The Beacon: Meghan Bartels's blog

New Dolphin Species Discovered

Exciting news for cetacean lovers: DNA testing has revealed that what scientists had thought was a small population of bottlenose dolphins is actually a distinct species – one of only a few species of dolphin that have been discovered since the late 1800s.

The new species has been named the Burrunan dolphin— “Burrunan” is the Aboriginal word for a large porpoise-like fish. The Burrunan dolphin has a stubbier nose and a more curved dorsal fin than the bottlenose dolphin.

There are about 150 of the dolphins swimming off the coast of Melbourne. Because their small population and proximity to urban and agricultural centers, the dolphins may be threatened by runoff that ends up in their habitat, as well as commercial fishing and boat traffic.

Check out this video of the Burrunan dolphins from The Canberra Times:

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Marine Monday: Little Penguin

A little penguin in Australia. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Starting today, we’ll be doing a weekly feature of one of the fascinating species that lives in the oceans. Today's animal is the little penguin.

The little penguin is, as you might have guessed, the smallest species of penguin. It can be found off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, where it nests each night in sand burrows or caves along the rocky shoreline. Little penguins can be very noisy at night, and each penguin has its own unique identifying call, used to recognize family members, mates, and strangers.

Because the little penguin is so small, it is a tasty target for dogs, cats, foxes and rats. They penguins are especially vulnerable each night when they come ashore to roost and each morning when they head back to sea, so they seek safety in numbers by “parading” together in stable groups, a spectacle that draws as many as a half million tourists each year to places like Phillip Island in Australia.

Little penguins also fish in groups, working together to gather fish together before they all begin eating. They are particularly fond of anchovies, sardines, and small squid, all of which are suffering population declines, which may prove difficult for little penguins. However, current population estimates for the birds stand at almost a million, and they are considered a species of least concern by the IUCN.

To see more animals, check out Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.

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Mixed News for U.S. Loggerhead Sea Turtles

baby loggerhead sea turtle

A baby loggerhead sea turtle. © Oceana/Cory Wilson

Last week the U.S. government issued bittersweet news for loggerhead sea turtles.

First, the good news: After almost four years of debate, the government decided to upgrade Pacific loggerhead sea turtles to “endangered” from “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The bad news is that Atlantic loggerhead turtles will still be considered “threatened,” despite the recommendations of the government’s own scientists.

Loggerheads have declined by at least 80 percent in the North Pacific and could become functionally or ecologically extinct by the mid-21st century if additional protections are not put into place. Meanwhile, Florida beaches, which host the largest nesting population of loggerheads in the Northwest Atlantic, have seen more than a 25 percent decline in nesting since 1998.

In 2009, a team of government scientists published a report that classified both populations of loggerhead turtles as “currently at risk of extinction.” In other words, the government dismissed its own scientists’ conclusions about Northwest Atlantic loggerheads.

The government’s review of loggerhead status was prompted in 2007 by petitions from Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, which asked the government to enforce stronger protections for loggerheads  and their habitats.

Unfortunately, the government has also postponed measures that would establish critical loggerhead habitats, an important step in achieving improved protections for key nesting beaches and migratory and feeding areas in the ocean.

We’re making progress, but as you can see, there’s still a long way to go. We’ll continue working to protect sea turtles – and you can help.  Tell your representative to save sea turtles from extinction.

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Arctic Sea Ice at Second Lowest on Record

grey seal

A grey seal. © Oceana/Carlos Minguell

The latest sea ice data are out, and they aren't pretty. Here’s the latest:

  • Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center believe that Arctic sea ice reached its smallest extent for this year on September 9, at 4.33 million square kilometers. If this is the case, the only year since 1979 with less ice was 2007, but they note that if wind conditions change, the area covered by ice may still shrink.

The sea ice data in particular are drawing a lot of attention because sea ice maintenance affects weather patterns around the globe, melting ice contributes to warmer oceans and rising sea levels, and unusual ice patterns can wreak havoc on the lives of native humans and animals, particularly polar bears, which can drown, and walruses, which can starve.

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New Report Reiterates Inherent Dangers of Drilling

A new federal report into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has found that BP took multiple serious shortcuts in exploratory drilling and that the operation was behind schedule and over budget. This conclusion echoes the results of previous investigations, including the January report by national commission on the oil spill.

The report also reiterated concerns about the use of blowout preventers, which are meant to be a final defense against oil rig disasters. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the blowout preventer mechanism was weakened by a failure in the drill pipe, which connects the surface rig to the well. This pipe, which spanned 5,000 feet, possibly buckled because it was simply too heavy to support itself.

Oceana has released a response calling for an end to new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the new report.

"This report confirms that bad decisions and improper, risky actions were at the root of the accident," said senior campaign director Jackie Savitz. "All deepwater drilling activities would, by their nature, also have thousands of feet of drill pipe, and could be vulnerable to the same danger."

Other fatal shortcuts cited in the report include cement failure at the base of the well, last-minute changes in drilling plans, insufficient emergency planning, and numerous violations of federal regulations governing oil well management.

The BOEMRE/Coast Guard report is available online.

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US and EU Reach Accord on Pirate Fishing

Trawl nets containing uprooted gorgonian corals. © Oceana/Juan Cuetos

Today, the U.S. and E.U. signed a historic agreement to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. These activities are responsible for most illegal fish on the market, some of the most destructive fishing practices in use, and a loss of as much as $23 billion in revenue for legal American fishermen.

The agreement builds on measures each side has already enacted, such as an American moratorium on driftnet fishing and European import processes that require seafood certification. Additionally, two bills currently in the Senate would ban mislabeling seafood and put government money to reducing seafood fraud.

News of the US-EU agreement comes on the heels of a new study recommending that industrial deep-sea fishing be banned. Many deep-sea fish, such as orange roughy and Chilean sea bass, have long lifespans and low birthrates that make them highly susceptible to overfishing. The study also cites the harmful effects of bottom-trawlers, which both wipe out entire local populations of the target fish species and bulldoze long-lived deep sea corals.

Oceana board member and renowned fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly told the Washington Post that the costs of deep-sea fishing far outweigh the benefits.

“It’s a waste of resources, it’s a waste of biodiversity, it’s a waste of everything,” Pauly said. “In the end, there is nothing left.”

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10 Fascinating Marine Species

peacock mantis shrimp

The peacock mantis shrimp.

For millennia, people have wondered just how many species live on Earth. The latest study looking to answer this question suggests there are about 8.7 million species, the majority of which scientists can’t even name.

The oceans, as almost three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, are home to millions of species—and only about 1 in 10 has been officially discovered by scientists. Here are ten ocean-dwellers we think are especially fascinating:

1. The box jellyfish, which lives in the waters off North Australia and Indonesia, is one of the most venomous species in the ocean. Its 10-foot-long tentacles can kill even cautious swimmers, yet some kinds of sea turtles can eat box jellyfish without even an upset stomach.

2. The lovely hatchetfish might be redefining lovely, but its thinness when viewed head-on helps it hide from predators, as does its silver color and bioluminescence.

3. Sailor’s eyeball is the oceanic equivalent of skinless grapes at Halloween. This seaweed lives in waters around the equator, where it reproduces by disintegrating once young plants have formed inside of it.

4. The blue-ringed octopus may look pretty, but its vivid colors, which become brighter when the animal is disturbed, mark it as extremely poisonous—it is the most dangerous cephalopod and its saliva can kill a human.

5. The stonefish, the most venomous fish, can also kill a human with one sting. It takes its name from the camouflage that allows it to lie in wait for passing fish.

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