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Oceana Magazine Winter 2009: Making Waves

Ranger discovers ancient corals, strengthens case for protecting habitat

Oceana's research catamaran, Ranger, documented previously unseen marine life during its summer 2008 campaign, including thousand-year-old coral reefs that are critical to marine biodiversity.

In a three-month campaign, Ranger's crew used divers and a remote-operated vehicle to explore the seafloor in the Bay of Biscay, a region of the Atlantic off Spain's northern coast.

One of the crew's most astonishing finds was the discovery of an extensive deepsea white coral forest covering a submarine canyon's walls off the coast of Asturias, Spain. These white corals comprise some of the most important marine ecosystems in Europe and take centuries or longer to form. Because of their slow rate of growth, the corals are extremely vulnerable to destructive bottom trawling. Nearly 50 percent of Europe's deepsea white coral forests have already disappeared.

In addition, Ranger documented sponges, corals and gorgonians in Galicia's estuaries. These habitats support a variety of marine life, including bottlenose dolphins, sea pens and kelp forests. 

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity requires at least 10 percent of the oceans' surface to be protected by 2012. In Europe, less than .5 percent of ocean waters are protected.


Spain agrees to protect sharks

A top official from Europe's largest fishing nation has committed to the preservation of shark species after meeting with Oceana.

Elena Espinosa, Spain's Minister of Environment and Fisheries, met with Oceana's Xavier Pastor and Ricardo Aguilar in October. During the meeting, Espinosa committed to proposing a prohibition on catching pelagic shark species, with the exception of shortfin mako and blue sharks, for which she expressed willingness to establish science-based catch quotas.

In addition, Espinosa expressed interest in ending the practice of separating shark fins and bodies at sea. Shark finning - the act of removing shark fins at sea and dumping the shark bodies - is outlawed in Europe, but ships often bring in shark fins and bodies already separated, complicating inspections and allowing fishing companies to evade conservation measures. Spain is Europe's largest exporter of shark fins to China, where they are sold as shark fin soup.

"We have confidence in the agreements attained between Oceana and the Minister," said Pastor, Vice President for Oceana Europe.

"Spain, whose fleet accounts for half of all European Union shark catches, could become a driving force in shark conservation with the measures announced by Elena Espinosa. This would guarantee the Spanish fleet pursues sustainable fisheries for blue and mako sharks, the two main species caught by the fleet."

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 42 percent of Mediterranean shark and ray species are threatened with extinction. Overfishing is the main culprit for the animals' decline.


Americans voice concern about Arctic drilling, melting ice

A survey commissioned by Oceana showed that many Americans are concerned about two pressing issues facing the Arctic: global warming and oil drilling. Two-thirds of the 1,100 Americans surveyed in western states said they were "very" or "somewhat" concerned about the risks of offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Meanwhile, 72 percent expressed concern about melting sea ice as a result of global warming.

Download the full poll results




New report highlights dangers to coral reefs

Coral reefs face an uncertain future if the world's nations don't dramatically cut carbon dioxide emissions, a new report from Oceana shows.

In Acid Test: Can We Save Our Oceans From CO2? Oceana warns that coral reefs will lose the ability to grow as early as 2030 as carbon dioxide causes the oceans' waters to acidify and become increasingly inhospitable to coral growth. By the end of this century, most reefs could be reduced to rubble, causing some 25 percent of the world's marine wildlife to lose its habitat and feeding grounds.

"Ocean acidification has the strong possibility of drastically transforming our oceans into less diverse, less vibrant places," said Ellycia Harrould-Kolieb, lead author of the report. "Without immediate action, corals will shrink rapidly, and we won't recognize the oceans as we know them today."

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen since the Industrial Revolution, and are now at 385 parts per million (ppm) and rising. To preserve coral reefs, Acid Test recommends an atmospheric CO2 level of 350 ppm, which would require cutting global CO2 emissions by 85 percent below 2000 levels by 2050.

"The science clearly states that corals are at risk of extinction," said Harrould-Kolieb. "Cutting emissions has to start now if we are to have hope of saving the world's corals."

To read the report, visit Learn more about the risks facing coral reefs in an interview with renowned corals scientist J.E.N. Veron in this newsletter.


Quota decision pushes bluefin tuna to the brink

In November, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) set a catch quota for eastern bluefin tuna that could condemn this highly vulnerable species to extinction.

By setting the catch quota for 2009 at 22,000 metric tons - 46 percent higher than ICCAT's own scientists recommended - ICCAT dealt a severe blow to the already struggling bluefin tuna population. A decreasing supply of bluefin coupled with increasing demand has led to skyrocketing prices and a lucrative black market for the prized sushi fish. In 2007, illegal fishing resulted in the catch of twice the allowed quota.

"ICCAT's credibility has been destroyed," said Xavier Pastor, Vice President for Oceana Europe. "Instead of preserving the bluefin tuna stock from collapse, they gave in to the fishing industry's short term economic interests."An independent assessment commissioned by ICCAT, also revealed in November, noted that ICCAT was "widely regarded as an international disgrace," and recommended a moratorium on Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin fishing until illegal fishing could be ended.

Oceana had pushed for an immediate moratorium on all bluefin fishing until the dwindling population showed signs of resurgence. In addition, Oceana, together with other organizations and the regional government, proposed to permanently close the Balearic Islands, an important spawning area. Although the Spanish Parliament unanimously approved the proposal, it was later rejected by ICCAT.

"No one knows how much longer eastern bluefin can survive under this kind of fishing pressure," said Mike Hirshfield, Chief Scientist of Oceana. "With ICCAT's decision, Oceana is going to have to redouble its efforts to save them."

In the summer of 2008, Oceana conducted an expedition to study bluefin fishing and farming in the Mediterranean aboard the MarViva Med, including documenting illegal fishing techniques. The work contributed to the early closure of the 2008 fishing season.