December 21, 2010

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by Kip Evans,
SEAlliance Director of Expeditions and Photography

Whale Shark / Holbox  (c) Kip Evans

Looking back on our expedition travels of 2009 and 2010, we made considerable progress towards elevating the case for both species and habitat protection. We laid the groundwork for future partnerships in Cuba, Belize, and Mexico. Our efforts saw measurable results in Holbox, Mexico, which is part of the Mesoamerican Reef Hope Spot and the site of our first “Mini expedition” and documentary film. Our short film – Isla Holbox-Whale Shark Island, won “best non-broadcast documentary” at the Blue Ocean Film Festival this past August. This film is now being used by both the Department of Tourism in Cancun and by scientists on Holbox Island to educate tourists, whale shark guides, and boat operators about the importance of protecting whale sharks.

As we prepare for 2011, we are investigating other areas where we can offer a helping hand, or flipper. For Dr. Earle and the SEAlliance team, the Gulf of California is a key area of concern where we will be focusing our attention first, as we consider where we can make a substantial impact. The beautiful Chilean Fiords and the Sargasso Sea are also a priority and we will be visiting those regions later in the year. Here’s a breakdown on each area.

The Gulf of California Hope Spot 

Humpback Whale / Patagonia  (c) Kip Evans

Jacques Cousteau dubbed the Gulf of California, “the world’s aquarium,” because it boasts approximately one-third of the world’s total number of marine mammal species, nearly 900 fish species (about 90 of which are endemic to the area) and more than 170 seabird species. While it is known to be one of the most diverse seas on the planet, almost nothing is known about the organisms that dwell in it’s deepest depths.

Preserving not only the diversity, but also the abundance of organisms is a key concern for many environmental groups working in the Gulf of California. Comunidad y Biodiversidad SC (COBI), a marine conservation organization in Mexico, for example, has spent the past 21 years working with Mexican communities to establish fisheries conservation from the ground-up. By working directly with divers, aquaculture owners, fishermen, and local government officials, COBI has created an atmosphere of stewardship. According to COBI director, Jorge Torre, the organization has recently been collecting data throughout Mexico’s MPAs with the help of fishermen and hooka divers. Through these collaborative efforts these divers are finding a new outlet for their diving skills, and in some cases are even finding new careers as divers for universities and dive boat operators.

Shrimp Trawler / Kino Bay  (c) Kip Evans

One of COBI’s main project sites is located in Kino Bay, Mexico, along the eastern edge of the Gulf of California. Shrimp trawlers in this area drag huge weighted nets across the sea floor indiscriminately catching and removing all marine life in their path. The Mexican shrimp trawling industry catches approximately 183,000 tons of shrimp a year, but discards four times that weight in by-catch (the unintentional catch of marine life). In the Gulf of California this primarily consists of snapper, bottom fish, sharks and in some cases endangered turtles. Both the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico have been heavily trawled for decades and the long-term effects of these practices are still poorly understood.

Hammerhead Shark / Kino Bay  (c) Kip Evans

While visiting Kino this past November, I documented some of this by-catch and talked with some of the fishermen about their concerns. These are people who have a dependant connection to the sea and do not want to lose their way of life. Sadly, they are destroying their local fishery at an uncontrollable rate, something that will ultimately destroy their own community.

One of our expedition goals for the Gulf of California will be to document the impacts from over-fishing, including bottom trawling. We will also be looking to highlight some of the success stories in the area, including the work that COBI and other NGOs have done in places like Cabo Pulmo; a marine protected area on the western-side of the Gulf of California.

Chilean Fjords 

Glacier / Chilean Fjords  (c) Kip Evans

The Chilean coast stretches some 2,450 miles (4,000 kilometers) along the Pacific Ocean. One of the most breathtaking places on earth, Chile has a wide variety of coastal habitats ranging from dry desert communities in the north, to ice filled fjords in the south. The tranquil waters of the Patagonian Fjords in particular, provide critical habitat for thousands of fish, invertebrate and fish species. The abundance of prey species such as krill, also make these icy waters ideally suited for dolphins, whales and seabirds.

Unfortunately, the Patagonian Fjords has recently seen an exponential growth in the salmon aquaculture industry due to low labor costs and an abundance of open space. These facilities use harmful antibiotics in the production of farmed salmon, which risks the health of native wildlife that inhabit surrounding waters, as well as the general public who consume the fish. Farmed salmon that escape aquaculture facilities also pose a problem to native fish populations because they compete for food and potentially spread disease.

Chilean Fjords  (c) Kip Evans

There is urgent need for enhancing basic marine research in the Chilean fjord region to put coastal management plans and legislation on the top of the government’s agenda. There is hope however. In 2010, the Chilean government established the Sala y Gómez Marine Park, a no-take marine reserve of 150,000 square kilometers around Sala y Gómez

Our expedition goals for Chile are two-fold. First, we want to highlight the work being accomplished by scientist and environmental groups who have been putting pressure on the Chilean government to increase regulatory controls on the salmon aquaculture industry. Secondly, we want to document the high biological diversity of the fjords and show the world that these impressive waters deserve a great deal of protection.

Sargasso Sea 

Sargassum  (c) Kip Evans

The Sargasso Sea, located in the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America, is a sea without boundaries. Organisms float in a liquid space utilizing large rafts of seaweed for protection. These Sargassum “rafts” are a critical habitat for entire communities of fish and invertebrates, including the endangered Sargassumfish. Offshore areas where calm conditions are often found, allow individual plants to collect and build large mats. Six species of Sargassum exist, including Sargassum natans and Sargassum fluitans. Like other algal species that depend on photosynthesis, Sargassum plants rely on small gas-filled floats called pneumatocyst to keep themselves afloat.

The Sargasso Sea plays a major role in the migration and the life cycle of both the European and American eels. These eels begin life in the Sargassum and then travel to the inland waters of North America and Europe. Later in life, they return to the area where they lay eggs and eventually perish.

The remote nature of the Sargasso Sea has helped insulate its residents from the outside world, but there are emerging threats, including plastic pollution carried to the area on strong currents. These same currents also deliver food, nutrients, and in some cases, the animals themselves to the area. The presence of non-biodegradable plastics is a threat to species like loggerhead turtles that utilize these currents early in life.

In 2010 Dr. Earle and other members of the SEAlliance team made several trips to the Sargasso Sea to help elevate the urgency to protect this area. In 2011, we hope to return to the area to document these threats and to highlight the tiny creatures that need our help.

Kip Evans is the Director of Expeditions and Photography. He has over 20 years of professional experience working in the oceans for organizations such as National Geographic and the National Marine Sanctuary program. Kip joined the SEAlliance team in 2008. Kip’s film and photography work can be viewed at: www.KipEvansPhotography.com 
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