Holbox III: Into the Blue with Whale Sharks
Posted by Todd Steiner on July 18th, 2009
Although the “green” plankton-rich waters closer to shore are associated with the feeding congregations of whales sharks, a three-hour boat ride further offshore into the blue waters, finds us in the largest concentrations of animals. As many as 270 individuals have been seen in recent days, the largest concentration ever observed by Rachel Graham, Ph.D., who has studied the whales all over the world, and is here tagging the sharks and manta rays.
We find ourselves in a relatively small(?) aggregation, estimated at 60-80 whale sharks by our guide Abraham Jesus Kantun Amaro, whose energy and enthusiasm is simply amazing. I can see as many as six sharks at the surface looking straight ahead and can count up to 16 doing a quick 360 turn before I am lose track of whether I am double-counting.
So why are they here and not in the rich soupy green (and red-streaked) waters closer to shore? The water is apparently filled with “zillions” (that’s a scientific term) of nearly microscopic fish eggs. You can’t see them in the water, but you can find a few in your hair when you get out of the water. Later that night, Rachel Graham showed me a photo of a double handful she collected in a plankton net they towed for just three minutes!
Rachel and her team are not the only scientists and/or conservationists here to witness this incredible spectacle, besides our group (which includes US National Marine Sanctuary folks, and myself from Turtle Island). Overhead a National Geographic team is taking aerial photos, and last night we met folks from Dr. Sylvia Earle’s Deep Search Foundation, and folks from the International League of Conservation Photographers at dinner.
We are all blown away by what we have seen, but I keep reminding myself that that a vast array of life existed in the ocean everywhere (even right where you live!) in the days before industrial fishing, massive habitat destruction and uncontrolled pollution.
It’s great to know there is so much concern and support for this incredible place and its amazing marine inhabitants, like the whale shark, listed as threatened by the IUCN. That is what it is going to take to take to save this remarkable marine oasis—and restore the ocean ecosystems on which we all depend.
(photos by Emma Hickerson)
A Big Fish Story
Posted by Todd Steiner on July 17th, 2009
The attraction to Holbox is whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, the world's largest living fish. How Big Are They? While stories of whale sharks as large as 70 feet or more exists, the largest verifiable record is 40 feet with an approximated weight of 30,000 pounds. Most of the ones we saw were probably closer to 20 feet, and we may have seen one approaching 30 feet.
Little is known about this gentle giant, but studies are now under way in many places where they are found to aggregate including off the coast of Belize, the Yucatan of Mexico, and Honduras. Tagging, photo identification, and placement of satellite transmitters are the tools now being used to unravel the mysteries that surround this animal, and will allow us to understand their migrations, their population status and their behavior.
But the rich planktonic waters attract other filter feeders too. Out in the waters made green and red by different species of plankton, we found dozens of giant manta rays, Manta birostris, many with wingspans exceeding 12 feet, and schools of Cownose rays, Rhinoptera bonasus, a small ray that seemed to be flying through the water in formation. Devil rays, Mobula mobula,r looking a lot like smaller versions of mantas were also abundant.
The guided experience inside the marine protected area was very nice. Our guides, licensed by the Mexican government were very conscientious, making sure no one touched a whale shark and preventing visitors from coating their bodies with sunscreen that could harm the marine wildlife. The Park Guard boat was present numerous times, and though carrying US researchers, its presence no doubt kept visitors on their best behavior.
But on our second trip out, no Park Guard vessel was present, and some tourists could be seen touching and even "riding" the whale sharks. Our guide informed us that those boats were not licensed, and not from Holbox, but had come from Isla Mujeres or possibly from Cancun.
Another problem-more than one whale shark was seen to have a ragged dorsal fin, probably the result of propeller cut. Too many boats and too many visitors is an issue that will have to be carefully monitored and controlled to ensure the safety of the marine species.
Snorkeling with the whale sharks
Posted by Todd Steiner on July 15th, 2009
|Emma Hickerson photo|
I'm here in Holbox, an island just north of Cancun, Mexico. In the past 5 years it has become a prime destination to view the largest fish in the world, the incredible whale shark. Growing to 40 feet, these gentle giants are amazing beautiful blue-grey with white polka-dots covering its entire upper surface that look like they were dabbed on by a talented artist. These placid plankton feeders arrive every summer to feed offshore on a migration that researchers are still trying to unravel.
Thanks to the efforts of shark conservationists (and the large number of sharks available for viewing), the rules for whale shark eco-tourists are strict and appear to be relatively well enforced. The animals gracefully feed at or near the surface in the rich soupy-green waters, and the rules allow only two tourists to snorkel (no scuba) around a single whale shark at any given time, (but no closer than 6 feet) with no touching of the animals allowed.
Yet the island itself seems like it is being transformed from a sleepy fishing village into a major tourist destination with construction everywhere. (Note, this is my first visit to Holbox, so this is mere speculation, but based on my observations from other places). Watch for more observations as I continue to explore.
Watch for Hatchlings on the Upper Texas Coast
Posted by Carole Allen, Gulf Office Director on June 27th, 2009
It appears that the 2009 nesting season of the Kemp's ridley sea turtles on the Texas coast is over. But there is still work to be done. From now on, weaker live ridley hatchlings released in Mexico or at Padre Island National Seashore may wash up and strand on beaches on the upper Texas coast. The first live stranded ridley hatchling was found struggling in the surf on Sunday on June 21. He is currently undergoing rehabilitation at the NOAA Sea Turtle Facility in Galveston. Last year, more than a dozen of these stranded hatchlings were found, so residents and tourists are asked to continue watching for sea turtles when walking on the beach. From now on, the turtles may be very tiny ones. To report a hatchling sighting, call 866-TURTLE-5.
"THE COVE" Coming to a Theatre Near You
Posted by Todd Steiner, Executive Director on June 25th, 2009
Don't Miss It!
I just saw a preview showing of "The Cove," and this film is going to make giant waves when it hits theatres this August. So don't miss it! This film is much more than a documentary, and if the story wasn't all true, you might think you were watching a great spy-thriller suspense film. But it is reality, and this film documents a horrific dolphin slaughter in Japan that has gone relatively unnoticed for years. And it uncovers the mislabeling of mercury-laden dolphin meat being harvested and sold in Japan to unsuspected consumers who don't know that what they are buying is toxic, or the fact that the meat is tied to a horrendous slaughter and a multibillion dollar industry.
And if that wasn't enough, this film also tells this story through the work of Ric O'Barry, the trainer of the most famous dolphin of all, the TV star "Flipper" of the 1960s, and his personal transformation from dolphin trainer to dolphin activist.
Lastly of course, this film is being distributed by the same folks (Participant Media), who helped to assure that Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," led viewers to take social action to improve the world. In this case, it is sorely needed to end a tragedy that is blight on human history.
Australia's flatbacks in trouble - as seen on 60 Minutes
Posted by Teri Shore , Program Director on June 23rd, 2009
So building a massive LNG plant in flatback sea turtle territory on the northwest coast of Australia will cause no harm to wildlife? That's what Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett says confidently in this 60 Minutes report from Down Under. He makes this proclamation even as the reporter investigating efforts to protect the Kimberly is greeted by sea turtles, crocodiles and big groupers when touring the threatened region. Perhaps he is following the Bush approach - it's true if he says it is so.
I visited the Kimberly more than 20 years ago and never forgot the red of the Bungle Bungles, the rusty rivers, the saltwater crocs. Eco-tourism and adventure trips have taken hold in Broome where pearling and fishing still hang on. Sadly, the aboriginal people are mostly living in third-world conditions like so many do in their own country. And now it's an LNG plant that will save the day.
Recently, I toured the Pilbara region to the south to get an eyewitness view of where LNG plants, mining ports, salt mines and industrial facilities have already taken over the coast. The small towns are dustry and neglected,the larger ones seem pleasant enough until you spot the gas flares and mining ports. A metallic tasted formed in my mouth in one iron-ore town and never left until I did.
Yet sea turtles still seem to manage to nest and forage along this industrialized coast. But spreading this same industry into the relatively untouched Kimberly is too much for a decade or two of natural gas. It's a vision that will end an ancient legacy of which the flatback sea turtle is part.
Sea Turtle Restoration Project and its parent Turtle Island Restoration Network are joining forces with Australian groups to call for a moratorium on development in the Kimberly until a full conservation strategy is in place and sea turtle protection is assured. See our comments.
Now is the time to Put Your Hand Up for the Kimberly on this interactive petition and map from the Wilderness Society of Western Australia.(Scroll down page.)
Posted by Carole Allen, Gulf Office Director on June 9th, 2009
If you haven't planned your summer vacation yet, consider visiting the Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. The first public release of Kemp's ridley hatchlings into the Gulf of Mexico has been held and there will be more to follow. Don't miss this marvelous opportunity to see the result of 30 years of work in Mexico and the United States to prevent the extinction of the Kemp's ridley sea turtles. Yes, you'll need to get up early and get to the beach, but it's worth it when you see the tiny hatchlings make their way toward the water leaving tiny tracks in the sand. The releases aren't held every day so you will need to allow a few days in the area to make sure you are there at the right time.
Go to the National Parks Service website: http://www.nps.gov/pais/naturescience/releases.htm and read the advice given there before you make your plans to travel.
Lawsuit Filed To Protect Pacific Sea Turtles
Posted by Todd Steiner on May 29th, 2009
On Thursday, we filed a lawsuit to compel the U.S. government to act on a petition we filed more than a year ago to create critical habitat for Pacific leatherbacks along the California and Oregon coasts and uplist the Pacific loggerhead from threatened to endangered. We had to do this because the government has failed to act -- even after we gave them several months of extensions beyond their legal duty to act within a year, missing deadline after deadline. Instead of action, all we got were excuses, so we figured it was time for a federal judge to step in and order the government to take action.
We also wanted to put pressure on the Obama administration to begin to pay attention to the crisis our ocean face from overfishing, pollution and climate change. If we are to save the Pacific loggerheads and leatherbacks, the Obama administration needs to change the current course that was set by former President Bush. Otherwise, we will lose these magnificent animals in our lifetime, and leave our children with a dying planet.
Read more about this by clicking here
Is End of the Line "Fair and Balanced?"
Posted by Mike Milne on May 15th, 2009
Whole Foods Market's Seafood Quality Standards Coordinator takes issue with the powerful new documentary about over fishing "End of the Line." See the trailer!
So what do I make of their criticism of this important film? Here is the response I posted, which may or may not be approved...
The End of Seafood?
Posted by Teri Shore, Program Director on May 11th, 2009
The new ocean film "End of the Line" is the "Inconvenient Truth" of the oceans. The movie is not just another doom-and-gloom diatribe but an emotional and beautiful truth-telling that may just stimulate a worldwide movement to save our seas. I hope.
When I watched a preview copy at home the other night, I got angry, I cried, I lost hope, I regained hope, I've been talking it up since. End of the Line predicts the end of seafood by 2048 if the rush to fish out the seas for sushi and seafood platters doesn't slow, and soon. Here in the SF Bay Area, we'll be screening it at the Cal Academy of Sciences on June 11 (not posted yet).
Everyone who cares about the ocean -- and those of us who just don't know what's happening -- must see it when it opens on Ocean Day on June 8 or when it rolls out over the rest of the year.
You'll see magnificient bluefin tuna trapped by wide dams of netting across the Straits of Gibraltar. And the fishermen who are heartbroken by the demise of the fishery.
The story of cod is re-told with footage of enraged and devastated seamen who can't go on.
The researchers and biologists show Gore-like graphs of fishery
declines of every possible species: tuna, swordfish, shark, rock fish,
you name it. Only the jellyfish and shrimp survive.
The British film is based on the book End of the Line by Charles Clover
and features Canadians, Europeans, Americans, and Indigenous fishers
whose small outboard fishing boats are eclipsed on the water by factory
As with Climate Change, so far we've seen lots of talk but little action about the decline of the world's fisheries and the demise of our oceans. And like global warming, if we don't act soon, the ocean may never recover from industrial high-tech fishing and mass consumption of disappearing wild fish.
What to do? Please go see the film. Lobby your local theaters to show it. Take our Seafood Pledge to stop eating tuna, swordfish and shrimp. Or why not start a movement at home, at school, at work, when dining out, to Give the Oceans a Break and don't eat any seafood until the insanity stops. If you can do it, maybe I can too.
U.S. Bans Shrimp from Costa Rica To Protect Sea Turtles
Posted by Todd Steiner, Executive Director on May 5th, 2009
The U.S. State Department has banned Costa Rican shrimp from being shipped into the U. S. The shrimp embargo came after our Costa Rican sister organization PRETOMA, documented Costa Rica has consistently failed to enforce laws requiring shrimp fishing vessels to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) and the threat of a lawsuit by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.
More than 15,000 turtles may be caught each year by Costa Rica’s shrimping fleet. Proper use of TEDs reduces the number of turtles caught in shrimp nets by 90% or more and is required to be used by any shrimp fishery that sells to the U. S.
TIRN is evaluating this positive move by the US Department of State as it relates to moving forward with its 60-day notice of intent to sue.
Read more at here (http://www.seaturtles.org/article.php?id=1355)
First Kemp's ridley nestings on the upper Texas coast!
Posted by Carole Allen, Gulf Office Director on May 3rd, 2009
|© Doug Perrine/Seapics.com|
May 2 was a great day for Kemp's ridley sea turtle watchers. Everyone has wondered if Hurricane Ike's damage to the upper Texas coast beaches would be a hindering factor to nesters. Saturday, May 2, dispelled the doubt somewhat. Two Kemp's ridley nests were found on west Galveston Island beaches, one containing over 100 eggs. A satellite attachment was placed on one of the turtles before she was released that evening. Being able to track the movements of a turtle that has just nested is extremely important. Dr. Andre M. Landry, Jr., of Texas A&M University at Galveston is in charge of the patrolling prgoram along the upper Texas coast and although optimistic, he says it is still too early to tell what the nestings season will be like. One of the nests was found by Sharla Knoll, a long time sea turtle advocate and volunteer, who has walked hundreds of miles along the Galveston area beaches looking for tracks or sea turtles. A total of 48 nests have been found on the entire Texas coast so far this year, slightly behind last year's records.
Mercury rises on 90210 in more ways than one
Posted by Karen Steele on April 30th, 2009
As the young and old residents of television's favorite - and recently revived - zip code 90210 heated up the screen in last night’s episode with their relationship dramas, the topic of mercury poisoning made a surprise appearance. In between complaining about her dad’s dubious antics, her on again off again pseudo boyfriend, and the sudden appearance of her big sis, bad girl Naomi protested to her friend’s mom she was going to get mercury poisoning from all the fish she was feeding her. When an issue finally “makes it” in the world of Hollywood and gets an appearance on one of its hottest television shows you know millions of viewers will be getting the message. Let’s hope we see this serious public health concern continue to make it on the big screen in the future to help spread the word of the risk for mercury toxicity from consuming too much of the wrong seafood.
Victory for sea turtles as the government shuts down the longline fishery!
Posted by Carole Allen, Gulf Office Director on April 30th, 2009
|blog post comments?
Victory! The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
has ordered a 6-month emergency closure of the bottom longline fishery in the
Gulf of Mexico to protect sea turtles from injury and death. Unfortunately, the
scenario leading up to the closure, mirrors the same pattern environmentalists
have faced for the past eight years: action was not taken until after Turtle
Island and other groups filed a lawsuit to prevent the carnage from
Nearly a month ago, environmentalists presented NMFS
with its own data indicating that the fishery was catching loggerhead turtles at
more than eight times the number of sea turtles authorized previously in a 2005
biological opinion and the government was failing to act as it is required under
the Endangered Species Act. When NMFS failed to act, we went to Court. Only
then did NMFS agree to close down the fishery while it tries to solve the
This issue came to a head while the Obama
administration was still putting together its new team at NMFS and its parent
agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While the
environmental community has strong hopes that the newly appointed head of NOAA,
Dr. Jane Lubchenco, will chart a new course for ocean protection, the jury is
What we do know is that the powerful seafood and
fishing lobby hasn't gone away, and we will need to continue to be vigilant and
vocal to convince the new administration to create a sustainable ocean
A Victory for Endangered Species!
Posted by Carole Allen, Gulf Office Director on April 29th, 2009
Before the last administration left office, a measure was introduced that was so incredibly unacceptable that I couldn't believe what I was reading. If it had passed, important decisions could have been made regarding projects involving endangered plants and animals WITHOUT the federal agency consulting scientists. Well, thanks to all of you who read my blog of Feb. 15 asking for support of a House Joint Resolution to strike down this ridiculous proposal and contacted your US representatives.
Today, April 29 is a glorious day for the Endangered Species Act and for all of us! Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke are reinstating the consultation provision under the Endangered Species Act.
Their decision requires federal agencies to once again consult with federal
wildlife experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration before taking any action that might affect
threatened or endangered species. The Interior Secretary has until May 10 to reverse rulings that would restrict protection for the polar bears. We know that President Obama approved the changes to strengthen the Endangered Species Act and we need to thank him and your representatives for stopping this last-minute effort to damage the ESA. Now, let's help the Polar bears!
Mother Nature Changes Earth Day in Texas!
Posted by Carole Allen, Gulf Office Director on April 26th, 2009
A series of severe storms in the Houston area on the weekend before Earth Day forced the cancellation of one major Earth Day event, but, thanks to many volunteers, the word about patrolling for sea turtles on the Texas coast reached thousands of people!
With tables at the Houston Zoo, North Harris County College, the Moody Gardens in Galveston and an Astros "Green Game," thousands of bookmarks were distributed and donations collected to replace STRP sea turtle signs washed away by Hurricane Ike. In addition, Deborah Wilson of Houston greeted hundreds of volunteers in Galveston on Sunday, April 26, involved in the Spring Beach Clean-up sponsored by the Texas General Land Office. She had spent Earth Day evening at the Astros game with her family at the STRP table.
Girl Scout Troop 10319 of the Cypress-Tomball area stayed at the Houston Zoo until the severe weather forced them out on April 18. The only event totally washed out was at The Woodlands, a city north of Houston. Thanks are in order for every volunteer who worked or tried to get to a site in spite of the weather! We know that Mother Nature always has the last word. Meanwhile, 20 Kemp's ridley nests have been found at the Padre Island National Seashore and beaches to the south in Texas!
BIG NEWS FROM TEXAS!
Posted by Carole H. Allen on
Gulf Office Director
|© Doug Perrine/Seapics.com|
Income Tax Day brought some good news to Texans! The first three Kemp's ridley nests were documented at the Padre Island National Seashore. Last year 195 nests were found on the Texas coast and we can now start to count! Patrols are out all along the coast including the upper Texas coast where Hurricane Ike slammed into the beaches removing sand and dunes. Although much sand has been replaced, it is a different landscape for sea turtles.
The nesting season will be a subject of discussion at numerous Earth Day Events beginning April 18. STRP will have volunteers at tables in four counties and an Astros Baseball team "Green Game." Bookmarks and literature will be distributed at the Houston Zoo, The Woodlands Earth Day, Migration Celebration at the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, Moody Gardens in Galveston, North Harris County College and Minute Maid Park in Houston. It's our biggest year for spreading the word about Kemp's ridley sea turtles and all the sea turtles of the Gulf of Mexico.
Notes from the Field: Sea Turtle and Shark Tagging Expedition
Posted by Todd Steiner on April 1st, 2009
|Todd Steiner, STRP Executive Director, attaches a satellite beacon in the Cocos Islands|
I have just completed an incredible 10-day sea turtle and shark tagging expedition to Cocos Island National Park, Costa Rica. Located 550 km off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Cocos Island was declared a Costa Rican National Park in 1978 and was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1997 and is best known for the large number of sharks and other pelagic species found there.
Working with our sister organization PRETOMA in Costa Rica, we succeeded in outfitting two endangered green sea turtles with satellite transmitters and attaching four acoustical tags on hammerhead sharks. This research will increase our knowledge base so that we can best design recovery and management plans for this amazing endangered species.
In a few days, we will have a map up on our web site so all of our members can track the movements of the turtles. Stay tuned. We may be planning another expedition for this fall. If you are an experienced scuba diver and would like to participate as a volunteer research assistant, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know! (The approximate cost is ~$5,000).
Highlighting Sea Turtles and Safe Seafood at Oceans Day 2009
Posted by Karen Steele, Campaign Coordinator, GotMercury.org and Michael Milne, Campaign Coordinator, Sea Turtle Restoration Project on March 30th, 2009
The 2nd annual Oceans Day was held in the California State Capitol last Wednesday. This is a day when environmental groups from across the state converge on California’s legislators in Sacramento to educate and lobby for their support on the many issues that effect California’s beautiful ocean.
The day started with meeting up with our lobby teams at 7.30am to strategize and finalize the plan for the day. Then it was off to meet with the legislators and/or their staff. At least four lobby teams met with over 25 legislators along the course of the day.
A variety of issues were discussed including gathering support for the string of Marine Protected Areas that are being planned and developed along California’s coast, plastics in the ocean, global warming, ocean pollution and our own legislation, AJR 8.
We focused our efforts for STRP on protecting both people and marine animals. Michael lobbied for support on a petition to the federal government to ban swordfish imports from international fisheries that do not meet the same standards for protecting marine mammals as followed by U.S. fisheries. Through the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) it is a law that all imports of fish to the U.S. come from fisheries that adhere to the same standards as outlined in the MMPA. This has not been enforced for over 35 years and we think it is time the government took seriously our environmental laws and standards we have established.
Karen lobbied for greater protection of public health from the risk of toxicity from mercury-in-seafood. We would like to see California implement mandatory warning signs at points-of-sale for all seafood that is known to contain high levels of mercury. In addition we want to see a program implemented that regularly tests seafood for mercury levels – right now this very rarely happens. As a result fish is being sold to the public with exceedingly high levels of mercury – independent testing reported on KTLA Los Angeles just a few weeks ago found all but one sample of swordfish tested was over the FDA action level, and one sample was over 4 times this!
Overall the day was rewarding and a lot of fun. It ended with a great celebration of our oceans with an inspiring talk by Jean-Michael Cousteau, award presentations to recognize ocean heroes, and a spectacular screening of Under the Sea 3D. It was great to see so many people descending on the State Capitol to speak up for our oceans. We’re already looking forward to next year!
Changes at Galveston!
Posted by Carole Allen on
Gulf Office Director
Just a few years ago, Galveston city and county officials didn't think about the nesting season of the Kemp's ridley sea turtle as spring approached the island. But things have changed. For the last two or three years, permission has been given for signs to be put on public beaches advising tourists and residents to call 1-866-TURTLE-5 if a sea turtle, tracks or hatchlings are seen.
An article in the March 29 issue of the Houston Chronicle points out further proof that people in high places are concerned with the sea turtles. Last June, workers started to build a ramp to the beach for anyone in a wheelchair. Before it was completed the ramp was torn up by Hurricane Ike. Workers began again to build the ramp for this tourist season. I was very pleased to read that "They also erected fences to protect Kemp's ridley sea turtles from wandering onto the construction site."
Thank you to everyone in Galveston who care about the endangered sea turtles that have returned at last.