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Monday, March 29, 2010

El Nino Clobbers California's Sea Lions

Warmer surface waters in the eastern Pacific are keeping sea lion pups' food sources away. Rescuers are doing what they can, NPR says in this report.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bluefin Defeat Sinks In

Everyone's had some time to digest the tragedy that befell the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna and its supporters late last week, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting rejected a ban on its sale.

So here are just a few of the most salient points I've come across.

The BBC highlights an unsurprising problem:
Sue Lieberman, director of international policy with the Pew Environment Group, suggested lobbying from the fishing industry was ultimately responsible for the defeat.

"This meeting presented a golden opportunity for governments to take a stand against overfishing, and too many governments failed to do so," she said.

"The market for this fish is just too lucrative, and the pressure from fishing interests too great, for enough governments to support a truly sustainable future for the fish."
The thing is, Ms. Lieberman's comments are misleading in at least one way that Carl Safina put his finger on:
Japan says a ban would devastate fishing economies. As if destroying the fish won’t.
Opponents of the ban -- and let's face it, it was not all about Japan and Canada, since it essentially went down by a vote of 68-20 and CITES requires two-thirds support for passage -- pulled out the battle cry of the obstreperous: There's already another agency responsible for this!

That would be the execrable International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which doesn't inspire a lot of faith based on past performance.

In a great post that touches on all the essentials of what stinks about the Atlantic Bluefin's plight, Richard Black at BBC's EarthWatch blog doesn't mince too many words:
So poorly has this body performed its task (it was declared a "disgrace" by an independent performance review two years ago) that conservationists have another way of interpreting its initials - the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas.

And it was in frustration with Iccat's annual habit of setting quotas higher than its scientists recommended (they have advised zero quotas for the last few years) that conservationists turned to a CITES ban as an alternative way of reducing the catch.
Black goes on to note that: a) the Europeans are being disingenuous in all this, since they should be able to mobilize the ICCAT if they so choose, no matter what they say; b) the economics do not necessarily favor "sustainable" fisheries for commercial outfits, since ships can go just about anywhere, early payoffs (think: high prices in the short term) can be wrung out and turned into easy money elsewhere, and subsidies for scrapping old fleets can ease any lingering scruples; and c) the "tragedy of the commons," which basically states that people are willing to crap all over something in their effort to exploit it to their own maximum benefit, is at play.

It's a devastating indictment, to be sure. Rarely are there such clear-cut cases of species needing protection. And seldom is the failure to act in the broader interest more conspicuous than in the case of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Honey, I Dunked The Kids

I'm all for exposing young people to the wonders of the underwater world, but this is not exactly a healthy idea for a competition.
He became world's youngest scuba diver after he dived 40 feet underwater near Grande Island in Goa last month, breaking the earlier world record of Egypt's Natasha Turner.

Open Water, Too

Sounds like lots of blame to go around on this dive mishap, although I know I wouldn't want to be in the water with that crew looking out for me (or not, rather). On the bright side, the beleaguered diver's suing for $4 million for five hours' work -- probably nearly what his attorney's asking.

I had a slightly similar experience off the Kenyan coast once. All I could think of while I was kicking toward shore was "God, I hope to hell I see a whale shark."

Can't let that story go without thinking of this great indie film:

State Help On Ocean Acidity

This might be a promising path in the U.S., given the example of the influence that states like California are beginning to have on vehicle emissions standards and all. Says AP:
In the settlement agreement, the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] said it would take public comment on the increasing acidity of oceans, on ways states can determine if their coastal waters are affected, and on how states can limit pollutants that cause the problem.

Such measures could include regional cap-and-trade systems to limit carbon-dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels or requiring industrial plants to reduce their emissions as a condition of any discharge permits granted under the Clean Water Act, Sakashita said.

Monday, March 15, 2010

CITES And False Prophets

The world awaits word from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) summit on a possible Atlantic Bluefin Tuna ban, among other things. Meanwhile, the sponsors of alternative aquaculture schemes promise the world. Says one Japanese entrepreneur:
"Our tuna won't affect the ecological system so that we can help stop draining marine resources," said Takahiro Hama, a director of the company based in the southern Japanese city of Amakusa.

"We have just begun full shipments to the United States," he said. "We hope to provide our sustainable tuna for Japanese sushi bars and restaurants which are concerned about protests from environmental activists."
Several quick thoughts.

The suggestion that because these fish are farm-raised they don't consume "marine resources" is a fraud. They'll need to eat marine life of some sort in order to grow into the massive swimming sushi platters that companies like Hama envisage. Unless they're being fed chickens.

Second, the cynicism embodied in that statement about the U.S. market is mind-boggling. It's indeed heartening -- though dubious, in my view -- to think that environmental activists have that much clout in any sustained way. But to think that a primary selling point to restaurants is that they can avoid those huge, roving bands of picketing activists!

It also punches a hole in the laissez-faire argument whose underlying assumption is that economic actors would never piss in their own well. Because if that were the case, restaurateurs would be interested in sustainable fishing because they're ruining the planet, not our of fear of the occasional letter from 3rd-graders complaining that they're asking their mommies and daddies to boycott the place.

But For The Grace Of...

Coming across this gut-wrenching Australian dive tragedy, I couldn't help but wonder: What if the rules of diving included a "Touching the Void"-style absolute?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

From The Logbook: Red Sea Walkman

Was far away from computers or the sea the past two days, so haven't seen anything notable from the weekend.

That makes it a good time to share a favorite dive video. It's an encounter I had last year with a Red Sea Walkman (Inimicus filamentosus) -- also called a Two-Stick Stingfish, I guess -- in the Gulf of Aqaba near Dahab, Egypt. It's one of the most mind-blowing fish I've ever seen, with adapted fins for walking, a menacing scowl, gorgeous butterfly wings for pectorals, and venomous dorsal spines. I wonder if this is what our ancestors looked like.

Friday, March 12, 2010

What Would Jacques Cousteau Do?

The New York Times' environment blog has a provocative post that offers thoughtful, divergent views on putting a stop to the slaughter of dolphins from "The Cove's" Louie Psihoyos and marine biologist Carl Safina.

One particular aspect of the debate reminds me of stumbling, when I was about 10 years old, across Jacques Cousteau's matter-of-fact description of his crew's harpooning of a porpoise for shark bait. It just didn't jibe with my animal-kingdom-embracing preconceptions about how a man so devoted to sea life should act. I think I'm over it now. And that's good, because neither Psihoyos nor Safina appears to regard challenging cultural values as an effective strategy for combatting the grisliest of practices for harvesting marine animals.

"The Cove's" Psihoyos thinks the argument that stands the best chance of dissuading the dolphin-eaters is a humanitarian one: There's simply too much mercury and other toxic stuff in these mammals' bodies to ingest them regularly.

Safina is clearly (because he says so flatly) uncomfortable with "forcing my values on other people." He places his faith in the "most universal hallmark of human progress" which he describes as "the desire to minimize infliction of suffering."

The Sushi Blows In SoCal

Yikes! They've been serving endangered Sei Whale meat at "The Hump," a sushi and marine mammal restaurant in Santa Monica. More great work from "The Cove" crew.

This is laid-back Southern California's version of Marion Barry sucking on that crack pipe in a DC hotel room.

More Plastic People Of The Pacific

I mentioned the Plastiki Expedition the other day, but Scripps is conducting its own voyage to examine the plastic waste problem in the Pacific, too.

It's called SEAPLEX (Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition).

Culinary Insights Into Aquaculture

While I was on the TED website ("Ideas worth spreading" and highly recommended), I came across this, a truly thought-provoking and entertaining meditation on sustainable practices in fish farming and the dilemma of a, -eater.

Chef Dan Barber on "How I Fell In Love With A Fish," and how Spaniards could revolutionize fish farming. It seems so good, one wonders what the catch is.

The farm he's talking about, on wetlands at Veta La Palma, is an amazing endeavor.

The Ultimate Ocean Adventurer

For some reason I ran across the name of geophysicist/adventurer and National Geographic "explorer in residence" Robert Ballard (of "Titanic" fame).

Says "National Geographic" of Ballard:

Best known for the discovery of RMS Titanic, Ballard has led more than 120 oceanographic expeditions. He located the wrecks of the battleship Bismarck, the aircraft carrier Yorktown, John F. Kennedy’s PT-109, the nuclear attack submarines USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, and numerous ancient ships in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. He also discovered and documented the extraordinary marine communities surrounding deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
And here's a recent "60 Minutes" report on him:

Ballard is certainly an entertaining guy, as this next video, a TED mini-lecture, demonstrates. And a staunch advocate of ocean awareness and exploration. You know, the kind of guy that you hope a lot of kids grow up wanting to emulate.

'The Cove' Makes Headway

There's a great collateral benefit to the Oscar for best feature documentary going to "The Cove."

Turns out the Oscar telecast is just about the only way (OK, OK, there's that Internet thing) that the Japanese public was going to hear about this project, which lifts the grisly shroud of secrecy on Japanese dolphin and porpoise slaughters.

I hope it boosts their "DOLPHIN" to 44144 text-messaging awareness campaign.

This is what director Louie Psihoyos would have liked to tell the global audience:

'Kon-Tiki' For The 21st Century

Three cheers for banking family scion David de Rothschild and the crew and sponsors of the Plastiki Expedition. They embark this month on a San Francisco-to-Sydney sail aboard a vessel constructed of recycled plastic to draw attention to the catastrophic dumping of plastic and other junk. CNN:

The Plastiki's journey will spotlight current environmental issues. En route to Australia, Plastiki will sail through the infamous North Pacific Gyre, now home to "The Great Garbage Patch," named due to the high levels of waste that have been drawn there by ocean currents. Estimated to be around the size of Texas, this contaminated area of ocean has by some estimates more plastic than food for marine life.

"I was astounded to hear that that there are places in our oceans where the ratio between plastic and plankton is 6-to-1," de Rothschild told CNN, referring to the area.

CNN says two of "Kon-Tiki" skipper Thor Heyerdahl's grandchildren are taking part, which is appropriate given the similar audacity of this venture to the Norwegian adventurer's 1947 exploit.

Greenpeace has an amazing graphic called "The Trash Vortex" that shows the drift of that garbage that's clogging up our seas.

Egypt Does The Mediterranean A Favor

It's long been clear which side Egypt's bread is buttered on. The Red Sea side, with first-rate marine reserves like the legendary Ras Mohamed (pictured is an Arabian Picasso Triggerfish near the lighthouse at Ras um Sid).

But now Egypt's looking to spread the wealth in the form of a nearly 400-square-km marine park on its Mediterranean coast, at a place called the Gulf of el-Salloum. Says Reuters:

"Declaring this protectorate is a way to confront a host of environmental problems, such as soil degradation and coastal inundation, climate change and loss of biological diversity," [Egyptian Environment Minister Maged] George said in a statement, adding that the area was rich in natural resources.

The protectorate contains more than 160 migratory and local bird species, about 30 reptile and amphibian species and 10,000 to 12,000 marine species. Its creation should encourage scientific research on biological diversity in Egypt, he said.

Taking A Deep Breath: David Byrne

Dead Zones On The March

When the tragic effects of global warming arrive, they're unlikely to present themselves in the spectacular form of a 1,000-meter wall of water or the demise of the dinosaurs.

They'll probably look more like creeping dead zones of hypoxia -- oxygen-starved pockets (the circus-clown variety, not Dittos Jeans) that suffocate most anything too slow to escape.

Given mainstream media's taste for the dramatic, it's gratifying to see big news outlets actually covering issues like this, so hats off to Les Blumenthal and McClatchy for this story. (Although illustrating the story with a dolphin is an odd choice, seeing as his oxygen isn't at issue.)

I read stories like McClatchy's and it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Now, I live in a city that suffers frequent inversions, when cold air acts as a lid to trap warmer air that just hovers over us all like one of those dark clouds above an angry cartoon character. But it's not instantly fatal. What's more, I can escape in the short term -- to higher ground, or to the 'burbs, if not the countryside. Slow-moving sea creatures -- worms, mussels, starfish, urchins -- don't have that luxury. And even the faster movers' luck will run out if these blots of blight keep spreading.

This story is all about causality, of course, since we've known for a long time about a great many oceanic dead zones around the world (the McClatchy story says there are 400, and reliable sources put the number of "coastal dead zones" at around 50 a decade ago). For instance, the massive Gulf of Mexico dead zone, which at around 22,000 square kilometers is now bigger than the state of Israel, is largely a result of leaching and runoff from the Mississippi River.

So how do we know global warming's at fault in cases like those off the coast of the western U.S., where this story was focused? (It refers more broadly, however, to a growing problem in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.)

Commendably, the McClatchy piece tries to explain. It quotes oceanographers Gregory Johnson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle and Jack Barth of Oregon State University suggesting that the oxygen depletion has been growing quickly in recent decades, presumably correlative to rising global temperatures:

In some spots, such as off the Southern California coast, oxygen levels have dropped roughly 20 percent over the past 25 years. Elsewhere, scientists say, oxygen levels might have declined by one-third over 50 years.

"The real surprise is how this has become the new norm," said Jack Barth , an oceanography professor at Oregon State University . "We are seeing it year after year."

Barth and others say the changes are consistent with current climate-change models. Previous studies have found that the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The other indicator of global warming's role in all this, the article goes on to suggest, is the havoc that it plays with upwelling and downwelling, preventing the essential exchange of nutrient-rich, oxygen-poor water for oxygen-rich surface water that's nutrient-poor.

That pretty much sums up the two most compelling arguments in Blumenthal's piece pointing to rising temperatures -- and thus man, unless you're the Czech president or in the fossil-fuels business -- as a major factor in these expanding oceanic dead zones.

We All Shine On...But Some Are Brighter Than Others

Just stumbled across this nice homage to bioluminescence, "8 Marine Creatures That Light Up The Sea."

Despite my love of night diving, I've logged far fewer hours than I'd like underwater between sunset and sunrise. There just doesn't seem to be enough interest at the dive resorts I'm frequenting to ensure many nighttime adventures away from the mini-discos. (I've got a toddler.)

But like many other divers, I never tire of the thrill of seeing it ("them," in actuality, since it's dinoflagellates generating all that oversized light) erupt of my arms and fins like white light off a welder's blast.

The most striking instance of bioluminescence I've been treated to was near Dahab, in the Red Sea, as a pair of 7-10cm fish bobbed and spun around me in a game of hide-and-seek -- or "She's mine! No mine!" Even as I swam reluctantly off I could see their blacklight theater from a full 15 meters away. It was a pair of so-called common flashlightfish, the Steinitz' Flashlightfish (Photoblepharon steinitzi).

But aside from the benefits that all this organic glowing yields its owners, there are some folks thinking up interesting applications for bioluminescence. One is its use as an imaging technique to monitor turbulence such as breaking waves. And make no mistake, it's a science; these folks at the Innovative Marine Technology Lab are pinning down "different species of dinoflagellates [to] offer a range of size, flow thresholds, flash brightness, and flash duration."

Deal In The Works On A Bluefin Tuna Ban?

Maintaining a ban on the ivory trade in exchange for throwing a lifeline to the Bluefin Tuna? Sounds like a win-win situation to me. Reuters has more:

Support protection of our elephants and we'll help you protect your bluefin tuna, 23 African countries told the European Union on Friday.

I'm not sure what motivates European opposition to the ivory ban. Is the EU currying favor with ivory lover China? Debt-strapped Tanzania and Zambia -- the two countries reportedly trying to chip away at the ivory ban -- don't exactly have a lot of heft on this or many other topics.

"Please do not force our collective hand to cast our 23 votes against the EU on any of the issues it is supporting such as, for example, the high profile proposed ban on bluefin tuna," said the letter seen by Reuters.

Let's hope Europe's priorities are sorted out by the time the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meets on March 13.

'F*#k You, Oceans!'

As if Carl Safina and South Park hadn't made it abundantly clear that Japanese unilateralism and disregard for the seas are injurious to more than just conservationists, whales and bluefin tuna.

Now AP reports this:

ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) - Australian police conducted searches Saturday [March 6] on two anti-whaling vessels that recently clashed with Japanese ships in the Antarctic Ocean in an attempt to obstruct their annual catch, police and activists said.

Federal police with search warrants boarded the Steve Irwin and the Bob Barker, ships belonging to the activist group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, as the result of a "formal referral from Japanese authorities," a spokesman said on condition of anonymity in accordance with police policy. He gave no further details, including on what basis the warrant was issued.

Are Japanese authorities really intent on acting like cartoon villains?

Learning The Hard Way

A Romanian colleague once told me that his three years of studies pursuing a degree in oceanography made his head hurt. It was that tough.

So kudos to those who stick it out.

It can be a difficult and probably thankless job. Well, not probably.

Rachel Carson, Right Again!

Naturalist Rachel Carson wrote in her 1955 book "The Edge of the Sea" that "Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less."

In deference to Carson and her historical perspective, I propose a new label for one of global warming's expected effects on our seas and coastlines: the Great Ocean Reclamation Project (GORP).

Branson's Virgin Takes The Plunge

Billionaire action superhero Richard Branson is following up on his fledgling space-tourism ventures with a wild scheme to lure wealthy adrenalin junkies underwater.

The folks at Virgin Limited Edition are billing their "Necker Nymph" as an "underwater plane" that dives to a depth of 40 meters, or about as deep as lots of casual recreational divers ever get. Here's some of what CNN says:

The $631,000 flying sub, the first of its kind, uses fighter jet technology and was designed by Hawkes Ocean Technologies. It is transparent enough to allow divers a 360-degree view of marine life and Virgin is marketing it as a way to view dolphins and whales close up.

I can't help wondering how a submersible with "fighter jet technology" that can do "dolphin-like flips" sneaks up on "dolphins and whales" without either ramming them or frightening their flukes off.

Now check out the claim that follows:

The new sub also appears to be environmentally friendly. It is buoyant, which stops it from mistakenly landing on reefs, and it is relatively quiet -- allowing it to pass through fragile ecosystems without causing too much upheaval, Virgin says.

It's unclear to whom it "appears to be environmentally friendly." But there is a clue tacked onto the end of the paragraph. Virgin says. If they're going to make that claim, let's hope there's stronger evidence for skeptics than "because it floats," is "relatively quiet," and won't cause "too much upheaval." After all, just a little upheaval and there goes the neighborhood.

The story in Britain's "The Sun" is a lot more fun to read, of course, because of its take-no-prisoners editorial style. Crucially, it adds that Sir Richard is "building a stronger version to go deeper than any sub has ever been."

"A pressurized submarine is nearly completed. But the real challenge is to explore what's going on at the bottom of the oceans," "The Sun" quotes him as saying.

Bathysphere deep divers Otis Barton and William Beebe would no doubt appreciate Branson's bravado.

But even a thrillseeker like Beebe recognized the futility of "record-breaking dives which really have no scientific value." Let's hope Branson does too.