Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Big problems for the world's biggest fish

It may surprise you that 100 million sharks are killed by people each year. What might surprise you further is that this is a conservative estimate and the number may in fact be as high as 273 million. That’s a whopping 31,164 sharks killed per hour by humans. Unsurprisingly, removing sharks from our oceans at such a rate is unsustainable and two-thirds of all chondrichthyans (the order of cartilaginous fish to which sharks belong) are at risk of becoming extinct.

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is not exempt from this reality. This charismatic and well-loved elasmobranch seems to have escaped the negative brush that most other shark species are painted with, yet populations in the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are declining. Global abundance has plummeted by 50% over the past 75 years, which has justified the recent re-classification of whale sharks as ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Whale shark (Adam WS018) cruises along the reef edge in South Ari Atoll, Maldives. Credit: Edward Doherty (MWSRP).

So why is such an iconic species suffering such a reduction in numbers? Like many elasmobranchs, whale sharks are susceptible to overexploitation because their slow growth rate and late sexual maturity limit the annual recruitment of new individuals. In addition, whale sharks are highly mobile, capable of travelling thousands of kilometres, as evident by an individual who was tracked over 37 months between the Gulf of California and Tonga; a distance of 13,000km. Furthermore, as a cold blooded fish, whale sharks are known to spend a large proportion of their time near the surface in order to warm up. Their movements between legislative boundaries, coupled with their time spent at the surface, render whale sharks vulnerable to fisheries, bycatch and vessel collisions. These impacts are considered by the scientific community to be the primary drivers of declining whale shark populations.

Most people will probably have heard of the finning industry; it’s still a major problem. Whale sharks are prized for their enormous fins, which can fetch up to US$20,000 each. Markets for their liver oil, meat, brain, stomach, cartilage, skin and lips are also expanding. It’s no wonder then why China alone lands in excess of 1000 whale sharks each year. Thankfully, targeted whale shark fisheries in Taiwan, the Philippines and India (each of which fished hundreds of individuals per year) have been discontinued following the implementation of species-level protections. Furthermore, until recently purse-seine fisheries utilised whale sharks to assist in the capture of their target fish species. Whale sharks act as natural aggregating devices for shoaling fish, such as tuna, and fishermen would encircle both the shoal and the whale shark with their vast net. Attempts to release the whale shark afterwards, either by hoisting it vertically by the tail or by dragging it from the net with a boat, were harmful to the shark. Fortunately, this practise was banned in 2012. However, unregulated, unmonitored and illegal fishing still takes place.

Whale shark fins in China. Credit: WildLifeRisk.
Whale shark trapped in a purse-seine net. Credit: Michael AW.

So how can we reduce this problem? The answer is to project a very important message: that whale sharks (and indeed many other shark species) are worth far more alive than dead. Tourist industries in Australia, Belize, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, Honduras, Indonesia, the Maldives, Mexico, Mozambique, Oman, Panama, the Philippines, St Helena, Saudi Arabia, the Seychelles, Tanzania and Thailand have realised the value of a living, breathing whale shark in its natural environment and are reaping the economic rewards. For example, over the course of their 60 year minimum life span, each whale shark in Belize generates at least US$2m for the ecotourism industry, and US$6m if they visit the three aggregation sites located on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. In 2013, Quintana Roo (Mexico) and the South Ari Atoll (Maldives) generated US$7m and US$9m respectively in whale shark excursions. In 2006, the Ningaloo region of Western Australia generated US$6m, though this value will have substantially increased because tourist numbers have since doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 individuals. Globally, whale shark related tourism generates an estimated US$42m each year, which is only expected to rise over the next 20 years as shark related ecotourism continues to grow. This makes the US$20,000 for a fin look like pocket money.

Edward Doherty swimming alongside Radhun (WS262) in South Ari Atoll, Maldives. Credit: Iru Zareer (MWSRP).

Since I work for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) it would be remiss of me not to elaborate a little bit more on the whale sharks in the Maldives. It was primarily to protect the whale sharks in the South Ari Atoll (the primary hotspot for this species in the Maldives) that justified the implementation of the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the country in 2009. Annually, between 72,000 and 78,000 tourists explore the reef of South Ari specifically to search for whale sharks. Of course, with a rapidly expanding tourist industry, appropriate controls need to be established lest the increased boat traffic becomes a problem. Based on our statistics, 54% of the whale sharks in South Ari have human inflicted injuries, predominantly from boat strikes. This is not an isolated problem and whale sharks suffer from vessel collisions globally. However, this is where you can help. Before booking with a whale shark excursion agency, there are a few simple questions you can ask: Do they provide a briefing beforehand? Do they adhere to a code of conduct? Is there any scientific research that they contribute towards? Just asking these simple questions will a) help you decide which company is the most responsible and b) help to change the way operators behave. If it’s on the customer’s mind, it’s in the companies’ best interest to conduct themselves accordingly.

Guidelines for approaching and swimming with a whale shark.

Guidelines for approaching and swimming with a whale shark.

There’s no question that more needs to be done to protect this magnificent species, but we’re getting there. A large number of directed fisheries are now closed, purse-seine related capture is now banned, there are no targeted sport fisheries and the public’s exposure to whale sharks through excursions is at an all time high. With all this growing support and love for whale sharks, maybe, just maybe, we can reverse their falling numbers and perpetuate them as a beacon of hope for shark species everywhere. I look forward to the day when people speak out for whale sharks in the same way that they do for gorillas and lions, for it is this tenacity and vitriol that will ultimately save our sharks.

Edward Doherty has recently graduated with an Integrated Masters in Marine Biology from Bangor University, North Wales. He currently works as an In-Field Coordinator and Marine Biologist for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP). Follow MWSRP on Twitter and Facebook.


Bradshaw, C. J., Fitzpatrick, B. M., Steinberg, C. C., Brook, B. W., & Meekan, M. G. (2008). Decline in whale shark size and abundance at Ningaloo Reef over the past decade: the world’s largest fish is getting smaller. Biological Conservation, 141(7), 1894-1905.
Brunnschweiler, J. M., Baensch, H., Pierce, S. J., & Sims, D. W. (2009). Deepdiving behaviour of a whale shark Rhincodon typus during longdistance movement in the western Indian Ocean. Journal of fish biology, 74(3), 706-714.
Cisneros-Montemayor, A. M., Barnes-Mauthe, M., Al-Abdulrazzak, D., Navarro-Holm, E., & Sumaila, U. R. (2013). Global economic value of shark ecotourism: implications for conservation. Oryx, 47(3), 381-388.
Clarke, S. 2015. Understanding and mitigating impacts to whale sharks in purse seine fisheries of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, WCPFC-SC11- 2015/EB-WP-03 Rev. 1. Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia.
Dulvy, N. K., Fowler, S. L., Musick, J. A., Cavanagh, R. D., Kyne, P. M., Harrison, L. R., & Pollock, C. M. (2014). Extinction risk and conservation of the world’s sharks and rays. Elife, 3, e00590.
Eckert, S. A., & Stewart, B. S. (2001). Telemetry and satellite tracking of whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, and the north Pacific Ocean. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 60(1-3), 299-308.
Graham, R. T. (2007). Whale sharks of the Western Caribbean: an overview of current research and conservation efforts and future needs for effective management of the species. Gulf and Caribbean Research, 19(2), 149-159.
Hsu, H. H., Joung, S. J., Liao, Y. Y., & Liu, K. M. (2007). Satellite tracking of juvenile whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, in the Northwestern Pacific. Fisheries Research, 84(1), 25-31.
Li, W., Wang, Y. and Norman, B., 2012. A preliminary survey of whale shark Rhincodon typus catch and trade in China: an emerging crisis. Journal of fish biology, 80(5), pp.1608-1618.
Pierce, S.J. & Norman, B. 2016. Rhincodon typus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T19488A2365291. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T19488A2365291.en. Downloaded on 30 August 2016.
Riley, M. J., Harman, A., & Rees, R. G. (2009). Evidence of continued hunting of whale sharks Rhincodon typus in the Maldives. Environmental biology of fishes, 86(3), 371-374.
Rowat, D., & Brooks, K. S. (2012). A review of the biology, fisheries and conservation of the whale shark Rhincodon typus. Journal of fish biology, 80(5), 1019-1056.
Rowat, D., & Gore, M. (2007). Regional scale horizontal and local scale vertical movements of whale sharks in the Indian Ocean off Seychelles. Fisheries Research, 84(1), 32-40.
Theberge, M. M., & Dearden, P. (2006). Detecting a decline in whale shark Rhincodon typus sightings in the Andaman Sea, Thailand, using ecotourist operator-collected data. Oryx, 40(3), 337-342.
Thums, M., Meekan, M., Stevens, J., Wilson, S., & Polovina, J. (2012). Evidence for behavioural thermoregulation by the world's largest fish. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, rsif20120477.
Worm, B., Davis, B., Kettemer, L., Ward-Paige, C. A., Chapman, D., Heithaus, M. R., & Gruber, S. H. (2013). Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. Marine Policy, 40, 194-204.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Sponsorship that kills

It boggles my mind that companies are still sponsoring shark hunting.
Last month, a major automobile company in the US offered a new luxury pickup truck to the person who could catch a record-sized shark in the North Atlantic Monster Shark Tournament. 

What were they thinking?

All three sharks targeted in the competition – mako, thresher, and porbeagle – are listed as Vulnerable to extinction according to the IUCN Red List, with some populations being classified as Critically Endangered.
As soon as I heard about it, I wrote to the CEO of Toyota in America. Nothing disgusts me more than the idea of killing a threatened species, but my letter had to be measured and balanced. I stuck to the facts, and ended with a promise: if they didn’t do something about this, and quickly, I would bring to bear every bit of influence I had to stop it going ahead.
Within four hours Toyota had pulled out of the competition. The company was massively praised on social media for doing the right thing.
As I’d suspected, the sponsorship had been dreamed up by a local franchise, without passing it by head office. As a Toyota spokesperson told me in an email, “Some things defy common sense.”
The point is, as soon as they found out about it, the company moved swiftly to stop it.

The information age has brought us many things – emails, Facebook, Twitter and much more. You can now contact a company’s CEO and tell them what you think, directly and instantly.
The pendulum has swung in favour of those who want to create change.
We interact with branded goods and services every single day. In many ways we have a closer relationship with companies than we do with those who represent us in our local or national governments. And in the same way that we make our wishes known to governments, we can use our voices and our purchasing power to hold companies to account.
They’re much quicker to respond than governments, too. Persuading governments to change can be maddeningly slow – just look at the recent COP21 Paris Climate Change Agreement. It took 21 years for the nations of the world to agree to a deal. Compare that to the four hours it took Toyota to shift gears and fix the problem. Agreed, they were very different issues. But you get the point.
Many thousands of sharks will be grateful for Toyota’s action. Over 100 million sharks are slaughtered in our seas each year. Mull over that figure for a moment. That’s more than 270,000 per day. It’s completely unsustainable and, left unchecked, will result in the collapse of our oceans.
Amazingly, the misguided Toyota competition was not an isolated incident. Corporate sponsored shark hunts are going on at an alarming rate – today I received word from the Guardian that 37 large and multinational companies sponsor shark hunting events, many of them on the US east coast. As soon as I receive confirmation of the details, I’ll be contacting their CEOs to let them know that we’re on their tracks. And I can assure you that I will be on their backs.
So my message to those countries that still permit these competitions is: stop them. You would not accept tiger-shooting contests. What is the difference? And my message to anglers who kill these threatened species is: the tide has turned. Don’t pretend you are involved in some sort of sport. You are not. You’re simply destroying your children’s future.
And my clear message to the media is: stop glorifying these kinds of events. Stop demonizing sharks through twisted words and images. The words ‘monster’ and ‘shark’ should never be used in the same sentence – it’s taken us years to get over the damage Jaws did to the reputation of sharks, and clearly we still have a long way to go.

Last but not least, my message to you is: we mustn’t be frightened of big companies. In fact, the bigger they are, the bigger the reputation they have to protect. Change through business is the quickest change we can bring about. And the power to make those changes rests with all of us.
Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the United Nations Patron of the Oceans. You can follow Lewis on Twitter @LewisPugh and Facebook.

Further reading: Monster shark fishing tournaments face growing pressure to reform.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Fisheries governance after the South China Sea verdict

On the March 23, 2016 an illegal Chinese-flagged fishing vessel, the Fu Yuan Yu 076, entered the Exclusive Economic Zone of China, crossing into the South China Sea across the famed Nine-Dash Line. The flagship of the Sea Shepherd fleet, the M/Y Steve Irwin, was pursuing the vessel for fishing using banned driftnets in the Indian Ocean. Right after the vessels crossed over, they were met by two Chinese warships steadily steaming south with the course set for the Spratly Islands. The vessels engaged in a conversation on the unusual nature of the chase by the conservation vessel but seemed reluctant to slow down and investigate the matter further.
Fu Yuan Yu 076 and Chinese warship after crossing the Nine-Dash Line in the south China Sea. (Sea Shepherd Global/Eliza Muirhead).

They were in fact en route to show their strength in response to an incident involving the Indonesian navy and a few Chinese fishing vessels. Some shots had been fired, some vessels had been rammed and representatives of both sides of the government made strong statements on the infringement of their Exclusive Economic Zones. This incident was not the first, and will certainly not be the last, of the rising tensions between the South East Asian countries in the hotbed of maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Territorial claims in the South China Sea (Wikipedia). 

In a ruling by the Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague, Chinese expansion, construction and claims in the South China Sea have been deemed illegal. When it comes specifically to the marine environment, the ruling has found that “China’s recent large scale land reclamation……has caused severe harm to the coral reef environment. The Tribunal also found that Chinese fishermen have engaged in the harvesting of endangered sea turtles, coral, and giant clams on a substantial scale in the South China Sea, using methods that inflict severe damage on the coral reef environment.”

As opinions and statements come pouring out from across the world, China has reiterated its stance that it will not accept the outcome of the ruling. In fact, China has even offered a conversation with the Philippines if the ruling can be left aside, such is the country’s regard for the ruling. On the other side, Philippines has maintained that the UN Court ruling be the final say in the matter, following which the countries should approach the issue with peace and diplomacy.

The outspoken Indonesian Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, has been a vocal critic of China’s bullying tactics in the region. Her interest has largely been driven by the conflict between the fishermen along the Nine-Dash Line. While the 500-page ruling at the PAC was being read, she was in Rome opening the session at the Committee of Fisheries (COFI) meeting on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing. It will be interesting to see how Indonesia will proceed from here, given that the president of the country, Joko Widodo, recently held a meeting on a flotilla on naval ships at the edge of the Nine-Dash Line and reiterated the strong stance his minister publicly taken.

China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has issued a statement in response to the ruling, reminding the world on China’s stance on the matter. A pro-Beijing scholar has even called this ruling “a joke”, while an interesting piece by Tony Cartalucci in the New Eastern Outlook calls American interest in the region “an open, modern proclamation of imperialism” and offers a scary insight into why Beijing has long declared its plans to ignore the ruling.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was signed in 1982. The Maritime borders are drawn under this convention and in time this convention gave rise to the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA), under whose framework fishing is internationally regulated. Just last year, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) submitted an opinion in response to a Sub-regional Fisheries Committee (SRFC) query on the matter of flag-state jurisdiction and action in the matter of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, as well as the state responsibilities in ensuring the sustainable management of shared fish stocks.
Pauly, D. and Le Manach, F. 2015. Tentative adjustments of China’s marine fisheries catches (1950-2010). Fisheries Centre Working Paper #2015-28, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

The case between the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines has been ruled under the UNCLOS articles as well. 34 years after the UNCLOS was signed, it is evident that economic interests and historical claims continue to dominate the division of maritime borders. The future developments in the South China Sea will be of global concern, particularly with regards to regional stability and international diplomacy. What is perhaps more significant is the question mark this ruling and its aftermath casts on the ability of the world to share, protect and sustain global fish stocks. How China, America and Indonesia, three of the biggest fishing nations, deal with the imminent threat to the fish populations in areas of overlapping interest?

Siddharth Chakravarty has spent the last five years with the direct action group Sea Shepherd Global. His current work involves the study into the economic model of the fishing industry, investigating labour supply chains to bring to light the ethics of seafood consumption, and the effect of industrial fishing on the world's oceans. Follow Sid @OceanBanter and Facebook.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Seahorses – Ambassadors for Marine Conservation

Seahorses are so instantly recognisable that they almost need no introduction. Creatures of myth and storybook, it comes as a surprise to many people that they are in fact fish, complete with gills and fins. Unlike most fish, however, they have a tube-like snout, bony external armour instead of scales, and a grasping tail to hold onto seagrass, corals or other holdfasts. They are also unusual because it is the male that broods the young, and most species studied to date form strong pair-bonds that are maintained by daily greetings.
 Dwarf seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae).

Highly sought after for traditional Chinese and other Asian medicines, as well as for curiosities or aquarium fish, it appears that the trade is not sustainable. Seahorses are caught accidentally in trawl nets by the millions, and given the fact that they tend to live at low densities and have complex social structure, this is decimating their populations. As a result of these threats, they are the focus of much conservation concern.
The seahorse trade appears not to be sustainable.
The oldest seahorse fossils were found in 12.5 million-year-old silt-stone deposits in Slovenia, but genetic data suggest that seahorses evolved from pipefish-like ancestors approximately 28 million years ago. Today they are found in shallow tropical, subtropical and many temperate seas throughout the world. A few are found in estuaries, but there are no truly freshwater seahorses. 
RĂ©union seahorse (Hippocampus borboniensis).

There are approximately forty species in the genus Hippocampus (meaning ‘horse sea-monster’) living in a variety of habitats, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and soft-bottom areas. They range in size from the pygmy seahorses (such as Hippocampus satomiae, ~ 1 cm in height) to the giant Pacific seahorse (H. ingens, > 30 cm in height). 
Satomi's pygmy seahorse (hippocampus satomiae).

They are relatively conservative in their body form, although they vary in terms of their body ornamentation, spines, coronet shape and size, fin rays and body and tail rings. As ambush predators, they rely on stealth and camouflage to avoid detection by their prey, aided by their ability to change colour to match their surroundings. They eat small crustaceans (such as tiny shrimp, or crab larvae), which they efficiently vacuum up with their snout using some of the most rapid suction action known in the animal kingdom. 
Ribboned pipefish (Haliichthys taeniophorus).

Drawing on much of the latest research, Seahorses is an in depth, but accessible introduction to these fascinating creatures. It provides background details about their ecology, behaviour and evolution, as well as their connection with humans in terms of culture, trade, and conservation action. The second half of the book provides a species by species account of all the seahorses, as well as a selection of their relatives within the family Syngnathidae, including a number of pipefishes, pipehorses, and seadragons. The book hopes to inspire and educate readers, as well as to raise awareness of the fragility of the marine realm. Can the charisma of theses unusual creatures help motivate conservation action for seahorses and their imperiled marine habitats?

Sara Lourie has been involved with Project Seahorse, an international marine conservation organisation, since it was founded by Amanda Vincent and Heather Koldewey in 1996. She published the first seahorse identification guide in 1999, described several new species of pygmy seahorses, and received her PhD from McGill University in 2004, with a thesis on the genetic connections among populations of seahorses in Southeast Asia. She has travelled extensively and continues to  work on marine conservation projects, particularly in Indonesia. 

Seahorses: A Lifesize Guide to Every Species by Sara Lourie is published by Ivy Press. 

Friday, 10 June 2016

Seafood: A choice that matters

I write this blog from a little lane in a suburb in Bombay from a house that has recently been built adjoining an old fishing village. The original inhabitants of this megacity are the Koli fisherfolk, artisanal and subsistence fishermen, who for centuries have, and continue to, rely on the ocean for their sustenance. Almost daily I walk down the street and pass the Koli women selling fish which the Koli fishermen have caught that morning. My discerning eye roves over their wares and invariably, in addition to the usual catch of smaller inshore fish, I find juvenile tuna and sharks. And as I slow down to make my observation, the Koli women flash a wide smile and say to me, “Arre, ghey ki”, (Come on, buy some). I sheepishly smile back, nod my head and walk on.
Siddharth Chakravarty on the deck of the M/Y Steve Irwin on Operation Driftnet. (Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters).

Instantly my mind shifts to the deck of the conservation vessel, M/Y Steve Irwin, where on a recent campaign in the South Indian Ocean, my crew pulled in critically endangered tuna and sharks from the illegal nets of a fleet of 6 illegal Chinese vessels. The scale of marine wildlife caught in the nets then horrified me, but somehow I don’t feel horrified when I walk past the Koli women selling tuna and sharks at the fish stall in Bombay.
The lane the author walks down every single day in suburban Bombay. (Sid Chakravarty).

A couple of years ago I began to study the large-scale, deliberate trafficking of men onto the distant-water, industrialised fishing vessels. I have continued to delve into the economics of this industry and have begun to comprehend how the globalisation of fisheries supply chains has seen some parts of these supply chains systematically squeezed – typically at the production end – with profits concentrated near the end consumer. Most deep sea fishing vessels employ a production-led commodity cost-driven low-road business model. The model inevitably leads to poor labour practices coupled with environmental abuses, including Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. The current model ensures that the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations are exploited, trafficked and made to work in horrific conditions so that the fishing industry can maintain effort. And the maintenance of this effort means that more fishing vessels, operating on government subsidies, enter the oceans in search for fish.
Dead animals recovered from the illegal driftnets, piled on the deck of the vessel. (Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters).

Consumers rarely eat fish that comes from their coasts anymore. The fishing industry is trans-national in nature with vessels, crews, fishing grounds, ports and markets being spread across the globe. And when oceans cover 71% of this planet, a large section of which are outside national jurisdiction, the complexities of ocean governance become evident. Consider this, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a convention that forms the basis for international fisheries management, was adopted in 1982. We’re a mere 34 years from when the first step to collectively govern the oceans was taken. Just last week, the Port State Measures Agreement, a convention to inspect fishing vessels in port came into force. While a step in the right direction, it was adopted by only 30 countries. Most of the world’s biggest fishing nations like China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, and India have not signed the agreement. Given that fisheries capture is largely international in nature, it is entirely governed under the UN Frameworks. National implementations of these frameworks take time and in this sense, we’re at the very start of building ocean governance measures.
Siddharth Chakravarty with some of the species found in the illegal driftnets. (Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters).

In spite of reports from various agencies, including the UNFAO, that fish stocks are being depleted faster than they can naturally replenish, the demand for seafood ensures that fishing effort is not reduced. Our oceans are in peril. We’re a long way from a unified and uniform ocean governance regime. We’ve got a world with hungry people who need to be fed. We’ve got a demand for seafood that is pushing communities to the edge, allowing the trafficking of men and the destroying of the marine ecosystem. The closest land-based analogy to industrial, distant-water fishing would be a mining operation, where migrant workers are forced to work in appalling conditions for a few cents an hour, are often away from their families for years, are physically and emotionally abused and are condemned to the dark reality for the rest of their lives with little recourse to justice and equality- a mine where the onus of labour and environmental regulatory mechanisms is left entirely to the owners of the mine; a mine where toxic runoffs, effluents and waste are regularly allowed to enter the surrounding ecosystem leaving them degraded and nothing more than wastelands.
 Dead sharks lie on the stern deck of the vessel. (Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters).

Last week the Fisheries Commissioner for my state opened the waters for Purse Seiners, a fishing method used to catch schooling fish, including tuna. I met the head of my state’s fishermen’s union, the Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti, who expressed his concerns on the impact of industrial fishing on the traditional Koli fishing communities. The fishermen have already been displaced to the very fringe of the existence in the city with the increase is industrialised fishing. As fish stocks in the high sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone decrease, the effects are felt closer to shore by the Koli fishermen. Now they venture out to fish for long hours, travel perilous distances out to sea in their small boats and get back catch that barely covers their cost of fishing. It’s a special kind of fortitude to sit at the roadside to sell fish every single day and yet manage to smile as I pass by.
One of the 11 species, the critically endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna, in the illegal nets. (Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters).

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) estimates that 800 million people are malnourished across the world. Almost all of the people are in developing countries, including India. Here in Bombay, a city that is driven by an imminent sense of urgency at all times of the day and night, hunger is everywhere. Hunger is in the eyes of the man squatting under a tree, in the matted hair of a child at a traffic signal, in the weak legs of the new mother with an infant at her breast. And yet, in 33 years of my life, I have never been hungry. I’ve never been hungry in the sense that I had to think of where my next meal would come from. My folks worked long hours and hard jobs and ensured I had access to food to nourish my body. My hunger has always been one of choices.
 Critically endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna on the deck of the M/Y Steve Irwin. (Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters).

When I pass the Koli woman on the street, I see her fortitude. I think of her community struggling to exist as they have for thousands of years. I understand that my ability to make dietary choices does not automatically allow me the right to pass a judgement on those who can’t do the same.
A Koli woman selling her daily catch of fish near the author's home in Bombay. (Sid Chakravarty).

Once I understood the impact of my choices, I chose to give up seafood. I gave up seafood because it matters. It matters because the child with the matted hair needs it more. It matters because the Koli community needs to survive. It matters because the blue marble we call home needs some respite. It matters because the world needs time to figure things out. If you have the time, the ability and the good fortune of having a hunger that affords choices, then make the right choice because it matters.

Siddharth Chakravarty has spent the last five years of his life with the direct action group Sea Shepherd Global. His current work involves the study into the economic model of the fishing industry and investigating labour supply chains to bring to light the ethics of seafood consumption and the effect of industrial fishing on the world's oceans. Follow Sid @OceanBanter and Facebook.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Studying the phytoplankton with citizen science

The phytoplankton in the sea, and the plankton food web they support, underpin the rest of the marine food chain (seeThe importance of plankton). Living at the surface of the sea the plankton are particularly sensitive to changes in sea surface temperature, both directly through the effects of temperature upon their physiology, and indirectly through the effects of temperature upon the physics of the water column. As sea surface temperatures increase due to current global warming evidence is mounting that the phytoplankton are reacting to this change in their habitat, and this calls for more research to understand (see: What’s happening to the oceans’ phytoplankton?).
Phytoplankton: These microscopic cells begin the marine food chain. They are so numerous they account for 50% of photosynthesis on Earth.
One new project that is specifically designed to enable you to help add to our knowledge of the Oceans’ phytoplankton is the citizen science Secchi Disk study www.secchidisk.org. This study combines a 150 year-old piece of equipment invented by the Pope’s astronomer with modern smartphone technology to help collect data on the phytoplankton from oceans around the world. So, what is a Secchi Disk and how does the project work, and most importantly, how can you take part?
The Secchi Disk is a plain white, 30cm diameter disk attached to a tape measure and weighted from below. It is one of the simplest and oldest pieces of marine scientific equipment.
Firstly, just what is a Secchi Disk ? Long before modern navigational aids, when sailors just had a compass, the sun and the stars to rely upon, they knew that either the colour of the water or its clarity could provide information about their location, for example the Sargasso Sea is particularly clear while neighbouring waters are less so. To help sailors determine water clarity they would lower a white object, often a disk, over the side of the ship and watch it disappear from sight; the quicker it disappeared from sight the lower was the water clarity. Until 1865 this technique was relatively, informal. In 1865 Pope Pius IX tasked Alessandro Cialdi the commander of the Papal navy to determine the currents in the Mediterranean Sea. Cialdi asked the Pope’s Astronomer Pietro Angelo Secchi, to formalize the method of using a white disk to help determine the currents by measuring their changing clarity. A scientific paper on the currents in the Mediterranean sea was written and from then on the white disk became known as a Secchi Disk, and it has been used as a standard and simple way to measure water clarity ever since. Unchanged for decades, a Secchi Disk is a plain white disk 30 cm in diameter that is attached to a tape measure and weighted from below. When the disk is lowered into the water from the side of a boat the depth at which it just disappears from sight is noted and is called the Secchi Depth.
When lowered vertically into the water the depth below the surface at which the Secchi Disk disappears is called the Secchi Depth and this measures water clarity. In water over 25m deep and over 1km from shore, the main determinant of water clarity is the phytoplankton. 
Away from estuaries and coasts the main determinant of water clarity is the amount of phytoplankton in the water column. Consequently, marine biologists have used the Secchi Depth to measure phytoplankton since the Secchi Disk’s ‘invention’ in 1865. Now, with evidence to suggest the phytoplankton in the world’s oceans are changing due to climate change, and because of their important role in the marine food chain and the Earth’s carbon cycle, we need to know if, how and why they are changing. Even though we can now obtain remote estimates of phytoplankton from satellite measurements of ocean colour, in situ measurements are still fundamental and scientists still use Secchi Disks. However, there are simply too few scientists to survey the world's oceans as well as we would wish. This is where sailors, acting as citizen scientists, can help science by making and using a Secchi Disk. By collecting Secchi Depths from around the world, from now and into the indefinite future, any seafarer can help grow the database of Secchi Depth measurements to give a much bigger time series in terms of its temporal and spatial extent.
Dr Richard R Kirby created the citizen science Secchi Disk study in 2013 to enable any seafarer to help collect data to understand the affect of climate change on the phytoplankton.
So how can citizen scientists get involved ? Anyone who goes to sea can take part, whether you are a sailor with your own yacht, a crew-member, or are on a charter sailing holiday, or you are an angler, a diver or a fisherman. All you need is a Secchi Disk and the free Secchi app installed onto your smartphone or tablet. The Secchi app is available as a native app for iOS and Android phones and also as a Web app (Secchi Web) for Windows devices (Secchi Web also runs on iOS and Android). The Secchi Disk is a DIY element to the project. A Secchi disk can be made from any material, such as a white plastic bucket lid or a piece of plywood painted white. Offcuts of 3-5 mm white Foamex that you can often obtain from printers work very well. Attached to an inexpensive fibreglass tape measure with a weight hanging below, the Secchi Disk is lowered vertically into the seawater (you need to use sufficient weight to make the disk sink vertically, which will depend upon the disk material), and the Secchi Depth is noted. The quicker the Secchi Disk disappears from sight the smaller the Secchi Depth and the more phytoplankton there is in the water. Simple!

Once the Secchi Depth is determined, you use your smartphone and the free Secchi app to obtain the GPS location and to enter the Secchi depth - a network connection isn’t required for this. The Secchi App will store the data on the phone and the Secchi Disk project receives the data as soon as network connectivity is regained. Anyone can follow the data collected on the project map. The aim of the project is to chart the seasonal and annual changes of the phytoplankton from now and into the future. It is a long-term project that carries on indefinitely. Seafarers may measure the Secchi depth at the same place regularly, or occasionally, or they may take measurements from different places as they travel. The more sailors that take part the better the coverage of the oceans, and the more remarkable and useful the citizen science Secchi Depth database will become.

I’ll now reveal my vested interest in this blog since I am the leader of the Secchi Disk project. Often, we look back and wish we had already started monitoring something about the natural world - if only we had started measuring 'x' some years ago. In terms of the phytoplankton there really is no time like the present to start growing the Secchi Depth database and this is why I created the Secchi App and this citizen science project. Since its launch in 2013 the project has gone from strength to strength. Already it is the world’s largest marine citizen science study with data from every ocean. In 2014 there was a Secchi Disk 'first' when Jimmy Cornell’s grand-daughter Nera measured a Secchi depth from the Northwest Passage, which has only recently become navigable due to global warming. Whether sailing in coastal waters or cruising across oceans, families find the project particularly useful as an educational addition to being on the water. This year small boat fishermen joined the study, as they are fully aware of the importance of understanding the phytoplankton that underpins all fisheries.

So, if you go to sea, why not take part in this study to help improve our understanding of the oceans’ phytoplankton, or alternatively, share this blog, so that more citizen scientists can find out about the project.

You can find the Secchi Disk project at www.secchidisk.org, on Facebook www.facebook.com/secchidisk and on Twitter @secchiapp.

Dr Richard Kirby is a British plankton expert, scientist, author and speaker. Follow Richard @planktonpundit on Twitter. Richard’s book “Ocean Drifters, a secret world beneath the waves” is available on Amazon and as an iBook www.planktonpundit.org.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Conserving the Falkland Islands' natural environment

Falklands Conservation is a non-governmental organisation working to protect the wildlife in the Falkland Islands for future generations. It undertakes practical conservation projects, surveys and scientific studies, conducts annual monitoring of seabird populations, rehabilitates oiled penguins, publishes guides and information on many aspects of the Falkland Islands environment, and involves islanders of all ages in its activities, including running a Watch Group for children. It relies on donations and public support to carry out its work.

The Annual Seabird Monitoring Programme 

The Falkland Islands support seabird populations that are of global importance both numerically, and in terms of conservation status. An estimated 72% of the global population of Black-browed Albatross breeds in the Islands which are also home to the majority of the world’s population of Southern Rockhopper Penguin, Gentoo Penguin and Southern Giant Petrel. The Southern Rockhopper Penguin is classified as 'Vulnerable' (IUCN Redlist), due to large decreases in its population over the last century. Whilst the Black-browed Albatross has recently made positive moves from 'Endangered' to 'Near Threatened', it shares this status with the Gentoo Penguin which moved from 'Least Concern' in the early 90s. The Southern Giant Petrel moved from 'Vulnerable' to 'Least Concern' in the early 2000s. 
Teaching a local volunteer how to ring young black-browed albatrosses on Steeple Jason in March 2015.
The changing fortunes of these important Falkland Islands species demonstrates how critical it is to monitor such populations, and, given the proportions of the global populations in the Islands, it is easy to understand how further changes in local populations could readily impact the global conservation status of these species, just as they have before. Falklands Conservation initiated the Falkland Islands Seabird Monitoring Programme (FISMP) in 1989/90. Since then, population monitoring has continued on an almost annual basis. 

Currently the FISMP monitors breeding population trends and breeding success in Gentoo Penguin, Southern Rockhopper Penguin, King Penguin, Black-browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel and Imperial Shag, visiting remote survey sites and islands by 4 x 4, plane and boat. Monitoring a range of species with differing ecologies has additional benefits as they also serve as indicators of potential change in other Falkland Islands seabird populations or oceanographic conditions.
Counting gentoo penguins for the Falkland Islands Seabird Monitoring Project.

Building Capacity for Habitat Restoration 

This Darwin Plus funded project trials the use of native plants for restoring eroded land on farms and nature reserves. Soil erosion from fire, climate change and grazing is a significant problem across the Falkland Islands and threatens important habitats including coastal tussac and its ecosystem with penguins and sea lions. There is currently no supply of native plant seed for landowners wishing to restore their land with native plants and this project aims to provide start up quantities of seed and growing information.
A variety of seeds collected.
To do this a Native Seed Growing Hub has been established, providing seeds for trials on a range of eroded soils across the Falklands. Fourteen native plant species have been tested and a number, including tussac grass and fuegian couch grass, have grown very successfully.
Assessing the habitat restoration plots.

Oiled Seabird Rehabilitation Facility 

The Oiled Seabird Rehabilitation Facility cares for oiled and injured seabirds, mostly penguins, which are brought in by the public to be cleaned of oil, and then rehabilitated until they are ready to be released.
First, vegetable oil is massaged into the feathers. This thins out the heavy crude oil. Then washing up liquid and water remove all trace of the oil.
This involves an intensive programme of washing, hand feeding and husbandry, conducted by staff and volunteers. This includes the generous donation of fish from local fishing companies. The facility was formally opened in March 2015, and is also providing capacity for the offshore oil industry’s Oil Spill Response Plans.
The penguins are given time to swim and preen, ensuring they are fully waterproof before they are released back into the wild.
The penguins are then taken to a remote beach to be released.

Watch Group 

Our efforts to build appreciation and understanding of wildlife and conservation continue through the Watch Group. The junior membership of Falklands Conservation has 55 members ranging in age from 8 years old to 15.
Looking at a sample aboard the expedition vessel Hans Hansson.
With the support of the Standard Chartered Bank, we are able to take children to many of the more remote parts of the Falklands, and to maintain a programme of activities throughout the year. These incorporate our main strategic focus; strengthening biosecurity and managing invasive species, terrestrial habitat restoration, and enhancing marine management.
Children explore rock pools during a camp to Elephant Beach Farm.
The children are educated and enthused about these topics through activities such as tussac planting, beach cleans, and exploring marine ecosystems through rock pooling and collaboration with the Shallow Marine Survey Group. Plans for the future are to incorporate an education centre into our new building.
A group takes a closer look at the pond life at Hawks Nest Pond, West Falkland.

Lower Plants Project 

The Lower Plants Project is a two year project surveying the bryophytes and lichens of the Falkland Islands undertaken and run by Falklands Conservation between 2014–2016. Funded by the UK Government through DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the Darwin Initiative, this project was set to fill the ‘critical knowledge gap’ in bryophytes and lichens that was identified in the Falkland Islands Biodiversity Strategy 2008–2018, and to increase local awareness.
A workshop run to increase awareness of the different species.
The project is addressing this knowledge gap, and is providing data essential for effective conservation planning and enhancement of the ‘Important Plant Areas’ of the Islands. The main objective is to create an up to date species list for the three taxonomic groups we know as mosses, liverworts and lichens and to create a capacity and legacy for future research on this area of botany.
A selection of mosses, liverworts and lichens.
The legacy would be in the form of a laboratory, a herbarium, and an increased awareness among the public of the Falkland Islands regarding bryophytes and lichens. To date, the project has discovered 40 new moss records, 8 new liverwort records and 80 new lichen records for the Falklands, which include approximately 15 species new to science. 

If you would like to become a member of Falklands Conservation, adopt a penguin, or donate towards our Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, the education centre for the Watch Group, or any other of our conservation activities, please visit www.falklandsconservation.com, our Just Giving Site at www.justgiving.com/falklandsconservation or follow us on Twitter @FI_Conservation or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Falklands-Conservation.