throughflow,’ which is important to all because it plays a major role in the global distribution of heat transported by ocean currents.”

Cooperation between nation's scientific organizations, combining research with broader communication entities, and a more open sharing of knowledge are critical steps in making science-based observations and solutions of ecological or environmental conditions indisputable. The public and the policy makers benefit from greater awareness and, in turn, so will the oceans themselves.

Read more about the FAU/Georgia Aquarium partnership.
Read More about the
Indonesia/United States joint research.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Holiday Contributions: choosing worthy non-profits

It's the holiday season, the end of the year, and perhaps you're contemplating whether to get Uncle Harry a new terrycloth bathrobe to replace the one he's been wearing out for the past eight years - or you're worrying over whether Cousin Roberta will bring one of her infamous homemade twelve-pound fruitcakes to the family get-together. Also, you have probably been noticing a lot of solicitations from various conservation groups hoping for that one last donation before the tax year runs out. Ah, 'tis the season right?

Well, I don't mean to be cynical really. It's been a tough year for non-profit organizations. With the economy being hard on all of us, it makes it even more difficult for conservation groups to find the funding to continue their operations. If you're conservation-minded like I am, you would to donate to all of them. After all, their causes are just and by their continuance the collective good in conservation would be served. Right?

The harsh reality is that most of us can't be that charitable, and so we must be selective. But what will be your criteria in choosing a worthy organization? This would be a personal call and I wouldn't want to second-guess anyone's good intentions. It could be the size of the organization, the cause or the animal or animals served, or perhaps the scientists or celebrities affiliated with it, or what their future hoped-for goals and objectives are - it's totally your call.

I'll just say that, for me, I have always relied on one standard: Accomplishments. What the organization has quantitatively done to move the cause forward, some tangible measure of success - that is what I rely on. After all of the petitions, Facebook pages, rallies, and bake-offs - what has the organization done to truly change the future of this planet?

It would seem that with that kind of criteria, only the largest, most well-established of non-profits would have a chance of garnering my donation. There probably is a large measure of truth in that assessment. Large organizations are better able to speak to the policy and decision makers of the world with greater credibility and I do watch closely with what is happening in those circles either nationally or internationally.

But there is also great work being accomplished at the regional or local level. So, again, it's not necessarily the size of the organization or the extent of their reach. It's what they have done that counts.

There can always be a question as to whether the money you contribute is being well spent. Some organizations submit themselves to the scrutiny of an independent evaluator. Charity Navigator provides a complex rating system to show how much of each dollar goes to the actual cause as opposed to operational or administrative costs. A four-star designation represents its highest rating.

I would hope that all of you will consider making a donation of some kind to a non-profit environmental or conservation organization this season. Hopefully, you will review their literature or their website to see what their accomplishments are - if they have any, they should be proudly and prominently visible. In the end, our goal as donors is not to just soothe our conscience but to ensure that real progress is being made. That makes us as responsible as the organizations we support.

Read more about charity ratings or evaluators at the Huddle blog.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Belize Biodiversity At Risk: Bladen Nature Reserve threatened

The nation of Belize, bordered by Guatemala and Mexico to the left and the Caribbean Sea to its right, is a land of rich natural resources and a strong tourism base, particularly for vacationing scuba divers. Recognizing that its lush tropical woodlands constitute a natural treasure and heritage, the Belize government has had to balance the demands of development with conservation and preservation of its forests.

To that end, the Bladen Nature Reserve was established in the northwest portion of the southern district of Toledo, bordering Guatemala. Established in 1990 and now managed by the Ya'ache' Conservation Trust, the reserve consists of 97,000 acres of pristine tropical forest containing a wide diversity in plant and animal life. It is also under siege.

According to, the biodiversity of the Bladen Nature Reserve is being undermined by animal poachers, those who illegally harvest the xate palm, and even legitimate developers who are eying the Central River that runs through the reserve as a potential hydroelectric plant site.

The threats to the Bladen Nature Reserve are a microcosm of what many nature reserves face around the world. Xate, a type of palm popular in floral displays and for Christian religious ceremonies, has been heavily harvested in neighboring Guatemala. So, xate harvesters, known as Xateros, have been routinely crossing the Belize border and stripping the reserve of its xate, setting up harvesting camps - where the palm leaves are hung to dry - and hiding from government officials in caves. In addition, animal poachers enter the reserve to capture many of the reserve's animals for foreign markets, particularly colorfully-plumed birds like macaws and curassows.

As is the case with many developing nations trying to protect their natural resources, the Belize government has limited resources available to patrol and enforce protection of the reserve. According to Channel5Belize, "The expansive acreage is the most protected area in the country yet it remains under constant threat from poachers and developers both in and outside of its confines. For years this territory has been used for illegal hunting and harvesting. Despite joint efforts by conservationists and various government agencies incursion by xateros is unavoidable."

The extent of the illegal harvesting has been taking a toll on the forest overall, and with deforestation comes soil erosion. This produces sediments washed down by rains into the reserve's Monkey River Watershed, which adversely impacts water supplies for many communities all the way out to the Caribbean Sea where excess sediment has been fouling coral reefs in Belize's Barrier Reef - which can, in turn, threaten Belize's diving tourism.

To top it off, the energy demands of a growing populace have developers looking at the reserve as a possible location for a hydroelectric plant along the Central River. The government has granted permission for the developers to conduct research, despite the efforts of others who say it violates the reserve's charter and regulations.

"Why are we granting someone a permit to study it for commercial interest when you're saying that these commercial activities can, in fact, not be allowed in these areas? So what is the long term intent? Is it to de-reserve these areas and allow these commercial developments to happen?" said Lisel Alamilla, Executive Director of the Ya'ache' Conservation Trust.

Efforts are being taken by the Ya'ache' Trust's managers, researchers, and conservationists to present a more detailed "big picture" view of the problem for government officials. Otherwise, little by little, a magnificent and ecologically important piece of Belize's heritage could disappear forever.

Read about threats to the reserve at Channel5
Read about the
Xate palm.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Filmmaker's Journal: Mystery, a white shark never to be forgotten

In 2005, I began filming what was to become Island of the Great White Shark, a documentary on the white sharks of Isla Guadalupe, Baja and the important working relationship that exists between the shark diving operators and Mexican researchers. It took several seasons of filming at Isla Guadalupe, returning year after year, looking to grab one more shot that was needed for editing - at least that was always the excuse. Actually, any chance I got to see these amazing predators first hand and up close, eye to eye - well, I took it.

During one particular trip to the island, during the second season of filming, I had one of those special encounters, the memory of which has stuck in my mind and I hope I never give it up. We had been seeing sharks all day and, as is the case at Isla Guadalupe in the latter part of the season, they were mostly large females. Due to the rough and tumble nature of shark mating, mature females are often badly scarred. This comes from amorous males who secure their grip on the female prior to mating by biting her around the head and gills.

On this trip, I was filming within the cage - although I use that term rather loosely. Professionally, I tend to not use a cage but in my earlier years working with white sharks I would at least use the cage as a secure platform from which I would lean out into open water to get striking close-ups of the sharks as they pass by. Familiar and, for the most part, totally disinterested in the cages or the divers inside, the sharks, however, would become curious about this large protrusion (me!) extending from the cage into their domain.

Following a lull in shark activity, I was about to surface when out of the depths below a large female rose up to see what was going on. Attracted by the scent of fish (this was before restrictions were imposed on chumming), this 16-foot leviathan came into view and she was truly magnificent. At around 3,000 pounds, she was fully mature and perfect in shape and proportions, with hardly a scratch on her - absolutely stunning. I started to roll tape, hoping I would get a shot or two before she moved on.

Her name was "Mystery", given to her by researchers who have studied and cataloged the great white sharks of Isla Guadalupe. Sharks can be easily identified by various body markings and scars. Even the pattern of gray above and white below that runs along the side of the shark's body acts like a lasting fingerprint.

Mystery was quite curious with me and provided me with a wonderful close pass right in front of my lens before sniffing the bait floating in the water and then gliding off into the gloom, out of sight. "That was a really great shot," I thought.

And then she returned. Another close pass, another swing by the bait, and then you could see her cruise just along the edge of visibility. I was beginning to get a feel for her whereabouts, her preferred movement patterns, so I could anticipate her approach and ready myself for when she either approached the bait and then swung by to take another look at me, or vice versa.

Each encounter I expected to be the last and she would then move on to more interesting opportunities. But she stayed. And for the next hour and a half, I had an ongoing love affair with a gorgeous animal, the likes of which I have never seen since. When I returned home, I had marvelous new footage to add to my documentary. Mystery became the leading lady of Island of the Great White Shark and much of the natural beauty of these animals that I was able to convey to the viewer I owe all to her.

Mystery appeared the following season at Isla Guadalupe but, sadly, I have not seen her since nor have I heard of any reports of her being seen by other divers. The great white sharks of Isla Guadalupe are pretty regular in their migrations - from the island to the mid-Pacific and back again, over and over. It's been several years since I have last seen her and I worry that she may have met her end, perhaps at the hands of poachers or illegal shark fishing operations. White sharks are protected at Isla Guadalupe and within U.S. territorial waters, but their annual migrations take them well into unprotected waters.

Mystery. She may truly be a mystery now, but the memory of our brief time together - not as predator and prey, but as two intensively curious fellow creatures - will always remain as one of the highlights of my underwater filming career.

Island of the Great White Shark is available on DVD at and in gift shops at several major aquariums across the country. Learn more about the film and the white sharks of Isla Guadalupe at

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Microbes: new life forms on Earth and perhaps beyond

Bacteria, microbes, single-cell organisms - the planet is teeming with them, literally in the billions. There are tens of thousands in a single drop of seawater and, worldwide, they constitute the greatest biomass on Earth. If their numbers are an indication of success then perhaps that success is due to both the simplicity of their existence and their ability to adapt to changing environments.

Two recent announcements regarding these tiniest of creatures caught my eye (no pun intended) because they had to do with the aquatic world and involved places I've been or would very much like to be.

Bacteria that challenges our notions of life
In the arid, alien-like landscape of Mono Lake, researchers have found bacteria that has adapted to an arsenic-rich environment. What is most unusual in this adaption was that the bacteria incorporated arsenic into its basic metabolic structure, replacing phosphorus. This is rather unique as phosphorus is one of nature's building blocks for all living things. Scientists have long held that carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus are the basic elements of life as they help make up nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, and other fundamental components of all living matter.

However, researchers from Arizona State University have found in the water of Mono Lake, in east central California, bacteria that has exchanged phosphorus for the more prevalent arsenic, thereby challenging our notions of what constitutes what or where life can exist either here on Earth or elsewhere.

"At the moment we have no idea if life is just a freak, bizarre accident which is confined to Earth or whether it is a natural part of a fundamentally biofriendly universe in which life pops up wherever there are Earth-like conditions," said Paul Davies, the Arizona State University and NASA Astrobiology Institute researcher.

The researchers are very cautious not to draw too many conclusions from this preliminary research. Though the implications are tantalizing, with the possibility of life forms on other planets based on a totally different structure than what exists on Earth, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done before scientists decide to re-define our established notions of what constitutes life. Still, it makes you wonder just what our planetary probes in space should be looking for.

John Elliot, a UK researcher who has been involved in the search for extraterrestrial life, said,
"It starts to show life can survive outside the traditional truths and universals that we thought you have to use... this is knocking one brick out of that wall."

Microbes that went down with the ship, way down

Ever since I read my parent's original copy of A Night to Remember by Walter Lord when I was a child, I have had a soft spot for anything Titanic. I'm not alone in this fascination with the great
ocean liner that epitomized both man's industrial might and arrogance. But while the name and the vessel represent all things huge, scientists also study some of the wreck's smallest features - like a new form of iron-eating bacteria.

The genus Halomonas covers salt water bacteria that slowly breakdown metals, typically leaving behind evidence of their handiwork in the form of long, trailing icicle-like structures known as rusticles. Covering the Titanic along its hull and decaying metal superstructure, rusticles form a bizarre wintry scene to remind us of the cold depth 2.5 miles below the surface where the ship lies in two great pieces.

Reported in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, researchers from universities in Ontario, Canada and Seville, Spain have discovered a new bacteria, named Halomonas titanicae, by studying rusticle samples taken by the Russian submersible, Mir 2,
back in 1991. Cultured in the lab from the 19-year old samples, these bacteria are of interest beyond just the fascination in lifeforms that are able to survive in some of the planet's harshest environments. The fate of offshore oil and gas pipelines at the hands of these metal-devouring microbes is an important area of research, particularly in the aftermath of this year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Additionally, understanding how these smallest of creatures can breakdown and possibly "recycle" some of mankind's largest structures could assist in developing safe and effective disposal methods of ships and oil rigs.

From the deepest depths of the ocean to perhaps beyond the stars, life continues to show scientists that it has a tenacious drive to survive, adapting to its surroundings sometimes in the most fundamental of ways.

Read about the arsenic bacteria in BBC News.

Read Titanic microbe study in the IJSEM journal.