Conserving Emperor Penguins

November 14th, 2014

A remote-controlled rover that looks like a pile of chick feathers with a chick’s head on top has successfully penetrated the defenses of a colony of Emperor Penguins on Antarctica, getting close to the penguins without stressing them.

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

We know a lot about Emperor Penguin breeding behavior from 5 decades of observations on the colony at Terre Adelie, one of the 45 breeding colonies that ring the continent. There adults have been electronically tagged for id and heart rate and other measurements. That colony gave us the movie March of the Penguins

Alone of all the penguins, the Emperor breeds on the sea ice during the Antarctic winter. As winter descends, each female lays her single egg, gives it to her mate, and leaves for a very long walk out to the edge of the sea ice, as much as 100 km away by then, where she forages for krill before walking back again, arriving two months later just in time for her egg to hatch. During those two months, each male brooded the egg his mate laid, stuffed into a feathery pouch just above his feet. When the female arrives she finds her now starving and very stiff mate in the huddle of males, and he transfers the egg to her and then in turn walks away to the distant ice edge to forage for krill, to return two months later.

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

Of course this has all occurred in weather as extreme as this planet offers – extreme cold, high winds, totally dark almost all the time. A single mistake – an egg unprotected for a minute, a parent lost or delayed, unexpected climate stress – and the breeding effort fails.

As the ice recedes with the spring melt, adults don’t have to walk so far to obtain krill, the chicks grow large enough to be left in huddling creches, and both parents forage for food for their growing chick. By the time fall arrives, the chick is large and agile enough to begin to forage on its own. If by chance it survives its first winter feeding at sea, it has a reasonable chance of making it to adulthood, breeding for the first time when it is about 15 years old.

Meanwhile, environmental stress plays its increasing role. In years with very cold conditions, the extent of the sea ice forces the adults to walk much further, and chick mortality is greater. In years with warmer winters the sea ice is less extensive, the krill feeding on the under-ice algae have less to feed on and the foraging penguins find less food, and again chick mortality is greater. In warm years, sea ice can also break up under the feet of the colony, and then most chicks are lost. Successful breeding is a delicate balance of sea-ice extent, size of krill schools, and parental condition.

So we know that Emperor Penguins grow large, live long, and breed late, with the lowest possible clutch size. Chick mortality is usually very high, around 50%, and the mortality of surviving fledged chicks through their first winter is often just as high.

Altogether a harsh and extraordinary existence.

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be 'quasi-extinct', by orange as  'endangered', by yellow as 'threatened', and by green as 'no threatened' (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be ‘quasi-extinct’, by orange as ‘endangered’, by yellow as ‘threatened’, and by green as ‘no threatened’ (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

What’s ahead? Winter sea ice will, over the next century, continue to recede around much of the Antarctic coast, in some places much more rapidly than others. Of the 45 colonies, probably ten will go extinct, seven on the ice of the Ross Sea will probably persist, and the rest will decline enough to be endangered, vulnerable to extinction. The models indicate 2/3 of the colonies will be less than 1/2 their current size.

Look ahead longer than a century, and few colonies remain. A bleak prospect. Clearly now is the time for enlightened conservation efforts.

Knowing how many birds there are is an essential first step. Colonies were photographed by satellite in 2009 using a variety of filters, identifying 45 – some never visited and others rarely seen. The current total population estimate is around 600,000 birds. Changes that occur in colony size and location will show up clearly in similar future surveys.

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

A penguin reserve – no fishing, no tourists – is the essential next step. The Ross Sea, where sea ice loss is expected to be least, is the obvious choice. It would provide a refuge, though even there colonies are expected to shrink. And of course there is resistance to protecting the Ross Sea from fishing, particularly from the Russians.

The third step? We’re back to the need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, and this week the US and China have given us cause for at least some slim hope.

Now, adding even more detailed and reliable information to support effective conservation, the rover-chick has arrived. It has its own camera peeking out in the middle of its chest, and it can get close enough to adults to read their electronic ids and download physiological data. It creates little stress among the adults, unlike a human creeping into the colony to gather the data, and it can roll right into creches where it appears to be accepted. We’ll know more about the state of the penguins as global warming stresses increase.

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

Perhaps some of the colonies of Emperor Penguins will adapt to the loss of sea ice. Four colonies have apparently moved back onto the glacier ice shelf, well above sea level, as sea ice has receded. But they may not be able to adapt to diminishing schools of krill.

The other too-famous movie ostensibly about Emperor Penguins, ‘Happy Feet‘, includes concerns about the effects of global warming. Its solution? Humans and penguins dancing enthusiastically together as a call for action. Absurd and mindless fantasies are not helpful.

Emperor Penguins are a worthy icon for illustrating the stresses and effects of climate change and global warming. Their long-term survival is anything but certain, probably even unlikely, but they seem to intrigue us enough to care about them.
successfully conserving them conserves so much more of what we could lose.

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

Ocean Heat

October 30th, 2014
Deploying an Argo Floater (NOAA.png)

Deploying an Argo Floater (NOAA.png)

Argo Floaters are technological wonders.

Each one, when set, sinks to 1000 meters below the ocean surface where it drifts with the current for 9 days. On day 10 it sinks to 2000 meters, then over a 6 hour period it rises to the surface, recording temperature and salinity. When it reaches the surface, it signals its position to a GPS satellite, and it transmits its data to a data bank. Then it sinks again to 1000 meters to start the cycle over again.

An Argo floater (there are actually a few different models) measures salinity and temperature, adjusts its buoyancy to rise and fall in the water column, signals its position at the surface, when it also transmits its most recent data.  (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater (there are actually a few different models) measures salinity and temperature, adjusts its buoyancy to rise and fall in the water column, signals its position at the surface, when it also transmits its most recent data. (argo.ucsd.edu)

Since the Argo project started, funded by NOAA, in 2000, more than 3500 floaters have now been set, about 300 km apart, with 30 countries participating. The US has set about half of them, but Canada has set almost 400, and China nearly 200. They now produce about 120,000 temperature and salinity profiles from all parts of the ice-free oceans each year.

Argo floaters have now been set in all ice free oceans, one every 3oo km (argo.ucsd.edu)

Argo floaters have now been set in all ice free oceans, one every 3oo km (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater sinks, drifts, sinks further, rises rapidly gathering data, transmits the data, then sinks to start the cycle over again (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater sinks, drifts, sinks further, rises rapidly gathering data, transmits the data, then sinks to start the cycle over again (argo.ucsd.edu)

It gets better. That transmitted data uploaded to a data bank is made available to internet users around the world within the next 24 hours, providing an almost real-time view of ocean temperatures and salinity down to 2000 meters.

We have been measuring ocean temperature and salinity at many depths and many places for decades, but never like this. With so much data, uncertainty decreases, and a detailed picture of the climate of the oceans emerges. We are documenting in remarkable detail the heat accumulating in the ocean and how it is transferred within the ocean on local, seasonal, annual and now decade scales.

The graphs are unequivocal, updated almost daily, there for all to see.

The heat content of the ocean continues to rise correlated with the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases (NOAA.png)

The heat content of the ocean continues to rise correlated with the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases (NOAA.png)

A recent commentary in Nature emphasizes that no one indicator of global climate change is sufficient. Just as the measurement of multiple vital signs give a clearer sense of a human’s health, so multiple indicators give us an increasingly clear image of the planet’s climate change. We have relied a lot on the calculation of the global average surface temperature of our atmosphere, which is variable in every way imaginable. Other indicators are greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations, high-latitude temperatures, and sea level rise.

And now we also have the finest data we could hope for, measuring the relentless increase in the heat of the oceans. Oceans absorb 93% of the extra energy being added to the climate system, in turn heating the atmosphere. The rising levels of ocean heat is our best indication – and warning – of the long-term global warming that has just begun.

We may be documenting global warming with increasing accuracy and confidence, but denial by powerful politicians remains an immense obstacle to action. For instance if the Republican Party wins the US Senate in next week’s election, Senator Inhofe is in line to Chair the Committee on Environment. He’s the one who wrote the book about global warming called The Greatest Hoax

Meanwhile, school programs scattered around the US are following the Argo project, learning about the rising heat content of the oceans, even adopting Argo Floaters.

Hope lives.

Talking About Climate Change.

October 15th, 2014

In his new book ‘Don’t Even think About It’ George Marshall raises a lot of very uncomfortable questions.

Marshall is an environmentalist, certainly is convinced of the seriousness of the impact of climate change, and considers himself a communicator.

His book, however, is not what you might expect. Instead of a defense of the science, he presents a strong case that climate change scientists and environmentalists have failed in their job of communicating.

George Marshall's book (climateconviction.org)

George Marshall’s book
(climateconviction.org)

It is a discouraging list. We have failed to explain ‘uncertainty’, we use language that turns off listeners, we lack engrossing narratives, we pile on more and more evidence that further turns people away, we buy into the confrontational approach of the extremists at both ends, and we do not honestly face up to our own energy-consuming habits that others find hypocritical.

And there’s a lot more. Marshall explores why it is that most of us avoid talking about climate change, or even thinking about it – hence the title of his book. He suggests that we find the topic too complex, with too many aspects, what he calls ‘multivalent’. It seems to be an issue of the future, not the immediate present. No single solution can possibly solve it. Thinking about it only provokes anxiety. We avoid thinking and talking about it the way we do about death, for some of the same reasons.

This isn’t a book that attacks the climate change deniers – in fact Marshall seeks to understand them and to find some common ground with them. This is an attack on the rest of us for our poor communications skills and for our silence and unwillingness to truly confront the issue.

Marhall has talked with a large number of people, and quotes a lot of them – this is book of many voices. Through it all is a sense that we as humans are deeply imperfect, filled with contradictions, our opinions a product of our biases and the views of our peers and society, struggling still to do the right thing. And that we need to acknowledge our imperfections.

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

So Marshall calls on us to talk about climate change with each other – not expecting everyone to agree since that will never happen, but to seek ways to cooperate, ways to deal with the issue together.

This is a scary book. It is scary because the problem ultimately is us. We are all responsible, and yet we are silent. Our limitations are too clearly on display. You may not read this book, but if you get a chance, at least visit his websites: www.climateconviction.org and www.climatedenial.org .

Let’s talk, not fight, about climate change.
Let’s talk about global warming.

Civil Disobedience

September 30th, 2014

Sixteen months ago two environmental activists anchored a lobsterboat in the path of a coal freighter, preventing it from unloading its coal at the Brayton Point Power Station on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They were quickly charged with conspiracy and disturbing the peace, as they expected to be, and they left without being arrested.

Environmental activists Ken Ward and Jay O'Hara on the boat named the Henry David T (bostonglobe.com)

Environmental activists Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara on the boat named the Henry David T (bostonglobe.com)

Their jury trial was set for early September 2014, drew the attention of other environmental activists, and Bill McKibbon agreed to be an expert witness on their behalf. Their defense was going to be that they had to act because the threats of climate change are so great. Henry Thoreau would have approved.

Politics as usual, you might think.

Instead, the most unusual happened. At the last minute, the prosecuting DA, Sam Sutter, dropped the charges. He is quoted as saying: “Climate change is one of gravest crises our planet has ever faced.,,,the political leadership on this issue has been sorely lacking.”

Sutter, also a ‘fervent environmentalist’, took a risk, acted boldly, and gives us if not a precedent, at least a model. The two activists didn’t get their day in court, but they also didn’t get prison time, and the event got wide publicity in the press, so they are pleased.

D.A. Sam Sutter talking to the crowd gathered outside the courtroom (bostonglobe.com)

D.A. Sam Sutter talking to the crowd gathered outside the courtroom (bostonglobe.com)

Civil disobedience has been an effective tool in bringing about major social change – for instance in civil rights, women’s suffrage, and more recently in climate change issues – but it is a tool not to be used lightly.

A civil disobedience handbook summarizes its use, constraints, and risks:
– it is employed only after other means have failed
– it is non-violent
– it is undertaken openly
– its participants are willing to submit to prosecution and punishment for breaking the law
– it is aimed at publicizing and challenging injustice
– it is not employed for coercive or intimidating reasons

Environmental activists like Tim DeChristopher, Bill McKibben, and now Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara have the courage required for non-violent civil disobedience, for the risks are very real.

Henry David Thoreau (huh.harvard,edu)

Henry David Thoreau (huh.harvard,edu)

Such civil disobedience is a tricky business, but it remains crucial where injustice is great or when the threat is dire. The objective remains to force leaders to acknowledge the climate change crisis and to take action.

The threat is dire.

What Coral Reefs Can Teach Us

September 30th, 2014

On many coral reefs, the living corals have died, the reef has turned to rubble, and diverse algae have overgrown the rubble. So far, about 80% of coral cover on Caribbean reefs has been lost, and about 50% has been lost on the reefs in the tropical Pacific. Ecologists call this shift in ecosystem structure a phase shift, or ‘regime change’.

This global coral reef disaster is not a new and sudden response to some new stress. The shift to algae has been coming for 3 or 4 decades, and the stresses responsible include overfishing of both predators and herbivores, pollution, demolition, hurricanes, diseases of both corals and sea urchins, along with ocean warming and coral bleaching. Sea level rise and ocean acidification pose ever greater threats in the decades ahead.

Surviving coral reefs around Indonesia are still fished illegally with dynamite (solcomhouse.com)

Surviving coral reefs around Indonesia are still fished illegally with dynamite (solcomhouse.com)

If we could stop the fishing, the pollution, and the habitat destruction, as we do in no-take Marine Protected Areas, and assuming for the moment that the ocean is not going to get too warm, too high, or too acidic too quickly, what kind of coral reef recovery is then possible?

If herbivores like parrot fish and sea urchins return to a reef, they can clear the algae off pieces of the substrate, and coral larvae have a chance to colonize. Whether they succeed depends on many factors: light, current, predators, competition, chance, and even the ‘taste’ of the reef. But recovery is at least possible.

To help coral reefs recovery, corals are grown for a year or two and then transplanted to a damaged reef (digitaljournal.com)

To help coral reefs recovery, corals are grown for a year or two and then transplanted to a damaged reef (digitaljournal.com)

Of course we cannot pretend that climate change will not devastate coral reefs, no matter how resilient they might be now. Even under ideal conditions, recovery would take decades, and time is something we don’t have much of.

But coral reefs may still have a lot to teach us. We know now that shifts from one stable phase to another stable phase of an ecosystem can take decades, and is likely to be the result of accumulating and interacting stresses. Such a shift may start without our recognizing it for decades, and once we finally recognize it, there may then be little we can do about it. As the climate warms, we are likely to see this play out repeatedly in both marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Can it also occur at a planetary scale, shifting us from a cool and dry planet to a hothouse planet? It has happened before. Perhaps it has already started, a result of accumulating stresses that we have caused, passing a tipping point we have not noticed.

Or perhaps we have not reached that point, and we can recover some of what we have lost, like no-take zones in MPAs. Perhaps we can still slow the process enough so that the outcome is one we and most of our co-existing species can tolerate as we too explore the limits of our resilience.

Coral reefs as we remember them (plaza.ufl.edu)

Coral reefs as we remember them (plaza.ufl.edu)

Lost Sea Stars

August 9th, 2014

Sea stars – we used to call them starfish – are truly alien beings, at least to us.

We and all other vertebrates, arthropods, worms, most mollusks and sundry others, are all bilaterally symmetrical, with a head and a brain and a bunch of sense organs at the front end. But, except when they are minute planktonic larvae, this isn’t true for sea stars and the rest of the echinoderms.

Early bipinnaria larvae of a sea star are ciliated, drift with the plankton, and are extremely small (bio.rutgers.edu)

Early bipinnaria larvae of a sea star are ciliated, drift with the plankton, and are extremely small (bio.rutgers.edu)

They are radially symmetrical, meaning they are more or less the same on every radius from their midpoint. They don’t have a head at one end and a tail at the other. They haven’t got either. They have a mouth in the middle on their ventral side, which is the side they attach to things with.

On that same side of each radial arm they have hundreds of little extendable and sticky tube feet, supported by a hydraulic system that also keeps their bodies relatively firm but quickly leaks out if they are removed from water. A sea star feeds mostly on bivalve mollusks which it opens by pulling on the two shells with its tube feet until the exhausted bivalve can no longer stay shut, and then it pushes its stomach out through its mouth and digests the bivalve in its shell.

The northern sea star, Asterias vulgaris, feeding on a small mussel bed on the coast of Maine (visualphotos.com)

The northern sea star, Asterias vulgaris, feeding on a small mussel bed on the coast of Maine (visualphotos.com)

It has a ring of nervous tissue around its mouth, not a central brain at all. It has simple vision using a light sensitive eye spot at the end of each radial arm. If a healthy sea star loses a few arms to a predator, it just grows new ones, tube feet, eye spots and all.

Could anything be much more alien to us as bilateral vertebrates? If we ever find complex life on another planet, it could be just as alien, quite a challenge to interspecies communication.

Sea stars have yet another very dramatic feature. If a sea star is unhealthy, gets infected with a pathogen of some sort, it turns to mush, and its various legs walk off in different directions, tearing it apart. Just now we’re seeing a lot of this.

Ochre sea stars, Pisaster ochraceus, are often exposed at low tide on rocky parts of the Pacific coast (biology.fullerton.edu)

Ochre sea stars, Pisaster ochraceus, are often exposed at low tide on rocky parts of the Pacific coast (biology.fullerton.edu)

A disease, or a bunch of diseases, has hit most sea star species on the Pacific coast of North America from Southern California to British Columbia, and something similar has hit some of the sea stars on the Atlantic Coast as well – in Maine, New Jersey and Florida.

Disease has hit sea stars before, just as it has other echinoderms such as sea urchins, and their populations have recovered after a while. But nothing like what has happened on the Pacific Coast has ever been seen before. There are a lot of sea star species there. The mortality of five species is huge, resulting in local extinctions. Some mortality has been documented in seven more. And seven further species are probably infected, but we lack documentation.

Sunflower seastars, Pycnopodia helianthoides, have also beed devasted by disease (en.wikipedia.org)

Sunflower seastars, Pycnopodia helianthoides, have also beed devasted by disease (en.wikipedia.org)

Dead sea stars on the Pacific coast are hard to miss, and the press has covered this event well. A particularly useful web site keeps everyone updated and allows them to add their observation of the growing mass of mush. It’s worth visiting.

The disease has a name: Sea Star Wasting Disease. But that doesn’t mean anything. We have no idea what is killing the sea stars. It could be a virus, or it could be bacteria, or a fungus, or a ciliated parasite, or pollution, or all of these, or none of these.

We simply haven’t got a clue.

A few labs are looking, but the search is slow at best. In any case, experience tells us that if pathogens are eventually identified, it will still be uncertain, and far too late.

Have we somehow caused this? We will probably never know.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that the sea stars recover, returning to their keystone status in their communities, and reminding us again how radically different a living being can be.

The Great Barrier Reef : We Barely Knew You

August 6th, 2014

We are going to lose our coral reefs within the next century – including the greatest of them all, the Great Barrier Reef. Warming ocean temperatures, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification will kill them. This is without the overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution that already seriously stress them. Some very tolerant and adaptable coral species will probably persist, but the reefs will crumble.

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

Coral reef biologists continue to have depressing annual meetings. Individuals, scientists, NGOs and other organizations all continue to search for ways to protect reefs and give them more time to adapt to what lies ahead. But what lies ahead is bleak indeed.

What to do? Just accept it and watch it happen? Find some way to prevent it? Though much has been written about this, Ian McCalman’s new book The Reef is an intriguing contribution.

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook's imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook’s imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

It is, to start with, a very fine book. It tells the history of our emerging understanding of the Great Barrier Reef through the journals and accounts of 20 people, in 20 chapters, starting with Captain Cook’s trip up the GBR Inner Passage in 1770, one he was lucky to survive with his repaired ship still floating.

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Then some of the naturalists on board subsequent navigating trips by other ships used the opportunity to get to know the Aborigines and the geology and some of the biology of the reef. The naturalists mainly counted species, all well known long before that by the coastal Aborigines.

Some castaways from ships wrecked on various parts of the reef at the north end near Torres Straight were saved and adopted by Aborigines, and lived to tell their remarkable stories about the people who were radically different from their popular reputation as savage, violent and ignorant cannibals.

And then in the early 1900s came the trained naturalists and scientists who began more serious study of the reef. Maurice Young’s year long expedition in 1929, leading a team of 14 scientists (amazingly for its time, 6 were women) revealed a lot about corals and their commensal and possibly symbiotic algae (known as zooxanthellae).

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

Yonge and the team wrote extensively about the year, drawing attention to the great uniqueness of the GBR – and unintentionally attracted hordes of tourists with all their collateral damage. So close to the mainland, the unprotected reef became stressed by resorts, pollution, uncontrolled fishing, destructive dynamiting, and growing interest by oil and gas companies.

All of this provoked the increasing concern of the conservationists and ecologists emerging over the past half century. In 1979, after great conflict among the players, the GBR Marine Park was finally created. In 1981 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

McCalman concludes the personal narratives with an account of the naturalist and coral expert, Charlie Veron, who early on recognized the growing threats to coral reefs from climate change. He published his own fine book in 2009 with the sobering title A Reef in Time: the GBR from Beginning to End.

Charlie Veron's book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

Charlie Veron’s book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

At the very end of his book, McCalman tries not to leave us in fatalistic despair about the reef by sharing the anecdotes of some very resilient humans, determined to not give up.

But that is not enough.

The only real hope for any kind of coral reef survival is rapid reduction of CO2 emissions. We need to dispel the myths that prevent the US, Canada and other nations from taking action. And we need to nourish plausible new ideas, like the cap-and-dividend proposal of US Congressman Chris Van Hollen which even libertarians seem to like.

But all of this has happened far too quickly. Just under three centuries will have passed from our ‘discovery’ of the GBR to its probable destruction at our hands.

We thought we would have more time together.

The Shrimp of Shrimps

July 26th, 2014

Shrimp are now the most popular seafood in North America. More than lobsters or tuna or even salmon.

Whiteleg Shrimp: Who can resist this?fiveinthechamber.com)

Whiteleg Shrimp: Who can resist this?(fiveinthechamber.com)

Getting shrimp to us has become infamous for all the collateral damage it has created. Shrimp trawlers, trawling for adults in the shallow tropics and sub-tropics of the world, have damaged bottom habitats and tossed out an immense load of unwanted bycatch – both features that should continue to condemn the method to oblivion.

Farming shrimp in coastal tidal ponds creates a whole different suite of equally damaging effects: mangroves are destroyed to make the ponds, and the ponds are moved every few years leaving behind nothing but devastation; pollution and waste are extensive; lethal disease is frequently widespread; salination of the underlying water table occurs; and in some regions people who do the farming or collect the fish for fishmeal may work in close to slave conditions, provoking concerns about human rights and social justice. It’s pretty well all bad.

One species in particular, the Whiteleg Shrimp (Litopanaeus vannamei) has become the species of choice for farms from Mexico and the Caribbean to India, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. It is native to the warm Pacific coastal waters of Central America from Sonora Mexico south to Peru, and it grows faster, requires less protein to grow, and is more resistant to disease than other species. Everyone wants it.

Adult Whiteleg Shrimp, Litopanaeus vannamei (regisbador.com)

Adult Whiteleg Shrimp, Litopanaeus vannamei (regisbador.com)

In 1990 a modest annual Whiteleg fishery of 90,000 tons existed. Then, as the mangrove farms in Asia embraced the species, the fishery grew huge, reaching 3.2 million tons in 2012, dominating the market.

In 2010, because of the mangrove destruction and the human rights abuses, Greenpeace designated Whiteleg Shrimp a Redlist species. A reasonable conclusion would surely be to say sayonara to the whole sorry mess of shrimp farming and trawling.

But all is not yet lost.

Gradually, ‘intensive’ farming has begun, moving the ponds away from the shores, though still dealing with water supply problems, contamination, and disease. Not great news, but better.

Then, in the past few years, a new method of ‘superintensive’ farming has emerged, and it is very promising. The shrimp are bred and the larvae are grown in hatcheries, and post-larvae are then shipped to inland culture facilities. At their best, these facilities grow the shrimp to market size in a few months in biosecure tanks under controlled temperature conditions, using recirculated sea water, requiring no pesticides or antibiotics.

Whiteleg Shrimp larvae are grown in hatching facilities and then sent to the super-intensive tank farms. (intechopen.com)

Whiteleg Shrimp larvae are grown in hatching facilities and then sent to the super-intensive tank farms. (intechopen.com)

One of these super-intensive farms near Boston was featured recently in the NY Times, but 22 others are scattered across the US – in Iowa, Minnesota, even one near Las Vegas. This is revolutionary. Suddenly many of the problems associated with trawling or coastal pond culture disappear. No habitat destruction, no pollution, no added chemicals, no abused humans.

The Blue Oasis superintensive tank farm for Whiteleg Shrimp, near Las Vegas (lasvegassun.com)

The Blue Oasis superintensive tank farm for Whiteleg Shrimp, near Las Vegas (lasvegassun.com)

There’s sophisticated science to all this of course: selective breeding of Whiteleg adults to produce disease resistant larvae requires great care and patience. The largest breeding companies are now in Florida and Hawaii – the one on Molakai for instance. Comparable facilities in Vietnam and China now do their own selective breeding of Whiteleg for farms, but super-intensive tank culture is still uncommon there.

Meanwhile, the companies that have started tank farming in the US are quite excited. Should they be?

Their main remaining challenge is cost, and mostly they supply high end restaurants. But people in America are increasingly concerned that their food is produced in the least damaging way, agreeing to pay more for it where they need to.

Tank farmed Whiteleg Shrimp has now won the highest rating from Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. So let’s buy this stuff. Let’s insist on shrimp that have been raised in tank farms.

Then the tank farms will flourish and spread, replacing mangrove farms and shrimp trawls. The warm water coastal ecosystems will be far better off, bycatch will be radically reduced, and mangroves will not be destroyed for farming shrimp.

Everyone wins.

The Growth of MPAs

July 15th, 2014

To reduce global overfishing, we struggle to nourish sustainable fishing through better regulations, monitoring and enforcement, by eliminating subsidies and destructive fishing methods, and by protecting coastal fishing communities and involving them in co-management.

At the same time, we are establishing more and larger Marine Protected Areas – MPAs. The total area protected has doubled since 2010. This is good news.

Currently, there are about 6000 MPAs around the world, varying immensely in size as well as in what actually gets protected.
Using his executive authority just as Presidents Bush and Clinton did before him, President Obama now is creating the largest MPA yet, this one in the South Central Pacific. The area is already partly protected as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, but it will now become a lot larger, expanding from 224,000 sq km to 2,017,000 sq km – a little larger than Mexico – and it will become a lot more protected, prohibiting all commercial fishing.

The new Marine Protected Area proposed by President Obama will be huge, remote, isolated, and sparsely populated (propresobama.org)

The new Marine Protected Area proposed by President Obama will be huge, remote, isolated, and sparsely populated (propresobama.org)

The new MPA lies southwest of Hawaii and includes the ocean around Palmyra Atoll, Howard and Baker Islands, Kingman Atoll, and Wake Island (of World War II fame). It is so remote that the only commercial fishing there is for tuna – about 3% of the central and western Pacific catch now occurs there, and will have to shift. Remote indeed.

In fact a huge amount of what has been protected globally lies in the Pacific Ocean – the Coral Sea and around New Caledonia, the Great Barrier Reef, Papahanaumokuakea (in nw Hawaiian waters), and soon around both the Pitcairn Islands and Palau. All are huge MPAs, ranging from 360,000 sq km to 1.3 million sq km. Not surprisingly, most of them are also in the EEZs of remote and often sparsely populated islands.

Palmyra Atoll, southwest of Hawaii is one of the 7 islands around which the recently announced MPA will be established (e360yale.edu)

Palmyra Atoll, southwest of Hawaii is one of the 7 islands around which the recently announced MPA will be established (e360yale.edu)

If it weren’t for the growing stresses of climate change, the South Pacific would be the safest region on the planet for tropical organisms to live. Despite the challenges of enforcing protective regulations where there are few people, little land, and lots of ocean, this is all very reassuring.

Palmyra Atoll has an airstrip, a protected lagoon, and few inhabitants: not a controversial site to protect.(travel-images.com)

Palmyra Atoll has an airstrip, a protected lagoon, and few inhabitants: not a controversial site to protect (travel-images.com).

What if we look globally instead of just South Pacifically? Only about 1.17% of the world’s total ocean area is protected, and only about 2.86% of the world’s EEZs are protected. Since an MPA rarely means no fishing, just that some protection from some use occurs, even those low numbers are misleadingly high: of all the area covered by MPAs, only 8% is actually ‘no-take’, truly protected from fishing.

An MPA may still allow multiple uses, and only a restricted region is usually 'no-take' (pcouncil.org).

An MPA may still allow multiple uses, and only a restricted region is usually ‘no-take’ (pcoouncil.org).

Where a lot people actually live, on the crowded coasts of our continents, MPAs are so much harder to create. Those that exist are usually small, multi-use, and not isolated. The resistance to MPAs by commercial fishing, industrial users, residential users, everyone with any kind of stake, can be great.

At the other extreme, on the High Seas beyond the 200-mile EEZ limits of the world’s coastal countries, there really are few constraints and regulations, despite efforts at international cooperation. Protecting a lot of the South Pacific is possible only because of the many remote islands that exist there. The rest of the Pacific as well as the North and South Atlantic Oceans are a different matter.

Enforcement of existing or imagined protection remains the greatest challenge – but in coastal regions it could be done for much less than coastal nations currently spend on subsidizing their fisheries.

Meanwhile, dreams of protecting the High Seas drift closer to reality as discussions about High Seas no-take regions continue, even at the UN. Imagine making 60% no-take, enforced through automatic monitoring of all fishing vessels.

The conversation about MPAs is now also broadening to encompass ecosystem protection – safeguarding ecosystem services, including stronger links with coastal communities.

Obviously we have a long way to go to adequately protect our marine resources from ourselves, and getting there may look impossible. But it isn’t.

Illegal fishing: still low risk, high return

June 26th, 2014

In early April the US Congress did something quite amazing: it overwhelmingly agreed to ratify an FAO sponsored international agreement, the Port State Measures Agreement. By this agreement, the US will deny port entry to fishing vessels suspected of carrying illegally caught fish, and will warn other ports about the fishing vessel.

Many species are caught illegally, but both Albacore and Bluefin Tuna are particularly vulnerable because they are large and very valuable (environment1.org)

Many species are caught illegally, but both Albacore and Bluefin Tuna are particularly vulnerable because they are large and very valuable (environment1.org)

A lot of countries signed on to this agreement in 2010 but 25 have got to ratify it before it becomes international law. So far 13 countries have done so – besides the US, Norway, New Zealand, Chile and the EU have ratified it, along with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Uruguay, Oman, Gabon and the Seychelles. Not surprisingly, no sign of Canada as yet. Though not yet international law, it is well on its way, and it will happen.

It’s an important step. Up to about 20% of the fish caught globally (and 32% of the fish marketed in the US) are caught illegally. Illegal fishing is big business, renowned for its high return on relatively low risk.

A US Coast Guard cutter escorts a stateless IUU fishing vessel that had been fishing for albacore with drift nets (oceanfad.org)

A US Coast Guard cutter escorts a stateless IUU fishing vessel that had been fishing for albacore with drift nets (oceanfad.org)

Illegal fishing occurs in lots of ways – using banned floating gill nets, fishing in protected areas, fishing without licenses, fishing protected species, fishing over quota, falsifying documents, the options are many. Often fishing under flags of convenience, ownership of illegally fishing vessels can be very difficult to determine.

In the fisheries business, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are known as IUU, and that spreads the problem further, for coastal nations must regulate their fisheries and establish clear reporting methods before illegal fishing can be identified. This occurs most places, but not all – some nations lack the government or the political will to regulate, and some EEZs are just too huge to enforce any regulations that do exist. The high seas, beyond the 200 mile limits of the EEZs, of course are especially vulnerable.

Illegal fishing may be relatively low risk, and therefore irresistible, but the potential damage is huge. Stocks are depleted, marine habitats are damaged, management estimates of stock sizes and health are inaccurate, fishermen fishing legally are hurt economically, and coastal fishing communities suffer.

Italian fishing vessels set illegal drift nets for Bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean (pewenvironmentalgroup)

Italian fishing vessels set illegal drift nets for Bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean (pewenvironmentalgroup)

And there is more. Since the fishing activity itself is illegal, other miserable and also illegal activities occur as well – a ship’s crew may be underpaid or may even be bonded slaves, and the ships may be used for both human and drug trafficking.

So illegal fishing is pretty horrible from all points of view, including conservation and issues of social justice. The new FAO agreement helps – it lacks enforcement beyond port denial, but it still helps. It’s a start.

of course we need to do a lot more. The International Maritime Organization has onboard transponder tracking systems on the global merchant fleet, on all vessels over 24 m long, and it works – but fishing vessels are not included. Every fishing vessel of that size should not be tracked as well (the technology exists in a variety of forms) Information on vessels fishing illegally should be widely shared. We need stronger regulations to protect declining stocks.

None of this is impossible. Of course, strong enforcement needs to exist: illegal fishing is criminal, and the crimes need to be recognized.

And we as consumers can help. Markets need to care where their fish come from – we need to keep IUU fish off the shelves.

So ask where the fish you buy come from. Ask for evidence that it was caught legally. Force our markets to care.

They will if we do.