Ocean Currents » Science & Conservation http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Tue, 28 Jun 2016 13:00:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 This is How the Government is Preparing for Climate Change http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/28/this-is-how-the-government-is-preparing-for-climate-change/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/28/this-is-how-the-government-is-preparing-for-climate-change/#comments Tue, 28 Jun 2016 13:00:35 +0000 Corey Ridings http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=12374

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) just took a huge step in preparing our ocean, fisheries and coastal communities for climate change. This type of foresight and required coordination is difficult, and hasn’t happened as often as it should in the past. The Western Regional Action Plan (WRAP) lays out why and how NFMS will develop, use, and apply science that helps West Coast fishery managers prepare for climate change.

In recent years, the California Current experienced a “climate change stress test.” Extremes such as rapidly warming waters contributed to a downturn in forage species like sardine, a northern shift of some fish stocks, and concerning mortality events for predator species like sea lions. These events are early signs of how more fundamental and permanent change will manifest themselves. Long-term changes cascade through the food web, affecting marine life as small as plankton at the base of the food chain, to top predators such as sharks. Humans are not immune; the shape of economically and culturally important fish stocks will shift (see an example from the Atlantic Ocean), and we’ll be forced to change the way we fish and eat.

The WRAP takes us further than ever before in addressing approaching ocean changes. NMFS identifies a better understanding of climate variability as critical to fulfilling their mission, and recognizes the significant impacts environmental change has on public trust resources. Ocean Conservancy, Wild Oceans, and others have asked NMFS to follow-through on their plan, and provided recommendations that will help move the plan forward. Help us thank NMFS and let them know their work matters.

According to Dr. John Stein and Dr. Cisco Werner, Directors of the Northwest and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers:

Climate variability drives the ecosystems of the California Current. Our multi-pronged WRAP approach will help us anticipate likely changes in distribution and abundance of our West Coast marine species and guide our response.  This effort complements our existing ecosystem management approaches, including NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment and Climate Vulnerability and Analysis to meet the demands for climate-related information and support NMFS and regional decisions.“ 

In implementing the WRAP, we urge NMFS to prioritize science that draws clear lines to management; science in and of itself will not prepare our fisheries and dependent communities for climate change. This process is not linear, but an iterative conversation between NMFS scientists, managers, and the public. In order to accomplish this, NMFS must also better understand the social and economic underpinnings of a healthy ecosystem. That means better incorporating humans into the way we think about ecosystem and fisheries science.

We look forward to implementation of the WRAP, and realizing a more robust ecosystem and healthy fisheries as a result. We also recognize this is just one part of a larger vision for managing our fisheries as part of a resilient and thriving California Current – more coordinated strategies are needed from NMFS as well as other federal agencies, state governments, and concerned citizens.

This blog was co-authored by Ocean Conservancy’s Corey Ridings and Wild Oceans’ Theresa Labriola.

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Successful Recreational Red Snapper Management Wins 5 Year Extension http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/24/successful-recreational-red-snapper-management-wins-five-year-extension/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/24/successful-recreational-red-snapper-management-wins-five-year-extension/#comments Fri, 24 Jun 2016 16:58:10 +0000 J.P. Brooker http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=12354

I’m glad to end this week with great news for both fishermen and fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

On June 23, federal fisheries managers in the Gulf voted strongly in favor of keeping an innovative concept that is working well to provide recreational red snapper fishermen greater access while delivering greater economic stability for charter captains.

Amendment 40, known to fishermen as Sector Separation, allowed separate management of private recreational anglers and for-hire charter vessels that fish for red snapper. Approved by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council in 2014, it sought to ensure that conservation goals stay on target. It was designed to allow for greater precision in managing the unique needs of two very different sets of fishermen with accountability as the key. It limited the likelihood that the fishery as a whole took more fish out of our ocean than allowed by law.

The net effect ensures red snapper harvests are sustainable and the stock continues to rebuild.

When it was passed, the Council placed a three-year “sunset provision” to test the concept. Unless a move was made to extend Sector Separation, it would expire after the 2017 season. This week, the council voted 12 to 5 in favor of continuing the program for another five years. Now charter captains and private recreational fishermen have more time to continue to develop strategies that will rebuild the stock while also expanding access to the fishery and increasing angler satisfaction.

Sector Separation provides a framework that could allow anglers more days on the water while also improving accountability for the overall recreational sector of the fishery. It has proven to be a true success, especially for the charter-for-hire fishery.  Charter-for-hire fishermen have immersed themselves in helping managers make decisions that will work for their fishery, are able to take their clients fishing for 46 days while still remaining under their portion of the overall recreational quota. We can attribute this to the customized management strategies that for-hire fishermen have willingly applied to their fishery.

I was at the Council meeting this week when the votes came in favoring Sector Separation. It was encouraging to hear the community speak up strongly in its favor. This Council decision will not only sustain the highly successful recovery of red snapper stocks in the Gulf, but also continue to benefit communities that rely and enjoy this prized ocean resource.

Ocean Conservancy has championed this issue for years and is committed to protecting its integrity. This extended sunset provision on Sector Separation is a beautiful thing.

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Trove of Marine Life Data Released in the Northeast http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/23/trove-of-marine-life-data-released-in-the-northeast/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/23/trove-of-marine-life-data-released-in-the-northeast/#comments Thu, 23 Jun 2016 19:54:43 +0000 Katie Morgan http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=12336

Last month, a collection of maps representing one of the largest known efforts to assemble and disseminate spatial data for multiple species of marine life was released in New England. This powerful new information database characterizes over 150 marine species through map based visualizations.

These data enhance our fundamental understanding of marine species and where they exist in the ocean, bringing us a step closer to a more comprehensive assessment of marine resources. In the end, the goal is to better inform decision-makers who are tasked with improving ocean ecosystems and enhancing our ocean economy.

The New England Ocean Ecosystem

Off the coast of New England lies a beautiful and complex ocean ecosystem. From sandy beaches to kelp forests to deep sea corals, this region is home to thousands of marine species, many endemic to the coastal and marine habitats that range from Connecticut to Maine. The habitat is shaped by the cold, nutrient rich waters circulating around the Gulf of Maine, and the warm influence of the South Atlantic brought north via the Gulf Stream. New England also boasts a huge array of underwater physical features, like mountains and canyons, that influence the biological diversity we cherish so dearly.

However, there are changes occurring in the waters of New England and the culture around it.

From ocean acidification to sea level rise to warming waters, we are seeing rapid changes in ecosystems as a whole, as well as individual species distribution and abundance. Native species are moving north or heading offshore to cooler, deeper waters, while non-native species are extending their ranges into New England from regions in the south as a result of the same warming trends. As ecological communities are shifting, so too are maritime communities that depend upon them for their livelihoods and enjoyment.

The Data: Marine Life & Habitat Characterization

Understanding the distribution and abundance of species, and their interactions with one another and their environment, is critical for better management and sound decision-making. However, our baseline understanding of the marine ecosystem has significant gaps.  To get a more holistic picture of what is going on in our ocean, we need better data. This is especially true at a regional scale.

In response to these data gaps, a group of over 80 regional scientists and managers, with input from the public, have begun to tackle this problem head on.

Through the Northeast regional ocean planning process, scientists participating in the Marine Life Data Assessment Team have focused their attention on enhancing marine life and habitat data; spatially characterizing the mammals, birds, fish, and habitat types of New England’s coastal and marine waters using complex models.

Some of the amazing information provided for the public to view and utilize include:

  • Individual species mapscharacterizing the distribution and abundance/ biomass of:
  • Physical and Biological Habitat maps, characterizing sediment grain type, size, and stability, surface and bottom currents and temperature, primary productivity, wetlands, shellfish habitat, and more.

In addition to individual species and habitat maps, the research team has begun synthesizing information to delineate diversity, species richness, total abundance, and core abundance areas for groups of species that share regulatory, ecological, and stressor-sensitivity characteristics. For example:

  • Regulatory and Conservation Priority Groups: To aid decision-makers, researchers grouped species based on various existing authorities such as Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
  • Ecologically and Biologically Grouped Species: By grouping species based on their life histories, trophic level, spatial distribution, and habitat requirements, these data products can help reveal underlying ecosystem processes that drive observed marine life patterns.
  • Stressor-Sensitivity Based Species Groups: Many species can be affected by a range of human use or environmental stressors. By grouping species based on specific stressors, such as sound frequency (whales) and sensitivity to collision with offshore wind farms (birds), these products can inform important offshore permit applications.

These maps and related information are just the beginning, and scientists are working to finalize all the information available online through peer and public review. Future iterations of the ocean plan could improve upon these data layers and their components to help inform comprehensive ecosystem-based management.

Understanding the limitations of our current understanding of marine life and habitat in the region, the Northeast RPB has identified a range of science and research priorities to begin addressing critical data gaps. To address such priorities, there is an entire chapter in the draft NE ocean plan devoted to laying out a research agenda, identifying key areas of focus to enhance our current database, and expanding upon the work that has already been done.

New England has gained a wealth of new scientific information and data products and has many exciting opportunities for new, regionally-relevant research which are specifically called out by regional scientists and managers as areas of high priority.

We encourage you to read the plan and explore the data for yourself!

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Get to Know the Animals of Finding Dory http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/17/get-to-know-the-animals-of-finding-dory/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/17/get-to-know-the-animals-of-finding-dory/#comments Fri, 17 Jun 2016 13:00:59 +0000 Erin Spencer http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=12275

It’s been over a decade since we first met Nemo, Pixar’s adventurous young clownfish on a mission to get home to his dad. Along the epic journey, we were introduced to vegetarian sharks, chatty seagulls, laid-back turtles and more.

Now, Pixar’s back at it with their new movie Finding Dory, which follows the lovable blue tang as she searches the ocean for family. Just as Finding Nemo introduced us to a wide variety of memorable sea creatures, the sequel promises an equally engaging cast of characters.

It’s not often that we get to see ocean animals on the big screen, so we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate. Here are some fun facts about the species featured in the movie (in theaters now!)


Octopuses are some of the most curious and mysterious creatures in the sea. Their intelligence is off the charts: they have been observed using tools like coconuts and rocks, are master escape artists and even exhibit play behavior! They have even been shown to recognize individual faces and develop unique personalities and quirks. To camouflage themselves, octopuses have color-changing cells, or chromatophores, just below their skin’s surface. They can quickly change color by expanding or contracting the cells, ultimately blending into their environment and allowing them to sneak up on prey or hide from predators.

Beluga whales

Known for their distinctive white color, belugas live in the chilly waters of the Arctic and subarctic. They’re incredibly well adapted to the Arctic environment—a five-inch-thick layer of blubber and dorsal ridge help them navigate through the harsh icy waters as they search for fish and invertebrates to eat. Unlike other whale species, the bones in their necks aren’t fused together so they can move their heads up, down and side to side. Belugas can even make different facial expressions, just like humans! They’re also chatty—they earned the nickname “canaries of the sea” because they make a wide variety of sounds including whistles, squeals, moos and chirps.

Regal tang

The Regal tang gets its name because its colors make it look, well, quite regal. Sometimes nicknamed blue tangs, regal tangs are recognizable by their bright yellow tailfins and royal blue bodies (Fun fact: they can change their hue from light blue to deep purple!). In the wild, you can find them in areas with stronger current, where they pluck zooplankton out of the water column as they drift by. They also have quite an interesting breeding behavior: royal tangs will form “fish harems,” where one male and several females will gather to mate. Although Dory may not seem threatening, you wouldn’t want to cross regal tangs in real life—they possess sharp spines near their tails that can be used for self-defense.

False clown anemonefish

Surprise! Nemo and his dad Marlin aren’t actually clownfish. They’re what’s known as false clownfish or false anemonefish, which are very similar to true clownfish, but have slight physical differences in body shape and habitat preference. As in the movie, they are immune to the sting of sea anemones, and have developed a symbiotic relationship with them. If the fish have to leave for an extended period of time, the false anemonefish has to go through an elaborate reintroduction to the anemone’s stinging cells by tentatively touching its fins to the anemone over the course of a few hours. It’s no wonder why you’ll rarely find them more than one foot away from the safety of their anemone home!

Whale sharks 

Whale sharks are hard to miss—they’re the biggest fish in the world and can grow up to 40 feet long and weigh 20,000 – 40,000 pounds. Despite their name, whale sharks aren’t actually whales, and the whale shark’s closest relatives are in the order Orectolobiforme; including species such as the zebra shark, bamboo shark, and wobbegongs. Generally found traveling alone, whale sharks sometimes congregate to feed in areas with large concentrations of plankton (their favorite food!). Even in groups, you could tell them apart—their characteristic white and gray spots are unique to each animal, similar to a human fingerprint.

With all your new fun facts, you’ll be totally prepared for the next Finding Dory showing. Note: Whispering fish facts at your friends during the actual movie isn’t advised (unless your friends are fish nerds, too!)


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10 Things to Know About Sea Turtles http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/16/10-things-to-know-about-sea-turtles/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/16/10-things-to-know-about-sea-turtles/#comments Thu, 16 Jun 2016 13:00:48 +0000 Guest Blogger http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=12205

This blog was written by Roger Di Silvestro, a field correspondent for Ocean Conservancy.

Sea turtles are among the world’s most ancient vertebrates. When on land, they look cumbersome and awkward, their powerful front flippers struggling to pull their weight across ocean shores. But in the water, where they spend most of their lives, sea turtles fly through the water much as birds soar through the sky. Their flippers become wings, their disk-shaped bodies cut through the sea like torpedoes.

Sea turtles remain one of nature’s great mysteries—scientists have only begun to discover secrets of sea turtle life. Here are ten things science can tell you about these marine animals.

1. Sea turtles are reptiles, like snakes and lizards, and breathe air. They first evolved about 150 million years ago, making them survivors of the Age of Dinosaurs. The first turtles were land animals that probably looked much like the tortoises of today, with powerful, column-like legs designed to support a heavy body. Evolution turned these elephantine legs into flippers as the creatures adapted to a life of swimming. Today turtles swim in all oceans except those in the chilly Polar Regions.

2. The most obvious characteristic of any turtle is its shell. It evolved from the ribs into a box of bone covered in tough skin that protects all but the head, tail and flippers. The shell is part of the turtle’s spine and forms a sort of outer skeleton reminiscent of the exoskeletons of insects and spiders.

3. The ocean is home to seven turtle species: the leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley, hawksbill, flatback, green and Kemp’s ridley.

4.  Sea turtles begin life in leathery-shelled eggs laid in holes dug by their mothers in sand. Depending on the species, a female may produce 50 to 200 eggs at a time, most species laying them at night. About 60 days later, the eggs hatch within a few minutes of each other and the babies races to the sea, often assaulted by a gamut of predators like crabs, gulls, raccoons and sharks. A female may lay as many as eight clutches per breeding season. On average, about one hatchling per 1,000 survives to adulthood.

5. The largest sea turtle is the leatherback, which possesses a flexible, leathery shell. It reaches a length of four to eight feet and weighs 500-2,000 pounds—not bad for a reptile that feeds mostly on jellyfish. Its search for food can take it down to 4,000 feet and across hundreds of miles: they can easily migrate 3,600 miles each way.

6. The smallest sea turtle is the Kemp’s ridley, which measures less than 30 inches long and weighs less than 100 pounds. The Kemp’s has the most-restricted nesting range of any sea turtle species—one beach, about 15 miles long, near Rancho Nuevo in Mexico. Unlike other sea turtles, Kemp’s ridleys usually lay eggs during the day and in massive groups, called arribadas (Spanish for “arrival”). In the 1940s, an arribada typically would number around 40,000 females. By the 1980s, as a result of uncontrolled collection of eggs and meat for human food, the entire The Mexican government has enforced stricter provisions on egging, and the United States has a  nesting beach in Texas where more than 100 females have laid eggs yearly for the past decade. Biologists raise the hatchlings in captivity until they are large enough to have an edge on survival, then release them from the beach where they hatched.

7. Young turtles head to the open sea, returning later to offshore and reef areas to feed. Some species travel hundreds of miles. The flatback sea turtle, however, restricts its activities to seas off Australia.

8. Sea turtles can rest underwater without breathing for up to two hours. When seeking food or evading predators, they need to surface for air more frequently.

9. All sea turtles are omnivorous when young, but the green sea turtle becomes purely herbivorous as an adult. As omnivores, the turtles will scarf down seaweed, sponges, mollusks, worms, fish and other sea life. However, leatherbacks tend to eat almost exclusively jellyfish, some of which can grow to be several feet across.

10. The average lifespan for a sea turtle is hard to nail down, given that they live for several decades and few research projects last that long. Current conventional wisdom suggests that they reach breeding age anywhere between age 3 and 50 and may live 80 to 100 years, though these figures are ballpark.


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How Ocean Acidification Impacts Florida’s Ecosystems http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/15/how-ocean-acidification-impacts-floridas-ecosystems/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/15/how-ocean-acidification-impacts-floridas-ecosystems/#comments Wed, 15 Jun 2016 20:43:25 +0000 Sarah Cooley http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=12310

Reef-building corals find refuge from climate change in mangrove habitats. Photo credit: Caroline Rogers, USGS.

Dr. Kimberly Yates will be a panelist at an ocean acidification roundtable we are hosting in Miami this week. There, she will join other scientists, Florida elected officials and local businesspeople in discussing what ocean acidification has in store for Florida’s marine life and its coastal communities. Follow the meeting on Twitter via #FL_OA on Friday, June 17!

OC: Your research focuses on several marine habitats in Florida: coral reefs, estuaries and mangroves. How are they coping with ocean acidification?

Dr. Yates: Most of what we know about how ocean acidification is affecting these environments comes from experimental research. We know some marine organisms will be negatively impacted, and some may benefit. For example, some species that form their skeletons and shells from minerals made of calcium carbonate, like corals and some shellfish, are negatively impacted. Ocean acidification slows the rate at which they grow their skeletons and shells, and can also cause calcium carbonate minerals to dissolve.

Other species like seagrasses and some marine algae benefit from ocean acidification because it increases their growth rates. Coral reefs have been degrading rapidly over the past few decades, and recent research shows that some reefs in the Florida Keys are beginning to dissolve during certain times of the year from ocean acidification…which was not expected to happen for another few decades. Estuaries and mangrove wetlands support many species of shellfish, and ocean acidification may negatively impact those species and the economies that depend on shell fisheries. We are still learning about how changes caused by ocean acidification are impacting these habitats.

OC: Florida is built on limestone bedrock, which is essentially the same material as coral reefs. Since ocean acidification damages coral reef skeletons, can it also hurt Florida’s foundation?

Dr. Yates: There is emerging concern about how ocean acidification might affect the limestone that creates much of Florida’s foundation. We know that ocean acidification can cause reef structure to dissolve. Historical data indicates that seawater pH is decreasing in some major springs and in the coastal waters around Florida.

Much of Florida’s carbonate foundation was formed by dissolution of limestone, causing the formation of sinkholes and our state’s aquifer system. Florida’s groundwater system is linked to coastal waters in many places where water flows from land to sea through the limestone foundation. How freshwater acidification and ocean acidification may interact to affect the limestone foundation or groundwater resources is an emerging area of study.

OC: Are there ways that marine life is adapting that you find surprising and give you hope? 

Dr. Yates: Research shows that marine seagrasses can increase seawater pH because they take up carbon dioxide when they grow. Seagrass beds in coral reef ecosystems may provide some localized protection for marine animals that are negatively impacted by ocean acidification. While many estuaries are showing decreases in seawater pH, there are special cases where seagrass is recovering in estuaries due to restoration efforts and causing an increase in seawater pH. These types of estuaries may also provide some local protection from ocean acidification.

We have also discovered reef-building corals growing in certain mangrove habitats where they help create environmental conditions that protect corals from both ocean warming and ocean acidification. These types of natural environments and adaptations that show resilience to ocean acidification are surprising and offer hope. Protecting these types of environments provides a local action that can be taken to help protect against a global issue like ocean acidification.

OC: What’s the next research question you’d like to answer about ocean acidification?

Dr. Yates: Some of my most rewarding research has been focused on exploring environments that may serve as natural refuges from climate change and ocean acidification for marine species. Only a few of those environments have been identified. Many of these natural refuges are linked to habitats that may be more vulnerable to ocean acidification. I would like to understand what makes these environments resilient, identify other habitats that may serve as refuges and determine how these types of environments may help marine organisms adapt to their changing conditions.

Dr. Kimberly Yates is a senior research scientist at the United States Geological Survey, Coastal and Marine Science Center in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Leaving the Arctic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/09/leaving-the-arctic/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/09/leaving-the-arctic/#comments Thu, 09 Jun 2016 17:44:53 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=12256

The news from the Arctic this week has been all about what’s leaving the Arctic. It’s good news when oil and gas companies leave the Arctic, but it’s really bad news when sea ice leaves the Arctic!!

First, let’s get to the good news. Repsol, an oil and gas company, just announced it’s abandoning 55 of its oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea and plans to abandon the remaining 38 over the next year. In addition, ConocoPhillips, Eni, Iona Energy and Shell have given up more than 350 leases covering more than 2 million acres in the Chukchi Sea. Soon, there will be only one lease remaining in the Chukchi Sea—and additional drilling on that lease is unlikely.

While oil and gas companies have largely given up their oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, active offshore leases still threaten the Beaufort Sea off the coast of northeastern Alaska. What’s more, the Obama Administration is still considering whether to allow the sale of more offshore oil leases in Arctic waters.

But, you can do something about it! Join us in protecting our Arctic by taking action today! Please take action by asking the Obama Administration to drop Arctic leasing from the final version of the 2017 to 2022 leasing program.

What about the sea ice? That news is not so good: Arctic sea ice extent hit a depressing new low in May. The Washington Post described it in these terms: “The Arctic Ocean this May had more than three Californias less sea ice cover than it did during an average May between 1981 and 2010.”

That’s just the latest bad news. 2016 as a whole hasn’t been a good year for Arctic sea ice; there were record low levels of sea ice extent in January, February and April, too. As the affects of climate change continue to be felt all across our planet, the Arctic is ground zero.

Do we truly know how magnificent the Arctic is—or what’s at stake if we lose more habitat in this precious region of the Earth?

That’s why I want to invite you to join us this summer as we explore the Arctic Ocean in a new blog series. You’ll get to discover some of the world’s largest congregations of seabirds, and learn how iconic wildlife — like polar bears, beluga whales and ringed seals — live in this varied and rapidly changing ocean ecosystem.

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