More than 100 manatees have died this year from exposure to the toxic red tide that shows no sign of abating. Two research institutions got a federal grant to study how to improve treatment of the sea mammals, which moved from the endangered to threatened species list two years ago.
Scientists are looking for better ways to treat manatees exposed to the toxic red tide that has killed fish, turtles and sea mammals — including 103 manatees — along Florida’s Gulf Coast this year.
The manatee, also called a sea cow, moved from the endangered species to threatened species list two years ago. The hope is to keep them from falling back into endangered status, researchers said.
Florida International University and Mote Marine Laboratory have a $428,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ECOHAB program, to study if antioxidants would work better than the current treatment using anti-inflammatory substances.
The current bloom of Karenia brevis — the microscopic algae causing the Florida red tide — is the worst the state has seen since 2005. Red tide toxins can compromise a manatee’s immune system, causing oxidative stress that leaves the animal vulnerable to illness.
Green and red tides sometimes occur in New Jersey waters, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. They are caused by excessive growth of single-celled plants in coastal waters. Those that affect New Jersey are different from Karenia brevis, which is common in warmer Gulf of Mexico waters.
“New Jersey has experienced chronic red tide blooms over many years, with green tide organisms appearing less frequently,” said the DEP’s Final Report of the New Jersey State Comparative Risk Project on Green and Red Tides. “Blooms are associated with reduced oxygen levels in the water, shellfish mortality and fish kills.”
They also have caused moderate discomfort and illness in humans, the report said.
Red tide is to blame for 10 percent of manatee deaths over the last 10 years. During bloom years, that number jumped to 30 percent. More than 575 manatees have already died this year including 103 suspected or confirmed red tide cases, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This surpasses the year-long total of 538 from 2017.
“The current approach is simply to give palliative care and wait for them to clear the toxin and get better,” said FIU chemist Kathleen Rein, who is leading the research team along with Mote marine immunology expert Cathy Walsh. “This new treatment could accelerate the healing process.”
If successful, it could be used with many other animals including dolphins, turtles and birds, she said.
“The need for better treatment is underscored by the current, long-lasting bloom of Florida red tide and its intense impacts on Florida manatees,” Walsh said.
Seven Florida counties are currently in a state of emergency with no predictions on how long the current red tide bloom will last, according to FIU and Mote.
The Sept. 5 report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the bloom persists along 120 miles of southwest Florida coastline, but the recent visit by Hurricane Gordon may have helped to dissipate and lessen the concentration in some counties.
It’s not exactly as vegetarian as Finding Nemo‘s Bruce, but this grass-eating shark could come close to taking the “fish are friends, not food” pledge.
Researchers claim they’ve identified the world’s first known omnivorous shark, which eats both underwater animals and plants.
In a new study published by researchers at the University of California-Irvine and Florida International University, the bonnethead shark, which dwells in seagrass meadows off the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, was found to be not solely carnivorous, as previously thought — it’s been sighted having a good nom on that seagrass on multiple occasions.
Although co-authors Samantha Leigh, Yannis Papastamatiou, and Donovan German presented their findings on the shark’s unusual seagrass-eating habits at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology’s annual meeting in January, the newly published study states that this is the “first species of shark ever to be shown to have an omnivorous digestive strategy,” the authors wrote.
Scientists have long known that bonnethead sharks have snacked on seagrass, they just weren’t quite sure whether it passed through their digestive system unabsorbed, gobbled up as a side effect of grazing for other fish. Now, knowing the sharks do absorb nutrients from the seagrass, the researchers have concluded that the sharks are, in fact, omnivorous.
The study, titled “Seagrass digestion by a notorious ‘carnivore,'” was published in August in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Through digestive system analysis (yeah, not pretty research), the sharks’ guts were found to contain up to 60 percent plant matter, with a few crustaceans and mollusks in the mix.
The researchers also found special enzymes that allow the shark to digest the seagrass effectively; according to the study, bonnethead sharks are actually better at digesting plant material than pandas. Take that, pandas.
So, why should you care about a grass-loving shark? According to the study, the effect of omnivores on the stability of an ecosystem has been debated by researchers, with these particular researchers suggesting that omnivorous predators in marine systems have the capacity to significantly impact the surrounding food chain.
In this case, the ecosystem in question is the seagrass meadows which the bonnetheads enjoy, alongside thousands of species of fish. The sheer numbers of the sharks (approximately 4.9 million individuals) means their impact is significant.
“Understanding how the consumption and digestion habits of bonnethead sharks impacts seagrass ecosystems is important as these omnivores may stabilize food web dynamics and even play a role in nutrient redistribution and transport,” the study reads.
“This is critical to effectively formulating conservation efforts.”
The full impact is still yet to be analyzed, but this research is a good start. Plus, I bet you’re looking at sharks differently now, not as mindless, meat-eating machines.
Exclusive: Marine Park Authority scaled back surveys in 2017, when mass bleaching occurred in successive years for first time
The Australian government-funded Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority drastically scaled back surveys of coral bleaching in the middle of an unprecedented two-year marine heatwave, as its monitoring program almost ran out of money.
The authority’s field management program conducted more than 660 in-water surveys of reefs in 2016, during the first of two consecutive mass bleaching events. The program’s annual report said those surveys “played a key role in determining the extent of mortality caused”.
In 2017, when mass bleaching and coral deaths occurred in successive years for the first time, the survey work was largely stopped.
The authority conducted only “opportunistic” studies in 2017 and instead relied mainly on aerial surveys conducted by other well-regarded research bodies.
Government spending on the Great Barrier Reef remains under scrutiny.
When the government announced the grant to the foundation, it also allocated $42.7m over six years to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) joint field management program, which monitors the extent of bleaching events, among other work.
GBRMPA released a comprehensive glossy report on the 2016 bleaching event in June last year, based on the 663 in-water reef health and impact surveys conducted by the field management program, and supplemented by other research.
A similar report on the 2017 event has been promised, but not yet released.
The authority told Guardian Australia it is a “management agency”, not a research body, and that it regularly works with other experts and uses external studies. It is understood the authority used to perform more research, but shed some scientific staff prior to the 2016 bleaching.
Within the scientific community, data from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, GBRMPA and others is regularly shared to allow researchers to gain a more significant picture of events.
The authority said in a statement it conducted an aerial survey, in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, in early March 2017 to confirm anecdotal reports of a second wave of mass bleaching.
“From there, the Marine Park Authority worked with its network of research partners and citizen scientists to provide further information on the location and extent of bleaching.”
The authority said its staff accompanied other researchers as they carried out surveys and studies in 2017.
“As we were able to source credible and accurate information from others, our attention in 2017 turned to looking at what management actions can be done to improve reef resilience.”
The statement, which addressed the reasons why monitoring was wound back in 2017, did not mention funding pressures.
The Australian Academy of Science, in a submission to the Senate inquiry, said that in the aftermath of back-to-back coral bleaching and mass mortality events, it was “concerned with the direction of attention away from curbing the escalation of the major stressors on the reef in favour of small-scale restoration projects such as underwater fans, coral sunscreen and coral gardens”.
“The academy is also concerned about the redirection of funding from experienced and well-established commonwealth agencies such as the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the CSIRO, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, in favour of a nongovernmental organisation.”
One breath is all it takes for these divers to explore coastal depths
David Pate ·
The Halifax Freediving Club was formed just a few months ago but already there’s a core group of regular divers. (Submitted by Nicolas Winkler)
A group of divers wades into the clear ocean of Bear Cove, on the approaches to Halifax harbour.
They wear wetsuits and carry fins, weights and masks. They plan on diving to the seaweed-covered rocks 15 metres below.
It’s a popular dive site, but one thing appears to be missing: these divers have no tanks of air strapped to their backs. They are freedivers.
The only air they bring with them is what they can pack into their lungs using special breathing techniques. When they duck-dive below the swell, they are holding their breath. Gone for one, two, three minutes before resurfacing. This is a short dive.
“On a static breath hold, I can do five minutes,” says Nicolas Winkler, a freediving instructor and member of the new Halifax Freediving Club.
The freedivers plunge into the water without air tanks and hold their breath for as long as they can.(Submitted by Nicolas Winkler)
Freediving has been around for thousands of years. People living in oceanside communities all over the world learned to dive to remarkable depths to find pearls and sponges and to salvage goods from wrecks. But today’s freedivers go far deeper, and for much longer.
The organized sport is new to Nova Scotia. The Halifax Freediving Club was formed just a few months ago but already there’s a core group of regular divers, thanks in part to the training courses organized by Winkler. The key to all is to learn breath control.
“To pass the course, you have to do a minute and a half, but we could easily get you two and a half minutes,” he says.
There are four divers in the ocean this evening. One of them is Annie MacKintosh. Originally from Alberta, she now lives in Halifax and she is most at home in the ocean.
MacKintosh loves the simplicity of freediving, but she has a competitive side. And in a sport where records can be set, it’s good to be there at the beginning, when the field is less crowded.
“There are no provincial records in Nova Scotia set by women, so pretty much every time I go dive I set a new record,” she says.
The record for the deepest freedive is 253 metres. (Submitted by Nicolas Winkler)
Some of those records are remarkable. They are also complicated, for people not involved in the sport. There are different disciplines dealing with depth, how people get to that depth — whether swimming or using weights — and breath-holding records for just sitting underwater, or while swimming, or after saturating your lungs with pure oxygen.
The deepest depth reached is 253 metres. The record for staying underwater on a single breath is just shy of 12 minutes, and after breathing oxygen before heading underwater, one man stayed there for more than 24 minutes.
The Halifax freedivers are a long way from those records, but that’s not what sends them underwater.
“It’s relaxing, you don’t think about anything else,” says Jared Cloutier, president of the Halifax Freediving Club. “You’re not thinking about work, you’re not thinking about next week’s exam or project, or any of that stuff. You’re just focused on what you’re doing right now.”
The record for staying underwater on a single breath is just shy of 12 minutes. (Submitted by Nicolas Winkler)
While there have been individual freedivers in the province for years, the creation of the Halifax club shows the growing interest in the sport.
Gear designed specifically for freedivers, from extra-long fins to special masks, is now being sold in dive stores that used to focus entirely on scuba gear. And formal training courses are encouraging people to try a sport that can seem intimidating.
“The human body’s pretty incredible,” says Cloutier. “There’s the mammalian reflex, which is what allows everybody to hold their breath a lot longer than they think they can.”
That reflex, a holdover from our evolutionary past, is more obviously developed in aquatic mammals like dolphins and seals.
The reflex is triggered when our faces are submerged in water, slowing the heart rate and sending more blood to our lungs to stop them collapsing under pressure. Relearning how to use that ancient instinct is what allows freedivers to stay underwater for so long.
“Understanding that helps one get over the mental barriers,” says Winkler. “There are mental techniques that one can learn to focus the mind, to distract ourselves from contractions of the chest that gives us the urge to breathe.”
Freedivers say that urge is worth overcoming, to enjoy the silence of the ocean and the freedom to explore without bulky equipment — for as long as a breath lasts.
Whale sharks don’t need help being spectacular. The world’s biggest fish is impressive in nearly every aspect, growing as long as 12 meters (40 feet) and weighing up to 21 tons.
A new study in the journal Endangered Species Research used photo-identification techniques based on the sharks’ distinctive spots to discover a new hotspot for juvenile whale sharks around the tiny island of Nosy Be, in northwest Madagascar.
This is a rare bit of good news for a species that, like many other sharks, is struggling to survive in oceans increasingly subject to the negative impacts of human activity.
Whale sharks don’t need help being spectacular. The world’s biggest fish is impressive in nearly every aspect, growing as long as 12 meters (40 feet) and weighing up to 21 tons. Their enormous mouths contain thousands of teeth, and their backs feature constellations of white spots that make them look like gliding, underwater solar systems. As a result, whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are known as marokintana in Madagascar, meaning “many stars.”
But in addition to their beauty, whale shark spots have also proven vital to researchers. A new study in the journal Endangered Species Research used photo-identification techniques based on the sharks’ distinctive spots to discover a new hotspot for juvenile whale sharks around the tiny island of Nosy Be, in northwest Madagascar.
“No one thought there were that many [whale] sharks,” Stella Diamant, lead author of the study and founder of the Madagascar Whale Shark Project, told the BBC.
This is a rare bit of good news for a species that, like many other sharks, is struggling to survive in oceans increasingly subject to the negative impacts of human activity. The IUCN Red List categorizes whale sharks as endangered, with experts reporting a 63 percent decline in the species’ population over the last 75 years in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The main threats to whale sharks include overfishing, boat collisions and death as bycatch.
Teenage stag party
The study identified 85 whale sharks in one season in 2016, from September to December, off Nosy Be. Diamant says that over three seasons, from 2015 to 2017, her team observed 240 of the animals.
These numbers are significantly higher than reported figures from other coastal areas surrounding the African continent known for whale sharks. These individuals also represent only those animals successfully observed. Despite being the size of school buses and weighing up to three times an African elephant, whale sharks can be surprisingly elusive.
“There may also have been up to another hundred more sharks not observed,” Diamant tells Mongabay.
Interestingly, all of the sharks were juveniles of no more than 10 meters (33 feet) in length. They were also nearly all male: only 16 of the identified sharks were female, about 18 percent of those observed. This disproportionality in sex and the predominance of juveniles is not uncommon in whale shark sightings and holds true for many other known whale shark areas.
Diamant says researchers have yet to discover a whale shark area where juvenile females outnumber males.
She adds that while “the reasons are still unknown” for the segregation between males and females, it is “probably due to different energetic needs for each sex.”
The researchers think that the popularity of Nosy Be as a seasonal habitat for the juveniles relates to high prey availability in the fertile, plankton-rich waters surrounding the island.
“Juveniles need higher energetic intake because they are growing and they come to the coast where there are these plankton blooms,” Diamant says.
As well as plankton, whale sharks feed on small fish. In fact, researchers found the sharks around Nosy Be were often in the presence of schools of mackerel tuna feeding in the area, pointing to a potential connection between the whale sharks and the tuna.
“Baitfish often hide behind the whale shark, which helps the tunas and also gives the tunas a place to hide if other predators are around,” says Simon Pierce, a co-author of the paper and principal scientist at the Marine Megafauna Foundation. “We also think that there might be sound detection involved on the part of the whale shark, so hearing the tunas jumping might help the whale shark locate the baitfish.”
Although the details of this potential relationship between the whale shark and the mackerel tuna are lacking, Pierce and his team aim to explore it further later this year. Such research may be important not only for understanding whale shark ecology and behavior, but also for future conservation efforts.
Tourism potential and problems
While the research published by Diamant and her colleagues represents the world’s first study of whale shark populations in Madagascar, hints of a growing whale shark presence existed previously. Beginning in the early 2000s, fishermen, tour operators and NGOs all reported whale sharks sightings. In 2011, an ecotourism industry focusing on the whale shark began in Nosy Be, offering tourists the chance to swim alongside the gentle giants.
“It’s incredibly humbling … your mind is completely empty, but in a good way,” Diamant says of swimming with whales sharks.
While an important source of revenue to the region, a rising tourist industry also presents risks. Tourist vessels will go very close to the sharks, operators allow tourists to touch the sharks, and some even offer an experience where clients can “ride” the whale sharks by grabbing onto the fin or body as they move through the water.
“It clearly bothers them and affects their behavior,” Diamant says of both the touching and the riding. The latter activity is also potentially life-threatening for the tourists.
“[The shark] might dive deep and [the tourist] won’t be able to hold [their] breath long enough,” Diamant says.
It is not only irresponsible tour operators or misinformed tourists who engage in this behavior, but also “experienced free divers/spear fishers who just do it for the fun,” Diamant adds.
In response to this and other forms of misconduct, the Madagascar Whale Shark Project has created a voluntary code of conduct outlining appropriate guidelines for tour operators. Some of their suggestions include limiting interactions to one boat per shark with a minimum distance of 25 meters (82 feet) and time limit of one hour, as well as maintaining a distance of 3 meters (10 feet) between swimmers and sharks.
While Diamant says the code has had positive results so far, its voluntary nature and the lack of legal regulations regarding whale shark tourism in Madagascar mean that not all operators comply.
A whole new world
Whale sharks are not the only magnificent creatures attracting tourists to the waters of Madagascar; the region is also home to manta rays, devil rays, bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles, and a diverse array of coral, many of which are also globally endangered.
It even boasts a new species of whale. In 2011, researchers made the first observation of Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai), a species of baleen whale, in Madagascar. Described in 2003, the elusive Omura’s whale is unusual in that, unlike most whales, it doesn’t migrate, preferring to stay in one place. Even stranger is its preference for the tropics: tropical waters do not offer an abundance of food supplies like colder waters. The slender and streamlined Omura’s whale sings a low, repetitive hum for hours on end, occasionally swelling into a chorus of multiple whale voices, potentially in an effort to woo females.
Many of these charismatic animals, and the waters they live in, remain unprotected, and whale sharks are no exception. Although there are two marine protected areas close to Nosy Be, no protective measures are in place for the sharks in the majority of their range.
Last year, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals listed whale sharks under Appendix I. This compels Madagascar, and other signatories, to prohibit hunting of the species except under very limited circumstances, as well as to establish other conservation measures. Still, researchers in Madagascar report recent records of both whale sharks and dolphins killed as bycatch. The species are particularly vulnerable to gillnets, large vertical “walls” of net designed to entangle massive numbers of fish by the gills.
Diamant and her co-authors suggest a restriction in gillnet use in areas associated with the whale shark. They also recommend keeping a close eye on the schools of tuna as a result of the observed, but not yet understood, connection between the two species.
While Diamant says “a marine reserve would be amazing,” any conservation measures must “benefit and empower local people as well.” Madagascar is considered one of the poorest nations in the world, with a majority of citizens living in extreme poverty.
Even as scientists discover new populations, the whale sharks’ conservation is undercut by unanswered questions. One in particular haunts Diamant.
“The main thing is: where do they go to mate?” she says. If we knew the answer, she says, “we can protect these areas and at least safeguard another generation of whale shark.”
For thousands of years — perhaps hundreds of thousands — a sizable coral reef has stretched across the seafloor in the Atlantic Ocean, near the southeastern part of the U.S. And its existence remained a well-hidden secret until a recent deep-sea expedition brought the thriving ecosystem to light.
Scientists on board the research vessel (RV) Atlantis discovered the reef last week, about 160 miles (257 kilometers) off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, the HuffPost reported. Cameras on a submersible deployed from Atlanis — the human-operated vehicle (HOV) Alvin — captured the unexpected sight of dense, cold-water coral populations seeding the sea bottom about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) below the ocean surface.
The site was covered with living corals — “just mountains of it” — growing atop the massive, skeletal remains of dead corals that had likely been inhabiting the area for millennia, expedition lead scientist Erik Cordes, an associate professor in the Department of Biology at Temple University in Philadelphia, told the HuffPost. [In Photos: Diving in a Twilight Coral Reef]
Scientists used Alvin to explore the reef and collect coral samples during dives on Aug. 23 and Aug. 24, according to the HuffPost. The researchers discovered copious amounts of Lophelia pertusa, a branching, whitish coral that prefers cold waters and that has previously been found growing at record depths in the Gulf of Mexico.
While tropical corals typically rely on symbiotic algae to survive, L. pertusadoes not, and it uses stinging tentacles to stun its prey and guide food into its stomach, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Corals detected by the Atlantis were found about 16 miles (26 km) to the northwest of corals found earlier this summer by the NOAA RV Okeanos Explorer, which was mapping hundreds of seamounts on the ocean floor, HuffPost reported. Together, the coral-covered area explored by Okeanos and the Atlantis extends for an estimated 85 miles (137 km), layered with enormous, rocky piles of dead coral that likely accumulated over many thousands of years, Cordes told HuffPost.
The RV Atlantis embarked on its 15-day expedition on Aug. 19, part of a 4.5-year collaborative project known as the Deep Sea Exploration and Research of Coral/Canyon/Cold seep Habitats (Deep SEARCH), according to the mission website.
Until Sept. 2, scientists on the Atlantis will explore deep-sea habitats near the southeastern coastal U.S. They will collect critical data on the distribution of ecosystems and wildlife of the sea bottom in order to more accurately predict how these fragile communities could be disrupted by human activity, NOAA reported on the Deep SEARCH website.
For juvenile whale sharks—or at least to a few which scientists were able to observe—the Sulu and Bohol Seas and the waters in between are important feeding grounds.
A globally endangered species, the behavior of whale sharks, locally called butanding, largely remains a mystery.
Scientists studying their behavior continue to work to demystify these gentle giants, even as governments have recently agreed to step up the effort to protect and conserve them.
The Philippines is known to promote whale shark interaction as a tourist attraction, particularly in Donsol in Sorsogon and Oslob in Cebu, where the largest congregation of whale sharks have been observed in the past.
The authors of the study, entitled “Satellite tracking of juvenile whale sharks in the Sulu and Bohol Seas, Philippines,” include Gonzalo Araujo, Sally Snow, the executive directors of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (Lamave) and Chris Rohner and Simon Pierce of the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF).
Last month scientists from Lamave, MMF and Tubbataha Mangement Office announced the result of a scientific study on satellite-tagging whale sharks in the Philippines.
Lamave is the largest independent nonprofit, nongovernment organization solely dedicated to the conservation of marine megafauna and their habitats in the Philippines.
The study, published in the journal PeerJ, was the most complete tracking study of whale sharks in the Philippines to date, with satellite tags deployed on individuals in multiple sites.
The study has contributed to what is currently known about whale sharks in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. It shows that the Philippines is an incredibly important area for juvenile whale sharks.
But the proponents of the study said more research is needed to understand the location and movements of adult whale sharks.
Whale shark hot spot
An important hot spot for whale sharks, the Philippines hosts the third-largest known population of whale sharks.
While the species has been protected in the Philippines since 1998, globally it was uplisted in 2016 to “endangered to extinction” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
The reason: population decline of more than 50 percent largely caused by continued exploitation in the Indo-Pacific area, the proponents of the paper said in a July 24 statement to the press.
In Southeast Asia concerns remain due to continued fishing in regional waters.
The proponents of the study believe that understanding the movements of whale sharks in the Philippines is vital if we are to identify conservation priorities for the species.
Spot5 satellite tags
In the study, 17 whale sharks were tagged with Wildlife Computers Spot5, or the French Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre (Satellite for the Observation of Earth) tags in three different locations in the Philippines: Panaon Island (Southern Leyte), Northern Mindanao (Misamis Oriental and Surigao del Norte) and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Palawan). Tagging took place between April 2015 and April 2016.
All tagged whale sharks were juveniles, ranging in size between 4.5 meters to 7 meters; 73 percent of them were male.
“By attaching Spot5 satellite tags to the sharks, the team was able to follow the movements of juvenile whale sharks in near real time. The tags work by communicating with passing Argos [Advanced Research and Global Observation Satellite], transmitting a location when the wet/dry sensor is triggered when a tagged whale shark breaks the surface,” the study said.
Transmission tags were tethered to a whale shark by a 1.8-meter line.
The tracks from the tags revealed that all whale sharks stayed within the Philippines over the tracking period, emphasizing the importance of the archipelago for the species, the study revealed.
The longest track observed was from a whale shark originally tagged in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, which appeared to swim through the Sulu and Bohol Seas and into the Pacific, a journey accumulating over 2,500 km in length.
“While whale sharks are not known for their speed, results revealed that one individual whale shark was averaging 47 km a day, further emphasizing the species’ mobile tendencies,” the study added.
Araujo, the lead author of the paper, explained: “This research highlights the high mobility of whale sharks, even juveniles, and the need for broader-scale management and conservation plans for this endangered species.”
So far, dedicated research by Lamave and citizen scientists has identified over 600 whale sharks in the Sulu and Bohol Seas, yet the proximity of this population to fisheries in the broader region (South China Sea) means it is vital to monitor this population as a whole to understand if this population is in recovery or continuing to decline.
“Identifying threats and mitigation strategies is a conservation priority for the species. Lamave continues to study whale sharks in five key areas in the Philippines, working with local and national governments, as well as collaborating organizations to develop conservation strategies for this iconic species,” he said.
Further study needed
In an e-mailed response to the BusinessMirror, Snow, one of the study proponents, said further study of the behavior of whale sharks is needed.
They admitted that because the study was for a limited time only with the tags having attached for a short period, they cannot say for sure whether the observed whale sharks would stay in Philippine waters.
However, they suggested that since the Philippines is an important feeding area for whale sharks, with rich upwellings of food, the juvenile sharks found near the coast often aggregate to feed and the sharks’ movements may be between feeding sites.
The normal behavior of a whale shark remains unknown because of the limited study conducted about them. Studies should cover the entire life cycle of the species if to be able to really know what is a “normal behavior” of the species, the study proponents said.
They said it is also inconclusive to say that feeding the observed areas is part of their so-called normal behavior of the species
“Scientists are still trying to answer many questions about whale sharks, including where they reproduce, where they give birth and how far they travel,” they said in the press statement.
However, different studies have shown that some whale sharks have swum between international borders, while others have found that some have stayed within one region.
However, this information was limited to the time the sharks are tagged and only gave the scientists an insight into their behavior during that time of six months, and not for their entire life.
“For this reason, we can’t really call it ‘normal behavior’ as we are still investigating what normal behavior is,” they said.
In search for food
They added, however, that whale sharks may be making large-scale movements in search for food, or in the case of the adults, they could also be moving to different areas to reproduce.
Scientists are still investigating the answer to the questions on the behavior of this mysterious species.
As the study only recorded the movements of some individuals for a limited period, the proponents of the study could not ascertain how long the whale sharks stay in the Philippines.
Besides, they said a lack of baseline data for comparison prevents them from making a conclusion.
“What we found out was that the juvenile whale sharks we tagged for this study, stayed within Philippine waters. So at least for these individuals at this stage of their life, the Philippine waters are important,” they said.
What makes the Philippine waters unique?
The Philippines lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the global center of marine biodiversity. It is an incredibly important area for marine life and hosts a huge number of species, including the whale shark.
‘Butanding’ conservation leader
Since whale sharks have been protected in the Philippines since 1998, the proponents of the study believe that the Philippines is already a leader in whale shark conservation.
“The biggest threat lies outside Philippine boundaries where whale sharks are not protected. The findings from this study contributed to what we already knew about the butanding here and helped us create effective conservation strategies for the species, by identifying key hotspots or movement corridors,” they said.
Further research, they reiterated, is needed to investigate if whale sharks move outside the country’s boundaries. Such information will be a key to creating better international protection.
More protection needed
As the whale shark is protected, the best way people can ensure they contribute to the shark’s protection is by supporting sustainable whale shark-tourism initiatives, which have strict guidelines and interact with the sharks in the natural environment.
Another way is by keeping the oceans clean by reducing plastic use and engaging in cleanup activities, adding that marine life needs healthy oceans.
More important, to help protect the whale shark, various stakeholders should report any whale shark stranding or incidents with fishing gear to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and concerned local government units “so teams can ensure the safe return of the animal to the sea.”
More than 30 times this year, the federal government has received reports of whales tangled in fishing gear along the West Coast.
Sometimes the whales manage to wriggle free. Other times you see heart-rending pictures on the news or a rescue mission.
The culprit often involves Dungeness crab pot lines. Now Oregon crabbers are working with marine scientists to make the seas safer for whales and to avoid a black mark on their brand.
Bob Eder has fished commercially out of Newport, Oregon, for decades.
“Over 45 years of pulling crab pots — I think I’ve probably hauled in close to a million — I’ve never encountered an entangled whale,” he said.
‘We want to be proactive’
Eder often sees whales at sea and recognizes just one bad outcome blamed on fishing gear could be all it takes to cause a PR nightmare.
Whale numbers are up, but so are sightings of humpback whales, gray whales and the odd blue whale entangled in fishing lines and buoys — especially in California.
“We want to get out ahead of it. We want to be proactive,” Eder said. “We don’t want to be sued by the Center for Biological Diversity. We want to see what we can do to mitigate the situation.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is an environmental group and it did just sue the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The group wants a federal judge to order the state regulator to make crab fishermen do more to avoid harm to endangered whales.
Crab traps themselves are not the problem, but rather the heavy-duty ropes stretching from the seafloor to one or more buoys at the surface.
Whales can snag a fin or a tail and get all tangled up if there’s too much slack in the vertical line or excess floating on the surface.
“They normally don’t come in where our gear is,” said Hugh Link, executive director of Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “But when we get warmer water and the feed comes in closer to shore, then we have an issue.”
Link and Eder are two members of a work group of crabbers, marine biologists and government agency and nonprofit representatives. They’ve been meeting in Oregon since March.
Members of the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group met in various coastal ports to gather info and consider fishery modifications. (Photo by Tom Banse/Northwest News Network)
A grant from NOAA Fisheries launched what is known as the Oregon Whale Entanglement Work Group, which is facilitated and now supported by Oregon Sea Grant.
Washington state crabbers and other interested parties plan to meet Nov. 8 in Montesano to hear an update on whale entanglements and discuss whether the Washington-based/the local fleet should launch a proactive work group too.
The work group agreed to distribute a flyer to crab boat operators ahead of the season opener next month with best practices for setting and tending gear.
Oregon and Washington also have programs to retrieve lost or derelict fishing gear.
The work group next plans to survey the fleet about potential season modifications and area closures to keep whales away from gauntlets of ropes.
“To really take a swipe at minimizing co-occurrence between our fishing gear and the whales it may take shortening the season or shortening the amount of pots that can be fished,” Eder said. “This becomes highly controversial.”
Commercial crab fisherman Bob Eder of Newport, Oregon is part of a whale entanglement working group. (Photo by
Tom Banse/Northwest News Network)
Voluntary measures… or mandates
Those are however some of the very things the Center for Biological Diversity wants to see happen.
Oakland-based Center attorney Kristen Monsell applauds the Pacific Northwest crab fleet for trying to get out ahead of the issue.
“I think it’s great to hear that our neighbors to the north are meeting,” Monsell said. “I think if California had done so earlier — years and years ago — then we wouldn’t be seeing the number of entanglements that we’re seeing off our coast now.”
Monsell said she has no plans to expand the California lawsuit to the Oregon and Washington Dungeness crab fisheries at this time. That could change if there were an unanticipated surge in whale entanglement numbers in the Pacific Northwest.
One yellow flag for the environmental lawyers is the choice of voluntary versus mandatory whale avoidance measures.
“We don’t think voluntary measures will work,” Monsell said, because they are not always followed. The Oregon working group’s “directives” to prevent whale entanglements are merely suggestions, not requirements.
The Center for Biological Diversity has leverage because any harassment of an endangered whale constitutes an illegal “take” under federal law.
The Endangered Species Act prescribes heavy penalties for guilty parties unless NOAA Fisheries has issued an “incidental take permit” for a fishery, which it has not done for crabbers.
Blue whales and humpback whales are listed as endangered or threatened along the U.S. West Coast.
The gray whale population has rebounded such that it was removed from the threatened list in 1994.
The Dungeness crab fishery is in the focus right now because its their gear that is cut off of entangled whales most often.
The buoys have traceable numbers on them. But whales have also been sighted tangled up in gear from other fisheries, including gill nets and black cod or shrimp traps.
It’s also common for the source of the entanglement to go undetermined.
The number of West Coast whale entanglement cases successively set new records in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The pace of sightings of whales in distress in 2017 is lower than last year’s record of 71 separate cases, but still of concern.
A breakdown of this year’s whale entanglements provided by NOAA Fisheries had 32 separate cases reported through mid-October, of which 22 were listed as confirmed. As in prior years, the majority of sighting came from California waters (27 whales — 19 confirmed), with the rest from Oregon (1 unconfirmed), Washington (3 whales — 2 confirmed) and Mexican border waters (1 confirmed).
‘A risky endeavor’
Oregon State University marine mammal biologist Jim Rice manages the rescue response when a whale is reported entangled in Oregon waters.
“It has to be done very carefully,” Rice said. “Disentangling a whale is a risky endeavor. There is a great risk to personal safety and even a risk of humans getting killed in the process of trying to remove gear.”
“You can’t talk to the whale,” he continued. “It’s a wild animal. It’s programmed for survival. It may see would-be rescuers as potential threats.”
Rice remembers four instances in recent years when Oregon responders were activated to free an entangled whale.
In three of those cases, the rescuers could not find the whale.
In the final case, the entangled whale was a calf being guarded by its mother.
“They were swimming quite quickly. The line was lightly attached,” Rice said. “They basically did not slow down. The mother was not interested in letting us get too close to the calf.”
Rice does not know whether the calf survived.
Most of the time, NOAA can’t say either what eventually happened to a whale reported to be in distress because they become difficult to track at night.
A Portland-based spokesman for the NOAA Fisheries said that in only one of this year’s entanglements — near San Diego — was there strong suspicion that the whale died.
Unless an affected whale is later re-sighted free of fishing lines, the final outcomes are mostly unknown.
“I mean when you’re out there in a small boat looking for an entangled whale, you realize that it is a huge ocean and you’re in a tiny boat,” Rice said. “Your odds of finding that whale are actually really small unless you have eyes in the air looking down or you have a large vessel that has been following this whale for you.”