Ocean Currents » Ocean Life http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Wed, 30 Sep 2015 23:26:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Victory in the Arctic: Shell Terminates Drilling Activities in the Chukchi Sea http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/28/victory-in-the-arctic-shell-terminates-drilling-activities-in-the-chukchi-sea/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/09/28/victory-in-the-arctic-shell-terminates-drilling-activities-in-the-chukchi-sea/#comments Mon, 28 Sep 2015 19:17:23 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10779

Early on Monday morning, Shell announced that it would no longer pursue oil-drilling activities in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska. Shell’s announcement has been a long time coming, and marks a major victory for all those who have opposed Arctic drilling as too risky and too much of a threat to the Arctic ecosystem and the planet’s climate.

Shell purchased its Chukchi Sea leases in 2008, but was precluded from drilling on its leases for many years. Among other things, legal challenges exposed flaws in the government’s environmental analyses and the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster resulted in a temporary restriction on Arctic drilling. In 2012, Shell finally received the green light to drill in the Chukchi Sea, but the company was woefully unprepared for the challenge: vessels were not ready, spill response equipment failed under testing, equipment spewed air pollution in violation of standards and one of its drill rigs was swept ashore in a storm on the way back to Seattle. In the end, Shell failed to complete a single well in 2012.

This year, when Shell finally returned to the Arctic, it did so under intense scrutiny. Government regulators ensured that Shell conformed to rules designed to protect vulnerable species like Pacific walrus. This meant that Shell could only operate one of its two Arctic drilling rigs and could only drill for a short window of time during the ice-free summer season. Activists protested the presence of Shell’s Arctic vessels in in Seattle and Portland, highlighting the risk of an oil spill in icy and remote waters—and the risk to the planet’s climate if Shell found and developed a massive oil reservoir in the Arctic Ocean. And Shell encountered at least one problem reminiscent of its failed 2012 season when one of its ice-breaking vessels struck an uncharted object, opening a gash in its hull.

Despite these challenges, Shell persisted with its efforts to complete an exploration well in the Chukchi Sea. But when the company final did so earlier this summer, it found that there was not enough oil to justify additional exploration at the prospect. In a press release, Shell announced that it would “cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future.” In addition to the sub-optimal results from the exploration well, Shell cited high costs and challenging regulations as reasons for giving up.

Shell’s decision to retreat from the Arctic Ocean is great news for the bowhead whales, walruses, ice-dependent seals and other wildlife species that could have been devastated by an oil spill in this remote region. Local communities depend on marine mammals like these to support a subsistence way of life that stretches back for thousands of years.

Shell’s decision to leave the Arctic Ocean should be viewed as an affirmation of all those who joined together in opposition to Shell’s risky drilling schemes. Now that the immediate threat of oil drilling has ended, we can focus on crafting sustainable solutions for long-term health in this rapidly changing region.

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Plastics in Seabirds: A Pervasive and Growing Problem That Requires Global Action http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/31/plastics-in-seabirds-a-pervasive-and-growing-problem-that-requires-global-action/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/31/plastics-in-seabirds-a-pervasive-and-growing-problem-that-requires-global-action/#comments Mon, 31 Aug 2015 22:31:55 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10696

You have likely seen the pictures of albatross chicks chocking on plastics. These images are tough to look at and the death these birds suffer from ingesting plastics is gruesome and painful. Albatross consume a whole range of plastics that float in the ocean, from cigarette lighters, to toothbrushes to shards of plastics from a huge variety of other plastic products. As a conservation organization, Ocean Conservancy is deeply troubled by the impact of plastics on these magnificent birds. But how pervasive is this problem, really? A new paper in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS gives us a disturbing answer. It turns out plastics in seabirds is a very big deal. It is global, pervasive and increasing. And it has to be stopped.

The research published today was done by Drs. Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty from CSIRO in Australia and Dr. Erik van Sebille from Imperial College in London. It is the result of an independent scientific Working Group convened by Ocean Conservancy at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This is the same group that recently demonstrated that 8 million tons (17 billion pounds) of plastics enters the ocean each year, much of it from Asia. This week’s publication shows the consequences of this plastic avalanche. Using global historical data from publications over the last few decades on the presence of plastics in the stomachs of 135 species of seabirds from all around the world, the authors show that plastic contamination is increasing and they predict that 99% of all seabird species will be eating plastic by 2050 unless something is done to stem the tide. Surprisingly, seabirds that may be most at risk of plastics are those that lived at the Southern Ocean boundary in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, far from the well-known “garbage patches at the center of the ocean’s gyres. While plastics are less abundant there compared to the gyres, this is where seabirds are most common – and thus at greatest risk of exposure to plastics. Contamination rates have increased from about 26% historically to approximately 65% today; if the trend continues, nearly all species of seabird – and almost 95% of all individuals – will be exposed to plastics by 2050. So this isn’t just about albatross; it’s about ALL seabirds including penguins, fulmars, auklets, prions, storm petrels and the many other species that spend the majority of their lives living over the ocean.

Read the entire article at National Geographic’s website.

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Join Us for the 30th Annual International Coastal Cleanup http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/28/join-us-for-the-30th-annual-international-coastal-cleanup/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/28/join-us-for-the-30th-annual-international-coastal-cleanup/#comments Fri, 28 Aug 2015 12:57:51 +0000 Michelle Frey http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10687

The 30th Anniversary of the International Coastal Cleanup is almost here! Help Ocean Conservancy to keep our beaches and waterways clean. Please join us at a cleanup near you.

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Lessons From the Mediterranean About Ocean Acidification http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/26/lessons-from-the-mediterranean-about-ocean-acidification/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/08/26/lessons-from-the-mediterranean-about-ocean-acidification/#comments Wed, 26 Aug 2015 12:36:58 +0000 Guest Blogger http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10677

Today’s guest blog comes from Jason Hall-Spencer — a Professor of Marine Biology at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom. His research spans seamount ecology, fisheries , ocean acidification, aquaculture and conservation. He’s also working on marine protected area design using satellite vessel monitoring for fisheries management. He does his fieldwork all over the world, at volcanic CO2 vents in the Mediterranean, coral reefs in the Arctic, the NE Atlantic, and off Papua New Guinea. Follow him on Twitter at @jhallspencer.

In 2006, when I first heard about ocean acidification, I started running expeditions near underwater volcanoes in the Mediterranean where CO2 bubbles up through the sea floor, acidifying large areas for centuries. We have found similar ecosystem shifts at all the seeps, so I am now convinced that ocean acidification will bring change.  In a recent article I attempt to put this topic into context, focusing on two major causes of change – the corrosive effects of CO2, and the way the extra carbon is used as a resource.

Here’s what we’ve noticed about the sea life around those natural CO2 seeps in the Mediterranean: algae seems to thrive, whereas animals with calcium carbonate shells—like plankton—dissolve away. We see a lot of brown seaweeds on the seafloor, and they often overwhelm slower-growing competitors like corals. Although life is abundant at CO2 seeps, there is far less diversity than we see elsewhere.

Reefs formed by corals or mollusks are severely weakened as CO2 levels rise, which is clearly a concern since ocean waters around the world are becoming increasingly acidified. As reefs weaken, we will see ripple effects onshore and in the water. In the tropics, weakened reefs will likely worsen coastal erosion, which is already a problem due to rising sea levels, increased storminess and the loss of protective habitats such as mangrove swamps.

Some plants and animals, typically the ones without shells, can adapt to the effects of long-term acidification. Jellyfish, anemones and soft corals do especially well, but when we transplant hard corals into areas with an average pH of 7.8, they dissolve away. So acidified oceans could end up dominated by much fewer species living among crumbling reefs and competing with soft-bodied jellyfish and seaweed.

What does all this mean for temperate coastal habitats and fisheries? I’m not sure. These highly productive waters may provide oysters, mussels and corals with enough food to cope well with these conditions, which make forming their shells more difficult.

Next year I hope to begin studying natural analogues for future ocean conditions in the north Atlantic, as this will reveal which organisms have more chance of coping. Perhaps algae will counteract acidification by absorbing CO2 – this could help those who earn their living through shellfish aquaculture, or who depend on reefs for coastal protection and tourism.

The past five years’ work shows ocean acidification is a serious issue with real financial costs, and that marine life is already being affected. This evidence is helping galvanize change as governments get serious about cutting emissions. Investing in research is absolutely worth it – ‘forewarned is forearmed.’ We now know that systems that are under less stress are more resilient  – I hope this new body of knowledge helps improve coastal management and strengthen marine regeneration efforts.

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Take Action to Help Save Whale Sharks http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/10/take-action-to-help-save-whale-sharks/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/10/take-action-to-help-save-whale-sharks/#comments Fri, 10 Jul 2015 12:00:40 +0000 George Leonard http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10434

September 4, 2015 update: Thank you to the more than 73,000 people who took action to protect whale sharks. We are currently in direct conversations with the cruise ship industry and we hope to share updates with you soon. Watch this space!

The largest fish in the ocean is one of the most majestic, too: the whale shark. These gentle giants are also in danger.

Right now, there’s a very simple way to protect them, and you can help. Off the coast of Mexico, thousands of whale sharks gather to feed and mate every year. Unfortunately, there are two cruise ship companies whose cruises currently travel through this important area where whale sharks congregate in large numbers and swim slowly at the surface of the water.

The beauty of this area is bringing more and more visitors each year, and unfortunately, they are having some negative effects on the whale sharks. There is an easy step to be taken in protecting whale sharks in this region, and we hope you’ll take just a moment to let Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises know how important it is to you that they adjust their course by 7 miles to protect these magnificent animals.

Whale sharks can reach over 40 feet in length, and they swim slowly while close to the surface with their mouths open to eat their staple food source, plankton. This makes them particularly vulnerable to ship strikes, which is why it’s so important to adjust cruise ship routes to protect them.

Ships are currently required by Mexican law to go at least 3 miles east of Isla Contoy, but just 4 additional miles would keep the ships from passing through this critical whale shark area and prevent possible negative interactions with these incredible creatures.

Just 7 miles can save whale sharks. Please encourage Carnival and Royal Caribbean to help make a difference for whale sharks.

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They’re Back! The Return of the Big Predators to Coastal Waters http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/09/theyre-back-the-return-of-the-big-predators-to-coastal-waters/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/09/theyre-back-the-return-of-the-big-predators-to-coastal-waters/#comments Thu, 09 Jul 2015 12:00:25 +0000 Guest Blogger http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10412

This guest blog comes from Dr. Chris Lowe, a professor of marine biology and the director of the CSULB Shark Lab

Despite the potential Discovery Channel royalties, it’s not easy being at the top of the food chain. Apex predators like sharks, that occupy the top of a food chain, are typically few in number because of certain characteristics (e.g. slow growth, low reproduction, delayed maturity and high longevity). And they are greatly dependent on animals lower on the food chain, thus dependent on the environmental conditions that support these food sources.

Humans, the Earth’s reigning “apex predator,” are clearly an exception to this rule. The human population has grown exponentially, particularly along coastal communities, bringing with it a litany of impacts on our coastal ocean, including habitat loss, pollution and overfishing. Rapid coastal development in California back in 1940s-1970s, resulted in some of the worst coastal water and air quality that existed anywhere in the country.

But since the 1970’s California has significantly improved water and air quality due to strict environmental regulations on discharge and emissions.  In fact, California now has some of the most conservative environmental regulations in the country when it comes to water and air quality.  As a result of strict regulations on waste water discharge, the state has cleaner water now than it did in the 1970s even with three times more people living along the coast.

Yet, despite all of this legislation and regulation, we’re constantly bombarded with “doom & gloom” messages about the state of our ocean. Have any of those state and federal legislative and regulatory acts resulted in any net benefits over the last four decades?  If I were to tell you things may be getting better, and the evidence for this is seen in the recovery of our marine predator populations — would you believe it?

While it’s taken decades, many marine predator populations are increasing due to better water and air quality, improved fisheries management and a restoration of ecosystem function — all of which occurred regardless of an ever growing human coastal population.

Over the last nine years, my students and I have studied juvenile white sharks off the coast of southern California as part of a collaborative effort with Monterey Bay Aquarium. Because newborn white sharks can be found in coastal waters off southern California, scientists hypothesize that this area is a nursery for white sharks in the Northeastern Pacific Ocean.

Because of their protection through state (1994) and federal laws (2005), juvenile white sharks that get accidentally caught in gillnets are no longer being sold to fish markets and restaurants and many are instead being safely released back into the ocean. This steady increase in the number of young sharks being caught in the fishery since 1994 is likely attributed to population growth, which also suggests that conservation measures put in place to protect white sharks is working even with existing fishery interactions.

Figure 1.  Number of white sharks reported captured in gillnet fisheries each year (left axis – bars).  Number of gillnets set per year (right axis – lines and symbols).  Blue bars represent white sharks less than 1 year old (< 6’ long), red indicate juvenile white sharks between 1 and 7-12 years old (6.5-12’ long), yellow indicates subadult and adult white sharks (over 7-12 years old, > 12’ long), and green indicates sharks of unknown size.

Harbor seals, northern elephant seals, fur seals, dolphins, grey whales and blue whales have also shown similar dramatic come-backs resulting from protection. These population recoveries over the last 20 years have no doubt provided the adult portion of the white shark population with substantial food resources in coastal waters and have certainly enhanced the population’s ability to grow.

The recovery of white sharks off California may be the best example of a conservation success story that we have to offer. It shows we can fix things, once we identify the problem, even with a growing human population. While there’s still a lot to be done for our ocean on a global scale, this is a testament to our collective desire and sacrifice for a cleaner, healthier ocean.

About Dr. Chris Lowe

Dr. Chris Lowe is a professor of marine biology and the director of the CSULB Shark Lab.  He and his students use various forms of new technology to study the behavior and physiology of sharks, rays and economically important fishes. For more information about the CSULB Shark Lab check out their website (www.csulb.edu/explore/shark-lab), Facebook: CSULB Sharklab, and Twitter: @CSULBsharklab

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So You Like Shark Week? Time to Spread the Love. http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/08/so-you-like-shark-week-time-to-spread-the-love/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/07/08/so-you-like-shark-week-time-to-spread-the-love/#comments Wed, 08 Jul 2015 12:26:03 +0000 Guest Blogger http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10391

This guest blog comes from Sonja Fordham, she directed Ocean Conservancy’s shark conservation work from 1991 to 2009. She’s now based just up the block from Ocean Conservancy’s DC headquarters, running Shark Advocates International, a non-profit project of The Ocean Foundation. Learn more about Sonja’s work from the Shark Advocates Facebook page and website: www.sharkadvocates.org. Sonja is live-tweeting Shark Week programming; follow @SharkAdvocates for conservation policy tidbits and ideas for helping sharks of all shapes and sizes.

Shark Week has been around a bit longer than I’ve been working in shark conservation. The record-breaking cable television event has changed a lot since the early days, as has shark conservation policy and my focus for advancing it.

When Shark Week debuted in 1988, sharks – despite their inherent vulnerability to overfishing – were essentially unprotected worldwide, and “the only good shark is a dead shark” was a popular maxim. When I was hired by Ocean Conservancy (then known as the Center for Marine Conservation) in 1991, there were no federal limits on shark catches in the U.S., even though a surge in recreational shark fishing (sparked by the movie “Jaws”) followed by development of targeted commercial shark fisheries (due largely to a hike in Asian demand for shark fins) had seriously depleted several Atlantic coastal species. Even finning – the wasteful practice of slicing off a shark’s fin and discarding the body at sea – was legal.

We’ve come along way since then. By 1993, we had a U.S. finning ban and fishing limits for 39 species of Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico sharks. In 1997, take of several of those species – including great whites – was completely prohibited, following similar protections for white sharks off California that were secured in 1994. By 1999, the world had taken notice of the sharks’ plight and adopted an International Plan of Action to help guide conservation efforts on a global scale. In 2000, U.S. east coast landings of spiny dogfish sharks, which had reached nearly 60 million pounds in 1996, were cut dramatically to science-based levels. In 2002, basking and whale sharks became the first shark species to be listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

By 2003, closely related rays (aka “flat sharks”) were finally getting well-deserved attention: substantial fisheries for Northeast U.S. skates came under management, and critically endangered smalltooth sawfish became the first U.S. marine fish to be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), thanks to an Ocean Conservancy petition. In 2004, the U.S. secured the first international ban on finning. The U.S. was also a leader in the 2010 adoption of a special agreement for migratory sharks under the Convention on Migratory Species, and the groundbreaking listing of five commercially valuable shark species and both manta rays under CITES in 2013.

These are just a few of the steps in what has been steady progress in shark conservation since the early 1990s. Resulting recovery has been documented in species like Gulf of Mexico blacktip sharks, Northeast U.S. spiny dogfish, and great whites off both U.S. coasts. There is, of course, still much work to be done. The Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated last year that a quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are threatened, with rays being generally more depleted and less protected than sharks. We must not only accelerate the pace of beneficial change for big sharks, but also expand safeguards to at-risk smaller and flatter species.

We celebrated just days ago as manta and devil rays received new protections from Eastern Pacific fisheries. Recognition that these species usually have just one baby after a long pregnancy is helping to spark safeguards around the world, and yet closely related and similarly vulnerable cownose rays spending their summers in the Chesapeake Bay remain completely unprotected in the face of wasteful bow-hunting tournaments and targeted seafood marketing campaigns.

Scientists are encouraged by signs that Florida’s sawfish population may be rebuilding, yet education programs critical to safe release are woefully underfunded, due to declining ESA appropriations from Congress. Lack of public concern for New England’s skates means ending overfishing and ensuring rebuilding are not high priorities for the region’s fishery managers. Similarly, smoothhound sharks (aka smooth dogfish) remain subject to targeted, unregulated fisheries and one of the world’s weakest finning bans, due to insufficient outrage.

Mockumentary on Megalodon notwithstanding, Shark Week programming appears to be changing for the better with greater focus on real scientists and lesser known species.  While we’re likely several years away from specials dedicated to thorny skates or dusky smoothhounds, we’re pleased for the associated opportunities to spread the love and fascination for big, bad sharks to the scores of related species that also need public admiration and attention.  Indeed, continued evolution toward broader and increasingly positive public perceptions of sharks is key to the survival and sustainability of this entire group of fascinating fish.


Sonja Fordham has two decades of shark conservation experience. She directed shark policy projects at Ocean Conservancy from 1991-2009, played a lead role in the EU Shark Alliance from 2006-2012, and founded Shark Advocates International as a project of The Ocean Foundation in 2010. Her work focuses on publicizing the plight of sharks and advocating science-based remedies before fishery management and wildlife protection bodies. She has been a leading proponent of many landmark shark conservation actions, including U.S. and European safeguards, various finning bans, the United Nations International Plan of Action for Sharks, multiple measures by international fishery organizations, listings under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and agreements under the Convention on Migratory Species.  Sonja is Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and Conservation Committee Co-Chair for the American Elasmobranch Society. She has co-authored numerous publications on shark fisheries management and serves on most of the U.S. federal and state government advisory panels relevant to sharks and rays.  Sonja has received the U.S. Department of Commerce Environmental Hero Award, a Mid-Atlantic Council Fishery Achievement Award, the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award, and the IUCN Harry Messel Award for Conservation Leadership.

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