The Beacon: Andy Sharpless's blog

Happy World Ocean's Day!

Yes - it is a real thing. In 1992 World Ocean's Day was created at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It's an opportunity each year to celebrate the oceans and the wildlife that depend on them for survival. So blow out some candles - no, wait, dye some eggs. Er - scratch that. Ask for candy. Actually, all the good gimmicks are taken. Just send an e-card and show a little love for the oceans.

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An Unlikely Victim: Abatross Numbers Dwindling

It's no surprise that long-line fishing is depleting our fish populations in staggering numbers.  But what many don't realize is that the effects are felt above the ocean's surface as well.  As the BBC reports, up to 100,000 albatrosses a year get caught on the baited hooks of long-lines and are pulled down and drown.  Populations of three species breeding on South Georgia (country - not state!) and outlying islands have declined by about a third in the past 30 years.  Dr. Sullivan of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said simple measures such as "flying streamers behind the fishing boat or adding weights to the line so they sink more quickly would help to stop albatrosses being killed."

That's easier said than done.  If fisherman were willing to take "simple measures," we wouldn't have the massive dirty fishing problem we have today.

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Ocean Voyager: A Five-Part Journey to Defend the Oceans

Mother Jones just launched a unique website that highlights the threats facing our oceans. What's noteworthy about this site, is that it doesn't focus on the work of one organization, but rather highlights the best of the best of what a multitude of nonprofits are doing to conserve our oceans. Oceana's mercury pollution work, Greenpeace's pirate fishing work and World Wildlife Fund's polar bear work all live in perfect harmony. It's refreshing to find journalists that are more interested in the big picture, than playing favorites. Check it out.

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Fish: The Other Other White Meat

I love fish as much as the next guy. Broiled, baked, fried, it doesn't matter -- as long as it's swimming in butter (no pun intended). But being an expert in the plight of our oceans precludes me from rewarding my palette at every opportunity. As the New York Times reports, "many [fish] varieties are nearly depleted and many have been tainted by industrial pollution."

So I constantly consult my pocket seafood guide (PDF) to remember which is the "good" fish and which is the "bad." It's a shame that our short-sighted, destructive practices have forced us to rely on such guides, but they are an essential resource. Hopefully they'll catch on more than Richard Simmons's deal-a-meal did.

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Pirates Among Us

Remember those high seas, adventure stories you were told as a child? Think Treasure Island and the like. In them, pirates roamed the seas, boarding ships in search of gold and searching for lost treasure on remote tropical islands. They stole what they could, until tracked down and confronted by the law.

Well, these aren't just kids' stories. Unfortunately, pirates are still at sea, except instead of gold doubloons, they are often plundering our ocean wildlife and fishery resources.

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Oceans of Awe

We spend much time discussing the threats and dangers that plague our oceans. At Oceana we work to protect the oceans not only because of how they sustain us physically but also because of how they leave us in awe. From time to time, I want to take a break from talking about what ails our oceans and instead share with you some of the reasons I find it amazing.

While the oceans have always been vital to cultures around the world, can you believe that it was only in the 1870s that people began to explore and document the diversity of life in the deep sea?

It is no wonder that even in recent years we continue to learn of fascinating marine habitats and creatures whose existence we could not even fathom.

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A Chance to Fix Our Fisheries?

Marine scientists are predicting that unless we change what we're doing to the ocean, we've got about twenty years before irreversible damage is done.

Scientists also tell us that the most immediate threat to ocean health is posed by the short-sighted practices of industrial scale commercial fishing. Not only are we taking too many fish out of the ocean, but we are destroying vital habitat, and killing vast numbers of wildlife - including turtles, seabirds and marine mammals along with countless fish - as accidental bycatch.

It is reasonable to wonder what you are probably thinking now: why isn't the United States government agency responsible for managing our oceans doing a better job? (FYI, that agency is called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and it is a part of the Department of Commerce.) At this point in my conversations with many of you, you suggest that along with fighting to reduce habitat destruction and bycatch, Oceana should also seek changes in the way this agency manages our oceans. If this agency has a consistently bad track record, then we need to reform the agency itself.

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Gillnets in the Pacific

Some fishing gear is so devastating to marine wildlife that the nations of the world agree they should not be used. Large drift gillnets fall into this category, and the United Nations banned their use on the high seas in 1991.

Sadly, smaller legal drift gillnets in United States waters have many unintended victims, among them endangered and threatened sea turtles. Indeed, like us, a sea turtle entangled underwater in a gillnet can drown in just minutes.

No wonder some people call these gillnets "curtains of death."

All drift gillnets - even "smaller" legal ones - are made of plastic mesh panels that stretch for hundreds of yards, and are allowed to drift at sea for long periods of time, capturing anything that comes their way. Because of the non-selective manner in which they work, this is one of the most wasteful and dirty ways to catch fish.

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Victory in the Pacific

Oceana has won a significant victory in the Pacific that will protect krill - small, shrimp-like crustaceans that many marine species rely on for food - from commercial fishing in that region.

Krill are a key component of the ocean eco-system. Many seabirds, whales and fish rely on krill. Wild salmon eat krill - it is what gives their flesh a healthy, pink hue. Krill are also the primary food source for the world's largest animal, the blue whale.

Unfortunately, some governments, including ours, were considering harvesting krill for commercial purposes like supplying fish food for salmon farms. Harvesting krill on such a large scale would take away the food source of wild fish, seabirds and whales, and would be catastrophic for the marine food web.

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Whales Can't Vote--But We Can

Looking back at February, I have had one thing on my mind - whales. When it comes to these creatures, it has been a time of mixed emotions on the Pacific coast of North America.

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