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Tony and the Whale

Mon, 21 Jun 2010 11:35:18 +0000

A few days ago, a young sperm whale was found dead in the Gulf of Mexico. The official cause of death has yet to be determined, but it is likely that the enormous quantity of oil pouring into the Gulf from the BP Horizon rig is the culprit. As the news of this finding was first being reported, BP CEO Tony Hayward was testifying before Congress, desperately ducking questions and ducking responsibility for his company's negligence. The whale's death puts the population of sperm whales that live in the Gulf at risk of extinction. US government scientists have estimated that the loss of as few as three adult whales due to the spill might be enough to cause them to die out in the Gulf of Mexico. Sperm whales produce only one calf every five years. Their slow rate of maturity and their low birth rate make them particularly vulnerable to things like oil spills - or commercial whaling, which nearly wiped out the entire species before the moratorium took effect in 1986. Sperm whales are one of the most remarkable creatures with whom we share our planet, longer than a school bus and as heavy as three African elephants. Unlike humpbacks, bowheads, and other baleen whales that use leathery strips to filter krill and plankton, sperm whales have dozens of large conical teeth. Famously, sperm whales have been known to dive down to depths of greater than a mile in pursuit of giant squid, a favorite food. (Allow me to take off my scientist hat for a moment to say this: anything that can dive to the bottom of the ocean to fight giant squid in the DARK is pretty badass!) But even sperm whales may turn out to be no match for the nightmare Tony has wrought in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite what President Obama and Tony assure us, they will not be able to recover very much of the oil. They will not be able to make the Gulf better than new. Islands will disappear, toxic oil and dispersants will enter the food chain, coastal businesses will go bankrupt, and species may be lost. All of this points to two urgent truths: 1. We must keep the pressure on BP and the government to do all that is humanly possible to mitigate the impacts of this disaster, and give sperm whales and other species a fighting chance. 2. We have to learn from this. Rhetoric and theater are no substitute for action. I don't want to hear another politician tell me anything about energy independence, green jobs, or clean, renewable technology. SHOW ME SOMETHING. Ban offshore drilling. Improve the safety of existing rigs, at the same time we begin to phase them out completely. Increase fuel efficiency of cars. Cap greenhouse pollution. Or retire from business and politics, and let new leaders take over. Leaders that work for all of us, including the sperm whales, and not for Tony and the other Big Oil CEOs. For the oceans, John H



As the hermit crabs go, so goes the Gulf

Mon, 14 Jun 2010 14:09:30 +0000

Greetings from Grand Isle, Louisiana, one of the growing number of places unlucky enough to win a "heavily oiled" classification on the government maps tracking the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite BP's efforts to keep it under wraps, we're here to document the impacts of the spill. The public has a right - and a responsibility - to know the true cost of our continued reliance on offshore oil, and fossil fuels in general. Yesterday we saw part of the evidence of that cost. Walking through Grand Isle State Park, we came across a tidal flat that was littered with tens of thousands of dead hermit crabs. It was a depressing scene, and took me all the way back to my first visit to the beach, over 35 years ago, when discovering hermit crabs at Rocky Neck State Park in Connecticut helped inspire a life-long love of the ocean. Now, I realize it can seem a little odd to wax poetically about hermit crabs when we're talking about the biggest environmental disaster in North American history. As John Stewart pointed out on the Daily Show, entire communities along the Gulf Coast are reeling right now, and many species - sea birds, turtles, and even a population of sperm whales - are being pushed to the brink of extinction. Why should anyone care about a few hermit crabs? The problem is that it's all connected. Hermit crabs may not be quite as cute as sea turtles or as strikingly beautiful as roseate spoonbills, but they are a bellwether for the health of the Gulf of Mexico. Hermit crabs stay largely out of site, eking out a living in sandy and marshy sand and mud. When the sediment fills up with oil, so do the shells of the hermit crabs, and they suffocate. So if all the hermit crabs on a beach die, it's pretty safe to say that the entire top layer of sand is full of oil - and no longer able to sustain life other than bacteria. And it doesn't stop there, because hermit crabs are an important part of marine food webs, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico. Shore birds like spoonbills, egrets, and herons feed heavily on hermit crabs, and so do nurse sharks, flounders, and many other types of fish. Whether they feed on oiled hermit crabs and are poisoned by the toxic mix of oil and chemical dispersants or go hungry because large portions of their food supply have succumbed to this disaster, the impacts of the hermit crab die off we saw last night don't end with the hermit crabs. The true cost of oil doesn't end at the gaspump. For the oceans, John Hocevar



Dead Dolphin Murder Mystery

Mon, 17 May 2010 20:45:13 +0000

Reports are trickling in about an increasing number of dolphins and sea turtles washing up dead on the Gulf of Mexico coast. We are starting to see oil-covered seabirds, bringing back memories of the terrible photos from the Exxon Valdez spill. There were even rumors this week, as yet unconfirmed, of several dead sperm whales. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. No one seems to know for sure how much oil has been spilled, but the estimates keep increasing. Some scientists are now saying that the equivalent of two Valdez spills per week is gushing into the Gulf right now. So far, most of the oil has remained below the surface, offshore, and out of sight - and so have the impacts to marine life.Part of the problem with assessing what the spill is doing to Gulf species has been a lack of transparency by those doing the assessing. BP has hired contractors to test dead animals, but what we've seen from them so far has been a bit dubious. When contractors tell the media that the number of dead dolphins is no cause for alarm, or that there is no link to the spill, it doesn't exactly instill confidence. NOAA is the federal agency we would expect to lead this, and it is good to see that they are taking a larger role now. Unfortunately, before even preliminary analysis has been shared about whether use of toxic chemical dispersants is compounding the threat to marine life, the Environmental Protection Agency has just approved their use at depth. No one knows the impact this will have on the Gulf ecosystem, but it will keep more of those impacts out of sight - and at least for now, that is enough for BP and the Obama Administration.But not for us.



Onward!

Mon, 29 Jun 2009 20:35:38 +0000

We spent the last week patrolling the waters of the Mediterranean for illegal driftnetters. The good news is that for the first time, we didn't find any. (No pirates is good pirates!) Weather was probably a factor, as it was often a bit rough for them to be able to operate. There's also the Greenpeace Factor - word gets around that we are out looking, so pirate fishermen know their chances of getting away with it are pretty slim - they may just decide not to go fishing. While these were undoubtedly part of the reason why we didn't come across any illegal driftnetters in a week of searching, an even better explanation is that the increased controls we have fought for and won in recent years are starting to take effect. Even Italy, which appeared ready to flaunt the drift net ban, reversed their position the day our search began.This echoed our findings from the previous week, where for the first time in years we encountered no blatantly illegal bluefin fishing. We did see military ships inspecting fishing boats, even sending divers down to look at tuna cages. There are still some loopholes in the regulations that enable people to cheat. However, Raul Romeva, a member of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee, was on board with us to see firsthand what is going on. Romeva has been instrumental in writing many of the recent regulations, so I have a feeling he will be able to use what he learned at sea with us to close some of these loopholes. Better still, it sounds like he is becoming a champion for marine reserves.Looking ahead, it is clear that controlling illegal fishing alone will not be enough to protect the Mediterranean, or to prevent the collapse of bluefin tuna. The LEGAL catch, as set by ICCAT, the organization that has failed to listen even to the advice of its own scientists, is high enough to seal the bluefin's fate.There is still time to turn things around. First, we need Monaco, the US, and others to ban illegal trade in critically endangered bluefin until the population can recover. This can happen next year, at the meeting of parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Then, we need countries throughout the region to work together to establish fully protected marine reserves. Bluefin spawning areas are a good place to start - in the Med as well as the Gulf of Mexico.I leave the ship in the morning. I'm going to miss everyone on board, but I made some new friends that I know I'll keep in touch with for a long time to come. I'll also miss the ship, and this big blue sea, but it makes it easier knowing that the Rainbow Warrior will be defending the Mediterranean long after I'm gone. For the Oceans - John Hocevar and the team aboard the Rainbow Warrior



Shifting Gears

Thu, 25 Jun 2009 14:34:32 +0000

After a long campaign, the United Nations banned “wall of death” driftnets in 1992. Stretching up to 50 miles, these floating nets were notoriously indiscriminate, snaring enormous amounts of marine life. The Japanese squid fishery alone was estimated to take over 41 million non-target fish, sharks, sea birds, marine mammals and sea turtles each year. Following the UN's ban on high seas drift nets, the European Union reinforced the move by banning their use in EU waters, and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas further extended the ban to the whole Mediterranean.Unfortunately, several countries are not respecting the ban. Italy is probably the worst offender, with a large fleet of driftnetters operating in the Sicilian Channel, Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas. The Italian Government has taken some small steps to limit driftnetting, but in general they have chosen to look the other way. We just got some good news, though. After protests by Greenpeace and WWF, Italy just suspended their previous decree that Italian driftnetters would be allowed to operate up to 40 miles from the coast, which would have been in violation of international law. Hard fought victories like the driftnet ban must be defended, so the Rainbow Warrior is patrolling the central Mediterranean to gather evidence on illegal activity, to be submitted to relevant authorities. The fishing season for bluefin tuna fishing has ended, and now the illegal driftnet season is in full swing. Driftnetters target swordfish during their June/July spawning season, but the nets catch anything in their path - including bluefin. They operate at night, during the new moon, to make it difficult for fish to see the nets. This is necessary because swordfish have highly developed eyes, aided by an exceptionally high density of blood vessels. Swordfish are able to see far better in low light conditions than humans, to assist them in hunting for prey.We are now in our target area, with what looks like a driftnet boat on our radar. We're going in for a closer look, and will continue to patrol throughout the night. Our eyes may not work as well as swordfish, but hey, that's why we've got binoculars.For the oceans,John Hocevar and the crew aboard the Rainbow Warrior