The Beacon: Andy Sharpless's blog

Obama and the Oceans

Obama acceptance

In its feature “
">Stocking the Cabinet,” Grist speculated on Barack Obama’s potential nominees for the “top environmental jobs” in his administration.

For the oceans, however, the most pertinent post isn’t the head of the EPA, or the secretary of agriculture, energy or interior, all of which were included in Grist’s guessing game. Guess what is?

Hint: The position is currently filled by a man who made his fortune selling Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes.

Give up?

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Cruise Control

The International Maritime Organization’s recent decision to adopt tighter emission rules for the global shipping fleet is a step in the right direction in an industry where emissions have been practically unregulated. Ship emissions are blamed for 60,000 deaths worldwide each year – a sincere public health threat.

The new rules, however, only address sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions from the same ships remain a major, and often overlooked, contributor to global warming.

The world’s shipping fleet comprises 300,000 ships, each a city block in length, and transports 90 percent of the world’s trade. In 2007, the fleet emitted nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as all of America’s cars combined. If the fleet were a country, it’d be ranked as the sixth largest producer of CO2, between Japan and Germany.

Not to mention that these ships use the dirtiest fuel available, creating a high percentage of unusable sludge that must be burned.

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How Lehman Brothers is Like a Codfish

wall street collapse

The financial collapse of the past few weeks offers striking parallels to the collapse of ocean wildlife. How is what’s happening on Wall Street and in financial capitals around the world like what’s happening in our seas?

Lehman Brothers and Canadian cod aren’t coming back.

The word “collapse” appears in nearly every thoughtful report on the financial crisis, and it’s also a common metaphor in the scientific reports on fishery depletion. It’s accurate in both cases because thelly notion that you can borrow more than you can afford, or spend more than you earn, inevitably produces a sudden and abrupt change when the money runs out.

In the fishery context, the notion that you can catch and kill very high levels of wild fish each year naturally leads to an empty ocean. For example, bluefin tuna fishing companies in the USA have not been able to catch their quota in the Atlantic. There just aren’t enough tuna to be found out there. By contrast, in personal financial terms, if you live off the interest and dividends on your investments, you can sustain that forever. But if you spend down your principal, you are on a path to going broke. The cod fishery off the eastern coast of Canada has never come back. Lehman Brothers isn’t coming back either.

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Bluefin Boondoggle

Bluefin fishing

A new study in this week’s Science finds that the two distinct Atlantic bluefin tuna populations – those spawned in the Gulf of Mexico and those spawned in the Mediterranean Sea – meet during their juvenile years in the Atlantic before returning to their respective natal homes to reproduce.

In addition to being fascinating (the authors studied isotopes found in juvenile tuna ear bones used for balance, called otoliths, as they contain chemical markers delineating water composition), the study underscored a very important point about bluefin tuna conservation.

While there are two distinct spawning grounds, the tuna intermingle – meaning that U.S. fisheries may actually be catching eastern, Mediterranean tuna, and vice versa.

Why does this matter?

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Boon for Bluefins

It’s been said over and over again: Eastern bluefin tuna cannot handle the pressure they face from overfishing. These sleek and powerful fish are unlucky enough to be among the world’s most coveted seafood species, and for years scientists have called for a moratorium as a last-ditch effort to save these genetically pure, irreplaceable creatures. While strict quotas have been in place for years, poor quota enforcement and illegal fishing have driven the bluefin to the brink of extinction.

On Monday, the European Union ended the fishing season for most of the Mediterranean’s purse seine fleet, the ships that are responsible for 70 percent of the Med’s caught tuna. This move could save up to 100,000 bluefin this year alone.

Oceana has been carefully monitoring the purse seine fleet with our new boat, the MarViva Med. We have recorded rarely-seen images of bluefin fattening pens and documented purse seiners illegally using spotter planes in their pursuit of the fish.

I didn’t anticipate that the E.U. would react so quickly and shut down the season well before its original July 1 end date. But our work is far from over. The next step is to make sure that the closure is enforced, and that non-E.U. fishing outfits don’t start targeting tuna as well. We will be watching.

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The Oceana Scanner: All-Salmon Edition

This week in ocean news,

...fishery managers voted to cancel the chinook salmon fishing season off the coast of California and most of Oregon in light of the fish population's rapid collapse. The commercial fishery is worth an estimated $30 million....

...many fishermen considered supporting the ban on West Coast salmon fishing in light of this year's record low catch. "There's likely no fish, so what are you going to be fishing for?" said one....

...while some other fishermen went ahead with a pre-season barbeque, although it was less well attended than in past years...

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Two weeks ago, I wrote about the U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision to throw out penalties against a fishing vessel carrying 64,695 pounds of shark fins in U.S. waters. Shipping a cargo full of shark fins without sharks is illegal in the United States, but the King Diamond II sailed through a loophole that allowed it to carry fins it had gathered from other ships.

Something good has come out of this: The decision has galvanized pressure to end the brutal practice of shark finning, which kills tens of millions of sharks annually, including many species already threatened by extinction.

Late on Wednesday, Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) introduced the Shark Conservation Act of 2008, which will not only require all sharks to be landed with their fins, but allow the U.S. to require any other countries importing sharks to do the same. It’s an intermediate step in ensuring protection for sharks worldwide, but a vital step all the same.

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The Oceana Scanner: Sexy Invertebrate Edition

This week in ocean news,

...two new studies may upend previously accepted understanding of photosynthesis. A widespread type of cyanobacteria may not use as much carbon dioxide in photosynthesis as presumed, meaning the oceans are capable of less carbon dioxide absorption than scientists had thought... other cyanobacteria news, scientists discovered that viruses may play a key role in prompting the phytoplankton to consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen...

...the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dropped buoys into the water off the coast of Massachusettes that will record sound for the next 30 months in an attempt to understand the effect of ocean noise on marine wildlife...

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The Oceana Scanner, Tenacious Critter Edition

This week in ocean news,

...a federal appeals court ruled that a Hong Kong company should not have been forced to give up the proceeds from 32 tons of shark fins seized by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2002 from the vessel King Diamond II. The 64,695 pounds of shark fins were valued at $618,956...

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When will sharks catch a break?

The brutal practice of shark finning got a boost this week as the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a Hong Kong company should not have lost the proceeds from 64,695 pounds of shark fins seized by the Coast Guard in 2002.

Let me repeat that figure: 64,695 pounds of shark fins alone were on that boat. That's the weight of more than eleven Cadillac Escalades. Or eight female African elephants. Or 470 Oxford dictionaries.

Without knowing what species of sharks were on the boat, the King Diamond II, or the size of the sharks, it's hard to know how many sharks were killed. Consider this, however: A shark fin comprises just one to five percent of the animal's body weight. After the fins are sliced off, the sharks are thrown overboard to die.

Shark finning is illegal in the United States, but a loophole allowed the King Diamond II to carry shark fins it had collected from other fishing ships. A loophole big enough to drive a bevy of Escalades through? Time to close that one up.

[Image courtesy Sharkwater]

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