Friday, February 29, 2008

Better gummy worm fishing lures

Who knew that the gummy worm problem needed a solution? Ben Hobbins did, and his answer may end up reducing water pollution.

Those soft plastic worms and other fishing lures that are so popular are loaded with phthalates, a toxic compound that makes plastics flexible. Gummy worm baits can be up to one-half phthalates by weight.

Making a gummy worm with the right properties isn't easy. By embedding microfibers into the baits, Ben Hobbins has now made a worm that's gummy enough without containing all the phthalates. They're sold as IronClads.

Next step, sustainable kink: selling "jelly rubber" sex toys without phthalates, dioxins, or other toxics.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's a capitalist ocean, and the big fish win

...until we come along and start catching them.

New insights from an uninhabited and pristine island in the Pacific Ocean show predatory fish are the mega-capitalists of the oceanic economy. Around Kingman Reef, the top predators like sharks manage to consume almost everything else. Around nearby islands, fishing has removed the big predatory fish and the ocean is dominated by small plankton-eating fish.

Predatory fish are not a nuisance in the ocean, they're necessary. Without predatory fish, our oceanic economy breaks down in surprising ways. Corals become more vulnerable to death by rising temperatures and previous studies have shown that overfishing that removes large predatory fish and can lead to nutrient accumulation and the resulting low oxygen dead zones, and related water quality problems.

This new insight may increase political support for protecting large predatory fish, or at least earn some new tax breaks for sharks.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Survival of the wimps-unnatural selection from fishing

Forget survival of the fittest for fish. Instead, it's survival of the wimpiest because fishing catches the biggest, boldest fish.

A recent study found that even a short period of fishing can select for slower growing and more timid fish. This happens because the biggest, boldest fish are more active as they try to find more food to fuel faster growth rates. All that's left behind for breeding are the smaller, more timid fish...the weaklings and wimps of the fish world.

According to scientist Paul Biro, this may
"slow the rate of recovery for fished populations, and could explain why fisheries tend not to rebound in the manner we expect after we reduce harvest or close a fishery."
In other words, fishing today can undermine the success of fishing tomorrow.

Scientists have long wondered why depleted fish populations often fail to recover. Could it be that survival of the wimpiest fish is part of the problem?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fishing job losses, what's the cause?

Here's a sad and gritty story about fishermen leaving Maine. The cause? Other fishermen, or lobstermen to be precise.

This clash of fishing clans may put the final nail in the coffin of the traditional groundfish fishery in Maine. You'd think that lobstermen would give their groundfish brethren a hand in their time of need, but it it's not working out that way.

The issue is what to do with lobsters caught in bottom trawl nets. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, groundfish draggers (fishermen who catch fish by dragging trawl nets) can sell lobsters they catch while going after cod, haddock or other groundfish. It's incidental catch that helps pay the bills. As groundfish decline, lobsters are important sources of income to groundfish fishermen.

But lobster is king in Maine, and the lobster industry has made competition from trawlers illegal. You can only land lobsters caught in a trap. Last year, the state legislature considered a bill to give relief to the troubled groundfish fishery, but the power of the lobster industry crushed the bill.

So...Maine groundfish boats are selling their catch in Massachusetts, or moving to Massachusetts, so they can sell the lobsters. This exodus may spell the end of the Portland fish auction, the best place for fishermen to sell their catch in Maine, where business is down to about 10% of historic levels.

The lobstermen have a point, overfishing is really what killed the groundfish industry, not bans on selling lobsters, but if fishermen want a helping hand from others when they're in need, how about helping out your brethren?

Maybe the lobster industry will be the next fishery to fall on hard times, it's not impossible. Then, will people remember how lobstermen treated their fellow fishermen when they were in need?

Beat climate change and have fun doing it

Great, while I'm rotting in my office, some of my colleagues are having fun and planning strategies to fight the harmful impacts of climate change. Here's a report from Ocean Conservancy's Warner Chabot.

Climate Camp – Solving the challenge of Climate Change requires the initiative and leadership of thousands of people. WWF is providing great leadership on climate change by sharing information and solutions and by collaborating with environmental, science, business and government leaders in many countries.

One great example is what WWF’s calls “Climate Camp.” Being held this week in the urban “campground” of downtown San Francisco, WWF has convened 150 NGO leaders in weeklong series of interactive workshops to compare notes and develop projects to both mitigate climate change (to slow it down), and to adapt to climate change (to protect and strengthen our natural resource legacy from those climate changes already underway, that can’t be reversed).

Resources – WWF provides a great resource library for activists who need information on climate change science and innovative programs.

Climate Witness – WWF recognized that most people understand and talk about climate change in anecdotes or stories about how it is affecting their lives or their community. So WWF has created a bold idea called “Climate Witness” – that will post stories from witnesses around the world. This catalog of stories is just beginning and WWF hopes to have 5,000 of them by next year.

While U.S. leadership on climate change stagnates at the federal level, local governments “get it” and are the hot-beds of innovation. One leader at Climate Camp was the International council for Local Environmental Initiatives This is an international effort of local government leaders who share and implement ideas on climate change.

One “cool” group is “Cool Mayors” This site lists over 500 U.S. mayors and highlights the local initiatives that are on the forefront of the climate change revolution. Maybe Washington D.C. will get the message to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Humphf...too bad I'm missing out. Oh well, if I can't go, at least I can make fun of it.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sustainable seafood 2.0

How can we harness the power of seafood buyers to save our oceans? It's time for sustainable seafood 2.0

After a decade of effort, the sustainable seafood movement matters. To use a business school term, value has been created for sustainable seafood. Now, most seafood businesses want to capture that value. "Sustainable" products are becomming more common and sustainability claims are often used to help sell seafood.

But it's an interesting success. There is little evidence for higher prices being paid for sustainable seafood, and there is very little evidence that seafood sales or prices have been affected by boycotts or "don't buy" advice.

The consumer campaigns on sustainable seafood matter, but not in the way most people think. Most so-called selective buying is not selective enough to reward the best seafood and punish the least sustainable. Complexities of the global seafood marketplace make that essentially impossible.

BUT, seafood businesses are smart and they see a chance to boost market share for products that gain public favor. So many businesses are launching their own efforts to brand their products as "sustainable" and attract customer loyalty.

Since seafood businesses are on board with the concept of sustainable seafood, I humbly suggest that it's time for sustainable seafood 2.0

And here's my suggestion of what it might be:

Consumers can support sustainability by choosing a seafood seller to trust, and supporting their chosen seafood seller in the work of advancing seafood sustainability.

The trusted seafood authority might be a seafood brand. Perhaps a particular sustainability certification. But more likely, customers will place their trust in a particular seafood seller (market or restaurant) and trust that business to do the work for them. Customers are used to trusting a store or restaurant for freshness and flavor, and sustainability is natural partner of quality and reliability.

How can individuals matter? Choose carefully your trusted seafood seller, and then make friends with the people who sell you the fish. Try to get in touch with the people who choose the seafood that is sold, and offer them your support (first) and your opinions (second). The people who choose the seafood for sale are your friends and allies in seeking sustainability.

Be aware that there are not a lot of sustainable seafood products that are also high-demand preferred products. Most of the top selling seafood items don't pass sustainability criteria, so asking your seafood seller to drop them is asking them to harm their business. That's a tough thing to ask for a business.

Finally, help support the now ongoing efforts by some seafood businesses to improve the sustainability of seafood products that they sell. Major seafood buyers are now engaged in fishery improvement projects, trying to reform unsustainble fisheries. This is the holy grail of sustainable seafood, actual reform of unsustainable fisheries.

How does this work? Rather than expecting the invisible hand of the marketplace will fix fisheries, some businesses are exerting a real hand and trying to fix fisheries directly.'re going to be surprised...Wal-mart is one of them. There is not yet a list of such businesses, but with enough demand a list might be developed.

And, if you want to know more about this process, go to since OC is a leader in this effort.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

save the ocean theater

I suppose we've all done "save the planet" things that are well-intentioned but ineffective. Ian Bicking complains about this type of "environmental theater." I think we see a lot of "save the ocean" theater, especially the idea that not eating something will save it.

I think "don't eat" campaigns can help save fish, if done right. However, most "don't eat" admonitions we see these days are ad hoc and disconnected from real efforts to save fish.

In this vein, I've been complaining to Craig lately at the awesome blog Deep-Sea News. Craig and his team are great bloggers, and they deserve praise for starting a "just one thing" challenge that asks people to get off their asses and do something to save our oceans. But a recent challenge is to pester Trader Joe's to stop seeling orange roughy. This seems like a nothing burger to me. Who thinks orange roughy will be helped if Trader Joe's stops selling it?

Getting Trader Joe's to change is not the goal. Enlisting businesses like Trader Joe's in a real campaign to save orange roughy would be a big deal, but this ain't it. Pestering Trader Joe's will not get them on board for saving fish.

I admire what you're doing Craig, but if you want to come out of the realm of science and into saving the ocean, let's make it count.

If you want details on how to save fish through seafood, check out Ocean Conservancy's sustainable seafood page.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

when believing creates seeing

Context matters, as everyone knows. But now we find that context can "create" visual images in a person's brain. If you believe it, you can see it.

An experiment had people record whether they "saw" a gray rectangle that wasn't there. If gray rectangles were around the experimental area, observers "saw" a gray rectangle that wasn't there.

Belief is a powerful thing, and now we know it can create illusions. Of course, belief-driven delusions are even more common.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

3 c conservation at Western Washington U

Here we go, WWU, let's make 3 c conservation into a compelling idea!

I had a fun time at Western Washington University, with a great group of students in Prof. Shull's Environmental Science 101 class. Together, we launched a new idea, 3 c conservation. Now we'll try to make it compelling, see the challenge below.

What is 3 c conservation?

It starts with change...a specific conservation change we want.
It expands craft a productive solution that people can embrace
Then we make it compelling...using new media tools to build broad ownership.

We talked about some examples, such as Ocean Conservancy's effort to end overfishing in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. I think it's working, and overfishing will end in a few years. By powerful work using 3 c conservation! Now I'm going to stop with this skeletal outline of the idea, and see what happens.

No big deal, right? Fairly simple idea, maybe nothing new. Or is it? What do you say, Vikings? And isn't that a slick hybrid car coming out of WWU, you guys know how to make things happen.

The challenge? Make a splash with 3 c conservation. I'll put up the first public post (this is it), and we'll work together in trying out the 3 c conservation idea. This post is my take on how to advance conservation, the students in the class agreed to expand on the idea with comments and we'll all work together on a group effort to make it compelling. (Ok, I didn't really give them a chance to say no, but that's the fun of getting to be on the podium.)

We'll all post, repost, comment, and talk up the idea with social bookmarking sites like:

Just click the "bookmark" icon at the bottom of the post, and select your favorite site. I like digg and reddit. ready set go

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Back to college

For at least an hour. I'll be talking to Environmental Science 101 at Western Washington University, 440 students if they all show up.

This should be fun, the class is taught by Dr. David Shull, who was a student in the last class I taught before I quit being a professor. He's asked me to talk about real world conservation, using examples from my personal experience.

Well, let's see, there's a lot to choose from, including the sublime, nasty, and ridiculous.

...should I talk about having my life threatened, or the gunfire in Colombia?... about the unbelieveably amazing sights of the ocean world in remote places?...

...I know, the best I have to offer is upwelling hope, and optimism, and the amazing fact that the more I do this work the more optimistic I become...

Lobster industry in trouble in Maine?

Lobster catch was down in Maine last year, is anyone worried? Last year was probably the worst year since 1997, and catches declined 23% compared to 2006.

There have been warnings for years that people were catching too many lobster, but business was so good that everyone pooh-poohed the warnings. Lobster catches have declined elsewhere, and Maine was just about the last place where fishing was good and the outlook was rosy. Is all that about to change?

Piled on top of the lobster worry are new federal regulations that require lobstermen to do more to protect endangered right whales from getting caught in lobster trap gear. Unfortunately, lobstermen are resisting new rules designed to protect whales, claiming they're expensive and unnecessary.

If lobstermen hope to get the benefits of being a sustainable fishery, with better export markets to Europe and higher prices, they're going to have to face up to these problems. If lobster are headed into decline, there will be no sustainability certification. And nobody wants whale blood on their "sustainable" lobster dinner.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Embrace your inner fish

Forget monkeys as an important ancestor, it's fish that you really have to thank.

Most of the important biological innovations that we humans enjoy and take for granted came from fish. Check out Natalie Angier's write up in the New York Times.

Fish evolved the first hinged and muscular jaws and teeth with nerves, the better to eat big, fast and wiggly prey. And fish evolved the first defense against such powerful jaws, the first skull to protect that all-important brain, built from thousands of tiny, overlapping teeth.

Then there's our beloved heads, with paired sense organs. Yep, invented by fish. And fish have incredibly complex social and behavior patterns, perhaps rivaling the complex rituals of Junior High cliques.

So next time you see a fish say thanks. And don't feel bad about eating the fish after you say thanks, the fish would understand.

Monday, February 18, 2008

SEE turtles, a conservation solution

You need to hear about SEE Turtles. This is a great story. It has everything:

-compelling science adventure
-charismatic leading man
-fishermen that kill sea turtles
-and a minor role for me, learning a good lesson

Once the science mystery is solved, we find where sea turtles go to forage and die. It's an area off the coast of Baja California, near a small fishing village. The turtle killing needs to stop if we want sea turtles to avoid going extinct.

But then the story gets really interesting because something unusual happens. Once the conservation problem was identified, the people killing the turtles became part of the solution. The turtle conservationists and the fishermen got together and built a solution. J. and his colleagues began an effort to save the turtles and help the fishermen. And the fishermen have turned into turtle savers.

Now you can go on a vacation to see turtles in the ocean, on trips led by fishermen who used to catch and kill sea turtles in their fishing gear. They're creating a safe area for the turtles, they've changed their fishing to protect turtles, and now they guide turtle watching trips. And...the turtles have some fierce new protectors.

Ocean Conservancy has created a sea turtle ecotourism program in this area, where tourists will pay the fishermen and their families and neighbors as guides, hoteliers, restaurateurs, etc., proving that the turtles are worth more alive than dead.

As for me, I have a minor role in this drama, but it's not all that flattering. Part of the money to pay for the resarch came from the Hawaii longline fishing fleet. Fishermen paying for turtle research in another part of the world, how did that happen?

I was a plaintiff in a lawsuit that resulted in a shutdown of the Hawaii longline fishery based on killing sea turtles. The longliners convened a very strange "settlement negotiation" and proposed mitigation money for turtle conservation if they got to fish more. I had seen a lot of bad mitigation projects, so I said no deal.

Well, the Hawaiian fishing industry did get to go fishing again soon, and they did spend some money on research anyway, and some of the money went to my new colleage, J Nichols. The mitigation money paid for J's research that found turtles migrating to a hotspot off the Baja coast to forage. A small artesanal fishery in the area happened to fish in the turtle hotspot and a handful of fishermen in small boats killed more turtles each year than the 100 plus boats in the industrial Hawaii longline fleet.

I learned an important lesson from this example. I was skeptical of the value of the mitigation money, but it turned out money well spent. After I met J, he assured me the Hawaiian longliners mitigation money helped turtle conservation.

It's hard to recongize a good deal sometimes, but now I know I have to look everywhere. Saying no to people just because they're the "bad guys" might mean missing a chance to do good. Now, for me, everyone is a potential partner, even the largest retailer on earth. I can learn.

Does the sustainable seafood movement rely on guilt? (blogfish poll)

When you buy seafood, is your seafood choice (at least sometimes) influenced by the sustainable seafood movement? If yes, is it guilt that drove your choice?

I wrote yesterday about "saving the ocean with guilt or desire" and said I think the sustainable seafood movement (and conservation in general) relies too heavily on guilt as a motivator.

Now I'm curious whether YOU seafood buyers think the sustainable seafood movement relys on guilt, and whether that's ok.

So please, if you don't mind, spend a moment answering a single question in the first ever blogfish poll. It's in the sidebar at top right. Do you think the sustainable seafood movement relies on guilt? Please feel free to answer from YOUR perspective as a seafood buyer.

Thanks readers, and please don't embarass me by leaving my poll up with only 2 answers for a month.

image: National Wildlife Federation

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Saving the ocean with guilt or desire?

Is there a place for desire in conservation? Can a burning, insatiable longing motivate people to do right by nature? Or is desire a problem for conservation? Are people’s longings and wants the enemy--that which must be defeated in order to conserve?

I hope I’m wrong, but I think most environmentalists would identify human desires as a problem. In this view, people want more…more money, more toys, more fun activities. And almost all of it means more conservation problems as we use more resources to satisfy the wants.

Do we really focus on trying to defeat human desires to achieve conservation? Yes, we do. We try, usually with minimal success, to scare or limit people to stop them from fulfilling their wants. We tell stories of impending crisis so they’ll stop out of fear, or we try to make rules that stop the damage by denying people their desires. Conserve water or we’ll run out and you won’t be able to flush your toilet! Stop driving your SUV or we’ll all cook together on a warming earth! Etc., you’ve heard it before.

It’s a reasonable way to go, but it isn’t working. And perhaps even worse, it creates problems for the environmental movement. It casts us as the enemies of human desire, not a good role to be in. In fighting desire, we cast ourselves as grouchy preachers promising fire-and-brimstone for those who stray from the straight and narrow. That might be ok if it worked, but with this approach, our successes are often partial and short-lived. And it takes a toll on us; when we KNOW we’re right but we still lose, our attitudes turn pessimistic, cynical or even bitter.

Yuck. Not a whole lot of fun unless you like to wear a hair shirt.

OK, so we do try to conserve by defeating human desires. But are there some examples of working with desire to conserve? How about ecotourism or festivals that celebrate rivers or slow food? Some parts of conservation focus on fun, but many conservation purists attack ecotourism as harmful exploitation and say festivals just allow people to feel good without doing anything significant.

Can we find a way to elevate the role of desire in conservation? Yes, we can work with human desires instead of fighting against them.

Conservation efforts that work with human desires may not be all that different than relying on guilt. Sometimes the work is very similar and the difference is just a shift in attitude.

For an example, I’ll go back to Barton Seaver and the Seafood Summit in Barcelona in January 2008. His message there included an important point: as a chef, he can bring desire in line with conservation. He can serve sustainably caught seafood that satisfies your cravings, and fulfills your desire. He can be a conservationist without fighting against human desires.

Is this different? The sustainable seafood movement has been around for a decade now, and quite a bit of effort has gone into promoting sustainable seafood. So maybe seafood is already an example of a conservation movement that works with human desires.

But, if you think about sustainable seafood at all, what comes to mind? Pleasure and satisfaction, or desires denied? Do you think of a fantastic dinner, or do you remember someone unpleasant telling you “don’t eat your favorite fish.” Do you think a marine biologist would make a great companion for a seafood dinner because they know about fish? Or are you likely to shrink in fear and order chicken if a marine biologist is at the table in order to avoid an unpleasant lecture about problems caused by fishing?

Note: Please answer the poll question above right in the sidebar--Does the sustainable seafood movement rely on guilt?

The sad truth is that ocean lovers can be your worst nightmare in a restaurant. Most ocean-aware people are prepared to give you a hard time if you eat a politically incorrect fish. Even the nicest versions of “don’t eat that fish” aren’t exactly fun, here are some examples from The Oyster's Garter, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Shifting Baselines, and blogfish.

The sustainable seafood movement seems to be more about guilt and criticism than anything else. Look what happened to poor Al Gore when he attended a dinner where the wrong fish was supposedly served:

So for every pleasant bit of encouragement about eating sustainable seafood, there is somebody ready to heap guilt on your plate for eating the “wrong” fish. The whole thing is made impossible by confusing and even conflicting advice, and lack of labels so it’s hard to know what you’re eating even when you WANT to do the right thing.

What’s different about Barton Seaver’s message? How does he diverge from the guilt-heavy sustainable seafood message? How can he promise to bring desire in line with conservation? It can be as simple as a difference in attitude. And this is a place where environmentalists can learn from chefs. As Barton reminds us, he’s in the hospitality industry, and he doesn’t make a living by hectoring his customers.

If someone comes into Hook and asks for Chilean sea bass, he doesn’t berate them for their bad choice, he tries to light a fire of desire for sustainable sablefish. Then he tries to fulfill that desire, and show customers that there’s gain—not sacrifice—in going with the sustainable option.

What Barton shows us is the magic of fulfilling desire. When he makes a sustainable fish an object of desire, then he escapes from the false choice of delicious fish vs. sustainable fish. When a sustainable fish is also a delicious fish, then our desires align with our ethics, and the dual motivations are working together rather than fighting each other.

Sustainable seafood that focuses on desires denied is all about rules and commandments, what fish you can’t eat if you want to prove up as being green. There are lots of hair-splitting debates within the sustainable seafood community over which fish is ok and which isn’t ok, and some holier-than-thou criticism for anyone who dares to set the bar too low and actually say “yes” to some fish.

Sustainable seafood that focuses on desires fulfilled is different, it’s a celebration rather than a dose of guilt. Sustainable seafood that focuses on desires fulfilled is all about finding the best tasting and most sustainable fish, preparing and presenting it well, and making people lust for more. It’s marrying desire and conservation in a way that attracts people to a cause. It’s getting people on board with a good first step, and relying on their own desire to maintain and strengthen their commitment to the cause.

Avoiding the use of guilt as the prime motivator is important, because the seafood eater isn’t the enemy and there’s no reason to punish them and ladle out guilt. The difference between using guilt and desire is more in the attitude than anything else. Both approaches try to direct customers to sustainable fish, but one focuses on a negative message and the other focuses on a more positive message.

Barton’s approach of trying to capture people’s desires is sooooooo much better than the guilt-based order delivered in the clumsy Stinky Fish campaign: “It's time to slap your appetites into line with your ethics.” Is this any way to get people to change their behavior? Who wants to get slapped around? In more general terms, is guilt the best way to get people to do anything?

I’m no expert on religion, but it seems like many environmentalists, and quite a few sustainable seafood advocates, make a big mistake in using guilt and expecting it to be strong enough to get people to fight their desires. When we use this approach, I think we risk marginalizing ourselves and we might even start to resemble a sad caricature of a preacher seeking religious converts by threatening fire-and-brimstone.

Threatening problems for people who fall off the straight-and-narrow path of sustainable seafood might work if the prize we have to offer is something really big like everlasting life, but it seems futile when the only thing we can promise is the reward of a bland but sustainable dinner.

Uniting human desires and conservation can and should have a bigger role in the conservation movement, especially when it comes to sustainable seafood. It’s fun and easy to get away from focusing on guilt, but it does take a change in attitude.

This reminds me of the story of a scientist and a chef eating a seafood dinner together and talking sustainability. When the chef mentions getting desire linked up with conservation, the scientist says: “wait, conservation and desire don’t go together, to conserve we have to defeat people’s desires. Trying to put them together is like trying to mix oil and water.” The chef responds: “who says oil and water don’t mix? Add a few spices and a little acetic acid and oil and water are great together…you sure seemed to like that vinaigrette.”

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Wild salmon decline near fish farms

One promise made about fish farming is that it will help feed the world and take pressure off of wild fish that are already in trouble due to overfishing. But what if fish farms themselves are harmful to wild fish?

The evidence that fish farms harm wild fish just got stronger, with a study that says wild salmon are in decline in the vicinity of fish farms.

This study seems compelling, and aquaculture proponents should take it seriously and provide some reasoned arguments rather than simply dismissing criticism.

I support aquaculture done right, and we need studies like this to help us figure out what it means to do aquaculture right. I will pay attention to this study, and look into the arguments of anyone who wants to disagree with the conclusion.

Of course we do need to be fair. Just as proponents of fish farming have gone too far, the critics of aquaculture have gone overboard by saying in simple terms that fish farming is bad.

Indeed, fish farms have been called "feedlots of the sea." And it's not just raving enviromaniacs who think fish farms are harmful, a billionaire part-owner of a fish-farming company has also drawn the link between fish farms and declining wild salmon.

Strangely enough, some critics of fish farming fail to criticize the eating of so-called "wild" fish produced from fish hatcheries--basically fish farms that only raise fish for half their life--even though hatcheries cause many of the same problems as fish farmed for their entire lives.

We're left with a muddle of views, and this week's study provides some evidence and analysis that may help clarify the risks and benefits of fish farming.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Oregon ocean dead zone linked to climate change

It ain't natural, say scientists studying Oregon's ocean dead zones. Climate change seems to be causing the ugly die-off of ocean animals.

It's a scary story, stronger winds push this natural ocean breadbasket over the edge into a low oxygen killing field. This type of unpredictable change has ocean scientists chewing their fingernails and losing sleep at night.

The Oregon coast is a place of bountiful food production, a natural gift to salmon, orcas, and people. Upwelling of nutrients (fertilizer) is triggered by routine strong winds in the spring. The bloom of small plankton that follows creates a feeding frenzy of ocean animals and people alike.

But now climate change seems to have strengthened the winds and spoiled the party. It's too much of a good thing, something most of us can relate to every year the morning of January 1st.

We've heard for years that climate change is likely to have surprising effects, and now the Oregon dead zone is emerging as perhaps an early example. Yikes.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Map of global human impact on oceans

Wanna know where oceans are in good shape and where people have done the most damage? Check out this stunning new map of global human impacts on our oceans (right).

The work of a team of scientists, the model and map were published today in Science. Commenting on the results, co-author and Ocean Conservancy senior scientist Dennis Heinemann said:
On a global scale, the study determined that coral reefs and sea-grass habitats, places important to maintaining the diversity and productivity of ocean life, are suffering from some of the most significant cumulative threats from humans. We fear that few areas of the ocean are left without compromised resilience in the face of the ongoing and increasing threats of overfishing, pollution and ocean climate change.
I'm an optimist and I'm pleased to see some ocean areas that are still relatively unharmed, despite all that we humans have done on earth. There are clearly some areas that are in bad shape, and I hope we can learn from these results and do more to build a better ocean future. what Kiribati just did in creating the world's largest marine protected area...

Ocean protection in Kiribati

Small but mighty, Kiribati nudged past the US and created the largest Marine Protected Area in the world. Nice to see this kind of competition for the "biggest," I wonder who's next?

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) includes an large intact coral reef system on a series of atolls, and also includes underwater mountains and other deep-sea habitat.

Kiribati is looking to the future, and giving up some hard currency they could get from commercial fishing. In return, they expect to do a better job supporting subsistence fishing while protecting their ocean ecosystems and making them better able to persist in the face of climate change.

Yay, Kirabati, it's a good day for the ocean

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Newer, faster, bigger, better blogfish

Determined to do more, blogfish has reconfigured. If nothing else, at least I'll give you a nifty new font, a wider look scaled to your browser window (wow), and an excuse for a really dazzling ocean picture. Hope you like it.

Oh, and please make use of that marvelous new "bookmark" button, try it once and you'll never go back to your old ways of cool indifference.

Barnacle sex tuned to wave conditions

Barnacle penises are the stuff of legends, and now there's a new chapter.

Barnacles live firmly anchored to ocean rocks, and they can't move around to mate. To solve this problem, barnacles have evolved the longest penis relative to body size of any animal on earth, up to 8 times longer than body size. New research now reveals the hows and whys of penis size and shape variation among barnacles.

Barnacles seem to be able to change the size and shape of their penises to match local wave conditions.
When wave action is light, a longer (thinner) penis can reach more mates, but at times of higher wave action, a shorter (stouter) penis is more manoeuvrable in flow and therefore can reach more mates.

Where there's a will, there's a way.

Less fishing means more fish

After 5 years of fishing closures, there are more fish in the ocean around Southern California's Channel Islands. Not only that, but fishing has not suffered. Recreational fishing trips have increased, and commercial catches of most large species increased. Whattya know, marine reserves work!

OK, it's time for an experiment. Who was right? The people who said fish and fishermen would benefit from ending fishing in selected areas? Or the people who said that closed areas would hurt fishermen without producing benefits?

Answer: conservationists were right when we said some areas should be closed to fishing, that the closures would benefit fish and people.

Will the opponents of fishing closures admit that research shows the benefits of fishing closures? Apparently not, according to this article in the Ventura County Star:
Joel Greenberg, the Southern California chairman of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said he's not sold on the idea that the reserves are working.
I wonder what it'll take to convince the proponents of the so-called "freedom to fish" campaign that opposes fishing closures and sees a conspiracy behind protection proposals.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Natural ocean thermostat may limit warming

I'm skeptical about the ocean thermostat, but new research says natural processes may act to limit ocean temperature increases.

Where ocean waters are already very warm, 88 degrees F in the Western Pacific warm pool, scientists have found relatively little additional temperature increase even as surrounding waters warmed substantially. Could this mean that there is a natural ocean "thermostat" that prevents temperatures from rising much above 88 degrees F?

How would this putative thermostat work? According to a press release at
Researchers have speculated about several processes that could regulate ocean temperatures. As surface waters warm, more water evaporates, which can increase cloud cover and winds that cool the surface. In some areas, warming alters ocean currents in ways that bring in cooler waters. In addition, the very process of evaporation removes heat.

Corals have survived better in the warm pool in recent years, avoiding the widespread coral bleaching that harmed corals elsewhere. Does this mean that corals are safe? Corals that are adapted to cooler water may not survive even if maximum temperature is somehow limited to around 88 degrees F.

Oh, one more thing. That unpleasant global warming thing may defeat the ocean thermostat anyway. Models suggest substantial temperature increase even in the warm pool as CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise. It could be that the models don't capture the thermost effect, or that CO2 increases overwhelm the hypothesized thermostat.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Shark ball

Who knew that sharks could be so much fun? For you lovers of labrador retrievers, this video has to be seen to be believed. OK, it has to be seen to be enjoyed.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Best of ocean blogging

Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends, I'm so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside. -Karn Evil 9; Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Only first you have to step over to The Other 95%, where host Kevin Z brings you the best of ocean blogging, and a heartfelt plea on behalf of our oceans.

Fish help spread forest seeds

How can this be? Fish plant a tree? Very strange. In Brazil's Pantanal forest, a fish helps a palm tree populate the forest by spreading seeds.

During the floods that are common in this area, pacu (the seed-eating fish) move out of rivers and into the forest, eating the fruit of the tucum palm and spreading the seeds in fish poo after swimming around and digesting the fruit. Local fishermen know to bait their hooks with fruit to catch the pacu. Sadly, the pacu appear to be in decline from overfishing, threatening the forest as well as the fish.

Scientists think the role of fish in forests may be bigger than realized. We only learned a few decades ago that forests get fertilized by the bodies of salmon that die after spawning. What other fish mysteries are hidden in plain view.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Montana dam demolition

Another dam is coming down to help fish, this one in Montana. This one's not only about fish, however, it's for people too.

The Milltown dam will be demolished and the Milltown Reservoir will disappear. As part of the project, the Milltown Reservoir superfund site will be cleaned up. Hopefully, all of this work will allow native fish to repopulate the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers, and it will reduce arsenic contamination in drinking water near the reservoir area.

It's a fascinating story, the history of the dam and the problems in the reservoir. Mining waste flowed downstream and contaminated sediments in the reservoir, leading to poisoned wells. The solution, remove the dam, cleanup the reservoir, and restore a natural river with native fish. Expensive, but it's great to see that we're fixing this type of problem. We broke it, and now we're fixing it.