Sunday, January 12, 2014

Blackfish: Cultural images of killer whales, their captivity, and Sea World

It seems inevitable that I would write a blog post on 'Blackfish'. There has been a lot of buzz around this (as of this post) Oscar-shortlisted documentary. The film, first released at the Sundance film festival in January 2013, has since been broadcast on CNN (its debut swept every demographic under the age of 55 watching TV on Oct. 24, 2013) and is available for live streaming on Netflix (having garnered over 600,000 views since December 13). I cannot remember a time when a documentary seemed so popular.




The film written and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite details the life of a captive orca, Tilikum, and discusses the death of three humans that interacted with the killer whale-Keltie Byrne at Sealand in British Columbia and Dawn Brancheau at Sea World Orlando 'theme/amusement' parks and a man who apparently sneaked into the orca tank at Sea World after closing time. The director, Gabriela Cowperwaithe, theorizes (through her direction and through interviews) that Tilikum's aggressive behavior toward humans is caused by his captive condition.

There's a lot going on in the film and a lot that I could discuss. But I wanted to just talk about a few of the things I found interesting about the movie and the discussion about captivity and killer whales that the movie has prompted.

When reviewing depictions of orcas in the media, you might get the feeling that there are two separate species: Killer Whales and Orcas. I viewed Blackfish on Netflix when it became available, and immediately after I watched and rated it, Netflix offered me two more movies that I might be interested in: The Whale and Killer Whales. The first, a 2011 documentary produced and narrated by Ryan Reynolds, follows the tale of Luna, an orca that became separated from its pod and was adopted (with many social and political consequences) by a small town in British Columbia. Killer Whales is a 2010 documentary from the discovery channel detailing the natural history of the species. Both of these films are good examples of how the orcas image is split in the media.

In The Whale, orca are depicted as a gentle species with a strong family bond and a love of social interactions. Luna is separated from his pod and just wants people to pay attention to him; he wants and needs affection. There is an emphasis on explaining that orca have advanced social interactions, that they are an intellectually advanced species, and that they have an advanced form of communication, explained in the film as a sort of "regional accent". Even when Luna causes trouble (getting too close to boats, etc) he's depicted as just trying to snuggle. He wants friends! The friendly orca image was heightened by the movie Free Willy (1993). This cultural image of the orca appears to be similar to that of our image of dolphins- a smart, lovable creature that just wants to hang out with friends and play.

It's smiling because it's surrounded by food. So much food. 

Killer Whales is another depiction- of an incredibly smart apex predator. The description of the documentary states

"Highly social and highly deadly, orcas are the ocean's greatest predators--and far more dangerous than their Sea World training may suggest. This documentary explores the fierce behaviors of the killer whale in the wild."

The whole documentary basically consists of watching killer whales creatively hunt other animals.




While watching this, I was reminded of the book The Swarm by Frank Schatzing. The wildly popular science fiction book posits that a conscious "swarm" rallies ocean animals into fighting back against ocean-destroying humans. In the book, one of the most destructive forces is the orca. In one scene, a group of humpback whales tip over boats to knock humans into the water and the killer whales eat them. One particularly upsetting scene plays out a little something like this:

"He caught a glimpse of her head between two waves. A second woman was with her. The orcas had surrounded the upturned Zodiac and were closing in from both sides. Their shiny black heads cut through the waves, jaws parted to reveal rows of ivory teeth. In a few second they would be upon the women...She slid back into the water and the whales dived down behind her...The blue-green water parted as something shot up at incredible speed. Its jaws were open, exposing white teeth. Then they snapped shut and Stringer screamed. Her fist hammered on the snout that held her prisoner. 'Get off' she yelled." (130-131)

Needless to say, it doesn't.

In this cultural image of the orca, it is a killer- and potentially a human killer (although Schatzing mentions that this is aberrant behavior because a killer whaler has never attacked humans in the wild [130]). Unlike dolphins, which many people have pointed out as having too good of a cultural reputation, orcas' reputations seem to be a mix of awe and fear.

Cowperthwaithe highlights the extreme social identity of orcas in one of the most haunting episodes of Tilikum's history. The orca was captured as a two year old in Icelandic waters in 1983. Although she has no footage of his particular capture, the director shows footage of an orca captured in Washington State in the 1970s (before the state stopped allowing Sea World to take orca in their waters). She interviews a fisherman who helped capture orca in Washington and he states that after the baby orca was captured and penned, the rest of the pod stayed nearby and called to it. He says that watching their behavior, he realized how horrible it was to separate these calves from their parents.

But the movie doesn't only highlight the cuddly traits of the species. The director also notes the bullying behavior of the whales. Tilikum was apparently repeatedly bullied by the females at Sea World. In the wild, orcas "rake" each other with their teeth and get into fights to establish social hierarchy and apparently this occurred in the small pens of Sea World (it is a matriachal society but male on female aggression during mating is very common as well- something it seems the director fails to mention).

All in all, the film maker does make the choice to highlight the loving and caring nature of orcas over their aggressiveness (with each other and towards other organisms and humans). Cowperthwaithe points to Tilikum's personal narrative, being ripped from his family unit at a young age, kept in dark isolation in his first water park, constant bullying from females, and social deprivation at Sea World, as the reason for his aggressiveness. But I wonder if focusing on Tilikum's story does take too much attention from the overall behavior of killer whales as aggressive for other reasons besides captivity?

Tilikum is not the only orca to be involved in accidents with trainers and it appears there is a pattern.

At Sealand, where Tilikum was penned with two pregnant females, a female trainer (Keltie Byrne) was drowned. Sea World purchased Tilikum shortly after the incident and assured trainers that they believed that there was no reason to worry- the accident was caused by the female orcas. Of course, what makes this assertion ridiculous is that they could not have been too worried about the other females because both Haida II and Nootka IV were bought by Sea World as well. Haida went to San Antonio and Nootka to Orlando. It does appear that Sea World may have believed the females were especially aggressive during this time because of their pregnancies, but in the end it appears that many believed that the whales were not being aggressive but merely playful.

The movie also highlights another attack: the death of Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. Interestingly, Cowperthwaith doesn't follow up this story with any information about the whale that killed Martinez either. The bull whale, named Keto, was born at Sea World Orlando in 1995 and is described online as a "punk." At 3.5 years old he was transferred to San Diego to try to correct his behavioral issues, but still showed aggression towards other whales. After 9 months in San Diego, he was sent to Ohio and then to San Antonio. That's 4 water parks in 7 years- for an animal that supposedly needs a strong family environment and had already shown aggressive tendencies that seems like quite a misstep. He was sent to Loro Parque to perform and also to hopefully mate with the two females sent from Sea World San Antonio.

Keto had been aggressive around other males because of mate choice in the past, and it appears he was at Loro Parque as well. In Tim Zimmerman's article "Blood in the Water" in Outsider Magazine, he quotes a journal kept by Martinez, in which he notes the "complicated sexual dynamics in the pools, which also affected the stability of the killer whale grouping."

"Keto is obsessed with controlling Kohana, he won't separate from her, including shows," he wrote. "Tekoa is very sexual when he is alone with Kohana (penis out). Keto is sexual with Tekoa." On September  2, 2009, without elaborating, he noted that "Brian [Rokeach, SeaWorld's supervising trainer at Loro Parque at the time] had a small incident with Keto the first hour of the morning," and that is was "a very bad day for Keto." On September 12, he wrote, "All the animals are bad. Dry day for Kohana."

Martinez was killed by Keto Dec. 9, 2009. You can read Zimmerman's full articles about both Martinez's death and Dawn Brancheau's here and here.

On, in 2004, Ky (the offspring of Tilikum and Haida II when they were at Sealand) attacked his trainer at Sea World San Antonio. The bull male pulled his trainer into the water and tried to bite. This incident was chalked up to "raging hormones."

Finally, in 2006, Kasatka, the dominant female at Sea World San Diego, attacked her trainer Ken Peters and held him underwater intermittently for 9 minutes (see video below). It seems that the attack was prompted by the distress vocals being emitted by her offspring Kalia in a neighboring tank. However, it appears that Kasatka had also shown aggressive behavior towards trainers in the past.

For more information on issues between trainers and whales, see this article on an attack by Kastka and Orky and Orky's past attacks on trainers at Marineland in California.




In all of these cases of attack, it appears that the one thing in common is that these animals show aggression towards trainers during sexually charged periods (adolescence, breeding, pregnancy, and parenthood). Some experts have suggested that Tilikum's frequent breeding and mating could have been a contributing factor in his attack on Dawn Brancheau. While few studies have been done on orcas and aggression during mating, extreme aggression in mating has been observed in dolphins and other whale species.

If these animals are particularly aggressive due to mating issues, it raises a huge concern for training and working with these animals closely at Sea World because they are used, in addition to their entertainment quality, mainly as breeding species.

In 1972, the United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibited the capture and trade of marine mammals. The Act did allow for permits to be granted for scientific purposes or for entertainment purposes, but the combination of more stringent Endangered Species Act (1973) and the MMPA meant that most marine cetaceans would be off limits to marine parks. While the orca is not considered endangered (it is actually labeled as having deficient information for making that claim) the pods that live on the Northeastern Coast of the US are labeled endangered (as of 2005) and therefore they can no longer be collected by marine parks (for information on the MMPA and how it changed scientific research on marine mammals see Etienne Benson's article here and the actual act here). Long before this, however, Sea World was prohibited from collecting in this region after it was discovered they were utilizing dynamite to herd the animals into inlets for capture and that many members of pods were being killed due to this practice. The deaths were being covered up by opening the whales, placing rocks in their stomachs, and sinking them. After they were banned from collecting in Washington (and after a failed petition to the Alaska government to collect 100 whales in the 1980s), Sea World was forced to collect their animals from Iceland. Keiko, the orca in Free Willy was captured in Icelandic waters in 1979, Kasatka in 1978, Tilicum in 1982, Haida II, Nootka IV, and Freya in 1982. But pressure to stop the captures in Iceland became more intense and by the early 1990s the minister of fisheries in Iceland appeared to be issuing fewer and fewer permits for capture. The other place to get captured orca is Japan, but Taiji fisherman responsible for the captures have been called into question because of the horrendous slaughter and most parks would rather not associate themselves with this practice. Even Japanese water parks would rather pay the import fee and purchase orca from Iceland than buy fro the Taiji (their methods are detailed in the movie The Cove).

What all of this means is that in order to continue their franchise, breeding orca is much easier than capturing wild species to replace those who die in captivity (which is a lot of whale death). Tilikum, Ky, and Keto are all bull whales that have naturally and artificially inseminated female orcas in captivity. When the females do not naturally breed with males, they are artificially inseminated (Kasatka was the first successful artificial insemination with Tilikum's sperm in 2001, giving birth to Nakai).

What is also means is that, while breeding might be the most dangerous time for trainers to work with these creatures, it is the most desired condition for these animals at Sea World. Sea World might be able to decrease the danger if they separated females during estrus, pregnancy, and early motherhood. They could also separate the females from males during these periods so that they did not mate at all. But, this is not Sea World's goal. In fact, they have spent a lot of money and research trying to figure out how to tell when a female is fertile so that they could put males and females together to promote natural fertilization so that artificial insemination is not needed.

Although the park often points to working to reproduce these species for conservation, this argument does not work well with orca. The authors of a paper on orca breeding research (three of whom work at SeaWorld San Antonio, Orlando, ad San Diego) state that killer whales are one of the few marine mammals that are ubiquitous to ocean habitats around the globe.

"Despite their prevalence in the wild, the worldwide captive population of killer whales comprises less than 48 animals. The captive population is limited further by the size and space requirements of the species, resulting in the formation of numerous, small genetically isolated groups. Despite this fractionated population, improved understanding of the environmental and social requirements of killer whales has led to successful natural breeding. Since 1985, when the first successful birth and rearing of killer whales occurred, approximately 26 births have followed at six facilities. As a result more than half the present population (26/48) has been born in captivity, including second generations." (for the entire article, go here)

The purpose of the breeding program at SeaWorld is to breed more whales for SeaWorld. That's it. But it appears they might be putting their trainers in danger to accomplish this goal.

One problem that I had with the movie involved the issue of breeding. Tilikum's breeding chart (below) is utilized in the movie to suggest that his aggressive tendencies have been bred into a great many calves in Sea World's family (he's sired 21 calves and 11 remain living).


My concern with utilizing this chart is that the director isn't particularly clear about her concerns regarding Tilikum's breeding. It appears that the director and the respondents in the film are suggesting that Tilicum has a genetic predisposition to aggression and that this aggression is being genetically passed to his offspring. Unfortunately, the director does a bad job of clarifying what this means and so it seems fairly easy to poke holes in this "chart of aggression" based on other claims she makes. 

If the director is suggesting that Tilikum is naturally more aggressive than other whales, and that this is a trait that can be bred into his offspring, then it might be easy to suggest that his aggression is individual- a fluke (no pun intended). It appears that one of the former trainers interviewed in the movie tries to make this claim- Tilikum is an especially bad whale. 

But I don't think the director means to boil everything down to genetics. I think she wants to suggest that Tilikum has naturally aggressive tendencies (that might be genetically linked) that mean that in the captive environment he is especially susceptible to displaying aggression. If he passes the genetics that make him susceptible to his offspring, they too will show violent tendencies. This is a much better argument, but it also seems weak to me. 

If Tilikum's offspring fail to show aggression, does that mean they got their mother's genes in this department? What about Tilikum and Kasatka's offspring Ky? Where did his aggression come from - his mother or his father? Appealing to genetic arguments is concerning. If you think aggression is heritable, then Tilikum is merely a bad seed. If you think it is a combination of nature and nuture, then you might be able to make the case that all of Tilikum's offspring were born in captivity and therefore have had a very different life than he has, meaning that the same stressors he experienced have been alleviated in his calves (although you could also make the case that they are almost the same given that most calves born in captivity are eventually taken from their mothers and placed in tanks at another theme park).  

I would much rather the director have made the movie less about the aggressive behavior of one whale and suggested that most killer whales in captivity have the capacity, especially during times of mating, to display aggressive behavior. This trait does not need to be genetically heritable, it is indicative of the species not of the individual specimen. While it does appear as if she tries to do this by mentioning the incidents with Keto and Kasatka, she could have gone further. 

Sea World:

Blackfish was a movie about Tilikum, but in many ways it is largely an indictment of Sea World. While Sea World bills itself as a learning institution, Susan Davis in her book Spectacular Nature has written that Sea World is actually a theme park where the theme is "science". Davis believes that there is little to no educational value to these institutions and it would seem that Cowperwaith might agree. In the film, she catches tour guides giving false information about the natural history of orcas, stating that they live much longer in captivity than in the wild. If Sea World must skew natural information to make their animals appear more healthy, how can they be trusted as an educational institution?

I am torn about these institutions. I did visit Sea World Orlando as a child, and it is a place that is largely responsible for my childhood compassion for sea creatures. I'm from the midwest and if it weren't for that park I would not have seen a whale or dolphin close-up. However, some would argue that advances in underwater filming and the prevalence of film can do as much for educating the public as these institutions can. In any case, I couldn't afford to see the whale show and I can't imagine that the performances could do more for the public's understanding of whales than merely seeing them in tanks does. How does a performing animal cause compassion?

The issue with Tilicum and Blackfish has been a nightmare for the parks- prompting protests of SeaWorld floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and at the Rose Bowl Parade in California. Their stock is down from its initial offering, but this could be due to low attendance due to a new price hike although some people have suggested the movie has hurt attendance as well. Many performers, including Trace Adkins, have cancelled shows at Sea World amid the fallout from the film.   In addition, many are calling for the release of Tillicum to a sea tank and the cessation of his breeding program.

Unfortunately, many people don't understand that he is no longer releasable to the ocean. In the most dramatic case of public pressure to release a captive orca, Keiko, who played Willy in Free Willy, became the center of a firestorm about releasing these animals back into the wild. Over a number of years, biologists and trainers sought to rehabilitate Keiko and teach him to hunt in the wild. Because he had spent so much time in a small tank, Keiko did not even have to ability to hold his breath as long as wild orca. Eventually, after an enormous amount of money was thrown at the problem, Keiko was released, only to continuously appear near civilization. He died of pneumonia in 2003 after failing to reintegrate into the wild.

There's a great video about his here:






Freeing Tilicum would mean putting him in a sea pen for the remainder of his life (although he's in isolation right now so anything would probably be better). But this might be better for him and Sea World trainers.

Whatever happens to this particular whale, it seems more important that people understand that aggressive behavior by these animals is not an isolated event and that Sea World is not "saving" these animals by breeding them. There is no reason that Sea World should propagate these organisms other than to continue to run this franchise (it appears that the majority of scientific findings about these whales leads directly to understanding their mating and how to breed them).

I'm interested to hear others' takes on this film, what they took away from it, and if it changed their concept of Sea World.  Is the market going to take care of this issue when people stop going to Sea World because of these exposes? or Should Sea World be forced to stop their breeding program and retire their whales regardless of the market and the robustness of their business?

For me, I would be more interested in seeing activists trying to make changes to the MMPA than focusing on one whale's release. If it is illegal to harass these creatures in the wild and we value them enough to protect them in their natural habitat, we should work to protect them in captivity. I'm not sure that Sea World could prove that their small contributions to understanding these organisms outweighs the stress that the organisms are subjected to in captivity. What do you think?


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Visualizing the Deep Sea Environment: Vehicles and Videos

I used to be the type of person who clipped newspaper articles out of the paper and sent them through the mail to people. Just a little something to say, hey, this story about whatever is something that might interest you. Some people have called this habit "old fashioned" and likened me to a grandmotherly-type (haters, unfortunately, are gonna hate), but it turns out if you make the ability to clip articles painless and stamp-less, bunches of people do it. So in the last few years, I've become known on Facebook as a lady who digs the ocean, and I receive a lot of posts pointing me towards cute videos of seals and crazy stories about whales. The last few years, the video below has been posted to my wall several times:




And just the other day, this one popped up:




These images have a lot in common.

They were both captured by remote video technology on deep sea oil drills. The first video was captured at the depth of 7828 feet and the second at about 5000 feet below the surface.

The organism featured in each video was billed in news stories as a "Monster"- Am I the only person in the world that gets a little sad every time a deep sea organism gets billed as a monster just because they don't show off in front of cameras all the time like dolphins (total media whores)? In fact, neither one of these things are "monsters" (whatever that word implies- I think it implies teeth and intent- two things neither of these animals posses) and they were both already known to science.

The first video is probably of a Magnapinna squid. Specific identification is difficult, not because it's a grainy shot, but because researchers have never actually collected the adult form of this squid- its taxonomy was worked out from larval and juvenile forms (these are more easily collected at the ocean's surface- pelagic organisms migrate into deeper water as they mature) so scientists are guessing that this particular specimen belongs in the same family as those forms (Magnapinnadae).

The second video features the pelagic jellyfish Deepstaria Reticulum. (It was initially misidentified by Deep Sea News as Deepstaria enigmatica but later identified as a separate but similar species)

The last thing that these videos have in common is that they offer images of organisms that are rarely seen and difficult to collect and analyze. But science is coming to know more about them through the use of manned and unmanned vehicles and video technology.

The study of deep sea organisms has proceeded slowly. In early marine expeditions such as the Challenger expedition of 1872-76, researchers sampled and surveyed pelagic organisms by dredging and netting off the ship. While this method brought up a variety of specimens, certain groups of organisms, especially those that are gelatinous or fragile, were mangled in the process and identification was difficult.

William Beebe pushed the process of exploring these organisms forward with his bathysphere. Between 1930 and 1934, Beebe used his submersible to observe deep sea creatures in their native habitat. He described quite a few new species (some have never been seen again).

Beebe in his Bathysphere

But there were some problems with the bathysphere when it came to consistent study of the denizens of the deep. Beebe had no ability to grab the specimens he saw so the only way to "see" the specimens was through Beebe's descriptions and the illustrations produced by his illustrator, Else Bostelmann. Underwater photography and flash was not advanced enough to take photos out of the bathysphere at great depths. Beebe took notes and made drawings during the dive, and he was also connected by radio wire to Else on the boat. She took notes and made sketches based on these real time descriptions and combined with Beebe's own notes and imput, produced some pretty unforgettable images of these newly discovered pelagic organisms.


Else Bostelmann's illustration of a new pelagic species seen by Beebe in the bathysphere. 

These research platforms have come far since Beebe's work in Bermuda. Both HOVs (human occupied vehicles) and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) are used to give researchers direct access to organisms in their habitat. Scientists can study behavior, interactions between species, and physiological measurements; in addition, they can take photographs and video for further study.

According to Bruce H. Robison, high-resolution video systems attached to these vehicles can perform  quantitative surveys as accurate and useful as those conducted with nets. In addition, they can capture images of delicate organisms such as the Deepstaria. Another plus- most gelatinous pelagic organisms are transparent, so the video recording does not merely display the features of the main specimen, but often the prey is visible in the digestive tract (I know, super cool!).

Observations of pelagic animals has increased due to the use of HOVs and ROVs. In 2002, Guerra et al.  described some of the advances teuthologists (people who study cephalopods) had made working in HOVs with video attachments, including new behavioral patterns (Vecchione and Roper, 1991), light displays of octopuses (Johnsen et al 1999), a description of a new genus of cephalopod living in hydrothermal vents (Gonzalez et al, 1998), and new types of locomotion (Villanueva et al, 1997).  Guerra et al. reported a series of cephalopod observations made with HOVs in 1988, 1992, and 2000.



Guerra et al. tentatively identified the specimens through video footage and still photographs as belonging to the megapinnidae family.


At the end of the paper, the researchers state that "It is amazing that a large and completely unknown animal has suddenly been observed in the last ten years at similar bathypelagic depths in the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and western and eastern Atlantic (Lindsay & al, 2000; Vecchione & al., in press; present paper). This is clear proof of how little we know about the bathypelagic, the largest ecosystem on the earth." 

It is, indeed, amazing but not particularly surprising because of the impact that vehicles and video have had on the exploration of the bathypelagic. The difference that these tools make has not gone unnoticed and researchers are working to extend the use of video in survey work.  In 1998, Euan Harvey and Martin Shortis proposed using a stable underwater video surveillance system  to survey the size and quantity of specific species of reef fishes in a given area. The authors' major struggles come from calibration of the system: how do you make a remote video system as accurate as physiological information taken from SCUBA divers tasked with surveying fishes? The authors offer several suggestions, one of which is to look towards the oil rig systems that have already captured the images above. Harvey and other researchers are still working out how to get accurate information from these systems, but it is clear that stable surveillance could be one of the next steps for pelagic exploration as well. 

In addition to stable systems, Robinson states that 

"Development of AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles/gliders) with target acquisition and tracking control software is underway, and once available these systems will tell us a great deal about the daily lives of deep pelagic species by following and recording them through their daily ambits. Large-scale, deep survey requirements, both explorations and quantitative, can also be met by AUVs. In this case, data from on board imaging systems will be process by image recognition and analysis software that will eliminate the requirement for labor-intensive enumeration by human reviewers. This development will greatly expand the scale and scope of deep pelagic surveys." (269-270)

Robinson's prediction is in the offing- in November, 16 American and Canadian research teams launched "Gliderpalooza": a joint effort to survey the world's oceans using unmanned automated underwater gliders collect an enormous amount of data that will hopefully help predict weather patterns. But it isn't such a stretch to suggest that video surveillance could be added to these gliders to gather information in deeper water (these gliders only go to about 650 feet but can be used to dive much deeper). 

HOVS, ROVs, Stable video surveillance, and gliders are all technologies that are advancing our understandings of the pelagic environment and the animals that live there. If researchers are granted access to these tools (funding is always a problem but gliders are surprisingly inexpensive when compared to ship-based surveys), we will no longer have to label every deep-sea creature a monster when it is caught on camera. Unless they have big teeth and a monstrous intent (but only then)!





Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Townsend's Tortoises: an early example of historical ecology and the conservation of endangered species

If you read this blog often, you may have noticed my love of Charles Haskins Townsend. Townsend was the first director of the New York Aquarium under the New York Zoological Society (there was a previous director when the aquarium was run exclusively by the city) and before that he worked for the United States Fish Commission in a number of capacities.

Townsend was a rather interesting fellow and he shows up in so many important episodes of aquatic science at the turn of the twentieth century: he researched fisheries and he was also interested in basic research questions about fish physiology and behavior. But what I find most interesting about Townsend is the project he died believing was a failure, and which I think of as his biggest success: Townsend's tortoises.

Charles Townsend was an integral member of the Pribilof Seal Commission (for information on the Commission see this previous blog post). Under the direction of David Starr Jordan, Townsend wrote extensive reports on the status of the seal rookery on Pribilof Island.

Townsend with other members of the Pribilof Seal Commission. That's him (#11) in the amazing deer stalker. WCS Archives
As stated in my previous post about historical ecology (here), one of Townsend's jobs was to collect historical information about sealing from other countries. Well, while Townsend was collecting sealing data, he collected whaling data and this collection lead to a rather startling discovery: Galapagos tortoises were declining rapidly in population. 

The first reason that I love this story is that I love the way that Townsend followed a line from seals to whales to tortoises. As a historian who went from studying the history of religion and syphilis to eugenics to the history of marine science, I find in his trail of research a kindred soul. I get it- sometimes you just get sucked into a mystery and it consumes you. Townsend became consumed by tortoises (in an awesome non-painful way because they are herbivores- but seriously, nothing could be scarier because if they were actually to attack, I assume it would be a horribly slow and boring death).

The second reason that I love Townsend's interest in tortoises is because of what he did with the information: 

Townsend collected whaling logs from as many sources as he could find. In another historical study, he looked at these logs to ascertain how many tortoises these whaling ships had taken off the Galapagos islands for food on each voyage. By examining the data, Townsend found that the number of tortoises taken off each island had rapidly decreased over time, and that it appeared as if very few tortoises remained. 

Seeing this decline, he sought more data. He reached out to anyone who knew the islands to ask the question: how many tortoises are left? Can they be saved? 

Townsend received this photo of a turtle harvest on one of the Galapagos Islands from a natural history dealer. WCS
Archives
What he found wasn't promising: some populations were so depleted that sailors, explorers, and natural history dealers reported seeing few or no tortoises on several islands previously known to contain large populations. 

Townsend collected all his data and published it in The Galapagos Tortoises in relation to the whaling industry which you can read here. But he didn't stop there. Townsend set out to try to save the animal he saw rapidly declining. 

Through the use of historical data, Townsend recognized the dire prediction for the Galapagos tortoise and he sought to do something about it. Before his work with these creatures, most conservation efforts in the United States were centered on organisms that were considered edible or economically valuable. Clubs like the Boone and Crocket club had spearheaded conservation efforts of megafauna in the United States because they wanted to conserve those organisms for hunting; and Townsend was close to these men because they ran the New York Zoological Society. In the past, Townsend was involved in conservation efforts for organisms deemed economically valuable such as the Pribilof seals and also for sea turtles such as the black diamond terrapin that the USFC was trying to farm back from near extinction in Beaufort, N.C.  And Townsend was not opposed to conserving species so that they could be farmed for their perceived value, but for some reason he didn't take that tack with Galapagos tortoises. People had eaten them in the past, but he chose not to market his conservation efforts as saving a food source: he went a new route and wrote to zoo and aquarium directors asking that they raise these tortoises because they were valuable to humanity and the earth just because they were awesome. 

In 1928, Townsend sailed to the Galapagos Islands to trap and transport as many different species of Galapagos tortoises to the United States as possible. Throughout the previous 6 months, Townsend had been corresponding and traveling with various zoos and aquariums throughout the United States that he believed might have the climate and space to keep and breed these animals.   He eventually sends a varying amount of tortoises (usually between 2 and 10 specimens) to 15 different locations in and around the United States, several of its territories, and even to Sydney, Australia. Most of these institutions were zoological gardens, but Bermuda, San Diego, Honolulu and New Orleans were combined zoological parks and aquariums. 

Every six months, the directors of these institutions measured and weighed the specimens- sending Townsend a report on their progress.  If these animals died or in the case of poor 120 at the New York Zoo, were stolen, a necropsy was performed and the cause of death was reported.  Many directors received animals without knowing their sex or even what species they were- so a commentary on shell shape, sexual characteristics, and observations on behavior were reported as well. Townsend entered this data into a special spread sheet- which he later utilized to make comparisons between the sites. Throughout the years, the breeding and conservation of the tortoises took precedence over the ownership of the somewhat exotic specimens. While the tortoises were large draws for crowds, Townsend reserved the right to send the tortoises to new locations that might help them to breed more quickly.  In a letter to the Director of the Desert Arboretum in Arizona, Townsend uses his collected data to analyze what might be inhibiting growth and causing fatalities at the arboretum.  Of the original 18 specimens sent to Arizona, only 7 survive 2 years later.  Townsend states that the species in Bermuda and Honolulu are doing well, while those in the American west of Arizona and Texas have struggled because of cold nights.  He asks that Arizona send their remaining specimens to Florida so that they might have a better chance of survival and eventual breeding.  This moving of specimens is very common during the years Townsend was overseeing the breeding program. Ground cover was analyzed- there was a concern that some sites weren’t sandy enough for the turtles to lay eggs so they were moved to sandier locations. Food and environment were analyzed.  The tortoises apparently were deemed to like roaming room and hated being put in pens for the winter so the climate had to be warm year around.  And, there were quite a few pests and diseases that struck the tortoises.  But the interesting thing about all this is that, when told to move the specimens, for the good of the program and experimentation, the zoos and aquariums gave up those exotic species, or took on more.      
A child riding one of Townsend's tortoises. WCS Archives

While this conservation effort eventually did end in breeding colonies of Galapagos tortoises at some of these institutions, Townsend did not live to see them.  The Bermuda Aquarium and Zoological Garden did not successfully breed Townsend’s tortoises until the early 1950s. But, that success was followed by those in Honolulu and San Diego breeding. Some of these tortoises are still breeding and several have been sent back to the Galapagos to take part in the breeding program set up on the islands. 

A detailed record of the tortoises at their various locations around the U.S. Each tortoise was assigned a number and details such as weight and height were recorded monthly. WCS archives.
In addition to trying to save the tortoises by bringing them to American zoos and aquariums, Townsend was integral in jump starting the campaign to get the Galapagos declared a conservation area closed to hunters. 

Townsend was an old-fashioned fisheries scientist- he believed whole-heartedly in managing fisheries for sustainable harvesting, but for some reason he went a different direction with his tortoises. He didn't sell their conservation to the public as a part of fisheries management, but instead sought complete protection for the species. 

I'm a historian; I love complicated narratives and Townsend's is one of my favorites.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

New discoveries in unlikely places: the role of built spaces in ocean exploration

Recently, Wired.com featured the Bobbit Worm (Eunice aphroditois) as their "Absurd Creature of the Week." Don't be fooled- there isn't a weekly column about absurd creatures (which would have been awesome); they just invented that column name to shame this awesome marine polychaete. It can't help it that it's a worm that snaps its prey in half and happens to also be both slightly adorable when young (rainbow colored) and then really repulsive when mature (10 feet long and slimy).




Yes, the bobbit worm is a little creepy because it's super dangerous to other fishes and such, but it is also creepy because it is mysterious. Who doesn't love a mystery?

This polychaete isn't often seen in the wild, so scientists know little about their life cycle, feeding habits, or breeding habits. What they do know has come, not from viewing these organisms in the wild, but in aquarium setting, sometimes accidentally.

Matt Simon at Wired.com recounts the 2009 discovery of 'Barry', a bobbit worm discovered in a public aquarium in Cornwall, England after aquarists noticed the disappearance of fish, damaged coral, and the loss of bait and hooks left out overnight to catch whatever was disturbing the
aquarium inhabitants. Eventually, the aquarists dismantled the aquarium and found 'Barry' (pictured below) concealed in some coral. Surprise! They didn't really know how he'd gotten there, but guessed he was a tiny little stow-away when the coral was first introduced into the tank, and had rapidly developed into the awesome, if appallingly unattractive, specimen you see below.

My interest in this tale doesn't have much to do with the aesthetics of polychaetes, but instead stems from the fact that it is more common than people think to find these unintended guests in aquariums.

William Innes, an early luminary in the aquarium hobbyist field, often sent unknown fish specimens from his aquarium to Carl Hubbs and George Sprague Myers for identification. Hubbs and Innes published taxonomic information on the first known blind fish of the family characidae after Innes received some of the fishes from a fish dealer in Texas.

But there are similar stories to Barry- and my favorite comes from the Royal Botanical Society at Regent's Park, London in 1880. On June 10, 1880, Mr. Sowerby, the secretary of the RBS, spied something swimming, or more accurately, pulsing, in the giant Amazonian lily pad exhibit (Science, July 17, 1880, Lankester) . The Victoria Regia exhibit was quite popular at the RBS- these giant lilypads from South America were named after Queen Victoria (now known as Victoria amazonica). But whatever was in the shallow water wasn't supposed to be there, and had definitely not been placed there by an RBS member. (For a completely interesting paper on the naming controversy of Victoria amazonica check out Donald Opitz's paper in the British Journal for the History of Science)

What had made its way into the tank?

In 1880, Science published the first description of what they believed to be a new species, Limnocodium Victoria (later known as L. Sowerbyi and now known as Craspdacusta sowerbii), a fresh water jellyfish. This was huge, because a. no one had ever recorded jellies living in freshwater in the field and b. they had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. In fact, Sowerby stated that there hadn't been any new additions to the lilypad exhibit in months so the RBS was at a loss when pinpointing the origin of these jellies. What they surmised is that they had to have originated from the same water that the lily pads came from, and therefore probably came from the Guyana region in South America.

It was examined (by no less than George Romanes) and named, but researchers found it impossible to maintain in captivity and eventually all the specimens died and were preserved.

And then, it reappeared in the same tank of lily pads in 1888. This time, G. Herbert Fowler reported that the entire tank was covered in hydroids (a life cycle of jellyfish) but the origins and life cycle were still unclear" (Fowler, G.H. "Notes on the Hydroid Phase of Limnocodium sowerbyi." Quart. Jour. Micr. Sci.  30 (1890): 507)

A modern photograph of C. Sowerbii

After these initial descriptions of freshwater jellies at the RBS, they started to show up everywhere. In 1916, 1922, and 1924 Harrison Garman reported in Science finding large swarms in a creek in Kentucky.   In 1925, Frank Smith collected them in the Panama Canal Zone (also published in Science). By 1928, Charles M. Breder announced that the jelly had found its way into tanks at the New York Aquarium.

We now know that C. sowerbii is a hearty species of jelly native to China with a very special ability: it has a chitin-covered resting stage which allows it to survive in drought years. This ability means that it can be spread through mud or detritus without anyone knowing that they are transporting the specimen. And, it means it pops up in unexpected places, like the Royal Botanical Society. (This has become a bit of a problem as the fresh water jelly is now considered an invasive species- check out this article about its introduction to Israeli waters).

But, guess what: no matter how many times or how many places its been found, the first description stands. It continues to be named after the startled secretary of the Royal Botanical Society and the date of discovery is still listed as 1880.

Aquariums, both hobbyist and public, have continuously served as spaces containing undescribed and undiscovered organisms. We often don't think about these seemingly domesticated and constructed spaces as containing unknown entities, but they can and do often unveil new delights to the aquarists who might think they've seen it all (or at least that they know what they are working with). C. sowerbii and unexpected visitors like 'Barry' serve to remind us that built environments are still places of mystery and discovery.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Historical Lessons: The Pribilof Seal Commission and the Proposal to Protect Antarctic Waters

I know what you're going to say: we're all getting tired of know-it-all historians swaggering around talking about how you could have "learned something" and "not made the same mistakes" if you had just studied your history. "Just like last time" we have been known to say in our condescending way before running along to read more old musty letters that will probably give us an even more Cassandra-esque precision into guessing the future. We are snarky snarky bastards.

Okay, we're not actually that bad. Historians in general tend to be pretty quiet about making direct links and saying things like "nothing changes"- probably because we love the idea of subtle change. No situation is exactly the same, but I think we can learn something from examining history.

I've been thinking about this recently as I've read about the difficulties in establishing a major antarctic conservation zone. If you're unfamiliar with what has occurred, here it goes:

In July 2013, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCALMR)- established in 1982 to safeguard Antarctic marine life- called a meeting between 24 nations and the European Union to try to designate one of the largest Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in the Antarctic Ocean. One area encompassing a portion of the Ross Sea, proposed by the United States and New Zealand, would cover 600,000 square miles; another in East Antarctica proposed by France, Australia, and the European Union would cover another 600,000. It would, if passed, have doubled the amount of MPAs in the world and been the largest protected ocean region in the world.

But it didn't pass.

There were some reservations before the meeting in July- America and New Zealand had already scaled back their proposal, which had originally included all of the Ross Sea. That area is especially important in these negotiations because it contains the fishing grounds for the Chilean Sea Bass (a very yummy, very non-sustainable ocean resource that can sell for upwards of 35$ a pound).  As I've previously discussed on the blog, protecting marine fish stocks is very difficult because those suckers just swim everywhere and they don't really recognize man made borders. So, you can only protect those sea bass if they stick to the area you can get protected, and people who want to harvest these fish know it just as well as people who want to protect them.

And they aren't the only valuable resource in the Southern Ocean. Krill harvesting for animal feed and the Omega-3 fish oil dietary supplement market is on the rise. (I know all about this market as I'm a currently pregnant lady and those doctors push Omega-3 fish oils on you like, well, a pusher. Little did I know that those little pills could be filled with Southern Ocean krill!) With the warming oceans and the increase in krill fishing, scientists are in a race against time to establish baselines for a sustainable krill catch- first, they have to know a heck of a lot more about krill in general.

So when the meeting happened, things went south- and not in a good, let's-save-the-Southern-Ocean way. But in a Russia-and-the-Ukraine-are-questioning-the-legality-of-MPAs-to-try-to-block this-measure- kind of way. It's pretty clear that the CCAMLR has the legal standing, if they can get an accord, to establish MPAs. So why would Russia and the Ukraine try to block the MPAs?  The larger issues for Russia were the size of the proposed area and the fact that a ban on fishing and harvesting within that region would be indefinite. And a big thing, they suggested their wasn't enough scientific evidence to make all of these waters protected indefinitely. We don't know much about baselines when it comes to these organisms, and a lot of what we know is rough data and guess work. One of the reasons that protection would be a good idea is that it would actually allow researchers the chance to study the area intensively without worrying about harvesting. Who is to say what over harvesting krill and sea bass looks like?  Right now the data is rough at best and that could change if scientists get down there and find that stocks of krill are fine. But if they find that, it doesn't mean you can go harvest because now it is an MPA- I think you can see that this would be a problem- if there is a way to harvest krill sustainably in this area but we only discover that after we've blocked the region from fishing, we've cut off a huge supply of food from a lot of people. (also, there might be oil under the Southern Sea and we wouldn't want to leave that alone now would we) So. No. Go.

America and New Zealand have revised their proposal for a meeting next month in Hobart, Australia. The new proposal will start at 40% the second proposed size of the original, which was already smaller than the United States initially wanted (the entire Ross Sea) and this concession has angered many conservationists. But, we'll have to see what happens.

So, what about this situation reminds me of the past?

The situation in the Southern Sea reminds me a bit of another marine area with highly valued resources contested in the late 19th and early 20th century: The Pribilof Seal Islands in Alaska.



The United States purchased the Seal Islands from Russia in 1867, and by 1868 enterprising Americans (like their Russian counterparts before them) rushed to the islands to take advantage of a valuable resource that was considerably easier to mine than gold: the northern fur seal.

I think we're pretty familiar with what happens when people find a resource and harvest it unchecked: the fur seal almost went extinct twice. The incursion of Japanese, Russian, and English independent sealers nearly caused an outbreak of war over the territory.   In other words, things got pretty hairy up north; but instead of allowing extinction, the concerned governments decided to try to scientifically figure out a baseline population that would make it possible to sustain a seal herd and allow a robust sealing season.

The United States Fish Commission set up a seal commission to investigate how many seals still lived in the herd, their breeding cycles and behaviors, statistics and birth records for each year, and any other data that might help figure out what a normal and sustainable herd of these animals might entail. Of course, they started gathering this data at an all time low of the population, so a lot of information gathered was historical in nature. Charles Townsend, then an investigator for the Bureau, was in charge of gathering as much historical data as possible about the fur seal herd, and he was incredibly interested in solving the mystery of how many fur seals had existed on the islands before they were decimated by humans.

He turned to some amazing sources of information. Townsend asked diplomats in Russia, Japan, Canada, and England to gain access to as many sealing vessel logbooks as they could and send him the numbers of seals taken for each season. This wasn't easy work for the diplomats and there were major gaps in the records, especially because there were so many independent sealing vessels that had made clandestine runs into the seal islands.

But some information trickled in, including data from England for the years 1894 and 1895.

Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Charles Townsend Files


 You can see that sealing was on the rise, even as the number of seals were falling. The data trickling in from England, Japan, and Russia suggested that as the Alaskan rookeries became more cut off by American intervention, pelagic sealing (catching seals in deeper waters as they hunted) was on the rise.

Townsend and the Commission wanted more accurate data about breeding habits and sex ratios and the impact of taking male versus female seals on the herd, but this data was somewhat difficult to come by. A request for a count of fur skins by sex was met with consternation: how does one tell the sex of a fur seal after death? Townsend claimed it was rather easy to tell the difference (nipples!) and sent along a particularly helpful circular outlining where one might look to find the answer, but in the end the data was still patchy.

Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Charles Townsend Files 
In the end, Townsend and his boss David Starr Jordan collected sealing data for the years 1894-1896 from historical records, and tried to reconstruct the size of the herd, including the distribution of males and females, in order to set limits on sealing without cutting off the resource completely. 

Many aspects of the seal herd and its behaviors remained contested. One particularly interesting question involved accidental infanticide. Some scientists claimed that it was important to thin the herd of seals, because if the population became too large, females were known to accidentally roll over onto their cubs and smother them to death (a fear I seriously am having). Eye witness accounts claimed they had seen accidental deaths occur in highly populated areas, and this suggested to some in the Commission that it would be healthiest to maintain a smaller number of seals in a given area to allow all individuals a chance at growing to adulthood. But other scientists claimed that these eye witness accounts were unreliable and that, if such deaths occurred, they were uncommon and a negligible loss compared to the losses suffered from over harvesting.

Fur sealing was a big industry, and the fight over the right to harvest seals was a huge international issue. The Pribilof Islands were not the only fur seal rookeries in the world, Russia, Japan, and Canada all had locations where seals were present and they looked into their rookeries during the same period- I have not been in those archives but I hope someone will write a book someday on the seal convention of 1911 because they would definitely have a reader here!
The Pribilof Commission started gathering data and working on American harvesting issues as early as 1898, but an international Convention was not signed between Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States until 1911. That convention basically banned pelagic sealing and made it illegal for ports to take in illegally caught seal skins for processing (seal skin processing was just as big a business as the sealing itself). Each government agreed to patrol their own herds and waters for poachers and to cooperate internationally to prevent pelagic sealing. It's an involved convention and if you feel like reading it, go here. It's clearly written and very interesting. 

You might still be wondering though, what does this have to do with current issues in Antarctic waters? 

I think one of my concerns is that, in an effort to build MPAs, conservationists might be demonizing the industries that have grown up around the "blue economy". Is it wrong that certain companies want to harvest krill in the Southern Ocean- not necessarily. There is nothing inherently wrong about finding a natural resource and utilizing it. Of course, we would hope with the proper data and international agreements that people would follow the rules and only harvest in a sustainable way- but the very act of wanting to harvest does not make you a demon. Yes, Russia is a pain in the butt, but they aren't the only country that wants to harvest krill, and I'm sure they aren't the only country that is interested in oil under the Ross Sea. They are just a country that isn't afraid to say it- and that might be a good thing in the long run. 

A lesson we might learn from the Pribilof Commission and the eventual Convention is a lesson in time and the scientific process. Understanding the ocean, its inhabitants, its resources, and how we can sustain harvesting without harming will take more time, and scientific effort, than merely setting up zones where no one can harvest. Focus should be on international data collecting and sharing in these areas, and long term scientific studies that can give us more information about the ecosystem and organisms involved. If we rely on scientific data to make claims about sustainability, it is important that we admit when more data is needed. And that takes so much time. 

Yes, this is a dangerous statement. Global warming and new fishing technologies and methods mean that time is definitely not on our side. The ability to decimate an ecosystem is enhanced by a shifting climate and the ability to take larger and larger catches through updated tools- but there has to be something scientists can do to gather international data that would serve everyone's interest. 

What does not help is setting up a dichotomy between industrial/commercial fishing interests and the scientific and environmental communities. The oceans have long been a valuable resource for humans of all nations- Americans overfish their own waters and have failed time and again to set sustainable baselines for catches- because industry and culture have trumped scientific data. We should recognize in Russia's concerns what we can see in ourselves- not pretend we are perfect scientific stewards of the sea. 

The science of the sea is intimately entwined with feeding people on land and to pretend otherwise is to set up a harmful dichotomy that disallows conversation. Both Russia and the US (and all 24 countries and the EU gathered at these meetings) want one thing in the end- to not die on a wasted planet full of nothing but boiling oceans and toxic air. Work your way up from there and they'd like to figure out how to feed the world, by land or ocean, without turning those resources into boiling and toxic places.  As we saw with the Pribilof Seals, once the US shut down the islands to outside sealers, these sealers got very good as sitting outside the protected zone and picking off seals in deeper international waters. This bears a striking resemblance to the ability to catch krill and sea bass outside the Ross Sea. If we concentrate too heavily on preserving area, instead of sustainable catches based on data that each nation will want to enforce, are we really doing anything that will help sustain these organisms- or are we just shutting down future conversations about actually protecting these resources? 

International cooperation is the key to saving the Antarctic Conservation areas, not condemnation. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Salvaging Historical Ocean Data; the role of the archive in current scientific debates

I've just finished Callum Roberts' 2012 book The Ocean of Life and it has me thinking about how useful historical data can be to modern debates about ecology and climate change. My husband bought me the book to read during my plane ride to Manchester, UK to attend the International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (ICHSTM) last month and it, combined with a talk I saw while at the conference (which I will discuss later), lead to this blog post.

Roberts is a professor of Marine Conservation at York University and he has a fairly simple message:

"We find it hard to believe...descriptions of extraordinary past abundance because it has been so long sing such scenes were commonplace. It is a human trait to give greater weight to personal experience than to others' descriptions. The result...is an intergenerational shift in the way we perceive the world. Science is particularly susceptible to these shifting baselines, as scientists work at the forefront of knowledge and are always in hot pursuit of the latest ideas." (48)

It seems simple to say that humans have a hard time believing things we can't see with our own eyes. I've talked a lot on this blog about the difficulty of reintroducing "native" species because the people who have to deal with the reintroduction don't imagine them as "natural" to that landscape- they've never co-existed with them in the past. But it is something else to say scientists have a hard time dealing with these historical issues. It makes sense- scientists are totally humans. But what does it mean to deal with an "intergenerational shift in the way we perceive the world" in science?

Roberts suggests that this limited ability to visualize the past landscape leads ecologists and environmentalists to underestimate the amount of change in an ecosystem over time. If you can't even imagine what it used to be like, or that it was different, how can you predict the changes that might occur?

One way to do this is to use historical archives to establish baselines so that we can see the change. Roberts points to two bodies of work, that of Loren McClenachan (a professor at Cobly College in Maine) and Ruth Thurstan (one of his graduate students at York). Both of these scientists use different forms of archival data to establish change over time in a given ecosystem. McClenachan utilizes a variety of archival sources, including historical photographs of game fishing in the Florida Keys, to ascertain the downward shift in size of game fishes caught in the Florida Keys from the 50s to the present.

"Documenting Loss of Large Trophy Fish from the Florida Keys with Historical Photographs" Conservation Biology 23:3 (2009)

Thurstan utilized previously forgotten government fishing data from the 1880s to the present to analyze the decline in catches.

 From "The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on on UK bottom trawl fisheries" by Thurstan, Simon Brockington, and Collum Roberts in Nature Communications 1:15 (May 2010).

Both of these papers are exceedingly interesting for what they tell us about the overall decline of fish stocks, but they are also examples of how scientists have extracted useful information from data gathered for a completely different purpose. The photos of game fishes were not taken to later be used for scientific purposes, and a scientists could not necessarily use just any picture as scientific data. McClenachan used photos taken on two separate boats by the same professional photographer, and each photo displayed the largest catches each day.  In essence, the author had to make sure that the photographs represented something important, and that they were taken in a consistent manner.

Thurstan ran into a different problem: fishing technology has changed greatly since the 1880s. So, how do you compare information gathered in the late 19th century with information gathered today? Thurstan looks at different "units of fishing power" and measures the size of stocks based on "landings per unit of fishing power".

Both scientists found useful data, but not in ready use form (or the form that many scientists are used to working with); the historical information wasn't necessarily ready-use, but it was useful.

This brings me to the paper I saw in Manchester. While I was at the conference, I was lucky enough to catch Marcel Wernand speaking about his recent paper with Hedrick van der Woerd and Winfried Gieskes entitled "Trends in Ocean Colour and Chlorophyll Concentration from 1889 to 2000, Worldwide" published in June 2013.

Wernand and his colleagues start with the understanding that ocean color correlates to specific conditions, i.e. a green color corresponds to a higher content of chlorophyll blooms. Most recently, scientists have used data about ocean color collected from satellites, but Wernand et al wanted to look at a longer data set to ascertain plankton bloom changes over a greater period of time. But, how to access data about ocean color before satellites existed?

The authors turned to something called the Forel-Ule scale. This tool has been included on board ships from the 1880s onward, and is fairly simple to operate.


Above, you see there are 21 different colors of water in the tool. Anyone on a ship- from the naturalist to the captain to a sailor- could enter Forel-Ule data each day during a sea voyage. And, it turns out, they did. The authors used digitized oceanographic and meteorological databases archived by NOAA-NODC totally 220,440 FU observations between 1907 and 1999. Before 1907, they turned to other historical information from major voyages and came up with 221,110 FU observations with which to work.

Unlike recent papers that suggest that plankton blooms have decreased worldwide recently, using these data sets Wernand et al found that plankton blooms have shifted throughout the world's oceans since 1889, but they have not experienced a blanket decline.

All three of these papers utilized a different form of historical data to assess the current status of the world's oceans, and archival data continues to be useful. NOAA has three ongoing historical ecology projects looking at the history of Stelweggen Banks and cod fisheries in Massachusetts, the Florida Keys coral reef project, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary project. Theses projects pair historians and scientists together to sift through archival data and examine the relevance of that data to modern understandings of ongoing ocean change. Pretty cool.

When I'm in the archives, I consistently run into large data sets- something that isn't necessarily helpful to me but could be helpful to scientists interested in catches and data from a particular area. In the Smithsonian archives, there are log books that contain hourly information on tides, ocean color, temperature, location, and fish catches. All are meticulously kept and just waiting for someone to take a look. And even though I get bummed that what I thought might be a useful journal (for me) turns out to be thousands and thousands of tiny entries about water temperature and color, in the long run, it's great to know that that data can be mined for useful information.

And, it makes it all the more important that we recognize that archives and historical data are not useless- they need to be preserved not only for historians but for the establishment of baseline ecological and environmental data.

Callum Roberts laments society's short memories of our surroundings- He suggests we scoff at the musings of our parents and grandparents when they states that our environment has changed over time; we understand only our limited personal experiences. But, this doesn't mean we can't access and quantify those memories at which we sometimes scoff. Historical ecologists and climatologists working with archival data have found multiple ways to access and quantify these memories, including photographs, statistics, and consistent tool use over time.




Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Letting a Species go- reposted from "A Last Word on Nothing"

I'm in the process of moving from Salt Lake to Wilkes-Barre, PA so blogging hasn't been at the top of my list. But, I wanted to repost this blog from Erik Vance's blog. It ties nicely into my last post on living with endangered species.

http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/08/07/a-tiny-dolphin-and-a-big-problem/

A Tiny Dolphin and a Big Problem

By Erik Vance | August 7, 2013
The following is an essay I wrote while reporting from the Sea of Cortez last fall. To learn more, read my piece in this month’s Harper’s Magazine: “Emptying the World’s Aquarium.”
marcha018
Over the past few days I have found myself thinking a lot about the tragic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In it, the narrator kills an albatross and brings on the wrath of the ocean – bad weather, ghost ships, and whirlpools. It’s a transfixing tale of willful destruction followed by forgiveness and redemption. One particular quote keeps popping to mind.
He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small
Here in the Upper Gulf of California, fishermen, governments, and environmentalists have been struggling with a different kind of albatross – not one that soars high on the wind but rather lurks unseen in the murky water. But when the fishermen pull it into their nets, it’s an omen just as bad as that legendary bird.
Their albatross is the Mexican porpoise, more often called the vaquita (little cow). It’s a small, shy animal – four or five feet long with a blunt nose and rarely glimpsed even by the most determined scientist. They poke silently about, unique to just the very top slice of the Sea of Cortez, growing slowly, reproducing infrequently, and wandering into fishing nets. In short, it’s the kind of creature that seems almost designed to go extinct.
In the past few decades, the vaquita has become the Gulf’s spotted owl – a quiet spokesman for conservation in the region. After NAFTA was signed, its environmental wing (the Commission for Environmental Cooperation) and the Mexican government decided that saving the vaquita was priority number one. In 1994, Mexico created a massive reserve covering the entire Upper Gulf to protect the vaquita and in 2004 another area within that as a specific vaquita reserve.marcha006
Ever since the Chinese river dolphin went extinct in 2006, the vaquita has held the dubious title of “world’s most endangered marine mammal.” It’s not clear how many vaquita are left in the world. They were probably never common like their more congenial cousin the harbor porpoise but for the past 50 years as US demand for fish and shrimp exploded and the Colorado River dried up, the tiny population has crashed. Some estimates (mostly considered to be outdated) are as high as 500 but estimates go as low as 150, which would put them in grave danger of serious inbreeding problems in the future. The most recent comprehensive study four years ago put it at just 220 lonely creatures.
Fishermen by nature are not crazy about dramatic changes or outside intervention. When PROFEPA, Mexico’s fishery enforcement wing, moved in to try and enforce the reserve by fining poachers or checking permits in the 90s, their cars got torched. So to save the vaquita, the government tried some carrots instead. They cut back the giant trawlers, hated by local fishermen, and offered to push out all the outsiders so that locals fortunate enough to own a permit could have the fishing grounds to themselves.
Yet still the vaquita disappeared. So in 2008, they offered to buy out any fishermen or pay them to switch their shrimping gear to a dolphin-safe version. The payouts were generous – $25,000 or so each – as long as they spent it on building tourism businesses in the area, like hotels and seafood restaurants.
This should have been the happy ending of the story. Except that this is the Upper Gulf, not Cancun. Tourism is limited to a few Arizonans wearing “I’m with stupid” T-shirts who bounce down the dunes in their ATVs. Furthermore, not many fishermen know anything about hotels and restaurants (which are plentiful here, but oddly no fishing tours). Four years on, most of those businesses have failed.marcha013
As for the dolphin-safe nets, they do indeed spare the dolphins – and unfortunately the shrimp too. According to the government, the new nets (big scoopy things, in contrast to wall-like, filamentous gill nets) catch more than 220 pounds of shrimp per day – a really good haul. But I talked to fishermen who helped in that study and they said the dolphin-safe nets couldn’t catch enough shrimp for a dinner plate. But they were asked to write those numbers in pencil so that the researchers could change the numbers later.
Ask a fisherman today what he thinks of the vaquita and you are going to get an earful. Most who have followed government or NGO advice have either gone broke. Worse, you can’t have “vaquita tours” for rich Americans or see them frolicking from the beach since they’re shy and virtually invisible in their murky water (one fisherman told me his friends think outsiders made up the dolphin).
So in the end we have a story without any bad guys but one really tough decision. The fishermen have begrudgingly complied with the regulations but they haven’t really worked. The Mexican government – not known for its conservation prowess in other places – seems to have put in a genuine effort of money and time to solve this problem. The NGOs have done what NGOs do – try and save a charismatic species on the brink of extinction.
All that’s left is a question – one that will come up again, I promise you. When is it time to let a species go? Without local buy-in, conservation never really works. I mean, no one here wants anything to do with vaquitas and fishermen tell me if they find a dead one in their net, they just quietly slip it back in the water. It may be that in order to bring fishermen on board to help save other species in the Sea of Cortez, we have to let this one go. For people dedicated to saving the vaquita, like the ancient mariner, it’s been a journey filled with hard lessons.
He went like one that hath been stunned / And is of sense forlorn: 
A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn.
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All photos of Upper Gulf fishermen courtesy of Dominic Bracco II
Reporting and travel supported in part by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting