Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rena captain pleads guilty to all charges

From Rena captain pleads guilty to all charges
The captain of the cargo ship which grounded on a reef off Tauranga last year has pleaded guilty to all charges against him.

The Rena hit the Astrolabe Reef in October last year causing an environmental disaster - spilling oil and containers into the water and killing masses of sea animals. The stricken ship broke in two early this year.

The captain pleaded guilty today in the Tauranga District Court to charges laid under the Maritime Transport Act, Crimes Act and Resource Management Act.

He retains name suppression.

Prime Minister John Key said the captain's guilty plea vindicated the charges against him.

"It's important justice bought to bear here, significant environmental damage that's occurred in New Zealand and the Government is very concerned about that," he said.

The ship's navigation officer, whose name is also suppressed, also appeared in court today and he pleaded guilty to a charge laid under the Maritime Transport Act and three Crimes Act charges.

He is yet to enter a plea on a Resource Management Act charge.

Both men face the same charges; under the Maritime Transport Act 1994 for operating a vessel in a manner likely to cause danger, under the Resource Management Act 1991 for discharging a contaminant and on three charges under the Crimes Act for altering ship documents.

The captain faces one additional charge under the Crimes Act for altering ship documents.

The charges under the Crimes Act each carry a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment.

The RMA charge is under section 338 (1B) and (15B) relates to the 'discharge of harmful substances from ships or offshore installations'.

It carries a maximum penalty of a fine of $300,000, or two years imprisonment and $10,000 for every day the offending continues.

The Maritime Transport Act carries a maximum penalty of $10,000 or a maximum term of imprisonment of 12 months.

Sentencing for both men is scheduled for May 25 at the Tauranga District Court.

The navigation officer is scheduled to reappear in the Tauranga District Court on May 22 where more pleas are expected.

A spokeswoman for Maritime New Zealand said the organisation would not comment on today's development.

"We can't comment while it's still before the courts," she said.

However, the public could expect to hear MNZ's views after the men have been sentenced, she said.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Whalers 'return to Australian waters'

From the Whalers 'return to Australian waters'
The Federal Government has issued a fresh warning to Japan to keep its whaling ships out of Australian waters after reports vessels are in the vicinity of Australia's exclusive economic zone.

There are reports that Japanese whaling vessels are in the vicinity of Australia’s exclusive economic zone near Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean.

Following the reports, the Australian Embassy has told the Japanese Government it expects whaling vessels to steer clear of Australian seas.

In a joint statement between Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Environment Minister Tony Burke, the Ministers said Australia was “fully committed” to its legal case in the International Court of Justice to bring an end to Japan’s “so-called scientific” whaling.

“The Government strongly objects to whaling vessels passing through Australian territorial seas or our exclusive economic zone,” it read.

Monday, February 27, 2012

‘Radical proposal’ will save ocean life

IOL SciTech New Zealand: ‘Radical proposal’ will save ocean life
Vancouver - The indiscriminate slaughter of vast numbers of turtles, sharks, albatrosses and other endangered marine animals that get unintentionally caught by fishermen as by-catch, could be prevented by a radical proposal of mobile marine reserves, according to scientists.

Protected areas of the ocean where commercial fishing was banned would work far better if they were not static conservation areas, as they were at present, but were moveable reserves that took into account the mobile nature of sea life, they said.

The proposed conservation zones would not impose fishing restrictions in one place, but would shift location according to where threatened species were expected to be found. The idea has resulted from a revolution in satellite and tagging technology that has allowed scientists routinely to monitor the seasonal movements of marine creatures, which would have been impossible a decade ago.

Scientists said existing marine protection areas, where fishing was controlled to enable wildlife to recover, frequently failed to do their job because the endangered animals simply migrated to unprotected regions where they got caught accidentally.

This is believed to be the main reason that populations of loggerhead and leatherback turtles, both critically endangered, have slumped dramatically in recent years as commercial fishing with nets and extremely long fishing lines has become more intense.

Leatherback turtles have suffered particularly badly in the Pacific Ocean. Sharks and albatrosses have also declined significantly as a result of being caught accidentally by fishermen.

Creating mobile protection areas monitored by satellite would enable some of the world’s most endangered species to recover, as well as allow fishermen to ply their trade in other parts of the ocean where by-catch was less likely, said Larry Crowder, a professor of marine biology at Stanford University in California, in the US.

“Small, stationary reserves do little to protect highly mobile animals, like most fish, like the turtles and sharks and seabirds.

“You might say that the only way to achieve conservation of these kinds of organisms is to protect them everywhere in the ocean,” he said.

“But we don’t need to close the entire ocean; we only need to close the place where they are concentrated,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada.

Satellite tagging and other ways of monitoring the movements of marine creatures have shown that sea life tends to congregate near oceanographic features such as upwellings, where rising currents bring minerals to the sea surface, and convergence zones, where ocean currents collide.

“Those are where everything in the ocean goes to feed, and the fishermen understand that,” Crowder said. These features tend to move, taking sea life with them.

“Satellite technology, tagging and acoustic technology allow us to look into the ocean and figure out who is going where,” he added.

“The time is ripe for the idea of mobile marine protection areas and a good candidate to consider is the North Pacific convergence zone. We know it moves seasonally. In the summer, it’s about 1 000 miles (about 1 600km) north of Hawaii and in the winter, it is further south.”

Several species are threatened. The number of leatherback turtles in the Pacific has declined by 90 percent in 20 years with by-catch a main cause. The loggerhead turtle has been hit particularly hard by shrimp trawling. Albatrosses can become caught on fishing lines and drown. The northern royal albatross is an endangered species.

An estimated 50 million sharks are caught unintentionally every year. The angel shark, vulnerable to by-catch, is now one of the five most endangered shark species. – The Independent

Radiation from Fukushima detected 400 miles off Japanese coast

From MSNBC: Radiation from Fukushima detected 400 miles off Japanese coast
SALT LAKE CITY — Radioactive contamination from the Fukushima power plant disaster has been detected as far as almost 400 miles off Japan in the Pacific Ocean, with water showing readings of up to 1,000 times more than prior levels, scientists reported Tuesday.

But those results for the substance cesium-137 are far below the levels that are generally considered harmful, either to marine animals or people who eat seafood, said Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

He spoke Tuesday in Salt Lake City at the annual Ocean Sciences Meeting, attended by more than 4,000 researchers this week.

The results are for water samples taken in June, about three months after the power plant disaster, Buesseler said. In addition to thousands of water samples, researchers also sampled fish and plankton and found cesium-137 levels well below the legal health limit.

"We're not over the hump" yet in terms of radioactive contamination of the ocean because of continued leakage from the plant, Buesseler said in an interview before Tuesday's talk. He was chief scientist for the cruise that collected the data.

The ship sampled water from about 20 miles to about 400 miles off the coast east of the Fukushima plant. Concentrations of cesium-137 throughout that range were 10 to 1,000 times normal, but they were about one-tenth the levels generally considered harmful, Buesseler said.

Cesium-137 wasn't the only radioactive substance released from the plant, but it's of particular concern because of its long persistence in the environment. Its half-life is 30 years.

The highest readings last June were not always from locations closest to the Fukushima plant, Buesseler said. That's because swirling ocean currents formed concentrations of the material, he said.

Most of the cesium-137 detected during the voyage probably entered the ocean from water discharges, rather than atmospheric fallout, he added.
Story: Japan cities press utility to switch from nuclear

Hartmut Nies, of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Buesseler's findings were not surprising, given the vastness of the ocean and its ability to absorb and dilute materials.

"This is what we predicted," Nies said after Buesseler presented his research.

Nies said the water's cesium-137 concentration has been so diluted that just 20 miles offshore, "if it was not seawater, you could drink it without any problems."

"This is good news," he said, adding that scientists expect levels to continue to decrease over time.

"We still don't have a full picture," Nies said, "but we can expect the situation will not become worse."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Old-fashioned fish regrow fins

From Science News: Old-fashioned fish regrow fins
Fish from an ancient line can regenerate lost limbs with newt-like flair

Two species of bichir from Africa can regrow amputated bony fins with remarkable accuracy, says developmental biologist Luis Covarrubias of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Cuernavaca. Among the most ancient of the living lineages of ray-finned fishes, a group that includes most fresh- and saltwater species, the Polypterus bichirs share traits such as paired lungs with both modern amphibians and very early four-limbed vertebrates.

The venerable fishes’ powers suggest that early vertebrates shared substantial limb regeneration capability during the ancient evolutionary transition from fins to feet, Covarrubias and his colleagues contend in a paper published online February 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Those first steps toward life on land took place at least 375 million years ago.

Coauthor Rodrigo Cuervo, now at Veracruz University in Mexico, discovered the bichirs’ powers while following his curiosity about regeneration. The fish can go from zero to a full-size new side fin within a month. Many vertebrates, including mammals, can’t regenerate limbs at all. Biologists would love to understand why such a handy trait appears to have faded away in the course of evolution, or how it arose in the first place. “The real question is not why regeneration was lost but why it was ‘won,’ ” Covarrubias says.

Among animals without backbones, limb regeneration isn’t so startling. But only select groups of vertebrates living today can manage. Axolotls and other amphibians in the group of newts and salamanders can to varying degrees replace a lost limb, as can some other fish.

“Zebrafish are great at fin regeneration,” says Ken Poss of Duke University, who studies them. But their fins, as do fins of many other fish, contain mostly bones related to the fishes’ specialized, hardened skin. Bichir fins grow considerable fleshy tissue as well as bones of the type in the internal skeleton. Their comeback fins may prove useful for comparing regeneration systems, Poss says.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Researchers: Even In Winter, Life Persists In Arctic Seas

From Underwater Times: Researchers: Even In Winter, Life Persists In Arctic Seas
ARLINGTON, Virginia -- Despite brutal cold and lingering darkness, life in the frigid waters off Alaska does not grind to a halt in the winter as scientists previously suspected. According to preliminary results from a National Science Foundation- (NSF) funded research cruise, microscopic creatures at the base of the Arctic food chain are not dormant as expected.

After working aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy for six weeks in waters where winds sometimes topped 70 knots, wind chills fell to -40 degrees and samples often had to be hustled safely inside before seawater froze to the deck, researchers are back in their labs, assembling for the first time a somewhat unexpected picture of how microscopic creatures survive winter in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Although they have much more work to do before publishing their results, they say they are surprised on a number of fronts, including the discovery of active zooplankton--microscopic organisms that drift or wander in ocean, seas or bodies of fresh water.

"The zooplankton community seemed to be quite active, said Carin Ashjian of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the chief scientist on the expedition. "They were feeding at low rates. That was a surprise."

Ashjian is scheduled to discuss the preliminary results from the cruise during a session at the American Geophysical Union's 2012 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah this week.

Although perhaps arcane to non-scientists, the kinds of information gathered by the researchers previously was unattainable and is vital if scientists are to understand how a changing climate in the Arctic might affect the food chain, which extends upward from zooplankton through marine mammals to, eventually, subsistence hunters.

The ecological balance--and potential changes in that balance--of the northern waters potentially has large repercussions for commercial fisheries. The Bering Sea, for example, supports one of the world's most productive fisheries.

"This kind of research is really improving our fundamental understanding of this very important part of the ocean and giving us new information that we can put to use both in numerical models that are used to investigate ecosystem responses to environmental changes, but also in scientists' conceptual models of how these ecosystems really function," Ashjian said.

But, Ashjian noted, as the researchers, including scientists from the University of Rhode Island and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, were working in an area of the globe that is poorly understood by scientists even in the warmest months of the year and seldom visited in winter, discovery was one object of the expedition.

"Our understanding of biological and physical processes during the winter in the Arctic is severely limited because it is so difficult to access these winter seas," Ashjian said. "In particular, understanding of the overwintering strategies of one of the dominant copepod species in the region is not well understood."

Copepods are crustaceans that form a link in the food web between the primary-producing phytoplankton and the plankton-feeding fish as well as being important prey for large baleen whales--such as the bowhead--in the Arctic.

In spite of the challenges associated with working in severe weather and in the sea ice, the cruise was highly successful. In the Chuckchi Sea more sampling stations than originally planned were occupied, even though sea ice was forming as the cruise progressed and almost all of the stations in the Chukchi Sea were occupied in ice cover. Ocean-water temperatures were near the freezing point of seawater at all depths, with little to no stratification of the water column on the shallower shelves.

Despite the ice cover and very short days, low levels of phytoplankton--photo-synthesizing microscopic organisms--were still detected.

"This was a remarkably productive cruise, especially given the conditions under which these scientists were working," said William Wiseman, Natural Sciences Program Manager in the Office of Polar Programs' Division of Arctic Sciences at NSF. "It is easy to forget that, even in the early part of the 21st century, much of the globe remains unexplored by science. As a result, cruises like this are able to produce fundamental and vital knowledge about complex ecological systems; which is why NSF supports exactly this kind of research at the intellectual and physical frontiers."

Technology aboard the Healy also allowed the ship to do what earlier Polar explorers--and even Ashjian's colleagues a few years ago--could not; share their experience with students ashore.

Chantelle Rose, who teaches at Graham High School in St. Paris, Ohio, joined the cruise as part of the NSF-funded PolarTREC (Teacher and Researchers Collaborating and Exploring) program.

She posted on-line journals from the ship and communicated remotely with students, activities that are both in keeping with NSF's goal of combining research and education.

"I know that we need to engage the younger generation in science, but working scientists generally are not great teachers," Ashjian said. "Whenever I always go into a classroom, I worry that I am not always effective. That's a big concern for me. So I like this partnership: I think that this is a good way to get science out into the classroom."

What they continue to learn from specimens and data gathered on the cruise, which wrapped up in January may well change scientific conceptions of how animals at the bottom of the Arctic food chain persist through the Arctic winter and help scientists to improve models designed to predict the effects of a changing climate.

Flying squids: the rocket science behind cephalopods

From Los Angeles Times: Flying squids: the rocket science behind cephalopods
Squids can fly? If you are a member of the relatively small community of squid aficionados you've known this for a while.

But if you are a normal person with just a passing interest in cephalopods and all their many diverse abilities, the fact that these underwater creatures also occasionally get from point A to point B by flying above the water for distances of up to 164 feet at a time might just blow your mind.

Ron O'Dor, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and co-author of a poster called "Squid Rocket Science" presented at the American Geophysical Union’s Ocean Sciences Meeting in Salt Lake City, said squids have good reason to fly. It is not to avoid predators, as was previously thought, but rather to save the animal energy as it migrates across vast expanses of ocean, O'Dor said.

"The acceleration rate in air is five times faster than any acceleration I've measured in a squid in water," he said. "And once they are gliding in the air, they aren't expending any resources."

Squids are able to propel themselves out of the water in the same way they swim through the water — by filling their mantle up with water and then forcing it out at very high velocities and pressures. Once a squid has propelled itself above the water, it can contort itself into a rocket — its fins catching the air like wings, the tentacles curled up to create another flat surface in the rear. How far the squid can go at that point is limited only by the wind.

If squids are such proficient fliers however, why isn't squid flight something more people know about?

O'Dor thinks the reason is that squids are more likely to fly at night, when it would be harder for predators such as birds, as well as human observers, to catch them in the act.

He came to this hypothesis after observing some squids that he kept in a 15-meter pool at Dalhousie University. Each morning, when the research team checked on the squids, they would find a few dead squids around the outside of the pool. O'Dor found that by not completely turning off the lights at night, and only dimming them, the squids were less likely to jump out of the pool.

Conclusion: Squids only like to fly in the dark.

Reports of squids gliding above the waves go back to the 1890s.

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl noted that squids would occasionally fall from the air onto his raft as he attempted to sail from Peru to the Polynesian islands in an effort to prove that people from South America could have settled in the South Pacific islands.

But photographic evidence was hard to find. In 1970 National Geographic obtained an 8 mm video of a large flying squid 6.5 feet long. And then, in 2010, a man named Bob Hulse shot a bunch of photos of squids rocketing above the ocean, off the coast of Brazil.

O'Dor, who hopes to publish a paper about squid flight soon, says there is still much more research to be done to understand the ins and outs of rocketing squids.

He is trying to get funding to tag species of squid that he suspects of flying, to see how much they fly and at what times.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Researchers: Iconic Marine Mammals Are 'Swimming In Sick Seas' Of Terrestrial Pathogens

From Underwater Times: Researchers: Iconic Marine Mammals Are 'Swimming In Sick Seas' Of Terrestrial Pathogens
VANCOUVER, Canada -- Parasites and pathogens infecting humans, pets and farm animals are increasingly being detected in marine mammals such as sea otters, porpoises, harbor seals and killer whales along the Pacific coast of the U.S. and Canada, and better surveillance is required to monitor public health implications, according to a panel of scientific experts from Canada and the United States.

UBC scientists Stephen Raverty, Michael Grigg and Andrew Trites and Melissa Miller from the California Department of Fish and Game, presented their research today at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, Canada.

They called for stronger collaboration among public health, coastal water policy and marine mammal health research sectors to reduce land-sea transfer of pathogens and toxins. These terrestrial sourced pollutants are killing coastal marine mammals and likely pose risks to human health.

Between 1998 and 2010, nearly 5,000 marine mammal carcasses were recovered and necropsied along the British Columbia and Pacific Northwest region of the U.S., including whales, dolphins and porpoises, sea lions and otters.

"Infectious diseases accounted for up to 40 per cent of mortalities of these marine animals," says Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist with the Animal Health Centre in the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, and an adjunct professor in UBC's Marine Mammal Research Unit.

"In many cases, the diseases found in these marine mammals have similar or genetically identical agents as those infecting pets and livestock. We don't yet know how these diseases are affecting the health of marine mammals" says Raverty.

For example, researchers recently identified the first case of Neospora caninum in sea otters. The parasite is known to cause infectious abortions in dairy cattle and muscular and bone diseases in dogs. Cryptococcus gatti, a fungus typically associated with dead and decomposing eucalyptus trees in tropical regions, has been found in some harbor and Dall's porpoises.

"The marine mammals that died of severe brain disease were infected with two common parasites, Toxoplasma and Sarcocystis, which are shed in the feces of feline and opossum hosts," says Michael Grigg, a researcher with the U.S. National Institutes of Health's Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases and adjunct professor in UBC's Marine Mammal Research Unit. "Expansion of host range for the opossum and climate change may be important factors contributing to the increased incidence of infection from these land-based pathogens "

"We can expect increased health risks for humans, pets and marine mammals sharing the same polluted marine habitat – including along the shorelines right here in downtown Vancouver," says Andrew Trites, director of UBC's Marine Mammal Research Unit. "In a way, marine mammals are the canary in the coal mine – we must consider ourselves warned and take appropriate action.

The team recommends better management of urban pest populations, maintaining wetland marshes, reducing run-off from urban areas near the coast, and monitoring water quality to prevent pathogens and toxins from entering the marine food chain. Collaboration amongst coastal regions and countries is also crucial.

"Marine mammals recognize no borders, and neither do pathogens and parasites," says Raverty.

'Drastic change' in oceans' fish

From the Windsor Star: 'Drastic change' in oceans' fish
Marine researchers estimate there are two billion tonnes of fish in the oceans, the equivalent of about 300 kilograms for every human on the Earth. Sounds like plenty to go around.

The problem is about half of that biomass consists of smaller fish found in the mesopelagic zone, extending in the oceans to a depth of about 1,000 metres, and not commercial fished.

"Small open-ocean fish," said Villy Christensen, an ecosystem modeler with the University of B.C. Fisheries Centre. "Nice for whales to eat."

And among those species that measure at least 90 centimetres and are commercially fished, biomass has declined by about 55 per cent over 40 years.

"There's been a drastic composition change," said Christensen. "This is global; this is for everywhere."

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, continuing at the Vancouver Convention Centre through Monday, Christensen called for more research on predicting the impact of climate change on oceans to better manage fisheries and stocks.

Scientists say that warming of the oceans under climate change will push more fish species northward in search of the cooler waters - a potential benefit to nations in northern latitudes.

However, William Cheung, an assistant professor in the Fisheries Centre, cautioned any such benefit could be offset by the fact that warmer waters hold less oxygen for fish to utilize. Increased acidification of the oceans under climate change will also compromise marine productivity at the base of the food chain.

All will have the effect of reducing potential commercial catches in future years, Cheung concluded.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Even sharks have social networks

From MSNBC: Even sharks have social networks
Sharks have a reputation for being ruthless, solitary predators, but evidence is mounting that certain species enjoy complex social lives that include longstanding relationships and teamwork.

A new study, published in the latest Animal Behaviour, documents how one population of blacktip reef sharks is actually organized into four communities and two subcommunities. The research shows for the first time that adults of a reef-associated shark species form stable, long-term social bonds.

The image contrasts with usual reports on this species, which mistakenly sinks its sharp teeth into surfers and swimmers from time to time.

Lead author Johann Mourier told Discovery News that "other species, such as grey reef sharks and scalloped hammerheads form polarized groups where individuals have a specific place, and such species may also have complex social organization."

Mourier, a scientist at the Center for Island Research and Environmental Study (CNRS-EPHE), and colleagues Julie Vercelloni and Serge Planes conducted the study at Moorea Island in the Society archipelago, French Polynesia. A total of seven sites were surveyed on a regular basis along just over 6 miles of the north shore of Moorea. The surveys included nearly hour-long dives at a depth close to 50 feet, with the diver photographing nearby sharks.

Analysis of the gathered data determined that the sharks were not within non-random collections, but rather had organized themselves into meaningful social groups.

"The four main communities are mixed-sex communities that use a specific home range, however, within these communities individuals tend to associate more often with others of the same sex and length," Mourier said.

In a prior study, he determined that length is proportional to a shark’s age, with male blacktip reef sharks being mature at about the age of 7 and measuring around 3.6 feet long. Females are slightly larger than males.

Mourier suspects the sharks join together in communities for protection and to avoid aggression with each other. He and his colleagues also observed a remarkable feat, "when a group of about four or five blacktip reef sharks herded a school of fishes around a coral structure." This suggests they can cooperate with each other to hunt as a team.

Yet another perk to organizing could be that each shark becomes a comforting landmark for others in the group. As Mourier said, "Using a home range and knowing all individuals may help individuals to have a better knowledge of their environment."

The researchers point out that sharks’ relative brain mass-body ratios have been found to be comparable to those of mammals, indicating that they are capable of complex social behaviors on par with those demonstrated in birds and mammals.

It could just be that the highly mobile nature of sharks, combined with the difficulty of following individuals in the open sea, has kept their social interactions hidden away from human eyes until recent years.

In another study, led by Demian Chapman, researchers showed that lemon sharks at the Bimini islands, Bahamas, tended to stay near their coastal birthplace for many years.

"We were very surprised to see that many lemon sharks lingered for years around the island where they were born — often more than half of their development to adulthood," said Chapman, a shark scientist with the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University.

In both studies, age therefore seems to help shape a shark’s social life. Family ties may also be important to sharks, a possibility that Mourier and his colleagues are investigating now.

The scientists clipped the fins of 70 percent of the sharks involved in this latest study and are analyzing the bits for DNA.

He said, "This will soon reveal if they tend to group with relatives, as is the case in other social animals, such as for some mammals."

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mystery surrounds bruised and bloody killer whale carcass

From NPR: Mystery surrounds bruised and bloody killer whale carcass
The bruised and bloody carcass of an endangered killer whale washed ashore at Long Beach, Wash., this weekend. An initial necropsy did not pinpoint a cause of death.

The young female orca whale was examined by multiple agencies including Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, the Seaside Aquarium, Portland State University and Cascadia Research Collective. Jesse Huggins of Cascadia Research says the whale died from massive trauma.

"We do not know what caused the trauma, though. It had extensive bruising around the head, around the chest and on the right flank," Huggins says.

Huggins says the injuries don't look like what she'd expect from a ship collision. An attack by other animals is another possibility, but there are no giveaway teeth marks or scars visible. Yet another line of inquiry is whether this whale could have passed near a Canadian naval ship last week during a sonar exercise.

The dead orca has been identified as (L-112) a member of a pod that frequents Puget Sound. That endangered resident population numbers fewer than 88 now.

Second recent death
This is the second killer whale to strand on the Long Beach peninsula in the past three months. The first case was a killer whale calf that stranded north of the Seaview Beach approach on Nov. 14.

The carcass was promptly collected and transported to Portland State University, where thorough necropsy was conducted. A congenital defect was determined to be the cause of death in this case.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Plymouth scientists demand action over damage to coral reefs

From This is Cornwall: Plymouth scientists demand action over damage to coral reefs
Westcountry scientists are calling for the urgent introduction of marine protected areas after producing evidence of long-term damage to deep-sea coral reefs.

Using underwater robotic vehicles, researchers from Plymouth University recorded a diverse abundance of fish at several coral sites in the North East Atlantic – but there were also signs that reefs were being smashed by modern fishing gear.

The scientists found fishing nets on the seabed – evidence of long-term damage being done to deep-sea coral reefs

They documented more than 30 varieties of fish, including codling and northern cut-throat eels, at coral reef sites 300km (186 miles) off the coast of Ireland.

Diving to depths of one kilometre, the vehicles took pictures of thousands of fish, and thriving ecosystems, dependent upon the reef.

But the project, led by Dr Jason Hall-Spencer, of the school of marine sciences and engineering, also found evidence of damage caused by "rockhopper" trawls, which allow fishing nets to be dragged along the seabed even in rough seas.

Images of abandoned fishing gear strewn over the seabed, which would have the potential to kill wildlife, were also captured.

Dr Hall-Spencer said: "European coral reefs take thousands of years to form, and we now have ample evidence that bottom-trawling is causing long-term damage to fish habitat.

"This highlights the need to introduce protected areas as soon as possible, where destructive types of fishing are outlawed."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Scientists: Big Fish Shelter Choice Could Have Impact On Ability To Survive Climate Change

From Underwater Times: Scientists: Big Fish Shelter Choice Could Have Impact On Ability To Survive Climate Change
TOWNSVILLE, Queensland -- When it comes to choosing a place to hang out, big reef fish like coral trout, snappers and sweetlips have strong architectural preferences.

The choices big fish make on where to shelter could have a major influence on their ability to cope with climate change, say scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

In research aimed at understanding the process of fish population decline when coral reefs sustain major damage, PhD student James Kerry and Professor David Bellwood have found that big fish show a marked preference for sheltering under large, flat table corals, as opposed to branching corals or massive corals (known as bommies).

In a study that covered 17 separate locations round Lizard Island in far North Queensland, the researchers videoed the behavior of large reef fish, allowing them to identify the kind of habitat they most preferred and depended on.

"Like human beings, fish have strong preferences on where they like to hang out – and it appears that they much prefer to shelter under overhanging tablecorals. This tells us quite a bit about how important these corals are to the overall structure of the reef and the large reef fish that live there," says James.

"The reason for the fishes' preference is not yet clear – but possibilities include hiding from predators such as sharks, shading themselves from ultraviolet sunlight, or lying in ambush for prey."

JCU's Professor Bellwood said that the importance of this finding was that table corals were among the types most vulnerable to climate change.

"In shallow waters and on the tops of reefs, they are often the main source of cover for these big fish," he said.

"If they die back as a result of bleaching or disease, or are destroyed by storm surges, this would strip the reef of one of its main attractions, from a coral trout's viewpoint."

The researchers also proved that it is not the coral, so much as the shelter that is important to big fish, by deploying artificial shelters made from plastic in the lagoon.

"We made one sort with no roof, one with a translucent roof and one with a roof painted black. Far and away the fish preferred to shelter under the black roof, which suggests they either want to hide or else to avoid direct sunlight," James says.

While the team is planning further experiments to clarify the reasons for the fishes' shelter preferences, their early findings may provide a useful insight to reef managers, about the importance of trying to maintain a range of structures and shelters as climate change bears down on the Great Barrier Reef, including the highly susceptible tabular corals.

Their paper "The effect of coral morphology on shelter selection by coral reef fishes", by

J. T. Kerry and D. R. Bellwood appears in the journal Coral Reefs.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

'Anti-Freeze' Fish Of Antarctica Threatened By Climate Change

From Underwater Times: 'Anti-Freeze' Fish Of Antarctica Threatened By Climate Change
NEW HAVEN, Connecticut -- A Yale-led study of the evolutionary history of Antarctic fish and their "anti-freeze" proteins illustrates how tens of millions of years ago a lineage of fish adapted to newly formed polar conditions – and how today they are endangered by a rapid rise in ocean temperatures.

"A rise of 2 degrees centigrade of water temperature will likely have a devastating impact on this Antarctic fish lineage, which is so well adapted to water at freezing temperatures," said Thomas Near, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and lead author of the study published online the week of Feb. 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The successful origin and diversification into 100 species of fish, collectively called notothenioids, is a textbook case of how evolution operates. A period of rapid cooling led to mass extinction of fish acclimated to a warmer Southern Ocean. The acquisition of so-called antifreeze glycoproteins enabled notothenioids to survive in seas with frigid temperatures. As they adapted to vacant ecological niches, new species of notothenioids arose and contributed to the rich biodiversity of marine life found today in the waters of Antarctica.

Notothenioids account for the bulk of the fish diversity and are a major food source for larger predators, including penguins, toothed whales, and seals. Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History has one of the most important collections of these specimens in the world.

However, the new study suggests the acquisition of the antifreeze glycoproteins 22 to 42 million years ago was not the only reason for the successful adaptation of the Antarctic notothenioids. The largest radiation of notothenioid fish species into new habitats occurred at least 10 million years after the first appearance of glycoproteins, the study found.

"The evolution of antifreeze was often thought of as a 'smoking gun,' triggering the diversification of these fishes, but we found evidence that this adaptive radiation is not linked to a single trait, but to a combination of factors," Near said.

his evolutionary success story is threatened by climate change that has made the Southern Ocean around Antarctica one of the fastest-warming regions on Earth. The same traits that enabled the fish to survive and thrive on a cooling earth make them particularly susceptible to a warming one, notes Near.

"Given their strong polar adaptations and their inability to acclimate to warmer water temperatures, climate change could devastate this most interesting lineage of fish with a unique evolutionary history," Near said.

Yale-affliated authors of the study are Alex Dornburg, Kristen L. Kuhn, and Jillian N. Pennington.

Shark's journey a first for science

From UT San Diego: Shark's journey a first for science
An electronic ID tag from a rare shark spotted off the county’s coast in June has popped to the surface near Hawaii, providing local marine researchers with an unprecedented look into the long-distance movements of the second-largest known fish.

Basking sharks have almost disappeared from the West Coast, but biologists at the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla found two last year and outfitted them with satellite-based tracking devices in hopes of learning more about where they roam. One tag fell off after several days but the other lasted eight months — enough to provide the first long-term track of a basking shark moving across the Pacific Ocean.

“It’s a big gold mine,” said Heidi Dewar at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. “Now we know for sure that our animals can go to the central Pacific.”

The long-distance tag, which surfaced on Feb. 2, uploaded long streams of data about where the shark traveled, water temperatures it encountered and the animal’s depth as it traveled.

The basking shark, second only to the whale shark in size, has largely disappeared from West Coast waters. A research team from San Diego is part of an international effort to better understand the creatures and track their movements.

The basking shark, second only to the whale shark in size, has largely disappeared from West Coast waters. A research team from San Diego is part of an international effort to better understand the creatures and track their movements. — Greg Skomal

“We can look to see how the habitat use changes as it moves from coastal habitat to offshore habitat,” Dewar said. “That becomes important in the context of management and conservation.”

Agencies in Canada, Mexico and the United States are trying to safeguard basking sharks, which once gathered near the coastline by the hundreds or thousands. In recent years, however, sightings have dwindled and biologists have speculated that as few as 300 swim along the West Coast.

While basking sharks have gaping mouths and can grow up to 40 feet, they aren’t a threat to people. They are filter feeders that consume large volumes of zooplankton. As their name implies, basking sharks spend a lot of time at the surface — at least when they are near the coast — and are notably docile when researchers approach.

Still, they once were targeted for eradication off Canada because they got snagged in fishing nets. The population may also suffer because the sharks don’t appear to be frightened by oncoming boats enough to get out of the way.

At the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, executive director Sean Van Sommeran said he started receiving data from a basking shark tagged near Pacific Grove in August. The tag -- part of a project with NOAA, Stanford University and the foundation -- released from the shark hundreds of miles off Baja California, providing researchers with a treasure trove of travel information.

"I would characterize it as an avalanche of data," said Van Sommeran said Monday.

He compared the current advancements in basking shark research to similar breakthroughs for white sharks about a decade ago. Both species were once thought to stay primarily along the coast.

"They are moving farther and wider than was previously understood or believed," Van Sommeran said.

Dewar said new data about the basking shark's trip to Hawaii is both exciting and daunting, because it means that effective protections must account for international waters. That’s difficult because basking shark fins can fetch tens of thousands of dollars for an Asian soup that some consider a delicacy.

Dewar and her colleagues ramped up an outreach campaign about basking sharks last summer in hopes of getting real-time tips from divers, boaters and others who see them. The researchers have two more satellite tags they are hoping to deploy in late spring, when basking sharks tend to be spotted in local waters.

This time, Dewar plans to program the tags to stay attached longer than eight months in hopes of determining what basking sharks do after they reach the central Pacific. Do they keep going to Indonesia? Do they turn around? Do they roam there for years?

The federal research group’s website is Sightings can be reported to (858) 334-2884 or For each encounter, scientists want to know the date and time, latitude and longitude (or at least the general location), the animal’s estimated length, the number of basking sharks in the area, and other details such as water temperature. They also want photos and videos.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Judge tosses case seeking rights for orcas

From ABC News: Judge tosses case seeking rights for orcas
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A federal judge has dismissed an unprecedented lawsuit by an animal rights group seeking to grant constitutional protection against slavery to a group of orcas that perform at SeaWorld parks.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller issued his decision Wednesday, two days after he listened to arguments in San Diego from both sides.

SeaWorld called the lawsuit baseless. It was filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and named five whales as plaintiffs.

PETA attorney Jeffrey Kerr says his organization does not plan to give up his fight to protect the orcas but he did not specify what the next action will be.

PETA says the wild-captured orcas are enslaved by SeaWorld because they are held in tanks and forced to perform in shows. SeaWorld denies any mistreatment.

Is this Iceland's Loch Ness monster? Giant 'serpent-like sea creature' caught on camera swimming in glacial river

From Daily Mail Online: Is this Iceland's Loch Ness monster? Giant 'serpent-like sea creature' caught on camera swimming in glacial river
There's something undoubtedly fishy about this footage of a 'serpent-like' sea creature gliding through the waters of an Icelandic river.

The video, captured last week by Hjörtur Kjerúlf, shows a mysterious creature swimming through the cold water of the glacial river Jökulsá í Fljótsdal, in east Iceland.

And in just over a week, it has already become a monster hit on the internet.

Some are claiming this grainy footage is proof of the existence of the legendary beast Lagarfljótsormurinn - Iceland's version of Scotland's Loch Ness Monster.

The notorious 'snake-like' creature is said to live in the Lagarfljót lake, which is 25 miles long and 367 feet deep - and it has been the subject of many a supposed sighting since reports of it first emerged in 1345.

However, an expert on the legendary Lagarfljótsormurinn lake beast believes this footage is fake.

Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, has researched the Icelandic creature and wrote about it in his book Field Guide to Lake Monsters and Sea Serpents.

Coleman said he was concerned about the 'robotic' look of the creature featured in the video and believes it is an elaborate hoax.

On his website Cryptomundo, he wrote: 'Frankly, this video shows something that looks like a constructed snake-like object, with rigid sections, being propelled through the water.

'From the movement on the water’s surface, it would have to be something other than a mammal, like a giant worm, a reptile or a fish.

'The head appears to have been made to look like it belongs to a giant anaconda. The sections do not gracefully flow, but are sectionally moving from side-to-side. Mammals move up and down.

'It seems someone attempting this fakery, perhaps by using a robot with tarps, fish nets, or trash bags - a favorite for watery hoaxers - has decided to take the phrase 'sea serpent' and/or 'worm' too literally.'

According to Coleman, the most recent sighting of a strange creature in Lake Lagarfljót was in 1998, when a teacher and their class of pupils said they saw something close to the shore.

However, they did not describe it as having a 'worm-like' appearance.

Another reason why Coleman believes the footage to be a hoax, is because of the creature's appearance. He said the phrase 'Icelandic Worm Monster' was coined in the 21st Century and comes from a misunderstanding and mistranslation of Lagarfljótsormurinn simply as Lagarfljót worm.

This is instead of the more correct Lagarfljót Würm or Wurm - a phrase which harks back to dragon folklore.

He added: 'The traditional sightings of this lake’s 'monster' - going back to 1345 - are not 'snake-like'... Instead, they describe Lagarfljótsormurinn as having a hump, a long neck, and whiskers, more like a long-necked Waterhorse than a giant snake.'

He said because of the creature's misinterpreted adopted name, hoaxers may mistakenly create it in the shape of a snake which contradicts all other eye witness accounts.

See the video at the link above.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Petition Seeks International Investigation Of Canada's Farmed Fish Operations, Protections For Wild Salmon

From the Underwater Times: Petition Seeks International Investigation Of Canada's Farmed Fish Operations, Protections For Wild Salmon
SAN FRANCISCO, California -- Conservation, fishing and native groups in Canada and the United States filed a formal petition (pdf) today requesting an international investigation into Canada's failure to protect wild salmon in British Columbia from disease and parasites in industrial fish feedlots. The petition was submitted to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation — an environmental side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement — and seeks enforcement of Canada's Fisheries Act.

"The Canadian inquiry into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye, the largest salmon-producing river in the world, suggests the primarily Norwegian-owned British Columbia salmon-farming industry exerts trade pressures that exceed Canada's political will to protect wild salmon," said biologist Alexandra Morton with the Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society. "Releasing viruses into native ecosystems is an irrevocable threat to biodiversity, yet Canada seems to have no mechanism to prevent salmon-farm diseases from afflicting wild salmon throughout the entire North Pacific."

Canada has permitted more than 100 industrial salmon feedlots in British Columbia to operate along wild salmon migration routes, exposing ecologically and economically valuable salmon runs to epidemics of disease, parasites, toxic chemicals and concentrated waste. The petition documents Canada's failure to enforce the Fisheries Act in allowing industrial aquaculture to erode the capacity of ecosystems to support wild salmon. The proliferation of salmon feedlots is linked to dramatic declines in British Columbia's wild salmon populations and the detection of a lethal salmon virus.

"Fish farms in Canada are an unholy marriage between various levels of the Canadian governments and foreign-owned companies," said Chief Bob Chamberlain of the Kwikwasu'tinuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation. "We continue to explore, identify and act upon whatever means possible to rid our traditional territories of open net cage fish farms."

"The Canadian government's disregard for wild salmon stocks in pandering to multinational salmon farming corporations is outrageous," said Zeke Grader, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Salmon feedlots put wild salmon, the communities that depend upon them, a billion-dollar fishing industry, tens of thousands of fishing jobs, and our nations' shared natural heritage at risk of extinction."

"Industrial salmon feedlots function as disease-breeding factories, allowing parasites and diseases to reproduce at unnaturally high rates," said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Marine feedlot waste flows directly, untreated, into contact with wild salmon. Putting feedlots hosting a toxic soup of bacteria, parasites, viruses and sea lice on wild fish migration routes is the height of biological insanity."

When a country signatory to NAFTA fails to enforce its environmental laws, any party may petition for enforcement. Canada's Fisheries Act prohibits harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat or addition of "deleterious substances." The petitioners seek an investigation and finding by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation that Canada is violating its Fisheries Act with regard to industrial aquaculture. Such a finding could lead to international action to force Canada to protect wild salmon, ideally by relocating fish aquaculture into contained tanks on land.

"Applying the Fisheries Act to fish feedlots as it is applied to all other marine users and removing feedlots from salmon migration routes will benefit wild fish and the economy of British Columbia," said Miller. "Moving to contained aquaculture on land will benefit areas starved for employment and clean up the rivers to restore wild salmon runs."

Scientific evidence of harm to wild salmon swimming through B.C. waters from fish feedlots has been mounting, as has public concern that feedlots could spread epidemic diseases. This is a threat that jeopardizes the health of every wild salmon run along the Pacific Coast, since U.S. and Canadian stocks mingle in the ocean and estuaries.

The Canadian petitioners are the Pacific Coast Wild Salmon Society in B.C. and Kwikwasu'tinuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation, a native tribe whose territory off northern Vancouver Island is being used by 27 Norwegian-owned salmon feedlots. The U.S. petitioners are the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the largest trade association of commercial fishers on the west coast, representing family fishing men and women. The University of Denver Environmental Law Clinic helped prepare and submit the petition.

Report: 2011 Shark Attacks Remain Steady, Worldwide Deaths Highest Since 1993; 'Who's Killing Who?'

From the Underwater Times: Report: 2011 Shark Attacks Remain Steady, Worldwide Deaths Highest Since 1993; 'Who's Killing Who?'
GAINSVILLE, Florida -- Shark attacks in the U.S. declined in 2011, but worldwide fatalities reached a two-decade high, according to the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File report released today.

While the U.S. and Florida saw a five-year downturn in the number of reported unprovoked attacks, the 12 fatalities — which all occurred outside the U.S. — may show tourists are venturing to more remote places, said ichthyologist George Burgess, director of the file housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus.

"We had a number of fatalities in essentially out-of the way places, where there's not the same quantity and quality of medical attention readily available," Burgess said. "They also don't have histories of shark attacks in these regions, so there are not contingency plans in effect like there are in places such as Florida."

Seventy-five attacks occurred worldwide, close to the decade average, but the number of fatalities doubled compared with 2010. Fatalities occurred in Australia (3), Reunion (2), the Seychelles (2) and South Africa (2), with one each in Costa Rica, Kenya and New Caledonia. The average global fatality rate for the last decade was just under 7 percent, and it rose to 16 percent last year. Excluding the U.S., which had 29 shark attacks but no deaths, the international fatality rate averaged 25 percent in 2011, Burgess said.

"We've had a decade-long decline in the number of attacks and a continued decline in the fatality rate in the U.S.," Burgess said. "But last year's slight increase in non-U.S. attacks resulted in a higher death rate. One in four people who were attacked outside the U.S. died."

Florida led the U.S. with 11 of its 29 attacks. Other countries with multiple attacks include Australia (11), South Africa (5), Reunion (4), Indonesia (3) Mexico (3), Russia (3), Seychelles (2) and Brazil (2). While the higher number of fatalities worldwide came as a surprise, the drop in the number of U.S. attacks follows a 10-year decline, Burgess said.

"It's more than coincidence that we've had this drop over this last decade," Burgess said. "The fact is, that's a downward trend, and there has to be a cause for that. People might argue there's less sharks, but since the late 1990s, populations have begun a slow recovery. By contrast, the number of attacks in the United States and Florida suggests there's been a reduced use of these waters."

Florida's attacks historically lead the U.S., and as a high aquatic recreation area, especially for surfers, Volusia County leads the state. In 2011, Volusia County again led the state with six attacks, but it was the lowest since 2004 (3).

"It's a good news/bad news situation," Burgess said. "From the U.S. perspective, things have never been better, our attack and fatality rates continue to decline. But if it's a reflection of the downturn in the economy, it might suggest that other areas have made a real push to get into the tourism market."

The next step to reducing the number of fatalities is creating emergency plans for these alternative areas in the future, said Burgess, who has been invited to work on developing a response plan in Reunion Island this spring.

"Ironically, in this very foreign environment that has animals and plants that can do us harm, we often don't seem to exhibit any concern at all, we just jump in," Burgess said.

Surfers were the most affected group, accounting for about 60 percent of unprovoked attacks, largely due to the provocative nature of the activity. Swimmers experienced 35 percent of attacks, followed by divers, with about 5 percent.

"When you're inside the water, there's much less chance of sharks making a mistake because both parties can see each other," Burgess said. "Surfing involves a lot of swimming, kicking and splashing."

Despite the number of deaths being higher than other years, people should remember how much of a threat humans are to sharks, Burgess said. With worldwide over-fishing, especially to meet demands for flesh and fins used in shark fin soup, an expensive Asian delicacy, humans pose a greater threat to elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays) than sharks do to humans.

"We're killing 30 to 70 million sharks per year in fisheries — who's killing who?" Burgess said. "The reality is that the sea is actually a pretty benign environment, or else we'd be measuring injuries in the thousands or millions per year." The 2011 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary may be viewed online at

Monday, February 6, 2012

Smarting Over Cod Shortages, Fishermen Blame Seals

From The New York Times: Smarting Over Cod Shortages, Fishermen Blame Seals
The codfish catch is declining, and nets are coming up empty. What to do? For some, the answer is to kill the marine mammals that compete with humans for fish.

In Canada, where a resurgent population of Atlantic gray seals is being held responsible by fishermen for the failure of cod stocks to bounce back, the fisheries department’s Science Advisory Secretariat last year proposed an experimental cull of 73,000 of the 350,000 gray seals estimated to live on the country’s east coast.

Once valued for their oil, gray seals were nearly wiped out by hunting pressures, and the population has been rebuilding only slowly. There is very little commercial hunting of gray seals because there is almost no market for them, in contrast to baby harp seals, which have been prized for their fur (although that market is drying up).

But the seal’s gradual comeback has coincided with the collapse of what was once one of the world’s great fisheries, the Canadian codfish stock, which has been moribund since 1992. This environmental and commercial calamity cost thousands of people their jobs and decimated fishing communities. Some fishermen — and, conservationists argue, politicians pandering to them — see a zero-sum equation at work: more seals, fewer fish.

The Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, an industry advisory body, puts the case unequivocally: “The overwhelming belief among harvesters is that stocks cannot recover until seal numbers are reduced substantially,” it reported last September.

But Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Canadian branch of Humane Society International, points out that seals and codfish co-existed for millennia. That shows that the problem lies elsewhere, she argues — in overfishing, by catch from other fisheries and damage to cod spawning grounds from offshore oil exploration.

“Truly addressing the real threat to cod stocks and other commercially targeted species would require a much more significant investment than scapegoating the seals,” she said. “There hasn’t been a shred of evidence to suggest killing seals will help restore the cod stocks.”

Scientists protested the proposed cull in an open letter, arguing that cod-seal interactions might have an important role in the ecosystem. The very notion of a “controlled experiment” in which a significant proportion of the seal population would be destroyed “challenges scientific credulity,” they wrote.

For now, the issue is being discussed in the Canadian Senate. The chamber’s Committee on Fisheries and Oceans says it will examine the state of the gray seal population, the potential impacts the seals could have on fish stocks, the proposed “targeted management of gray seals” and “markets and new product development.”

In regard to that final point: a cull – presumably subsidized by Canadian taxpayers – would give a boost to the country’s ailing sealers, who have been shut out of the European and Russian markets and are running out of places to sell seal products.

But Canada is hardly the only place where a seal can feel unloved. In Scotland, the Seal Action Protection Group estimates that 5,000 seals are being killed each year by salmon farmers and fishermen.

The Scottish government allows such killings for the purpose of “preventing serious damage to fisheries or fish farms” as well as for scientific research and conservation purposes. The cull is necessary, the government says, because with 186,000 grey seals and 19,800 common seals competing for resources, some management of the population is necessary.

According to The Herald newspaper in Glasgow, 65 licenses have been granted for seal killings this year, with 1,298 of the animals already killed.

A marine biologist and whale-watching operator, David Ainsley, was quoted as saying that fish farms shoot seals “not as a last resort but simply because killing is the cheapest solution,” even though harmless alternative means of deterring the salmon-snatchers exist.

All of which helps put into perspective the recent news that sea lions and harbor seals have been turning up dead in Puget Sound and along the Washington State coast recently.

Brian Gorman, a spokesman with the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s Fisheries Service in Seattle, offers an explanation for why the sea lions and harbor seals are so easily targeted. “They’re not warm and cuddly,” he told The Associated Press. “These are big guys. They’re stinky. They’re carnivores, and they’re doing what they do best — they’re hunting for fish.”

Scottish Seal Killings Can And Must End Say Campaigners; 'Indelible Stain'

From Underwater Times: Scottish Seal Killings Can And Must End Say Campaigners; 'Indelible Stain'
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LEWES, East Sussex -- The Scottish Government has just reported that a total of 362 seals were shot in the first nine months of 2011 under its new 'Seal Licence' scheme, introduced at the beginning of the year. In 2012, 58 licenses have been issued to shoot a maximum of 1,100 seals.

Last year, 68 licenses were issued to kill a maximum of 1,298 seals. The figures released reveal that a total of 295 grey and 67 common seals were shot in the first nine months of last year. The campaigners predict, when the last quarter figures are made available, around 500 seals will have been shot in 2011, less than half of the government's limit and representing a reduction in seal killings of over 85% or more on historic levels.

The Seal Protection Action Group (SPAG) estimates that between 3,500-5,000 seals were shot in Scottish waters each year before the new scheme was introduced and has welcomed the 'massive reduction' in seal killings based on these estimates. However, the campaigners warn that much more needs to be done in order to end these 'totally unacceptable' seal killings' altogether.

Today, SPAG Director Andy Ottaway said, "The Scottish Government's scheme has had a huge impact, but it does require that any seal shootings are a last resort measure. Unfortunately, if 500 'last resort' shootings have taken place in the first year of the scheme it strongly suggests that some people are simply not trying hard enough to stop them."

SPAG is working with a leading producer and retailer of Scottish salmon products, along with the RSPCA, International Animal Rescue and scientists from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrew's University to end all seal killings. The Salmon Aquaculture and Seals Working Group was formed in September 2010 to find non-lethal solutions to seal predation on salmon farms and other sites. Options include using correctly tensioned nets and developing new acoustic and other deterrent devices that do not harm seals or other wildlife such as dolphins and porpoises. "We aim to end all seal killings and the Scottish Government's licensing scheme is a mechanism to help us reduce them" said Ottaway, "But we do know it is perfectly possible to deter seals and other wild predators without harming them. The Scottish Government and Scottish Salmon and fisheries industry can and must do more to end these seal killings which leave an indelible stain on the international image of Scotland, Scottish Salmon and other seafood products."

Harper to promote seal products on China trip

From the Globe and Mail: Harper to promote seal products on China trip
In a bid to resurrect Canada’s flailing sealing industry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make seal product exports a priority on his trip to China next week.

The Conservatives have been pushing to open the Chinese market for more than two years, but little materialized from a tentative deal that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced in early 2011.

“Our government will continue to vigorously defend this humane and highly regulated industry and to seek new international markets for Canadian seal products, including China,” Mr. Harper said in a statement released on Thursday.

Although the sealing industry is a small fraction of Canada’s fishing industry on the Atlantic coast, the annual hunt is a hot political topic in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the Conservatives hold many seats and most of the country’s 11,000 registered seal hunters live.

Russia used to be Canada’s largest buyer of seal items, but banned the import of harp seal pelts two months ago, and the European Union has had a ban in effect since 2010. Animal activists say these two bans ring the death knell of the East Coast’s commercial seal hunt.

Many Canadian sealers seem to have given up hope since the bans went into effect. Last year, some 37,000 harp seals were killed, only 10 per cent of the total allowed catch set by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“Of course, if China opens up, that will be a big deal for us,” said Bernard Guimont, president of Ta Ma Su Seal Products factory based in Quebec’s Magdalen Islands. “But the revenue of many fishermen is drastically down. It’s a real tragedy, especially because the hunt is sustainable and humane.”

China showed signs of warming up to Canadian seal products in January, 2011. Gail Shea, then federal fisheries minister, made several trips to Beijing and trumpeted a new deal with China as a “great potential for the Canadian seal industry.” The final agreement was never inked and China has been stalling for more than a year as it undertakes a review.

While Canadian officials still say there is a “significant demand for seal products in China,” the Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not clarify the reasons for the holdup.

Meanwhile, Mr. Harper and his ministers publicly backed the annual Canadian seal hunt on Thursday by sporting furry seal ribbons on their lapels.

“The Conservative government is holding yet another photo op instead of being upfront about the end of the commercial seal hunt,” Senator Mac Harb said in a press release. “The government must tell sealers the truth. The market is dead.”

The commercial value of the seal catch dropped to $745,000 last year from $1.3-million in 2010. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimates the population of grey seals is healthy and abundant at 8 million, one of the highest levels recorded since the 1950s.

“If the government really cared, they would help the sealers transition away from sealing and bring in licence buybacks,” said Sheryl Fink, director of the seal program at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Study Finds Southern Indian Ocean Humpbacks Singing Different Tunes

From Underwater Times: Study Finds Southern Indian Ocean Humpbacks Singing Different Tunes
NEW YORK, New York -- A recently published study by the Wildlife Conservation Society and others reveals that humpback whales on both sides of the southern Indian Ocean are singing different tunes, unusual since humpbacks in the same ocean basin usually all sing very similar songs.

The results of the study—conducted by researchers from WCS, Columbia University, and Australia —contradict previous humpback whale song comparisons. Generally, when song from populations in the same ocean basins are compared, researchers find that the songs contain similar parts or "themes." The differences in song between the Indian Ocean humpback populations most likely indicate a limited exchange between the two regions and may shed new light on how whale culture spreads.

The paper appears in the January edition of Marine Mammal Science and is available on the journal's website. The authors of the study include: Anita Murray, formerly of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Columbia University ; Salvatore Cerchio, Yvette Razafindrakoto, and Howard Rosenbaum of the Wildlife Conservation Society; Robert McCauley of Curtin University, Perth, Australia; Curt S. Jenner of the Centre for Whale Research, Fremantle, Australia; Douglas Coughran of the Department of Environment and Conservation, Perth, Australia; and Shannon McKay of the School of Life and Environmental Science, Warrnambool, Australia.

"In the Northern Hemisphere, within an ocean basin whales sing songs that are composed of the same themes. However, whales in the southern Indian Ocean are singing almost completely different songs. Songs from Madagascar and Western Australia only shared one similar theme, the rest of the themes were completely different," said lead author Anita Murray, who conducted the research while a graduate student at Columbia University and the Wildlife Conservation Society and is currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of Queensland in Australia. "The reason for this anomaly remains a mystery. It could be the influence of singing whales from other ocean basins, such as the South Pacific or Atlantic, indicating an exchange of individuals between oceans which is unique to the Southern Hemisphere."

The songs of humpback whales are generally sung by male individuals on a population's winter breeding grounds, migratory routes, and summer feeding grounds. The songs themselves are complex arrangements of parts or "themes," consisting of ascending and descending wails, moans, and shrieks that are repeated in cycles lasting up to 30 minutes. The transmission of songs between individuals from different populations is likely to occur on feeding grounds or during migration when whales from different populations mix. Or, transmission of song may occur when individual male "troubadours" travel to different breeding grounds between breeding seasons or possibly during the same breeding season.

The research team made recordings of humpback whale songs in two locations in coastal Madagascar and three locations along Western Australia during the 2006 breeding season. Research teams in both regions used hydrophones to record the songs of 19 individual whales. Overall, the authors captured more than 20 hours of whole and partial songs for visual and audio analysis. The comparison revealed few similarities between songs; of the eleven themes recorded in both regions, only one theme was shared by both populations.

Due to the limited duration of the study (only one breeding season), researchers point out that continued analysis of songs in Madagascar and Australia are needed to examine the reasons for the limited similarity in repertoire.

Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of WCS's Ocean Giants Program said: "These song comparisons complement our findings based on other methods, such as those from genetic analysis, to understand how whale populations interact with one another." WCS conservationist Salvatore Cerchio added: "We have glimpsed here a snapshot of differences in repertoire between humpback whale populations of the Indian Ocean during a single season. Continued monitoring of these songs can provide us with valuable information on how whale songs are exchanged and how those channels of cultural transmission can be protected in the future."

WCS has been involved in research on humpback whales since the 1960s, when researchers from the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society) discovered that the vocalizations of humpback whales are, in fact, songs, defined as a series of themes that are repeated in cycles. For the past decade, WCS's Ocean Giants Program has conducted an extensive molecular analysis of humpback whale populations in the southern Atlantic and Indian oceans in an attempt to better define discrete populations.

The humpback whale is a baleen whale that grows up to approximately 50 feet in length. The species has distinctively long pectoral fins and a head with knobs on the top and lower jaw. The slow-swimming species was hunted commercially until the International Whaling Commission protected the species globally in 1966. Current estimates for humpback whale numbers are widely debated. While they are recovering, total population sizes may represent only a small percentage of the original global population.

State backs off plan to fine fisherman for 2-ounce oil spill

The Seattle Times: State backs off plan to fine fisherman for 2-ounce oil spill
The state Department of Ecology has backed off its plans to fine a local salmon fisherman for a 2-ounce oil spill.

The state announced Thursday it is issuing a warning but no penalties to Pete Knutson, whose boat Njord leaked an estimated quarter-cup of hydraulic oil into Shilshole marina in November.

Knutson went public this week with the story, calling it overkill that both the federal and state governments were spending time and money investigating such a tiny leak of oil.

Though all spills are illegal, no matter how small, records show the state typically assesses fines when spill amounts are in the gallons, or when clear negligence is shown.

A number of readers responded to my Wednesday column by calculating that if Knutson were to be fined at a per-gallon rate comparable to other recent spills, he would owe the state only about 25 cents.

"We believe that this warning letter is the most appropriate action for this particular incident," the Ecology Department wrote Knutson on Thursday, closing its case.

Knutson still faces a $250 fine from the Coast Guard.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Underwater oil rig 'factories' planned to beat catastrophic Arctic ice storms

From Daily Mail online: Underwater oil rig 'factories' planned to beat catastrophic Arctic ice storms
Oil companies are planning to create huge factories on the sea bed of the Arctic ocean in a bid to prevent extreme weather conditions from hampering their work.

The giant underwater oil and gas plants will contain all the machinery needed to extract fossil fuels from beneath the waves.

It is hoped the rigs would be serviced by a fleet of manned submarines.

According to The Sunday Times, although oil companies already have some of their machinery underwater, the aim now is to move all of it to the seabed.

The plans, however, are likely to prove controversial with environmental campaigners who would be concerned of an underwater disaster, such as an oil spill.

The idea behind the seabed rigs is to protect them from ice and storms which batter the Arctic.

This includes seas which freeze in winter and icebergs which can completely destroy a ship or a rig.

One of the drawbacks would be that servicing of the factories would still need to be carried out by ships - which would also be hampered by the poor weather conditions.

Now plans have emerged to use submarines instead which would be 130ft long and able to descend to depths of 1,500ft.

They would be able to operate beneath the ice and during storms for weeks on end and would carry between 10 and 14 people.

The plans for the special submarine were unveiled at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Norway, last week.

Tor Berg, who is a principal research engineer at the Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute in Trondheim, is designing the vessel.

He told The Sunday Times: 'The Arctic has enormous fossil fuel reserves but there are huge problems in getting the oil and gas out safely.

'A submarine can work under the ice and storms for weeks at a time making sure that these installations are installed properly and work safely.'

It is thought the submarine could help exploit the Barents Sea, which is home to huge untapped gas and oil reserves.

This has resulted in the Norwegian state oil firm Statoil showing an interest in the new vessels.

The firm already has about 500 wells which are fixed to the seabed.

The equipment is connected to land by electrical cables and pipes, which take the oil and gas to the shoreline.

Problems arise, however, when there are difficulties with the machinery.

Remote-controlled unmanned submarines are normally sent out but when the weather conditions are poor, they are unable to operate.

This can result in enormous extra costs for oil companies.

Bjornar Svenning, a research engineer working on the project, said: 'Such severe conditions can make it impossible to operate conventional oil-drilling equipment, what's more, when they do operate, the risk of a disaster, perhaps resulting in a oil spillage, are sharply increased.'

But the team behind the plans say a submarine could operate for weeks underwater without suffering similar problems.

The US Geological Survey says the Arctic contains oil equivalent to at least 13 per cent of the world's known reserves.

For gas, this is believed to be about 30 per cent.

Josh Bazell: The Loch Ness hoax

From the National Post: Josh Bazell: The Loch Ness hoax
osh Bazell is the author of Beat the Reaper, which was one of Time’s top 10 novels of 2009 and has been translated into 32 languages. His new book is called Wild Thing. Bazell will be guest editing The Afterword all this week.

As far as I know, the first person to definitively lay bare the Loch Ness monster hoax was Ronald Binns, in The Loch Ness Mystery: Solved (Open Books, 1983). Additional particulars and confessions have come out since, but none that contradict Binns’ research or surmises. Which, essentially, suggest the following story:

On 27 August 1930, the Inverness-area Northern Chronicle published a report that three unidentified anglers had seen a fish wriggling toward them that was so big it could be seen from 600 feet away. The report also quoted a fourth unidentified witness as claiming to have seen a creature “some years ago” that was “like an upturned angling boat and quite as big.” The report concluded with a solicitation for further information.

Sure enough, the following issue of the Chronicle ran three anonymous letters from people who also claimed to have seen the creature, one of them using the word “monster” for the first time in regard to it. However, a barrage of subsequent letters offering alternative and more rational explanations (seals, schools of salmon, etc.) quickly snuffed out public interest.

Binns provides compelling evidence that the author of both the report and the three letters (all of which are similarly worded) was a man named Alex Campbell, who at the time was both the water bailiff of Loch Ness and the Fort Augustus (a town on Loch Ness) correspondent for the Inverness Courier and the Northern Chronicle. Campbell himself admitted on numerous occasions to having been the first person to use the word “monster” in conjunction with the loch. Binns also argues — successfully, to my mind — that Campbell tried again, with more urgency, perserverance, and success, three years later.

The opening salvo of the second attempt was an anonymously-written article in the Inverness Courier (2 May 1933) entitled “Strange Spectacle on Loch Ness,” which began “Loch Ness has for generations been credited with being the home of a fearsome-looking monster.” The article went on to describe the sighting two weeks earlier by “a well-known businessman, who lives in Inverness, and his wife (a University graduate), while motoring along the north shore of the loch,” in which the couple witnessed a “creature [that] disported itself, rolling and plunging for a full minute, its body resembling that of a whale,” and realized “that here was no ordinary denizen of the depths, because, apart from its enormous size, the beast, in taking the final plunge, sent out waves that were big enough to have been caused by a passing steamer.” Later the piece noted that “It will be remembered that a few years ago, a party of Inverness anglers reported that when crossing the loch in a rowing boat, they encountered an unknown creature … But the story, which duly appeared in the press, received scant attention and less credence.”

One reason for the UNHOAX (unknown hoaxer, likely Campbell) to have expected a better reception this time around is that in the intervening years he’d grown much more sophisticated. His representation of a single source (himself) as multiple sources is newly complex, spread now across separate events and newspapers, although Campbell was writing for both papers at both times. Furthermore, the UNHOAX seems to have learned the value of attaching his claims to a strand, at least, of truth. There actually had been a reported sighting in the loch on the date given by the article: Mrs. John Mackay of Drumnadrochit, while her husband was driving and saw nothing, witnessed what she said several months later revealed reminded her of “two ducks fighting.” Both of the Mackays were friends of Alex Campbell’s.

More significant is the much stronger claim the 1933 UNHOAX makes for the monster’s historical pedigree. False back story is often the means by which hoaxes achieve their greatest power. To say that the world will end in 2012 makes you look like an idiot. To say that the world will end in 2012 because the Mayans predicted it makes you look like a slightly different idiot. A rebuttal letter to the UNHOAX’s new report in the Courier, from John Macdonald, a well-respected steamer captain on the loch, takes specific issue with the technique:

In the first place, it is news to me to learn, as your correspondent states, that ‘for generations the Loch has been credited with being the home of a fearsome monster,’ as I have sailed on Loch Ness for fifty years, and during that time I have made no fewer than 20,000 trips up and down Loch Ness. During that half century of almost daily intercourse with Loch Ness I have never seen such a ‘monster’ as described by your correspondent. [Although the phrase “almost daily intercourse with Loch Ness” sounds like the title of a Viriginia Wade novel, a more likely title is simply Something Down There.]

The Captain Macdonald letter not withistanding, this time the UNHOAX wasn’t about to let mere mockery and local expertise prevent the creation of a monster myth. On 4 August 1933 the Courier, while editorially expressing the opinion that the animal under discussion was probably a large otter, published a letter from a “Mr. Spicer” describing how Spicer, while adjacent to the loch, “saw the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life. It crossed the road about fifty yards ahead and appeared to be carrying a small lamb or animal of some kind.” The following day four separate people — two young women who worked at the Abbey in Fort Augustus, a retired commander in the Engineering Branch of the Royal Navy, and the retired commander’s wife — reported seeing the monster. On 5 August Campbell wrote in the Courier that “Many people in the district now think that the ‘monster’ is certainly a prehistoric creature, and that there may be a great deal more truth in ‘the water-kelpie’ legend than the great majority of the public realize.’” The retired commander and his wife were Campbell’s neighbors.

Past that point the number of sightings increased steadily. On 11 August the Courier was able to report a sighting by someone who wasn’t even from Scotland, let alone Fort Augustus, but from Stafford in England. On 17 October the national newspaper the Scotsman sent a reporter to interview Alex Campbell — who, though anonymously, claimed for the first time to have seen the monster himself. The Scotsman’s investigator afterward gave a credulous interview to BBC Radio, attracting the attention of, among other people, Lieutenant Commander Rupert Gould, author of Oddities (1928), Enigmas (1929) and The Case for the Sea-Serpent (1930), and himself a regular guest on the BBC. In November Hugh Gray took a photograph that, while it doesn’t look much like a lake monster, doesn’t look much like anything else, either. In December Gray’s photo was published in newspapers around the world, and within a year Ealing Studios had released the first feature film about the monster, The Secret of the Loch. Alex Campbell’s story was flying on its own.

One of the mysteries it left behind, however, was what Campbell’s motives were for starting the hoax in the first place. In my next two columns I’ll examine them.