Killing deer to make our lives easier?

February 26th, 2014 | 2 Comments
Deer, News

Previously  posted on CNN 2/13/2014:

The Internet has erupted with outrage over the Copenhagen’s Zoo’s killing of a healthy young giraffe deemed surplus.

Zoos are wholly artificial situations and their animals depend utterly on humans to decide their lives and their fate. That’s obvious. Less obvious is that “wild” animals the world over now live in de-natured habitats, where humans also largely decide their lives and fate.

Here where I live on Long Island, New York, townships of the posh East End are asking federal sharpshooters to kill thousands of deer over the next several years. Needless to say, there’s been controversy. What does it mean to defend nature in a place like this?

When people say there are “too many” deer, I ask, “Too many for what?”

If the deer ate every grape in every vineyard and every potted plant on every doorstep, I wouldn’t want anyone to kill them.

We’ve put homes and farms onto their world, and I think it cruel of us to want to finish the job by killing what survives.

You don’t deserve to eat someone’s lunch (or take a life) just because you’ve spread your blanket over their picnic.

I have no patience for people who want to kill deer because they don’t like the way deer fences look. I keep deer off my vegetables with flexible plastic bird netting; it’s been 100% effective (and it’s nearly invisible). I don’t like to see taxpayers subsidizing farmers by killing deer at public expense, rather than farmers erecting fences. I’d rather subsidize fences; we subsidize enough bullets.

But for me as an ecologist, those aren’t the issues. The question is: What else is happening to remaining land and wildlife when we’ve killed all the predators of a large nibbling creature?

I called Marguerite Wolffsohn, a naturalist whom I’ve known since we were just kids fresh out of college doing temporary nature-center gigs and looking for jobs. She found a job with the East Hampton’s town planning department. (East Hampton canceled its intended participation in the deer kill this year because it had insufficient time for procedural requirements.) Better than anyone I know, Marguerite works thoughtfully within the totality of the East End deer proposal, the deer controversy, deer lovers and detesters, and—lest they get left out—the deer themselves.

“People against the plan to shoot deer feel that killing deer is killing nature,” she said, “but actually, the deer are killing nature.” Wildflowers, forests and other forest wildlife have all suffered, she says. “The huge showy lupine displays of 20 years ago have disappeared. Pink lady’s slipper orchids: They’re another good example, practically gone.” The forested areas of the East End now have very little undergrowth—deer have eaten it.

Wolffsohn’s husband, John, a former park ranger and a keenly observing naturalist, added, “I defy you to find a single hickory, sassafras, beech or oak seedling around here.”

And along with the demise of the forest understory went the birds who made a living there. “We don’t hear hermit thrushes and wood thrushes in the woods behind our house anymore, and very few towhees,” Wolffsohn says, “And I wouldn’t be surprised if the disappearance of whip-poor-wills here over the last 30 years”—they nest on the ground, in shady areas—”is partly deer-related.” Bobwhite quail, common in our youth and also ground-nesting, have also all but disappeared.

Wolffsohn explains that by munching away the forest understory, deer set the stage for an explosion of invasive non-native plants. Garlic mustard is one. “Deer won’t eat it and its toxins inhibit other plants, so it just takes over,” she says. “Japanese barberry is another.” Some birds do eat barberries. Mockingbirds, for instance, rely partly on barberries for winter survival. But the other thing to which barberry bushes give a winter-survival boost is ticks.

Barberry bushes create conditions of moisture favorable to ticks. And high densities of deer directly promote high densities of ticks because deer are suitable hosts for the same ticks that spread very nasty diseases like Lyme and babesiosis to humans.

So, too many deer for what? Too many for forests and for other creatures and for human health.

Ironically, for decades from the mid-1900s through the 1960s, wildlife management was largely focused on reversing the near-extinction of white-tailed deer.

For centuries after Europeans arrived here, deer were shot relentlessly for their value in meat and skin. It’s no coincidence that a dollar is called “a buck.” Natives had of course hunted them for millennia but never with the thorough efficiency of Europeans.

As weapons improved and farms spread, deer vanished from most of their former range. So did their main predators, wolves. U.S. government agents exterminated wolves south of Canada.

Art by Josephine Merck

Artwork by Josephine Merck

Artwork by Josephine Merck

Artwork by Josephine Merck

Wildlife managers scrambled to prevent deer extinction while promoting recreational hunting, in part by ruthlessly suppressing wolves and other four-legged hunters.

Without predators, the deer slowly but increasingly did their part, fruitfully multiplying. Then suburbs gave them refuge from human hunters. People had missed deer so much that lawns sprouted statues of deer “families”—proud buck, doe, spotted bambino. Suburbanites were thrilled to glimpse real live ones. For a few years it was a good time to be a deer.

Deer deserve no blame for anything. Deer are innocents in a world we’ve put out-of-round. We first shot them to pieces and then set them up to explode without check.

We provided incidental safe haven in our neighborhoods and now despise them there. None of the problems people have with deer are the deer’s fault. I pity them for the dilemma we’ve placed them—and ourselves—in. There are too many deer because there are too many people.

Deer do need population control. That, we have in common. But unlike with humans, you can’t give fawns the opportunity to go to school and welcome each doe into the workforce and empower them to reduce their lifetime family size to an average of two. But perhaps there’s a kinder and gentler way: letting sharpshooters administer birth control hormones rather than bullets?

“That doesn’t work,” Marguerite says. She e-mailed me the state’s deer management document, which says, “Based on considerable research on fertility control for deer … this strategy has not proven to be a viable, stand-alone option for managing free-ranging deer populations.” If you want to bring deer densities down, you have to kill them.

For millions of years, that was the arrangement wrought by the interacting forces of wolves and other creatures, landscapes and deer themselves.

A creature evolved to have two children per year is reliant on predators to keep its world balanced. Without predators in a world of our making, the current density of deer is a problem. And not just for us.

There is no pain-free alternative for the deer themselves. Without being killed by predators or bullets, deer build to densities that suffer high rates of traffic collision and the misery of high winter starvation.

In parts of the West, wolves are returning, with very beneficial re-balancing effects on lands and wildlife. Even there, many people detest wolves with a hatred that is cultural and mainly irrational, largely out of sync with, and wholly out of proportion to, reality.

Giving wolves back their job of managing deer, so difficult out West where there’s room, is wholly impossible here. For now, it looks like we’re stuck with having to deal lethally with innocents in a problem we’ve created. It’s grim that only the deer will get the shifted blame, take the rap and suffer the consequences. All too human.

Copenhagen’s giraffe was deemed “surplus” by the zoo—not enough room, they insisted, for a responsibility of their own creation. Marius the giraffe paid full price in full innocence. But almost anywhere you look now there is less and less room on an ark having trouble floating in a rising sea of us.

And so often, we blame the victims. They say the most intelligent animals are those who recognize themselves in a mirror. We should try it sometime.


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Eating seafood: Health boon or health threat?

February 24th, 2014 | No Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Mercury in seafood

 Previously posted on Huffington Post 2/13/2014:

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

Since 2001, the federal government has issued warnings about the risks associated with eating certain fish that contain high levels of mercury. For decades, human industrial activities have emitted large amounts of mercury in the air, which then settles in our waters and has contaminated some fish and shellfish. When we eat fish and shellfish, we get a dose of mercury, and too much mercury can make humans sick.  Scientists have found that high levels of mercury in humans can cause brain and nervous system defects. Mercury poisoning is of greatest concern in young, growing children and childbearing aged women, since it can affect the fetus. The federal government has warned that pregnant women (or women who plan to become pregnant), women who are breastfeeding, and young children should avoid eating high-mercury fish like shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel. They also warned that they should limit their consumption of albacore tuna, another fish high in mercury, to no more than 6 ounces per week. You have probably heard about these warnings.

But you have probably also heard that eating fish is healthy. In the 2011 edition of the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, they encourage Americans to eat 8-12 ounces (about 2 servings) of seafood per week. They say eating fish is good for you because fish contains an abundance of nutrients including healthy fatty acids known as omega-3s. Omega-3s have been shown to have numerous health benefits, like reducing blood pressure, improving heart health, and aiding in fetal brain development.

This conflicting advice by the federal government leads to confusion among consumers about whether they should eat fish because it’s healthy or avoid fish because it’s dangerous. As well, the advice given by the federal government about eating fish is incomplete and misleading.

The federal government’s mercury warning only mentions 5 fish that are harmful to humans, but there are other fish with moderate to high mercury levels that could also pose health risks to humans. The warning fails to mention that non-childbearing women and men who eat a lot of high-mercury fish can face dangers as well. And while it is true that seafood is healthy, not all seafood is equally healthy and not all of it contains abundant omega-3s.

So which fish are safe to eat? And which fish provide the greatest health benefits? These are the questions that scientists with the Environmental Working Group set out to answer.

Using recent data on mercury in seafood and the amount of omega-3s in seafood, the scientists calculated how much mercury and omega-3s adults and children would get when eating two servings of fish per week. They did this for each of the 35 most popular seafood species.

The scientists found that 10 of the 35 most popular seafoods contained mercury levels that could pose a health risk to childbearing aged women if eaten twice weekly. And 19 of the 35 species could pose a health risk to children if eaten twice weekly. These included the known high-mercury species (swordfish, shark, tilefish, king mackerel, and albacore tuna), as well as seabass, Spanish mackerel, orange roughy, and halibut. Additional species that contained mercury levels unsafe for children included snapper, canned light tuna, hake, haddock, freshwater perch and bass, carp, and American lobster. The scientists also found that if children and most childbearing aged women consumed 6 ounces of albacore tuna a week, as advised by the federal government, they would exceed safe mercury consumption levels.

How much mercury is too much for non-childbearing women and men still remains under debate (and likely varies among individuals depending on overall diet, health, and genetics), but anyone who eats large amounts of fish or frequently consumes high-mercury fish could potentially face health risks.

You may notice that many of the fish species that have harmful levels of mercury have something in common: they are large fish. As a general rule, larger, predatory fish have more mercury than smaller fish that are lower in the food chain. So, when choosing what fish to eat, the key to avoiding mercury is to eat smaller fish.

EWG Graphic

Graphic shows “good fish choices” that are high in omega-3s and low in mercury, fish that do not provide enough omega-3s when eaten twice weekly, and fish that have too much mercury to be eaten twice weekly by kids and pregnant women. Copyright © Environmental Working Group, Reprinted with permission.



The Environmental Working Group scientists also found that many of the popular seafood items Americans eat, like cod, pollock, crab, clams, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, and shrimp contain only low amounts of omega-3s. So Americans eating these species may not be getting as many health benefits as they think.

But the scientists’ analysis did show that there are several seafood species that do provide substantial amounts of omega-3s AND are low in mercury. One popular, stand-out choice is salmon. If you eat 4 to 8 ounces of salmon per week, the scientists say this can provide 100% of the recommended amount of omega-3s. The scientists with the Environmental Working Group recommend that consumers choose wild salmon over farmed salmon. Because of the way a lot of farmed salmon is raised, it may contain other contaminants. The scientists say that other excellent healthy fish choices include anchovy, sardines, mussels, herring, and farmed trout. Eating 4-8 ounces of these species weekly can also provide you with the recommended omega-3s.

And the good news is that there are sustainable options for all of these species! Some great “green” options include Alaskan salmon, Pacific sardine, U.S. wild-caught blue mussels, farmed mussels, and U.S. farmed rainbow trout.


Alaska salmon, Pacific sardine, U.S. blue mussels, and U.S. farmed rainbow trout are low in mercury, high in omega-3s, and sustainable.

Alaska salmon, Pacific sardine, U.S. blue mussels, and U.S. farmed rainbow trout are low in mercury, high in omega-3s, and sustainable.


Federal officials are working on updating their mercury in fish warnings and dietary guidelines. Hopefully this time around they will offer seafood consumers more complete and easy to understand advice. Stony Brook University’s Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research and Outreach [a group Blue Ocean Institute has worked closely with on this important issue] says that the new federal advice should encourage all people to consume low mercury fish. Until new and better advice is available, we hope the above recommendations will help you choose seafood that is safe, healthy, and sustainable!

For more easy-to-understand information on mercury in fish, please visit Blue Ocean Institute’s mercury in seafood web page!

Also, check out the Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research and Outreach at Stony Brook University. View their letter to federal officials regarding seafood advice.

The full results of the Environmental Working Group study on mercury levels and omega-3s in fish can be found here EWG




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Cruelty, Not Culture, in Japan’s Dolphin Hunt

February 22nd, 2014 | 1 Comment

Previously posted on: CNN

CNN blog in Spanish: CNN Spanish

Huffington Post: HUFFPOST

I just read, ” A Veterinary and Behavioral Analysis of Dolphin Killing Methods Currently Used in the “Drive Hunt” in Taiji, Japan,” in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. And as we’ll see, the “new” method creates such terror that it would be illegal to kill cows in this manner under Japanese law itself.

The Japanese in 2010 announced a “new killing method.” It involves destroying the spinal cord with repeated insertion of a metal rod. Even on paper, the “new killing method” makes no attempt to damage the brain, which would at least end consciousness. In practice, the hunters splash around through the bloody water wielding their knives among the fully conscious, thrashing, squealing dolphins who are being executed among their family and friends.

Several veterinarians and behavioral scientists who watched a covertly recorded video wrote, “This killing method…would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world.” That includes Japan, oddly enough.

Japan’s own slaughter guidelines for livestock require that the creature being killed must be made to lose consciousness and be killed by methods “proven to minimize, as much as possible, any agony to the animal.” But those guidelines do not apply to whale and dolphin killing, which is governed by Japan’s Fisheries Agency… READ MORE; a full version of this article appears at under the title “How Hunters Slaughter Dolphins in Japan.” CNN

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Listening to Sperm Whale Sonar

December 12th, 2013 | 2 Comments
Dolphins, Whales

By Carl Safina


A few years ago in the Gulf of California, we found ourselves surrounded by a pod of female sperm whales sleeping peacefully like massive logs in a calm sea. One, followed closely by a seemingly protective companion, had a baby so new that it still trailed an umbilical cord as it swam with tail flukes not fully unfurled. Naturalist Carlos Navarro slipped into the water with his camera. He recorded these sounds being produced by the sperm whale he was filming at close range.


Baby Sperm Whale Photograph by Carl Safina

Baby Sperm Whale
Photograph by Carl Safina

Dolphins and toothed whales’ jaws, skulls, and brains are designed for the production and fine analysis of sound.

The clicks in this recording are different from the calls many dolphins and whales also make. The clicks are sonar; their returning echoes give the whale an aural “image” of objects in the water. Toothed members of the cetacean order, such as dolphins, porpoises, killer whales, and sperm whales, produce sound in their heads and project it outward through their foreheads, which are filled with special fat to create a sound lens.

Sperm Whales Photograph by Carl Safina

Sperm Whales
Photograph by Carl Safina

I think of it as the audio version of wearing a headlamp; our own brain analyzes the returning light to give us a visual image. They do a similar thing, but they do it with sound that they produce, and the reflected thing their brain analyzes are echoes.

They can see, and we can hear, but we greatly emphasize the analysis of light and vision to orient and navigate and locate things; they emphasize sound.

Sperm Whale Photograph by Carl Safina

Sperm Whale
Photograph by Carl Safina

Carlos says that from underwater the clicks sounded very intense; he could feel his body vibrating as the whale scanned him. Because Carlos is not a squid, he had nothing to fear.

My deep blue thanks go to Lindblad Expeditions for access to the sea of whales, and to Carlos Navarro for sharing his recording.


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Australia Authorizing Destruction of Great Barrier Reef

December 4th, 2013 | 1 Comment
Great Barrier Reef

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

When Captain Cook almost literally stumbled upon Australia’s Great Barrier Reef—it reached upward and clenched his ship—its size awed him. When the first orbiting astronauts looked down on their home planet, the Great Barrier Reef’s size awed them too. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest structure made by living things. How big? It is roughly the size of Montana. Among the world’s most biologically rich places, it contains over 2,500 individual coral reefs and around 400 different coral species. (The entire Caribbean has about 60 coral species!) It is home to more than 1,500 fish, 4,000 mollusks, 240 birds, and a diversity of other species. A truly magnificent site of global importance!

Photo from space of the nearly 1800 km long Great Barrier Reef.The white calcium carbonate that coats the coral reflects light, making the water above the reef appear bright blue from space. Credit: Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE.

Photo from space of the nearly 1800 km long Great Barrier Reef.The white calcium carbonate that coats the coral reflects light, making the water above the reef appear bright blue from space. Credit: Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE.

In 1981, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee declared Australia’s Great Barrier Reef a “World Heritage Site” because of its outstanding universal value.1The ‘World Heritage Site’ designation is supposed to result in management that minimizes the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. But, in recent years, Australia’s desire to expand its commodity ports, for the exports of coal and natural gas, seems to have become more important than protecting the health of the reef. Over the last few years, the Australian government has rapidly approved numerous developments of coal and gas port terminals within the reef; despite concerns that it is degrading the reef and harming the ecosystem.

When new ports are developed or ports are expanded, it requires the dredging [or removal] of bottom sediments to make room for large vessels to operate. This makes the waters very turbid or muddy. Highly turbid waters can limit the amount of light corals receive, and since light is needed for the corals’ symbiotic algae to generate food for them, this can cause corals to starve. As well, since dredging churns up the sediments, it can release toxic materials. There is evidence that this has stressed many of the native animals, leading to disease outbreaks seen in fish, shellfish, and crustaceans in recent years.2The critically endangered dugong (sea cow), as well as sea turtles and in-shore dolphins have also declined within the reef.

Because of the new ports terminals, there has been an expansive increase in shipping activity within the Great Barrier Reef. This is of concern because ships generate a lot of underwater noise, which is now recognized as a serious threat for many marine species3. Many species, like dolphins and whales, use sound to navigate, feed, and communicate. Human-made noise from ships can disrupt these activities or cause them extreme stress, sometimes leading to stranding events.


Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Blueish Soft Coral. Credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Blueish Soft Coral. Credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia.Various Coral species.Credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia.Various Coral species.Credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.


The Australian Government is supposed to thoroughly assess all these threats through their environmental impact process before any developments within or around the Great Barrier Reef are approved. However, Australia has downplayed many of the threats, not adequately assessed them, and completely ignored some [like shipping noise].

Australia’s management [or lack thereof] of port developments has caused great concern among environmentalists, the international community, and users of the Great Barrier Reef. Because of these concerns, in 2012, the World Heritage Committee called on Australia to have an independent review conducted of their management of the Port of Gladstone – a major multi-use port in the southern area of the Great Barrier Reef that has been greatly expanded. They also recommended Australia halt all new development plans that could affect the outstanding universal values of the Great Barrier Reef.


Great Barrier Reef wildlife. Pacific Double-saddle Butterflyfish. Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR

Great Barrier Reef wildlife. Pacific Double-saddle Butterflyfish. Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR


Great Barrier Reef wildlife. Giant Clam. Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR

Great Barrier Reef wildlife. Giant Clam. Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR

As asked, Australia did commission a review panel to look into concerns over the management of the Gladstone Port early this year. But, the so-called “independent” panel experts all had conflicts of interests with the current Gladstone port development projects…

So as one might guess, the review panel basically concluded management of the Gladstone port had been adequate. They failed to address many of the concerns raised by the World Heritage Committee. And on top of that, they senselessly recommended giving management responsibilities of the port to the Gladstone Healthy Harbor Partnership – a group that is not yet funded or actually functioning4.

Australia continues to give the go-ahead for the development of several new coal and natural gas ports within the Great Barrier Reef, and thus the continued destruction of the reef seems inevitable. Soon, the World Heritage Committee may declare the Great Barrier Reef a ‘World Heritage Site in Danger’.5 Like us, I am sure many of you are asking, how can Australia let this happen?

Please make a personal point to write to the Hon. Greg Hunt, Minister for the Environment at [email protected] , calling on the Australian government to respect and protect the Reef which is the unique environmental heritage of all humanity. Tell Minister Hunt that the world is watching as the Australian government allows the destruction of this priceless jewel by the resource industry. Please make a personal point to write to President Obama with letters of protest for allowing the US Export/Import Bank to fund corporations which are actively destroying the Reef.  The most immediate need is for a moratorium on any and all development in the Great Barrier Reef so that internationally recognized, independent scientific experts can undertake a thorough investigation into the damage and potential damage as requested by the World Heritage Committee.


1. Untied Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage List: Great Barrier Reef

2. Report on disease outbreaks in Great Barrier Reef by Dr. Matt Landos.

3. Convention on Biological Diversity Scientific Synthesis on the Impacts of Underwater Noise on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity and Habitats:

4. Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone


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Fishermen In Palau Take On Role of Scientist To Save Their Fishery

November 18th, 2013 | No Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

The island nation of Palau is a legendary tropical coral paradise, with perhaps the most farsighted fisheries management in the Pacific. Palau has protected its reef fishes from the export business that has destroyed fish populations on many reefs for the limitless demand in China. That’s why Palau remains a favorite destination for divers. The fish stay in Palau and the money comes to them.

But divers have to eat. And they like to order fish. So in the last few years, conservationists have been concerned by signs that the fish are declining. But how do you count fish on complex coral reefs? No one’s ever figured out how. Plus monitoring fish populations typically requires years of data collection and a lot of money – something Palau and many other developing nations often lack. So it’s hard to assess the effects of fishing.

Coral reef in Palau.Photo by Carl Safina.

Coral reef in Palau.Photo by Carl Safina.

But now scientists with the Nature Conservancy organization have come up with a clever new way. Instead of counting the number of fish in the water, the idea is to determine the proportion of the population capable of breeding for each fish species. And to use fishermen to collect the data, so it costs very little money! The scientists teamed up with the fishermen of Palau to try it out. The scientists trained fishermen on how to measure the length of the fish they catch. They also showed them how to cut open the fish’s stomach and inspect their gonads to determine the sex and if it’s sexually mature or an immature juvenile. This information will tell them if enough fish are breeding to repopulate and sustain the fish populations, and if the fish are growing to their adult size.

Between August 2012 and June 2013, trained Palau fishermen were able to collect information on the species, size, and maturity of 2,800 fish!


Baskets of reef fish catches at the Palau market. Photos by Carl Safina.

Baskets of reef fish catches at the Palau market. Photos by Carl Safina.

Baskets of reef fish catches at the Palau market. Photos by Carl Safina.

Baskets of reef fish catches at the Palau market. Photos by Carl Safina.

The data revealed that 60% of the fish they are catching are juveniles, meaning they have not yet had the chance to breed or grow to full size. And for some of the most common caught reef fish, they found that only a very small amount of the population was breeding. The data clearly show Palau’s fish are in decline and risk of collapse.

Because the Palau fishermen were involved in the data collection process, they were able to see and understand first-hand what was happening to their fish. The Palau fishermen realized that with such few fish breeding, that soon there may be no more fish left. They understand that their livelihoods and preserving the Palauan way of life – which revolves around fish – depend on finding a solution to the problem.

So, in communities all across Palau,scientists and fishermen have been holding meetings to discuss the findings of their collaborative research and what to do. Options include setting a minimum size requirement for harvested fish and closing fishing in some areas until the fish can rebound. Because of the fishermen’s commitment to finding a way to sustainably manage their fish populations, there is a great deal of optimism that things will soon turn around for the reef fish in Palau. And once again Palau is setting an example for the world.

Ninety percent of the world’s fisheries are currently considered ‘data poor’, meaning we do not have enough data to adequately assess and manage them. The success of the newly established fisheries research program in Palau provides hope that this could soon change. The scientists with the Nature Conservancy plan to bring this clever fisheries research approach to countries across the globe. And hopefully developing countries around the globe will learn from Palau that there is a way for them to sustain their fisheries!

Further information on this story can be found on the Nature Conservancy website:

Further information on marine conservation efforts in Palau:


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What Are Killer Whales Saying?

November 11th, 2013 | No Comments

People who are listening to the killer whale calls in my previous posting are asking whether we have any idea yet of the meaning. Answer: not as language, but we do know some things.

What we don’t know: We don’t know if they have words or language. We think they have signature calls (names) and recognize each other. We do know they can hear each other over tens of miles (about 30 miles, though some large whales such as fin and blue whales can hear each other over hundreds of miles).

Killer Whales Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whales
Photo: Carl Safina

Language in the strict sense means syntax, which means that word placement determines meaning. So, “Put the blue pillow on the red pillow” means something different than, “Put the red pillow on the blue pillow.” Same exact words, different order. That’s language. Some dolphins and some apes have the ability to understand human syntax.

Killer whales are dolphins—the biggest ones. I am not aware of whether they understand human syntax. I would not be surprised. We certainly don’t have the ability to fully understand them. But—.

Killer Whales Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whales
Photo: Carl Safina

What is really incredible about killer whale vocalizing is that researchers can easily recognize which pod they are listening to, even when all they are hearing is their calls coming through the computer, exactly like the audio file I’ve posted. Not only do the pods sound different, but there are groups of pods who frequently interact—called communities—and their calls differ from the calls of other communities.

Different communities appear never to interact, even though their members might get within a thousand yards of each other at times, and the edges of their overall ranges overlap. (The whales calling in my audio file are from a community of coastal fish-eating killer whales who live in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and extreme southern British Columbia; their pods are collectively called the Southern Residents; there are 3 pods of Southern Residents, just over 80 individuals total).

Across the animal kingdom, vocalization varies enormously. Some other animals, of course, do not vocalize (squid, thousands of others), some make mechanical sounds (crickets, many others), some have a limited series of calls that are easier to understand, such as “I’m here and this is mine,” “I’m here where are you?,” and “danger” (many birds and mammals), and some have very rich repertoires (elephants, apes, whales, etc.).

Killer Whales Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whales
Photo: Carl Safina

Many probably have much richer nuances that they understand, but that we miss. A dog “barks” and “whines” and “growls,” but If I am in my house and my dogs are in the yard I can easily tell whether my dogs’ barks mean they are playing, barking at someone passing, or threatening a potential intruder. They don’t just “bark,” and there is much useful information in how they are barking. I sense that this is the tip of a widespread rich vocal iceberg.

If I think about my dogs or animals such as hawks that I’ve worked with, I would say that gesture, routine, familiarity, natural tendencies regarding food-getting, alertness and the ability to understand what’s going on (we might think of this as very high contextual intellect), and a sense of what is doable and what is dangerous, combine to make other animals true professionals in their livelihoods. They know what they’re doing. But the how and why of rich vocal repertoires does still remain very mysterious. Or at least, beyond our current comprehension.

Perhaps it’s all babble; though that seems unlikely considering how rich and varied the sounds and how much energy they spend vocalizing. Perhaps as humans gained our exceptional skills at syntactical language and its immense powers, we lost the ability to comprehend a different way of approaching and using vocal information. Perhaps each species has its own languages and dialects and we don’t understand because they work differently from ours and from each others’ and it’s much more complex than it seems.

But what seems to be the case is that animals with complex vocal repertoires manage to get a lot of information across without using syntax much, if at all. The same can be said of the interaction between a human and a dog, for instance.

I think that when there is not a species bridge to cross, when the creatures are among themselves with their own families and cultures and appropriate habitats and familiar territories, the amount that gets across is quite rich.

How it gets across, we still don’t know.

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Whale Whisperer Don Pachico Mayoral is Gone

November 3rd, 2013 | 1 Comment

Don Pachico Mayoral, the first man to make physical contact and develop friendly relationships with some of the gray whales of Baja, Mexico, is gone.

 A stroke took him on Tuesday, October 22, 2013. He was 72.

Carl Safina in conversation with Don Pachico Mayoral and his son Jesus in 2012 Photo: David Huntley

Carl Safina in conversation with Don Pachico Mayoral and his son Jesus in 2012 Photo: David Huntley

 I met Don Pachico on the shore of San Ignacio Lagoon a couple of years ago while filming the “Destination Baja” episode of our PBS series, Saving the Ocean. We had a memorable conversation that, in his honor, I’d like to share with you.

 Gray whales give birth in the lagoons of Mexico’s Pacific Baja coastline, and migrate to feeding grounds off Alaska. During the whaling era of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, they got a reputation as being very fierce. When they were harpooned they would turn on the whale boats and

smash them to bits. Whalers thought them unusually aggressive.

After commercial whaling was finally banned here in 1947, the species began to bounce back.  There are now more than 20,000 Gray whales, a healthy population.  But their fierce reputation lived on among the fisherman. Mexican fishermen, in their small skiffs, greatly feared them.

Don Pachico and friends Photo: Carl Safina

Don Pachico and friends
Photo: Carl Safina

 “Every fisherman used a piece of wood to bang on the boats and scare the whales away,” Don Pachico told me. “Nobody had anything nice to say about them.  They were known as the Devil’s fish.”

 All that changed one magical day in 1972.  Pachico was out fishing with a friend when a large whale startled them by surfacing just inches away from the boat.

 “My partner and I were both afraid,” Don Pachico recalled. “The surprise was so intense that our legs were shaking.”

 But instead of threatening the boat, the whale just cozied up to it, and hung out.

 And that’s when Pachico decided to bridge the gap. “I touched the whale very gently and the whale remained calm.” He was remembering the event from four decades earlier, but it was obvious that the memory remained vivid. “Minutes passed, and I kept petting her, until my fear went away.”

 “When you reached out and you touched that first whale,” I asked, trying to imagine his astonishment, “how did it make you feel?” 

 “It was sublime for me,” Don Pachico said, “because when I saw the size of the whale and I was so small by comparison, I gave thanks to God.”

 Eager to share the gift with others, Pachico began taking tourists out to see the whales, and the lagoon’s now-famous whale-based tourism business was born.

Don Pachico guides a visitor in 2012 Photo: Carl Safina

Don Pachico guides a visitor in 2012
Photo: Carl Safina

 “That day,” I said, “you and the whale, you made peace.  Peace between people and whales. And I think that you changed the world a little that day.” 

 “Whales were heavily hunted by humans,” Don Pachico acknowledged, “yet they are very friendly towards us, and they forgive all the damage we did. That’s why I have a lot of love and respect for them.”

 And that’s why I and thousands of others have a lot of love and respect for Don Pachico Mayoral. He brought a great gift to the world. He has left that gift with us, in our keeping.

 Watch Don Pachico on the “Destination Baja” episode of our PBS series Saving the Ocean at:

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Wolf Howls

October 24th, 2013 | No Comments
Mystery and Grace

Howling WolvesThe following audio was recorded in March 2013 at Yellowstone National Park.  It was early morning and there were about 9 wild wolves howling from the Lamar Valley pack.  Wolves often howl for no apparent reason, but you can hear that they all sound different – there’s not one stereotypical howl.

Some find it eerie and a bit unpleasant.  I find it eerie and pleasant, but I think for everyone the sound of wolves howling, strikes us as haunting.

For a visual of these spooky sounds, view my photo album here.

Killer Whale Calls

October 22nd, 2013 | 7 Comments
Mystery and Grace, Travels, Whales
Killer Whales Photo: Carl Safina

Killer Whales
Photo: Carl Safina

The following audio was recorded in early October in Haro Straight off San Juan Island in Washington.  There were about 20 whales or so – if you close your eyes, you can picture the backdrop of a jungle just as easily as the ocean.

A hydrophone was used to capture the sounds, and although it may sound like birds, the recording is only of whale calls.

For more sea sounds, please visit the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network at