The Beacon

Blog Tags: Endangered Species

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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Victory! Pacific Leatherbacks Gain Protected Habitat

leatherback sea turtle

This leatherback will now have a safe haven in the Pacific. [Photo credit: NOAA]

As of today, the ocean’s largest sea turtle now has 41,914 square miles of Pacific Ocean it can call its own.

Oceana has been working for five years to protect habitat critical to the survival and recovery of the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, and it paid off. Thanks to a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service, these magnificent reptiles will now be safeguarded off the U.S. West Coast.

Leatherback sea turtles migrate from Papua, Indonesia to the U.S. West Coast every summer and fall to feed on jellyfish — a 12,000-mile round-trip journey that is the longest known migration of any living marine reptile.

Sadly, these navigators encounter a gauntlet of threats as they make their journey across the Pacific such as poaching; ingestion of plastic bags which they mistake for their favorite food, jellyfish; and entanglement and drowning in longline and gillnet fishing gear.

Due to these threats Pacific leatherbacks have declined more than 95 percent since the 1980s and as few as 2,300 adult female western Pacific leatherbacks remain. There have already been localized extinctions of leatherback sea turtles in India and the Sri Lanka and Malaysian populations have nearly disappeared. 

Leatherbacks from Papua, Indonesia and those that feed off the U.S. West Coast, are one of the turtle’s last strongholds in the Pacific Ocean. It is heartbreaking to think that a species that has been swimming the world’s oceans for more than 100 million years could indeed be wiped out by human actions.


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Costa Concordia Capsizes near Med's Biggest Marine Park

A fish documented during Oceana's 2006 Mediteranean expedition. © Oceana/Inaki Relanzon

The wreck of the cruise ship Costa Concordia in Italy is a sobering human tragedy, with at least 11 deaths and more missing. Sadly, it could become an environmental tragedy as well.

The Costa Concordia capsized Friday night near the Tuscan Archipelago National Park, the largest marine sanctuary in the Mediterranean. The park is home to a variety of dolphins and whales, and its corals and seagrass create an important habitat for a variety of other plants and animals. Oceana visited the area during a 2006 expedition, documenting the health of the marine life there.

If the ship’s fuel leaks before the salvage team has a chance to drain it, the endangered and threatened species that live near the wreck will suffer.

"The tragic wreck occurred in a protected area that is home to many endangered species, so a spill would cause severe damage to organisms such as cetaceans, sharks and coral," said Ricardo Aguilar, research director at Oceana Europe. This would be a great tragedy for the area, which in the past has suffered coral death due to climate change.

Even without disasters like this one, cruise ships can be a danger to the oceans. Cruise ships can create more than a thousand tons of waste every day, through sewage, fuel, and other pollutants.

We here at Oceana extend our sympathy to the victims and their families. We can only hope that the tragedy ends here, and does not have a lasting impact on the underwater inhabitants of Giglio Island.


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Marine Monday: Mediterranean Monk Seal

mediterranean monk seal

A Mediterrean monk seal. [Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

The Mediterranean monk seal, like its cousin the Hawaiian monk seal, is one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

Estimates suggest that they number around 400 total, with the largest populations in Greece and Morocco. Mediterranean monk seals are larger than their Hawaiian relatives, and unlike most seals, their pups are born with black fur.

Mediterranean monk seals are not migratory and can usually be found in small groups or alone. They eat primarily fish and cephalopods, and they can communicate about dangers using high-pitched noises.

Pregnant seals used to give birth on beaches, but due to habitat loss they now typically do so in sea caves, which are more protected. At about one week old, Mediterranean monk seal pups enter the water for the first time. Only about half of pups survive their first two months.

Among Mediterranean monk seals, both long-term fostering and milk-stealing are common between unrelated mothers and pups. However, mothers and pups remain together for as long as three years.

Mediterranean monk seals have a long history -- they even appeared on coins around 500 BC. Beginning in the 15th century, they were heavily hunted for skin and oil. Now, fishermen often kill Mediterranean monk seals, either in an attempt to eliminate fishing competitors or accidentally, as bycatch.


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Gulf Sea Turtles Still Not Safe

loggerhead sea turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle. © Oceana/Carlos Suarez

Over the past few months we’ve been reporting how sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico have been drowning in shrimp nets in appalling numbers.

Well, we have an update today – and the news is mixed. 

In response to the revelation this summer that hundreds of sea turtles were dying, the government has stepped up its enforcement effort. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), between mid-April, the start of shrimping season, and late October, NOAA’s enforcement officers inspected more than 444 vessels to see if they were equipped with turtle escape hatches (also known as turtle excluder devices, or TEDs).

The verdict? 371 of the boats had TEDs in compliance with the law – leaving 73 of them either without TEDs or with the hatches tied shut or improperly installed.

While we’re happy to hear that NMFS is keeping up with TED enforcement efforts, these new numbers mean that only 83% of the boats are following the rules in place for the Gulf shrimp fishery to protect sea turtles from extinction. And that is simply not good enough.

Learn more about Oceana’s sea turtle campaign and stay tuned!


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Lick a Stamp, Save a Sea Turtle

tiger stamp

The new Vanishing Species stamp.

For those of you out there who still send snail mail – and I know there are some of you – we have some fun news. The U.S. Postal Service has issued a special “Save Vanishing Species” stamp to benefit endangered species including elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, great apes, and – you guessed it -- sea turtles.

While we would have picked the sea turtle to be the face on the stamp, there are as few as 3,200 Amur tigers left in the wild, so the big cat was chosen, and we have to admit it turned out beautifully.

Each stamp is 55 cents, 11 cents above the cost of a first class stamp. Those extra cents will benefit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s five Multinational Species Conservation Funds, including the Marine Turtle Conservation Act (MTCA). 

Only the fourth of its kind ever created by the Postal Service, this stamp is now available in post offices nationwide and will remain on sale for at least two years.

The MTCA is funded by annual U.S. Congressional appropriations.  As U.S. lawmakers focus on spending cuts in 2011 and the years to come, the sales of the wildlife stamp are an important source of funding for these animals. If all 100 million stamps are sold over the next two years, it will net about $10 million for these vanishing species.

And if it’s a success, the program could be extended. Since its inception, the Breast Cancer Research stamp has raised more than $80 million.

So go ahead, send your next letter with a sea turtle in mind – get your own set of these beautiful new stamps!


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Mixed News for U.S. Loggerhead Sea Turtles

baby loggerhead sea turtle

A baby loggerhead sea turtle. © Oceana/Cory Wilson

Last week the U.S. government issued bittersweet news for loggerhead sea turtles.

First, the good news: After almost four years of debate, the government decided to upgrade Pacific loggerhead sea turtles to “endangered” from “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The bad news is that Atlantic loggerhead turtles will still be considered “threatened,” despite the recommendations of the government’s own scientists.

Loggerheads have declined by at least 80 percent in the North Pacific and could become functionally or ecologically extinct by the mid-21st century if additional protections are not put into place. Meanwhile, Florida beaches, which host the largest nesting population of loggerheads in the Northwest Atlantic, have seen more than a 25 percent decline in nesting since 1998.

In 2009, a team of government scientists published a report that classified both populations of loggerhead turtles as “currently at risk of extinction.” In other words, the government dismissed its own scientists’ conclusions about Northwest Atlantic loggerheads.

The government’s review of loggerhead status was prompted in 2007 by petitions from Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, which asked the government to enforce stronger protections for loggerheads  and their habitats.

Unfortunately, the government has also postponed measures that would establish critical loggerhead habitats, an important step in achieving improved protections for key nesting beaches and migratory and feeding areas in the ocean.

We’re making progress, but as you can see, there’s still a long way to go. We’ll continue working to protect sea turtles – and you can help.  Tell your representative to save sea turtles from extinction.


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