Spring is a season when new life is replenished and although this productivity is obvious on land, the ocean, with it's seemingly unchanging surface, is also privy to this season. Especially off the coast of California, where the winds and deep underwater canyons provide the perfect conditions for upwelling. In fact, coastal upwelling regions, accounting for less than 1% of the ocean surface, contribute roughly 50% of the worlds fishing landings (NOAA).
Before I go into detail on upwelling, it is important to first address the wind. Winds create a powerful and direct effect on the oceans and are an important force in creating currents. From the global circulation of entire ocean systems to small eddies nearshore, winds move water and its resident animals and plants in complex and interesting patterns.
In the spring, the warm winds from the north blow parallel to the coastline towards southern California. When this occurs, an intriguing and biologically important event takes places. Affected by the rotation of the earth, these winds move water at right angles to the direction the wind is blowing, a phenomenon known as the Coriolis effect. Along the California coastline, winds that blow from the north drive surface waters offshore. As surface waters are pushed offshore, water is drawn from below to replace them. The upward movement of this deep, colder water is called upwelling.
Upwelling brings cold, nutrient-rich waters to the surface, which encourages the growth of large blooms of phytoplankton. The phytoplankton blooms form the ultimate energy base for large animal populations higher in the food chain, such as tuna, seabass, and even large marine mammals, like whales. Although an impressive biological event, this is not the only major consequence of upwelling because upwelling also affects animal movement. Upwelling moves nearshore surface water offshore, and takes with it water is floating in the water column, such as larval young produced by most marine fish and invertebrates. These larval young are tiny, ranging from microscopic to the size of a potato chip, and they spend the first few weeks or months of life adrift in the water column. Upwelling that moves surface water offshore can potentially move drifting larvae long distances away from their natural habitat, to shelters such as a nearby oil and gas platform.
This past spring, Emily and I experienced the plethora of larval young swarming around California's offshore oil and gas platforms. Although we focused our cameras on the anemone covered beams, or the seal lion curiously swimming by, when we revisited our footage after the dive we found that many of the photos had been "photobombed" larvae that landed on the lens! Even, when we exited the water, we noticed that our wetsuits were crawling with life. It was quite a shock to see thousands of tiny white shrimp and other larvae contrasted against our black wetsuits.
Upon further investigation, we found that offshore oil and gas platforms don't cause upwelling but rather they are a landing site for those larvae displaced by upwelling. In fact the vertical platform structures may actually cause a slight shift in current direction that mixes the surrounding ocean nutrients. This mixing, although small, provides the distribution of an important foundational food source for other, larger fish that call offshore oil and gas platforms home.
"Fish is good for me!" I used to tell myself while eating some member of the seafood family, swallowing without sentiment. After all, fish is protein-rich, and they don't have feelings (or so I thought); they are slithery and furless, they don't fetch or meow, and they taste really good in tacos.
Besides, I'd already given up meat and poultry after I was bullied into becoming vegetarian nearly 20 years ago. It all transpired during a backpacking trip around Europe with my PETA activist friend from college. "Leather comes from cows," she informed me as I tried on the most perfect leather jacket at a boutique in Rome one afternoon, giddy with delight and twirling in the mirror as the sales clerk gasped in approval. "Sei bellissima!" he exclaimed. "Didn't you know they killed a cow to make that?" She countered, darkening the mood. I looked into her pleading, mad cow-like eyes, my conscience overpowering my vanity in the end. I returned from that trip not only jacket-less, but without having sampled the most talked about culinary delights of Europe -- prosciutto, coq au vin, and schnitzel -- simply because they were meat-based. In fact, all I had to show for that trip was a nose piercing.
Truth be told, I eschewed meat from that point on and never looked back. And over the last two decades, I've dithered between veganism and vegetarianism, eventually incorporating small amounts of fish into my diet because I was informed that, as a vegetarian, I was "likely protein-deprived." Industry propaganda has long over-stretched the claim that there's a dearth of protein sources for non-meat eaters, but that's simply not true (I've never been anemic). True, I have felt sleepy sometimes, but that's due to something called "lack of sleep." Admittedly, I was an irresponsible vegetarian when I was younger, subsisting on mainly bagels, falafel, and dirty martinis just because I didn't know any better. In any case, I grew to enjoy eating fish on occasion - and the best part is that I didn't feel like I was doing anything morally wrong by eating the occasional Dover Sole - it wasn't like I was consuming meat from one of those horrific factory farms in the Midwest! Besides, I convinced myself that by dining on fish I was helping sustain the livelihood of some cute, little hard-working fisherman wearing a straw hat somewhere tropical.
But those were the good old days, when I was living in blissful ignorance - basically, until just last week. Before I was enlightened by Mission Blue, the new Netflix documentary directed by Fisher Stevens (The Cove) and Bob Nixon (Gorillas in the Mist) on the state of the ocean, the commercial fishing industry, and the legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle - a feisty 78-year-old eco-activist whose admirable efforts to save the ocean over the last several decades have been recognized by the likes of President Barack Obama. I was reviewing the film for TED, who awarded Earle with the TED Prize in 2009 to help her campaign to create "hope spots," underwater areas so critical to the health of the ocean that they need to be protected by law. I'd been looking forward to the seeing the film, but I was blown away by how much I didn't know - or had avoided knowing.
Love tuna? Well, it's pretty much extinct thanks to the insatiable human appetite for sushi. Scared of sharks? No problem, we've killed almost all of them. Of course, I don't live under a rock. I knew that the practice of shark-finning was brutal and problematic, but I didn't know that with only 10% of sharks left, we've seriously compromised our entire ecosystem. I knew that the seas were being overfished - due to modern, environmentally-catastrophic and wasteful fishing methods like bottom trawling - but to what extent, I didn't know. "Overfishing - it's an amazing phenomenon. Who would have ever thought that people would be able to fish so efficiently and so effectively...that we would reduce the stocks of these species that were present by the billions to the point of obliteration or near obliteration," says Jeremy Jackson of the Smithsonian Institution, one ocean activist interviewed in the film. "We've done it to Atlantic tuna, we've done it to sharks, we've done it to cod, we've done it to halibut, to anchovies, to sardines...We've done it to just about every damn thing you would ever want to eat," says Jackson. There are less than 5% left of many of these fish in most cases. This would explain why we have 50% fewer coral reefs than we did in 1950. "The ocean is dying," says Earle, and our biggest problem right now is our own ignorance.
Perhaps some of you knew all of this, but did you know that, mercury poisoning aside, a diet of carnivorous animals, such as carnivorous fish, is not what our bodies function best on? "There's no question that a plant-based diet is better for you and better for the planet," says Earle, one of the most eminent biologists in the world. "If you ask me, the best thing is a plant-based diet, or largely plant-based diet with small amounts of meat coming from plant-eating animals. We have all the nutrition that we require, available to us through plants," she adds.
That means, if you're eating Halibut, not only are you ingesting an old piece of meat (it takes years for many of the fish we like to eat to mature), but it will likely be full of the toxins we've dumped into the ocean and, by eating a carnivorous fish, you're electing to obtain nutrition many layers removed from the source that best serves us (plants!) Culinary tastes aside, why eat a fish that eats a fish that eats a fish, rather than going straight to the source itself? And guess what? Fish don't even make omega-3 fatty acids themselves, so you can easily buy the plant-based supplement and have a clean conscience instead of purchasing fish oil. Earle broke it all down for me in this eye-opening interview here.
I've been on such a rampage about this over the last few days, beckoning my friends to watch Mission Blue and urging virtually anyone I meet to reconsider allowing fish to be a part of their diet. Yesterday, I caught myself eyeing my weight-conscious colleague - who sits caddy-corner to me - poking at a container of sashimi, and I had the sudden urge to go over to her and enlighten her. Is that pink pile of tuna worth the demise of the ocean? I don't want to be that person, but I also don't want to be the person who does nothing.
Feeling frustrated by what I felt was indifference around this issue, I called my dear journalist friend to vent. Why am I so emotional about this? Is it because I'm a water sign? He sensed I was in need of more ammunition and thus drew my attention to several recent newspaper articles and UN reports that had in fact drawn a direct link between piracy in Somalia and foreign commercial fishing! Turns out, a lack of government protection of Somalia's natural resources has failed to prevent the illegal and unregulated exploitation of its waters by foreign fishing vessels. These ships have reportedly been destroying the nets of local Somali fisherman and denying them access to fishing grounds making it difficult for them to earn an honest living. As a result, many are driven to take up piracy because it pays better than fishing -and it's sadly one of the few ways of making a living in Somalia. Estimates for how much Somali piracy has cost the global economy range from $7 billion to $18 billion. So here was another reinforcement for my plea - there's even a significant geopolitical argument to stop eating fish!
Oh and as for fish not having personalities, I was lying to myself. Earle, who has spent upwards of 7,000 hours underwater in her lifetime, can attest to this. "If you're sharp enough to distinguish one [fish] from another you soon begin to see that they behave differently. If that's personality, which I guess it is, each one has its own little quirks," she says. I recall a video my brother, a freelance wildlife producer for Discovery Channel, once showed me years ago. It was of a non-descript shrimp he filmed on a trip to Australia. As I watched the puny gray thing moving in what seemed like slow-motion for several minutes- my patience being tried - I eventually noticed that he was exhibiting human-like qualities, annoyance in particular, as my brother repeatedly popped a bit of seaweed into the shrimp's habitat whilst he was taking the pains to clear it out. I was stunned to discover that those little bottom-feeders - which happen to taste so scrumptious deep-fried - have personalities! But I don't think I really allowed myself to process that information until now.
I know how you feel - one more thing we can't eat. For a moment, I thought - I gave up chicken tikka masala, my favorite dish, years ago and now I have to give up fish? Though I've never looked at a vegetarian diet as a deprivation of sorts. It's easy these days; with a little bit of imagination, it can be flavorful and varied. While I swore I'd never become like my PETA friend, accosting people with my views on meat consumption, what I'm really saying here is: inform yourself and then decide. Watch Mission Blue and be mindful about your choices, even if it means just cutting back.
Because eating meat, whether we're talking seafood or burgers, Earle reminds us, is a choice for most of us. And if you can choose something that's better for you and better for the planet - one that's already threatened by overpopulation, a scarcity of resources, the extinction of vital species, global warming, and ozone layer depletion - then why on earth wouldn't you?
Marc Andreessen caused an uproar when he famously stated that software is eating the world. Here's how software can take a sip from our oceans.
What is a classic scene that comes to mind when you think about our oceans? More often than not it's a picture perfect sunset splashed with the sounds of powerful waves crashing on the shoreline. What I'm about to share with you will make you rethink this scene. I invite you to imagine our oceans in a new light. I invite you to see our oceans as a big sea of code with algorithms as its waves and realize you can hack it!
As a digital strategist on the Fishackathon project I saw first-hand the struggles coastal communities face due to a lack of technological solutions. For instance, data collection is labor intensive and done by hand through the use of pen and paper. This crucial data solves urgent problems such as illegal fishing. It also enables fishers in rural areas to register their vessels with local governments. Hardware devices and sensors are unavailable leaving measurements and species identification to rulers and dated field manuals.
The economic impact is massive as well. It's estimated that the fishing industry will lose between $17 to $40 billion dollars because of climate change on marine environments by 2050. Software is busy eating the world and these challenges open up the opportunity for it to have a drink from our oceans. Especially since the internet is a series of tubes cross connected under the depths of our oceans.
Now you might feel excited to fire up your favorite IDE and start coding away, but before you do it's important to understand the scope of what's possible when it comes to creating software solutions for our oceans. An important consideration is which programming language you will be building your solution in and the transparency of data.
Another major road block when it comes to implementing code to save our oceans is the high level of illiteracy in developing coastal communities along with dozens of local dialects. Your tech solutions will have to make use of creative and innovative ways around this while at the same time dealing with limited mobile service in these areas and out at sea.
Many ocean communities and governments are skipping out on desktop computing and joining the mobile revolution. Their chosen devices are typically low cost Symbian phones followed by Android smart phones and tablets. This creates a massive vacuum for mobile web based solutions that work across all platforms and browsers when it comes to choosing a platform to start developing on.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to disrupting our oceans through technology. Even Google is considering investing millions of dollars into a new under the sea cable that will connect its data centers in Japan and Oregon. You may also want to consider impactful low tech solutions like the touch screen waterproof bag which comes with communications company Tone's mFish kit. It allows fishers to use their mobile phones out in rough ocean conditions and managed to catch the eye of Leonardo Dicaprio. You can also explore creating open source platforms for fishers like GreenWave's 3D restorative ocean farming protocol.
We're just surfing the waves of what's possible when technology gets a drink from our oceans. Local governments, fishers and coastal communities are ready to work with technology communities across the globe. Find a mate and start coding away as you set sail on a new technological adventure to disrupt our oceans. Your code might just lay the foundation for the next big thing and support the 3 billion people that rely on our oceans for their livelihoods!
If you would like to add to the conversation please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below and share this article.
President Obama and the EPA recently took historic action to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the nation's coal-fired power plants. While the conventional wisdom (and much of the reporting) on this noteworthy advance for environmental protection has focused on air quality and global climate change, the ruling was cause for considerable cheer among ocean conservationists.
This week marine experts, lawmakers, policy leaders and others came together in the nation's capital for the Our Oceans Conference hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. On the occasion of this important gathering, it is helpful to remember that the rise in atmospheric carbon has already set off a wide range of cascading impacts through the degradation and alteration of the world's oceans -- whether from rising seas, increased water temperatures, acidification, or the growing number and severity of storm events.
Coral reefs are essential to productive fisheries and the livelihoods of the communities that depend on them. Photo by Stacy Jupiter/WCS.
We are now rebuilding with an eye to greater resiliency. As we rebuild, we are encouraged that the U.S. is demonstrating leadership on climate, for this may be the single largest factor affecting our oceans' future. As institutions like our aquarium grapple with building strategies to ensure greater protection from future storms, resilience likewise figures in broader climate discussions.
In the wake of Sandy, there has been a great deal of conversation and debate about the "ecosystem services" provided by natural infrastructure to protect coastal areas from future storms. Coral reefs, oysters, seagrass, and mangroves all serve as natural storm surge barriers, while increased coastal and marine refugia allow for species and ecosystem recovery.
"Ecosystem services" provided by natural infrastructure like coral reefs, oysters, seagrass and mangroves could protect coastal areas from future storms. Photo by Jane Carter Ingram/WCS.
Even as our government and others move toward a reduced-carbon emissions future, many scientists believe we have already passed a tipping point of climate change impact that may take centuries to reverse. Nevertheless, there are several actions we can take in the immediate term to help our oceans confront the ecological challenges of a warming planet.
We must continue to work with communities in low-lying coastal regions and small islands around the world that are most vulnerable to climate change so they can adequately plan for their future. Because nearshore ecosystems such as coral reefs are essential to productive fisheries and the livelihoods of the communities that depend on them, we must pay special attention to their health and management.
Over the past few years, WCS and other global conservation groups have published studies that offer solutions for identifying the corals most likely to survive our changing climate. By combining layers of historical data, satellite imagery, and field observations, marine scientists have identified low-stress places most likely to benefit from immediate conservation efforts and areas that require more adaptive management.
Conservation efforts in the western Indian Ocean are helping to secure food, fisheries, associated livelihoods, and coastal protection for millions of people. Photo by Caleb McClennen/WCS.
We know, for example, that the ocean waters around Southern Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique across to northeastern Madagascar contain corals with high diversity and low to moderate environmental stress that warrant protection in a region recently decimated by coral bleaching tied to warming temperatures. These are areas where millions of people depend on marine ecosystems for food, fisheries, associated livelihoods, and coastal protection.
Ocean ecosystems are diverse, but fragile. The marine animals that live there are facing serious environmental challenges from pollution, unsustainable fishing, and energy development. It is important to work on protecting and restoring these aquatic habitats now before it is too late. This means both an increased investment in adaptive science-based conservation measures on the ground in combination with increased global leadership in reducing carbon emissions.
Marine mammals face serious environmental challenges today from pollution, energy development, and melting sea ice, among other threats. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.
Whether it be for actions taken by the EPA or the State Department, congratulations to the Obama Administration are due for leadership on both carbon emissions and marine conservation. Let these efforts be the first of many. And whether you spend time this summer on the beach, at your local aquarium, or out on -- or under -- the water, please take a moment to appreciate that the quality of our air has a direct connection to vibrant, healthy oceans.
The ocean can be described in an endless number of ways. It's refreshing, beautiful and humbling. It's vast, mysterious and terrifying. It's magnificence has inspired countless novels, films, documentaries, songs, and HuffPost articles.
If it were a god, it would already have millions of devoted disciples -- divers, scientists, surfers, biologists, ocean-going enthusiasts -- who are in constant awe of its power and beauty. That's why, for World Oceans Day, we wanted to explore the reasons we are all drawn to the sea.
Below, 16 reasons the ocean, our beloved resource, is one of the most fascinating elements on our planet Earth.
1. The ocean covers over 70 percent of our planet's surface and contains about 99 percent of the living space on Earth.
According to the MarineBio Conservation Society, humans have only explored less than 10 percent of that "living space," which pretty much means we know absolutely nothing about the blue marble of a world we live in:
(OK -- now that we have you thoroughly freaked out, read on...)
6. But let's talk about the one fish that everyone is absolutely fascinated with -- sharks.
Love 'em or hate 'em, these toothy fish are one parts terrifying, a thousand parts misunderstood. While they are considered an apex predator of the sea, you are at a higher risk of dying from a mosquito bite than a shark:
7. Sharks are actually designed to be the ultimate ocean navigators.
Shark skeleton is made of cartilage and its skin is covered with tiny toothlike scales, making them fierce swimming machines. And contrary to common belief, research has shown that sharks have sharp vision and are ten times more sensitive to light than humans -- perfect for preying in dark waters:
8. Speaking of dark waters, the average depth of the ocean is around 14,000 feet.
That's more than 40 football fields, from end zone to end zone. There, magnificent, bioluminescent, and sometimes even scary creatures roam about a dark world, like this viperfish:
And bioluminescent jellies, also known as ctenophore:
9. But, in lighter waters, where the sun rays glow, a magnificent forest emerges.
Kelp forests have the ability to grow up to 18 inches per day, creating the perfect, nutrient-rich playground for seals, sea lions, whales and birds:
And adorable sea otters:
10. The world's ocean is arguably the most important resource we, as citizens of Earth, have.
Aside from the oceans comprising most of our planet, it is a source of food for hundreds of thousands of species. Sadly, overfishing and other human-created pollution are responsible for harming our greatest resource. If we continue, we may eventually run out of fish, setting a domino effect of disaster. That could mean no more beautiful, thriving reefs like this:
Or this mesmerizing bait ball -- press play and watch the hypnotic fish gather by the thousands to protect themselves from predators like dolphins, sharks and birds (yes, aerial attackers swooping in from above):
11. And don't get us started on how naturally clever the ocean can be.
Ever thought, 'Silly Spongebob, how can there be a lake under the sea?' Turns out, we are the silly ones. In parts of the world, like in the waters of Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, hydrogen sulfate mixes with saltwater, making it heavier than regular saltwater and causing it to sink to the bottom and flow like a river:
12. The sea is actually way more physically diverse than that tropical beach on your phone's wallpaper.
It's frigid and cold:
It's fiercely rough and stormy:
But, of course, it's also warm, crystal clear and incredibly inviting:
13. And when the elements align in perfect unison, it's the ultimate playground.
But remember, the ocean isn't just a playground, nor is it only ours. It is a resource we must protect if we want to continue to enjoy it like this:
15. While we humans don't have gills (yet), the ocean can be one of our greatest spiritual sanctuaries.
Anyone who spends a lot of time in the ocean -- surfing through waves, diving in deep waters, sailing across the world -- can tell you just how humbling the power of the sea is. It can heighten the senses and can give you the most heartfelt and emotional thrill of your life:
Each time you drive, your car's carbon emissions spread into the atmosphere and the oceans absorb a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions annually. Here's another way of putting it: As atmospheric carbon dioxide rises, so it does in the ocean. This is bad, because lower pH levels make it hard for shelled organisms, such as clams, oysters, corals and some plankton, to live. When these backbones of the ocean die, the repercussions carry throughout the whole ecosystem (if coral reefs are unable to recover from, say, pounding storms, it would affect the million-or-so species that depend on them). Add that to present estimates of future carbon dioxide levels indicating the ocean could be nearly 150 percent more acidic by the 2100s.
Even something as delightful as your rose garden can be bad for the ocean. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 75 million pounds of synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides are put on our crops and gardens every year. The extra nutrients run off into creeks, streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Algae dies and decomposes, sucking the oxygen out of the water and creating "dead zones." Fish also ingest the chemicals, which make them sick. We eat those fish, and we get sick. It's nature's irony.
Although more and more cities restrict the commercial use of styrofoam containers and plastic bags at restaurants and grocery stores, plastic is still a huge threat to marine life. Plastic bags can take one to two decades to decompose in the ocean, and plastic bottles? A century. Polystyrene, on the other hand (the plastic most commonly used in utensils and Styrofoam), breaks up much faster, but releases the toxic bisphenol A into the waters, endangering sea and land life (basically, all life).
What you should do about it: Instead of buying bottled water, carry a stainless-steel reusable bottle. Use canvas tote bags when you shop, and frequent restaurants that use biodegradable or recycled containers, or have them package your food in your own containers.
OK, observing the ocean isn't inherently bad for it, but if you stand on a reef to get a better look at that parrot fish, for example, you damage the reef. And because the ocean's acidification level is rising at unprecedented rates, it will be that much harder for the reef to bounce back. So you know that old hikers' saying of "leaving only footprints"? Not when snorkeling.
What you should do about it: This one's easy -- look, but don't touch.
6. Using sunscreen
There's no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. And using sunscreen incorrectly -- slathering it on and immediately jumping into the ocean -- will wash it off and send it into the waters. Scientists have recently found that a common chemical used in cosmetics and sunscreens, benzophenone-2 (which blocks ultraviolet rays), can cause corals to bleach, change their DNA, and kill young coral.
What you should do about it: Use these tips on sunscreen application. A golf ball-sized amount is a good measure, every 2 hours, and after you sweat a lot or swim. In addition to sunscreen, wear a hat at the beach, sit under an umbrella, and recycle those plastic sunscreen bottles when you're done.
7. Beach combing
When you take a shell away from the beach, you have a nice keepsake to glue to a picture frame or put on a necklace. But when millions of tourists do it with you, the ecosystem suffers. Beaches can erode and biodiversity drops when the crabs, small fish, and algae that depend on the shells leave or die.
What you should do about it: Leave them alone. Also, join a local beach cleanup to pick out the cigarette butts, food wrappers, and other trash from the shells so that animals pick the right thing to live on.
8. Stopping at this article
We're grateful you've made it to the bottom of the article, but merely reading something on the Internet isn’t enough to help the oceans.
It is with a heavy heart that I write this letter. I know you share both my love for the oceans and the deep concern that our oceans are in trouble. But while we seem to be in full agreement about the need for urgent action to protect our oceans, I feel you're holding back from making a real commitment on the high seas.
It saddens me, that despite your considerable influence in the government, the United States continues to oppose an international agreement under the Law of the Sea Convention. This agreement would ensure global cooperation to protect marine life in international waters; without it, our oceans remain defenseless.
Throughout your time in the Senate I have watched with admiration as you fought for healthy oceans, and I cheer at your continuing, as Secretary of State, to list it as a major priority. Your government has been fighting on the front line for ocean protection, and the conference you are convening demonstrates that 'Our Oceans' are high on the US government's political agenda. You said recently, "Of course we need to have a global framework of some kind... by which people sign up and agree to cooperate," and that "the United Nations is the obvious one within which to try to arrive at an understanding of how we're going to preserve this." But something, somewhere, is going wrong: I cannot understand why the US government continues to oppose the development of a global framework to ensure high seas protection at the United Nations.
I am sure you are aware that at the same time as the "Our Ocean" conference is happening in Washington DC, delegates from many of the world's governments will be meeting at the United Nations in New York to discuss the development of an international agreement under the Law of the Sea Convention. The large majority of the world's governments support a decision by the UN General Assembly to launch negotiations, with the notable exception of your own, as well as Russia and Japan to name a couple more. This lack of support seems entirely disconnected from what you've been saying about our oceans being too important to ignore.
With more than half of our oceans lying beyond the authority of any one country, a global protection framework is essential, as you've said, to safeguard the health of the oceans and enable the implementation of important tools such as environmental impact assessments and marine reserves. A network of marine reserves, that are areas strictly protected from extractive activities such as fishing and mining is recognized as one of the most powerful solutions to protecting the underwater world from multiple impacts, as well as building resilience against the impacts of ever-worsening climate change. I am sure you'll agree that improved implementation of the existing rules and agreements is simply not enough. Only through a global agreement and joint action will we be able to tackle the multiple threats facing the high seas today and in the future.
"Our Ocean," your own conference, would be the perfect opportunity for you to signal the United States' leadership on oceans issues: by supporting the launch of a high seas biodiversity agreement by the UN General Assembly. This is well in line with the position your government has taken with respect to other UN agreements and a logical extension of your continued efforts to put in place effective protection for high seas areas in the Antarctic and the Arctic.
As you and I both know, our journey towards proper ocean protection is going to be a choppy one. We will need to involve a wide range of players from the business world, fishermen, consumers, governments, local communities and civil society. But like you, I am also optimistic that with the right solutions in place we can make a difference. I strongly hope that support for this agreement will be one of the many successes to come out of the "Our Ocean" conference. A new high seas agreement could really help us turn the corner, and secure a better future... for "Our Oceans."
Researchers are looking to the sun to give hunted and overfished sharks a new ray of hope.
Using a special solar-powered tag, marine scientists now can study a shark's movements for up to two years by way of data beamed to satellites. Previously, researchers relied on tags that ran on batteries and sometimes died before all the information could be transmitted.
The new tags are like "a smartphone for marine animals," said Marco Flagg, CEO of Desert Star, a Marina, Calif., company that offers the solar devices. "Just like smartphones, the tags have many sensors and communication capability."
The Guy Harvey Research Institute, based in Dania Beach, Florida, is looking to use the solar tags to track certain species of the fierce fish, including tigers, makos, hammerheads, oceanic white tip and sand sharks. The goal is to better understand their migratory patterns and ultimately keep their population healthy.
Sharks are critical to the overall balance of ocean ecosystems, but commercial fisherman catch them by the millions for their fins, cartilage and meat.
"We've learned a lot from tagging sharks, not least of which is that they are highly migratory," said Antonio Fins, executive director of the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, which supports the institute. "They are not American sharks or Bahamian sharks or Mexican sharks. They don't know borders or nationalities."
About 40 research agencies already use solar tags, which were put on the market two years ago. For instance, the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences studies a variety of sharks, while others use them to track turtles and marine mammals that spend time in the sun.
The overall success of solar tags has yet to be proven because of their relatively limited use. But so far marine researchers have encountered no serious problems, and a growing number of agencies plan to purchase them, manufactures said.
By drawing on solar energy, the tags ensure power is available to beam to a satellite a range of data, including how deep the fish go and the water temperatures they encounter. That information is then transmitted to researchers.
Because most sharks don't linger near the surface -- in direct sunlight -- the solar-powered tags are programmed to collect data for about six months while running on conventional batteries. Then the tags detach and float to the surface, said Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute, part of Nova Southeastern University.
"Now it's exposed to sunlight," Shivji said, "and it's been archiving data for six months."
Technically called "pop-up archival satellite tags," the devices can gather an enormous amount of information, so much that batteries alone would die before all the data is transmitted, Shivji said.
"If you have a solar panel, in theory, that tag should be able to transmit 100 percent of its data," he said.
Solar powered or not, tags already have provided researchers with detailed information on the migratory patterns and daily habits of different fish.
From tracking several sharks around the world, "we've discovered remarkable data on the behavior of these animals in terms of their movement horizontally as well as vertically," Shivji said.
"Personally, I'm extremely frustrated," Margaret Miller told The Huffington Post. "Because Congress isn't capable of doing their jobs, I get prevented from doing mine."
Miller is one Miamian affected by the federal government shutdown. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ecologist, she studies and surveys endangered elkhorn corals from the agency's labs on Virginia Key.
The work is essential to ecosystems and economies in South Florida and beyond. "Over the last 10,000 years, elkhorn coral has been one of the three most important Caribbean corals contributing to reef growth and development," the NOAA website explains.
"Populations have collapsed from disease outbreaks with losses compounded locally by hurricanes, increased predation, bleaching, elevated temperatures and other factors," according to the website.
The mandate to study endangered species is a federal one, however, and Miller is a federal employee. Though the rest of her research team could theoretically continue working -- they are University of Miami employees and students paid by a federal grant under a previous budget -- rules of the shutdown deny them access to NOAA's labs, boats, computers and equipment.
Miller's group not only surveys elkhorn's current population but studies its resilience and restoration possibilities. They were in the midst of a survey of 300 tagged colonies in the field, part of observation that has happened three times a year since 2004, when they were forced by the shutdown to abandon their work. "A lot of the important stuff government does as science is long-term evaluation," she explained.
"A day or two just causes a lot of inefficiencies, but long-term there's a lot of consequences ... Some of it is just delayed, and some of it is more serious," Miller said.
"On the internal side, your agency understands that we know we have a gap in the data because we couldn't help it. But when you go to publish that work or submit to reviewers or publishers, it's no good. And that's where scientists are really put in a bind by this situation: Scientific implementation is curtailed and it jeopardizes long-term data sets."
Research that factors into the larger Everglades restoration plan also has been halted; one team was set to sample mangroves in a nearby estuary during the first two weeks of October as it has for 15 years. Missing such seasonal windows, Miller said, "is a real impairment of our scientific endeavor."
Once dispersed, the egg and sperm cells unite and form larvae, some of which rises to the ocean surface where they free-float for days or weeks at a time. According to a release from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, other larvae descend to the sea floor where they settle and grow into polyps, potentially forming new coral colonies.
ISLAMORADA, Fla. -- Sharks abound in the waters off Florida. But not on this day at this particular spot off the Keys as some `young scientists' are on watch for them.
About a dozen high school students – guests of the University of Miami's marine research program – went aboard the vessel Curt-A-Sea. Their mission: to help scientists capture sharks, measure them, take blood and conduct other tests before tagging them so they can be tracked. The sharks would then be released back into the ocean.
In 2012, Matt Rutherford became the first person to solo circumnavigate North and South America. He completed the non-stop 27,000 mile journey in 10 months in a tiny, old sailboat.
During the course of his epic journey, the then 31-year-old capsized in the Arctic battling waves, avoided being smashed by a tanker and navigated a maze of icebergs large and small. In South America, he experienced Cape Horn's famous beauty and cruel winds. He also faced the literal doldrums - areas near the equator without any wind. And all while spending more than 300 days in complete solitude.
Politicians monitored his progress, and a documentary for the Sundance Film Festival is in the works.
Now the ambitious sailor has launched a non-profit company, Ocean Research Project, which aims to identify new, lower-cost methods of conducting ocean research.
At the beginning of May, he set sail on his latest adventure in the Atlantic. Before his departure from St. Katharine docks in London, he spoke to Lesleyann Coker.
In 2012, you became the first person to solo circumnavigate the Americas and the Northwest Passage. What motivated you to attempt such a journey?
It all started as a fundraiser for a local Annapolis-based non-profit called C.R.A.B [Chesapeake Regional Assessable Boating]. At this point I've raised over $120,000 for the non-profit by doing the trip. I'm also a great admirer of [Ernest] Shackleton, and his story inspired me to try something that most people thought was impossible.
How did you get started in sailing?
I bought a little 25-foot boat from the '60s back in 2004 and sailed it from the Chesapeake Bay to the Florida Keys. I knew nothing about sailing when I left. I made every mistake possible, but over time I taught myself the skills necessary to cross oceans, and eventually, sail around the Americas.
What's your connection to Senator Tom Harkin and Governor Martin O'Malley?
Martin's wife, Katie, saw me off the dock the day before I left and I've been invited to their house several times since my return. Tom spoke about me on the floor of the Senate after I passed Cape Horn. He has shown an avid interest in my story. Tom Harkin is an old school Democrat who understands how important it is to reach across the aisle. He will be missed [after he retires next year], especially on environmental issues.
The Sailing Channel has produced a documentary about you, Red Dot in the Ocean. What's its status?
It looks like we may get into Sundance if it's done in time. Nothing is guaranteed. They approached me to make a documentary, and after a month of "contract negotiations'" we started the film. Here's the trailer.
You recently founded a new 501c non-profit called Ocean Research, which aims to dramatically lower the cost of conducting ocean research. What are the typical costs of ocean research, and what will be your costs? How will you approach the problem differently?
The typical running costs for scientific research in the open ocean is between $6,000 and $15,000 a day, depending on the organization. With Ocean Research Project, for our first expedition we have a daily running cost of $73 a day.
We're living in a changing economic environment; you can no longer think big boats, big crew, big budget. Instead, a non-profit should think small boat, small crew, small budget. By doing this, you not only reduce the cost of the expedition, but also the overhead.
All too often when $100 is donated to a non-profit, $90 goes to salary, renting office space, paying the electric bill, etc. With Ocean Research Project, the majority of the funds raised go to the mission.
What will be the implication of reducing the cost of ocean research? More research? Why is ocean research important?
Once you have reduced the cost of the expeditions, you can travel farther for longer and collect more data. There's still a prehistoric way of thinking within much of the general scientific community. Too many scientists think the organization that spends the most money or has the biggest research vessel somehow collects the best data.
The reality of the matter is that by working with universities and bringing along one or two scientists who bring their own equipment and are trained to use them properly, you can collect a wide variety of important data about our changing oceans. It's true, we cannot have submarines and helicopters, but most research is done by equipment that can be installed or carried onboard a 40-50 foot sailboat.
Ocean research is important because we are all affected by the ocean no matter where you live. The ocean not only produces food for 25 percent of the world's population, but also produces between 50-75 percent of the world's oxygen through Phytoplankton, which lives in the ocean. The problem is the ocean is not part of any country, and it's out of sight out of mind.
There has not been enough research done within the open ocean because in the past scientists have tried to collect important data with big boats and big budgets. I sailed 27,000 miles, over the top of Canada and around Cape Horn on a 27-foot boat without stopping. I can tell you from experience you do not need a 150-foot, two million dollar boat to cross an ocean or do good research.
You're about to embark on a research mission [he embarked the first week of May]. Where are you going, what are you researching, and what do you expect to learn?
MR: During our first expedition we will be at sea for 75 days collecting data, while sailing 6,500 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Atlantic Ocean is home to the Atlantic Garbage Patch and coincides with one of the five major oceanic gyres. The Sargasso Sea Gyre is a huge spiral of seawater formed by colliding currents. Most offshore sailors have seen floating junk on the high seas, but it's a problem that has not been thoroughly explored in the mid-Atlantic. It's the poster child for one of the worldwide ocean problems: plastic that's initially created with human hands, then ends up in the ocean, often found inside animals' stomachs.
We have several objectives for this expedition:
We'll conduct a Sargasso Sea marine debris reconnaissance survey using standardized data collection methods. This study will add to the global understanding of quantity of marine debris in the gyre and will stimulate awareness of the consequences of manmade debris. This project is run in collaboration with our Partner 5 Gyres.
We'll conduct ocean acidification data collection to supplement existing efforts to portray the acidity condition within a gyre in an open ocean marine debris laden environment. This data may reveal a significant concentration of high acidic marine water that may jeopardize the livelihood of critical marine life.
The vessel will act as a mobile observing platform reporting atmospheric and oceanic observations to NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. It serves as a voluntary observing ship to feed international atmospheric and oceanic modeling databases that depict global weather forecasts, climate studies, and support mariners' safety at sea. Work will be in cooperation with our partners which include NOAA's Voluntary Observing Ship, the Ship of Opportunity Program and the Atlantic Oceanic and Meteorological Laboratory.
What are the dangers involved in this research project?
There is always danger in the vast open ocean. That said, reward lives in the house of risk.
I can teach a person the skills necessary to cross an ocean alone, but I can't teach the mentality a person needs to sail alone across an ocean. Either you've got it or you don't. If you don't learn to control fear, fear will control you.
Exploration is the physical expression of intellectual passion.
How can people follow the progress of your journey, or support your non-profit?
You can follow the expedition at Oceanresearchproject.org. There will be a tracking device on the boat so you can see our position, and a weekly blog so you can hear the story as it's happening. You can also donate on the website.
Tears streamed down my 7-year-old daughter's face this cloudy, March morning, as we watched the plight of a lone female California sea lion pup, clearly exhausted, struggling to keep her head above water and get herself to our local beach's jetty.
This sea lion was not the strong, plump and playful sort we had seen in years past. She was so small, kept going under, then her head would barely rise above the water.
We gasped as the pup used the last of her strength to slowly hoist herself onto the jetty, right before another wave came. She made it. We saw her heave a sigh as she collapsed onto a large rock, safe from the water below.
She tried, but could not lift her head, and just laid still and panting. Her bones jutted out, every vertebra and her pelvis visible underneath her brown fur. She looked too young to be without a mother, and she was clearly malnourished.
The Sea Lions' Struggle
Unfortunately, this struggling sea lion is not alone in this heartbreaking condition, which is part of why my own tears came along with my daughter's.
In our city of Carlsbad, Calif., just up the coast from downtown San Diego, at least 40 malnourished, young California sea lions have been rescued since January. According to a local news story, about 150 malnourished or injured sea lions are typically rescued in our region each year -- but this year, from Jan. 1 to not even mid-March, there have already been 130 rescued.
This morning when we called the local sea animal rescue center about the stranded pup, their voicemail said they are extremely busy. A spokesperson from there told the local news that there's "something going on out in the ocean" in relation to our sea lions' food supply. Clearly.
The Bigger Picture
But here's the thing: This isn't just a local issue, and it isn't just about this specific group of sea lions' food supply.
Something is going on with all marine mammals' food supply. Something major is happening with all of our ocean ecosystems. These malnourished pups are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
He says 75 percent of all major fisheries in the world are currently either fully exploited or over-exploited, and we have less than 10 percent of the top ocean predators (e.g., swordfish or bluefin tuna) today than we had in the 1960s. These fish aren't replaceable, friends.
Many marine scientists believe that, at the rate we're going, the seas will be barren by 2048. (Did you get that? No sea life in 35 years!)
Like the roaming plains buffalo shot by humans to extinction, Dr. Monger says, we can extract every single animal out of the ocean. And with commercial fisheries not just taking all the fish but also seabirds, sharks, dolphins, turtles and every other kind of sea animal (most thrown out by the trawlers, dead, as "bycatch"), we are doing just that.
The sea lions of the Pacific Rim and Alaska are now endangered because, Dr. Monger explains, fishing "took away all their food, and they are starving to death." I contacted Dr. Monger this week and asked him about the California sea lions: Are they next?
He told me scientists are studying two main factors likely causing the crisis with this species: overfishing and climate issues. But, clearly, he said, "the sea lion pups are probably starving because their mothers are starving." Clearly.
You Can Help Save Them
So, here's the other thing: You can actually do something to stop this ocean crisis, whether you live here on the coast, in the middle of farmland or on a mountaintop. We all can.
I get that it's hard, I'm a former sushi lover myself, but we must stop eating fish. There simply are not enough fish left to keep them on our plates, and still leave enough to keep our ocean animals alive. Period.
I've heard all the justifications, and my replies go something like this:
You can still do your sushi ritual, just do it with veggies instead of fish (as my half-Japanese, sushi-loving husband and I now happily do).
Farmed fisheries are no better, with incredibly high rates of disease, which is unhealthy, inhumane and harms wild fish as well.
Eating land animal meat is also harming the oceans, by the way. An amazing fifty percent of the world's fish catch is fed to industrial farm animals, not to people (as Dr. Will Tuttle explains in The World Peace Diet). And nitrogen runoff from those factory farms is creating huge "dead zones" where no sea life can survive.
The good news is that pleasurable, healthy, social eating is possible with plant-based food. It just takes making the choice -- to help animals rather than eat them.
Actually, Dr. Monger believes it's both personal choice and political will that will save or destroy our oceans: Beyond urging us to avoid eating fish and other meat, he urges us to speak out against the government subsidies that fuel overfishing.
"The fish in the ocean are as much yours as the fishing industries', and if you would rather see your fish left in the ocean, you have the right to speak up and ask your leaders to help," he says. "If you remain silent about it, someone is going to step in and take [your ocean life] away from you for their own profit."
The Next Generations
This morning, my sniffling 7-year-old asked me why the malnourished sea lion we watched could not find food.
As fishing boats trawled closer to shore than I've ever seen them, I wanted to tell her that the sea lion and her brothers and sisters will find food. That they have plenty of food to find. That the ocean is ripe with life.
But, the truth is, I can't tell her that, because as each day passes, it is becoming less true.
I told my daughter instead that we can make a difference for that sea lion by calling the rescue center to help her. And on a bigger scale, we can make a difference for all sea lions, by not eating their food and by educating others about their dwindling food supply.
Through her tears, my daughter asked me if I could educate more people today.
So, I'm writing this piece today for my daughter, for the sea lions and all the animals, and for the future. Before it's too late -- at the very least -- please do your part to save our ocean animals by letting the fish be food for them, and not for you.