The State of Fish

April 28th, 2016
(nature.com)

(nature.com)

We’ve known for a few decades now that we’ve been fishing the oceans at unsustainable levels. We have also over that time developed reasonable management strategies to help overfished stocks recover. So where are we now?

Global catch of fish, in millions of tons. It levels off, even delcines slightly, which looks hopeful - but it isn't: more boats search harder for fewer fish (worldoceanreview.com)

Global catch of fish, in millions of tons. It levels off, even delcines slightly, which looks hopeful – but it isn’t: more boats search harder for fewer fish (worldoceanreview.com)

A more accurate picture of the reported global catch, separating industrial from artisanal and recreational fisheries, and including the bycatch currently estimated to be about 10 million metric tons per year as well as the illegal unreported catch that reached about 30 mmt at its peak (nature.com)

A more accurate picture of the reported global catch, separating industrial from artisanal and recreational fisheries, and including the bycatch currently estimated to be about at about 10 million metric tons per year as well as the illegal unreported catch that reached 30 mmt at its peak (nature.com)

A new and remarkably inclusive report on the status of over 4500 of the world’s capture fisheries – that’s about 78% of them – indicates that most of them are in poor shape, overfished and heading toward collapse. No surprise there. About a third are in tolerable biological shape – which means not collapsing toward extinction, but not necessarily in good economic shape. So the overall picture is bleak, everywhere.

There are exceptions – on the coasts of some countries such as the US and Australia fisheries are recovering under strictly enforced regulations. On the other hand, China has indicated it wants to increase fish consumption by 50% within 6 years, and it already is the most voracious of the fishing nations.

The report then asks how each fishery would fare under four distinct recovery approaches, and models the outcomes. The first is the famous ‘business-as-usual’ don’t change anything scenario that we know leads to oblivion – everything dwindles and collapses. The second is if some modest conservation practices are accepted – and the outcome here is only a little better

The third approach is also familiar, the maximum-sustainable-yield model that has been used to manage many fisheries for decades. It is certainly is a lot better than open access, unregulated fishing, but few fisheries have actually recovered very much under it.

The fourth is ‘rights based fisheries management’ – more difficult, with short-term pain, but a long-term impressive benefit. It would involve reducing fishing effort to sustainable levels, stabilizing overfished stocks, reducing or eliminating the ‘race to fish’, maximizing economic value through product quality and market timing.

The 4 scenarios, all possible. Lowest: Business-as-usual. Next: some conservation. Next: Long-term maximum sustained yield. Top: Rights-based-fisheries-management (PNAS.org)

The 4 scenarios, all possible. Lowest: Business-as-usual. Next: some conservation. Next: Long-term maximum sustained yield. Top: Rights-based-fisheries-management (PNAS.org)

Of course this 4th approach is the one we should favor – who could disagree? The model predicts rapid recovery of most stocks (again, there are exceptions, like NW Atlantic cod) – 10 years on average should be sufficient. The total global annual catch should also increase by about 17% up from the current 98 million metric tons. Because of higher product value, this should add about $50 billion to the value of the total catch. Such management obviously involves a lot of regulation, cooperation and enforcement.

In this more perfect world, illegal fishing and Wasteful bycatch would be eliminated. Fishing fleets would be smaller. The report ends with this: “Commonsense reforms to fisheries management would dramatically improve overall fish abundance along with food security and profits.”

If only commonsense existed.

Even if we do somehow change our fishing practices, recovering fish stocks will still face the additional stresses of ocean warming and the related community disruption that is underway, and we have the immense challenge of feeding the additional 4-6 billion people we are likely to share the planet with by the end of the century.

For global fisheries to be sustainable, more abundant, and more valuable, we need to achieve the same global culture change that we have recognized is necessary to convert us to using abundant renewable energy, and to radically reduce both our consumption and class inequality.

What a dream!

But if we do not achieve this commonsense dream or something close to it, then we are left with the nightmare of business-as-usual that has brought us to the brink where we now stand.
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Traditional Chinese Medicine

March 29th, 2016

Perhaps you know about the impact that Chinese Traditional Medicine – TCM – has had on seahorses.

In TCM, dried seahorses have been consumed pretty well forever, mainly as an aphrodisiac for men. A legal, unregulated market exploded in the 1990s, and seahorses were stripped from reefs, mangroves and grass beds around the world – perhaps as many as 150 million collected, dried, and eventually sold per year for about $600 per kg. And even if aphrodisiacs were a defensible argument for killing other species – and they certainly aren’t – there is no evidence that dried seahorses have any such effect. The same is true of course for all the other traditional marine aphrodisiacs – sea turtle eggs, oysters, abalone, seal penises, lobsters, shark fins, an almost endless list of marine species.

A pregnant male pot-bellied seahorse, one of the largest species, giving birth (livescience.com)

A pregnant male pot-bellied seahorse, one of the largest species, giving birth (livescience.com)

More than 50 seahorse species exist, diverse, alien and beautiful. We almost lost most of them, particularly the larger species, more valuable in TCM. Finally protected in 2004 by CITES in 2004, their import, sale and export is now regulated, even in China. Yet in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and in Chinese communities in cities around the world, dried or powdered seahorses remain easy to find in Chinese medicine stores: the black market never closes.

A seahorse called a seadragon, a poor swimmer like all seahorses, is difficult for predators to see when entangled  in algae (brooklyncyny.edu)ed in algae (

A seahorse called a seadragon, a poor swimmer like all seahorses, is difficult for predators to see when entangled in algae (brooklyncyny.edu)ed in algae (

True, extinction is now less likely – captive seahorse farming is improving, marine protected areas are often actually protected, ecotourists like to see seahorses alive in their natural habitats, and of course Viagra has helped. Unfortunately, even harmful traditions can be very slow to die.

If only we learned from such an example to avoid repeating it on others. Yet amazingly in the past few years, the gill rakers of manta and mobula rays have become extraordinarily popular as a new source of Chinese medicines. This time though it isn’t even traditional – instead it is a case of highly aggressive and successful industry marketing. People are trusting, probably ignorant of what exactly they are ingesting as medicine, but they are persuaded that the ground up gill rakers may cure just about everything: chicken pox, cancer, swine flu, throat and skin ailments, male kidney issues, fertility problems, immune system depletion, excess toxins, circulation challenges.

Manta rays are huge, feeding on plankton they sieve from the water as they swim (engineeringwellness.com)

Manta rays are huge, feeding on plankton they sieve from the water as they swim (engineeringwellness.com)

Looking into the open mouth of a plankton-feeding manta ray: you can see the rows of gill rakers where the plankton is raked from the water that is pushed out through the gills (wwvortex.com)

Looking into the open mouth of a plankton-feeding manta ray: you can see the rows of gill rakers where the plankton is raked from the water that is pushed out through the gills (wwvortex.com)

The truly discouraging aspect of this is that, just as with seahorse aphrodisiac properties, there is no evidence of any health benefits. None. Yet the rays are caught, the gill rakers cut out, the bodies discarded, and the populations are decimated.

Mobula rays, closely related to manta rays, leap from the water - perhaps to disturb ectoparasites, perhaps for mating purposes, perhaps by chance - we really have no idea (worldsbestdives.com)

Mobula rays, closely related to manta rays, leap from the water – perhaps to disturb ectoparasites, perhaps for mating purposes, perhaps by chance – we really have no idea (worldsbestdives.com)

Of course we all want want to be healthy humans. But is it too much to ask that there be good evidence the health products we select are actually beneficial? Should we not know or care that we are driving other species to extinction, disrupting ecological communities? And why, after all the experience we have had with marketing and advertizing, do we believe any of it?

Naturopathy and Traditional Chinese (Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese) Medicine are thriving. The nutraceutical industry is booming. Where it’s herbal and sustainable, perhaps the lack of supporting evidence doesn’t matter so much. But to wantonly kill animals – and the list is very long – for their non-existent health benefits is madness.

Tradition is not the problem: it’s our greed and ignorance, and we know better.

And in this case, taking action is incredibly easy: we just stop.

The pygmy seahorse, very small, very well camouflaged (lovethesepics.com)

The pygmy seahorse, very small, very well camouflaged (lovethesepics.com)

The Ever Rising Seas

February 23rd, 2016

Since 1970 more than 90% of the extra heat trapped by the Earth as the climate warms has been absorbed by the oceans. The oceans respond more much more steadily than the terrestrial surface climate: they give us the real, underlying picture of the warming of the planet.

We have known for a long time that as the sea warms, sea levels rise – partly from melting ice sheets and glaciers, partly from thermal expansion, and partly for other reasons. People living in coastal regions know too this all too well they experience tidal flooding increasingly often.

Global mean sea level rise from 1970 until now has been at about 2.8 mm per year, but this graph hides the huge regional variation that exists. (noaa.gov)

Global sea level rise from 1970 until now has been at about 2.8 mm per year, but this graph hides the huge regional variation that exists.(noaa.gov)

We also know that sea levels are rising at surprisingly different rates around the globe. We’re starting to understand why.

A new study, using remarkable satellite radar altimetry and satellite gravimetry data starting in 2002, teases apart the various drivers of sea level. And it contains surprises.

In addition to thermal expansion (the ‘steric’ component), and meltwater from Greenland, Antarctica and land based glaciers, other contributors to sea level changes are hydrology (involving the water cycle of evaporation, precipitation and run-off), glacial isostatic adjustments (GIA), and a component called ocean bottom pressure (OBP)

Ocean bottom pressure refers to the weight of all the water on the bottom, ocean’s version of atmospheric pressure. It varies with tides, currents, winds, and water entering and leaving basins, and it changes over oceanic regions both seasonally and annually. It is difficult to incorporate into the picture, but the satellite gravimetry makes it possible, and it is an important driver.

The various contributing components to the rise of sea levels from 2002-2014. The lines are offset for clarity: the critical information lies in their slopes (pnas.org)

The various contributing components to the rise of sea levels from 2002-2014. The lines are offset for clarity: the critical information lies in their slopes (pnas.org)

The overall view? From 2002 to 2014, ocean levels rose globally by an average of 2.74 mm/yr (the steepest, thicker grey line). Of that, 1.38 mm was the result of the thermal expansion of the warming water (the top orange line), and 1.37 mm the result of melting glaciers and ice sheets (the green, light blue and darker blue lines). Other contributors such as OBP and GIA appear on average to be variable and less important, while hydrology (the bottom green line), slopes downward, indicating a loss of water from the oceans to the land due to more rainfall, floods, groundwater loss, irrigation, and reservoirs, and so less runoff back into the oceans.

But those are global means, of little help for warning or advising coastal regions of what’s ahead.

This new study goes a lot further. It shows us not only how great is the regional variation in sea level rise, but also how much the various drivers vary in their contribution. The biggest surprise is that thermal expansion, the steric component, is about twice as great as previous estimates: sea levels are rising faster than we had thought.

The relative contribution of the drivers of sea level change can be depicted in pie charts. The same colors indicate the various contributors: steric=orange, meltwater=2 blues and light green, Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA)=purple, ocean bottom pressure (OBP)= light brown, hydrology=dark green. (pnas.org)

The relative contribution of the drivers of sea level change can be depicted in pie charts. The same colors indicate the various contributors: steric=orange, meltwater=2 blues and light green, Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA)=purple, ocean bottom pressure (OBP)= light brown, hydrology=dark green. (pnas.org)

The variation around the world is striking, to say the least. Look at the Philippines with mean sea level rise of a whopping 14.7 mm/yr, and Indonesia with 8.2 mm/yr. Thermal expansion of the warming water is the overwhelming contributor.

Components of sea level rise around Asian coasts The boxed number on each pie chart is the mean sea level rise, mm/year.(pnas.org)

Components of sea level rise around Asian coasts. The boxed number on each pie chart is the mean sea level rise, mm/yr.(pnas.org)

The Northwest Atlantic (eg the east coast of the US) is the other region with the most rapidly rising sea level at 9.1 mm/yr) where glacial isostatic adjustments (GIA) still play a strong role: the land continues to subside from the elastic rebound following its release from glaciation. In contrast, along the west coast of the Americas and unlike most of the rest of the world, the sea level isn’t changing in any significant way.

Contributers to sea levels around the Americas. (pnas.org)

Contributers to sea levels around the Americas. (pnas.org)

Obviously seasonal, annual and decadal variation in winds and currents play a critical role in modifying steric and OBP contributions, but the data appear to be robust and the general picture is likely to hold: the global average rise in seal level is accelerating, the steric component is greater than we expected, and global variation in rates of sea level rise are remarkable.

It is this last statement that is perhaps most important for the coastal countries of the world to absorb. Rising sea levels are already affecting some regions far more quickly than others.

What can we do about this? We cannot at this stage reverse the rise, and we probably won’t not be able to slow it for a very long time. warming sea water will continue to expand, polar ice sheets and glaciers will continue to melt.

What’s left is for us to adapt as intelligently as we can, pulling back from our current threatened shorelines.

Current hotel construction on Clearwater Beach, Tampa Bay, west coast of Florida (tampabay.com)

Current hotel construction on Clearwater Beach, Tampa Bay, west coast of Florida (tampabay.com)

Or we can continue to be really short-sighted, greedy and ignorant.

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?