New Species of Shark Found off South Carolina Coast

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A new species of shark has been discovered by scientists off South Carolina. The new species has been named after the region it was found. “Carolina hammerhead”, thought to reach 11 feet long and weigh approximately 400 pounds has been spotted cruising the waters around Charleston. Scientists believe however, that this species of hammerheads occur worldwide, since evidence of them has been found previously from Brazil to the Indian Ocean. 

The new species was identified by extensive laboratory research.  From appearance the Carolina hammerhead looks very similar to the well-known scalloped hammerhead – except for one major distinction; the Carolina hammerheads have fewer vertebrae than its shark cousins. Carolina hammerheads have 83-91 vertebrae, while scalloped hammerheads have 92 to 99 vertebrae. 

The discovery of this new shark species has important conservation implications. With sharks threatened globally and scalloped hammerhead numbers falling in many areas, it is likely that Carolina hammerheads are even more endangered. This discovery shows how there is still so much to be learned about the Earth’s oceans and why we must protect biodiversity before species are lost that we never even knew existed!

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Earth Overshoot Day

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Today is the point in the year when humans have exhausted nature’s budget for the year.  For the rest of 2013, we will be “overdrawn”, meaning we are now operating in overdraft by depleting the oceans and land and accumulating waste such as carbon dioxide (CO2).

The Global Footprint Network keeps track of humanity’s demand and supply of natural resources and ecological services. Their findings are very concerning, highlighting that in approximately eight months, we demand more renewable resources and CO2 sequestration than the planet can provide in an entire year.  Throughout history, humans have relied on the earth’s natural resources to build roads, provide building supplies, create products, and to absorb CO2 at a rate well within the Earth’s Budget. However, this changed on December 29 1970 when for the first time, human consumption outstripped the Earth’s capacity to produce. Ever since this date, the yearly overshoot day has been creeping forward.

The hard facts are that our current demand for renewable resources and ecological services is now equivalent to more than 1.5 Earths.  If our current demand continues then we are on track to require the resources of two planets well before the mid-century. This pressure on the Earth’s natural resources is becoming more and more evident. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, increasing extinction rates, fisheries collapse, shrinking forests, higher commodity prices and civil unrest are just a few examples of our planets resource crisis.

Not all countries have the same demand on the Earth’s resources as illustrated below:

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Looking forward, projections and models all agree that the Earth is operating under unsustainable levels. As described by the Global Footprint Network, “ We are well over budget, and that debt is compounding. It is an ecological debt, and the interest we are paying on that mounting debt – food shortages, soil erosion, and the build-up of CO2 in our atmosphere – comes with devastating human and monetary costs”.

As we continue the rest of 2013 in ecological deficit, lets be even more conscious of our impact on the environment and ways to minimize our demand on the Earth’s precious resources.

Shark Week

As it is shark week I figured it would be a good time to share the story of my friend Heather in her quest to stop shark finning, and also share some important facts about sharks. 

Heather Murray, a 29 year old conservationist from New Zealand and a good friend of mine, set out on a brave quest to help raise money and awareness to stop shark finning.  On the 1st June Heather vowed that if she could raise $500 US for ProjectAWAREs shark protection project by her 29th birthday (9th July) she would shave off all of her hair in a stand against shark finning. Within a few days Heather had exceeded her target of $500, and agreeing to shave her head regardless she raised her target to $1000.  A week later, Heather had again smashed this target and increased her target to $5000.  Unsurprisingly, with her daily shark facts and determination to raise awareness, Heather again exceeded this target, ending with a staggering grand total of $8,231 US!!!!!  So, on the 8th July at the Southern Cross Club on Little Cayman, Heather gave a talk about sharks, followed by the head shaving event.  Heather’s efforts show what one person can do and highlights to us all the importance of banning shark finning.  Thank you Heather and well done!!!!

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Shark Facts:

  • More people are killed each year by bee stings than by sharks
  • There are over 400 different species of sharks
  • Unlike other species of shark, the great white is warm-blooded. Although the great white does not keep a constant body temperature, it needs to eat a lot of meat in order to be able to regulate its temperature.
  • Sharks do not have a single bone in their bodies. Instead they have a skeleton made up of cartilage; the same type of tough, flexible tissue that makes up human ears and nose.
  • Scientists can tell the age of a shark by counting the rings on its vertebrae (similar to how they can tell how old a tree is by counting its rings!)
  • Until the 16th century they were known to seafarers are “sea dogs”
  • Baby sharks are called pups
  • New research shows that sharks may be colorblind
  • You are 1000 times more likely to drown than be killed by a shark
  • Shark Fin soup is a popular and traditional delicacy in Asia, Hawaii and Australia but the practice of finning sharks is adding to the rapid decline of sharks and hurtful to the animals. Up to 73 million sharks are killed a year for their fins
  • In Iceland Rotten Shark or ‘Hakarl’ is a traditional dish served during the Midwinter Festival – but not particularly popular with visitors! Accounts vary, some say it tastes like cheese, others say it’s practically inedible
  • Shark skin is touch and hard and before the invention of sandpaper it was used to polish wood
  • They have a sensory organ called ‘ampullae of Lorenzini’ that allows them to feel electrical currents in the water
  • Sharks can smell a drop of blood in 1 million drops of water
  • Sharks never run out of teeth, if they lose one another spins forward from rows and rows of backup teeth – A shark may grow and lose 20, 000 teeth in its lifetime!

 

Natural Springs Provide New Clues on How Coral Reefs Will Respond To Ocean Acidification

Photo Credit: Ellen Cuylaerts

Photo Credit: Ellen Cuylaerts

A recent publication in PNAS has used some principles close to my research to utilize natural pH variability to investigate how corals will likely respond to future ocean acidification.  Using natural variability is an important way to gauge a more realistic view of how corals will respond to future changes in ocean acidity. 

Ocean acidification is a decrease in seawater pH caused by the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide that results in altered seawater chemistry.  Ocean acidification has the potential to threaten the structural integrity of marine calcifies and disrupt metabolic processes.

A new study has used underwater springs that naturally lower the pH of seawater (the lower the pH, the more acidic the environment) to show how corals will likely respond to ocean acidification.  The study was conducted along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and focused on the prevalent Caribbean coral Porites astreoides.  Led by Elizabeth Crook of UCSC, the researchers monitored seawater chemistry around the springs and took skeletal cores of the corals to look at growth parameters.

The results of this study show that coral calcification rates decrease significantly along a natural gradient in seawater pH and suggest that corals may not be able to fully acclimatize to low pH conditions. At lower pH the concentration of carbonate ions in seawater is also lower, making it harder for corals to build their calcium carbonate skeletons.  Consequently, at low pH corals have to use more energy to accumulate the carbonate ions they need to build their structure.  Decreased coral density at lower pH threatens the structural integrity of the reef framework.

The results of this study emphasize the need to protect corals from other stressors, such as pollution and overfishing in the hope that controlling these stressors, the impact of ocean acidification may be reduced.

 

The Shark Finning Trade

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I am so happy to have my first guest blog by a friend and mentor of mine, Joseph Cavanaugh.  This blog entry is on the shark finning trade.  Joseph is a fisheries biologist who works at the National Marine Fisheries Service protecting endangered marine species such as sea turtles, smalltooth sawfish, and right whales in St. Petersburg, Florida.  He is currently working on a shark fin project you can read more about on his blog:  http://thesharkfinproject.blogspot.com/.

Joseph on a dive

The consumption of shark fins, particularly in China, likely began prior to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).  By the time the ethnic Han Chinese came to power in the Ming Dynasty, shark fin soup became the Haute cuisine at banquets and special occasions such as weddings for royalty.  However, sharks and their fins were unlikely to have been targeted or kept once captured by fishers during this era.  Historically, there were small-scale shark fisheries that targeted sharks only beginning in the twentieth century for shark leather (West Indies in the 1920’s) and shark liver oil (1930’s on both coasts of the United States).  Fishing sharks for shark liver oil grew over a decade prior to World War II primarily to supply vitamin A to the U.S. and shark populations along both coasts were quickly depleted.  The interruption of this fishery by World War II and the advent of synthetic vitamin A in the early 1950’s granted a reprieve for shark populations.  Today the main driver for shark fisheries worldwide is to supply an ever-growing demand for fins to an emerging middle class in China.  Although there is some medicinal and pharmacological value for shark cartilage and other shark liver oil, sharks are primarily fished for their fins alone and these end up in bowls of shark fin soup once again served at banquets and weddings but now affordable to the masses.

Joe and his son Finn with their fins up!

Shark finning is a particularly heinous and destructive method of fishing that involves cutting the fins off sharks and discarding the still-living animals back into the water to die a slow, painful death.  Only the fins are utilized and the rest of the shark is wasted.  Shark populations worldwide of which there are greater than 350 species, share a special status at the top of the trophic web or what we called the food chain until recently.  As is true of most apex predators, sharks are slow to reproduce and when they do, usually produce few offspring.  There is no dispute that current fishing practices have depleted many species of sharks to the brink of commercial extinction.  In fact, at this year’s CITES meeting in Bangkok, the oceanic whitetip shark, porbeagle, and three species of hammerheads, and both manta rays, were added to Appendix II protection ensuring that permits for trade in these species are legal and sustainable.   It is truly remarkable that in just a few decades after the Movie Jaws vilified sharks there are now a multitude of non-govermental organizations spearheading conservation campaigns for sharks worldwide.  In the 1970’s there were hundreds of shark tournaments on the east coast of the United States alone with a myriad of prizes offered including a “most sharks killed” category.  There is finally awareness among many nations and their citizens that sharks play a valuable role in our ecosystems.  Yet, international laws and enforcement protecting sharks are woefully inadequate in stemming the loss of what is estimated to be more than 100 million sharks a year.  The problem is largely one of market forces (supply and demand) and cultural mores that facilitate the demand for fins in China.  The Chinese communist government does not demonstrate transparent trade data for shark fins and there are growing crime syndicates that specialize in trafficking fins while international pressure increases on China to stop consuming shark fin soup.

This summer I depart to Hong Kong to investigate some of the cultural mores behind the trade in shark fins to better understand the problem and hopefully glean possible solutions.  I am convinced that without effective education and outreach campaigns targeting shark fin consumers, there is little hope we can curb finning before many species of sharks are gone in say, five to ten years, conservative estimate.   Just as with other unsustainable fisheries such as Bluefin tuna we know that as species become increasingly rare their market value increases to absurd levels, until the supply crashes and species become so rare that it is prohibitively expensive to target those species anymore.  Unfortunately for sharks, millions are killed each year as bycatch in long-line and other fisheries, creating a juggernaut for sharks to survive even without the specific shark finning fisheries.  If sharks species are to survive and rebound, the cultural mores in China will need to change rapidly.  There is a generation of Chinese who grew up dirt poor in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) whose children are now getting married and their parents can afford to serve shark fin soup at their weddings.  Convincing these parents of alternatives to shark fin soup is an important key component in ending shark finning.  There is little time left to change the tide for sharks and already it will take decades for worldwide populations to recover.

To read more on Josephs efforts against Shark finning please check out his blog:  http://thesharkfinproject.blogspot.com/

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Cenote Diving- Mexico

(Photo credit: Camp, 2013)
(Photo credit: Camp, 2013)

This past week I have been in Cancun Mexico for a conference, and was lucky enough to take an afternoon dive to a Cenote.  Cenotes are a deep natural sink hole that are filled with fresh water.  In certain areas saltwater can enter the Cenote forming a halocline that is visible during a dive.  A halocline is a sharp change in salt concentration over a small change in depth which results in a blurry visual effect caused by refraction between the different densities of fresh and saline waters.

In Mexico there are over 5000 Cenotes, many of which have not been fully explored.  Cenotes have a historic importance as they were used by the Mayans for sacrificial offerings.  There are different types of Cenotes:

  • Cenotes-cántaro- Have a surface connection which is narrower than the diameter of the water body
  • Cenotes-cilíndricos- Have vertical walls
  • Cenotes-aguadas- Have shallow water basins
  • Grutas- Have a horizontal entrance with dry section

The Cenote I visited was called the Chac Mool and it was truly incredible. After a two hour drive from Cancun,we entered onto a private property in the middle of the jungle. We set up our gear and walked down to a small body of water (see image below).

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This small body of water leads into an underground network of caves and caverns.  Our dives were incredible!  Entering into the cavern network you could see daylight for the start of the dive; however there were times when you had to rely on your torch for orientation.  Guidelines are secured on the base of the cavern for divers to use who enter the more advanced cave networks.    Approximately 1,700 feet into the cavern network we reached a large room which contained a giant stalactite named Xich Ha Tunich (“Giant Drip Stone” in Mayan).  In the cavern network we also saw a lot of fossilized corals and shells.  These really were some unforgettable dives and the pictures below do not do them justice, but I hope you enjoy them!

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Endangered Species Day 2013

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Today is endangered species day!  Started by the United States senate, Endangered Species Day is an opportunity for people to learn more about the importance of preserving endangered species, and how we can take action to help preserve disappearing wildlife.  Today is also special as it marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species act.  

Endangered species are organisms facing a very high risk of extinction.  Although the phrase is often used in a variety of contexts, it is used by conservation biologists to refer to species listed as Endangered on the Internation Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)  Red list.  Although the numbers are often changing, there are currently 3079 animals and 2655 plants that are classified as endangered worldwide. See below some country statistics for the total number of endangered species:

  • Australia = 869
  • Cayman Islands = 38
  • China = 911
  • Cuba = 312
  • Indonesia = 1154
  • Madagascar = 856
  • Malaysia = 1196
  • Mexico = 959
  • United Kingdom = 82 
  • United States = 1203

For all countries, visit: http://www.iucnredlist.org/documents/summarystatistics/2012_2_RL_Stats_Table_5.pdf

What can you do to help ?  

1) Learn about endangered species where you live.

2) Get involved! Volunteer at a local wildlife refuge, park or other open space.

3) Make your home wildlife friendly

4) Slow down when driving

5) Recycle and buy sustainable products

6) Never purchase products made from threatened or endangered species

7) Protect wildlife habitats

8) Support endangered species protection

For more information on how you can help visit: http://www.stopextinction.org/esd.html

 

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