The Beacon

Blog Tags: Endangered Species

Sawfish Designated as Endangered Species

The unique and magnificent sawfish gained new protections this week. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sawfish have a reason to breathe a little easier today: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has completed comprehensive status reviews under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and has determined that five foreign species of sawfish meet the definition of “endangered” under the Act. Of course, this “victory” is bittersweet: no one is celebrating the fact that sawfish species are endangered, but rather that they now will finally receive the protections they so desperately need to recover their numbers.


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High-Tech Robot Seeks Out Right Whales

Chief scientist Mark Baumgartner secures glider (with its wings removed) after it was recovered Dec. 4 from its three-week mission. Photo by Nadine Lysiak, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) took place over the weekend, but one new high-tech babysitter was not featured in Las Vegas.  The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has developed underwater robots to find, track, and protect baleen whales in the Gulf of Maine, particularly the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.

Between mid-November and early-December, the torpedo-shaped gliders located nine right whales, empowering regulators to institute a voluntary speed restriction in the area to decrease the threat of boat strikes.  This represents the first time an autonomous vehicle has successfully detected and reported the location of baleen whales.

Right whales were one of the first species to be dramatically affected by commercial whaling, and remain one of the most critically endangered species of whales, with less than 400 individuals in the North Atlantic population.  While whales can get caught as bycatch in commercial fisheries, run-ins with ships account for one third of all right whale deaths, so the ability to warn boats of their proximity is an important component of their continued protection.


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Threatened Corals Inch Closer to Protection

Coral reef at Palmyra Atoll. Photo courtesy Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

No, it’s not the annual full moon spawning event, but corals in the Pacific and Caribbean have something just as exciting to wave their tentacles at: possible protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

After many years facing changing ocean temperatures, acidification, and increased disease, corals have significantly declined in overall health and abundance. Scientists and conservationists have long studied and understood the plight of corals, but recently their efforts have prompted renewed action.

Three years after scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received petitions from the Center for Biological Diversity to list 83 species of coral under the protection of the ESA, NOAA has responded with a proposal to protect 66 coral species through the ESA.

Protecting coral reefs which provide homes to countless colorful reef fish, ambling sea turtles, sharks, and an endless host of other vital marine creatures, is paramount to our own enjoyment and success as fellow inhabitants of this finite blue planet. Corals are estimated to provide the U.S. economy with an annual net benefit of over one billion dollars from tourism, recreation, and commercial and recreational fisheries. They provide shore breaks from storms, new pharmaceuticals to treat diseases, and act as biological reserves due to the unparalleled level of genetic diversity contained within the ecosystems they support.


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Endangered Sea Turtles Face Increased Threats

Endangered loggerheads will be subject to 100% higher catch ©Oceana

After a victory for Pacific sea turtles last week, here’s some not so good news. 

Two endangered species of sea turtle are facing an increased threat after the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) approved a plan allowing a Hawaii-based shallow-set longline swordfish fishery to catch more endangered sea turtles while hunting for swordfish in the North Pacific Ocean.

Currently, regulations allow a capture, or “take,” of 16 endangered leatherback sea turtles and 17 endangered loggerhead sea turtles per fishery per year. If and when turtle catch limits are reached, the fishery must close for the year. However, the new rule, set to take effect November 5, will allow a 62 percent increase in allowable takes of leatherbacks for a total of 26 per year, and a 100 percent increase in the catch of loggerheads for a total of 34 per year. 

The timing for this approval is particularly paradoxical, as NMFS upgraded the status of the Pacific loggerhead sea turtle from “threatened” to “endangered” little more than a year ago, and designated almost 42,000 square miles of ocean waters off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington as critical habitat for leatherback sea turtles earlier this year. The leatherback sea turtle was also recently designated as the official state marine reptile of California.

Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager for Oceana, said:

This decision is outrageous. On the one hand the federal government acknowledges Pacific leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles are endangered and that more needs to be done to protect them. At the same time they say it is okay for U.S. fishermen to kill more of them.”

We agree, it’s outrageous – and our campaigners are examining the available options in a plan to stop these measures before they take effect on November 5. We’ll keep you posted!


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Great White Shark Petition Moves Forward

Facing extinction ©Wikimedia Commons

We have good news to share: the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has looked at our petition to have West Coast great white sharks listed as an endangered species – a petition 44,000 of you backed – and has agreed to take it to the next level!

Having agreed that these sharks may qualify for endangered status, NMFS will now spend the next nine months researching the sharks and will announce their final decision in June 2013.

This is an important milestone, and we want to thank you for helping make it happen. Those 44,000 signatures showed that great whites have supporters across the country and that people are paying attention to what happens off our shores. We're so grateful for your help  – and the sharks are too.

Recent scientific studies show that great white sharks off the coast of California and Baja California, Mexico are genetically distinct and isolated from all other great white shark populations and that there are only a few hundred adult sharks remaining in this population.

The biggest threat to great white sharks on the West Coast right now are the gillnets that are trapping their young. We're hoping that this effort will lead to more research, increased observer coverage and management of the fisheries that are harming them, and more awareness of the importance and vulnerability of these magnificent creatures. Great white sharks are a vital part of the ocean food web, and we can’t let them disappear.

We will keep you posted as the story unfolds!


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Senate Moves Bill to End Pirate Fishing

fishingboats

Pirate fishing threatens the ocean and those who rely on it ©Oceana/Keith Ellenbogen

The Senate took an important step forward last month in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, also known as pirate fishing, by passing the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act (S. 1980) through the Commerce Committee. 

The bill implements the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (Agreement), which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopted in November 2009 and, if ratified, would be the first binding international agreement to specifically combat illegal fishing.  The bipartisan bill easily passed the committee and now moves to the Senate floor for consideration.

Pirate fishing is a serious problem that threatens the oceans, honest fishermen and seafood consumers alike. Pirate fishers skirt the law by using illegal gear, fishing in closed areas or during prohibited times, and catching threatened or endangered species. Because this fishing goes unregulated and unreported, it is difficult to assess its true impact on our oceans.  

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that pirate fishing leads to global economic losses between $10-23 billion each year and accounts for up to 40 percent of the catch in certain fisheries. One of the easiest ways to address this problem is to close our ports to illegal fishing vessels and help ensure that illegal fish are kept out of our markets.

The bill would accomplish these goals by establishing specific requirements for port entry. In particular, it specifies minimum standards for dockside inspections, requires that nations designate specific ports to which foreign vessels may seek entry and requires that nations share information about violators. If any vessel is known to have or is suspected of pirate fishing, a nation must deny that vessel port entry. The bill also expressly makes the mislabeling and misidentification of fish or fish products illegal.

S. 1980 is a good first step toward addressing illegal fishing, and Oceana commends the Senate Commerce Committee for moving it forward. While Congress is now in recess until September, we hope that both the House and Senate will use the short legislative session in the fall to move this important bill to finally give the U.S. the tools it needs to fight pirate fishing and ensure that illegally-caught fish do not enter our market.


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Top 5 Myths About Sharks

Basking sharks are gentle giants, nothing to fear here (unless you're plankton). ©NOAA

Happy Shark Week!

Sharks are the center of a lot of stories and urban legends, but you might be surprised by the truth behind some of the most common myths about sharks. In honor of Shark Week, we’re going to dispel some of the major myths surrounding sharks and shark behavior.

MYTH #1: All sharks are voracious predators, looking to attack anything in sight, including humans.
FACT:
While some shark species do have aggressive tendencies, most hunt only to find food (and humans aren’t on the menu). Just like other top predators, sharks make a meal out of animals lower in the food web, keeping the ocean habitat in balance. Only a few species have been known to attack humans unprovoked, and that’s often because of poor visibility or inquisitive bites. There are even species, like the whale shark and the basking shark, that are filter feeders that eat fish eggs, krill, and other microorganisms in the water.

MYTH #2: Sharks do not attack at midday.
FACT:
It’s true that there are fewer attacks in the middle of the day, but that’s not because sharks aren’t active then—it’s because everybody’s out of the water eating lunch. Sharks are most active at dawn and dusk, but it’s possible to encounter at shark at nearly any time of day.

MYTH #3: Sharks have walnut-sized brains.
FACT:
Sharks are actually pretty smart! They have some of the largest brains in the fish world (along with their close relatives, rays), and their brain-to-body size ratios are similar to birds and mammals. Sharks have been known to exhibit complex social behavior, curiosity, and play in the wild. Many species live in groups and hunt in packs.

MYTH #4: In order to stay alive, a shark must constantly be moving.
FACT:
The movement of swimming allows water to pass over a shark’s gills so that they can breathe, but some species have adaptations that allow them to stay still and breathe at the same time. When resting, some sharks can lie on the sea floor and actively pump water over their gills.

MYTH #5: Sharks have no predators.
FACT:
Yes it’s true that sharks are at the top of the food chain, but they have a very powerful predator: humans. Each year, tens of millions of sharks are killed for their fins, sport, or caught and killed as bycatch. By removing so many of these important predators without allowing them time to restore their populations, we’re disrupting the balance of the marine food web.

The great white shark, the most iconic shark in the ocean, faces serious threats off the West coast of the United States. Only a few hundred are left, and their populations aren’t recovering quickly — unless we do something. Sign today to help improve protections for great white sharks in the Pacific.


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This Shark Week, Save Great Whites

greatwhite

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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Victory in Spain! National Park Saved from Oil Development

donananationalpark

Many birds make their homes in the wetlands of Doñana National Park ©Wikimedia Commons

We’re pleased to announce that the Spanish government has put an end to proposed oil industry development that would have threatened the Doñana National Park, a World Heritage Site, after campaigning by Oceana and our allies.

Plans to build an oil refinery in the Gulf of Cadiz, not far from Doñana, would have led to higher ship traffic in the area and a higher risk of oil spills or accidents during the tankers’ unloading operations. Oceana is currently working to create a Marine Protected Area in this section of the Gulf of Cadiz, which would be linked to the National Park.

Doñana National Park was established in 1993 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. Its marshes, streams, and sand dunes are home to plants and animals found almost nowhere else in the world.

Many migratory birds spend their winters in the park lands, and endangered species like the Spanish imperial eagle and the Iberian lynx (one of the world’s most endangered cat species) call this area home. In the marshes of Doñana National Park, you can also find birds like the Avocet and the Purple Heron, both of which depend on the sensitive estuary habitats.

Increased oil tanker traffic could have potentially damaged the already vulnerable habitats of these animals.

Oceana identified the threats posed by the construction of this oil refinery in 2005, and has been campaigning against it with other conservationist groups. Oceana Europe is now calling on the Spanish government to enact similar protections for other marine protected areas.


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Creature Feature: Seahorse

Camouflaging in coral ©Wikimedia Commons

Though you won’t see them saddled and ready to ride anytime soon, seahorses are pretty fascinating little sea creatures.

Named for their resemblance to the horses that we’re used to seeing on land, the seahorse is one of the slowest moving fish in the ocean. They swim upright, unlike their cousin the pipefish, and flutter their dorsal fin up to 30-40 times per second to move around (more like a hummingbird than a horse).

There are 47 distinct species of seahorses, and all are in the genus Hippocampus, which comes from the Ancient Greek for “sea monster.” You can find them in shallow waters throughout the world, especially in seagrass beds, coral reefs, and mangroves, where they can take cover and hide from bigger fish that might want to make a meal out of them.

Seahorses are fairly small, ranging from 0.6 to 14 inches. But the smallest of all are the pygmy seahorses. Scientists are continuing to discover new species of pygmy seahorse, but they’re tough to find because they camouflage themselves and live in or near coral, algae, or seaweed, where they blend so well that they’re nearly impossible to spot. They often use their tails to anchor themselves to a surface, then use their snouts to catch brine shrimp and other small crustaceans floating by.

One of the seahorse’s most unique characteristics is that males carry the fertilized eggs instead of females. The male seahorse has a brood pouch on his front side where the female deposits eggs during mating. He carries the eggs until they’re fully developed, then releases the tiny seahorses out into the ocean to fend for themselves. A single brood can contain up to 1,500 young!

Because seahorses are so elusive, we don’t know very much about their populations worldwide. But the coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other areas they call home are endangered by habitat depletion, pollution, and ocean acidification, which has made some species of seahorse vulnerable to extinction.


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