The Beacon: Andy Sharpless's blog

Scientists pop the lid on a Pandora's Box in Antarctic waters

Captain Kirk would argue that space is the final frontier. But scientists studying marine life throughout a newly revealed portion of the Antarctic sea floor, which had been buried under solid ice for the last five millennia before global warming kicked in, beg to differ.



The collapse of two ice shelves on the eastern shore of Antarctica has exposed a Jamaica-sized section of sea floor teeming with thousands of species of marine life, including 30 believed to be completely new to science.



Fifty-two scientists representing 14 nations returned last month after cataloguing 1,000 species during a 10-week voyage covering 10,000 miles of ocean floor aboard the German icebreaker vessel Polarstar.


And that's just the tip of the iceberg.



"This is virgin geography," said Gauthier Chapelle, outreach officer for the expedition and biologist at the Brussels-based International Polar Foundation, in a statement. "If we don't find out what this area is like now following the collapse of the ice shelf, and what species are there, we won't have any basis to know in 20 years' time what has changed, and how global warming has altered the marine ecosystem."



And what global warming giveth, global warming will eventually taketh away. Scientists are surprised at the accelerated rate in which organisms flocked to the area, but gradually increasing water temperatures are already affecting algae populations - the foundation of the food chain.


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Call Me Colossal

Its eyes are the size of dinner plates; its tentacles, large enough to fashion tractor wheel-sized calamari rings. It stretches longer than a semi-truck, weighs more than a Harley, and glides effortlessly throughout the darkest depths of the Antarctic waters, using razor sharp hooks to gobble up the unlucky that fall into its path.



This is not the tale of a fabled sea monster or an excerpt from a Herman Melville classic. This is the true story of a colossal catch netted by New Zealand fishermen earlier this month. It took two hours to land what is presumably the largest and only mature male specimen of a colossal squid - a rare find indeed.


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Turtle beachings?

We've heard of whale beachings before, but it seems as though endangered sea turtles have recently followed suit. Hundreds of olive ridley turtles have been found dead along Bangladesh's coast in the past two weeks. Could it be something in the water? Yes. Most likely pollution and nets.


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Four down, five to go

Now that cell phones are choking hazards and television is high def, it's hard to believe some chlorine plants are still using mercury-cell technology developed back in 1894. The good news is that in the last 48 hours, one of these technological dinosaurs has agreed to enter the 21st century. Each plant that uses this technology emits hundreds of pounds of mercury pollution to our environment every year. So, it is cause to celebrate when another one of these dinosaurs agrees to go mercury free.



The Pioneer chlorine plant in Louisiana will switch to mercury-free technology by the end of 2008 as part of an expansion. The plant, which reported emitting almost 800 pounds of mercury pollution in 2005, expects to increase its energy efficiency by nearly 30% as a result of its conversion, and will save about $31 million each year, making even more of a wonder that they are not all doing it.



We have been working to convince these plants to go mercury free since early 2005. Of the original nine chlorine plants using outdated technology when we started the campaign, Pioneer is the fourth to commit to eliminating its mercury emissions. Its conversion will reduce mercury emissions in Louisiana by almost 20%.


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Put down your chopsticks

Bluefin tuna have a lot of admirers. Marine biologists are intrigued by their size and speed, they're a noteworthy source of revenue for many fishermen and many sushi lovers are willing to spend a little more for their favorite tuna roll. In fact, this fish is so important to so many, that it warrants a five day meeting of the world's five biggest tuna fisheries - accounting for 77 countries and regions.


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Sea World residents feel the burn

The number one new year's resolution for Americans is to lose weight, which is no surprise considering that 60 million of us are obese. But sixteen days into this year, chances are, many of us have already traded in our granola for Krispy Kremes or asked for our movie popcorn with extra butter.

Such is not the case at Sea World where walruses, dogs, manatees and pigs are counting calories and doing crunches. See for yourself.

Of course, the best weight loss regimen would be living in the wild oceans. But, that might be difficult for the dogs and the pigs.


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Flipper Rides Again

Happy New Year! As you may have heard, the Chinese have confirmed 2007 as the Year of the Pig and Newsweek has coined it the Year of the Widget. But my personal favorite designation comes from the United Nations, which has declared 2007 to be the Year of the Dolphin.



We've got our work cut out for us to do justice to this special year. In 2006, we stopped Congress from weakening the Marine Mammal Protection Act, thanks to a little help from our friends on the right. Some members of Congress tried to eliminate the "Dolphin Deadline," a key provision of the Act that sets the timeline to reduce the death and injury of marine mammals by commercial fishing operations to insignificant levels. Hopefully, this year we'll be able to do even more to protect the dolphins.


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Celebrities speak out on something other than Proactiv

New England fishermen, frustrated by how hard it is to catch a boatful off the once-abundant New England coast, are pointing fingers at those clearly responsible for dwindling fish populations: A-list celebrities. According to one source quoted in the article published Monday in South Coast Today, "I don't think they're [that's the celebrities] cognizant of the harm that they're actually causing." Hollywood's got some nerve.



The article focuses on Oceana, as well as the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and cites our opposition to provisions that Rep. Frank proposed as part of the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) that would weaken the government's ability to rebuild threatened fish populations. The new MSA, which passed a few weeks ago, enables local administrators to set more scientifically appropriate catch limits and targets to start rebuilding the long list of collapsed or nearly collapsed fish species in New England and around the country.


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Magnuson Stevens Act misses the boat

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the 109th Congress had the opportunity to leave the session as ocean heroes. Instead, they passed a bill with mostly incremental changes to the existing law that governs America's fisheries. The re-authorized Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act seems to focus more on who gets to catch the fish in the ocean and not about how we can make sure that there will always be enough fish to catch and eat.



The bill weakens the role of the public in managing its marine resources by raising barriers to access to data. It also advances policies to privatize our fisheries without mandating conservation standards to protect the public's interest in maintaining healthy oceans.



Two recent commissions and the scientific community agree--our oceans are in danger and we don't have much time to save them. Just weeks ago, this report predicted the collapse of all our fisheries by 2048.



There are a few bright spots in the legislation including its call for research and protection of deep-sea corals and sponges from destructive fishing gear. It just so happens, we played a significant role in the inclusion of this language. Other improvements over current law include provisions to address overfishing, greater responsibility for scientists in setting catch limits and a new emphasis on international issues.



Here's to hoping that the 110th Congress can manage our oceans as ecosystems and not just for money fish.


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Think sustainable over organic

Pop quiz - what do these three things have in common: the Easter bunny, low-fat Funions and organic seafood? Answer: they don't exist.



The first two may not come as much of a surprise, but a debate is currently raging over the third. As the New York Times recently reported, the Agriculture Department is deciding what constitutes organic fish and is irking quite a few stakeholders in the process.


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