The Beacon

Blog Tags: California

Leatherback Declared New CA State Symbol

Leatherback joins ranks of purple needlegrass, west coast swing dancing and benitoite as California state symbol ©Oceana

It's been a leatherback-heavy news week and for all the right reasons. First a dramatic leatherback sea turtle rescue off of Cape Cod grabbed headlines over the weekend and then yesterday California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill designating the Pacific leatherback as the state's marine reptile.

The law designates October 15, 2013 as the first annual Leatherback Conservation Day, during which California schools will be encouraged to teach students about this prehistoric sea turtle species, which makes a heroic 6,000 mile journey from Indonesia to the California coast to feed on jellyfish. The species, which is the largest turtle on Earth, has been decimated in recent decades, its population numbers plummeting as much as 95% due to bycatch by industrial fishing drift nets and longlines, poaching and plastic pollution (leatherbacks often mistake plastic bags for their favorite prey, jellyfish).

“By recognizing the Pacific leatherback as the newest state symbol, Governor Brown continues California’s leadership in ocean conservation,” said Ashley Blacow, Oceana’s Pacific Policy and Communications Coordinator.  “Pacific leatherbacks are on the brink of extinction, and public awareness is a key ingredient to turning the tide for these ancient marine reptiles.”

Help Oceana make everyday Leatherback Conservation Day!


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Creature Feature: Great White Shark

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Great whites have earned a bad reputation, but they don't deserve it ©Discovery Channel

They’re the stars of Shark Week, one of the most iconic creatures in the ocean. But how well do you really know the great white shark?

White sharks are known by many names—great white, white pointer, Carcharodon carcharias, even white death. They’re the largest existing predatory fish in the ocean, and they’ve been around for about 16 million years. They’re found in coastal waters in all of the world’s major oceans.

The average great white measures in around 14 feet long (the females are generally a few feet longer than the males). An average individual weighs between 1,500 and 2,400 pounds. The largest white sharks ever measured came in around 20 feet long and weighed nearly 5,000 pounds.

All that size makes these sharks powerful predators. Their bite force is an estimated 1.8 tons—that’s 20 times the bite force of the average human! This powerful bite is coupled with multiple rows of sharp, serrated teeth that help the shark saw off pieces of fish.

Great whites also have an additional sense that allows them to detect the electromagnetic field emitted by the movement of living animals. By searching for these tiny electromagnetic pulses and using their excellent sense of smell, sharks can seek out prey from miles away.

In the social structure of white sharks, females dominate males, and size matters. They resolve conflict through rituals and displays of power, and rarely attack one another. Some sharks have even shown behavior that appears playful!

Great whites have earned a bad reputation as ferocious man-eaters due to movies like Jaws and stories about rogue sharks attacking humans. Truth is, great whites aren’t all that interested in humans. They would rather eat a fish or a seal than a human. While a significant proportion of shark accidents around the world involve white sharks, most are not fatal. Great whites are curious sharks, and will give an unknown object a sample bite, then release it.

These powerful creatures may be at the top of the food chain, but their biggest predator is humans. Only a few hundred great whites are left in the population off the coasts of California and Mexico, and they’re not getting the protection they need. Sign today to help get great whites covered by the Endangered Species Act.


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Save Shark Week’s Stars

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Great white sharks keep the oceans healthy and balanced ©NOAA

Whether you fear them or admire them, most people have an instant reaction when they hear great white shark.  

Intrigue, mystery, and terror have guided attention on great white sharks since they lit up the screens in the 1975 thriller “Jaws.” The film made history 37 years ago for its chilling characterization of these powerful sharks, and swimming in the open ocean has never been the same since.

Great whites are making history once again, this time for their globally declining populations from bycatch in commercial fisheries, capture in beach protective nets, and slaughter for their fins, teeth, and jaws in the shark fin and curio trade.

Here on the US West Coast, new scientific studies have shed light on the status of great white sharks off California and Baja California, Mexico. Our great white sharks are even more unique than we thought; in fact they are genetically distinct and isolated from all other great white sharks around the world. They congregate off Mexican Islands and the “red triangle” off Central California (including the Farallon Islands, Point Reyes, and Point Sur), and make extensive offshore migrations to the distant “white shark Café” and even to the Hawaiian Islands.

But, sadly there may be as little as a few hundred adult great white sharks remaining in this population, far less than anyone expected. This low population alone puts these great whites at great risk of extinction from natural and human-caused impacts. Continued existence of these West Coast great white sharks is threatened by their low population size, inherent vulnerability to capture, slow growth rate, low reproductive output, and the ongoing threats they face from human activities. This is why Oceana is petitioning the federal government and the state of California to list this population of iconic sharks on the Endangered Species List.

What is threatening great white sharks off California and Mexico?

Young great white sharks are un-intentionally caught as bycatch in commercial fishing entangling nets. Set and drift gillnets--which together target California halibut, yellowtail, white seabass, thresher sharks and swordfish--catch great white shark pups in their nursery grounds.

Since 1980, over 10 great white shark pups have been reported being caught in these nets every year. The scary part is that monitoring of bycatch on these fishing vessels is very low so take of these pups remains underreported. In other words, more great white sharks are caught than we are aware.

Additionally, young great white shark “pups” caught in their nursery grounds off the Southern California coast have the second highest mercury level tested on record for any sharks worldwide. These mercury levels exceed six-fold the established thresholds where harmful physiological effects have been documented in other marine fish. Levels of harmful contaminants of PCBs and DDTs in their liver tissue are the highest observed in any shark species reported to date globally.

Endangered species status will bestow additional protections to white sharks, including better monitoring and management to reduce fishery bycatch and additional research to further understand these fascinating top predators of the sea.

As much as we may fear them for their bad rap, we need great white sharks to keep our oceans healthy. Just as wolves keep deer populations under control, great white sharks play a critical top-down role in structuring the marine ecosystem by keeping prey populations in check, such as sea lions and elephant seals, benefiting our fisheries and abundant wildlife.

Listing the West Coast population of great white sharks on the Endangered Species List will help us learn more about the lives and threats of these amazing animals through additional research funding and protection measures.

Please help us in our efforts to protect US West Coast great white sharks from extinction by signing a letter of support for their listing on the Endangered Species Act.


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This Shark Week, Save Great Whites

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Great whites play an important role in the ocean ecosystem ©Terry Goss

During Shark Week we love watching majestic great whites on TV, but if we don’t act soon to protect them, recordings will be the only place they exist.

In the Pacific, great whites are important predators. As the largest predatory fish on the planet, they can reach lengths over 20 feet and weigh more than 5,000 pounds. They’re shaped like torpedoes and can swim through the water at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. Great whites can detect electromagnetic currents in the ocean and have such a sharp sense of smell that they can identify blood in the water from up to 3 miles away.  You can’t deny that these are impressive animals.

As fearsome as they might be as predators, they’re not the killing machines that they’re often identified as. They use all those prey-detecting skills to help keep the marine food web intact — without great whites, the ocean’s balance would be thrown off.

But that might be what the future holds, if nothing is done. A recent study found that there may only be a few hundred adults left swimming off the coast of California and Mexico, far fewer than anyone expected. And those that are left face deadly dangers from fishing nets.

Newborn great whites are often killed by commercial fishing gear off of Southern California and Baja California, making it hard for the populations to stabilize.

Sharks have inhabited the oceans for more than 400 million years and now they’re disappearing because of human actions. We’re working to get US great whites the protection they need — sign today to help get great white sharks on the Endangered Species Act.

Shark Week starts on Sunday – stay tuned for lots more sharky updates!


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The Next Wave of Plastic Bag Bans

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Sea turtles often confuse plastic bags with jellyfish, which makes them sick.©Flickr/Bag Monster

In a sweeping 5-0 vote, the Carmel-by-the-Sea City Council took action yesterday evening to ban single-use plastic bags in the quaint and beautiful coastal city of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

Oceana, as part of the Central Coast Sanctuary Alliance of local businesses and conservation organizations, has been advocating to the Council for months to take action to rid this source of pollution in the area and today invite you to celebrate this victory with us. This rides on the heels of similar bans put in place by neighboring Monterey and dozens of other California cities and counties.

Several other cities around Monterey Bay are currently discussing banning single-use plastic bags as well. Oceana will continue the effort to eliminate these plastic bags across the Bay, ultimately moving toward the goal of a statewide ban.

California distributes 19 billion plastic bags per year, many which end up littering our beautiful rivers and beaches and causing undue harm to wildlife.


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A Future Without Plastic Bags?

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Plastic bag bans help make the ocean safer for animals like sea turtles. ©Oceana/Brianne Mecum

Ordinances to ban single-use plastic bags are picking up steam here in California. A growing list of cities and counties in the state are taking action to get rid of this frequent source of pollution, which trashes our beautiful rivers and beaches and causes undue harm to wildlife.

Did you know that 19 billion plastic grocery bags are distributed in California each year, many of which end up as litter?

When plastic enters marine waters, it continually breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces that absorb toxic chemicals. Chemical laden plastic pieces are then ingested by wildlife and enter the food chain that we depend upon. In addition, animals can inadvertently ingest or choke on plastic bags. Over 267 species of marine wildlife have been affected by plastic bag litter.

One species in particular is the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle. The largest of all sea turtles, the leatherback swims an incredible 6,000 miles from its nesting beaches in Indonesia to California waters to feed on jellyfish. These prehistoric turtles easily mistake plastic bags swirling in the water for jellies and once ingested the turtles suffer dire consequences like malnutrition, starvation, intestinal blockage, suffocation, and drowning. One study found that one third of Pacific leatherbacks autopsied had plastic in their gastrointestinal tract.

Good thing we have alternatives to plastic bags like re-useable cloth bags, some of which you can even wash after a few visits to the grocery or department store. Re-useable bags also come in handy for other errands and outings like the local farmers market or an afternoon at the beach.

To date, 19 cities and 6 counties in California either have adopted or fully implemented plastic bag bans. Another 44 cities and 6 counties are in process of considering such a ban.  The California Supreme Court also recently ruled that expensive Environmental Impact Reports are not required for cities to implement these bans, making it much easier to take action.  This map shows cities and counties moving forward to ban plastic bags to date in California.  We're asking our Californian supporters to help us fill in the map and ask your local city council to consider banning single-use plastic bags in your area.

And whether or not your hometown has jumped on board with these bans, you can do your part to reduce plastic trash. Take a pledge today to use less plastic, and help keep the oceans a little cleaner.


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State of the Ocean Heroes

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Has your state gone blue? It could — nominate an Ocean Hero!

Oceana’s 4th annual Ocean Heroes Contest kicks off June 6, which gives you one week to think about this question: “Who do I know that works hard for the oceans and deserves recognition?”

From work in activism to conservation, from education to rehabilitation, from sustainability to research, there are likely tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of people who’d make good nominees. This makes it difficult for Oceana’s selection committee to narrow down so many candidates to six youth and six adult finalists.

But do you want some clues on where good nominees live? Allow me to share some statistics collected over the previous three contests (and please note… this is a pretty small sample size):

State Where Most Finalists Live: California. Nearly 1/3 of Ocean Heroes Finalists reside in the Golden State.

Coastal States That Have Never Produced a Finalist: Washington, Oregon, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. This probably has more to do with the small sample size rather than a lack of Ocean Heroes in these states, so nominate the Ocean Heroes near you — it's a matter of state pride.

Landlocked States That Have Produced Finalists: Kentucky, Minnesota, and Washington DC. The nearest ocean being 1000 miles away didn’t stop a shy Minnesota 8-year-old named Sophi Bromenshenkel from selling enough lemonade, hot chocolate and cookies to purchase satellite shark tags for the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami. And, by the way, this land-locked shark-lover won the junior vote and became our 2011 Junior Ocean Hero!

Remember, nominations begin on June 6!


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Tuna Still Feeling the Effects of Fukushima

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Bluefin tuna are carrying radiation from Japan to California. ©Oceana/Keith Ellenbogen

It might seem straight out of science fiction, but this story is real – radioactive tuna could be swimming in an ocean near you.

new study found that after last spring’s Fukushima nuclear accident, Pacific Bluefin tuna caught off of San Diego appear to have been contaminated by radioactive materials from last spring’s nuclear accident in Japan.

The March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant in central Japan. Even now, the only way to enter the zone 20 kilometers around the plant is with special government permission. After the accident, tests showed that concentrations of radioactive Cesium in coastal waters increased up to 10,000-fold.

This study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found the same radioactive Cesium in 15 Bluefin tuna specimens caught outside of San Diego. The fish tested showed a 10-fold increase from normal Cesium concentrations, well below the safety limit established by Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishes.

Bluefin are a highly migratory species – they spawn in the West Pacific near Japan, then, once they have matured, may travel more than 9,000 miles to the East Pacific and the California coast. They’re such strong swimmers that the trip only takes a few months.

During the course of this trip, the radioactive concentration fell as the fish grew and the Cesium decayed. If they had tested tuna from Japan, the radiation would be expected to be up to 15 times more concentrated, according to Daniel Madigan, Zofia Baumann, and Nicholas Fisher, the co-authors of the study.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch already lists bluefin as a species to avoid due to severe overfishing and high mercury levels. They’re highly valued as sushi fish, which has led to a steep decline in their populations in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Bluefin tuna are slow to mature, and are often caught before they have a chance to reproduce. Oceana is currently working to protect bluefin tuna from overfishing.


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CA Fish & Game Commission Endorses Sea Turtle Bill

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Pacific leatherback sea turtles migrate to California waters to feed on jellyfish. © NOAA

Yesterday afternoon the California Fish & Game Commission voted unanimously to support legislation to designate the Pacific leatherback sea turtle as the state’s official marine reptile.

The Commission often does not take a position on legislation, making yesterday’s decision an even stronger statement as to the importance of California waters to leatherback sea turtles.

Support from the Commission is expected to help push the legislation (Assembly Bill 1776) through the Senate and eventually to the Governor’s desk, where Jerry Brown has until September 30th to sign new bills into law. 

The largest of six species of sea turtles in US waters, the leatherback makes an impressive migration from its nesting beaches in Papua, Indonesia to California waters to feed on jellyfish. Its 12,000 mile, round-trip journey is the longest of any marine reptile.

Pacific leatherbacks are listed on the Endangered Species List with as few as 2,100 adult female leatherback sea turtles remaining in the Pacific Ocean population. In January, 16,910 square miles off California’s coast were designated by the National Marine Fisheries Service as critical habitat for the leatherback.

AB 1776 will be heard next in the Senate Committee on Governmental Organization. Stay tuned!


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California Begins to Reel in Seafood Fraud

Red snapper is often mislabeled. [image via Wikimedia Commons]

With the help of sustainable seafood guides such as Seafood Watch, we can make informed decisions about what type of seafood to buy based on mercury levels, the type of fishing gear used, and the health of the fishery.

But those guides are undermined if the fish itself is mislabeled. Oceana recently uncovered through DNA testing that in Los Angeles County, 55% of commonly swapped seafood was indeed labeled incorrectly.

This means that we may only be getting the fish we ordered half the time. Seafood fraud is unfair to consumers who may be faced with health risks from consuming seafood with higher contaminant levels, or who are paying more for a less desirable substitute. We should be empowered to consume seafood we think is best for our health and we have the right to be served the seafood we are paying for.

The frustrating part is that there is little oversight on the long journey seafood takes from the ocean to our plate -- from transport to processing, to labeling, to shipping, and finally to grocery stores or restaurants. This extensive journey with little oversight and labeling leaves plenty of room for key information to be lost and for fraud to occur.

So what can be done about seafood fraud?

California is taking a step forward to begin tackling this problem at the state level through new legislation. Senator Ted Lieu introduced Senate Bill 1486, sponsored by Oceana, to require labeling of seafood at large chain restaurants (with 19 or more facilities).

If the bill passes and is signed into law by Governor Brown, chain restaurants will be required to provide information on seafood items ordered including what the species of seafood is; in what country it was caught; and whether it is farmed or wild-caught.  So rather than just seeing “Fish sandwich” on the menu, customers will have the information needed to make informed decisions based on health, sustainability, and buying local.

The Senate Health Committee passed the bill at the end of the day yesterday.  A huge thanks to the more than 5,000 Oceana Wavemakers in California who weighed in support of this bill with their legislators!

Despite trying to make the best eco-conscious decision, we are being swindled and deceived. Not only is it unjust to consumers, but to the environment and to those fishermen using more responsible practices.

We’ll keep you posted as this legislation progresses, and thanks again for your support.


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