Monday, July 30, 2012

From Shark Teeth To Shark Cage: some interesting items in the news

As we approach Discovery's Shark Week, here are a couple of interesting shark items that have been traveling the Internet.

First, a study by chemists from the University of Duisburg-Essen found that the teeth of mako sharks and tiger sharks contain the mineral fluoroapatite (fluorinated calcium phosphate).  Humans' and other mammals' teeth contain an inorganic, bone-like compound, hydroxyapatite.  as we all known from or fluoride toothpaste, mouthwash, and water, there is an advantage to having some fluoride protecting our chompers.

“In order to make teeth more acid resistant, toothpaste often contains fluoride,” Matthias Epple, a professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told Discovery News. “In the surface of human teeth after brushing, a small amount — much less than 1 percent — of hydroxide is exchanged by fluoride. In contrast,(the surface of) shark teeth contains 100 percent fluoride. In principle, sharks should not suffer from caries. As they live in water and as they change their teeth regularly, dental protection should not be a problem for sharks.”

So, sharks have built-in cavity protection.  And, as the professor mentioned, they replace their teeth regularly.  A shark can contain as many as several hundred teeth in it's jaw at any one time, with rows of fresh new teeth ready to come to the fore as older teeth are pushed out.  Which brings me to the second interesting shark item.

Many of you have seen images of the white sharks at Seal Beach, South Africa leaping out of the water attempting to either bite down on an unsuspecting seal - or a seal decoy placed in the water by crews hoping to grab some spectacular video or still photos.  South Africa's Chris Fallows has built a respected career out of documenting white sharks going airborne with videos like the "Air Jaws" series and some amazing photographs.

Australia's The Daily Telegraph ran a brief article on Seal Beach with photographer Dan Callister taking his own memorable photographs of airborne white sharks.  As dramatic as his shots were, what caught my eye in several rapid-fire images of a shark grabbing a seal decoy was the clear evidence of the shark shedding a tooth.  You can see it airborne in the image below.

Lastly, for those of you who have ever wondered what it would be like to see a great white shark up close, but decided you had to be an experienced diver or half crazy, Kevin Richberg wrote in The Huffington Post's Travel Blogs his experiences cage diving in Australia as part of his 30 Postcards Project.  What caught my attention was how he described the experience.

When doing any public speaking about white sharks, I often recall the word that first came to mind when I saw my first great white shark.  Serene.  There is a calm majesty to these animals; not a frantic, teeth gnashing demeanor at all.  And that was exactly how Richberg saw it.

"What surprised me was that following the initial excitement of seeing the sharks up close, my mood turned quite quickly to being calm and peaceful. I know you're probably thinking that 'peaceful' is the last word you'd use to describe a great white shark encounter, but for me it was true."

Source: Discovery News
Source: The Daily Telegraph
Source: The Huffington Post

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mountain Gorillas: park rangers search for apes during military ceasefire

The endangered mountain gorilla resides in central Africa which is often a politically unstable region.  Mountain gorillas don't have much interest in politics, but for nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Rwanda, instability can impact the country's ability to support the conservation and protection of these apes.

Currently, there are approximately 790 mountain gorillas with over half of them living in the Virunga National Park in DR Congo.  Unfortunately, rebel activity in May forced the evacuation of the park rangers and without the rangers presence the location of the six known families of mountain gorillas that move, eat, and sleep within the park becomes a question mark.  And it leaves the gorillas exposed to poachers who will kill the gorillas for black market trophies of head, hands, or feet.

While the rebel unrest has been ongoing since April, recently the rebel forces and the opposing government forces both agreed to allow the rangers into the area to search for the gorilla families.  With some unexpected shelling taking place, it was touch-and-go, but eventually the rangers were allowed today to begin conducting their search.  No results are known just yet.

"We have had to delay 24 hours because of the shelling that took place this morning," park director Emmanuel de Merode told the Associated Press.  "There is very heavy fighting around the park headquarters." 

As powerful has they are, mountain gorillas are also susceptible to disease and so monitoring their health is of prime importance to the park rangers.  Their weakness to disease would be a less critical issue if their numbers were more towards what nature intended.  However, with human encroachment on their habitat, demands for oil exploration within the park, and the on-again, off-again military conflicts, the birth or death of any gorilla becomes vastly more important given their current numbers.

"We are delighted and relieved that all sides in the conflict have recognised the need to protect [DR] Congo's only mountain gorillas," said de Merode.  "After locating the gorilla families, the park's gorilla monitoring teams will individually identify each member of the family.  Their health status will also be assessed as mountain gorillas are particularly vulnerable to disease."

Over two years ago, I ran a post about the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park.  At the time, the Park had just issued an iPhone app, called iGorilla, that allowed the user to follow the ranger's efforts in keeping tabs on the various gorilla families.  I still have the app on my phone today and check up every once in a while for the latest reports on their health and whereabouts.  The app is still available today and part of the proceeds goes to the Park's gorilla conservation program.  Check it out.

Source: BBC News.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Are Sharks Social?: Australian researcher studies social interaction of Port Jackson sharks

A great white shark seems to keep its distance from its fellow white sharks.  Even when I have had the opportunity to have as many as five white sharks circling around me, they still keep a respectable distance from each other and rarely came close to each other.

Then on the other hand, you have hammerhead sharks that can be seen swimming in large schools.  Lemon sharks or various types of reef sharks congregating in the tens and sometimes hundreds.  And I have seen seasonal congregations of up to 4-5 foot leopard sharks and guitarfish in Southern California, presumably part of a breeding behavior.

The social interactions of sharks is not well understood.  Each species has its own type of behavior and while the general public thinks of sharks as somewhat solitary (which they often can be), in reality it is more likely a very complex relationship that revolves around feeding, breeding, and a predator's sense of territoriality (ie: survival). In Australia, one researcher is specifically focusing his efforts on understanding the social behavior of sharks.   Working in conjunction with the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, Nathan Bass intends to study the patterns of interaction between Port Jackson sharks, a smaller, predominantly bottom-feeding species similar to the horn shark found along the Pacific coast of the U.S.

“Port Jackson sharks have some really interesting interactions,” says Bass. “These types of sharks can be solitary, but they often occur in large groups around breeding time. They are apparently social while resting and seem to favour their resting sites, frequently with more than 30 individual sharks recorded together in one area alone.”

Bass will be attaching acoustic transmitters, known as "tags," to several sharks to track their movements.  Tags have long been used in shark research often to study the animal's regional hunting movements or longer migratory journeys.  By attaching tags to a large number of Port Jackson sharks, Bass hopes to be able to correlate their movements and possible interactions with seasonal events such as known breeding periods to determine possible social behavioral patterns.

“What we’d like to find out is whether Port Jackson sharks are frequently congregating with the same individuals for social reasons, and if they are, whether they prefer to socialise with individuals of the same sex and size or rather with individuals they’re related to,” said Bass.

An understanding of the social behavior of one species of shark does not necessarily  open the floodgates of enlightenment regarding sharks as a whole.  But it is a solid first step and provides a sort of baseline with a set of behavioral assumptions that can be tested with other species.  Insight into the social behavior patterns of sharks, no matter how social or anti-social these animals prove to be, will provide us with a better understanding as to their role in the maintenance of a healthy marine ecosystem and what the implications are with the loss of one or more of these important predators within a specific area.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Busy (and Bad) Year For White Sharks: shark attack survivor makes a case for calm & conservation

This year has been an unusual one for white shark activity as far as their appearance in coastal ocean areas visited by humans.  There have been reports of white sharks with greater frequency along the California coast and the northeast, off Massachusetts.  And then there are the five fatalities that have occurred this year in Western Australia.

It is too soon to make the assumption that white shark populations have grown significantly since conservation measures have been put in place for both the United States and Australia.  That would take several years of reporting to establish a definitive trend.  Are there changes in the white shark's primary food source that might bring them into greater contact with humans?  Are there more people entering the water, thereby increasing the odds of an encounter?  Or is it all just a statistical anomaly and next year we will all be wondering whatever became of the great white shark?

It's just all too early to tell, but in an event like this, emotions can begin to run high and the demand for some kind of demonstrative, curative action mounts.  The Western Australia Fishing Minister, Norman Moore, is feeling pressure from some segments of the public and is looking into whether he would be justified in declaring, at least temporarily, a suspension of Australia's regulations against catching white sharks.  The thought is that a culling of sharks in local waters will solve the problem.  Typically, when such actions have been initiated, they produce a much greater loss of shark species than is in any way reasonable.  Often, all sharks, whether dangerous or directly implicated, become targets.

In today's online CNN Opinion section, there is a calm, well-reasoned commentary as to why Western Australia should not resort to a knee-jerk reaction in response to the unfortunate events that have occurred this year.  It is a particularly noteworthy opinion as it comes from Mike Coots, a surfer who lost a leg to an encounter with a tiger shark in Hawaii.

I prefer not to editorialize Mike's rational argument in this post, so take a moment and read what he has to say from his very unique perspective.  Click here.

Thanks, Mike.  I hope the good people of Western Australia can see things in the same light as you do.

Source: CNN Opinion

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Marine Mammals in Captivity: industry support group uses survey to paint a positive picture

The value of aquariums, zoos and marine parks can be debated on many different levels. It's not a cut and dry issue; good or bad, right or wrong.  Much depends on the particular venue itself.  There can be poorly run facilities that do not provide a safe or healthy environment for the animals  - the news media is always eager to pounce on those places, as well they should. And then there are others that provide as natural of a habitat as possible and stress more of a learning experience for the visitor.  Those are the best of breed.

I have agreed with the position that a properly designed and managed facility can provide the means for the general public to see and appreciate animals that they would normally not ever see in they're day-to-day lives.  And if properly presented and supported by educational information, aquariums and zoos can enlighten the visitors as to the delicate and precarious lives these animals experience in the wild thanks to the often negative impact mankind has had on the environment.

The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums is an organization representing ocean-themed amusement parks like Sea World, UNEXSO Dolphin Experience, Georgia Aquarium, and others.  It affiliates itself with many of the professional accreditation and regulatory agencies and research organizations like the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but the bottom line is it is a professional organization representing a particular segment of the entertainment industry.  It's job is to collectively represent many different marine mammal venues and help put their best foot forward.

The Alliance issued a press release on Monday: "Public Confirms Overwhelming Support for Important Conservation Education Missions of Marine Parks, Aquariums, and Zoos."   It summarized the results of public polls released in 2005 and 2012 which showed great support for these venues as places where people learned to appreciate marine mammals and by extension develop a greater respect for them.

"Ninety-seven percent of people agree that marine life parks, aquariums and zoos are important because they educate children about marine mammals - animals that children might not have the opportunity to see in the wild. In addition, many continue to feel that people are more likely to be concerned about animals if they learn about them at marine life parks, aquariums and zoos. In both 2012 and 2005, 93 percent agreed with this statement."

Initially, this all seems very encouraging both for conservationists and for the parks themselves.  However, a quote by the Alliance's director caught my attention.

"People feel that being able to connect with dolphins, killer whales, beluga whales and other marine mammals in facilities is important for education and conservation," said Marilee Menard, executive director of the Alliance. "This is clear not only from the consistent support over time, as demonstrated by the two polls, but by the 45 million people who visit Alliance-accredited marine life parks, aquariums and zoos every year."

Dolphins, killer whales, and beluga whales.  Does the public fully understand the natural conditions these animals normally thrive in, particularly the dolphins and orcas (I prefer that name over killer whale) as pelagic animals that utilize echolocation and other advanced faculties of aquatic communication?

Full confession: as much as I can see value in aquariums and zoos, I am opposed to the keeping of dolphins and orcas and other whales in captivity.  No facility is capable of providing a large enough habitat where these animals can move freely and utilize the full range of their natural abilities.  For them, captivity is most stifling and there are documented cases of unnatural, dare I say neurotic, behavior in captive whales and dolphins.  I side with the position taken by Jean Michel Cousteau that these animals should not be kept in marine parks and trained to do tricks for the amusement of the crowd.

Unfortunately, these animals, who, ultimately, become simply attractions to sell tickets, are huge money makers for these parks.  So the public relations strategy to protect their cash cows focuses on admitting nothing that could be construed as negative and strengthen their position by showing that the general public is on their side - a survey.

"Additionally, the latest poll found that 89 percent agree that children learn more about marine mammals at an aquarium or zoo than in a school classroom, and 88 percent agree that you can learn about animals at marine parks in a way that can't be replicated by watching film or TV programs. Some 91 percent agree that seeing a marine mammal at these facilities fosters a connection to the animal."

That statement is more a criticism of the educational system and entertainment media than it is an endorsement of marine mammal parks.  As a media consultant, I know full well how surveys can be structured to produce the results you want.  A totally unbiased survey - even when prepared by an "independent" firm, as this one was - is indeed a rarity.  Did any of the questions mention that these marine mammals normally live in open ocean and use echolocation and other vocal sounds, which travel great distances, to communicate and establish close social bonds within groups of animals?  And that in captivity, these abilities are hampered by small enclosures that do not allow for a normal amount of movement or transmission of sounds (a bit like being in an echo chamber).  Would the survey respondents answer favorably if they were aware that those are the conditions in which these animals are confined?

No, let's not lay out the whole story.  Let's just get their reactions to seeing a whale jump through a hoop or balance a ball on its head.  Tell the ticket holders all about how amazing these animals are and convince them that their handlers care for the animals (which I actually truly believe is the case among the handlers and veterinarians involved), but dance around the fact that it is not practical or feasible to provide a natural and healthy environment for these animals.  Ask the right questions and it's easy to get people on your side.  

The Alliance's survey has one singular purpose: distraction.  It whitewashes the issue of how animals like dolphins and orcas exist in the wild by tallying up public support from a public who does not have a full picture or understanding of the situation.  Put up a good front, then let the revenue roll in.

Source: Business Wire

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Future of Coral Reefs: all but lost or capable of being saved?

Writing this blog over the course of the past few years, I have touched on a variety of environmental issues and challenges facing a variety of ecosystems, many of which are ocean-related.  I must admit, there are times when I find myself writing about one bad situation after another and begin to think, "Well, we're screwed."  My prescription for those moments of cynicism is to write about something positive, fun or even silly.  Change the mood; take a break; put your head in a better place.

I thought of that when I read Roger Bradbury's New York Times Op-Ed, A World Without Coral Reefs.  Bradbury is an ecologist with the Australian National University and in his writing he took the position that if coral reefs are threatened with extinction in the next 20-30 years, the three main forces that are threatening the reefs - overfishing, ocean acidification, and pollution - cannot be sufficiently arrested in time to make a noticeable difference within that time frame.  Therefore, coral reefs are doomed.

"It's past time to tell the truth about the state of the world’s coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks. They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation. There will be remnants here and there, but the global coral reef ecosystem — with its storehouse of biodiversity and fisheries supporting millions of the world’s poor — will cease to be."

Bradbury examines the three main threats and lists some measures of improvement but contends that such progress, whether real or proposed, is incapable of reducing the effects of overfishing, acidification, and pollution enough to make a measurable difference in the ultimate degradation of the coral reefs.  There just isn't enough time but, contends Bradbury, governments, environmentalists, and scientists won't accept the inevitable and continue to cling to hope.

"But by persisting in the false belief that coral reefs have a future, we grossly misallocate the funds needed to cope with the fallout from their collapse. Money isn’t spent to study what to do after the reefs are gone — on what sort of ecosystems will replace coral reefs and what opportunities there will be to nudge these into providing people with food and other useful ecosystem products and services. Nor is money spent to preserve some of the genetic resources of coral reefs by transferring them into systems that are not coral reefs. And money isn’t spent to make the economic structural adjustment that communities and industries that depend on coral reefs urgently need. We have focused too much on the state of the reefs rather than the rate of the processes killing them."

The following day, another op-ed appeared in the New York Times to try and balance the gloom and doom of Bradbury's position.  In Reefs in the Anthropocene - Zombie Ecology?Andrew Revkin quoted several marine scientists who, while not disputing the direness of Bradbury's reporting, did make the case that all is not necessarily lost.  Revkin quoted John Bruno, marine ecologist with the North Carolina University at Chapel Hill:

"It is scary, but is it true? I don’t think so. I have been called a pathological optimist, but on the other hand, I’ve watched reefs change radically from the dangerous wild places I experienced as a kid in the Florida Keys, to simplified systems with few corals and fewer predators. And this is in just 30 years. 

We have many examples of places where local threats like fishing and pollution have been reduced or reversed and in some cases like the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, with great success.  We also have some — though not many — reefs even in the Caribbean that have a lot of healthy coral and are patrolled by sharks, grouper, snapper, barracuda, and other large carnivores.

The challenge for my generation of scientists is to increase the number of these “quasi-pristine” coral reefs (I’d like to see a tenfold increase) and to halt the decline of the other 90 percent of the world’s reefs.  Are this optimistic goals? Sure.  But the science suggests this is doable and I’m far from ready to give up on reefs."

Revkin also received some feedback from renown marine scientists, conservationist, and author, Carl Safina.  Safina recognizes the extant of the problem and concedes that many reef areas will be permanently altered.  But he also recognizes that there is quantifiable progress taking place and that it is not yet time to throw in the towel.

"Bradbury seems to suggest giving up and spending money on ways to replace the values (for example, fish) that coral reefs have provided. But what would giving up look like? Overfishing is old news, and plenty of people are, in fact, spending money trying to raise fish. Some are making money. Overpopulation: also old news and crucial to everything from water supplies to prospects for peace. One doesn’t need to certify future coral reef destruction to realize that overpopulation is bad for human health and dignity, not to mention a catastrophe for wild living systems. These problems have caused the losses to date and they continue. Warming and acidification are also building. 

But to accept that reefs are doomed implies that the best response is to give up hope, thus give up effort. That means we give up on curbing overfishing and allowing rebuilding (yet these two goals are in fact are increasingly working in many places, specifically because people have not given up, and because letting fish recover can work). It means we give up on controlling pollution (in the U.S., the Clean Water Act brought great improvement to rivers so polluted that they actually caught fire multiple times; developing nations deserve to do no less for themselves). It means we give up on population, whose most effective solving strategy is to teach girls to read and write. 

Giving up, while reefs still flourish in many places, means accepting what is unacceptable, and abandoning work on situations that can likely be improved. It means deciding to be hopeless. It means giving up on the reefs, the fishes, and the people, who need all the combined efforts of those who both know the science best—and who, while life exists, won’t give up. 

The science is clear that reefs are in many places degraded and in serious trouble. But no science has, or likely can, determine that reefs and all their associated non-coral creatures are unequivocally, equally and everywhere, completely doomed to total non-existence. In fact, much science suggests they will persist in some lesser form. Bleak prospects have been part of many dramatic turnarounds, and, who knows, life may, as usual—with our best efforts—find a way."

Bradbury's op-ed is a worthwhile read, sobering as it is.  However, so is Andrew Revkin's as his take serves not just as a Pollyanna, all-things-are-rosy response.  There is a thoughtful counter-argument to the idea that coral reefs are beyond salvation.  The biggest challenge may not be in what we do as much as when we get the worldwide determination to do it.  No one argues with the fact that the clock is ticking.

Source: Roger Bradbury's New York Times Op-Ed
Source: Andrew Revkin's New York Times blog post

Thursday, July 12, 2012

South Carolina Bull Shark: video captures surprise visitor in local inlet

Another shark video is making the viral rounds on the Internet.  But rather than be one that invokes sadness or anger for depicting some poor trophy prize hung by its tail or a sea of shark fins drying in the sun, this short video from South Carolina illustrates a unique quality of what is considered to be one of the more aggressive sharks.

Along South Carolina's North Myrtle Beach is House Creek which is fed by tens of smaller creeks and streams and ultimately spills out to the sea.  This transition from fresh to saltwater makes for brackish water that some ocean fish are able to tolerate.  One such animal is the bull shark.

If you have not yet seen the video, a young woman, Sarah Brame, accompanied by her fiance and stepfather, was fishing off the dock at Cherry Grove Inlet, a small body of water connected to House Creek by a small feeder stream.  As she was reeling in her first fish, a local variety called drum, a 5-6 foot bull shark suddenly lunged, breaking the surface and taking her catch in one swift flurry of splashing water and hungry shark.  Quite a remarkable piece of video (see below).

What makes the video all the more remarkable is its illustration of the bull shark's ability to withstand brackish to near fresh water, which allows it to move up streams and rivers and get into places where you least expect to find a large shark.  (See the map of the Cherry Grove Inlet and House Creek.)  Bull sharks have been found many miles upstream in South American rivers and the famous Matawan Creek shark attack of 1916 in New Jersey, which many at the time attributed to a great white, was, in hindsight, very likely a bull shark.

Bull sharks are also one of the more aggressive sharks.  Aggressive in that, when on the hunt, they do not rely on a single massive bite, like a white shark will do to a seal (or a mistaken swimmer).  Instead, the bull shark will hunt large prey with repeated bites.  This has been borne out by reports of swimmers or surfers who, when attacked by a bull shark, found that it would give chase and bite repeatedly in a rather tenacious, never-give-up manner.  While a bull shark, like all sharks, do not single out humans as a specific prey, it is this determined behavior by the bull shark that puts it in the top four of most dangerous sharks (the other three being, white sharks, tiger sharks, and oceanic white tips).  I have had the opportunity to get up close with a variety of shark species and the bull shark is the one that draws my utmost attention.

After Sarah lost her catch in such a spectacular fashion, her fiance and stepfather contemplated taking their 10-foot boat out on the water to track down the shark, but after a few minutes on the water, they rethought the matter.

"We need a bigger boat and a bigger net," said Van Hughes, Sarah's stepfather.  "We need a bigger boat."  Now, where have I heard that before. . . . 

According to Dan Abel, shark researcher at the Coastal Carolina University, "It's not like just because we saw this shark yesterday that was just chasing this fish that was struggling on a line means that everything is going haywire.  They're out there all the time anyway. It just so happens that this one opportunity a person caught it on film."

Just another apex predator doing its thing.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Coral Triangle: scientists warn of social & economic implications

The Coral Triangle is an area of tropical waters in the South Pacific that ranges from the Philippines to the north, the Solomon Islands to the east, and Indonesia to the west.  It is considered to be the center of marine biodiversity, having the greatest range and number of aquatic species in the world.

And it is one of the most fragile and threatened regions in the ocean.

The Philippine's reported on the consensus of several recognized marine scientists that a concerted effort must be made to protect the Coral Triangle from the effects of climate change, acidification, and other man-made threats.  It was interesting to note that their concerns focused on the social-economic and political implications of what would happen should the Coral Triangle continue on it's current path.  Considering the implications on mankind, as opposed to the ecosystem itself, is often a good strategy in gaining the attention of policy makers.

Interesting article, so I thought I would post it here in its entirety.

International experts pressure PH to protect reefs

CAIRNS, Australia - The Philippines and the other countries in the Coral Triangle should step up their efforts and investments to conserve “the most productive” reef ecosystem in the world, scientists said on Tuesday.

Overfishing, pollution, coastal development, climate change and ocean acidification are endangering the coral reefs of Southeast Asia and Western Pacific, which could lead to conflicts, food insecurity, and political instability in the region.

Jamaluddin Jompa, director of the Coral Reef Research at the Hasanuddin University in Indonesia, said: “All the pressures are going up and up...We need to do something to bring these down.”

Jompa said national governments and international donors should invest in the survival of the Coral Triangle because of its profound economic and political impact.

Maurice Knight, chief of party of the USAID Coral Triangle Support Partnership, said the international donors and national governments should address the preservation of the regional reefs since it has massive socio-political impacts beyond the Pacific. He noted that the cost of saving the Coral Triangle is huge.

“We need to come to grips with the costs of conservation,” he said, adding that ignoring the health of the area would be more expensive for the countries in the long run.

The collapse of the Coral Triangle could lead to lesser sources of food and livelihood to millions of people all over the region, Knight said. This could lead to political instability and conflicts, as well as internal and external migration, making the Coral Triangle's health a “global” issue.

The Coral Triangle Initiative, which started in 2009, is an alliance of six countries in the so-called Coral Triangle region, the center of marine biodiversity in the world. The initiative, which is supported by the governments of Australia and the United States, aims to preserve the health of the coral reef systems in the region.

The regional waters provide various services to more than 130 million people living in the region. The reef ecosystems are sources of food, employment, and revenue from tourism for the Coral Triangle countries.

The World Resources Institute released the report Reefs at Risk on Monday at the International Coral Research Conference in Cairns, Australia, which put a spotlight on the status of corals in the Coral Triangle. According to the WRI, 85% of the reef cover of the Coral Triangle is in decline.

The threats come from overfishing, watershed-based pollution, and coastal development. Factors such as climate change, ocean acidification increase the number of threatened reefs to 90%, the WRI study said.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Lifeguards: hardworking heroes at the mercy of the ocean's whim

My regular contributions to this blog may become a bit sketchy for the next few weeks, so feel free to peruse through the archives.  There are over 900 posts and it's interesting to see the chronological developments in certain ocean conservation issues like shark advocacy.

The reason for my sketchiness is that I will be working on the second season of the Weather Channel's series, Lifeguard!  It's an interesting reality series that highlights the many activities of Southern California's dedicated crew of lifeguards.  We often think of lifeguards as some young and buff stud perched high in a tower, but while that certainly is a component of their responsibilities, they also can get involved aerial rescues, mountaineering rescues, dive search & recovery, and much more.

And the ocean can often dictate just how busy the lifeguards can be on any given day.  I was shooting on July 3rd and 4th at Torrey Pines Beach, near San Diego.  This is a thin strip of a beach, popular with families but also notorious for its many rip currents.  Some of these currents are transient and, because of a nearby river that flows into the sea there, a couple are considered "permanent rips."  Given a hot, crowded day at this beach, and the lifeguards can find themselves with a pretty full day between fishing out exhausted swimmers who don't know how to deal with a rip current, plucking stranded climbers or crashed hang gliders off the cliffs at the adjacent Torrey Pines bluffs, or defusing potential fights from frazzled beach goers arguing over the last available parking space. (The Torrey Pines lifeguards are members of the California State Parks Service and can be licensed and armed peace officers.)

However, nature can be full of surprises and, as it turned out, the 4th of July was a fairly calm and uneventful day due to a heavy and cold marine overcast that kept most people out of the water and close to the BBQs for a hot hamburger or chili dog.  As one of the lifeguards was telling us, their day can be a fairly easy one or a grueling nightmare, depending on the fickle mood of the ocean and the sky.  But even on an easy day, the regular workday of a lifeguard would leave most of us beat up and weary.  The Lifeguard: another unsung hero in the civil servant corp.

So, in the meantime, I'll be posting on my days off and I hope you keep checking in.  I appreciate the support of all the readers I have gained over the past few years.  Hopefully, we're all making a difference in preserving and protecting the oceans.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Amazon Fish In Illinois Lake: South American relative of piranha being caught by fishermen

Writing in his Outdoor blog, Grind TV's Pete Thomas noted another example of an aquarium fish potentially becoming an invasive species due to the careless or irresponsible actions of an home aquarium owner.

In the Amazon River there lives the pacu, a relative of the piranha.  The pacu has a similar shape to the piranha but can grow to be much larger, weighing in at over 50 pounds.  And also similar to the piranha are its set of teeth, but with an interesting twist.  They look more like a set of human molars as the pacu primarily feeds on nuts and seeds which it crushes and grinds up with its teeth and powerful jaws.

Because of its piranha-like appearance but less than hostile manner, the pacu pops up in aquariums around the world from time to time.  But as it ultimately outgrows most home habitats, they sometimes find themselves cast aside in local rivers or lakes.  As supposed herbivores, it would possibly seem that the pacu would be a harmless addition, but there apparently are reports of this fish being responsible for the deaths of two men in Papua New Guinea by castrating them - eeyeowch!

So, it is with a measure of concern to city officials, residents and tourists, as we enter the warm summer months, that pacus were reportedly being caught by fishermen in Lake Lou Yaeger in Illinois.  With more and more bathers entering the lake to escape the heat, the possibility of someone being bitten begins to increase.  As Pete humorously reported in his blog, one key lake official was taking a less than alarmist position regarding the pacu.

"Lake superintendent Jim Caldwell, sounding a bit like the Amity Island mayor in Jaws, assured that everything's OK, adding that he has a small swim in the lake regularly.  It was about then that you half-expected the scary theme music to begin playing." 

Responsible home aquarists always consider the repercussions of disposing of any fish - large or small, teeth or no teeth - in local waterways.  Many fish that are sold to fresh and salt water aquarium enthusiasts are, in fact, juveniles only a few weeks old.  This makes them fragile and mortality can be high.  But if the fish survives and thrives, the owner often can find that they have a fish that is soon outgrowing its habitat.

When I was in my junior high school years, I owned several aquariums in which I prided myself in having a dazzling array of fish to impress my folks and the neighbors. (My friends weren't all that interested.  It was a bit nerdish, in an age of pre-computer nerds.)  There was a local tropical fish store which had some nefarious connections and was able to procure for me a pacu, which I didn't have for too long; the poor thing could barely turn around in the tank.  The shop was also able to get me a series of actual piranhas, which are illegal for regular consumers to own, buy, sell, or trade (I'm guessing the statute of limitations has expired).  The laws existed to prevent a piranha from ending up in the local watering hole and, even as a kid, I could appreciate that since one nearly bit my finger when I was cleaning the tank one day.

So, I can understand the fascination that home aquarists can have in owning exotic fish, but there is a very serious side to their activity that demands responsible decision-making.  Many fresh water fish are raised rather than caught in the wild, but some of those fish can grow to be quite large with hungry appetites.  Salt water fish can also be raised but some are caught in the wild and at great harm to the reef from where they came.  Collectors will sometimes use chemicals or poisons that stun the fish for ease of capture.  Unfortunately, the poisons kill the coral and damage the caught fish's internal organs so that it's life expectancy is shortened.

While one can debate the value or purpose of home aquariums, there should be total agreement that transplanted fresh or salt water plants and animals can have unforeseen consequences on marine ecosystems.

Source: Outdoor/GrindTV