Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A whale (shark) of a tale my friends

One of the things I love doing (no really I do love it) is spending some time reading scientific journals. After all, how else can I know about all the cool stuff that my fellow travelers are doing in my name out on the high seas? This task has become somewhat easier over the years as more and more journals are available on line, and as my employer has made it a point to ensure access to those e-journals.

Of course, PLoS ONE also makes it really easy to keep up on a wide range of topics, and I am glad that many of my colleagues around the world are considering publishing there. With that in mind, here’s a recent whale shark genetic study that I find really fascinating.

The authors set out to examine the population structure of these mysterious lumbering giants. It was not an easy task, as aside from feeding aggregations, there are only occasional open ocean sightings of mature individuals to go on. So genetic work to relate the populations is extremely important.

I imagine that Schmidt and her colleagues were excited to find that most if not all whale shark populations appear closely genetically related. This discovery, presented in the usual dry scientific language reads:

Microsatellite analysis of whale sharks sampled primarily at feeding aggregations around the world showed little genetic differentiation in this study. The Pacific and Indian Ocean populations were very similar based on FST value (P×I = −0.0022), while FST values for the Caribbean population were somewhat larger when compared to both the Pacific and Indian animals (C×P = 0.0387; C×I = 0.0296). Only the C×I population approached statistical significance for genetic differentiation (p = 0.0495). It is likely this value would be more highly significant if additional Caribbean animals were available for analysis. FST for C×I remains low, however, indicating subtle differentiation between Caribbean and Indian whale sharks. Despite this finding, the data show that there has been significant gene flow between geographically disparate populations. The individual-based analyses (STRUCTURE and PCA) also indicate no clear genetic clusters of whale sharks based on sampling location (Figure 2). Gene flow between geographic sampling populations could be mediated directly, by individual animals traversing large distances to interbreed with distant populations, or could be more incremental, as animals breed with near neighbor populations and their offspring subsequently move to yet more distant areas. As data become available about additional whale shark aggregation sites, it appears that a band of whale sharks spanning the mid-latitudes is plausible.”

In other words, after analyzing the samples they could get, and running some time tested and accepted statistics, it turns out that whale sharks MAY be a world-wide metapopulation. That is significant news, because it points directly to a need for better, broader, conservation across political boundaries and jurisdictions:

As whale sharks cross geographic and political boundaries in their movements, international protection should be sought to ensure the continued survival of this species. In addition, it should be kept in mind that genetic methods of population study reflect only the history of the species. They cannot detect more recent changes in behavior that may be caused by overfishing, habitat disruption, tourism, or other anthropogenic activities currently impacting whale shark populations.”

Why does that matter, you ask? Well, in spite of the existence of such things and the IUCN Red List, conservation of marine species is still largely a nation by nation activity. As such, protection is often granted by nations that have no economic interest in harvest, while protections are often minimal, non-existent, or ignored by nations that have such an incentive. This inconsistency leads to rapid declines, habitat alterations, and poaching. We see this all the time on land – elephants and gorillas being but two examples.

So, once again, marine biologists have delivered to marine policy makers a challenge – how to conserve whale sharks when the evidence is clear that they cross national jurisdictions as true world residents. It will be very interesting to watch the additional science unfold, as well as the policy response.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Big political news - Spector switches parties

So, the WaPo is reporting that Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector is switching party affiliation prior to his reelection bid in 2010. I am sure more details will follow, but for now I think there are two key considerations to ponder here.

first, how can Republicans continue to claim that they are an antidote to Democratic policies if they keep loosing (either through lost elections or party defections) their more moderate (and thus sensible) politicians?

Second, if the Democrats get a 60 seat majority, will that really change things? Harry Reid will still be the Senate majority leader, and I am not sure that his effectiveness will increase if he knows he can get cloture.

So, while I go to lunch - its your turn. What do you think this will do for national politics? Pennsylvania politics?

UPDATE: One thing this brings to mind is that without a credible third party on the national scene, politicians often have to do things like this as their political beliefs change over the years, or their supporting demographic changes at home. Another thing it brings to mind is how much we need complete public financing of elections, so who you figuratively owe what to for financial support isn't an issue.

Monday, April 27, 2009

News you can use - the economic value of our coasts

Every once in a while, I get asked why the federal government spends so much money doing "coastal restoration." I usually answer from the ecological perspective, but occasionally I manage to slip a dollar sign or two in there.

So today, when one of my professional colleagues sent me the stats below, I thought I might pass them on. This, in a non-scientific, non-ecological nutshell, is why coastal habitats, and their restoration and protection are so important:

  • Coastal areas are tremendous economic resources, generating more than 28 million jobs in the United States. Commercial and recreational fishing alone employs 1.5 million people and contribute $111 billion to the nation's economy. (EPA. National Coastal Condition Report II (2005))

  • U.S. estuaries produce more food per acre than the most productive farmland. Approximately 75 percent of commercial fish species depend on coastal areas for feeding, spawning grounds, and nursery areas. (Martin, D. M., T. Morton, T. Dobrzynski, & B. Valentine. (1996) Estuaries on the Edge: The Vital Link Between Land and Sea. A Report by American Oceans Campaign.)

  • U.S. coastal wetlands reduce the damaging effects of hurricanes and other storms on coastal communities, providing more than $23 billion in annual storm protection services in areas most vulnerable to hurricane and tropical storm surges. (Costanza, R. et al. (2008). The Value of Coastal Wetlands for Hurricane Protection. Ambio.)

So, the next time you are down on the coast - be it beach, bayou, marsh or rocky shoreline, ponder how that slice of perfection before you is contributing to both the human economic endeavour, and the ecological machine that underpins it. Oh, and be sure to take some trash home with you for proper disposal.

New NOAA climate science report - methane is more then just cow manure.

Apparently, it's not just Carbon Dioxide that we need to worry about. If Methane, which is regulated as a green house pollutant, is increasing this fast, I guarantee you it's not from cow farts.

H/T Joe Romm at Climate Progress.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Glenn Greenwald on Democratic complicity and what "politicizing justice" really means

As Usual, Glenn Greenwald makes an excellent point about the torture debate. Sadly, until the vast majority of Americans are clearly shown how this affects them, he and I are probably still tilting at windmills.

UPDATE: Mark Danner's piece in the Sunday WAPO makes for a compelling companion to Glenn's. Both are correct - we as a nation cannot ignore this assault on our basic principles.

The Deadliest Catch - Fan conventions, ocean acidification and science framing

Just when you thought it was safe to venture forth and enjoy spring, comes this word from Seattle: There is now a Deadliest Catch annual fan convention. Yes sir, no longer are fan conventions limited to the likes of Star Trek, Japanese Manga collectors, or even model train enthusiasts. Nope, now you can (if you were lucky enough to get a ticket) sit down and listen to the real life fishing boat crews from this Discovery Channel reality show.

Which makes me, as an oceanographer and ocean policy wonk ask this question – how does the ocean community leverage such phenomena to help educate the public on ocean issues? Are there ways we can, for instance, use a convention like this to help people understand the economics of commercial fishing? Or how about the intersection between king crab biology and ocean acidification? What would the impact be of Capt. Sig Hansen giving a talk not just about how he runs his boat, but about how climate change could drive his fishery to extinction?

I asked this question this morning to some of my federal ocean science colleagues. As you might imagine, I’m still getting an earful. The best crafted response so far, however, comes down on the side of not leveraging this opportunity:

“{Our Agency} is not a professional wrestling or football team, and we should not try to emulate what Discovery does. Most people don't know what an ecosystem is and won't care what {we} does. PBS viewers probably would--and this is the audience we should be targeting-- not the mindless masses who watch the other stuff (sorry if you're one, but I just can't abide them).

so--- most people just really aren't interested in the science {we do} or want to know that the world is falling apart. Stupid TV shows have replaced church as the opiate of the people, and most folks wouldn't be interested unless you can put in lots of shots of sharks eating someone. Neil Postman got it right in "Amusing Ourselves to Death".”

In many respects, I can’t say that I am surprised by the response. I know many really well educated scientists, policy analysts, economists, etc who would agree. And in a perfect world, they’d be right. PBS, for all the political bashing it does, is really the best “reality TV” out there. It is one of the things that got me hooked on ocean science as a career (Portuguese Man o’ War being another). And since I don’t have cable anymore, I haven’t seen a Deadliest Catch episode in a long time.

But where I and my colleague part ways is this – those opiated masses are the ones who want to buy steamed king crab by the pound at Giant or Red Lobster. They are the demand creators for this fishery. They are also the ones driving SUV’s, buying coal fired electric power, and doing a host of other climate change enabling things. As long as no one draws the link for them, in clear terms, between their actions and the long range consequences, there will be no groundswell politically to tackle these issues. And as any good framer of science knows, you have the best chances with the public if you get to them through existing information channels that they already access.

Does Capt. Hansen know that increasing ocean acidification might imperil his catch? If he did, would he speak to his legion of fans about it, and how they might be causing it (however indirectly)? I don’t know, but I’m hoping one of the convention goers this year will find out.

P.S. One of my other colleagues suggested that we start working on Somali coastal and fisheries restoration projects as a way to inject the needed action sequences into the program. I'll give him props for thinking WAY OUTSIDE the box!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Change we can Believe In

My regular readers (all two of you) and those on whose blogs I comment will note I've been missing a lot in the blogosphere. I have good reasons, however - my wife and I welcomed our third daughter on Friday 27 march. Marcella weighed 6lb 12 oz, is 19.5 incehs long, and very healthy.

So I'm taking a few weeks off from work (and from blogging) to revel in my third attempt at understanding daughters. If that means I miss a fe wof the biggest events in the world, so be it. Its a price I can live with.