Saturday, March 31, 2012

Deepsea Challenger: a milestone event shortchanged by the media?

If you are a lover of all things oceanic, unless you have been at sea without any communication to the outside world, you have probably heard of James Cameron's successful dive to Challenger Deep, the lowest point on the seafloor in the Marianas Trench.

But perhaps not. It was a bit surprising and disappointing to see the low level of media coverage the event received. To recap, in a bit of a race with several other submersible operators, James Cameron and his crew, with the support of the National Geographic Society and Rolex, made a successful attempt on March 25th to reach of the bottom of the Marinas Trench at nearly seven miles down. Surrounded by over 8 tons of water pressure per square inch, renown filmmaker and amateur cum serious explorer spent 6 hours on the bottom in the vertical cylinder-shaped, one-man submersible Deepsea Challenger.

Rather than recite the details one more time, you can learn much more from National Geographic's own in-depth coverage on their website.

Man has not reached this depth in over 50 years, since the bathyscaphe Trieste first did it in 1960, and yet the accomplishment garnered minimal reporting in the press. The NBC Evening News made mention of it in the last few minutes of its broadcast and the latest issue of TIME magazine relegated it to a brief column in their Milestones page along with the obituaries. What were they thinking? Is the media perception that of a technological stunt that doesn't really advance the boundaries of science? Did they look at the event as simply Cameron spending some of his millions from successful films like Titanic and Avatar on something that will end up in his next film production?

TIME started their coverage with "Scorcese and Spielberg may never go to Saturn, but on March 25, director James Cameron...took a whole other kind of crazy ride..."

Or was the dive just not sexy enough compared to, say, a five-day journey to the moon funded directly by taxpayer's dollars? Perhaps it's an indication of the times we live in. We're living in somewhat more inward-oriented times, thanks to a struggling economy and daily pressing issues like mortgage payments and the next foreboding trip to the gas pump. Maybe Cameron should have worn a hoodie or recorded the entire dive on an Etch A Sketch. At the very least, it was an opportunity for the media to grasp something beyond the mundane, to stimulate the imagination and say there is something inspiring out there in regions yet to explore - not on some distant planet, but right here beneath the waves of planet Earth.

However, the media perhaps is not totally to blame. The dive itself defused some of its own media hype potential. With the exception of some issues with the hydraulic arms that prevented some rock samples from being taken, the well-planned and executed technology that went into the submersible made the dive seem, dare I say, almost routine. Given that the slightest technical malfunction could have resulted in Cameron being squished like a bug under your shoe, that predictability is by no means a criticism but a compliment to everyone involved. But it does expose the expedition to some of the same attitudes expressed by the public with the last few trips to the moon. The race to the moon was over, the flights were becoming routine and, it seemed, America was moving on.

Add to that the fact that the Marianas Trench is a desolate place, as Cameron described it, reminiscent of Buzz Aldrin's description of the lunar surface as "magnificent desolation." No thriving species, no sea monsters - only, perhaps, the possibility that locations this deep are beyond the limitations of any kind of life. Now, that may not turn out to be the case; bacteria and other small life forms may exist down there. But there initially appear to be no surprises like those found around deep sea thermal vents.

Returning to the Marianas Trench was pitched as an event that would turn our attention to the importance and value of ocean exploration, rather than spending money on moon colonies and trips to Mars. But for some reason it did not catch the attention of the media the way I would have liked to have seen it. The general public was not paying attention like it should. There are benefits to deep sea exploration: benefits in technology and in a greater understanding of the oceans which are now being bombarded with new influences ranging from climate change to pollution to overfishing - all of which will have a profound impact on our lives long before the first man steps on the surface of some far away planet.

Perhaps when James Cameron and National Geographic come out with their planned 3-D documentary of the dives (there are more dives planned), people will be mesmerized by a new aquatic world totally unknown to them. Perhaps, over a tub of popcorn and an overpriced soft drink, they will see there are frontiers that need to be explored not simply "because it's there." Perhaps they will see that our future depends on it.

Source: Nat Geo's

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Oil Effects Carry On: new study shows subtle but deadly impact of spills years later

A recent study, jointly completed by the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory (BML) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), indicates that the common chemical analysis of oil spills may be inadequate in measuring some of the more subtle effects and the consequences generated, which may not present themselves until years later.

Reported in the latest issue of CA & ES Outlook, a UC Davis publication, the study focused on an oil spill that occurred in San Francisco Bay in 2007 when the container ship Cosco Busan spilled 54,000 gallons of bunker oil after colliding with the Oakland Bay Bridge. Spawning habitats for the largest West Coast population of Pacific Herring were contaminated.

As reported in CA & ES Outlook, "Researchers accessed the health and viability of herring embryos in oiled and unoiled locations. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January, revealed that components of bunker oil accumulated in naturally spawned herring embryos, then interacted with sunlight during low tides to kill the embryos. Bunker oil is a thick fuel oil distilled from crude oil."

While we see the dramatic early effects of oil spills with oil-covered animals, oil slicks and tar balls; and we see the television advertisements from oil companies espousing how areas impacted by spills have now all but returned to normal; we must be aware of the subtle impacts that may not present themselves until much later. Even the tiniest of residual chemicals can have a profound effect on marine animal populations based on how embryos and larvae are impacted. This has the potential to hamper or even destroy coastal marine ecosystems and even commercial fisheries.

"Our research represents a change in the paradigm for oil spill research and detecting oil spill effects in an urbanized estuary," said professor Gary Cherr, BML director and co-author of the study. The general public must be attuned to the ongoing research that can contradict the publicity-seeking and self-serving positions of oil companies that claim areas, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are once again pristine.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tridacna Clams: replenishing Malaysia's stunning giant clams

The Giant Clam, of the genus Tridacna, is a striking image on any coral reef. Its size, at two feet or more in length, along with the deep folds in it shell and the vibrant colors of its fleshy mantle make it a standout. And rather than be the danger portrayed in movies, clamping down on the feet of unsuspecting swimmers, the giant clam is an important member of the coral reef community, a filter-feeder that helps to cleanse the surrounding waters to the benefit of all the reef's inhabitants.

In Malaysia, the Tridacna clam has been heavily exploited for decades, either for its meat or shell. And as Malaysia has grown as both a tourist destination and commercial shipping center, water pollution and urban development have taken its toll on the clams and, for the matter, all of the surrounding reefs.

However, the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC), affiliated with the Gayana Eco resort on Gaya Island outside of nearby Kota Kinabalu, is taking steps to bring the Tridacna back to its former glory. The Centre has patiently been nurturing Tridacna larvae in a nursery to where they are now ready to
transplant 500 three-inch juveniles back to the coral reef. Researchers will closely monitor the growth and overall health of the clams in their new environment. If all goes well, they have as many as 2,000 clams in their nursery which could be returned to the reef.

“We chose giant clams for our Save the Giants program because they are endangered, slow to grow and important in producing oxygen into the marine ecosystem,” said project director Alvin Wong. “Hopefully, this first batch will make it. We will monitor their progress as we continue to produce more giant clams.”

Additionally, MERC has been cultivating corals for replanting, as many as 1,000, and are prepared to transplant them in and around the reefs at Gaya Island.

Like many other Pacific islands, MERC realizes that much of Malaysia's economic growth is closely tied to tourism. Malaysia is known for beautiful coral reefs that are enjoyed by divers and snorkelers - and that means revenue for the nation and its people. The Centre was awarded the Most Innovative Tourist Attraction Award at the 2008/2009 Malaysia Tourist Awards, so they are not alone in realizing the value of healthy, protected reefs.

The Marine Ecology Research Centre will be educating schools and non-governmental groups on the importance of marine conservation while they continue with their giant clam and coral breeding and transplanting activities. Let's hope they succeed on all counts. The Tridacna clam is an impressive reef invertebrate worth saving.

Source: The Star Online

Monday, March 19, 2012

EU Shark Fin Ban: proposal to land whole sharks could put a squeeze on shark fisheries

Making the rounds of many of the news outlets today is some good news offered by the European Union. Earlier this month, meeting in Brussels, the European Commission, siding with the opinions of 27 member nation fishery ministers, proposed amending EU regulations on shark fishing by recommending a total ban on shark finning both within EU waters and by all EU-registered vessels worldwide. Today, the Council of the European Union gave its approval of the measure.

While EU regulations have already prohibited shark finning, the actual execution was riddled with loopholes and special permits, all originally intended to promote commercial shark fishing management. However, monitoring and enforcement was difficult to attain and so, ultimately, a complete ban was deemed best.

As good as this all sounds, in reality it is an incremental step. Properly permitted vessels will still be able to take sharks, but they will be required to land them whole - fins attached. This is a disadvantage to the boat operators as whole shark carcasses will fill up a boat's hold with low value meat compared to the more highly prized shark fin. It could very well prove to be enough of an inducement for many boats to move out of the shark fin business altogether, finding it no longer economically worthwhile.

The proposed ban represents both a move by the EU to better monitor the shark fishing industry and to put the squeeze on what is viewed as an industry that would eventually collapse due to declining shark populations. While Asia is often criticized for its growing market demand for shark fin, it is the EU that happens to be the largest exporter of shark fins worldwide. As an example, according to some reports, the hammerhead shark has all but become extinct in the Mediterranean.

The EU fishery ministers are also seeking support for a measure that would ban the practice of discarding fish that do not meet qualifications or are commercially undesirable. What they are proposing is a major assault on bycatch. In essence, if you caught it, you keep it. And it could ultimately
force fishing vessels to either utilize any and all approaches that would minimize bycatch (better fishing techniques, nets or hooks) or seek markets for catches that may not be as profitable. As reported by the Associated Press, the European Commission says that up to half of the whitefish and 70 percent of the flatfish caught by fisheries is discarded.

This proposal faces some stiff resistance from several member nations, particularly France and Spain, so time will tell as to whether it succeeds, But for now, the shark fin ban seems to be on track. The proposal awaits a first reading in the European Parliament before being formalized into law.

A positive step in a comprehensive, but complicated, strategy for shark conservation - addressing the dealers of shark fin products by simplifying shark fishery management policy and, in so doing, indirectly hitting them where it hurts most: the bottom line.

Source: Boston News
Courthouse News Service

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Philippine's Irrawaddy Dolphin: endangered but with a potential future thanks to local fishermen

In the Philippines, the Malampaya Sound is known for its ecological diversity, ranging from coral reefs to sea grasses to mangroves and lowland forests. It is also home to one of the most endangered species of dolphin: the Irrawaddy dolphin. The number of dolphin in the sound has dropped from 79 in 2001 to 42 and scientists believe that if the number dips below 40, the Irrawaddy dolphin population in the sound will collapse.

The Irrawaddy dolphin is a rather cute looking creature; a bit like a small beluga whale with a similar head shape and light grey in color. There are only about 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins worldwide and it has been listed as "critically endangered" by the IUCN. Because of the Malampaya Sound's biodiversity, commercial and local fisherman have been attracted to the area and the sound is showing the impact of overfishing. No more so than with the plight of the Irrawaddy dolphin which is not commercially sought after but does become ensnared in the longline nets and, being then unable to reach the surface, drowns.

However, there could very well be a positive future for the Irrawaddy dolphin if the indigenous Tagbanua people have anything to say about it. Representatives of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) who have been monitoring the situation and working with local Philippine officials, say that the Tagbanua tribe have both a cultural history that supports protecting the dolphin and employ fishing techniques that could allow the Irrawaddy dolphin's numbers to return.

“For them [the Tagbauna people], the dolphins are bearer of good tidings and are also the omen of something bad that will happen like typhoons or calamities, depending on the behavior of the animal,” said Mavic Matillano, who lead a study five years ago on the Irrawaddy dolphin. “That, in a way made the lumad [non-Muslim indigenous peoples in Mindanao] also believe that when you hurt a dolphin, something bad may happen to you.”

The cultural position forms the background for their approach to fishing. The Tagbanua fishermen use specific moon and tide schedules and selective harvesting, regardless of market demands, to avoid overfishing and wasted bycatch (which is the category in which the Irrawaddy dolphin finds itself).

According to the Philippine's Inquirer News, "
WWF officials said the most important thing to do right now was to change the fishing practices of the coastal communities there. The group and [WWF author Raoul] Cola pointed to the Tagbanua fishing practices as a model of sustainable practice."

“Based on the principle of the interconnection, not only of ecosystems but also of the natural, social and spiritual worlds, these strategies demonstrate that the world view of the users molds their environment and defines the prospect of its sustainability,” said Cola.

The WWF is working with several Philippine agencies to implement commercial fishery management strategies based on the techniques employed by the Tagbanuas. The WWF is working hard to address funding issues, but they are encouraged by that fact that an indigenous Philippine tribe can serve as a model for many local coastal areas, rather than some outside group of "foreigners" imposing their beliefs on local fishermen.

The Irrawaddy dolphin, like other dolphins, is an important apex predator and vital to maintaining a healthy biodiversity in the Malampaya Sound. Let's hope that local wisdom and responsible fishing techniques can spread to ensure the dolphin's future.

Source: Inquirer News

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Africa's Elephants and Water: African governments' dilemma in conserving both

In decades past, Africa was the wild continent, the epitome of nature unleashed. But in recent years it has been seen as a source of human sorrow through wars, drought, and disease. Two recent news articles confronted those images and show the dilemma that African governments currently face.

USA Today reported that poachers are taking a heavy toll on African elephants in supposedly protected reserves like Bouba N'Djida National Park in the Republic of Cameroon. Park rangers are poorly trained and ill equipped to combat the heavily armed poachers that have killed at least half of the park's 400 elephants for their ivory tusks. Northern Cameroon's elephant population represents 80 percent of the total population of savanna elephants in all of Central Africa.

Under pressure from the World Wildlife Fund and the European Union, the government sent in 150 soldiers at the start of the month and while there have been unconfirmed reports of confrontations, the poaching continues. Twenty elephants were reported killed in the first week of March alone.

The demand for ivory is a result of Chinese middlemen that have moved in to corner the market on poached ivory to satisfy a market demand for ivory in China.

USA Today reported,
"Growing demand for ivory in China is 'the leading driver behind the illegal trade in ivory today,' said Tom Milliken, an elephant and rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. China has a legal ivory market that is supposed to be highly controlled but tons and tons of illegal ivory has made its way there in recent years, said the Zimbabwe-based Milliken, who spoke in a conference call with several World Wildlife Fund officers."

In the meantime, according to an article in allAfrica, much of Africa is wrestling with the challenge of a lack of a predictable water supply. Africa can experience extremes in rainfall from torrential monsoons to severe droughts. Many African nations do not have the infrastructures to capture some of its rainfall so as to provide the people with a more dependable water supply.

Dams and reservoirs are a starting point but these are major construction projects which require the assistance of other nations to help design and build or, at the very least, fund. Part of the problem has been in finding a balance between environmental concerns over what these systems - which would provide need water storage and hydroelectric power - would do to the surrounding countryside versus the needs of the African people.

According to Mike Muller, professor at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management at the South African University of Witwatersrand,
"You have a situation in Germany or Switzerland where you have strong environmental lobbyists who feel that dams are an infringement on the natural environment ... And you have situations where ministers will say, 'We cannot talk about storing water because that involves construction, which we cannot support'. Yet African governments know that if they don't store water given our variable climate, we are at the mercy of nature and it's a very cruel nature at times."

"The potential in the Congo could power all of Africa's current electricity needs and the same again, spare," says Muller. "If we start looking at the rest of southern Africa we could probably have replaced two of the huge coal-fired power stations that we're building in South Africa with hydropower, but the environmentalists don't want it, it's really anomalous."

Africa does appear to have one potential partner willing to participate: China. With its ongoing growth, China has an interest in Africa's natural resources and it has the skill and capabilities in building the dam and hydroelectric infrastructure that Africa needs.

"There is a coherence between China's capability as the world's pre-eminent builder of large water infrastructure and its interests in Africa's natural resources, many of which require the development of power, transport and water infrastructure for their successful extraction," says Muller.

So, here is the socio-political dilemma: China could be Africa's shining white knight coming to its aid to provide the necessary infrastructure to better ensure a constant water supply. In turn, China also becomes a strong economic partner. With that relationship in place, what are the chances that African governments that are benefiting from trade with China will be willing to seriously curtail the illegal ivory trade since most of the ivory is going to their new economic ally?

Many western nations want to see Africa preserve its wildlife heritage, but we have also seen the terrible price paid in human suffering when African nations are struck by drought and the famine it can produce. Will China be willing to curtail its demand for ivory as a trade-off for gaining other natural resources that Africa has to offer its industrious neighbor to the east? Will western nations step up and offer solutions for Africa that can meet the challenges of both preserving the environment - including iconic animals like the elephant - and providing a desperately needed consistent water supply for its people?

Where some nations wrestle with ecology versus energy demands in the form of coal and oil, Africa is having to consider something more fundamental: the need for water to survive.

Source: USA Today
Source: allAfrica

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

BLUE: combining great ocean films with conservation

In the summer of 2009, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival held its inaugural event in Savannah, Georgia. Presenting both ocean-themed films and discussion panels covering a range of ocean conservation and filmmaking topics, it was very well received by an amazing mix of conservationists and media professionals. I was honored to moderate a discussion panel on shark conservation and it was at this event that I got to have my first extended conversations with people like Dr. Sylvia Earle, underwater photographer Brian Skerry, marine scientist Dr. Carl Safina, and many more. For a brief few days, I was in ocean advocacy heaven.

In 2010, a move was made to Monterey, California, and the event grew in scope to become BLUE - A Global Oceans Film & Conservation Event. Once again, great films from leading studios and filmmakers were presented and there were important discussion panels, and
presentations. In fact, the biggest challenge was trying to be in more than one place at the same time - there was so much going on. Once again, I was honored to chair the discussion panel on shark conservation and was able to have as panelists Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid; Dr. Greg Stone, senior scientist for the oceans at Conservation International, Stefanie Brendl of Hawaiian Shark Encounters; and Laleh Mohajerani, executive director of Iemanya Oceanica. Additionally, I conducted an underwater video workshop which included some remarkable dives in Monterey Bay as the bay was experiencing a massive invasion of Sea Nettle sea jellies that summer.

The executive board of the festival decided to make the festival a bi-annual event and with that extra time to plan an even bigger and better event, BLUE returns to Monterey in 2012, scheduled for September 24-30. Between events, the festival crew has been busy with the BLUE on Tour, a traveling, educational ocean media show that has played to universities and communities from Mexico to Australia.

If you are an experienced underwater filmmaker, I encourage you to submit your films to the festival. There are a wide range of categories for pros and aspiring greats, ranging from theatrical to online shorts and you can submit through the festival's website or through, the online service that has come to dominate the film festival submission circuit. The regular deadline for submissions is March 16th but they have an extended deadline, so there's still time.

If you are an avid ocean lover, this is simply an amazing opportunity to not only learn about what is going on in the world of ocean conservation, science, and policy management, but it is also a chance to meet many notable names in a relaxed casual environment as there are social events in the evening that bring all the participants together in both a common cause. . . and a little wine and cheese.
BLUE - A Global Oceans Film & Conservation Event - September 24-30, 2012 in Monterey, California. Passes go on sale May 1st. Film submission's regular deadline is May 16th with an extended deadline to April 6th.

If you love the oceans, if you enjoy ocean films - then this is the place to be.

Source: BLUE website

Monday, March 12, 2012

Catching Sharks On Camera: study of shark populations inside and outside protected areas

A press release from the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science has been making the rounds lately, explaining the Institute's research on reef shark populations within and outside of protected areas. Using techniques borrowed from researchers who study jungle cat populations, the ocean researchers used "chum cams" to attract and record sharks within two protected areas and two areas open for fishing. Their results add to the growing need for more marine protected areas.

'Chum cam' underwater video survey shows that reef sharks thrive in marine reserves

Study led by scientists from the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University uses video cameras to count reef sharks, showing that marine reserves benfit these top predators on the world's second largest barrier reef

STONY BROOK, NY -- A team of scientists, led by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, used video cameras to count Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi) inside and outside marine reserves on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef in the Caribbean Sea. Using survey data collected from 200 baited remote underwater video (BRUV) cameras, nicknamed "chum cams," the scientists compared the relative abundance of these reef sharks in two marine reserves with those in two areas where fishing is allowed, and demonstrated that the sharks were more abundant in the reserves.

The research findings appear in the paper, "Reef sharks exhibit site-fidelity and higher relative abundance in marine reserves on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef," published online today in the journal PLoS ONE. The purpose of the study, conducted from 2005 through 2010, was to test the hypothesis that carcharhinid shark species, which include requiem and whaler sharks, are more abundant inside no-take marine reserves where fishing for sharks and their prey is prohibited. The authors tested the hypothesis by using BRUV surveys to determine the reef sharks' numbers, and combined these results with acoustic monitoring to measure their site fidelity (remaining within the same local area) in Glover's Reef Marine Reserve, Caye Caulker Marine Reserve, and two reefs where fishing is allowed, all located in Belize.

"Although we know that relatively sedentary reef fish and lobsters benefit from marine reserves, this study now presents visual proof that large, active sharks are also dramatically more abundant inside these protected areas, too," said Mark Bond, lead author and doctoral student at Stony Brook University. "Nearly four times as many chum cam deployments in the marine reserves recorded reef sharks than on similar fished reefs. These areas provide the sharks and other coral reef species a respite from fishing, which means decreased fishing mortality for the sharks and more prey for them to eat."

The video cameras were enclosed in protective housing, and placed on the sea floor with small bait-filled cages positioned in front of them. Sharks, attracted by the smell of the bait, swam to the cameras, which allowed the research team to record, count, and compare shark populations in the marine reserves to those in the areas where fishing is permitted, at no stress to the sharks. In addition to the BRUV surveys, the scientists fitted 34 reef sharks with acoustic transmitters, and tracked their movements, using moored underwater listening stations. They found that the sharks, both juveniles and adults, live year-round within the reserves.

"Scientists who study tigers or jaguars in the wild use camera traps to count them," said Dr. Demian Chapman, assistant professor in the School of Marine & Atmospheric Science at Stony Brook, leader of the research team and assistant director of science of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science. "It is just as difficult to count sharks in the ocean, so we took a page from the big cat researchers' playbook and deployed baited video cameras to count the sharks. It's only fitting since these large apex predators are the 'big cats' of the sea, and like their feline counterparts, their continued existence on Earth is threatened."

Due to intense fishing, Caribbean reef sharks are listed as "Near Threatened" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) but it is possible they will be upgraded to "Vulnerable" by IUCN as more data are collected. They live in the western Atlantic Ocean, ranging from Bermuda to southern Brazil, and are the only Atlantic requiem shark species that undergoes its entire life cycles within coral reef ecosystems.

"Caribbean reef sharks and other shark species around the world are threatened by overfishing," said Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch, a professor in the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, who co-authored the paper and is executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science. "Our study demonstrates that marine reserves can help protect shark species that live on coral reefs. Moreover, the use of underwater video monitoring provides us with an excellent tool to determine if populations are recovering and thriving inside these reserves."

"As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words," said Bond. "As Caribbean nations and other countries consider developing marine reserves, chum cams can virtually transport policy makers and the public beneath the waves and show them the benefits of these protected areas."


This research was funded by the Roe Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and other sponsors of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

Source: Institute for Ocean Conservation Science

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Oceanic Whitetip Sharks in Fiji: island cultures revere a threatened pelagic predator

The oceanic whitetip shark is a beautiful but feared shark. A feared shark because of its reputation gained during World War II for being attracted to the sounds of sinking ships and then, what with blood in the water, attacking sailors floating in the water. In Jaws, Quint's fictional monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis was based on the real account of the ship's sinking. And, in truth, the oceanic whitetip was responsible for a number of sailor's deaths - along with battle injuries, starvation, and sea water poisoning taking its toll.

However, the fact is that the oceanic whitetip is a beautiful, pelagic or open-ocean shark and like many other shark species, its numbers have been in severe decline due to commercial fishing and bycatch. The IUCN has listed the species as vulnerable to extinction and its situation is not holding steady or improving by any means.

An article ran recently in the The Fiji Times Online in support of the oceanic whitetip. Fiji has several species of shark in relatively fair abundance in and about its reefs and the oceanic whitetip is one that will make an occasional appearance, approaching reefs on narrow continental shelves near deep water. Also, Fiji has a cultural history with several Fijian island peoples that revolve around sharks as mythical, even god-like, creatures. Several legends specifically involve oceanic whitetips and have them serving as protectors not predators.

The Fiji Times reported that Fijian "
shark campaigner Manoa Rasigatale says the people of [the Fiji island of] Rukua, like elsewhere in Fiji where the shark is revered as a totem and protector, believe the oceanic whitetip and the rest of the species should be saved.

'Saving it is saving their tradition and their marine environment. It is as simple as that. Take away the shark and they lose their traditional tie to it and the story that has been passed on from one generation to another,' says Mr Rasigatale."

It's an interesting opposing juxtaposition to the Asian cultural history that defends the consumption of shark fin soup. Whose culture has a better right to predominate? One that promotes reverence of the shark or one that promotes its consumption?

Although Fiji has strict regulations regarding shark fishing, a movement is in the beginning stages with a shark sanctuary for the entire island chain as its ultimate goal. The Pew Environment Group and the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) are working with the Fijian government to make the sanctuary a reality.

Commendable as it may be, a shark sanctuary may not be enough to ultimately protect the oceanic whitetip as it is a long range nomad. That means considerable time spent outside of sanctuary boundaries, exposed to commercial fishing - whether deliberate or as accidental bycatch - in international waters.

The Fiji Times Online article is an interesting read both with regards to how the shark is entwined with the island's culture and identifying the specific fishing threats to the oceanic whitetip to which the island nation and supporting conservation groups are trying to address.

The Fiji Times Online

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Going For The Deepest: submersibles prepare to return to the Marianas Trench

More than 50 years ago, two men reached the deepest point in the ocean: the Pacific Ocean's Marianas Trench at 35,800 feet. Crammed into a small sphere suspended underneath the large bathyscaphe Trieste, marine scientist Jacque Piccard and then Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh spent a short time on the bottom (according to Walsh, the bathyscaphe stirred up the bottom on its final approach and visibility was minimal, but some small sealife was detected). A feat accomplished, a record achieved.

And that was it.

Mankind has never returned to those extreme depths; instead, turning its attention skyward in a political race to the moon. A race that I was caught up in like many others and with few complaints; the spin-off technologies from the space program have brought us countless benefits. But there was an incredible amount of technology and potential knowledge left behind, waiting just below the waves.

As Richard Branson described it in 2011,
"What if I were to tell you about a planet, inhabited by 'intelligent' beings that had, in the 21st century, physically explored zero percent of its deepest points and mapped only 3 percent of its oceans by unmanned craft, when 70 percent of that planet's surface was made up of water. Then I tried to convince you that only 10 percent of the life forms inhabiting that unknown world are known to those on the surface--you'd think I'd fallen asleep watching the latest sci-fi blockbuster. Then you discover that planet is Earth."

It seems, though, that things are about to change. A new race is shaping up and this time it is not motivated by political one-upsmanship but by a desire for mankind to turn its attention inward, to learn more about the oceans that cover the majority of this planet. In so doing, we may learn of new bounties for our benefit or may understand more about how the oceans function and what is happening due to our activities topside, from pollution to climate change.

While presidential candidates talk of bases on the moon, four organizations involved in the design and building of deep sea submersibles are looking downward, hoping to return once again to the Marinas Trench. And the first attempt in over a half century may take place in the next few weeks.

The four groups - Triton Submarines, DOER Marine, Virgin Oceanic, and film director James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge - have submersibles in various stages of design, construction or actual operation. But the two leading contenders at the moment are Richard Branson's Virgin Oceanic - working in conjunction with Hawkes Ocean Technologies - and Cameron's Deepsea Challenge, working in conjunction with the National Geographic.

All of these groups have the technological expertise to design submersibles that can withstand the extreme pressures of the Marianas Trench, a bone-crushing 15,750 psi, but what probably distinguishes the two leaders is the deep financial pockets at their disposal to make it a reality.

Based in Northern California, Graham Hawkes' Hawkes Ocean Technology produces a fascinating fleet of submersibles that look more like stubby-wing fighter jets. They are designed to fly through the water. I had a moment to speak with Hawkes at the 2010 BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Ocean Summit and, seeing that the design was quite different from your typical research submersible, I asked him what they were designed for. "For chasing after whales," he joked.

Hawkes had designed his Deep Flight Challenger to explore depths as deep as the Marianas Trench and was preparing to make the attempt with pilot Steve Fossett at the controls. Unfortunately, Fossett was killed in a small plane crash but a new pilot stepped in, Chris Welsh, along with the support of Richard Branson's Virgin Group. The overall plan for Virgin Oceanic is to send the Deep Flight Challenger on five of the deepest dives locations on the planet, which includes the Marinas Trench. The long-range goal is not just to reach the deepest point in the ocean - although that would undoubtedly bring the most attention - but to show that extreme deep sea exploration is viable. This is not a stunt; it is an attempt to show that man can and should be turning his attention to exploring the deep recesses of this planet as there is much to learn, and even gain materially, in the process.

James Cameron has melded technology and entertainment into many of his films (blockbusters like Titanic, Avatar, and the early Terminator films), but he has proven himself to be much more than an armchair science explorer and deep sea exploration became a particular area of serious interest and financial investment. Working with National Geographic (Cameron is an Explorer-in-Residence there) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, among others, the Deepsea Challenger submersible was built and has already completed a five-mile dive to the New Britain Trench near the Solomon Islands.

The Deepsea Challenger is more utilitarian than elegant in appearance - a lime green cylinder, positioned vertically, with an array of lights midway and a spherical compartment at the lower end that has room for one pilot with a viewing window. Cameron intends to be the pilot, as he was on the recent deep dive, and though exact schedules are being kept under wraps, it has been said it might only be a matter of weeks before the Deepsea Challenger makes its attempt to return to the Marianas Trench.

"This quest was not driven by the need to set records, but by the same force that drives all science and exploration … curiosity. So little is known about these deep places that I knew I would see things no human has ever seen. Every dive teaches us more, and we are continuing to improve the sub and its systems daily, as we move through our sea trials,” says Cameron on the Deepsea Challenge website.

In the end, whoever gets there first, the Marianas Trench will once again be visited by terrestrial beings and, if it is to truly have any meaning and value, it must be seen in the context of exploring the vast oceans to better understand this crucial aquatic lifeblood that is key to the planet's survival. Whether it is finding new mineral resources, or new species, or better understanding the processes that make the oceans function - and therefore understanding how best to conserve and protect them - deep sea exploration is a pursuit that is within our reach and makes more sense in today's world.

We're not ready to pack up and move to another planet, so we best understand and protect the one we have now.

Deep Flight Submersibles
National Geographic/Deepsea Challenge

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An Arachnid Winterland: Australia's wolf spiders escape flood waters

The picture above, taken by Daniel Munoz for Reuters, depicts a tranquil winter farmland scene - a blanket of white snow gently covering the ground. Ah, a classic winter tableau.

Or is it?

If it's winter, why is there no snow on the hillside behind the trees? And if you could get closer, you would see that it's not snow at all.

It's spider webs.

In Australia, following heavy rains and flooding in New South Wales, thousands of residents had to move to find drier ground. In the city of Wagga Wagga, over 8,000 residents needed to evacuate. Someone, or something, else also needed to evacuate: thousands upon thousands of wolf spiders.

Wolf spiders reside in tunnels or burrows in the ground. They line their homes with a silky web that facilitates easy and quick movements within the tunnel. With the flooding, the spiders moved to higher ground and as the soil remains saturated, returning to a damp home was out of the question. So the spiders built their webs above ground - their new homes spread out across the Australian farmland, looking for all the world like a fresh layer of snow. That is until you get up close and see all the wolf spiders wandering about over the webs, patiently waiting for the ground to dry out so they can return to their normally solitary, hidden lifestyle.


The many webs actually represent failed attempts at "ballooning." Ballooning is where a small spider releases a long silky strand of web which catches the wind and suddenly the spider is airborne. An effective means of travel - or, in this case, escape from a threatening situation - for small lightweight spiders, but many of the spiders here in Wagga Wagga were too heavy and so the threads would accumulate. The sticky threads would also latch onto the extra moisture in the air, making the webs more visible

However, while they wait for better living conditions, the spiders also perform an important service. The residual floodwater became a massive breeding ground for mosquitoes and other insects. As wolf spiders feed primarily on insects, that meant there was food aplenty.

"The amount of mosquitoes around would be incredible because of all this water," said Taronga Zoo spider keeper Brett Finlayson told the Sydney Morning Herald. "The spiders don't pose any harm at all. They are doing us a favor. They are actually helping us out."

As the soil begins to return to normal, some spiders will return to living underground, some may move on, while others will unfortunately become prey to birds and other small predators. It is expected that by the warm, dry days of summer, the population will have returned to normal.

I don't mind spiders. In fact, I'll leave the magazine or newspaper unrolled and will give them plenty of leeway since I know they help keep other insect populations in check.

But I'm still itching a bit just thinking about Australia's homeless arachnids.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Great Barrier Reef "At a Crossroads": UN group assesses reef in light of proposed coal and gas projects

Representatives from the United Nation's UNESCO World Heritage Centre's marine program have declared Australia's Great Barrier Reef "at a crossroads," following the group's initial assessment of the condition of the reef. The delegation's statement was in rebuttal to an Australian government position that the reef would be exposed to minimal impact from proposed coal seam gas developments.

Australia has rich deposits of coal seam gas, also known as coal bed methane, but its extraction method, wherein water is either forced into the coal bed or is extracted as a byproduct of the process, can produce pollution along with the environmental impact of the infrastructure (new roads, trucks, ships, etc.) required to support the coal seam gas operations.

According to UNESCO coordinator Dr. Fanny Douvere, the reef needs government protection
''not just for Australians but for humanity as a whole. We are not just talking about any barrier reef, we're talking about the Great Barrier Reef.''

With UNESCO declaring that the Australian government's position - that coal seam gas operations would have minimal impact on the reef - as one that might not be true, the government has now committed itself to an 18-month strategic assessment of future developments on the reef.

One area of concern will be the potential impact of dredging. As part of proposed developments, large areas of shoreline - up to 46 million cubic meters - would be dredged over the next 20 years. Dredging stirs up the bottom, potentially coating the coral with silt and affecting the photosynthesis process that feeds the microscopic zooxanthellae algae that lives within the coral's tissues and provides nutrients.

''We are aware dredging does have a correlation with water quality, and water quality is a crucial component for the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef as a whole,'' Dr Douvere said.

Another issue that will be studied is the increase in shipping anticipated either as part of coal and gas exploration or as a result of when operations are in earnest. The expansion of shipping and the toll it may take on the reef has not been lost on some within the Australian government.

Environment Minister Tony Burke said, "I have been making the argument for some time that shipping activity is potentially the most environmentally sensitive activity in the entire mix here. Any application that is going to have a continued marked increase, if it was successful on shipping movements, needs to be scrutinised incredibly closely and I view that as a critical part of any environmental approval."

Like many other developed nations, Australia is having to wrestle with the demands being made for more energy versus the preservation of its environment - with the Great Barrier Reef considered one of the world's grandest ocean treasures but one that is just as easily threatened as the smallest coral reef. In today's world, it's only as great as we wisely and thoughtfully allow it to be.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Monday, March 5, 2012

Of Nets and Neurotoxins: news items that could benefit sharks

Couple of interesting new shark items:

Anti-Shark Netting for Aquaculture
Sharks were recently in Las Vegas, and I don't mean the card shark kind. At a major aquaculture conference, a new proprietary shark-resistant netting was introduced which holds great promise in helping open-ocean aquaculture protect its harvest from curious sharks.

Open-ocean aquaculture primarily involves large pens that float at the surface and are big enough to allow species such as tuna reach a commercially-viable size. However, corralling fish together means that they will become a magnet for ocean predators like sharks, and previous netting material has not always done the job in resisting a hungry shark.

Working together, NET Systems and DSM Dyneema have developed PREDATOR-X, a netting that combines high-strength polyethylene fibers with stainless steel wire. It was field tested in the Bahamas by scientists from the Cape Eleuthera Institute, using the institute's aquaculture facility for full-grown cobia as the test guinea pig.

The results were positive. While the netting is able to withstand the abrasions and cutting of ocean predators, it is also lighter than other netting materials and allows for sufficient water flow which is important to aquaculture in maintaining a healthy level of oxygen for the fish.

Many times I have seen the tuna pens floating offshore off the Baja, Mexico coast and would wonder how many sharks died at the hands of armed aquaculture farmers protecting their stock. Now, perhaps both sharks and farmed fish will be able to coexist, saving a few sharks and some wild fish from commercial fishing in the process.

Neurotoxin Found in Shark Fins
A new study, released by Neil Hammerschlag of the University of Miami's R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program and members of the Miller School of Medicine, has found potentially harmful levels of BMAA, a neurotoxin, in shark fins and related shark cartilage products from seven species of sharks in Florida. BMAA is associated with degenerative brain diseases such as Lou Gehrig's, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Similar to other pollutants such as methylmercury that have been found in sharks and other large predators, the neurotoxin accumulation is a result of what is called biomagnification, a process whereby trace elements work their way up the predator-prey food chain. And as they do, their concentration levels increase. BMAA is found in cyanobacteria, an ocean bacteria, and from those humble beginnings it can move up through the various animals that feed on the bacteria and then preyed upon by others animals.

"The thing is very little has been done on BMAA because it is a new wave, a new understanding," says Hammerschlag. "We're only starting to understand the scope of the problem."

Given the documented evidence of biomagnification regarding other pollutants found in sharks and fish like tuna, the presence of BMAA does not come as a stretch of the imagination but you can expect pro-shark fishing industry forces to refute the findings as a scare tactic conjured up by anti-shark fishing advocates. One wonders who is the most scared by this development, those who consume shark products or those who are in the business of plundering one of the ocean's most vital inhabitants.

Source (Netting): Market Watch
Source (Neurotoxins):
Miami New Times

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Marine Science Education: Malayasian group offers beginning courses for the curious

There are many armchair marine conservation and marine biologists out there; folks who cruise the Internet or read books to gain knowledge but don't have the time, inclination, or finances to get a formal degree. And that can be a fine approach - one shouldn't complain too much about enlightenment, whether it's formal or self-acquired - but, as "self-schooled," one could be subject to interpretation and misconception. A little structure can go a long way, particularly for young students impressionable and open for knowledge.

In Southeast Asia, the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) offers an interesting opportunity to get a structured introduction to marine conservation while at the same time enjoying the dive destinations of places like Borneo, Sipadan, and Malaysia. TRACC works with local resorts in putting together study & dive packages ranging from a concentrated 6-day course to a more lengthy 12-week course of study.

As a non-profit organization, TRACC is involved in coral reef and shark conservation and engages divers in volunteering to help support their research projects. The tie-in with dive resorts surely provides the group with some financial benefit while at the same time offering a method to alert divers to the issues threatening the biodiversity of these tropical regions.

However, I was a bit concerned as to the validity of the course, so I dug a bit deeper. The six-day diver course is TRACC's own invention and, while not formally accredited by any major educational institution, it is a clever value-added bonus to any diver seeking to get the most out of their dive experience.

The 12-week course is based on a curriculum offered through Cambridge University. TRACC's Marine Science A Level program, as it is called, follows a specific Cambridge syllabus and final examinations are offered by Cambridge to receive your full recognition for completing the course. The study course was designed primarily for young, college-level students and many colleges offer school credit for having completed the course. But it also offers benefits for older inquisitive minds or those contemplating a career in marine industries.

"TRACC is offering an internationally recognised marine science advanced (“A”) level from Cambridge Examination Board as a way to gain a useful qualification during a gap year or a volunteer programme (shorter alternatives are the 6 day courses). The advanced level Marine Science Course is for mature students who want to learn more, for students who want to study Marine Biology or Environmental Science at a university, or students who want to follow a career in shipping, fisheries, tourism or aquaculture," TRACC's website explains.

There are other marine conservation organizations that offer volunteer research opportunities that can provide a terrific learning experience. By coupling with a major educational institution like Cambridge University, TRACC is offering a more formal course of study that will hopefully educate Malaysian divers and students to the importance of preserving their natural resources and biodiversity while also providing a rewarding experience and point of personal recognition to international travelers as well.

You can learn more at the TRACC website.

Source: TRACC
Source: Cambridge University