Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's that Time of the Year again!

Fantastic pic - bravo Lill!

This is from today's dive - click for detail.
Need I say more.

In answer to the comment by the Saffron Pimpernel: stacked bulls, tight lens - click for detail!

Chumphon Pinnacle - the Video!

Juvenile Bull Shark at Chumphon Pinnacle. Source.

This is as unequivocal as it gets!
Forget the debate: the Sharks at 02:08 ff are most certainly not Grey Reefs!

I've also perused the paper by Juerg that states
The Chumphon Pinnacle sharks are most similar in external morphology to the bull shark and the pigeye shark (Carcharhinus amboinensis). From the latter, the bull shark differs in its lower, less erect first dorsal fin and higher, more erect second dorsal fin. Furthermore, the ratio of first:second dorsal height is 3:1 or less in Carcharhinus leucas, but over 3:1 in C. amboinensis.
Case closed.

Anyway, enjoy the video - very nice!

H/T: Robin!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Is Sean Van Sommeran a Liar and a Cheat?

Marine debris - this is apparently SVS' tag

Who knows!

You may want to read this brilliant post by Patric.
It concerns this alarming report by Dr. Michael Domeier on the Marine CSI Facebook page.

I must say, I have a grudging admiration for SVS.
They guy is clearly passionate about Sharks and Shark conservation, and contrary to the petitioning Facebook warriors, he's actually out there doing stuff for which I totally respect him! But on the other hand, I totally dislike most of his opinions and especially, the way he has chosen to present them - and no I'm not gonna engage in some debate, Socratic or otherwise!

And Domeier?
I've certainly not been kind to him in the past, something I now regret. No not really in terms of the issues I have raised - but because even during the Junior controversy, the man has always come across as a true gent and because his research is just simply stellar.
Incidentally, if you ever want to talk with any authority about GWs, you simply must read the book he has edited! It contains all of the relevant peer reviewed science, and Domeier's revision of the life history of the Eastern Pacific GWs will simply blow your socks off, promise!

But this is not about those two people.
They are who they are, there is obviously a long and complicated history and they certainly appear not to like each other - so forget the stories, from the dipshit page no less, about stolen tags, Junior and Architheutis etc, they are just a symptom of that wonderful Californian GW research community and got zero incidence here.

This is about this story, and I cite.

After the massive shark was brought ashore, someone spotted the algae-covered white tag near the base of the female shark's dorsal fin. She saw Van Sommeran's contact information on the tag, then called and emailed him...
The wife of one of the fishermen - Paulina Leon - asked him about a possible reward. In the past, anglers in the area have returned transmitter tags to researchers for reward money....
After a few brief communications with the woman, Van Sommeran is still trying to get more pictures and information about the shark.

This is apparently that e-mail, posted here, c/p.

White Shark Landed off Mexico, a Rare Catch for Panga Fisherman; it may have carried ID tag from California according to reports:

2012/4/9 Paulina L.

This is Paulina, I just called you because we found one of your shark
detector, haha how do you name it?
How can I send it to you?...
you can call me back at --- --- 17 02

Note the date of that e-mail.
But the Shark was only caught one week later???

As I said, who knows.
But my money is certainly on MD!

PS: further comments by MD here.
150-odd comments on that dipshit Facebook page later, everyone is till waiting for an explanation of how a mysterious Paulina Leon could write an e-mail on April 9 about an event that happened on April 15...

South Africa - Great White Research and other Stuff!

No this time I'm not going to rant.
But I could!

I could rant about some disgruntled GW cage operators.
I could state that they didn't quite have the guts to openly take on Mr. Fischer & Mr. Boyd and that they have instead enlisted the help of some local Kraut who has quickly morphed into a monster, true to the meaning that Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim. I could also speculate that apart from having the usual inflated opinion of self, the guy may suffer from a medical condition called, obviously only in German, Querulantenwahn.

Be it as it may, several open letters and public warnings later, the genie is now out of the bag.
Prompted by the dire warnings of the Querulant and by a totally unrelated Shark strike, the surfers and water recreationists have latched on to the issue of chumming (debunked here) and I wish the cage operators the best of luck. Were I so inclined, I could state that they they will now reap what they have sown, that justifying baited Shark dives smack in front of a major town was always a stretch and that the delicate balance has now been irrevocably upset. Talk about having shot themselves in the foot!
But fear not, I shall not do that!

I could also rant about the couch farting fireman.
I could tell you he has been described to me as somebody who has done a Shark dive and now thinks he knows something about something, that his two brain dead petitions have achieved precisely zero as anticipated, and that he has gone as far as to accuse Fischer of having caused the death of several Sharks 1,500 miles away. Wow!
And I could mention the proud rolling out of his ludicrous Hartzell tag, to be placed with a pole into the center of the dorsal fin that will be inevitably shredded as soon as the gizmo will start collecting flotsam like any other trolling lure.
And it got a GPS antenna no less - I mean, seriously!
But I shall not - tho I'm still holding my sides!

And what about that Facebook group.
I could tell you how several of us blue bloggers were initially intrigued, only to be quickly dismayed by the rubbish posted there, and have stopped bothering. I could also elaborate why I believe that it represents the very worst of social media and that I consider it to be nothing more than the appalling circular echo chamber of, to cite a friend, a bunch of dipshits with an opinion and a keyboard, among which even a barlafüs da Milan who vocally demonstrates his utter scientific ignorance and lack of decorum by publicly rubbishing his peers. Soci, ma indova ta l'é truvad al tó dottor: alla Pavesi?
Notable exception: Michelle Wcisel who has taken it onto herself to gleefully, and charmingly deconstruct the deluge of stupidities posted there. Were I so inclined, I would tell her not to waste her time by engaging with morons and instead devote her energy to further researching and protecting Sharks, that Einstein was correct and that stupidity cannot be cured. PS: it sure looks like she has come to the same conclusions - kudos! :)
But as I said, I shall not do that.

I really got nothing to add there - maybe apart from the fact that I could wonder about the exact relationship between the non-for-profit OCEARCH and the for-profit Fischer Productions, and about possible US tax implications of that synergy. And I could state that I don't believe for a minute that OCEARCH will fund the next five years of GW research in SA.
But again, I shall not - and we shall see!

Leaves the local research community, and the authorities.
I could talk about the utter fiasco in terms of outreach, this by the authorities but especially, by Alison Kock and Shark Spotters. They had obviously known about the project for months and were ideally suited for engaging and informing the public about the unequivocal advantages of researching the philopatry of the South African GWs, for conservation but especially in terms of improving public safety. I could add that enlightened opinion pieces are great - but that it is more important to walk one's talk!

But I shall do none of that.
All I shall do is to invite you to read this interview with the concerned researchers. Without in any way wanting to approve of the way this has been handled, it addresses and convincingly rebuts many of the raised arguments and it finally sheds a light on the research aims.

Still, for my liking, this remains too vague.
Scientific research does not consist in slapping on some tags in order to then "see what happens". Especially in this specific case where the protocols, albeit substantially improved, are still highly invasive, it behooves the researchers to be much more specific and to explain which previously formulated hypotheses are being tested, and why the chosen invasive methods are best for achieving those specific aims.

Concerning the posting of the tracks.
There is clearly a downside to publicizing that information without simultaneously enacting supporting conservation measures. This is part of a larger ethical debate I shall be posting about soon. *Doch doch Dirk, auch ein blindes Huhn... :)

And here endeth the non-rant!

Comments policy.
This is not a chatroom.
But everybody is welcome to post a comment - this once and within the length limits dictated by Blogger, after which I shall feel free to delete whatever I wish.

* PS: post about philopatry, tracks etc here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Religions and Babies: simply epic!

Wow wow wow!
This really is as good as it gets: totally lucid, unbiased and unequivocal!
I had not heard of him before - but from now on, Hans Rosling will forever be one of my heroes.

Required watching - seriously!

And what about Fiji?
I was concerned to see the comparable PNG mentioned among the very much lesser developed countries, went digging and found the graphs: this one for PNG and this one for Fiji - and here are the predictions about absolute numbers.
So it looks that there's still quite a bit to be done.

The good news?
Religion per se is not an obstacle.
That is, provided that it adapts!

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Click for detail!

Gotta hand it to recently certified Mrinalini Sharma.
She is here to shoot 3G, a Bollywood psychological thriller where I understand that she plays a ghost, and has taken some time off to experience the Shark Dive - and she's not even afraid of posing with the infamous BAD boyz!

Well done!
Which begs the question, now that Mrinalini has paved the way, will Neil Nitin Mukesh do us the honors as announced?

Bad News from Chumphon Pinnacle!

That was then - likely a juvenile Bull Shark on Chumphon Pinnacle

Remember the pink website of Robin and Richard?

Alas, this may well be a thing of the past.
I just stumbled across this depressing blog post informing us that the Sharks have basically disappeared. I've never dived there but learn that Chumphon Pinnacle was one of the Gulf of Thailand's best dive sites, with the regular sighting of those Sharks being the big drawing card. Now the apparently still ongoing debate about the species will never be resolved - although I assert that the animals depicted are certainly not (!) Grey Reefs but very likely juvenile Bulls or alternatively, the very similar Pigeye Sharks that feature equally broad and slightly falcate first dorsal fins.

All very sad and alas, so very typical. :(
Or may it be as trivial as the Sharks having gone somewhere else due to the increased popularity and thus, the increased disturbance by divers?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Blue Whales in Sri Lanka!

Awesome image by Amos - click for detail!

This is believed to be the largest animal to have ever existed.
The Sri Lankan Whales are likely to be a sub-species, the Pygmy Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda). The Blue Whale is classified as endangered, the Pygmy is data deficient.


Friday, May 25, 2012

GoPro and Sharks!

Poor Tiger Shark!
How I hate those images - the riding and the bikini bimbette!
I was wondering what Stuart Cove may be ending up doing at TB and now I know: the usual shenanigans!
And the shooter? Take a wild guess!

But, at least there's none of the usual BS.
Nobody is claiming to be saving Sharks or to be changing perceptions, or whatever. And I must say, the images, the editing and the sound track are just simply stellar. Plus, one gets to see the brand new dive housing for the GoPro, and although I'm very happy with my toy from Backscatter, I am rather impressed! Plus, Backscatter have already unveiled their latest filter which'll turn it into a rather awesome gizmo!

Anyway, enjoy!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Diving with the big BAD Sharks!

Big BAD friendly Shark!

For all the hype about the aggressive nature of sharks I honestly can’t say I have ever seen a more graceful and elegant creature. It was a breath taking sight and one I’ll never forget.
We returned to the boat after this hearts pumping, grinning insanely. The dive surpassed all my expectations, it was an amazing experience on every level, if you ever have the opportunity don’t pass it up!
I have never felt so secure and at ease on a dive anywhere...

Thank you Laura the Explorer!
Always real nice to hear that our customers have enjoyed the experience!

That is, with notable exceptions! :)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Nuvola Fantozziana!

Scusa ma proprio non ho potuto resistere!

Ma ci manchi lo stesso! :)

Fiji - bad News for Sharks!

Brilliant! Brand new pic by the BAD Viking!

Patric is absolutely correct.
The Fiji Times has published an excellent piece about the need to protect our Sharks. Apart from the known ecological consequences of a decline in Shark population, the economic case for protecting Sharks in Fiji could not be clearer.
Fiji's thriving Shark tourism industry is generating ten times as much as the revenues from the Shark fin trade - and whereas the latter will inevitably dwindle as Fiji's Sharks are being killed, Shark tourism is completely non-extractive and likely to contribute even higher earnings in the future.

But time is running out.
Sharks are essentially a non-renewable resource and whilst Government appears to be pondering the best course of action, there are now clear indications that local stocks are already critically depleted. The article points out that fisheries data indicate that the larger animals have already been dispatched and that the coastal fishermen are now targeting the juveniles as per this recent report from Nadi.

And now this.
Following their Shark Count in April, the Mamanuca Environment Society reports that Whitetip and Blacktip numbers have crashed.
The Mamanucas are situated at the very epicenter of Fiji's tourism industry and these news could not be more alarming as this is directly threatening the ecological integrity of one of our preeminent tourism attractions. And whereas I applaud the Society for trying to educate the local fishermen, years of painful experience teach me that as long as catching and even finning Sharks remain both perfectly legal and lucrative, and people desperately poor, there will always be somebody trying to catch the last Sharks irrespective of the wishes of the community and even the Chiefs.

Then, maybe, the news may not be quite so grim.
The Mamanucas were particularly affected by the April floods, meaning that the Sharks may have reacted to the catastrophic deluge of fresh water, possibly by relocating further offshore. This at least is my hope, meaning that the next count in November may yield a less depressing picture.

Still, the need for immediate protection could not be more pressing.
Fingers crossed that the Authorities will come to the same conclusions and do the right thing real soon.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hjelp Havets Haier in Fiji!

Remember HHH, the Norwegian Shark conservation org?

Here are three of its rådgivers in front of our dive shop!
And would you believe it: Cristina, Juerg and Lill have never met, and this encounter was totally fortuitous - small world!

So here's to new friendships and brilliant sharky projects!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Manta birostris or Manta alfredi?

The two Mantas - once you know what to look for, pretty unequivocal! Click for detail.

Ever since Andrea described the second Manta, I've been looking for a user-friendly ID guide to reliably differentiate the Giant, or Pelagic Manta Manta birostris from the Reef Manta Manta alfredi. That was a major challenge when designing the posters and ID guides for the Great Fiji Shark Count where we finally decided to reference the two species and to say that holding them apart required specialist knowledge.

Well, here it is - finally!
It is hidden within the pages of Manta Matcher, the world's first global Manta Ray database. Here are the various pics, and should you want to find out more about the principal distinguishing features, you can find them right here.
Pretty unequivocal - no need for specialist knowledge after all!

And here's the video about that glorious discovery!

Coconut Trees are bad for Manta Rays - coolest Elasmobranch Paper, ever!

Dominican Republic, Punta Cana, Bavaro Beach.

Do you like the picture?
Well, think again! Coconut trees are not at all native to the Pacific and Caribbean islands where they are so ubiquitous, and must instead be considered an invasive species, with far reaching and totally counter-intuitive consequences for local biodiversity.

Case in point, the findings in this stellar new paper.
It expands the correlation between native trees and seabirds (read it!) all the way to the marine ecosystem where the replacement of the native vegetation by human propagated coconuts has an effect on Zooplankton abundance and ultimately, on the abundance of Manta Rays!

This chain is retained in less disturbed native forest but its integrity is compromised in human-altered palm forest. Bar graphs comparing processes in native (N) and palm (P) forests (mean ± SE) indicate that reductions in native tree abundance (A) reduce seabird abundance (B), which diminish the contribution of seabird derived nutrient subsidies to terrestrial ecosystems (C,D), which severely impair the movement of nutrients to the marine environment (E), reducing zooplankton abundance (F), and ultimately eliminating manta ray (Manta birostris) utilization of native forest coastlines (G). Delta values depict the difference between mean δ15N of native forest and palm forest material (Δδ15N = δ15NN − δ15NP). Positive delta values measured at multiple points along this lengthy interaction chain reveal that taxa in native forest zones are causally linked to one another via dependency upon isotopically elevated seabird derived nutrients.
Click for detail

Synopsis here.
Also, check out the linked examples of how Fishes in ponds stimulate the growth of flowers and Salmon runs impact plant diversity!
How cool is that!

Hat Tip: MPO!

Stefanie and Tiger Sharks!

Click for detail!

This is really a marriage made in heaven.
No don't get me wrong, they are not a couple - but it doesn't get much better than having Stefanie Brendl and the unequaled Doug Perrine co-operate on a project!

The result: this epic spread in the Mail.
How awesome is that - huge Kudos!


And, there are videos!
Patric has already commented on the original cut, and here is the new edit. I have a visceral aversion against scenes depicting people abusing Sharks as underwater scooters, and those scenes have been thankfully cut out. And I do like the warning at the end: nothing could be more correct!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

OWT - Red Sea - 2002...

Fins optional.

Common Sense in Shark Diving?

Walker's Cay Chumsicle, by Pat Anderson.

Interesting day!
First, there is this simply stellar (!) post by Cristina who has brilliantly analyzed the topic as only someone with years of experience coupled with a profound knowledge of the animals could have done! Felix is of course absolutely correct in saying that in the end, it amounts to nothing but a lot of common sense - but therein of course lays the crux insofar as the latter appears to be a scarce commodity indeed!

Case in point, the following video.
A friend sent me the link with one comment only, and that is sigh...
Indeed - check it out.

No, I'm really not gonna embark into a rant as some may wish.
In the end, those guy are doing nothing bad - they just obviously appear to have no clue and are making simple beginner mistakes.

But is that really necessary?
Does one have to try and re-invent the wheel and learn everything the hard way?
This is not the 70ies where everybody wanting to feed Sharks had to do it on his own and embark in risky experiments - now there's an established world-wide industry with tried-and-tested protocols, there's e-mail through which one can contact and ask the established operators, there's YouTube where to watch the established feeds with plenty of examples of how to do it correctly.
That is, provided one has the humility to want to learn from others which may well be the problem here?

Anyway, those guys are feeding Caribbean Reefs.
It just so happens that thanks to UNEXCO, the correct protocols may well be some of the longest-established on the planet. From what I can discern, there are essentially three established ways to do this safely:
  • Chumsicle feeding was developed by Gary and Brenda Adkison at Walker's Cay and consists in rigging up a big block of suspended frozen bait where the Sharks will come in and grab a bite. It is being practiced with other Sharks like Greys and Reef Blacktips elsewhere like in Yap but to my knowledge, it has been discontinued in the Caribbean after the demise of Walkers'.
    The problem associated with this technique is twofold insofar as a) it requires access to a lot of Fish and to a capacious freezer, something only few locations can afford and b) it culminates in a frenzy, called the Shark Rodeo at Walkers', whereby one Shark will grab the last big chunk and dash away followed by a throng of highly excited competitors, something that is uncontrollable and ultimately dangerous.
The other two established feeding techniques enable the operators to always control the amount of food that is being introduced - and thus, to control the behavior of the animals by being able to counteract any incipient feeding frenzy, something those Reefs are particularly prone to, making them some of the most dangerous and unpredictable species to work with.
They are
  • Pole feeding where food is being handed to the Sharks by means of a longish metal pole. This is principally being practiced at Stuart Cove's and very safe.

  • Hand feeding like it is done by Cristina at UNEXCO and replicated world wide, among many others by us. It is certainly not completely safe for the feeders and requires enhanced safety procedures and a great deal of circumspection and ultimately, empathy and experience
So what about the video.
We feed Grey Reefs that are very similar in temperament, and here's what I can see - not meant to offend or belittle anybody but instead, meant as constructive criticism, DaShark style!
The general rule: when regularly doing something dangerous, you got to stack the cards in your favor!
  • Clients. We require full body dark wetsuits, black gloves and absence of shiny and brightly colored gear. That's really global standard in order to minimize contrast and avoid mistakes by the Sharks - meaning that should there be an accident, you will be accused of not having followed globally accepted standard procedures, which is not where you want to find yourself! Especially in limited visibility, pasty flailing hands sticking out of black sleeves look like bait and will eventually get nailed.
    But kudos for lining up the clients and keeping them separated from the action!

  • Garb of the feeder. Like those dudes, both Cristina and Stuart's use full-body steel mesh suits courtesy of Jeremiah. But, they also protect their head to the extent whereby the guys at SC even wear helmets! There is a reason for that!
    I see one bite on the mask and the head-butting is just insanity and will eventually lead to tears, promise! Here, we only use gloves but we just hand out the food on the fly and don't wrangle like those guys - so either do the former or get yerself a steel mesh hood!

  • Feeding. That pokey stick is way too short and badly handled. The bait did slide too far down the stick and the Shark was not able to get it off, with the clumsy handling of the feeder risking to injure the palate and break off teeth. Get a longer stick or add another point so the bait stays at the tip like on a fork - or even better, at least as long as there's only a few, just feed them by hand!

  • Feeder positioning. Laying on one's stomach confers no stability and no control of the situation, and is a recipe for disaster. Instead of flailing about helplessly like in the video, stand, or kneel on one knee with the other foot in front. That allows you to turn around and control the movement of the Shark by leading it with one hand - or to feed it on the fly like we do.

  • Wrangling. Those are just gratuitous and dangerous shenanigans - totally 70ies and totally uncalled for! Those animals are there for one reason only and that is, to get a piece of Fish - so give it to them & refrain from the pseudo-love or whatever all that hugging and grabbing is meant to signify!
    Maybe one day the Sharks will approach you for other reasons - but to achieve that, go at it slowly and with respect, develop some empathy and mutual trust, and that over many years, like Cristina has obviously done.
Anyway, just a couple of remarks.
If I may make a final suggestion, hop on a plane to the Bahamas and go talk to those guys. This is one global industry and I can assure you that everybody will be more than willing to engage in a conversation and give you some tips borne out of decades of experience, as it is in everybody's ultimate interest that things proceed as safely as possible. Hell, you should even do a few dives, look at how they they do it and maybe even give it a try yourself under supervision!
That obviously requires the humility of realizing that one's capabilities are woefully inadequate - but real men who feed Sharks are surely big enough to admit their shortcomings?

Or not?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

La Zenato!

Great pic by Ozzie Sam - click for detail!

Yes Cristina is here and already doing her magic! :)
You can follow her adventures on her Facebook pages here and here.


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Reef Sharks and Humans?

Bikini Atoll 10 years ago after it was re-opened to the public after 40 years - these comparatively short-lived Reef Sharks had never seen people.

I've finally gotten myself the Nadon et al paper.
In essence, it comes to the conclusion that Reef Shark populations in populated areas in the Pacific have plummeted by 90%, as reported e.g. here, here, here and here. Apparently, Julia Baum asserts that the decline is principally due to fishing and incidental bycatch.

Probably true - and yet, I am not totally convinced.
Now mind you, I am not a sufficiently trained researcher and may have missed some of the finer points in the paper - but then again, I was intrigued by this really interesting post by Para_Sight who points out that the causal connection may not be quite so direct, and I cite.

A binary relationship between the abundance of sharks and that of people is effectively saying that they are mutually exclusive: people = no sharks, no people = sharks.
That’s a pretty disappointing thought. Of course it doesn’t tell us the mechanism, or even if the relationship is causal in any way, but I don’t think it’s a huge leap to suggest that human impacts on reef diversity and function in general, especially overfishing, are likely to put a pretty negative pressure on reef shark populations. If this proves true then it may not be that humans are doing anything to the sharks per se, just not looking after the reef generally, and that is being reflected at the top trophic level.
However you slice it, their results are more grist to the mill that we need to be doing a better job with the conservation of
both reefs and sharks, because sometimes those two things are inextricably intertwined.

I could not agree more!
If we want to preserve a species we must preserve its habitat, #5, and this not only including the reefs but all of the hot spots like seasonal aggregation sites and above all, the nurseries!
But that's not where I want to go with this.
Let me elaborate.

1. Propensity to approach Divers and Boats.

Intuitively, I feel that the 90% number may be too high
, and this due to the chosen survey method, i.e. "towed-dive surveys" where paired SCUBA divers record shark sightings while being towed behind a small boat.
From the paper.

During each survey, a diver being towed behind a small boat recorded the identity and size of all fishes larger than 50 cm total length (nose to longest caudal fin lobe) encountered in a 10-mwide belt (Richards et al. 2011). To ensure surveys represented a near-instantaneous snapshot, divers counted only individual fish in a 10 × 10 m area in front of them and were careful not to record the same fish more than once.
All observers were experienced scientific divers with extensive training in fish identification. Divers were towed for 50 minutes on each survey at approximately 45 m/min, which is much faster than the swimming speed of divers conducting belt transects (typically 8 m/min).
We used a global-positioning-system unit on the tow boat to calculate transect lengths. Average tow length was 2.2 km. Surveys followed fixed isobaths (generally 15–20 m depths) and were positioned evenly around an island, with the aim of covering most of the circumference of each island at the targeted isobaths (tows around small islands were closer to each other than those around large islands).
We analyzed only the towed-diver surveys that were conducted on forereefs (seaward slope of a reef) between 2004 and 2010 (n = 1607).

Very compelling - and yet...
Check this out.

This is Bikini Atoll in 2003.
I hear that the Sharks have alas been fished away, but here is a report from 2000, and I cite.

After a few hours of casting along the reef, we approached a quarter-mile wide channel separating two idyllic tropical islands festooned with palm trees. The crew was smiling as Maddison said, "Watch this."

Within minutes an armada of shadows appeared, heading our way.
The dark shapes turned out to be hundreds of gray reef sharks, which began swimming around the boat, their aggressive mood indicated by arched body postures. The scary part was that we hadn't put any chum in the water!

Totally déjà vu!
Having been around for a while and done quite a bit of exploration several decades ago, I distinctly remember witnessing this behavior whenever we did visit remote and pristine locations. We would get to the reef with the dinghy and within minutes, the Sharks (often Grey Reefs that are 71% of the Sharks counted in the surveys discussed in the paper) would be rushing to the craft.
Moreover, once in the water, the Sharks would actively approach the divers, sometimes in a quite assertive way. However as time went by and those dive sites would become more popular and thus more crowded, I remember witnessing a gradual retreating of the Sharks.
As an example, when I first dived Cocos in the early 80ies, Chatham Bay was full of Hammerheads all the way to the surf line, and the seaward side of Cascara and Pajara would always yield a lot of Hammers, Silvertips and Marbled Rays that would easily approach the divers. Now, those high traffic areas feature very few Sharks that appear to have retreated to the more remote locations like Dirty Rock, Shark Fin and Alcyone where they are also generally much more skittish.

And what about the small boats?
Reason would have it that in their majority, small boats around populated islands would be engaged in fishing.
In fact, the paper states

We assumed human population was a reasonable measure of human effects in this region because most of the surveyed populated islands (including all population centers) have been settled for centuries, have broadly comparable levels of fisheries development (including widespread use of motorized boats and modern fishing gear) and reef fisheries with a mix of recreational, subsistence, and commercial fishing activities.

Reason would also have it that those Sharks who would have most readily approached those boats would have been the first to get killed either as proper catch or in retribution for being a nuisance like what has apparently happened in the GBR - whereas more timid Sharks would have had a higher chance of surviving and thus passing on their propensity to avoid boats to the next generation.
Could it be that over the many years, this would have led to more boat-wary Sharks in populated areas due to the selective extirpation of the bolder gene pool?

Long story short?
  • Maybe when sampling remote islands, the small boat towing the observers did attract Sharks (in the case of the Grey Reefs, possibly even out from the passes where they usually reside and to the forereefs that were being monitored), thus leading to a positive bias when establishing the baseline count.

  • Maybe when sampling inhabited islands, the boat noise did repel Sharks and thus lead to a negative bias.
The consequence of the above would lead to a double observation bias and result in an exaggerated rate of decline and confirm my purely intuitive caveat.

Yes at this stage, this is highly speculative.
But is this plausible and if so, would it be worth testing, and how?

2. Human Effect - only negative?

Reefs surveyed by towed divers 2004–2010 in the Pacific Ocean (triangles, survey reefs; white stars, large human population centers; PRIA, Pacific Remote Island Areas).

This is the area that has been surveyed.
I'm sure that the observations are generally accurate, albeit maybe biased as per the above - and yet, they may not be the whole story.

Take French Polynesia.
It features highly populated islands where Shark populations are however healthy. My interpretation is that there is a vibrant Shark tourism industry that has provided for an economic incentive for not fishing for Sharks, this even before the current Shark protection measures. Also, due to the tests in Mururoa and Fangataufa, the archipelago has been heavily patrolled which has likely kept potential poachers at bay,

And here's another personal observation.
In 2002, I organized a 13-month exploratory diving expedition throughout Micronesia and Melanesia aboard a large roving liveaboard vessel.
Here is the itinerary, click for detail.

In essence, we started in Bali and then did Kupang, Irian Jaya, Palau, Yap, Chuuk then down to New Ireland, over to Manus and Wewak, back to New Britain, then Bougainville all the way past Ghizo to Honiara, then back to Milne Bay.
Always in search of the most pristine environments and of Sharks, we did target the most remote and least populated locations between the principal islands where we would stop to re-supply. Especially in the Micronesian atolls, we specifically dove the likely hotspots, i.e. the reef passes where we would attract scores of Grey Reef and Silvertip Sharks with the infamous bottle. When close to the principal islands, we would co-operate with chosen local dive operators and visit their flagship dive sites, like e.g. Blue Corner in Palau.

Our findings were completely counter-intuitive.
To my great dismay, the most remote and least populated reefs had been completely fished out. Several of the Micronesian atolls featured wrecks of long liners and those reefs were covered in fishing gear, mainly long lines and ghost nets. Conversely, moderately populated islands had no Sharks right in front of the villages but plenty just a short distance away, and many of the principal islands did feature surprisingly healthy stocks.

My interpretation is that there is no such thing as "remote and pristine" anymore.
The fishing fleets have the resources, the technology and the willingness to go looking for Fish anywhere, and will wreak utter havoc when and where nobody is watching.
Conversely, especially Melanesia has a strong tradition of reef tenure where the traditional owners will vigorously, and often violently defend their fishing grounds against any intrusion.
Finally, like in French Polynesia, many of the principal island have well established Shark viewing tourism operations.

For me, this was a seminal observation.
Ever since that voyage I'm of the conviction that the only way to conserve biodiversity is to abandon the utopian vision of there being anything "natural" left. Instead, we must recognize that our influence extends to everywhere and that instead of bemoaning a past that will never come back, we must concentrate on managing what is left. Check out the current definition of wilderness & you will discover that this has now very much become a relative concept and a managed space.

But I'm digressing as usual.
The paper says this about protection.

We did not include protection level in our analyses because the region’s large marine protected areas were established only recently (e.g., 2006 in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands) and because protected areas cover only small percentages of the total coastline in populated areas (e.g., 5% around the main Hawaiian Islands). There is also some evidence that only areas that are strictly off limits to humans effectively protect reef sharks (Robbins et al. 2006). Moreover, in the larger, more isolated protected areas (e.g., northwestern Hawaiian Islands), remoteness rather than formal protection is probably the main factor limiting fishing because enforcement is generally light.

Maybe the above is just too narrow.
From my personal observations, there are other mechanisms that may well confer a substantive degree of protection and where the presence of humans is more of a positive than not.
But those are just nuances - the general gist of the paper is certainly correct.

Anyway, just a bit of food for thought.
Bon appétit!

PS more evidence for Reef Shark population declines here!

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Consultation - Report!

These Sharks are worth millions - great pic by Andrej Narchuk.

Interesting article about the consultation.

My thoughts on the matter in general are here.
In brief
  • The local fishing industry is a vital component of Fiji's economy and it is extremely important that it be protected and kept vibrant. The blanket criticism of the fishing sector is unbecoming.

  • For the industry to survive, it must focus on sustainability which presently means that they should probably catch less. Full sustainability also mandates bycatch mitigation.

  • They can however compensate for the loss in volume by having the fishery certified like that of the PNA, as consumers will pay a premium for sustainably caught fish.

  • After the recent fiasco at the last WCPFC meeting, I'm incresingly of the opinion that we should follow the example of the PNA and stop allowing distant nations to interfere with the management of the Pacific fish stocks - hell, were it for me I would also stop giving fishing licenses to those foreign fleets and have those nations buy the Fiji-caught Tuna from the Fijian processing plants!

  • Leave those Sharks alone. At current depletion rates, this is at best a short-term fad and will certainly not save the Tuna industry. Catching them is completely unsustainable and the depletion of Shark stocks has wide ranging and largely irreversible consequences for the fishing sector as a whole but also, for tourism and the nation's overall ecological and cultural integrity. Of interest, Mr. Lagibalavu is a representative of the Bêche-de-mer industry that is wreaking havoc on our coastal Sharks.

  • I would certainly not oppose (read the link before you get angry!) an independently certified sustainable food fishery for Sharks - however only once stocks have recovered and only if fully sustainable.
Here's to Government doing the right thing real soon!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Freakin' Laser - deux!

Wow wow wow!
Looks like some people didn't quite get it.

So there: my last post was totally tongue-in-cheek!
For the record, I am actually deeply impressed by Luke and Patric's innovative marketing campaign - by the concept, by the execution and by the simply stellar roll-out across the media.
Simply brilliant - the laser and the campaign, and bravo Luke!

And what about the Shark?
Totally OK! As anybody who has clamped a Go Pro to a Lemon can confirm, the animals are totally unfazed and will continue to swim their rounds until somebody relieves them of the gizmo, exactly like the one in the video. When Patric writes that No sharks were harmed, inconvenienced, delayed, disrespected, and or annoyed in the making of this video. As it turns out Mr.Biggelsworth has a bit of a thing for our buddy Luke Tipple, it is nothing but the truth.
How about directing the outrage against the folks who continue to abuse Sharks as underwater scooters - now that's inconveniencing!

Plus, I have high hopes for that clip.
If it can be engineered to fall off at predetermined times, it is the ideal platform for attaching a whole variety of tags and instruments for short-term research projects of one or two weeks. Should you be interested, you can read the details here - I certainly am and have already ordered a few.

So once again, check out the evidence.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Freakin' Shark with freakin' Laser - epic Fail!

Way to go: this is totally respectful and totally necessary!

Listen carefully.

One would think that the simple request is pretty much unequivocal - or not?
So which part, exactly, did they not get about the freakin' lasers being attached (caps lock) TO THEIR HEADS?

I guess it must be that freakin' Tipple.
He's way too talented and way too, I hear, good looking (and his accent, way too absurd) for him not to be a cyborg - so let's put it down to some freakin' programming error. So once again, let me cite myself, ad nauseam like a freakin' broken record: fix the freakin' gizmo!

And other than that?
Apart from the fact that they totally frigged up the most important detail, and that the whole exercise is nothing but a freakin' lot of hot air and media frothiness aimed at marketing a freakin' laser that in all likelihood isn't even water proof?
You tell me!

Did I hear, the clip?
There's really nothing to be said about that thing other than it being disrespectful and causing unnecessary stress - and I may add, much to the contrary of the clip depicted at the top!
Plus, it is way too cheap! Should it ever, god forbid, turn out to be useful for research, it would lead to a catastrophic drop in sales of drills and titanium bolts and further depress the economy - and forever condemn nine (!!!) intrepid sharktivists to a shallow cause-less existence!

I say, enough is enough!
We must stop this now before it is too late.
Let's use the momentum of the current global wave of outrage and spam their freakin' Facebook and Twitter pages and hack their freakin' webpage. And tell ya' what: since we're at it, let's ask the couch farting fireman to start us another anti petition!

Evidence here!
And before you start getting agitated - read this!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Eli - spot on!

How it should be - people on one side, Sharks on the other.

I can't even begin to tell you how much I agree with Eli.
Check this out - love love love it!

Spot on - seen it a squillion times.
That's your archetypical underwater photographer: whatever the extent of the previous instructions and warnings, once they are in the presence of the animals they are totally focused on getting the shot, glaringly oblivious of their surroundings even in the most dangerous situations, with their eye always glued to the viewfinder and then, they top if off by checking their image in the back screen - from a safety perspective, a total and unadulterated nightmare.
Always? Yes pretty much so!

Hence our draconian protocols.
In essence, we strictly separate the customers and the Sharks, do not allow any radical captures by amateurs and will provide body guards for the pros that are positioned and never allowed to roam freely - and yet, they always get the shot.
Over the years, this has led to a noticeable decline in overly ambitioned pushy elite amateurs and a noticeable increase in professionals and marine conservation NGOs, which for reasons I have explained elsewhere is exactly where we wish to position ourselves.

Buddy you may want to think about that.
Fun or no fun, right now what happens at TB looks like a losing proposition.

Fiji: don't mess with the Defenders!

.. and especially, don't mess with the Ueber-Shark-Defender in the center!

Big kudos to Rick and Angelo, and Helen!

I hear that the consultation went really well.
They were able to rally the troops despite a prohibitively short lead time, and from what I hear (we weren't there as it was simply too short notice), the few detractors were faced with a capacity crowd of proponents. From those metrics alone, the result of the consultation could not have been more unequivocal.
There's this report in the Fiji Times and this one on the Shark Defenders page and it really does appear like the interminable process of establishing a Fiji Shark Sanctuary is well on its way towards completion - but it aint over til the fat lady sings, so fingers crossed!

So, it appears, there is some consensus.
Both the tuna fishing industry and the conservationists agree that the coastal fishing for Sharks needs to be stopped. Very much unsurprisingly, opinions differ diametrically about the so-called bycatch by the longline fleets. My personal take on the issue in general is here, and I particularly recommend that everybody familiarize themselves with this excellent document by Pew about the many ways to mitigate the problem, this at least in theory.
The reality: as long as the crews are being allowed to keep and sell the fins, they are actually being encouraged to land as many Sharks as possible. In fact, simple logic would have it that when the owners, the authorities and the observers are not watching, which is most of the time, the crews will be highly tempted to engage in targeted Shark fishing in order to maximize their wages - correct? Or am I missing something here?
And who, please, is supposed to cough up the resources for monitoring a law that would be riddled with loopholes the size of a barn door?

So here's to progress.
It's not in the bank quite yet - but if and when it is, I shall have to eat a big portion of humble pie and publicly congratulate the people behind the frothy awareness campaign!

And guess what, I shall do so gladly!
But not quite yet now!