Friday, September 28, 2012

A Big Fish

So, here I am, watching the first season of The Wire, when aquariums and fish enter into the underground world of the Baltimore drug scene.  The character Wee Bey, a hired killer for Barksdale's drug ring, is taking D'Angelo somewhere secret. D thinks he's about to get snuffed (he knows the season is almost over), but instead, Surprise! Wee Bey needs D to take care of his fish while he's running from the cops.

This video is super interesting, particularly because of the way Wee Bey addresses his fishes.  In the tetra tank, he starts naming each fish and finally says that Jezebel is there somewhere, but she can't be found because "she think she's cute or something."

He assures D that taking care of them is easy. "They ain't no problem; just beautiful as hell."

While this clip might seem incongruous with what the viewer knows about Wee Bey, in truth, it says something about the aquarium hobby and what it represents.

Wee Bey fits the portrait of a hobbyist:  he's male and has loads of disposable income. Fish, and especially salt water tanks, are commodities; they represent economic security and, for some, leisure. Maintaining tanks  is time and money consuming and his abilities show that Wee Bey has both of these things in spades.

Aquaria like Wee Bey's mark him in the hobbyist world and the drug trade. Look at these tanks; I'm a big fish!

Check out the video.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Saving the Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal.

Caribbean Monk Seal, New York Zoological Society, 1910

Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I wake up thinking about aquatic mammals.  Today, in fact, I woke up thinking about the Caribbean Monk Seal.  Never heard of one? Didn't think there were ever seals living in the Caribbean area? There totally were!

I first ran across the Caribbean monk seal in the New York Zoological Society records at the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx.  The New York Aquarium had a monk seal (referred to as a West Indian Monk Seal, in the early 20th century, and Charles Townsend, the director and one of the world's experts on pinnipeds, thought these animals were quickly disappearing in the wild.  When Columbus first sailed into the tropical waters of the Caribbean, he encountered large amounts of seals.  Mariners commonly killed seals for food and quickly numbers dwindled. The last reliable sighting of any Caribbean monk seals was of a small colony in a remote cay between Honduras and Jamaica in 1952.  By 1977, they were officially declared extinct, with many mammalogists believing they had been extinct since that last sighting.

I'm not sure why I was thinking of these animals today, but I decided to poke about the internet, and found out that there are actually two existing, but struggling, relatives of the monk seal:  the Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals.  The Mediterranean monk seal is one of the most endangered mammals in the world, and the second most endangered pinniped behind the ringed seal. The Hawaiian monk seal isn't far behind.  But, good news! There are big plans in the works to save the Hawaiian monk seal and they involve a Seal Hospital.

There are about 1,100 wild Hawaiian monk seals left (which is twice as many as Mediterranean monk seals) and they are struggling to maintain a flipper-hold in their environment. They are working their way onto crowded beaches, and human-seal interactions leave much to desire.  To educate the public on proper seal interactions, NOAA produced an educational video (posted to my blog separately).  But educating the public hasn't been enough, so the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito has decided to build a Monk Seal Hospital to have a location to rehabilitate and care for injured seals before releasing them back into the environment.

This article in the San Francisco Chronicle includes a mock-up of the proposed seal hospital.

It includes two pools in which to rehabilitate the seals, both of which are open to the sea air and has line of sight to the ocean.  Let's hope that the MMC's active plan to save the Hawaiian monk seal succeeds.  The fact that they've come this far is incredibly heartening.

For information on the natural history of the seals, see:

Robert M. Timm, Rosa M. Salazar and A. Townsend Peterson. 1997. "Historical Distribution of the Extinct Tropical Seal, Monachus tropicalis (Carnivora: Phocidae)" Conservation Biology 11(2)  549-551.

NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal

Thursday, September 20, 2012

You can't see the coral for all the fishes

Coral Display at the Steinhart Aquarium (author's photo)

A few weeks ago, I was researching at the California Academy of Sciences.  I was pleased to meet with the Director of the Steinhart Aquarium Bart Shepard. Shepard's specialty is maintaining living coral systems, so I asked him about the difficulties of maintaining these organisms in aquariums.

It's sometimes easy to become overly focused on looking for the "exciting" animals (aka. things that move) in large public aquarium displays, but it turns out that one of the most amazing feats of aquariology are those that you might overlook- coral.  Shepard told me that keeping coral in aquariums was something thought impossible until the 1970s- and not widely performed in personal and public aquariums until the 80s.

There are two important components to keeping corals alive in captivity:  an abundance of plankton and intense sunlight (or UV light). In the 1970s, several German public aquariums, and a few curios hobbyists throughout the world, started experimenting with aquarium systems that utilized unfiltered saltwater. Unfiltered water helped provide the coral with enough plankton for food.  In addition, the aquarium was exposed to direct sunlight. These two components components kept coral alive in captivity, and keeping coral started to catch on. Other institutions, including the Waikiki Aquarium in Hawaii,  notched it up a scotch and started maintaining and propagating multiple coral species and providing other public aquariums with new species.

By the 90s, keeping coral was settling into normalcy- hobbyists and aquarists were confidently keeping coral alive for extended periods of time, and also setting up systems to grow and propagate their own coral so that they didn't have to destroy reefs in order to stock their systems. But the system is still problematic- more coral is shipped from tropical regions and sold than is propagated from existing exhibits. This trade hurts marine systems as much as the fish trade.  But practitioners are optimistic that coral propagation (by fracturing and sexual reproduction) will eventually slow this trade.

So: When you're looking at a huge aquarium display, look past those little fishes to see something truly amazing and precious- living coral!

For more information on the history of coral displays in aquariums, the craft of keeping corals, and the difficulties with the coral trade see:

J.Charles Delbeek Coral Farming: Past, Present, and Future (2001) and Bruce Carlson Aquarium Systems for Living Coral (1987)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Parlor Ponds by Judith Hamera

Judith Hamera. Parlor Ponds:  The Cultural work of the American Home Aquarium, 1850-1970. The University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2012) 280 pp.

I've just read Judith Hamera's great new book on American home aquariums.  It's a fantastic work, not only because it is one of the first really scholarly works looking at the aquarium hobby in America, but because Hamera successfully applies performance theory (her particular field) to this subject and manages to shed light on the cultural work that the home aquarium performs throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Her main thesis, that the success of the aquarium hobby in America is predicated on it's ability to mitigate the crisis of masculinity in American culture in the 20th century is an interesting premise, and Hamera builds a strong case for this theory while simultaneously throwing light on the hobby as a whole.

Hamera is Professor of Performance Studies and head of the Department of Performance Studies at Texas A&M University. Performance Studies might not come instantly to mind when thinking about home aquariums (although Gregg Mitman and other historians and sociologists of science have made the case that the aquarium is akin to a looped film clip or a play), so Hamera explains why she thinks that her field is particularly suited to investigating aquaria:  "The aquarium's visual and rhetorical promiscuity demands an interdisciplinary approach that the field of performance studies is ideally positioned to provide." (9) Aesthetics, theatricality, and textual conventions abound in the aquarium setting, according to the author, and these pieces require attention that is less focused on an individual component of the aquarium, and more on the overall cultural impact of them.

This book is not a history of the aquarium hobby in America, but it does proceed chronologically.  The first chapter examines the "visual affinities" of the aquarium. Hamera links home aquariums to several common landscapes in the early 20th century, including the zoo and the landscaped garden, and suggests that the aquarium was most closely linked visually to the landscaped garden. The author likens the home aquaria to the garden, suggesting that "the laboratory of the home tank, like the labor of the garden, was personal, an extension of domestic space and management...the tank was its owner's personal world." (21) This chapter is where Hamera strengthens her main thesis that the personal power of collection and creation that goes into building an aquarium alleviates stresses caused by modernity, particularly the stress of masculinity loss. One can always be a master of the universe, even if you just built the universe out of glass and your subjects are fishes.

Hamera carries this theme of modernity and creation throughout the book, including the next chapters regarding British and American writings on aquariums, their uses and meanings. These chapters are largely historical, and outline the ideas surrounding the popularity and purpose of aquariums at the turn of the century.  Relying on primary sources such as hobbyist books, literature, and hobbyist journals, Hamera traces the trajectory of hobbyist ideals.

By far the strongest contribution Hamera makes to the conversation of hobbyist culture is chapter 4.  This chapter deals with the animals kept in the aquarium, and asks a very important question:  what significance do fish have to aquarium keepers? Are they akin to other pets, such as cats and dogs, or do they serve another function altogether? Hamera points out that fish become objects through immersion in the technology that sustains them and they are constructed "as objects of owner's responses to them or actions against them." (136) The author goes on to highlight particular species that have become particularly popular to hobbyists and questions this popularity.  This chapter contributes greatly to the conversation about the place of fish in animal studies.

Unfortunately, Hamera stops short of discussing fish as commodities as well as objects.  While she does mention the value of tropical fishes over local varieties in her later chapters, and even includes information on hobbyists becoming breeders in Chapter 5, she fails to sufficiently draw out the economic aspects of the aquarium hobby. In Chapter 6, she discusses the nationalistic overtones of collecting tropical fishes, and the desire to have salt water aquariums as a symbol of "exoticism".  Hamera sees the ability to own, propagate, and in some sense subjugate foreign organisms as an important key in discovering and observing the masculinity inherent in the hobby. But, the author leaves out the other very important aspect of the salt water aquarium: economic symbolism.  In fact, even in her conclusion, when Hamera recounts a tale of a man who built an aquarium in his garage, big enough to attract the ire of his wife and the suspicion of the local police (who believed him to be growing marijuana because of the florescent glow), she fails to investigate the financial strain of this hobby and link that to masculinity.

Overall, this book is an amazing addition to the scanty literature on American aquarium hobbyists.  It is a fantastic source for anyone looking at the aquarium and its symbolism.  It's historical narrative is not complete (it was never meant to be a history book) but it provides a useful timeline and framework from which to work.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Upgrades to Alvin; Downgrades to research budgets

Check out these upgrades! Alvin illustration by Megan Carroll copyright WHOI   

Nature has a great article on the nearly completed updates to the deep sea submersible Alvin. These upgrades, performed at WHOI (Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution- pronounced hoo-e) will hopefully help American researcher at multiple institutions keep pace with the international science community in deep sea exploration.  But, probably not.

The majority of the article is about America's lagging research in the deep-sea because of smashed budgets and limited resources.

Check out the awesome web of scientists and marine laboratories involved in working on Alvin, and see how deep sea science has been hobbled by economic cuts.

From the Archives: West Coast Marine Laboratories and the United States Fish Commission

Bronze Bust of David Starr Jordan in the Special Collections Reading Room at the Green Library
Stanford University: Palo Alto, California

I've just finished two days in the archives at Stanford University. I came here for the David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) papers- a huge collection of material from one of the best known ichthyologists in the United States.

Jordan is an interesting figure: a eugenicist, peace activist, university president (at Indiana University and the first president of Stanford), fisheries researcher, taxonomist and general leader of science in America at the turn of the 20th century.  Most of the papers I looked at ended up covering territory other than his research on fishes.  In fact, neither the archivist at the California Academy of Sciences (he was president for a while) nor the archivist at Stanford know where the majority of his fish papers reside- each suggests it resides with the other institution.  

I looked at about 60 moleskin notebooks in the collection- tiny books containing daily scribbles including shopping lists, general comments about the government, financial details, and a lot of unintelligible scrawl.  What I had hoped to find, notes about his taxonomical work, and especially his use of photography, x-ray, and aquariums to render fishes more lifelike in illustrations, was mostly absent. My other interest, the founding of the Hopkins Marine Station in 1892, was also lightly represented in his notebooks and letters. But, what I did find was something that brought my research at Berkeley and Stanford a bit closer together and has forced me to think differently about marine laboratories founded on the West Coast.

In both William Emerson Ritter's and David Starr Jordan's papers, I found extensive correspondence between these ichthyologists and the United States Fish Commission (renamed the U.S. Bureau of Fish and Fisheries in 1903 and Fish and Wildlife in 1940- it's now split between Fish and Wildlife and NOAA).  Both Ritter and Jordan helped establish marine laboratories, and both hooked those laboratories into the extensive network of the USFC for funding, tools, and even staff support.  

David Starr Jordan had a somewhat longer history with the USFC- he worked as an investigator for the USFC during his summers in Indiana, and traveled West to examine salmon and trout populations throughout Colorado and Utah in the 1880s. He maintained his connection to the Fish Commission after his move to California, eventually heading the Pribilof Seal Commission and eventually helping Japan, Russia, America and Canada ratify a seal treaty that would bring the seal colonies on these islands back from the brink of extinction (although extinction continues to threaten the seals). Jordan linked the Hopkins Marine Station with the USFC by attracting one of the leading members of the Commission to California.  During his work in Indiana, Jordan worked closely with Barton Warren Evermann.  Evermann was wooed to California by Jordan in 1893, to work at Hopkins during the summer and to research for the USFC during the winter months.  He would return often to California and the Hopkins Station, even after becoming the head of The Division of Scientific Inquiry at the USBF in 1903. With Evermann and Jordan leading the Hopkins Station, the earliest problems tackled at the laboratory were fisheries based.

W.E. Ritter felt that the Pacific Ocean held a great capacity for feeding the rapidly expanding population of Southern California.  His problem:  no one really even knows what's in that water! (scary, I know) In 1902, he contacted the USFC with a proposition: the Marine Biological Association of San Diego and the USFC could band together to figure out what is in the Pacific, what is rapidly disappearing, and what we can do about it.  Of course, the USFC said something along the lines of "hell, yeah!" and a strong relationship between the Scripps Institution and the USFC was born. Scripps sent an enormous amount of information on fish hauls and new specimens to the USFC in Washington, and worked with the government to realize the natural resources of Pacific environment in Southern California.

These links have sent me back to my work.  Were West Coast laboratories more connected to government fisheries than East Coast? If so, why?

Both Ritter and Jordan courted a link between their marine laboratories and the USBF; tracing these links and what it meant for these laboratories is my next step.

Friday, September 7, 2012

From the Archives: William Emerson Ritter: A Man with a plan, a backer, a boat, and eventually, an Oceanographic Institution!

William E. Ritter
Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library

I've been in Berkeley, California the last few days, pouring through the many boxes and cartons of the William Emerson Ritter collection at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.  This collection is huge, but I'm not necessarily concerned with the bulk of the papers.  Those detail Ritter's participation in the formation of Science Service.

Instead, I'm interested in Ritter's work at the University of California marine laboratory connected with the Marine Biological Association of San Diego. In 1902, Ritter (then a junior professor at the U of C) initiated a survey of California waters off San Pedro. The next year he moved that survey point to San Diego.  There, he found a group of local citizens who were equally interested in the marine environment, and the MBA of San Diego was formed and a marine laboratory was built.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 1911

The laboratory received the majority of its funding from E.W. Scripps and his sister Ellen Scripps.  Starting with a one-room wooden structure without running water, as director, William Ritter built the laboratory into a fantastic source of new scientific research in the marine environment. By 1910, the smaller laboratory had been moved to La Jolla and expanded to accommodate the large amount of investigators interested in coming to California to work at the Institution.  In 1912, the University of California joined with the MBA to maintain the laboratory, and the name was changed to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Ritter was a prolific journal keeper.  His archives are filled with slips of paper and napkins with notes about embryology and morphology, as well as every notebook from his graduate training in biology at Harvard.  Of particular interest to me are the journals he kept during the first 10 years of the MBA. They detail issues with water purity, securing research vessels, funding decisions, and other day to day activities.  Ritter wrote down nearly everything he did for these years, providing this lucky researcher with a full, if dry, account of the life of a marine researcher.

Beyond his amazing record-keeping, Ritter also provides me with insight into the reasons that biologists founded so many marine laboratories at the turn of the century.  Ritter outlines, both in published work and in his personal notes, the importance of balancing laboratory and field work in marine science.  He doesn't feature in Robert Kohler's Landscapes and Labscapes, but his papers suggest that the debate about the place of the lab and field in marine science was being debated. Ritter, and his work at the MBA, give me a glimpse into that debate, and the importance of place in American science at the turn of the century.

Also, there was a picture of a lobster.  It is awesome.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

From the Archives: Charles Hibbard, Official Collector of the Steinhart Aquarium

I'm currently in San Francisco visiting the California Academy of Sciences, Berkeley, and Stanford University (or as I like to call it: John Leland Stanford, Jr. University) archives.  Each institution has a collection that sheds light on the history of marine science in the state.

Yesterday, I headed downtown to the California Academy of Sciences to look at two sets of papers: those of the Academy and the Steinhart Aquarium.  The day went smoothly, but I did not find much useful information until a half hour before the archives closed.  And then, the archivist showed me something amazing!

In a box misleadingly labeled "Seale and Lanier - guidebook Eisen, E (1900) construction, etc. undated 1 archives box", Rebekah Kim pulled out three bound volumes. Two were a little too new for my research, but the third was a treat.

Entitled "Report of the Collector for Steinhart Aquarium for the Year 1929" by Charles Hibbard, the volume contains a year of collecting trips Hibbard took to stock the Aquarium.  Hibbard tells about dealing with local fisherman, what nets are best for catching and keeping fish alive, where the best pebbles can be found to line the aquariums, and talks about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being a collector during this period.

This is an amazing source for many reasons.  While I've found some information on fish collectors from this period, this is by far the most complete. Many full time collectors were local boys and men raised in the fishing culture. They were often illiterate, or wrote very rough English; and too often, their words have been lost for lack of documents, or their voices have been lost because poor English was edited and rewritten for official records (even in archives). Hibbard's writing can be rough in spots, but the volume is highly readable and the whole work is written as a first hand account; it reads just like a personal journal- with all the asides and cursing still added.  Hibbard mentions working with marine laboratories to collect and keep specimens on longer trips, he talks about working with local fisherman, and he gives step by step details for finding, catching, transporting, and keeping these specimens.  It's an awesome source. And I'm sure, upon subsequent readings, that the depths of knowledge contained in this journal will become even more apparent.

I hope my trip to Berkeley tomorrow uncovers even more amazing sources!