3 truths on the fables about ‘dolphin-safe’ labels

It all started recently as my 2 year-old showed those tendencies towards becoming a picky eater. I embarked on a supermarket safari for proteins and soon enough I found myself in the canned tuna aisle. Have you been there lately? It’s a little overwhelming with all of the labels. I usually just go for the salmon for the additional omega-3s, but I had a feeling the toddler would turn that down. Also, I am all about rites of passage and isn’t canned tuna with mayonnaise on toast right up there with peanut butter and jelly and macaroni and cheese? Given that I do care, especially with the recent findings of an Oceana report that states 1 in 3 fish are mislabeled,  the nerd in me had to navigate the meaning behind all those ‘eco-safe’ labels found on canned tuna.

Here’s some surprising truths behind the fables about the ‘dolphin-safe’ label you’ll need to know before baking your next casserole:

1) The U.S. wouldn’t sell anything that’s not ‘dolphin-safe’ – label or not. While it’s true that the U.S. has the most restrictive definition of what it means to be ‘dolphin-safe’ it’s also true that canned tuna is the #1 seafood import in the U.S. The internationally accepted definition of ‘dolphin-safe’ is “tuna caught in sets in which dolphins are not killed or seriously injured,” but the U.S. requires that “no tuna were caught on the trip in which such tuna were harvested using a purse seine net intentionally deployed on or to encircle dolphins, and that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the sets in which the tuna were caught.” Unfortunately, if we’re rarely eating tuna from the U.S. we can’t say how it’s caught.

2) ‘Dolphin-safe’ labels are designated by the government. I was shocked to realize that its independent observers (i.e., private organizations) making claims to what is ‘dolphin-safe’. But, then I remembered that tuna are an especially difficult species to manage given that they migrate all over the world. The good news on the horizon is that during his State of the Union address in January, President Obama mentioned the U.S. will begin negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union. What does this have to do with tuna fisheries? Well, apparently the talks for the FTA would include discussions on non-tariff barriers. Non-tariff barriers include “things like labels indicating a product’s country-of-origin, whether tuna is dolphin-safe, or whether your breakfast cereal has genetically-modified corn in it.” The need to be more consistent as to how we label tuna was also acknowledged by the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO noted that, “while well-intentioned, the ‘dolphin-safe’ labels are deceptive to consumers and quite outdated”. Also, according to the Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna, “There’s no denying that more than 98% of the tuna in the U.S. market today is sourced from unmonitored and untracked fisheries where thousands of dolphins are killed every year.” That’s a frightening statistic if you’re trying to make the right choice on what can of tuna to purchase.

leatherback_worldwildlifedotorg

Image (c) World Wildlife Fund

3) If it’s ‘dolphin-safe’ it must be safe for all marine life. Let’s cut to the chase here. Canned tuna that is troll or hook-and-line caught is the best choice for a conscious consumer. Other methods of fishing for tuna (e.g., backdown technique, purse seines) have been shown to cause long-term stress to dolphins (leading to their eventual death), including heart and muscle lesions. You might also be disheartened to realize that sharks, billfish, birds, and sea turtles (see image) are often the unintended catch (known as ‘bycatch’) of fishing for tuna. The fish aggregating devices (FAD) commonly used to catch tuna are known as some as the most destructive fishing practices man has ever used.

Where does that leave me in the decision of what type of tuna to purchase for my family? As I mentioned, choosing hook and line (also known as ‘pole-caught’) canned tuna is the most sustainable choice. Fishing for tuna with hook and line 1) enables fish that are too small to be returned to the ocean, 2) practically eradicates any bycatch, and 3) ensures the ocean ecosystem to remain intact eliminating the potential loss of biodiversity. Be careful though since ‘line-caught’ can mean using a longline to catch tuna. However, this method produces ample bycatch as well.

Please feel free to comment below or email questions on this article to Ann McElhatton, Beach Chair Scientist, at info@beachchairscientist.com.

PBTs leach from our junk, build up in blubber of marine mammals

bioaccumulation_ecokids.caIt’s a harsh reality, but even our choice of phone case or mattress may not be an easy one if we’re concerned with how we affect our environment. In this 5th installment of “We affect what goes in our watershed” (see posts on fertilizers, marine debris, petroleum, and pharmaceuticals), it’s all about PBTs (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic) chemicals and how they are a silent threat to many marine mammals, and other top predators in the sea. These toxic threats get processed into their blubber and vital organs by way of bioaccumulation (see image). Susan Shaw, Director of Marine Environmental Research Institute, recently published that the bioaccumluation of North Atlantic harbor seals and noted that “at very high exposures PBTs can impair a mammal’s immune system, making it less capable of fighting off deadly diseases”.

What are the sources of these toxins?

  • Mattresses, upholstery foam, and the plastic casings for electronics
  • From the air or washed down the drain from foam, plastic, or fabric slough off our beds, couches, curtains, and televisions
  • Leaked from manufacturing plants, runoff from cropland, or leach out of landfills.

Positive news is that manufacturers and importers agreed in 2010 to a phase-out of materials using these substances in 2010, declaring that sales will completely be irradiated at the end of 2013. In the meantime, here’s a list from the Environmental Working Group on how to reduce the exposure of the chemicals in your home, also I found a list of PBTfree products for home construction and cars from INFORM  that .

I guess the question is now, what are some things that we can do to remind our family, friends, and  neighbors that what we put in our drains and local waterway matters to the entire ocean ecosystem?

Celebrity dolphins may also give their kids bizarre names

Dolphinclicks_BCSInteresting details on how dolphins communicate came out this week. 2006 brought us research that unique dolphin clicks can be interpreted to include a name and some basic information about the individual marine mammal (see image). But even more recently, research uncovered that dolphins call each other by name, especially when they’ve become separated from one another. It was stated that other than humans dolphins are the only animals known to do this!

A seal on the shore isn’t always stranded

BCS_Seals_large

It’s critical that you do not disturb seals when viewing. All marine mammals (e.g., seals, whales, walruses, porpoises, dolphins) are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If you do see an animal in distress contact your local member of the Northeast Region Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding & Entanglement Network.

10 brief facts on bioluminescence

We all get excited thinking about bioluminescence in nature. Ironically, that excitement is only one of the reasons animals glow like an elf in Middle Earth. Here are some ‘basics on bioluminescence’ you can share with your friends and family the next time you all ogle a firefly and wonder ‘why?’.

Sink your teeth into this: 15 facts about orcas

killerwhales_southernresidentsI won’t lie. My inspiration for this post is my obsession with this season’s Top Chef,  set in Seattle, WA (Bye, Kristen! I was very sad you went home). Anyway, here is a list of some captivating facts about the dominating marine mammal (the last one is the most important!).

  1. The killer whale, or orca, is a toothed whale and a kind of dolphin – in fact, it’s the largest of all the dolphins!
  2. Their Latin name, Orcinus orca, means ‘Greek god of the underworld’.
  3. Male orcas can average up to 22 feet in length and can average up to 12,000 pounds.
  4. Female orcas can average up to 19 feet in length and can average up to 8,000 pounds.
  5. Newborn orcas average up to 8 feet in length and weigh up to 400 pounds.
  6. Orcas typically swim to speeds of 3 to 4 miles per hour, but can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour.
  7. Female orcas give birth on average every three years after age 13. Some may average giving birth every ten years.
  8. The dorsal fin of the male orca is the tallest of all the whales! It can be up to 6 feet high. Their dorsal fin will not be at full height until 12-20 years.
  9. Female orcas live to be 90 years old, while male orcas live to be about about 50 years.
  10. Orcas are known for excellent eyesight above and below the surface of the water.
  11. Orcas are common to the Arctic and Antarctic waters, but are found in every ocean around the world.
  12. Orcas eat up to 500 pounds of prey (e.g., fish, walruses, seals, sea lions, penguins, squid, sea turtles, sharks, as well as other types of whales) a day. They live and hunt in cooperative and playful pods forming packs – they’ve even picked up the nickname ‘wolves of the sea’.
  13. Orcas do not chew their food. They use their teeth for ripping and tearing prey, but most often swallow their prey whole. Their teeth are up to 3 inches long!
  14. Orcas have a gray area behind their dorsal fin, known as the ‘saddle patch’, that are unique to each whale.
  15. There are only 86 orcas left in the Pacific Northwest’ Puget Sound population. This population is threatened with extinction due to pollution, climate change and food shortages. You can sign a petition with Change.org to help keep orcas on the Endangered Species Act (Well, you can sign until January 27, 2013).

I am sure I missed many interesting details in this “Sink your teeth into this” post. Please feel free to add your favorite below or you can learn more here.

Image (c) nmfs.noaa.gov

Ho, ho, ho! Look who’s coming to town … it’s the bearded seal!

The rather short snout with thick, long, white whiskers gives this true seal it’s appropriate common name. The bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) can be as long 8 feet and weigh up to 800 pounds. I guess now we know what idiom they use under the sea instead of “the 800 pound gorilla in the room …”. These seals tend not to be seen in packs like their more social counterparts we view along harbors.

Bearded seals spend most of their lives in the Arctic waters, although one was recently found in southeast Florida. They enjoy feasting on arctic cod, shrimp, clams, crabs, and octopus and have been known to live up to 25 years. For more information on the conservation efforts and status of the bearded seal population please check out this page created by the NOAA Fisheries Service Office of Protected Resources.

Adult bearded seal by by wildlife photographer Paul Souders

Adult bearded seal by by wildlife photographer Paul Souders

Image (c)  www.telegraph.co.uk

Are manatees and elephants related?

It might be very difficult to imagine, but manatees (also known as ‘sea cows’) share a common ancestor with elephants which might come as a surprise if you thought manatees shared a common ancestor with other marine mammals such as dolphins, whales, or sea lions. Here are 10 facts that link manatees and elephants as long-lost relatives.

1. Scientifically, manatees and elephants are classified as subungulates. Other mammals in the Subungulata superorder are hyraxes and aardvarks.
2.Manatees and elephants have an uncommon-shaped heart that is spherical. To compare, most mammals have a single-pointed tip at the base (i.e., “heart”—shaped).
3. The West Indian and West African manatee have three or four fingernail-like structures on the tip of their flippers, just like that of the toenails on the feet of elephants.
4. Manatees and elephants both have a thick, gray skin with very sparse hair.
5. Manatees and elephants have molars which move toward the front of the mouth, eventually break off, and are restored by those at the rear. Elephants have a limited number while manatees are never-ending.
6. Manatees have two incisors that bear a resemblance to elephant tusks.
7. Manatees use their large, flexible muscular lips to break apart vegetation in the water and skillfully steer food to their mouths. This is very similar to the action of the elephant eating with his trunk.
8. Manatees and elephants are herbivores. Manatees tend to feast on sea grass and freshwater plants and consume up to 100-150 pounds a day. Elephants tend to feast on small plants, bushes, fruit, twigs, tree bark, and roots and consume up to 330-375 pounds a day.
9. Male manatees and elephants are known as bulls. Female manatee and elephants are known as cows. Young manatee and elephants are known as calves.
10. Manatees and elephants are both endangered. Their numbers have dropped due in a large part to human activities.

naples-wildlife-manatee

elephant-eating-greenery-in-Addo-Park-Eastern-Cape-South-Africa-3-WL

Manatee image (c) cruisenaplesflorida.com, elephant image (c) gallery.hd.org

Here is a fantastic teaching resource from the University of Florida Sea Grant extension I uncovered while pulling this post together.

You otter know: It’s Sea Otter Awareness Week!

Well, would you look at that … it’s the 10th anniversary of Sea Otter Awareness Week (Always the last week in September, this year from September 23 – 29)! These adorable creatures that have won the world over with their talent for holding hands while sleeping in the water, play a vital role in the coastal ecosystem. In California, sea otters are important for maintaining the sea urchin population among the kelp forest communities. However, I’ll be honest – I had to sit back and ask myself what makes a ‘sea otter’ a sea otter and a ‘river otter’ a river otter (besides, of course, where they might reside). Below is a quick synopsis of what I discovered (HINT: If you see one near a den = river otter). Find some more fascinating facts about sea otters here.

Sea otter image (c) tomstick.com, river otter image (c) local.brookings.k12.sd.us

Sea otter image (c) tomstick.com, river otter image (c) local.brookings.k12.sd.us

10 tips for a successful beachcombing trip

Pick up that clump! You never know what you'll find.

Pick up that clump! You never know what you’ll find.

It’s my favorite time of year. This is the best time to explore the beach. It’s still sunny and warm, there are frequent storms (you’ll see why that matters later), and there are few people on the beach. For another six weeks along the mid-Atlantic (before it gets too cold), I encourage you to spend some time getting to know your local shoreline. Here are 10 tips for a successful beachcombing trip.

10. What to bring. Here is a list of some items you may want to remember so you’re prepared for any situation.

  • Often the beach is considerably cooler than inland so bring layers. You may want to wear hiking pants and bring a zippered sweatshirt so you’re equipped with lots of pockets for some other items that might be essential.
  • Make sure to have some appropriate soles. Sure it’s our instinct to be barefoot, however if you want to venture out along the jetties or rocks make sure you have some old sneakers or those water shoes with some decent grip (After all, you don’t want to ruin your adventure with a puncture to some sharp object). Also, the water might be a little cooler than you’d prefer and some good foot cover will allow you to wade into a tide pool.
  • Make sure to have a watch.
  • Even during the off-season the sun is shining and is strong enough to give you a burn. Make sure to bring along a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
  • It’s always a good idea to bring a shovel, grabber sick, or even a metal detector so you can gently investigate inside crevices and below the sand.
  • You are going to want to cherish the moments so find that camera and try to make a neck strap so it’s always handy. You can take pictures of items you find and want to learn about later. You’ll also want to catalog those smiles in the sun.
  • Take along a small (i.e., not heavy) identification book so you can learn more about what you find while on your outing.

9. Be hands free. One more item that you’re going to love me for suggesting is a backpack. This way you can investigate a little bit further from your base and your items are quickly at your disposal.

8. Leave important items behind. Don’t ruin the day by losing a credit card or your phone. If you’re active and in the moment you might lose something and it’s going to be difficult to retrace your steps. I won’t say “I told you so”. On the same note it’s important to leave animals, plants, rocks, and seashells where you find them. If you want to have a little bit of the beach in your home check out these great books by Josie Iselin.

7. When to go. To get the optimum experience for beachcombing you’ll want to check on when low tide is at your beach spot. The best time to go beachcombing is 2-3 hours prior to low tide or an hour or so after (This is why a watch is important, you don’t want to get stuck on  shoal during high tide). Many intertidal animals live under the water in the sand during high tide, but come out to play (and seek out food) during low tide. If you can time it so you get to check out the beach after a big storm you’ll be in for a real treat. The strong wind and wave action of storms will wash up a fossils, bones, seaweed, and lot of other interesting treasures from the ocean floor. Also, keep in mind that dawn and dusk are difficult times to identify beach treasures. Although this is a great time to spot birds as many fish tend to come up to the surface at these times.

6. Where to go. My favorite spot to beachcomb is the Stone Harbor Point in NJ, but it’s not always easy for me to get there these days. I like to remind myself from time to time that I don’t need an ocean to beachcomb. There is a lake and creek in my neighborhood and these spots are a great place to spend the afternoon. After all, these waterways eventually lead to the ocean.  No matter where I decide to spend some time beachcombing I always make sure to note the general water quality.

5. Be careful. This is just a reminder to not tamper with obviously dangerous items. Fish hooks, metal canisters, and needles often wash up on the beach. While I am going to also suggest doing your part and picking up marine debris it’s also a good idea to err on the side of caution and when poking around. Also, some rocks look very steady but it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. If you are feeling like having an adventurous day it’s might be a good idea to make sure you have someone else with you. One last thing about being careful,even though the dunes might look like an interesting place to check out – it’s important to know that those grasses are incredibly brittle and can crack easily. It’s also against the law to walk on the dunes. The dunes are an important part of the beach ecosystem as they protect our homes from storm surge.

4. Leave it be. Each rock that you turn over is part of an ecosystem. A rock might be an essential part of an animal’s home as it helps pool water during high tide. Rocks also protect them from predator as well as the sun. It’s important to always remember to not take animals out of their natural setting – especially if you see them in a tide pool. Many animals are naturally attached to rocks for survival and you could be risking their survival.

3. Play. You might not want to go home, but you also might be in the company of some people that just don’t have a very long attention span. Even more frustrating is repeating the phrase, “No, you cannot go in the water today” over and over again. Build a sandcastle. Look to the horizon for dolphins or porpoises. Make a sand angel. Look up to the sky for cloud animals. Check out my ebook for other beachcombing adventures.

2. Bag it and track it. It’s always nice to be prepared to be able to do your part. I prefer to take along a hefty canvas bag that can fit in a backpack so I can tote marine debris back to a garbage can. You might even try to acquire one of these nifty bags with holes for sand to percolate through from the Green Bag Lady. When you head back to the car you can even do some citizen science and log your marine debris on the Marine Debris Tracker.

1. Don’t expect too much. It’s important to remember to relax and respect the area you are exploring. All of the ideas above are simply suggestions and ideas to ensure you get the most out of  a beachcombing adventure. Please don’t hesitate to share your favorite stories, spots, and other ideas for a great day. You can comment below of email me at info@beachchairscientist.com.