Fun Science Friday – BP Oil Spill Impacts Dolphins

Happy Fun Science Friday!

Though this post does not present such a happy story, given the recent discussion about dolphin photobombing, this week’s FSF is topically related.  In the spring of 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig experienced catastrophic failure resulting in the worst oil spill in human history. The Gulf of Mexico (GoM) was the unfortunate host of this catastrophe and the GoM community is still feeling the ecological, social, and economic consequences of this disaster.

Pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming underneath oily water of Chandeleur Sound, La., May 6, 2010. Photo Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

Pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming underneath oily water of Chandeleur Sound, La., May 6, 2010.
Photo Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

One such impact that received little TV coverage during the spill was the uncharacteristic spike in dolphin deaths. A few months following the BP spill there was an unprecedented spike in dead dolphins washing ashore along the Gulf Coast; 67 dead dolphins by February of 2011, with more than half (35) of the dead dolphins being calves. This is in stark contrast to years preceding the spill when one or two dead dolphins per year were normally documented to wash ashore.  Despite the spike in dolphin deaths, there was no definitive evidence linking the dead cetaceans to the oil spill as a number of other factors could have been responsible for the deaths, including infectious disease or the abnormally cold winter proceeding the spill.

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An open challenge to journalists covering next week’s Bluefin Tuna Auction

Every year, on the first Saturday of January, crowds gather at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo to watch the auction of the first Bluefin Tuna of the year. For the last three years, the legendary first tuna broke the record for most expensive fish ever purchased — $396,000 in 2011, $736,000 in 2012, and a staggering $1,800,000 in 2013. Often highlighted as a symbol of the extent people are willing to go to eat that last bluefin tuna, the annual sale of this fish sets the tone for tuna conservation. With the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market to Toyosu in 2014, next week’s auction promises to be the biggest one yet.

Southern Bluefin Tuna are critically endangered, yet political maneuvering has kept tuna fisheries open and several Pacific nations have been caught falsifying their catch reports. Even still, the massive sale of the first tuna of the year is not indicative of the real demand for Bluefin Tuna.

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Climate Change is Moving Fish Around

Back in the day, I worked as an intern at Rhode Island Marine Fisheries, where my job was basically to provide general field work help with whatever survey needed an extra pair of hands (yes, it was an awesome job).  One of these was a beach seining survey looking at juvenile fishes using Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds as nursery habitat.  Among the usual silversides, mummichogs, and juvenile flounder, two of the ponds were also home to entire schools of something that I was only familiar with due to having relatives in Virginia: spot.  These little Scianids, a member of the same family as Atlantic croaker and red drum, are caught in droves in the waters of Virginia and the Carolinas but traditionally have been rare north of the Chesapeake Bay.  They were one of the more common species we caught in these two Rhode Island salt ponds, and occurred so consistently that we could actually observe them growing over the course of the summer.  It isn’t unheard of for stray tropical fishes to get swept into Narragansett Bay on Gulf Stream eddies, where they’re either collected by aquarists or die during their first winter.  However, these were populations of spot that we were seeing.  I don’t know if these fish survived their first winter or have come back since I moved down to North Carolina, but even at the very beginning of my interest in fisheries ecology I knew this was odd.

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Herring Wars: Quotas, Conflicts, and Climate Change in the North Atlantic

Herring and other fish hung out to dry on a trawler in Klaksvík. Photo by ADT.

Herring and other fish hung out to dry on a trawler in Klaksvík. Photo by ADT.

A small collection of islands in the North Sea, a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, is preparing for war. The European Union, under the auspices of an international fisheries management agreement, is ready to levy heavy trade sanctions against the Faroe Islands, an independent protectorate of Denmark. The Faroes, with a population of less than 50,000, intends to fight these sanctions, defy EU authority, and defend their economic independence. The object of contention is the right to fish Atlanto-Scandian Herring; the driving force behind this dispute–dramatic shifts in fish distribution brought on by warming seas and altered currents. This may be the first international conflict directly attributable to climate change. It will not be the last. Regardless of the outcome, this confrontation will set a precedent for future climate conflicts. Welcome to the Herring War.

Despite their uninspiring name, herring are a rather handsome fish. Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus, are relatively small with a classically “fishy” (fusiform) body shape. They are among the most abundant fish in the ocean, forming schools that can number in the billions. Along with other planktivorous fishes, such as menhaden, that convert phyto- and zooplankton into higher trophic-level biomass, herring are critical to ocean food-webs. They are considered to be among the most important fish in the sea. Herring are the dominant prey species for many large, pelagic predators like tuna, sharks, marine mammals, salmon, and sea birds, among others. Their dominant predator, unsurprisingly, is us.

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Good Conservation Policies Can Push Markets Towards Conservation

A lot of debate among conservationists centers on the conflict between the desire to see a species totally protected from human exploitation and the reality that market forces will continue to exist (see the latest on shark fin bans for a very good example).  Ideally, a conservation plan should strike a balance, ensuring the continued existence of the species while still allowing people to profit from it in some way.  This also requires a clear idea of the limitations of conservation policies.  For example, US policies (even the mighty Endangered Species Act) only directly affect populations within the territorial waters of the United States, while international agreements like CITES restrict trade of the species without telling any particular country what to do domestically.  However, there are ways to track the interaction between conservation policies and the market, making it possible to make some predictions on how things like fishery management plans and CITES listings might affect trade.  Then it gets interesting.  Armed with this knowledge, can the market be pushed towards species conservation?

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Institutional Ethics for Research in a New Academy

amysquareI’ll be around Morehead City this year for the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, finally with some post-dissertation time on my hands – and decided to finish a project looking at shifting baselines. Part of this investigation is to find out what people think about trends in the tournament since its creation in 1957 – fish size, difficulty in catching one, etc. It’s a small project involving a one-page survey but I decided that since ethics are important, I would run the survey through an institutional review board anyway.

Problem is, since I am post-dissertation and this is an independent project, I no longer fit into any of the categories of people who should be reviewed by my institution’s IRB: student, faculty, research staff, or administrator. I’ve heard this complaint from other community groups hoping to deploy surveys or get volunteers to evaluate their experiences in citizen science, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it firsthand. So if one does desire ethical oversight outside of an academic institution, where does one turn? I have a few thoughts, not of them tested, but I’d like to see the world of ethics expand beyond its institutional boundaries to match the expanding scientific boundaries of public science.

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15 important shark conservation and management terms explained with memes

davesquare

inigo-montoya-you-keep-using-that-word-i-dont-think-it-means-what-you-th-3b4b2920-sz625x625-animateIf interested citizens want to get involved in conservation and management policy, it’s absolutely vital to use proper terminology. The policy world can be full of confusing jargon, but there are few ways to discredit yourself in the eyes of decision makers as quickly as using a critical term incorrectly. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for a decision maker’s response to a petition or public comment to consist entirely of correcting  inaccurate terminology, if a response is issued at all. There are well over 100 acronyms and terms that I’ve seen regularly used, but in the interest of brevity, I’ve selected what I believe to be the 15 most important terms that I’ve seen people repeatedly use incorrectly.

For each term, I’ve provided a definition from a scientific paper or technical report whenever possible.  I have also  provided some additional explanation in my own words, and some assistance from familiar memes. Whenever possible, I’ve linked to blog posts, articles, or websites that provide even more information. Most of these terms are broadly applicable to fisheries management policy, but some are specific to shark fisheries. It is not my intention with this post to strongly advocate for or against any specific policy (I do plenty of that with other posts), but to make sure everyone is speaking the same language.

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Know Your Fishermen as well as your Farmer

Members of Walking Fish in NC pick up their shar, photo by author

Members of Walking Fish in NC pick up their share, photo by author

amysquareFisheries had their ups and downs in the US in 2012. We’ve all heard the stories of overfishing, but there were also a few glimmers of hope as the New England cod fishery proposed to open previously closed areas, the Chesapeake oysters showed slight recovery, and MSC certification expanded and became more popular. News on the social side of the fishery – the fishermen and their families – is not as prevalent outside the small towns where they live. However, some of the most exciting developments happened on this front, starting with official community supported fisheries declaring themselves here to stay. They held a successful summit in New Hampshire this past July, placing them more in the public eye than ever before.

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How to Make A Pretty Map

Cartographers of old produced maps that now hang in art galleries, living rooms, and libraries. They were works of art, embellished with the cartographer’s personality – from their handwriting to the fanciful borders of the page  and sometimes even sea creatures. Peruse for a moment this map of North Carolina (then part of the Virginia Colony) from 1636 – the ocean comes complete with ships and large toothy fish, the land depicts the western border of our country back then (the Appalachian mountains) and each tribal territory is nicely color-coded. The map not only gets its message across but says something about the mapmaker. Today’s cartography looks very different.

map from 1636 documenting tribal territories, courtesy of the NC Map Collection in the UNC library

Modern geographers are trained in geographic information systems, highly reliant on software and abundant data to make the required maps. GIS careers are in high demand from both sides – employer and employee – following the adage that a picture speaks 1000 words. Maps talk. But with this technological shift, much of the art is gone from cartography – but it doesn’t have to be. Read More

Ethics, Interdisciplinarity, and the Institutional Review Board

from batmancomic.info

Say your local Lions Club wants to hold a focus group to determine what the community thinks would be the best way to direct community service efforts? What if you, as a blog writer, want to survey your readership about their demographics? What if the local food group wants to stand in front of a grocery store surveying people where they get their food from? What if an independent scholar wants to interview people for their next book? These are all real-world applications of social science that may have significant positive impacts to the community involved. But are they responsible to anyone for ethical behavior? Should they be? If they were University scholars, they’d be subject Institutional Review Board oversight. No IRB approval means no publishing and no funding.

Even in the university setting, what if a scholar decides to cross disciplines and use some social science methods? Are they subject ot IRB review? Say fisheries biologists want to interview fishers about their knowledge of fish stocks and aggregations or an agricultural extension agent wants to survey local farmers where they get their seed? The what-if’s could go on forever. And they are all in the ethical grey area.

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