Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Visualizing the Deep Sea Environment: Vehicles and Videos

I used to be the type of person who clipped newspaper articles out of the paper and sent them through the mail to people. Just a little something to say, hey, this story about whatever is something that might interest you. Some people have called this habit "old fashioned" and likened me to a grandmotherly-type (haters, unfortunately, are gonna hate), but it turns out if you make the ability to clip articles painless and stamp-less, bunches of people do it. So in the last few years, I've become known on Facebook as a lady who digs the ocean, and I receive a lot of posts pointing me towards cute videos of seals and crazy stories about whales. The last few years, the video below has been posted to my wall several times:

And just the other day, this one popped up:

These images have a lot in common.

They were both captured by remote video technology on deep sea oil drills. The first video was captured at the depth of 7828 feet and the second at about 5000 feet below the surface.

The organism featured in each video was billed in news stories as a "Monster"- Am I the only person in the world that gets a little sad every time a deep sea organism gets billed as a monster just because they don't show off in front of cameras all the time like dolphins (total media whores)? In fact, neither one of these things are "monsters" (whatever that word implies- I think it implies teeth and intent- two things neither of these animals posses) and they were both already known to science.

The first video is probably of a Magnapinna squid. Specific identification is difficult, not because it's a grainy shot, but because researchers have never actually collected the adult form of this squid- its taxonomy was worked out from larval and juvenile forms (these are more easily collected at the ocean's surface- pelagic organisms migrate into deeper water as they mature) so scientists are guessing that this particular specimen belongs in the same family as those forms (Magnapinnadae).

The second video features the pelagic jellyfish Deepstaria Reticulum. (It was initially misidentified by Deep Sea News as Deepstaria enigmatica but later identified as a separate but similar species)

The last thing that these videos have in common is that they offer images of organisms that are rarely seen and difficult to collect and analyze. But science is coming to know more about them through the use of manned and unmanned vehicles and video technology.

The study of deep sea organisms has proceeded slowly. In early marine expeditions such as the Challenger expedition of 1872-76, researchers sampled and surveyed pelagic organisms by dredging and netting off the ship. While this method brought up a variety of specimens, certain groups of organisms, especially those that are gelatinous or fragile, were mangled in the process and identification was difficult.

William Beebe pushed the process of exploring these organisms forward with his bathysphere. Between 1930 and 1934, Beebe used his submersible to observe deep sea creatures in their native habitat. He described quite a few new species (some have never been seen again).

Beebe in his Bathysphere

But there were some problems with the bathysphere when it came to consistent study of the denizens of the deep. Beebe had no ability to grab the specimens he saw so the only way to "see" the specimens was through Beebe's descriptions and the illustrations produced by his illustrator, Else Bostelmann. Underwater photography and flash was not advanced enough to take photos out of the bathysphere at great depths. Beebe took notes and made drawings during the dive, and he was also connected by radio wire to Else on the boat. She took notes and made sketches based on these real time descriptions and combined with Beebe's own notes and imput, produced some pretty unforgettable images of these newly discovered pelagic organisms.

Else Bostelmann's illustration of a new pelagic species seen by Beebe in the bathysphere. 

These research platforms have come far since Beebe's work in Bermuda. Both HOVs (human occupied vehicles) and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) are used to give researchers direct access to organisms in their habitat. Scientists can study behavior, interactions between species, and physiological measurements; in addition, they can take photographs and video for further study.

According to Bruce H. Robison, high-resolution video systems attached to these vehicles can perform  quantitative surveys as accurate and useful as those conducted with nets. In addition, they can capture images of delicate organisms such as the Deepstaria. Another plus- most gelatinous pelagic organisms are transparent, so the video recording does not merely display the features of the main specimen, but often the prey is visible in the digestive tract (I know, super cool!).

Observations of pelagic animals has increased due to the use of HOVs and ROVs. In 2002, Guerra et al.  described some of the advances teuthologists (people who study cephalopods) had made working in HOVs with video attachments, including new behavioral patterns (Vecchione and Roper, 1991), light displays of octopuses (Johnsen et al 1999), a description of a new genus of cephalopod living in hydrothermal vents (Gonzalez et al, 1998), and new types of locomotion (Villanueva et al, 1997).  Guerra et al. reported a series of cephalopod observations made with HOVs in 1988, 1992, and 2000.

Guerra et al. tentatively identified the specimens through video footage and still photographs as belonging to the megapinnidae family.

At the end of the paper, the researchers state that "It is amazing that a large and completely unknown animal has suddenly been observed in the last ten years at similar bathypelagic depths in the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and western and eastern Atlantic (Lindsay & al, 2000; Vecchione & al., in press; present paper). This is clear proof of how little we know about the bathypelagic, the largest ecosystem on the earth." 

It is, indeed, amazing but not particularly surprising because of the impact that vehicles and video have had on the exploration of the bathypelagic. The difference that these tools make has not gone unnoticed and researchers are working to extend the use of video in survey work.  In 1998, Euan Harvey and Martin Shortis proposed using a stable underwater video surveillance system  to survey the size and quantity of specific species of reef fishes in a given area. The authors' major struggles come from calibration of the system: how do you make a remote video system as accurate as physiological information taken from SCUBA divers tasked with surveying fishes? The authors offer several suggestions, one of which is to look towards the oil rig systems that have already captured the images above. Harvey and other researchers are still working out how to get accurate information from these systems, but it is clear that stable surveillance could be one of the next steps for pelagic exploration as well. 

In addition to stable systems, Robinson states that 

"Development of AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles/gliders) with target acquisition and tracking control software is underway, and once available these systems will tell us a great deal about the daily lives of deep pelagic species by following and recording them through their daily ambits. Large-scale, deep survey requirements, both explorations and quantitative, can also be met by AUVs. In this case, data from on board imaging systems will be process by image recognition and analysis software that will eliminate the requirement for labor-intensive enumeration by human reviewers. This development will greatly expand the scale and scope of deep pelagic surveys." (269-270)

Robinson's prediction is in the offing- in November, 16 American and Canadian research teams launched "Gliderpalooza": a joint effort to survey the world's oceans using unmanned automated underwater gliders collect an enormous amount of data that will hopefully help predict weather patterns. But it isn't such a stretch to suggest that video surveillance could be added to these gliders to gather information in deeper water (these gliders only go to about 650 feet but can be used to dive much deeper). 

HOVS, ROVs, Stable video surveillance, and gliders are all technologies that are advancing our understandings of the pelagic environment and the animals that live there. If researchers are granted access to these tools (funding is always a problem but gliders are surprisingly inexpensive when compared to ship-based surveys), we will no longer have to label every deep-sea creature a monster when it is caught on camera. Unless they have big teeth and a monstrous intent (but only then)!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Townsend's Tortoises: an early example of historical ecology and the conservation of endangered species

If you read this blog often, you may have noticed my love of Charles Haskins Townsend. Townsend was the first director of the New York Aquarium under the New York Zoological Society (there was a previous director when the aquarium was run exclusively by the city) and before that he worked for the United States Fish Commission in a number of capacities.

Townsend was a rather interesting fellow and he shows up in so many important episodes of aquatic science at the turn of the twentieth century: he researched fisheries and he was also interested in basic research questions about fish physiology and behavior. But what I find most interesting about Townsend is the project he died believing was a failure, and which I think of as his biggest success: Townsend's tortoises.

Charles Townsend was an integral member of the Pribilof Seal Commission (for information on the Commission see this previous blog post). Under the direction of David Starr Jordan, Townsend wrote extensive reports on the status of the seal rookery on Pribilof Island.

Townsend with other members of the Pribilof Seal Commission. That's him (#11) in the amazing deer stalker. WCS Archives
As stated in my previous post about historical ecology (here), one of Townsend's jobs was to collect historical information about sealing from other countries. Well, while Townsend was collecting sealing data, he collected whaling data and this collection lead to a rather startling discovery: Galapagos tortoises were declining rapidly in population. 

The first reason that I love this story is that I love the way that Townsend followed a line from seals to whales to tortoises. As a historian who went from studying the history of religion and syphilis to eugenics to the history of marine science, I find in his trail of research a kindred soul. I get it- sometimes you just get sucked into a mystery and it consumes you. Townsend became consumed by tortoises (in an awesome non-painful way because they are herbivores- but seriously, nothing could be scarier because if they were actually to attack, I assume it would be a horribly slow and boring death).

The second reason that I love Townsend's interest in tortoises is because of what he did with the information: 

Townsend collected whaling logs from as many sources as he could find. In another historical study, he looked at these logs to ascertain how many tortoises these whaling ships had taken off the Galapagos islands for food on each voyage. By examining the data, Townsend found that the number of tortoises taken off each island had rapidly decreased over time, and that it appeared as if very few tortoises remained. 

Seeing this decline, he sought more data. He reached out to anyone who knew the islands to ask the question: how many tortoises are left? Can they be saved? 

Townsend received this photo of a turtle harvest on one of the Galapagos Islands from a natural history dealer. WCS
What he found wasn't promising: some populations were so depleted that sailors, explorers, and natural history dealers reported seeing few or no tortoises on several islands previously known to contain large populations. 

Townsend collected all his data and published it in The Galapagos Tortoises in relation to the whaling industry which you can read here. But he didn't stop there. Townsend set out to try to save the animal he saw rapidly declining. 

Through the use of historical data, Townsend recognized the dire prediction for the Galapagos tortoise and he sought to do something about it. Before his work with these creatures, most conservation efforts in the United States were centered on organisms that were considered edible or economically valuable. Clubs like the Boone and Crocket club had spearheaded conservation efforts of megafauna in the United States because they wanted to conserve those organisms for hunting; and Townsend was close to these men because they ran the New York Zoological Society. In the past, Townsend was involved in conservation efforts for organisms deemed economically valuable such as the Pribilof seals and also for sea turtles such as the black diamond terrapin that the USFC was trying to farm back from near extinction in Beaufort, N.C.  And Townsend was not opposed to conserving species so that they could be farmed for their perceived value, but for some reason he didn't take that tack with Galapagos tortoises. People had eaten them in the past, but he chose not to market his conservation efforts as saving a food source: he went a new route and wrote to zoo and aquarium directors asking that they raise these tortoises because they were valuable to humanity and the earth just because they were awesome. 

In 1928, Townsend sailed to the Galapagos Islands to trap and transport as many different species of Galapagos tortoises to the United States as possible. Throughout the previous 6 months, Townsend had been corresponding and traveling with various zoos and aquariums throughout the United States that he believed might have the climate and space to keep and breed these animals.   He eventually sends a varying amount of tortoises (usually between 2 and 10 specimens) to 15 different locations in and around the United States, several of its territories, and even to Sydney, Australia. Most of these institutions were zoological gardens, but Bermuda, San Diego, Honolulu and New Orleans were combined zoological parks and aquariums. 

Every six months, the directors of these institutions measured and weighed the specimens- sending Townsend a report on their progress.  If these animals died or in the case of poor 120 at the New York Zoo, were stolen, a necropsy was performed and the cause of death was reported.  Many directors received animals without knowing their sex or even what species they were- so a commentary on shell shape, sexual characteristics, and observations on behavior were reported as well. Townsend entered this data into a special spread sheet- which he later utilized to make comparisons between the sites. Throughout the years, the breeding and conservation of the tortoises took precedence over the ownership of the somewhat exotic specimens. While the tortoises were large draws for crowds, Townsend reserved the right to send the tortoises to new locations that might help them to breed more quickly.  In a letter to the Director of the Desert Arboretum in Arizona, Townsend uses his collected data to analyze what might be inhibiting growth and causing fatalities at the arboretum.  Of the original 18 specimens sent to Arizona, only 7 survive 2 years later.  Townsend states that the species in Bermuda and Honolulu are doing well, while those in the American west of Arizona and Texas have struggled because of cold nights.  He asks that Arizona send their remaining specimens to Florida so that they might have a better chance of survival and eventual breeding.  This moving of specimens is very common during the years Townsend was overseeing the breeding program. Ground cover was analyzed- there was a concern that some sites weren’t sandy enough for the turtles to lay eggs so they were moved to sandier locations. Food and environment were analyzed.  The tortoises apparently were deemed to like roaming room and hated being put in pens for the winter so the climate had to be warm year around.  And, there were quite a few pests and diseases that struck the tortoises.  But the interesting thing about all this is that, when told to move the specimens, for the good of the program and experimentation, the zoos and aquariums gave up those exotic species, or took on more.      
A child riding one of Townsend's tortoises. WCS Archives

While this conservation effort eventually did end in breeding colonies of Galapagos tortoises at some of these institutions, Townsend did not live to see them.  The Bermuda Aquarium and Zoological Garden did not successfully breed Townsend’s tortoises until the early 1950s. But, that success was followed by those in Honolulu and San Diego breeding. Some of these tortoises are still breeding and several have been sent back to the Galapagos to take part in the breeding program set up on the islands. 

A detailed record of the tortoises at their various locations around the U.S. Each tortoise was assigned a number and details such as weight and height were recorded monthly. WCS archives.
In addition to trying to save the tortoises by bringing them to American zoos and aquariums, Townsend was integral in jump starting the campaign to get the Galapagos declared a conservation area closed to hunters. 

Townsend was an old-fashioned fisheries scientist- he believed whole-heartedly in managing fisheries for sustainable harvesting, but for some reason he went a different direction with his tortoises. He didn't sell their conservation to the public as a part of fisheries management, but instead sought complete protection for the species. 

I'm a historian; I love complicated narratives and Townsend's is one of my favorites.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

New discoveries in unlikely places: the role of built spaces in ocean exploration

Recently, featured the Bobbit Worm (Eunice aphroditois) as their "Absurd Creature of the Week." Don't be fooled- there isn't a weekly column about absurd creatures (which would have been awesome); they just invented that column name to shame this awesome marine polychaete. It can't help it that it's a worm that snaps its prey in half and happens to also be both slightly adorable when young (rainbow colored) and then really repulsive when mature (10 feet long and slimy).

Yes, the bobbit worm is a little creepy because it's super dangerous to other fishes and such, but it is also creepy because it is mysterious. Who doesn't love a mystery?

This polychaete isn't often seen in the wild, so scientists know little about their life cycle, feeding habits, or breeding habits. What they do know has come, not from viewing these organisms in the wild, but in aquarium setting, sometimes accidentally.

Matt Simon at recounts the 2009 discovery of 'Barry', a bobbit worm discovered in a public aquarium in Cornwall, England after aquarists noticed the disappearance of fish, damaged coral, and the loss of bait and hooks left out overnight to catch whatever was disturbing the
aquarium inhabitants. Eventually, the aquarists dismantled the aquarium and found 'Barry' (pictured below) concealed in some coral. Surprise! They didn't really know how he'd gotten there, but guessed he was a tiny little stow-away when the coral was first introduced into the tank, and had rapidly developed into the awesome, if appallingly unattractive, specimen you see below.

My interest in this tale doesn't have much to do with the aesthetics of polychaetes, but instead stems from the fact that it is more common than people think to find these unintended guests in aquariums.

William Innes, an early luminary in the aquarium hobbyist field, often sent unknown fish specimens from his aquarium to Carl Hubbs and George Sprague Myers for identification. Hubbs and Innes published taxonomic information on the first known blind fish of the family characidae after Innes received some of the fishes from a fish dealer in Texas.

But there are similar stories to Barry- and my favorite comes from the Royal Botanical Society at Regent's Park, London in 1880. On June 10, 1880, Mr. Sowerby, the secretary of the RBS, spied something swimming, or more accurately, pulsing, in the giant Amazonian lily pad exhibit (Science, July 17, 1880, Lankester) . The Victoria Regia exhibit was quite popular at the RBS- these giant lilypads from South America were named after Queen Victoria (now known as Victoria amazonica). But whatever was in the shallow water wasn't supposed to be there, and had definitely not been placed there by an RBS member. (For a completely interesting paper on the naming controversy of Victoria amazonica check out Donald Opitz's paper in the British Journal for the History of Science)

What had made its way into the tank?

In 1880, Science published the first description of what they believed to be a new species, Limnocodium Victoria (later known as L. Sowerbyi and now known as Craspdacusta sowerbii), a fresh water jellyfish. This was huge, because a. no one had ever recorded jellies living in freshwater in the field and b. they had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. In fact, Sowerby stated that there hadn't been any new additions to the lilypad exhibit in months so the RBS was at a loss when pinpointing the origin of these jellies. What they surmised is that they had to have originated from the same water that the lily pads came from, and therefore probably came from the Guyana region in South America.

It was examined (by no less than George Romanes) and named, but researchers found it impossible to maintain in captivity and eventually all the specimens died and were preserved.

And then, it reappeared in the same tank of lily pads in 1888. This time, G. Herbert Fowler reported that the entire tank was covered in hydroids (a life cycle of jellyfish) but the origins and life cycle were still unclear" (Fowler, G.H. "Notes on the Hydroid Phase of Limnocodium sowerbyi." Quart. Jour. Micr. Sci.  30 (1890): 507)

A modern photograph of C. Sowerbii

After these initial descriptions of freshwater jellies at the RBS, they started to show up everywhere. In 1916, 1922, and 1924 Harrison Garman reported in Science finding large swarms in a creek in Kentucky.   In 1925, Frank Smith collected them in the Panama Canal Zone (also published in Science). By 1928, Charles M. Breder announced that the jelly had found its way into tanks at the New York Aquarium.

We now know that C. sowerbii is a hearty species of jelly native to China with a very special ability: it has a chitin-covered resting stage which allows it to survive in drought years. This ability means that it can be spread through mud or detritus without anyone knowing that they are transporting the specimen. And, it means it pops up in unexpected places, like the Royal Botanical Society. (This has become a bit of a problem as the fresh water jelly is now considered an invasive species- check out this article about its introduction to Israeli waters).

But, guess what: no matter how many times or how many places its been found, the first description stands. It continues to be named after the startled secretary of the Royal Botanical Society and the date of discovery is still listed as 1880.

Aquariums, both hobbyist and public, have continuously served as spaces containing undescribed and undiscovered organisms. We often don't think about these seemingly domesticated and constructed spaces as containing unknown entities, but they can and do often unveil new delights to the aquarists who might think they've seen it all (or at least that they know what they are working with). C. sowerbii and unexpected visitors like 'Barry' serve to remind us that built environments are still places of mystery and discovery.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Historical Lessons: The Pribilof Seal Commission and the Proposal to Protect Antarctic Waters

I know what you're going to say: we're all getting tired of know-it-all historians swaggering around talking about how you could have "learned something" and "not made the same mistakes" if you had just studied your history. "Just like last time" we have been known to say in our condescending way before running along to read more old musty letters that will probably give us an even more Cassandra-esque precision into guessing the future. We are snarky snarky bastards.

Okay, we're not actually that bad. Historians in general tend to be pretty quiet about making direct links and saying things like "nothing changes"- probably because we love the idea of subtle change. No situation is exactly the same, but I think we can learn something from examining history.

I've been thinking about this recently as I've read about the difficulties in establishing a major antarctic conservation zone. If you're unfamiliar with what has occurred, here it goes:

In July 2013, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCALMR)- established in 1982 to safeguard Antarctic marine life- called a meeting between 24 nations and the European Union to try to designate one of the largest Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in the Antarctic Ocean. One area encompassing a portion of the Ross Sea, proposed by the United States and New Zealand, would cover 600,000 square miles; another in East Antarctica proposed by France, Australia, and the European Union would cover another 600,000. It would, if passed, have doubled the amount of MPAs in the world and been the largest protected ocean region in the world.

But it didn't pass.

There were some reservations before the meeting in July- America and New Zealand had already scaled back their proposal, which had originally included all of the Ross Sea. That area is especially important in these negotiations because it contains the fishing grounds for the Chilean Sea Bass (a very yummy, very non-sustainable ocean resource that can sell for upwards of 35$ a pound).  As I've previously discussed on the blog, protecting marine fish stocks is very difficult because those suckers just swim everywhere and they don't really recognize man made borders. So, you can only protect those sea bass if they stick to the area you can get protected, and people who want to harvest these fish know it just as well as people who want to protect them.

And they aren't the only valuable resource in the Southern Ocean. Krill harvesting for animal feed and the Omega-3 fish oil dietary supplement market is on the rise. (I know all about this market as I'm a currently pregnant lady and those doctors push Omega-3 fish oils on you like, well, a pusher. Little did I know that those little pills could be filled with Southern Ocean krill!) With the warming oceans and the increase in krill fishing, scientists are in a race against time to establish baselines for a sustainable krill catch- first, they have to know a heck of a lot more about krill in general.

So when the meeting happened, things went south- and not in a good, let's-save-the-Southern-Ocean way. But in a Russia-and-the-Ukraine-are-questioning-the-legality-of-MPAs-to-try-to-block this-measure- kind of way. It's pretty clear that the CCAMLR has the legal standing, if they can get an accord, to establish MPAs. So why would Russia and the Ukraine try to block the MPAs?  The larger issues for Russia were the size of the proposed area and the fact that a ban on fishing and harvesting within that region would be indefinite. And a big thing, they suggested their wasn't enough scientific evidence to make all of these waters protected indefinitely. We don't know much about baselines when it comes to these organisms, and a lot of what we know is rough data and guess work. One of the reasons that protection would be a good idea is that it would actually allow researchers the chance to study the area intensively without worrying about harvesting. Who is to say what over harvesting krill and sea bass looks like?  Right now the data is rough at best and that could change if scientists get down there and find that stocks of krill are fine. But if they find that, it doesn't mean you can go harvest because now it is an MPA- I think you can see that this would be a problem- if there is a way to harvest krill sustainably in this area but we only discover that after we've blocked the region from fishing, we've cut off a huge supply of food from a lot of people. (also, there might be oil under the Southern Sea and we wouldn't want to leave that alone now would we) So. No. Go.

America and New Zealand have revised their proposal for a meeting next month in Hobart, Australia. The new proposal will start at 40% the second proposed size of the original, which was already smaller than the United States initially wanted (the entire Ross Sea) and this concession has angered many conservationists. But, we'll have to see what happens.

So, what about this situation reminds me of the past?

The situation in the Southern Sea reminds me a bit of another marine area with highly valued resources contested in the late 19th and early 20th century: The Pribilof Seal Islands in Alaska.

The United States purchased the Seal Islands from Russia in 1867, and by 1868 enterprising Americans (like their Russian counterparts before them) rushed to the islands to take advantage of a valuable resource that was considerably easier to mine than gold: the northern fur seal.

I think we're pretty familiar with what happens when people find a resource and harvest it unchecked: the fur seal almost went extinct twice. The incursion of Japanese, Russian, and English independent sealers nearly caused an outbreak of war over the territory.   In other words, things got pretty hairy up north; but instead of allowing extinction, the concerned governments decided to try to scientifically figure out a baseline population that would make it possible to sustain a seal herd and allow a robust sealing season.

The United States Fish Commission set up a seal commission to investigate how many seals still lived in the herd, their breeding cycles and behaviors, statistics and birth records for each year, and any other data that might help figure out what a normal and sustainable herd of these animals might entail. Of course, they started gathering this data at an all time low of the population, so a lot of information gathered was historical in nature. Charles Townsend, then an investigator for the Bureau, was in charge of gathering as much historical data as possible about the fur seal herd, and he was incredibly interested in solving the mystery of how many fur seals had existed on the islands before they were decimated by humans.

He turned to some amazing sources of information. Townsend asked diplomats in Russia, Japan, Canada, and England to gain access to as many sealing vessel logbooks as they could and send him the numbers of seals taken for each season. This wasn't easy work for the diplomats and there were major gaps in the records, especially because there were so many independent sealing vessels that had made clandestine runs into the seal islands.

But some information trickled in, including data from England for the years 1894 and 1895.

Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Charles Townsend Files

 You can see that sealing was on the rise, even as the number of seals were falling. The data trickling in from England, Japan, and Russia suggested that as the Alaskan rookeries became more cut off by American intervention, pelagic sealing (catching seals in deeper waters as they hunted) was on the rise.

Townsend and the Commission wanted more accurate data about breeding habits and sex ratios and the impact of taking male versus female seals on the herd, but this data was somewhat difficult to come by. A request for a count of fur skins by sex was met with consternation: how does one tell the sex of a fur seal after death? Townsend claimed it was rather easy to tell the difference (nipples!) and sent along a particularly helpful circular outlining where one might look to find the answer, but in the end the data was still patchy.

Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Charles Townsend Files 
In the end, Townsend and his boss David Starr Jordan collected sealing data for the years 1894-1896 from historical records, and tried to reconstruct the size of the herd, including the distribution of males and females, in order to set limits on sealing without cutting off the resource completely. 

Many aspects of the seal herd and its behaviors remained contested. One particularly interesting question involved accidental infanticide. Some scientists claimed that it was important to thin the herd of seals, because if the population became too large, females were known to accidentally roll over onto their cubs and smother them to death (a fear I seriously am having). Eye witness accounts claimed they had seen accidental deaths occur in highly populated areas, and this suggested to some in the Commission that it would be healthiest to maintain a smaller number of seals in a given area to allow all individuals a chance at growing to adulthood. But other scientists claimed that these eye witness accounts were unreliable and that, if such deaths occurred, they were uncommon and a negligible loss compared to the losses suffered from over harvesting.

Fur sealing was a big industry, and the fight over the right to harvest seals was a huge international issue. The Pribilof Islands were not the only fur seal rookeries in the world, Russia, Japan, and Canada all had locations where seals were present and they looked into their rookeries during the same period- I have not been in those archives but I hope someone will write a book someday on the seal convention of 1911 because they would definitely have a reader here!
The Pribilof Commission started gathering data and working on American harvesting issues as early as 1898, but an international Convention was not signed between Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States until 1911. That convention basically banned pelagic sealing and made it illegal for ports to take in illegally caught seal skins for processing (seal skin processing was just as big a business as the sealing itself). Each government agreed to patrol their own herds and waters for poachers and to cooperate internationally to prevent pelagic sealing. It's an involved convention and if you feel like reading it, go here. It's clearly written and very interesting. 

You might still be wondering though, what does this have to do with current issues in Antarctic waters? 

I think one of my concerns is that, in an effort to build MPAs, conservationists might be demonizing the industries that have grown up around the "blue economy". Is it wrong that certain companies want to harvest krill in the Southern Ocean- not necessarily. There is nothing inherently wrong about finding a natural resource and utilizing it. Of course, we would hope with the proper data and international agreements that people would follow the rules and only harvest in a sustainable way- but the very act of wanting to harvest does not make you a demon. Yes, Russia is a pain in the butt, but they aren't the only country that wants to harvest krill, and I'm sure they aren't the only country that is interested in oil under the Ross Sea. They are just a country that isn't afraid to say it- and that might be a good thing in the long run. 

A lesson we might learn from the Pribilof Commission and the eventual Convention is a lesson in time and the scientific process. Understanding the ocean, its inhabitants, its resources, and how we can sustain harvesting without harming will take more time, and scientific effort, than merely setting up zones where no one can harvest. Focus should be on international data collecting and sharing in these areas, and long term scientific studies that can give us more information about the ecosystem and organisms involved. If we rely on scientific data to make claims about sustainability, it is important that we admit when more data is needed. And that takes so much time. 

Yes, this is a dangerous statement. Global warming and new fishing technologies and methods mean that time is definitely not on our side. The ability to decimate an ecosystem is enhanced by a shifting climate and the ability to take larger and larger catches through updated tools- but there has to be something scientists can do to gather international data that would serve everyone's interest. 

What does not help is setting up a dichotomy between industrial/commercial fishing interests and the scientific and environmental communities. The oceans have long been a valuable resource for humans of all nations- Americans overfish their own waters and have failed time and again to set sustainable baselines for catches- because industry and culture have trumped scientific data. We should recognize in Russia's concerns what we can see in ourselves- not pretend we are perfect scientific stewards of the sea. 

The science of the sea is intimately entwined with feeding people on land and to pretend otherwise is to set up a harmful dichotomy that disallows conversation. Both Russia and the US (and all 24 countries and the EU gathered at these meetings) want one thing in the end- to not die on a wasted planet full of nothing but boiling oceans and toxic air. Work your way up from there and they'd like to figure out how to feed the world, by land or ocean, without turning those resources into boiling and toxic places.  As we saw with the Pribilof Seals, once the US shut down the islands to outside sealers, these sealers got very good as sitting outside the protected zone and picking off seals in deeper international waters. This bears a striking resemblance to the ability to catch krill and sea bass outside the Ross Sea. If we concentrate too heavily on preserving area, instead of sustainable catches based on data that each nation will want to enforce, are we really doing anything that will help sustain these organisms- or are we just shutting down future conversations about actually protecting these resources? 

International cooperation is the key to saving the Antarctic Conservation areas, not condemnation. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Salvaging Historical Ocean Data; the role of the archive in current scientific debates

I've just finished Callum Roberts' 2012 book The Ocean of Life and it has me thinking about how useful historical data can be to modern debates about ecology and climate change. My husband bought me the book to read during my plane ride to Manchester, UK to attend the International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (ICHSTM) last month and it, combined with a talk I saw while at the conference (which I will discuss later), lead to this blog post.

Roberts is a professor of Marine Conservation at York University and he has a fairly simple message:

"We find it hard to believe...descriptions of extraordinary past abundance because it has been so long sing such scenes were commonplace. It is a human trait to give greater weight to personal experience than to others' descriptions. The an intergenerational shift in the way we perceive the world. Science is particularly susceptible to these shifting baselines, as scientists work at the forefront of knowledge and are always in hot pursuit of the latest ideas." (48)

It seems simple to say that humans have a hard time believing things we can't see with our own eyes. I've talked a lot on this blog about the difficulty of reintroducing "native" species because the people who have to deal with the reintroduction don't imagine them as "natural" to that landscape- they've never co-existed with them in the past. But it is something else to say scientists have a hard time dealing with these historical issues. It makes sense- scientists are totally humans. But what does it mean to deal with an "intergenerational shift in the way we perceive the world" in science?

Roberts suggests that this limited ability to visualize the past landscape leads ecologists and environmentalists to underestimate the amount of change in an ecosystem over time. If you can't even imagine what it used to be like, or that it was different, how can you predict the changes that might occur?

One way to do this is to use historical archives to establish baselines so that we can see the change. Roberts points to two bodies of work, that of Loren McClenachan (a professor at Cobly College in Maine) and Ruth Thurstan (one of his graduate students at York). Both of these scientists use different forms of archival data to establish change over time in a given ecosystem. McClenachan utilizes a variety of archival sources, including historical photographs of game fishing in the Florida Keys, to ascertain the downward shift in size of game fishes caught in the Florida Keys from the 50s to the present.

"Documenting Loss of Large Trophy Fish from the Florida Keys with Historical Photographs" Conservation Biology 23:3 (2009)

Thurstan utilized previously forgotten government fishing data from the 1880s to the present to analyze the decline in catches.

 From "The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on on UK bottom trawl fisheries" by Thurstan, Simon Brockington, and Collum Roberts in Nature Communications 1:15 (May 2010).

Both of these papers are exceedingly interesting for what they tell us about the overall decline of fish stocks, but they are also examples of how scientists have extracted useful information from data gathered for a completely different purpose. The photos of game fishes were not taken to later be used for scientific purposes, and a scientists could not necessarily use just any picture as scientific data. McClenachan used photos taken on two separate boats by the same professional photographer, and each photo displayed the largest catches each day.  In essence, the author had to make sure that the photographs represented something important, and that they were taken in a consistent manner.

Thurstan ran into a different problem: fishing technology has changed greatly since the 1880s. So, how do you compare information gathered in the late 19th century with information gathered today? Thurstan looks at different "units of fishing power" and measures the size of stocks based on "landings per unit of fishing power".

Both scientists found useful data, but not in ready use form (or the form that many scientists are used to working with); the historical information wasn't necessarily ready-use, but it was useful.

This brings me to the paper I saw in Manchester. While I was at the conference, I was lucky enough to catch Marcel Wernand speaking about his recent paper with Hedrick van der Woerd and Winfried Gieskes entitled "Trends in Ocean Colour and Chlorophyll Concentration from 1889 to 2000, Worldwide" published in June 2013.

Wernand and his colleagues start with the understanding that ocean color correlates to specific conditions, i.e. a green color corresponds to a higher content of chlorophyll blooms. Most recently, scientists have used data about ocean color collected from satellites, but Wernand et al wanted to look at a longer data set to ascertain plankton bloom changes over a greater period of time. But, how to access data about ocean color before satellites existed?

The authors turned to something called the Forel-Ule scale. This tool has been included on board ships from the 1880s onward, and is fairly simple to operate.

Above, you see there are 21 different colors of water in the tool. Anyone on a ship- from the naturalist to the captain to a sailor- could enter Forel-Ule data each day during a sea voyage. And, it turns out, they did. The authors used digitized oceanographic and meteorological databases archived by NOAA-NODC totally 220,440 FU observations between 1907 and 1999. Before 1907, they turned to other historical information from major voyages and came up with 221,110 FU observations with which to work.

Unlike recent papers that suggest that plankton blooms have decreased worldwide recently, using these data sets Wernand et al found that plankton blooms have shifted throughout the world's oceans since 1889, but they have not experienced a blanket decline.

All three of these papers utilized a different form of historical data to assess the current status of the world's oceans, and archival data continues to be useful. NOAA has three ongoing historical ecology projects looking at the history of Stelweggen Banks and cod fisheries in Massachusetts, the Florida Keys coral reef project, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary project. Theses projects pair historians and scientists together to sift through archival data and examine the relevance of that data to modern understandings of ongoing ocean change. Pretty cool.

When I'm in the archives, I consistently run into large data sets- something that isn't necessarily helpful to me but could be helpful to scientists interested in catches and data from a particular area. In the Smithsonian archives, there are log books that contain hourly information on tides, ocean color, temperature, location, and fish catches. All are meticulously kept and just waiting for someone to take a look. And even though I get bummed that what I thought might be a useful journal (for me) turns out to be thousands and thousands of tiny entries about water temperature and color, in the long run, it's great to know that that data can be mined for useful information.

And, it makes it all the more important that we recognize that archives and historical data are not useless- they need to be preserved not only for historians but for the establishment of baseline ecological and environmental data.

Callum Roberts laments society's short memories of our surroundings- He suggests we scoff at the musings of our parents and grandparents when they states that our environment has changed over time; we understand only our limited personal experiences. But, this doesn't mean we can't access and quantify those memories at which we sometimes scoff. Historical ecologists and climatologists working with archival data have found multiple ways to access and quantify these memories, including photographs, statistics, and consistent tool use over time.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Letting a Species go- reposted from "A Last Word on Nothing"

I'm in the process of moving from Salt Lake to Wilkes-Barre, PA so blogging hasn't been at the top of my list. But, I wanted to repost this blog from Erik Vance's blog. It ties nicely into my last post on living with endangered species.

A Tiny Dolphin and a Big Problem

By Erik Vance | August 7, 2013
The following is an essay I wrote while reporting from the Sea of Cortez last fall. To learn more, read my piece in this month’s Harper’s Magazine: “Emptying the World’s Aquarium.”
Over the past few days I have found myself thinking a lot about the tragic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In it, the narrator kills an albatross and brings on the wrath of the ocean – bad weather, ghost ships, and whirlpools. It’s a transfixing tale of willful destruction followed by forgiveness and redemption. One particular quote keeps popping to mind.
He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small
Here in the Upper Gulf of California, fishermen, governments, and environmentalists have been struggling with a different kind of albatross – not one that soars high on the wind but rather lurks unseen in the murky water. But when the fishermen pull it into their nets, it’s an omen just as bad as that legendary bird.
Their albatross is the Mexican porpoise, more often called the vaquita (little cow). It’s a small, shy animal – four or five feet long with a blunt nose and rarely glimpsed even by the most determined scientist. They poke silently about, unique to just the very top slice of the Sea of Cortez, growing slowly, reproducing infrequently, and wandering into fishing nets. In short, it’s the kind of creature that seems almost designed to go extinct.
In the past few decades, the vaquita has become the Gulf’s spotted owl – a quiet spokesman for conservation in the region. After NAFTA was signed, its environmental wing (the Commission for Environmental Cooperation) and the Mexican government decided that saving the vaquita was priority number one. In 1994, Mexico created a massive reserve covering the entire Upper Gulf to protect the vaquita and in 2004 another area within that as a specific vaquita reserve.marcha006
Ever since the Chinese river dolphin went extinct in 2006, the vaquita has held the dubious title of “world’s most endangered marine mammal.” It’s not clear how many vaquita are left in the world. They were probably never common like their more congenial cousin the harbor porpoise but for the past 50 years as US demand for fish and shrimp exploded and the Colorado River dried up, the tiny population has crashed. Some estimates (mostly considered to be outdated) are as high as 500 but estimates go as low as 150, which would put them in grave danger of serious inbreeding problems in the future. The most recent comprehensive study four years ago put it at just 220 lonely creatures.
Fishermen by nature are not crazy about dramatic changes or outside intervention. When PROFEPA, Mexico’s fishery enforcement wing, moved in to try and enforce the reserve by fining poachers or checking permits in the 90s, their cars got torched. So to save the vaquita, the government tried some carrots instead. They cut back the giant trawlers, hated by local fishermen, and offered to push out all the outsiders so that locals fortunate enough to own a permit could have the fishing grounds to themselves.
Yet still the vaquita disappeared. So in 2008, they offered to buy out any fishermen or pay them to switch their shrimping gear to a dolphin-safe version. The payouts were generous – $25,000 or so each – as long as they spent it on building tourism businesses in the area, like hotels and seafood restaurants.
This should have been the happy ending of the story. Except that this is the Upper Gulf, not Cancun. Tourism is limited to a few Arizonans wearing “I’m with stupid” T-shirts who bounce down the dunes in their ATVs. Furthermore, not many fishermen know anything about hotels and restaurants (which are plentiful here, but oddly no fishing tours). Four years on, most of those businesses have failed.marcha013
As for the dolphin-safe nets, they do indeed spare the dolphins – and unfortunately the shrimp too. According to the government, the new nets (big scoopy things, in contrast to wall-like, filamentous gill nets) catch more than 220 pounds of shrimp per day – a really good haul. But I talked to fishermen who helped in that study and they said the dolphin-safe nets couldn’t catch enough shrimp for a dinner plate. But they were asked to write those numbers in pencil so that the researchers could change the numbers later.
Ask a fisherman today what he thinks of the vaquita and you are going to get an earful. Most who have followed government or NGO advice have either gone broke. Worse, you can’t have “vaquita tours” for rich Americans or see them frolicking from the beach since they’re shy and virtually invisible in their murky water (one fisherman told me his friends think outsiders made up the dolphin).
So in the end we have a story without any bad guys but one really tough decision. The fishermen have begrudgingly complied with the regulations but they haven’t really worked. The Mexican government – not known for its conservation prowess in other places – seems to have put in a genuine effort of money and time to solve this problem. The NGOs have done what NGOs do – try and save a charismatic species on the brink of extinction.
All that’s left is a question – one that will come up again, I promise you. When is it time to let a species go? Without local buy-in, conservation never really works. I mean, no one here wants anything to do with vaquitas and fishermen tell me if they find a dead one in their net, they just quietly slip it back in the water. It may be that in order to bring fishermen on board to help save other species in the Sea of Cortez, we have to let this one go. For people dedicated to saving the vaquita, like the ancient mariner, it’s been a journey filled with hard lessons.
He went like one that hath been stunned / And is of sense forlorn: 
A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn.
All photos of Upper Gulf fishermen courtesy of Dominic Bracco II
Reporting and travel supported in part by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Eel Problems

I've been away from the blog lately- finishing a dissertation chapter and researching my next one. My final chapter to write will focus on embryology and morphology at marine laboratories, and I've recently run across a problem: eels.

Did you know eels are problematic? They are, in a punny and scientific way, slippery.

I can truthfully say I've never been particularly interested in eels as a species. I knew nothing about them, and I didn't think my knowledge or lack thereof, would become a problem. But eels- they keep coming up in my research so I thought I'd sketch out here why they were so interesting to early 20th century biologists.

The mature form of the eel lives in particularly hard to reach places. They prefer to hang out near the ocean or estuary floor (some live in the ocean and some in fresh water), buried under mud or in rock crevices. This posed a huge problem for collectors of marine organisms in the early 20th century. Most collecting happened from boats- people threw nets or dragged the ocean floor- and examined what they could from these methods. Dredging involved basically dragging a metal object along the ocean floor behind a boat; some things looked like rakes or grappling hooks and others like big shovels. You can imagine what came up- slow-moving creatures, sponges, corals, sea stars, and sometimes a squid wrapped itself around the dredge. But eels, they're quick and slick and slippery and bringing mature forms to the service wasn't that easy.

The majority of eel forms that were collected during this period were from the surface of the water: eggs and leptocephalii. The leptocephalus, also known as the "slim head", is the larval form of the eel.

So far, these eels are sounding difficult, but not totally problematic. And actually a little boring. But here's where it gets good: Holy goodness these organisms end up all over the place!

Take, for example, the American eel. The American eel live in rivers on the Northeastern Coast of the United States in their mature form. But they are catadromous, meaning they migrate to salt water to spawn. Can you even imagine where they spawn? The Sargasso Sea. So, they swim from Eastern Estuaries into the Atlantic and lay millions of floating eggs and then, they die. The Sargasso Sea is big, and it's a gyre formation, meaning that things that float could end up anywhere. Down near the Bermuda Triangle, up near the coast of Newfoundland: there's much floating to be had- like a really long trip on the lazy river at Typhoon Lagoon.

The gyre of the Sargasso Sea.

Eels don't have feet, but imagine just floating around and around maturing in the Atlantic Ocean. 

So eel eggs (and leptocephalii) are just out there floating around. And when early 20th century marine scientists find them in their nets, they have to try to figure out what mature form they might become. This is super hard for three reasons: 

1. you can't match up eggs and mature forms based on collection location: as we just saw- there are just crazy eel eggs floating all over the place. Why would you think that something you found near South America had anything to do with a mature form that burrows in the mud in estuaries of the American northeast?

2. eel eggs and larval forms actually look pretty similar to each other- there's actually a time where nearly every eel species is just called leptocephalii because no one can tell them apart. 


3. All this migrating during development meant that eel forms really needed something special at each part of their separate life stages and these needs were very difficult to transfer to the laboratory. So raising eels from egg to mature form wasn't really possible during this period. And, if you can't do that, it's hard to figure out what type of eel you're looking at. 

The migration of the American eel leptocephalii during its life cycle. 

Marie Poland Fish*, one of the most kick ass ichthyologists of the 20th century (and not just because her last name is Fish), tried figuring out what type of eel eggs she'd netted in the Sargasso Sea during the voyage of The Arcturus in 1925. Fish transferred the eggs to an aquarium on board ship and watched their development every day to try to ascertain what type of eel the eggs came from. She thought that they were American eel eggs, but couldn't rear them past the leptocephalic stage. 

So, I've been looking at the mystery that is eel taxonomy and development at the turn of the twentieth century. And I suppose I assumed it was a problem that was cleared up sometime between Fish's observations and now. But it turns out that we still don't know that much about eel development. What are they doing out there in the Atlantic? What do they even eat? 

While the pattern of migration has been worked out for the American eel, the life cycle of the Conger eel, who also spawns in the Sargasso Sea, is largely a mystery. 

Interesting. An interesting eel mystery.

*I'm sure I'll get around to writing a blog about Marie Poland Fish because she may just be a new hero of mine. She made her name, not because of her work with eel embryology, but because of her later work with the Navy on marine sound detection. She basically helped the Navy calibrate their sonars to differentiate between fish and other sources of marine noise. Super super cool. Also, her last name is Fish and she works on fish. Still kills me!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Riding Manatees, or, living with Endangered Species (Sea Turtles: Part II)

So, this post was supposed to be about sea turtles until I became completely upset about that fact that people will not, apparently against all better judgement, STOP RIDING MANATEES! They won't stop and it is upsetting me horribly.

In February of this year, The Daily Show broke the story that Tea Party members in Florida were fighting for the right for people to ride manatees after Anna Gutierrez was caught in photos trying to ride one in Fort De Soto Park. According to Tea Partiers, everyone should be able to ride manatees; it's our God-given constitutional right and no one should interfere (make of that what you will and watch this ridiculous video which may sway you that it's a stupid argument).

When I heard the story about Gutierrez in October, I was really confused. Manatees are not an animal that I see and think, "that must be an awesome thing to ride." In fact, they look proficient at very few things, including swimming, and seem to only have floating down as a form of mobility. In truth, I'm as confused about manatee riding as I am about the sea turtle riding I wrote about in my last post. But, people keep doing it. Some people are even belly flopping onto manatees from piers. Why? Because it's Florida and seriously, craziness shakes south (Think Texas or Antarctica)

Does this look like something you would want to ride? Take note of the tiny appendages and the obvious delight it takes in floating. 

My rage at manatee-riding fits nicely into the post I already had planned about living with endangered species, a topic I've been thinking about quite a bit lately. Alison Reiser's book examines the debate over ways to save the green turtle. According to Reiser, Archie Carr and other activists and scientists believed that the best way to save the species was to have it placed on the endangered species list, so that it would be illegal to sell, trade, transport, or purchase pieces of the organism in the United States. While Carr knew that other steps had to be taken to ensure the survival of the species, especially protecting nesting grounds, he felt that stopping all trade in the turtles was the best path. The other alternative, farming green turtles to supply the market with sustainable products from the species (including meat and shell) was deemed too risky, mostly because of the difficulties with getting these organisms to breed in captivity.  Reiser's work raises some questions about this debate (farming versus protecting as endangered species) but, in my opinion, farming remains an unconvincing avenue because of the difficulty of breeding green turtles in captivity. If you always have to collect turtle eggs from wild sources, are you really going to be able to grow the species in any appreciably manner? There's room for debate, but that's not necessarily what this post is about.

Instead, after reading Reiser's work I came across the manatee business listed above, and then a couple news articles that really made me think about the impact of endangered species conservation on human-nature interactions.

There are a lot of reasons that an animal might become threatened or endangered. In the case of the green turtle, it's tastiness (we'll call this over harvesting). Turtles, bison, passenger pigeons, many many other animals have been over harvested as a commodity, be it food or fashion.

Recently, sea turtles have been back in the news. In early June, Jairo Maro Sandoval was murdered by drug traffickers in Costa Rica while patrolling a beach for sea turtle nests. Maro Sandoval had previously called attention to the link between drug trafficking and turtle endangerment- the same beaches used by nesting turtles are also used by drug smugglers. In addition, it seems that many drug cartels with access to these beaches are poaching turtle eggs to trade for drugs. The ivory trade has been linked to larger networks of terrorism, illegal firearms dealing, drug and human trafficking. Last year, six Kenyan Wildlife Services Rangers were killed by poachers for trying to protect endangered elephants and rhinos.

The intersection of poaching and other illegal activities has caused a crisis, not just for endangered species, but also in the environmentalist community- where deaths of conservationists is on the rise. Below is the chart for the number of environmentalists killed in 2002-11 (see how they compiled the data here).  Animals are still over harvested for commodities. The combination of violent drug cartels, illegal poaching, and a concerned international community of environmentalists has caused a rise in violence.

Another route to extinction is human encroachment upon habitat. In some ways, this is probably the most overarching of the problems. The manatee falls into this category- as do many species, especially plants, that occupy a niche ecosystem and don't evolve quickly enough to combat human interaction, introduced species, or other results of human habitation. Manatees can't get away from boats and they have a very limited range in which to feed and breed- a range that is now inhabited by the dreaded power boat and screaming children. Hence, decline.

The Florida panther is an animal that struggles to co-exist with humans. Most of the deaths of panthers can be linked to automobile accidents. As of April 29, 2013, 6 panthers have been fatally struck by cars in Florida, and the number will rise throughout the summer season. Efforts have been made to build wildlife corridors that will allow panthers to range broadly without encountering humans (or where humans will know to be cautious) but more corridors are needed. The car is not the only danger for Florida wildlife. A highly endangered key deer was found last week on Big Pine Key with its head caught in a Doritos bag. Luckily, a sheriff's deputy saw the deer and removed the bag, but the detritus of human habitation directly effects animals. No need to bellyflop on the deer (although I'm sure someone in Florida has tried- see above statement about insanity shaking south).

But there is another form of extinction that links these two- endangerment due to human intended decline. Let's face it- when we think about extinction, we'd rather think about these other two forms- humans needed food or they just didn't know better. But there is a more pointed form of animal extinction and it usually involves predators that feed on animals we find tasty. Mark Barrow has written about the systematic killing of raptors by Europeans because they were considered unwanted pests that killed the beautiful and yummy birds we wanted around. Other animals, including wolves, big cats, and pennipeds (seals, sea lions, etc) have all been targeted by human ranchers, fishermen, and farmers as nuisance predators that literally take food out of human mouths.

It's easy to think that humans might have outgrown this ridiculous stage of over killing large predators. It makes sense in some respect that a rancher would protect their cattle by shooting a single predator that has found a tasty hunting ground, but merely killing animals because they are of a predatory species doesn't make much sense. We understand, right, how important these creatures are to a healthy ecosystem? But it's clear that humanity hasn't outgrown the inclination to kill "pest" species and this has made the news lately.

In an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine entitled "Who Would Kill a Monk Seal" Jon Mooallem looks at a spat of recent monk seal killings in Hawaii. In a previous post, I talked about the Hawaiian monk seal and the lengths that are being taken to preserve this species. Since 2009, several monk seals have been viciously killed- beaten to death or shot. But no one has come forward regarding these killings, even though there is a sizable reward involved. But why would someone kill a monk seal?

Protection of the monk seal has changed the environment of the Hawaiian islands- not just for the seals but for humans. When endangered animals move back into human populated areas, human use of those areas can be changed- fishing rights might be revoked, access to resources decreased for humans and increased for the seals; even beach goers have to monitor their activities so as not to startle monk seals that may be nesting on the beach. This protection of nature is seen as coddling by many human inhabitants of the islands- if an animal cannot survive on its own, it should not survive. But, it is also seen as inherently unfair to the human population and the protection of these animals has lead to violent episodes against endangered species. Mooallem highlights the bizarre overkill of endangered species throughout the United States. Check out the horrible list of killings:

In North Carolina, for example, hundreds of brown pelicans have recently been washing ashore dead with broken wings. The birds, nearly wiped out by DDT in the 1970s, are now plentiful and often become semi-tame; they’re known to land on fishing boats and swipe at the catch. One theory is that irritated fishermen are simply reaching out and cracking their wings in half with their hands. In March, in Florida, someone shoved a pelican’s head through a beer can.
Around the country, at any given time, small towers of reward money sit waiting for whistle-blowers to come forward. This winter four bald eagles were gunned down and left floating in a Washington lake (reward: $20,250); three were shot in Mississippi ($7,500); and two in Arkansas ($3,500). Someone drove through a flock of dunlins — brittle-legged little shorebirds — on a beach in Washington, killing 93 of them ($5,500). In Arizona, a javelina, a piglike mammal, was shot and dragged down a street with an extension cord strung through its mouth ($500), and in North Carolina, 8 of only 100 red wolves left in the wild were shot within a few weeks around Christmas ($2,500). Seven dolphins died suspiciously on the Gulf Coast last year; one was found with a screwdriver in its head ($10,000). Sometimes, these incidents are just “thrill kills” — fits of ugliness without logic or meaning. But often they read as retaliation, a disturbing corollary to how successful the conservation of those animals has been.
It's clear that some animals, especially predators, are considered more dangerous than other endangered species. The debate over legal wolf hunting seasons has escalated in the last few years- spreading from the west to Wisconsin and the midwest. In an article today in the Times, Guy Gugliotta reports that the spread of large cats has caused less problem than wolves, possibly because cats scare easier or perhaps because a larger cultural stereotype of wolves (which they consider vermin and disposable).

Regardless of cultural perception of certain species over others, the reintroduction and success of certain  endangered species has hit an unexpected roadblock: What happens when you successfully bring back a population of animals that might not be able to co-exist with humans? In Mooallem's article, he raises an interesting point. While it is scientifically proven that these animals were part of the food chain and the environment before they started to decline, they are not perceived by the humans inhabiting the area now as being part of the natural landscape. They are perceived as dangerous interlopers.  Instead of seeing these organisms as a triumph of human action and science, they are seen as soaking up human resources and changing an environment that can and does exist without them. And in a sense, it's hard to argue with this reasoning: if you've lived your entire life in the same spot and never seen a bear in your neighborhood, is it going to seem very natural to see a grizzly strolling down your street?

Environmental Historians have often struggled with the problem of how humans perceive "wilderness." It's a question that has been asked consistently in the field. Something to add to this is the question that seems to come from reintroduction of species: how important is the lived experience of environment to the conception of "nature" and "wilderness?" And how does this lived experience limit certain aspects of conservation and environmentalism? While we might be able to scientifically save species, will the culture developed around their absence allow them to be reintroduced and thrive next to human populations?

I hate to be such a debbie-downer about species preservation. And I hate to leave you with such a sad taste in your mouth. I suggest reading Mooallem's article- it is both informative and even handed. The voices of islanders who clearly dislike the encroachment of monk seals are balanced by those of conservationists and I think presented the issues from both sides nicely (something that is rarely done even-handedly in my opinion). It is sometimes easy to dismiss individuals who would kill an organism we ourselves find precious and worth saving- but often the reasons for the resentment and killings are dehumanized. I'm not saying that there is anything right about ivory poachers or anyone that has killed a monk seal, but the reasons that these people believe are valid deserve to be reported on and Mooallem does this nicely.

But I hate to leave you in such a sad state. Really, not everyone is out there bellyflopping on endangered species all summer- and conservation efforts at zoos, aquariums, and public schools has lead to more and more children and adults that recognize the importance of preserving endangered species. So here's something huge:

This week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife suggested that chimps in laboratories be added to the endangered species list. Read here for the implications of this suggestion.

The very fact that I am forced to ask the questions above means that the efforts of conservation and environmental groups have, in so many ways, surpassed expectations. We are struggling with how to live with panthers, manatees, chimps, monk seals, and key deer. 10 years ago, I don't think many environmentalists would have thought this would be a problem. Instead, they saw a clear and quick path for all of these species to extinction. So we keep trying, and in the process, we address the issues above. Because it matters.

**I apologize for all the Florida Bashing but really, my fellow Floridians make it too easy**