Monday, December 24, 2012

A war fought over water: the battle for fishing grounds

According to the cease fire between Hamas and Israel last month, Palestinian fisherman can fish up to 6 nautical miles off shore, instead of the 3 mile distance imposed on them since 2009.  This is a great thing, according to local fisherman, because the 3 miles nearest to shore contain pollution and limit the catch on desirable species both for the fisherman to sell and the consumer to buy. The further from shore you fish, the wider the number of species available, and the more robust and mature specimens you catch. In the past, Palestinians were allowed up to 12 nautical miles (a somewhat traditional distance for a sovereign nation to extend fishing grounds), but the local fishermen suggest that they'll take the 6 miles for now.

The control of marine resources is not something people think about when they imagine the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but these resources, and the control over fishing rights and borders, has been an integral part of nation building throughout the last 150 years. 

The American government has battled over fishing grounds on both coasts.  In 1877, Spencer Fullerton Baird went to Halifax to testify regarding the matter of American fisherman operating within Canada's fishing borders.  Baird believed that the fish caught in those boundaries were of roughly equal value to those that Canadian fishermen could catch in American waters (which were open to them but not being utilized by Canadian fishermen very often), but the Halifax Arbitration disagreed.  The Arbitration concluded that the United States Government was ordered to pay Canada a total of 5.5 million dollars in compensation for the fish caught in Canadian waters (Canadian and British authorities originally asked for over 14 million and the U.S. Government felt they owed about 1.5 million so it seems a relatively good compromise). Baird went back to Washington with a plan to expand America's understanding of its marine resources in the hopes of mitigating another disaster like that at Halifax. Americans knew little of their own coast, and that lack of knowledge had caused their fisherman to overfish Canadian inland fisheries and to underfish their own stocks. 

Lissa Wadewitz's book The Nature of Borders: salmon, boundaries, and bandits on the Salish Sea outlines the many groups who had interests in the fishing boundaries established in the Pacific Northwest.  According to Wadewitz, the first set of boundaries pushed native fisherman from their traditional fishing borders (or lack of borders because boundaries were seasonal and familial, not based on ownership or statehood per se).  After native fishermen were pushed from traditional fishing grounds, the nation states of Canada and the United States sought to impose borders on salmon fisherman.  But, salmon are anadromous fishes- meaning they are born in fresh water, live most of their adult lives in salt water, and then travel back to fresh water to spawn and die.  The constant rotation and movement of fish stocks meant that salmon did not pay attention to nationally drawn and defined borders: they crossed from American to Canadian waters continuously, making regulation quite difficult.  What arose, and what is most interesting about this book, is a group of pirates and bandits that hopped back and forth across the state-defined borders to fish the stocks when available.  When reading the book, you can't help but root for the pirates, who follow the fish, not the law.  

Fishing rights and the extension of national borders for marine resources have a large place in nation building.  The ocean is a great source of wealth for nation states that can lay legal claim to territory: fishing rights, mineral rights, offshore drilling, etc. But for those unable to lay claim to their coastline, and the resources that that entails, the marine bounty remains fleeting and only temporarily available.  Americans might take for granted the maritime rights we have now (I do take for granted that our resources extend to the continental shelf) but imagine if we did not have those resources- we would be cut off from a large sources of energy and protein.  The importance of the marine environment to the nation state cannot be overstated.  While much of my blog is spent highlighting the importance of the ocean scientifically, politically, it is a great asset to nations. The many important aspects of the ocean, and all water resources, only highlights the importance of studying the history of them.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Beaked Whales: whales most commonly spotted on land

On November 6, 2012, Kristen Thompson et al. announced in Current Biology that a set of whales that had beached in New Zealand in 2010, tentatively identified as Gray's beaked whales, had been genetically identified as the world's rarest whale- the spade toothed beak whale.  The Spade Toothed Beaked Whale is considered the world's rarest whale because it has never been previously seen alive- its taxonomical descriptions stem from a single mandible what washed ashore in New Zealand, and two skulls sans mandible found in New Zealand and Chile.

The Spade Tooth Beaked Whale Specimen washed ashore in New Zealand, 2010.

When I heard this news, my true naivete about the size of the ocean, and human knowledge of it, came to the forefront.  I initially questioned if this might be a case of a Lazarus Taxon- a term used by biologists and paleontologists to describe a phenomenon where we encounter an organism alive that we previously believed was extinct because of its appearance and eventual disappearance in the fossil record and a lack of live sightings. One of my favorite Lazarus taxon (yes I am that dorky) is the Coelacanth- a lobed-finned viviparous fish.  It was believed extinct, but rediscovered in South Africa in 1938. Subsequently, another species of Coelacanth was recently discovered in the Indian Ocean, prompting some investigators to believe that there could be more Coelacanth species hiding in the vast ocean that we just haven't found yet.

Probably the most popular and unconfirmed Lazarus Taxon is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, or the Lord God Bird, supposedly spotted in the swamps of Arkansas and Florida between 1999 and 2006.  Originally believed extinct in 1987, it has garnered quite a bit of publicity as questions of authenticating sightings and the importance of environmental protection played out after it was spotted in a protected region of Arkansas swamps by a kayaker in 2004.

I'm not the only person with an obsession with Lazarus Taxon- check out the artwork of Dario Robleto- it's an intense discussion of this group of organisms (his work on Lazarus Species is juxtaposed with work on the oldest people in the world and, I think, sincerely speaks to the ideas of being singular organisms and the fragility of life. In a word:  Intense).

So, back to the initial discussion, I thought: Beaked Whale = Lazarus Taxon. We never see them alive, we don't know if they are still alive, etc. Gotta be, right? Wrong.

I was recently at an academic conference in San Diego having a discussion with Erick Peirson, who is no slouch when it comes to knowledge about cetaceans and especially whales, when I mentioned my ideas about Lazarus Taxon and beaked whales and such. Get a couple drinks in me and I burst out in all kinds of totally awesome conversations about non-interesting things! He immediately set me straight. Beaked whales, and not merely the spade toothed variety, are all pretty hard to spot. The ocean, apparently, is huge and these creatures love the deep waters of the open ocean (aka where humans don't really hang out). Within the ocean exists these crazy beaked whales (and other stuff), rarely seen, but presumed to be down there somewhere doing whatever it is that beaked whales do. Studying these organisms is apparently a study in frustration. However, assuming that everything humans don't encounter in the ocean is extinct would be ridiculous.

After this conversation, something began to nag at my mind- I had heard of beaked whales before I came across this story. But where? It turns out that I had seen images of the specimen used to name another beaked whale: True's Beaked Whale. While working at the Smithsonian Institutional Archives, I came across a field notebook kept by several research assistants at the newly established United States Bureau of Fisheries laboratory at Beaufort, North Carolina. During the summer of 1912, an unidentified species of whale was stranded on the beach at Beaufort. The specimen was cut up (you can see the head has been severed prior to picture taking below) and shipped to Frederick True, a curator at the Smithsonian at the time.  

The image of the beached whale sent to True by the director of the Beaufort Laboratory in 1912.

True described  the new species, and it's common name comes from his surname.  The picture of True's whale looks pretty familiar, eh? Just like the picture from 2010 of the spade toothed beaked whale found in New Zealand. These creatures are most commonly seen in this form- as beached forms that allow a small, and limited, glimpse of what lives in the ocean.

So let this be a lesson to me- the ocean is huge, and our understanding of what lives in the ocean is very different from our understandings of terrestrial animals.  If we don't see a tiger in the wild for 140 years and everyone has looked, it might be extinct. In the ocean, it may just be hanging out in the rest of the ocean. Investigators are still bound by what they can see, and in the case of the ocean environment, our vision is terribly limited- so much so that naming cetaceans and recognizing their existence means they have to basically come to us!

These animals are so hard to spot alive in the wild that a new project is seeking to collect sightings in one place to help improve our knowledge of these organisms.  Check out The Beaked Whale Resource, and if you happen to spot a beaked whale, let them know (and leave a message on this blog because that would be awesome). Happy beaked-whale watching.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

What is a slide aquarium (besides incredibly adorable)?

I was reading Samuel O. Mast's book Light and the Behavior of Organisms (1911) today (I've started work on Chapter 4 of my dissertation focusing on animal behavior and the study of tropism with marine organisms) and I ran across the most adorable reference.

In his chapter on the response of unicellular organisms to light intensity, Mast exposes euglena to different light intensities in a "slide aquarium." He describes the slide aquarium thus:

An aquarium made of glass slides glued together with balsam boiled in linseed oil. (104)

Most researchers at the turn of the twentieth century made their own experimental apparatus, and I can't find mention of a "slide aquarium" in any other literature. After reading that description several times, I've come to the conclusion that Mast built a tiny glass aquarium out of microscope slides glued together to hold unicellular organisms.  Obviously, this speaks to my ideas about the importance of the aquarium as an object for viewing animal behavior.  This researcher used found materials in the laboratory to build a teeny tiny aquarium to view unicellular organisms' reactions to light intensity. 

More importantly, it's stinking adorable. Can't you just imagine Dr. S.O. Mast (pictured above) very seriously building a tiny aquarium out of slide glass, placing tiny organisms into that tiny aquarium, and watching them react to changes in light?  In my mind, it's a pretty adorable day in the zoological laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University biology department. 

On a more serious note, the use of the term "slide aquarium" is something I've got to think over and around. The term "aquarium" is used in popular culture during this period to describe a sort of visual panopticon- the ability to see and view a small world and everything in it. I've seen references to the aquarium in mental health journals that talk about prison and psych wards. My scientific researchers also seem to be utilizing the term aquarium loosely- they refer to bell jars, buckets, store bought (few and far between in American laboratories) and self constructed apparatuses as 'aquariums.' So, what is an aquarium? And what work does the word 'aquarium' do for the investigator? Why not call this "slide aquarium" something else entirely? What did it have in common with an aquarium and how might it have been different? Unfortunately, Mast does not include photos or drawings of the slide aquarium, but I'll keep looking. Maybe he kept something in his papers at Johns Hopkins