Monday, January 31, 2011

Sound the Bluefin Alarm

A great piece about heating up efforts to protect the bluefin tuna by Marc Rumminger recently appeared in Grist. As noted in previous posts, bluefin tuna is on the brink. As Rumminger says, it's time to sound the bluefin alarm.

The would-be protectors, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, seem to be chasing dollars or deaf or ignorant as they recently failed to do anything about it.

Grist notes key ways to do more than simply get mad or sad, which are summed up below. 

Participate in the Center of Biological Diversity's bluefin boycott.  Sign their pledge and Use their toolbox

Get the fish listed as endangered. How to do that?

Send a note to Kim at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Ask for endangered status and ask for spawning sanctuaries in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Here's her addresses:

Kimberly Damon-Randall, Endangered Species Coordinator
Office of Protected Resources
NMFS, Northeast Regional Office
55 Great Republic Drive
Gloucester, MA 01930

Write to members of Congress, especially those from New England and members of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee.

Think twice about eating at any Nobu restaurants. Hear why from  Greenpeace.

Ask chefs and others to also boycott bluefin (part of the Center's toolbox). If they ask why say whatever you want of course but saying 'I care about sustainable seafood' is fairly succinct.

Lobby for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to step in and do the right thing. Shame them for failing to do so recently.

Remind people that this apex predator is not safe from extinction. The Japanese consume 80% of the bluefin and they're not stopping. They are the highest bidder for the next fish and the next fish and will surely be bidding for the LAST FISH.

Read the full and comprehensive story here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Turtle Time at the Flower Refuge Part 4

Eco ocean recently visited Nicaragua and enjoyed some inspiring interaction with the local marine fauna. This is Part 4 of 4. Part Three

The moon is full and the beach is bathed in white light. It is wide and long, easily a twenty minute walk from one end to the other. A light breeze has the feint taste of brine.

Book ended by dark volcanic cliffs, a very mellow surf drifts ashore in a clear sheet of water. Farther out, the water is dark and silvery. The serene scene is so subtle with beauty it could be a dream. Everyone grows quiet in deference to the temple.

The glory begins almost immediately. Our guide finds a nest on the cappuccino sand where hatchling turtles are already emerging and heading in a disorganized crowd toward the surf. If turtles could waddle, they are waddling. It is certainly not walking, more like ‘swimming’ on sand.

I’m shocked, though, to see our guide plunge her hands into the soft sand around the emerging turtles. She’s pulling and digging out turtles like prizes out of a Cracker Jack box. I thought we were not supposed to touch the turtles, and that this would be a take-only-pictures and leave-only-footprints kind of wildlife experience.

But I guess she is a kind of a turtle midwife. I figure she is not hurting them, and the turtles in general need all the help they can get. Once she extracts them from the nest, she places them on the sand with their heads pointed toward the water. They start waddling toward it straight away.

A few guards wander the beach too, with their rifles at their sides. One guard has to be asked by our guide to turn off his powerful white flashlight as it clearly starts attracting a clutch of turtles away from the water. She chastises him slightly and spins the few temporarily confused turtles 180 degrees so that they are now facing the water. Off they go.

Soon our group breaks into smaller groups as we wander the beach shining our red lights here and there on the sand. There are no indentations and few obvious markers of nests.

There are occasional whole areas that look like small black pebbles scattered on the sand. On much closer inspection they are scarab-like beetles feasting on the egg shells left behind by the hatched turtles. There is no waste in nature. The slow movement of the bugs on the sand in the half light is nevertheless somewhat grotesque and sinister.

Off from the crowd, my little red light and I find something near where the placid La Flor River quietly washes into the bay. The earth smells heavy with nutrients.

There’s barely an indentation in the flat swath of playa, but what’s that? Something dark there, looks like a seed or burnt wood chip. I look closer and it is a head, bird-like, and no bigger than a thimble. A few grains of sand stick to it, one near its black reptilian eye. It is the only thing above the surface poking out. It does not really look alive.

Then it moves, and then a flipper starts to push through nearby. More heads, more flippers, a back – an oval shell with scalloped, primeval ridges.

The excitement overcomes me. I am giddy. This is life unfolding before my eyes. Driven by a powerful force we cannot see or touch; a precarious promise to the energy that binds us all together.

The turtles emerge in a scrum-like scramble. They push and climb on each other. I decide not to touch them at all, and let them slowly struggle out. Maybe it is important for them to do this on their own, toughen them up a little because it is not going to get any easier.

An unruly line forms mostly aimed to the sea. I am surprised but okay with not seeing any birds swooping in and snatching the hatchlings. 

I choose one turtle and decide to accompany it all the way on its journey from sandy bunker to water. It moves with great effort across the sand using flippers made for the seas. It takes two “steps”, pauses, then two more. It repeats this over and over and slowly makes progress. Turtle time.

When the turtle reaches the wet, pavement-like sand at the water’s edge, the turtle is on the brink. The next wave reaches for the turtle but it is still too far away. The turtle moves forward. My big white feet look incongruous next to the dark creature making its way. The water is warm but not too warm.

I gaze at the dark and shimmering water and wonder how many hungry predators are circling the depths. In my peripheral I notice our guide is standing near me. Most of the tour group is sitting on the upper beach and they are ready to go. She has come to fetch me but she says nothing. She lets me savor turtle time.

The next wave finally glides over the turtle with barely any force but enough to push the turtle back. It has come this far and is not about to give up. It straightens itself and paddles on the sand to regain the lost ground.

Another wave comes and the turtle's flippers flutter rapidly doing what they were designed to do. The turtle is swimming.  Another wave comes and the turtle is gone, on its way. I feel like cheering aloud but do not want to break the trance.

With me as the straggler, the group makes its way back up through the palm tree grove and past the guard house. We climb back onto the makeshift bus with a fresh outlook. People are talking and laughing now. I thought someone might pass around a bottle of Flor de Cana and we’d all break into some boisterous song about Tortuga. The full moon gaily follows us home.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Turtle Time at the Flower Refuge Part 3

Eco ocean recently visited Nicaragua and enjoyed some inspiring interaction with the local marine fauna. This is Part 3 of 4. Part Two.

The tour group made the move for the border after the lecture. Well, almost the border. Costa Rica is a swim away across the Bahia de Salinas from Nicaragua's La Flor beach. The trip to the La Flor refuge is a butt bouncing, one hour ride down a Nicaraguan road that’s more pothole and dust than road. It is also a river in two places where a substantial and swift flow of dark water pours out of the dense growth. We slowed considerably there, and crossed it with care.

Our bus is also not really a bus. It’s a green truck with a long flatbed behind the cab and one row of seats like a spine down the middle of the bed. People sit back to back and squeezed next to each other side by side on one long wooden bench covered with a thin cushion. We climbed aboard quietly and rarely spoke as the truck motored through the forest.

I was sure to sit on the side facing the ocean as we drove along the coast -- forested volcanic slopes on one side, ocean on the other. The goal was to catch a view of the ocean along the way but mostly it was just trees and more broad leafed brush obscuring the view of water. However, I was rewarded with the occasional glimpse. The forest thinned out at Coco Beach to reveal spare palm trees here and there on a bright sand beach as white as coconut flakes shining in the moonlight, licked by the reach of calm surf.

We arrived at the Flower Refuge dusty and ready to get off the truck. Like most things in Central America, the refuge starts with armed soldiers. In Nicaragua, it is rifles toted by short guys in blue camouflage jumpsuits. I am glad the turtles get such protection but I wonder what the soldiers think of this duty.

Is it machismo enough for them to guard turtles or is it ripe for ridicule by other soldiers who guard places like airports and banks? Are the refuge soldiers themselves necessarily turtle lovers? Maybe it is sweet duty -- hang out on a gorgeous beach, shoo the occasional poacher, and check out the blond tourists.

The guards greet us at the entrance to the refuge and we walk up to the guard house. The beach is just through a thin grove of palms.

We sign in, pay a small fee, and line up for the hand held red lights we will use to observe the turtles without disorientating them. When they hatch, turtles head toward the brightest spot, which without human lights, is the stars over the water.

On the cement block porch of the guard house, there are two rows of white, heavy duty canvas bags filled with sand, and a large plastic basket frenetic with live, apparently just-hatched turtles.

Our guide, a petite local with an endearing accent and a jet black ponytail, hands out the red lights. She sports an official bright green Tortuga Refuge windbreaker. We are to follow her lead.

She calls the infant turtles “babies”, and I don’t think I’ll follow her lead on that one. We were told to refrain from touching the turtles but she clearly is touching them from the get go starting with the turtles in the large plastic basket. She pulls one out and pets it and offers it for other people in the group to pet.

I ask about the large sandbags on the porch. As I suspected, they’re nests, apparently of the rarer leather backs that also lay eggs on this same beach. Since they are close to extinction, their nests are dug up and they hatch in the safer, very makeshift lab.

Our guide picks up the plastic basket of turtles and tells us to follow her. We all make our way to the beach single file, various red lights flashing and blinking here and there. For a moment I am disappointed and smell a classic tourist trap. We’re not going to see turtles hatching from a wild, untouched beach nest, I’m thinking. We’re going to simply release this active crowd of just-hatched babies on the beach.

Happily, I quickly find that I’m wrong.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Turtle Time at the Flower Refuge Part 2

Eco ocean recently visited Nicaragua and enjoyed some inspiring interaction with the local marine fauna. This is Part 2 of 4. Part One

Contemplating turtles, I arrived at the Hostel and the lobby was filled with people from other countries wearing shorts, t shirts, and some kind of sport sandal.  Canadians and people from Nordic countries seemed to dominate, rounded out by a few Germans and Americans. One couple from Iceland seemed unusually excited, probably because they’re not in Iceland in December.

Our earnest lecturer who looked like any of the tourists, pointed out that one in 1,000 turtles live to see adulthood. The ridiculously poor odds start with a gauntlet of predators. Hungry birds, fish, small mammals, and the most devastating predator of all: Humans, of course.  Human poachers like to reach in and steal eggs almost as soon as they are laid by the large, docile females. Turtle egg soup is a delicacy and for some, a staple.

If infant turtles avoid being made into soup, if they make it out of the egg and off the beach, they go out into the sea as big as a man’s palm and return years later the size of a large truck tire to lay eggs on the same beach they were hatched. Apparently, they find their way using Earth’s magnetic fields.

While swimming thousands of miles to make it back to the beach, they need to survive an obstacle course of human hazards. With luck or pluck they escape trawlers raking the bottom of the ocean with massive nets and iron gear, they slip through turtle excluder devices built into other giant nets, and avoid taking the bait and then drowning on long lines suspended in the middle of the ocean strung with thousands of hooks. They also persevere through pollution and manage not to choke on plastic trash. I begin to see turtles as the epitome of improbabilities. Superstars, really.

Our lecturer still hedged on whether or not we would actually see any turtles on this night. An American guy blurted out the direct question in front of everyone, asking if we would definitely see turtles, even though before we even paid for this trip they gave us a firm and consistent “maybe” or “quizas”. 

It is the tail end of the turtle season so chances are slim. Like many things natural, when turtles lay eggs or hatch, it is not exactly clockwork although it is rhythmic for sure. It is the realm of tides and seasons and moon cycles, not hours and minutes.

It’s one thing to travel to a sleepy republic like Nicaragua and successfully derail yourself from the urban train of doing, doing, doing, so common up North. It’s another thing altogether – further in the right direction – to find that lovely, natural pace.  Turtle time, I started calling it. I doubt anyone in the group was running on turtle time but good for them if they were. For me, I’m lucky if I can find the patience to wait an extra twenty seconds for the waiter to get my bill.

Turtle time starts when the female Olive Ridley struggles ashore with her flippers, pushing her large green-grey carapace across the sand. She painstakingly, one flipper scoop of sand at a time, digs a deep hole, about two feet into the earth. Finally, she lays her glistening eggs on the bottom like a layer of very large pearls. Then she buries them.

So before they even see the night, breathe the night air, find the ocean, dodge the hungry beasts, they must dig their way out of a hole. With the tiny turtles about four inches in length, it’s probably akin to a six foot person climbing out of a thirty six foot deep pit of sand after being buried in it, although I did no real math to come up with that comparison.

Mom of course is long gone when the infant turtles emerge. She laid the eggs forty or so days ago and left that same morning. They’re on their own and have too much to do to have Mommy issues. When you stack up all the improbabilities it’s hard not to cheer on this underdog of underdogs.

Read more about the refuge.  

Monday, January 24, 2011

Turtle Time at the Flower Refuge Part 1

Eco ocean recently visited Nicaragua and enjoyed some inspiring interaction with the local marine fauna. This is Part 1 of 4. 

I finished up a glass of La Flor de Cana or the Cane Flower, neat, and walked the sandy road to the Hostel with the tall wood doors. I’ve been drinking the smooth as silk Nicaraguan rum in crumbling colonial cities and coastal towns throughout the country. It comes dark and light in various ages. The fancier places have fifteen and twenty year old aged Flor de Cana. Yet everyone from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast has tasted the seven year old at least once it seems.

Earlier, I paid five hundred Cordobas, about twenty five dollars, and signed up for a sea turtle tour that started well after sundown. It did not escape me that the Cordoba was a Chrysler model from the late seventies sporting a huge engine block, plush maroon Corinthian leather seats, and rims that would make any pimp do a double take.

Ricardo Montalban of Fantasy Island fame hawked these monsters in TV commercials as his career waned. I can hear him, his faux high-brow Spanish accent “fine Corinthian leather” as easily as I can hear “welcome to Fantasy Island”. I’ll bet Corinthian leather was something completely fabricated in a marketing meeting. On my walk over to the hostel, I wondered if Ricardo could grant my fantasy to see some sea turtles this evening.

The five hundred Cordoba payment only guarantees that I might see turtles. It does get me a guide, shared with a group of about twenty, a lecture of sorts about the turtles complete with an educational video, and probably most important, a ride to the Refugio de Vida Silvestra La Flor, often just called the Flower Refuge.

It would appear the theme is flowers but it really has to be sea turtles or Tortuga, because the spirit of the Tortuga thrives in Nicaragua. Stylized imagery of the turtles are ever present throughout the country -- in colorful silk-screens, on postcards, painted on walls, fashioned in ceramics, dazzling in mosaics, and swimming in ironwork on a front door gate.

Some of the largest nesting sites in the world fall on Nicaragua’s beaches, places where thousands of turtles come ashore in one night.  The rarest turtles like leatherback and hawksbill swim in the waters lining both sides of the country. Up the largely undeveloped Caribbean or Mosquito Coast, near places like Pearl Lagoon and Orinoco, Garifuna people still actively fish for and eat the turtles. Unfortunately, that way of life is unsustainable.

That’s why the Wildlife Conservation Society has outposts in these remote Caribbean areas. These locations are far from where the society is based in the Bronx, New York City. All the sea turtles there were chased out or killed, quickly or slowly, over two hundred years ago.

From their small field offices in Nicaragua, WCS scientists try to teach people that taking large adult turtles from the fishery at a pace faster than they can reproduce means eventually they will all disappear. Hopefully, the word is getting out.

Apparently, the WCS program to trade fishermen a new life jacket for fifteen live sea turtles is working.  Still, turtles need more lifesaving. Live, wild turtles are not only ancient and beautiful beasts, but they are also an integral part of the Nicaraguan identify as well the marine ecosystem, and a huge tourism draw.

Read more about the refuge.

Friday, January 21, 2011

There's a Shark in Your Lap

Do They Snore?
Who knew there was a Women Divers Hall of Fame? Cristina Zenato of the Bahamas did, and she was just inducted into it. Congrats, Cristina. And from the looks of the photo here by Victor Douieb, Cristina is not only a great diver but also some kind of amazing shark tamer or underwater Dr Doolittle. It looks like the sharks are resting their heads on her lap like house cats.

According to the Bahama Weekly, "some would say Cristina has a natural ‘gift’ with Sharks. Practicing a little known technique of rubbing and manipulating her fingers across the ampullae of Lorenzini, the visible dots [electro-receptive sensory organs] all around a shark’s head and face, she induces a tonic immobility. To the observer, this looks like a shark falling asleep right in her lap."

Read all about Cristina's achievements here in the Bahamas Weekly. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Surprise Reef Support

Hope springs eternal, well not exactly, but it is refreshing that new coral reefs have been discovered in deep water off of Puerto Rico. The new reefs may be able to help nearby shallow water reefs already depleted and degraded by the usual litany of habitat loss, pollution, and overfishing.

According to a story on Associated Press International, "'the reef's existence means that struggling, shallow ecosystems in the U.S. Caribbean territory may have a better-than-believed chance at survival, because fish species thriving at a deeper level can help replenish stocks in more shallow reefs,' said Richard Appeldoorn, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, and Ernesto Diaz, director of Puerto Rico's Coastal Zone Management Program."

The full story here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More Ugliness for Shark Finning

Shark finning is ugly on so many levels and here's one more.  A gang attacked a man for taking pictures of shark fins drying on a Costa Rican dock.

Shark finning is plain wrong. The thugs in this story know that. Why else would they attack a cameraman?

The good news is that in Costa Rica, the same place where the attack occurred, a new law says fisherman must bring back the whole fish, not just the fins.

Culling the ocean of millions of sharks for soup is the poster child for abuse of the natural world.

Story here in Tico Times about the attack.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Balance People

Balance. Nature is all about balance. Except maybe human nature.

Coral reefs are disappearing as sea urchins run rampant over the reefs since people removed most of the fish that eat the sea urchins, according to a eighteen year study of Kenya's tropical reefs by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of California Santa Cruz. The tragedy of the commons strikes again

Full story here from UPI.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Marine Protected Areas Need More Science

People concerned about oceans should check their expectations of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) , according to scientists in Scientists say there is not have enough data on whether or not MPA accomplish everything we hope they do.

No one says marine lovers should not support MPA, just hold off on giving them panacea status for now. It's good food for thought. After all, we would not want to assume something blue is protected and when in fact it is not. 

According to the story, "Tundi Agardy, an environmental consultant based in Colrain, Massachusetts, is the lead author of a paper published in Marine Policy, which warns of a "blind faith" in the ability of MPAs to stem biodiversity loss. She told Nature that she can name only "a handful" of areas that actually work as advertised. Her paper identifies five possible shortcomings in MPAs: many are too small to be effective; they may simply drive fishing into other areas; they create an illusion of protection when none is actually occurring; many are poorly planned or managed; and they can fail all too easily because of environmental degradation of waters just outside the protected area." 

Read the full story here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Big Red and the Walking Shark

Top ten new species according to the BBC includes this gooey floater. It's called a Big Red Jellyfish (Tiburonia granrojo) and it spans over three feet.

Big Red was discovered about a mile and a half under the surface in the inky darkness of the Pacific. Scientists know very little about it including what it eats. It's a great example of how little we know about the oceans, scientists said, according to the BBC. Exactly.

The other marine beastie listed is the Bamboo shark (Hemiscyllium galei), also known as the walking shark, found in Cenderawasih Bay in West Papua, Indonesia. The reef there is so chock full of biodiversity it's called a "species factory". Now that's a factory to protect.

Full story

Photo courtesy MBARI

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sea Turtle HOV

We knew they went far but 4,700 miles. Impressive.

Scientists found that leatherback turtles regularly swim that distance across the Atlantic Ocean. You could drive from New York City to Portland, Oregon, and almost back again before reaching that mileage. You could get there faster if you went in lanes reserved for High Occupancy Vehicles.

There's an idea. If we know where they're going and where they started, maybe we can better protect the endangered beasts. Establish their routes on a map of the ocean and restrict certain uses on these routes. Call them sea turtle lanes, just like we have shipping lanes, and just like we've taken care in some terrestrial areas to designate wildlife crossings and pathways.  It's bound to help.

Read the story here.

photo credit: CORBIS

Monday, January 10, 2011

Not Out of Mind

We've heard about the disgusting and deadly Gyres. Massive whirlpools of trash, mainly plastics, generated by humans but swirling around in the middle of the world's oceans. They're out of sight to most people but should not be out of mind.

The Dish blog found a list of what's out there and why it's bad. Aluminum foil, balloons, batteries, bottle caps, and condoms top the list. See the whole list here.

Friday, January 7, 2011

See the Light

See the Light

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Oh Hey Sorry About That My Bad

Eco Ocean Form Letter:

Dear World's Oceans, 

Sorry for screwing up everything! Hope we can still be friends.


The Humans

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An Apology to the Seas

Brad Van Liew has an apology. A big, sad apology to the oceans. He's no softie -- he has sailed solo across vast and dangerous ocean stretches more than once. Let's call his apology deep and poignant sincerity from a man who has seen the damages, and who has had time to think about the big picture. 

"The primary message that I will try to convey to this watery world as we enter 2011 is an apology,'' Van Liew blogged on the official race site from the Southern Ocean, according to

"My message will be a hollow New Year's apology because I need to be honest with my friends down here. There is really nothing being done that will change the tide of globalization and human growth." Thanks, Brad. 

Read the full story in here.

Eco Ocean Form Letter:

Dear World's Oceans, 

Sorry for screwing up everything! Hope we can still be friends.


The Humans

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Can't Beat Them, Eat Them

Interesting strategy for conservation from Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Florida. The conservation group released a cookbook for Lionfish, according to ABC News.

Lionfish are tearing up the marine ecosystem in the Atlantic off Florida because they are an invasive species -- that is one imported from someplace far away. These uninvited guests usually run roughshod over their new home without a predator in sight. Think Zebra Mussels or Kudzu or the Rapa Whelk.

But ah, the human predator. "It's absolutely good eating -- a delicacy. It's delicately flavored white meat, very buttery," Lad Akins, director of special projects for Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), told Reuters. He authored the cookbook along with a professional chef, Tricia Ferguson.

This may be one fish that would be good to overfish. Can I really be saying that...?

The full story here.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Happy New Year

During Congressional hearings about a controversial Alaskan pipeline in the mid eighties, a blind man stood up and said these powerful words:

"I may never get up to the Arctic and I certainly will never see Wild Alaska, but in those days when my own world seems dark and small, just to know such places exist fills my soul with hope."

May your New Year be filled with hope, and healthy oceans.