The Beacon: suzannah's blog

Whale Sharks Lack Variation

Whale shark

In an ambitious research project, geneticists from the University of Illinois took DNA samples from 68 whale sharks from around the world - and found that the giant fish shared very similar genetic codes.

The findings have two implications for the sharks: first, that their numbers are dwindling, causing offspring to lose genetic diversity, and second, that whale sharks must be protected worldwide in order to recover to a healthy population level since they interbreed across the globe.

These gentle giants, which grow up to 50 feet in length and feed on plankton, are especially vulnerable to overfishing because they reproduce only after turning 25 or more years old, and then breed infrequently. Unfortunately, whale sharks are sometimes killed for shark fin soup.

The IUCN Red List categorizes whale sharks as "threatened," but the truth is that not much is known about the species' population size. This new study is a critical step in understanding a little-known fish.

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Oceana's Mike Hirshfield, Opinion Leader

The Washington Post reported this morning that the confirmation of two top scientists to the Obama administration is on hold, thanks to the political machinations of a senator who, according to the Post, "is using the holds as leverage to get Senate leaders' attention for a matter related to Cuba rather than questioning the nominees' credentials."

That's the good news, at least, as the two scientists in question - marine biologist Jane Lubchenco and physicist John Holdren - have been hailed as excellent choices for the administration by conservation groups, with Oceana particularly enamored of Lubchenco as the new head of NOAA and therefore America's fisheries.

The Washington Post turned to Oceana's own Mike Hirshfield, chief scientist and senior vice president for North America, for reaction. Here's what he said:

"Climate change damages our oceans more every day we fail to act. We need these two supremely qualified individuals on the job yesterday."

Well said, Mike. Let's hope political maneuvering doesn't continue to delay these important appointments.

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Another Freaky Fish

yawning fish

Speaking of freaky fish, here's another one to add to the list of potential nominees for our annual contest: the newly discovered yawning fish.

Ok, so this member of the frogfish family isn't totally new - divers first documented it a year ago. But it's just now been confirmed as a new species by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (that's people who study fish, amphibians and reptiles).

This new species could be their mascot, given its chimera-like appearance.

The freaky fish has leg-like fins and eyes on the front of its head, suggesting bifocal vision like humans, plus an exaggerated frowning mouth that gapes open in its signature yawn.

And in a video posted by the Christian Science Monitor, the fish doesn't seem like much of a swimmer, bumping from coral to coral like a pinball. You have to wonder how it spent so many years undetected with its wild coloration and less than smooth moves.

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Track Your Seafood

One of the things I have found frustrating about ocean conservation is that most people don't think twice about the fish on their plate. Take canned tuna. Much like ground beef, it's comprised of many tuna fish mixed together, potentially from locations across the globe. It mystifies the meat and makes it very difficult for people to imagine that it ever came from a real fish in a real ecosystem.

That's why I was excited to see a pilot program called Pacific Fish Trax in Oregon that could end the mystery of where your fish comes from. Just swipe a barcode at the grocery store, and you can watch a video of the fisherman who caught your tuna and see a map of the spot where the fish was snagged.

It all sounds pretty cool, and I hope the pilot program is a huge success. Among revelations that even fancy restaurants aren't selling the fish they claim they're selling, a little transparency could be a great thing.

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Good Tidings for Right Whales

right whale and calf

CNN has a terrific story about this year's crop of right whales, among the most endangered animals on earth. Just an estimated 400 of these massive creatures still live off the U.S. Atlantic coast, and they sometimes get struck by ships or tangled in lobster trap lines. But there seems to be good news: This year's crop of right whale calves is the largest ever recorded, with at least 32 new whales spotted by a bevy of scientists in prop planes and volunteers at lookout points on beaches. It's really a great story, so head on over and check it out.

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Gregg Out At Commerce

Senator Judd Gregg

Barely a week after he announced his nomination for Commerce Secretary, Senator Judd Gregg has unexpectedly removed himself from consideration, citing irreconcilable differences with the Obama administration's economic policies.

Earlier this week, Gregg abstained from voting on the stimulus bill - perhaps a sign of his second thoughts.

The Washington Post gathered reactions from political figures including Karl Rove, who suggests that the Republican Gregg realized that he would only be "window dressing" in the Democratic administration; former Reagan staffer Ed Rogers says that Gregg was never a natural fit for the post, anyway.

Regardless of the reasons why, this means that the commerce position - which is critical to U.S. ocean policy - is still open.

Any takers? Anyone?

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Elusive Narwhals Caught on Film

Narwhal migration

A documentary film crew has released what is believed to be the first footage of narwhals migrating through fissures in Arctic sea ice, says the BBC.

These unusual creatures travel thousands of miles each summer as part of their migration, and capturing footage of the event is close to impossible. The documentary crew spent four weeks in the Arctic just trying to find the animals - and when they did, they were forced to retreat because the ice had gotten too thin.

Thankfully, additional crew in a helicopter - and a beautiful clear day - made it possible to film the sleek creatures as they coursed through the ribbons of meltwater between sea ice.

The fat, speckled narwhals, with spiraled tusks that jut up to seven feet from their jaws, made quite a spectacle.

"It was an amazing sight. These animals are just so completely unreal - they are like something from mythology - and we were all just completely gobsmacked when we saw them," said the documentary producer.

See the amazing footage of narwhal migration here.

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Shipwreck, Too, Threatened by Trawlers

Explorers say they have found one of the most storied shipwrecks of all time - the HMS Victory, which sunk in 1744 while carrying 100 brass cannons, 100,000 gold coins and 1,000 crewmembers.

But instead of surviving in pristine condition, like the Titanic, the HMS Victory has been battered and beaten by destructive bottom trawls, the weighted nets that indiscriminately destroy everything on the sea floor in search of fish.

Sean Kinsley, a marine archaeologist involved with the discovery, had this to say: "Rather than staying frozen in time beneath the waves, this unique shipwreck is fading fast. The Victory lies in an area of intensive trawling, and her hull and contents are being ploughed away by these bulldozers of the deep day in, day out."

Just another reason to end irresponsible bottom trawling: no fish, or famed shipwreck, is safe.

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Dolphins, Whales Still Threatened By Fishing

On the heels of President Bush's creation of three vast marine national monuments in the Pacific comes some not-so-great news about the outgoing president's stewardship of the oceans. In a new report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (my personal favorite of the federal agencies for its malfeasance-ferreting-out ways) has found that the National Marine Fisheries Service has failed to protect several marine mammal species, even though it's required by law. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the federal government is required to reduce the number of marine mammals that are incidentally killed by commercial fishing activities. For example, the North Atlantic right whale can be caught in lobster trap lines; pilot whales can be trapped in longline gear used to catch tuna; and dolphins and porpoises can be ensnared in nets set to catch cod and salmon. The GAO found that the National Marine Fisheries Service has been unable to establish plans to protect 14 of the 30 marine mammals required by law due to a lack of funding and insufficient data.

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Eating 'Eco'

My latest column for features seafood choices along the U.S. east coast. While flash-freezing and overnight shipping has made it possible to enjoy seafood nearly anywhere, there's something to enjoying local specialties.

Next time you're headed to the shore, whether it's Maine's lighthouses or Florida's beaches, keep these sustainable seafood tips in mind.

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