Melanoma Observed in Wild Fish Populations for the First Time

 For the first time in recorded history, melanoma skin cancer has been observed in a wild fish population.  A recent study conducted by researchers at Newcastle University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science has shown that up to 15% of fish in the studied population of coral trout suffer from dark skin lesions that are nearly identical to skin lesions found on fish that were given melanoma in a laboratory.  Of the 136 fish sampled from the population, 20 of them were found to suffer from melanoma.  However, Dr. Michael Sweet of Newcastle University claims that 15% may be a conservative estimate, saying, “Once the cancer spreads further you would expect the fish to become quite sick, becoming less active and possibly feeding less, hence less likely to be caught.  This suggests the actual percentage affected by the cancer is likely to be higher than observed in this study.

The coral trout is a species of fish found throughout Australia and the west Pacific.  Researchers collected their samples from two particular locations in the southern Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – Heron Island and One Tree Island.  Once they had ruled out factors like microbial pathogens and marine pollution, researchers determined that the cause of the cancer was most likely UV radiation.  After considering the fact that the Great Barrier Reef lies almost directly below the world’s largest hole in the ozone layer, this diagnosis makes quite a bit of sense.  Ozone helps shield the earth from UV rays, meaning organisms that live below a hole in the ozone layer are at a greater risk of being harmed by UV radiation.

The full implications of these findings may not be entirely clear until radiation-induced disease is studied in other species and in other parts of the world.  However, these results do raise the issue of our environmental hubris and just how far-reaching the consequences of our actions may be.  Holes in the ozone layer are largely caused by manmade chemical agents.  Many substances that we use every day, including aerosol sprays and refrigerants, produce chlorofluorocarbons that release chlorine atoms into the stratosphere.  In cold temperatures, these chlorine atoms can begin a destructive chain reaction that converts ozone to oxygen, creating large gaps in the ozone layer that allow UV radiation to reach the surface of the earth.  Scientists also claim that climate change may exacerbate the existing problem of ozone depletion; greenhouse gases trap heat at the surface of the atmosphere and keep the stratosphere at colder temperatures, creating an environment that facilitates ozone-to-oxygen conversion.  With decreasing ozone protection comes greater exposure to UV radiation, and as this study on coral trout may suggest, a growing number of wild populations that are affected by cancers and other radiation-induced diseases.

The world needs to see further research into new diseases affecting wild populations before we can make any big assumptions regarding future trends.  However, it looks like there’s quite a bit of evidence pointing to the conclusion that human activity and production are leading directly to serious health problems in species that have no way of defending themselves against an increasingly dangerous environment.  The authors of the study note that “the increase in reports of novel diseases in a wide range of ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine, has been linked to many factors including exposure to novel pathogens and changes in the global climate.”  While disheartening, this information is absolutely vital to the future protection and conservation of the planet’s incredibly diverse ecosystems.  The discovery of a cancer previously unknown to affect wild fish populations could suggest a growing trend of new diseases in other species, threatening the biodiversity of the planet.  The more we know about the way our drastically changing environment is affecting wild species, the more we can do to stop a potentially catastrophic series of wild epidemics.  For now, it looks like it’s time to continue to keep the car in the garage and to cut down on hairspray.  Our marine-dwelling friends may depend on it.

Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plectropomus_leopardus_1.jpg

The Constant Battle for the Bluefin

Just a few weeks ago on January 5th, the most expensive Bluefin Tuna on record was sold at Tokyo’s Tsujiki fish market for an astonishing $736,000, about $1,238 per pound. Japanese restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura, who will be serving the fish in his establishments around Tokyo, purchased the 593-pound giant and felt it was a positive purchase for Japanese morale. While some have recognized this purchase as an encouraging sign for a nation that has been through so much over the past year, the allure of high prices for Bluefin is quite alarming to those concerned with the preservation of this species.

Bluefin Tuna is the most popular fish in the world. It is prized in sushi restaurants for its fatty flesh and also appeals to the health conscious for its high amounts of vitamins A, B6 and B12. With its growing popularity, the Bluefin has become not only one of the most popular fish to eat, but also one of the most over-fished species on the planet. Since the 1960’s, populations of spawning (620 lbs and greater) Bluefin have been steadily decreasing to the point where it is believed that numbers have been diminished to only 3% of its former population- that’s a 97% drop. Over-fishing has even lead to the extinction of the South Atlantic Bluefin around South Africa.

 

With these fish fetching such high prices at market, there certainly is reason for concern. If the fish is continually promoted as a product for fishermen that will make them large sums of money, the amount of fishing will only increase as the population declines. Allen To, a marine conservation officer at the World Wildlife Fund told the South China Morning Post, “We don’t agree with the use of an over-fished and endangered species as a promotional gimmick.” Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, agrees.        

You may know Paul from his successful efforts to stop whaling around Antarctica and the Discovery Channel show Whale Wars that documented some of his expeditions. Captain Watson redirected his flagship vessel, the Steve Irwin, to the Mediterranean last year where he successfully prevented the illegal catching of thousands of Bluefin Tuna. While the Sea Shepherds have had some success already in preventing over-fishing, they are still fighting hard to save the Bluefin with their campaign, Operation Blue Rage.

 

A great amount of attention has always been put on the Bluefin for its prized meat and known state of decline. However, it seems the media attention is not enough for government agencies to help. In March of 2010, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flaura (CITES) rejected a proposed trade ban on Bluefin even though it is a known endangered species. The Bluefin fishing quotas are also set extremely high for a species in decline. The yearly-allotted amount of caught Bluefin is currently set at 13,500 tons by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Even though this high number has been set, it is not enforced and it is estimated that true number caught is closer to 60,000 tons. With illegal fishing like this, the likelihood of the Bluefin surviving another 10 years is slim.

 

It is easy to ignore a fish because we do not often consider them when discussing endangered species. We would never consider poaching tigers or polar bears because we know their numbers are slim and we want to preserve species that are considered majestic creatures. The Bluefin Tuna is one of the most amazing and important creatures in the ocean and to ignore it could be detrimental. To preserve the health of our oceans and the future of this species, over-fishing of the Bluefin must stop and the promotion of high prices for the fish has to end. Next time you go out for sushi, consider that your piece of sashimi may be having a greater effect on our oceans than we could have ever imagined.

For more information on what the Sea Shepherds are doing to help save the Bluefin Tuna or to donate, visit seashepherd.org.  

Photo credit: noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2008/images/bluefishtuna.jpg

 

Menhaden: America’s Most Important Fish

It may not seem like it at first glance, but the little menhaden is one heck of a fish. So much so that many consider it the most important fish in the United States. Let’s put it this way: if the little engine that could was a fish, it would be this one.

Menhaden have secured their position at the bottom of the aquatic food chain, and are perhaps the best equipped for such a task. Small in size (typically not much larger than a foot in length), menhaden are the principal herbivores of the sea and feed mainly off of phytoplankton, algae and other sea debris.  In doing so they act as natural filters, cleaning the murky water and allowing for sunlight to reach plants deep under the water. These plants can then “breathe” life back into the water and to all the fish and shellfish that depend on it for life.

Additionally, many larger predatory animals rely on a diet of menhaden as their primary food source. Striped bass, bluefish tuna, whales and porpoises need the schools of menhaden in order to survive.

The history of menhaden’s use in human culture dates far back to (at least) the Pilgrims and the New World. The fish, whose major spawning area stretches off the Atlantic coast of New Jersey down to the Carolinas, was used by many Native Americans (and in time copied by the Pilgrims) as a fertilizer for crops. Menhaden is even the Native American word for “fertilizer.”

This practice of using the fish as compost had almost been forgotten until 1792, when it resurfaced again due to its mention in an article written about the method. Afterwards, it grew to such popularity that tons of the ground fish was brought miles inland and used on fields there.

Nowadays, the menhaden population has been in a rapid decline spurred on primarily by overfishing. According to a 2009 stock assessment taken by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), “Menhaden abundance is down 86% in [the] last 30 years and down 88% in the last 25 years.”

One of the major culprits of this decline is Omega Protein, Inc.

According to Menhaden Defenders, a group dedicated to protecting populations of menhaden off the eastern coast of the United States, Omega Protein is responsible for the overfishing of menhaden at a rate faster than the fish could reproduce and sustain itself.

Just last year, the company was able to fish roughly 404 million pounds of menhaden out of their coastal Atlantic waters.  Their catch is then turned into fish oil and supplements in addition to becoming “poultry feed and fishmeal for farmed salmon.”  The most typically targeted of the menhaden are the older and larger fish—a low blow to a species whose ability to reproduce increases as they become older—“making it unlikely that an adult menhaden will reproduce once, if at all.”

And as the ocean empties, the company’s pocketbook is getting more and more full every year—“The company’s annual harvest is worth more than $168 million…Revenues for 2011 are projected at $218 million.”

To help protect the menhaden, ask the ASMFC to put a cap on Omega Protein’s overfishing and sign the petition here.

Photo Credit: t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcToSVdXvqXxeLd0a9gANF9t33ativbCTFgD6FkMoP5UMsAd0cvq

Dangers of Whirling Disease

Much like a dog chasing its tail, some fish are swimming in tight circles, but they are unable to stop. Since its introduction to the United States some 60 years ago, “Whirling Disease” has ridden relatively clean waters with disease. Fish in the slamonid family such as salmon, trout, and whitefish are susceptible to the disease via a microscopic parasite, known as Myxobolus cerebralis. The parasite is found in the rivers and streams of 23 states, several European countries, South Africa and New Zealand.

This Myxobolus cerebralis parasite comes into contact with a common aquatic worm and uses the worm as its intermediate host. As time progresses, the parasite enters into its free-floating life phase. When the parasite contacts a slamonid during this stage in its life, the parasite forces its way through the fish’s head and spinal cartilage. The parasite begins to multiply rapidly after finding its new host. The organ pressure of the infected fish is disrupted because of the parasite’s growth and the fish begins exhibiting strange swimming behavior—swimming in circles. The abnormal swimming pattern that the parasite inflicts upon its host makes the fish unable to avoid predators or nourish itself. When an infected fish dies, the parasite thrives. Thousands of parasitic spores are released and the cycle begins again. These spores can withstand drastic temperature fluctuation and have a lifespan of an average 25 years.

The parasite was introduced to the United States in the 1950s, originating from Europe. Since 1997, extensive research initiatives have been put in action to combat the spread of and learn about Whirling Disease. This research has confirmed which fish are high risk and which are better at fending off the parasite. In 2000, low stream flows in Montana resulted in high levels of infectivity. Thus, the conclusion has been that drought, causing low stream flows, results in higher infection rates of whirling disease. For those who fear that they too will contract Whirling Disease and begin running in circles, fear not, for only fish in the slamonid family are prone; however, the disease is causing a rapid depletion of trout and salmon across the United States. Currently, there is no cure or effective remedy to eliminate the parasite’s presence in the waters, nor is there a way to eradicate the parasite from individual fish. Juvenile fish infected with Whirling Disease have a high mortality rate. Other than the characteristic “tail chasing” behavior, infected fish may exhibit a blackened tail or head or spinal deformities.

Felt-bottomed boots have been largely blamed for the widespread of the disease. When fisherman wear felt-bottomed boots, the parasite gets trapped in the fabric, so when the fisherman travels to another river, the parasite is also transported and the disease is introduced into previously Whirling Disease-free waters. Wildlife is also attributed to the rapid spread of the disease, but it’s practically impossible to restrict their movement between different streams. Thus, the focus has been on human activity. 

Whirling Disease is posing a great threat to the survival of slamonid fish. The rapid spread of the disease is especially concerning because no efficient method of containment have been developed, despite great efforts. As of now, the focus is on fisherman and urging them to clean their gear after leaving a river stream. 

Photo credit: nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/SpeciesList.aspx?Size=50&Group=&Sortby=1&status=0&FMB=0&pathway=0&HUCNumber=02070003

Tuna Industry Accused of Wiping Out Marine Life

The innocent-looking canned tuna you buy at the store may have made its way to the supermarket shelf at huge cost to the world’s oceans, according to environmental watchdog group Greenpeace.  Greenpeace, which made a name for itself in decades past partly by campaigning to “save the whales,” is mounting a new effort to save dozens of marine species threatened by the tuna industry. 

It’s a campaign that already has the attention of three leading producers of tuna, which are threatening legal action to suppress a video released by Greenpeace on YouTube.  Watch the video that has the tuna industry up in arms.

According to Greenpeace, which recently launched a new campaign to expose the “dirty secret” of the tuna industry, leading tuna companies are using fishing practices that kill dozens of non-target species.  These species range from sharks to rays to sea turtles, and include some of the most-loved and most threatened large animals in the oceans.  Every year thousands of non-target species are killed and discarded by the tuna industry, as a side effect of unsustainable fishing.

There are several fishing practices that kill non-target species.  These include the use of “fish aggregating devices” and “longlines”—both fishing methods designed to bring in as many tuna and other large marine animals as possible at minimum cost.  Unfortunately, a large percentage of the catch from longlines and aggregating devices consists of species the tuna industry has no use for. 

Longlining is a leading cause of death for sea turtles, which are drawn to baited hooks on fishing lines deep underwater.  After becoming caught on hooks meant for tuna, turtles are unable to return to the surface for air, and drown.  With six of the world’s seven sea turtle species classified as endangered or critically endangered, turtle deaths from longline fishing present a serious conservation concern.

Fish aggregating devices (also known as FADs) can be equally destructive to sea life, including endangered sharks and non-target tuna.  FADs work by attracting large fish to an artificial floating object that serves as a temporary habitat for invertebrates and small fish that predatory fish feed on.  The floats can be remotely controlled by radio, and are later collected by fishing boats—along with all the sea creatures that have started following them.

Part of the problem with FADs is that in addition to adult tuna belonging to species most commonly sought by fishing boats, they also attract juvenile tuna that are killed before they have a chance to reproduce, and endangered tuna species like bigeye and yellowfin tuna.  “If we don’t stop using FADs,” says Greenpeace, “we will run out of yellowfin and bigeye tuna because we kill all of the juveniles.”

Fortunately there are ways to catch tuna that avoid the most destructive side effects of the industry.  Greenpeace recommends that consumers buy tuna (which may be called albacore in supermarkets) that were caught using a pole-and-line or other methods that can single out target tuna species and avoid killing large amounts of non-target marine life.   

Greenpeace has also challenged tuna industry giants Chicken of the Sea, Starkist, and Bumble Bee to stop using unsustainable practices like longlining and FADs.  In a humorous YouTube video that makes fun of the industry’s own advertising campaigns, Greenpeace has urged the three companies to “clean up their act” and abandon unsustainable fishing.

In response, all three targeted companies have demanded that Greenpeace either take down the video or face legal action.  It’s a threat tactic that may actually backfire with the public, as Internet users don’t usually take kindly to corporations deciding what they can or can’t see.  The tuna video has already accumulated over 40,000 views, and Greenpeace has a goal of reaching the 60,000 mark.

Help change the tuna industry by watching the Greenpeace video, and then taking action online!

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/usfwspacific/4967557703/sizes/m/in/photostream/

“Extraordinary Solution” Needed To Protect Great Lakes From Asian Carp

In a recent study, a group of U.S. and Canadian researchers and scientists have concluded that the threat of Asian carp to the Great Lakes is imminent and real. This invasive species can cause billions of dollars in damages to businesses in the Great Lakes and destroy ecosystems.

Scientists say the electrical barriers and other methods currently used are insufficient and impractical in blocking out Asian carp. They believe the electrical barrier alone cannot prevent other invasive fish species, parasites, and plants from entering the Great Lakes. Also, they feel the public and many government officials are largely misinformed by the actual effectiveness of the electrical barrier. In addition to the electrical barrier, other measures are used to supplement the barrier. Electrofishing (stunning a fish with electricity before being caught), netting, and the use of fish poison have helped with dealing with Asian carp. Unfortunately, other species of fish are sometimes affected by these measures.

At times, the electrical barriers need to be deactivated for maintenance. Also, critics cite the costs to operate and maintain the electrical barriers.

During times of flooding, higher water levels may prove the electrical barrier to be useless in stopping Asian carp and allows them to spread out even further. For instance, many fear the recent Mississippi river floods may have introduced the invasive fish to new areas.

Says Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, “Extraordinary evidence demands extraordinary solutions, and the evidence is piling up in favor of separation. Declaring independence between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River is the only option.”

Despite the sense of urgency supporters of the permanent barrier feel, federal government officials are largely downplaying the situation. Federal officials say there is no sign of Asian carp in the Great Lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers estimate that a study assessing the effects of separating the Mississippi river and the Great Lakes, if approved, would be completed by 2015, which many feel is much too late.

The Army Corps demonstrated the first of the electrical barriers in 2002 and installed another in 2009. The electricity used is rated at 2 volts per inch of barrier, which the Army Corps believes is sufficient. Also, the voltage is low enough for boaters or ships to pass by safely, especially cargo ships carrying flammable or explosive materials. However, the Army Corps has admitted smaller fish may be able to slip through the electrical barrier unless the voltage is increased.

Those who oppose the separation of the Mississippi river and the Great Lakes believe the electrical barrier has been doing its job. Hoping to run for governor of Indiana, Republican House Representative Mike Pence also agrees that permanent barriers are not only excessive, but can hinder local businesses. The Times of Munster, a local newspaper, notes that some companies, such as BP and the steel making companies ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel, regularly use one of the canals to be closed off.

According to Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, who also pushes for further studies on the impacts of a permanent barrier, believes permanent barriers would make flooding worse.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was constructed over 100 years ago to reverse the direction of the Chicago river and to carry waste water away from the Great Lakes. As the city’s source for freshwater and recreation, heavy rains allowed polluted water from the Chicago river to flow into Lake Michigan, contaminating the lake.

However, the rise of Asian carp populations poses a more imminent threat to the Great Lakes and most likely requires a comprehensive and complex solution. Says Thom Cmar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, of the current measures taken against Asian carp: “There are still serious gaps in our knowledge about how well it’s working. No one ever imagined these electric barriers would be a permanent solution. They’ve always been just a stopgap idea.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/mpwillis/187016947/

Recent Mississippi Floods Disperse Asian Carp To New Areas

In addition to the loss of homes, buildings, crops, and fish farms, the recent flooding of the Mississippi river presents another worry for residents and emergency and recovery crews.

Considered a problem species by many near the Mississippi river, scientists fear Asian carp have been introduced to areas affected by the flood. U.S. Geological Survey biologist Duane Chapman believes there is a good chance Asian carp have reached areas previously uninhabited by these fish. Says Chapman, “We may now be finding them in lakes, ponds, bayous, anywhere the river water went. Those things will be full of carp now.”

Heavy rains and snow this year caused the Mississippi river to grow to six times its normal size and reach 48 feet in height. The Army Corps opened various floodgates in order to divert water and minimize damage to cities along the Mississippi river. This may have also allowed Asian carp to travel via spillways and reach new areas.

Asian carp can grow up to 4 feet long, weigh up to 100 pounds, and live up to 25 years. Imported to the U.S. in the 1970s, Asian carp originally were kept in catfish farms to consume algae. However in the 1980s, a flood allowed the carp to escape into the Mississippi river. Since then, they have been increasing in number rapidly and gradually working their way up to the Great Lakes. Presently, they have yet to enter the Great Lakes because of electric barriers at the lakes’ entrance set up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Considered a voracious fish, Asian carp greedily eat and compete for food sources. They are known to eat large amounts of food many times their weight. According to Greg Lutz, professor of aquaculture at the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center, “a 1-pound carp has eaten at least 10 pounds of plankton to get that size. So if you have hundreds of thousands of pounds of carp they are eating millions of pounds of plankton.” This endangers other species of fish because of the diminished food supply.

Asian carp have the ability to survive in both freshwater and saltwater making them even more resilient. While flooding may cause mixing of freshwater and saltwater and drive away freshwater fish, Asian carp are unaffected.

Millions of dollars have been spent on measures to try to combat Asian carp. But as some chefs have shown, a possible way to deal with these pesky Asian carp would be to catch them for food. French chef Philippe Parola prepares the carp either by breading and frying, pan frying in butter, or poaching which yields a fillet that is bright white in color and has “absolutely no fishy taste.” Some claim Parola’s breaded patties taste very similar to crab cakes. Some people participating in a blind taste test were even unable to tell the difference between the breaded carp patties and crab cakes.

Parola also says expanding the market for Asian carp would not only help curb carp population but could also bring economical benefits. Having a domestic source for fish would lessen the need to import fish from other countries. Also, jobs would be created. For instance, Grafton Summit Enterprises LLC is planning to build a fish processing plant which would create jobs for 60 people and add 10 boats to the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Phillip Foss, head chef of the Lockwood restaurant in the Palmer House Hilton in Illinois, is another chef that promotes Asian carp as a source of food. He uses carp caught from the Illinois river to make lime flavored ceviche, carp chowder, and Asian “carp”-accio.

The downside to Asian carp as a food source is catching and preparing them. Asian carp are known to leap unpredictably out of the water and cause injuries to boaters and fishers. Once caught, Asian carp must be deboned, which is considered to be a much more difficult process than with other types of fish.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/catsncarp/2398916811/

Sea Lions Killed for Eating Salmon Endangers Environment

The Federal government has just passed a law allowing anglers in Washington and Oregon to kill sea lions because they are eating spring salmon at the Bonneville Dam. These fish travel to Columbia each year after spawning a new generation. Near 25% of the salmon that travel are enlisted in the Endangered Species Act, which gives a reason to protect them. The National and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service admits that this is a drastic measure to take and limit the amount of sea lions killed to 85 per year.
According to animal scientists, this account for getting rid of the sea lions is not justified. Sea lions and salmon have had a natural relationship for hundreds of years. Anglers are the reason for a high percentage of the salmon not making it to Columbia, while sea lions will deplete less than 3%. Farm hatcheries and migrating juveniles are the main reasons they have made it to the endangered list.
Farm hatcheries are an unnatural way to produce large amounts of fish for human consumption. They are altering the environment to reduce the need for fishing in the wild, but are actually doing the opposite. These farms build dams and pollute the waters, depleting the natural sources of fish. The construction of concrete dams and water pollution are endangering migrating salmon and the environment in Oregon and Washington. Killing sea lions is not going to fix the problem, it is just going to create a new one: dead sea lions on the banks of the rivers.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/yeomans/81133170, flickr.com/photos/mdove64/3034018646

Redondo Beach Harbor Was Filled with Dead Fish

Dead fish sardinesEstimates put the number of fish that washed up dead in the harbor area of Redondo Beach, California at approximately a million fish.  Puzzled authorizes have been working on a clean-up effort to eradicate the dead fish which stack over a foot deep on some parts of the marina floor.

The King Harbor Marina, just south of Los Angeles, provides 850 boat slips to private vessels.  Within a closed-off section of its pier, the California Department of Fish and Game has declared that the number of dead fish can be estimated at roughly one million. The majority of these are fish sardines, but a number of local small fish also filled the masses.

According to the California Fish and Game, biologists have tentatively concluded that the fish died from oxygen deprivation after being driven by a storm into a closed-off pier area.  Their spokesman, Andrew Hughan said, “It looks like they just swam in the wrong direction and ended up in a corner of the pier that doesn’t have any free-flowing oxygen in it.”

“There’s nothing that appears to be out of sorts, no oil sheen, no chemicals, no sign of any kind of illegal activity,” Hughan said. “As one fisherman just told me, this is natural selection.”

Local authorities said that incidents such as these were rare but not unheard of.  Nonetheless, the scale was impressive to locals at King Harbor.

Some of the dead fish have been shipped to a Fish and Game laboratory for study, but according to the authorities the cause is likely to be uncomplicated.  “The fish appeared to have come into the marina during the night and probably couldn’t find their way out,” said Hughan.

According to him, there is no safety issue at all but “it’s going to smell bad for quite a while.”

The local fire department, harbor patrol, and other various city workers were helping to scoop the dead fish up in nets and buckets.  From there, a skip loader would carry them into large trash bins.

Cleaning up a million fish is no easy task and city officials estimate the cleanup will cost them $100,000.  The local Fire Chief Dan Madrigal said the fish would be taken to a landfill specializing in organic materials.

While city workers did their part to clean up the mess, nature was doing its own part.

“The seals are gorging themselves,” Hughan said.  The mass of dead fish has led to a feeding frenzy amongst local predators.  Other large groups of fish could be seen nibbling at the floating carcasses.

“The sea’s going to recycle everything. It’s the whole circle-of-life thing,” Hughan said.

The marina’s tenant services coordinator, Trudy Padilla, said the dead fish suddenly began showing up overnight, and that one end of the marina was blocked off as cleanup operations went underway.  The smell of decay had not become overwhelming yet, but she claimed, “It’s going to if they don’t clean up the fish.”

Despite the initial statements by the Fish and Game Department, some of the locals have developed their own stories of what they believe was the cause.

Gabrielli, a marina employee, claimed that the fish must have have moved into the harbor to escape a red tide, and then possibly became trapped due to high winds overnight.

Ed Parnell, a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography called Gabrielli’s theory plausible.  Although Parnell said that these types of mass fish deaths are more typically seen in the Gulf of Mexico or the Salton Sea; the enormous desert lake in southeastern California where millions of fish have been known to die overnight.

Redondo Beach police sergeant, Phil Keenan, said he believed that a predator fish probably chased the sardines into the marina where the small area forced them into suffocation.

Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at University of California, Santa Cruz, called it “unusual but not uncommon.”  According to him, sardines are not very intelligent fish.

“They are that dumb actually,” he said. “It’s possible they were avoiding a red tide or a predator forced them into shallow water. They get into shallow water and then can’t figure out how to get back out and you’ve got such a concentration in one small area they literally pull the oxygen down until they suffocate.”

Photo source: Flavia Brandi

Costco Adopts New Sustainable Seafood Policy

February 26, 2011 – By Nick Engelfried

Thanks to pressure from its customers and from environmental advocacy group Greenpeace, one of the biggest store chains in the United States will no longer sell twelve highly threatened types of fish on its shelves.  Supermarket giant Costco’s new sustainable seafood policy is designed to alleviate pressure on fish that could disappear from the oceans forever without swift action that lets their populations recover.

Environmental activists spent eight months pressuring Costco to adopt a sustainable seafood policy, after discovering twelve species and groups of related species on Greenpeace’s “red list” of threatened marine life.  Red listed species previously sold by Costco stores which will no longer be purchased by the company include swordfish, bluefin tuna, sharks, rays, and Chilean sea bass.  Costco says it will not go back to stocking the shelves with these fish unless it can find populations that are harvested using sustainable methods certified by a third-party source.  The move will help decrease pressure on some of the ocean’s biggest, strangest, and most fascinating marine life.

To persuade Costco to stop selling red listed species, more than 100,000 Greenpeace supporters sent email messages to the company’s CEO, asking the supermarket chain to help protect the oceans.  Volunteers surveyed Costco stores to gather information about which threatened species were being sold there, and handed out leaflets to customers explaining how Costco purchases were hurting fish populations.  At one point Greenpeace even flew the airship A. E. Bates over Costco headquarters in the state of Washington.  A banner hanging from the side of the airship read “Costco: Wholesale Ocean Destruction.”

In the past Greenpeace had successfully used similar tactics to persuade companies like Trader Joes and Target to adopt sustainable seafood policies.  However Costco, as one of the world’s largest store chains, presented a new level of challenge.  “This is a huge win for the oceans,” said Greenpeace campaigner Casson Trenor, announcing the Costco victory to supporters in an email.  “Costco is one of the largest seafood retailers in the US and they’ll no longer be selling twelve red list species.”

Threatened marine life isn’t off the hook yet, as many stores still sell species at risk of extinction.  Greenpeace is now gearing up to challenge Wal-Mart and SUPERVALU, two of the biggest retail chains in the country, to follow in Costco’s footsteps.  Greenpeace will also be watching what Costco does closely, to ensure the company follows through on its new commitments to sea life protection.

Declining fish stocks are a global problem, as technologically advanced methods of harvesting marine life have allowed fishing fleets to take more out of the oceans than ever before.  Slightly over half the world’s fish stocks have been fully exploited, meaning their populations are under all the pressure they can sustainably take.  Another 16% are over-exploited, and 7% are depleting—meaning the species is at risk of irreversible population declines.  In addition to true fish species like sharks, tuna, and swordfish, marine invertebrates like the Atlantic sea scallop and ocean quahog are being unsustainably harvested as well.

Over-fishing harms not only the species immediately targeted, but also the surrounding marine ecosystem.  Many fish sold for food in supermarkets are large predators that play an important role in ocean food chains.  Removing predators like sharks and tuna can have unpredictable ripple effects on the marine environment, just as elimination of wolves and big cats alters terrestrial ecosystems.  In addition destructive fishing methods can damage species other than the intended targets—for example trawling the sea floor for bottom-dwelling fish destroys fragile corals and threatens many non-target fish species swept up in the nets.

Ideally world governments would work together to bring an end to over-fishing.  However this is a daunting challenge, partly because it is difficult to regulate and monitor fishing boats that go far out to sea.  Given this reality one of the most effective ways to relieve pressure on fish stocks is for store chains to stop buying threatened species.  Costco’s newly-unveiled sustainable seafood policy is a step in this direction.

Photo credit: Jon Connell