Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Shark Repellent: a new study indicates visual cues could be a deterrent

As a follow up to my post this past Sunday on the Australian government's attempts to control white sharks off the Western Australian coast by a variety of often fatal means, new research has come out regarding another avenue for developing a shark repellent: Eyesight.

According to, researchers from Australia have been studying the brains of cartilaginous animals, which includes sharks and rays, and their conclusions point to some species of shark as having a more developed brain than previously thought.

There isn't an implication that the sharks are "smarter" than previously thought, as that often implies intelligence of a sort that we associate with humans.  Rather, while some sharks have developed brains along an evolutionary path that is similar to vertebrates including humans, the sensory abilities of the sharks are perhaps broader in scope and therefore can have an impact on their behavior more than previously suspected.

While chemical shark repellents have focused on confusing or disrupting a shark's sense of smell, the new research poses the idea that visual cues might serve as effective repellents.

“Great white sharks have quite large parts of the brain associated with their visual input, with implications for them being much more receptive to repellents targeting visual markers,” said Kara Yopak, a shark researcher at the University of Western Australia.
And what visual image would a shark possibly find threatening or repelling?

“A shark may recognize a poisonous sea-snake’s markings and swim away, for example, and we can use this information to cue a response.   It’s about understanding how their neurobiology affects their behavior,” Yopak said.  “This information may direct researchers’ efforts towards targeting the visual system when developing repellents for sharks.”

Imagine that the ultimate shark repellent turns out to be a black and white striped banner with the words "This is a giant sea snake.  Go away," emblazoned across the front.  Or perhaps we scuba divers will all start wearing wetsuits with markings that look similar to orcas - a known shark predator.   Anything is worth a try when the alternative is hooking and killing any shark that happens to cruise within the vicinity of a popular beach.


Monday, October 29, 2012

Underwater Eden: new book explores the Phoenix Island Protected Area

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) came into existence in 2006.  It was, at the time, the largest marine protected area in the world and was the result of a courageous step by the government of the Republic of Kiribati - a South Pacific nation consisting of what was once known as the Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands.  With scientific support from Conservation International and other research institutions, like the New England Aquarium, an area of over 157,000 square miles was designated as a protected area, including eight islands, several major submerged reefs, hundreds of square miles of corals ecosystems and vast areas of open ocean protected from commercial fishing.  In 2010, PIPA was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and, while it has been surpassed in size by other marine protected areas, it still stands as a major success in forward-thinking ocean management.

But how did such a monumental step in marine ecology management come to pass?  How did the government of Kiribati come to this ground-breaking decision?  What did marine researchers find in assessing the area?  What makes PIPA so special in terms of sealife? And what are the plans for the future?  To answer these questions, many of the people involved in the development and study of PIPA have put pen to paper and a new book will be available in November, Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth.

Edited by Greg Stone, PhD., chief ocean scientist at Conservation International, and David Obura, PhD., adjunct senior scientist with the New England Aquarium, Underwater Eden details the evolution of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area from the difficult political decision-making (the formation of PIPA would entail the loss of international commercial fishing licenses totaling in the millions of dollars), the initial scientific expeditions to catalog the various species of animal and plant life - from fish to seabirds to invasive insects, to the future plans to ensure not only the health and vibrancy of PIPA but the economic well-being of the Kiribati people.

The Kiribati people figure prominently in this book.  Their culture is one that has been forever tied to the sea.  While the ocean is an important key to their survival, they also understand that the ocean, too, must survive.  Both their fates are intertwined and their commitment to PIPA is both heart warming and encouraging.  If only the rest of the planet could see the oceans through the eyes of the Kiribati people.

Through words and striking pictures from top notch photographers like Brian Skerry, Paul Nicklen, and Cat Holloway, Underwater Eden presents the treasures of the Phoenix Islands that rest just beneath the waves.  From 2000 to 2009, four scientific expeditions set out to observe the variety of sealife and document the condition of the coral reefs.  Such studies established a baseline by which the health of the protected area could be monitored and assessed.  However, even in a pristine environment, there can be threats.  Early in PIPA's history, it was impacted by shark fishing poachers (who were ultimately apprehended) and by a coral bleaching event in 2002.  Fortunately, the shark population rebounded as did the coral reefs, serving as examples of nature's resiliency when given a chance to recover.

Greg Stone has often said that through the Phoenix Islands he is able to get a glimpse as to how the oceans were a thousand years ago.  And through Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth, we are able to get our own glimpse as to just what he was talking about.  Full of personal first-hand accounts, interesting sidebars, and great photos, this is a book that will strengthen the resolve of dedicated ocean conservationists and enlighten those who do not yet understand the importance of marine protected areas.

You can pre-order Underwater Eden through Amazon in its hard copy edition, just in time for the holiday gift season.  It is very reasonably priced and, most importantly, all of the proceeds go to support the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.  In bringing the back story of one of the most significant steps taken in ocean conservation, this book also provides you with the opportunity to make a contribution to preserving an amazing coral wilderness which continues to serve as a model for critically-needed protected areas worldwide.

Available at

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sharks At Risk In Australia: tagged sharks may be victims of Western Australia hysteria

Researchers in Australia are trying their best to foster calm and rational thinking in the wake of five fatalities in Western Australia due to great white sharks in the past 12 months.  As the number of human-shark interactions increased, so did the demand for some kind of action to be taken by the Australian government.

It's really a classic and unfortunate case of public concerns for safety mixed with businesses concerned over loss of potential business that has fueled, ala Jaws, demands for action ranging from protecting beaches with shark nets and drum lines to actively pursuing sharks that are spotted close to shore to culling sharks in the hopes of reducing the potential for deadly encounters.

The media is subtly fueling the hysteria with reports (see below) of sharks "lurking" off local beaches.  Yes, lurking.  Not swimming  as they have for hundreds of thousands of years in oceans that were always meant for their existence, but lurking.

According to a report in Australia's Herald Sun, in September the Western Australia government authorized $4 million to use drum lines and track any sharks that come close to beach swimmers.  This decision came, in contradiction, on the heels of a government-funded report by Queensland's Bond University that found that drum lines provided no discernible measure of safety from sharks and, in fact, would succeed in catching many other unintended species.  Drums lines are floating drums anchored to the bottom with baited lines attached.  The idea behind them is that, unlike shark nets which are designed to prevent sharks from entering an area or that inadvertently ensnare them, drum lines are specifically designed to hook and kill a shark.

The random killing of white sharks threatens the efforts of researchers who tag and track sharks using various telemetry devices that can provide information on the shark's location.  In fact, the Western Australia government has even voiced an interest in killing tagged sharks when their studied movements bring them close to populated beaches.  But with ongoing tracking information of Western and Southern Australia's white sharks (a population reported to be only around 1,000), scientists can learn more about their movements - seasonal patterns, migration routes, and more - and in so doing can best advise as to methods that would provide for public safety while also protecting the sharks as they roam within the environment nature intended.

"Killing tagged sharks is the worst thing we could do right now,'' said Tim Nichol, marine coordinator for the Conservation Council of Western Australia. "We need to learn more about white sharks and these are the sharks giving us information about their movements.  It is very expensive and difficult to tag white sharks and only a small proportion of the population is currently tagged.''

I can hear the voice of Amity mayor Larry Vaughn, "Now you do what you have to to make these beaches safe, but these beaches will be open for business." 

Source: Herald Sun

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ocean Acidifcation: Center for Biological Diversity initiates new campaign

Ocean acidification is garnering more and more attention within the ocean conservation community.  And well it should.  It was only a few years ago that the issue started to reach a state of critical mass within the ocean advocacy community.  And as more and more research is taking place to understand its causes and effects, we are more and more coming to understand its insidious impact on the marine environment.

With today's massive amounts of CO2 being discharged into the atmosphere, the ocean itself is absorbing more and more of the carbon as it settles to earth.  Where once we thought that the ocean could actually be a storage facility for large quantities of carbon (called carbon sequestration), we now find that the amount far exceeds what the seas are capable of handling.  The result is a decrease in the pH of the ocean, making it more acidic.  That is the essence of ocean acidification.

“The havoc wreaked by ocean acidification is unfolding faster and more severely than anyone thought it would. Coral reefs are collapsing, and food chains may break apart as our oceans go through a dangerous transformation,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If we’re going to stop this crisis from getting far worse, we’ll need national leadership at the top levels of our government.” 

The effects of ocean acidification is a reversal of many of the other threats imposed by man.  Overfishing, particularly of pelagic predators like tuna, billfish, and sharks, among other fish commercially sought after, is a top down assault on marine ecosystems.  Ocean acidification, on the other hand, works primarily from the bottom up.  The decreased pH level destroys many of the microscopic animals that make up plankton, a basic building block in the aquatic food chain.  Also animals like shells and coral that use calcium carbonate in the making of their exoskeletons are put at risk as the increased pH retards or breaks down the growth of calcium carbonate.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has started a new ocean acidification campaign, Endangered  CBD specializes in taking conservation issues to the doorsteps of government agencies by wielding the power of the courts.  Working in consort with other organizations, the Center has initiated many lawsuits and other legal actions to force U.S. government agencies to abide by the mandates that currently exist, but are often ignored, within federal and state environmental laws.  And they have a track record of many successes.

However, ocean acidification is a challenging nemesis for CBD to take on as it is a truly global issue.  The CO2 being pumped into our atmosphere - from factories, automobiles, energy plants, just to name a few - does not recognize political or geographic boundaries.  Every nation has a responsibility to act not only for they sake of their own people but for humankind as a whole - not to mention the oceans themselves.

While I was attending the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Ocean Conservation Event last month in Monterey, California, another important conference was also taking place in the same hotel and conference center.  It involved over 500 scientists who had come together to discuss the current state of ocean acidification, where it's heading, and what needs to be done about it.

"Carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal, oil and gas are causing the oceans to acidify more and more rapidly than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs. It's time for actions that reduce carbon pollution in our oceans before it's too late,” said Ken Caldeira, climate scientist in the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University. 

Learn more about CBD's Endangered Oceans campaign and circulate their new infographic (shown above, click on the image to enlarge) among your friends and colleagues - those who may not be aware of ocean acidification and the threat it imposes on the oceans and ourselves.

Source: CBD Press Release              

Monday, October 22, 2012

Orca Goes To Court: Free Morgan campaign to release captive marine mammal

At the recent BLUE Ocean Film Festival, I had the opportunity to learn about Morgan, a female orca that was found alone and in poor health in the waters off the Netherlands.  She was taken by a government-sanctioned rehabilitation agency with the idea that Morgan would be brought back to health and released back to her family pod.  In a very complicated series of events that are now being sorted out in the courts, Morgan was instead turned over to Loro Parque, a Spanish aquatic amusement park in the Canary Islands.

As advocates for Morgan's release, she has many supporters (In the interest of full disclosure, I have previously stated in this blog (here, here, and here) that I am opposed to keeping cetecea like orcas and dolphins in captivity.  I believe the time has to recognize that we have learned enough since the first orca or dolphin was placed in captivity to know that it is not in the best interests of the animals to continue the practice - we now know better).

I had the chance to learn about Morgan's situation firsthand from people like Jean-Michel Cousteau and, in particular, Ingrid Visser, PhD. - a whale researcher who is probably one of Morgan's most committed supporters.  I spoke with Ingrid about Morgan's plight at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and we agreed to follow up after the festival with an interview.

RTSea: You are deeply involved in the plight of Morgan, a young female orca, currently being held in an amusement park in Spain, but before we look into Morgan's situation, can you tell us a bit about your background?  What initially fueled your interest in studying cetacea (whales and dolphins)?

Ingrid Visser: I’ve been interested in cetaceans for as long as I can remember – I must have been 5 or 6 years old when I first remember knowing that I wanted to work with them.  However, as I kid I was told that the only way I could do that was to work with them at SeaWorld, but even at that age I knew how wrong those types of places were for the animals and I strove to find another way.  I’ve now been working with wild orca for over 20 years.

RTS:  How would you best describe the role of whales and dolphins in the marine ecosystem?  The ramifications from the loss of some marine species has been documented and for other threatened species the adverse impacts have theorized.  What do you see as the impact to the overall marine ecosystem with the possible loss of some cetacea species?  What is the possible cascade effect?

IV: If we use orca (killer whales) as an example of the cascade effect of their removal, the implications are almost so wide-ranging as to defy imagination.  Orca are what we term an ‘apex predator’ (sitting right at the top of the food web) so their removal would have ramifications for their prey but also for the whole food chain.   Orca are also known as a ‘keystone’ species (which is a term that comes from arched doorways made of bricks, where the stone at the top of the arch keeps the whole thing together and if you remove it, the whole arch will collapse).  With this type terminology and it’s definition, I would hope that no further explanation is necessary!

However, orca can also be described by another term, and that is an ‘umbrella species’.  In this definition, the idea is that if you protect them and their habitat, by default that acts as an umbrella, protecting everything that naturally falls under their reach – in this case, pretty much the whole ocean!  Returning young female orca to the wild has been successfully completed (with ‘Springer’  [a rehabilitated orca] now being reunited with her family for over 10 years).  There are details about her and her remarkable parallels to Morgan, on our website.

RTS: Morgan was originally found in the cold waters off the northwest coast of the Netherlands.  She was found emaciated and dehydrated.  What reasons do whale researchers give for her condition at the time of her capture?

IV: We don’t know what happened to Morgan, we don’t know why she was alone or why she was emaciated and dehydrated.  The reasons could range from the logical to the bizarre and just about anything in between.  We don’t like to speculate about this sort of thing, as that can taint how we look at the next steps (rehabilitation and release).  However, as I know that people are often asking this very question, I’d say this – how is that any young animal (or for that matter, human) gets lost and separated from their family?  It could be a simple thing such as the parent (or offspring) getting distracted and wandering off (think of the number of kids who get lost at supermarkets or shopping malls!), or it could be something much more sinister, where the parent was injured in some way (perhaps run over by a boat) and the youngster (Morgan in this case), fled in fright.  Of course, we also can’t rule out that it was something more natural – such as her mother dying of old age.

But, regardless of the original cause of Morgan being alone, she needed help.  This was given, but unfortunately from that point on, she became a valuable commodity in the captivity industry and they don’t want to let her go.  People have called into question why humans had intervened at all and some have said that she should have been left to die.  There are arguments both for and against this method of response (or lack of).  They are a little too intense to go into here, but I would say this; that as a species we have done so much to harm the ocean and it’s creatures, that if we can do something to help right that balance, then I think that we should do that.  As it turns out, Morgan is from the Norwegian population of orca, which was hunted extensively (over 2000 taken).  Studies have shown that the most vulnerable demographic to remove from such a population of orca, is young females.  Conversely, if you want to help such a population recover, logically, returning young females makes the most sense.

RTS: Morgan was brought back to health under a rehabilitation program that would have culminated in her release back to her original family pod.  However, at the 11th hour, a Netherlands court judge ruled that Morgan should be turned over to Loro Parque, a Spanish aquatic theme park in the Canary Islands.  On what grounds did the judge override the opinions of whale rehabilitation experts who were anticipating  that Morgan would be released back into open water?

IV: There were in fact two judges, in two separate hearings (and there will be three judges in the next hearing).  Confused yet?  It is actually a very complicated process and to try and simmer it down to a few key points it should be kept in mind that the Court case is still the same one (there have just been three hearings for the same case).  Also, it should be remembered that the case is against the Netherlands Government for allowing the Dolfinarium Harderwijk, to police their own work.  In other words, they were issued with a ‘rehabilitation and release’ permit, but that permit has a clause that says ‘unless the animals is deemed to not be suitable for release’.  And therein lies the rub.  There is no external vetting process to decide which animals is ready to go back or not.  The Dolfinarium Harderwijk was extremely duplicitous in their methods.

For instance, they told the public (and we have evidence of this) that Morgan was ‘only a toddler, and still dependent on milk’, yet, they never gave her any milk and only ever fed her dead fish.  They also told the public that Morgan was only 2 years old. Yet, when we compared her length to that of 29 other orca (for whom we knew their age at a similar size), we found that she was at least 3 years old, and possibly even up to the age of 5.   This has implications in terms of weaning (most orca are fully weaned by the time they are 3 years old, but some even earlier).  Also, this has implications in terms of her foraging skills and her language skills.  Regardless, the entertainment park lied and also provided this distorted information to their ‘seven experts’, causing them to form opinions based on misleading information.  These ‘Seven Experts’ were four whale biologists, two seabird ecologists and an ex SeaWorld Veterinarian.   When the four whale experts were given the full data set (which included other info), each of them withdrew their support to keep Morgan in captivity and said that she should at the very least be moved to a sea pen and she should be given the chance to go back to her family.

RTS: Was it a question of the judge questioning Morgan's fitness and odds of success or was the judge influenced by the theme park organization, who would obviously benefit financially by acquiring Morgan?

IV: The financial benefits of Morgan, to the captivity industry are difficult define, because the industry keeps their cards very close to their chest when it comes to things like this.  However, we do know that one female orca had been insured for US$10 million.  That implied that Morgan is worth at least that much to them.  But, if we take into account that Morgan is the first orca to come into the captivity industry, from the wild, in 25 years, her dollar value escalates considerably.  Add to that the fact that of the 44 orca in captivity at the time of her capture, all but 2 were related to each other (and of those two, one had given birth to six calves, all of whom had died and the other was a male who they had not managed to collect semen from, so they had been unable to bred him as he was held in a tank, alone, in Argentina).  To make things even more interesting, the public should know that SeaWorld has allowed mothers to breed with sons – indicating that inbreeding is fairly rampant in this industry.  Morgan’s new blood line represents the life-line for this industry, where the average age for a captive orca less than nine years (compared to wild orca, where the average age is more than 40 years and individuals are known to live beyond 80 years).

RTS: Another court hearing is scheduled for November 1st in the Netherlands to review the judge's ruling on Morgan.  What strategy are you and your colleagues taking to argue for Morgan's release, and what do you think the counter-arguments are going to be in favor of maintaining Morgan's captivity?

IV: Morgan’s court case is an on-going case.  The strategy remains the same as the last two hearings, in that we believe that legally the Netherlands Government has violated various laws, treaties and conventions and we call them to task on those aspects.  Additionally, we will be presenting documentation that shows that Morgan is suffering immensely at Loro Parque, where she has been transported.  At that entertainment park, she is made to perform in shows (which is a violation of her EU CITES Transport permit), she is subjected to intense sexual pressure from an adult male (because as explained above, the industry desperately wants to breed from her, but additionally, if she is pregnant it will present a number of problems with regards to releasing her as her calf would be a hybrid and furthermore she would be an unnaturally young mother – orca in the wild don’t normally give birth until they are around 12-14 years of age – and Morgan is roughly half that age.  Loro Parque has bred one of their other female at the tender age of 7, the youngest any orca has been forced to breed).  We will also be presenting evidence that shows that the park do not know how to deal with a wild-born orca and that they are negligent in their care of Morgan.

Loro Parque is now claiming (after Morgan had been given a ‘clean bill of health’) that she is ‘deaf’.  Their claims are based purely on some behavioural responses that she gives (or rather doesn’t give).  They state that she doesn’t respond to their whistles.  I have personally watched her not respond to some of the whistles, but respond to others.  Furthermore, she also chooses which hand-signals to respond to as well.  By their logic this would mean that Morgan was also blind!  Regardless, Loro Parque has had more than 11 months to text Morgan’s hearing, yet they haven’t.  This begs the question, why not?  And my suspicion is that they don’t want to find out that she isn’t deaf.  The seed of doubt is enough to cloud the arguments and that is all they require.

RTS: The Free Morgan Foundation's website ( has amassed a considerable amount of detailed information regarding Morgan's history, the legal positions and motions filed, and even information about Morgan's family pod.  Of course the foundation would welcome any financial support from concerned individuals and organizations, but what else can concerned people do to help?

IV: We have a ‘How to Help’ page, with some suggestions.  We certainly want the world to sit up and notice Morgan.  She isn’t the first orca (or dolphin) to be taken into captivity for ‘rehabilitation and release’ and then ended up in a life of performing circus tricks in a featureless box.  She won’t be the last and sadly, for these animals, the only retirement they get is when they die.  We need the public to realize just how bad the industry is and that they have been misleading the public for years.  The truth has to come out. 

We have ‘pledges’ that people can take (such as to never by a ticket to a park which holds whales or dolphins), we have a petition, which at the time of writing is at around 35,000 signatures, for Morgan’s release (which we will show the Judges and tell them ‘be careful what you do, as the world is watching’).  We have a facebook page ( and we are trying to spread the word through the social media.  We have a twitter account @free_morgan so you can get info about her as we get news.  If any of your readers know of any celebrities who would be willing to stand up and say something for Morgan, on their own twitter account or their own facebook page, they would help spread the world exponentially.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Making Waves in the Rockies: Colorado Ocean Coalition holds ocean symposium/film festival

This weekend, October 20-21, the Colorado Ocean Coalition will be holding its Making Waves ocean conservation event in Boulder, CO.  On Saturday, attendees will be entertained with films from the recent San Francisco Ocean Festival while Sunday will be an ocean conservation symposium followed by a gala honoring Jean-Michel Cousteau.

You can check out the full schedule of events at the Colorado Ocean Coalition website.

I will be attending - another opportunity to catch up with colleagues and network with people who are passionately and professionally involved in protecting our marine resources.  And it will give me a chance to gauge the attitudes and interests of people more "landlocked" or removed from direct contact with the seas.  

This isn't to say their commitment is any less.  In fact, living near the Pacific Ocean as I do, it can be refreshing to meet with people not bound to the coast who are just as committed as I am to preserving our oceans.  And if they do have a different perspective based on where they live, that can be very enlightening; it can add some color to explain positions or attitudes of the decision makers who represent these people and are involved in national or international environmental policy.  

The health of the oceans is truly a global issue whether you live in Hawaii or Iowa.  What is happening to the seas impacts food supplies, medicines, and climate - temperature, changing weather, and air quality - everywhere.

If you are in the Denver/Boulder area, come check out the Colorado Ocean Coalition's Making Waves weekend.  Maybe I'll see you there.

Source: Colorado Ocean Coalition  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pricing Ecosystem Services: can conservation be achieved through economic values?

Came across an interesting article in UK's The Guardian, What's Wrong With Putting a Price on Nature?, that addressed the concept of placing a price or economic value on the ecosystem services that nature provides.  What is a forest's ability to sequester carbon worth?  How much would it cost to secure land and maintain it's undeveloped state if that helps provide a local source of fresh water?

Trying to place a monetary value on ecology has been around for a while as a concept.  It is often referred to as valuating ecosystem services, and it has been applied in several circumstances that have proved to be successful.  Determining a value of a live shark in related tourism dollars, as opposed to the revenue gained from a caught shark, has been used as a supporting argument for marine protected areas or shark sanctuaries.  And as shark conservation becomes more and more and international regulatory issue, economics plays a greater role in moving policy than does the emotional reaction to shark finning.

The Guardian reported, "Stuart H. M. Butchart, a researcher at BirdLife International, replies that embracing the ecosystem services idea doesn't necessarily mean abandoning the argument that species and habitats have intrinsic value. But making the economic case often 'has more resonance' for decision-makers."

However, pricing ecosystem services has plenty of critics.  There is concern that when economics forces get involved in determining the pluses and minuses of any ecological areas, you can find many of the same abuses that occur in the financial arena.  Undervaluing property, making environmental changes to cut costs that can then have serious environmental consequences, and just the idea that the environment could be turned over to the same free market forces - big corporations, etc. - that caused some of our ecological challenges in the first place.

I don't see it as a concept that can be applied broadly, like some silver bullet to all of the environment's problems.  If it were to be considered at all, it must be on a case-by-case basis.  However, in the realm of international environmental policy, economics can often play just as influential a role as scientific data and intrinsic value.

The article in the Guardian, written by Richard Conniff, is quite in-depth and I would recommend that you take a few minutes and read it.  You might find yourself to be in support of the concept or completely opposed, but at the very least, it must be considered as a strategic tool in some situations for selling conservation to those who may feel threatened by environmental policymaking that is done without a thorough concern for all that have a vested interest - the environment, threatened species, mankind itself and . . . business. 

Source: The Guardian

Monday, October 15, 2012

World Primates At Risk: IUCN issues report listing 25 most threatened

The United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity is being held right now in India and during the convention the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) issued a report listing the 25 primates most threatened with extinction.  The list included many small monkeys and apes that are found in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.

Primates like lemurs, langurs and other species of monkeys, along with apes like the mountain gorilla made the list.  These animals are being threatened by the loss of their habitat - tropical jungles being leveled for lumber or agricultural growth - in addition to being hunted for food or for the illegal wildlife trade.

Several species are standing on the brink of extinction, such as the Madagascar's northern sportive lemur, of which there are only 19 left in the wild.  More than half of the world's 633 primate species are at risk of extinction.

"Lemurs are now one of the world's most endangered groups of mammals, after more than three years of political crisis and a lack of effective enforcement in their home country, Madagascar," said Christoph Schwitzer of the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation.  "A similar crisis is happening in Southeast Asia, where trade in wildlife is bringing many primates very close to extinction."

However, there are some success stories that alter the balance sheet somewhat.  Thanks to conservation efforts, several species - like India's lion-tailed macaque or Madagascar's greater bamboo lemur - have been brought back from the edge and the world has not lost a single primate species to extinction so far this century.  But we are very close to having that happen to some of these threatened species if decisive action is not taken.

So, there is a catastrophe looming, we have made some progress, but there is much more to be done.

However, progress can be painfully slow.  In February of 2010, the IUCN issued a very similar report - listing 25 threatened primates, again primarily in Africa and Southeast Asia.  The small primates, like lemurs, were particularly at risk.  But, as with the current report, there were some bright spots regarding species whose numbers were increasing due to conservation efforts.  The two reports were eerily similar.

It would seem there is a tug of war taking place in the jungles of some of our richest areas in terms of biodiversity.  Loses are being challenged by some gains, keeping the score at a sort of ecological draw.  The question is what will it take to significantly push the score in favor of the primates?  

Source: Huffington Post
Source: IUCN Red List

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Shark Conservation in Arabia: first international workshop concludes

Last Sunday I posted some information about a shark conservation conference to be held this past week in Dubai.  The focus of the event was to be on the state of shark populations in Arabian waters, the impact of commercial shark fishing and exporting of shark fins, and the level (or lack of) of regulations and enforcement.

Representatives from several Arab nations were in attendance along with scientists and others from conservation organizations in the region.  As this was the first such gathering - labeled as the Shark Conservation in Arabia Workshop - I did not expect anything earth-shattering regarding the outcome.  Such is the nature of international diplomacy, even when it involves pressing issues such as the possible loss of shark species in and around the Persian Gulf.  Agonizing baby steps.

After listening to the latest scientific data on shark populations - which, unfortunately, is a bit scant - and the reports and opinions from nations as to the amount of illegal shark fishing taking place, and who is doing what regarding the regulation of shark product exporting, a collective "wish list" was proposed which included stricter regulation and enforcement.

As reported in the Gulf News, Ralf Sonntag, director for the German branch of International Fund for Animal Welfare, said there is an enormous collective will throughout the Gulf region to better protect sharks from growing fin harvesting by the fishing industry. “This is a good start,” Sonntag said.  “It’s the start of a dialogue in order to improve the situation. We have some very constructive discussions.”

However, all is not rosy.  There are some serious challenges to be faced regarding the politics of the situation.  The commercial shark fishing industry is a powerful one on several different levels and there is some hair-splitting semantics taking place.  Earlier in the week, the UAE Ministry of the Environment and Water declared that its country was not a major harvester of sharks and but that other nations were entering UAE waters and taking sharks.  Additionally, what laws are in place in the UAE for the protection of sharks are reportedly being routinely ignored.  The lack of enforcement has emboldened fishermen to sell shark fins and carcasses in the open marketplaces in plain sight; nothing "black market" about it. 

The UAE Ministry's comments are troubling because the UAE is the fifth largest exporter of shark fins in the world.  They may wish to deflect criticism by saying they are not a major player in harvesting, but their role as an exporter must not be taken lightly.  To use an analogy, they may say they are not making the drugs, but as a big time dealer they are equally caught up in the supply chain from production to distribution to use.

The influence of those who benefit economically from either fishing or distributing shark products could be felt by comments regarding the lack of scientific data regarding species population levels.  This past Thursday, Gulf News reported that the shark harvest is “commercially important because of its value nowadays mainly due to its fins... in the UAE, fishing of sharks is not a bigger concern than the re-export of shark fins,” said Mohammad Tabish, fisheries specialist for the UAE Ministry of the Environment and Water.  “Due to lack of stock assessment studies and species specific data, it is still premature to say that sharks are overfished. But, yes, fishing does exist.”  

This is the great challenge facing shark advocates now, as they enter more and more into the international and political arena.  Policy decisions are made based on an established robust economic enterprise versus the environment.  Just as we have in the oil/energy industry, the desire to maintain the status quo rather than adopt alternatives is very strong.

For shark conservation to truly succeed, all elements must be addressed: altering market demand, drying up distribution channels, eliminating harvesting, and providing worthwhile alternatives for both commercial and local fishermen.  One organization, Fin4Fins, is focusing its efforts on "offering subsistence shark fishing communities an alternative through a tourist industry based on scuba diving."  This is an approach that is being successfully used with several Pacific island nations, and it needs to be seriously considered for protecting Arabian sharks.  It's not a "silver bullet" solution but is certainly a strategy that must be included with all of the others.

In the end, the Shark Conservation in Arabia workshop was a good start but there are significant challenges to the realization of concrete regulation and enforcement among Arab nations and the implementation of viable alternatives for fishermen.  It would have been better to have seen this occur 10 or 20 years ago.  And to say, "Well, better late than never" is not very consoling.

But let's dig in and get the job done.

Source: Gulf News 10/09, 10/11, 10/12 

Free Fall at the Edge of Space: successful jump back to our home planet

A little piece of technological history was accomplished today high - very high - over the dry scrubland of New Mexico.  Felix Baumgartner, supported by the Red Bull Stratos team of scientists and technicians, was taken aloft in a helium balloon to an altitude of over 128,000 feet - 3 times the altitude of a jetliner and the highest for any human in a balloon.  He then did what he had set out to do beginning nearly seven years ago when this project started. He jumped from the capsule he was riding in to make a free fall descent in which he reached a speed in the thin outer traces of the atmosphere of 833 miles per hour, becoming the first human to break the speed of sound (without an aircraft) at 1.24 Mach.  Opening his chute at around 5,000 feet, he safely landed in the New Mexico desert and is concluding a press conference as I write this post.

Undoubtedly, this event will be the talk of many Internet circles today and will get several days worth of news coverage.  There will be talk of what scientific data was gathered by the many sensors and equipment that both Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos capsule was carrying.  And there will be those that will describe it as nothing more than a high-tech stunt, which to some degree is a valid comment, akin to why do we climb that mountain? Because it's there.  

An event like this taps into the little boy adventurer in all of us.  Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut, I watched all the space movies, had all the space models, and never missed the coverage of every launch in the U.S. space program.  Reality, though, said that being strapped into the next Apollo moon flight wasn't going to happen.  However, that didn't stop me from channeling my adventurism into something that I found equally fulfilling: an aquanaut.  And as I grew older I realized that what I was becoming involved in - the oceans and our aquatic resources - had greater consequences for myself and the planet.

So, I found myself vicariously living Baumgartner's moment in history today (beamed with spectacular clarity via live Internet feeds) but without any sense of regret whatsoever.  The same thrill that people might get by watching events like today's jump into near space, I get every time I jump beneath the waves.

Interestingly, what I saw from the video cameras perched outside of the Red Bull Stratos capsule reminded me once again of how small planet Earth is in the grand scheme of things.  How this is our home base - enclosed, encapsulated within a thin sheet of atmosphere protecting us - a truly finite ecosystem moving through the void of space.  It's all we have.

This is something that Felix Baumgartner realized as he stood on the step, looking out at the blackness of space all around him and then turning to the bright blue planet beckoning him home.  Asked by a reporter what he was thinking at that moment, Baumgartner said he thought of how small we all are.

So, congratulations to Felix, his entire crew, and to the corporate sponsors who once again proved that, as with SpaceX (the private spacecraft company supplying the International Space Station) and other companies involved in science technology ventures, non-government enterprises can often accomplish great things for science and the environment.  Ocean research needs more of that kind of commitment - funding the Aquarius undersea research lab would be a good start - as the outlays are comparatively small and the returns can be enormous and truly live saving.  

Visit the Red Bull Stratos website.    

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

About White Sharks & Conservation: presentation at the Explorers Club in San Diego

This coming Tuesday, October 16th, I will be giving a presentation at the San Diego Chapter of the Explorers Club.  The presentation will be "Understanding Great White Sharks and the Future of Shark Conservation."  I will be recalling some of my experiences from over 7 years of filming the white sharks at Isla Guadalupe. Also, I will be touching on some of the important issues facing shark conservation as it evolves from a grass roots cause to an international movement, involving new players both pro and con and new strategies.

I have been a member of the Explorers Club, Southern California Chapter, for several years and I find the members to be a varied and interesting bunch.  There are well known members like Dr. Sylvia Earle, Buzz Aldrin, Don Walsh, James Cameron, and many others.  But there are many others who are simply die hard explorers at heart, travelling all around the globe and gaining a great appreciation for the environment and the people that call it home.

The evening starts with a reception followed by dinner, and then it's my turn.  Click here for a PDF that has all of the details if you happen to be in the San Diego area. Or for more information or questions, you can email

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Nature At The Pols: essay reminds us that nature has no political ties

An essay caught my eye today that I would like to share.  Written by David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, it is titled "Love of nature not right, left or center, it's common sense." 

It's a simple reminder that nature knows no political affiliation and, outside of Washington DC, there is a large number of people who see that nature is something to be preserve for all people.

David quotes several people from across the country, people who understand that conservation benefits all of us.

Said Lorie [no last name] from Pennsylvania, "Since when did breathing clean fresh air, drinking pure clean water and protecting our precious natural resources and environment become something that only Democrats should value? Too often now I hear key Republicans ridicule people that care deeply about the environment as over-zealous crazies. It makes me feel almost embarrassed to be a Republican." 

Mark from California said, "I sure would like to be hearing candidates even mention the environment during their campaigns. There's a lot of talk about the deficit and the burden it will place on future generations. Think of the burden placed on them if their world is deprived of clean air, clean water and an abundance of wildlife and wild places." 

Certainly we have pressing economic issues to contend with.  However, the challenges facing nature roll on 24/7; nature won't set them aside and wait patiently until we get around to addressing them.

And Nature and all the animals and plants within her domain don't vote.  What would happen if they could? 

Click here to read the essay in the Kennebec Journal.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Saving Sharks in Arabia: conference to look at regulating commercial shark fishing

A step in the right direction for shark conservation might be on the horizon in Dubai. A conference will be held this coming week to discuss regulations regarding commercial fishing for several species of hammerhead sharks.  Organized by the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water and Sharkquest of Arabia, the four-day Shark Conservation in Arabia will include government officials and scientists.  

The goal is to determine whether shark fishing, particularly involving the great, smooth and scalloped hammerhead sharks, should be regulated or even banned altogether if the scientific evidence provided by the participants dictates it.  There lies part of the challenge as scientific evidence regarding the populations of these sharks in Arabian waters is a bit on the slim side.

With examples like the reduction in hammerhead populations in and around Mexico and in the Mediterranean, where the loss of hammerheads is estimated at as much as 99.99%, it would seem logic would dictate that Arabia's hammerhead sharks are likely not different from other populations in terms of their slow reproductive rates.  And so, even if the population was robust, at current demand levels for shark fins the Arabian population would evaporate rather quickly if commercial shark fishing went unabated.

It is the hope of local shark conservationists that strong regulations will be proposed and agreed to at the conference.  Such regulations would then be formally proposed at the March meeting of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).  This is necessary as the current trade in sharks in the region, both importing and exporting, involves several different countries.  So the end result must be international regulations or bans, and that is the primary role of CITES.

However, strong opposition can be expected as there is a considerable economic incentive at risk here.  Worldwide, the market for shark fins has been estimated at $1.2 billion USD.  And as pressure continues to mount against it - and as the populations of shark species continue to decline - that dollar figure will go up per pound. 

Hammerheads are not the only shark species at risk.  Sonja Fordham, president of Washington, DC-based Shark Advocates International, recently posted a picture on Facebook of thresher sharks lining a dock in Dubai.  While thresher shark meat can be found on the menus of some higher end seafood restaurants, these sharks are most likely bound for the shark fin market as shark meat can spoil quickly when not properly treated and refrigerated.

The UAE is the fifth largest exporter of shark fins and, judging by these few pictures, it's not hard to see how.  That makes this week's Shark Conservation in Arabia conference all the more important.

Source: The National                    

IUCN Green Lists: proposed approach to recognize conservation successes

For those of you who have read this blog with any regularity, you have noticed that every once in a while I will post something that is just for fun, something on the lighter side that perhaps shows nature or the oceans at their very best.  With so many weighty issues to address, every once in a while we all need a break.

And when we see healthy ecosystems or species, rather than be lulled into a false sense that all is well, it is hoped that people will be encouraged that the steps being taken and the steps that need to be taken are bearing fruit. Success stories propel us to do more.

That is the basic philosophy being adopted by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).  This worldwide organization is well-known among conservationists for its Red Lists which list and rate threatened or endangered species and ecosystems.  The Red Lists are helpful in identifying specific plants, animals and ecosystems that deserve our immediate attention.  However, they are negative indicators - what's going wrong - and taken as a whole, one can conclude that the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket.  The IUCN recognizes that we also need success stories and so they are preparing to launch two new programs: a Green List for species and one for managed protected areas.

"The concept of a green list is that it can throw a spotlight on things that are actually working," Trevor Sandwith, director of IUCN's Global Protected Areas program, was quoted by OurAmazingPlanet. "We already have well-managed, protected areas in the world, which no one is recognizing."         
Several national parks or protected areas are being put forth as test cases for the Green List concept.  Columbia's Parques Nacionales Naturales is one; Tayrona National Park, within the Parques area, along Columbia's Caribbean coast is another.  Successfully managed ecosystems and species can serve as models for other nations to observe and follow.

The Green Lists program was proposed at the IUCN's recent World Conservation Congress and the plan is to have a formal program adopted at the next congress to be held in 2016.  It is frustrating that movement on this idea has to be measured so slowly, but it will require the cooperation of all the member nations of the union and that will take time to iron out the details.  In the meantime, it does represent an optimistic, positive-thinking approach which many believe is needed in light of the challenges we face.

"We need to show that conservation is much more than just avoidance of extinction," said Elizabeth Bennett, president of the World Conservation Society (which strongly supports the concept of Green Lists as an important companion to the equally important Red Lists. 

Source: OurAmazingPlanet

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One World One Ocean: harnessing multimedia for National Seafood Month

Two years ago, MacGillivray-Freeman Films, makers of well-received IMAX films, turned their attention to the plight of the oceans and its inhabitants.  Spurred on by the concerns voiced by leading ocean conservationists like Dr. Sylvia Earle, they formed a new foundation, One World One Ocean, and a coinciding bold media initiative to utilize a variety of mass communication tools, from 3D IMAX to online interactive programs, for the purpose of enlightening the general public to the challenges facing our marine ecosystems.

One World One Ocean is pursuing a wide range of strategies that touch on different issues.  I received information today from the organization regarding their support of National Seafood Month.  The purpose of National Seafood Month is not necessarily to promote a greater consumption of seafood - too many species are already being adversely impacted by industrial commercial fishing as it is.  No, sustainability is the keystone of this month-long recognition and One World One Ocean has launched a group of educational initiatives that cover several age groups.

Here's some of what One World One Ocean is launching:

This week, we officially kick off our GO Fish! Campaign – an effort to make National Seafood Month sustainable. Rather than hearing from us about why making sustainable seafood choices matters, we thought you should hear straight from the source.

Introducing Toro the Bluefin Tuna, a fish who’s got something to say about his current less-than-desirable situation. Don't let his surfer cool fool you -- his message is sincere.

Populations of western Atlantic bluefin tuna have declined 83% since 1950 due to overfishing. If our consumption rates don't change, many popular seafood species will likely be wiped out within 40 years.

We want to ensure that Toro and his buddies have a healthy ocean where they can thrive for decades to come.Visit our new GO Fish! hub where we’ll be sharing videos, infographics, blogs, recipes and more, throughout the month of October.

Fishing for some awesome prizes? Enter our video contest or create a sustainable seafood Pinterest board for a chance to win OWOO gear or a GoPro camera!

When it comes to protecting the ocean, even the smallest act can create a big impact. We look forward to making waves with you this October.

MacGillivray-Freeman Films is harnessing their considerable media skills to bring a variety of communication platforms as a means of educating people of all ages regarding ocean conservation.  While I do not fully agree with the idea of seafood sustainability (I advocate aquafarming), I do commend One World One Ocean for making people aware of the plight of seafood in today's high volume commercial fishing industry.

Sustainable seafood may not be the long-term solution, but it could be interim step that may buy us a little time, while we committed conservationists try to get the decision makers to get off their arses and start thinking about the future of the oceans and mankind.

Source: One World One Ocean

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Coral Reef Cornucopia: rich coral biodiversity off Madagascar

With so much dire news these days regarding the world's coral - from coral bleaching, to ocean acidification, to over a majority of the reefs being degraded - it's always good to get some good news every once in a while.  Guarded news perhaps, but it reminds us that all is not lost if we act responsibly and act now.
Scientists from the Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (what a mouthful), also known as CORDIO, have reported the results of a study from 2002 to 2010 on reef-building corals in the West Indian Ocean.  Their survey shows a high level of coral biodiversity, particularly around Madagascar, the large island off the central east coast of Africa.
In the Mozambique Channel, between Madagascar and the African continent, the scientists found as many as 200 to 300 coral species at various sites in the area.  In other locations within the West Indian Oceans, there were less than 200 species, making the Mozambique Channel especially rich.

Throughout the West Indian Ocean, the scientists found 369 species of coral and estimated that there could be as many as 450 species.  That would put the area head-to-head with other well-known coral reefs like the northern Great Barrier Reef.

As healthy as the reef-building corals in Madagascar and surrounding waters may be, they are not immune to the challenges and threats against them, particularly as Africa attempts to build its economy and infrastructure.  Pollution from urbanization, overfishing, and energy exploration are just a few of the dangers these reefs face. 

Coral reefs of the Western Indian Ocean need careful management and protection if they are to realize their full potential for improving human well-being in this critical developing region," said Steve Katona, managing director of the Ocean Health Index.

While coral reefs provide natural protection from storms and an ecological foundation for healthy fish populations - all of which are beneficial to mankind, Katona added they are also "threatened by warming sea-surface temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution by chemicals, nutrients and sediment, ultraviolet light, invasion by alien species and direct habitat destruction from unsustainable fishing techniques, divers, boat anchors, coral collection or mining and dredging."

But for the moment, we can revel in the knowledge that healthy, pristine reefs can still be found in the world.  Now it is our job, our duty, to not only preserve this coral oases but to build upon their success elsewhere. 

Source: LiveScience