Blog | Oceana USA

Hoisting the Oceana flag aboard shipRecently, I found out that Oceana Europe was planning a sea turtle bycatch expedition (turtles accidentally caught in fishing gear) and that they were headed out to sea on a Spanish pelagic longline boat with a film crew to document the problem and collect data. To those of you not as familiar with fishing, longline fishing is putting 20 miles of line and hooks with bait in the ocean to catch swordfish and tuna, etc. The boats leave port and stay out for 4 -6 days catching fish, 40 miles offshore or so, before coming back to land. I have been working on this issue for Oceana from Headquarters in DC, and the next think I knew, I was on my way to Spain to board a fishing boat, headed out into the Mediterranean Sea.

I have been fishing on several kinds of fishing boats before, but I had never gone out with a fishing boat for several days on end, sleeping, eating, etc, with the crew, especially a crew that did not speak English. The boat had 4 other crew members and a captain, along with Carlos, the Oceana expedition leader, based out of our European office, and Mar, a accomplished filmmaker.

I guess I should mention here that this was not a large boat. It was only about 50 feet long and let me tell you, in the middle of the Mediterranean, it did not seem large enough.

Caught swordfishSo, I was on the boat for 4 days and 3 nights. The conditions on the boat were less that ideal. Actually, to give you a clue, for the majority of the time I was on the boat, I was awake. The boat did not lend itself to sleeping, so I pulled my first all-nighter, actually staying awake for 36 hours (although not really by choice). Think fishing, no showers, foam rubber pads that everyone shares and blankets on the deck of the boat sitting in fish guts - and then imagine that they haven't been washed in months. So, that really didn't help. I won't even begin to explain the no toilet and limited freshwater problem.

Anyway, the list goes on, but the good news is that it was an extremely important experience for me. I was very surprised that swordfish they caught were very small, and I mean really small -- in fact, I was surprised that most of them met the legal limit. The fishermen were also catching turtles and Carlos and I had our dehooking devices and removed the fishing hooks and other gear -- as well as measured and tagged the turtles before we released them.

But, by far the best thing about my trip was bringing the new circle fishing hooks to the fishermen. These hooks are a new idea by the U.S. and research shows that they reduce the number of turtles being caught by the gear - and since most of these turtles are on the Endangered Species List, this is a good thing. So, I brought some of these new hooks with me from the U.S.. When we first showed them to the crew, they said, "what animal do you use this on"... "You could never catch a swordfish with this hook." So, their first reaction was far from overwhelming.

A hooked turtleBut then we came into port, and that night at the bar, the crew was divided over trying the new hooks. There was much arguing, but finally they decided to try them. So the next day on the boat, they attached my circle hooks to their fishing lines and put the hooks in the rotation to be baited and put in the water. I was very nervous, but near the end of the set, low and behold, up came a swordfish on a circle hook. Then when we got back to port, the owner of the boat met the captain and crew to check out the catch. The next thing I knew, the captain was showing the boat owner the circle hooks and showing him the fish he caught with them, etc. This was a huge step forward, especially with the Spanish fishery and it couldn't have been more rewarding. Well, except for the fact that I was so tired, it was amazing I was still smiling.

So, stay tuned to our Web site to see the professional footage from the trip!

Most potential effects of climate change - considerable changes in air and sea temperature, sea level rise, increased flooding and desertification, and so on - are now so well established that the topic has recently been turned into a major summer blockbuster. That was Hollywood of course, which the Webster's American Dictionary defines as 'exaggeration with intent to thrill'. Yet, global warming is certainly real, and considerable research is being carried out to try and better grasp its likely consequences. That research has turned up some interesting results, published in Science last month.

Global warming and coral reefs: like pinstripe pants and a plaid shirt

The main greenhouse gas is of course carbon dioxide, or CO2. Like rainforests on land, the oceans are an enormous 'sink' for the gas. Nearly half of the extra CO2 produced since the Industrial Revolution has ended up in the sea. For those of us on land, that's great news, right? In some ways yes, as the oceans are acting as a buffer to the effects of global warming. In reality though, that's long term, as in thousands-of-years long term. For sea creatures it may be quite the opposite. By the end of next century, rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere may halve the rate at which organisms such as corals, plankton and shellfish (bivalve mollusks) grow. This happens because increased CO2 levels in the sea make it more acidic, dissolving the calcium carbonate that the creatures use to make their skeletons and shells. This problem impacts the ecosystem immediately, and will only get worse over time. The effects of these changes on the wider ecosystem are unknown, but are likely to be significant because these organisms make up the foundation of the marine food web or provide shelter and protection for countless other species.

Is no place safe?

If I'd have seen a chance to bet on the deep sea being the only place on the planet that would not be affected by global warming, I'd have put half my monthly salary on it. Thankfully I saw no such bet, and as a result am now 6 cents better off. Changes in the atmosphere do affect the deep sea. Scientists have found that the prevalence of sea cucumbers - close relatives of starfish and sea urchins - at 13,000 feet off California varies depending on how much food is falling through the waters above. And these rainfalls of food depend on atmospheric climate events like El Nino and global warming.

For more info on these studies see Acid Seas and No Cucumbers.

August 19, 2004: After a rockin' and rollin' night on the ship, the morning news is a surprise to nobody. Today's dive is cancelled. Winds are over 30 knots and the seas are rife with 10-plus foot waves, beyond the safety margins to safely launch and recover the ALVIN. Sadly, the "Caldera of Doom" on Ely Seamount will remain unexplored.

This was the last scheduled dive of the cruise, so after some final multi-beam mapping of the area, we'll begin the long 4 day transit south.

The underwater exploration part of the cruise has effectively come to an end. But the information collected will yield many more discoveries. I'm very appreciative of being involved in this exciting research. Being able to observe deep-sea corals in their natural habitat has been a wonderful opportunity, so much more meaningful than numbers on a spreadsheet or dots on a map.

I'd like to thank Catalina Martinez, NOAA Office of Exploration, chief scientist Tom Shirley and principle investigators Randy Keller, Amy Baco-Taylor and Peter Etnoyer, the crew of Alvin and the Atlantis, and everyone else involved in the 2004 Gulf of Alaska Seamount Exploration. All your efforts have brought mankind closer to understanding the mysteries of the sea.

For the oceans,

Jon Warrenchuk
Marine Biologist
Oceana

August 18, 2004: The previous evening's multi-beam mapping revealed an interesting structure on the adjacent Ely Seamount: a volcanic crater on the summit. The P.I.'s decide to dedicate the last dive of the cruise tomorrow to exploring this structure.

There's bound to be something of interest for both the geologists and the biologists on this unique seamount feature. The crater is sensationally dubbed "the Caldera of Doom". Why? Probably because we watched Indiana Jones on DVD the night before.

August 17, 2004:The Atlantis is holding its position 800 meters over the summit of Giacomini Seamount, the last seamount we'll be exploring on this expedition.

Tom Shirley and Peter Etnoyer are cruising the flank of the seamount in Alvin while collecting samples for their research. Towards the end of every dive, the scientists in the sub call in the science report to the bridge. That way, those of us on the ship can get ready to process the collected samples when they return to the surface. The science report is reported around the ship: 7 corals, 3 seastars, 5 rocks, 4 "slurp" samples, 1 fish.

Fish? Hmmm. We haven't had a fish yet in our samples. I'm curious as to what it could be. A roughscale grenadier? A bignose skate? Shortspine thornyhead?

When the sub is retrieved and the samples are on deck, we find out. It's a snailfish! Whoa, stand back, those babies can take your leg off! Just kidding. It's only about 3.5 inches long, a real cutie.

The snailfishes are a diverse group of fish in the North Pacific (there's probably several dozen species). Snailfish have a pelvic fin that's modified into an adhesive disk used to stick onto things. This particular little dude was hanging out on a bamboo coral. All very interesting. Now into the alcohol jar with you!

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