Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Wisdom of the fishes

A tuna tail will save us? Maybe, if the tuna tail power generator works as hoped.

The good people at BioPower Systems hope to gain inspiration from tuna tails and kelp fronds to produce energy from the motion of the ocean.

The idea is to use natural structures as models for effective power generation from the low intensity but high power present in slowly-moving water. Since tuna tails are so efficient at converting energy into motion, why not reverse the process and convert motion into energy?

A great innovation if it works.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Spiny dogfish-dead fish swimming

Who will stand up for the troubled spiny dogfish? These small sharks that fishermen love to hate were targeted after their favorite fish like cod were fished out.

Following a quick fishery boom and bust, the preferred mature females (larger and more profitable) have been fished out in the Atlantic and elsewhere. With few mommies and no babies, these long-lived fish will take decades to recover.

Unfortunately, roving male dogfish are bothering fishermen who find their nets and lines otherwise empty. Their solution? Blame the dogfish, nevermind the decades of overfishing that are the real reason they can't catch cod.

Now, fishermen are hoping to restart the dogfish derby, and dogfish have few friends. Lacking an image makeover, the best hope for spiny dogfish is international trade sanctions, stay tuned.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Try an ocean conservation vacation

Go diving and help save coral reefs, all on your next vacation.

There's more to time off than pina coladas, suntans and romance. Now you can get close with damselfish and help make sure your grandkids have the same opportunity.

Earthwatch Institute offers opportunities to get involved in environmental research around the world, including this fun coral reef research vacation in Thailand written up by "ethical traveler" Jeff Greenwald.

Who knew that conservation is fun?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Alaska fishermen struggle with warming ocean

Warmer water is moving Alaska's fish, and fishermen must go further for their catch. So far they're still finding fish, but the future is uncertain.

Warming is affecting almost everything that's caught in Alaska, the source of about half of US-caught seafood. The changes aren't limited to fish, blogfish brought you the news on sea ice and mammals affected by warming.

These changes have Alaska's politicians on the leading edge of US politics, seeking solutions.

Some groups doubt warming is the problem and claim instead that changes in fish, birds, and mammals, "are likely due, in large part, to the massive Alaska pollock fleet, which is the nation's largest fishery." Fishing is a cause of changes in Alaska's oceans, and so is warmer water.

Image: dark areas warmed the most, source Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Bluefin tuna overfishing

Japan has been busted for serious overfishing of bluefin tuna. These magnificent oceanic "cruise missles" are among the most valuable seafood on earth. Without effective protection we might see the last one sold in our lifetimes, for some fantastic price.

In this context, the Japanese overfishing is a serious offense.

The Australian government was responsponsible for the bust, and they claim 20 years of Japanese poaching worth up to $8 billion, and illegal catch levels that prevented bluefin from rebuilding.

The Japanese government admits only modest and short term overfishing of bluefin tuna. However, they accepted stringent penalties that will cut Japanese bluefin quotas in half for 5 years.

It's a shame that some fishermen would so wantonly slaugher such a magnificent creature as bluefin tuna, in defiance of international management and conservation agreements. Bluefin are warm-blooded fish that can grow over 1500 pounds and swim nearly 50 miles per hour. The ocean version of a lion that runs like a cheetah.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Iceland resumes whale hunting

Defying a ban and international disapproval, Iceland resumed commercial whale hunting and killed an endangered fin whale this week.

The justification from Iceland is that minke and fin whales are abundant and they intend to pursue sustainable use of all living marine resources. This argument holds more water for minke whales which are not endangered.

World opinion is largely against Iceland, because commercial whale hunting has been banned by treaty for 20 years. Pro-whaling Japan welcomes Iceland's whale hunt.

Many factors argue against commercial whaling, including the charisma of whales, and the sad fact that some whales have not recovered from being hunted to near-extinction. In addition, whale products are no longer needed and barely wanted by anyone. But most importantly, whaling has become symbolic of reckless disregard for scientific and ethical limits to resource use.

For many people, hunting and butchering whales and selling the meat is simply wrong. It doesn't matter whether whale populations can survive the hunt.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Texas great barrier (artifical) reef?

Since Texas doesn't have a great barrier reef, some people want to build one. The ambitious plan would build a reef along the entire Texas coast 8 miles offshore in 40-90 feet of water.

Proponents say the artificial reefs will enhance fishing for red snapper, and escape the unwelcome fishing restrictions that are coming otherwise.

Never mind that artificial reefs may just attract fish and make them easier to catch, thus pushing red snapper even deeper into a hole. Seems like there's always a receptive audience for fishy "solutions" that sound good on paper. The scientific verdict is not yet in for artificial reefs, and whether they produce more fish. One thing is certain, artificial reefs can act as "fish aggregating devices" (FADs) and worsen overfishing. This is one FAD I could do without.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Fishing worsens boom & bust cycles for fish

California's sardines have another story to tell. If we listen, we may have to change the way we manage fishing.

A new study shows that fishing worsens boom and bust cycles for fish, including boom and bust cycles triggered by changing ocean conditions. This happens because fishing removes the biggest fish, and the big ones are critically important for reproduction during the tough years.

What can we do? Find new ways to manage fishing so that we don't catch all of the biggest fish. That could include setting aside some areas where big fish can thrive unmolested. Other options include catching fewer fish or developing new fishing methods that lets the big ones get away.

It's fascinating to see another layer of insight added to the well-studied California sardine fishery collapse in the middle of the last century. First it was overfishing, then ocean conditions were blamed, and now we're back to a focus on overfishing.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Fish: to eat or not to eat?

Seafood is yummy, but questions can make buyers hesitate. Do I have to worry about mercury? Which fish are best, and how much can I eat?

What's a busy shopper to do, with 30 seconds or so to decide at the counter or with the menu?

Thank goodness for a new government report that tells us don't worry, eat fish. According to the study, health benefits from seafood outweigh the risks. The major worry is that kids and pregnant women should not eat certain highly contaminated fish.

But wait, some environmental groups have criticized the study as biased. And the report notes that too few studies have been done on contamination levels found in seafood.

Credible people say some seafood can be risky, especially for vulnerable groups. Real people have been found to have health problems from overeating contaminated seafood right here in the good ol' US of A. Consumer fears exist, and they won't go away until the seafood industry tries to help consumers make informed decisions, through credible testing and labeling. Denial will not make the problem go away.

Thankfully, astute seafood sellers are seeing the light and looking for credible answers. At an open house I attended yesterday near Seattle, Plitt Seafood hosted a forum on contamination in seafood, with a presentation by a toxicologist. Now that's a step in the right direction.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Russia outconserves the US

Maybe Khruschev was right, they will bury us...with salmon.

While the US dammed, diverted, dewatered, and otherwise killed our salmon, Russia is taking steps to conserve salmon right. If they succeed, someday we may need Kamchatka's salmon to re-populate our rivers.

Pacific salmon are thriving in Eastern Russia, in the undeveloped wild watersheds of the Kamchatka peninsula. The government is saying all of the right things, and working to set aside huge areas of wilderness to provide salmon refuges. The salmon refuges would include 9 large rivers, more than 6 million acres, and uncounted millions of spawning salmon every year.

According to renowned biologist Jack Stanford: "Russia is getting it right, and we got it wrong.”

Meanwhile we will keep muddling along with our billions of wasted dollars, few fish, and grouchy fish lovers.

It's a good day for the oceans, and an even better day if we can learn from Russia.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Who or what stirs the ocean?

Is it possible that paddling feet, fins, and flukes do more to mix ocean waters than big winds and currents? Maybe.

This surprising answer may force us to rethink how oceans work.

Tiny paddling krill do more to mix ocean waters than all other forces combined in a recent Canadian study. The krill feed near the ocean surface at night, then swim down deep during the day (presumably to hide). The swimming swarm moves enough water to win the ocean mixing contest.

Now oceanographers are ready with a whole new set of questions, like what about the passage of big whales or schools of fish--do they leave a changed ocean in their wake? And does overfishing reduce ocean productivity by slowing down nutrient transport?

This reminds me of the revolution in thinking that followed the discovery that salmon swimming upstream to spawn and die are a major source of nutrients for the growth of their offspring. Now we all accept that salmon fertilize tiny headwater streams and are a major source of nutrient transport from ocean depths to mountain ecosystems. Ocean-derived nutrients have been found in plants and bears on hilltops, and in wine made from grapes grown along salmon streams.

Science is now renewing ancient wisdom...krill can move an ocean.

Photo: Edgar, 1997 from http://www.woodbridge.tased.edu.au/mdc/Species%20Register/krill.htm

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Conservation role for salmon hatcheries

Non-traditional hatcheries can help salmon conservation, but the "livestock in salmon's clothing" produced in traditional hatcheries are not helpful, according to a new study.

This is another nail in the coffin of the big fish hatcheries built as compensation for dams that block rivers.

Say goodbye to the heady days of "building a better salmon," chronicled in "Fish of rare breeding." This book from 1976 captures the can-do excitement of fish biologists like Lauren Donaldson who thought they had bested nature through selective breeding of "super fish." Students of social and scientific change will find this book interesting reading.

Scientist Michael Blouin cautioned that relying on hatcheries to sustain salmon runs is likely to fail in the long run without restoring river habitats. Failure occurs because one generation in hatcheries seems ok, but confinement for too long produces fish that can only thrive in ponds.

How much proof is needed to bury hatchery salmon--the great sacred cow of the northwest?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lobster protection--in the marketplace

Claws are raised in Maine, over foreign threats to the lobster industry.

Echoing earlier struggles over the term "catfish," the lobster industry wants to own the word lobster. Never mind that the imports actually are catfish or lobsters, biologically speaking. As reported on Fox news, economic clout is the real decider on what's a catfish or what's a lobster.

Maine Senator Olympia Snowe is leading the charge on this one, asking the FDA to make it illegal to call a lobster a lobster. But if Maine lobster are really better, then they'll win in the marketplace, right?

Some tasters report liking "langostino," and some prefer Vietnamese catfish over the US variety, so maybe Maine lobster and Mississippi catfish really do need marketplace protection.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Paying fishermen to kill fish?

If it sounds like a wasteful government program, you have a good ear.

The federal government is paying fishermen $3.7 million dollars this year to kill northern pikeminnow. Why? They've been caught eating young salmon by forensic pathologists.

Kill fish that eat salmon and get more salmon, right? Well, maybe not. The missing pikeminnow will probably be replaced by smallmouth bass and walleye, both non-native gamefish that eat plenty of salmon, maybe even more than pikeminnow.

Why not kill walleye and smallmouth bass? Because people like them so managers try to keep the Columbia river "teeming" with these salmon-eaters.

With all of the things wrong in the Columbia River, you'd think we could spend our money on something a bit smarter than chasing attractive myths like "killing pikeminnow to save salmon."

And this is just the beginning...we're also paying good public $$ to harass birds that dare to eat salmon, like cormorants and terns. Next time you fork over $60 to fill your tank, remember that you may also be buying gas to chase cormorants with a boat.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Puget Sound ocean life disappearing

Here in Seattle we fancy ourselves ocean lovers, but our coastal ocean is dying. Oops, I guess we've been too busy sipping lattes and blogging from wirless hotspots.

Ocean life is disappearing, here and there and everywhere. From eelgrass beds to crabs to herring, it's getting harder to find the abundance we smugly take for granted. And that's before we even start with the troubles we've inflicted on our signature salmon and orcas.

Who's spreading such difficult news? Some biting new media? A series in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, printed on paper every day and sold from boxes. They've put the pieces together and it's not a pretty story.

Governors and task forces continue to work on solutions, but progress is lacking. Will we find the wherewithall to reverse the trend? Or accept a sad decline to where we said we'd never go, the ugly bland life of an urban port like *shudder* Long Beach.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Waves travel 8,000 miles to smash iceberg

A violent storm brewed in Alaska sent waves 8,000 miles to break up a massive iceberg in Antarctica. To do this damage, the waves had to travel the entire length of the Pacific Ocean, northern hemisphere to southern hemisphere.

Scientists had been studying the iceberg for other reasons, and had sensitive instruments in place that could detect all of the details of the icebergs final shuddering breakup.

The sheer distance traveled by the storm waves stunned scientists, who reported "our jaws dropped." It's interesting to learn that even experienced experts can be stunned and surprised by the power of the ocean.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Oregon ocean dead zone cover-up

The ocean dead zone off Oregon is dissapating, and the cover-up is beginning.

Just because there was no oxygen and lots of dead animals, that doesn't mean there was a dead zone, according to some politicians. “I think it’s an unfortunate term. It’s misleading,” said Onno Husing, who notes that the Pacific Ocean off Oregon is flourishing as a whole, not dying.

Media interest in the scary phenomenon has apparently generated a backlash in coastal communities, who are worried about losing business. They're campaigning on the idea that the dead zone isn't really dead, isn't actually all that bad, and isn't even new.

Scientists note that the pool of low oxygen water is bigger than ever, oxygen levels are lower than ever, and it's closer to shore than ever. Blogfish brought you the news of unprecedented death of crabs and fish in shallow water areas close to shore.

It's fair to ask that news reports shouldn't be unduly alarming. But whatever you call it, this is worrisome and not a good time to bury our heads in the sand.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bottom trawl ban sought by Bush

Bottom trawling has been widely criticized as a lousy way to catch fish, since it plows through fish habitat to catch fish.

Depending on which analogy you prefer, it's like using a bulldozer to catch birds in a forest or clear-cutting a forest to catch a squirrel.

Either way, there's no doubt that bottom trawling disturbs fish habitat, and that's bad if you want to fish again later. It's true that a few fish benefit from bottom trawling, if they can thrive on a plowed ocean bottom. But in general it's just not a good idea to churn, plow, flatten, and otherwise eliminate habitat complexities that make homes for fish and other animals. Click here for undersea video of a bottom trawl in action.

To address this problem, President Bush thinks we should ban bottom trawling in areas where it's poorly regulated. The White House statement is good. Specifically, the (State Department) is directed to ... establish rules based on sound science ... and to end destructive fishing practices, such as unregulated bottom trawling, explosives and chemicals that destroy the long-term productivity of ecosystems such as seamounts, corals, and sponge fields," the White House statement said.

OK, here's an area where I support our President. It's a good day for the ocean.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Salmon farms harm wild salmon

Ocean salmon farms breed sea lice that infect and kill wild salmon, according to a new study.

Aquaculture critics have raised this concern for years, but supporters have disagreed. The new study is fairly solid in proving that a problem does exist and solutions are required.

The study found that young salmon died after being infected with as few as one louse, that the more louse on the fish the more likely it was to die, and that the more salmon farms along the migration route, the more likely the fish were to die. The highest mortality rate, 95 percent, came in the channel with three salmon farms at the end of the migration season, when sea lice were most prevalent.

It's not surprising really, that breeding large populations of salmon parasites can be harmful to wild salmon that swim through those clouds of parasites. Given the economic significance of salmon farming, however, it's also not surprising that there is perhaps a bit of denial operating among those responsible for writing the rules.

Indeed, Andrew Thomson, acting head of aquaculture for Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Pacific region, said "It's a complex issue. We need to do more research on it." Now that's progress.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Bering Sea ocean life threatened by warming

Ocean life off Alaska is feeling the heat. Ice is melting and the whole Bering Sea ecosystem is changing, with potentially devastating effects for some marine mammals and fish.

But it's not all bad news, what's bad for ribbon seals may turn out to be good for pollock. The timing of spring plankton blooms may be a critical factor in determining who thrives and who suffers.

As the ecosystem turns, opinions about causes differ. Some believe that everything awry in the Bering Sea is caused by factory trawlers. Now Blogfish is no friend of harmful fishing, but it's not right to blame fishing for everything. Fishermen do take a lot of fish out of the Bering Sea, but fishing isn't causing the loss of sea ice and every other change to the oceans in the region. Many dedicated scientists think climate change is roiling the waters, and they aren't all being paid off by fishermen and their friends in politics.

If we want to fix ocean problems, then we need to be open minded about the causes and potential solutions.