Aug 31, 2009

New Arctic Fisheries

Where once there was ice, now there are fishing grounds.

As climate change melts away at the polar ice caps, it's beginning to reveal new areas for commercial fishing north of Alaska.

For those of you that are unaware or are naysayers/inbreeds here is where we stand on the melting arctic ice caps.

mad shrinkage.

The U.S. Secretary of Commerce approved a plan last week to halt the expansion of commercial fishing in Arctic waters until researchers gather sufficient information on fish stocks to prevent adverse impacts of commercial fishing on the arctic marine ecosystem.

This was a little surprising to me, because I really thought it would be something like:
The U.S. Secretary of Commerce approved the expansion of commercial fishing in Arctic waters. On your mark, get set, go!

The Arctic Fishery Management Plan will govern any future commercial fishing for fish and shellfish in federal waters. Apart from some species that are managed under different authorities, the plan will regulate arctic cod, saffron cod, and snow crab fisheries. Since I like pictures and you like pictures. Here are some pictures.

Arctic cod

Saffron cod

Snow crab

I feel like this is the way it should be done. We go into a new environment; we conduct some science, establish procedures before authorizing a fishery, and monitor and adjust the plan as needed after the fishery takes off. Sadly, the reality is that this is an extreme case. In a world full of overfished, fully exploited fisheries, the mistakes have already been made.

Hold on a sec, I need to climb up on this box. Ok…alright.

I sincerely hope that we’re starting to take hold of this precautionary approach with not only the world’s fisheries, but the environment in general. We’ve thrown away our grandfather’s ideals of an “inexhaustible” planet, and we’re desperately trying to give a serious upgrade to our father’s generational “eh, maybe we should have done something earlier” attitude about environmental catastrophes.

I believe it’s up to my generation to not only attempt to solve the mistakes of our fathers, but to embrace the precautionary principle. In a sentence: We have a responsibility to protect the public when we know better. No more fixing it after it breaks, but making sure it never breaks in the first place.

Ok, I’m down. Stop throwing stuff at me.

But honestly, who would want to fish up in the Arctic? I’m fine right here in my flippie floppies and my sunglasses. Then again... maybe in a few years when Florida is underwater and it’s hotter than Hades, I’ll be wearing the same thing up in Alaska.

Aug 28, 2009

Kelley's blog

And now for something completely different. My cousin Kelley is studying abroad in the land they call the United Kingdom. She started a little travel blog called Airline Food . She'll be living in a castle for the semester. I know as much as you do about that tidbit, so I'm a little curious. She'll be taking some pictures, meeting some interesting people, and seeing the European sights....and maybe, just maybe, she'll learn a little something from class. She just arrived in London a few hours ago, so now you're caught up.

Kelley, this sign is somewhere in rural England. If you find it, I'll give you 50 bucks.

Have fun, and try not to act so American while in France... Statue of Liberty or not, I get the feeling that they don't like us very much.

Aug 23, 2009

Mal de Mer

It's your own personal hell being seasick. The rocking. The swaying. The heat. And it rarely gets any better once it begins. You can try to take some motion sickness pills, but once it starts it won't let up until you hug a pine tree. You feel like you want to die. Your face turns all kinds of crazy colors, from pink to yellow to a ghostly white to a faint green, and for the entire rest of the day people ask you "how ya feelin' man?", like it's supposed to help in any real way. It's hard to describe to anyone who has never felt it, but it can literally be the worst experience of your life.

I've been involved with alot of hook-and-line trips offshore for tagging fish, collecting fisheries independent samples, and for other various experiments. I've learned that whenever we conduct offshore hook-and-line sampling for research, we have to recruit more than enough people to go. Because it's hard to find people to go fishing during the week (you'd be surprised), we usually find a rag-tag mish-mash of folks to go. So sometimes it can be a little unpredictable. No matter what the seas are, slick calm or a roller coaster...people will find ways to get sick. It's one of the many wrenches that get thrown into the works. If we need 4 fisherman, we'll find 6.

I'm lucky that I've been blessed with a iron clad gut. For as many times as I've been offshore, I've only felt seasick once, and the deck looked sort of like this:

the sea was angry that day, my friends

Plus, I always take a motion sickness pill before I step on the boat. They make you a little drowsy, but for me that just makes for a better nap on the way out.

But, the most entertaining aspect of seasickness is how people deal with it. People perform their own little rituals to deter the queasiness. I've known some people to take enough meclizine that they could ride the Disney World teacups for weeks. Some people adopt unusual eating habits. Some will wear bandannas around their face to avoid diesel exhaust, some stay out on the deck so they can see the horizon, while others find the deepest darkest corner of the ship and stay there all day only to emerge when we're finally docked again. I've even watched guys that are so hardcore for fishing, that they will throw up while reeling in a fish and never skip a beat. I also believe I've witnessed the at-sea record for the most ginger eaten in one sitting.

My absolute favorite happened a few days ago. There was a guy who felt sick a few hours into the trip, thought he had recuperated, and decided to make it out on the deck to help us with our research. We were fishing at the time, so I handed a rod to him and told him to bait up and try to catch something. He took one look at the sloppy bait bucket filled with fish heads, squid pieces, and bait gravy. He shook his head and fell off the horse again.

Know what you're getting yourself into, take some precautions, or feel Poseidon's wrath.

Aug 17, 2009

Nat Geo blog

David Doubilet and Jen Hayes wrote a short post on the National Geographic Magazine blog about our trip with them a couple of weeks ago. Working in Underwater Winds. Check it.

They misspelled my name, but I'm sseriously ok with it.

Aug 16, 2009

Bizarre, crazy, insane.

I'm sitting here watching the weather radar. A string of foul weather is headed in this direction, and the very reason I have time to write is because our offshore trip for tomorrow is postponed. Tropical storms can really churn up the water, and it's going to be a washing machine out there. This hurricane season has been pretty slow to this point, so I guess we're due for a couple of storms. I'm also wondering about when the big one is coming and more importantly, who is going to get it.

Storms aside, it's been an amusing week for fish news. We'll start with bizarre.

A lady up in Ohio was driving along with her daughter on the interstate when she saw the most beautiful bald eagle she'd ever seen in her life. The eagle then dropped one of these on her windshield:

A Lake Erie Freshwater Drum, aka "Sheepshead"

The moderately sized fish torpedo wiggled free from the eagle and was dropped from 40 feet onto her windshield, completely shattering the glass. article here. The sheer optimist in me thinks that a fish dropped by an eagle is far better than falling airplane toilet ice.

Now for the crazy.

A friend of mine informed me earlier in the week about the appearance of a couple of whale sharks off of Destin, Florida. photos here. I was pretty excited about it. But what I just found out is that there have been multiple sightings of whale sharks throughout the entire northern Gulf of Mexico, from Clearwater, Florida all the way to Louisiana. It's a baffling whale shark phenomenon. Here's a video of the sharks seen off of Grayton Beach, Florida earlier this month.

An article I just read explained that there are four times as many whale sharks sightings this year as any normal year. Something is going on, and nobody knows why. It could be a change in upwelling currents or food abundance, but shark scientists aren't sure. We still don't know alot about these creatures.

Whale sharks are large filter feeders that feed on plankton, algae, krill, squid, and other little critters. They suck in massive amounts of water, filter out the good stuff, and then expel the rest out of their gill openings. If they swallow something big like an unsuspecting diver, no problem. They can cough you out. Surprisingly, whale sharks are gentle, if not playful with swimmers despite their ridiculous size. They're also very aware of their enormity and surroundings, so don't worry about the tail swatting you like a fly.

It would be amazing to swim with one of these guys and I hope I get to do it someday.

And now, the completely insane.

Did you know that you can tattoo your aquarium buddies? Especially popular in China, aquarium fish are laser tattooed with Chinese characters meaning "luck", "happiness", "good fortune" and just about anything else you can think of. I've also seen fish tattooed with hearts, polka dots, and stripes. Article.

She's looking for "Y", "M", "C", and "A"

Of course there is a controversy whether this is a novel idea for pet shops, or just plain crude. I'm sure PETA would give anyone hell about it if the American pet shops decided to do this. I honestly think it would never catch on over here, but I could imagine the activists screaming about the laser tattoos only to overlook the fact that pet shops tend to stuff 300 goldfish into 10 gallon tanks anyway. I could also imagine a fish lottery, with an attractive lady pulling numbered fish out of a tank to figure out the weekly winner. The twisted possibilities are endless.

I can think of a good tattoo for one of the firemouth cichlids in my tank. His name is Optimus Prime.

Aug 11, 2009

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth dear.

Last Sunday I decided to stroll over to the pier for the Outcast Mega Shark Tournament weigh-in to see what I could see. Let me tell you, when Pensacola hosts a shark tournament, they throw a shark festival. I walked up to rock climbing walls, water slides, and carnival games. It was a kid’s dream: fumble around in the moon bounce, play in the water fountains, dive into a blue snow cone, and take a peek at the toothy giants that rise up on massive hooks.

Shark tournaments are a little different from inshore fishing slams or offshore championships. There seemed to be a lot of downtime in between the rare moments of excitement of the sharks’ arrival (that may explain the diversions). But when the animals are crane lifted out of the boats and up into the air, the crowds and cameras ignite. The sharks are placed on the weigh hook next to the leader board, the mic man interviews the fishermen, and then the crowd shouts out guesses on the weight of the shark to try to win prizes.

The sharks were weighed and placed in an ice filled bin next to a research tent. I went over to the tent to say hi to a friend, and she let me poke my nose into their work. Whew, to describe the smell…refer to that’s the smell of desire, my lady. They were taking tissue samples, gonads, liver samples, vertebrae, and stomachs. One of the stomachs of a bull shark was spilled out onto a tarp for observation. After a little searching I found some fish otoliths, stingray spines, and some skull pieces. It looked like the bull shark had fed on some hardhead catfish, numerous stingray, and judging from the shape of one set of the otoliths, a red snapper. Sorry the next couple of pictures are a little "wet". Try not to read the blog at lunch. Otoliths are structures in the fishes' head that fisheries biologists use to identify and age the fish (like counting rings on a tree), as well as function as a natural tag of the fish.

The roundish white things are fish otoliths.

To catch this particular shark, the fishermen used a cownose ray. It’s a popular shark fishing tactic to snatch hook a ray, cut its wings off, thread a hook through it, and then throw it out as a struggling, yet stationary live bait.

After the samples were taken, the carcasses were then thrown into a refrigerated trailer to be taken to the nearby zoo to feed the animals.

The leader board showed a 400 pound hammerhead that eventually turned out to be the overall winner. The usual suspects had been caught: bull, tiger, nurse, hammerhead and mako sharks. Most of the sharks that were caught weighed between 100 and 200 pounds: babies, youngsters, and teenagers. Most of the sharks caught and weighed at these tournaments are immature and have never reproduced.

Sharks are long-lived and late to mature, and these kill tournaments take a range of sizes, therefore ages of targeted shark species. I could explain as to why sharks are incredibly important to marine ecosystems, but David over at Southern fried science has done just that in his article, Four things everyone needs to know about sharks. It’s good, give it a read.

There are many sport fish tournaments that operate on a completely no-kill basis. Tarpon and Billfish tournaments are a great example of this. Fish are caught, tagged, and video captured. This allows the fishermen to compete while the animals get to swim away. Of course, if the shark tournaments operated this way, people would complain that the weigh-in would be a wash. Next year, let’s get a Ferris wheel, some smoked turkey legs, and friggin' fire eater. You want to kill something that ecologically important just to hang it on a hook, take a few pictures, get some “oohs and ahhs”, and then give it to the flies? I ask, why not a no-kill shark tournament?

Recently, Fort Myers Beach, Florida has made the switch with their tournament this year. Link. Hopefully, more and more venues will follow this example.

Instead of a festival celebrating man versus beast with dripping carcasses hanging from hooks…how about a victory party with live music, a fishing seminar for children, and a boat show? We could even throw in a mechanical shark that people can ride.

Let’s face it. It’s a lot better than what kill tournaments could become, and nobody likes carnies.

Aug 4, 2009

Our day with National Geographic

I didn’t think we could fit that much stuff on a boat. ROVs, tethers, monitor boxes, toolboxes, dive gear, Nitrox tanks, lights, generators, and some cameras that are worth more than my car. We met National Geographic’s David Doubilet and Jen Hayes at the dock in the wee hours. I was happy to find that they are both very interesting and pleasant people. Jen is talkative, spunky, and tough while David is a bit more reserved, mild mannered, and witty at times.

After we loaded on the heap of stuff, we set out for one of our artificial reef study sites. David and Jen explained that they wanted to get a realistic view of our ROV research so they wanted to shoot specifically on our study reefs. Jen was very inquisitive on artificial reefs and how/why they’re deployed, their function, and their controversy in the Gulf of Mexico. She took some notes down and mentioned to us that we’d be giving more formal interviews a little later. After she asked us all of her questions to get a feel for what we do and our research, I had some questions of my own about her work and travels. Her and David jet set around the world on numerous assignments, so she had plenty of amusing stories to tell.

When we reached our shoot location, there began a frenzy of activity to get things ready for both the ROV team and the dive team. David sat down with us to go over what he hoped to capture down on the bottom and what hand signals he may give to me through the ROV camera for direction. He gave me approximately 20 signals…I think I actually remembered 3.

This signal means "this gear is heavy, and I could use a lower back massage."

David and Jen geared up and performed a standard backwards flip off the boat. I won’t go into too many details, but the first dive was unsuccessful due to a heinous mixture of water current, entanglement, sea sickness, poor line placement, and bad visibility. The two made it back on deck for a rest and a new game plan. We readjusted the lines, changed tanks, and put them back in the water. Meanwhile, the ROV had been sitting on the bottom twiddling its thumbs for an hour or so.

They touched down on the reef site at about 100 ft, and I followed them around with the ROV like an eager little puppy. Once they readied the cameras and lighting, David signaled me to fly broadside the reef to get some good shots.

Yes! Yes! NO! NO!

After a few minutes of posing and shooting, the ROV ran into some trouble. I had gotten a little too close to some fishing line attached to the reef. The fishing line got sucked into one of my propellers, disabling some of the controls. This resulted in very erratic movements, many of which were in the wrong direction. I was not only scaring all of the fish, but also annoying the crap out of David. David later told me that he compared the ROV to a loud, irritating mosquito that would quickly zip around randomly. He called the fiasco, “ROV behaving badly”.

We then had a little talk. An "understanding", if you will.

Jen had to grab a hold of the ROV and put it into the shot by hand a few times. After 30-40 minutes of bottom time, they made it back up to the boat. I was worried that David would pop up to say that he left the lens cap on. They seemed happy about the shoot, which was a good thing because they didn’t have any tanks left.

Jen also took some shots of us on deck with the ROV equipment. She mentioned that these pictures would most likely make it on to their ROV blog via the National Geographic website. When I find the link, I'll let you know.

David and Jen thought the shots looked good, but they may try to come back in a week or two to “sex it up”. I think they want to shoot the ROV on some other reef sites off of Florida. We’re definitely up for it. They told us that the article would be in National Geographic in the spring of 2010.

By far the coolest thing I've ever done.