Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Eating the world

We keep them alive in cages until the customer makes an order. Then we hammer them unconscious, cut their throats and drain the blood. It is a slow death. We then boil them to remove the scales. We cut the meat into small pieces and use it to make a number of dishes, including braised meat and soup. Usually the customers take the blood home with them afterwards.
The restauranteur was talking about a Pangolin in this report about a ship found floating of the coast of China with 5,000 rare animals on board destined for stomachs on the mainland.

Westerners sometimes enjoy hearing about what we consider shocking consumption practices in China and elsewhere in East Asia. One of my favourite examples (not from China) is the baby bears whose feet, still attached to the living bears, are lowered into hot cooking oil because baby bear feet fritters taste better that way - or so it's reported.

'We' like to think we are better than 'them'. And, when it comes to stripping coral reefs of food in a way that maximises damage the Live reef fish trade does indeed mainly go through Hong Kong. (see also the animal welfare section on chinadialogue.net)

But one can turn the argument around. Western consumption preferences may be different, but they are not necessarily less horrible or damaging to the planet.

How to break out of this? Start with a diagnosis. Avner Offer argues that affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being (thanks to Chris Goodall for pointing to this). Offer, however, offers little by way of prescription.

The fundamental challenge is probably one of values. Of course, even if that is correct it doesn't answer the question.

'The god thou servest is thine own appetite.' -- The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

'There are numberless people who, in order to gratify one of their appetites, would destroy the whole Universe.' -- Leonardo da Vinci (notebooks)

Saturday, May 26, 2007


27 May, just ahead of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, is Big Blue March day for whales, with events in Argentina, Australia, Germany, Mexico, the U.S and elsewhere.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Protection of East African reef fisheries

The Wildlife Conservation Society and partners report from Kenya:
Fishing is predicted to eliminate many of the ocean's fish stocks in the next few decades. To better manage fish and avoid the predicted fisheries collapse managers are frequently being asked to permanently close areas to fishing. These can be unpopular unless it is known whether or not closures will work and the amount of time that it takes for fish stocks to recover. Most investigations of closures are a single snapshot in time shortly after the closure and, although most investigations have found increases in fish, these studies produce few insights into the time it takes for fish to fully recover.

Tim McClanahan and colleagues were able to overcome this problem by studying four closures in Kenya's coral reef fisheries that were closed at different times in order to produce a nearly continuous recovery for over 37 years. They found that the numbers of species of fish increased up to 10 years after the closure and then remained unchanged, while the fishable stock reached its peak only after 25 years. Some species of fish did not, however, fully recover even after 37 years without fishing. Their findings suggest that recovery from fishing can be quite slow and that permanent closures may be the only way to insure that there are some areas representative of an unexploited ocean and to maintain fisheries stocks.
Towards Pristine Biomass: Reef Fish Recovery in Coral Reef Marine Protected Areas in Kenya is published in Ecological Applications Vol 17 No. 4, June 2007. For more papers by Tim McClanahan see here.

Chagos families win legal battle

Families expelled from the Chagos Islands by the British have won their legal battle for the right to return home at the Court of Appeal -- BBC online.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

'Stranger than any imagination could conceive'

Craig M. Young of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology is reported as writing in The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss that the diversity of life in the abyss “may exceed that of the Amazon Rain Forest and the Great Barrier Reef combined".

That may be. I will only add for now that from the little I have learned a good part of that diversity is benthic and includes cold water corals living as deep as six thousand metres down. Stephen Cairns offered me a glimpse of this extraordinary world, stranger than Mars, when I sought him out in February last year deep in the stacks of the Smithsonian, thanks to an introduction from Tom Goreau.

Focussing on the Southern Ocean, Angelika Brandt of ANDEEP, which sampled 6348 metres down and discovered 585 new species of crustacean, is reported as saying "The number of species out there are certainly unknowable".

P.S. 23 May: J Murray Roberts writes: "Reef framework forming corals like Lophelia are pretty sparse around Antarctica but there are records in the Subantarctic. Cairns published a monograph on this in 1982 (Biology of the Antarctic Seas XI, Antarctic Research Series, Volume 34, Paper 1)".

New book on coral reefs

There Are Many Souls Embodied in Water: Tales From the Coral World by Julia Whitty should be worth attention, judging (not least) by some of her articles for Mother Jones such as The Fate of the Ocean, The Thirteenth Tipping Point and Gone.

(In the first of these three I have so far spotted only what I believe to be one error. Whitty writes that "[the world's] shipping fleets spew as much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as the entire profligate United States". But the right figure is probably between one quarter and one fifth. Emissions from shipping are probably in the region in the range 600 to 800m MtCO2, or 4 to 5% of the global total, whereas some estimates put US emissions at more than 20% of the current annual total and nearly 28% of emissions since 1750 [James E. Hansen]).

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Things that go GBRMPA in the night

Sometimes this blog grinds slowly but gets there in the end. Glad, then, to note this speech by the member for Kingsford Smith on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007:
(...)A Natural Heritage List without the Great Barrier Reef is like a cricket hall of fame without Sir Donald Bradman—but that is precisely what we have...

...The bill replaces the Great Barrier Reef Consultative Committee with a non-statutory advisory board and removes the requirement for specific representation from the Queensland Government or the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Blast" - fighting back in the Philippines

From a press release from INECE, forwarded by Stuart Green of Reef Check :
BBC World presents "Blast", an Earth Report documentary that chronicles the ongoing battle between blast fishers in the Philippines and the brave individuals risking their lives to stop them.

Using homemade explosives to kill fish may provide an easy answer for poverty-stricken fishermen, but the rich biodiversity of the Visayan Sea, as well as future sources of food for the people of the Philippines, are quickly being depleted because of their use.

In 2004, after recognizing that declaring blast fishing illegal was not enough to deter fishermen, concerned conservationist and local government official Jo Jo de la Victoria teamed up with INECE member and fellow Filipino Tony Oposa to form the Visayan Sea Squadron. Their mission was to patrol the Visayan sea for blast fishermen and to educate Filipinos
on the importance of sustainable fishing practices.

The success of the Visayan Sea Squadron in protecting the sea angered many in the fishing community. In April of 2006, involvement in the blast fishing project proved fatal for Jo Jo. He was shot and killed by a hired assassin.

"Jo Jo de la Victoria's murder shocked and saddened all of us," said Durwood Zaelke, Director of the INECE Secretariat. "But his heroism, and Tony Oposa's, as evident through this poignant film, continue to inspire those around the world fighting similar battles."
Blast will be broadcast on 19 and 20 May. See the BBC World web site for regional schedules.

In February this year I visited with Tony Oposa and others doing extraordinary work to reverse the tide of destruction and, as described here, witnessed a spectacular operation to nail some of the bad guys. Coral Bones will continue to follow this story of real 21st century heroes.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

New links

I've been asked to add ICRI and International Year of the Reef 2008 to the list of links on this blog, and am pleased do to so.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Endless forms

It’s been said at several places on this blog (and of course more fully elsewhere) that coral reefs are in big trouble, and that one of the best hopes for protecting them is to more fully recognise and realise the benefits (ecosystem and economic services) they offer to rapidly expanding humanity.

But there are other aspects to consider, including non-instrumental ones such as ethics (a right to existence, perhaps?) and aesthetics (sheer beauty).

[Despite the title, this post is not about the output of the Department for Administrative Affairs, or similar bodies]

The challenge of finding a common language for right action with regard to marine ecosystems is huge, as it is in many other areas of human activity. It may or may not be surmountable. Whatever the outcome, steps in the right direction may include more exchanges and discussion about beauty.

As a starting point, priests and poets, geneticists and imams, sadhus and auditors, brigadiers, bus drivers and physicists will mostly agree that coral reefs and the life that goes with them are ‘pretty cool’. But that doesn't take us very far.

Pre-agricultural, indigenous and traditional cultures that may have had a non-instrumental relationship with ‘nature’ have largely been destroyed (assuming they ever really existed). Whatever legacy they may or may not hand on (I guess that languages such as Pirahã have and had no word for abstracts like 'beauty', or need of them), it is unlikely ever to be enough in a world of six and half going on nine billion people. We also need all that science and modern social and political networks, at their best, can bring to the party.

And a key question is value. Could aesthetic appreciation of what science reveals, informed and deepened by reflection, do for the natural world what Friedrich Schiller hoped the arts would do for daily affairs: that they would ‘elevate the moral character of people by first touching their souls with beauty’? Could a 'sea ethic' be a corollary of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic?

The political catastrophes of Schiller’s time and since show that enlightenment optimism should come with a pinch of salt. But that doesn't mean abandoning it. Projects like The Encyclopedia of Life, inspired by E O Wilson and others, may help point the way.

There are many kinds of beauty on a reef. One is the sheer profusion of form and at the same time the echoing of some (but not all) forms and functions found elsewhere and at different scales in space and time. So (simplifying a bit too far) some corals look like trees and offer habitats in a similar way. Swimming over them can be like gliding over a great canopy in miniature. And two resonances – one from deep time and one from myth – may be examples. First, in the Ediacarians of the pre-Cambrian:
[these were] made in a completely different way from other animals: they were fractal. Each frond was built up from smaller, identical fronds, and each of these was composed of yet smaller fronds, and so on, down to the smallest scale visible.
Second from a South Asian story as retold in The Night Life of Trees:
The Peepul tree is the home of the Creator, worshipped by Hindus and forest people alike. They come from afar to pour water on the trunk in prayer. The Peepul tree is so perfect that even against the sky it seems to have the same shape as its own leaf. The detail is the same as the whole.
The links made with these two examples may be stretched. The point is to find connections and common language open to both imagination and reason so that, collectively and singly, we can pay more attention.

The snail in this picture climbed the fence outside the study window while I was writing. We humans will need to be more long-sighted than this humble mollusc, and we have less time.

[P.S. 11 May As noted on Grains of Sand, Paul Klemperer asks some useful questions, including 'Is it morally correct to value our great-grandchildren one-tenth as much as ourselves?' and 'Is human welfare the only criterion anyway?']

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Hot and sick

Coral disease outbreaks have struck the healthiest sections of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, where for the first time researchers have conclusively linked disease severity and ocean temperature. Close living quarters among coral may make it easy for infection to spread, researchers have found.

"With this study, speculation about the impacts of global warming on the spread of infectious diseases among susceptible marine species has been brought to an end," [says] Don Rice, director of the [US] National Science Foundation Chemical Oceanography Program...
These findings may not seem new to everybody, but look to be based on original and thorough work. The conclusion of the study, Thermal Stress and Coral Cover as Drivers of Coral Disease Outbreaks by John F. Bruno et al. (PLoS Biology, 8 May), notes:
Warm temperature anomalies and coral cover are clearly important drivers of [the emergent disease] white syndrome on the GBR. No previous study has demonstrated a link between ocean temperature and coral disease dynamics, especially at regional spatial scales.
[see also Putting the Heat on Coral by Phil Berardelli]

Monday, May 07, 2007

An impoverished place

A World Without Corals? by Richard Stone (News Focus, Science, 4 May) covers most of the bases on reporting of this issue, with an update on what some are saying the effects of acidification, and who is listening (analysis of events to date last year has been previously reported in several places including here and here):
IPCC scenarios of global emissions and ocean circulation indicate that by midcentury, atmospheric CO2 levels could reach more than 500 parts per million, and near the end of the century they could be above 800 ppm. The latter figure would decrease surface water pH by roughly 0.4 units, slashing carbonate ion concentration by half, paleocoral expert C. Mark Eakin, coordinator of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch, testified last month at a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ocean pH would be "lower than it has been for more than 20 million years," he said. And that does not factor in possible acidification from carbon-sequestration schemes now being considered.

Some coral species facing their acid test may become shape shifters to avoid extinction. New findings indicate that corals can survive acidic conditions in a sea anemone-like form and resume skeleton-building when returned to normal marine conditions (Science, 30 March, p. 1811). However, by pH 7.9, says [Ken] Caldeira [of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Palo Alto, California], "there would be a good chance reefs would be gone."

The potential for an acid-induced coral cataclysm has cast a pall on the tight-knit community of reef specialists. "The reality of coral reefs is very dark, and it is very easy for people to judge coral reef scientists as pessimists," says [Camilo] Mora [of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada]. "We're becoming alarmist," adds [Alan] Strong [senior consultant to NOAA's Coral Reef Watch] --for good reason, he insists. "How are reefs going to handle acidification? It's not like sewage or runoff, where you may be able to just turn off the spigot."
Among other key assertions as reported: 1) it [may be] "too early to make really definitive doom-and-gloom statements" (Pandolfi); and 2) "the threat of millions of people losing their livelihoods must be factored into policy planning" (Hoegh-Guldberg):
[John] Pandolfi [of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia], however, argues that it's "too early to make really definitive doom-and-gloom statements."

No one disputes that urgent action on greenhouse gas emissions is essential. "We could still have vibrant reefs in 50 years time," ...says [Terence Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia]. But these will not be the reefs we know today. "They will be dominated by a different suite of species," says Hughes, who notes that the shakedown is already under way.

More likely, steps to rein in emissions will be too little, too late--and the world will have to brace for the loss of reefs. In Southeast Asia, says [Ove] Hoegh-Guldberg [director of the Centre for Marine Studies at the University of Queensland in St. Lucia, Australia], the threat of millions of people losing their livelihoods must be factored into policy planning. Coastal dwellings throughout the tropics will have to be strengthened against higher waves. Then there is the intangible, aesthetic deprivation if coral reefs wither and wink out. "Without their sheer beauty," Hughes says, "the world would be an impoverished place."

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Good news from the Pacific?

A quarter of the world's oceans will be protected from fishing boats which drag heavy nets across the sea floor, South Pacific nations have agreed. The landmark deal will restrict bottom trawling, which experts say destroys coral reefs and stirs up clouds of sediment that suffocate marine life.
Bottom-trawling is responsible for some deep-sea reefs losing more than 95% of their coral, BBC News, 5 May. The 4 May press release from Renaca, Chile says:
"New Zealand [is] responsible for some 90% of the high seas bottom trawling in the area [which is the last and largest pristine deep-sea marine environment on earth]...Only the Russian Federation stated its opposition to the measures but, as of this year, has no bottom trawl vessels operating in the region".

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Today's New York Times carries an article by Cornelia Dean on some efforts at coral restoration in Florida by Ken Nedimyer recently supported by the Nature Conservancy (Coral Is Dying. Can It Be Reborn? - and also a short movie). It refers in passing to World Bank/Global Environmental Facility work on Long-term efficacy and cost-effectiveness of coral reef restoration interventions.

Nedimyer's work looks to be modest and not informed by experience of organisations such as the Global Coral Reef Alliance.