Enforcement

January 18th, 2016
The Republic of Kiribati lies about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand (searchforone.org)

The Republic of Kiribati lies about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand (searchforone.org)

On Tuesday, June 23, 2015, the Marshalls 203 – a tuna-fishing purse-seiner from the Marshall Islands – crossed into the southwest corner of Kiribati’s recently created Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), and fished there from 4:14 am to 8:16 am.

On June 25, after arranging funds for fuel, Kiribati’s only patrol boat, the RKS Teanoai, set off from the port of Betio to chase it down. On June 29 it was intercepted and escorted back to port, where the captain and crew were imprisoned awaiting prosecution. After a week’s pause for Kiribati’s independence celebrations, its fishing fleet accepted a fine of $1 million US and also agreed to donate a further $1 million US to the Kiribati government as an expression of goodwill. GreenPeace still black listed it.

The poacher: a tuna-fishing purse seiner out of the Marshall Islands, 65 meters long with a crew of 30 (greenpeace.org).

The poacher: a tuna-fishing purse seiner out of the Marshall Islands, 65 meters long with a crew of 30 (greenpeace.org).

Kiribati is an independent, economically challenged Pacific island country with about 100,000 human inhabitants living on some of the 33 small islands strung out in several clusters over the equator. Its EEZ includes 3.5 million sq km of ocean. In January 2015 it created PIPA within that EEZ, a huge area of 408,000 sq km where it banned all commercial fishing.

Kiritimati (once known as Christmas Island) is the largest mountain top island in Kiribati. The port of Betio in on the famous Tarawa Atoll, 3,300 km to the west. (worldatlas.com)

Kiritimati (once known as Christmas Island) is the largest mountain top island in Kiribati. The port of Betio in on the famous Tarawa Atoll, 3,300 km to the west. (worldatlas.com)

Another map of Kiribati and its EEZ depicted as pale blue discs. PIPA is the darker blue square in the middle of the discs. (wikipedia.com)

Another map of Kiribati and its EEZ depicted as pale blue discs. PIPA is the darker blue square in the middle of the discs. (wikipedia.com)

PIPA, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, includes 8 small, mostly unihahbited islands, one atoll, and as many as 30 underwater seamounts, all in 4000-6000 meters of water, a prime region for tuna migrations (phoenixislands.org)

PIPA, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, includes 8 small, mostly unihahbited islands, one atoll, and as many as 30 underwater seamounts, all in 4000-6000 meters of water, a prime region for tuna migrations (phoenixislands.org)

And right there is the challenge: How can Kiribati, with virtually no resources of its own besides a single patrol boat, enforce responsible, sustainable fishing in a large piece of the Pacific Ocean? A poacher’s paradise, you would think, and yet clearly it isn’t.

Why not?

Not surprisingly perhaps, chasing down the tuna-poaching purse-seiner depended on considerable international funds as well as the extraordinary tracking technology that now exists.

The funding for enforcement has come mainly from the WIATT Foundation (which supports programs on ocean health) and from Oceans 5 (dedicated to protecting the 5 oceans by stopping overfishing and establishing marine reserves) – altogether $i million US per year for 5 yrs.

But remote tracking made the detection and arrest of the poaching tuna-fishing vessel possible. The newest technology is Automatic Identification System (AIS) that involves a shipboard VHF transmitter, along with a GPS receiver, allowing tracking by satellites and shore stations. Though AIS was developed so that ships wouldn’t collide in crowded coastal waters, it has been expanded through Global Fishing Watch, a collaboration of SkyTruth, Oceana and Google for monitoring the activity of the globe’s fishing vessels.

It does look impressive – Global Fishing Watch’s website is worth looking at. The prototype has been running for a couple of years, using billions of data points as it tracks hundreds of thousands of vessels, and it can convincingly distinguish between a vessel that is fishing and one that isn’t. The poaching tuna-fishing vessel Marshalls 203 was identified and tracked through AIS, and you can check for yourself what that or any AIS equipped vessel is up to.

Global Fishing Watch is intended to be available for everyone to use, not just look at, and should be public sometime this year. It is likely to be used more and more – for instance Indonesia is adopting it to detect unwanted foreign vessels fishing in its waters.

Is it fool-proof? Hardly.

We are a sneaky species, and among our greatest talents is our ability to cheat. There are lots of ways to manipulate AIS, some obvious (just turn it off) others not. Another internet service, Windward, is helping to detect some of the cheating, but of course cheating just gets more sophisticated.

Probably the great strength of AIS is that a vessel can use it to prove that it has been fishing legally. The next step is for ports to accept fish only from vessels that can show such proof – and that is a likely development in many places.

So AIS remains an exciting technology that will will reduce illegal fishing, especially where countries have few other resources to monitor and protect their EEZs.

This helps.

Yellowfin Tuna, hunted by long-liner and purse seiner across the Pacific, now protected within PIPA, still is overfished and threatened (worldwildlife.org)

Yellowfin Tuna, hunted by long-liner and purse seiner across the Pacific, now protected within PIPA, still is overfished and threatened (worldwildlife.org)

MPAs in the New Canada

December 20th, 2015

A welcome light has come on in Canada.

We have a new government that accepts evidence-based arguments concerning issues ranging from social justice for First Nations Peoples to human-induced climate change. The Ministry of the Environment is now the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, and Canada played a positive role at the recent Paris Conference on Climate Change. After the past 10 years of embarrassment on the international stage, this is taking some getting used to.

Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard  in the new government of Canada (thespec.com)

Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard in the new government of Canada (thespec.com)

Led by Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard and Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, environmental and conservation questions are once again part of the national agenda.

For instance, a few days ago Canada’s national newspaper reported in detail on Canada’s existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), plans for their immediate expansion, and longer term plans to actually try to meet UN proposed targets: specifically 5% of ocean waters protected by 2017 and 5% more by 2020.

Until now, Canada has been very slow to protect its coastal waters. Currently only 1.3% are under some sort of protection, but only 0.11% is actually ‘no take’, with no commercial fishing or drilling.

In contrast, both the UK and the US now have about 10% of their oceans protected as no-take areas, with lesser protection over much more. This might seem an unfair comparison, since much of thees protected areas lie around remote Pacific islands. On the other hand, Canada has the world’s longest coastline, bordering three oceans, and a lot of it truly remote as well. There’s potential here for some major action!

The key questions of course, here as everywhere else, are how do we decide what to protect and how do we to protect it?

Existing and proposed marine protected areas in Canadian waters. Dark = existing reserves. Red = proposed. Far more will need to be created to meet the 20% target. (globeand mail.com)

Existing and proposed marine protected areas in Canadian waters. Dark = existing reserves. Red = proposed. Far more will need to be created to meet the 20% target. (globeand mail.com)

At present Canada protects 8 hotspots, important certainly, but very limited in size. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society proposes 14 further sites, including a few that are somewhat larger – like the Bay of Fundy, the St.Lawrence Estuary, and Lancaster Sound. That’s a start, but now is the time to plan on a much larger scale.

Politics will certainly intrude, particularly since this is an opportunity to protect Canada’s Arctic coastal ecosystems ahead of the coming thaw and development of the Arctic. Even in the New Canada, politics will still trump science. It always does.

And anyway, what do we mean by ‘protection’? Despite the accumulating evidence of the social, economic and environmental benefits of fully protected areas, full protection is hard to achieve. Globally, only 1.6% of the oceans are fully protected. Canada’s new 10% target needs to be of fully protected, no-take coastal waters.

The gradual increase in global marine protected areas from 1985 to mid-2015. Area protected has increased from 2 million to 12 million sq km. The dark blue on the bars indicates the percent of the oceans that are fully protected out of the total percent MPA coverage (light blue), which is currently just 3.6%. Though the slope is promising, the total  area is still very small. Major recent MPAs and year established are listed along the bottom. The numbers on the line indicate events or agreements: #5 is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (science.org)

The gradual increase in global marine protected areas from 1985 to mid-2015. Area protected has increased from 2 million to 12 million sq km. The dark blue on the bars indicates the percent of the oceans that are fully protected out of the total percent MPA coverage (light blue), which is currently just 3.6%. Though the slope is promising, the total area is still very small. Major recent MPAs and year established are listed along the bottom. The numbers on the line indicate events or agreements: #5 is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (science.org)

Politics aside, a lot of excellent data-based advice now exists on how to do this right, and all of it is possible:

– Size matters: the bigger the protected area the better
– Full protection is essential, prohibiting commercial fishing, mining and drilling
– Corridors between reserves, forming networks of protected areas, allow fishing between reserves
– Adjacent coastal communities need to be involved in all aspects of establishing MPAs
– Enforcement is essential for success, and the new technologies are effective
– Comprehensive ecosystem-based management is worth developing
– Other issues, like illegal fishing, wasteful bycatch, overfishing, and the effects of climate change all need to be included
– Adaptive management is essential: the one thing we know is that ecosystem change will be on-going

The point of the 10% target by 2020 (set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) is to allow ecosystems to recover from current stress and to increase their resilience.

We also know that the target should be much higher, more in the range of 20-50%. But with the short time-line, 10% is a decent start, and it is achievable.

What has been changing globally over the past few years and now finally includes Canada is the emergence of political will to make it happen.

This is so unexpected and is really quite amazing.

The Long Decline of Shorebirds.

December 11th, 2015

First we – or at least our ‘sportsmen’ – shot most of the migrating shorebirds along the US east coast.

Flock of Sanderlings. They search for food in the soft sand beneath the receding wave (tgreybirds.com)

Flock of Sanderlings. They search for food in the soft sand beneath the receding wave (tgreybirds.com)

They are mostly small birds, but they are famous for their annual, energetically costly flights between Arctic feeding and breeding grounds in the northern summer to coastal mudflats in far southern latitudes in the southern summer, sometimes 9000 km or more away. Two of the major flyways they use as they migrate follow the eastern coasts of the Americas and the eastern coast of Asia.

Flyways of migratory birds. The two major coastal routes are the Atlantic Americas Flyway and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (birdlife.org)

Flyways of migratory birds. The two major coastal routes are the Atlantic Americas Flyway and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (birdlife.org)

They need to stop on occasion on these flights to feed on the coastal mudflats and sandy shores of eastern North America and of the Yellow Sea on the coast of China, and some of these areas attract – or used to attract – vast numbers of the migrants.

And that’s the problem.

In the 1800s, and lasting until the early 1900s, ‘sportsmen’ gathered at the extensive mud flats and sandy shores along the US east coast during migration season where the migrating birds gathered to feed, and they shot them by the many thousands, year after year, until not many were left, and the hunt was finally terminated, as usual far too late.

In 1821, near New Orleans, Audubon himself witnessed what he estimated to be 48,000 Golden Plovers shot by sportsmen in a single day (tringa.org)

In 1821, near New Orleans, Audubon himself witnessed what he estimated to be 48,000 Golden Plovers shot by sportsmen in a single day (tringa.org)

Cleveland Bent, a famous ornithologist of the turn of the century (he lived from 1866 to 1950), wrote Life Histories of American Shorebirds, filled with fascinating detail you don’t see in modern field guides. He also shot a lot the birds he wrote about, and then lamented their decline.

He wrote that the birds were “like a huge cloud of thick smoke, a very grand and interesting appearance. As the showers of their compatriots fell, the whole flock took flight, till the sportsman is completely satiated with destruction”.

And: “Those were glorious days we used to spend on Cape Cod in the good old days. There were shorebirds to shoot, and we were allowed to shoot them. It is a pity that the delightful days of bay-bird shooting had to be restricted. Ruthless slaughter has squandered our previous wealth of wildlife.”

Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone (lynxeds.com)

Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone (lynxeds.com)

Red Knots, Piping Plovers, Sanderlings, Dunlins, Ruddy Turnstones, Yellow Legs, Dowitchers , Wilson’s Snipes – the list goes on and on. Shorebirds were hunted close to extinction, some for meat but mainly for sport. Not unlike Passenger Pigeons and American Buffalo of the same era.

Yet only limited recovery of the shorebirds using the Atlantic Flyway has since occurred.

Red Knots fly from Tierra Del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic Tundra, stopping one last time on their way north in Delaware Bay to feed on the large fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs laid on the high tide shores. But because horseshoe crabs are harvested for their blood for human medical applications, Red Knots - and other migrating species - have lost most of the food supply that they depend on to complete their migration north.  (virtualbirder.com)

Red Knots fly from Tierra Del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic Tundra, stopping one last time on their way north in Delaware Bay to feed on the large fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs laid on the high tide shores. But because horseshoe crabs are harvested for their blood for human medical applications, Red Knots – and other migrating species – have lost most of the food supply that they depend on to complete their migration north. (virtualbirder.com)

Horseshoe crabs breed at the high tide mark, as Semipalmated Sandpipers dig for their eggs (delawareonline.com)

Horseshoe crabs breed at the high tide mark, as Semipalmated Sandpipers dig for their eggs (delawareonline.com)

Having more or less survived the hunt, migrating shorebirds on the Atlantic Flyway have been further stressed by the loss of coastal wetlands and feeding habitats over the past century. For shorebirds migrating along the coasts of east Asia from Siberia to Australia, following the Australasian Flyway, conditions are becoming far worse.

36 species of shorebirds migrate from Australia to Siberia to breed. Their numbers are about 25% of what they were several decades ago. The loss of feeding flats in the Yellow Sea is in part the cause. (science.org)

36 species of shorebirds migrate from Australia to Siberia to breed. Their numbers are about 25% of what they were several decades ago. The loss of feeding flats in the Yellow Sea is in part the cause. (science.org)

The problem once again is loss of food-rich coastal staging areas, particularly around the Yellow Sea, to agricultural and industrial development. China’s new Great Wall, sealing off the sea along much of its coastline, is eliminating most of the remaining mudflats, and eliminating the shorebirds as a result.

So we hunted many species close to extinction. We have damaged or destroyed the coastal wetlands they depend on for food. And now sea levels are rising, faster in many places than remaining coastal wetlands and mudflats can keep up.

A bleak scenario, once again. We could dream of not only agreeing to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 or 2 degrees C but also to recover the coastlines, to back our development away from the wetlands, mudflats and beaches, to eliminate sea walls instead of building them to hide behind, and to free rivers of their dams.

Since all that is not going to happen, let us at least agree to protect the coastal wetlands not just for the absorbing barrier they provide us against encroaching seas, but also for the food they supply for the migrants in critical areas like Delaware Bay and the Yellow Sea.

And let’s try, if we can, to slow the rising of the seas.

Red Knot in flight (conservewildlifenj.org)

Red Knot in flight (conservewildlifenj.org)

Invasion of the King Crabs

November 20th, 2015

We’re increasingly familiar with the idea that in the marine world as the sea gets warmer, organisms will move north (or south) to higher latitudes to escape the growing heat. Much less familiar is the idea that in some places animals from very deep water will move into more shallow areas, and create havoc with the ecosystem existing there.

Enter King Crabs. These are large, sometimes huge, made at least a little famous by Alaskan King Crabs that starred in the reality show The Deadliest Catch. Around the globe, they tend to live in very cold, deep water, preying on bottom living mollusks, echinoderms and other crustaceans by crushing them.

Alaskan King Crabs are abundant on the sea floor of the Gulf of Alaska, the target of one of the world's more risky fisheries (freerepublic.com)

Alaskan King Crabs are abundant on the sea floor of the Gulf of Alaska, the target of one of the world’s more risky fisheries (freerepublic.com)

A couple of other species live on the Continental Slope along the West Antarctic Peninsula, seaward of the more shallow Continental Shelf, mostly at depths between 2000 and 800 meters where water temperature varies from 0.4 degree C up to a balmy 1.16 degree C.

Like other King Crabs, they can tolerate very cold water, but there is a limit. They function well down to about 1 degree centigrade, but when the temperature is colder than about half a degree C, their magnesium physiology breaks down and they become paralysed and die.

Antarctic King Crab, Neolithodes yaldwini. The male is the larger one, guarding a female who he will mate with as soon as she molts (Katrien Heinman, nature.com)

Antarctic King Crab, Neolithodes yaldwini. The male is the larger one, guarding a female who he will mate with as soon as she molts (Katrien Heinman, nature.com)

Though that is certainly cold, sea temperatures on the adjacent more shallow Antarctic Continental Shelf remain even colder, a little below zero in all seasons, creating a lethal ceiling above the King Crabs deeper on the Slope.

This is all a relatively recent phenomenon. About 40 million years ago when the force of continental drift finally pushed Antarctica free from South America, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current formed, isolating the Southern Continent from the influence of more northerly warmer water, freezing the glaciers on the continental mass, and super-cooling the shallow seas on the Continental Shelf.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current formed 40 million years ago, isolating and freezing Antarctica (globalspec.com)

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current formed 40 million years ago, isolating and freezing Antarctica (globalspec.com)

For 40 million years, King Crabs have not been able to penetrate the colder shelf waters, and nor have predatory bony fish, sharks or rays, also unable to tolerate such cold temperatures. For 40 million years, the bottom living animals, mostly suspension feeders except for some predatory starfish and worms, have become lightly skeletized, soft, in the absence of the shell-crushing predators.

They remind us of the bottom living Paleozoic community last seen before fish (and King Crabs) evolved, 350 million years ago, a rare and possibly unique ecosystem today.

The animals living on the sea floor on the Antarctic Continental Shelf are unusual, soft-bodied echinoderms, mollusks and worms, susceptible to predation by King Crabs (nature.com)

The animals living on the sea floor on the Antarctic Continental Shelf are unusual, soft-bodied echinoderms, mollusks and worms, susceptible to predation by shell-crushing King Crabs (nature.com)

But of course now things are changing. The Antarctic seas, especially around the West Antarctic Peninsula, are warming unusually quickly. Stronger winds, driven by climate warming, intensify the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, lifting warmer, denser, saltier water up from 4000 m over the lip of the Shelf and spilling into deeper canyons.

Marguerite Bay, West Antarctic Peninsula, where King Crabs have begun to appear in the deeper water canyons on the Shelf (pnas.com)

Marguerite Bay, West Antarctic Peninsula, where King Crabs have begun to appear in the deeper water canyons on the Shelf (pnas.com)

King Crabs are moving up into some of these canyons. The cold water ceiling above them on the Shelf is still there, but it is rising. Over the next decades – perhaps sooner than later – King Crabs will invade the rest of the Shelf.

The diverse deskeletized animals now living there will be then be history for they have no defenses against the King Crabs. The current fragile ecosystem will be disrupted, shifting toward something probably very similar to deep cold-water ecosystems elsewhere where King Crabs thrive.

At depths where King Crabs are common (black bars) potential prey (the other bar graphs) are greatly reduced (pnas.com)

At depths where King Crabs are common (black bars) potential prey (the other bar graphs) are greatly reduced (pnas.com)

This loss of an unusual ecosystem will be unfortunate, but there are obvious limits to our ability to be the stewards we might like to be. Clearly we have much more immediate and pressing problems to deal with. Still, we do know that there is so much that we but dimly understand about our current ecosystems, and as a result much of the change that lies ahead is simply unpredictable.

At least we can now add to the mix the idea that marine ecosystem change can come from any direction, including from below.

Enjoy your King Crabs – they look like survivors.

Enjoy your meal (clubnews.com)

Enjoy your meal (clubnews.com)

Lessons from Tambora

October 30th, 2015

As time runs out for us to stop the planet from warming further, stratospheric aerosol-based Solar Radiation Management continues to be a possible option. No one believes that it solves the problem – at best it buys more time for us to control our emission of greenhouse gases.

Solar Radiation Management could involve a number of radiation reflection technologies, but sulfate injection into the stratosphere most discussed (geoengineering.weebly.com)

Solar Radiation Management could involve a number of radiation reflection technology, but sulfate injection into the stratosphere most discussed (geoengineering.weebly.com)

Most scenarios involve injecting sulfates into the stratosphere, but alumina and even diamond dust have been proposed. The idea of course is to shield the Earth’s surface from incoming solar radiation. The most conservative approach would involve injections that would build slowly, complementing CO2 emission mitigation and perhaps CO2 capture, and would be reduced and terminated as mitigation efforts grow. One author calls this the ‘less sub-optimum’ scenario.

It probably is.

We do, however, have plenty of relevant if uncontrolled experiments to think about before jumping for the SRM solution: the eruption of volcanoes. A major eruption, particularly a tropical one, ejects a massive amount of sulfates into the stratosphere 20-40 km above the Earth’s surface. Detected in the ice-cores of Greenland and Antarctica, each of the 16 largest eruptions over the past 2500 years was followed by a decade of colder temperatures, reflected by slower growth in tree ring samples.

The largest eruptions of the past 2500 years. The eruption of Tambora in 1815 (in red on lower right) was the 6th largest (nature.com).

The largest eruptions of the past 2500 years. The eruption of Tambora in 1815 (in red on lower right) was the 6th largest (nature.com).

So the connection is very clear: reduce the incoming solar radiation with reflective stratospheric particulates, and the planet cools a little.

Sounds too good?

For most major volcanic eruptions we have only the vaguest of information about subsequent biological and sociological effects. Fortunately, we now have a detailed account of the aftermath of one of the largest of these eruptions. Tambora – The Eruption that Changed the World by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, recently published, tells the astonishing tale.

Tambora's explosive eruption in 1815 caused extreme local damage in Indonesia while ejecting massive amounts of sulfates into the stratosphere (wikipedia.com)

Tambora’s explosive eruption in 1815 caused extreme local damage in Indonesia while ejecting massive amounts of sulfates into the stratosphere (wikipedia.com)

Tambora was a 13,000 ft (4000 m) peak on Sumbawa Island of the Indonesian archiplelago until, in 1815, it blew much of its top half 30-40 km up into the stratosphere. Though no one at the time made the connection, the sulfate ash cloud spread quickly around the planet with cascading cataclysmic impacts over the next three years. Wood has explored the events and connected them convincingly.

The volume of ejecta from the eruption of Tambora was immensely greater than any of the other more famous volcanic eruptions (abnextphase.com)

The volume of ejecta from the eruption of Tambora was immensely greater than any of the other more famous volcanic eruptions (abnextphase.com)

In Europe, the US Atlantic States, Yunnan Province in China, Bangali India, Indonesia – crops failed for two years, harvests were lost to frost, drought and floods, while starvation and famine killed huge numbers of people, forced populations into riots and survivors into emigrants, tearing apart the social fabric of communities and families. Cholera raged in Bengal, Typhus spread though Ireland. Meanwhile, Shelley and Byron wrote sensitive apocalyptic poems based on what they saw in Switzerland while Turner painted his famous sunsets in England.

Records of Tambora’s impact on Africa, South America and Australia don’t seem to exist. But though so much of Europe and eastern North America was devastated, Russia and the US states and territories further west were unaffected: there farms flourished and farmers sold their grains at high prices to starving Europeans and Atlantic Americans. Destitute eastern Americans migrated west to the rich grain-growing land around the Mississippi.

Europe in 1816 and 1817 experienced cold, crop failures and  starvation. Russia did not, and sold grain to Europe at high prices (scied.ucar.edu)

Europe in 1816 and 1817 experienced cold, crop failures and starvation. Russia did not, and sold grain to Europe at high prices (scied.ucar.edu)

And then in 1818 the skies finally cleared, bumper harvests returned, and the misery receded. Some repercussions persisted – shifts in attitudes about colonialism in India and optimism in the US, a shift to opium poppy growing in Yunnan, and cholera drifted on around the planet. As well, the US western farmers lost their market and their farms, bringing on the US depression of 1819-22.

During the three year impact of Tambora’s eruption, global mean temperatures appear to have abruptly dropped only about 1 degree Centigrade, yet many places around the planet experienced the crop failure, famine, epidemic disease, and catastrophic social disruption. Wood’s account is both gripping and very worrisome.

So we are well warned. If we do too little about the rate of current climate change, the scenarios are bleak. If we intentionally embark on Solar Radiation Management, we will without doubt provoke a cascade of unintended effects that could be just as bleak.

There is no quick fix. Our only option remains what it has always been. The importance of the upcoming Paris Conference on Climate Change grows ever greater.

Global Bleaching of Corals. Again

October 22nd, 2015

When water temperatures rise a degree or two, corals expel their symbiotic algae – zooxanthellae – and turn white. It happens frequently on a local scale, and the affected corals usually recover when the sea cools again.

When bleaching occurs, symbiotic algae are lost, the coral (this one is a brain coral) will die and crumble unless sea temperature drops and the zooxanthellae can recolonize the coral (compareinnovationtoronto.com)

When bleaching occurs, symbiotic algae are lost, the coral (this one is a brain coral) will die and crumble unless sea temperature drops and the zooxanthellae can recolonize the coral (compareinnovationtoronto.com)

Summer sea surface temperature just one degree warmer than usual, lasting for 4-6 weeks, is enough to start the bleaching – corals clearly live, and thrive, at temperatures close to those that bleach and kill them.

When much of the sea surface around the tropics remains warmer for a prolonged period, the bleaching spreads, corals die and reefs are heavily damaged. The last really major global bleaching event occurred in 1997-98, while a less extensive one occurred in 2010.

A now iconic picture of part of a reef in Samoa taken before and after the onset of the current global bleaching event (sciencealert.com)

A now iconic picture of part of a reef in Samoa taken before and after the onset of the current global bleaching event (sciencealert.com)

And now, starting before the current El Nino emerged and compounded by the huge, warm ‘Pacific Blob’, we are well into another global bleaching event. With the current El Nino now growing into something fierce, this bleaching event could last a couple of years, long enough to kill and crumble a lot of the corals.

NOAA has produced a remarkable, satellite-based interactive global coral watch website, where you can observe the conditions change over the next few months. It’s scary, but it’s fascinating.

Coral bleaching isn’t new, but the 1997-1998 event was the greatest in hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Now we have another of the same or greater magnitude. Again most reefs will be damaged. Last time, global loss was about 10%. This time it will be as much or more. It is a devastating prognosis.

NOAA October 2015 prediction of 60% probability of coral bleaching over the next four months (coralwatch.noaa.gov)

NOAA October 2015 prediction of 60% probability of coral bleaching over the next four months (coralwatch.noaa.gov)

Some protective efforts that would reduce other sources of stress on the reefs are possible, for instance reducing both pollution and overfishing, especially of algal grazers. Closing reefs to all fishing would be best. Unlikely perhaps, but not impossible.

We can as well look for other lines of hope. For instance, corals vary latitudinally in their tolerance of thermal stress, and there appears to be a genetic basis to this variation. In tanks at the National Sea Simulator at Melbourne, biologists are growing different strains of coral species under conditions of warmer temperatures and higher acidity, hoping to select for those more tolerant of the coming conditions, planning then to seed them back on the reefs. Of course this is worth doing.

Sea surface temperatures have been higher than normal for the past year, not related to the Pacific Blob or to El Nino. Now they will remain high or higher as the El Nino heat spreads and lingers (dnlr.hawaii.gov)

Sea surface temperatures have been higher than normal for the past year, not related to the Pacific Blob or to El Nino. Now they will remain high or higher as the El Nino heat spreads and lingers (dnlr.hawaii.gov)

Yet the Great Barrier Reef covers 135,000 square miles and since 1985 half of its coral cover has been lost; little remains of Caribbean coral reefs; the coral reefs around Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific have never been under such stress. The future of coral reefs is really bleaker than ever.

For now, the Pacific Blob will eventually dissipate. The new El Nino will slowly play itself out. Sea temperatures will drop back at least in the direction of normal. Parts of coral reefs not too damaged should slowly recover once again.

But we are warned: sea temperatures rising because of climate change rather than El Ninos will not revert to past ‘normal’ temperatures. At best their rise can be slowed by enlightened global agreement to curtail the emission of greenhouse gases,

The current global coral bleaching event is growing as we head into December’s UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris – a conference that is perilously close to being our last chance to take significant global action. Threatened, damaged, bleaching, crumbling coral reefs are not a bad metaphor for the state of our planet’s climate to remind global politicians that no longer can we afford politics as usual.

 The very odd logo for the UN Conference on Climate Change, COP 21, Nov 30-Dec11: the whole world will be watching (unfccc.int)

The very odd logo for the UN conference on Climate Change, COP 21, Nov 30-Dec11: the whole world will be watching (unfccc.int)

They – we – really have to do it this time.

Precaution in the Arctic

September 17th, 2015

Ringed seals live in the Arctic Ocean. With less ice and more penetrating sunlight, ocean productivity there has been rising – more phytoplankton, more zooplankton, more fish, and so more abundant food for ringed seals. On the other hand, ringed seals depend on the shrinking and thinning ice for mating, molting and pupping.

Called the Ringed Seal because of the patterns on its back (natur.gl)

Called the Ringed Seal because of the patterns on its back (natur.gl)

The Ringed Seal is the smallest of seals (under 5 ft, 1.4m, at most) and because of its close association with ice in the Arctic, has been a common prey of polar bears. But the ice is shrinking, and much is changing (fineartsamerica.org)

The Ringed Seal is the smallest of seals (under 5 ft, 1.4m, at most) and because of its close association with ice in the Arctic, has been a common prey of polar bears. But the ice is shrinking, and much is changing (fineartsamerica.org)

Short-term, their prospects are good. Long-term they are poor, unless they somehow adapt to the new conditions.

Adapt or perish, the slogan for the Arctic.

We can make predictions about what changes will occur in the Arctic marine ecosystem, but really just about everything is uncertain. What species will invade successfully from the north Pacific and north Atlantic? How will the planktonic food chains change? The species interacting in this new ecosystem all have their own complex life histories, feeding preferences, growth rates, stress tolerances. Which existing predator species will adapt, and which diminish toward extinction? Will the new ecosystem ever become stable as climate change lurches along?

Sitting in the middle of the Arctic Ocean lie the Arctic High Seas, claimed by Russia, Canada, and even Denmark based upon underwater ridges extending out from their EEZs. No commercial fish stocks currently occur under the ice, but that will change soon enough. Change to what? Nobody knows.

The EEZs of five nations - Russia, Canada, USA, Denmark (via Greenland) and Norway surround the Arctic High Seas (pewtrusts.org)

The EEZs of five nations – Russia, Canada, USA, Denmark (via Greenland) and Norway surround the Arctic High Seas (pewtrusts.org)

How then do we manage whatever commercial fishing that will become possible in the newly opening Arctic High Seas?

In response to this so critical question, a minor miracle has occurred. The five Arctic coastal nations – Canada, Russia, the US, Norway and Denmark (for Greenland) have very recently agreed to an Interim Ban on commercial fishing in Arctic international waters – until more research has been done to assess what is possible, what is sustainable. The Declaration of July 15, 2015 – is brief, just two pages – but it is enlightened.

This is a rare application of the precautionary approach, and is worth some celebration.

A new Arctic Ocean is starting to emerge - walruses crowd shorlines rather than ice, polar bears hunt on land, and north temperate species invade (scinece.org0

A new Arctic Ocean is starting to emerge – walruses crowd onto shorelines rather than ice, polar bears hunt on land, bowhead whales (and for now, ringed seals) flourish, while north temperate species invade ever further. Darker blue, the extent of sea in Sept 2014; lighter blue, Sept 1979; and of course the remaining ice has thinned enormously (science.org)

Interim may be a disappointing word to those who hoped for something stronger, but interim in this case should last quite a while. An Interim Ban is good news.

That doesn’t mean unfortunate events may not still occur in the national waters of the Arctic coastal nations – while the US and Canada do not permit commercial fishing in their Arctic EEZs, Russia may overfish Arctic Cod, and the US is allowing oil drilling to commence. As well, other fishing nations – China, Vietnam, South Korea, members of the EU – have also got to agree to keep their commercial fishing fleets out of the Arctic High Seas.

Still, we now have a limited multi-national agreement not to fish commercially in a limited piece of the High Seas. This includes a couple of nations who are for other reasons barely talking to each other. If we can do it there, perhaps we can do it elsewhere.

This Interim Ban could be a start toward something bigger. There is growing interest in the idea of banning commercial fishing in all of the global High Seas, backed by new evidence indicating that larger coastal fish stocks would occur and no loss of global fishing revenue would result.

This would be extraordinary to say the least.

Meanwhile, for now five fishing nations have agreed to try to protect the High Seas of the Arctic from the usual over-exploitation that we have seen so often over the past century.

At a time when most news, whether environmental or political, is simply awful, how can this not be at least a little reassuring?

Mapping the Bottom of the Seas

August 26th, 2015

We are a map loving species – from our local streets and highways to the whole universe. Now we have a new map of the bottom of the world’s oceans, and it is wonderful.

It is digitized, built from 14,400 data points pulled from data gathered by research cruises over the past half century and now converted to a continuous map by Big Data experts at the University of Sydney. Thirteen types of bottom sediments are color coded, and the whole globe is there on your screen to rotate in any direction and explore.

Take it for a spin: it is irresistible.

One view of the digitized seafloor (geologyin.com)

One view of the digitized seafloor (geologyin.com)

Seafloor sediments distinguished by source and nature of particles, and are coded by color (geologyin.com)

Seafloor sediments distinguished by source and nature of particles, and are coded by color (geologyin.com)

Published in the current issue of Geology, this is really the first new view of the ocean floor in 40 years, and not surprisingly, it is full of surprises.

First, it is a much more complex patchwork of the microfossil remains of diatoms, radiolarians, sponge spicules, shell and coral fragments, along with sand, silt, clay, mud and vulcaniclastics than all previous maps had led us to expect.

Radiolarian ooze is made up of the skeletons of protistan radiolarians which are microscopic single celled animals that secrete silicon skeletons and feed with pseudopods that stick out through the holes in skeleton (micro.magnet.fsu.edu)

Radiolarian ooze is made up of the skeletons of protistan radiolarians which are microscopic single celled animals that secrete silicon skeletons and feed with pseudopods that stick out through the holes in skeleton (micro.magnet.fsu.edu)

And then, also unexpected, surface productivity of phytoplankton diatoms (a major carbon source) is not reflected by the abundance of seafloor abundance of diatom ooze (a carbon sink) – we understand less than we thought we did.

Diatom ooze is made up of the silicon skeletons of phytoplankton diatoms, each species with its own unique architecture, which are so abundant in the  surface waters (ucmp.berekely.edu)

Diatom ooze is made up of the silicon skeletons of phytoplankton diatoms, each species with its own unique architecture, which are so abundant in the surface waters (ucmp.berekely.edu)

Calcareous ooze contains the calcareous skeletons of other single celled protistans like coccolithophores (serc .carleton.edu)

Calcareous ooze contains the calcareous skeletons of other single celled protistans like coccolithophores (serc .carleton.edu)

The chalky cliffs of Dover were once coccolithophore sediments (wordsinmocean.com)

The chalky cliffs of Dover were once coccolithophore sediments (wordsinmocean.com)

In fact, at stake is our much broader understanding of the deep ocean’s response to climate change. We need to understand the global geochemical cycles, the behavior of deep-water currents, and the transport of ocean sediments, and this map provides a framework for asking – and answering – more detailed questions.

What we see now is a more complicated, less predictable picture of the global seafloor. If we understand why sediments on the seafloor are where they are, we have another window into reconstructing the past environments of our planet, a valuable key to understanding what is now occurring.

Perhaps most of all, we are reminded once again by a new and global map like this new one that in our local piece of our galaxy our planet is a small, isolated biological and physical oasis where change in any one component may radically influence all the others in ways we can increasingly monitor and struggle to understand, with a history we can increasingly explore.

And of course with a near-future that is so uncertain yet we must still plan for.

This map can only help.

Hope for the High Seas?

August 7th, 2015

We get a clear view of our dark side in IUU fishing – fishing that is illegal, unreported, and unregulated. It occurs everywhere people can get away with it, but much of it occurs on the High Seas, beyond the 200 mile limits of national EEZs.

journal.pbio.1001826.g001

The High Seas (pale blue), beyond the 200 mile EEZ limits of coastal countries (darker blue) make up 64% of surface area the Earth's oceans - where few laws exist and those that do are very hard to enforce (pewtrusts.org).

The High Seas (pale blue), beyond the 200 mile EEZ limits of coastal countries (darker blue) make up 64% of surface area the Earth’s oceans – where few laws exist and those that do are very hard to enforce (pewtrusts.org).

With IUU fishing, quota limits and bycatch restrictions are ignored, 40 mile long drift nets are set despite international agreements banning them, and ocean ecosystems are damaged. IUU fishing accounts for somewhere around 20% of the global fisheries catch, worth somewhere between 10 and 23 billion dollars annually. And this doesn’t include the waste and ecological impact of the bycatch. Conservation is non-existent.

The human costs can also be dreadful, some of them documented over the past few weeks in the remarkable series of articles by Ian Urbina in the New York Times on the lawlessness of high seas IUU fishing: slavery, appalling working conditions, even unpunished and unreported murder. They make for very grim reading. Altogether, us at our worst.

A famous photograph of Chineses IUU vessels trying to escape detention by the South Korean coast guard. They failed.(worldoceanreview.org)

A famous photograph of Chineses IUU vessels trying to escape detention by the South Korean coast guard. They failed.(worldoceanreview.org)

Yet the situation very slowly improves, with help from a variety of initiatives.

For instance: Vessels involved in IUU fishing try to escape notice by changing their names and flags of convenience of a few countries that have particularly lax and unenforced regulations – Panama, Liberia, Mongolia (Mongolia!) and Belize come to mind. Still, the vessels become known, and major regional international fisheries organizations identify them and share the information. The result is a published list of IUU vessels – about 220 at present. Identified vessels cannot land their fish except in ports where regulations are ignored or don’t exist.

A graph of the global fisheries catch from fifteen years ago, but still reasonably accurate, estimating the very significant IUU portion (nature.com)

A graph of the global fisheries catch from fifteen years ago, but still reasonably accurate, estimating the very significant IUU portion (nature.com)

The US is a major market for the world’s fisheries, for 90% of what is sold in the US is imported. Countries identified as supporting IUU fishing vessels usually attempt to eliminate the violations, for otherwise they risk a US ban on imports of all their fisheries products. Turns out to be a powerful incentive.

And now the UN has formally agreed to take action as well. For the past few years an “Ad Hoc Open-Ended Informal Working Group” has met “to study issues related to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction” with participants from 110 countries, observers from intergovernmental organizations (like the EU and the Pacific Islands Forum) and international conservation organizations. Even the Holy See has sent observers.

The UN does not move quickly, but it does move. The report of the Ad Hoc Working Group presented its recommendations in January 2015. In June 2015 the General Assembly agreed to the next step, the creation of a Preparatory Committee, under the Convention of the Law of the Sea. About 4 years from now we should see a new UN sponsored proposed law on the conservation of high seas fishing ready for ratification. Slow, but critical.

Pacific Bonito (greenpeace.org).

Pacific Bonito (greenpeace.org).

Enforcement is obviously the biggest issue, for vessels can turn off their transponders, and no one has the resources to patrol the High Seas.

Port control of IUU fishing is an increasingly effective alternative. Even now it is almost impossible for an IUU vessel to land its catch in North America, Australia, the EU and a lot of other places. Naming, shaming and threatening import bans on countries where ports exist that permit entry to IUU vessels, or have laws that are not enforced, gradually reduces the options for IUU vessels.

Dealing with the human rights abuses is a separate problem, but progress there occurs as well. Indonesia and Thailand have agreed to cooperate to reduce IUU fishing and associated human trafficking – though they plea for time and understanding since the process will be slow. The negative publicity from the NYT articles and others like them also cannot be underestimated.

And then there is the Pope’s recent Encyclical letter, ‘Laudato Si’, written to all of humanity, where he calls for radical solutions to reduce environmental stress and human poverty, including on the high seas, enforced again through global international agreements. The parallels with the other emerging efforts are striking.

The Pope's encyclical letter, published June 18, 2015, easy to find online (esa.org)

The Pope’s encyclical letter, published June 18, 2015, easy to find online (esa.org)

Slow though these processes are, they all recognize that the violations and abuses on the High Seas can only be contained by the rule of law, through international agreements and enforcement. It is the route, the only route, through these catastrophic times.

Swordfish revival

July 25th, 2015

Is there a better taste than a perfectly grilled swordfish steak, lightly seasoned, practically melting in your mouth? Hard to imagine any.

swordfish steaks, lightly grilled, lightly seasoned, a taste and texture to die for (flikr.com)

swordfish steaks, lightly grilled, lightly seasoned, a taste and texture to die for (flikr.com)

Swordfish, like other billfish and tuna, are apex predators. They are pandemic – pretty well everywhere – but they prefer water that is 18-22 degrees C. During the night they rise to shallower, warmer water; during the day they forage at greater depths. They migrate great distance seasonally, following both prey and preferred water temps.

Swordfish fish in during the day, at depths of 2-300 meters, using their bills to slash and incapacitate their prey (arkive,com)

Swordfish fish in during the day, at depths of 2-300 meters, using their bills to slash and incapacitate their prey (arkive.com)

In the 1990s swordfish, heavily fished around the world, seemed to be declining toward extinction. Now, with the exception of the Mediterranean stock, they aren’t: IUCN has recognized the Atlantic and Pacific stocks now as ‘adequately managed’ rather than ‘overfished’ as they used to be.

This is good news. How did it happen?

Starting in 1999, a lot changed, driven not surprisingly by the US market. It started with hundreds of chefs across the US, along with and the encouragement of SeaWeb, agreeing not to serve swordfish. They called their initiative ‘Give Swordfish a Break’, mobilized consumer support, sustained it for two and a half years, and stimulated a formal 10 year recovery plan that actually seems to have worked.

Global landings of swordfish rose rapidly until the late 90s (wikipedia.com)

Global landings of swordfish rose rapidly until the late 90s (wikipedia.com)

The decline of global stocks (again, the Mediterranean is the exception) has stabilized, and generally risen to levels that fisheries scientists think can be fished sustainably. The bycatch of endangered sea turtles, which used to be horrendous, has declined by about 90%.

So the new regulations are effective.

Quotas were reduced, and are reconsidered every year. Limited access to licenses now controls the size of the fishing fleets.
Minimum size limits of individuals caught should allow them to breed at least once before their final capture. Observers must be carried whenever requested, vessels are monitored by satellite tracking, and there are time and area closures, protecting breeding and juvenile fish. An impressive array of regulations.

Bycatch of sea turtles, the other great concern, has also been taken very seriously. Long-lines with their hundreds of hooks, the dominant method of fishing, must be set only at night, at appropriate depths. Length of long-lines cannot be greater than 20 nautical miles (!). Fishing ships must move away when endangered sea turtles are seen. Larger circle hooks, much less damaging to sea turtles are mandatory.

Altogether, swordfish appears to be a fine example of an environmentally responsible pelagic fishery.

Or is it? IUCN still designates the overall population as ‘declining’. The Mediterranean stock, like so much in that sad almost enclosed sea, remains overfished. Some of the global catch is also certainly unreported. And the average length that is caught commercially is 1.2 to 1.9 meters, which seems quite large – but 50 years ago far larger swordfish were still common.

A swordfish captured in 1953, weighing in at 1182 pounds. (pinterestcom)

A swordfish captured in 1953, weighing in at 1182 ponds (pinterest.com)

So what should we do, knowing that we should thoroughly protect such marine apex predators rather than eat them? Faced with that grilled steak of a freshly caught swordfish, we’ll probably first swallow our misgivings, and then enjoy the extraordinary taste.

But swordfish are not really recovering – they just aren’t declining to oblivion any longer.

A fearsome and  famous skeleton at eh Nation Museum of Natural History in Washington  (enwikipedia.org)

A fearsome and famous skeleton at eh Nation Museum of Natural History in Washington (enwikipedia.org)