Sunday, October 30, 2011
The white-nose syndrome has worked its way through many eastern states in the U.S., north and south, being transmitted from bat to bat but also from human contact via recreational cave explorers' footwear, clothing, and gear. However, states are trying to get a handle on the situation and the state of Tennessee has come up with a novel method.
When you think of the state in the U.S. with the most caves, what comes to mind? New Mexico, perhaps, because of the stalactite and stalagmite spires of Carlsbad Caverns. Well, as it turns out, it's Tennessee and they have a vested interest in keeping their cave-dwelling bat population healthy as a means of controlling the bug population, particularly during the warm summer months.
The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee in conjunction with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Bat Conservation International, have proposed building an artificial cave, one that is disinfected with anti-fungal medication. Bats will frequently change locations, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that bats would move into the artificial cave, get a dose of medicine lining the walls, and then ultimately move on, leaving the cave for the next group of bats. Over time, it is hoped this would begin to stem the tide of the spread of white-nose syndrome.
The Chattanooga-based website, Nooga.com, quoted Cory Holliday, program director for The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, as saying, “The fungus is really susceptible to a lot of things, such as heat and anti-fungal agents, but you can’t do what needs to be done in a natural cave setting because it would destroy other cave life forms, as well,” says Holliday. “This artificial cave is a pilot project, but if it works we are hopeful that we can build a lot of these things.”
The organizations involved are continuing to pull together the $300,000 needed to build this pilot project but they hope to begin construction soon, even before it is fully funded, as they see the situation as being a most dire and immediate threat.
According to Nooga.com, "Bats rank among our country’s most endangered wildlife, with seven in danger of becoming extinct in the United States alone. Their populations are declining as a result of habitat destruction (deforestation, cave flooding, vandalism, commercialization of caves), cave exploration disturbances, pesticide use, and 'pest control' efforts. Bats also collide with wind-energy turbines; bat fatalities have been documented at nearly every wind facility in North America."
So, bats have enough problems to deal with; no need to add a fatal fungus to the list. It has been estimated that the bats' ability to act as a flying pest-control service - pests that would devour agriculture - saves the U.S. agricultural industry as much $3.7 billion to as much as $53 billion annually. That's billion with a "B".
Cory Holliday said, “I do have hope for the bats; however, it is very distressing to go to white-nose syndrome sites and see bats that are dead or bats missing from caves where they should be. At the same time, it also drives me come up with strategies to solve this problem.”
This Halloween, the bats deserve all the treats - with no tricks - that they can handle.
To learn more about bats, check out Bat Conservation International.
To learn more about the proposed Tennessee artificial bat cave, visit The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
The segment will cover many of the issues that shark advocates have been promoting for several years, but it always bears repeating. Overfishing from commercial shark fishing operations, the high demand in Asian countries for shark products - particularly shark fins - and the critical role that sharks play as apex predators in maintaining a healthy and well-balanced marine ecosystem. These are the facts. Over-sensationalism, like rampaging sharks on the attack for humans at any opportunity, is what fuels misconceptions and provides fodder for a media looking for a quick headline. However, for the most part, CNN has done a pretty responsible job in putting forth the truth about sharks and the threats they face. So, kudos to the folks in Atlanta.
The shark segment on CNN this Sunday also looks at the Shark Free Marinas Initiative (SFMI) and its director, marine biologist Luke Tipple. Luke is a good friend and I've had the opportunity to capture him on film many times both above and below the waves, diving in open water with white sharks, tigers, and others, or talking about sharks and the Shark Free Marinas Initiative.
With location services set up by SharkDivers.com, CNN spent time with Luke in the Grand Bahamas where SFMI has a foothold with one of the island's most popular marinas catering to sportfishermen. Compared to commercial operations, the number of sharks taken by recreational sportfishermen is much smaller but at this stage of the game, the loss of any shark is a blow to the species' population. Recreational shark fishing tournaments are still being held each year and draw considerable worldwide criticism from conservation groups like The Humane Society - which supports SFMI. But when sportfishermen either opt for catch-and-release of sharks or choose not to catch them altogether, it can have an impact on an influential segment of the ocean-going public that can spread.
Here's a video preview of the CNN news report:
CNN's Sharks: from predator to prey airs Sunday, Oct. 30th at 5pm & 8pm PST (8 & 11pm EST) on CNN.
Learn about the Shark Free Marinas Initiative.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
Many people know about the eyesore on our streets and coastline caused by discarded plastic, or are aware of areas like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where a complex system of ocean currents traps huge quantities of floating plastic debris. However, while the images of floating water bottles, Mylar balloons, and strangulated marine life, can provoke emotional responses, those familiar with ocean conservation know that there is an even greater danger in what we don't see - the minute particles of plastic broken down by sun and wave action that can make for a toxic soup that is capable of working it's way through the marine food chain right to our dinner table.
Read prior post on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
I met up with Amber and her production crew in San Pedro, California, where we boarded the Mr C dive charter boat. We were joined by marine scientist, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, CEO/director of the 5 Gyres Institute and researcher with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Marcus has been studying ocean pollution by plastics for nearly 10 years. The captain of the Mr. C probably thought we were all a bit odd, chartering his boat not to locate some illusive shark or fish or to unlock the secrets of some exotic marine behavior. No, we were looking for floating shopping bags - that was our quarry, our quest.
We first began by cruising around within the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor breakwater. We positioned ourselves between the Los Angeles and Santa Ana river outlets - basically dry concrete river beds that funnel rainwater and enormous amounts of trash right out to sea. City and state agencies try their best to net and scoop as much of the accumulated trash as possible before it enters open sea, but plenty escape and enter the harbor and eventually the open ocean beyond the breakwater.
Weaving around large freighters anchored in the harbor, we came across floating congregations of kelp and sea grasses, cups, water bottles, and plastic bags of all types. Not in any massive quantities, mind you; there have not been any major rains for several months and a weekend change in wind and weather patterns were making things a bit more difficult to find trash in the usual places.
At one point, I decided to jump in and film a white shopping bag floating several feet below the surface. It would make for an arresting image - this ghostly piece of pollution moving gracefully along like some man-made sea jelly.
Well, it would have made for an arresting image if I could only have seen it once I jumped into the harbor! The waters of Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor, like most major commercial ports, are a witches brew of floating sediments, ship oils, and other nasty things I don't even want to think about. When I first jumped in, I felt like I was diving in a pint of Guinness and I couldn't see the bag even when it was a foot in front of me. As we had planned to have Amber and Dr. Ericksen enter the water, when I came back on board (feeling like I needed a Hazmat crew to clean me off) I recommended we head south along the coast where the visibility would be better. Not all plastic trash finds its way to the sea via storm drains; it can also be found off of many of Southern California's beaches, thanks to careless beach goers.
We headed for the popular sandy coves and beaches of Laguna Beach where, during beach dives, I had found various trash items that would get stuck against the thin kelp beds and low-lying rocky reefs. While underway, Amber interviewed Dr. Eriksen, who had brought along some alarming and convincing evidence of plastic micro-particles found in some of the fundamental building blocks of the marine food chain - a chain that can lead straight to commercial marine species destined for the dinner tables of unsuspecting seafood consumers.
I had the Mr. C anchor offshore at an area in Laguna Beach called Picnic Beach - part of Heisler Park and a popular spot for having a picnic and sitting out in the sun. We all jumped in and although the visibility was not great due to a heavy surge and tidal action brought on by an upcoming full moon, it didn't take us long to find our specific quarry. Plastic bags in various states of decomposition gave us the visual evidence we needed to illustrate that plastic does not biodegrade and magically disappear - plastic is forever but continues to break down into smaller and smaller bits, often giving off many of the toxic chemical and petroleum-based ingredients used in its manufacture. A gift that just keeps on giving.
After we finished our dives and headed back to home port, I spent some time talking with Amber about the news piece she is working on. Amber is no "bubble-headed bleach blond" (to quote songwriter Don Henley), she is a dedicated journalist who has put herself in harm's way on more than one occasion (although diving in L.A. harbor water could have been the ultimate test of her bravura). I'm looking forward to her news piece as she examines not only the problem at hand, but also the heroes and villains involved in this important drama, and what lies ahead if we take action now or choose to do nothing.
Here's a video preview of Plastic Wars from CNN.com.
Plastic Wars airs Sunday, October 30th, 5pm PST & 8pm PST (8pm & 11pm EST) on CNN.
For more information on ocean plastic pollution, visit 5 Gyres Institute or Algalita Marine Research Foundation.
Check out Amber Lyon's work at CNN.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Currently, the only permanent undersea habitat and research facility, Aquarius is owned and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington. It has been home to a wide array of scientists and researchers since it was first deployed in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary in 1993.
One of the advantages of an undersea habitat is the ability to extend the amount of bottom time (time spent diving and conducting research outside). If you were to dive from the surface to 60 feet, you would have only about one hour of dive time before you would find yourself having to deal with decompression (waiting to discharge accumulated nitrogen) as you surfaced. However, by staying below in a pressurized facility, a scientist could spend a full working day outside, for up to 10 days or more. At the conclusion of the mission there would then be an extended period of time spent decompressing before stepping on dry land, but the ability to spend days at a time underwater is extremely valuable for many types of scientific ocean studies.
Additionally, a facility like Aquarius is ideal for testing how men and women can function in confined environments like they would encounter in deep space missions. NASA just concluded its latest deep space training exercise, NEEMO 15, which stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation. With NASA's future deep space missions, like ones being considered to the moons of Mars, Mars itself, and even to an asteroid (calling Bruce Willis), it is important to know how astronauts can function effectively and independently, with little or no contact with mother Earth. Medical emergencies, software and hardware repairs, and of course, long-term isolation - all need to be considered and studied.
From reef growth to acidification to developing new techniques in biodiversity studies - or even preparing astronauts for future space missions - Aquarius is a vitally important ocean research center. NOAA understands the value of public awareness and has established and interesting website for Aquarius, containing background information on missions and other accomplishments, videos, pictures, and even a live feed camera for when it's catering to visitors.
So, champagne and strawberries in a New York hotel suite? Fresh tempura in a Tokyo high-rise? A warm fire and a soft couch in Yosemite? All very nice, but give me a cup of hot chocolate, a bunk, a porthole, and a set of diver gear at the ready and I'll be just fine, thank you.
Read about Aquarius at NOAA's Aquarius website.
Read about NEEMO 15 and its work with Aquarius in the Huffington Post.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Changing the Conversation: From Nature's Wonder to Nature's Value
Earlier this month, I spoke at the inaugural South by Southwest Eco. I began by mentioning my former career on Wall Street-a topic unlikely to win me many fans.
Then why bring it up?
The theme of my speech was broadening support for conservation by crossing boundaries --talking about nature differently and reaching beyond the usual suspects of those we ordinarily work with.
A little over three years ago, I crossed a personal boundary, leaving my career as an investment banker to follow my passion for protecting nature.
And as head of The Nature Conservancy, I am now committed to helping the conservation movement cross boundaries, reaching out to everyone from businesses to kids to demonstrate why protecting nature is in their best interest.
Take our collaboration with Dow Chemical, for example. The Nature Conservancy is working with Dow to determine how the company's operations rely on and affect nature. Dow's factories are enormously dependent on water supply. They also depend on mangroves and other natural systems to provide buffer from coastal storms. Our goal is to create tools and methods other companies can test and apply.
Some critics ask why we would work with companies that have a big environmental footprint. I say, why wouldn't we? In my view, it would be irresponsible of us to shy away from the opportunity to guide companies whose decisions affect the places we want to conserve.
Are partnerships with companies a panacea? No.
Are there risks to engaging businesses? Of course.
But change is not possible without risk.
And change is critical given the great challenges we are up against. By 2050, the world's population is expected to reach 9 billion people. Soaring demands for food, water and energy put enormous pressure on the natural systems we seek to protect. And climate change will only multiply existing problems.
Solving these challenges will require new ways of thinking. It will require reaching beyond our core supporters. And it will require a shift in thinking, from "Isn't nature wonderful?" to "Isn't nature valuable?"
Specifically, we need to talk much more about the benefits nature provides to people -- clean air, healthy soil, fresh water, coastal buffers from storms.
This notion of "natural capital" is not new. In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that these services are in sharp and worrisome decline.
What's exciting is that environmental organizations around the world are turning this concept into reality. We are crossing boundaries to put these ideas into practice, connecting the value of nature to a broader audience.
Last year in Iowa, for example, a coalition of conservationists, sportsmen, farmers, community leaders and businesses banded together to support a constitutional amendment that will direct $150 million per year of the next sales tax increase toward wetlands restoration, water quality programs and other projects that will help prevent and reduce impacts from flooding.
We had our work cut out for us, campaigning in a conservative state, during a deep recession and facing a tough political climate. But the amendment passed with more than two-thirds of the vote.
Voters understood that their lives and livelihoods, including Iowa's $21 billion agriculture industry, are closely linked to clean and productive water systems.
Finally, all of our efforts will be wasted if we don't foster the next generation of conservationists.
Only about 10 percent of today's kids say they spend time outdoors every day. Meanwhile, the vast majority uses a computer, watches TV, or plays video games on a daily basis. This growing disconnect with nature threatens kids' physical and emotional well-being. It also makes them less likely to care about environmental issues.
But it's not all bad news. A recent study found that when youth are given more opportunities to have a meaningful experience outdoors, they will be more likely to value nature, engage with it and feel empowered to do something about it.
One initiative my organization has launched to address this problem is called Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF). The program matches urban high school students with summer internships on nature preserves across the country. Programs like this are key to closing the gap between nature and people -- especially among urban and youth audiences -- and building tomorrow's conservation leaders.
Environmental organizations need new strategies like these to deal with the difficult challenges ahead. That's not to say that other strategies don't have their place. Is our work helped by more confrontational organizations that challenge businesses and governments? Yes. Are there times when different approaches will be more effective? Of course. The more strategies the better. We're all on the same team.
As South by Southwest has proven in the areas of technology and music, the best new thinking and creative ideas often emerge when we cross boundaries to seek out new relationships and ideas. We will never achieve our mission by talking to ourselves. We have to reach out to all sectors of society -- from businesses to farmers to children -- to demonstrate the value of nature to our lives.
From The Huffington Post, Tuesday, October 25, 2011.
Monday, October 24, 2011
In the end, this is nothing more than a political attempt to appease the public, to show that the government is doing something to ensure the safety of its citizenry. If Australian officials want to do something that is realistic, you close the beaches, do a shark survey of the area which includes tagging so as to better understand where local white sharks are traveling. And you re-educate, reinforce in the minds of the public that these waters do not belong to mankind; they belong to the animals that normally inhabit them. Man is the intruder, not the sharks.
As reported in the Science Network/Western Australia, shark experts are making their opinions known about any wholesale taking, or culling, of sharks. "WA Premiers Research Fellow and Professor of Neuroecology in the School of Animal Biology and UWA Oceans Institute, Professor Shaun Collin says the culling of any species of sharks is not the solution. 'Not only will this be indiscriminate killing of a protected Australian species (under both the EPBC Act and state legislation), there is no way of being sure the sharks caught will be those responsible for the attacks.'"
"Shark Ecologist within the Marine and Ecology Program at the South Australian Research and Development Institute Dr Charlie Huveneers says shark attacks are still very rare events with a low probability of occurrence. 'There is no scientific evidence to suggest that the short time period between the recent attacks is a reflection of an increased population of [great white] sharks,' Dr Huveneers says."The office for the Minister of Fisheries has reported that while the great white shark is protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, there is an exemption for the killing of a shark if a human life is in danger.
But one has to examine the actual application of such an exemption. Does it refer to defending a human who is about to be bitten or has just been bitten by a shark and, therefore, it becomes more a case of immediate self-defense? Or does it get broadly applied as a perverse preventative measure: mankind versus the shark, who has the greater right to be there in the ocean? Man?
It all seems to be taken right out of the script for Jaws: an incident followed by public outcry and officials trying to appear as if they are doing something to make the beaches safe once again.
“It sounds a little bit like taking revenge, and we’re talking about an endangered species,” said marine zoologist and shark researcher Barbara Weuringer of the University of Western Australia.
However, unlike the Hollywood movie, there isn't a shark swimming in the waters off Australia with a taste for human blood. While that can be said of rare documented experiences with other land predators like lions or bears, thereby necessitating the removal of that particular animal; it is not the case with sharks - ever.
Hopefully, shark experts will be able to have sufficient influence with government officials, so that some ridiculous oceanic witch hunt does not transpire. What has occurred in Western Australia is a statistical anomaly - to be sure, a tragic one - but an anomaly nonetheless. And tracking down and killing numbers of white sharks may, perhaps, quell any public outcry, but by no means will it guarantee that there won't be another shark-human interaction tomorrow.
If you would like to make your opposition to any shark culling in Western Australia brought to the attention of officials of the Australian fisheries department, David Shiffman of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami, brought to my attention a petition site. Click here to visit the website.
Read about scientific opposition to shark culling in the Science Network/Western Australia.
Read more about the recent fatal shark encounters in Western Australia in The Washington Post.
Visit the Care2 petition website.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Take for example, a single-celled organism the size of your fist. In the deep abyss regions of the world's oceans, that's actually not that uncommon. They're called xenophyophores and there are dozens of different types that live in the cold, dark areas of the world's seas, like the Mariana Trench - an area that culminates in the deepest known spot in the ocean at a depth of nearly seven miles.
Mongabay.com reports of a recent research study conducted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the Mariana Trench that found xenophyophores living at a new recorded depth of 6.6 miles. The organisms were discovered using a high definition "dropcam" - a remote camera developed by Scripps and the National Geographic Society.
Xenophophores previously studied have been found to be a home for a variety of multicelluar organisms, so what has been traditionally thought of as one of the most desolate and lifeless regions on the planet may turn out to be otherwise, much like the profusion of unique life forms found at supposedly inhospitable deep sea ocean vents.
"As one of very few taxa [genus or species] found exclusively in the deep sea, the xenophyophores are emblematic of what the deep sea offers. They are fascinating giants that are highly adapted to extreme conditions but at the same time are very fragile and poorly studied," explains Lisa Levin, director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. "These and many other structurally important organisms in the deep sea need our stewardship as human activities move to deeper waters."
Also in Mongabay.com, Jeremy Hance writes about another oceanic oddity: the handfish. This small fish, unique to Australia, has pectoral fins that allow it to walk on the bottom. Well, more than just allow it to; it prefers to. And that makes it distinctly different from other fish that have fins that can act like terrestrial limbs but also swim conventionally.
There are 14 species of handfish, all living in Australia, and one species in particular, the spotted handfish, has the distinction of possibly being the first marine fish to go extinct in recorded history. The IUCN gives the spotted handfish its most alarming status label of Critically Endangered. The spotted handfish lives in just one location: Tasmania's Derwent estuary, a body of water that is threatening the handfish with decreasing habitat, warming water temperatures, and even poaching.
Several Australian marine conservation organizations, including the Derwent Handfish Recovery Project, are working to protect the future of these small ocean oddities. The loss of any one of these small bottom dwellers may not be catastrophic in and of itself, but their fate can be emblematic of a larger future waiting to befall entire marine ecosystems due to man-made activities. While sea creatures evolved out of the oceans, switching from fins to limbs, the poor handfish is not quite ready to get up and simply walk away.
Read more about xenophyophores in Mongabay.com.
Read more about handfish in Mongabay.com.
Their post was an indictment of both those who keep exotic animals and filmmakers and photographers whom the post says constitute a major market for these animals.
Filmmakers, Celebrities Create Market for Exotic Animals
The massacre of nearly 50 exotic animals from a game farm in Ohio is a tragic example of why wild animals (exotic or otherwise) should not be kept as pets.
To put it simply, wildlife should remain in the wild. When they are locked up in cages and forced into confinement, their suffering and stress is immense. They cannot lead healthy lives when taken from their natural habitat and placed in what’s usually a cramped and poorly maintained game farm or facility – it’s unfair, cruel and unnatural.
The owner of the massacred animals, Terry Thompson, kept all sorts of animals – bears, tigers and monkeys, among others – locked up in cages. Apart from the claustrophobic living conditions (compared to living in the wild), wild animals are sometimes purchased by naive people who severely underestimate the special needs of the animals and even mistreat them. In fact, Thompson had previously been convicted of animal cruelty and was suspected of animal neglect.
What makes this tragedy even worse is that people like Thompson are in demand by filmmakers and photographers. In many wildlife documentaries and photos, the animals featured are not as “wild” as they seem. In fact, they come from game farms (similar to Thompson’s) that house and provide wildlife on demand. Basically, creatures that were intended to roam freely can be made available to anyone with the right amount of money. For example, Thompson was hired to bring three lion cubs to a photo shoot with Heidi Klum in New York City. With transactions like that, business can be good for game farm owners.
Hopefully the event in Ohio will shed light on the horrible business of keeping wild animals in captivity for personal pleasure and for business. They should not be auctioned, rented or collected by humans. They should not be dominated, manipulated and taken advantage of. Most importantly, they should not be stripped of what they value most – to be wild and free.
By leaving wild animals in their natural habitats, tragedies like the massacre in Ohio can be prevented. For the sake of the animals and for the safety of humans, wildlife should remain as nature intended: free.
Though I wouldn't say we're drinking buddies, I know Chris Palmer and share his passion for the ethical treatment of animals. He has been most kind in providing me with advice and counsel in my filmmaking career. His book, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, highlights some of the dilemmas filmmakers face when making films under time and budget constraints, forcing some to reproduce "in the wild" behavior using animals from wild animal farms, like the one in Ohio.
While I share the authors' concern regarding the possible mistreatment of the animals in Ohio, the state's deplorable lack of stringent animal regulations, and the possible knee-jerk reaction on the part of the Ohio police in putting the animals down, I believe that their basic premise is perhaps a bit too simplistic for what is a complex issue. I would respectfully put forward the following thoughts.
All states should have in place strict regulations regarding wild or exotic animal captivity that require suitable enclosures which provide sufficient room and pseudo-wild environments and a standard of care and feeding that ensures the animal's basic good health. Small, cramped cages or concrete cell blocks would be out of the question. This would restrict the facilities to large parks or farms and eliminate the small operators or those who would keep these animals as pets.
These facilities would need to be inspected on a regular basis and the laws strictly - and humanely - enforced. Where and how the animals were obtained would need to be carefully documented. If the state does not have the manpower or infrastructure to meet the need, then they should simply not allow any such facilities in their state, period.
So, you would be left with a small number of highly regulated facilities, expensive to maintain, and their availability to any paying market would, in turn, be an expensive proposition. To remain economically viable, some of the facilities could possibly work with other nations or conservation organizations as breeding facilities for endangered species, but that too would need to be strictly regulated and observed. The FTC could restrict the use of exotic or wild animals in films or advertising to situations which are relevant or practical to the animal and its natural lifestyle - no more ads of a cheetah or a lion cub on a New York City street to sell fashion or perfume.
For wildlife documentary filmmakers, it would be a difficult situation as they would either have to have the budget resources to afford the use of such animals or spend more time and money in the wild to capture the behavior for which they had considered duplicating with captive animals. For the small group of "A-list" film companies, that might be more feasible compared to the vast majority of smaller companies that are struggling for every dime.
The Ohio animal farm incident was extreme and tragic on several levels because, if initial reports are accurate, the facility was not suitable for the animals, the owner had a questionable and checkered history of animal cruelty, the state of Ohio did not have adequate regulations or enforcement of what few laws it did have, and the reaction of the Ohio law enforcement was excessive and showed that there were no contingencies in place to deal with a facility that they had prior knowledge of. In the end, it illustrates, at every step, the wrong way to handle wild animals in captivity.
The entire issue of keeping wild or exotic animals is a complex one; one that is so complex that it is understandable when it is suggested that it be prohibited entirely. But when Chris and Angeli say "To put it simply, wildlife should remain in the wild" without caveats or exceptions, then, as admirable as that position appears, the logical extension of it is to close all zoos, aquariums, wild animal parks and sanctuaries, endangered species breeding facilities, marine mammal rescue hospitals, and so on - just let nature take its course. I believe there can be a middle ground - highly regulated and enforced - that could provide some benefits to both animal species and our understanding and appreciation of them.
Just spitballing here, trying to find a reasonable aftermath to a tragic event.
Read Daniel de Vise's College, Inc. blog in the Washington Post.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Over the past few years, we have seen shark sanctuaries established in a few island nations and several states in the U.S. have initiated shark fin regulations or bans. This is all good news and it represents a step in the right direction in trying to impact the market for shark fins and shark-related products.
However, the next challenge is also the most formidable one: taking it to an international level that confronts the powerful economic realities of the shark finning industry. This is where highly-placed influence peddlers work the back room deals to maintain the status quo. And from an ecological standpoint, this is where the real damage is taking place.
The Pew Environment Group has a series of photographs, freely available for media use, that are staggering in their illustration of the scope of the problem. Looking at these photos, taken in Taiwan, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that it would be literally impossible for a species whose reproductive rate is low, as is the case with sharks, to be able to survive such industrial-level harvesting. The photo at the top of this post and the two below were taken by Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group:
According to The New York Times, four of the leading nations involved in commercial shark finning are Taiwan, Indonesia, India, and Spain. And several developing nations assist by providing some of the boats and the crew - at bare subsistence-level wages. And that brings up another challenge: if world opinion were to succeed in curtailing the practice, we would also have the responsibility of providing an alternative source of income for these low-paid workers and fishermen. For them, feeding their families is a much greater priority than preserving sharks.
Several nations that provide sanctuary protections for sharks unfortunately offer these safeguards in name only as they do not have the resources available to enforce their regulations. A recent example is the slaughter of 2,000 sharks in Colombia's Pacific marine wildlife sanctuary by commercial boats, reportedly of Costa Rican origin. With no Colombian naval vessels in sight, it was reported that up to 10 boats entered the protected waters, freely taking hammerhead, Galapagos, and whale sharks.
While generating grass roots-level advocacy is important, shark conservation must now move forcefully into the international arena, getting organizations like IUCN, CITES, ICAAT, and the United Nations to wake up to the realities of what is happening in international waters. It will not be easy. Those industrialists who benefit from the shark have a lot at stake; they will fight hard. And international diplomacy by its very nature is painfully slow. So, the reality may be that, long before we run an oil platform dry or see sea levels noticeable rise due to climate change, we may witness the extinction of many species of shark.
Therefore, shark conservation, as a movement, must focus its efforts not only on general public awareness but must also develop strategies to take on the industry directly on a global level. It may be akin to David facing Goliath, but according to legend, David won.
See more photos of industrial shark finning at the Pew Environment Group website.
Read an overview of the shark finning industry in the New York Times.
Read about the recent slaughter of sharks in Colombia in the Guardian.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
In fact, for animals that are prey to several different kinds of predators, a high reproductive rate is nature's consolation prize of sorts for being the unwitting prize of a predator. In the seas, plankton, krill and many species of small baitfish have high reproductive rates as they are a food source for many different predator species ranging from small reef fish to massive whales. And on land, many rodent species - rats and mice in particular - reproduce in great numbers to offset predation from everything from coyotes to hawks.
Speaking of predatory birds, their roles are very similar to predators like sharks. Two roles actually, depending on the bird. Sharks play a critical role as scavengers and there are vultures and buzzards that play a similar role. Sharks are also hunters and hawks and eagles follow parallel duties. To hunt, the predator needs an advantage and for hawks it can often be incredibly sharp eyesight combined with lightning speed.
In the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, writer Jerry Stanford writes of his admiration for the red-tailed hawk, a common predatory bird in South Dakota, "In mid-September, my wife and I traveled south of Sioux Falls to watch the ever-changing season turn from lush green to golden yellow. While enjoying the wonderful wide-open spaces, we managed to observe several majestic red-tails swirling in the deep blue-sky updrafts, sometimes to the point where the feathered acrobats disappeared among the billowing clouds. During our half-day jaunt, I was constantly reminded of the great bird's flexibility as it grabbed hold of invisible updrafts that somehow managed to help navigate the acrobat to where it wanted to go."
Stanford cites the writings over fifty years ago of Charles Flugum who identified the important role the hawk plays and the importance of not regarding them as a nuisance, "The role of hawks in the balance of nature is to counteract the dangerously rapid reproductive rate of mice and other rodents. It is sound conservation practice to protect all our hawks, except those individuals actually caught in the act of taking poultry. There has been some improvement in the attitude toward our birds of prey in recent years, especially in securing legislation for their protection. We have a long way to go, however, before an enlightened and aroused public will give these laws the support they need to make them really effective."
In Southern California, where I live, one doesn't have to go far, even within a suburban setting, to find an occasional hawk circling overhead. Hawks have adapted somewhat to the presence of human urban development - one pair of hawks became rather famous locally in New York for nesting on the side of an office building and raising a family, subsisting on the many rodents that live in the city. And I wonder how quickly we would be overrun by mice and rats if we were to be without these aerial rodent exterminators.
Predatory birds face many threats, even with conservation and protective regulations in place. Poisons ranging from lead shotgun pellets - consumed by eating prey which survived a previous encounter with a hunter - or fertilizers and insecticides, and even rodent poisons which would weaken or sicken a rat or field mouse, making it an easy target for a hawk. And then there are the direct, man-made threats from hunters, or poultry farmers protecting their birds And for large eagles, buzzards, or condors, there is the threat from coming in contact with high power electrical lines.
The relationship between predators and prey can sometimes be a bit like the classic chicken or the egg conundrum - which came first? Did nature evolve a predator to combat the population growth of a highly reproductive species or did the prey develop the ability to grow in great numbers to counteract predation? Such is the complexity of nature's ecosystems and we must be always mindful of the natural balance that occurs. One wrong step on our part and an ecological card castle can come crashing down.
Read Jerry Stanford's recollections of the red-tailed hawk in the Argus Leader.
Monday, October 17, 2011
"Global leaders in the arena of ocean conservation, oceanographic research, and environmental sustainability gathered today in San Francisco to celebrate the launch of the America's Cup Healthy Ocean Project, the global initiative of the 34th America's cup to educate the world's populations about the issues facing our oceans and inspire them to act.
Driven by its commitment to have the the 34th America's Cup be 'more than a sport,' the America's Cup Event Authority (ACEA) has set an ambitious goal with the AC Healthy Ocean Project to develop the world's largest communication outreach program focused on improving ocean health. To accomplish this goal, ACEA has partnered with some of the leading voices in the ocean conservation field, including Dr. Sylvia Earle and her organization Mission Blue, Ocean Elders, Sailors for the Sea, One World One Ocean and IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
From public service announcements woven into America's Cup broadcasts to visible identification on all America's Cup boats and events committed to Clean Regatta standards, ocean conservation and environmental stewardship will be pervasive throughout the America's Cup as it travels to global destinations over the next three years, beginning with the AC World Series and becoming more pervasive on the path to 2013's Louis Vuitton Cup and America's Cup Finals in San Francisco.
'The increasing pressure of global use continues to strain marine life and vital coastal habitats. Once considered inexhaustible and resilient, the ocean is actually finite and fragile,' said Dan Pingaro, CEO, Sailors of the Sea. 'We believe by harnessing boater's profound passion for and understanding of the world's seas, we can galvanize the sailing and boating community around ocean health issues. ACEA's commitment to our Clean Regattas program and pledge to run the America's Cup events with a strong commitment to ocean and coastal water conservation is a beacon to boaters and sailing organizations on the need to take action and effect change to protect this vital natural resource.'"
This represents one end of the public awareness spectrum - the higher end of the socio-economic ladder as personified by the Louis Vuitton Cup. But while it doesn't necessarily smack of down home, Main Street, grass roots advocacy, it does serve a very important purpose by tapping into the hearts, minds, and, hopefully, the wallets, of the affluent and influential.
For ocean conservation to succeed it must reach a multitude of groups - those that can alter personal, day-to-day behaviors, those that study and search for new answers and solutions, and those that can impact policy and decision makers. No age group, nor political persuasion, or financial or social segment should be left out. We're all in it together and we will need everyone on board - from the Gilligan's right up to the Thurston Howells of the world.
Read more about the America's Cup ocean conservation plans at BYM Sailing & Sports News.
Visit the America's Cup Healthy Ocean Project website.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Sometimes a picture can speak a thousand words and that's the idea behind infographics. It may be a sign of an ever-increasing attention-deficit population, but much can be quickly communicated by charts, maps, and graphic images as opposed to pure text. Just thumb through any news magazine to see example after example.
But even though our eyes may wander about looking for attractive images that provide us with quick sound bites, it's not necessarily a bad thing. It's all in the execution. Donald Smith of Environmental Science Masters, a blog devoted to the nuts and bolts of environmental science careers, alerted me to an interesting recent entry: 20 Stunning Infographics To Show How Climate Change Affects Ecosystems.
Covering a range of topics, from various points of view in the debate over climate change to specific representations of the effects of climate change, the post provides quick visual tools in making a case for recognizing climate change and the need to address it and its ramifications, whether one believes it is man-made or a natural long-term cyclical event.
I found it to be a very interesting post and will bookmark many of the graphics listed as they help make an argument for recognizing climate change as a global issue that needs to be addressed now. In a world where dancing celebrities or cuddly kitten videos vie for the attention of millions, it doesn't hurt to make a point regarding the fate of the planet with a little eye candy of your own.
Read about the infographics at Environmental Science Masters.
It is often a game-changing experience for those who consider these sharks as the ultimate, malevolent denizen of the deep. Instead they typically come away with a new-found respect for these magnificent animals, both impressive and endangered, and hopefully they will return home with an appreciation and concern for the threats these sharks face in today's world.
I have just returned from my 17th trip to Isla Guadalupe, spanning 7 years of filming these sharks either for my documentary, Island of the Great White Shark, or on a film assignment, or for stock footage. At the end of each season, I always find myself thinking, "Well maybe that's enough," and yet each fall I am drawn back to this remote spot once more. Such is the allure of the great white shark; there are other sharks that are more beautiful, more exotic, or even more endangered, yet there is something about this particular animal that has found a place in my subconscious.
On this particular trip, I was accompanying my good friend and photo-journalist, Budd Riker, who was there to do a magazine article. This was Budd's first trip to Isla Guadalupe and his first chance to see white sharks in the wild. The trip was arranged by Shark Diver and we were aboard the MV Horizon along with 14 other paying passengers. This would be a somewhat low-key trip for me; whenever I am aboard with paying passengers then my filming techniques become more conservative, confining myself to the cage, as I do not want anyone to assume that they can take the same risks that I do as a paid professional.
This afforded me more time to relax and view these animals without worrying about lighting, exposure, focus, and all the other things that fill your mind when you are hoping to turn a brief encounter into a long-lasting film or video image. This more leisurely pace also allowed me to think back on other memorable trips and memorable sharks - most of these sharks migrate back to Isla Guadalupe year after year and they are easily recognizable, so it's a bit like a reunion and seeing old friends once again.
In particular, I have a sweetheart at Isla Guadalupe: "Mystery," an 18-foot, beautifully proportioned female, stunning in her size and grace in the water. In 2006, while at Isla Guadalupe to get a few remaining shots for Island of the Great White Shark, Mystery appeared to me for the first time and spent two full hours being curious as to the bait offered by the boat and equally curious as to the diver in the water with the large camera. Time and time again she would cruise directly towards me and turn at the last moment, right in front of my lens, providing me with wonderful close-ups. Upon my return home, I re-cut several scenes in my film to take advantage of the magical moments this one particular shark had provided me.
So impressed was I with Mystery that, on a future trip in the Bahamas, I met sculptor Bill Wieger and commissioned him to do an accurate, museum-quality rendering of my favorite white shark based on my video footage. The end result has become a regular feature of Bill's line of animal sculptures but Mystery #1 hangs on my living room wall - a reminder of a special moment in time when nature was most accommodating.
However, for the next two years Mystery was not seen at Isla Guadalupe. Sometimes the white sharks, particularly females, will skip a year. Researchers are not exactly sure why: Does it have to do with reproduction or gestation? Do they simply just stay in one place or travel to a different location? There's no definitive answer yet - one of the many unsolved mysteries regarding these animals - but an absence of 2 years or more is always a reason for concern as the shark may have run afoul of commercial shark fishermen or perhaps was fatally injured in an altercation with another shark.
Or it could have succumbed to natural causes. The life span of a great white shark is estimated to be around 30 to 35 years, but that is an estimate based on the ages of other species and the age of mature white sharks caught by fishermen. No one has found a white shark dead of old age.
I was beginning to worry about the fate of Mystery when, near the end of the 2009 season, she had been spotted at Isla Guadalupe. But she was not seen the following year and had not been spotted this season so far. So once again, I began to wonder if my favorite shark model had met a sad end. Long-standing regulars like "Shredder," a large male who has visited the island every year for the past 10 years, had made appearances - but no Mystery.
During our stay at Isla Guadalupe, we were visited by Dr. Mauricio Hoyos, a prominent researcher of the island's white sharks. I first met Mauricio when he was just a grad student studying under Dr. Felipe Galvan of Mexico's marine institute, CICIMAR, and Dr. Pete Klimley of UC Davis. I featured Mauricio in my documentary and we have remained friends ever since. Mauricio has been coming to Isla Guadalupe each year to tag the sharks with transmitters and track their movements and other vital information so as to gauge the health of the population - he is undoubtedly "Dr. White Shark" of Isla Guadalupe.
As he approached the Horizon in the small boat he uses for tagging, Mauricio announced that there were several new sharks spotted so far this season: several new males and a couple of large females. In fact, over the course of our stay, we saw two new males and one female that were new to the island. Individual great white sharks have unique markings, much like fingerprints, and all the sharks that are seen at Isla Guadalupe are numbered and cataloged for future identification.
And then Mauricio added one more shark that had been identified recently that made me throw my hands up in a combination of joy and relief: Mystery had been spotted. It was getting a bit late in the season but the ol' girl that had graced me with such marvelous images years before finally made an appearance. Later that day, we were visited by a very large female and many thought it might be Mystery but I saw that it lacked her distinctive dark mark, like a birthmark, on the fourth gill slit on the left side. It turned out to be female #109, a very impressive animal and the largest shark seen during the trip.
But even though Mystery and I did not get a chance to meet and say hello after all these years, I was content knowing that she had been spotted. I suppose it's all a bit silly. And, given their estimated life span and the threats that they face year in and year out, it is inevitable that sharks like Mystery and Shredder will disappear from Isla Guadalupe forever - that's nature's cycle of life. However, that is the power of having the opportunity to see these sharks - and many other animals - in the wild. If done responsibly, ecotourism can impress upon the participants both the beauty and fragility of our ecosystems and the importance of protecting them for their own sake and ours.
Click here to see Mystery and learn about Island of the Great White Shark.
Visit Budd Riker Photography.
See Bill Wieger's animal sculptures.
Visit Shark Diver to learn more about shark ecotourism trips.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
As reported by COARE (Center for Oceanic Awareness Research and Education), "California's ban complements bans in place in Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon, effectively shutting the west coast of the United States to fin traders. It is estimated that the United States is responsible for 70% of the world's fin imports outside of Asia. With a staggering 85% of those U.S.-bound fins passing through California, AB 376 will have a tremendous impact on shark conservation."
Now we must watch for where the next distribution hubs will appear - there's too much at stake financially for some of these shark fin distributors to simply throw in the towel. And there is also the concern over illegal activities.
But the tide does seem to be turning and other nations are considering tighter regulations or out right bans on shark products. My personal concern is that, for some of the general public, sharks have become the cause d'jour and while there are some hard working advocates who, I am sure, will keep the fires burning for more conservation and regulation, I worry that the general public might tire of the cause - in today's Information Age, attention spans can dry up in the blink of an eye - and without public support, commercial shark fishing lobbyists and business representatives will jump on the opportunity to sway politicians in their favor. Only time will tell.
"The world has been watching and waiting. With similar efforts underway in parts of Canada, and with a ban proposed in China, California's efforts hopefully will ripple into many other places," said COARE.
However, one avenue whereby people can appreciate sharks up close in the wild may soon be curtailed or at least limited. Australia is one of three or four primary locations in the world where people can cage dive to view great white sharks. But Australia's ABC News reports that there are new findings that white sharks are staying in close to coastal areas, where they are often baited for the shark diving operators, and anecdotal reports of an increased number of shark/surfer encounters has some saying that the number of operators should be halved from four to two and that the number of days in which they can chum for sharks should also be reduced. (Click image to view video.)
There have been studies, both in Australia and Hawaii, that show that the sharks' response to chumming over a given period is a transitory behavior and does not equate into 1.) a significant change in the shark's normal feeding behavior and 2.) that the sharks do not equate the boat-supplied food with humans. However, some thought should be given to the fact that in Australia, they are currently chumming for white sharks as much as 270 days a year - double that of just a few years ago.
On a personal note, today I am leaving for San Diego, California to embark on my seventeenth trip to Isla Guadalupe off the coast of Baja, Mexico, compliments of Shark Diver. Isla Guadalupe is one of the world's premier sites for viewing great white sharks. A population migrates to the island in the fall months and though Mexican government regulations have greatly scaled back any baiting of the sharks, there are still plenty of encounters to keep the cage-bound divers thrilled and satisfied. I will be accompanying my friend and photojournalist, Budd Riker on his inaugural trip as he takes notes and pictures for a future photo magazine article.
While some zealous Mexican conservation groups have expressed concern that the shark diving operators at Isla Guadalupe have, over the years, disrupted the normal behavior of these sharks; in the seven years that I have been coming to the island I have yet to see any evidence or reason for concern. When the sharks were more vigorously chummed and baited in the past, the sum total of what they consumed was a mere drop in the bucket compared to the normal requirements for their diet which, for adults, consists of primarily seals and sea lions. And as the sharks would inhabit the waters around Isla Guadalupe for just three to four months, it is reasonable to assume that they didn't spend the next eight months wasting away, waiting for when they would return to Mexican waters for some leftover fish parts.
So, I will be heading out in just a few minutes and will post a follow up when I get back in a few days. In the meantime, shark advocates, no time to rest on our California legislation laurels. There's still more work to be done.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
"(CNN) -- Japan says it will hunt whales in the Southern Ocean this winter and will send a Fisheries Agency ship to guard its whalers against promised intervention by a conservation group.
"The Fisheries Agency will send a patrol boat and take increased measures to strengthen the protection given to the research whaling ships," Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano said at a news conference Tuesday.
At its annual meeting in July, the International Whaling Commission passed a resolution calling on its member countries "to cooperate to prevent and suppress actions that risk human life and property at sea."
Last winter, Japan cut short its planned December-to-April hunt by two months after anti-whaling activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society repeatedly interfered with the whaling vessels.
Sea Shepherd claims it saved 800 whales by its actions during last season's hunt. Japanese whalers killed 171 minke whales and two fin whales during the Antarctic hunt, according to IWC figures.
In a statement issued last Friday, Sea Shepherd vowed to take on the whaling vessels again.
"They will have to kill us to prevent us from intervening once again. ... We will undertake whatever risks to our lives will be required to stop this invasion of arrogant greed into what is an established sanctuary for the whales," Sea Shepherd's leader, Paul Watson, said in a statement on the organization's website. Sea Shepherd will have more than 100 people in the Southern Ocean to block the Japanese whaling fleet, according to the statement.
Kano said Japan wants to continue research whaling with the aim of establishing that whale stocks are sufficient to resume a full commercial hunt in the future, according to Japanese media reports.
Sea Shepherd contends that the research hunts are a sham, with meat from the hunts being sold to consumers and served in restaurants.
Australia's government condemned Japan's decision to resume its research hunt and its plans for future commercial hunts.
"The Australian government remains opposed to all commercial whaling, including so-called 'scientific whaling.' We will keep working to achieve a permanent end to all commercial whaling," Environment Minister Tony Burke said in a statement.
"Australia believes Japan's whaling is contrary to international law and should stop," Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland said.
"That is why Australia is taking our case in the International Court of Justice to bring to an end Southern Ocean whaling permanently."
Japan also hunts whales in the Northern Pacific, taking 100 sei whales, 50 Bryde's, 119 minke and three sperm whales last season, according to the IWC.
Iceland and Norway also conduct whale hunts. Aboriginal whale hunts are permitted in the Danish territory of Greenland, the United States, Russia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines."