The Blog Aquatic » East Coast News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Major Sea Change: Ocean Acidification Becomes a Top Priority Thu, 26 Sep 2013 17:30:23 +0000 Julia Roberson

Earlier this month, the Seattle Times unveiled their most ambitious multimedia project ever: Sea Change: The Pacific Ocean Takes a Perilous Turn.

After months of travel across the Pacific, journalists Craig Welch and Steve Ringman unveiled the thorough and striking series of videos, photographs and interviews that underline just what ocean acidification will mean for people. Welch and Ringman capture a changing ocean, focusing on how increasing acidification will impact communities along the Pacific Rim including American crab and shellfish industries.

The iconic oyster industries on both the East and West coasts have been coping with the effects of ocean acidification for almost a decade now—and research is showing that crabs and other shell-forming species may be seeing direct impacts soon.

The species in the crosshairs are not only culturally relevant, but also economically valuable—supporting jobs and feeding millions. This is serious business for the United States and other nations that depend on a healthy ocean.

Ocean acidification is finally bubbling to the top of the list of priorities for industry, science, government and conservations groups alike. Last week, the XPRIZE Foundation announced a $2 million prize to develop better ocean acidification sensors. The entire West Coast is working together to better understand ocean acidification and how state governments can react.

Even Washington, D.C., is getting in on the action. The Senate and House ocean caucuses hosted congressional briefings on ocean acidification featuring shellfish industry and agency leadership.

And the Seattle Times isn’t the only media outlet spreading the word. The Daily Astorian and the Sacramento Bee both featured op-eds this month about local industry concerns.

Increasing coverage of this important issue is getting people to start paying attention. But as the threat it poses to our ocean continues to loom even larger, we can’t let the momentum stop here.


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Five Sharks Spotted During My Shark Research Cruise Fri, 09 Aug 2013 17:15:00 +0000 Claudia Friess measuring a baby tiger shark

A scientist measures a juvenile tiger shark during a population survey. Photo: Claudia Friess / Ocean Conservancy

More than 70 species of shark occur in the Gulf of Mexico and along the U.S. Atlantic coast. Of those, we catch over a dozen large and small coastal species during the bottom longline population survey I’m participating in with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Here are five of the species we commonly spot:

Atlantic Sharpnose Shark
This small shark is the most commonly caught species during our survey because it is ubiquitous in this region. In the right depths, it is not uncommon for us to catch around 50 of these small sharks per set of 100 hooks.

Population status: Due to their abundance in the western North Atlantic, their population status is not considered to be of great concern. Apart from humans, Atlantic sharpnose sharks also have other, larger sharks to fear as predators.

Sandbar Shark
These sharks are often preying on small sharpnoses caught on our hooks. Sandbar sharks are the most abundant large coastal sharks in the western Atlantic, reaching lengths of up to 7.5 feet. They are among the more feisty species we catch; you really have to watch out for those razor-sharp teeth.

After leaving their shallow-water nursery areas, juvenile sandbar sharks spend a few years migrating between nearshore and offshore areas in schools. On this trip, we seemed to have found one of those sandbar schools off the coast of Florida. We had one set with an abnormally large amount of roughly 5-foot sandbar sharks, when normally we only catch a couple of them per set, at most.

Population status: Sandbar sharks are currently classified as overfished by NOAA, and while the population is increasing slowly due to rebuilding measures, it is not expected to be recovered until the year 2070.

Scalloped Hammerhead Shark
One of our favorite species to see is the magnificent scalloped hammerhead. These sharks reach lengths of up to 14 feet. By their physical appearance you would not guess it, but hammerheads are surprisingly fragile when caught on a hook or in a net. They usually don’t fight back much by the time they are brought to the boat, and we know when we catch one, we have to work fast if we want to get it back in the water alive.

Population status: These sharks are highly desired for the shark fin trade and have become quite rare in the western Atlantic and around the world. They are considered overfished by NOAA and were recently included under CITES appendix II, resulting in monitoring and special permitting requirements for international trade.

Tiger Shark
Another one of my favorites is the tiger shark. At lengths of up to 17 feet, tiger sharks are one of the largest shark species in the world. The ones we commonly catch on the bottom longline survey range from pups of just over a foot long to juveniles and young adults up to about 8 feet, but occasionally we do catch bigger specimens. My crew had a particularly large tiger on the hook the other day, but the sea was too rough for us to cradle it, so we had to cut it loose without measuring or tagging it. The tiger shark is a voracious predator that also doesn’t refuse human garbage such as license plates and old tires.

Population status: The status of tiger sharks in U.S. waters is currently unknown because there has not been a scientific assessment of the tiger shark population. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies tiger sharks globally as near threatened.

Smooth-hound Sharks
There is one species of smooth-hound on the Atlantic side, the smooth dogfish, and there are three in the Gulf of Mexico. Two of the three Gulf species, the smooth dogfish and the Gulf smooth-hound, can be identified only by looking at the shape of their denticles, the small, tooth-like scales that cover a shark’s body and give it the feel of sandpaper. We have to take dermal skin plug samples from any smooth-hounds we catch in the Gulf to identify it to the species level later in the lab.

Population status: On the Atlantic side, a considerable fishery for these small sharks has developed over the past two years, and questionable exceptions were made in the fin requirements of the Shark Conservation Act for the smooth dogfish fishery. Even though smooth dogfish mature relatively early and have large litter sizes (between 4 and 20 pups) for shark standards, they are still vulnerable to overexploitation, like all sharks, and must be managed with care.

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Shark Sighting: What It’s Like Cruising for Sharks Mon, 05 Aug 2013 20:00:07 +0000 Claudia Friess hammerhead shark

Hammerhead shark caught for a population survey. Photo: Claudia Friess / Ocean Conservancy

While most people out on the water are trying to avoid sharks, I’m on a boat that’s looking for them. We’re trying to find out which shark species are doing well and which ones are in trouble.

The answer: it’s complicated. But one important piece of evidence is the information collected on scientific surveys of population abundance, like the one I’m on right now.

It’s my third year as a volunteer on the science crew with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I am currently on the NOAA ship OREGON II, a 170-foot research vessel with its home port in Pascagoula, Miss.

This is the first leg of the annual shark and red snapper bottom longline survey. The survey is conducted in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico from South Texas to the Florida Keys and along the East Coast up to Cape Hatteras, N.C. That’s a total of four legs lasting two weeks each.

Our job is to go from station to station deploying a mile-long line (the longline) with 100 baited circle hooks on it, then haul back the line after an hour of soak time and process everything that is caught. We fish in depths between 60 and 240 feet.

But boat time is not cheap, so we fish around the clock to make the most of these valuable days at sea. My crew fishes from midnight to noon, and the day crew fishes from noon to midnight.

When we catch a small shark, we bring it on board, and when we catch a big shark, we use a crane-operated cradle to lift the shark out of the water and line it up alongside the boat. Regardless of the size of the shark, the most important thing is to control the head. If you do that, you won’t get bitten.

We measure and weigh each shark as well as record species and sex. Most species also have genetic samples taken and get tagged. Then we throw them back overboard. Sometimes we also catch non-shark fish, most often the highly sought-after red snapper.

By far the most common shark we catch is the Atlantic sharpnose shark, a small species that only reaches about 43 inches in total length. Other species we see are blacktips, blacknose and sandbar sharks.

Sandbar shark caught with sharpnose shark in its jaws

Photo: Claudia Friess / Ocean Conservancy

Often, the bigger sharks get caught because they have eaten a smaller shark (usually a sharpnose) that had previously been caught on the hook! And then there is the occasional treat: a hammerhead or a tiger shark. Unfortunately, these beautiful fishes have become quite rare.

Aside from collecting biological data on the species we catch, the most valuable part of surveys like these is that it’s designed to track the status of these shark populations over time. Each year, the gear is fished the exact same way, and stations are surveyed randomly, which allows researchers to calculate an annual catch rate for each species.

Over time, if the catch rate increases, that indicates the population is going up. Conversely, if the catch rate decreases, that is evidence that the population is declining.

This research is important to helping increase the knowledge for these vital ocean species. The more we know, the more we can help protect them. So these surveys are much more than a regular fishing trip; they’re generating valuable data for the conservation and management of top ocean predators that are so vital to healthy, functional ocean ecosystems.

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Offshore Wind Moving Closer to Providing Renewable Energy to the East Coast Fri, 25 Jan 2013 19:40:31 +0000 Anna Zivian

Credit: Wind Turbines by Shutterstock/Dennis van de Water

2013 may be a very windy year. All along the Atlantic Coast, offshore renewable power has been getting a boost. In states from North Carolina to Maine, growing support for wind energy has led to practical steps that will get this industry moving.

In North Carolina, Governor McCrory has announced his support for offshore renewable wind development, saying it would help grow North Carolina’s economy and provide jobs. On Tuesday, in Annapolis, Maryland, Governor O’Malley rolled out a bill to create incentives for offshore renewable energy. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, wind projects are under construction. In Maine, the Public Utilities Commission voted 2-1 on Thursday to approve the terms for Statoil, a Norwegian state energy company, to move forward with a $120 floating wind turbine test project, clearing the biggest step in making the proposal a reality. All along the East Coast, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is moving forward with a public planning to help site offshore wind farms, making sure to consider other ocean users and environmental concerns in the process.

Finally, to help tie it all together, in New Jersey, Atlantic Wind Connection announced that it will be moving forward with plans for the first part of its offshore transmission line that will help connect offshore wind farms to the grid to provide energy to homes and businesses in New Jersey. Construction of the 189-mile segment (of what will eventually be a 350-mile line) is scheduled to be completed by 2015. Even before the line delivers wind energy, it will help (off)shore up the transmission infrastructure.

As we saw from Hurricane Sandy, storms can wreak havoc on the energy distribution system, knocking down power lines and causing hundreds of thousands of people to lose electricity. Having a line offshore and undersea means that at least part of the energy grid will be less vulnerable to the hurricanes and strong storms that are growing more frequent.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management made a finding of no competitive interest and approved AWC to move forward with its permitting process in 2011. The public process for approval allows stakeholders, the public and state and federal agencies to review where and how the line will be sited, what impacts construction of the line could cause, and whether there might be any conflicts created by building the line. This smart planning also lets AWC coordinate with other users to figure out the best routes for the line so that it can link up easily to future offshore wind farms as well as to existing onshore infrastructure.

As Atlantic Wind Connection President Markian Melnyk said about ocean planning at a regional meeting in New England, “”What it means for us is greater predictability, lower risk, lower cost. In our view, when you can identify the right places to do ocean energy, you can do everything better — you can do conservation better and can do energy development better. It doesn’t have to be a fight over siting; this type of collaborative siting work helps makes it more about science and more about sound economics than about fighting.”

With the help of collaboration, coordination and smart planning, renewable energy and better infrastructure may soon become a reality on the East Coast.

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In the Wake of Sandy, Thinking About the Future Wed, 31 Oct 2012 16:49:51 +0000 Janis Searles Jones

Credit: AP Photos / Alex Brandon

Like many of you, many of Ocean Conservancy’s staff have lived through hurricanes and other natural disasters. We know how much damage hurricanes can cause, and our hearts go out to those of you affected by Hurricane Sandy.

For our staff working along the Gulf of Mexico, June through November is a time to remember how to “live with the water,” as Bethany Kraft, our director of Gulf Restoration put it at the start of this year’s hurricane season. When Hurricane Isaac hit last month, Gulf residents experienced hard winds, massive flooding and oiled shorelines that reminded us that we are still in the grips of responding to and recovering from the BP oil disaster.

Hurricane Sandy, which pounded the East Coast on Monday, was a wholly different storm. Our immediate concerns are always with those in the path of such devastating storms, especially those on the New Jersey coast and New York where the damage was especially acute. We send our gratitude to NOAA for the warnings and the time to prepare and to the first responders, who are not only saving lives but are leading communities’ recovery efforts.

As we shift from rescue to recovery, we are confronting a cleanup and rebuilding effort with an extraordinary price tag and an unforeseeable timeline. And while we can’t control such a massive storm, we can help strengthen our nation’s best defense against this force of nature.

Coastal and marine habitats such as barrier islands, beaches, oyster reefs and sea-grass beds can help buffer shorelines and protect coastal communities from wind and rising water. But when these natural sentries are weakened by climate change, development, pollution, overfishing and other human impacts, our communities are at even greater risk when disaster approaches.

With this in mind, we must ask:

  • How can we step in to help coastal areas affected by the storm?
  • What can we do to ensure that our coastal areas are ready and resilient, so they can better handle extreme weather events?

While any one storm — particularly one this complex — can’t be solely blamed on climate change, we know we can expect a greater frequency of stronger storms like this one. In addition to addressing climate change, we need to increase funding for restoration of our coastlines’ natural defenses.

In the Gulf of Mexico, we already know that restored wetlands and oyster beds can help sap the energy of an incoming hurricane and protect the shoreline from storm surge.

As Paul Greenberg, author of “Four Fish,” notes in The New York Times this week, oyster beds “once protected New Yorkers from storm surges, a bivalve population that numbered in the trillions and that played a critical role in stabilizing the shoreline from Washington to Boston.” While a small recovery of that population is underway, it could not have protected New Yorkers from the incredible strength of Sandy.

Going forward, we must focus attention on solutions for better protection of our increasingly vulnerable coastlines, from ongoing research and monitoring to smart, integrated planning in the coastal zone.

For now, our thoughts are with those recovering from Sandy, but as restoration gets underway in the coming weeks and months, Ocean Conservancy will be a leading voice in the call for comprehensive planning efforts to shore up our natural defenses before the next storm.

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An Ocean Louisiana Purchase in the Making Tue, 22 May 2012 18:41:34 +0000 Jeff Watters Louisiana Purchase map

Credit: Library of Congress

Imagine if the United States could lay claim over vast stretches of pristine open ocean and coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean. What if we could expand our nation’s control over the marine environments in the Arctic, the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea? And how might it benefit our country if we could extend our existing maritime borders along the East Coast, West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico?

It would be like a giant ocean Louisiana Purchase. Except this time, the United States wouldn’t have to pay a dime.

Expansion of U.S. borders may seem like the stuff of history books. But what I’m talking about here isn’t history. And it isn’t fantasy. It’s a very real choice facing the U.S. Senate right at this very moment.

Tomorrow, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will begin considering ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, a U.S.-initiated agreement that the United States has abided by since the Reagan Administration and yet to this day the Senate has failed to approve.

The treaty is the set of global “rules of the road” for the world’s ocean, and yet the United States – which controls more ocean area than any other single nation – has been sitting on the sidelines unable to reap the treaty’s benefits because of the Senate’s inaction.

Hopefully, that will soon change. At the urging of a vast and non-traditional alliance of environmental, business, labor and national security groups, the Senate is poised to finally consider doing what it has failed to do for so long – ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty.

And the benefits of doing so could be enormous.

Under the treaty, nations can lay claim to the seafloor outside of the traditional 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone if they can demonstrate that the continental shelf extends beyond the limit. The United States has many areas where this shallow coastal environment extends beyond 200 miles, meaning that ratification of the treaty could bring a massive expansion of our country’s ocean borders – and exclusive access to those ocean seabed resources.

Preliminary studies indicate that the United States may be able to lay claim to another million square kilometers of ocean. This would be an expansion of U.S. waters roughly twice the size of California or nearly half the size of the Louisiana Purchase.

Throughout America’s growth as a nation, many of our expansions – from the Louisiana Purchase to the purchase of Alaska – were controversial in the moment. But looking back through the lens of history, each one has proven to be vital to the success of our nation.

As the Senate considers the Law of the Sea Treaty, there will undoubtedly be naysayers, but this is history in the making. By expanding our maritime borders now, we’ll be able to reap the benefits long into the future.

Update: Just to be clear, the expansion of U.S. jurisdiction over additional ocean talked about here is just one part of what is a very comprehensive treaty. The Law of the Sea Treaty also contains extensive provisions on protecting the ocean environment – one of the reasons so many environmental groups support the treaty.

If the U.S. finally became a signatory to the treaty, it would not only help ensure that the U.S. followed the common-sense rules of the road for protecting the ocean, but it would also give the U.S. the international credibility and leverage to ensure that other nations also did their part to help protect the ocean environment. For those who are interested in learning more, you can take a look at Part XII of the treaty on protection and preservation of the marine environment.

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