The Beacon: Andy Sharpless's blog

You can't make this stuff up

Twenty-eight years ago, the world welcomed (albeit with raised eyebrows), the first "test tube baby" into the world. Back then, in vitro fertilization (IVF) was considered a radical medical procedure. But after the success of a few hundred thousand IVF babies, it was only logical to take the concept to the next level. Enter coral reefs.

A team of University of Miami marine science researchers is collecting coral eggs and sperm all this week during an annual reproductive ritual, dubbed coral spawning. They hope "test-tube coral babies" will take root to help restore a tract of reef ravaged by a 1984 ship grounding in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Brace yourself for an even more radical idea to help coral reefs: not destroying them in the first place.

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I smell a blockbuster..."Free Willy 4: This Time It's a Turtle"

On Wednesday, more than 150 admiring beachgoers said goodbye to "Little Crush" as it was returned to its salty underwater home. This rehabilitated green sea turtle washed ashore five months earlier, underweight and ill from ingesting more than 70 man-made items discarded in the oceans. After being treated by a team of Walt Disney World animal care specialists, it regained its health and was released into the ocean. Little Crush (so named for his resemblance to Disney's turtle character in Finding Nemo) was also equipped with a satellite transmitter enabling researchers to keep tabs on its ocean voyages. According to 11-year-old Alex Custer, the ceremony was "awesome."

Little did Alex and those other 150 beachgoers know that Little Crush is not heading into a ocean of possibilities, he's heading into a sea of danger. He'll have to run a gauntlet of commercial fishing gear and may -- if he's like many other sea turtles -- end up hooked on a longline or captured in a net. Alex and the beachgoers also mostly likely don't realize that our government ignores its own laws and officially sanctions and allows the catching (and killing) of thousands of endangered and threatened sea turtles by commercial fishing operations every year. Not quite the Disney ending we'd (all) hope for.

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Not getting what you pay for

Yesterday, NPR ran a great seafood story. It seems that restaurant-goers in Florida are ordering one fish, and being served another. The St. Petersburg Times surveyed 11 restaurants that boasted grouper on their menus, but DNA tests revealed that nearly half were serving cheaper substitutes. Who needs cleverly deceptive sales techniques - like bait and switch - when you can just use an oldie but goodie: lying?

Unfortunately, despite recent progress in letting consumers know where their seafood comes from when they buy it themselves, it's not always so easy to verify that the catch of the day at your local seafood joint, is actually....the catch of the day.

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The Oregon dead zone is back

In 2002, scientists discovered a large "dead zone" off the coast of Oregon - a marine area that has virtually no oxygen and thus can't support life. Dead zones are incurring with increasing frequency all over the world. Scientists believe that changes in weather -- sound familiar? -- are contributing to the ever increasing size of the Oregon dead zone. This summer's dead zone is one of the worst. Thousands of dead Dungeness crab, sea stars and other marine life carpet the ocean floor. Check out this video that made Al Pazar, chairman of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission and a crab fisherman himself, "weak in the knees."

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Fashion No-No

I would be derelict in my oceans blogging duties were I not to mention "Scrappy" -- the 10-year-old dolphin that was recently spotted in a speedo. I wish I had a picture to accompany this post, but I guess you'll just have to use your imagination.

It's the type of story any morning show would be happy to report on, but the truth is the speedo hindered Scrappy's ability to hunt food and avoid predators. After at least 28 days of swimming in the suit, a team of volunteers, biologists, and veterinarians freed the underweight dolphin and found multiple shark bites and wounds on the creature. Don't worry: Scrappy is expected to make a full recovery.

But you have to ask yourself what motivates people to rally and fight for the life of one dolphin, when so many others are needlessly killed every day. Such is the wonder of human nature.

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Not even a slap on the wrist

I've often said in order to protect our oceans, we need better laws, but more importantly, we need to enforce the laws we already have. This article by the St. Petersburg Times illustrates this point to a T. Long-lining, a fishing technique that boosts catches, generates enough revenue to allow boat owners to hire contract crews. But contract crews are in such short supply that those that continuously break the law suffer no consequences and have no problem getting hired.

The quote of the day comes from Lawrence Divirgilio, a boat-owner who hired a less-than-reputable captain for his ship. "It's a damn shame we have to break a law to make a living."

It's time the laws protecting our oceans were enforced just like the laws we land-based creatures have to live by. What we need is simple: fishery managers around the world with the courage and will to vigorously enforce the law.

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Swim at your own risk

It's hot. Not "well, duh, it's August" hot, I mean really hot. I mean having a barbeque in Zimbabwe hot. But this isn't a global warming blog, I leave that to the more-than-capable climate bloggers. I'm an oceans guy and this blog is about the oceans, or rather, the beaches.

If you're like me, you endure the baking temperatures by reminding yourself that the beach is only a work week away. The thought of a dip in the Chesapeake Bay, helps me feel a little cooler (but just a little). So it's no surprise that last week's Washington Post article on the Bay's pollution caught my eye.

Natural Resources Defense Council released a report after documenting more than 20,000 days of ocean, bay and Great Lakes beach closures and advisories nationwide last year. I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that more than 40 Maryland beaches, including several on the bay, violated public health standards at least a quarter of the times they were tested. In fact, the water is so dirty that public health officials warn people who swim in it to wash with soap afterward and to avoid entering the water with an open wound.

Instead of having to clean myself after swimming in the bay, I'd prefer it if we just cleaned up the bay itself. And apparently so would NRDC. It's suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to modernize the beachwater health standards as ordered by Congress six years ago. That would be one jury duty I'd look forward to.

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A+ for "Altered Oceans"

It's hard enough to get reporters to write a story on the threats facing our oceans - but five? The LA Times did just that this week with its "Altered Oceans" series. And I'm not just talking about a couple hundred words buried on page 7, they brought out the big guns for this one. This series is a full multimedia package: videos, graphs and enough photos to fill the national gallery of art.

While the bells and whistles are top-notch, it's the content that makes this presentation blogworthy. I'd expect nothing less from Kenneth R. Weiss. He's long been one of the leading writers on ocean issues.

When Ken describes the threats facing our oceans, he does so without the sensationalist hype that plagues many reporters. Instead, his journalism is fact and science-based, hard hitting and yet you don't need a PhD in marine biology to get the point. In fact, it's right there in the title. Our oceans are altered, and we must act now to restore them.

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Where's the buzz?

Last week, USA Today's Nick Jans reported on the triple ocean victory in the last four months - three closures of federal waters totaling an area twice the size of Texas. Nick wonders how the largest act of conservation in our nation's history could have slipped below our collective radar screens. Don't blame us, Nick. We issued press releases, e-mailed our supporters and I even blogged about it. Twice.

Since other news agencies treated the victories as "snoozers," Nick took it upon himself to emphasize the importance of these closures, and the threats still facing our oceans in this succinct yet informative article. Thanks, Nick.

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The WTO Takes a Time-out

One of this week's dramas on the world stage was the news from Geneva that the World Trade Organization was forced to break off the trade negotiations known as the Doha Development Round. Key players had reached an impasse on ever-prickly agriculture tariffs and farm subsidies and it was clear a breakthrough was not in sight. So the Director-General of the WTO recommended the move, which he later likened to a "time out" at a sporting event.

We can only hope that this is merely a time out. That's because the Doha Round contains what is in our view the single biggest thing that could be done right now to save world fisheries from irreversible collapse: eliminating government subsidies that build overcapacity and drive overfishing around the globe.

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