Monday, October 18, 2010


In honor of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010 in Nagoya, Japan, 18-29 October

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Paying people not to fish

"Some folks made a killing depleting the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Wait ‘til you see how much they’ll make not to fish there anymore."

So says the Honolulu Weekly, in a recent story.

I know some of the characters referred to in this story, the ones who made a pile of money to stop fishing. There is one thing that never changes in the story of fishing in Hawaii. A few people are doing really well, whether they're fishing or not.

The captains of industry get to be captains of fishery management in Hawaii. Jim Cook was the head of two fishing organizations, and also the head of the Fishery Management Council, the policy-making body that regulated his own fishing. When Jim Cook termed out of the management seat, his business partner Sean Martin took over. Neat. And most amazing of all, thanks to a special and unique legal exemption from conflict of interest law, Cook and Martin got paid a nice salary from the federal government for their time serving the public by managing themselves.

So I'm not surprised to see them getting a federal buyout. And they'll keep fishing anyway, just emphasizing a different fishery in a different place. It's not like they really had to quit fishing.

Sigh, I think I'm in the wrong line of work.

A deep ocean leap into an underwater hole

Here's a stunning video, which may seem like a great dream or your worst nightmare. All I can say is Wow!

via The Ocean Lorax; Deep-Sea News; kottke

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ocean plastic is "everywhere"

Forget everything you learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's wrong.

From the experts at the Dubuque, Iowa Telegraph-Herald:
The famed Texas-sized garbage patch swirling in the Pacific Ocean doesn't exist, according to Dr. Marcus Erikson, of the Algalita Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif.
"There is no island of plastic trash," Erikson said. "It's actually much worse than that. The truth is, it's a confetti of waste spread over the entire ocean surface."

I'm worried, but mostly about the metaphor. The great ocean confetti doesn't sound nearly as awful as the garbage patch. How will we get people motivated to rid the ocean of confetti?

Crochet coral reef at Smithsonian

Brought to you by Coral

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Biggest ocean oil spill ever

Almost nobody knows about the biggest ocean oil spill in history. Can you guess who is responsible?

Wrong, it's not the demon Big Oil, it's Gaia, the Green Goddess, Mother Nature. More oil is spilled naturally on earth than the amount of oil spilled by people.

As described on Green, a NY Times blog:

Natural seeps turned out to account for 600 kilotons annually, or 47 percent of the total. Consumption — from such activities as boating, urban runoff and industrial wastes — came in second at 480 kilotons, or 38 percent of the total. In third place were releases from such transportation-related activities as leaky pipes, tanker spills and cargo-hold washings. They amounted to 160 kilotons annually, or 12 percent of the total.

In last place were releases to the sea that tend to make headlines — those associated with oil extraction, like the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20. Globally, that kind of release amounted to 38 kilotons annually, or 3 percent of the total.

These figures are credible, they come from the US National Research Council.

Does this mean it's OK for Big Oil to be reckless with their drilling units? No, there are differences that matter in the timing and speed of oil leaking from Gaia's oil fields.

Size matters, and so does speed and style.

Biological systems are evolved to handle the the oil and gas coming from seeps, and many bugs and creatures live off the oil and gas, by breaking it down into food. But dump a tanker-load of oil on top of those "oil-eating" bugs and beasts, and they get overwhelmed. Natural oil seeps can be big enough to cause harm, but the harm tends to be small and localized.

Natural oil seeps (note that word--SEEP) leak oil and gas slowly, bit-by-bit, in a spread out array of sources all over the world. Sort of like solar energy spread out over the whole planet. But Big Oil's blowouts gush oil hard, fast, and huge, more like focusing sunlight with a lens into a destructive super-hot death beam.

Natural oil seeps are more like the drip, drip, drip of oil that leaks off humanity's infrastructure, roads, ships, ballast water exchange, etc. And this man-made drip, drip, drip, which is actually a bigger source of oil to the ocean than big oil spills, is still smaller than natural oil seeps. What is the effect of our slow leaks of oil? Because of the diffuse nature of these sources, they're less likely to swamp whole areas with oil, compared to a big spill. But in contained water bodies like Seattle's Puget Sound, they can have a big impact.

Based on the style of spill and harm the championship for causing the most harm from spilled oil goes to Big Oil and the Big Spills. At least, that's my guess. I'm not sure we can measure and prove who's the winner.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Whale poop fertilizes oceans

Ocean life depends heavily on fertilizer (nutrients) brought up from cold, rich deep water into brightly lit surface zones. Now there's a new mechanism on the books for nutrient "upwelling."

Whales feed under the surface, and poop near the surface, each time bringing a whale-load of nutrients to the surface. Hooray for whale poo. So it turns out that the main function of whales is to move nutrients from one place to another. But hey, that's the whole point of life anyway, from the perspective of biogeochemistry.

Do you know where you've been transporting nutrients from...and to? That would make an interesting story of a life.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is your seafood from China?

"Is wild Chinese salmon sustainable?"

That's when I knew that things were getting strange.

Salmon don't live in China, but many salmon travel through China on their way from the ocean to your dinner. You can even find salmon in China when they were caught in the US and will be eaten in the US. And sometimes they are labeled "product of China" thanks to quirks in seafood labeling laws.

China is now the largest seafood importer into the US.

Maybe you don't speak Chinese, but your seafood does.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Do Twitter and Facebook campaigns matter?

Faux activism is a problem. Getting mad about something and finding relief in signing an online petition is one example of do-nothing, feel-good activism. Can we hope for more from Twitter and Facebook and similar sites?

Stated more generally, what is the role of Twitter and other social media in changing the world?

According to iconoclast Malcolm Gladwell, there is no primary role for social media in real activism. Contrary to popular opinion, Twitter and it's ilk are just a useful communications tool says the author of "Tipping Point," "Blink," "Outliers" and other penetrating thought pieces.

Others have rushed to disagree, making for a mini media-fest over the role of social media in things real.

I'm more with champions of social media than with Malcolm Gladwell on this one, but he does make good points in his article--which is well worth the reading time.

Effective activism does require "strong links" between people, the kind forged by sharing hardship in pursuit of a difficult goal. And social media shine in forming "weak links" such as being a member of an online "cause." But we're not stuck there.

Social media can play a key role in forging strong links, and there is one other thing Gladwell missed. We need to do a better job in learning how to make change using BIG groups of people united by weak links. We activists need to evolve into the future, not resist. Otherwise we'll be like Shakers in a jet-pack world.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Turbulent plankton party

Now for the first time ever, scientists have captured the urgent biological richness and momentum of a turbulent ocean ecotone (see video below).

This news comes from Julia Whitty, maestro of Deep Blue Home, and she tells the story better than I ever could so I didn't even try. If you're not following her yet, stop what you're doing and immediately go there...except that you shouldn't leave here, of course... Oh well, go there later right after you're done here... Whatever

Maybe you should just visit Plankton Party to avoid getting too too stressed

Plankton Party from Asteroids on Vimeo.

Here's the scientific paper with the good news.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The salmon economy bubble

Can a salmon economy be built out of man-made fish? Alaska is poised to find out, with a salmon crash looming if they've built their salmon economy wrong.

And Alaska is not alone in this mess. Since they share an ocean, Alaska is inextricably linked with Japan, Canada, and a few other places in relying on half-farmed salmon to prop up their salmon economies.

There are too many hatchery salmon in Alaska and the surrounding ocean, and Alaska insists on calling them "wild" even though they start their life in fish farms (see photo of baby "wild" salmon, left).

It's a risky way to build a salmon economy, but so far the house is still standing, so it must be ok...right?...

Uh oh-a new study says the total of half-farmed salmon is too high, the man-made fish are harming wild salmon, and a salmon population crash looks more and more likely.

In a press release, the authors state their case:
In a new paper in Marine and Coastal Fisheries, four researchers, including Randall Peterman and Brigitte Dorner in SFU’s Faculty of Environment, predict a perfect storm is evolving that could seriously reduce wild salmon populations.
“Higher levels of hatchery fish straying onto spawning grounds, combined with low numbers of wild fish, could further erode wild salmon diversity, which helps stabilize their abundances,” explains Peterman. “Many salmon from both sides of the Pacific intermingle in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and/or south of there. Together, these factors create the perfect storm for reducing wild salmon over the long term.”

Sadly, fishermen and managers seem blithely unconcerned. They're probably still holding their tech stocks, waiting for them to come back to life.

We've been down this road before, in salmon country further south. I watched Oregon's salmon economy crash after a failed reliance on hatchery-produced salmon. Oregon and Washington are now busy reforming salmon hatcheries, after learning the hard way that a salmon economy built on hatchery fish is a house of cards. But...of course...Alaska is doing it right. And so is Japan, Canada....

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Disastrous flood of toxic sludge in Hungary

A human and ecological disaster is flooding Hungary. Toxic sludge from aluminum production burst a dam and innundated towns with up to 2 meters of toxic, muddy water rushing through streets, around and in buildings, over fields, etc.

Several people are dead and many are injured, including burns from caustic chemicals. Streams and rivers are swamped, with downstream risks spreading who knows how far, including the mighty Danube River in the heart of Europe.

Video from Al Jazeera (below) captures the tragic scene.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Alaska's (not) wild salmon

Alaska hates farmed salmon...until Alaska produces them and re-brands them "wild."

It's a little-known fact that many of Alaska's so-called "wild" salmon start their lives in a fish farm before being allowed to escape into the ocean.

Do you think I'm kidding? Read this just released by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation:
Pink salmon in the Prince William Sound (Alaska) are a modern, man-made marvel. Hatcheries operated by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation and the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) are responsible for virtually all of the pink salmon harvested in Prince William Sound.
A man-made marvel? These so-called "wild" Alaska salmon start their lives in fish farms before escaping into the ocean and being caught as "wild."

What do these salmon look like in a store?

And what does the salmon industry tell us about these salmon?

Salmon newly hatched from eggs remain in fresh water for about a year before heading out to sea. The fish feed and grow in the ocean for an average of four to seven years. Remarkably, each fish will return to the exact stream in which it hatched to spawn and die.
Oh really? Nothing about people collecting eggs in a bucket (see photo at right)?

I suppose describing this picture in a "wild" salmon brochure wouldn't produce the same image of romance and charisma...
...two men lean over a bowl in a laboratory with eager anticipation as the first eggs begin to spill out of the female salmon, soon to be followed by miracle of fertilization...the fertilized eggs are then stacked on temperature-controlled racks to be monitored daily until they hatch and are released into the cold clear waters filling concrete ponds, their home until they get big enough to swim out to sea...

Moving on, what does the salmon industry tell us is thebiggest enemy of Alaska's wild salmon?

There is, however, a threat to this heaven-sent fish that concerns all who love to catch and consume Wild Salmon. The threat is Farmed Fish. With the increasing popularity of salmon farms around the world, commercial fishermen aren't the only ones paying the price. Penned fish have an increased risk of disease. Fish escaping from these farms, into the open ocean, pose a serious hazard to the health of wild salmon stocks.
Say what?

The biggest problem for wild salmon is when farmed salmon escape from fish farms into the ocean? But letting farmed salmon escape into the ocean is exaclty how Alaska produces most of it's pink salmon and many of it's other salmon (sockeye, coho, and chinook--also known as king salmon). In some places in Alaska, so-called "wild" salmon catches are dominated by hatchery fish, even for the most prestigious chinook (king) salmon. These man-made salmon are hugely popoular among the people of Alaska, based on public support for the hatchery program.

The fine words about wild Alaska salmon are hardly matching the reality, and almost everyone in Alaska seems OK with that. Maybe the real cause of Alaska's opposition to fish farms is market competition between Alaska's hatchery-supplemented "wild" fish and farmed fish produced elsewhere.

We'll come back to the probems further down, first let's hear from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says about the recent boom in so-called "wild" salmon production from Prince William Sound, quoted in Alaska Dispatch
The average annual harvest for the most recent decade-long period stands near 45 million salmon per year. How salmon harvests in the Sound doubled, and then doubled again, has everything to do with human alterations to the environment. But not in the form of spilled oil.

"It's the hatchery fish,'' said John Hilsinger, commercial fisheries supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "There's a real large number of hatchery fish."
There can be no doubt, Alaska is dependent on farm-produced salmon that escape by design into the ocean. Statewide totals are 1.2 to 1.4 billion salmon each year that are raised in hatcheries and released into the ocean, accounting for 14% to 37% of annual salmon catch. Overall odds are about 1 in 4 that a so-called wild Alaska salmon actually started it's life in a fish farm.

According to Trout Unlimited, the statewide figures by species in 2000 were:
64% of the 2000 statewide Alaska commercial harvest of chums, 42% of pinks, 24% of coho, 4% of sockeye, and 19% of Chinook salmon were of hatchery-produced fish.

Is the salmon industry worried about these salmon that are allowed to escape intentionally from fish farms? No, in fact the salmon industry is eager to expand hatchery production of salmon in Alaska. From the Alaska Dispatch:

So why not do more to boost the salmon economy in the Sound? What's wrong with a bigger fish spill?

That is a hard question to answer. A lot of people think helping out nature by adding things -- can you say "bird feeder"? -- is a good thing. Only when it comes to subtracting things -- can you say "aerial wolf hunt"? -- or adding ugly things -- can you say "oil spill"? -- do people get upset about nature tampering.

Even officials at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game -- having originally questioned the hatchery expansion -- are now in the process of approving most of PWSAC's requests for expansion. What else are they going to do?

"You're not going to shut down the hatcheries,'' Eggers said. "The Sound is supported by hatcheries now. The (fishing) industry depends on hatcheries."

Is this a problem? Also quoting from Alaska Dispatch:
"Our obligation to manage wild (salmon) stocks in Prince William Sound is very challenged at current levels of population,'' an April memorandum from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game warns. "Department straying studies suggest that at current production levels, hatchery salmon straying may pose an unacceptable risk to wild salmon stocks."

This warning comes from a review of Alaska's salmon hatcheries by the University of Alaska:
Based on a review of the scientific literature and discussions with biologists, geneticists, and fishery managers about protecting salmon biodiversity, the potential impacts of extensive ocean ranching appear to pose a great concern...

Fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn, who is often a good friend of the fishing industry, has this stark warning about artificial production of salmon, especialy when it's desgined to boost fishing:
Artificial propagation is often seen as a way to maintain and increase or augment fish stocks that have suffered from habitat loss and overexploitation. Large-scale hatchery programs for salmonids in the Pacific Northwest have largely failed to provide the anticipated benefits; rather than benefiting the salmon populations, these programs may pose the greatest single threat to the long-term maintenance of salmonids. Fisheries scientists, by promoting hatchery technology and giving hatchery tours, have misled the public into thinking that hatcheries are necessary and can truly compensate for habitat loss. I argue that hatchery programs that attempt to add additional fish to existing healthy wild stocks are ill advised and highly dangerous.

This is not a new issue. Scientists and conservationist have been critiquing salmon hatcheries for a long time, although Alaska has better practices than some other areas and has so far escaped the worst criticism. Blogfish has been knocking on this door for years, and salmon farming advocates have been calling for a more truthful comparison between farmed salmon and Alaska's so-called wild salmon.

Maybe we're finally starting to see a broader recognition that there is a bit of mythology behind the reputation of Alaska salmon.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Who lives in the ocean?

The census of marine life is done, after 10 years of work by 2,700 scientists from 80 nations with a price tag of $650 million. What did we learn? Ocean, we barely know ye.

According to CNN, scientists estimate that there are more than 1 million marine species but only about 250,000 have been formally described in scientific literature over the centuries. Those figures exclude microbes -- of which the census estimate there are up to 1 billion kinds.

Myriam Sibuet, vice-chair of the Scientific Steering Committee on the mammoth study, said: "The census enlarged the known world. Life astonished us everywhere we looked. In the deep sea we found luxuriant communities despite extreme conditions.

Extreme conditions, that's my speciality as a the time I rode inside a submarine down 10,000 feet to a hydrothermal vent community. Now THAT is living!

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The best environmental film ever made

From 1968, the best environmental film ever made--"Pass Creek." This 10 minute film was the center of a successful campaign to reform bad logging practices in the US northwest. Worth highlighting this week, during debate over perhaps the worst environmental film ever made, No Pressure (link removed because this film is soooooo-o-o bad).

Pass Creek was made by a team, inspired by my friend Frank Moore, and Frank barnstormed around the US in his private plane showing the film. Frank is called the father of the first forest protection law in the United States, passed in Oregon in 1971.

Blogfish turns 300,000

Blogfish hit 300,000 visits (nearly half a million page views) on 1 October, 2010, at midnight Central Europe Time. Lucky visit number 300,000 was an Arabic speaker from Tunisia, clicking in to "Plastic in 40% of turtle stomachs.", which (s)he found through Google image search

Who knew in April 2006, when blogfish birthed, that the damn thing would still be kicking 4.5 years later?

Here's a few interesting tidbits about visitors number 299,999 to 300,002:

299,999: Palestine, Texas, viewing "Smokestacks at Sea."
300,001: Auberry, California, viewing "Akumal Underwater."
300,002: London, England...

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The biology of super-abundance for native species

Now there's a headline we don't often see these days, super-abundance. And it's an issue we don't know a lot about, because it's rare and hard to study. Let's take advantage of our lucky break on sockeye salmon this year in British Columbia and think about the biology of super-abundance of native species.

Here's a clue from a newspaper article on what we might see eventually in a scientific study:

"It's supposed to be the biggest run in a hundred years," Jim Cooperman, spokesman for the Salute to the Sockeye Festival, said Wednesday from Salmon Arm. "Millions and millions of fish. It's amazing."

So many sockeye are expected to arrive that the Adams River cannot accommodate them all, resulting in salmon seeking out other streams in the Shuswap region such as Scotch Creek, which has already had bumper returns this year.

Salmon are noted for their homing instincts, returning to the stream where they hatched to mate and continue the cycle. But this year there are too many sockeye coming back to the Adams river, and they're likely to "spill-over" into other nearby streams.

This straying and mixing during a period of super-abundance is the kind of thing that gets scientists aroused. Is it true?..what are the genetic consequences? it important biologically or just an interesting bit of trivia??! We know human-caused mixing is usually bad, but this natural mixing seems to be different--why?

Wouldn't it be nice to have scienitific conferences, debates, and controversies over the biology of super-abundance of native species? What fun!