Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Older Females as Leaders

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

A killer whale pod is a spectacular, complex, cooperative hunting group.

Cooperative hunting as a way of getting food is hard at best, and demands considerable intelligence and a good memory. It has evolved in a few mammals, and among these are killer whales and the closely related pilot whales.

A resident killer whale pod on the coast of BC (bcwhalewatchingtours.com)

A resident killer whale pod on the coast of BC (bcwhalewatchingtours.com)

The theory of natural selection long ago was extended to include cooperative behavior, where individuals could increase their own fitness by helping close relatives. In every case, each hunting group consists of close relatives. As with most animals, adults die not long after they reproduce for the last time, but killer whales, at least in their ‘resident’ eco-morph, are the a remarkable exception: though they are able to reproduce until about 40 years old, and males rarely live much past that age, females may live for decades after the end of their reproductive lives.

Resident pods of killer whales hunt for salmon in the Salish Sea - the coastal interior waters of southern BC and northern Washington (timescolonist.com)

Resident pods of killer whales hunt for salmon in the Salish Sea – the coastal interior waters of southern BC and northern Washington (timescolonist.com)

The best data come from a resident pod that hunts mostly for Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea (BC/ Washington State) and that has been followed intensively since 1976. Every individual and its relationships to all the others in the pod is well documented. Though the age of the oldest female is not definitively known, it is in the range of 103. And that is amazing.

What aid might she and other older females provide to her pod that younger and possibly stronger adults could not more easily provide? An enticing possibility is that older females might be able to provide ecological information about when and where to hunt for fish, particularly in times of environmental stress when fish are hard to find. In hopes of testing this hypothesis, a group of scientists studied pod leadership over the years, in times of both salmon abundance and salmon scarcity. They found that in times of salmon scarcity, older females were more likely to lead the hunt.

When fish are scarce, older females (red in this cartoon) are more likely to lead the hunt to find them (cell.com/current-biology)

When fish are scarce, older females (red in this cartoon) are more likely to lead the hunt to find them (cell.com/current-biology)

This isn’t exactly proof, but it provides tantalizing support for the hypothesis that older females are valued and useful as repositories of ecological knowledge. Of course older females may help the pod in other ways – perhaps assisting others in the pod, mediating conflicts among pod members, providing familiarity with other groups – but these hypotheses are so far too hard to test.

In any case, the more we know about resident pod behavior, including the roles of older, post-reproductive females, the more we can ensure we don’t wreck the ecosystem the killer whales depend on. We should at least be able to do that.

And yes, there is one other species we know of where older post-reproductive females play a critical role in the social success of the group: us. Let’s hear it for grandmothers.

Killerwhales_jumping

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The Growth of MPAs

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illegal fishing: still low risk, high return

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They will if we do.