The Mirror of Armila

December 16th, 2014 | No Comments
Ocean Plastic, Pollution

Originally published June 29, 2014 on

By Carl Safina and Pam Longobardi

There are no mirrors in Armila.  As a culture, the Guna are less concerned with themselves than they are with their families, friends and community.  When you live in Armila, you see yourself only as a reflection in the faces of the beautiful smiling people of this town.  Armila is in extremely remote southern Panama’s Caribbean coast, just a stone’s throw from Colombia, and is one of the most active leatherback sea turtle nesting areas in the world.  During Pam’s week there last month 2014, there averaged 60-70 nesting turtles each night.  But the omnipresent mirror she encountered was the mirror of contemporary global culture, the overwhelming amount of plastic on their beach.

Armila Girls on plastic beach, photo: Pam Longobardi

Armila Girls on plastic beach, photo: Pam Longobardi

Armila is accessible only by boat, without public utilities or waste management. Ocean currents are quite fierce along this coast, with head-high waves and relentless wind.  These currents also bring massive amounts of plastic to Armila:  it is the most plastic-impacted beach Pam has seen anywhere in the world. That’s saying a lot because we were both on the Gyre expedition to witness and remove plastic in the North Pacific:

The people of Armila are very involved in turtle conservation. The Guna are politically savvy and independent thinkers who see the value of the turtles as an asset for their own future:  one endangered culture taking care of another, and are developing ecotourism to protect both.

Witnessing the force of will it takes the gargantuan creatures to maneuver their 600-1000 lb. bodies on dry land is something profoundly moving.  The turtles’ heads appear like large rocks seemingly incapable of expression, except the female turtles huff and blow with the sheer exertion of their labors, their eyes dripping tears, their necks engorged pink by the heat of their effort.

In the pitch-blackness of a town without artificial lighting, the turtles emerge from the sea toward the darkened land, an hour later following the light of the breaking waves back home.

Except  that now Armila has been given a wonderful gift: solar lighting.  It does make evening routines easier to have light as you scramble around to secure your mosquito net and escort unwelcomed visitors out of your bed.  But lights wreak havoc on the turtles’ sense of place. On a single night, seven behemoths dragged their unwieldy egg-bloated bodies so far up the beach that they entered the dirt paths of the town.  No one slept that night, coaxing the leatherbacks to haul themselves back to the beach and complete their life mission.

Armila Boats, photo: Pam Longobardi

Armila Boats, photo: Pam Longobardi

Pam went to Armila as witness, teacher, friend, and worker. The first-person “I” below is Pam’s voice:

I came to Armila to pilot a project with Oceanic Society and the Guna women artisans.  They are talented creators of the art form of ‘molas,’ which translates simply as “clothing”, a rich and expansive canvas for traditional and experimental imagery.  I found their vision of the natural world, from smiling faces on dragonflies, to beautiful geometries of medicinal plants and leatherback turtles to be individual and powerful.  It was my intention to get the women to see the beach plastic as a potential and abundant art material.Pam went to Armila as witness, teacher, friend, and worker. The first-person “I” below is Pam’s voice:

 In the gender divided roles of the Guna, women are responsible for the food preparation and trash disposal.  Viewing the world from their spiritual center, ‘grandmother ocean’ or Abuela Mar is The Great Recycler; she takes all the refuse and “turns it into sand.”  How sadly right they are now, as plastic tonnage covering the beach gets pounded into plastic sand.  In an earlier world of plantain skins and mango peels, this system of dumping refuse on the beach worked fine, but as the army of global plastic has invaded their beach and their lives, the lack of municipal waste management creates a plastic pollution disaster.

Armila plastic beach, photo: Pam Longobardi

Armila plastic beach, photo: Pam Longobardi

With large colorful fabric bags sewn by my Colombian friend, we met the women in the Council Hall, a ritually important place of spiritual guidance and political decisions.  I did my first beach cleaning with the town’s preparation for the Turtle Festival; massive logs, coconuts and plastic raked ceremoniously into large piles.  From the multitudes of plastic oddities, I chose pieces good for working with: HDPE, LDPE and PP, and natural materials in order to differentiate the things that belong on the beach causing no harm, from materials that are bad for the ocean, but good for making art.  The women left with their cloth bags to fill. 

 In a subsistence culture, most hours of the day are filled with chores to maintain daily life.  All food is cooked by wood fire, so women must drag giant logs from the beach and cut them into firewood.  Plantains must be picked and prepared.  I was aware that taking on another task like beach cleaning plastic was taking time from other aspects of their daily work.

Longobardi working with the Guna women artists, photo: Morrison Mast

Longobardi working with the Guna women artists, photo: Morrison Mast

The day of the workshop, more than a dozen women arrived with bags full of thousands of pieces of plastic. To solve the immediate crisis of the disorienting solar lights, we collected 5 gallon buckets that had washed up to create light covers to shield the glare from the nesting turtles.  As artists and workers, it was instantly appealing to make something both beautiful and functional.  With small hand tools, drill and wire that I had brought as gifts, I taught them basic sculptural techniques, encouraging them to think of the plastic as cloth, and the wire as thread.  The women were totally absorbed, laughing and working, translating their own imagery from plastic, working for hours past the midday meal.  The joy of creating something beautiful out of something ugly, or worse yet, invisible, was significant.

Longobardi and Guna woman artist working on a solar light cover, photo: Morrison Mast

Longobardi and Guna woman artist working on a solar light cover, photo: Morrison Mast

As I departed Armila at the end of the week, the women formed a Plastic Co-op to work with the plastic in the creation of new artwork. 

Pam plans a return in September to continue the collaboration.  The ‘mola’ is elastic and evolving living art. The incorporation of recovered plastic from the beaches into these artists’ material vocabulary provides them with a near endless supply source.  It also begins the removal of the invasive plastic from the leatherbacks nesting zone, and, along with efforts already underway by the village, initiates a conservation victory in the making.

Doing Laundry in Armila, Photo: Pam Longobardi

Doing Laundry in Armila, Photo: Pam Longobardi


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Government Says Eat Fish, Not Too Much, Mostly Low in Mercury

July 19th, 2014 | No Comments
Bluefin Tuna, Mercury in seafood

Previously posted on 6-18-2014:

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

A few days ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released updated draft advice on fish consumption for childbearing aged women and young children.

The new advice encourages pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, breastfeeding women, and young children to consume 2-3 servings of a variety of fish per week (a total of 8-12 ounces per week for women and smaller portions for children) that are lower in mercury. This is the first time the agencies have recommended a minimum fish consumption level.

They say they want to encourage fish consumption because studies show that the nutritional value of fish is important during childhood development and development prior to birth – for instance, eating fish may improve fetal brain development and raise children’s IQs. Fish contain high-quality protein, many vitamins and minerals, and some have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

But fish also contain mercury, and too much mercury is bad for humans, particularly for developing fetuses and children. It can cause brain and neurological damage1. So that is why choosing lower mercury fish is important.

Mercury in fish comes from coal; when coal is burned, mercury is released into the environment and it eventually enters our waterways, where it is absorbed by fish. When we eat fish we get a dose of mercury. Roxanne Karimi of Stony Brook’s Consortium for Interdisciplinary Environmental Research says “Mercury is not to be taken lightly. It crosses the blood-brain barrier and it crosses the placenta. It leaves the body slowly.”

However by choosing fish wisely, women and children can get the benefits of fish without the mercury risk. As a general rule, it is best to eat lower on the food chain. Mercury accumulates up the food chain, so large, predatory fish have higher mercury levels than smaller, lower on the food chain fish.

The updated fish consumption advice from the FDA and EPA provides several safer, lower mercury fish choices. Plus they provide a table that lists mercury and omega-3 levels in common fish species to help consumers make smart seafood choices. Lower mercury fish options that have high amounts of omega-3s include salmon, mussels, sardines, herring, anchovies, and trout. Other lower mercury choices include pollock, cod, shrimp, tilapia, catfish, and canned light tuna. The agencies are encouraging consumers to eat a variety of these lower mercury fish, rather than just one type.

Similar to the current advice, the agencies recommend that:

— childbearing aged women and young children avoid certain species with very high mercury levels – king mackerel, swordfish, shark, and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico.

–women consume no more than 6 ounces of albacore tuna a week.
–parents similarly limit how much albacore tuna their children consume, depending on their children’s age.

The agencies are also considering adding marlin and orange roughy – two other species high in mercury – to the “avoid” list. They are seeking public comment on this.

The new draft advice is much better than the current advice and provides the public with much more information about the benefits vs. risks of eating fish. But it still has some problems.

The advice on tuna is not conservative enough. Experts say that if light or average weight (166 lb) women eat 6 ounces of albacore tuna a week as recommended by the FDA and EPA, they will exceed safe mercury levels2. As well, the advice does not give a clear picture of mercury levels in tuna, or provide any warnings about eating dark tuna – like bigeye and bluefin, which have even higher mercury levels than albacore. Tuna is the second most popular seafood item after shrimp and tuna consumption accounts for one third of Americans mercury exposure, so accurate advice is essential.


Comparison of mercury levels in salmon vs. different types of tuna.Graphic by Susan Silbernagel, Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research and Outreach.Data source: Karimi et al. 2012 “A Quantitative Synthesis of Mercury in Commercial Seafood and Implications for Exposure in the United States”.

Comparison of mercury levels in salmon vs. different types of tuna.Graphic by Susan Silbernagel, Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research and Outreach.Data source: Karimi et al. 2012 “A Quantitative Synthesis of Mercury in Commercial Seafood and Implications for Exposure in the United States”.

The agencies also don’t provide any warnings about mercury for non-childbearing women and men who consume a lot of fish. While childbearing women and young children are the groups most at risk from mercury, anyone who consumes more than 2-3 servings of fish per week needs to pay attention to what types of fish they are consuming and how much mercury those fish have to avoid potential health risks.
Our partners with the Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research and Outreach at Stony Brook University recently measured blood mercury levels in Long Island, New York seafood consumers. They found that nearly half of the participants in their study hadblood mercury levels above “safe levels”(5.8 micrograms per liter). Elevated blood mercury levels were associated with weekly consumption of tuna steaks, fillets, or sushi or monthly consumption of swordfish, marlin, or shark³.

The FDA and EPA need to ensure they are providing seafood consumers with the most accurate and complete information about mercury levels in fish. And they need to err on the side of caution. The agencies still have time to get the advice right. Hopefully they will.

The full FDA and EPA draft seafood advice is available here . They are seeking public comments on the draft advice, so we encourage you to tell the agencies what you think!

For more information on mercury in seafood check out The Safina Center’s Mercury in Seafood Section   or the Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research and Outreach To find seafood options that are both sustainable and healthy, visit The Safina Center’s online Seafood Choices Guide .

1.) Mercury in Seafood, A Little Clarity

2.) Eating Seafood, Health Boon or Health Threat?
3.)Elevated blood Hg at recommended seafood consumption rates in adult seafood consumers



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New Catch Limit for Menhaden Leaves Millions of Fish in the Sea

July 17th, 2014 | No Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen

Previously posted on 6/12/2014:

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

In December 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to establish the first ever coast-wide catch limit for the Atlantic Menhaden fishery, after urging from fishermen, conservationists, and many of you to protect Menhaden1. Menhaden are one of the sea’s most important fish because they provide food for many larger ocean species.For decades prior to this, fishermen were allowed to catch unlimited amounts of Menhaden, and because of this the Menhaden population declined by around 90%.

The Menhaden fishery is the largest on the U.S. East Coast. The fishery primarily catches Menhaden to grind them up for use in fish-oil dietary supplements, fertilizers, and animal feed. Commercial fishermen also use menhaden for bait.

The Menhaden catch limit established by the Commission reduced catches by 25%, to help stop overfishing on this species (catching them faster than they can reproduce). Each East Coast state received a share of the catch limit.

menhaden catch photo credit: NOAA

menhaden catch photo credit: NOAA

Now, a year later, the catch numbers for Menhaden are in and it’s good news. The 2013 catches remained just under the coast-wide catch limit in its first year of implementation2! This means that around 300 million more Menhaden were left in the sea to feed fish like striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish, as well as seabirds and marine mammals. This helps ensure the maintenance of ocean food-webs. And in turn it helps support commercial and recreational fishing and also eco-tourism, like whale-watching.

All 15 Atlantic Coast states are enforcing the new Menhaden catch limits, though a few states did go over their share of the catch limit – Florida, New York, and Rhode Island. The problem was these states underestimated the amount of Menhaden they catch in their bait fisheries and the amount of the catch share they needed when it was divided among the states. [Previously there was poor reporting of Menhaden catches.]Luckily, the flexibility of the new management measures allowed states with uncaught catch shares to transfer them to the states that exceeded their limits, so they could remain in compliance with the rules.

In 2014, scientists will re-examine the status of the Atlantic Menhaden population. This will tell us if we have reduced fishing levels on Menhaden enough and if the population is rebounding. The results of the assessment will help inform managers on whether adjustments are needed to the coast-wide catch limit. Scientists are also working on developing abundance and fishing targets for Menhaden that take into account the amount of Menhaden that need to be left in the ocean to feed their predators.

Protecting Menhaden and other important small fish is critically important to the overall health of our ocean ecosystems. Please join us in thanking the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for protecting Menhaden by clicking here

To learn more about the sea’s little fish, please visit The Safina Center’s forage fish page       and the Herring Alliance website .

1.) The Little Fish That Could—Maybe It Will
2.) 2014 Review of the Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden


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Rising oceans will be unstoppable

July 15th, 2014 | No Comments
Climate Change

Previously posted on CNN:


Penguins on an ice block in Antarctica.

Penguins on an ice block in Antarctica.

Have you heard the news? 

Because Antarctic ice sheets are melting, the sea level is likely to rise “unstoppably” by at least 10 feet  , dooming many coastal towns and displacing millions of people. And it’s all going to happen—within several centuries.




This is news you can snooze. So go ahead and hit that snooze button.

Could we plan for what will happen centuries from now if we wanted to? Should we plan for what will happen? Will there even be people centuries from now? If there are, do we owe them anything? The next 200, 500 years, are not for us to worry about.

The future isn’t what it once was, but their business isn’t our business. Unimaginable technology has always come to the rescue and always will. Like, we will invent giant, cost-effective floats for New York City and all the other cities and towns on the world’s coasts, or something.

The announcements about the collapsing ice sheets came from two teams of scientists  with different  approaches, focused on different parts of the Antarctic. “A large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat,” according to Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of California, Irvine, who led one of the teams. “It has passed the point of no return.” His team measured shrinkages of 10 to 35 kilometers in several retreating glaciers since the early 1990s. Those glaciers are also thinning.

Warming air is intensifying the winds that sweep round the Antarctic, but it’s not warming air that is melting the glaciers there. Those winds are drawing warm waters to the surface. The warm waters are eroding the ice.

Causes? Seems to be mainly the warming caused by the greenhouse effects of increasing carbon dioxide from burning gas, oil, and coal. But the ozone hole, also human-caused but having nothing to do with greenhouse gases or fossil fuels, might also be intensifying the winds.
So far, sea level rise worldwide has been caused mainly by the heat-caused expansion of seawater, much more than melting ice. But melting land ice will have a big effect on sea level rise.

Ian Joughin, leader of the other research team, said that nothing can stop the collapse of the ice sheet, adding, “There’s no stabilization mechanism.”

But, again, it will be slow. Centuries. John H. Mercer of the Ohio State University was first to predict this way back in 1978. He died without seeing the Antarctic glaciers break up. And so will we all.

So, back to bed. People 200 years from now? Not our problemo.

The only wrinkle in that thought is that centuries ago, about 225 years ago to be more precise, some people wrote a Constitution and Bill of Rights that affect our lives every day and that we refer to daily to guide us legally and morally. Those people could have said, “Screw it, let’s make money.” I think about my debt to them for wanting to be better than that. I often wish we wanted to be as good.

Closer to home, closer to now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that in this century, sea levels could rise as much as 3 feet.

And that is our problem. Some of us will be alive then. Many of us will have children who will live to this century’s finish line. Between then and now, there will likely be more devastating Sandy-like hurricanes as winds intensified by warmer waters devastate shores.

While reading about the Antarctic ice melt, I noticed three side articles, and clicked.

One talked about flooding-related displacement already affecting people in low-lying areas around the world, from the natives of Kiribati to the people of Florida. Another speaks of misery caused in Bangladesh    by rising seas, where 18 million people will be displaced in the next 40 years by rising seawater or having their well-water and farms ruined by salt.

The third article talked about our dysfunctional Congress’s new defeat of yet another energy bill  . Voice of America says, “A bill with strong bipartisan support to make the United States more energy efficient has been blocked in the Senate.” Efficiency is bad; we need wastefulness. Thank you, senators.

Either we have a moral responsibility to others or we don’t. It doesn’t matter whether they live around the block or in the next state or in the future. Morally there’s not much difference between a person flooded out by Superstorm Sandy and a person flooded out 200 years from now by our collective, willful inaction.

But some days, I’m not even sure how willful it is. When I was in high school in the 1970s, I learned that we were too dependent on other countries for energy, and that oil and coal are non-renewable and polluting, and that we needed to begin a shift to harnessing clean renewable energy sources. The shift to petroleum-based economy had taken a century. The shift to clean renewables would be my generation’s most important task.

A lot has happened but, bottom line, there’s been very little progress.

Technology advanced, but it hasn’t been embraced. It’s been outmaneuvered by denial and inertia backed by entrenched big-energy lobbying and campaign money. Globally, we’re not exactly coming together to stabilize climate and institutionalize clean energy.

I think we could do what’s needed. But collectively we simply aren’t. Sometimes I don’t see humanity as being capable of fixing the problems we’re creating. We’d have to agree to fix them. Before that, we’d have to care. We’re not doing enough of any of those things. Too often, we’re in denial. And we feel fine. Our main solution is that snooze button.

So, let’s not worry about the people of Bangladesh, Kiribati, New York and Miami, or the 23rd century. Pleasant dreams.

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This planet comes with limits

July 10th, 2014 | 2 Comments
About, FRACKING, News

Previously posted on

When I was in my 20s, a girlfriend surprised me by saying that we didn’t have to worry about overpopulation because technology would make sure we always had what everyone needed. Of course, economists have been saying this for decades.
And of course, billions of people today don’t have what they need.

Because such people as my old girlfriend and economists presuppose that unlimited economic growth is necessary and also believe adding billions more humans to the world is desirable, I would like to share some thoughts about such thinkers, whom I’ll call “Growthers.”
Why do Growthers think we should add billions more humans to the world? Do they want more consumers? Or is it something deeper, more biblical, more fruitfully multiplied? All of the above? Whatever their impulse, compulsive craving for “no limits” to economic growth and human numbers is irrational. A finite planet comes with limits.

The United Nations expects the population to grow to about about 9.6 billion people by mid-century; that’s two more Chinas. That worries me. Yet in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, April 26, Matt Ridley expressed these views when he reassured us, “There are no limits because we can invent new ways of doing more with less.” He doesn’t see that this very acknowledgment undermines his premise. If limits don’t exist, why would we need to do more with less?

He continued: “Oil and gas … will run out one day, but only in the sense that you will run out of Atlantic Ocean one day if you take a rowboat west out of a harbor in Ireland. Just as you are likely to stop rowing long before you bump into Newfoundland, so we may well find cheap substitutes for fossil fuels long before they run out.”

Is it possible to think more incoherently about matters of such importance? And as a mariner I must point out — if only for safety — that a rowboat far in the open ocean is a frail and vulnerable craft.

Another big blind spot in the unlimited growth view is the fact that other species also need to live here with us. But other creatures pay for our growth. Meanwhile, populations of fishes, amphibians, mammals, reptiles and birds are all declining worldwide. Species are going extinct about 1,000 times faster than the natural rate — in other words, the rate it would be if humans weren’t around.

North America’s pursuit of growth obliterated the tall prairies, exterminated the continent’s most abundant birds and marginalized many mammals. An Africa of unlimited human growth will lose free-living elephants, apes and cats, natural landscapes and free-flowing rivers. It happens when farms and towns replace plains and forests.

That keeps civilization on an endless Red Queen treadmill of running faster to stay in place.

Would farming Africa like we’ve farmed the Plains solve Africa’s problems? Food isn’t Africa’s only problem.

Already, Ethiopia’s planned dams threaten the nation’s own people and Kenyans who rely on Lake Turkana for water and food.  Competition and conflict always shadow the broad edges of humanity’s tent, and a bigger tent tends to inflame tensions. Like all continents, Africa focused on growth would still have poverty, hunger and conflict. Better to focus on reducing poverty, hunger and conflict.

Growthers and I agree that it’s great that farmers can grow more food on fewer acres than in the past. We disagree utterly on why it’s great. Growing food with increasing efficiency could solve human hunger and the need to give space back to other animals who need it — if humanity doesn’t continue to grow.

But no-limits people want more food to feed more mouths. That keeps civilization on an endless Red Queen treadmill of running faster to stay in place. It means that more efficient food-growing accomplishes nothing. It means that more food will not end hunger.

The Green Revolution solved the food production problem of its time. It did not solve hunger because we did not achieve the family planning revolution needed with it. Had we stayed for the main event — stabilizing population — the whole world might have reached a wonderful sweet spot in nutrition, health and security. What we got was billions more people and, consequently, more people living with hunger and poverty.
More efficient technology and fewer people could help. But more people erase the benefits of technological efficiencies.

We are forced toward more efficiency precisely because we’re scraping deeper into an emptying barrel. Petroleum once ran out onto the ground in Pennsylvania. People collected it; they didn’t even have to drill. Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas wasn’t considered viable a decade ago because it’s difficult and expensive.

Economists and Growthers say, “Look, we haven’t run out because technology saves us.” Well, look, fracking is a symptom of hitting limits. Technology is forced to keep up with the pace at which we are running out. That you still have some checks left doesn’t mean you’re not going bankrupt.

Fracking is postponing the switch to clean energy while the planet warms and oceans acidify. Shouldn’t we work now on what’s needed next?
Digital tech saves us time. It doesn’t save elephants and apes, lions and tigers, bears and eagles, salmon and rivers, orchids and forests, giraffes and pandas, coral reefs and turtles. Human growth dooms the animals we paint on nursery-room walls. Different kinds of growth — more poor people versus more affluent people — doom them differently.

Economists can feel enthused about boosting unlimited growth only if they’re not worrying that our accomplishments continue to come at the expense of forests, grasslands, coral reefs, the ocean, other creatures, and native peoples.

And what are the accomplishments of growth? Has the doubling of world population in my lifetime caused the world to become more peaceful and secure, kinder and more humane? Do we have computers and digital cameras and smartphones and Ibuprofen because there are billions more people than half a century ago? No. We have them because engineers improve technology over time, not because the population has doubled.

Quantity isn’t the same as better.

Life improves with qualities such as health, safety, love, family, community, and compassion. More stuff, more crowding, more competition, more profiteering — and let’s be plain, profiteering is what economists’ growth-mania is always about — isn’t what makes life worthwhile.
It’s only fair to poor people to let them in on the main secret of wealthy, educated and successful people: smaller families mean larger lives. In the happiest of coincidences, the thing that brings fertility down fastest happens to be the same thing that brings down poverty: educating girls.
Illiterate women bear three times as many children as do literate women, and their children tend to stay poor. Meanwhile, each year of schooling raises women’s earning power by 10% to 20%. And when people are a little better off, they desire fewer children. Gender and justice is always a good combination.

For any pie, the biggest slices get cut at the least-crowded tables. The easiest, least expensive and most efficient way to have a bigger slice of the pie is to limit the number of guests you invite.

Most of us know that the secret to a big life is a small family. It works on a global scale, too. If you love your children, humanity and the world, you want to take the best possible care of them, not crowd them out of the house.

Growth for the sake of growth? I don’t see the point.

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Caught by Accident: Global Hotspots of Unintended Catches

April 28th, 2014 | No Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen

Previously posted on 4/3/2014

By Carl Safina and Rebecca Lewison

You might have heard that fishing gear accidentally catches sea animals that fishermen are not trying to catch. Certain nets set for mackerel and lines set for swordfish catch leatherback turtles; lines set for tuna catch sea turtles in some places, albatrosses in others. But what’s the big picture of who catches what where? No one could say—until now.

A team of scientists from Duke University Marine Lab and San Diego State University spent several years chasing down, assembling, and analyzing maddeningly scattered information of incidental catches in fisheries data worldwide. This research team put together a global picture of catches of seabirds, sea mammals, and sea turtles in three main types of fishing gear (gillnet, trawl and longline) in all oceans for many nations. We were part of the team, with Rebecca leading in assembling the final work. That study has just been published.

The scientific team found that there are ocean “hotspots,” areas where incidental catch is high across the board for all animals that we tallied; sea turtles, marine mammals and seabirds. The synthesis includes data for more than 50 different species of air-breathing marine animals. Based on existing data, the maps highlight hotspots of incidental marine mammal catches in the eastern Pacific and the Mediterranean, prevalent sea turtle incidental catch areas in the southwest Atlantic, eastern Pacific and Mediterranean oceans, and highest levels of seabird kill in fisheries in the southwest Atlantic and Southern Indian oceans.

But the global maps tell us more than species hotspots because the incidental catch picture isn’t just about individual species, caught by a single gear in a single place. It’s really about the current health and future of our oceans. By removing marine wildlife, we may be compromising the ability of ocean systems to function as we’ve known them.

“Still alive, mon!” Trinidadian fisherman attempts to free a leatherback turtle tangled in his net. Photo: Carl Safina

“Still alive, mon!” Trinidadian fisherman attempts to free a leatherback turtle tangled in his net. Photo: Carl Safina


The good news is that several strategies already exist to prevent unintended catch. For example, by varying the depth at which lines and nets are deployed, by using specially designed lures and hooks, and by employing excluder devices, and by ultrasonic sound-emitting “pingers” to alert marine animals to the presence of fishing gear, some fisheries have increased target catch and reduced unintended catch. Fishermen from many countries have also developed new fishing practices that have dramatically reduced unwanted catches. But these measures aren’t used everywhere. Promoting the use of strategies to reduce unintended catches is only part of the solution, according to the study’s authors. Community engagement is key in many poorly-regulated, small-scale fisheries.

As long as we have a fishing industry, we’re going to have to work to minimize non-target catch. Fishing nations need to work together to report and reduce unintended catches of unwanted sea animals. No single country can fix this.  We need to use the best-available science, fishing technology and innovative management strategies to link conservation action with sustaining human livelihoods and a commitment to protect the ocean environment.


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Whales win one: Will Japan abide by ban?

April 24th, 2014 | 1 Comment

Previously posted on

On March 31 the World Court in the Hague ruled that Japan’s “scientific” whale-hunting was baloney. It ordered Japan to revoke its “scientific research” permits to all its ships, effectively tying Japan’s fleet to the dock and silencing the cannons and exploding bombs that are the way whales die nowadays.

Japan says it will abide. I wish it would take this opportunity to bow gracefully out of something so dishonest and unfit for modernity. But I expect a fragile truce, and only a partial one.

That’s because Japan has a history of creatively bending the rules beyond the breaking point of international intent. Authorities and whalers seem committed to killing whales first and finding a rationale second, and it would be no surprise if the program were tweaked in some meaningless way so they could excuse continued hunting. Or they might say the court’s ruling applies only in Antarctic waters and not the Pacific, where they also hunt. Or they might simply ignore the ban like their suppliers Norway and Iceland.

Come with me to three faraway places and you might see why I feel deeply and strongly about whales.

During the week it takes us to circle the ice-crowned sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, we see exactly two large whales — and two now-defunct whaling stations. In 1904, the Norwegian whaler C.F. Larsen arrived right here and wrote with astonishment, “I see them in hundreds and thousands.”

During the next 60 years, whalers killed about 2 million whales in the Southern Hemisphere, including about 360,000 blue whales, 200,000 humpbacks, almost 400,000 sperm whales, and a staggering 750,000 fin whales. Many of those whales should still be alive. That’s why we haven’t seen more whales.

Down along the Antarctic Peninsula on a penguin-research expedition, we find that the beach at King George Island is strewn with bigger-than-dinosaur bones of great whales, cast off after the whales were stripped of flesh. A whale vertebrae the size of a hassock makes a good seat for jotting a few notes. Then, like children making up a game, we’ll try to walk a couple hundred yards on the bones of whales killed by human beings, without stepping on the sand. It’s quite do-able.

One skull — a blue whale — measures 12 feet across, eye to eye. Lengthwise, from tip-of-jaw to back-of-skull, we pace it out at 27 boot-lengths. The jawbone is so big around that it comes up past our knees. We look at each other, then glance seaward, knowing that the now-silent bay should be spouting whales.

Next to the far north. In the Arctic’s Svalbard islands north of Norway, we have come to observe the accelerated melting of glaciers, and we find abandoned whalers’ shacks and more whale bones on the beach. These bowheads, killed by the tens of thousands, barely cling to existence in the Atlantic.

In 1993, two stone harpoon points were found inside an Alaskan bowhead. It had been harpooned by 19th century hunters still living in the Stone Age. Industrial-age Eskimos finally got it. In chemical analyses of Alaskan bowheads, the oldest whale was deemed 211 years old at its death. It had been gliding through icy seas when Thomas Jefferson was president.

What Herman Melville in Moby-Dick called “so remorseless a havoc” still resonates in the wide silences of polar seas. Most large whale populations remain depressed.

There’s no humane way to kill a whale. And at roughly 10 times the price of chicken, no people will starve if they don’t eat whale meat. An elderly Inupiat woman once offered me a few pieces of bowhead blubber after inviting me into her home. It really warmed me, and was surprisingly bland-tasting. But the whale needed it more than I did.

Australia and New Zealand had argued that Japan was abusing a loophole allowing lethal scientific research within the worldwide commercial whaling ban. (Norway and Iceland ignore the ban). Japan has been killing protected species and hunting in an internationally declared Antarctic whale sanctuary.

Blue whale w panga

Blue Whale with panga – Photo Carl Safina

The international agreement banning commercial whaling allows whale killing “for the purposes of scientific research.” The court found that Japan was doing “research,” but that the whole program was commercial whaling wrapped in a research shroud.

In 2012, Japan’s Fisheries Agency director explained that minke (rhymes with “kinky”) whale meat is, “prized because it is said to have a very good flavor and aroma when eaten as sashimi and the like.” He added that, “the scientific whaling program … was necessary to achieve a stable supply of minke whale meat.” In other words, the program is not “for the purpose” of scientific research. The court busted Japan on that.

As for the quality of the research, the court noted with understatement, “Japan points to only two peer-reviewed papers… since 2005 and has involved the killing of about 3,600 minke whales, (thus) the scientific output to date appears limited.”

At my university, a science professor who published two papers would be terminated by year six.

Basically, the court affirmed what was always obvious: Japan’s research was bogus. (Part of the research is “to determine pregnancy rates” by seeing if they’re pregnant at the time of death.) And although it’s for commercial purposes, it loses money and is publicly subsidized.

Japan compares killing whales with Westerners killing cows. Nice try, but Japan’s own laws on killing cows require swift and humane killing. It would be illegal in Japan to kill cows the way they kill whales.

Sure, whaling is part of Japanese culture: It’s part of New England culture too. Yesterday’s culture. There are plenty of old-style harpoons on the walls of Yankee restaurants. That’s a good place for them. It’s time for Japan to update its strange commitment to cruel and useless whale killing. Much of the world is more interested in whales than ever. We’ve just gotten beyond killing, into real research, and gained better appreciation and understanding.

So I am happy with the ruling that will at least hit the pause button on Japan’s incomprehensibly outmoded whale hunts. Japan embraces Western influences ranging from baseball to jazz, business suits, trains, and tobacco. Suzuki makes Samurai cars that harken to an older culture, not samurai swords that cling to it. It’s time for Japan to come into the 21st century and hang up the whaling. For good.


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Mercury in Seafood: A Little Clarity

April 15th, 2014 | No Comments
Bluefin Tuna

Previously posted on March 27, 2014: Huffington Post

One of the most dangerous yet confusing toxic pollutants is mercury in seafood. Mercury is very bad for developing fetuses and children, and seafood is very good for them. But mercury is in all seafood. Like I said: confusing.

Last summer a friend caught a quite large bigeye tuna, over 200 pounds. He gave me a big chunk, about 20 pounds. Knowing that such a big, old fish would be pretty high in mercury, I started whittling away at it just a little at a time. My friend was eating a lot of this fish for the next several months, so much so that I advised him to get his blood tested. There’s no sharp line between “safe” and “unsafe” levels of mercury in the body, but the average adult has a blood level of about 1 microgram per liter, and anything above 5 micrograms per liter is considered too high. When he called me saying he had over 40 micrograms per liter, I went to my doctor. My level was 24. I’m now off fish for several months. OK, so I was headed toward vegetarian anyway.

I recently spoke with Ned Groth, an environmental health scientist formerly with Consumers Union, and Michael Bender, co-founder of the Mercury Policy Project (MPP). Bender’s group is suing the federal government in an attempt to update mercury guidelines that Michael says are out of date and not reaching the folks who need them most—pregnant women and heavy fish eaters. It was time for me to understand more about mercury in seafood. What I learned might help clear up some confusion over risks, and how to eat seafood safely.

Mercury in ocean fish comes from natural and human sources. About two-thirds of each year’s new mercury comes from human sources, especially coal combustion. Mercury is an impurity in coal.

From the air it falls into water where bacteria convert it to a form called methylmercury that gets into living things and builds up in them. Plankton with mercury get eaten by little fish, and little fish get eaten by bigger fish. A big fish has gotten a dose of mercury from every little fish it’s ever eaten. If you eat it, it will pass that combined dose on to you. So hint #1: bigger fish and older fish have more mercury, because it accumulates up the food chain.

Ned says that among commonly consumed fish and shellfish, some kinds have 100 times more mercury than other kinds. The highest levels are found in larger, longer-lived predatory fish such as shark, swordfish, tuna, marlin, and grouper.

The developing brain is especially sensitive to mercury’s effects, so pregnant women and young children are the main at-risk group. But the danger falls mostly on people who eat larger than average amounts of fish, and those who eat higher-mercury varieties like those just listed.

The more fish a person eats, the more aware they need to be of the mercury content of their fish choices. Ironically people trying to “eat healthy” can end up with more mercury—including people who eat fish instead of meat and poultry; people pursuing a “heart healthy” diet; seafood lovers who eat fish multiple times a week; and recreational and subsistence anglers who eat what they catch.

I asked Ned, “What does mercury actually do to people? Are people getting sick?

He explained that methylmercury harms the nervous system to differing degrees depending on how much mercury is involved. The dose you get depends on two things: how much mercury is in the fish you eat, and how often you eat fish. One meal of high-mercury fish isn’t going to kill you, but lots of continual eating of moderate-mercury fish can cause your mercury level to rise and cause problems.

At very high exposures, people can lose their ability to walk, speak, think and see clearly. At slightly lower—but still far above average—exposures, brain functions like reaction time, judgment and language can be impaired. Perhaps one percent of adults with the highest mercury exposure may suffer subtle brain function effects.

A recent study in Florida looked at memory, reaction time, decision-making and other brain functions in healthy seafood-loving adults. Those with blood mercury below 5 µg/L had the best cognitive functions. At blood mercury levels of 5 to 15 µg/L, several brain functions were mildly impaired, and at levels above 15 µg/L they were significantly impaired. Beyond that Florida study, several well-documented case reports have found severe symptoms of methylmercury poisoning in adults who ate higher-mercury fish 5 or more times a week.

People aren’t usually aware of things like slower reaction times. Obvious methylmercury poisoning is very rare. The majority of effects are subtle.

You wouldn’t necessarily know if your baby would have been just a little smarter. But when developing babies are exposed to relatively ordinary amounts of mercury in the womb, their intelligence, language and thinking abilities can be mildly reduced.

Mercury may affect the brains of several hundred thousand children born each year. Those at greatest risk for all these effects are people who eat the most fish, and who choose large fish, such as swordfish and tuna, whose predatory lifestyles cause them to accumulate high mercury levels. Ned emphasizes that risk is proportional to dose, and that fish is good but mercury is bad.

“In the last 10 years,” Ned says, “at least a dozen studies, in nine different countries, have found adverse effects on brain development from very low doses of mercury, the kinds of doses associated with ordinary levels of fish consumption. That research shows that current safety guidelines do not protect public health. And yet many of the studies have also shown that fish consumption during pregnancy improves brain development—which highlights the importance of guiding women to eat low-mercury fish.”

When I asked Michael about MPP’s recent lawsuit, he explained that they were suing the FDA  “…because about 10 percent of the U.S. population—including many children, pregnant women and women of childbearing age, in particular—have mercury levels above the levels currently recommended for fetal and child health. We want the FDA and other responsible agencies to do a better job of informing pregnant women, heavy fish eaters and parents of young children about which fish have the most and also the least mercury, so they can make informed choices.”

For us, for now, the trick is simply to choose low-mercury fish and shellfish. Many popular seafood choices are low in mercury, including salmon, shrimp, tilapia, clams, mussels, scallops, oysters, sardines, trout, pollock, flounder, sole, catfish, squid, anchovies and herring. Armed with the facts, consumers can enjoy seafood often and keep their mercury exposure very low.

Anyway, I’m staying off fish for a few months and then I’ll get my blood checked again to be sure my mercury level is down. My boat goes back into the water in May.

This big tuna was a surprise; the bigger surprise was how much mercury we got from it. Photo by Carl Safina

This big tuna was a surprise; the bigger surprise was how much mercury we got from it.
Photo by Carl Safina


Here is more info on Mercury in Seafood from Blue Ocean Institute.


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Carl Safina Named A Finalist For 2014 Indianapolis Prize

April 8th, 2014 | 2 Comments
Carl Safina and King Penguins, Falkland Islands

Carl Safina and King Penguins, Falkland Islands

Carl Safina, Ph.D., is one of six exceptional conservationists advancing as a finalist for the 2014 Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. Selected from a group of 39 nominees, Safina is in the running for $250,000 along with Joel Berger, Ph.D.; Gerardo Ceballos, Ph.D.; Carl Jones, Ph.D.; Russell A. Mittermeier, Ph.D.; and Patricia C. Wright, Ph.D. These heroes were nominated and named finalists for their outstanding achievements on behalf of the world’s most endangered species.

Read the official press release here.



Carl Safina, Ph.D. – 2010 Indianapolis Prize Finalist from Mays Entertainment, Co. on Vimeo.

Killing swans is a bad idea

March 5th, 2014 | 1 Comment
For the Birds, Mute Swans, News

Originally posted on Feb 21, 2014

I was driving my daughter to her boyfriend’s house. About 20 mute swans were floating in the shallows near the shore of Conscience Bay in the Long Island Sound. I wondered whether, in all good conscience, I should ruin my daughter’s swan swoon.

“Take a good look at them,” I said, “because the state plans to exterminate them.”

“What?” she looked stricken. “All the swans in the whole bay?”

“All the mute swans in the whole state,” I said.

“WHY?” she demanded. “They’re my favorite bird.”

“The reason is, they’re not native. They come from Europe. And they eat a lot of vegetation. And they’re territorial, so they give some native ducks and geese a hard time. Also, during breeding season, they hiss and bluff, and that scares some people.”

“Those are stupid reasons,” she said, demanding to know who is planning to kill them.

I told her it’s the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“You can’t be serious. The department of conservation is going to kill all of my favorite birds?” She was silent for a moment and then brightened and asked, “Are you fooling me?”

“Not fooling. Why are they your favorite?”

“Well, because, I mean, they’re monogamous –”

Lots of birds, actually, are monogamous. And lots of monogamous birds color outside the lines. I kept silent, like the mute swans, on this point. We were, after all, going to her boyfriend’s house, and monogamy is something I support.

“– and they’re, y’know, I mean look at how graceful they look out there. And, like, they start out ugly and then grow up to be so beautiful. It’s the whole ugly duckling thing. I mean, I don’t have any substantial reasons; they’re just my favorite.”

I have favorite birds too, and I don’t have any better reasons for why my favorites are my favorites.

Alexandra kept staring at the swans. “You should write something about this,” she said.

“I should do a lot of things,” I reminded both of us.

I kind of agree with the department’s main reason for exterminating New York state’s resident mute swans (by the way, that’s the species’ name, because they’re usually silent). Non-native species often pose problems. I just have two problems with the plan. One, I don’t think mute swans are really too much of a threat to anything or anyone in New York state. They live mainly on Long Island and the lower Hudson, with a few on the Great Lakes. They number just around 2,200 birds, total, in the whole state. Not exactly a plague.

The state says that mute swans are a problem for native waterfowl. I see native waterfowl, and their ducklings and goslings, on many of the same ponds where I see swans. Native waterfowl, by the way, that the state permits hunters to kill.

Here’s what hunters in New York state are allowed: “The daily limit of 6 ducks includes all species of mergansers, and may include 4 mallards (no more than 2 of which may be hens), 1 black duck, 3 wood ducks, 2 pintail, 2 redheads, 2 scaup, 2 canvasback, 4 scoters or 2 hooded mergansers.”

I’d like to know whether any mute swans kill six ducks per day or even per year. Mute swans have no direct interactions with most sea ducks — I don’t even think they compete for food — but hunters have a “daily limit of 7 sea ducks (scoters, eiders and long-tailed ducks) in addition to the regular duck bag in coastal waters of the Long Island Zone only.” Note italics in the state regulations: Hunters may kill extra sea ducks only if they happen to be hunting in the part of the state where the sea is. Clever.

So who and what is the greater problem? And is there really a problem? Mute swans are territorial, and as near as I can tell, their own territoriality seems, in my casual observations, self-limiting. On the ponds I know, there’s usually just one nesting pair. I think they themselves keep it that way by preventing other swans from nesting.

The state claims that their numbers are increasing. Assuming that’s true, and assuming that’s a problem, why not reduce their numbers by letting hunters shoot the swans that are purportedly causing the problem for native ducks, instead of shooting native ducks? I know, of course, that such logic is dead on arrival, but I’m just sayin’.

So around Long Island where mute swans are such a problem for ducks, the lucky hunter can kill a baker’s dozen of ducks daily. I am getting a mental image of a lineup of people who’ve killed too many ducks, with a mute swan standing among them. Hmm; who’s the culprit?

By the way, sea ducks taste terrible to most people, and I’ve seen hunters kill them, collect them and throw them in the bushes. Often, they just shoot them and let them drift away on the tide. But to hear the state’s explanation, you’d think that the problem for ducks is: mute swans.

The only other problem I have with the plan to exterminate the swans is, that is a very stupid idea. I mean that in the most supportive sense of the word, “stupid.” For a public agency that needs public trust and support to attack birds with which people feel a symbolic bond is unwise.

Here’s what I learned a long time ago by watching a venerable old conservation organization tear itself in half over an attempt to replace its much-loved generations-old logo: Never attack symbols unless you’re sure you are right, you know you can win and you don’t care about creating permanent enmity and resentment and alienating a lot of people.

The reason mute swans were brought here from Europe is, people really like them. People like them because they look beautiful, and they look beautiful because people can actually see them. We are surrounded by literally hundreds of species of native birds, many of them absolutely stunning, that people can’t see because they are too hidden, too small, you need binoculars, they’re in the treetops or you have to get out of your car. “To speak truly,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun.” For them, there’s mute swans. It’s a start.

Non-native animals are often a terrible problem for native wildlife. But not always (honey bees come to mind). There’s little that can be done about zebra mussels, starlings, Japanese barberry and most invasive aliens. Yet before we exterminate the ones we can truly bully, let’s be sure they’re really a problem. And let’s be sure that utter extermination is really the best goal. Or else, like the mute swan itself, let us hold our peace.

Comments on the draft mute swan plan may be submitted today to the NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754 or by e-mail to: [email protected]

ADDED: Just one week after the close of the comment period, the State said it would not eradicate the swans, after all. Maybe they just wanted to say they tried, to appease those wanting them gone, but really didn’t want to do it anyway because it’s too labor intensive and costly. Their speedy decision makes me suspect that they just wanted to hide behind public cover and retract the proposal. Anyway, the swans are going to be around a while. Meanwhile, here on Long Island in the hotbed of the supposed swan infestation I continue to note low densities and peaceable association with ducks and geese.


The photo is near my house, showing low density (only one pair of swans on that pond, like most small ponds) and peaceability with some resting mallards and ring-necked ducks. In short, though some alien species are a real problem for other wildlife (for example starlings and loose or feral housecats), and even some out-of-balance native species are (white-tailed deer), I don’t think mute swans are creating a significant problem for other species.

SEE:  New York Will Consider Nonlethal Ways to Reduce Swan Population


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