Thursday, July 31, 2008

Deep bass is better for blue whale love songs

Lookout Barry White, there's a new king singing romantic bass and he's 100 feet long and weighs 300,000 pounds. And he's blue and lives in the ocean.

Blue whale love songs are low in pitch, too low for humans to hear. Now researchers think they're getting lower because with more blue whales around, the competition is to see how low can they go.

I think that's Barry White chasing the blue whale in the picture, looking for tips.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dirty Beaches

NRDC's annual Testing the Waters report is out, detailing the numbers and causes for beach closures in 2007 (aqui en Espanol). Great Lakes, you're not looking so great.

I first encountered this report back in 1998, when I was looking at the data for the Heinz Center's national ecosystem report. When I started at NRDC, TTW was one of my earliest press duties; I'd get the summaries about 48 hours before they hit the streets and spend that time crunching numbers on Bay Area beaches. You can get as little or as much information as you want at the report site, by searching for your favorite beach or looking county by county at beach monitoring frequency, but the data resolution still leaves much to be desired.

That's because TTW suffers from the same problems as many long term environmental data sets. Beach monitoring and closure data isn't all collected in one central location, like at the EPA. Some of it requires calling counties and cities, each of which may have their own rules for what they monitor and how often. And those rules have certainly changed over the 18 years of TTW. While those policy changes can make long term trends difficult to tease out, a general trend is that the closer you look at water quality, the more fecal coliform you find. Water quality testing isn't necessarily expensive or difficult -- you can do it yourself as a Surfrider volunteer -- but it is one of those programs that tends to get cut when budgets are tight.

Keep that in mind the next time your municipality asks to upgrade its sewage system, because it's likely that those aging overflows and septic tanks are degrading your beach. Nothing ruins a "staycation" more than stomach flu.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Do healthy reefs protect themselves?

The idea that intact trophic structures and diverse ecosystems are more resilient than their depauperate over-extracted kin has been tossed around in scientific circles for many years. The diversity = resilience hypothesis is getting new scrutiny in the oceans today because of the threats of acidification and warming temperatures. Can the seas survive better if they get to keep all their parts (even if we don't understand exactly how they work)?

The August issue of Current Biology has new evidence saying yes. Dr. Hugh Sweatman and many brave associates spent ten years being towed around the Great Barrier reef counting crown-of-thorns starfish. COTs are nasty, poisonous little buggers that swarm in waves, eating corals. Researchers found that areas open to fishing were 3.75 times more likely to have COTs outbreaks than no-take marine reserves in the same area. Adult fish aren't direct predators on the starfish -- since almost nothing can eat a 10" diameter helping of neurotoxins -- but having them around may protect invertebrates that prey on juvenile COTs. Time for more manta tows to figure out the causal mechanism and in the meantime, keep those marine reserves going.

You can get the full paper through the Australian Institute of Marine Science website.

Crown of Thorns photo © Alexey Bogdanov

Monday, July 28, 2008

Still time for presidential suggestions

Blogfish is still looking for your suggestions for President McCain/Obama/Barr/Paul/Clinton. We know you've got ideas. Here's another one from us:

The X Prize for the oceans
I'd call it the O prize, but that would require Oprah's support (which isn't a bad idea, come to think of it). The X Prize competitions have inspired engineers and inventors to travel to space and improve automobiles. They are sorely lacking in anything involving saltwater. How about more efficient engines for small fishing boats and big container ships? Remote sensing devices that can count and identify fish without killing them? Or they could take something like Smart gear to the next level. Throw down the gauntlet of prize money and move ocean exploration forward.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

100,000 visitors to blogfish!

Blogfish turned 100,000 yesterday. That's right, we had visitor number 100,000 on Saturday at 11:53 am PDT.

Checking in from Bath, England, thanks to a google search on "spoiled tuna" and arriving at "Think that red tuna is fresh? Maybe not"

Who knew that the early days of a couple of dozen visitors per day would turn into this? Who would believe that I'd still be blogging over 2 years later?

Here's to the next 100,000 and thanks for stopping by.

Now that my 2 week vacation is over, it's back to business. Hope you missed me.

Friday, July 25, 2008


Crunchgear tipped me off to the latest development in Japanese robotics - robo-bream. Researchers at the University of Kitakyushuu just released a fish with a one hour swim time and a camera to record the responses of its sealife hosts. The bad webpage translation I have says the internal motor is just slightly audible, which might deter fish with their keen vibration sensors. I'm also curious about the smell, though you can't fault the impeccable hand-painted details. Also, the soundtrack with the YouTube video is pretty good. I'm excited to see version 2.0 of the robotic manta.

How to blow up a shark

On one hand, I can't condone wanton harm to marine creatures. On the other hand, a dive knife that injects a blast of CO2 into into the target cries out to be tested on a pufferfish, no? Rather than a harmless watermelon.

Good to know that when the greased watermelon game gets out of hand at your next pool party, a wild melon can be easily daiquiri-ed with The Wasp. Divers commenting over at Wired are undecided if you could get a shot into a shark quick enough to save your leg.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tracking the leatherbacks

Great new article in PLoS showing leatherback tracks in the eastern Pacific. Shillinger et al fitted turtles with tracking harnesses and found that they fought the currents to stay on a SSW track from their nesting beaches. Why that direction is so important is unclear, since it doesn't seem to correspond with fronts or bathymetric features. Perhaps we need to develop a jellyfish harness to track their prey? In any case, that gives us a better picture of where the turtles are so fishing boats can avoid them. Here's to field work illuminating the sea!

photo of a leatherback reporting for duty from the Florida Loggerhead Marine Life Center, which has regular updates on tagged turtles

Put the lime in the ocean and you drink it all up

The latest idea for sinking our excess CO2 is adding lime to the oceans (the mineral, not the fruit). The idea here is that increasing the alkalinity of the oceans would not only increase CO2 capture but also mitigate the problem of acidification. You'ld also try to get the lime from somewhere that the CO2 involved in creating and transporting it would be less than what you capture.

What's most interesting about this "fix of the week" is that Cquestrate is trying to run this as an Open Source project. You too can help figure out where and how to drop the lime. The Slashdotters have already claimed most of the good jokes, so time for you engineers to dive and be part of the solution. It'll be just like Firefox.

Friday, July 18, 2008

U.S. catfish farms bite the dust

When people ask for sustainable fishes to eat, I often point them to domestically farmed, vegetarian species like striped bass and catfish. Raised in ponds, they're subject to water quality restrictions and animal captivity rules, and they don't rely on wild fish populations for food.

Unfortunately, a diet of corns and soybeans also made these fish farms vulnerable to the current grain crisis. As the NYT reports, catfish farms across the South are draining their ponds because they can't afford to feed their fish. One farmer's filling his old pond with those very same feed crops -- corn and soya -- to capitalize on the new market.

I'll be sad to see these fish disappear from the ice at my local fishmonger, but I have to be a little bemused by this battle of subsidies. After all, the U.S. subsidized corn and soybean production for decades and NOAA has proposed various 'incentives' for aquaculture. Today, those subsidies pale against the power of the yuan and the fuel subsidies that keep foreign fleets afloat, feeding our imported seafood market. Those reeds and rushes shading the shallows of the old catfish ponds? They'd probably be a better source of cellulosic ethanol than corn.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Should seafood buyers walk away from problem fisheries?

With 'problem' fisheries, closer involvement may be the answer
Drew Cherry,
Published - January 29. 2008

(This copyrighted story is borrowed from Intrafish, a very useful subscription news service. I hope they won't mind, since it's now nearly 6 months old. C'mon fellas, can I borrow just one? Pretty please?)

How should the industry deal with “problem” fisheries? Walk away from them, or work within them for change?

When Danish seafood processor Espersen -- McDonald’s Europe’s fish supplier -- faced a storm of media criticism over the crisis in the Baltic Sea, the company took the unusual step of staying committed to the fishery.

It’s an example of a difference in philosophical approach, but one that panelists at the 2008 Seafood Summit argued strongly for.

“Leaving [a problem fishery] will not solve any problems,” said Alex Olsen, an executive with Danish seafood processor Espersen. “We will not be leaving the fishery.”

By staying engaged, Olsen said, his company can help enact change. Legal actors in the sector reap the rewards of strong buyer interest, which can then pressure illegal actors in the sector to improve.

Simon Rilatt, seafood sourcing director for the FoodVest Group, which owns the Young’s and Findus brands in Europe, agreed.

“The question is, why would we as a brand owner want to stay involved in a problem fishery? The reality is, we do it because we can make a difference,” he said.
“Our fear is, if we came away, we’d leave a vacuum. And the danger of a vacuum is you can’t predict how it will be filled,” Rilatt said.

Mark Powell, vice president in charge of fish conservation with The Ocean Conservancy, posed the question whether or not consumers should stop eating red-listed fish. The real goal of the sustainable seafood movement, Powell said, is not simply changing what people eat, but fixing unsustainable fisheries.

“Walking away is washing your hands of the problem,” Powell said. “Engagement helps people stay connected with iconic fish. If they walk away, maybe they quit caring, and that sets back the conservation agenda.”

Powell cited positive signals for the recovery of red snapper. The fishery is working on an ITQ-style program, and has a clear plan for rebuilding stocks.
“In my opinion, that fishery is on its way to sustainability,” Powell said.
Another key link in the chain will be the fishing community itself. Once the rewards of sustainability have to be made clear to the fishing community, the panel said, fishermen will be more likely to buy in.

“A depleted fish, with too many boats, doesn’t make any money,” said Jim Cannon of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. “A well-run fishery makes bucket loads of money. The winners are going to make millions.”

“It’s less about price premium, and more about long-term commitment that major, responsible buyers make,” Cannon said.

Does wind power float your boat?

The innovation in ocean energy continues with Blue H's new floating wind turbine. A prototype is due to launch later this month, 12 miles of the Italian coast. Conveniently, that's just on the edge of the territorial sea, placing the turbine at the confluence of Italian and EU jurisdiction. You may know Blue H as the company that's developing a (non-floating) deepwater wind farm off the Massachusetts coast.

It's great to see that companies (primarily European ones) are continuing to invest in product development. That's no small investment, but we're not at the mousetrap stage yet for ocean energy; we need to keep testing and trying to find devices that work for both marine life and efficient power production. Is it time for an American EMEC--a single testing facility for new devices--rather than our current gold rush permitting process?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sophie's Choice in seafood

by Mark Powell

(Originally appeared in the Snail, the Slow Food publication)

You’ve been there…the seafood counter or the restaurant where your choice is the lovely but unsustainable Chilean seabass vs. bland but sustainable whitefish. What do you choose? If you’re like me, sometimes you choose flavor over sustainability. And that’s a problem.

What’s a seafood lover to do? As a marine biologist turned conservation advocate, I say it’s time to promote sustainability for America’s favorite fish (and all of our favorite foods). We shouldn’t have to choose the hair shirt to feel like we’re living authentic lives in balance with our world.

So far, we’ve been given false choices. We can choose sustainable Alaskan Pollock, primarily because it’s a low demand species. In contrast, our favorite fish are mostly on the “do not buy” lists because they’re overfished and vanishing. What do we get if we choose sustainable Pollock? Well, a few years ago, Pollock was only considered to be suitable for surimi—which is fish paste used to make imitation crab. Now, it’s sold as whitefish fillets because of the severe decline of more desirable species like real Atlantic cod.

If you want to buy your favorite fish, you often have to feel guilty. Red snapper, one of America’s favorite fish, has been fished down to less than 3% of historic levels. Red snapper are not sustainably fished, and a long rebuilding period is necessary to get them back to sustainability. The story continues for Atlantic cod, grouper, and most other favorite fish.

The problem is so bad that much of the fish you buy is labeled as good fish in order to fool you into buying it. So-called “Pacific red snapper” doesn’t really exist. It is actually one of 80 species of Sebastes rockfish, some of which are reasonably good to eat, but not in the same league as the prime red snapper you get in Texas. Sometimes the “grouper” that you buy are nothing but cheap substitutes such as Vietnamese catfish that are illegally mislabeled.

When I was a young boy, my favorite seafood wasn’t a luxury. I grew up fishing and eating coho salmon in Oregon. Smoked salmon was always in our refrigerator, and I was smoking my own salmon and experimenting with different brines before the age of 10. As an 18 year old, fresh out of high school I was a commercial fisherman. That year, we caught over 80% of the coho salmon. I didn’t know it at the time, but I helped kill off the coho salmon, MY coho salmon. Later, as a marine biology professor in the early 1990s, I was surprised to learn that coho salmon were proposed for listing as a threatened species. I quit my job and jumped full time into saving salmon, because what else could I do?

How did we get in this leaky boat? How did we make a world of overfishing, habitat damage, and the loss of our favorite prime seafood? Pure and simple, it’s the lack of political will. Those in charge of managing America’s favorite fish have long been beholden to the fishing industry—or they even moonlight as managers while serving day jobs as industry executives. That’s right, America’s fish are managed by people who make a living selling you those fish. And, they collect a nice government paycheck for their time as managers. It’s an unparalleled conflict of interest, with an unmatched exemption from federal conflict of interest law. We can do much better.

If you’re tired of false choices here’s what you can do. First, Slow Food is the right place for you, let’s build a movement. Stay connected and engaged, and keep valuing the experience of fine, local seafood. Second, find some people or groups that are engaged in protecting your favorite fish and offer to help. You’d be surprised how lonely it is speaking up for conservation at the meetings where managers divvy up this year’s fish. And finally, let your seafood retailers know that you care about sustainability and that you look to them to put pressure on their suppliers. Those of us engaged in protecting fish are finding more and more allies among concerned seafood businesses. We want to keep eating America’s favorite fish, and they want to be the ones to sell us our fish. Let them know we care about sustainability.

The tide is turning. The reward for your involvement is a healthier ocean and bouillabaisse that will knock your socks off!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mark: Sizzle cooks up a recipe for change

A review of Randy Olson's new film: Sizzle: a global warming comedy.

Sizzle captures a profound and elusive truth: people change because of life experience not facts and figures.

In this global warming comedy, the leading role is offered to scientists, environmentalists and politicians, but none of them are up to the task. Instead, real people steal the show when they tell their life stories.

This doesn’t mean that scientists don’t matter. There is a nice supporting role for talking heads with charts. It’s to interpret, explain, and yes, frame people’s life experience.

This is a tough message for scientists to hear, and most will probably reject it. Perhaps because science training calls us to reject life experience and rely instead on rigorous analysis as our guide. Thus, we scientists are used to turning away from life as an unreliable teacher. It will be interesting to follow the Sizzle blog day, and see how most of the ScienceBlogs crew respond.

It’s a real surprise that Sizzle delivers a global warming lesson that's actually worth watching. It works because Sizzle is funny and real, and to use Randy Olson's highest praise, it's not boring.

How do you make global warming funny? Randy Olson casts himself as the scientist-stooge trying to deliver a serious and scary message about Global Warming to the disinterested and disrespectful…and that’s just his film crew. Again and again Randy gets smacked down by his cameraman, producers, and even his mother as he hilariously fails to persuade anyone of anything. His only victory comes when he questions a teary-eyed spokesperson from an environmental group over the iconic polar bear/Global Warming crisis. Her lame attempt to pitch a crisis story comes across as manufactured hype.

Ironically, the woman from the Natural Resources Defense Council rescues Randy with a very astute suggestion: get thee to New Orleans, ground zero for Global Warming.

In New Orleans, Sizzle strikes it rich. Real people tell real stories of heartbreaking loss and near-criminal government neglect. And the case is made that our Warming future looks bleak indeed. Nevermind the fact that Global Warming’s fingerprints on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina are probabilistic at best, New Orleans makes the case.

It’s life experience told first-hand that matters, and Sizzle delivers a punch in the gut about our future under Global Warming. That's worth watching.

There’s an important lesson in this Global Warming comedy, and it recapitulates Randy Olson’s journey from scientist to filmmaker as he uncovers the secrets of making science matter. Facts and figures put most people to sleep and make scientists look smart but irrelevant. Meanwhile, the real human drama of Katrina clobbers the Global Warming denialists.

Sizzle is timely, funny, and smart, but will the intelligentsia be clever enough to get it?

Kate: Some Sizzle, some fizzle

When it comes to passion, Randy Olson is the Michael Moore of science. Like Moore or Morgan Spurlock, Randy is due for a movie that truly showcases his fervor and sharp tongue. Sizzle doesn't quite hit that mark, in large part because Randy is hugely upstaged by co-stars Ifeanyi Njoku and Alex Thomas.

Sizzle takes on not just global warming and how to talk about science, but also the difficulties of funding and filming a documentary in Hollywood. With so many satirical targets and a mix of actors and real interviews, the movie spreads itself a bit thin. It's not clear what audience Sizzle is looking for -- scientists who want to be better speakers? Environmentalists worried about sounding 'hysterical'? Moms from Kansas looking for crackin' joints on Belmont St.?

While any of those groups will gain something from Sizzle, Njoku and Thomas are the reasons to see the film. Whether they're authentically conflicted about global warming or just acting the part well, it's their story that draws you in, which is, of course, part of the point of the film. As the cameraman and sound guy, Njoku and Thomas ask the real questions that a regular person asks about science and global warming: why should I care? The answer is less about polar bears than about the impacts on your daily life, and not in a theoretical way.

The Randy in Sizzle kept saying lines I know he doesn't believe and he could barely say straight-faced, like "use what always works, which is data." Sizzle succeeds when it delivers real people and stories, from determined and abandoned New Orleans residents to the sparkling Dr. Naomi Oreskes, who deserves her own show. We're a story-hungry nation; Sizzle reminds us that it's not who controls the data that determines policy, it's who tells the best stories.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Super-sharp worms

Another item in support of "The Swarm" as a non-fiction book: scientists have synthesized the super-hard jaws of the North Atlantic sandworm. Let's hope these nearshore worms don't develop a taste for methane hydrates...

Who's afraid of greenwashing?

It seems that a lot of people are afraid of greenwashing. But maybe the fear of greenwashing is overblown says Joel Makower, dubbed "the guru of green business" by the Associated Press.

Over at his Two Steps Forward blog, Joel says:

is greenwashing — "disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image" — on the rampage? I think not. Dubious marketing claims are problems that need addressing, but it's part of the growing pains of a new market. The rise of green marketing claims is a testament to how quickly being seen as green has become of importance to companies. Isn't that what all of us wanted to see happen?

Greenwashing represents the naturalizing of green as a meme. It demands scrutiny by all of us, and action against the egregious actors. But, in the end, as the saying goes, it's all good.
I agree. When businesses make green claims, it means they're seeing the value of being green. And that's a "problem" that I'm glad to have.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

It's TIME we noticed the truth about plastic

There is a problem with plastic, and Main Street has noticed. Plastics are everywhere and they're not going away.

You know the questioning of plastic has become mainstream when TIME magazine publishes a feature like this. The industry blog, PlasticsNews, has gone all aghast at this article and the bigger prospect of losing ground in the mainstream, and the industry is planning to fight back.

Will the plastics industry be productive partners in change, and be responsive to real concerns? Or will they put their heads in the sand and retreat into denial? Time will tell. The industry is not monolithic, of course, and certainly some good actors amont the plastics industry will do their best. I hope they're trendsetters for everyone else, and not lone wolves.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Are lobster going extinct?

This question is posed by Maine blogger and cartoonist Patrick Moening...along with his take on the reaction of biologists who study lobsters. The cartoon notes a 23% decline in the last year, the decline is 40% over the last couple of years. Uh-oh.

BTW, all those floats in the water are connected to lobster traps. I wonder how it would look underwater, say to a right whale swimming by?

Cartoon source: Check out more of Patrick's cartoons, they're funny! Here's one more good one:

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dear Mr. President:

Sheril & Chris have been doing a helluva job at ScienceDebate, working to get science on the lips of the current Presidential Candidates. One of the 14 proposed questions is even about the oceans. While those questions are nice and open-ended, meant to encourage free-heeling thinking, we savvy blogfish folks know that the answers will be written by diligent staffers long in advance.* Let's face it -- no one, not even the President of the U.S.A., can be expected to know everything about everything which means they need exceptional advisors.

That's where you come in.

Two august Commissions have proposed a suite of recommendations to improve U.S. ocean policy, but so far Presidential leadership has been lacking (last year, the feds received D grades in funding and reform). Clearly, the wisdom of experts has not moved the White House. Time for the wisdom of crowds. Smart, blogging crowds who spend a lot of time thinking about the oceans. Blogfish wants your recommendations for what the next President can do for the sea. Here are a few of mine to start things off.

1) Fund ocean research, and make it widely available. I almost cried reading this article in WIRED about how petabytes of data make hypothesis testing irrelevant. My god, in the sea we're squabbling over bits. In fisheries, you're lucky if you get a trawl survey every three years. West coast labs have salmon stockpiled in freezers they could decode if someone would just fund their genetics research. It's a running joke that NOAA subsists on the rounding errors from NASA's budget. Enough. We're close to a tipping point, with the Census of Marine Life and acoustic tagging programs underway, with the databases being pulled together at UBC and Dalhousie. Stop fighting over whose OOS is better, kick Google Oceans into gear, and start the Mission to Planet Ocean. Bring in schoolkids and volunteer divers, physicists and green energy companies. Aggregate current and historic data so we can get past confidentiality constraints. The pieces are there, waiting for someone to fit them together.

2) Let fishermen retire. For years, I've been part of an unusual coalition of shrimp trawlers, Alaskan pollock fishermen, environmental groups and industry lobbyists, all of us working to reform something called the Capitol Construction Fund. Seventy years ago, the fund served as a tax incentive to build larger boats; today, that's the last thing most fishermen need. Thousands of fishermen have their own money saved in these funds that they should be able to roll into IRAs. It's a small change in the tax rules that would make a big difference, and I'd encourage the President to add it to his economic plan.

Blogfish will be soliciting ideas all month and compiling the best of them. There's plenty of stuff to tackle -- renewable energy, acidification, bioprospecting, Law of the Sea -- so what's your wish for the next administration?

* Full disclosure: I was a fellow on the Senate Subcommittee for Oceans & Fisheries when John McCain was Chair of the Commerce Committee.

The last days of coral reefs

UPDATE: The coral reefs of New Caledonia were just recognized as a UN World Heritage Site. Book your tickets soon...

This week is the International Coral Reef Symposium, down in Fort Lauderdale. The news is not hopeful. NOAA's triennial state of the reefs report says half of all corals in U.S. waters are in trouble, with two species of coral making the threatened species list under the ESA.

What with damage from hurricanes, pollution, ships, marauding crown-of-thorns starfish, and the threat of an acid ocean it's hard to find good news about corals, though NOAA does try in its text-laden summary from the report's press kit. You get one "good news" bit and one "bad news" bit for each location.
An example:
U.S. Virgin Islands

GOOD Marine Conservation Districts covering 45 km2 now protect important fish spawning aggregations south of St. Thomas and have increased the mean size and number of some species in St. Thomas but not in St. Croix
BAD A regional mass coral bleaching event and subsequent coral disease epidemic in 2005-06 reduced overall coral cover by about 50%.
Most of the news is in a similar vein: we're taking some action, but our measurements show corals in decline.

Do you want plastic in your drinking water?

Who wants to mix plastic balls in your drinking water and then let the whole mess sit and percolate in the hot sun for weeks or months?

You do? Really? Well you can have this to drink every day if you move to LA. And...this plastic cocktail is touted as a solution to a chemical problem, sunlight reacting with water treatment chemicals to form bromate.

Is there a toxic contamination concern from this plastic soaking in drinking water and in the sunlight. There's a fascinating exchange at an LA Times blog on this, and the answers range from "yes" to "no." Read the comments to get the exchange.

Some commenters favor faith in government and others mention the high-density polyethylene and possible chemical problems from trace contaminants and sunlight-caused breakdown. Since HDPE seems to be a fairly safe plastic, my biggest question is what makes those balls black? That, and were they made in China?

Strange brew indeed. I'd prefer not to have plastic in my drinking water. Just for fun, check out the surreal video of 400,000 shade balls being dumped into the drinking water reservoir, thank goodness the workers are wearing hard hats, those balls look dangerous!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Waves of rays

Don't miss these fantastic photos by Sandra Crittenden, published in the UK Telegraph. Rhinoptera bonasus, aka Cownose rays, make long migrations around the Atlantic in huge schools. No one quite knows why, but this is one fish whose populations are increasing, perhaps because the sharks that eat them are fewer and further between.

Monday, July 07, 2008

I'm an Eco-Ocean Award winner

Food & Wine magazine's Eco-Ocean award recognizes innovative sustainable seafood work.

In the August 2008 issue, Food & Wine magazine honors 4 Eco-Ocean award winners, including Ocean Conservancy and VP Mark Powell (hey, that's me) for efforts to improve the sustainability of the troubled red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.

Winner: Ocean Conservancy
Washington, DC
Mark Powell, vice president of fish conservation for the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy advocacy group, has made sweeping changes to help restore the Gulf of Mexico red snapper population by lobbying government groups and partnering with some of America’s most powerful fish buyers. Because of generations of overfishing, the snapper population has dwindled to three percent of what it was 125 years ago. Last year, Ocean Conservancy successfully pushed the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to limit by about half the number of red snapper that commercial fishermen can catch, and advised shrimpers to reduce accidental bycatch of snapper by about three-quarters. To aid the cause, Ocean Conservancy met with mammoth retailer Wal-Mart and its shrimp suppliers and urged for the reduction of snapper bycatch (Wal-Mart has pledged to sell only Marine Stewardship Council–certified fish by 2011). Powell is also working with Bob Sullivan, the corporate CEO of the Chicago-based Plitt Company, which supplies fish to Whole Foods Markets and top local restaurants. In turn, Sullivan pressured government agencies for stricter snapper quotas. Because of efforts like these, Powell says, “In the future, everyone eating Gulf Coast red snapper will be eating sustainable Gulf Coast red snapper” (
It's nice to know that someone noticed. Of course, this was the work of a dedicated team and I wish everyone could be listed in print.

Thanks, Food & Wine, you've got great taste!

Carnival of the blue 14

Is now available for your blue pleasure. Go to Blue Economy for this month's best in ocean blogging.

Or...miss it and you might wither and die from a lack of brain food.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Fish thrive in no-fishing zones

In the "duh" category, fish are thriving in a no-fishing zone in Australia. After looking at graphs, the 10 year old son of one of the scientists said if you stop fishing, don't you expect to find more fish? Uh...yeah.

Coral trout are increasing by up to 68% in areas where no fishing is allowed after just two years of a fishing ban in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Meanwhile, in surrounding areas where fishing is allowed, coral trout numbers are unchanged. The no-fishing benefit for fish is obvious and showing up faster than expected.

Despite the obvious gains, the no-fishing zones were "opposed by many sport and commercial fishermen, fearful that their hobbies and livelihoods were threatened" according to the New York Times.

No-fishing zones are good for fish. And, as I was told by eminent fisherman and conservationist Frank Moore "take care of the fish first, and fishing will take care of itself." Amen.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Buy local produce at your neighborhood Wal-mart

Wal-mart is a champion for local food? You think I'm kidding, right? Wrong. Wal-mart is leading the buy local movement by proving it can work outside of farmer's markets and high-end specialty stores.

Some haters of chain stores have claimed that Wal-mart's business model is contrary to the buy local movement, but maybe we're in for a surprise. Remember, Wal-mart got big by innovating.

Wal-mart isn't alone among large corporations. Bon Appetit, the foodservice company, is an even more impressive corporate leader in buying locally-produced food.

This is an interesting development that may shake up our view of what's possible.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Where can I buy sustainable lobster?

Look to Massachusetts for the most sustainable lobster around. And look for the green claw band, or ask your fishmonger to get the green band Massachusetts lobster.

Why? Because Massachusetts lobstermen are taking the trouble to reduce harm to whales. Massachusetts lobermen are ahead of lobstermen in some other, perhaps more well-known lobster locations.

What's the problem? Whales getting tangled up in ropes used to catch lobster.

The wheels of government have been slow to respond to whales getting tangled up in the ropes tied to lobster traps. Typical ropes float up in the water and make a spider web that can and does entangle and kill whales. This is a serious problem, especially for the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, numbering around 350 individual whales left alive. Death of even a single whale is a risk to the survival of the species.

To help with this problem, the federal government proposed a regulation that all ropes used to connect lobster traps must be made of sinking rope. That way there's no spider web. But, thanks to pressure from Maine senators, this regulation is being delayed after being watered down earlier to exempt large areas in Maine.

The rationale from Maine lobstermen is that things are different in Maine, and sinking ropes won't work. But Maine has been dragging their feet on alternatives to sinking rope too. Well, let's see whether customers prefer whale-safer lobster. No doubt Maine would find a solution quickly if the vaunted Maine lobster brand was being eclipsed by Mass lobster.

It's ironic (perhaps tragic) that this whole effort is playing out while the Maine lobster fishery is trying to get certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. They don't seem to realize that sustainability means not pushing right whales closer to extinction. A Maine lobster website talks about sustainability without so much as mentioning whales. Let's see whether we can help them see that their slogan "here today, here tomorrow" needs to apply to right whales too.

This Mass lobster project is a cooperative effort by the Ocean Conservancy, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Massachusetts Lobstermen.

Ocean clean up Chinese pre-Olympic style

What do you do when you have a huge embarrasing algae problem? An algae bloom that threatens to undermine your standing in the world's eyes by stopping Olympic sailing vessels dead in the water by snarling them in green goo (photo at right)?

Simple, if you're China, you "recruit" people to clean it up by hand (photo below left).

News reports estimate as many as 20,000 people have either volunteered or been ordered to participate in the operation, while 1,000 boats are scooping algae out of the Yellow Sea.
Uh...make that the Yellow-Green Sea. How bad is it? The algae mess affects 5,000 square miles of ocean and more than 100,000 tons have already been hauled away. Wow, that's one big algae bloom.

Where did this mess come from? Likely culprits include the untreated sewage dumped into the ocean from many Chinese cities, along with the heavy nitrate runoff from rivers that drain farmland. Because of these problems algae blooms and red tides are common along the Chinese coastline.

Chinese officials insist that these problems have nothing to do with the algae that threatens to eat the Olympics, blaming warm water and heavy rains instead. I've studied algae blooms, and you just don't get the kind of mess in the photo above from heavy rains and warm water. That's not credible, especially in the face of known nutrient pollution problems from people.

Ironic turn of events for an Olympics that were promised by Chinese officials to be "green." Yeah, a bit too green.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Whales, love them and abuse them

Are whales stealing food from people, or does it go the other way?

According to marine biologist Daniel Pauly, it's "cynical and irresponsible" to argue that whales eat fish which could feed the world's hungry people. But this is exactly the claim made by Iceland, Norway, and Japan, in their quest to increase whale hunting. Now let's see...are these three whale-hunting countries perhaps biased on this issue?

Meanwhile, it will probably be harder for whales to get full bellies in the next few decades because of climate change. Whale feeding areas in the Antarctic are predicted to shrink and move further south, forcing whales to travel farther and concentrate in smaller feeding zones.

The news for whales is just not so good. We have an international deadlock on whale hunting and evidence of cheating (killing too many whales) in the Japanese phony "scientific" whale hunt.

All this for creatures that we love and admire? No wonder it's hard to get people to conserve cold-blooded, wet, and slimy fish.