Posts Tagged ‘Conservation’

Sharing a Passion for Conservation through Scuba Diving

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

Arizona State University tourism student Matt Cernik swapped cactus for coral when he signed up for an internship with Great Barrier Reef operator and PADI Member, Passions of Paradise. “In Phoenix, where I’m from, the only waves to be seen are the daunting heat waves which rise off the desert […]

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SeaWorld Ends Captive Orca Breeding Program

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

On Thursday, March 17th, SeaWorld announced the end of its controversial captive orca breeding program with immediate effect. For those who have been campaigning against the corporation’s captive orca shows for many years, the news is being hailed as a major victory.

The announcement means that no new orcas will be introduced to the SeaWorld family, either via the now-terminated captive-breeding program, or via procurement from the wild (although it has been many years since the purchase of SeaWorld’s last wild-caught whale). However, it does not spell freedom for the 23 whales currently housed at SeaWorld parks in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio, who will remain in captivity for the remainder of their lives.

Life will not be quite the same for these whales as it has been up until now. Last November, SeaWorld committed to phasing out its existing live orca shows, replacing them instead with what they called “new, inspiring natural orca encounters.” The announcement last Thursday was accompanied by the news that the corporation will also be entering into a new partnership with animal conservation group the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

The role of HSUS will be to guide SeaWorld in the development of its new orca encounters, which the company promises will focus more on education than entertainment. In theory, the encounters aim to promote whale and dolphin conservation through a series of education-based interpretive programs. HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle sees the new collaboration as “a chance to make progress for animal rights” and says that it will be a welcome change to being “endlessly mired in conflict.”

According to president and CEO of SeaWorld Entertainment Joel Manby, these changes are driven by a desire to keep up with the times. “As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it,” he says. He also hinted that public pressure was another major factor, admitting that people’s attitudes on the issue of orca captivity had changed as a result of “film, legislation [and] people’s comments on the Internet.” It is a shift that he acknowledges was no longer “worth fighting.” The company also pledged to donate a total of $50 million over the next five years to various conservation efforts, including ending illegal whaling, seal hunting and shark finning.

Despite this, there are many who see SeaWorld’s dramatic announcement as an attempt to take credit for changes that were already in motion. In 2013, the documentary Blackfish drew public attention to the plight of captive orcas, focusing particularly on the life of SeaWorld orca Tilikum and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau.

The film’s backlash was responsible for an 84 percent fall in SeaWorld profits during the 2014/2015 financial year, as more and more people chose to boycott the parks’ live shows. The anti-captivity movement gained momentum, and in October 2015, California passed a law banning the breeding of captive orcas within the state. With SeaWorld San Diego out of action, breeding continued at the San Antonio and Orlando parks, but now Tilikum (Orlando’s most prolific breeding male) is rumored to be gravely ill.

In light of these facts, dolphin conservationist Ric O’Barry claims that the captive breeding program was already nearing a forced end. It is also worth noting that the ban does not include orcas kept at other aquaria around the world, or even those SeaWorld-owned whales currently on loan to Loro Parque in Spain.

Other conservation organizations have criticized the company’s decision to keep the orcas living at SeaWorld’s U.S. parks on public display, with some even suggesting that they be released into the wild, which is unfortunately an unrealistic demand. The majority of the SeaWorld orcas were born in captivity, and as such have never learned the skills that they would need to survive in the wild. Even those born in the wild would stand little chance of being able to reintegrate successfully into their original pods. The solution, according to Whale Dolphin Conservation, would be to release this last generation of captive orcas into enclosed sea-pens, thereby allowing the whales to experience some freedom while still receiving human care.

Concerns like these prove that SeaWorld’s recent announcement should not be accepted entirely without criticism. However, as Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite points out, the company’s decision to cease its breeding program is nevertheless a “truly meaningful change.” Ultimately, the motivation behind the decision is almost irrelevant, what matters most is that an end to orca captivity is finally in sight.

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Explore the Oceans in 3D with the Cousteaus

Friday, February 19th, 2016

If you’re a scuba diver, the name “Cousteau” is, of course, well known. The Cousteau family legacy is intrinsically woven into the legacy of scuba diving, ever since Jacques-Yves Cousteau co-invented the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), which he and Émile Gagnan named “Aqua-Lung.”

Later, Cousteau would pioneer ocean exploration and help make scuba diving a worldwide pursuit through his documentaries, the most famous of which was 1956’s “The Silent World.” Cousteau’s film was so popular that many point to it as one of the main reasons people switched from to switch from black and white televisions to color sets in order to see the vibrant underwater scenes in full glory.

Céline Fabien & Jean-Michel

However, the legacy of Cousteau did not end with Jacques-Yves. His children and grand-children have continued his work, in scuba diving and marine preservation, as well as in documentary production (often combining all three). Jacques-Yves’ son, Jean-Michel, has worked tirelessly for almost 70 years exploring and protecting the world’s oceans through his Ocean Futures Society.

The Odyssea 3D Movie

Now, he is working with his own children, Celine and Fabien, both well-known underwater explorers and environmentalists, to bring the beauty and the fragility of the oceans to the public’s attention like never before. A new film, “Odyssea 3D” will use groundbreaking 3D technology, which will allow viewers to dive into the underwater world in a way so realistic and immersive that it can only be surpassed by strapping on a scuba tank.

CousteauInWaterWeb

The Odyssea 3D movie is entirely independent, and will be produced through a crowdfunded Indiegogo campaign, giving anyone with an interest in the film or underwater conservation a chance to help support the project. The footage was filmed over the past three years by a dedicated team consisting of Jean-Michel, Fabien and Celine, along with other professionals within the film and conservation industries. However, now remains the task of rendering all this material into a 3D film in full 4K-HD. You can support the film from as little as $5 and, depending on how much you donate, you will get various perks in return, all the way up to getting your name listed as an executive producer on the film’s IMDB listing, along with the official crew polo, an original movie poster and more.

Jean-Michel hopes to be present the film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, as 2016 marks the 60th anniversary of his father’s “The Silent World” winning the Palme d’Or.

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Peru Protects Manta Rays

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

In a big win for mantas, Peru has decided to accord the animals full protection. Mantas are many a diver’s favorite marine animal, because of their size, enigmatic nature and astonishing grace underwater. For this very reason, many dive operations specifically market the chance to see mantas as a top draw. But, just as with many other charismatic marine species, manta-ray populations are in decline for a number of reasons, but not least due to overfishing, with populations declining as much as 80 percent in the past 75 years.

Peru Protects Manta Rays

While divers routinely travel to the Maldives or Indonesia in order to see manta rays, the largest known population of animals is actually in Peru, according to a field study done by WildAid Manta Ray of Hope team. And now, the government of Peru has passed legislation giving mantas full protection from fishing, capture, and sale along the entire coastline from Peru to Ecuador, which passed similar legislation last year. As the manta population in the area migrates between the waters of the two nations, this cross-border protection is key.

Mantas reproduce very slowly, with a female manta giving birth to only one pup every two to five years, which makes the species extremely vulnerable to overfishing. And the mantas along the Peruvian coastline have been under pressure due to locals accidentally landing them as bycatch — large parts of coastal Peru depend almost entirely on fishing for sustenance and industry — or targeting them specifically. Manta meat and gills are considered a delicacy in China, and the gills are also used in traditional Chinese medicine, where they are believed to treat everything from poor blood circulation to chicken pox. The worldwide trade in manta-gill plates is estimated to be worth around $30 million a year, with 99 percent of it going to China.

For rural Peruvian communities, that kind of money poses a huge temptation, but with the new legislation in place, fishing for mantas will hopefully be a lot less lucrative. And by passing these new laws, Peru joins 12 other nations worldwide that have partially or completely regulated manta-ray protection.

“It’s a huge deal,” says Peter Knights, WildAid’s executive director. “With Indonesia, and now Peru, committing to protecting this species, two of the largest manta fisheries in the world are closed. We hope that other nations where mantas are threatened by local fisheries, particularly India and Sri Lanka, will follow suit.”

Unfortunately, the legislation doesn’t currently include mobula rays, a similar species that’s equally threatened by overfishing. It’s hoped that, as Peru protects manta rays, the legislation will not only be an example to other countries, but also indicates that local governments are beginning to realize the importance of marine conservation, and the legislation will be updated to include all threatened species in their waters.

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NASA Gets Involved in Coral Reef Protection

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Organizations working to protect the world’s coral reefs just got a powerful ally: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, best known as NASA. Although the agency usually spends its time looking out into space, now, NASA will look at coral reefs.

NASA Will Look at Coral Reefs

Coral reefs cover just 0.2 percent of the ocean floor, but are home to about a quarter of all life in the oceans. For this reason, they are called “the rainforests of the seas,” but even this designation doesn’t do them justice. Reefs are absolutely critical for life in the oceans, and they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Between 30 and 50 percent of all surveyed coral reefs have seen decline or have been lost completely in recent decades, and it is estimated that another 32 percent will be lost within the next 32 years.

While there is quite a bit of data the ocean acidification, global warming and pollution that are doing our reefs in, only a small percentage of them have actually have been studied. So, while we know there is a problem, we don’t know the full extent of that problem. But that may change with NASA’s help.

NASA has announced that it will launch a 3-year program called the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL), wherein airplanes with extremely advanced instruments will study “more coral reefs and in greater detail than ever before,” to use NASA’s phrasing.

According the program’s principal investigator, Eric Hochberg, an enormous amount of data can be collected. The current method of surveying corals is through human observation by scuba diving on individual reefs, taking measurements of corals to see if they are growing at normal rates, or are declining. He likens this method to looking at a few trees in order to figure out if an entire forest is healthy.

The CORAL team will focus their research on key reef systems in Florida, Hawaii, Palau, the Mariana Islands and Australia. Using an instrument called the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM), they’ll be able to discern between living, thriving corals and corals that have succumbed to bleaching. The PRISM findings will be corroborated by in-water samples to for validation. This part of the project will take place in 2016 and 2017, with the third year of the project, 2018, set aside for analyzation of the data.

This is not the first time NASA has gotten involved in ocean protection. In the early 2000s, the agency made satellite imagery from the Landsat 7, among other satellites, available to researchers studying reef decline. While these satellites were originally launched to observe land-based changes due to erosion and other factors, they proved quite useful in studying reefs as well. However, the level of detail in imagery and data that was provided by this project is dwarfed by what the CORAL project is likely to give us. And more may be to come.

“Ideally, in a decade or so we’ll have a satellite that can frequently and accurately observe all of the world’s reefs, and we can push the science and, most importantly, our understanding even further,” said Hochberg in a NASA press release.

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