Friday, April 9, 2010

Hope for the oceans from the Galapagos

Mission Blue concluded today in the Galapagos with a wonderful array of commitments to support ocean conservation. Millions of dollars have been pledged for efforts to sow the seas with protected areas – hope spots – in fulfilment of oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s wish. Among many great ideas, these funds will help protect the Arctic as the ice retreats, support efforts to create the world’s largest marine protected area in the Sargasso Sea, campaign to eliminate harmful subsidies that fuel overfishing, and spread the word to children about the wonders of the seas, and their urgent need for protection.

I last came to the Galapagos Islands ten years ago to look at the design of the new zonation scheme for the marine park. Would enough be protected? Would it work? The design was good, although some habitats like offshore waters remain under-represented. But it turned out that implementation was the tough part. For a time, fishers in the Galapagos declared war on the Marine Park. They even held the staff hostage and threatened to kill ‘Lonesome George’, the last survivor of his species of giant tortoise.

I am glad to say that things are much better now. The conflict has subsided and from what I have seen underwater, the marine reserves are well protected and full of big fish. Mission Blue will help to cement this success. Participants will donate a million dollars to complete a world class surveillance and enforcement program for the Galapagos Marine Park. What a way to finish this voyage.

Photo: Charlie Zielinski, Marine Photobank

Thursday, April 8, 2010

More than 1%

Presentations given at Mission Blue by speakers of such repute as Jeremy Jackson, Daniel Pauly and Enric Sala show that the condition of the oceans is getting worse rather than better in many places. But there has also been good news. Enric highlighted the extraordinary Kingman Reef from the Line Islands in the Pacific, which has no land and has never been fished. There the weight of predatory fish outweighs that of herbivores and others by 5.7 to 1. He showed images of a reef so packed with sharks, jacks, groupers and snappers that it took my breath away. This is truly a ‘hope spot’ as Sylvia Earle calls such places.

Another hope spot much talked about here has been the UK Government’s recent decision to create the world’s largest marine protected area – and largest no-take reserve by far – bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean. At the heart of this reserve are the reefs and islands of the Chagos, most of them uninhabited. This announcement creates another hope spot for the planet. A place that through its sustained future health and vitality, could help to buffer other places in the Indian Ocean from the stresses imposed by growing tide of humanity and climate change. The announcement takes the area of the oceans protected above 1% for the first time in history (which also highlights that we have a lot more work to do!).

The UK Government’s decision is welcome. In a bold move, they chose the strongest protection option. In truth, it would have been hard to justify the other options, whereby the protected area would be paid for on the back of a tuna fishery that has, until now, brought harm to the open ocean wildlife of the Chagos.

Here in the Galapagos, Mission Blue had a rare treat. From the inflatable boats we got a close up view of a male and female killer whale attacking a turtle. Their black fins scythed through the curling face of a lifting breaker as they struck. Against the backdrop of Isabella Island’s dark volcanic flank, there can be few grander sights in the world.

Photo: Rod Mast, Marine Photobank

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mission Blue, Galapagos - Day 1

I am Callum Roberts, Board Member of Seaweb and marine conservationist from the University of York in the UK, blogging from aboard the National Geographic Endeavor in the Galapagos. For the next four days, this ship will host a remarkable meeting of minds to try to find solutions to the ills of our seas.

Mission Blue, as it is called, is part of the fulfilment of the world famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s TED Prize wish: “I wish you would use all means at your disposal — films! expeditions! the web! more! — to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.” Sylvia has convened a meeting of some of the best minds in ocean science and conservation to share ideas with some highly creative people from the worlds of the film, publishing, art, business and philanthropy. It is hoped that this coming together will stimulate new thinking on ocean conservation, and will help to further Sylvia’s wish of a planet seeded with hope spots, places that will reveal new ways in which we and ocean life can flourish together.

Today I had a fascinating conversation with Peter Tyack from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution about the effects of ocean noise on whales and dolphins. The oceans are no longer the ‘silent world’ that Jacques Cousteau dubbed them in his first book published in the 1950s (his son Jean Michel and granddaughter Celine are on board). Since then background noise from shipping has increased by three decibels per decade. The loudness of sounds measured on the decibel scale increases tenfold for every ten decibels. So today’s seas are around one hundred and eighty times noisier than those dived by Cousteau in the early 1950s.

Peter told me of dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, that react to approaching boats by whistling more to each other and forming tighter groups. Incredibly, they get disturbed by boats an average of once every six minutes during the day – truly urban animals. Whales get by in noisy places by shouting to each other above the din, and by changing the pitch of their calls so they are on different wavelengths to the noise produced by boats. Noisy oceans are just one way in which life has become harder for marine animals in the last century. Finding a solution to this one won’t be easy.

More from Mission Blue tomorrow.

Photo: Rod Mast, Marine Photobank