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Our Daily Planet: Kicking Off Earth Day With The World's Oceans
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Thursday, April 19th, 2018

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To celebrate Earth Day, we are bringing you a series of special articles that we hope will be timely, informative and inspirational.  Today's edition is dedicated to issues related to oceans.

 Ocean Protected Areas

President Trump and Parks in the Sea

By virtue of our endless coastlines, the U.S. is an ocean nation.  In fact, we have the largest ocean "territory" of any country in the world.  Our oceans protect us from intruders and provide us food, recreational opportunities, and even energy.  They are vital to life on earth and to every U.S. citizen. And our ocean territory, just like our land, contains some spectacular scenery and wildlife.  

In the last 50 years, Presidents have begun to create national monuments to protect our natural wonders in the ocean -- just as they had been doing on land since the turn of the 20th century. In 1961, President Kennedy created the first one to conserve an intact barrier coral reef at Buck Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Since then Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama have vastly expanded the amount of ocean territory under protection.  Unfortunately, other than Buck Island and a California Coastal Monument to protect the gorgeous rocky cliffs, boulders and jagged coastline that are iconic to California, the rest of these "marine" monuments are nearly impossible for citizens to visit because of their remote and undersea locations.  

Despite their protected status, these areas are under threat from human activities such as to pollution, ocean acidification, and overfishing.  And now there is another threat -- the threat of elimination by President Trump.  As part of his monument reduction directive, several marine monuments were on the chopping block, including the newest one, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Monument, which was the first one in the Atlantic Ocean and was created by President Obama in the fall of 2016.  

Defenders of that monument got some good news this week.  A legal challenge to this monument brought by fishermen had been put on hold by the court until the Trump Administration made a final decision on whether to keep the New England Canyons monument or whether to remove its monument status. But this week, the Justice Department filed briefs in the case and it appears they will be arguing to keep the monument in place.  According to E&E News, "because the President lawfully exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act to create the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, Plaintiff's case should be dismissed," the Trump DOJ said.

Why This Matters:  Globally, the percentage of the ocean being protected is much smaller than the percentage of land that is protected in parks and wilderness areas.  But these "refugia"  or places where we let nature do its thing, are just as important under the sea as they are on land.  Countries around the world are finally stepping up to create parks in the ocean, including the U.S.  Let's hope the Trump Administration stays the course of his predecessors and is as interested in protecting ocean wonders as he is in drilling for oil offshore.   

To Go Deeper into Marine Monuments:  Watch the video below on the Papahānaumokuākea National Monument that President George W. Bush created and Presiden Obama expanded.  

H/T to Dan B. for making sure we did not overlook ocean parks this week!
Conservation International:  Protect Papahānaumokuākea National Monument 


Earth Day 2018: Conservation Leaders Speak Up

Today, in the second of our Earth Day series of conservation leader interviews, we hear from award-winning photojournalist and marine conservation advocate Brian Skerry.  Brian was the 2017 National Geographic Explorer of the Year. In addition to National Geographic, his work has been featured in numerous publications such as Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Audubon and Men’s Journal. He is the author of 10 books including the acclaimed monograph Ocean Soul. His latest book, SHARK, was released in June 2017.

ODP:   Last year you were invited by the White House to photograph President Obama snorkeling in the Papahānaumokuākea National Monument right after he had expanded its protection. No other President has been photographed interacting directly with marine life.  What was that like?  

BSK: I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I wanted to get it right. In underwater photography, photographers must get very close to their subject. Yet in this case, I didn’t want to be intrusive. I could see that the President was enjoying his time in the sea (he is a great swimmer) so I carefully picked my moments to get into the right position to make the pictures I needed. Beyond the photography, I also was able to talk with the President during our time in the water and it was inspiring to listen to his thoughts about why marine conservation is important. It was clear he had a real curiosity about the marine wildlife we were seeing and an informed knowledge about the value of protecting these special places. All totaled, I spent about 2 ½ hours at sea with President Obama and it remains a highlight of my career.

ODP:  You recently completed a major project photographing sharks.  What is it like to be eye to eye with a shark?  Do you have a favorite type of shark?

BSK:  There is always a sense of awe when I am in the presence of a shark. They have been perfectly sculpted by nature through eons of evolution. Their blend of grace and power is intoxicating for a photographer and I find myself always trying to photographically capture what I see and feel underwater. I am honestly interested in all species. At the top of my list are Makos and Great Whites but my favorite remains the 
Blue Shark since it was the first shark I saw in the wild. I remain enamored with its exquisite color and the elegant way it moves through the water.

ODP:  You are based in New England and have spent much of your life photographing the Gulf of Maine.  How has it changed in all the years you have been diving there?  What should we be doing to conserve it?

BSK:  I am very concerned about the degradation occurring in the Gulf of Maine. I began diving here 40 years ago and never imagined that I would have seen such loss in my lifetime. I remember diving off New England beaches in the 1970’s and 80’s and seeing large schools of fish such as herring and pollock. I frequently saw cod while diving as well. Today, seeing these animals is rare. Historically, these are some of the most productive waters in the world yet species have been decimated due to overfishing and warming temperatures are dramatically impacting ecosystems throughout this region.

As with most places in the ocean, I believe we need to reduce the effort on wild-caught species and we need to create more marine protected areas. Currently, there is only one protected place in all of New England’s waters, the New England Seamounts and Canyons National Marine Monument, which was designated in 2016. Its protection is now under the threat of being reversed. Marine protection equals climate stability so, with more areas of oceans protected, we not only help species on the brink but also stem the negative impacts of global climate change.

ODP:  Your current project is on whales and their behavior.  What inspired you to do this project?  What do you hope to accomplish?

BSK: I have long been fascinated with marine mammals and especially whales. My last whale story was published a decade ago in National Geographic magazine (a story about Right Whales). With this new project, I am hoping to work with several species of whales to shed light on aspects of their lives that will reveal greater complexities in their societies. Recent science is showing cultural aspects of whale lives that are not unlike our own. My hope with this work is to help people see the ocean in a new way, as the

place where these highly social and wise creatures live.

ODP:  You are world renowned for your photos of the undersea world. Do you have a favorite, and why? We would love to share it with our readers.

BSK:  I don’t have a favorite photograph but I do find myself drawn to different images at different times. At the moment I have been somewhat focused on a picture I made of a Great White shark in Australia. What I like about this photo is that the shark can be seen within the greater benthic habitat and that he is only one part of the scene.

Thanks, Brian, for sharing your insights on photography and conservation with us, and also for sharing with our readers the incredible shark photo you mentioned above.  We are sharing our favorite photo of yours as well!  
Photos: Brian Skerry  Obama Photo: via National Geographic


These tiny shrimp may be mixing ocean currents as much as wind and waves. 
Tiny Organisms, Big Impact on Our Oceans

Most people think that it's only wind and waves that churn the world's oceans but a new study has identified a third potential factor: tiny shrimp. These “centimeter-scale swimmers” push around so much water that their actions—and those of other swarming sea-dwelling creatures—should be included in models of ocean circulation, which help predict the role the seas play in climate change. The results of the study suggest that the shrimp can affect how nutrients are circulated in the ocean and how oxygen and bacteria are distributed below the surface. 

Why This Matters: There's still so much we don't know about our oceans (and some cool things we do know) and this discovery shows the importance of even the tiniest creatures that call it home. Also, better understanding mixing in the oceans helps us better understand how they sequester carbon dioxide by sucking it from the atmosphere, trapping it below the surface, and then mixing it with lower layers of ocean water. 

In addition to the superstar shrimp, scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic. The amazing bacterium was first discovered in 2016 in a dump in Japan, of all places. The Guardian reported that an international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic that's used in plastic bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Professor John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”

Why This Matters: The enzyme can break down plastics in just a couple of days whereas they take centuries to break down in the ocean. Researchers are hopeful this technology can be scaled and used to break down plastics into their original components and make new plastics from them--rather than having to extract more oil for the process. 


Will Congress Ban Shark Fins in the U.S.?

Sharks populations globally have been hammered by the practice of shark finning -- catching sharks only for their fins and discarding the rest at sea.  The U.S. bans shark finning domestically.  But now conservation advocates and even some powerful Members of Congress from both parties want to ban the sale of shark fins in the U.S., even when the shark was caught and brought to shore legally and intact, with its fins attached.  Retiring Congressman Ed Royce, Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Cory Booker, have introduced a bill to do just that, with the vocal support of conservation groups. 

But a rival bill is also being considered in Congress -- one that would ban the importation of shark products from countries that do not have an effective shark finning ban.  This bill, its authors claim, will level the playing field for U.S. fishers and at the same time force other countries to ban shark finning.  Opponents of the Royce bill argue that to ban the sale of fins is tantamount to putting U.S. shark fishers out of business by banning the sale of the most valuable part of the shark.  

Why This Matters:  Sharks are being harvested at an alarming rate -- the number most often quoted is 100 million a year.  This level of killing is not sustainable.  Congressman Royce, a Republican, argues that shark fins are like elephant ivory - fueling a black market trade that requires drastic measures to eliminate it.  He argues as well, that sharks are worth more to local economies if they are alive and in the water -- in Florida, for example, shark tourism rakes in $221 million for the local economy.  There are recent global studies that back him up.  Like the ivory sales bans, a domestic shark fin sales ban may now be needed to save shark populations globally.

What You Can Do: Sign the Petition to urge Congress to ban the sale of shark fins by clicking here.  



Photo: The Online Fisherman
A Record Red Snapper Season

The federal government announced on Tuesday that it would let 5 Gulf states set their own fishing seasons this year and next. The experimental permits will allow Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Texas track their catch, with each state closing its season when it reaches its quota. 

The 5 states have all created different programs to manage red snapper fishing. Mississippi is splitting its 137,949-pound quota proportionally, with 135,149 pounds for recreational fishermen and 2,800 pounds for for-hire boats. Alabama will open its waters every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from June 1 to Sept. 2, plus July 2-5 and Sept. 3, with a bag limit of two per person and a 16-inch minimum length. Texas said its year-round season would continue in state waters, with a projected 82-day season to start June 1 in federal waters. Meanwhile, Florida announced a 40-day season from June 11-July 20.

Why This Matters: Red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico is both delicious and contentious.  Recreational and commercial fishermen, as well as the Gulf states and the federal government, have struggled to work together to conserve these precious fish. Massive overfishing caused the stock to crash in the nineties and since then there have been forced fishery closures and extremely short fishing seasons in recent years.  The good news is, that after some tough times, the fish are coming back. With this announcement of a state-federal combined fishery experiment, perhaps the wars over red snapper will end.  But only if everyone remains committed to conserving the rebounding red snapper stock and willing to hold each other accountable if a state exceeds its quota.  We really hope this works.


Last But Not Least: Members of Congress Call on Pruitt to Step Down

Last week comedian Trevor Noah made fun of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt's recent ethics scandals but this week Congress isn't laughing. Yesterday, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) led a group of 170 members of Congress in introducing companion resolutions in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives formally calling on Pruitt to resign. 

Why This Matters: A total of 39 senators and 131 representatives joined Udall and Castor in introducing the resolution seeking Pruitt’s ouster. The 39 cosponsoring senators represent the highest number of senators in U.S. history to sign on to a resolution formally calling for a cabinet official’s resignation.

Best Quote: Goes to Representative Castor when she said, “There is a slime problem at the EPA – and it is coming from the administrator’s office."
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