If you walk on a Florida beach or go boating near a mangrove shoreline  keep an eye for one of these:

As part of an independent oceanographic experiment (not affiliated with any institution), I released 500 thumb-sized vials from an undisclosed Florida location. Each of them carries a message: call home.

If you find them, call the phone number or email on the label. You will be asked where, when and in what condition you found the tiny messenger. Also, you will be asked to provide the code. Each one of them carries a unique code.

On December 15, 2012 all recovered codes will be entered in a raffle, for a chance to win a small reward.

Your participation will allow scientists like me to better understand oceanographic patterns in Florida’s coastal ecosystems.

Environmental impact

The vials are recycled plastic. Inside there’s a clear liquid which is double filtered freshwater, completely harmless.

Before conducting the oceanographic experiment, I made sure I minimized the environmental footprint of the experiment. Other oceanographers in the past have used glass in similar experiments. I decided glass will be too much of a hazard because it might break, and for that reason I chose plastic.

The plastic is clinical grade and recycled, so it does not release any chemicals and it’s inert (the kind of plastic used in high-precision medical tests). To account for plastic vials that won’t be recovered, I have already committed to additional coastal cleaning activities, on top of my regular beach cleaning I do on my weekends. I regularly collect plastic and other trash as I walk on the beach. I also collect trash when I go SCUBA diving: plastic, cans, fishing line, hooks, etc.

As a rule, I modify oceanographic experiments so they are either pollution-free or I can remediate whatever minimal environmental footprint they might generate.

When I was a baby, I was kidnapped.

They arrived to our home unannounced. Mom stayed very close to me, positioning herself between the attackers and myself. She called on my sisters and brothers, all trying to defend me because I was the baby. One by one they pulled them away from the protective circle, hitting them with violence. Then, they reached mom. I was pressing my whole body to hers for safety, crying in terror, when a knife went through her heart. Her blood covered my face, and she was still calling me “be strong baby, be strong”. Even when the strangers grabbed me and I could not move, mom was fighting to protect me. I could hear her screaming in pain and fear, I could feel her blood dripping though my body. Then I heard mom gasping for breath when she said her last words “be strong”.

That was many years ago, but I still remember it as if it was yesterday. The horror of that day still plays in my head over and over. My kidnappers forced me to live in solitary confinement at first. Then, they took me to a different jail, and I’ve been forced to live with other prisoners, who like me, were kidnapped when young. Every day, we have to do circus tricks so the kidnappers will give us food.

If you see me smile, it’s not because I’m happy to see you. It’s because my face just looks this way. I’m a slave. You pay my kidnappers so you can enjoy seeing my tricks.

Neither you nor your children will learn anything noble from the suffering of a slave. Inside, my heart cries with the desperation of the captive. I cry for the freedom I lost, for my family, slaughtered. I would have invited you to my ocean home, and you would have met my family and learn from that experience. But to you, I’m just one more dolphin in a round swimming pool.

“The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception” Ric O’Barry. Photo credit: David B. Fleetham at Allposters.com

Type C killer whales in the Ross Sea. The eye ...

Type C killer whales in the Ross Sea. The eye patch slants forward. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If captive dolphins and killer whales (orcas) could talk to you, this is what they will tell you. Dolphins and orcas are highly intelligent and social beings. They live in their ocean home in family groups, they call each other by their own names, they have their own language, their own culture and society. We know this is true through numerous scientific studies.

Every time you go to a dolphin or orca show, you are validating the cruelty and slaughter of their capture. This is a crime against nature and against humanity itself.

The award winning film The Cove, demonstrated how the capture of wild dolphins for aquarium and swim with dolphin shows is linked to dolphin slaughter.

Even if the dolphin has been living in captivity for many years, time does not erase the horror of the crime . A mother dolphin will not give away her baby. She will fight to the death defending her baby. What will you do if a stranger tried to take away your child? you will give your life defending your baby. It’s the same for mother dolphins and orcas and their family group.

As a consumer, you can make a difference. Learn about wild dolphins, and don’t pay to see captive dolphins. Understand that captive dolphins are not just one more attraction, they are slaves kept in captivity against their will. Instead, join a whale-watching or a wild dolphin boat tour. Support the Clean Water Act, and initiatives to ensure our rivers and oceans have clean water, so the wild dolphins and whales will have a clean ocean to live on. Support marine conservation initiatives that promote sustainable fishing practices, so wild dolphins and whales will have food to eat.

Above all, be human.

About a year ago, I presented my research at the International Marine Conservation Congress in Victoria, Canada. This was only the second time the  international marine conservation community met to develop new strategies for marine conservation science and policy.

At the Congress, I was interviewed by the team from Mission Blue, founded by world renowned deep sea explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle. I shared my views about the importance of marine conservation and where we are in terms of marine protected areas. The entire interview and an illustration are posted at the Mission Blue Blog.

It took the talent and creativity of artist Asher Jay to find a visual home for one of my quotes from the Mission Blue interview. A few days ago, Asher Jay opened her new art exhibit in New York: Message in a Bottle. Asher hand-painted  plastic PET bottles (post-consumer waste) using them as vessels to share the voices of individuals leading scientific research, conservation and policy change to ensure ocean life continues to flourish.

My message…

“We are part of the ocean.  If the oceans die, we die with them, so marine conservation is essential for our own survival. Every second breath you take comes from the ocean, so if you are against marine conservation you are only allowed to breathe from 9 am to 9 pm and the rest of the 12 hours you have you cannot breathe at all.”

… was paired with this bottle

Message in a Bottle by Asher Jay

There are 100 Ocean Voices in the exhibit, each one with a unique message and image. Both the images and the messages are a great source of inspiration.

There’s also a dedicated image gallery, for the entire exhibit.

If you are reading this blog, it means you are breathing. Half of the oxygen you are using comes from the ocean, produced by microscopic algae in the plankton. Tiny oxygen-producing natural factories. If you plan on continuing breathing for a while, I hope you find inspiration on how to do so in Message in a Bottle.

Dissertation Notebook: Day 23

When I told my doctoral adviser, Professor Boomer, that I wanted to focus my dissertation on human behavior, he used the words “you’re crazy” and “good luck” on the same sentence. Professor Boomer is one of the few Elders who survived the Great Massacre. For that reason, he rates humans way below the lowly sea cucumbers. But even Professor Boomer, with his loud voice (he’s the loudest bicolor male I’ve ever heard in a spawning aggregation) could not argue with me that humans are a poorly studied zoological group and deserve the same scientific scrutiny we relish on other species.

Before I could begin with my behavioral observations, I gathered some basic background on humans. As usual, dolphins are a good source of information, but you have to be a bit careful with them. Dolphins, with their know-it-all attitude, will talk to you while at the same time keep playing with a seaweed, or copulating in front of you. There’s no serious academic decorum when it comes to dolphins.

Anyhow, dolphins said humans live on land and breathe air. Those who come into the ocean either stay at the surface, or go down with a big air bubble on their backs. What a weird species, an alien of a different world!.  Of course, dolphins also breathe air, but at least they live in my ocean world, and I can talk to them (if you can bypass the annoying high pitch whistles they use to tell jokes behind my back when they think I can’t hear them). The issue of communicating with humans might be a bit complicated. Dolphins claim they’ve tried to do so for centuries and it seems humans are idiots. I’m not sure if that’s a dolphin euphemism, (dolphins view any non-dolphin species as slightly idiotic ), but I must consider the possibility of conducting a full behavioral study on a species that is, at the very least, mentally impaired. A final limitation is the inability to sex humans in the field. Dolphins claim that, using their sound-based vision, they can tell apart male humans from female humans. But I don’t have such powers, so I’ll have to modify my experimental design accordingly.

Almost a month into my quest for knowledge, I discovered some basic facts about human behavior. Humans are very noisy. I can hear them coming to my reef way before I see them. Some of my colleagues go on hiding right away. As a behavioral scientist, I must remain inconspicuous to avoid disturbing the natural behavior of human visitors, but I don’t have the luxury to flee the site, otherwise, I’ll never get any science done!.

Humans are rude. They don’t follow grouper etiquette, and get right on your face. This is a typical image I see in my daily behavioral expeditions.

To add insult to injury, humans fart constantly. At least, that was my initial impression. I asked the dolphins about that, and after laughing to tears, they explained humans make small bubbles after they breath from the big air bubble on their backs. So what to me sounds like many farts, is actually part of the human breathing process. Humans are indeed weird!. Then the dolphins proceeded to demonstrate the difference between making bubbles, and letting a fart go. And in typical dolphin humor, swam around my reef cave farting all along. Show offs.

Yesterday, I met an interesting human. It was a bit less noisy than the others and it had a gentle disposition. I managed to get close enough for a good photograph. I think this could be Figure 1 for my dissertation.

The quest continues…

Grouper Goodall is a goliath grouper investigating human behavior as the main topic in her doctoral dissertation. Her doctoral adviser is world renowned ocean explorer Professor Boomer, Director of the Elder Council and survivor of the Great Massacre.

…From the Grouper Chronicles…

“Last summer I almost died in my quest for love. I wanted to visit my usual singles bar. Two summers ago, I saw a pretty girl there but she gave me the cold fin. So I was going along with my buddies, following the reef, when we stopped in a cave to rest for a while. There was a powerful current taking us deeper into the cave. We couldn’t fight it. After smashing our bodies along the strange cave, we ended up in a canal. We tried really hard to get back to the ocean but we were trapped. Many jellyfish came along the same cave and ended up in the canal. A few days later, the water started to smell bad, it was impossible to breath, and the jellyfish stung our eyes, and scarred our faces There were so many of us tapped in that hell.

Death came slowly and painfully. Those around me were booming their last goodbyes. Strange human creatures took me out of there. At first, I thought they wanted to kill me but, to my surprise, I was set free into the reef I came from. I kept swimming as fast as I could, all alone, trying to forget the friends that didn’t make it. When I arrived to the singles bar, my body full of cuts and scars  was quite a magnet for the ladies. My near death adventure was the talk of the town. On a moonlit night, I joined the love dance. Something my trapped and dead buddies will never do. Next year, I won’t go near that reef from hell. It’s too much danger for a lifetime”

“This is the singles bar I wanted to visit. I’m the gorgeous male on the foreground”

“These are my buddies who suffered a slow and painful death”

The events explained here are based on a true story. On August 22-25, 2011, a massive influx of jellyfish shut down the St. Lucie nuclear power plant in Fort Pierce, Florida. As a collateral damage, the event resulted in a massive kill of protected goliath groupers already trapped in the plant’s water intake canal.

Early estimates are around 50-75 adult goliath groupers but they could be higher. Considering the species is critically endangered throughout the Atlantic ocean, and in the United States it’s in a slow path towards recovery from near extinction, losing such a significant number of the breeding population is a major setback towards recovery. An article at the Palm Beach Post reported the entire incident.

The nuclear power plant intake pipes, located 21 feet deep, 1,200 feet offshore Fort Pierce (two pipes 12 feet in diameter each, 1 pipe 16 feet in diameter) are in line with a series of worm reefs heavily used by marine wildlife from seaturtles to manatees, reef fishes and goliath groupers. Lacking proper screens, the pipes regularly suction passing marine wildlife. Once trapped, they cannot escape and return to the ocean. Seaturtles are periodically collected and released free. But the same is not always done with the trapped goliath groupers. All seaturtle species and goliath groupers are protected under federal and state regulations. Why release one group and not the other? Once the groupers are trapped in the canals, they are lost to the population, because they’ll never be able to reach a spawning aggregation and reproduce.

Scientists (including myself) were outraged at the massive fish kill because it could have been prevented, and we contacted the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposing an improved contingency plan to avoid further fish mortalities. This action resulted in a new FWC protocol during fish kills.

But as we approach the 1 year anniversary of the nuclear fish kill, I don’t see the changes I expected.

Without any major changes in the intake pipes, seasonal swarms of jellyfish might force again to shut down the nuclear reactor. And without periodic releases of trapped marine wildlife back into the ocean, death by nuclear reactor is still a reality for the protected goliath groupers of Florida.

Every time I participate in a fisheries meeting in Florida, fishers agree on the need of using “good science” to drive fisheries regulations. As a scientist, I should be thrilled of such comments. However, with a few notable exceptions, it seems to me fishers identify “good science” as the one that supports what they want to do: catching fish. Any science that calls for reduced catch limits and fishing closures is, according to them, “bad science”.

The conflict was painfully illustrated once again at a recent meeting of the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) in Cocoa Beach, Florida. As we worked through the meeting agenda, which included impending closures to fishing in deep water reefs to protect deep water corals as essential fish habitat, an impromptu forum opened up, where commercial and recreational fishers voiced their concerns.

In a textbook example of fishing down the food web, a veteran commercial fisherman complained of regulations set during the last decade, as the populations of the most valued fish species have been going downhill, he had less and less fish to catch, ever switching to smaller species. “ I’ll end up fishing for pinfish !!!” he said.

New fishers who have moved into the business during the last decade, including younger generations texting on their iPhones during the meeting, complained that there’s plenty of grouper and snapper in Florida and regulations should be eased on to allow for more fishing. Such shifting baselines syndrome was not lost in one of the old timers, who shared his memories when he began fishing in Florida, 40 years ago: “Many times mine was the only fishing boat around, and I didn’t have much trouble to find fish” he said.

The combination of fishing down the food web, and the shifting baselines syndrome reminded me of tragic and hilarious PSA from Shifting Baselines.org.

Fisherfolk rarely recognize their own impact on the species they exploit. There are mortgages and expensive boats to pay. In many cases, they view cutting back on fishing effort as a luxury they cannot afford.

Ultimately, in a consumer-driven economy, we are all consumers of the products fishermen provide to us. We must educate ourselves on making sustainable seafood choices, such as those provided in Seafood Watch. Our choices will eventually drive sustainable fisheries.

Otherwise, we’ll end up fishing for minnows.

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This is a blog about sexy groupers going on a honeymoon.

The honeymoon is what scientists call a reef fish spawning aggregation, one of the most breathtaking shows in nature.

Most reef fish species aggregate at only a few sites of the reef during one or two months of the year to spawn. The spawning event is always linked to the moon cycle.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands of fish (depending on the species) swim in a synchronized ballet  under a moonlit ocean.

When the moment of spawning arrives, they release the next generation of baby fish into the ocean currents.

Worldwide, 80 % of known reef fish spawning aggregations are overfished, and 20 % of them have been fished to extinction.

This blog will focus on research and conservation of reef fish spawning aggregations, specially those of large-bodied grouper fish.

Other topics on marine conservation will also be explained.

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