Presidential Endorsement: On ocean conservation issues, the choice is clear. Obama 2012

U.S. flag on the wreck of the Speigel Grove. Photo by Scott Hughes, via Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday, after what seems like an eternity of campaigning, millions of Americans will head to the polls to vote for our next President. Voters will consider numerous important issues, such as the economy, national security, and the endorsement of Lindsay Lohan. Recent polling indicates that Americans are split, and the election is expected to be very close. On an issue near and dear to my heart, the conservation of the ocean and marine life, one candidate is by far the best choice. I endorse President Barack Obama for re-election.

After promising to “restore science to its rightful place” in his 2009 inauguration speech, there are indeed many successes in conservation and science that President Obama can boast of. He has invested unprecedented amounts of Federal money in alternative energy sources, which, despite the bankruptcy of a few companies, will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change and ocean acidification- as will increased fuel efficiency standards. Early action resulted in conservation of wilderness rivers and trails, and Federal Everglades restoration funding has increased. Restrictions on stem cell research were greatly reduced, and mercury pollution was restricted by the EPA. Race to the top programs have improved science and math education in several states.

On ocean issues, the Obama administration has  been a leader domestically and internationally. For the first time, the United States has a National Ocean Policy, which aims to reduce conflicts between different ocean stakeholders. President Obama signed both the Shark Conservation Act and the Billfish Conservation Act, which, despite being imperfect, are strong legal tools to protect charismatic and ecologically important top predators- and numerous other successes in improving the management of U.S. shark fisheries are detailed here. The Obama administration has aggressively pursued fisheries conservation internationally, at CITES, regional fisheries management organization meetings, and the Convention on Migratory Species.

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Mermaids do not exist, and five other important things people should, but do not, know about the ocean

Mermaids depicted by a Russian folk artist. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons via New York Public Library

Last week, Animal Planet aired a fictional mockumentary about mermaids. From an educational perspective, it was a disaster that was rightfully described as “the rotting carcass of science television” by Brian Switek. As Dr. M on Deep Sea News pointed out, one of the troubling results of this TV special was the discovery that some people believe that mermaids are real.

When I pointed out on Facebook and twitter that mermaids do not exist and that I hoped none of my friends believe otherwise, it inspired a long and interesting discussion. Someone asked why it matters if people believe in mermaids, as they felt that a sense of whimsy among the public is a good thing. Someone pointed out that scientists are discovering amazing new species all the time. More than a few people said “anything is possible.”

Sure, scientists discover new species all the time, but while finding a new species of monkey, orchid, or jellyfish can be interesting, it is not proof that “anything is possible” and it is not the same thing as finding a species of talking, thinking humanoids with fish tails on the lower half of their bodies.  There’s a big and important difference between enjoying fantasy novels and wishing that certain fantastical creatures exist (i.e. having a sense of whimsy) and genuinely believing that those creatures really do exist.

These people don’t believe that in the vast and unexplored ocean, there may be some bizarre undiscovered species still out there. They believe that talking, thinking humanoids with fish tails on the lower half of their bodies exist and are acknowledged as existing by the scientific community. This displays a troubling lack of awareness of reality that likely is not limited to a belief in mermaids. For the benefit of those who have paid so little attention to what’s going on in the real world that they believe mermaids exist, here are five other things that you should, but likely do not, know about the oceans.

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#SciFund Returns: Where have all the coral reef fish gone?

#SciFund, a month long initiative to raise funds for a variety of scientific research projects, is once again upon us. Project leaders post a project description and an appeal for funds, and members of the public are invited to make small donations to projects that they deem worthy. Donations come with rewards such as access to project logs, images from fieldwork, your name in the acknowledgements of publications, among other possibilities. Many of these projects are marine or conservation themed. Once again, we’re highlighting some of our favorite marine science proposals. Please take a look at these projects and, should you so desire, send some financial support their way. If you do make a donation, let them know how you found out about their project and leave a comment (anonymous if you’d like) on this post letting us know.


Where have all the coral reef fish gone?

Coral reefs are one of the most threatened ecosystems world wide. This project collects critical data for the Kenya Wildlife Service to promote effective coral reef conservation and management of marine protected areas.

Reefs protect shorelines and prevent erosion of coastal properties and  provide food and income to over 100 million people worldwide. Overfishing strongly contributes to the loss of reefs. Reef loss in turn, contributes to loss of biodiversity, economic decline, coastal destabilization, and loss of other nearshore habitats such as mangroves and seagrass beds.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are one of the major ways by which we can protect coral reefs.  MPAs allow fished populations to recover and protect the corals that build reef structure. Kenya is one of the four African nations (and one of the few developing nations worldwide) that has established and maintained MPAs where fishing has been excluded

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Dr. Jennifer O’Leary is tracking triggerfish in Kenyan Marine Protected Areas to assess the effect of overfishing on the recovery of coral reefs within the MPA. Head on over to Dr. O’Leary’s project page and send some rocket fuel her way!

Get marine conservation into the national political conversation with Americans Elect!

In response to the partisan gridlock in Washington DC, a group called Americans Elect hopes to “open up the political process”. This organization, founded by heavy hitters from both parties, is using the internet to allow anyone registered to vote in the United States, regardless of political affiliation, to nominate candidates for President of the United States. An online convention in June, which every registered Americans Elect user can participate in, will determine the nominee. who will be on official ballots in every state alongside Barack Obama and the Republican nominee (probably Romney but we’ll see).

Additionally, any registered Americans Elect user can propose a question. The top questions, as voted on by all other Americans Elect users, will have to be answered by any potential candidate. These top questions, and the Americans Elect candidates’ responses to them, will undoubtedly attract national media coverage. Presently, most of the top questions are about the economy and foreign policy. None focus on the oceans.

I have submitted a series of marine conservation questions, and I need your help to get them enough votes to earn them “top question” status and get marine conservation into the national political conversation! If you are registered to vote in the United States, please consider registering for Americans Elect and voting for these questions.

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RJD Twitter teach-ins start Monday at 1 with overfishing

My lab, the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami, will be hosting a series of Twitter teach-ins on marine biology and conservation topics. Each teach-in will cover a topic in a series of Tweets, including links to photos and videos, as well as NGO reports, blog posts, and scientific papers which people can read to find more information. I will RT important points from my Twitter account (@WhySharksMatter), but the teach-in itself will take place from the RJ Dunlap program’s Twitter account (@RJ_Dunlap) and include hashtag #RJDTeachIn.

I encourage anyone interested in participating in the teach-in to follow (and encourage your friends, colleagues, and Twitter followers to follow) @RJ_Dunlap. I also encourage people to RT important points for their own followers.

Each teach-in will take approximately 20-30 minutes. Following each teach-in, there will be an opportunity for anyone to ask us questions. We will answer any question that people ask us.

The topic of the first RJD teach-in, which will take place Monday at 1:00 EST, will be overfishing. Future topics will include invasive species,bycatch, seafood sustanability,  marine protected areas, shark biology and conservation, sea turtle biology and conservation, ecotourism, and more- stay tuned! Additionally, if you have a topic you’d like to hear more about, let us know in the comments section of this post and we may host a teach-in about it.

The mission of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program is to “advance STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) literacy and marine conservation by combining cutting edge research and outreach activities”, and we hope that these Twitter teach-ins will help us to advance that mission. I hope that you’ll follow along with the first teach-in Monday at 1 EST, and I hope that you’ll encourage your followers to do the same.

New research lists tuna species as threatened; will fisheries managers act?

Image courtesy Keith Ellenbogen, OCEANA

Bluefin tuna have become a posterchild for the marine conservation movement. A single bluefin can sell for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, which results in heavy fishing pressure. Conservationists and fisheries scientists have tried for years to get the fishing quota reduced. They tried to get  CITES protection for the bluefin. Citing both heavy fishing pressure and the fact that the oil spill occurred in bluefin spawning grounds in the Gulf, some recently tried to get these animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. To date, these efforts have fallen short, resulting in just a modest quota reduction at ICCAT. New research, however, shows just how important protecting this group of fishes is.

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Book Review: Saving the Oceans 101

Ted Danson (yes, that Ted Danson) isn’t your typical ocean activist. Though he is best known as the bartender on Cheers, he has been actively involved in marine conservation issues for more than 25 years. While living in California to work on Cheers, he took a walk on the beach with his daughters. When they came across a sign that read “water polluted, no swimming”, he didn’t know how to explain to his disappointed children what was wrong with the ocean. He decided to learn more, began to work with local scientists and conservationists, and eventually co-founded the American Oceans Campaign (one of the founding members of Oceana) Danson’s decades of knowledge of and passion for the oceans are clear in his new book, “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans And What We Can Do to Save Them”.

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Can marine protected areas save the oceans? Under certain circumstances, maybe.

Although marine fish face many threats, one of the greatest is large-scale modern commercial fishing. Technology makes it all too easy for so-called “factory ships” to remove enormous numbers of fish from the oceans, sometimes with devastating effects on the populations of those fish and their habitat.

Marine conservationists have proposed a variety of policies to protect fish populations around the world. Of these, the concept of the marine protected area (MPA) is arguably the most popular. Though technically a marine protected area is any area of the ocean where human activities are restricted in some way, the best known version is an area where fishing is banned with the goal of letting exploited fish stocks recover.

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The red snapper controversy: Interviews with fishermen

New proposed regulations for the red snapper fishery have  conservationists celebrating and fishermen marching on Washington, DC in protest. Quota reductions are some of the most extreme and far-reaching  I’ve ever come across. A huge area of the ocean (over 10,000 square miles) has been targeted for closure of not just the red snapper fishery… but all “bottom fishing” of the 73 species in the snapper-grouper management complex. According to the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, such severe regulations are necessary because of the degree of overfishing that has been occurring (8 times the sustainable level since 1970). As a result of this overfishing, the stock is also considered to be seriously overfished- the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that current stocks are 3% of target size. A total area closure is necessary, according to the SAFMC, because even accidental bycatch of red snapper while trying to catch other snapper-grouper complex fishes can seriously impact such a reduced population. Since these fish live in relatively deep water, they often die after being released. Finally, an 87% reduction in red snapper mortality needs to occur over many years (possibly decades) to rebuild stocks. These regulations are in place right now via a process called “the interim rule”, and meetings will take place later this year to determine if they should remain in place.

Because of the controversy surrounding this topic, SAFMC science personnel were unable to be interviewed. However, . Zack Bowen, a charter boat operator from Savannah, Georgia, and Blaine Dickenson, a recreational fishermen and SAFMC advisor, agreed to participate.

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