Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Deep Water Shark Species: CA research team finds 4 new sharks off African coast

When I am called upon to speak about sharks and shark conservation, I often mention how many different species of shark there are. People initially think of the larger, more iconic species, but there are approximately 360+ and the plus sign at the end of that number keeps growing seemingly every day.

The San Francisco-based California Academy of Sciences recently completed an expedition into the deep depths off Mozambique and came up with 4 new species of shark along with a long list of new invertebrates, fish, plants, and other marine critters. Mozambique lies along the southeastern coast of Africa, with the island of Madagascar to the east. The researchers were trawling along deep canyons in depths ranging from 1,500 feet to 3,000 feet deep.

This past summer, the academy conducted a marine biodiversity expedition off the Philippines and came across deep water species of swell shark. These are small sharks that are able to gulp seawater to expand or "swell" which either makes them look more menacing to potential predators or enables them to wedge themselves in rocky crevices for protection. At home in California waters, I have come across our local swell shark species and, if gently trying to coax them out into the open for a better look, have seen them swell up. At that point they're safe from curious divers as it would take a crowbar and a couple of sticks of dynamite to dislodge them (certainly not something I advocate).

Back in Mozambique, the Academy researchers also came across two new species of lantern shark which are capable of producing light at various points on their bodies in the dark depths. Scientists suspect that light-emitting sea creatures utilize this bioluminescent ability to both attract members of their own species and provide camouflage from predators. (Where the lights are placed can confuse a predator in thinking a tail is where a head should be, so their prey zigs when they thought it would zag.) Sadly, one of the lantern shark specimens was identified in a Taiwan fish market which means that commercial fisherman are dropping nets deeper and deeper in search of fish to fill their holds.

Another new shark discovered was a type of angel shark, basically a bottom dweller with wide pectoral fins that give the angel shark a very stingray or guitarfish-like appearance. The angel sharks coloration allows it to blend in with the bottom, much like other bottom-dwelling ambush predators including flounder and halibut. When I first began diving - meaning when I was young and dumb - I used to come across angel sharks at the base of Ship Rock off Southern California's Catalina Island. I would approach these sharks strewned across the bottom and slowly lift their tails just to see them suddenly dash off. But everything once in a while, one would turn around and race towards me, obviously annoyed and looking for trouble. Told ya' - young and dumb.

The California Academy of Sciences' most unusual find was an African dwarf sawshark or sawfish, brought up from around 1,600 feet. Though considerably smaller than most species of sawshark, this particular shark uses its "saw" or rostrum in much the same way as its larger cousins. Whipping it quickly from side to side, the shark stuns and wounds smaller fish, enabling it to easily feed on the wounded fish.

At the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, they have had a large sawshark on display in their Shark Lagoon exhibit for many years. It coexists with larger sand tiger sharks and rays, but every once in a while a curious smaller shark, like a blacktip reef shark, will forget his or her place, crowd the sawshark and get a little taste of sawshark hospitality. I've had the opportunity to film the Aquarium's saw shark and document their staff giving a blacktip shark a stitch or two. No great harm done and believe me, the blacktips learn fast.

The more research that takes place, the more it brings new species to light (This one expedition to Mozambique produced 33 scientific papers alone). In fact, David Ebert, a research associate at the Academy, said that about 200 new sharks and rays have been discovered in just the past decade, whereas close to the same number were identified in the previous three decades combined. So much for the idea of 360 species of sharks. I'll need to amend my notes. . .

Today, using submersibles and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), scientists are finding more and more unusual creatures that have evolved and adapted to the harsh living conditions found in deep water. However, as remote and seemingly isolated as these animals may appear to be, they and the marine environment they call home are very much connected to the swallower waters that we may be more familiar with. It's one ocean and one incredibly complex, interwoven environment.

"A lot of [shark] species are going under the radar because they're not as high profile,"said David Ebert, referring to well-known sharks like the great white. "There's a lot out there in the big ocean we don't know anything about."

Source: National Geographic Daily News
Source: Deeper Blue
Source: Live Science

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Orcas vs. Sharks: whales hunt deep sea sharks in New Zealand

Thought I would pass along this interesting blog post from marine biologist Candace Calloway Whiting, writing in the Seattle PI. She did some digging in regards to a recent event documented in New Zealand of pod of orcas corralling what appear to be some juvenile cowsharks (six- or seven-gill) in a sort of hunting/feeding technique.

Orcas have been known to prey upon sharks, but what makes this news item so noteworthy is that these New Zealand orcas were after deep water sharks and that they managed to bring them to the surface, disorienting the sharks which played to the orcas' advantage. It also appears that the orcas were able to capitalize on the fact that these sharks will stick together - brothers and sisters - which is not a common shark behavior.

Pod of Orcas Rounds Up a Group of Sharks - Were These Sharks Related to Each Other?

Update: 12/28/11 - In reply to my request to identify the shark species involved, Seattle Aquarium shark biologist Jeff Christiansen sent the following :

"It is difficult to make a definitive ID from a partial view and with only one photo but I would hazard a guess the shark in the photo is a sevengill shark Notorynchus cepedianus or possibly even Heptranchias perlo. While I can’t rule out a sixgill the spotting pattern visible on the dorsal surface of the shark is characteristic of the sevengill. The photo is not sharp enough to tell if there are six or seven gill slits. Its definitely one of the Cowsharks as the six and sevengill sharks are called and finding them in groups is not unusual for that species… pack hunting and association is documented in sevengills. The Sevengill can tolerate much higher light levels than its deep water cousin the sixgill."

I’ll update again when I hear back from a New Zealand orca researcher who may have more information on the orca pod that appeared to be hunting the sharks.

On Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) in New Zealand a pod of orcas managed to corral at least a half dozen sharks and apparently gave them a good thrashing in the shallows off the beach. Orcas are known to kill and eat sharks in many parts of their range – often eating the nutrient dense livers and discarding the rest – so although witnessing the interaction must have been amazing, the news that the whales went after the sharks was in and of itself not surprising.

But the fact that the orcas managed to get several sharks together in a group for the presumed mayhem is fairly astounding, and I was as curious about the sharks as I was the orcas as I read the article.

Copyright protection prohibits me from being able to use the photo of one of the sharks thought to have been involved in the altercation with the orcas, but it is similar to this one, and is one of the few species that is easily identified with just a head shot. If you look carefully you will see that the shark has six gills [note update above, this may have been a related species of cowshark, not a sixgill] instead of the usual five, and logically is called a six-gill shark (the sixth gill is thought to help extract oxygen from the deep water where the adult sharks are found).

The following video shows both the massive size this species can attain, and the depth to which it can be found. “This six-gill shark (Hexanchus) was filmed during a submersible dive off the northeast coast of Molokai at a depth of 1000m (3280ft). The 2 red laser dots are 6 inches apart, resulting in a length of about 18 ft for the shark.”

But if they were chasing this deep sea species of shark, how did the orcas manage to get several, albeit smaller, of these sharks rounded up in the shallows off the beach?

I found the answer through the Seattle Aquarium’s shark research program, and though I have not gotten a confirmation that this is the shark species involved in the New Zealand fracas, what I learned about six-gill sharks is fascinating and over-turns much of what we believe to be true about sharks in general.

The biologists have discovered that in this local population, sibling six-gill sharks stay together for many years, at least until they become large enough to move out of the protected environment of the Salish Sea.

The mother shark can give birth to over 100 baby sharks (called pups), and each litter of brothers and sisters remains together for years in “loosely associated groups”, possibly finding food together and avoiding predators.

The eyes of six-gill sharks are adapted to low light conditions and they shun the bright light of the surface during daylight hours, so the orcas might have managed to find a group of the sharks in deeper water, driven them to the surface where the sharks would have been blinded and disoriented causing them to swim up onto the beach (the news article reported that observers thought the sharks swam up to get out of the water, certainly possible but not likely.)

Although six-gill sharks are opportunistic feeders often scavenging about anything they can find, humans are not on the menu, and fortunately for them these sharks aren’t usually on our menu either – what a shame it would be to kill off the sharks of the world without ever knowing their secrets.

Brother and sister sharks growing up together, who knew?

For more on orcas and sharks, please see “Orcas and sharks, just who is hunting whom?” Also this report on New Zealand orca expert Ingrid Visser’s discovery of orcas hunting thresher sharks.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Japanese Whaling: ships located by Sea Shepherd headed to Southern Ocean

When Japan's Fisheries Agency announced that their whaling fleet would be again heading south towards Antarctica to hunt whales, it once again brought a chorus of complaints from several non-whaling nations and vows from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to take them head on, at sea, as they have done for many years. At one point, it seemed that the whaling fleet might not go out, having been thwarted in their attempts last season by Sea Shepherd. In fact, all seemed quiet enough for a while that Sea Shepherd diverted their attention to the illegal tuna fishing taking place in the Mediterranean. But with the Japanese announcement back in the fall, Sea Shepherd was able to put their ships in pursuit and, having recently spotted the lead factory vessel by aerial drone, are now preparing to engage the fleet using controversial "eco-terrorist" techniques that are praised by some and questioned by others.

According to the Sea Shepherd website,
"The Sea Shepherd ship, Steve Irwin, deployed a drone to successfully locate and photograph the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru on December 24th. Once the pursuit began, three Japanese harpoon/security ships moved in on the Steve Irwin to shield the Nisshin Maru to allow it to escape. This time however the Japanese tactic of tailing the Steve Irwin and the Bob Barker will not work because the drones, one on the Steve Irwin and the other on the Bob Barker, can track and follow the Nisshin Maru and can relay the positions back to the Sea Shepherd ships."

In previous posts I have written of my reservations regarding the eco-terrorist techniques employed by Sea Shepherd, or any conservation group for that matter, as it typically does not engender the support of those governments or international agencies necessary to bring about the regulations or diplomatic pressure required for real change. Australia is actively seeking legal remedies through its actions in the International Court of Justice, but it can be a slow process. In opposition to Sea Shepherd, the Japanese government-sponsored Institute for Cetacean Research has filed a lawsuit against the Sea Shepherd Society in U.S. federal court to seek an injunction against Sea Shepherd - one which, I am sure, Sea Shepherd will vigorously defend against while at the same time ignoring it at sea.

It's not difficult to understand the frustration of whaling supporters with Japan's continual reliance on a loophole in the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) regulations that allows for whaling to continue if it is for "legitimate scientific research." Japan has been able to work the loophole to where it is big enough to run a blue whale through it.

Japan's The Mainichi Daily News reported,
"Japan's Fisheries Agency said the Japanese whaling fleet -- three whaling vessels escorted by a Fisheries Agency guard ship -- plans to kill some 900 minke whales and fin whales this season for what the Japanese government describes as scientific research purposes."

The idea that Japanese researchers require 900 whales to study for this year and that none of these whales will be processed for commercial purposes, as required by the IWC, is absolutely ludicrous. Fresh whale meat has been found in Japanese markets or other food outlets and, while this is evidence of blatant IWC violations, it also poses a health risk as these whale products can contain high levels of pollutants similar to what has been found in tuna and dolphin meat, also sold in Japan.

While I may not condone the techniques employed by Sea Shepherd, I understand their motivation but what raises my ire is the level of inaction on the international front, save for Australia. Japan has an interesting, almost schizophrenic, cultural mindset - on the one hand, an industrious international trading partner whose products and innovation command respect worldwide while, on the other hand, a historically protective, isolated culture that resists any suggestion of change from the outside, regardless of insurmountable evidence that their practices, like whaling, are environmentally destructive if not, at the least, antiquated.

So, once again, two ecological foes are pitted against each other. More sound bites, more footage for reality television, more threats and counter-threats. But until more nations band together with Australia to play diplomatic hardball, the game will continue and the whales, whether in the Southern Ocean or Japan's local waters, will be at risk.

Source: The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Source: The Mainichi Daily News
BBC News - Asia-Pacific

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Progress In Marine Conservation: many good steps forward, many more to go

As we approach the end of the year, we begin to reflect on what we have personally accomplished over the past 12 months, with New Year's resolutions waiting in the wings. The same can be said for the conservation movement and there has been much this past year to feel good about. There has been traction on several fronts that could, in time, yield measurable benefits to the planet's marine biodiversity. Here's a short list of just a few.

In a recent email, Marie Levine, director of the Shark Research Institute, noted these items in the area of shark conservation:
  • Honduras announced creation of 92,665-sq. mile shark sanctuary
  • The Bahamas converted 243,244 sq. miles into a shark sanctuary
  • The Marshall Islands, Guam and Palau created a region-wide, 2 million sq. mile shark sanctuary
  • Chile banned shark finning in its waters
  • ICCAT agreed to reduce fishing of shortfin mako sharks and porbeagle sharks
Then of course, there has been the slow but steady parade of shark finning prohibitions within the U.S. and its territories, starting with Hawaii in 2010 and then moving to Guam, Oregon, Washington, and California.

In the area of fisheries management in the U.S., Lee Crocket of the Pew Environment Group recently wrote of progress in the implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Though originally passed over 35 years ago, it has taken until today to get a workable system in place that combines the efforts of the National Marine
Fisheries Service and the cooperation of the fishing industry. It's politics, so it takes time to get working policies in full force after years of back and forth between legislators and management officials and those people or industries adversely impacted, at least initially, by any policy decisions. In the long term, if fishery stocks are allowed to rebound then commercial fishing can continue at what management officials hope to be sustainable levels.

And there have been other signs of progress from Marine Protected Areas to simply increases in visitor attendance at conservation nature centers across the country. So while international efforts continue to address some of the larger issues, it would seem that interest on the general public level continues to grow.

However, we are a long ways away from breaking out the celebratory champagne. Conservation efforts can often seem like two steps forward and one step back. We must not allow the positive advances to make us complacent or lazy. I'm reminded of how the anti-whaling movement became; growing to where there was a worldwide moratorium. Then it began to fall off our priority list of pressing issues and, slowly over the years, several opposing nations bided their time and now we have whaling as a renewed hot button issue for conservationists once again.

And there are certainly other issues that need to be addressed. Acidification, climate change, and heavy metal pollution. After having spent considerable effort in making shark conservation a pressing issue in California's San Francisco Bay area, Sea Stewards is now helping to support other organizations regarding mercury levels in sea food (one typical serving of swordfish or tuna can deliver up to a month's worth of mercury based on current EPA data on "acceptable" levels).

So, we can enter the holidays feeling good over quantifiable progress in regulations and management that should benefit many marine species. But we have much more work to do and so it's time to celebrate and simultaneously roll up our sleeves and charge boldly into the new year.

Source: Shark Research Institute
Source: National Geographic Daily News
Sea Stewards

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

World Oceans Day: getting into high gear for next year's June event

This past June 8th was World Oceans Day, a day recognized by the United Nations as a day for acknowledging our marine natural resources and committing ourselves to their long-term preservation. The event is coordinated by The Ocean Project and the World Ocean Network and includes educational and public awareness events and activities across the globe.

The 2012 World Oceans Day is just a little over six months away and so planning and fundraising are getting into high gear. The website, which brings attention to a wide variety of organizations involved in social and environmental causes, ran a post recently, submitted by the Ocean Project, that I thought I would pass along.

As we celebrate the holidays and the arrival of 2012, we can also celebrate our world’s ocean by remembering where we live. That iconic image of Earth from space sums it up: our blue sphere is dominated by ocean that covers nearly three-quarters of our planet’s surface. In many ways we live on huge islands in a vast — yet now seriously threatened — world ocean.

No matter where we live, each of us is connected to the ocean, and each of us can help make a difference in its health. A healthy ocean is critical to our own health as well as a never-ending source of inspiration. As you think ahead to the New Year, consider making a resolution to do more to protect the ocean, our blue backyard.

One way to start is by celebrating and supporting World Oceans Day. Like an Earth Day for the ocean on a global scale, World Oceans Day provides an opportunity each year to celebrate our ocean connections and get involved in taking action.

Building on Successful Action for Our Ocean

Care2 members helped the ocean in a big way a few years ago when thousands of people from around the world petitioned the United Nations to officially recognize World Ocean Day as June 8th each year. A world community signed a Care2 petition developed by The Ocean Project and the World Ocean Network, and after years of persistence, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in December 2008, marking a milestone in global awareness of the proverbial “seven seas.”

Since that time, World Oceans Day has grown in popularity, and now the event is celebrated in most aquariums across the United States, and in dozens of other countries. Each of us can easily take action right now to help protect and conserve our oceans by clicking to generate funds to support the promotion and coordination of World Oceans Day (for more information on this free action to generate funds for ocean conservation, see the last paragraph).

Why care about the ocean?

Since the days of the first sailors who navigated unknown waters, the ocean has held a special place in our hearts and minds for its beauty, awesome power and deep mystery. It has sustained our spirits with inspiration, and our societies with incredible natural resources.

But what have we given back to our blue planet?

The ocean is home to some of our most beloved and important wildlife, from the fuzzy baby penguins we coo over to microscopic algae which produce the oxygen we breathe. Our future is inseparably linked with the future of these creatures, and it’s time to decide what it will look like. Will our children gasp in joy and amazement at the brilliant colors of the coral reefs? Or will they gasp at photos of dead sea turtles and whales with bellies full of plastic bags?

The ocean and all the animals which call it home are directly affected by the actions of humans in more ways than we know. Some threats are direct and obvious, like oil spills, but most are less visible and add up over time – such as pollution from cities, farms, streets, parking lots and yards, much of it originating far from the ocean and resulting in “dead zones” in coastal waters.

Commercial fishing has depleted the ocean of 90% of large fish, and fishing practices such as trawling have been compared to bulldozing a rainforest. Ocean acidification linked to the burning of fossil fuels is changing the very chemistry of the ocean—the water in the ocean is becoming acidic, and damaging wildlife at every stage of life.

Fortunately, for us and our ocean, the good news is that we can fight for its protection and you can join the growing effort to be part of the solution for our seas.

Why a World Oceans Day?

It is clear that the ocean’s future depends on individuals and communities taking action for its protection, and conserving it for the future. Acting together, the world community can make a real difference.

Our ocean suffers from a lack of international leadership and comprehensive conservation policies. To help create the political will for change we need to achieve conservation success on local, regional, national and international scales.

World Oceans Day provides a unique opportunity to alert and rally the world community to demand a healthier world ocean that sustains abundant life for its own sake as well as for humans.

Catch the World Oceans Day Wave

Since UN recognition of World Oceans Day, interest has been growing quickly. We’re on the verge of creating a powerful movement that can become a true force for positive change.

There are many opportunities to help. With a new year upon us, it’s a perfect time to commit to ocean conservation by taking the Seven C’s Pledge. Do you enjoy volunteering on the internet? You can become a World Oceans Day Blue Planeteer. You can also help by getting involved in organizing or participating in a World Oceans Day event in your community. Click here to learn more.

You can take action right now to raise “free” money for ocean conservation. With a few thousand more people taking a quick and easy action, the sunglasses company Maui Jim will donate $10,000 to help advance World Oceans Day. Please click here to “Like” Maui Jim or send a virtual Hawaiian lei on Facebook. The catch is it has to happen by December 31 — so, please take this quick action and let your friends know.

The ocean may be out of sight for many of us, but isn’t it time to give the ocean the protection it deserves and needs? Thank you and enjoy this holiday season!


Monday, December 19, 2011

Dr. Edith Widder: lady of light uses bioluminescence to find trace pollutants

In August of 2010, I wrote about bioluminescence and the amazing work of Dr. Edith Widder. Widder is the founder and chief scientist at ORCA (Ocean Research and Conservation Association). Her studies of the bio-illumination given off by marine animals has taken her and her equipment to the deeper depths of the ocean. It is in these regions, where sunlight does not penetrate, that animals use bioluminescence - organically-produced light - to hunt prey, camouflage from or deceive predators, and identify others of their own species.

Many of the pictures we have seen of examples of bioluminescence involve bizarre looking creatures from those cold deep depths, yet it is a feature more common than you might think. Indeed, as much as 90 percent of all creatures found in the open seas exhibit some degree of bioluminescence. Call it nature's night lights.

Dr. Widder's research has taken her into a new direction and one that can have a direct benefit on understanding the pervasive and subtle impact of pollution on oceans and waterways. In an excellent article in the New York Times, Erik Olsen writes about Dr. Widder's recent studies using bioluminescent bacteria and how it can be used to identify pollutants.

Olsen writes,
"Now, Dr. Widder has found a way to put bioluminescence to work to fight pollution in the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile estuary that scientists say is one of Florida’s most precious and threatened ecosystems.

Back in her laboratory here, she mixes the sediment samples with a bioluminescent bacterium called Vibrio fischeri. Using a photometer to measure the light given off by the bacteria, she can quickly determine the concentration of toxic chemicals in the sediment by seeing how much and how quickly the light dims as the chemicals kill the bacteria.

Measuring the level of pollutants in the sediment provides a better indication of the estuary’s health than measuring the level of chemicals in the water, Dr. Widder said. 'Pollution in water is transient,' she said, 'but in sediment it’s persistent.'

Her samples have revealed high concentrations of heavy metals and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which can cause runaway algae growth; those organisms consume oxygen and stifle life in the estuary. Dr. Widder has also designed sensors that are placed around the estuary and can beam real-time data like current and flow direction of the water. Pairing those data with the toxicity of the sediment, she can trace the source of pollution. The method is far cheaper and quicker than the more common practice of sending samples to a lab for analysis."

Click here to read the entire article. And here's a link to a great video about Dr. Widder's work. It's fascinating research from a true expert in the field. And with this new chapter in her body of work, Widder is bringing the a unique element of ocean science into the broader realm of conservation and ocean management.

As Widder, herself, says, “It’s my belief if we can make pollution visible, and let people know what small things they are doing are actually making an improvement in this incredible environment. I think it could make a huge difference. It can be a game-changer.”

Source: RTSeaBlog 08/06/2010
New York Times

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: scientists suggest media should pay for conservation

Ever had an idea that sounded great at first blush and then as you waded into the details, it started to lose its luster? We've all had them. Some were undone right at the start while others seemed to be heading in a positive direction as the details were fleshed out, only to hit a wall when some fundamental truth - an unknown obstacle - shows itself.

I was reading an article/podcast in Scientific American about four British scientists who, in a recent issue of Science, were promoting the idea of media companies that profit from wildlife films being required to contribute a portion of their profits to conservation causes.

Writer David Biello poses the question in Scientific American, "
Given the success of channels like Animal Planet, shows like Planet Earth and even films like March of the Penguins, big media makes big money from nature. Do they then have an obligation to re-invest some of their profit on the nature that provided the "ecosystem service" of existing to be filmed?"

Ecosystem service is a term used by some scientists and conservationists to describe human-valued benefits provided by ecosystems such as pollination, clean water, and the minimizing of storm damage by wetlands. Applied to nature filmmaking, if companies profit from the visual images and interesting stories that nature provides, shouldn't these companies be obligated to give something back in return.

Sounds like a great concept on paper, but when one delves into the devilish details, I see at least three issues cropping up. First, there is the fact that only a small group of players are making substantial money in the field of nature filmmaking. In this genre there are very few blockbusters; the examples that are often cited - from March of the Penguins to Discovery Channel's Shark Week - are more exceptions to the rule than the norm. Most nature filmmakers do it for the love of nature or their compassion for conservation. They would be making a lot more money shooting commercials for fast food restaurants and SUVs.

Second, if such a requirement were to be implemented, who would oversee the accumulated monies and who would determine which of the hundreds of conservation organizations would receive funding and to what extant? The British scientists proposed the establishment of a trust fund but conceded that developing an impartial and reliable board of trustees would be challenging. Where would these people come from and would they be bringing a potential for favoritism to their role? One can imagine the political overtones regarding a trustee's credentials and impartiality - problems akin to what we find in selecting judges for the Supreme Court.

And finally, given the first two issues mentioned, there is the larger philosophical argument of whether such a payment would be an unfair imposition on the free enterprise system. Take the Animal Planet channel, a Discovery Communications brand, for an example: how much of its current programming is devoted purely to nature? With it's current slate of human drama reality-based programs (a trend that is fueled in part by the high costs/low return of doing pure, 100% nature-only films) how does one fairly determine who should pay and at what level?

In media's defense, it can be argued that nature filmmaking has an ancillary effect of bringing ecological and conservation issues to the public's attention; that its very essence, that of entertainment meant to be seen by the widest possible audience, is sufficient payback. Its success spills over to conservation organizations by making the public more aware and receptive to supporting (i.e., funding) conservation.

Certainly a case can be made for suggesting that media companies with a substantial investment in nature filmmaking should, out of a sense of moral obligation, clearly support in some way the organizations who are dedicated to preserving the filmmaker's subject matter. That I support wholeheartedly. But the actual execution of making it a legally binding requirement opens a Pandora's box of complex and challenging issues.

Source: Scientific American

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Egypt's Endangered Sharks: Arab Spring had unintended consequence for conservation

It's been quite a few years since the week I spent diving in the northern Red Sea. Staying on a live-aboard dive boat, I had the chance to see corals that in many ways have remained unsurpassed to me ever since. The reef fish were quite abundant while, in more open water, most sharks were skittish and kept their distance, except for my first close-up encounter with a large nurse shark that was only interested in resting undisturbed on the sandy bottom.

However, according to the Egypt Independent, the Red Sea's geography that positions it as an almost completely closed body of water (open naturally in the south at the Ba-el-Mandeb Strait and in the north at the man-made Suez Canal) has not isolated it from the same problems that befall sharks throughout the rest of the world's oceans: Egypt's sharks are endangered.

Amr Ali, managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) , claims that the populations of hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, and other sharks species have declined by as much as 80 percent, and for much the same reason as is found in other oceans.

“Over the years we’ve had many different cases of illegal fishing in the Red Sea,” said Ali. "Five years ago there was a big issue with Chinese poachers; last year it was the Yemenis. It is certainly by far the main reason behind the sharp decline.”

With iconic pyramids and many other ancient locations to visit and artifacts to see, Egypt has a large and lucrative tourism industry to protect. Because of that, the economic value in tourisim dollars for a living shark as opposed to a dead one is not lost on Egyptian officials. But they have been slow to respond to the overfishing or illegal fishing of sharks because they consider what shark fishing brings to lower-income local fisherman and because there has not been a convincing amount of study done in the Red Sea on shark populations.

Reported in the Egypt Independent, "
Relying on the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) is useless, says Ali. 'So our role, if we’re serious about preventing declining populations, has to be a very active one.' In 2006, the HEPCA obtained two decrees from the Red Sea governor banning fishing for and trading sharks. Getting caught with a shark illegally resulted in severe penalties."

Encouraging, but with the coming of the Arab Spring in December of last year, the law enforcement infrastructures for many countries bordering the Red Sea weakened and with that, illegal shark fishing has increased dramatically. Government resources and priorities are being drawn elsewhere and, while the demise of dictatorships and oppressive governments are being welcomed as good news by major developed countries and Arab citizens alike, an unintended consequence has been a loss of environmental protections.

“The [army] coast guards used to fend off poachers which really helped,” Amr Ali observed. “But with them gone, it’s impossible for us or other NGOs to monitor 160km of coast.”

To help make a compelling case for shark protection - strong enough to once again make it a government priority - scientists will need to conduct more research. An overwhelming body of facts combined with a thorough explanation of the consequences of doing nothing (the trophic cascade effect that can occur when top predators like sharks are removed from the ecosystem) is what is needed for government officials to realize the magnitude of the problem and how the short-term gain for local fishermen is far outweighed by the long-term negative impact on the entire Red Sea ocean community and, by extension, on the local fishermen as well.

Mexican researchers faced this same problem in the early 2000's when they sought protections for several species of sharks and rays. The Mexican government wanted data - a lot of it. And so years of tagging and tracking studies were engaged until the evidence was indisputable. When I first met Mauricio Hoyos Ph.D. in 2005, the then graduate student was tagging and tracking great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe for just that purpose. And he continues to tag and monitor white sharks to this day.

In Egypt, HEPCA intends to embark on an extensive tagging study in 2012, along with developing a database of shark fin species and location identification, using DNA from the fins, to compile the data needed to make a case for renewed and more aggressive conservation measures.

Amr Ali said, “Once these studies are done, we’ll hopefully be able to create a proper science for shark conservation in Egypt.”

Let's hope so. I still consider the Red Sea as one of my all-time favorite dive locations even though I was there just the one time - that's how impressed I was with the beauty and biodiversity of this unique body of water. Without sharks, it stands to suffer greatly.

Source: Egypt Independent.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet - a stunning combo of imagery and science

What is it that draws some of us to collect ocean-themed coffee table books? Is it the usually sumptuous photographs - pictures of places we have visited or hope to someday? Is it the written word - the in-depth facts or personal stories from leading ocean advocates? Perhaps it's a little of both actually. Personally, I can't seem to get enough. I admire the hard work of others in capturing the beauty of sealife in all its complexity. And there's always more to learn about the oceans; what we have and what's at stake, what's being done to protect the oceans and what challenges still lie ahead. But with my book shelves sagging and my coffee table in need of cinder block support, is there room for one more?

There certainly is. And Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet is it.

A Joint Effort
Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet is a joint effort bringing together the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, National Geographic, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of
Oceanography, the New England Aquarium and many other organizations and individual contributors. From this extensive aquatic brain trust of science and imagery, comes what can best be called a definitive ocean almanac. It is extensive in scope, full of well-known iconic underwater images as well as new pictures combined with a worldwide scientific-based look at the various seascapes that make up the planet's marine ecosystems and what needs to be done today to preserve them.

The book is actually the 19th volume in a series of conservation publications funded by the CEMEX corporation, a global building materials company. CEMEX began in Mexico in 1906 and has grown into one of the world's largest suppliers of cement and concrete products. While the company promotes conservation and sustainability - with their series of conservation books as outward evidence - some zealous conservationists who question the motives of large corporations might wonder why leading ocean conservation groups would choose to work with an industrial behemoth like CEMEX. I put the question to Cristina Mittermeier, founder of iLCP and who oversaw much of the photography in the book.

"Over the years I have come to realize two things. One is that the private sector and giant corporations, like CEMEX, are the most powerful forces on the planet. They can hold the key to the demise or the preservation of our planet," Mittermeier observed. "The second thing I have found out is that screaming at corporations from the other side of the aisle does not work. It is far more effective to engage the leadership of the corporate world to achieve lasting results."

The writing in Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet is definitely international in scope and while it is certainly accessible to any reader, much of it is geared towards the decision and policy makers of the world. If you have ever thought that international leaders needed some sort of primer or solid reference work that could provide them with an overall understanding of the oceans, the challenges, and the possible solutions required, this book would be a great start.

"The goal [of the CEMEX book series] is to find the turn-key audiences capable of making the necessary decisions that will protect this vast ecosystem. Over the years, CEMEX has donated thousands of copies of these high quality books to decision-makers, legislators, academia and educational institutions," said Mittermeier.

Stunning Imagery, Informative Writing
Paging through the book, one cannot help but notice the photographs. This is one gorgeous edition and could stand on just the pictures alone. The iLCP, which provided most of the photography, is a consortium that includes some of the most renown wildlife photographers in the world. And it certainly shows, whether capturing the beauty of the sea or its degradation at the hands of man.

However, beneath the striking images lies some important reading from several of the world's top ocean scientists and conservationists. The book sets the stage by discussing biomes - the major categories of marine ecosystems that make up the oceans - and the range of marine biodiversity, identifying key flagship species like marine mammals, elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), turtles, tuna and billfish, and several more. This establishes the main players and from there the book proceeds to focus on ten ocean areas identified as Seascapes, which are deemed representative of critical marine regions that should flourish but are threatened, that can serve both marine life and mankind but are facing severe challenges.

I asked Greg Stone, Ph.D., Chief Scientist for Oceans at Conservation International and a lead contributor to the book, if people will be able to relate to these Seascapes, some of which are a bit remote. "We picked a variety of sites from low to high latitudes and places that had good stories and experts who could write informatively. The entire global ocean is relevant to everyone on the planet, so I hope these sites make that clear," he said.

With observations and explanations based on scientific fact (and well annotated in the book's closing reference section for those curious readers who wish to dig deeper), the book lays out the foundation for global ocean management through the concept of the Seascapes Approach.

"Over the last decades, ocean scientists and marine conservationists have come to realize that ocean systems and human societies are interconnected; human societies simultaneously depend on and affect the ocean. The Seascapes Approach is a response to that realization. Seascapes Approach, formally launched in 2004, is a set of strategies ... that foster the effective management of large marine areas so that people can continue to benefit from the many services that healthy oceans provide while preserving the unique biodiversity of the world’s oceans." - excerpt from the book

This is the core strategy of the book and it is the component which makes it both scientifically informative and, in many ways, emotionally uplifting. It recognizes that the future of the oceans must include mankind; we can't be cut out as a solution. In my travels, I sometimes meet ocean enthusiasts who suffer from a sense of "burnout" because they feel overwhelmed by the problems for which we all share responsibility. "If man would just disappear, all would be right in the seas again." Perhaps, but at 6 billion and counting, that won't be happening anytime soon.

While Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet details the science behind the issues and solutions in a manner that recognizes the social and economic needs of mankind, this juxtaposition of both ocean and man doesn't weaken or dilute the magnitude or depth of the problems or the complexity of the solutions. There's plenty that the book covers to reaffirm the notion that what we do right or wrong in ocean conservation within the next 10 years could impact this planet for the next 10,000 years. But it presents these challenges in a way that should resonate with policy makers and politicians who respond to economic opportunities. And for us average joes, it provides us with an understanding of what needs to be done globally, enabling us to effectively judge the efforts of our government officials or international bodies - decision-makers who need to hear intelligent discourse from their constituents in the form of support or criticism, reminding them that they are accountable.

"The starting point for addressing the problems of human impacts on the ocean is to clearly remember that we do not “manage” the natural world - we manage people. Ocean life and ocean ecosystems are fragile, but can be remarkably resilient. If fish stocks are relieved from overfishing, if pollution is abated, and if other pressures are reduced, these systems can recover. These three simple facts—humans, not nature, can be managed; ocean life can be quite fragile; and that ocean ecosystems are remarkably resilient - show us clearly how to set priorities for ocean policy: focus on the human impacts, reduce their effects, and allow systems to respond and recover." - excerpt from the book

Availability Through Today's Technology
Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet is an important work and one that I believe should be appreciated by as many people as possible. But therein lies the rub, it would seem. A large, high-quality coffee table book does not come cheap nowadays. And according to Cristina Mittermeier, CEMEX has chosen to do a limited print run with many copies earmarked for select "turn-key audiences," as she described them. However, for as long as they are available, you can purchase a hard-cover copy directly from the iLCP website.

So why am I promoting what appears to be an expensive and somewhat elusive piece of literature? Because it is available - as an iPad app e-book. And it's free.

The publishers of Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet have made a brilliant move by making the book available for the iPad format. The choice of format was probably dictated by the popularity of the Apple device and the size and quality of its viewing screen. The book's pictures look bright and crisp and the text is easily readable, aided by a dynamic table of contents that allows you to jump to selected chapters. The interactive capabilities of today's app technology is not incorporated here and that is unfortunate - links, searches, live feeds and updates could transform the book into a timely reference source for both today and in the future. However, that is a minor issue when one considers it is currently available at no cost to the reader.

So, if you are like me and would like a stunning and informative look at our water planet, but would prefer not to see your coffee table come crashing down under the weight of one more volume, then do not hesitate. Download the iPad version of Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet from Apple's iTunes. Go to the App Store and type in "ILCP" in the search window and the iPad app will appear. (Or tuck a few bricks under your coffee table for support and order a hard copy.) Either way, you will not be disappointed.

I asked Greg Stone what he hoped the general public would take away from reading Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet. "Value the oceans as the most important asset we have on 'spaceship earth,' a vessel on an endless journey with no chance of resupply. We have to make due with and manage what we have."

Order a hard copy from the ILCP website.
Download the iPad app of the book using

Photo Credits:
Purple sea stars - Thomas Peschak, iLCP
School of yellow line scads - Juergen Freund, iLCP
Madagascar fishermen - Cristina Mittermeier, iLCP

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Island of the Great White Shark: telling the story of a premier shark haven

Twice each year I make a crass capitalistic plug for my documentary on white sharks: Island of the Great White Shark. These indulgences in the free enterprise system occur once in August, around the time of Discovery Channel's Shark Week, and during the holiday shopping season. Not one to break from tradition, here I go again.

When I first began filming in 2005 at Isla Guadalupe, Baja, sites like YouTube and Vimeo were in their infancy. And while there had already been a few crews at the island to film the great white sharks that migrate there in the fall months, no one had attempted to do a complete documentary about the island, the shark diving operations that came there, or the working relationships they had at the time with researchers who were trying to learn more about these sharks, to better understand their behaviors so that appropriate measures could be taken to protect them. That was the story that impressed me from the very first trip I took there until I finished filming three seasons later.

Today, video sharing sites are awash with exciting home movies of Isla Guadalupe white sharks taken by some of the fortunate divers who have made the journey. But Island of the Great White Shark still finds an audience and continues to resonate. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to be in the water with a great white shark or if you've been there and want to show your family and friends why you're not completely crazy, Island of the Great White Shark is for you. This documentary brings together divers, world renown shark experts and, of course, magnificent sharks and tells it like it is, without exaggerated hyperbole - these incredible animals don't need any - while also being informative and laying out the challenges that these and all sharks are facing today.

I have been gratified to have Island of the Great White Shark screened at major aquariums, film festivals, and museums across the nation. It has given me a chance to make a case, on film and in person, for the conservation and protection of these critically important ocean predators.

Island of the Great White Shark is available in DVD through

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bahamas MPA in Need: Summit Series group raising funds to support South Berry Island

Marine protected areas (MPAs) can be an effective means in protecting and conserving natural marine resources. By defining a specific boundary and then managing - and in some cases prohibiting - activities such as commercial fishing, marine ecosystems are allowed to flourish, which can have a beneficial effect on marine life even outside of the MPA. Worldwide, there is only a small percentage of the ocean's surface that has been designated as a protected area, even with recent record-breaking MPAs like the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Phoenix Islands, and Chagos Archipelago.

But designating a marine protected area is just the first step. The next step can be an imposing hurdle: establishing the infrastructure to support, maintain, and enforce all related regulations. Without those components, an MPA becomes nothing more than a good intention.

In 2009, the Bahamian government set aside 6 new marine protected areas, bringing the total to 25 MPAs in the Bahamas. One of those areas, the South Berry Island Marine Protected Area, covers only 70 square miles but is considered one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the Bahamas and includes coral reefs, a conch nursery, and a 6,000 feet deep trench known as the Tongue of the Ocean. Unfortunately, it is also sadly lacking in a functional infrastructure and so the area is largely unregulated.

Hoping to come to the South Berry Island MPA's rescue is an organization of influential entrepreneurs, artists, and innovators - members of a group that sponsor the Summit Series, a kind of creative brain trust of individuals who are dedicated to giving back to the planet in one way or another. This past April, the Summit Series held a Summit at Sea aboard a cruise ship in the Bahamas and donations came forth to meet the $500,000 price tag that was determined to be what was needed to implement and sustain the South Berry Island MPA infrastructure.

To date, they have reached over $475,000 of the needed total. Individual donations are being managed by The Nature Conservancy and accepted through, another of the growing number of online fundraising sites, and there are some enticing prize drawings for donors including a $1000 Zappos gift certificate
(Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, has offered a dollar-for-dollar match to $25,000) and 600-foot submarine ride off the south coast of Florida, compliments of my friends at OceanGate Expeditions.

If you would like to learn more, here are several website you can visit:
Click here to learn about the Summit Series.
Click here to learn about the Summit at Sea.
Click here to visit the website to donate and enter in a drawing.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Philippine Whale Sharks: local fishermen see economic value in embracing ecotourism

Ocean ecotourism is becoming more and more a method by which countries, particularly developing or 2nd/3rd world nations, can find economic justification for instituting conservation measures. The island of Cebu, part of the Philippines, has recently become a typical example of ecotourism's benefits, but it also highlights some of the challenges.

The town of Oslob in southern Cebu is predominantly a fishing village and local fisherman often bring in vast catches of a small shrimp locally known as "uyap." Over the past few months, another fisherman of sorts has taken a liking to the shrimp: whale sharks. The number of reported sightings began with just one and soon increased to up to seven at a time.

Though the whale sharks, reported to be from 16 to 25 feet (5 to 8m), were competing with the fishermen for the shrimp, which represented an important source of income, the fisherman wisely chose not to chase off or harm the whale sharks but to capitalize on their appearance. Ecotourism in the form of whale shark diving. Whale sharks are a popular attraction worldwide in both aquariums and in the wild. While some may question the wisdom of keeping such a large animal confined within an aquarium exhibit, seeing them in their natural habitat can be an exciting and enlightening experience.

Successful ecotourism relies on two key components: 1.) Recognizing and transitioning to a new business revenue model and 2.) establishing the logistics that will ensure its long-term success.

In Cebu, the fisherman reportedly charge 100PHP (Philippine Pesos) to allow tourists in the water with the sharks, and they charge an additional 100PHP for snorkel gear. The fishermen use some of their shrimp catch to coax the sharks up to the surface and for that they charge 100PHP for the shrimp. [For Westerners, those are bargain rates, about $7USD total per diver, so I would expect rates to rise as business continues to improve.] The response from tourists has been good and the number of divers has been steadily increasing, thereby allowing the fishermen-turned-ecotourism operators to successfully offset their losses from the sharks feeding in their local waters. So the recognition of the economic value of a living whale shark and the transition to a new source of revenue have been successful.

However, some of the logistics or the specific details as to how the shark diving is carried out have pointed out challenges that need to be addressed immediately. Reports started to circulate that the whale shark operators were unfamiliar with how to safely handle these sharks. Apparently, some fishermen were showing the tourists how they could ride the whale sharks, grabbing the dorsal fin or even, it was reported, grabbing the gills. This can stress the animal unnecessarily and can actually damage the skin, exposing it to unwelcome bacteria.

A Philippine-based dive group, the Sea Knights, stepped in last week to observe the whale sharks and the ecotourism operators' methods. In many parts of the world, there are specific procedures and guidelines that whale shark diving operators follow to both ensure the safety of the sharks and the divers and to make that their actions do not permanently chase away the sharks. The Sea Knights plan to present a report to local government officials soon.

“Oslob is already planning on making an ordinance to protect the whale sharks. We want to recommend to the local government that they make an ordinance as soon as possible and have it implemented right away since the number of whale sharks is growing rapidly,” said Fr. Charlie Orobia, OAR, Sea Knights vice president.

Shark ecotourism is being promoted by many shark conservationists as a viable way to get local communities to recognize the economic value in conserving and protecting sharks, whether it's a relatively benign species like the whale shark or more iconic species like tiger or white sharks. But it is equally important that it be implemented in a safe and prudent manner and that it be effectively managed with guidelines strictly enforced.

To a shark advocate, that's good conservation. To the local fisherman, that's good business.

Source: Cebu Sun-Star.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On the Hunt: study looks at great white shark's ambush capabilities

If you have shown even a passing interest in great white sharks, you have probably heard or read descriptions of these powerful sharks as ambush predators which feed primarily on seals and sea lions. And you may have seen images of white sharks on the hunt, leaping out of the water as they hope to catch an unsuspecting seal - striking images of one of the ocean's truly most magnificent predators.

In a recent scientific paper, Neil Hammerschlag, Ph.D. of the University of Miami's RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program and R. Aidan Martin, Ph.D. of the University of British Columbia examined the nuts and bolts of what transpires when a great white shark is in a predation mode. "Marine predator-prey contests: ambush and speed versus vigilance and agility," published in Marine Biology Research, details the optical and physical advantages and disadvantages for both predator and prey.

Camouflage, Vision, and Speed
The researchers studied great white shark predatory behavior at South Africa's Seal Island, famed for its spectacular breaching white sharks. They observed several elements that play into the shark's ability to affect a successful ambush. First, the time of day: we have heard that many sharks like to hunt at early dusk or sunrise. This is a time period that provides the shark with a workable degree of light to see prey at the surface, but also provides maximum camouflage using its natural counter-shading (dark coloration on top, light underneath). In low light levels, the shark's gray upper body reflects very little light and easily blends in with the dark rocky bottom below.

I have seen this personally where, during bright sun, the shark is illuminated with dancing rays of sunlight and can take on a slight metallic sheen to its skin. But as the sun falls and the dappled light fades, the shark's skin becomes strikingly flat and non-reflective - its cloak of invisibility now at work.

The researchers also noted that the great white shark's ability to see a seal moving along the surface is linked to the shark's depth. A principle call Snell's Law restricts the shark's range of vision to a formula based on depth - a common depth exhibited by the sharks in gaining an ideal horizontal view of the surface (150 to 170m/490 to 550ft) is around 26 to 30m (85 to 98ft).

Finally, there is the great white shark's speed. The muscles of a great white are incredible storehouses of energy, capable of very powerful bursts that can hurtle the shark to speeds of 35km/h (22 mph) at the surface, over 1.5x the speed of breaching blacktip sharks and enough to lift a 2000 pound shark clear of the water. To reach that maximum velocity, the white shark requires a depth - a running start, as it were - of a little over 25m (82ft) and can cover that distance in less than 3 seconds! That leaves the seal with precious little time to escape.

An Opportunity for the Prey
Nature has certainly allowed the great white shark to evolve into an extraordinarily efficient hunter. But does its prey have anything up its sleeve? In the early dusk light, the seal's vision is limited to about 3m (9ft) in depth which can provide it with just a split second to spot an ambushing shark at top speed. However, with that small window of time, nature has provided the seal with a chance to escape. Seals are very agile in the water, with a very tight turning radius and the ability to change direction quickly. So if the seal is not injured in the initial charge, it can utilize its maneuverability to make a hasty getaway. The seal's vigilance and agility can give it an edge in survival. And as one can expect, those seals that are less experienced (ie: young) or slowed by illness or age are often prey for the great white shark because their awareness and agility is diminished.

We know the great white shark is a powerful hunter with capabilities that put it near the very pinnacle of the food chain. Hammerschlag's and Martin's study looks at the actual mechanics of those amazing abilities and makes for an interesting quick read. It proves, once again, how truly fascinating and magnificent these animals are.

Click here to download a PDF of the report.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Tragedy of Errors: the fate of lionfish, moon jellies, and groupers are intertwined

What do lionfish and moon jellies have in common? In Florida, it's the goliath grouper. And what links these three sea creatures together is our ability to meddle with the balance of nature.

I have written about lionfish, moon jellies, and groupers in the past (Click here for lionfish, here for jellies, and here for groupers). The lionfish is a beautiful and graceful addition to any South Pacific reef where it exists as a predator that keeps reef fish communities in balance. As an invasive species to Florida and the Caribbean (possibly inadvertently introduced in the early 90's), the lionfish is a voracious predator with an enormous appetite and their numbers have exploded in recent years, posing a significant threat from Florida throughout the Bahamas to reef ecosystems unprepared for such a hungry eating machine.

Sea jellies, or jellyfish, are also beautiful and graceful, but the yin to their yang is the powerful sting in the tentacles of many species, an ability that is used for hunting and feeding rather than as some sort of offensive or defensive weapon. In recent years, scientists have been seeing a
greater number of sea jelly "blooms" - huge congregations that some believe are the result of warming temperatures due to climate change or, possibly, a lack of common predators like turtles, tuna, and sharks. For scientists, the jury is still out as to a definitive cause but the anecdotal observation is that sea jelly blooms are being reported with greater frequency.

The goliath grouper, capable of reaching up to a massive 800 pounds, is one of Florida's apex predators, right up there with sharks, billfish, and the other denizens of the deep that nature has entrusted to maintain equilibrium between predators and prey. Unfortunately, the goliath grouper was also a prized catch for sportfishermen and commercial operators and so their numbers declined rapidly over the past few decades. Listed as critically endangered in Florida waters by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in 1990 Florida imposed restrictions on the taking of any goliath grouper. However, like sharks and other apex predators, the grouper's slow reproductive rate has meant a slow recovery and a typical large grouper is currently in the 200-pound range if you're lucky to see one.

So what is the common thread between the three? Well, the goliath grouper would be an ideal candidate to serve as an exterminator of lionfish, if there were only sufficient number. The loss of the grouper to overfishing, combined with the invasion of lionfish due to, well, our thoughtlessness has left the reef communities of Florida and the Caribbean with a real threat on their hands and without a natural defender. This makes the loss of even one grouper a critical one to the marine ecosystem. Then, what about the loss of up to 75 groupers? Seventy-five groupers gone due to moon jellies. Moon jellies, you say?

That's just what happened this past August in the surrounding waters at the St. Lucie nuclear power plant near Ft. Pierce in southeast Florida. A swarm of moon jellies inundated the seawater intake to the plant, causing a shutdown that lasted two days. With thousands of moon jellies plastered up against intake grates, the jellies' delicate tentacles broke off and traveled through the plant's seawater pipes to be expelled back out to sea where they apparently came in contact with a school of groupers, stinging and inflaming their gills. Biologists, who happened to be at the plant overseeing the facility's turtle protection program, were only able to save ten of the groupers before having to leave the water themselves due to multiple stings from the floating fragments of tentacles.

The end result was the loss of several tons of goliath groupers - predators desperately needed to combat the growing army of lionfish. This is often the result when natural resources are abused: not one problem, but a series of overlapping causes and effects. And the common thread was mankind. The cascading effects of our actions when we choose to consume rather than conserve could be our lasting legacy to this planet unless we act now.

Here's a brief video of moon jellies which shut down a nuclear power plant in Israel.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park: a success story and model for Mexican conservation

At the southeastern tip of Baja California, along a dusty coastal dirt road is located the small town of Cabo Pulmo. East of the popular and sometimes wild Cabo San Lucas, Cabo Plumo has a success story of its own: the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

At 27 square miles, the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is small; tiny when compared to some of the expansive marine parks or sanctuaries established in the South Pacific and elsewhere. But it is a great example of what can occur when local citizens and conservation organizations come together to re-orient the local economy to support the park.

According to Octavio Aburto Oropeza, a post-doctoral researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, populations of groupers, sharks, and other top predators have begun to flourish once again, after being heavily depleted by the commercial fishing and sportfishing. The park was established in 1995 and in the succeeding years, the overall biomass has increased dramatically. From 1999 to 2009, it saw a 463% improvement. And apex predators like large groupers, tiger sharks, bull sharks, and other reef-dwelling shark species have skyrocketed by over 1,000 percent.

North of the marine park, in the Gulf of California, there are areas that show a definite decline in the number of fish and the overall health of the reef ecosystems, and that is due primarily to overfishing by commercial operations or even local fishermen. Also, a considerable amount of illegal fishing of protected species takes place in the Gulf which has contributed to a not so stellar conservation image for Mexico. Because of this, the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park serves as a model for the Mexican government to duplicate throughout the Gulf.

However, it wasn't an easy transition for the locals. Having restricted or "no-take" zones initially met with some resistance and there certainly were some economic adjustments that needed to be made. But over time, the shift from commercial fishing activities to tourism and diving successfully took place, as evidenced by the development of several resorts, scuba diving/snorkeling outfitters, and ecotourism operations.

"It's a very good example of how many benefits can be produced by coastal communities once you pick an area and leave it to that point that the recovery ... produces other benefits," said Aburto.

Aburto has recently been studying the return of the Gulf Grouper within the park; the fish reaching sizes twice that (up to 4 feet) of those caught outside of the park. He will soon be turning his focus on whether or not the positive effects of the park are spilling out beyond its borders. In California, with its system of MPAs (marine protected areas), researchers have seen fish populations increase outside of the MPAs' boundaries (boundaries that are totally unknown to the fish themselves). This is one of the benefits that many fishermen, who initially were MPA opponents, have come to realize. Soon, there will be a complete chain of MPAs along the California coast and it is hoped that the spillover effect will help to boost fish populations over a much wider area.

This is something that Octavio Aburto Oropeza would like to see happen in Mexico, throughout the Gulf of California and beyond.
"This is very important to show that if we create bigger areas, and maintain or protect them for all these years, the benefits will be huge."

The Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is a prime example of what can happen when we preserve rather than plunder our ocean resources. Nature has a remarkable resiliency, an ability to recover - if given the chance. There's a lesson to be learned here.

Learn more about the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

Read a Baja Life Magazine article about Cabo Pulmo.
Source: North County Times.