Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hot Tuna: Fukushima-borne radioactivity found in California tuna

It has been in the news of late that traces of radiation, specifically Cesium-134 and 137, have been found in tuna caught off the coast of San Diego, California.  The radiation has been attributed to the Fukushima nuclear reactor facility that was battered by last year's tsunami and then went into a leaking meltdown from the damage.

While the levels of radiation are considered safe, at least for the moment, it does speak to the widespread impact of such industrial accidents - nuclear, oil, etc. - and brings up the issue of what future, long-lasting effects we can look forward to.

In his Shark Diver blog, Patric Douglas had some quirky delight putting the situation in perspective by looking at what other things we are constantly being bombarded with.  Won't make you sleep better at night, but his point of view brings up the need to take the environment seriously by realizing there are many other equally dangerous things filling our lungs or getting into our blood on a daily basis.

Waiter! There's A Cesium-137 In My Sushi

It is the end of the world!

Forget your 2012 Mayan Prophesies this is actual "cats and dog living together" kind of doom as researchers have discovered Cesium-137 and Cesium-134 in Bluefin Tuna off the coast of San Diego.

Yes, that's radiation people, and not the good kind either.

Apparently the stuff has come from Japan and the Fukushima power plant disaster of last year. The media is having a field day and as we speak Tuna NGO's the planet over are rubbing their hands together to capitalize on Radioactive Bluefin story lines.

But wait, hold on a sec, take a deep breath and go get a cup of coffee because this is not as toxic as you might think.

Let's start by examining your coffee and that deep breath you just took.

Did you know that most American homes contain over 1000 toxic airborne chemicals that you inhale every single day? 
  • Toxic chemicals in household cleaners are three times more likely to cause cancer than air pollution. (EPA)

  • Most homes have airborne concentrations of hazardous chemicals that are three to 70 times higher indoors than outdoors. (EPA)

  • Women who work at home have a 54% higher death rate from cancer than women who work outside of the home. The higher death rate is believed to be due to daily exposure to chemicals found in ordinary household products. (Toronto Indoor Air Commission)

  • In the past 14 years, there has been a 75% increase in asthma; 29% for men; 71% for women. The higher rate for women is believed to be due to women’s longer exposure times to household chemicals. (Center for Disease Control)
And then there's your coffee. Most coffee for purchase contains at least four pretty nasty chemical compounds put there by the grower to ensure your coffee is free from the wild things that like coffee as well. 

Not to mention any home in America built after 1986 using PVC piping instead of copper. PVC is how water is transported into your coffee machine and PVC leaches some pretty interesting stuff into your cuppa Joe each day.

So back to those Tuna. In terms of radioactivity, it's more of a science experiment then actual doom, sorry for the scare. The trace amounts of Cesium-137 are far less than the 149 topside nukes launched on American soil during the 50's-60's when towns downwind were bathed in radiation levels that would make health and welfare folks today fall over dead.

At least the folks back then had copper piping.

About Shark Diver. As a global leader in commercial shark diving and conservation initiatives Shark Diver has spent the past decade engaged for sharks around the world. Our blog highlights all aspects of both of these dynamic and shifting worlds. You can reach us directly at

Monday, May 28, 2012

Baleen Whales: newly found organ triggers feeding response

Whales like the blue, fin, or minke whales, feed primarily on krill or large masses of fish eggs.  To do this, they swallow large quantities of sea water laden with prey and filter out the krill through long fibrous blades jutting down from the upper jaw.  These fibers are called baleen - hence the term baleen whales used to describe these types of whales.  More specifically, these they are also known as rorqual whales.
The blue whale, the largest animal on the planet when full-grown, feeds in a particularly dramatic fashion.  When it senses that it is in the midst of a large quantity of prey, it will open and expand its lower jaw and the pleated skin beneath the jaw will expand like it just swallowed a New Mexico hot air balloon.  By doing so, the whale is able to take in an enormous 100 tons of water and filter out as much as 1100 pounds of krill - all in about 10 seconds.
Many of you have probably seen photos or film of these large whales feeding, so it's not necessarily news.  However, what is news is the fact that researchers have furthered their knowledge of just how the whale is able to do this.  For the whales, it apparently is not all that easy to do and requires several neurological and physiological triggers and events to take place, involving nerves, bones and muscles.  According to researchers, it's a big deal.
As reported in BBC News/Nature, "A rorqual whale's feeding lunge was 'one of the largest biomechanical events on Earth', said Dr Nicholas Pyenson of the Smithsonian Institution.  'This shows us how they do it so quickly, co-ordinating the inflation of the throat pouch with the opening of the jaws... and closing their mouth to prevent prey escaping - all in under 10 seconds.'"    
Researchers from the Smithsonian and the University of British Columbia have come upon a structure in the tip of the lower jaw that had previously been considered as a gelatinous mass that probably served as a lubricating hinge at the juncture of the right and left lower jaws.  However, by conducting dissections on fresh whale carcasses at an Iceland whaling station, the researchers were able to determine that the structure was packed with nerve endings that most likely sense the first initial opening of the lower jaw, thereby alerting the brain and triggering a series of muscular steps to widen the jaw and expand the pleated skin and muscles attached to the lower jaw - thereby producing the cavernous gulp for its lunch.
With animals this large, sometimes certain physical movements require a series of steps, all commencing when neurological signals say its time.  It makes me think of an old steam locomotive with a line of cars sitting on the tracks.  A conductor may give the signal to start a cycle of events that culminates in a multi-ton machine lumbering on down the tracks.  Without that conductor giving signals, the train just sits there, leaking steam.
Dr Gareth Fraser from the University of Sheffield said that the discovery revealed a unique adaptation that these marine mammals had made to an "aquatic lifestyle".  It showed, he said, "how much we still have to discover, even from the largest ocean residents." 
Source: BBC News/Nature           

Invasive Species From the Depths: submersible can prove to be method of transport

From time to time, I will bring up the issue of invasive species, most recently in April regarding the armored catfish.  The transference of a species from one ecosystem to another can cover great distances, such as with the lionfish of the Pacific but now growing in numbers in the Caribbean.  Everything from animal larvae to seaweed can be transported via freighters either by attaching to the hull or inside the bilge.
Nature can use various mechanisms to keep some species within specific territories; distance, temperature, predators, and the end results of years of evolution that can involve a variety of minute but important factors.  And in some cases there is the natural boundaries established by depth.
While ships, planes, automobiles, and even the careless aquarist can be methods of transportation for shallow water of coastal species, plants and animals at depth have a natural barrier to help keep species in place.  But it's not always the case, as was recently discovered with the world-famous submersible, Alvin.
As reported in the Conservation Biology journal, Alvin had been conducting deep sea missions around thermal vents in the Pacific when 38 small limpets were discovered attached to the submersible.  Researchers examined the small invertebrates and were dismayed to find that they were actually a species from a different deep sea area of the Pacific, nearly 400 miles away, where Alvin had been previously.
The greatest concern with the discovery was the fact that this particular species of limpet, Lepetodrilus gordensis, carries a parasite in as much as 90 percent of the population.  Transferring this animal to other pristine deep sea environments could have disastrous implications.  The researchers were a bit surprised to discover that the limpet had withstood the change of pressure from the deep depths to the surface.
Alvin, owned and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is typically cleaned after every dive, particularly around the equipment used to capture specimens.  Sloppiness is definitely not part of the Woods Hole regimen, so addressing how these limpets managed to slip by is critical.  Discussions are being held to consider more thorough cleaning procedures, including the use of fresh water, which can kill most salt water organisms.
Deep water ecosystems, thousands of feet below the surface, are very isolated ecosystems, protected by depth and pressure, and therefore the consequences of introducing new species could be very disruptive.  Researchers can not necessarily guarantee that there will be adverse effects, but it is certainly something that they would prefer not to have to deal with.
"We know from shallow water systems that one mistake can completely change a system," said Dr. Amanda Bates from the University of Tasmania and one of the researchers involved.  "The scientists themselves have to be better at not getting caught up in their research, just taking a step back and making sure that those jobs are getting done."  
Source: Discover Magazine
Source: The Australian          

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shark-Free Marina Initiative: 70 more marinas join in past week

And speaking of sharks, the Shark Free Marina Initiative (SFMI) is continuing to grow at a rapid rate, signing on marinas to promote pro-shark activities and attitudes to the recreational sportfishing industry, thereby putting pressure on shark tournaments and those seeking shark trophies - which are decidedly anti-shark at their core.

A press release from SFMI on Tuesday said, "Marinas on the east and west coasts of the United States are enthusiastically joining the Shark-Free Marinas Initiative (SFMI) to help conserve the world’s imperiled shark populations. Over 70 marinas have joined SFMI in the past week. There are currently over 200 marinas participating world-wide, including 164 in the U.S., 24 in Fiji, and 6 in Bahamas."         

SFMI started several years ago as an idea first promoted by  When my friend, Luke Tipple, came on board as director, he enlisted my services to shoot the first promotional video for the organization.  From there, Luke garnered supporters and now it is managed by The Humane Society of the United States, the Pegasus Foundation, and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation with Luke still as director and with additional support from the Mote Marine Laboratory, the Pew Environment Group, and the Fisheries Conservation Foundation. 

"The SFMI is a totally voluntary program that works in tandem with businesses, marinas and fishermen to increase the awareness of the need to protect our sharks and oceans. Marinas and businesses may join the program as either Shark-Free or Shark-Friendly:  A Shark-Free Marina does not allow sharks to be killed and landed at its facility; a Shark-Friendly Marina discourages killing or landing of sharks and does not serve shark products or promote activities that intentionally harm sharks.

Marinas are major players in the recreational fishing community and can help inform fishermen and reduce the number of sharks being killed by joining the SFMI and preventing dead sharks from being brought back to their docks. 'Marinas are key to the success of this initiative in the United States,' says Luke Tipple, managing director of the SFMI."  
Some might question what impact sportfishing has on shark populations compared to large-scale industrial shark fishing.  With the number of shark species already in such great decline, particularly among species that are popular targets for sportfishing, the impact may not be cataclysmic but it is, nonetheless, real and worth addressing.

“Recreational fishing in the U.S. has contributed to the serious historical decline in shark populations,” notes Dr. Robert Hueter, senior scientist and director, Mote Marine Laboratory’s National Center for Shark Research. “Sustaining these species is in the interest of recreational anglers as well as commercial fishermen and marine conservationists.” 
So, congratulations to the Shark Free Marina Initiative!  I'm glad to have been there to help at the beginning and, hopefully, it will continue to expand and cumulatively have a positive effect not only on the number of sharks taken in sportfishing, but also on the attitudes of the participants whether they be fishermen or onlookers on the dock.

Source: Shark Free Marina Initiative News

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Thresher Shark Airborne: researcher takes remarkable pix of shark leaping

With an elongated upper lobe of its caudal fin, the thresher shark is one of the most striking of all sharks.  I guess that descriptor could be taken figuratively and literally as it has been shown that the thresher shark uses its tail to swat and stun its prey.

Making the media rounds right now is a remarkable series of still photographs taken by marine researcher Scott Sheehan of a thresher shark leaping from the water in Jervis Bay, Australia.  Possibly feeding on yellowtail baitfish, the shark leaped from the water and was first thought to be a dolphin.  Sheehan readied his camera for a possible second leap and the shark did not disappoint, allowing the researcher to take a rapid series of shots.

It is perhaps unusual behavior - or at least a rare occurrence - for a thresher shark to go airborne, but mako sharks have been seen taking large leaps and then, of course, there are the powerful images of great white sharks breaching as they ambush seals from underneath.

If you look at the complete series of photos, you can see the thresher sharks long tail curled - most likely snapping from side-to-side as it first breaks the surface; part of its powerful propelling motion as it moved through the bait fish.

I have reported on thresher sharks before: about video taken showing one using its tail to hunt, highlighting ongoing behavioral research, and citing organizations working to help preserve this shark - listed as "vulnerable to extinction" by the IUCN.

As Sheehan's images show, the thresher shark is a magnificent shark to behold whether in the water or in the air.  It is also another important predator and member of a healthy marine community.  Not a threat to man, it deserves our respect and protection.

Source: The Daily Telegraph
Photos: Scott Sheehan/Marine Mammal Research               

Monday, May 21, 2012

Seagrasses and Carbon: study shows they store carbon as well as forests

A press release issued today by the National Science Foundation highlights a recent study that shows that seagrasses are able to store as much carbon as forests.  Florida International University and the National Science Foundation's Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research site worked together with scientists from Spain, Australia, United Kingdom, Denmark, and Greece to determine that, although seagrass meadows occupy less than 0.2 percent of the world's oceans, they are responsible for more than 10 percent of all the carbon buried annually in the sea.

"Seagrasses are a vital part of the solution to climate change and, per unit area, seagrass meadows can store up to twice as much carbon as the world's temperate and tropical forests.  The [study] results demonstrate that coastal seagrass beds store up to 83,000 metric tons of carbon per square kilometer, mostly in the soils beneath them. As a comparison, a typical terrestrial forest stores about 30,000 metric tons per square kilometer, most of which is in the form of wood," the press release stated. 

"Seagrasses have the unique ability to continue to store carbon in their roots and soil in coastal seas," said James Fourqurean, Florida International University scientists and lead author of the study. "We found places where seagrass beds have been storing carbon for thousands of years."       

And like forests that are subject to deforestation for land development and lumber, seagrasses are among the world's most threatened ecosystems.  Some 29 percent of all historic seagrass meadows have been destroyed, mainly due to dredging and degradation of water quality.  At least 1.5 percent of the Earth's seagrass meadows are lost every year.   

Seagrasses can, when properly managed, regenerate themselves, perhaps even better than denuded forests. According to Karen McGlathery, one of the study's co-authors and a scientist at the University of Virginia, "One remarkable thing about seagrass meadows is that, if restored, they can effectively and rapidly sequester carbon and reestablish lost carbon sinks."       

Besides the ability to sequester carbon, seagrasses play an important role in filtering sediment from the ocean, protecting the shoreline from flood and storm damage, and providing shelter for a variety of marine life and their offspring.  The study's conclusions emphasize the need for conserving and restoring seagrass meadows as they reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon stores while delivering important ecological benefits to coastal communities as well.  


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hawaiian Reef Sharks: possible competition for food causing massive decline

For reef sharks, commercial shark fishing isn't the only thing that threatens their survival.  In reef communities near populated islands, an additional threat comes from the taking of fish by local fishermen - fish that often constitute a major portion of the sharks' diets.  When local and/or commercial fishermen compete for the same food source as reef shark species, it can be a crippling blow to the shark population.

A recent study by Hawaii's Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research showed a drastic reduction in reef shark populations around populated islands in Hawaii as opposed to more uninhabited islands or pristine reefs.   

"We found 90-97 percent decline in reef shark abundance: white tip, grey, galapagos and nurse sharks," said Marc Nadon, a researcher with the Institute.   

The researchers have not been able to determine a more specific cause but look to accidental bycatch (sharks are now more protected, at least from legal commercial shark fishing, due to recent legislation) and overall fishing pressure as contributing factors.

"70 percent of reef shark diet is reef fish, so if you remove the food source it would be logical that reef shark would follow the same trend and decline," said Nadon. 

While the researchers will be doing more studies this fall, their research's concern with competition for food has support based on what has been observed in other island nations.  Both Samoa and the Marianas have seen major declines in reef shark populations around populated islands compared to other unspoiled reefs.

5/21/12 - As a follow-up, I received some information from Dr. Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at the California State University at Long Beach.  He has some concerns regarding the accuracy of the researcher's claims based on the reliability of the study's methods.  We'll have to wait and see what future studies produce.  Here are Chris' comments:

"Don't buy the 97% decline. There are some methodology problems here. I don't dispute that there are more sharks in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but not by 97%. These numbers are based on towboard diver surveys and anyone who has dived in a remote location knows that a diver is a novel things - sharks come flocking to you. However, in places like the main Hawaiian Isl. sharks tend to avoid divers (spearfishermen) - who shoot at them when they approach their fish. We've set 100s of short longlines all around the most populated island (Oahu) to catch sharks to tag and have caught a lot of sharks even though we rarely saw them diving in those areas. This suggests there are behavioral responses of sharks to divers in these areas that make it likely to overestimate sharks in remote locations, while underestimating them in populated locations. In addition, diver surveys are limited to 100', but we know that reef sharks are deeper around the Main Hawaiian Isl. and this is probably because there is more food at those depths. This depth shift could be due to human depletion of reef fishes, but it doesn't mean there are 97% fewer sharks, they are just outside their survey area."


Pacific Salmon: challenges that contribute to a decades-long decline

Along the northern shores of the eastern Pacific Ocean from Northern California all the way across the Bering Straits to Russia, salmon has been a major commercial fish; one of the reliable commodities in supermarkets whether farmed-raised or wild-caught.  And much has been done to try to maintain supply with the development of hatchery-raised fish that are re-introduced into the wild, maintaining catch levels of wild-caught salmon, and totally-farmed-raised fish.

However, stocks of wild salmon continue to decline as they have been for decades.  And it seems that many of the measures taken to supposedly support wild stocks of salmon may actually be having a negative effect.

Over the years there have ups and downs in the population of salmon species such as pink salmon or sockeye salmon.  Sometimes these shifts have been radical from one season to another, much like a freakishly cold or wet winter or a blazing summer.  

In 2002 there was a population crash of wild pink salmon that was initially blamed on parasites picked up from farm- or hatchery-raised salmon.  While those manipulated stocks certainly contained a higher percentage of parasites called sea lice, one of the many challenges facing confined breeding, later studies proved that was not the root cause.  Pink salmon reproduce every other year, so each year's new juvenile population genetically different from the proceeding year.  A marked drop in numbers did not correlate with the studied prevalence of sea lice; it was out of sync with the reproductive calendar.  

The study concluded that a variety of factors are most likely at work, rather than one "smoking gun."  "The major lesson of this study is that we cannot settle for simple explanations for wild-animal population declines. There are very complex interactions among disease, environment and animal population health. Sustainability studies must engage all the science specialties to pursue a better understanding of these relationships," said Gary Marty, lead author of the study and, at the time, research associate at UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine.

Now move the clock forward and, in 2010, a study examined the potential catastrophe that could lie ahead for various wild salmon species stocks that had seen increases in their numbers but was being attributed to the influx of hatchery-raised salmon - salmon raised in open water hatcheries and eventually reintroduced into the wild.  The increase in pink, chum, and sockeye salmon hatchery fish has the potential for putting wild salmon at risk because they become more prolific - having been sheltered and protected from nature's trials and tribulations of surviving as a juvenile.

While, the manufactured increase in numbers would appear on the surface to be a good thing, according to one study, the artificiality of it would be setting up a "perfect storm" of adverse conditions.  “Higher levels of hatchery fish straying onto spawning grounds, combined with low numbers of wild fish, could further erode wild salmon diversity, which helps stabilize their abundances,” said Randall Peterman, researcher with Canada's Fisheries Risk Assessment and Management. “Many salmon from both sides of the Pacific intermingle in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and/or south of there. Together, these factors create the perfect storm for reducing wild salmon over the long term.”    

The latest concern for Pacific salmon stocks comes from San Francisco University where researchers were studying the 20-year decline of sockeye salmon.  Again, it is believed that several factors are at work, not just one.  Open water pink salmon farms, placed along none sockeye salmon migratory routes could be playing a role, exposing the salmon to various parasites, viruses, and bacteria - again, one of the great challenges facing aquafarming is the overall quality of life found in confined living conditions.  While the confined fish can be treated with medicines, the offending bacteria and parasites are free to travel through the farm nets and into open water, into the path of migrating wild sockeye salmon.

Combine that with the effect of competition for food with hatchery-raised pink salmon and increases in ocean temperatures due to climate change, which can adversely affect wild juveniles, and you have three likely contributors to the decline of sockeye salmon according to the study.

“Although none of these three factors can explain much of the declines in by themselves, when considered in combination they appear to play a very important role,” said Brendan Connors, lead author and member of SFU's School of Resource and Environmental Management.

“Salmon migrate thousands of kilometres at sea and they obviously do not respect international borders. Our results highlight the need for countries across the North Pacific Rim to manage limited resources at an oceanic scale," said Doug Braun, co-author and doctoral student at SFU' Earth to Ocean Research Group. 

While various forms of aquafarming and fisheries management will play an increasingly important role in both preserving marine biodiversity and providing seafood for a growing population, it is critical that governments examine their actions carefully so as not to upset nature's balance.  Easy to say, but as research is proving, it is much more difficult to accomplish due to the multitude of competing factors that make up the complex web of a healthy marine ecosystem.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Wildlife Declines: environmentalists will press issue at RIO+20 conference

In June, the RIO+20 conference will be held in Rio de Janeiro.  This conference name is more of a nickname, as it is officially the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  

Many of the issues discussed revolve around land use and crop yields in addition to water usage and availability.  The goal is to be able to provide for human populations in a responsible manner that can guarantee available resources for generations to come.

None of this can be accomplished without considering the impact mankind is having on nature and wildlife in general.  The BBC recently reported that environmentalists will be pressuring government leaders at the conference to make a more concerted effort to protect nature as a critical component of any sustainable development policy.

 "The Rio+20 conference is an opportunity for the world to get serious about the need for development to be made sustainable," said David Nussbaum, CEO of World Wildlife Fund-UK.  "We need to elevate the sense of urgency, and I think this is ultimately not only about our lives but the legacy we leave for future generations."  

Environmentalist will be doing more than just talking a good game.  They will be arming themselves with new data to emphasize the importance of nature conservation.  The Living Planet Report has recently issued need data based on analysis of trends seen in over 9,000 animal populations compiled by the Zoological Society of London.  The report confirms an overall 30% decline in wildlife since 1970.  Wildlife in tropical areas, particularly in tropical lakes and rivers, showed the greatest decline of as much as 60%.

The Global Footprint Network is also conducting analysis of our global footprint - our impact based on a composite measure of our use of fossil fuels, cropland for food production, wood consumption, and wild-caught fish.  In areas of the world where there is high development in lands that harbor harsh environments, our impact is most noticeable.  The Persian Gulf emerges as the region with the highest per-capita ecological footprint, with Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates topping the list of the least sustainable nations.  But developed nations like the United States, Denmark, Belgium, and Australia are not far behind.

However, there are some rays of hope.  In Pakistan, a program has proved successful in reducing water consumption and pesticide and fertilizer use in growing cotton, while still producing the same yield.  It just takes initiative and an understanding that it is a global issue, not confined to one nation or one region of the world.

"We need to address this with the same urgency and determination with which we tackled the systemic financial crisis globally," said Nussbaum in describing how it is not too late to turn existing negative trends around. 

Source: BBC News             

Monday, May 14, 2012

Manta Rays: new study tracks their movements off Yucatan

While marine advocates fret over the plight of sharks and their fate at the hands of commercial fishermen, another of the shark's relatives is heading into perilous waters: the majestic and graceful Manta Ray

Given the unfortunate nickname "devil fish" by local fishermen, the manta ray, which can attain an enormous 25-foot wingspan, is a filter-feeder and completely harmless to humans (it does not have a stinger like other rays).  Similar to baleen whales, the manta ray draws water through its mouth and, as it passes through its gills, structures called gill rakers strain zooplankton from the water.

What has put the manta ray at risk - it is currently listed as "vulnerable" to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - is that they are hunted in some quarters for those gill rakers, a favorite of traditional Chinese medicine, and they are also caught as accidental bycatch.  Part of the elasmobranch subclass that includes sharks, skates, and rays, the manta ray, like their relatives, does not have a high reproductive rate.  So, they are not well-prepared to withstand high losses.

However, there's much we do not know about these large rays that are so popular with scuba divers and snorklers in several tropical resort locations, representing not only a threatened species but a tourism generator as well.  To fill the gap in our knowledge, a recent study which was just published in PLoS One used satellite tags, the ones often used on sharks and other pelagic fish, to learn more about the movement patterns of manta rays.

Organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society, UK's University of Exeter, and the Mexican government, the study involved tagging six manta rays - four females, one male, and one juvenile - over a 13-day period off the coast  of the Yucatan Peninsula.  In that approximate two week period, the manta rays mostly stayed within 200 miles of the shoreline but did travel a good distance.

“The satellite tag data revealed that some of the rays traveled more than 1,100 kilometers during the study period,” said Dr. Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute. “The rays spent most of their time traversing coastal areas plentiful in zooplankton and fish eggs from spawning events.”  

Of concern was the fact that, with the rays not necessarily staying centralized to one area but more on the prowl for waters rich in zooplankton, they spent a considerable amount of time outside the boundaries of marine protected areas and, by doing so, putting themselves at risk from commercial fishing, being caught in nets accidentally, and even exposing themselves to the risk of being struck by large ships.   Less than 12 percent of the locations where the tagged animals were tracked were within marine protected areas.

“Almost nothing is known about the movements and ecological needs of the manta ray, one of the ocean’s largest and least-known species,” said Dr. Rachel Graham, lead author on the study and director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Gulf and Caribbean Sharks and Rays Program. “Our real-time data illuminate the previously unseen world of this mythic fish and will help to shape management and conservation strategies for this species.”  
We can only hope that this and other future studies will provide a base of knowledge that will motivate governments and international agencies to take steps to arrest the apparent decline in manta ray populations.  All filter-feeders play a role in maintaining the proper balance in zooplankton and other microscopic marine animals.  Were we to lose the manta ray, we would be faced with unknown consequences.

Source: Wildlife Conservation Society

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Saving Hammerhead Sharks: Costa Rica & Honduras plan recommendation to CITES for protection

Hammerhead sharks are one of the most unusual and distinctive-looking sharks on the planet.  The great hammerhead, scalloped hammerhead, and smooth hammerhead - all members of the Sphyrnidae family - carry their namesake broad, extended flat head; a shape like no other.  

Researchers have studied hammerhead sharks to determine why it evolved with such a unique head shape.  There has been research that indicates it is an effective tool for hunting: digging and flipping up small rays out of the sand.  Other research has shown that the wide positioning of the hammerhead's eyes provides it with stereo vision - the ability to see straight ahead more easily which might prove to be a predatory advantage.  And there have also been studies regarding the possibility that the hammerhead's shape enhances it's ability to sense electrical fields with its Ampullae de Lorenzini (the black specks or five o'clock shadow all around the snout of most sharks) which could aid in long range navigation.

Definitely one of the world's most unique sharks, but also one that has been severely impacted by commercial fishing.  In the eastern Pacific, at locations such as Cocos Island, off of Costa Rica, researchers and long-time divers can remember immense schools of hammerheads cruising through the deep waters.  

But no more.  The occasional school can be encountered but their numbers are greatly reduced and such a sight is a rare occurence indeed.  Researchers from Mexico, the United Kingdom, USA, and other countries have been studying the hammerhead sharks using telemetry tags and taking biopsy samples for DNA studies to better understand the movements of these sharks and whether there are isolated populations moving around in the Pacific and elsewhere or whether any genetic co-mingling takes place.  This knowledge can be used in determining the best approach for conserving the sharks and managing commercial operations between Central American nations.

Costa Rica and Honduras, Central American nations that have recognized the importance of biological diversity not only for the sake of their own ecology but as an important feature of their tourism revenue, plan to put forward a recommendation at the next convening of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in March of 2013.  Recommending that scalloped hammerhead sharks be given an Appendix II status will then require the 175 member nations of CITES to ensure that trade is sustainable and legal.  

For some hammerhead advocates, this is not sufficient action - hammerhead sharks are already listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - but it is a step in the right direction on the international front as it represents regulations and actions that must be taken by CITES members.  Of course, having the resources to implement and maintain enforcement has always been an issue with many countries, so much remains to be seen.

Research completed over the past few years by groups like the Sea Turtle Restoration Project (PRETOMA) have shown hammerhead movements to extend beyond national boundaries with populations moving between the Cocos Island and Columbia and Ecuador.  Because of this, Costa Rica and Honduras are hoping that they will not be lone voices at the CITES meeting next year.

“It’s time for strong international protection for endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks,” said Maximiliano Bello, senior adviser to the Global Shark Conservation Campaign of the Pew Environment Group. “Other governments should join Honduras and Costa Rica in supporting a sustainable future for these sharks.”

Many shark conservation groups will be watching what CITES does on behalf of the hammerhead sharks in 2013.

Source: Costa Rica Star
Source: Summit County Citizens Voice

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Step By Step: Center for Biological Diversity presses forth

Well, let's see what the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has been up to lately.  This group, either working on its own or in consort with other like-minded groups, often takes a more combative or proactive approach to environmental issues by using the courts to prod government agencies to address some of the many conservation challenges we face.

Good News:

Following the settling of a lawsuit between CBD and it's fellow conservation groups versus the National Marine Fisheries Service, the government agency proposed a new rule for shallow water commercial fishermen, who harvest shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico, requiring them to use Turtle Excluder Devices, or TEDs, in their nets.  Essentially escape hatches for the turtles, TEDs have already been mandated for deeper water but this new rule is a first for shallow water.  The one drawback is that Congress is considering budget cuts that may stymie implementation and enforcement of the ruling.

The dwarf seahorse - at one inch, the smallest seahorse in the United States - is one step closer to mandated protection.  CBD had petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for greater protection under the Endangered Species Act and the NMFS has announced that the seahorse may indeed be in need of federal protection.  Living in the shallow seagrass beds in the Gulf of Mexico, the dwarf seahorses numbers have been declining, apparently due to harvesting from the aquarium trade and health damage to both the seahorse and its seagrass habitat from BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  

Snakes may not be your cup of tea, but their numbers have not been doing well. Yet only 58 of the approximately 1,400 species receive any federal protection.  The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake has been particularly hard hit as it has seen its natural habitat reduced to a small percentage of what it was several decades ago.  Following a petition drive by the CBD, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced a full review to consider whether the rattlesnake requires protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

There are dozens of other new challenges that CBD is getting involved in, from the Keystone Pipeline to Arctic oil drilling to saving woodpecker populations, and much more.  The Center for Biological Diversity's weapon of choice still is the pressure exerted by legal action.  It may be frustrating at times as their lawyers weave their way with the regulatory morass, but the result often can be concrete results.

Source & Photos: Center for Biological Diversity

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

So Cal Shark Encounter: Reasonable Media Coverage

Living in Southern California has its advantages   And one of them is that when the rare shark-human interaction occurs, it is usually put into relatively fair perspective by the media with a modicum of hysterical hype.

Such was the case for a recent encounter off of Catalina Island involving a paddleboarder and possibly a juvenile great white shark.  ABC News covered the event with interviews with my friend, Luke Tipple, and it was a fairly balanced piece of reporting; balanced in the sense that they didn't treat the shark as a roving man-eater, nor did they treat it as a cute but embarrassed little fish who made a silly little mistake. covered it in its blog, Ultimate Thrills: Swimming With Sharks and added the ABC News video segment.  This network has repeatedly provided fair coverage of shark-related events.  I have supplied shark footage for them in the past and have yet to be disappointed in how it was used.  CBS News also does a fairly good job; I provided some on-camera color and a reasonable voice when there was a rare fatality that occurred in San Diego.  NBC News, on the other hand, has been a bit more prone to stirring up fear and excitement.  Here's SharkDiver's post:

Catalina Shark Nibbles and Good Media 
Monday, May 7, 2012
Fortunately when occasional shark attacks occur in Southern California there's a few solid voices out there with ready quotes for the media.

This week was no exception and the quotes given were without the typical "re-branding effort" of top order predators that we are beginning to see in the conservation space.

Sharks are sharks, occasionally they attack things and sometimes those things happen to have a human element to them.

Sharks are not misunderstood, they are not soft and cuddly, and they are toothy.

Accepting the basic tenants of sharks does not make them less viable for conservation, but it does allow people to make "informed decisions" about where they should be when sharks are present.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fracking For Natural Gas: economically beneficial but is it safe?

To meet its immediate energy needs and perhaps stimulate a sluggish economic recovery, the United States is having to wrestle with several complex options.  One is oil drilling in the Arctic regions - which was recently covered here in a guest post last month.  And the other is natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Fracking is a high-tech method of drilling for natural gas - and sometimes oil - by drilling deep into a shale layer, then drilling horizontally and injecting high pressure water, sand and chemicals to actually fracture or crack the surrounding shale.  Through those man-made fissures seeps the natural gas for extraction to the surface.

To reach the deep layers of shale, the wells may drill through freshwater aquifers that feed into groundwater supplies used by cities.  And to ensure against leaks into the groundwater, the vertical drilling well will be encased in cement.  The water that is used in the fracking process, some 50,000 to 350,000 gallons, is returned to the surface and cleaned of contaminants and, in some cases, reused in other wells for more fracking.

The oil companies currently involved in this process are seeing results and so they are rallying politicians for support as an expansion in the use of hydraulic fracturing wells can mean more jobs, an increase in domestic supplies, and a reduction in costs for the end user.  Coming as no surprise, the energy companies claim that fracking is completely safe to the environment.

Two words: Deepwater Horizon.

I don't mention the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an indictment of those involved in fracking.  It's more of a reminder that new technology can and often will backfire; it's just part of the learning curve.  But the consequences in these cases can be enormous.

The energy and oil industry, either through industry associations or directly from the companies themselves, are lining up their company-paid scientists and their reports that denounce the likelihood of fracking posing any risk to groundwater supplies.  The opponents of fracking are also bringing their reports to the table, often in the form of geological studies and computer modeling that claim that fluids from hydraulic fracturing can migrate through the shale and reach groundwater supplies in as little as several years.

Politicians and other policy makers or regulators are caught between energy industry proponents and their cherry-picked studies and opponents, typically backed by environmental groups, and their contrary studies.

This past Wednesday, reported on a study that called into question the safety of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

"The fluids can migrate faster that previously thought, Tom Myers, a Reno, Nevada, researcher, said yesterday. His study, published in the online journal Ground Water on April 17, says fluids can reach shallow drinking-water aquifers in as little as three years."
“'If contaminants reach natural fractures under pressure, the upward flow has the potential to be enhanced greatly,' Myers, an independent consultant who has worked for conservation groups and governments, said. 'It can flow upward if there’s a pathway and unless it’s completely impermeable, there’s always a pathway. It’s just a question of how long it takes.'”
Myers' report was commissioned by Catskill Mountainkeeper, a New York-based environmental group, so the energy industry is, predictably, citing a lack of objectivity.  But is it any different than the scientists and reports that the industry presents in favor of fracking?
According to an opinion piece by Fareed Zakaria in, "The environmental concerns are well taken. But the best studies out now — such as one by a committee that included the head of the Environmental Defense Fund — suggest that fracking can be done in a safe and responsible manner. Many of the riskiest practices are employed by a small number of the lowest-cost producers, a situation that calls for sensible regulation. Larger companies would probably welcome a set of rules, because they would want to follow best practices to protect their reputation and brand."
Sensible regulation - that which was in place in the Gulf of Mexico?  This is my biggest concern.  The economic implications of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas - locally, nationally, and even globally - I fear will make it a fete de compli.  However, if the regulations are not in place to manage all companies - big or small - or if the potential learning curve accident does occurs, it will not be something that can be easily cleaned up with paper towels or dispersants.  Contaminants seeping up from thousands of feet below the surface may take many decades to present themselves, according to Myers, but when they do they can spoil water supplies for thousands of people for decades more.
Due to the economic short-term benefits, hydraulic fracturing may be an inevitable step in man's quest for energy but, given our growing requirements for fresh water ("Worldwide water use is growing twice as fast as population. An estimated one billion people today lack access to safe water and by 2025 up to half of the world's people will be vulnerable to water shortages." Jerry Jasinowski, Huffington Post), I could only support it if it is something carried out in a highly regulated environment that includes fault zone studies, preliminary monitoring wells to track hydrology before fracking begins, and ongoing observation of drilling operations.
And with all of that, I'll still be worried.

Friday, May 4, 2012 Launches in NYC: interactive digital artistry to support ocean conservation

In November of last year, I covered the impending release of, an intriguing interactive concept that combined the talents of leading digital artists with major ocean conservation groups to provide an online showcase for the public to both view the wide range of beauty and diversity in the oceans and generate needed support for conservation.
At the time, it was to be released online within a few weeks.  As is often the case with many new and ground-breaking ventures, time schedules can be fickle things. So, while several weeks turned into several months, has now finally been launched amidst some interesting video fanfare publicity.
Today, in Times Square, New York City, a five-minute sample of theBlu is being displayed every 30 minutes on the NASDAQ and Thomas Reuter video screens from 5:00 until 11:00pm.  For those of you who don't happen to be wandering the streets of the Big Apple at that moment, you can download from's website their screensaver app or get a promotional discount on the pro version software.
You can read my November post on theBlu to learn more about it.  It is working in collaboration with major ocean conservation groups like Dr. Sylvia Earle's Mission Blue, Ocean Elders, Oceanic Preservation Society, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and WildAid.  A press release was distributed today and here a few excerpts followed by a video clip.  Definitely worth checking out.
Wemo Media, the Venice, CA-based entertainment studio, today announced the launch of "theBlu," possibly the largest globally shared art and entertainment experience ever created. Inspired by the world's oceans, "theBlu" is a living and breathing digital art exhibit of ocean habitats and species, created by artists and developers from all over the world. This social exploring experience is currently available as a downloadable app for PC and Macintosh computers at
"theBlu" turns the Internet into a globally-connected 3D digital ocean wherein every species and habitat is an original work of art created by a worldwide community of artists, animators and developers, including Academy Award(R) winners Andy Jones and Kevin Mack, and students alike.
Exploring "theBlu" is as easy as browsing the web and includes information about species, exploration of geo-located habitats, in-ocean tagging of fish, the purchase of species to grow your collection and customize your experience, social activity streams, event and photo sharing, and ocean life swimming from user to user across the Internet, creating real-time social interaction.
How it works: Participating non-profit collaborators sponsor "ambassador" species or habitats in "theBlu" and users of "theBlu" are offered the opportunity to purchase these "ambassador" species or habitats for their virtual ocean environment. Twenty-five percent (25%) of the purchase price of these virtual species or habitats goes directly to the non-profit collaborators to fund projects that support their work in the real ocean environment. The program is also designed to increase awareness and reach for collaborating organizations and their conservation efforts. Users of "theBlu" have the opportunity to effect real change for the world ocean.