Animals in the Oceans - News in Brief - 2007 Winter

Ocean Inhabitants Could Disappear by the Year 2048

Calling for no-fishing zones to be set up urgently, scientists warned in November that the world's fish and other marine animal populations caught for food may collapse within the next half-century. If current habitat destruction and over-fishing trends continue, their 4-year study showed that these species could be almost gone by 2048. In response to this study, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported its support for increased conservation, but believes that this fate will only result if reckless, irresponsible actions continue at the current rate for the next four decades. The FAO believes that world citizens will not let this happen, and economic forces would discourage a complete loss. In the meantime, there is no question that we should start demanding responsible fishing practices now.



Intelligent Humpbacks Possess Rare Brain Cells

Mount Sinai School of Medicine neuroscientists have reported that humpback whale brains contain spindle neurons, a type of cell shared only by humans, great apes and cetaceans such as dolphins. The cells are present in areas analogous to where they are found in primate species. It may explain the whales' complex communication skills and abilities to form alliances, cooperate, transmit culture and use tools. Scientists believe spindle neurons are involved in the cognitive process.



Washington Orcas Under Threat

Washington Orcas Under ThreatPuget Sound orcas have gained protection under the Endangered Species Act, but researchers worry about recent whale deaths, as well as an increase in pollution and a decline in food sources.

Three adult Puget Sound orcas were presumed dead after going missing this summer and fall. Before their disappearance, at least two of the animals had shown signs of starvation. Researchers are worried about this incident, since orca mortality is highest in the oldest and youngest animals and is typically restricted to the winter months. Additionally, one of the whales left behind a still-nursing calf. Losing a female in her early reproductive years is a devastating blow to the Puget Sound orca population of about 90 animals. While their numbers have been building since aquarium captures were banned in 1977, pollution and a decline in salmon are still affecting them. Federal officials responsible for protecting the animals under the Endangered Species Act since they were listed in November 2005 would like to see Puget Sound orca numbers grow to 120.

Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has issued a recovery plan for the whales, including cleaning up contaminated areas of the Puget Sound, improving guidelines for boat traffic around protected areas, preventing oil spills and supporting "salmon restoration." But its designation of critical habitat for the orcas has a major flaw—for national security reasons, the 2,500 square mile area restrictions do not apply to Naval operations, which infamously use deadly sonar in areas such as the large military zone in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a popular habitat for the orcas.The NMFS should eliminate this exception to the important conservation tool.



Dolphinarium Plans Halted

The island of St. Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles had previously announced plans to allow the Mexican firm Atl ¡ntida to construct a dolphinarium on the island. The facility would have included over a dozen dolphins exported from Mexico, ensuring the cruel confinement of these intelligent animals. Fortunately, a massive grassroots campaign led to the imposition of 13 strict criteria by the St. Maarten government that caused the firm to abandon its plan. Governor F. E. Richards should be applauded for this action. It is hoped that the St. Maarten government will soon pass a provision stating that wild marine mammals will not be permitted to enter, leave or be housed on the island for commercial or entertainment purposes.



Sharks Receive Protection in the Southern Ocean and off the West African Coast

Sharks Receive Protection in the Southern Ocean and off the West African Coast Bags of shark fins cater to the growing market for shark fin soup, an Asian "delicacy" that is contributing to the decline of many shark populations.

In November, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources decided to halt the targeted fishing of sharks living in the Southern Ocean, at least until their status is assessed. These animals are often hunted for their fins through a brutal practice called "shark finning." Fisherman slice off the animals' fins while they are still alive and conscious. Following this horror, the sharks are tossed back into the water to die from suffocation, blood loss or predation by other animals. Shark species are particularly vulnerable because they grow slowly, mature late and produce small numbers of offspring. In particular, deepwater sharks, who are hunted increasingly for their liver oil, take many years to mature and are declining rapidly. Currently, 106 species of shark are at risk according to the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species.

While some bans on shark finning are in place in other parts of the world, they are generally lenient, and illegal finning goes undetected. However, any move to protect these marine animals is a step in the right direction, including the South East Atlantic Fisheries' immediate ban on shark finning along the coastlines of Namibia, Angola and South Africa. To control and monitor fishing, a record of all fishing vessels will also be established. It is our hope that these and other protections around the world will increase over time. These steps will contribute to a future of responsible, sustainable fishing and protections for sharks in all oceans.



Will the US Ban Destructive Fishing??

In a surprising move this October, the Bush administration promised to push for an international ban on deep-sea bottom trawling and other destructive fishing practices responsible for decimating ocean populations in recent years. United Nations officials met later that week to discuss the issue, but unfortunately, even a compromise ban was rejected—due largely to Iceland's delegation. With the support of almost two dozen of his colleagues in the US Congress, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) that same week introduced a resolution stating that destructive fishing should be stopped.

Animal advocates and environmentalists have long warned about the dangers of trawling, whereby giant weighted nets are dragged along the floor of the sea to look for fish species such as orange roughy. Meanwhile, they scrape the ocean floor clean of ancient coral reefs and other important species and habitats. To the disadvantage of the ecosystem, technological advances have aided trawling, allowing the nets to reach more than 6,000 feet below the water's surface.