Good news for gray whales! Their numbers are on the rise, according to scientists monitoring the annual gray whale migration along the California coast. Whale counts during this migration have revealed an increased number of calves traveling with the various family groups heading north to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic. Actual numbers have jumped from 945 in 2005 to 1,018 in 2006. Ironically, this reproductive success may be attributed to the effects of global warming - the melting of polar sea ice allows whales to travel farther in search of food.
More dolphins are turning up dead - this time on the shore's of Bulgaria's Black Sea. Bulgarian police have discovered 29 dead dolphins in a matter of two days, which brings the total of dolphin casualties to 56 within the last two weeks. These deaths have been attributed to entanglements in fishing nets. The Bulgarian government recently banned fishing with nets, but authorities expect to see more dolphin deaths before all nets are recovered. Read the story here.
Fishing derbies are popular events where serious anglers test their mettle against various species of fish. Oceana recently received some news and pictures from a recreational fisherman who participated in the annual Marina Del Rey Halibut Derby in Southern California, a charity fundraiser held at the beginning of April. Organized by the Marina Del Rey Anglers, the derby is the oldest and largest Halibut Derby in Southern California. About 835 anglers participated at the event, and the heaviest halibut caught weighed in at 41.8 pounds.
Halibut are not only popular in recreational fishing, but are also an important commercial fish species. Found in the North Pacific and North Atlantic, Halibut are the largest of all flatfish and can weigh up to 500 pounds. They have also been known to reach a length of about eight feet. Like flounder, another species of flatfish, halibut typically have both eyes on the right side of the body. And like other flatfish, halibut mostly live closer to the bottom of the ocean floor, though they sometimes travel up the water column to feed. The commercial halibut fishery in the North Pacific has been in effect since the 19th century and has proven to be a lucrative industry. Pacific halibut are mostly captured through bottom longline fishing, where morsels of bait are attached to hooks dispersed along a long fishing line closer to the ocean floor. Because of their long lifespans (about 40 years for a female and about 25 for a male), they are slow to reproduce and require proper international management if the fishery is to continue thriving.
It's spring break time in the US and vacationers from all over the nation are heading down to the beaches of Florida. Millions of beachgoers languish on the sand, wade in the water and swim out with the currents. They also share the space with ocean natives, sharks. Swimmers know to watch for the tell-tale dorsal fin cutting through the water, but contrary to popular perception, shark attacks are relatively rare in Florida as in most of the world. In fact, most attacks have been non-fatal encounters where the victims sustained hand and foot injuries. On average, shark bites (tragically) cause the death of between 2 and 10 people each year.
What is less well known is that experts estimate that "human attacks" on sharks result in 100 to 200 million shark deaths each year. Most are not killed so that people can eat shark fillets. Instead, when they are intentionally caught, they are killed for their fins to make shark fin soup, or for their use as an ingredient in facial creams. Other times, they simply die as bycatch (i.e. not the fish the fishermen wanted or intended to catch) when they get caught up in nets and longlines and are simply thrown back into the ocean -- injured, dead or dying. Unfortunately, in much of the world(the EU for example), sharks aren't even considered fish -- so governments don't keep track of how many are disappearing. This is a huge problem -- sharks have been one of the top predators on the earth since before the dinosaurs. As a top predator in the ocean's food web, their survival is crucial to the health of the ocean.
Who would have thought of the Bronx River in New York as a destination for some species of herring? Apparently the 21-mile long river was a thriving herring breeding ground a few hundred years ago before colonists dammed the river for flour mills. According to yesterday's New York Times, herring are making a comeback to the Bronx River after a very long absence thanks to the efforts of The Wildlife Conservation Society. The Society released 201 herring with the hope that they will spawn in the upcoming weeks and return to breed for years to come. Check out the story for more details (New York Times registration required).
Some species of herring, like the alewife species released into the Bronx River, are anadromous, while others like Atlantic herring are solely marine species. Anadromous fish live out most of their lives in the ocean but return to freshwater to breed. Other anadromous fish include salmon, green and white sturgeon and American shad. Catadromous species, like the American eel, live in fresh water but travel out to the ocean to breed. American eels actually make a long journey all the way to the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean to spawn among the sea's abundant sargassum weeds. All these species follow an unexplained natural instinct and return to the places of their birth to reproduce. Let's hope the offspring of the newly-introduced alewife herring remember their way back home to the Bronx River.
A number of dead baleen whales have washed ashore in Mexico since the beginning of this year. The Mexican authorities investigating the deaths are baffled as to why this is happening and the cause remains a mystery.
Baleen whales survive on plankton and small crustaceans, and many travel down to Mexico's Sea of Cortez during the winter as part of their annual migration. Investigators have not been able to connect the whale deaths to more common causes, such as toxic algal blooms, fishing gear injuries or collisions with fishing boats, but the continuing mystery is of great concern to scientists and environmentalists. To read more on the story, visit The New York Times (subscription required).
The world of ocean conservation has lost a champion and advocate. Author and conservationist Peter Benchley, 65, died yesterday of pulmonary fibrosis. Beach-goers thought twice about entering the water after the publication of Benchley's acclaimed book, "Jaws." Soon after "Jaws" debuted at the cinemas, the public went into an uproar fueled by fear and ignorance. Men testing the limits of macho prowess took to the sea in a hunting frenzy and killed hundreds of sharks. For this reason, Benchley later regretted portraying the great white shark as a villain. Sharks are naturally curious animals that test anything in the water with a bite; scientist have discovered that sharks don't aggressively seek out humans as prey. Since then, his work - including the books "The Deep" and "Beast" - has inspired the next generation to learn more about the oceans.