Is the Yangtze River Dolphin Extinct?

A disturbing article in Science (22 Dec 06) reports that a 6 week, 3500 kilometer survey has failed to find even a single Yangtze river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) – also known as baiji. Habitat threats, including illegal fishing, river pollution and increased boat traffic, have contributed to the dolphin’s demise. A plan by a team from the U.K., U.S. and China to capture and rescue any dolphins found during the survey went unfulfilled. The last comprehensive survey was conducted in 1997 and resulted in the sighting of only 13 baiji. It is feared that, even if a handful of these dolphins remain, they may not muster the critical mass necessary for reproduction and survival.

Sea Turtles

Creatures of the Caribbean – Sea Turtles

Article by Jimmy Bean

Sea turtles are extraordinary creatures. They can live as long as humans do, easily reaching a lifespan of 80 years or more. Though they breathe air, sea turtles can stay submerged for long periods of time. If they need to go back under the water quickly, they have the ability to fill their lungs quickly by an almost explosive inhalation of air once their heads are above water. Their lungs are also specially designed not to trap gasses that could hinder deep diving.

Part of what endears sea turtles to humans is the vulnerability of the eggs the sea turtles lay. While these marine reptiles spend most of their lives in the water, the females must make their way onto the beaches to deposit their eggs into holes they dig in the sand. The turtle does her best to hide her future offspring. She usually emerges from the water at night, burying her eggs, some 50 to 200 of them, the number varying by species, and then covering them carefully to disguise the nest. She then returns to her watery home, leaving her eggs unguarded.

The eggs must incubate in the sand for a period of around two months. Interestingly, the temperature of the sand helps determine the gender of the hatchlings. If the temperature of the sand is higher, there will be more female hatchlings. Lower temperatures result in more male turtles. Once the eggs begin to hatch, which usually happens at night as this provides protection from predators, they must make their way into the ocean. The hatchlings, usually only a couple of inches long, head quickly for the water. Only a fraction of the eggs in a nest result in live turtles in the ocean because so many other animals like to eat baby sea turtles as they make their dangerous journey from the nest to the water.

If the turtles manage to survive until adulthood, they will grow into truly magnificent animals. While the final size depends upon the species, an adult sea turtle often weighs as much as 250 to 500 pounds and can be up to three feet long. Sea turtles are not just amazing to look at, but are an important part of the ocean’s ecosystem. One of their most important functions is to eat sea grass. Sea turtles, one of the few animals to eat sea grass, help keep it short which allows it to spread more easily. They also help keep the sea grass beds healthy.

In the past, sea turtles have often been considered a gourmet delicacy. The shells and skin were also used for clothing and decorative ornaments. However, as the number of sea turtles of nearly all species has decreased to dangerously low numbers in recent years, most countries have passed laws to protect them as endangered species. Many organizations help educate the public about how to treat turtles or eggs if they are found so as not to endanger them further. Advancements in the fishing industry have provided ways to keep from inadvertently harming sea turtles as they gather fish. More still needs to be done, but steps are being made to preserve these magnificent creatures for the next generation.

Q-Fever in Alaskan Seals?

Date: 9 Sep 2011

Source: Alaska Dispatch [edited]

<http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/q-fever-source-detected-alaskas-fur-seals>

A discovery last year [2010] that northern fur seals on St. Paul

Island were carrying _Coxiella burnetti_, a bacteria that can cause

illness, has motivated scientists to do more sleuthing. Can the

bacteria cause seals and other marine mammals to get sick? Were

villagers ever exposed to it, and if so, did they become ill?

The infection, known as Q Fever, can cause a varying mix of flu-like

symptoms, including a high fever, according to the Centers for Disease

Control.

Alaska has documented only one case of the bacteria making an Alaskan

sick, and that person picked it up overseas, according a bulletin

issued 7 Sep [2011] by the Alaska Department of Epidemiology in

response to findings by Colorado State University researchers. But

that doesn’t mean there haven’t been other cases, since Alaska didn’t

begin to collect data on human _Coxiella_ infections until 2007.

_Coxiella burnetti_ is more generally known to occur in land animals

and birds. In Alaska, caribou, muskoxen, mountain goats, Dall sheep,

wolves, and grizzly bears have been tested for the bacteria, with

caribou discovered as the largest carrier. Although the bacteria are

present among this wildlife, there is no evidence the bacteria has

made any of the wildlife sick, according to the bulletin. The CSU

study, combined with recent occurrences of human illness in places

like the state of Washington, Greenland and the Netherlands, has the

science community taking a new look at the disease.

There is a long list of known facts about Q Fever. It’s been around a

long time. It’s found just about everywhere, including places you

might expect, like near animals, and those that might surprise you,

like schools, retail stores and banks. It’s hard to kill. It travels

easily on dust particles and is found in animal placentas, milk and

feces, and because it could feasibly be used in an aerosol to spray

over a wide area, it’s considered a potential bioterrorism agent, one

that won’t kill people but which could debilitate large numbers of

them by making them sick.

Louis Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state of Alaska who

helped author the Q Fever bulletin, describes the bacteria as a

“ubiquitous organism” that’s found not just in animals but also in

oceans, sediments, and other places in the environment. Of interest is

that while it is present in a wide variety of places, the numbers of

people who get sick from it aren’t huge, she said.

Data from the CDC illustrates how unusual the illness is in people in

the United States. The CDC has never received more than 200 reports of

it in a given year. Yet common flu can strike between 5 to 20 percent

of the U.S. population each year, anywhere from 15 to 62 million

people.

Historically, people have not routinely looked for _Coxiella burnetti_

in marine mammals, which makes the current findings difficult to place

into context. Has the bacteria always been around in marine mammal

populations but just hasn’t been noticed? Or, is it just starting to

affect species that had previously been unexposed or unaffected? And,

does it have the potential to make sea life or the humans that come

into contact with it sick? The answers aren’t known.

To learn more, CSU has returned to the Pribilof Islands to study the

bacteria’s effect on fur seals in more depth. Scientists also want to

find out whether _Coxiella_ is present in Stellar sea lions, ice

seals, walrus and other animals and birds from the area.

Previous blood samples collected from villagers of St. Paul and St.

George Islands in the 1980s and 1990s will also be tested for

_Coxiella burnetti_ antibodies.

Ultimately, scientists want to know how widespread _Coxiella_ is among

Alaska’s marine life, how long it’s been around, whether it’s made

people sick in the past, and how to prevent it in the future.

[Byline: Jill Burke <jill@alaskadispatch.com>]

Ocean Health Index

OCEAN HEALTH INDEX (from Conservation International website)

A “Dow Jones” for ocean health. We know the ocean’s health is under threat…but how bad is it? And how will we know if our actions to help the ocean are working?

Until now, there has been no consensus on what determines ocean health and no common metric to measure it. The Ocean Health Index focuses on goals articulated in four decades of ocean treaties and high level national and intergovernmental reports. Using indicators that measure the intensity of the most urgent ocean stressors, including climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, habitat degradation, invasive species, loss of biodiversity, pollution and eutrophication, the Ocean Health Index will measure the status and trends of ocean health and its components. The index will also assess trends in remedial actions taken to conserve marine habitats. Finally, the index will relate trends in ocean health to benefits provided to people and human well-being.

The Goals:

Establish a new world standard for measuring ocean health

Influence decision-makers and raise global awareness to generate positive and dramatic

Why It’s Needed

The ocean is huge, and efforts to improve its condition tend to be scattered and uncoordinated geographically, politically and temporally The Ocean Health Index, and other ambitious projects underway, will provide the common ground needed to focus and integrate restorative actions. A scientifically solid and globally respected Ocean Health Index that reveals variations and trends in ocean health will consolidate public, political and corporate commitment to improve ocean health in places where it is poor or in decline, leading the way to a more enlightened, sustainable future.

The Ocean Health Index and human well-being

The Ocean Health Index will help people in communities worldwide understand and appreciate the seriousness of ocean health decline and what it means for them and their families. Whether you live in Fiji, Finland or Florida, you will be able to see how well or how poorly the ocean closest to your home is faring, and learn ways for you and your leaders to choose actions that will steadily improve the ocean’s ability to support thriving marine ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them.

What It WIll Do

The Ocean Health Index will be a new world standard for gauging ocean health – a measuring stick to show whether our efforts to improve ocean governance and health are successful. . It will guide decision makers in the actions they take and raise global public awareness and support for ocean conservation.

The Strategy

Founded by CI, the National Geographic Society, and the New England Aquarium, the Ocean Health Index now includes collaborators from leading ocean and research institutions such as Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO), Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Fondazioni Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM, Venice, Italy), International Geophysical-Biophysical Program, Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), Natural Resources Defense Council, Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) of the United Nations Environmental Program(UNEP), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Zoological Society of London, and ocean-related industries such as Darden Restaurants.

The development of the index will be guided by an Advisory Committee and Steering Committee of ocean experts, and assisted by 12 scientific staff. The first complete global Ocean Health Index is currently scheduled to launch February 2012. Indicators will be recalculated annually, or whenever new data become available. In partnership with other large-scale projects focused on ocean health in the United States and elsewhere, the Ocean Health Index will chart a new path toward regaining a healthy, prosperous ocean.

Marine Mammals Succumbing to Dual-Parasite Infections

JAVMA NEWS: AUGUST 1, 2011

Harbor seals are one of several marine mammal species at risk for co-infection with Sarcocystis neurona and Toxoplasma gondii.

Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Scientists with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have found a link between severe illness and co-infection with Sarcocystis neurona and Toxoplasma gondii in more than 150 marine mammals that died between 2004 and 2009 in the Pacific Northwest.

Such widespread polyparasitism among marine mammals indicates pervasive contamination of waterways by zoonotic agents, the scientists concluded. Moreover, the significant associations between co-infection and mortality rate and between co-infection and severity of protozoal encephalitis suggested that polyparasitism was an important factor contributing to disease severity in marine mammals.

The NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health, collaborated with investigators in Washington state and Canada in the research, which was published online May 24 in the open-access journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Necropsies were performed on 151 marine mammals that were suspected to have parasitic encephalitis. The animals included several kinds of seals and sea lions, Northern sea otters, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, porpoises, and three species of whale. An additional 10 animals, all healthy adult California sea lions that were euthanized in the Columbia River to protect fish stocks, were included in the study as controls.

Hundreds of brain, heart, lymph node, and other tissue samples were examined. “Our techniques are unbiased in that we do not directly search for any particular species of parasite,” said lead researcher Michael Grigg, PhD, of the NIAID Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases. “Rather, the screens simply reveal evidence of any parasite in the tissue being studied.”

Parasites were found in 147 of the 161 animals studied—32 were infected with T gondii, 37 with S neurona, and 62 with both parasites. The remaining 16 animals were infected with various other parasites, including several that had not been detected before in any kind of animal. Notably, all 10 healthy animals were infected with either or both T gondii and S neurona.

“The presence of T gondii did not surprise us, but the abundance of S neurona infections was quite unexpected,” Dr. Grigg said.

“The most remarkable finding of our study was the exacerbating role that S neurona appears to play in causing more severe disease symptoms in those animals that are also infected with T gondii.”

Michael Grigg, PhD, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases

Researchers theorize that S neurona has been introduced into the Pacific Northwest by opossums, which have been expanding their range northward from California and shed an infectious form of the parasite in their feces. Ample rainfall in the region provides an easy route for infected feces to enter inland and coastal waterways and then contaminate shellfish and other foods eaten by marine mammals.

“The most remarkable finding of our study was the exacerbating role that S neurona appears to play in causing more severe disease symptoms in those animals that are also infected with T gondii,” Dr. Grigg said.

Among animals for which parasitic infection was the probable cause of death, there was evidence of more severe brain tissue inflammation in the co-infected animals than in those infected by either S neurona or T gondii alone. The two parasites are closely related, and other studies had suggested that acquired immunity after infection of an animal with one of these parasites might protect it from severe illness following infection with the other. Dr. Grigg noted that was not the case in this study, however.

The study results also hinted that animals with lowered immunity, such as pregnant or nursing females or very young animals, were more likely to have worse signs when co-infected with T gondii and S neurona.

“Identifying the threads that connect these parasites from wild and domestic land animals to marine mammals helps us to see ways that those threads might be cut,” Dr. Grigg said. Managing feral cat and opossum populations, he added, is one way of preventing parasites from entering the marine food chain.

The study, “Polyparasitism Is Associated with Increased Disease Severity in Toxoplasma gondii-Infected Marine Sentinel Species,” is available online at www.plosntds.org.

Marine Mammals as Ocean Sentinels

 Dr. Bossart will give an invited presentation at the American Association of Public Health in November 2009 in Philadephia>

http://apha.confex.com/apha/137am/webprogram/Session27391.htm

Tuesday, November 10, 2009: 11:10 AM

Gregory D. Bossart, VMD, PhD , Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, GA

As the effects of global climate change become understood, concern is being raised about the health of the Earth’s aquatic ecosystems. The concept of marine sentinel organisms may provide one way of evaluating aquatic ecosystem health. Such sentinels are used to gain early warnings about current or potential negative trends and impacts. In turn, such indicators and warnings will permit us to better characterize and potentially manage negative impacts on human and animal health associated with our oceans. Marine mammals are sentinels for oceans and human health because many species have long life spans, are often long-term coastal residents, feed at a high trophic level and have unique fat stores that can serve as depots for anthropogenic toxins. Additionally, marine mammals are charismatic megafauna that typically stimulate a human behavioral response and are thus more likely to be observed. Similarly, diseases that impact these species may make humans more likely to pay attention to ocean health issues. Marine mammals can be used as sentinels for emerging and re-emerging infectious and neoplastic disease, the effects of anthropogenic toxins and the impacts of harmful algal blooms. Many of these diseases have direct public health implications while others may be indicative of an environmental distress syndrome.

Sharks Threatened by Overfishing

From the Pew Charitable Trust (8/7/09):

Sharks have lived on our planet for 400 million years, predating the dinosaurs. Yet unregulated commercial fishing could end all that.

An estimated 73 million sharks around the world are killed every year, primarily for their fins, which are used in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Too often, fishermen slice off the valuable fins and discard the bodies at sea. This wasteful practice is known as “finning”. Finning was banned in all U.S. waters in 2000, but loopholes in the law hamper effective enforcement. As a result of this high demand and lax fishing limits, many shark species, including hammerheads and makos, are now threatened with extinction.

The Shark Conservation Act, introduced by Senator John Kerry (D-MA), would ban removal of shark fins at sea, close other loopholes in the current U.S. shark finning law and promote the conservation of sharks internationally. The legislation passed the House unanimously in March of this year.

Shark finning is the practice of catching a shark at sea, slicing off its fins – which are prized in Asian food and alternative medicine markets – and then dumping the body alive or dead back into the ocean. The practice allows fishing boats to slice off and transport many thousands of fins without hauling the less valuable shark carcasses and their meat back to shore. Shark fins can sell for as much as U.S. $300 per pound.

A recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified 35 out of 64 known pelagic shark and related ray species around the world as threatened or near threatened with extinction.  The IUCN is the international authority on whether a species is endangered; its report on sharks sounded a call to action that we all must answer.

Most sharks grow slowly, mature late and produce relatively few young. Strong demand for shark fins and meat in the face of few controls on fishing has led to serious overfishing of many populations.

As top predators, sharks play key roles in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems. The effects of losing sharks are complex and hard to quantify, but the partial or complete loss of an apex predator can have far-reaching ecological and economic consequences throughout the ocean environment.

Illness in Brown Pelicans

Storms might have caused illness in brown pelicans

2:21 PM, January 16, 2009

Scientists believe a severe storm that landed off the coasts of Oregon and Washington in December may be responsible for the bruised and confused California brown pelicans reported in recent weeks throughout California, far from their seaside homes.

About 4,000 of the big brown birds had enjoyed an unusually warm November in Oregon when they were suddenly hit by freezing temperatures and 60 mph winds, said David A. Jessup, senior veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Many of the pelicans were starving and suffering from frostbite and diseases including pneumonia, bronchitis and hepatitis when they were forced to make a 1,000-mile trip to warmer climates in Southern California.

“A high proportion of these birds are adult,” Jessup said, “and quite a few have severe frostbite injuries: frozen toes and foot webs, and nasty lesions on their pouches.”

“They’re in pretty good body condition otherwise,” he said. “Even confused and depressed pelicans were not showing signs of brain damage.”

But exposure to bad weather doesn’t explain all of the problems discovered in blood and tissue samples of pelicans found dead or dying on airport runways, farm fields, freeways and high in the mountains.

For example, blood samples from four of 19 ailing birds sent to USC biology professor David Caron for analysis had detectable levels of potentially fatal algae toxins such as domoic acid.

— Louis Sahagun

Los Angeles Times

Navy Weapons Training off Florida Coast

Navy Plans Weapons Training off Florida Coast

Despite opposition from environmental agencies, the Navy wants permission to build a weapons-testing complex off the east coast of Florida that could harm marine mammals, according to a notice published in the Federal Register. The Navy program will train soldiers to use air-to-surface weapons. The Navy requested the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) permission to “take” up to two dolphins per year as a result of the training exercises. The Environmental Protection Agency criticized the plans because several endangered whale species use the region. It also fears hazardous waste will be left in the area, and possibly harm sea turtles. The Marine Mammal Commission, an independent agency created by Congress under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, also criticized the proposal, saying the Navy’s approach “fails to meet the standards of” the law. The Commission questioned the scientific validity of the Navy’s arguments and requested that the Navy conduct more thorough review of potential biological impacts in coordination with NMFS. – from Integrity in Science Watch (Dec 22, 2008)

Fish from the Sea – NY Times

November 10, 2008

EDITORIAL

The Protein Pyramid

Per capita meat consumption more than doubled over the past half-century as the global economy expanded. It is expected to double again by 2050. Which raises the question, what does all that meat eat before it becomes meat?

Increasingly the answer is very small fish harvested from the ocean and ground into meal and pressed into oil. According to a new report by scientists from the University of British Columbia and financed by the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, 37 percent by weight of all the fish taken from the ocean is forage fish: small fish like sardines and menhaden. Nearly half of that is fed to farmed fish; most of the rest is fed to pigs and poultry.

The problem is that forage fish are the feedstock of marine mammals and birds and larger species of fish. In other words, farmed fish, pigs and poultry — and the humans who eat them — are competing for food directly with aquatic species that depend on those forage fish for their existence. It’s as if humans were swimming in schools in the ocean out-eating every other species.

The case is worse than that. When it comes to farmed fish, there is a net protein loss: it takes three pounds of fish feed to produce one pound of farmed salmon. This protein pyramid — small fish fed to farmed fish, pigs and poultry that are then fed to humans — is unsustainable. It threatens the foundation of oceanic life.

The report’s authors suggest that it would be better if humans ate these small fish, as many cultures once did, instead of using them as feed. That is one way of addressing the problem of net protein loss. The real answers are support for sustainable agriculture in the developing world and encouraging healthy, less meat-based eating habits as a true sign of affluence everywhere.